The German 88mm gun, first conceived as Flak artillery in World War I, revealed itself to have a potent anti-tank capability during the 1940 Battle of France. Transposed to the open vistas of the North African desert in 1941, the '88' would challenge the technology and employment of the British and later American tanks that encountered it, forcing them to develop new tactics and technology to deal with this deadly threat. German 88mm Gun vs Allied Armour, by David Campbell & David Greentree, tells the story of that evolution and provides an in-depth treatment of this key weapon of World War II.
Check out today's blog post, a chapter that didn't make it into the book, to read about the strategic situation from 1940 to May 1943.
In 1940 in Libya 250,000 Italians faced 100,000 men from the Western Desert Force (WDF). The Italians in the summer had advanced to Sidi Barrani in Egypt and then halted. On 9 December 1940 the WDF attacked Italian positions, bypassing the defences and cutting them off. The armour exploited to Bardia and Tobruk in January before crossing the Cyrenaica bulge; 7th Armoured Division reached Beda Fomm, 650km from Sidi Barrani, on 7 February. 36,000 men had captured 130,000 Italian soldiers. Decentralized command was used during the offensive with subordinate commanders having to think what their superiors wanted. Tripoli was still 1,100km away, however, and half of General Archibald Wavell’s force was sent to Greece.
Rommel with 5.Leichte-Division arrived in Libya in February and March 1941. Not waiting until the arrival of 15.Panzer-Division, he launched an offensive in late March and reached Bardia on 10 April, then the Egyptian border at Sollum, by crossing the Cyrenaica desert. On 3 May his attack on Tobruk failed and he was forced on the defensive. In late May Wavell, to relieve the surrounded port, launched an offensive on Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo that failed. In mid-June a larger offensive was launched that caused severe armour losses to both sides. Rommel held the line and there was a lull in activity until November. Wavell was distracted by the need to defeat Vichy French forces in Syria and rebels in Iraq; he was moved on in July.
Between July and October 300 Cruisers, 300 US M3 Stuart, 170 Matilda IIs and 34,000 trucks landed in Egypt. In November the newly established Eighth Army had six divisions and two army tank brigades in the field. Rommel prepared an offensive to capture Tobruk; however, the sinking of supply ships forced him to delay the operation to November. Operation Crusader was launched by the British to relieve the city prior to the German attack and would involve battles between 1,000 tanks whirling around the desert on ground that gave complete freedom of manoeuvre. By then the DAK had two panzer divisions and the newly arrived Afrika Division plus the Italian armoured division Ariete, motorized division Trieste and five infantry divisions.
The Germans realized the British offensive was about to commence and had prepared positions on the frontier on a 40km stretch between Sollum and Sidi Omar with minefields defended by Italian infantry supported by heavy FlaK guns. The 21.Panzer-Division was held in reserve to counter any British offensive whilst 15.Panzer and the Afrika Division prepared to launch against Tobruk. The Italian armour was at Bir el Gobi to cover the southern approaches to Tobruk. German reconnaissance units covered the ground between Sidi Omar and Bir el Gobi. On 19 November, a day after the offensive commenced, 21.Panzer-Division moved south on Gabr Saleh and 15.Panzer-Division was moved east to follow on. The British with 7th Armoured Division deployed in the Gabr Saleh area were supposed to be in a position to defeat the German armour in detail. Yet the British tanks were dispersed and Panzer-Regiment 5 with a battalion of field guns and heavy FlaK battery defeated the only formation encountered, the isolated 4th Armoured Brigade, deployed there to guard the left flank of the infantry moving on the border. The 7th Armoured Brigade with 7th Support Group had reached Sidi Rezegh unopposed whilst 22nd Armoured Brigade engaged the Italians at Bir el Gobi.
Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell, commander of Panzergruppe Afrika, on 20 November encountered few 4th Armoured Brigade elements at Gabr Saleh. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had joined 7th Armoured Brigade and the Support Group at Sidi Rezegh. The Germans missed an opportunity of crushing the isolated 4th Armoured Brigade. On 21 November Rommel ordered the panzer divisions to Sidi Rezegh; they had to use their heavy FlaK to break off from 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades first. 7th Hussars and 2nd Royal Tank Regiment advanced from Sidi Rezegh and were heavily defeated by the German panzers, yet the Support Group could not be defeated and 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades helped them in the afternoon. Rommel by Tobruk with AA 3 supported by heavy FlaK defeated a break-out attempt by 70th Infantry Division with 32nd Army Tank Brigade in support. That night Crüwell reorganized and retreated his panzer divisions, 21.Panzer-Division went north to Belhamed and 15.Panzer-Division went south-east. On 22 November Rommel intervened and used both formations on Sidi Rezegh where 7th Armoured Division had 180 tanks. Heavy FlaK from the escarpment fired in support. The British were thrown off the airfield.
On 23 November Rommel planned to envelop to the south to complete his victory. The approach of the 2nd New Zealand Division from the east meant he was not present with his armour when 5th South African Brigade with 7th Support Group and 22nd Armoured Brigade elements formed a heavily defended position that knocked out nearly half of the 150 German tanks and caused severe casualties to their motorized infantry. The 5th South African Brigade, however, was obliterated. On 24 November rather than attack the 2nd New Zealand Division, Rommel took his panzer divisions to the frontier at Sollum. Here, on 25 November 7th Indian Brigade repulsed Panzer-Regiment 5 from defences prepared at Sidi Omar. On 26 November the Tobruk garrison broke out to El Duda to join with New Zealanders near Sidi Rezegh. Rommel at the frontier had to retreat. The Second Battle of Sidi Rezegh against the New Zealanders then began. 7th Armoured Division with new tanks would attempt to relieve them. On 1 December 2nd New Zealand Division escaped complete annihilation and moved south. On 4 December with 4th Indian Division detected by Bir el Gobi, Rommel decided to retreat and Tobruk was no longer surrounded. On the night of 7/8 December the panzer divisions retreated south of Gazala. Here on 15 December Rommel decided on a further retreat to Agedabia where they were attacked on 26 December and then moved back to Mersa Brega. Garrisons at Bardia and Halfaya Pass held out until January and complicated the British supply situation. Eighth Army lost 18,000 men during Operation Crusader, the Panzergruppe 38,000.
German reinforcements arrived with the support of air cover provided by new air units. In late January 1942 Rommel defeated new armoured units the British had in Cyrenaica when Eighth Army was depleted following the deployment of units to India. He pursued to the Gazala defences, where he decided to replenish. Rommel thought he did not need to wait until Malta was captured until beginning an offensive to capture Tobruk. Rommel’s plan was to move around the Gazala position south of Bir Hacheim rather than launch against the centre of the British line; however, not enough attention was paid to this strongpoint that would be used to launch attacks on the German supply lines once the German armour had passed. Rommel thought the Italians would be able to capture the base on their way and 90.Leichte-Division (formerly Afrika Division) was sent instead on a wide sweep to El Adem. In January 1942 British Intelligence failed to appreciate the replacements that the Germans had received or their ability to rapidly repair battlefield losses. In May 1942 the British ignored interrogation reports and signals intercepts that suggested the Germans would move south around the British line. During the battle British signals intercepts often failed to reach the commanders when they needed them.
By May 1942 British AT units had 112 6-pdr guns whilst the German heavy FlaK had 48 guns. The Axis had nearly 500 aircraft, the British 190. The 167 Grants were sent in small amounts to all the British armoured regiments. Rommel with information intercepted from the US military attaché in Italy knew the British dispositions. Ritchie, the inexperienced British commander, was warned by Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck not to commit his armour until he was sure he knew where the main German attack was happening. Ritchie thought the Germans would attack frontally. At 0700 on 27 May air patrols made the size of the German attack in the south clear to him. The 3rd Motor Indian Brigade since 25 May at Point 171 had not had time to fortify with sufficient mines or wire; they were crushed. Once around Bir Hachiem, and having dispersed 7th Motor Brigade, too, both panzer divisions attacked 4th Armoured Brigade and with the heavy FlaK caused severe losses. The heavy FlaK was be integral to Rommel’s ability to protect his eastern flank whilst he cleared a way through the minefields on his western flank.
