Political and Regional Context of the Campaign in North Africa

For this conflict to make much sense we need to look at Politics, Strategic issues and what else was happening at this early stage of the war around the globe.

As of September 1940, the invasion of France (see The Blitzkrieg Legend for my experiences there) , the ejection of the BEF from French soil and Frances subsequent surrender had caused a ripple of changed options.  Britain stood alone and the Germans owned the coastline of France.  The Battle for Britain by September was mostly over (AAR and information coming!) and had caused a change in priorities for Hitler.

He knew he could not invade Britain without air superiority.  He was thus drawn to other regional, global priorities.

Hitlers desire to subjugate the British Isle was the right strategic choice, but his failure with the Battle of Britain left him stymied.  Blocking Britain was the key to protecting Western Europe.  His direct attack a failure, he did not it appears examine indirect ones.

Egypt and his Italian Allies would have been able to remove all opportunity for initiative from the choice matrix for Britain and her Allies.  Why were the Egyptians not courted more aggressively? For a thrust South into the Oil rich and transport focused Eastern Mediterranean would eventually choke the British Isle and to a certain extent render its Naval supremacy mute. How would this have been possible with the current situation of the Germans territorial possessions?

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In August of the same year (’40) the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed, this affected the control of the Balkan states including Bulgaria, whose border abutted Greece. With Bulgaria annexed, the Germans wanted to place forces there. This required a land route via Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia put up little resistance but Chetnik partisans were to be a bane of the occupying forces long term.

Then the apple cart was upset by Mussolini’s attempt to grandstand with an invasion of Greece. The Greeks rebuffed this pre-emptive ego driven effort with reinforced assistance from the British in November 1940. This exposed Hitler’s intentions and forced his timing on his own plans for Greece and Bulgaria.

On November 11-12 in 1940, Hitler had spent an unsatisfactory time with the Foreign Minister for the Soviet Union over the structure of their Bulgarian Annexation arrangements. The net result of these meetings was a resolve by Hitler to advance the nacscent plans to head East and execute Plan Dortmund (the invasion of Russia). All as a result of the attitude and approach by the Russians to Bulgaria, and the Italian situation in Greece.  This had far-reaching consequences in regards to the focus on secure Western borders for the Reich.

Following this the Germans invade Greece via Bulgaria, where Greek forces were ill placed to defend due to treaty commitments.  With the German invasion the British forces were once again ejected from a commitment in Europe. First France now Greece, and soon Crete to boot; the English were in full retreat.

This set of circumstances is possibly where the first seeds of English thinking about their strategic situation were germinated in regards to the Mediterranean.  For if we stop and look, the Germans has conquered or controlled or annexed right up to the border of Turkey in the North and to Tobruk in Libya in the South.  Linking these two forces would have implications that it seems were not appreciated by Hitler.

It appears he eyed the oil reserves n the Caucus’s and his plans involved Turkey as an ally or at least a neutral. Italy pre emptive invasion of Greece soured that approach for Hitler.  Why then did Hitler not head South? Malta and even Gibraltar should have been priorities ( we now know just how close Malta came to falling but lack of intelligence resources prevented that information from reaching the OKW) for Hitler.

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Most history texts have written about the strategic imperative to press the soft underbelly of Southern Europe as a strategy for the West. Highly reminiscent of Churchill’s first World War. But the facts are simple. England in essence alone, was not in a position to strike anywhere and had neither of the weapons systems, leadership nor capabilities to affect a compelling invasion of Southern Europe in ‘41 . By December their forces were in retreat world wide, with the invasion and capture of Singapore, Malta shipping losses mounting and a tenuous hold on the Middle East.

So while the idea of a future attack from the South held strategic merit, it is more likely that we were looking at desperation. The realization that likely eluded Hitler, being that if Egypt fell, or Malta fell then the gateway to London would presently be available via the indirect route rather than the direct, was paramount in the minds of Englands leadership. This is why they invested so many lives and material to that front.

Thus North Africa must be held, the Italians thrust from Africa, the Turks recruited to the cause and any theoretical link of Japan to Nazi Germany via the Mid East and India thwarted. In fact Wavell wrote of this very topic and concluded that if England held Malta and the Middle East Oil, then they could not lose. His strategic insight is telling.

With these things in mind as a backdrop we can now shift our attention to what was going on in theatre on the ground. What weapons systems prevailed, who had the technological

and logistical advantage and when.

4 thoughts on “Political and Regional Context of the Campaign in North Africa

  1. I think that the Germans never put more than a bit of attention to the Med because even taking it entirely would not knock England out of the war or help the German situation much. Piping oil from Iraq to the Med was a “pipe dream” (ha ha) and the English could still fight that action from the Gulf. The Axis just didn’t have the shipping to make it pay off.

    That’s why they only ever got involved when Benito put his foot into it, and not rapidly even then. Note that they only squashed Yugoslavia in spring 1941, more to cover the flank of Barbarossa from any interference than from any strategic value holding Greece.

    Even the CW investment in CNA was half-hearted, as they kept diverting troops elsewhere whenever something came up – Syria, Singapore, Greece and Crete, Ethiopia. Of course the historians talk it up now, because it was their private little war.

    Even an all out Axis victory in Libya would be compromised by something like Torch.

    1. I’m not wholey convinced. Whoever controlled the Canal and Mid East controlled supplies. Thi was another way for Axis to choke Britain. The BoB failed as a direct attack for Sealion. But Sealion was conceivable if North Africa was controlled along with entire med.

      1. The German army could sit on the canal, but the shipping to do much else was absent. Having Italy in the center pretty much blocked the Med as a shipping lane for transit, so convoys to feed England had to go around regardless of the state of the war.

        Once the war broadens from the one front in NA, even with success, the garrison requirements grow. The Brits could counter with a Torch operation, or by working up the Red Sea, or up the Persian Gulf though Iraq. How is the DAK supposed to counter all of them? With most of the Army busy in the USSR?

        To do this, and/or a SeaLIon requires the Germans to build or fund quite a large navy and merchant marine. This effort would require other things to be scaled back, and time to get organized. And it would require risks of the kind that they didnt’ have much of a taste for – airborne ops and naval battles. In the real war, the losses in Crete and Norway were too much to take.

        But even in the case of a SeaLion, taking Med is a distraction. The forces would need to be on hand, not chasing about the Levant. Either you can swing the channel crossing or you can’t. The loss of Egypt changes nothing either way.

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