The alliance of Germany and Italy in WWII was very unbalanced in a military sense. In 1939 and 1940, the Wehrmacht was relentlessly redrawing the map of Europe in Germany's favour. Meanwhile, the Italian Army failed at everything they attempted with similar stability. France, Greece, North Africa, everything ended up the same way: defeat and confusion.
The African campaign started off well. Marshall Rodolfo Graziani's troops pushed the British over 100 kilometers eastward, towards Alexandria. This was the end of their success. The offensive stalled in the middle of September of 1940 due to problems with supplies, poor command over the forces, and Graziani's unacceptable passivity.
The British took advantage of the situation and began a counteroffensive with only 36,000 soldiers in their Nile army. By February of 1941, the 250,000 strong Italian group was defeated and thrown back 700 kilometers. In order to help their allies, the Germans decided to send a limited contingent of troops to Africa, led by the promising but yet unknown Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel. North Africa became his territory, a source of glory, and the place where he faced the greatest defeat of his career.
Overly effective aid
Africa was always considered a secondary theater of war by German command. Rommel arrived there with orders to support the Italians and halt the British offensive. It is hard to imagine any other outcome with the knowledge that the number of German-Italian forces never exceeded 140,000 men, and at the time of Rommel's arrival, it was even less.
The general had an interesting approach to fulfilling his orders. Without waiting for his main forces to arrive, he suddenly attacked the British. The attack was so sudden and his actions so daring and successful that the British were knocked out of the Libyan province of Cyrenaica. German-Italian forces reached the Egyptian border.
On one hand, Rommel's action caused great joy in Germany, on the other hand, German command desperately tried to hold back the reckless general who the German Chief of Staff Franz Halder called an "overreaching soldier". Nothing helped, not orders from Germany, not a visit from Friedrich Paulus, who was personally sent to Africa to deal with the shrewd commander.
By spring of 1942, Rommel was akin to the bogeyman for the British. The tone of one of Claude Auchinleck's orders is illustrative of the general opinion among the British forces: "There is a real danger that our friend Rommel will be a sorcerer or scarecrow for our soldiers... He is in no way a superman, even though he is energetic and very capable... I want you to use any means necessary to disperse the idea that Rommel is anything more than an ordinary German general."
Viscount of Alamein's fox hunt
The idea that Germany might seize the Suez Canal seemed very real. The canal was of utmost importance to the British, as Japan entered the war and British colonies were threatened. Rommel's defeat was no longer just a matter of honour, but a matter of life and death. Enormous forces were sent to Africa: infantry, tanks, aircraft. Germany did not have the ability to do this, as they were impeded by Allied aircraft on Malta and the British Navy, which dominated the Mediterranean. The situation in Africa had to change, and it changed. This happened during the operational pause after the First Battle of El-Alamein.
Switching commanders several times, the Allies left Bernard Montgomery in charge of their combat unit, the 8th Army. Compared to his predecessors, he was more decisive and capable of getting results. In August-September of 1942, he successfully deflected Rommel's offensive at Alam el Halfa and started preparing his response.
Montgomery never rushed into battle without assurance that he had enough forces to crush the enemy. He had no shortage of reinforcements: by the Second Battle of El Alamein, the British amassed over 1000 tanks, and every fourth was a new Sherman. Rommel had less than half of the tanks that the British did, and that's only quantitatively. German and Italian tanks lagged behind in quality, since a significant part of their armour consisted of weakly armoured and poorly armed Italian tanks. Rommel openly referred to Italian tanks as "rags".
In September of 1942, with just over a month until Montgomery's offensive, Rommel (already a Field Marshall) left for Germany for medical treatment: his forces were ravaged by dysentery and jaundice. Hitler saw Rommel, heard his tale of hardships that befell the Afrika Corps, and promised to send more tanks and weapons, including the latest Tiger tanks. The Fuhrer's promises were nothing but hot air, especially since the British were solidly in control of the Mediterranean and were sinking most of the supplies meant for Rommel.
Montgomery, with his characteristic thoroughness, led a misinformation campaign. Under his orders, tanks were disguised as trucks and vice versa, fake fuel pipelines were built, a whole network of fictional radio stations was deployed. Even the phases of the moon were taken into account, as the Allies were going to attack at night. and natural light was important.
The last battle of El-Alamein
In Rommel's absence, Georg Stumme was in command of the Afrika Corps. When British artillery opened fire on German positions on the evening of October 23rd, 1942, he was not ready. On the other hand, the British also did not achieve the desired effect. They dealt damage to German infantry and artillery, disrupt their communications, but when dawn came, their infantry was still making their way through Rommel's "devil gardens", as the German minefields were called.
On the morning of October 24th, Stumme personally came to the front lines to figure out the situation, taking only two companions with him. On the way, his car drove into an ambush and was fired upon. Stumme did not survive this encounter. The cause of his death was not a bullet or shrapnel, but a heart attack. The driver did not notice when Stumme fell out of the car. His body was only found a day later.
The British codenamed this stage of the offensive "Lightfoot". In reality, every step of the way was heavy indeed. The German defenses had to be slowly ground down, and even Italians, usually not exceptional in combat, showed themselves well. In addition, when Rommel returned to Africa on October 25th, his forces undertook a series of fierce counterattacks.
In the first four days of the operation, the Allies barely moved forward by seven kilometers. After that, a part of Montgomery's forces changed to the defensive, and a part started regrouping. This stage of the battle is called a dog's brawl by several sources. The British delivered local attacks here and there, tiring out the Germans, and chewing off their defenses one bit at a time. Rommel was forces to move his tank reserves from one battle to another, taking losses from tanks, artillery, and aircraft. This mess lasted for five days. During this time, the front line was nearly stationary, but the combat capability of the Germans was rapidly declining.
Rommel received an ironic message from Rome only a few hours before Montgomery's finishing blow. It read "...Duce would like you to know that under your command, the battle that is currently fought will no doubt end with your victory."
On the night of November 1st to November 2nd the British began "Operation Overload". After a powerful artillery barrage, British tanks moved out and penetrated Rommel's weak front lines. The Germans had only 35 working tanks left. Rommel gave the order to retreat. His forces continued to fight and inflict losses on the Allies, but nobody had any illusions as to the ultimate outcome of the battle. Hitler ordered Rommel to hold out as long as possible. Rommel was shocked by that order, but obeyed it.
By the time that the Fuhrer figured out that resistance is futile, Rommel had nothing left to fight with. With his long awaited orders to retreat, Rommel took the Italians' water and most of their transport and moved to Tunis. This was a long fighting retreat which ended on May 13th, 1943, when the Afrika Corps surrendered. Rommel was not among them. He left Africa several days beforehand, on orders from above.
Original article available here.