Tobruch to El Alamein, Part 2: On to the Ruweisat
In part one of my essay, Tobruch to El Alamein: The Matruh “Line,” I described the Axis advance into Egypt following the conclusion of the “first” Battle of Tobruch on the June I ’41 game turn. Unfortunately for the hypothetical Rommel in this piece, as soon as the Deutsches Afrika Korps began its move east into Egypt, the Axis “supply well” suddenly ran dry. Although these sudden Axis “supply droughts” are frustrating, they must be planned for because they are all too typical during this phase of the game. Rommel’s lack of combat supply, not surprisingly, brought the Axis offensive drive to a virtual halt, with the Afrika Korps and British forces temporarily stalemated near the Egyptian coastal town of Mersa Matruh. However, on the July II game turn, an Italian supply convoy finally slipped past the Royal Navy and landed fresh supplies in the Axis Home Base. At the end of the July II ’41 game turn, the two armies still face each other across the same front line that they have occupied for a month. That, however, is about to change.
Setting the Scene: Commonwealth and Axis positions at the End of the July II 1941 Game Turn
The following photo (photo #6) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the July II game turn. Rommel finally receives a supply convoy and wastes no time in speeding the new supplies toward the front. The Australian 7A/1 is eliminated due to isolation at the end of the Commonwealth portion of the turn. With additional supplies coming forward, the Desert Fox can again turn his attention to renewing his offensive against Alexandria. In an effort to conserve his ammunition and fuel, Rommel decides to try to maneuver Wavell out of his Matruh position; by increasing his pressure against the British left flank, Rommel hopes that the British commander can be induced to withdraw back towards El Alamein without a fight. He soon has his answer; Wavell strengthens the southern part of his line, but makes only a few limited, local withdrawals to the east. It is now clear to Rommel that if the Axis commander wants the British Army to retreat, then he will have to actually attack and drive it back. Wavell, it would appear is in no mood to be bluffed. The final positions of the Axis units are as follows: Rommel – W3; 21/5 – L46; 21/104 – R51; 21/3 – U54; Ariete – I44; Trenta – H24; Brescia – H26; Pavia – I39; Savena – D7; 15/8 – O49; 15/115 – K36; 15/33 – L39; Supply #1 – J12R; Supply #3 – M44. Commonwealth units occupy the following hexes: 4I/11, 2/3, 4/7 & Supply 32 – G25; Pol/Carp – J46; 22 Gds & 2SA/4 – P56; Supply #1 – J49; 7/3I Mot & 50/6SA Mot – J47; 7/7 S.G. & 7/7 – O54; 7/4SA Mot & 4I/23 – N50; 50/69 & 9A/18 – K48; 50/150 & 50/15 – O52; 2SA/6 – R58; 2SA/7 Recce – R59; Supply #3 – Q59; Supply #4 –J62.
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August I, Rommel Attacks!
The arrival of the second back-to-back supply convoy, forces Rommel’s hand. Even though neither of his recently-landed supplies is within range of the southern section of his front line, the Desert Fox decides to attack rather than delay his offensive one more turn. Waiting is a luxury that Rommel feels he cannot afford. Not only would a postponement in the Axis attack give Wavell an opportunity to put his August reinforcements into the line, but it would also give the Commonwealth commander the equivalent of a “free sunk” against the August II Axis supply convoy. The central problem for the Desert Fox in attacking on August I is that Wavell’s defensive arrangements make it difficult to strike at the Commonwealth front without risk of loss. Moreover, if the Afrika Korps launches the obvious assault directly east along the Coast Road, Rommel’s entire right flank will be vulnerable to either an Allied attack or to a raid by the British Recce deep into the southern desert. Thus, because the closest Axis supply unit can only reach the “45 file” on the game map on August II, the entire southern half of Wavell’s position is immune to Axis attack for that one critical game turn.
Confronted by a host of unpleasant choices, Rommel attacks the southeastern end of Wavell’s line, destroying the 2SA/6 brigade and expending Supply #3. Using a precious supply to eliminate a single Commonwealth infantry brigade is usually a demoralizing waste, but Rommel consoles himself with the knowledge that giving the Allies a “free sunk” would be an even greater waste. And the attack does have some benefit from a positional standpoint — it continues to extend Wavell’s lengthening left flank. In the meantime, Rommel pushes his panzers as far to the southeast of the escarpments as he can, in order both to nudge the British Recce back towards El Alamein, and to gain some maneuvering room for his own units during the August II game turn. Whatever happens, Rommel now knows that he will be able to launch no more than four additional attacks against Wavell’s forces before the British November I reinforcements arrive. Unfortunately, he also knows that the British commander is aware of this fact as well.
