German Experience in World War II
General Major Alfred Toppe
Translated and edited by:
Capt. N. E. Devereux
HISTORICAL DIVISION EUROPEAN COMMAND
Introduction to Reprinted Edition
From 1941 to 1943 much of the world's attention was focused on the desert
coast of North Africa. Despite the fact that millions of men were locked in
combat throughout the world, the reports describing this one corner of the
largest multinational conflict the world had yet witnessed seemed to have a
particular fascination. In terms of the numbers of personnel engaged the
actions were tiny in comparison with ordinary battles then being waged on the
Russo-German front. In terms of spacial scope the campaigns were relatively
limited. By most any standard index, in fact, the North African Campaign was
easily eclipsed by most others in World War II. Yet the peculiar interest which
held the public attention as the tiny combat units raced back and forth across
the barren landscape has only grown in the following years despite the many
larger battles that followed.
Undoubtedly one element of the fascination grew out of the personalities and
exploits of the commanders and men who fought each other for two grim years.
The German "Africa Corps" and the British "Desert Rats"
inspired many a heroic tale more romantic in the telling than in the brutal
reality of actual combat. The Italians, French, Australians, Indians,
Americans, and others all contributed to the struggle as well. Of the many
commanders one in particular seemed almost a legend in his own time. The German
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel captured the imagination even of his adversaries.
However, it may be that the nature of the conflict itself and the
characteristics which made this campaign unique are the real factors underlying
its special place in memory. That nature was the consequence of the environment
in which the battles were fought - the desert. The desert imposed its
"will" on men and machines and predetermined the characteristics of
the campaigns. As the authors of this study indicated, it was only in the
desert during World War II that the full potentialities of "modern
war" could find their outlet. On the one hand the desert exerted its
inexorable pressure on the men, making their daily living a struggle for
survival. On the other hand the desert gave unparalleled scope for the widest
application of the machinery of modern war, especially the airplane and armored
At the conclusion of World War II all the world's armies sought to learn as
much from the recent experience as possible. The American Army not only took
note of its own operations, but also attempted to benefit from those of the
German Army. A special program was developed to capture the knowledge and
experience of the German officers through preparation of reports on a wide
range of topics. Some reports were written by knowledgeable individuals and
others were the product of groups of experts. On the subject of desert warfare
undoubtedly unique insights might have been contributed by the "Desert
Fox" himself, but Field Marshal Rommel was killed before the end of the
war. He had conducted the North African Campaign with an eye to history,
finding time throughout personally to take hundreds of photographs that were to
illustrate the book he was composing in his mind. These and much of his written
notes survived and were available to his former staff officers. The list of
contributors indicates the breadth of first-hand experience on which this
report is based.
As this reprint of the classic study, Desert Warfare, is being prepared
fifty years after the events it examines, the world is watching in even more
focused fascination the unfolding of another, far more gigantic, desert war.
This war in the sands of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq is being waged by
military forces whose physical magnitude and power could hardly have been
imagined by those warriors in North Africa. Yet the phenomenal weapons being
wielded by American, British, and other troops now are the direct lineal
descendants of those that served their grandfathers at El Alamein and
Kasserine. Again, the desert has imposed itself, forcing men and women, with
all their "high technology" to respond to its mandates. And as this
study of German experience in desert warfare so clearly shows, we know that
ultimately it will be the courage, resourcefulness, training, and heroic
willpower of the troops that will predicate the outcome. This report was
reprinted in 1990 by Xenophon. We are now, in 1999, adding it to our web site
in hopes it will be of use to students of World War Two and desert warfare. The
page numbers refer to the reprint edition. The maps are not yet included on
Alfred Toppe joined the German Army in 1923, entering the 14th Cavalry
Regiment at Ludwigslust. After training in both Infantry and Cavalry Officer
Candidate Schools from 1924-26, he received his commission as second lieutenant
in December of the latter year and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Regiment,
being promoted to first lieutenant in 1929. In 1934 he was detached for a
two-year term at the Berlin War Academy, where he was promoted captain
(Cavalry) in 1935. From 1936-39 he served as Quartermaster Training Officer of
the XI Infantry Corps and then, after participating in General Staff training
courses in 1940, was promoted major and assigned to the Paris headquarters of
the Quartermaster General for France as First Assistant to the Chief Supply
Officer. In 1942 he was promoted lieutenant colonel and assigned as Chief, Army
Supply Department, Army High Command, where he was promoted colonel in 1943.
