On this day in 1941, German Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox,” resumes his advance into Cyrenaica, modern-day Libya, signaling the beginning of what nine days later will become the recapture of Libya by the Axis forces.
Early Italian successes in East Africa, which included occupying parts of Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland, were soon reversed after British offensives, led by British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, resulted in heavy Italian casualties and forced the Italians to retreat into Libya. But Axis control of the area was salvaged by the appearance of Rommel and the Afrika Korps, sent to East Africa by the German High Command to bail their Italian ally out.
On the verge of capturing Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Britain’s forces were suddenly depleted when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill transferred British troops to Greece. Seizing the opportunity of a weakened British force, Rommel struck quickly, despite orders to remain still for two months. With 50 tanks and two fresh Italian divisions, Rommel forced the British to begin a retreat into Egypt.
Operation Battleaxe, the counteroffensive by British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, resulted in little more than the loss of large numbers of British tanks to German 88mm anti-tank guns, as well as Wavell’s ultimately being transferred from North Africa to India.
Rommel, known for his trademark goggles, which he pilfered from a British general’s command vehicle, may have had some help in defeating his British counterpart. He was known to carry with him a book called Generals and Generalship, written by Archibald Wavell.
Rommel was portrayed by James Mason in the 1953 film The Desert Rats and by Christopher Plummer in 1967’s Night of the Generals. Wavell was portrayed by Patrick Magee in the 1981 TV movie Churchill and the Generals.