The Thin Red Line
The assault on the southernmost end of his front line comes as a surprise to Wavell, who had expected Rommel to push due east along the Via Balbia. The loss of a single 1-1-6 brigade is always a welcome outcome from any Axis attack, but the continued stretching of the British left flank is starting to get worrisome. The English commander is becoming increasingly unsure about his position in the south. He wonders whether his troops will still be able to hold their current line, once Rommel again has supply to support attacks in this sector. For the time being, however, Wavell can strip away most of the forces on the Allied left to reinforce the only section of the British front that the Axis will be able to attack on August II: the line running from the central escarpment to the Mediterranean Sea west of Mersa Matruh. Wavell expects an attack only if another Axis convoy slips past the Royal Navy, otherwise he thinks that Rommel will maneuver while he waits for his supplies to reach the battle area.
Commonwealth and Axis positions at the End of the Aug I ’41 Game Turn
The following photo (photo #7) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the August I game turn. Rommel’s panzers continue to press farther to the southeast, but the front line north of the east-west escarpment remains static. The Afrika Korps used Supply #3 to destroy 2SA/6; two Axis supplies, however, are still in play and on their way toward the battle area. Two more weeks have passed and the British commander stubbornly still refuses to retreat or to abandon his small toehold on the escarpment; instead, Wavell reinforces his right and waits. The final positions of the Axis units are as follows: Rommel – W3; 21/5 – Q54; 21/104 – P51; 21/3 O49; Ariete – I44; Trenta – H24; Brescia – H26; Pavia & 15/115 – L46; Savena – G20; 15/8 – R57; 15/33 – M47; Supply #1 – J27; Supply #2 – J12R. The surviving Commonwealth units occupy the following hexes: 4I/11, 2/3, 4/7 & Supply #2; Pol/Carp – J46; 22 Gds – J47; Supply #1 – J49; 7/3I Mot, 4I/23 & 9A/18 – K47; 7/7 S.G. & 7/4SA Mot – O52; 7/7 & 50/6SA Mot – M49; 50/69, 50/150 & 50/151 – N50; 2SA/7 Recce – Q58; 2SA/4 – P55; 5I/9, 5I/10 & 5I/29 – I47; 70/23 – Res; Supply #3 – Q59; Supply #4 – J62.
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August II, Rommel Maneuvers While He Stockpiles Supplies
After two Italian convoys in a row manage to sneak past the British blockade, the Royal Navy finally catches up with and sinks the third. This gap in the flow of supplies allows the Afrika Korps to reposition for a major assault on September I; it also allows time for Division Savena to move forward to link up with the field army east of Sidi Barrani. To contain the British left and Wavell’s single troublesome reconnaissance unit, the Desert Fox orders elements from one of his two panzer divisions to lay a cordon across the southern desert. To tend to the northern section of his front, Rommel redeploys units from the second panzer division back onto the escarpment from where they will be able to support the Italian divisions near the Coast Road. Time is running out, but Rommel still hopes to launch four more attacks before the next large influx of English reinforcements arrive in North Africa.
Back to El Daba: the British Finally Withdraw from Mersa Matruh
Although General Wavell is sorely tempted to continue in his current position, the increasing risk to his left flank has finally become too great to ignore. A British withdrawal at this point, he knows, will simplify Rommel’s situation greatly. The one advantage of an August retreat, however, is that it almost certainly will draw the Deutsches Afrika Korps east and still farther from Tobruch. And while the panzer divisions are only a fortnight’s march from the fortress, a major Axis commitment to attacks near El Daba would mean that the Italian divisions supporting Rommel’s advance could not reach Tobruch for three full game turns. It is not much compensation for abandoning the “Matruh Line,” thinks the British commander, but at least it is something.
The fallback position that the Commonwealth forces move to occupy is one that General Wavell had already picked some weeks earlier. The new Commonwealth defense line runs from the village of El Daba near the Mediterranean Coast inland through the Ruweisat Ridge and then arcs southwest to end at the Qattara Depression. The sector of greatest concern for the British general is the section of the new line north of his center. Wavell has pushed this part of his front as far west as he can in order to protect the flanks of the critically important Ruweisat Ridge. Rommel needs to be slowed in his eastern drive up the Coast Road. If the Axis can be stopped short of El Alamein, then Wavell believes that his forces should be able to hold both the Ruweisat and the Alam Halfa Ridges. The question now uppermost in the English general’s mind is: How many more attacks will Rommel be able to launch before the Commonwealth reinforcements arrive in November?