Following service as Chief of Staff, X Infantry Corps in Northern Russia from
early 1944, he was transferred back to Army High Command as Army Quartermaster
General in June of the same year, in which we remained until the war ended, and
where he was promoted Generalmajor in October 1944.
Table of Contents
Introduction to Reprinted Edition i
The Author ii
Critique of the Study "German Experiences in Desert Warfare in World War
II", MS # P-129 by Generalmajor Alfred Toppe vi
List of Contributors viii
General Map of North Africa ix
1. Intelligence Planning 1
a. Desert Terrain and Climate 1
b. Scope of Evaluation 2
c. Influence of Intelligence on Planning. 2
d. Availability and Evaluation of Terrain Intelligence. 2
e. Use of Historical Data for Planning Purposes. 3
2. Operational Planning 3
a. General. 3
b. Changes in Troop Organization and Equipment. 5
c. Special Training. 7
d. Acclimatization of the Troops. 7
e. Development of Special Equipment. 8
3. Logistical Planning 8
a. February to May 1941 9
b. June to December 1941 9
c. January to June 1942 9
d. July 1942 to May 1943 9
4. General Description of the Zone of Operations 11
a. Mountain ranges. 12
b. Steep terraces. 12
5. Order of Battle of Army and Luftwaffe Units 15
a. Armored divisions: 16
b. Light division: 16
c. Parachute Instruction Brigade: 16
Air forces: 16
6. Reasons for Changes in Organization and Equipment 18
7. Description of the More Important Battles 19
a. 31 March to 19 April 1941: 19
b. May-June 1941: 20
c. July to mid-November 1941. 21
d. Mid-November 1941 to mid-January 1942. 23
e. Mid-January to the end of May 1942: 25
f. Late May - July 1942: 27
g. August - early November 1942: 29
h. November 1942 - January 1943: 31
i. November 1942 to March 1943: 32
k. April - May 1943: 34
Campaign Maps 36
8. Dust 39
a. Effect of Troops, Weapons and Equipment 39
b. Effect on Combat Operations 40
c. Effect on Tactical Measures 40
d. Effect on Aircraft and Their Crews. 41
9. Terrain 42
a. Influence on Tactical Measures 42
b. Influence on the Construction of Field Fortifications and the Use of Weapons
c. The Tactical Importance of the Recognition of Vehicles Tracks by Air
d. The Use of Vehicle Tracks for Deception of the Enemy 46
e. The Use of Wheeled and Track Vehicles 46
f. Influence of Desert Terrain on the Development of New Tactical Principles
for the Use of Motorized Units 46
g. Influence of Rainfall on Mobility in Desert Terrain 48
10. Water 49
a. General 49
b. Requirements for Troops and Vehicles, Economy Measures, etc. 49
c. Water and Motor Fuel Requirements 49
d. Tactical Importance of the Presence of Water Sources 49
f. Well Drilling Equipment 50
g. Method of Distribution 50
h. Pipelines 51
11. Heat 51
a. General 51
b. Effect on Unaccustomed Troops 51
c. Effect on Tank Crews 51
d. Measures Taken to Avoid the Noonday Heat 51
e. Special Equipment for Protection Against Temperature Variations. 52
f. Types of Shelter 52
g. Comparison Between the Efficiency of Troops in the Tropics and in Temperate
h. Effect on Materiel and Equipment 52
i. Effect on Visibility 52
j. Effect on Airplanes in Taking Off and Landing 53
12. Cartographic Service 54
a. General 54
b. Reliability and Methods of Use 54
13. Camouflage 55
14. Evaluation of the Enemy Situation Through Aerial Photographs 55
15. Visibility at Night 56
16. Choice of Camp Sites 56
17. Selection of Battle Sites 56
18. Time of Day Selected for Combat 56
19. Influence of the Desert Climate on Daily Service Routine 56
20. Special Problems of the Technical Services 57
21. Influence of Light, Shade, and Sandstorms on Combat 57
22. Influence of Darkness on Radio Communications 57
23. Wind 58
24. Special Equipment and Procedures for Aircraft Crews 58
25. Dry Dock and Port Installations 59
26. Reinforcement of Sand Surfaces for Landings by Amphibious Craft
27. Changes in Ship Loading and Unloading Procedures 60
28. Materiel Loss and Replacement Estimates for Desert Warfare 60
29. Modifications in Supply Dump Procedures - especially for POL 60
30. Diseases and Insect in the Desert 60
31. Desert Weather Service 61
CHAPTER V General Remarks and Experiences 62
