by T. H. THOMAS
THE gate of Egypt is in our hands, and here we intend to act.” In these words Rommel gave point-blank warning that the Second Front had already been established by Hitler. Ever since the beginning of 1941 the German Command has followed through its attack against this critical point in the Allied military position. Armed with far better weapons, Rommel has prevailed over an enemy superior in numbers, and has driven forward hundreds of miles to a line some sixty miles from Alexandria. Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war. There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory — one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.
By no possibility will the German Command relinquish the prospect of such a victory. By no possibility — whatever the stage of American preparations — can we elude or put off the danger here impending. The forty-mile front of El Alamein is the only front on which Britain and America can come to grips effectively with a part of the German Army. It is the only front on which we are in any way prepared to fight. It is the front on which we cannot avoid a fight that may be decisive.
In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position. At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean. By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum. The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind. British factories do not produce them. “We sent no dive bombers,” it was explained in Parliament, “because we had none to send.” Rommel was thus able to seize the short sea route, and to keep Auchinleck at the far end of a 12,000-mile line of supply. (Mr. Churchill has noted that a new British tank reaches Egypt about six months after being delivered from the factory.) In the midsummer battle, by his rough reckoning, Rommel destroyed 2500 British and American tanks — probably more than a year’s effort of Allied transport. The only tank now in production which can even hope to tackle German tanks on equal terms is the American M4. How long will it take to bring up enough of these to venture on a counter-offensive against Rommel?
A military historian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. THOMAS is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.
Last of all, the extreme peril opened out by the disaster in June hurried forward to Egypt the main combat strength of the other British armies in the Middle East. The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez. Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat — the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise. The Army of the Nile no longer stands on a fortified frontier: its troops now constitute the last line of defense not only of Egypt but of Irak and Iran, of neutral Turkey and Afghanistan, of India, and of the last thin open door to China. If we fail in reinforcing it against the danger impending, we shall lose the war across the whole extent of land and sea from Africa to New Zealand. The most farreaching plans in the arsenal of democracy have not even contemplated the incalculable total of ships and weapons needed for retrieving so immense a disaster.
The clamor of public opinion is a poor basis for decisions on military strategy, and organized pressure drives are a good deal worse. The decisions as to reinforcements for Egypt were made long ago, and it is late in the day for public opinion to stiffen the reinforcement. Yet there is still time to wreck this effort — to “prod the military leaders into action” in an improvised effort on some rival front.
For always in the past the effort in Libya has been weakened at a critical stage by diversions of strength to other fronts. Waveil’s brilliant advance across Cyrenaica was rendered hollow by the hurrying away of his troops to Greece. After Auchinleck had overwhelmed Rommel, there began the frantic shifting of forces to Malaya; the New Zealanders stayed in the war, but the Australians pulled out to the home sector. This eastward diversion did not cease: even as Rommel drove forward to El Alamein, press photographs proudly exhibited the unloading of American tanks in India. Meanwhile, aid to Russia had been drawing off the tanks and planes which would have saved either Malaya or Egypt. At the beginning of July Mr. Churchill reported: “We have sent 2000 tanks to Russia.
These diversions of strength do not imply bungling policy. Obvious political necessities required the sacrificial expedition to Greece, and Russia had to be helped without delay.
Yet on the very face of things it was certain that the sacrifice would not save Greece. Even more certainly, it would leave Cyrenaica disarmed and helpless. We have now before us the opportunity for a repetition of the Greek fiasco on an incalculable scale.
The second front Stalin calls for would not save Russia: the Germans are ready for it and we are not. The mere effort of improvising this foreordained fiasco would weaken fatally the front where Hitler is now preparing to do us in.
The time has come to face the fact that Britain and America together, at this day, have not available the military resources to counterbalance the general superiority of German arms in Russia. What we are involved in is not a contest between statisticians. We are confronted with a condition, not a theory. The immediate problem before us now is to hold what ground we can in a defensive war: the fiasco of a pretended second front might sink Russia and sink us. Except for fighting our convoys through to Murmansk, the plain fact is that we can do little to affect the outcome of the struggle in Russia, however vital that struggle is to us. Russia is now bearing the main burden of the conflict because Stalin attempted to shoulder that burden on us — the “us” of 1939. The whole Lebensraum of a new front in the West is now in Hitler’s hands — far inside the coastal zone girdled by new concrete fortifications. The tragic sacrifice at Dieppe makes clear that our present resources of dive bombers cannot even dent that first-line armor.
The shortage of shipping is the most obvious vacuum in the concept of an additional second front. There is also the fact that British and American arsenals combined have not brought into the field the weapons necessary to meet a German army on equal terms. Most of our equipment is as good as the German, and some is better; but German tanks are far better armed than the British, and up to the present no British fleet or army has been equipped with dive bombers. They can be equipped only by future deliveries from the United States. British orders were placed here in June, 1940. The first deliveries had not reached Egypt in June, 1942.