Commonwealth and Axis positions at the End of the Aug II ’41 Game Turn
The following photo (photo #8) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the August II game turn. Rommel does not attack, but waits for his supplies to come forward. The failure of the August II convoy to safely reach port means that the Axis convoy die rolls are now even more critical than before. Rommel desperately needs the next few supplies, not only to attack, but also to threaten a powerful counterattack, once British reinforcements arrive in the battle area. Like Rommel, General Wavell also worries about the impending arrival of Axis supplies; unlike Rommel, he pins his hopes on the Royal Navy and their success in finding and sinking these next few critical Italian convoys. The final August II positions of the Axis units are as follows: Rommel – W3; 21/5 & 21/104 – L46; 21/3 – P51; Ariete – I44; Trenta – H24; Brescia – H26; Pavia – M47; Savena – J34; 15/8 – Q54; 15/115 – O49; 15/33 – S57; Supply #1 – L45; Supply #2 – J27. The final positions of all surviving Commonwealth units are as follows: 4I/11, 2/3, 7/4 & Supply #2 – G25; Pol/Carp – L56; 22 Gds, 5I/9 & 5I/10 – P61; Supply #1 – J56; 7/3I Mot, 7/7 S.G. & 9A/18 – L57; 7/7 – N59; 7/4SA Mot & 50/6SA Mot – J55; 4I/23 – J54; 50/69, 50/150 & 50/151 – K56; 2SA/7 Recce – Q61; 2SA/4 – Q60; 5I/29 & Supply #3 – O61; 70/23 – Res; Supply #4 – J62.
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September I, Rommel Assaults the “El Daba Line”
Good news from the Italian Navy allows Rommel to breathe a little easier: the latest supply convoy, despite an all-out effort by the Royal Navy to find and sink it, has just arrived in the Axis Home Base. Now the Desert Fox can turn his undivided attention to resuming offensive operations against the new British defense line. Since his army should be able to attack the English positions two or three more times before the November reinforcements land, the Desert Fox decides to pick off the “low-hanging fruit” and not risk any Axis exchange or soak-off losses in this round of combats. Rommel knows that, while it might not be a dramatic strategy, the methodical attrition of Commonwealth rifle strength will almost always pay big dividends later in the game. Therefore the Afrika Korps moves forward and attacks and eliminates Pol/Carp, 4I/23, and 2SA/4 at 7 to 1. Axis Supply #1 is expended to support the three combats; this leaves one supply in the battle area and one transiting to the front from the Axis Home Base. The Desert Fox, despite having supplies in the battle area, none the less carefully deploys his attacking units so as to avoid providing the British commander with any 3 to 1 counterattacks. Rommel remains optimistic. With luck, he still hopes to launch three more attacks before the British commander receives any fresh troops.
The “El Daba Line” Holds
Wavell silently receives the news from his front line commanders on the progress of Rommel’s offensive. An Axis attack was inevitable. He is not surprised that Rommel has attacked and destroyed the advanced British pickets; it is exactly what he would have done if he were Rommel. The loss of the three brigades is painful, but at least none of his more powerful units were attacked, and most importantly: his troops still hold the Ruweisat Ridge in some strength. The question that now casts its shadow over the battlefield, for both commanders, is the immediate availability of Axis supplies. Both generals know that Rommel is running out of time. If the Desert Fox continues to nibble on the forward British blocking units, then he may not be able to pry the Commonwealth defenders off of the Ruweisat Ridge before November. And by his reckoning, Wavell believes that Rommel will have to make at least two attacks directly on the central ridge in order to occupy it. Will Rommel receive the crucial supplies, the British commander wonders, and, if he does, will he risk the attacks? Wavell is certain of one thing: whatever it is that Rommel finally decides on, the British will not have to wait long to know of it.
In the meantime, Wavell has arrangements of his own to make. After tending to the adjustments in the “El Daba Line” made necessary by the Afrika Korps’ attacks, the Commonwealth commander issues one additional set of directives. Just in case some opportunity presents itself, General Wavell orders one of his heavy armored brigades in Tobruch to be embarked for sea transport. Rommel is sure to hear about this movement from his spies inside the fortress, and, Wavell hopes, he is just as likely to be concerned by the British plans.