32. Special Equipment for Desert Warfare 62
33. Research and Development Possibilities for Special Desert Equipment
34. Unusual Supply Problems 63
a. Nutrition 64
b. Clothing 64
35. Comparisons with Desert Warfare in Southern Russia 65
36. Troop Welfare in the Desert 65
Critique of the Study "German Experiences in Desert
Warfare in World War II", MS # P-129 by Generalmajor Alfred Toppe
Generaloberst Franz Halder
In spite of the time limit imposed upon him the topic Leader, with the
collaboration of the leading German experts in the African Campaign, has
succeeded in answering the assigned questions. The esprit de corps and the
justified pride of the African veterans were a decided factor that helped to
make the contributions so good and comprehensive, that they could to a large
extend be fitted into the attached study. This in no way detracts from the
services of the topic leader. It was his initiative and organizational ability
that resulted in this excellent study, despite the time restriction.
The German experiences in African desert warfare are made unique by the fact
that the command and the troops were faced with a mission in no way either
planned or prepared, and they entered it completely without prior prejudices.
The experience gained, therefore, is free from outside theories and opinions,
and was only achieved by struggling with an entirely new military situation; it
thus has the value of originality. The value is, however, diminished by the
fact that the experiences are in part negative and could not be developed
further in a positive direction due to the lack of time and limited means at
The particular conditions in Africa under which they were gained will have to
be kept in mind in any evaluation. The impossibility of securing a supply line
across a body of water dominated by the enemy, the numerical and material
inadequacy of the German and even more their allies and the increasing lack of
Luftwaffe fighting and transport units - these are all negative aspects of the
campaign. On the positive side belongs the tempo and performance of field
forces, under the able leadership of Rommel, forces which were without doubt
far above the average in initiative, spontaneity, and soldierly zeal.
Two and a half months was the total time allotted for the preparation of
Prerequisite was that such German officers be induced to contribute who had had
as broad as possible a view in the conduct of over-all operations, who
possessed practical combat experience and, furthermore, had exact knowledge of
as many factors as possible which exerted a determining influence on desert
warfare. In addition to the contributors listed below a number of former
members of the German Africa Corps also made contributions.
The organization of the study was based on the individual questions assigned.
German manuals were not used. The presentation can therefore be evaluated on
the basis of actual experience.
A number of questions could not be answered exhaustively. The reason for this
lies in the fact that no experience had been gathered in such areas or else
operations took place in areas in which the typical attributes of a real desert
were not present. The request attached to the major question "Special
Equipment and Procedures for Aircraft Crews" that accounts by
"individuals or groups" be added could not be fulfilled, because no
authorities on this subject could be contacted in the short time available.
In describing the most important battles the procedure has been as follows: a
broad survey has been included in Chapter II, Section 7, and then three battles
have been treated in detail in Annexes 8 to 10.
The official documents contained in Field Marshal Rommel's notes have been
utilized as a valuable source of information. In addition other map and
photographic material of great value was also available, which can be found in
Annexes 1 to 4. The material in Annexes 1, 2, and 4 can be considered unique.
List of Contributors
- Bayerlein, Fritz, Generalleutnant, Chief of Staff of the German
Africa Corps, 1941-42.
- Deichmann, Paul, General der Flieger, Chief of Staff of the
Second Air force.
