Sunday, December 12, 2010


The Rigorous Demands of Life
and What the Troops Endured
(From the lost website"Sands of Death and Value")

We have all read of the glorious actions that took place during the fighting in the Western Desert, but seldom do people reflect on the natural foe confronting the troops on both sides dug into the unforgiving desert soil. Fine sand irritation in your eyes daily, a constantly dry throat, and the scorching sun are foregone conclusions, but many other factors became just as annoying. Lack of water for bathing and washing, and the endless plague of flies which followed the troops everywhere.


Life in the the hastily dug slit trenches and dugouts built into a limestome base desert was bad enough, and the heat during the day was unforgiving. However, the swarms of flies that assaulted the troops every morning are remembered by anyone who fought in that campaign. In search of any form of moisture, these flies were attracted to the eyes, mouth and nostrils, swarming over both the men and their food. Sleep during the day was made impossible since the flies continually tried to crawl into the nostrils, and the head nets that were available were always in short supply. Eating became a contest of trying to see if you could get the food into your mouth without eating too many flies along with it. When darkness came and the temperature dropped, the flies would let up a bit, but come morning they were always back again by the thousands.


Because of constant enemy observation during the day, and the coolness of the evening, most nights were spent laying mines, digging slit trenches, resupplying outposts, or going on patrol. Since the temperature could record a 60 degree drop in a matter of hours, this was the time when most strenuous activity took place, such as unloading trucks and digging emplacements. Between little sleep during the day because of heat and flies, and rigorous work during most of the night, the troops were certainly stressed to the limit.

Frying eggs on a Pz.Kpfw. II. (Part of a Propaganda Movie)

The key word here is "extremes". The desert could be as cold as it was hot, and it was a toss up whether uncomfortable cold at night was worse than the extreme heat of the day. Records were set in both directions. If you check the photos of the DAK, where there are low angle shadows, depicting early morning, you will see that the men and officers are still all dressed very warmly. Greatcoats and tunics, with the collars turned up, and even warm sweaters in a some cases. Gloves, mittens and scarfs were also issued in North Africa, so that speaks for itself.

Most of us have seen publicity shots of Afrika Korps tankers frying eggs on the bare hull of their tanks at high noon. However, no one seems to reflect on the fact that those same crews might have to jump into that sweltering hot vehicle for a quick advance or defense. There is no way to ascertain how well the crews could function inside a steel cooker like that, but obviously they were forced to do so on occasions and learned to adapt. Most battles were planned for early morning because of the heat factor, which also affected the mechanical reliability of the vehicles, such as overheating. 

Finally, the season of the year would naturally affect the degree of discomfort, but at the extreme, temperatures could rise to 120 degrees F.


Always a soldier's nightmare, the sand dust in the desert was a fine as talcum powder and continuously irritated the eyes and fouled precision weapons. Gun breeches, turret rings, optical equipment, and anything else that required a smooth unclogged action were constantly under threat. Oil or grease would simply add to the mix and often complete turrets had to be removed in order to clean the turret ring and get it working properly again. High winds would drive the sand and grit through every small opening in a vehicle, and often buried supplies and equipment. Visibility could be reduced to a few yards, and these were the times when the enemy would take advantage of this cover to make random attacks. Sun and dust goggles were issued to all members of motorized units in North Africa.


The area where the main desert fighting took place was well inland, and was frequented only by a few Bedouin nomads. However, poisonous vipers and scorpions often lived where the troops had to dig in as well. The prepared protective rock piles, were always ideal spots for these creatures to seek out.


German troops in Europe were used to white bread and potatoes, things that were impossible to preserve in the desert due to climatic conditions. The troops were therefore forced to alter their diets dramatically, and become used to some foods totally foreign to them. Potatoes were replaced by legumes and their normal bread was replaced by Zweiback. Butter supplements became olive oil and tinned sardines. Most of the Italian issue food items were detested by the Afrikakorps troops, especially the tinned meat, but reluctantly swallowed.

Jaundice was rampant in the early days. The black bread was far too heavy, and the total lack of fresh fruits and vegetables played havoc with the health of the troops. However, by April 1941 "Bakery Company 531" was in place and supplied fresh bread for the troops. An interesting point here is that the stoves for the bakery unit were fired by wood, and that wood had to be "shipped in" from Italy.


The most awesome act of nature encountered in the desert were the violent sandstorms locally known as "Ghibli's", which could occur anytime with little warning. Troops were suddenly engulfed with tons of flying sand and dust of tremenous force. All visibilty was lost and often the wind was so strong that it was impossible for light wheeled vehicles to continue. Winds of 90mph could even overturn trucks, and bring a total halt to offensive actions. Breathing was a distinct problem, since the face had to be covered with with kerchiefs of any sort available, and the accompanying heat was unbearable. 

These great wind storms could raise temperatures by 35 degrees in a matter of hours, and the electrical disturbances that accompanied them often made compasses erratic and radio contact impossible. The worst were most frequent in the spring months, but minor versions could errupt anytime.


These anomolies were more common than one would expect. The desert had many wadis and old run-off stream beds, which during heavy rains could turn into torrents in a matter of minutes, trapping and overturning light vehicles and swamping armor. Troops were well advised not to sleep too soundly in these depressions.

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