February 20, 2017 by crew
A frigid, dry cold numbs the desert’s predawn blackness. There is no frost, the air is too dry. Even before the sun breaks the horizon, the empty wind is challenged by the diesel cough of engines. Here and there, the snap-hiss of a signal flare, the distant squawk of a radio.
The dawning glow floods into full daylight, the black desert sands spreading with yellows, browns, and whites, all reaching westward. Now the armies can see each other…sort of. The last night patrols are in, and from somewhere in the wind echo the first snaps of machine gun fire. A new day has come to the Desert War.
Welcome back, Beasts of War, to the second instalment on our El Alamein mini-series. Our aim is to sketch in some context and background for the games of Flames of War 4th Edition we’ll be playing all too soon at the Beasts of War Boot Camp. And for those who are attending, and participating in the live blog, we hope to crank up the excitement!
In our Part One, we outlined in the broadest of terms what the Desert War was all about – how and why it started what both sides were trying to achieve, and the battles that led to the stalemate at El Alamein. But stalemates never last, and in July of 1942 the Desert War was about to shift in a radically new direction.
Assemble The Ranks
Comparing The Armies
So let’s compare the armies of the two sides. On the Allied side, we have the Eight Army, a multinational Commonwealth force under British command. In addition to British soldiers, we have Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians, and Free French, along with a host of smaller contingents from other nations.
The Eighth Army enjoyed a significant edge in numbers, equipment, and supply. After all, the advantage to having your back to the wall is your supply lines are very short. Many of these men were also desert veterans, having served in the desert since the days of Operation Compass in 1940.
However, the Eighth Army also suffered from a lack of confidence. They’d been defeated so many times. Even when they’d won, their victories had been squandered by sometimes ineffective generals and meddling politicians.
They’d honestly come to regard their enemies, especially Rommel, as an almost mythical (and invincible) figure.
In contrast, the Germans at El Alamein can almost be considered a “photo negative” of the Eighth Army. “Panzerarmee Afrika” as it was now known, was tough, aggressive, confident both in themselves and in their leadership, and convinced that North Africa (and World War II overall) was a conflict that could still be won.
However, the condition of their supplies, equipment, and vehicles turned out to be appalling. Although Rommel had taken the port of Tobruk, many of its port facilities had been blown up so most German supplies had to come all the way from Benghazi or Tripoli … IF they even made it past British air and sub bases on Malta.
German tanks and artillery weren’t the only things breaking down through lack of supply. The men were facing a critical health problem mostly through lack of water. Without water for hygiene, diseases like jaundice and dysentery were causing major problems. Rommel himself was very ill for most of 1942 with these tropical ailments.
Also, whereas the British of Eighth Army could rely confidently on their Australian, Kiwi, South African, and Indian allies, the Germans held no such confidence with their Italian comrades. Italians made up a huge portion of Panzerarmee Afrika, including two of Rommel’s four panzer divisions.
This isn’t to say that Italian troops or divisions were universally “terrible.” Once under competent leadership, and given the confidence that comes with winning a few battles, they repeatedly showed they could fight very hard. This was especially in prepared defensive positions since Italian units had very few trucks and were very immobile.
Still, the inferiority of Italian equipment (tanks, antitank guns, artillery, support vehicles etc.), and more importantly their almost complete lack of mobility made them a dangerous weakness in Rommel’s order of battle. They best they could really do was dig in and if the Allies hit them, hold on as best they could.
At The Generals’ Table
Comparing The Commanders
Part of what makes the Desert War so prevalent in the popular memory, and the Battles of El Alamein in particular, is the “cast of characters” we see among the generals. First of these, of course, is Rommel. The figure of the “Desert Fox” and his famous sand goggles is practically inseparable from the Desert War.
But was Rommel really as great as the movies say? Honestly, no. He was an exceptional divisional commander in the French Campaign of 1940, yet he led too close to the front, took too many risks, didn’t take orders, and refused to coordinate with other divisions in his corps. In short, he wasn’t a team player, and war is a “team sport.”
Yet he was undeniably successful. Between February 1941 and June 1942, he was promoted to lead a corps (the Afrika Korps), then Panzergruppe Afrika, and finally Panzerarmee Afrika. That’s too many promotions in too short a time, and while no one can doubt Rommel’s tactical talent, his operational and strategic vision remains suspect.
Others have noted Rommel’s complete disconnect with the logistical side of war, leading his army deep into Egypt with supply lines 1,000 miles long and constantly under attack. And finally, his higher-level plans weren’t very imaginative, he just kept turning the southern “desert” flank of successive Allied armies.
Now at El Alamein, he could no longer do that. Still, he tried a modified version of this same “schtick,” with a hook southward at First Alamein (July 1st to 3rd, 1942), and again at Alam Halfa Ridge. But by now he’d become completely predictable, and both Auchinleck and later Montgomery were more than ready for him.
