Afrika Korps

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Deutsches Afrikakorps
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-784-0223-05, Nordafrika, deutsche Offiziere.2.jpg
Three German officers confer together atop a panzer in North Africa.
Active 12 February 1941 – 13 May 1943
Country Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Branch Wehrmacht Heer
Type Expeditionary force
Size corps
Garrison/HQ Tripoli, Italian Libya
Motto Ritterlich im Kriege, wachsam für den Frieden
("Chivalrous in War, Vigilant for Peace")
Colors Yellow, brown
Engagements

World War II

Commanders
Notable
commanders
Erwin Rommel
Ludwig Crüwell
Walther Nehring
Insignia
Identification
symbol
DAK.svg
Identification
symbol
Seal of the Deutsches Afrikakorps

The German Africa Corps (German: Deutsches Afrikakorps, DAK About this sound listen ), or just the Afrika Korps, was the German expeditionary force in Africa during the North African Campaign of World War II. The term "Afrika Korps" is derived from the original German name and is properly written as one word. Strictly speaking, the term refers to the original formation, the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK), which became incorporated into the Axis command of the German and Italian forces in North Africa. However, it was often used by the news media and Allied soldiers as a name for all German units in North Africa. The reputation of the Afrika Korps is tied with that of its first commander, Erwin Rommel.

Organization[edit]

Erwin Rommel in North Africa

The Afrika Korps formed upon Adolf Hitler's personal orders on 11 January 1941. Hitler picked Erwin Rommel to be their commander on 12 February 1941 (Rommel himself landed on African soil in Libya on 14 February 1941 to begin leading his forces that would be brought into action). The German Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) and Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH) had decided to send a "blocking force" (Sperrverband) to Libya to support the Italian army. The Italian army group had been routed by the British Commonwealth Western Desert Force in Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941). The German "blocking force", commanded by Rommel, at first consisted of only the 5./leichte "Afrika" Panzer Regiment, which was quickly cobbled together from the second regiment of the 3./Panzer Division and various other small units attached for water treatment and medical care. These elements were organized into the 5th Light Division when they arrived in Africa from 10 February – 12 March 1941. In late April and into May, the 5th Light Division was joined by transference of the various elements constituting the 15th Panzer Division from Italy, though it did not completely arrive until after Rommel had made a counter-offensive and re-taken most of Cyrenaica and then subsequently gone back over to the defensive. At this time, the Afrikakorps consisted of the two divisions plus various smaller supporting units, and was officially subordinated to the Italian chain of command in Africa (though Rommel had conducted his offensive without any authorization).

On 15 August 1941, the German 5./leichte "Afrika" Division was redesignated 21st Panzer Division (commonly written as 21./PD), still attached to the enlarged entity still known as the Afrikakorps.

During the summer of 1941, the OKW and OKH invested more command structure in Africa by creating a new headquarters called Panzer Group Africa (Panzergruppe Afrika). On 15 August, Panzer Group Africa was activated with Rommel in command, and command of the Afrikakorps was turned over to Ludwig Crüwell. The Panzer Group controlled the Afrikakorps plus some additional German units that were sent to Africa, as well as two corps of Italian units. (A German "group" was approximately the equivalent of an army in other militaries, and in fact, Panzer Group Africa was redesignated as Panzer Army Africa (Panzerarmee Afrika) on 30 January 1942.)

After the defeat at El Alamein and the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria Operation Torch, the OKW once more upgraded its presence in Africa by creating the XC Army Corps in Tunisia on 19 November 1942, and then creating a new 5th Panzer Army headquarters there as well on 8 December, under the command of Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.

On 23 February 1943, Panzer Army Africa—now called the German-Italian Panzer Army—was redesignated as the Italian 1st Army and put under the command of Italian general Giovanni Messe, while Rommel was placed in command of a new Army Group Africa (Heeresgruppe Afrika), created to control both the Italian 1st Army and the 5th Panzer Army. The remnants of the Afrikakorps and other surviving units of the 1st Italian Army retreated into Tunisia. Command of the Army Group was turned over to von Arnim in March. On 13 May, remnants of the Afrikakorps surrendered, along with all other remaining Axis forces in North Africa.

Composition and terminology[edit]

Panzer crew warms up a meal.
Flak unit pulling a 37 mm anti-tank gun comes to a halt.

