Pipeline to Battle – a Memoir of World War II

When the Jasmine revolution of early 2011 erupted, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt returned to the headlines; probably the most active coverage since World War II with the Desert Rats and Rommel’s Afrika Korps.  Libya’s eastern province was known as the Western Desert in World War II since it protected Egypt’s western border.  Throughout the early years of the war, Benghazi and Tobruk were familiar names as they were occupied, then recaptured repeatedly; first by the Italians, then by the British, then seesawing between Rommel and the British. This book describes the logistics that made possible the eventual British victory.  Major Peter W. Rainier was a young officer responsible for keeping water and gas lines functional and laying new pipeline as the frontlines changed.  As prosaic as it sounds, it was vital to the British survival and eventual victory.

How a pipeline leak showed the weakness of the German Afrika Korps.

While checking one of his pipelines, the author found a problem.

“A closer examination of the place, however, revealed a small cavity tunneled in the soft ground under the line, and into the bottom of the pipe itself someone had driven a sharp instrument and made a hole, obviously in an attempt to draw water from. the pipeline which, on this low ground, would have been full. . …. It seemed that some brainless enemy infantryman had tried to fill his water bottle and left the water running when he had done so. The dolt! None but a green recruit would have done such a trick. Any veteran soldier would have plugged the hole after he and his mates had filled their water bottles. What a find for a front-line platoon of infantry in a thirsty desert war! The length of pipe which would drain by gravity into that hollow must have held not less than 20,000 gallons of water.

Any Eighth Army platoon would have plugged that hole carefully, replenished their water bottles whenever they were thirsty and kept the find secret till they were relieved. Then they would probably have sold the secret to the relieving platoon for as many cigarettes and comforts as the traffic would bear. It thus became obvious that not all of Rommel’s army was as war-wise as those superb Panzer divisions which had broken our armor at Knightsbridge.”

Guessing Rommel’s next move

Often what matters is not the firepower of opposing tanks, but how much gas they have left:

Rommel’s “ sole remaining course, then, is to attack and destroy the Eighth Army before he tries for the Delta. With the Eighth Army eliminated, the whole of Egypt is his. We believe, therefore, that his attack will begin about September 10th and that it will be directed at a point near the apex of our defense triangle. If Rommel should succeed in breaking into our staging area, it will be just too bad. It will be too bad for Rommel, so long as every­one remembers the recent order about fighting it out to the last. If Rommel’s Panzers break in, they will account for a lot of us, but they’ll be hunted down one by one. Petrol will be their weak point. Sooner or later, they’ll run out of petrol, one tank at a time, and be at our mercy. Therefore, if Rommel breaks in, we must concentrate on dodging his tanks-that doesn’t mean retreating before them-and attacking his ‘soft stuff,’ especially his petrol lorries. Also, when you see enemy tanks approaching, you must burn up your own supply of petrol to deny it to the enemy.        …. What we envision. happening is that the enemy will keep getting turned off our defense line and continually be working eastward, like a cow wandering round the fence of a cornfield looking for a gap”

By the time of the battles of el Alamein

Panzer Army Africa had less than 1/3 of original forces.  It had about 35 tanks still usable, and hardly any fuel or ammunition, with no air support.  The last stand and withdrawal of the PAA, in direct violation of Hitler’s orders to never retreat, was an amazing military action by Rommel in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. When Montgomery renewed the attack with fresh forces on 4 November 1942, the British had complete command of the air, and about 500 tanks against the 20 then left to Rommel.  Written so soon after events, the author doesn’t always get the numbers right, but he gives a vivid picture of the fog of war in which the British intelligence had failed to discover the true size of the force they faced in the desert.

“Aside from the effectiveness of our surprise, we numbered about 1,100 tanks to his 800. In guns we had a good advantage. The R.A.F. had all but driven the enemy from the air. In numbers of bayonets we had a superiority of five to four.

There was one thing against us. We were going to attack frontally an enemy of almost equal strength in a position which he had had three months to fortify. There was also an unknown factor-the ability of the opposing commanders. Despite Field-Marshal Rommel’s reputation, most of us felt that Rommel’s stature had been enhanced by the mediocre quality of our own leaders. Montgomery himself was supremely confident.

“What!” he once snorted, when some tactless member of his staff had been heard to express a doubt. “Defeat Rommel! Of course I’m going to defeat Rommel because I’m the better general. You’ll admit it after the Alamein battle. What I’m worrying about now is not the battle, but whether we will succeed in catching all the enemy before he can get back over the border.”  

As opposed to Rommel, Montgomery was inexperienced in the actual handling of battles although he was a deep student of the art of war. … Rommel was typical of the overbearing Prussian type which he aped. Montgomery was a Puritan who neither smoked, drank alcohol nor swore. Already before the date of the Alamein battle the personal rivalry of the opposing commanders was beginning.”

Unfortunately, (and even more unfortunately, not for the last time)

While the Panzer Army Africa was defeated, Rommel was able to withdraw to fight on in Tunisia, with British reinforced by the newly arrived American forces from their Morocco landings. I discovered Pipeline to Battle a few years ago, in its original 1943 pocketbook edition

Montgomery was not able to achieve his objective

While the Panzer Army Africa was defeated, Rommel was able to withdraw to fight on in Tunisia, with British reinforced by the newly arrived American forces from their Morocco landings.


I discovered Pipeline to Battle a few years ago, in its original 1943 pocketbook edition, along with yellowed paperback editions of the other books described below.  It’s one of a neglected / forgotten series of books written shortly after the war by mostly lower rank active participants giving a better overall understanding of World War II, mostly at the tactical level.

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