Commonwealth and Axis Positions at the End of the September I Game Turn
The following photo (photo #9) shows a section of the AFRIKA KORPS game map along with the Axis and Allied unit positions at the end of the Commonwealth phase of the September I, 1941 game turn. The Deutsches Afrika Korps has received another precious supply, so Rommel orders a series of attacks against the new British defensive positions that shield the western approaches to Alexandria. Three Commonwealth 1-1-6 brigades are destroyed at no cost to the Desert Fox other than the expenditure of a supply unit. With two supplies still on the map, however, Rommel is optimistic about his prospects. British options are limited, so, besides retreating his flanking units a little more to the east, Wavell’s only other battlefield decision is to order the 7/4 Armored Brigade in Tobruch out to sea — on the off chance that some offensive use might be found for it. The final positions of all Axis units are as follows: Rommel – W3; 21/5 – L55; 21/104, 21/3 & Pavia – J53; Ariete – N57; Trenta – H24; Brescia – H26; Savena – I47; 15/8 – P59; 15/115 – P58; 15/33 – P57; Supply #2 – I44; Supply #3 – J12R. Commonwealth positions at the end of the September I game turn are as follows: 4I/11, 2/3 & Supply #2 – G25; 22 Gds, 5I/9 & 5I/10 – P61; Supply #1 – K58; 7/3I Mot, 7/4SA Mot & 50/151 – K57; 7/4 – At Sea; 7/7 S.G. & 7/7 – N59; 50/69, 50/150 & 9A/18 – J56; 2SA/7 Recce & Supply #3 – O61; 5I/29 – Q61; 70/23 – Res; Supply #4 – J62.
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September II, Rommel Ponders a Change in Plans
Rommel’s September II supply convoy is sunk by the Royal Navy. This means that the Afrika Korps can only attack the Allied position in front of El Alamein two more times before significant British reinforcements arrive in the battle area. Presented with this game situation, the Axis commander should probably think long and hard about whether to continue the Battle for Egypt and attempt to capture the Ruweisat Ridge by November, or to transition instead into another strategic line of play. Given the choices suddenly confronting our hypothetical Rommel, this is probably a good point at which to bring this phase of our study to a close. If this experimental game was to continue, Rommel would have to decide from among at least three different operational plans.
First, he could continue with the “Battle for Egypt” offensive strategy. His goal, in this case, would be to secure a “3 to 1 proof” Axis defensive line — hence the importance of capturing the Ruweisat Ridge — before the Commonwealth reinforcements flood into the game in November. Rommel’s plan, once the supply table improved in December, would then be to batter his way through the Allied army in front of Alexandria in order to capture the British Home Base before replacements could become a factor in the game in spring of 1942.
Second, Rommel could turn his back on Alexandria temporarily, and race back to Tobruch in an effort to seize the Allied port before his own November reinforcements arrived. This would give the Desert Fox at least two, and probably three attacks, assuming he received another supply, to capture the fortress before November. This is probably my least favorite approach, if for no other reason than that it almost always involves a desperation, early-game, “low-odds” attack on Tobruch. There may be a time to take that 1 to 1 on Tobruch, but it is rarely, if ever, in October of 1941.
The third option, and my personal favorite, is for Rommel to inflict as many casualties as possible on Wavell’s force and then to slowly withdraw to a central position between Sidi Barrani and Mersa Matruh. From this operational base, Rommel can strike at either Tobruch or at the Allied Home Base, at will. This strategy has the additional advantage of forcing the Commonwealth player to keep his forces divided, with his reserve units essentially being out of play. The Axis can do a lot of damage from this location, particularly once the November reinforcements reach the battle area.
Whatever course of action the Axis player chooses; he should exercise both patience and careful judgment. In the heat of the moment players can forget just how long a game AFRIKA KORPS actually is. So a word is probably in order about playing the “long” game. Too many make-believe Rommels think that if they haven’t established a winning position by the winter of 1941, then they are destined to lose. This is utter nonsense. I cannot remember how many games I have won as the Axis despite being significantly outnumbered by the Allies in November 1941. The only really significant “drop dead” date — for me anyway — is the March ’42 start of replacements. If the Axis can’t get parity at this stage in the game, and quickly, then Rommel literally will be swamped by a tidal wave of “baby-blue” unit counters before he knows it.