The principle units of the Afrika Korps were the 15th Panzer Division and the 21st Panzer Division. In addition, Rommel concentrated the formation's artillery into an Artillery Group which he placed under the command of General Karl Böttcher. Separate from the Afrika Korps was the Afrika zbV (zur besonderen Verwendung, "special purpose") Division, which was created as an infantry division and slowly upgraded to a fully motorized division, and then redesignated as the 90th Light Afrika Division; the 164th Light Afrika Division, the 999 Light "Afrika" Division, also the 334th Infantry division; and the Luftwaffenjäger-Brigade 1 or Fallschirmjäger-Ramcke Brigade Ramcke Parachute Brigade (named after its commander Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke). When Rommel was promoted to the newly formed Panzerarmee Afrika, his command included a number of Italian units, including four infantry divisions. The two Italian armoured divisions, Ariete and Trieste initially remained under Italian control. They formed the Italian XX Motorized Corps under the command of General Gastone Gambara.[1]

German unit organizations were based on tables of organization, (Kriegsstärkenachweisungen, or KStN). Every unit in the German Army raised had one, and all orders raising units indicated the corresponding KStN number and date which applied to them. For instance, the 5./leichte "Afrika" or 5th Light "Africa" had an organizational structure that was missing specific elements to make it a complete Panzer "Division", as did its late April to May 1941 arriving "full complement" partner division in Africa, the 15./Panzer Division. The 5./le. "Africa" Division eventually became at least partially expanded into the 21./PD or 21st Panzer Division. It was given German unit elements that were already on the ground in North Africa and some replacement equipment to meet the prescribed full Panzer Division KStN constraints (except for the Motorcycle Battalion component, which was never complete) and then renamed in August 1941.

The Afrikakorps was restructured and renamed in August 1941. The name Afrikakorps was the official name of the force for less than six months, but the officers and men continued to use it throughout the duration of the conflict. The Afrikakorps was the major German component of Panzerarmee Afrika, which was later renamed the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee and finally renamed Heeresgruppe Afrika (Army Group Africa) during the 27 months of the Desert campaign.[citation needed]

A number of additional German units sent to Africa became components of Panzerarmee Afrika, but were not a part of the Deutsches Afrikakorps. The 10th Panzer Division which fought in Tunisia would be one such example. Another, such as the 164./le. "Africa" or 164th Light Afrika Division was at first only a partially motorized infantry division, and actually never had any tanks at all, only armored cars and reconnaissance vehicles. Various German divisions in Africa occasionally reorganized or re-equipped without a change of name, or conversely were redesignated with a new name without any substantial reorganization. None of the German units fielded for service in North Africa ever completely met the service KStNs directed for their completion, as was common for this period of the war. Equipment attrition due to battle losses, sinkings of equipment replacements in transit across the Mediterranean, and the tremendous wear on the vehicles all played a role in keeping formations under strength.

Light units[edit]

The designation "Light" (German: leicht) indicated the unit was lacking in heavy or armored formations, but did not refer to a standardized table of organization and equipment (TOE) for the various German divisions that bore that designation. For example, 5th Light Division had a single panzer regiment, when the standard panzer division complement was two, while 90th Light division was an infantry formation that was motorized, but never had a panzer regiment as part of its make-up.

Ramcke Brigade[edit]

The Luftwaffenjäger-Brigade 1, known more commonly as the Ramcke Parachute Brigade, was sent to Africa in July 1942 after Operation Hercules, the planned invasion of Malta, was called off. The unit reinforced the Afrika Korps in time for the Second Battle of El Alamein. Lacking transport, the brigade had to be abandoned by the German command when their defensive position crumbled. Ramcke lost some 450 men at El Alamein, but rather than surrender he led 600 of his paratroopers off into the desert on a march back to the Afrika Korps. Taking a British supply unit by surprise, they used the transport to travel some 200 miles on their own before catching up with the retreating Axis forces.

