On 8 November, 1941, the British cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope slipped out of Valetta Harbor in Malta with two destroyers and savaged an Italian fuel and ammunition convoy enroute to Rommel in Africa. Despite a heavy Italian escort of 2 cruisers and 7 destroyers, the British escaped unscathed: the use of radar and Ultra intelligence meant the Royal Navy was in position and firing before the Italians could react. All five freighters were sunk.
For Rommel, logistics was by far his biggest problem. 1 in 4 merchantmen sailing from Sicily or Naples to Libya sat at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Rommel did not seize Malta, the base from which the convoy attacks originated, because he used the supplies allocated for the invasion of Malta for his last offensive under the misguided impression that the British were about to withdrawal from Egypt. And after the disastrous, if successful, airborne landings on Crete, Hitler forbade any more such airborne operations, so he was more than willing to approve Rommel’s misuse of the invasion’s supplies, an invasion the Italians knew needed to happen. Moreover, any supplies that made the Mediterranean crossing had a 600 km drive from Libya to the front during which the trucks carrying much needed fuel for his panzers consumed 70% of what they carried just to get there. Along the way, the convoys were subject to RAF raids, Long Range Desert Group ambushes, and Australian, and increasingly Polish, fighting patrols from the porous siege of Tobruk. If he couldn’t seize Malta, then he needed to grab Tobruk.
Tobruk had been under siege since April 1941, and the Australian garrison, and their Polish and British replacements, had no inclination of giving up the vital Libyan port. Rommel couldn’t advance further into Egypt with the 20,000 man garrison behind him: his logistics lifeline, the coast road Via Bardia, ran near the town, and every truck that passed by was subject to Allied attack. Rommel devised a plan to seize the port with his Afrika Corps in mid November. He just needed to be sure the Allies wouldn’t attack him before it was captured.
On 25 September 1941, the Afrika Korps of Gen Erwin Rommel’s PanzerArmee Afrika launched reconnaissance in force around the British defenses toward Mersa Matruh, Egypt. Their objectives were threefold: 1. Identify Allied dispositions. 2. Destroy or capture British armor in assembly areas identified by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft and Italian spies. And 3. Capture as much fuel, equipment and provisions as possible for resource starved German and Italian troops at the far end of a 300 mile supply line across North Africa.
The division sized recce/raid encountered not a single Allied tank. They id’d defensive belts, but zero offensive capability. Rommel assumed the Allies were still not capable of launching an offensive, and decided to go ahead with his plan to seize Tobruk. The best units of his in Africa: the 15th Panzer Division, 90th Light Div, and the capable Italian Ariete and Trieste Armoured Divisions, were pulled from the front line in Egypt to prepare to assault Tobruk in mid-November.
Rommel was mistaken.