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This Day in History: 21st January 1942

In other languages: pl de fr es tr cs

In this series, we take a look back at the events taking place on this day of the year during World War II.


21st January 1942 – Rommel Strikes Back

Erwin Rommel was one of World War II’s most prominent and respected commanders.  His gift for command and leadership first emerged during World War I, and he received several awards including the Iron Cross, First Class, and the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military honour at the time.

It was in World War II that he became world famous, most notably for his command over German forces in France and in the North African campaign between 1941 and 1943. His exploits and successes earned him the nickname of Desert Fox from British journalists.

Much of the Afrika Korps’ fighting in 1941 centred on the strategically important desert port town of Tobruk in Libya. The siege lasted for 240 days, but towards the end it started to become apparent to Rommel that success was unlikely.

Sensing that victory in Tobruk was near, the Allied forces launched Operation Crusader in November 1941 to try and push the Germans from the area. Despite everything, Rommel’s forces fought back hard, inflicting huge losses on the British units.  However, it all ended on 7th December 1941 when, due to a shortage in resources and reinforcements from Italy, Rommel’s forces were forced to abandon the siege and pull back.

Rommel with the 15th Panzer Division in North Africa


No one in the British command believed that the Afrika Korps would be on the retreat for long, but they didn’t expect any attacks to come soon. Instead of fortifying defences, they continued to push forward towards Tripoli, dispersing their lines over a long distance. In addition, the Royal Air Force was sent off on the seemingly more urgent task of providing support to British forces in Malta.

However, Rommel had quietly got straight to work and rebuilt his strength quickly. His new position at El Agheila brought him closer to the Axis supply lines, and his force was equipped with new tanks from Germany.  Reinforced, resupplied and rearmed, the Axis struck back against the Allies on January 21st 1942 with overwhelming force, taking them completely by surprise.

It also surprised some in the Axis High Command as well – the Italians issued demands to Rommel to return, and refused to support the action. However, Rommel had never been afraid to refuse orders and continued the advance, managing to retake large swathes of territory, including the city of Benghazi, which was the location of a large British arsenal. Within two weeks, the Axis had pushed back to within 35 miles (56 km) of Tobruk. From there, they were able to pursue the British all the way to Egypt. It was to be the last truly decisive Axis victory in the North African campaign.

Rommel speaking to his troops


Remember the past and live for the future, Commanders!