- Hudel, Helmut, Major, Commander 1st Battalion, 7th Armored
Regiment in Tunisia.
- Kesselring, Albert, Generalfeldmarschall, Commander in Chief,
- Kienow, Dr. Sigismund, Gerierungsbaurat (official title in the
construction engineering profession), military geologist with the German Africa
- Mueller, Gerhard, Generalmajor, Commander 5th Panzer Regiment,
- Westpahl, Siegfried, General der Kavallerie.
In North Africa 1941-1943 as
Operations Officer of Panzer Group, later Panzer Army Africa,
Chief of Staff of the German-Italian Panzer Army in Africa,
Commander, 164th Light Africa Division,
Chief of the Operations Branch of the German Commander in Chief South attached
to the commando Supremo
Chief of Staff of Commander in Chief South,
8. Wagner, Dr. Wilhelm, medical officer with the 21st Panzer Division
9. Zeissler, Hubert, Major, Commander of an artillery regiment, 1941-1943.
General Map of North Africa
Return to top
1. Intelligence Planning
a. Desert Terrain and Climate.
When the first German units were shipped to Africa in February 1941, the
officers responsible for the operational planning had no data of any kind on
the nature of the terrain and circumstances in the desert. The intelligence
data furnished by the Italians was extremely meager and the Italian maps were
so inaccurate and so incomplete that they were used only for lack of something
better. For this reason the German command had to obtain all necessary
information itself through reconnaissance. In the papers found in his estate,
Field Marshall Rommel wrote:
"It has probably never happened before in modern warfare that an operation
of this type was undertaken with so little preparation. On 11 February, I
reported to General Garibaldi, the commander in chief of the Italian forces and
informed him of my mission. Initially, he showed no enthusiasm for my plan to
organize defense positions in the region of the Bay of Sirte as a first
measure. Using the poor and inaccurate Italian map material, I then proceeded
to explain to General Garibaldi my ideas as to approximately how the war in
Tripolitania should be conducted. Garibaldi, who was unable to give me any
precise information about the terrain that would be involved, advised me to
reconnoiter the terrain between Tripoli and the Bay of Sirte personally, and
said that I could not possible have any idea of the enormous difficulties this
theater of war presented. Around midday I took off aboard a Type He 111 plane
to reconnoiter the combat area. We saw the field-type fortifications and the
deep antitank ditch east of Tripoli and then flew over a wide belt of dunes
which presented a good natural barrier before the fortifications of Tripoli and
would prove difficult to cross with wheeled or track vehicles. Then we flew
across the mountainous country between Taruna and Homs, which appeared hardly
suitable for operations by armored units in contract to the patches of level
terrain between Homs and Misurate.
Like a black band the Via Balbia road could be seen extending through the
desolate country, in which no tree or shrub was visible as far as the eye could
reach. We passed over Buerat, a small desert fort on the coast with barracks
and a landing stage, and finally circled above the white houses of Sirte.
Southeast and south of this locality we saw Italian troops in their positions.
With the exception of the salty swamps between Busrat and Sirte, which extended
only a few kilometers southward, we found no features in any sector that would
favor a defense, such as, for instance, a deep valley. This reconnaissance
flight supported me in my plan to fortify Sirte and the terrain on either side
of the coastal road and to concentrate the mobile units for mobile operations
within the area of the defense sector in order to counterattack as soon as the
enemy started an enveloping attack.
From the above it will be seen that Rommel himself had to gather the
information on the terrain and on the peculiarities of the desert, which he
required for the conduct of operations.
It was only at a later stage that the so-called "military-geographical
description" was made available, which gave a general survey of the
terrain but was based mainly on information gleaned from literary works, and
contained none of the detailed information required by the troops, so that it
was of only small military value.