In the first offensive, Wavell’s force had better mechanized equipment than the Italians, and was far better trained in mechanized warfare. His light tanks were quite able to carry out the work in hand, and his army as a whole was far more mobile.
These advantages disappeared when Rommel came on the scene. Against troops depleted by the transfers to Greece, he could strike with a telling superiority of mechanized forces; his equipment was as good as or better than the British; and his anti-tank weapons outranged the heaviest guns carried by British tanks. Under the circumstances it was no small feat for Wavell to have halted Rommel along the frontier.
These actions also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75’s (i.e., 15-pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders. The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders. This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day. The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions. In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare quickly develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery. On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.
All this was a matter of common knowledge in England by the end of 1941, and detailed drawings in the Illustrated London News set forth the point clearly to the nonprofessional public. During the following months its military correspondent, Captain Cyril Falls, stressed in the plainest terms the heavy handicap facing the Army of the Nile from enemy tanks armed with far heavier and longer-range guns. Auchinleck’s offensive of November, 1941, had to be launched against this known and certain handicap of superior enemy weapons.
This played a due part in the check suffered soon after his advance got under way, and in the heavy losses of tanks then incurred. All in all, it was a surprising achievement for Auchinleck to have won through and to have driven Rommel out from Cyrenaica. In turn, the initial success of Rommel’s counter-offensive from El Agheila (January, 1942) was due in no small part to the greater range and power of his 75-millimeter tank guns. (This is no random opinion: it is the considered judgment of the most competent authorities, expressed in Parliament last July by Mr. Oliver Lyttelton, whose Ministry is responsible for British tank production.)
Rommel revealed a further advantage in weapons by bringing on the scene highly mobile artillery —in some cases field guns mounted on tanks cut down for the purpose. The famous 88, with its long range and flat trajectory, was by no means the only factor in this new armament. The British as well had artillery quite able to deal with the heaviest German tanks, when these attacked British artillery in position. (Rommel’s final assault at El Alamein was defeated in just this fashion.) The point was that the mobility of Rommel’s new equipment gave him field artillery able to keep up with tanks and to form an integral part of tank attacks in the far-ranging thrusts which had become the distinctive feature of operations in Libya. The greater fire-power of the 15-pounder German tanks was thus stiffened by having mobile artillery in close coöperation whenever tank battles developed.
Yet the clear and specific warnings offered in the press made little or no impression on British (or American) opinion. Waved had been replaced by Auchinleck. Auchinleck became the white hope of the British public, and the critical issue of the Libyan front was looked upon rather as a championship match between Auchinleck and Rommel. Mr. Churchill explained to Parliament as the attack opened: “The object of the offensive is not so much the occupation of this or that locality as the destruction of the army, particularly the armored forces, of the enemy.” For British 2-pounders, against enemy 15pounders, this was a large order. Mr. Churchill added a word of tribute to the British troops in the battle: “. . . feeling as they do that this is the first time we have met the Germans at least equally well armed and equipped.” The crews of the 2-pounder tanks must have had different feelings.
A fortnight later, Mr. Churchill repeated the phrase as to “fighting the German on equal terms in modern weapons.” He added: “Some of the German tanks carried, as we know, a 6-pounder gun, which, though it carries many fewer shots, is sometimes more effective than the gun with which our tanks are mainly armed.” It was not a 6-pounder, but a 15-pounder, that allowed Rommel’s tanks to take such liberties with their opponents. Mr. Churchill’s error expressed precisely the attitude of the British public during the next six months. We in America likewise turned our eyes stubbornly away from the repeated warnings as to the telling superiority of German weapons in Libya.
This superiority was greatly increased by the new weapons sent out to Rommel last spring, while he was gathering forces for an all-out offensive. The June battles revealed that even the lighter Axis tanks (German, French, and Italian) had been armed with guns which far outranged the British: 50millimeter and 47-millimeter guns firing shells about twice as heavy as the British 2-pounders. On June 22 a dispatch from the front to the London Times reported that even against the enemy’s lighter tanks “the 2-pounder gun has again been proved completely useless.”
Meanwhile there had arrived an installment of American General Grants, which carried 15-pounder guns. Their number is still unknown: in delicate official phraseology, it has been summed up as “considerable but inadequate.” Also, the defects in the design of the General Grants left them unable to meet the German heavier tanks on even terms. All in all, this American contribution did not fill the gap between British and German weapons.
Just as Rommel’s attack began, Captain Cyril Falls made the comment that Auchinleck’s 1941 offensive had just missed achieving an overwhelming victory. “The chief cause was the lack of tank and anti-tank gun power. . . . The side which can knock out its opponent’s tanks, while holding its own out of range of anything but field artillery, is obviously in possession of a long start. It is fervently to be hoped that we shall not be handicapped in such a matter this time.” As the event proved, this handicap had increased and Rommel could attack with the certainty of this “long start.” The dramatic victory he achieved confirmed Rommel’s estimate of bis superiority in armament.