Mystique[edit]

Panzer II tanks cross the desert

The German forces in Africa developed a renown for their fighting qualities. Many of British whom they fought against were under the impression that it was an elite force, but the Africa Korps was made up of common German soldiers from the Wehrmacht. They had no special training prior to their arrival in Africa beyond what was usually expected. The initial successes they saw shortly after their arrival were due to the energy and opportunism of their commander coupled with a weakened British position, the result of the British moving forces away to Greece in hopes of ensnaring Germany in a long campaign there. In short time Rommel trained up his force to match his ideas in mobile warfare. By 1943, nearly all the German troops in Africa were battle-hardened veterans, and they proved it in their first encounter with the U.S. Army, inflicting a smashing defeat at Kasserine Pass (which also proved to be the last Axis victory in Africa).[2]

Desert fighting[edit]

Abandoned British Valentines are inspected for maps, code books, and tins of food.
Goggles and face covering are worn to protect against the many sand storms.

The Afrikakorps fought in North Africa, primarily in the rocky desert plain of Cyrenaica, modern day Libya. From the coast of North Africa extending inland lies a raised, flat plain of stoney hard desert that runs 200 to 300 km in depth until the great dunes of the Sahara are reached. The war was largely fought in this region.[3] Traversed by the nomadic Bedoins, the region is sparsely populated. The ground is a flat, hard scrabble with little or no cover, and difficult for infantry to dig into.

Conditions in the desert were harsh: miserably hot during the day, while temperatures dropped precipitously at night. The great coats of the German soldier were not discarded in Africa, nor were scarfs, which were used not only for the cold of the desert night, but for the sand storms that were frequent and blinding. Sand storms made flying impossible, and travel by land difficult. "The Ghibli" was the Bedouin name for the hot desert wind of Libya which produced the sandstorms. Navigation was by compass, and each man had one.[4] It was easy to become lost in the desert, and hard to be found again. The sand storms could last from a few hours to several days at a time.[5] Sand would creep into everything, and was very hard on equipment. Replacement parts were essential. Trucks were fitted with special oil filters. Aircraft had heavily modified air intakes fitted. British built trucks were more rugged and durable in the desert than German or Italian vehicles. At times, as much as 85% of the transport in the Afrika Corps was British built. Of course, this meant that spare parts for the trucks the Germans were using were hard to come by.[6]

To fight an armoured war in the desert, the two essential provisions were fuel and water. Neither of these were readily available. They had to be brought forward to the combat units, and husbanded carefully. Only the Bedoins knew where to dig in the desert for water.[7] Beyond these difficulties, the hardest thing for the men to deal with were the flies. The millions of flies got into everything, could not be escaped and got into the food stores, making eating difficult.[7] They also carried disease. Illness amongst the Afrika Korps was a major issue. On the British side, a variety of foods were supplied in tins. For the Germans, food was monotonous and available unevenly. Captured supplies of tins from the British was a prized variation to their diet. Between the disease, the unvaried diet and the strain of combat, soldiers in the Axis camp typically became quite thin.

The loss of the army in Tunisia was a great blow to Germany, and a personal loss to their previous commander, Erwin Rommel.[8] Following their surrender in Tunisia most Afrika Korps POWs were transported to the United States and held in camps at Camp Shelby in Mississippi for the remainder of the war.[9] These men wrote to Rommel, and kept him apprised of their condition.[10]

Resurrection of units[edit]

Certain divisions were resurrected in Europe after the cessation of fighting in Tunisia:

A Panzer II of the Afrika Korps. Note the faded insignia on the front, left of the handle and just below the turret.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

Citations
  1. ^ Lewin p. 54
  2. ^ Rommel p. 521
  3. ^ Von Luck p. 92
  4. ^ Von Luck p. 95
  5. ^ Von Luck p. 96
  6. ^ Lewin p. 149
  7. ^ a b Von Luck p. 97
  8. ^ Rommel p. 507
  9. ^ Beasley p. 262
  10. ^ Rommel p. 524
Bibliography

Further reading[edit]

  • Chamberlain, Peter (1971). Afrika Korps: German military operations in the Western Desert, 1941-42. Almark Pub. Co. Ltd. ISBN 0855240180. OCLC 165305. 
  • Major-General Alfred Toppe Desert warfare:German experiences in World War II, written with the assistance of nine German commanders who served in North Africa, the manuscript (translated by Mr. H. Heitman) represents a collaborative attempt to determine "as many factors as possible which exerted a determining influence on desert warfare."
  • Macksey, Kenneth (1968). Afrika Korps. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0356025446. 
  • Mitcham, Samuel W. (2007). Rommel's desert war: the life and death of the Afrika Korps. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0811734137. 

External links[edit]