The military geological unit attached to the German Africa corps commenced a
systematic assembly of data and methodical reconnoitering immediately after
arrival. The English maps captured by the German troops proved an excellent
help. The results of the methodical reconnaissance were consolidated in what
might be called a "traversability map" and in reports and made
available to the command. Maps K 1 - 10 in Appendix 1 are specimens of the maps
referred to. They contained the following details:
- Terrain that could be traversed by any type of vehicle in all
parts and in all directions;
- Terrain outside the Pistes (tracks) which was moderately or
poorly suited for vehicular traffic;
- Terrain with many steep cliffs;
- Salty swamps and depressions which were impassable after rain;
- Sand dunes, which were difficult for vehicular traffic;
- Information on plant growth;
- Broken terrain;
- Impassable cliffs;
- Cliffs that were less steep and that could be traversed in
- Passes over the cliffs, with information as to whether they
could be used by wheeled or only by tracklaying vehicles;
- Trails, with information as to their usability for wheeled or
The military geological unit compiling these maps consisted of two
geologists and ten auxiliaries. However, they were inadequately equipped, so
that it was only possible to reconnoiter the areas that happened to be
tactically important at any given time. Occasional inaccuracies and deviations
in the lines marking the limits of the traversable terrain on the maps were
Here, a word might be said about the work of the British Long Range Desert
Group which, apart from its intelligence and sabotage missions, carried out
reconnaissance far behind the Italo- German fronts in Libya. The results
obtained in this reconnaissance work formed the basis for the British maps on
the Italian colony of Libya which were incomparably better, so far as quality,
accuracy, and detail were concerned, than the Italian maps. They were
considered a particularly valuable prize when captured.
b. Scope of Evaluation.
The above serves to show that in deserts the command must employ adequate
personnel with adequate equipment, organized in specialized units if it wishes
to obtain usable maps within a brief space of time.
After the winter of 1941, the Traversability Maps served as permanent data for
the German command. The preparations for attack and for defense positions were
based on them.
c. Influence of Intelligence on Planning.
The available intelligence information was so inadequate in the spring of
1941 that it influenced the employment of the German forces in no way. As
previously stated, Field Marshal Rommel had to gather the necessary information
on the terrain and on the characteristics of the desert. On the basis of this
information he performed his mission of halting the British advance and
preventing the loss of the whole of Libya.
d. Availability and Evaluation of Terrain Intelligence.
The pamphlets MILITARY GEOGRAPHICAL DESCRIPTIONS for Libya, Northeast
Africa, and Egypt were published by the Military -Geographical Branch of the
Army High Command. Since they contained only information on cities, roads, and
oases, and a general survey of the entire region, they could serve the command
only as a source of general orientation, for which purpose they proved
valuable. They contained very few important tactical details. They were put out
in such large numbers that they could be made available down to the regimental
staff level. At these lower levels their value was naturally restricted.
e. Use of Historical Data for Planning Purposes.
With the exception of the experience gained by General Graziani's army
during its advance on Egypt in the winter of 1940, no information taken from
military history was used in planning the campaign. One lesson that this
experience pointed out was that troops which are not motorized are valueless in
desert warfare and can do nothing whatever against a motorized enemy. General
Graziani's army consisted almost exclusively of infantry units and it was tied
down, enveloped, and destroyed by the well motorized British forces because it
was unable to conduct mobile operations.
The African Campaign took on such entirely new forms owing to the almost
exclusive use of mobile troops by both sides in the desert, that it was not
possible in planning to make use of any examples taken from military history.
The methods of modern desert warfare were created by Field Marshal Rommel.
2. Operational Planning
Prior to World War II not a soul in the German armed forces imagined the
possibility of it becoming necessary in any future war to conduct land warfare
outside of Europe. This is why no particular attention was paid in the army to
the military experienced of this type gained during World War I, particularly
in the former German colony, German East Africa. It was only in 1935 that a
subsection for colonial affairs was created in the Foreign Affairs Branch of
the Reich Ministry of War. This subsection was staffed with only one officer
who had fought in German Southwest Africa.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, no preparations of any sort had been made
in the German army for any desert warfare that might possibly become necessary
in the future. All preparatory work in the operational, organizational, and
training fields had been restricted exclusively to preparations for the conduct
of war on the continent of Europe. This was why a suggestion submitted by the
Mapping and Survey Branch of the Army General Staff in 1938 that the maps to be
issued in the eventuality of mobilization should include maps of Denmark,
Norway, and Northern Africa was disapproved as entirely unnecessary by the
appropriate representative of the Operational Branch under instructions from
the chief of that branch.