On 28 May Ritchie did not bring together his armour to destroy the exposed German formations. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade did not move. On 29 May the Italians made some routes through the minefields and on 30 May Rommel could travel through the line. The 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades attacked the DAK in what was known as the Cauldron; however, heavy FlaK threw him back. The isolated 150th Brigade was eliminated and the supply route through the minefields was clear on 1 June. The British rather envelop Rommel south of Bir Hacheim, decided to frontally move on the Cauldron with 32nd Army Tank Brigade on the northern and 22nd Armoured Brigade supported by two Indian brigades on the eastern flank. On 5 June the armour on the eastern flank made no attempt to protect the infantry when counterattacked on Aslagh Ridge. The 10th Indian Brigade was wiped out. On Sidra Ridge farther north 32nd Army Tank Brigade attacked during the day without infantry support and was destroyed by AT guns when stuck in a minefield.
Rommel moved south, after he captured Bir Hacheim he attacked north-east; on 12 June, 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades retreated into the Knightsbridge position. On the night of 13/14 June Knightsbridge isolated could not hold. German forces could not prevent the escape of most of the British forces; however, the loss of this important strongpoint meant the end of the Gazala Line. On the evening of 23 June Rommel crossed the Egyptian frontier. The invasion of Malta was postponed to September.
By 30 June though, nearly 1,200 British tanks were knocked out during the Gazala battles, on 1 July there were 137 tanks at the front with 42 in transit from workshops. The Axis had 70. The British had 780 aircraft, the Axis 126. German intelligence collapsed with the capture of their Signals intelligence unit and British radio intercepts improved. In July once the Germans on Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein had to halt British offensive operations comprising two infantry divisions with armour support were unsuccessful. The 25-pdr field guns were again concentrated at division rather than brigade; however, once the infantry attacked the German positions at night, the armour was not positioned in time to repel a German armoured counterattack early next morning.
In August, 254 British tanks arrived, increasing the number to nearly 700; the Germans had 265 and the Italians 243. Rommel attempted to envelop British positions at Alam el Halfa Ridge in late August; however, General Bernard Montgomery, the new British commander of Eighth Army, entrenched infantry on high ground and did not fight a war of manoeuvre. A static defence was established to allow him to maintain control. Hull down tanks and 6-pdr AT guns effectively held the Germans at bay. The Desert Air Force flew 2,900 sorties whilst the Luftwaffe flew only 1,200. In five days 250 British bombs fell per square mile of German positions. The Germans, with long supply lines attacked by submarines and planes from Malta, lacked fuel.
In September, 300 Shermans plus 78 Crusader IIIs arrived prior to the decisive Battle of El Alamein in late October. There were 6-pdrs replacing the 2-pdrs in AT units; their 2-pdrs equipped the infantry battalions. The British removed 1st, 10th and 8th Armoured Divisions from the line to train for the battle in September. By late October Eighth Army had 1,029 tanks whilst the Axis had 548. The British planned to capture positions and staunchly hold out. Montgomery’s crumbling tactics wore down German infantry in order to lure enemy tanks into battle to bolster their defence. Despite heavy FlaK causing many losses, the guns were systematically targeted at long range by the 75mm guns on the Shermans.
On 8 November US and British forces began to disembark at French North African ports. General von Arnim, the German commander in Tunisia, was responsible for keeping them out of Bizerta, the main port in Tunisia, and the capital Tunis. The British Eighth Army was driving Rommel back from Egypt through Libya to southern Tunisia. Von Arnim’s urgent problem was to defend the passes to prevent the US and British forces from gaining access to the plain north of where Rommel was retreating. Heavy rains in January and February brought the Allied offensive to a standstill. Rommel staged a withdrawal through Libya that brought what remained of his Panzerarmee to southern Tunisia in February 1943. He attacked inexperienced US armoured units at Kasserine Pass with some success; however, a thrust in March at Montgomery in southern Tunisia was a disaster. He departed to mainland Europe. With attacks from both the south and west wearing out the Germans and Italians in the ever-dwindling Tunisian bridgehead the end was in sight; on 12 May 250,000 soldiers surrendered.