Sunday, December 12, 2010


A German PzKfpf II being unloaded in the port of Tripoli in 1941. The figure on the right is Rommel who photographed part of the arrival himself with his Lecia camera.

The war in North Africa was essentially an Italian campaign and was it not for the Italians being totally and utterly defeated by the British in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) it is almost certain that Germany would not have got involved in this theatre of the war. It must be said that the Italians were a constant source of annoyance to Hitler with their attacks on Greece and in Africa both ending in defeat and the Germans having to provide reinforcements to bolster their relatively weak army. Hitler agreed to send an expeditionary force in early 1941 under the command of Rommel, a most able and competent leader who had proved himself during the French Campaign leading the 7th (Ghost) Panzer Division.
The force sent to Africa, known as the "Deutsche Afrika Korps", was made up of several battle proven divisions which included the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions as well as the 334th Infantry Division and the 5th and 90th Light Divisions. The first elements arrived in Tripoli in Libya on 14th February and would continue to arrive for the next few weeks.

Some of the men of these divisions were seasoned veterans of the earlier campaigns but were about to enter a totally new kind of conflict-war in the desert which would bring bring many hardships and require many changes to battle tactics, equipment and personal habits. Some of the troops were volunteers and were actually asked if they wanted to go to Africa and there is a case of one DAK veteran volunteering for service in Africa along with 25 other men from his company. Later it would emerge that the rest of his company was wiped out at Stalingrad so in fact he had had a lucky escape!

Troops that were sent in the early stages of the campaign had to pass a medical which in reality was no different to the standard German Army medical but which went under the title of Medical Certificate of Fitness for Tropical Service and apart from the usual tests the candidate would be inoculated against cholera and typhus. Due to the urgency of the situation most who fit for duty anyway could pass this examination which was quite straightforward. After spring 1941 they were required to pass the Tropical Service Certificate medical although this was not always possible due to medical shortages.

Afrika korps troops recieving jabs to protect against tropical diseases which during the campaign in Africa took a heavy toll on manpower. (Colorized Picture by me)

Uniforms were then issued and unlike normal army uniforms, for some reason the tropical uniforms had to be a perfect fit, as did footwear. Tropical greatcoats were also issued to combat the severe drop in temperature at night during the winter months. Other changes were made such as the issue of canvas webbing which was more hard wearing than its leather counterpart (which was also used in the desert) as it was less susceptible to the heat. Larger water bottles were also issued as were tinted anti-glare goggles which were used by both army and Luftwaffe units.

A percentage of the men were given an acclimatization period which would get them used to the heat and also the sudden temperature change which occurred at night during the winter but this luxury was not available to troops as the the campaign progressed. It is interesting to note that the soldiers of the Afrika Korps were issued a pay increase or overseas allowance as it was known in the shape of 2RM a day for the rank and file and 3RM a day for officers.

Newly arrived Afrika Korps take a breather during a route march designed to acclimimatize them to the diverse weather conditions of the North African desert. Later recruits would not have such a luxury made available to them. (Colorized Picture by me)
Many other new changes had to be installed like the aforementioned issue of tropical uniforms and equipment which generally proved very popular apart form the pith helmet and the high leather and canvas lace-up boots. Vehicles had to be re-sprayed in tropical camouflage colours which was mainly dark yellow and the Afrika Korps palm tree and swastika were applied which would become synonymous with the North African campaign.

The type of vehicles used by the Germans in the desert were the same used in other theatres but unlike the Russians the British tanks were in general inferior to German machines. The German MK III and MK IV were used which outgunned the British Crusader, Valentine and Matilda tanks and the formidable 88mm anti-aircraft gun which was used for the first time in the desert could destroy British tanks from great distances. Other light tanks such as the Pz kpf I and II Panzers were also employed in the early stages and although outgunned were light and fast and proved useful reconnaissance vehicles. Sand and heat greatly affected the smooth running of a tank and track damage due to sand penetrating the couplings resulting in the links literally grinding themselves apart. Lubricants once contaminated with sand would be rendered useless and could sometimes cause serious running problems for guns and vehicles alike as sand would work itself into the smallest of openings.

Conditions for tank crews of both sides in the desert were uncomfortable to say the least with temperatures inside a tank reaching on some occasions over 100 degrees centigrade. It is no exaggeration when veterans say that "you could fry an egg on the surface of a tank" as metal surfaces on tanks and AFVs became extremely hot during the day. Flies too were also a constant menace not just for tank crews but for all troops as swarms of them would descend onto anything that moved and no amount of swatting seemed to deter them.