Wavell and the “Battle for Egypt”
Of course an obvious question to pose about now is why invest such a long essay in what, in the eyes of many AFRIKA KORPS players, is a relatively unimportant eight or nine-turn phase of the game? The short answer is: mistakes made between the June II and November I, 1941 game turns will often determine the ultimate winner of the game; particularly if those mistakes are made by the British player. The reason for this, I believe, is the widespread failure of many Commonwealth commanders to use the expanse of terrain between the Salum Pass and the Ruweisat Ridge to best defensive effect. Many Commonwealth players, in fact, leave two units to block the Salum Pass bottleneck and then begin an immediate withdrawal all the way back to El Alamein. This is a strategy that will typically work only so long as the Axis player fails to receive supplies. If Rommel reaches the El Daba Line in late July or early August, then barring extremely poor Axis supply luck, the Ruweisat will probably be lost. And the Afrika Korps may even gain a toehold on the Alam Halfa Ridge, as well.
The only real solution to this problem is to slow the Axis juggernaut down until British reinforcements can arrive to help shore up the front. The most obvious place for the Allied player to make such a stand is west of Mersa Matruh. The British do not have to halt the Axis on this line indefinitely, even a couple of game turns are often sufficient, particularly if the Royal Navy is doing its part. I do not claim, by the way, that the approach presented in this essay is the best one possible for the Commonwealth player, only that it is a set of defensive arrangements that have often worked for me. Moreover, I am confident that, with a little study, most players will quickly find ways of significantly adjusting or embellishing the basic framework of this positional defense of the Coast Road to bring it more in line with their own particular styles of play.
There is another reason for both Rommel and Wavell to become intimately acquainted with the ground between Tobruch and El Alamein, besides the basic tactical requirements arising from the usual Axis invasion of Egypt. If Rommel gets very lucky and captures Tobruch in the early months of the war without heavy losses, then the Commonwealth player had better know how to contest every inch of ground east of Tobruch, or he will have literally no chance of salvaging a win.
A Few Final Thoughts
In the course of this series of essays, a number of assumptions have repeatedly been made as to the expected reactions both of our make-believe Rommel, and of the hypothetical General Wavell. The first is that, all things being equal, neither commander will be prepared to take imprudent risks during the early turns of the game. This logical convention does not rule out the use of risky attacks, it simply assumes that, for a player to actually conduct them, the benefits of such attacks must be commensurate with the risks. This logic, for example, explains the decision of the hypothetical Rommel to pursue an “Egypt first” rather than a “Tobruch first” strategy. Therefore, the assumption has been made throughout this essay that if a player really wants to place his faith in the die, he will go ahead and gamble no matter what course his opponent follows.
In addition, there is an expectation that both players will always at least try to operate with a clear idea of their respective goals during this critical phase of the game. That is: they will both know what it is that they want to accomplish as they position their game counters. The respective goals of both the Afrika Korps and the British Army during the battle for Egypt are generally more complicated and less obvious than during the earlier game turns. For this reason, both players will have to quickly recognize when a particular line of play is unsuccessful. This, by the way, is why the decision was made to terminate the scenario on the September II game turn: circumstances had changed sufficiently to call for an Axis change of strategy. However, even if the Axis player changes his strategy, some things will not change: Rommel, whatever his new strategic vision, will still have to carefully husband every one of his units while, at the same time, maximizing the Commonwealth casualties from each of his precious supplies. Wavell, on the other hand, will still have to strike the correct, if delicate balance between unit sacrifices and terrain given up. And neither player has much, if any, real room for error.
For those readers curious about the actual die rolls used in this essay. The afore-mentioned “risk-reward” reality was incorporated into the actual game situation portrayed in this analysis. Thus, in the interest of realism, all of the supply and combat outcomes were actually generated through conventional die rolling. That is: there was no anticipated or favored outcome, so the die was rolled and the results noted and incorporated into the analysis. Interestingly, the supply rolls were almost statistically perfect, with the Axis player receiving perhaps one more supply than expected.
AFRIKA KORPS, as has been noted before, is a very long game: thirty-eight game turns, in fact. Those game turns represent a lot of opportunities both for cleverness and for mistakes. These many game turns also, however, offer many opportunities for both players to learn and practice patience. Moreover, the different stages of the game, as did the actual campaign, tend to see the initiative and advantage swing from one player to the other, sometimes unexpectedly. This is what makes this old “classic” interesting; it is also what really tests the skill of its players. As the game progresses, things will not always be so obvious or clearly defined as they are during the first few game turns. In fact, the opening, middle, and end game of AFRIKA KORPS each has its own pace and rhythm. For that reason, being able to understand the flow and tempo of AFRIKA KORPS, and to act accordingly, is typically the main winning characteristic that separates the expert tournament competitor from the merely good player. Not surprisingly, it is the most difficult, and time-consuming aspect of the game to learn. But it is also why, after all these years; I have yet to grow tired of it.