It is an actual fact that early in 1941 the German troops reached the African
theater of operations almost entirely unprepared for their new missions.
Up to the summer of 1940, the information available to the German Army General
Staff on Northern Africa was restricted to he reports furnished by the German
military attache in Rome and reports from agents of the German
counterintelligence service. From the autumn of 1940 on, the Special Detachment
Bora, a detachment of the German counterintelligence branch, was in Libya. Its
main mission was to keep the French territories in Africa under observation.
Most of the data on which the German military attache in Rome based his reports
came from his liaison officer attached to the Governor General, who was
simultaneously commander in Chief of all Forces in Italian North Africa, and on
personal impressions gained while traveling. All positive information of a
military nature on North Africa was taken from the manuals of the foreign
Armies Intelligence Branch (West) on the British, French, and Italian armed
Originally, Hitler had decided to leave Mussolini an entirely free hand in
conducting operations in the Mediterranean theater, which was another reason
for the small interest of the German General Staff in the subject. As change in
this fundamental view of Hitler only took place in the summer of 1940, when it
became evident, on the one hand, that Italy was apparently avoiding any
decisive action in the Mediterranean theater while the British, on the other
hand, were continually reinforcing their troops in Egypt, without their
transportation being appreciably affected by the Italian navy. At the meeting
between Hitler and Mussolini in October 1940, the dispatch of a German panzer
corps to Libya was discussed, but no decision was reached. Following the
discussion, a general of the armored force who was attached to the German Army
High Command, was sent to Italian North Africa for an on-the-spot study of the
possibilities of employing a German expeditionary corps there. Shortly after
Italy rejected the support offered by Germany, quite obviously Mussolini did
not want any German military support in North Africa. The 3rd Panzer Division,
which in peacetime was garrisoned in the Berlin area, had been reorganized in
all haste for employment in the tropics as a precautionary measure; it was now
available for other employment. Later, when the British offensive, which gained
huge initial successes, threatened to develop into a catastrophe for the
Italian forces, Italy herself requested the dispatch of German forces to Libya.
The first unit to be transferred was the X Air Corps, which was sent to Sicily.
So far as ground forces were concerned, the original plan was to send only a
defense unit of brigade strength, which was to be specially organized for the
purpose, but it soon became evident that such a weak unit would not be able to
give Germany's ally any really effective support. In January 1941, Hitler
therefore decided to make a special corps of two divisions available, the
German Africa Corps.
Meanwhile a special staff for tropical warfare (Sanderstab Tropen) had been
formed at the headquarters of the Commander of the Replacement Training Army in
Berlin. It was composed of officers who had fought in the German colonies in
World War I and was to assemble as speedily as possible all experience that
could be helpful in the training, organization, equipment, and employment of
troops in desert warfare. However, the march of events was too fast, so that
the first units of the German Africa Corps landed in Africa when the staff had
just commenced its work in Libya.
What has been said above goes to show that the German Army High Command was
taken almost completely by surprise when the necessity arose to dispatch troops
for warfare in the desert. In any event, the command had no time to make
thorough preparations for this type of combat employment. For this reason all
preparatory work that was possible in the short space of time available had to
be restricted mainly to the following measures:
(1) Medical examination of all troops to determine their fitness for
service in the tropics, with the application of very severe standards.
(2) Equipment of all soldiers with tropical clothing.
(3) Adaptation of a training program for combat in open terrain.
(4) Camouflage of all vehicles with a coat of desert colored paint.
(5) Organization of special units to handle water supply problems.
(6) Familiarization of the troops with the hygienic measures necessary in
(7) Orientation of the troops on the military geographical conditions of the
new theater of war and on the peculiarities of Germany's allies and enemies. In
this respect it must be mentioned that initially only one military geographical
bulletin was available. It had been prepared in a hurry and was not accurate in
all points. A manual of instructions for the tropics was being drafter in the
summer of 1942.
