Qaddafi's Tobruk

Commentary | March 11, 2011

With the hopes of a quick overthrow of the Qaddafi regime diminishing by the day and calls for international intervention mounting, a little-known anniversary is drawing near. Exactly 70 years ago, at the end of March 1941, the German Afrika Korps launched its first major offensive on British defenses around the town of El Agheila, which recently has been occupied by Libyan rebels. Within three weeks, the German and Italian forces had pushed the British army out of Libya and gained a foothold in Sollum, Egypt, threatening Alexandria. While today’s uprising in Libya is in no way comparable to the mechanized desert warfare of 1941 and 1942, it nevertheless holds some strategic lessons to be kept in mind by policymakers contemplating intervention in the conflict. 

First, Libya is the seventeenth-largest nation in the world. Its expanses and its desert leave military forces vulnerable and often draw them into overextending their advances; resupply, not terrain, limits military operations. Its coastline, 1770 km long, is the largest of any African country bordering the Mediterranean. The major Libyan highway runs in close proximity to this coast, affording sea access and baring exposure. One of the least forested countries in the world, it presents very few natural obstacles to military forces, a factor in the recurrent shifting of frontlines during the Libyan campaigns of the Second World War. News of rebel conquests and Qaddafi’s reconquests should therefore be treated with caution. The main questions will be: How long can any force hold ground and what are the source and delivery routes of supplies?

Second, Libya’s cities and oases are islands in a sea of sand and of pivotal importance as supply depots. When the Afrika Korps was advancing in April 1941 and a new frontline was established along the Libyan-Egyptian border, the city of Tobruk was left behind in the rear of the Axis advance. The town was besieged for 240 days until relieved by the British Counteroffensive Operation Crusader. It was again besieged the following year and fell during the battle of Gazala with 35,000 men of the British Empire taken prisoner. During the same battle, another siege of a small Free French garrison in defense of the remote oasis, Bir Hakeim, substantially slowed the Axis advance and cost the Germans and Italians dearly. The Axis powers could not replace their casualties for the crucial battle of El Alamein—the turning point of the war in North Africa. Today, rebels and troops loyal to Qaddafi are battling over control of various cities including the stronghold of Surt—“Qaddafi’s Tobruk.” Holding these towns dotted along the principal Libyan highway will be pivotal. Once the rebel army establishes clear leadership, a Rommel-like strategy, with a force surrounding Surt while a mobile column of troops heads to Tripoli, is not unimaginable. It all depends how quickly the rebels can organize and build momentum and whether Qaddafi has a Montgomery-like counterstrategy up his sleeve.

Third, the most important axis of operation, as during the Second World War, is the old colonial route Via Balbo, a highway running from east to west through all of Libya. Rebel and government forces are engaging along this route. Due to the exposing nature of the terrain, air power is critical in controlling this major artery. Erwin Rommel remarked about campaigning in Africa that, “Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success.” His adversary Berhard Montomery concurred: “If we lose the war in the air we lose the war and we lose it quickly.” During the North Africa campaign, whichever side had air superiority had the upper hand. The German position on the Libyan-Egyptian border became untenable in June 1941 because all the Luftwaffe squadrons but Fliegercorps X were transferred to the Russian front; this meant an end to close air support. When the Afrika Korps was pushed back to its defensive line around El Agheili—where rebels and Qaddafi loyalists are currently clashing—it was just in time for the German Luftwaffe to re-establish its air superiority. Hitler had ordered Fliegercorps VII to Sicily which provided the direct air-ground support needed to push back the British forces once again all the way to the Egyptian border. For the rebels, air superiority will be the key in massing enough ground forces to take the capital of Tripoli. For Qaddafi, it is the most lethal asset at his disposal to retain power.

The Libyan campaign of the Axis and Allies during the Second World War, with its rapid advances, retreats, sieges, overextended supply lines, and mobile maneuvers, illustrates the peculiar nature of warfare in Libya. Should the forces loyal to Qaddafi not disband themselves, a prolonged struggle featuring some aspects of the North African campaigns could ensue. The end of Qaddafi, however, is not likely to come as quickly as the end of the Panzer Armee Afrika in 1943. As Bernard Montgomery stated, “The defeat of the enemy in the Battle of El Alamein, the pursuit of his beaten army and the final capture of Tripoli . . . has all been accomplished in three months. This is probably without parallel in history.” A beaten dictator on holding on to his power, however, is a sight not uncommon in modern times.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a foreign policy analyst at the EastWest Institute.

Click here to read Gady's piece in The National Interest