So yes, Rommel was one of the best division commanders of World War II. But when it comes to commanding a corps, army and later army group, he becomes one of the worst. Just ask German military historians. When they’re asked to list the top five German commanders of World War II, Rommel’s name never comes up.
Which brings us to the British . . .
Bernard Law Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein was so famous he would be named “1st Viscount of Alamein.” Of course, he has plenty of detractors, particularly among American historians. I won’t add to the list, but I’d like to point out that a lot of credit for El Alamein should go to one of his predecessors, Claude Auchinleck.
It was Auchinleck to first saw the potential for El Alamein as a defensive position to stop Rommel. Auchinleck had beaten Rommel during operation Crusader and again at First Alamein in July 1942. Auchinleck had built most of the fortifications and minefields that would give Monty the time he needed to prepare his Second Battle of El Alamein.
Still, Monty still deserves loads of credit for rebuilding 8th Army’s confidence in itself. He also steadfastly resisted pressure from Churchill to launch an offensive until he’d first built up a sizable reserve corps AND broken Rommel’s last attack at Alam Halfa. Churchill’s meddling had brought the downfall of many prior desert commanders.
Arms & Armour
Comparing The Weapons
Now it’s time to get down to nuts and bolts…literally. Let’s compare the tanks and artillery on both sides, especially the tanks and artillery we’ll be getting in our Flames of War 4th Edition starter sets (Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Monty’s Desert Rats).
For the British, the first tank in the set is the Crusader, or specifically the “A15 Cruiser Tank Mk VI.” Used by the British almost from the start of the war, it endures as one of the iconic symbols of the North Africa Campaign. It was fast, especially over rough ground thanks to its Christie suspension, and hard-hitting with its 2-pounder (40mm) gun.
However, the tank was plagued by a catalogue of mechanical problems. It truly seemed “designed to fail” especially in a desert environment. Also, the 40mm gun could not fire HE ammunition, making it useless against soft targets. And finally, that 40mm gun was rapidly outclassed by bigger German guns and better armour.
Eventually, the 40mm weapon was replaced by a 57mm, 6-pounder gun. But to install it, designers had to take out the dedicated gunner crewman. Now the commander had to fire the gun, degrading crew efficiency. Eventually, replaced by the American M3 Stuart light tank, the Crusader’s career died in the desert.
The British also get the American-made M3 “Grant” medium tank. At a time when British tanks didn’t’ have sizable guns for HE work, the appearance of the Grant’s 75mm dual-purpose gun was more than welcome, even if it was mounted in a rather silly-looking sponson on the right side of the tank.
The Grant’s big weaknesses were its multiple gun mounts and turrets (never a good idea), and its towering height. While it makes for an imposing miniature you don’t want to be this tall on a real battlefield. Desert tank tactics like “hull down” shielding were next to useless with the Grant, and it would eventually be replaced by the Sherman.
On the German side, we have the PzKpfw III (Panzerkampfwagen, or armoured fighting vehicle). Originally armed with a 37mm gun, these upgrades were mounted with 50mm guns. The “G” variant carried an L42 version of the 50mm (KwK 38), the “J” variant (Mark III “Special” by the British) carried a longer L60 version (KwK 39).
Longer gun barrels mean higher muzzle velocity, range, accuracy, and kinetic armour-piercing power. As they lengthened the guns on their Mark IIIs, the Germans did even more so with their Mark IVs, as we see with the PzKpfw IV “F2” and “G” variants we see in the starter kit.
Originally armed with a very short (L24), low-velocity 75mm howitzer, these newer Mark IVs were armed with L43 KwK 40 75mm. This was a dedicated anti-tank gun with a high muzzle velocity and solid armour-piercing killing power, yet could still fire HE shells for engaging trucks, bunkers, artillery, or infantry positions.
Still, both the Mark III and IV had problems common with many German vehicles. While the Germans were masters of upgrading and repurposing vehicles, the fact remains that these were OLD vehicles. Maintenance and parts were always a problem, and although up-armoured, these tanks had trouble when larger Allied guns began to appear.
Finally, we have the artillery. Originally an antiaircraft gun, the FlaK 36 “88” is a legend in its own right. The British 17-pounder would become almost as famous, and while not yet in service at El Alamein, would appear on the battlefield during the battles for Tunisia in early 1943.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our second look into the Desert War and the Battles of Alamein. The ramp-up to the Flames of War 4th Edition Boot Camp is counting down fast, so get your comments in below and tell us what you think of what’s been presented so far. I hope to see you all at the boot camp or the live blog coverage!
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"...whereas the British of Eighth Army could rely confidently on their Australian, Kiwi, South African, and Indian allies, the Germans held no such confidence with their Italian comrades"
"Let’s compare the tanks and artillery on both sides, especially the tanks and artillery we’ll be getting in our Flames of War 4th Edition starter sets..."