An array of armoured cars and half-tracks were used which were very important for reconnaissance and assaults where speed was vital (which was very often in the desert due to the lack of cover). These included the four wheeled Sdkfz 222 and 231 (eight wheeled armoured car) which could also be used as a radio control vehicle. Half tracks such as the Sdkfz 250 and 251 were widely used in Africa by the Germans and could perform a number of different tasks such as troop carrier, command vehicle (such as the one Rommel used) and reconnaissance vehicle. Heavier half tracks were employed to tow guns such as the 3.7cm and PAK 40 anti-tankguns and 18 ton prime movers such as the Sdkfz 7 were employed to tow larger artillery pieces such as the 88mm Anti-aircraft/tank gun and 150mm artillery pieces. When the Tiger I arrived in Africa in December 1942 these half tracks were sometimes employed in pairs as recovery vehicles as they were the only vehicles able to tow a disabled 56 ton Tiger. Motorcycles (both BMW and Zundapp) were also used to a great extent in either armed combinations  or conventionally with the motorcycle combinations usually armed with a single MG 34 and were used for reconnaissance as well as convoy escort. Due to the exposed nature of the motorcycle engine, sand would often disable a machine which could prove a major hazard.

As with all theatres of war the Germans as well as the Allies made great use of captured and abandoned vehicles and it was not unusual to see British tanks and armoured vehicles painted up with German markings and pressed into service. Ambulances and lorries were also commandeered and put to good use. With the arrival of the Americans in 1942 much of their equipment was captured and used by the Germans. The only disadvantage with this system was the acquisition of spare parts for enemy vehicles and this gave rise to the saying that "in the desert nothing was to be wasted".

Looking for spare parts in this destroyed Panzer III after the Cappuzo Fighting (Colorized Picture by me)
New tactics had to be devised and training programmes had to be developed to help troops adapt to the new terrain. Tank and vehicle movement in open spaces as was quickly found to attract enemy fighters and bombers due to the large dust clouds kicked up which could be seen for miles on clear days and large troop and vehicle movement was much safer at night than during the day.

The very important issue of rations had to be addressed as well and was not just a matter of transferring the European diet and applying it the the Tropical theatre. The hot climate would turn many foods inedible in a relatively short space of time and foods such as potatoes and bread were replaced with black bread in a carton and dried peas and beans. Rice was also issued but the main food was bread which was either German Kommisbrot or Italian Maisbrot with olive oil instead of butter which would go off rapidly in the heat of the desert but the olive oil proved very unpopular with German troops. The Italians were forced to provide foodstuffs for the Germans which included coffee beans, cooking oil, marmalade and tins of preserved meat which was also very unpopular with both German and Italian troops. The tins were stamped with the initials AM which stood for "Administrazione Militare" but the Germans always refereed to this as Alte Mann (Old Man) or as some Italians called it "Asinus Mussolini" (Mussolini's Arse) due to it's rancid taste but they  went one better calling it Arabio Morte (Dead Arab). Captured tins of British corned beef, white bread, jam, hard tack biscuits and tinned fruit were considered a luxury and was most a most welcome supplement to the bland tasting rations issued to the Afrika Korps. The British thought their rations were terrible and welcomed captured German foodstuffs as well! Fresh meat was sometimes procured in the shape of a goat or pig but this was a rare occurrence as livestock was relatively hard to come by and the preservation of fresh meat in the desert was difficult to say the least.

Perhaps the most important commodity in the desert was water. Vital for sustaining life and keeping vehicles moving it was important to preserve it as best as possible. The "Jerrycan" as it was nicknamed by the British could hold 4.5 gallons of either water, fuel or lubricants and was much preferred to the British petrol can which would often leak and much of its precious cargo of fuel or water would be lost, a very serious situation as being stranded in the desert miles from friendly or even hostile lines could prove fatal. Both sides marked their respective water cans with a white cross to denote it was carrying water and  this would mean that the particular can in question would never hold the wrong substance as water stored in a can that previously contained petrol would be undrinkable ( a lesson found out by the United Nations troops stationed in the congo during the 1960's).


The German troops sent to Africa were sent via Naples in Italy where they embarked by ship or aircraft to cross the Mediterranean and on to Tripoli in Libya. Protection was provided by the Luftwaffe or the Italian Navy with the Kriegsmarine providing smaller vessels to assist in the escort of merchant ships and also providing gun crews on some of the merchant ships. Despite the bad fighting reputation of the Italians almost 90% of the men and supplies made it safely in the docks at Tripoli which was the only available supply route up until 1942 when Tunisia became the main supply route for the Germans. Attacks by the Royal Airforce and Royal Navy and accidents in dockyards would later prove a decisive factor in the campaign in Africa with fuel, supplies and fresh water becoming increasingly scarce to the Germans. This coupled with the fact that the civilian Italian population in Libya received some of the supplies as the country was in effect an Italian colony, an act which infuriated Rommel.

