Times, London March 22 2011 12:01AM
The conflict in Libya today has remarkable parallels with the battles of 1941-42 – as the Colonel might appreciate
Muammar Gaddafi is a big fan of Erwin Rommel, the fabled wartime German commander of the Afrika Korps. The Libyan dictator, according to his French interpreter, is “a military history buff”, never happier than when curled up with the diaries of the German Field Marshal who earned the nickname the Desert Fox during the battle for North Africa in the Second World War.
If Gaddafi really is a student of Rommel — and, like most of the Colonel’s claims, it is probably a lie — then he will surely be aware that history is not on his side.
As both the British and German commanders discovered, fighting in the Libyan desert is a logistical nightmare, with success or failure dependent on supply lines of fuel, water and ammunition as much as military muscle.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi attempting to wrest Benghazi from the rebels ground to a halt outside the city at midday last Saturday because they had run out of fuel. Awaiting resupply, short of ammunition and exposed in open ground, they were easy targets for French jets. Rommel, who knew what it was like to get bogged down in the desert without enough petrol, might have sympathised.
The imposition of a no-fly zone, and the West’s strong disinclination to send in ground troops, mean that the opposing armies in Libya face a military situation remarkably similar to that in 1941-42.
Gaddafi certainly has the military hardware to besiege and take the rebel base, but with allied planes patrolling the main road between Benghazi and Tripoli, he cannot now bring up enough supplies and armour to do so. Whether the rebels could take Tripoli without huge reinforcements and protected supply lines is equally doubtful.
The most likely outcome is stalemate and a return to a Libya divided between east and west as it was in ancient times. History suggests that conquering Tripoli from Benghazi, and vice versa, is exceptionally difficult. There is simply too much empty space in between.
Libya’s geography, huge expanses of desert separating strategically crucial towns, dictates wars of mobility and fluidity, a see-sawing pattern of attack and retreat, interspersed with long periods of stasis.
Rommel and his Panzers tore across Libya in 1941, taking Benghazi in April and then pressing on at high speed, laying siege to Tobruk and driving the British back into Egypt. When it was pointed out that German vehicles were coming apart through wear and tear, he remarked loftily that “one cannot permit such great opportunities to slip by for the sake of trifles”.
There was, and is, nothing trifling about the extreme demands of desert warfare. Rommel’s supply lines were dangerously overstretched and he was forced to retreat towards Tripoli. Now it was the turn of the British to stagger in the sand. When the Germans counterattacked, the overextended British forces were forced back again.
The next year, Rommel again charged eastward, before discovering, as he wrote in his diary, that the impetus of the advance had faded away once more. The German supply lines grew so thin that the vanguard was forced to rely on supplies left behind by the retreating Allies.
A similar pattern has been seen in Libya over recent weeks. At first, the rebels had speed and momentum on their side, moving swiftly along the coast and even threatening Tripoli itself. But then came the counterattack and the rebels fell back as Gaddafi’s forces, in an odd reprise of Rommel’s blitz across Libya, took Ras Lanuf, Brega and Ajdabiya. By Saturday, however, Gaddafi’s loyalists had themselves overreached, as the advance on the rebel stronghold stalled at the critical moment outside Benghazi.
Rommel’s acute fuel-thirst also ensured Allied victory in 1942. Through Enigma decrypts, the Allies were able to intercept and sink tankers sent to supply the German Army. In October 1942, about 44 per cent of all Axis cargo and petrol was sunk before it reached Libya. The defeated Germans and Italians fled west along the coast road into Tunisia. Montgomery was the victor at El Alamein, but Rommel was also defeated by the logistics of fighting in Libya.
The ebb and flow of war in both 2011 and 1941 illustrates a key aspect of combat in such difficult terrain: the swifter a force advances, the thinner its supply lines grow and the more vulnerable it becomes; conversely, the retreating army grows stronger as it nears its supply base. In no theatre of war is this truer than the intractable landscape of Libya.
Colonel Gaddafi, the “military history buff”, will surely pull back under allied bombardment and consolidate in Tripoli. The rebels will dig in around Benghazi. Barring a popular uprising in Tripoli or an equally unlikely intervention by Western ground troops, Libya seems most likely to settle down into a tense, indefinite stalemate, with neither side militarily strong enough to oust the other.
There is a grim historical logic to the division of Libya between east and west. Since Roman times, coastal Libya has been divided between two distinct provinces, Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east. While Cyrenaica took its cultural cues from the Ancient Greeks, Tripolitania looked to the Phoenicians. Opposition to Gaddafi has always simmered in the east, where rebels now fly the flag of the former Cyrenaician monarchy, deposed by Gaddafi in 1969.
Italian colonists united the provinces to create a modern Libya 80 years ago, and today the intervention of outside forces is helping to reinforce traditional tribal fault lines. If Libya’s past is a guide, then the country may be heading for a protracted civil war, and perhaps, eventually, partition. This is not a land where outright military victory comes easily or swiftly.
Whatever the final outcome, Colonel Gaddafi must now realise that without control of Libyan airspace he cannot hope to reassert his dominance over the entire country. Rommel himself predicted that “the future battle on the ground will be preceded by battle in the air. This will determine which of the contestants has to suffer operational and tactical disadvantages and be forced throughout the battle into adopting compromise solutions.” As his forces pull back from Benghazi, Gaddafi has had to compromise.
To echo Winston Churchill’s words after El Alamein: This is not the end of Gaddafi. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd)
Director Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)
Read more: Libya's Desert Rebellion: The Lessons of World War II