By a different estimate, Mr. Churchill explained to Parliament later on that the British Army in Egypt — in May — had a superiority in tanks in the ratio of about seven to five. This eluded the essential point. On no basis of reckoning can 2-pounder tanks be added up so as to create a “superiority” over 15-pounders.
Rommel’s subsequent defeat at El Alamein does not challenge the soundness of his original estimate. Along this forty-mile front, for the first time, the British were able to stand on organized positions whose flanks could not be turned by roving mechanized forces. All the artillery of the British forces in Egypt could be hurried to the spot, and the outcome proved once again what had been known long before: the best tanks in the world will go down when met by plenty of artillery in proper positions and properly handled. This situation offers the main basis for confidence in the safety of Egypt in the near future. But it does not offer a means of driving Rommel out.
Tactical mistakes may have played their part in the British defeat last July. But as yet these are mere conjectures and suppositions. In referring to the attack from which 230 out of 300 British tanks did not return, Mr. Churchill made the straightforward comment: “I do not know what actually happened in the fighting of that day.” The outside world still knows no more than that.
Yet on the first news of the disaster in Libya, when Mr. Churchill was still in the dark as to whys and wherefores, Mr. Hanson Baldwin instantly explained in the New York Times that it was due to bad British staff work. The editorial page of the Times in turn delivered a solemn verdict. The battle in Libya had been a test of generalship: the Germans had skillfully used the weapons at hand, whereas British generalship had not known how to make full use of its resources.
Had the players changed hands, had the British 2-pounder tanks been wished on the German Command, would Rommel have pulled a victory out of the hat in corresponding fashion? The same generals and the same staffs that Rommel overwhelmed in June had overwhelmed him six months earlier. The actual record in Libya suggests that Rommel’s brilliant tactics have been developed hand in hand with his steadily increasing superiority in weapons.
This same advantage will be turned against us by German generalship on another front. The Times merely turns our eyes away from unpleasant facts. Except for recent deliveries of newer types, the Allied forces now in Britain are armed with weapons which twice have proved tragically inadequate in Libya.
Cyril Falls also has pointed out that while the British were carrying out their biggest mass raids over German cities, Rommel, quite undisturbed, was allowed to make full use of Benghazi as a base port, instead of having to use the single coast road from Tripoli. Thanks to this favor, Rommel’s line of communications across the desert was shortened by 400 miles; and it was the facility of bringing supplies directly up to Benghazi by sea that made it possible for him to mount his offensive on so formidable a scale.
This was a consequence of the policy of concentrating bombers upon the mass raids whose cumulative effect is to assert itself at some future time. In the meantime the war actually under way — whether by land or by sea — had to look out for itself: no bombers were made available for the critical need at Benghazi.
Rommel’s victorious advance into Egypt made a sudden end of this fallacy; and British and American bombers were hurriedly shifted to the scene. The chance of holding Egypt in the future depends, among other things, upon how far the concept of a separate and private war in the air has been made to yield to the needs of a real war — one that was within an ace of being lost.
In Parliament, after the fall of Tobruk, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Oliver Lyttelton made clear why no heavily armed British tanks had been forthcoming.
Excellent light tanks had been produced before the outbreak of the war, but at the close of what Mr. Churchill termed the “Hore-Belisha period” no model for a heavier tank had been developed, and patterns or dies or jigs had not been made ready.
Even the 2-pounder tank had not been brought into substantial production, and fewer than 200 of these could be supplied to the divisions in France.
The crisis of matériel after Dunkirk ruled out any pause for developing new models. The whole effort of British industry had to be pressed into turning out what was already in production, and these light tanks offered what was needed against the immediate danger of invasion. The full load of this initial effort was still being shouldered when the Lend-Lease Act opened the door to the industrial resources of the United States and the task of producing a heavier type of tank was taken over by us. Yet we did not take over, apparently, the experience of the British and Germans in respect to the designs to be worked out. In an astonishing tour de force of tooling up and getting into production, we unhappily adopted a type that was obsolete long before the record-breaking Chrysler factory was erected. Even as it rolled out over the production lines, the M3 was being supplanted by a different and far better model.
Today the prospect of facing Rommel “on equal terms in modern weapons” (in Mr. Churchill’s phrase) depends upon the deliveries of our new tanks in Egypt.
James B. Reston made the point: “We cannot bring our armored divisions to bear upon the enemy by sending them into the deserts of the Southwest United States”; and our first divisions overseas have been sent not to the critical theater of war (as in 1918) but to training areas 12,000 miles away in Britain. By this time we may have an American division on a fighting front, but if Rommel had driven through to the Nile in July we should have lost the war by default.
The immediate fate of the war may lie in the turn of the coming operations in Egypt. Without beating around the bush, it will depend, not upon the new divisions organized in 1943, but on what we can now bring forward.