General Erwin Rommel , the Desert Fox , a genius , master tactician and the man of the swift bold attack. He is a legend , ran rings around Generals Wavell , Cunningham , Ritchie and Auchinleck but got his butt kicked by good old Monty ; or at least that is how the story is seen throughout most of the world.
Herr Wilhelm Flicke of the German Intercept Service is not quite so kind to Erwin. As in so many cases , Herr Flicke boils everything down to intercepted radio messages telling one side or the other , all the plans of the enemy. His opinion is that Rommel profited greatly from intercepts from the US military attache in Cairo to Washington and that the Allies realised what was happening just as Monty turned up and stopped the offending messages thereby rendering the Fox blind.
Up until that point Rommel always had his strength in the right places , where the Allies launched their attacks , or attacked the Allies at their weakest points. Once the absence of signals intelligence took hold , he was left to use his intuition and that left him precariously exposed and the result was he got his butt kicked all the way back to Tunisia. It was only when the Americans , and their shoddy radio work , moved into Tunisia from Algeria that the radio interceptions again started to deliver good intelligence. This only delayed the inevitable conclusion to the North African campaign.
The original reason for the fighting in North Africa was that the Axis wanted to push through to the Iraqi oilfields of Mosul and linkup with the Germans fighting their way south from the Caucasus. This would have starved the Royal Navy of fuel oil in the Mediterranean and the Italians could have had their Mare Nostrum , or Italian Lake , to go with their four shores.
Rommel and his Africa Corps had arrived in North Africa in March 1941 to extricate the Italians from the drubbing they were getting from the Desert Rats. After 3 months of fighting and chasing the Italians the British had run out of puff and within 18 days Rommel had driven them out of Cyrenaica when it all came to a standstill.
The US Military Attache in Cairo , an ambitious man , Fellers by name , decided to make a name for himself by sending the most detailed messages possible to Washington and as frequently as possible. He reported on the political situation and everything connected to military preparations and operations. These messages were ciphered but the death of any cryptographic system is found in its frequent use. All of his radiograms were intercepted by the Germans and all were addressed to either the Military Attache or Adjutant General in Washington so easily recognised.
By early June the system had been solved in essence and parts of messages could be read. They were a mine of information. Fellers reported on the reinforcement of British Forces Western Egypt , their equipment , each transport of war materiel that arrived , the withdrawal of the Australian 9th Division from Tobruk and its replacement by British and Polish units and preparations for an offensive whose aim was the encirclement and annihilation of the Axis troops.
All these deciphered messages were passed directly to General Rommel who could use them to his advantage , hence his troops always seemed to be in the right place.
On 18 November 1941 , a British offensive started but Rommel had made good preparations and was able to hold the front for a time. The British made a break south of Sidi Omar but Rommels sent an Italian armoured division to stop the British thrust. On 19 November the British took Sidi Rezegh and on the same day Churchill predicted the impending destruction of the Axis troops in North Africa. Both sides threw more and more troops into battle. Wherever the British started an action, Rommel immediately sent forces to oppose them. He even sent a column behind the British in the direction of Halfaya and broke their connections. He always did the right thing at the right time , small wonder because Fellers was telling him everything the Allies were doing. Fellers was going all over the battle area observing and reporting , not just to Washington but inadvertently also to Rommel.
The Germans intercepted the messages , copied via teletype to Berlin where it was deciphered and sent back to Rommel in the space of a couple of hours. The British were surprised , their carefully laid plans had been thwarted. Auchinleck relieved Cunningham and appointed Ritchie as commander of the Eighth Army. While the battle raged , Rommel spotted a weak point in the British positions and escaped without being detected. Churchill had to tell the House that all had not gone according to plan.
And so it carried on Rommel knowing every move before his enemy had made it. The British were amazed , Rommel seemed to have “second sight”. Whatever the British did , Rommel always acted as if he knew what was going to happen. Then disaster struck in the weirdest way.
On the 27th June 1942 a german radio station , the Deutschlandsender , announced a radio drama. “We are offering scenes from the British or American Information Bureau” the announcer said. The drama had as its subject “Events in North Africa”. One of the characters represented the American Military Attache in Cairo there followed a discussion of his extensive supply of information and the way he sent it to Washington. 36 hours after this radio drama the messages from Fellers to Washington suddenly stopped. Rommel was now blind , as the British regrouped he knew nothing about it.They introduced new units , this remained hidden.
Why should a German radio station give away such a secret even in the guise of fiction. It killed the goose that was laying golden egg after golden egg. There must have been a very high level traitor , or even traitors , at the top of the Nazi Party. The breadth of knowledge required for all the things that were given away during Adolf’s time almost certainly excludes the military so it looks like a Nazi Party member. There are scores of rumours about Martin Bormann and unlike Eichmann , he was left alone by Mossad while he was in South America after the war. He looks a good bet but there is no proof.
Rommel tried a strong thrust to the south , it failed , the next day he tried a major attack near El Alamein but had to withdraw. Both sides now beefed up their forces , Mussolini went to the Egyptian front so he could be present at the entry to Cairo. This was when he had his white horse ferried over so he ride triumphantly into the Egyptian capital. Rommel was appointed Field Marshall and Montgomery was placed in charge of the Eight Army. In November the British started the Battle of El Alamein and Rommel’s great retreat began. Simultaneously the British and Americans landed in Algeria and Morocco.
Deprived of his signals intelligence Rommel just kept on retreating , things did not improve until they met the Americans in Tunisia as they move in from Algeria. Then some signals intelligence resumed , not from Fellers but from the American Army and their not quite secure use of the wireless.
It seems that Rommel was not quite the genius that history tells us , obviously a great leader of men but perhaps not quite the tactician we are led to believe. Herr Flicke traces his stories through the medium of signals intelligence and is sure that it decides everything. This is obviously far from the truth but as they say , forewarned is forearmed.
© well_chuffed 2018