Another thing that infuriated Rommel was the way in which the Italian Officers behaved in regards to their own personal comfort and the disregard they had for the ordinary soldier, getting the best pick of the rations and leaving what was left over for the ordinary troops. This attitude from the Italian officers can be put down to the class system which was still in place in the Italian Army when when most other European armies had removed this unfair system. This was probably the main factor for the reputation gained by the Italians for being weak militarily as many DAK veterans regarded the Italians as being reasonably good soldiers. As mentioned before this was an Italian campaign and at all times Rommel was under Italian authority but the Italian troops regarded Rommel as their leader for the way in which he respected the ordinary soldier and he was loved by both the Italian and German troops in Africa.

Medical problems also occurred in the desert due to the climate and the main cause of manpower loss apart from the very heavy engagements at in Libya in 1941-42 and the fighting in Tunisia in 1943 was sickness and at one stage in 1942 the number of German troops being repatriated to Europe exceeded the number of replacements. The main times when disease was rife was when the Germans were engaged in static warfare and disease had time to fester, this coupled with lice which it must be said was not as bad for the Germans as it was for the Italian soldiers who were mainly from the peasant class and had little knowledge of personal hygiene which was very important in the desert.

Another factor for the increase in the spread of lice was the use of captured British blankets, the occupation of Italian dugouts which were rife with lice and the lack of soap and proper washing facilities. The native Arabs were avoided at all costs as it was common knowledge that they were covered with lice and fleas. As well as lice other diseases which occurred included bowel diseases, jaundice, diphtheria, dysentery and skin sores. These diseases were spread at alarming-sometimes epidemic rates due to the severe shortage of medical supplies-which as mentioned before-had to be brought in by sea.

As the Royal Navy torpedoed more and more supply ships the situation became desperate and although the Italians did offer medical supplies to the Germans it could not meet the demand. Most of the seriously wounded were evacuated by ambulance or any other available means and treated at dressing stations and field hospitals behind the lines. About 100 German nurses belonging to the Red Cross served with the Afrika Korps during the campaign and some were killed and wounded in various circumstances. Most served with the Army Nursing Branch and were present in some field hospitals. Italian nurses were also found tending to the sick in some circumstances. The very sick were evacuated by air or sometimes hospital ships to Greece and from there the seriously wounded back to Germany, the nature of the wound determining whether the soldier would see active service again.

For the German troops who were killed in action their was the prospect (if circumstances permitted) of a decent burial. This would usually be in cases of static warfare. Other circumstances obliged the dead to be buried in shallow grave with a simple grave marker or in other cases it had to be left to the enemy.  Many Allied troops who entered territory previously held by the Germans were impressed by the ornate and well tendered cemeteries, with grave markers in the shape of the Iron Cross or swastika with the name birth and death date and sometimes a patriotic inscription. Of course on other fronts this was the case too but in the desert the problems of hygiene and the swarms of flies which would descend on a corpse forcing a quick burial to take place. The burial party would sometimes have to wear damp cloths over their faces and hands to mask the stench and also discouraged any looting as the smell would cling to everything on the body. Military chaplains were attached to the Afrika Korps and would come from many faiths including Catholic and Lutheran churches and would read a Gospel from the New Testament. The lords prayer would be said by all aloud and the traditional German Military funeral song "Ich hatt einen Kameraden" (I had a comrade) would be solemnly sung.

Many writers and eye witness accounts state that after every major engagement the battlefield would be littered with little pieces of paper caught up in bushes, around foxholes or blowing along with the wind across the desert. This was mainly down to opposing troops occupying the contested territory and looking for anything of practical value such as food, weapons or ammunition and in the course of their search everything would be disturbed. Paper documents were a source of intelligence and anything left behind by the enemy would be ransacked even corpses as they were a prime source for documents. Many photographs of dead troops (of both sides) show pockets unbuttoned and tunics and overcoats lifted up to gain access to inner pockets. What was considered worthless was simply thrown to the side and left.

An interesting point on servicemen killed in action is that in an order issued in May 1941 stated that sole surviving members of a family (i.e.. families that had all but one son not killed in action) would not be sent back to Germany but would be sent to reserve units in Africa.
Courtesy of Ciaran Byrne from ELITE FORCES OF THE THIRD REICH

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