The significance of German, Italian and British cross country movement maps for the war in Northern Africa 1941-42

Hermann Häusler

 

In the general view of the Second World War, the North African theatre of war was undoubtedly a supporting theatre of war. Thus it was also assessed by the supreme German command, irrespective of the – partly effecting until today –fascination of the “exotic” theatre of war and the psychological and propagandistic effect of the “fennec” Erwin Rommel (1891-1944). The first operations took place in the summer of 1940, after in June 1940 Italy had declared war to France and Great Britain. In September 1941 Italian troops, starting from Libya, attacked the Kingdom of Egypt, which was controlled by the British, but had to stop rather soon. In December 1940, a successful British counter-attack led to the conquest of the Cyrenaica (the north-eastern part of Libya). From February 1941 onwards, in order to avert the loss of Tripolitania, which is situated in the west, the armed forces high command sent out two light divisions as the “German Africa Corps” (DAK) commanded by the then Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel to Northern Africa (Operation “Sunflower”). Contrary to the mission to behave defensively – the German Reich was just about to raid the Soviet Union after all (Operation “Barbarossa”, June 1941), and additionally had to assign troops for supporting the Italian allies in South-East Europe – Rommel took the initiative and advanced far into Egypt in 1941. Given the lack of supplies (the important harbour of Tobruk was held by British and Commonwealth troops), the German and Italian troops had to withdraw to Libya again in 1941. A new offensive of the Axis Powers in the spring of 1942 was successful at first but ended near El Alamein in July 1942. Another attempt to break through the British stronghold failed in September 1942. In October 1942, however, the Allies succeeded in pushing back the German-Italian troops to the west, and only short time later British and American troops landed in Morocco and Algeria (Operation “Torch”). The remains of the German-Italian forces in North Africa had to capitulate near Tunis in 1943. In a nutshell one can state that in the course of the North Africa Campaign from June 1940 until May 1943 both cross country movement maps of the Axis Powers as well as „Going Maps“ of the British army served as relevant leadership resources for terrain assessment in friendly and enemy ground operations. While the Italian cross country movement maps were printed by the Italian Military Topographic Service in Tripolis and the British “Going Maps” were produced by the South-African map office south of Cairo in vast numbers, the German cross country movement maps did not reach printing status and were hand-coloured unique specimens only, and only a small number of them have been handed down in archives.