Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The Germans knew that oil would be crucial to the war and that they would likely need to capture new sources for the war effort.

The main oil-producing regions at the time that might be captured were the Caucasus region of southern Russia and the Middle East.

The Germans committed hundreds of divisions in their attempts to take the Russian oil but mere fractions of this to the African front, which was less well defended.

Why is this, and why were the following not considered to help:

  1. Hitler had helped Franco in the Spanish Civil War, why not get the Spanish to capture Gibraltar thus tipping the balance of power in the Mediterranean decisively towards the Axis?

  2. Were any political attempts made to get Turkey to join the war on the Axis side, thus allowing a second front to be opened in the Middle East and Russia?

  3. Could the DAK have been activated sooner and with greater resources including more Luftwaffe support?

By staging a more aggressive campaign sooner, could the Germans have won in North Africa thus gaining sufficient oil in order to not have to worry about it when Barbarossa was launched?

share|improve this question
Franco was very unwilling to get actively involved in war on Hitler's side. –  quant_dev Apr 30 '12 at 14:33

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

In Hitler's mind, defeating the Soviet Union was the most important thing. In Mein Kampf his concept for Lebensraum encompassed much of European Russia. In spite of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact he was quoted as saying in 1939...

"Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians. If the West is too stupid and blind to grasp this, then I shall be compelled to come to an agreement with the Russians, beat the West and then after their defeat turn against the Soviet Union with all my forces. I need the Ukraine so that they can't starve us out, as happened in the last war." (from Andrew Nagorski The Greatest Battle)

He had little interest in pursuing total victory in North Africa beyond securing his Southern flank against attack.

The winning strategy may well have been to have secured the Middle Eastern oil fields by invading through Turkey and into Vichy French Lebanon and Syria and into Iraq and Iran, then push up from the south into the USSR and perhaps further east into British India. Some sources indicate that he was presented with some plans for this. However, Hitler, in an odd twist for him, decided that it wouldn't be right to invade Turkey without a cause.

share|improve this answer

Hitler's main concerns in North Africa were to keep his Italian allies from completely collapsing, to keep the British busy, and to protect the underside of eastern Europe. None of these concerns were really much to set against the life-or-death struggle being carried out with Soviet forces in Russia.

But even if he wanted to commit more resources, it would have been nearly impossible to do so. Since neither party had a land border w/ N. Africa, all supplies either had to be shipped or flown in (shipped in only, in the case of heavy tanks). The Axis controlled much of the north shore of the sea (with the critical exception of Gibraltar), but the UK effectively controlled the open Medeteranian itself via their Navy, giving Rommel continual supply issues. The logistics of that theater were nearly all in favor of the UK. So I suspect Rommel's forces were about as strong as the Axis could reasonably hope to keep supplied (and even then there were issues).

share|improve this answer
I have heard opinions that Rommel, for all his affinity for desert warfare, was a poor choice for the command of the Axis forces: he was far too aggressive when what was required was a harrassing, defensive operation that didn't stretch the supply lines so much. –  Paul Hutton Jun 20 '12 at 22:46
An interesting theory. I'd need a lot of backup before I'd give that kind of monday-morning quarterbacking serious credence though. The kind of back-and-forth supply issues he encountered in actual operations are considered by many a fairly standard feature of desert warfare. Not only did his British adversaries suffer the same problems, but so did Khadaffi and the Free Syrian forces last year. –  T.E.D. Jun 21 '12 at 0:05
Yes, precisely. Instead of aggressively trying to advance their position along the coast, putting the army in a vulnerable position supply wise, he would have been better off husbanding his forces more carefully closer to his supply source, and making quick, vicious counter attacks against anyone getting too close (and far from their supply source) followed by withdrawal and re-supply. He could have done a lot of damage for little cost, instead of his wasteful campaigns chasing the mirage of Alexandria. –  Paul Hutton Jun 22 '12 at 1:58

In a word, logistics.

Tripoli was the main Axis supply port for forces operating in North Africa. With a capacity of 1,500 tons per day, Tripoli was capable, according to Van Creveld, of handling "under ideal conditions . . . five cargo ships or four troop transports simultaneously." The other significant ports in the area of operations, Benghazi and Tobruk, had nominal throughput rates of 2,700 and 1,500 tons per day, but administrative difficulties and attacks by the Royal Air Force (RAF) limited their actual capacity to 750 and 600 tons per day, respectively.

Once disembarked, supplies had to be moved vast distances over an extremely limited road and rail network to reach the forward depots. Van Creveld notes that "the enormous distances . . . were all out of proportion to anything the Wehrmacht [the German Army] had been asked to deal with in Europe. From Brest-Litovsk, on the German-Soviet demarcation line in Poland, to Moscow it was only some 600 miles. This was approximately equal to the distance from Tripoli to Benghazi, but only half that from Tripoli to Alexandria [Egypt]."

Compounding the problem was the lack of adequate roads. There was only one "main supply route," the Via Balbia, which stretched endlessly along the coast, often was interrupted by floods, and was laughably susceptible to both air and ground interdiction. Apart from this, there were only desert tracks, the use of which greatly increased wear and tear on vehicles.

As it was, the Axis forces in North Africa were probably larger and more aggressive than they should have been under these constraints. Sustaining the kind of effort needed to actually take Alexandria and the Suez was utterly, completely, and irredeemably beyond the logistical capacity of the Axis.

share|improve this answer

Hitler wanted to expand the living space of the German people, that is, Germany proper. He was much less interested in conquering colonies or overseas territories. He thus explains in his "Main Kampf" why he thinks that the Liebensraum should be conquered in Europe.

Thus the war against the USSR was not a war for oil. By concentrating on the Soviet south he not only wanted to take oil for his army but also deprive the Soviets of their oil.

share|improve this answer

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, "We put an end to the perpetual Germanic march towards the south and west of Europe and turn our eyes towards the lands of the East."

The idea of occupying North Africa, perhaps cutting the Suez Canal, and thereby weakening the British Empire originated with the Italians. Hitler really didn't want to use this route. He reluctantly reinforced the Italians with Rommel's Afrika Korps to prevent their (and his) embarrassment after they bungled the job. But his main pre-occupation, was with the Soviet Union, where he felt that Germany could obtain the land and resources need to become a world power.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.