It was not possible within Germany to accustom the troops to the intense
heat to which they would be exposed particularly at that time of the year, the
winter of 1940. To a certain extent, the troops which had to wait any length of
time in Italy for transportation to North Africa adapted themselves
automatically to the heat.
b. Changes in Troop Organization and Equipment.
The composition of the units employed in Africa was the same as the
composition of units in Europe. The pressure on time alone made any
reorganization impossible in 1941, and later experience showed that no
specialized organization is necessary for divisions and other units that are to
be employed in desert warfare. However, it is necessary to have a far higher
ratio of tanks and antitank weapons, since these are the two decisive weapons
in the desert. It goes without saying that all units employed in desert warfare
must be motorized.
The following special units were newly activated for employment in the
(1) Water supply companies, under the command of engineer officers. They
were assigned to the corps and operated under the Water Supply Branch of the
Corps Supply and Administration Officer. These companies had equipment for the
drilling of deep wells and well as pumps, while some of them had installations
for the distillation of water.
(2) Water supply transportation columns organized in the same way as ordinary
supply transportation columns, but employed solely in the transportation of
water to the troops. They had no tank trucks or tank trailers as was customary
with the British units but had to transport the water in 20-liter cans. This
method of transportation proved extremely tiresome, quite apart from the
considerable loading space required, which imposed an extra strain on the gas
(3) Astronomical observation teams, directed by professional astronomers who
were awarded regular or assimilated officer rank. These teams worked under the
special staff officer for surveying attached to he operations officer of the
army and their function was to establish geographical points by astronomical
means. They were rarely employed, since no serious orientation difficulties
arose because most of the fighting took place in the coastal region and not in
the desert proper.
The following changes proved necessary so far as equipment was concerned:
Long range artillery, long range antitank guns, and tank guns decisively
influence the course of battle in desert warfare, and it was therefore
necessary to employ more long range weapons. No alterations of the weapons
themselves were necessary.
In their 87.6 mm guns the British had a light artillery piece with a longer
range than that of the German, but the German forces in Africa soon received
100 and 170 mm guns, which had a longer range than any of the British guns. In
1941 the guns of the German Type III tanks had a longer range than the guns of
the British tanks, and this is the reason for the success of the German tanks
in that year, but from May 1942 on the British employed American tanks of the
Grant, Lee, and Sherman types, which mounted guns with a considerably superior
range of fire. In the Battle of Gazala these guns came as a disconcerting
surprise for the German tank units and in the first phase of the battle the
British were able to gain considerable successes.
Clothing and uniforms were entirely different from the clothing and uniforms
worn in Europe. The army uniform was made from a water-tight linen cut in a
style approximating the traditional uniforms of the former German colonial
defense forces. These uniforms proved unsuitable both in style and material.
The material was too stiff and did not give adequate protection against heat or
cold. In the early mornings the material absorbed moisture from the dew, so
that it became intolerable to wear the uniform. The British tropical uniforms,
in contrast, were made of pure wool and were excellent. Large quantities of the
British uniforms were captured and worn by the troops of the German Africa
Corps with the German insignia and proved excellent. This was true particularly
of the trousers. The tropical uniform of the German air force was also good.
Apart from the fact that the color, a yellowish-brown, was more appropriate,
they were made from a material which was of a lighter and better quality and
were cut in a more appropriate style. Olive drab color proved unfavorable. In
view of the normal camouflage difficulties in the desert, a yellowish-brown,
which would have been a protective color, would have been best. High boots were
unsuitable in every respect since in hot climates everything must be done to
prevent soldiers wearing any apparel on the legs, which restricts the
circulation of the blood. In this matter, the troops helped themselves by
wearing only slacks, most of which came from captured British depots and which
the troops wore over their boots. The German lace shoe with a cloth tongue
proved suitable. The shorts issued to the troops could not be work during
combat since they left the bare legs exposed to injury by thorn and stones, and
these injuries healed very slowly. The olive drab caps with side visors were
excellent, the visor, in particular, was indispensable for the infantryman and
for the gunner as protection against the intense glare of the sun. The tropical
helmets that were issued could be used only in the rear areas and were entirely
useless in combat. The German troops wore no steel helmets in contract to the
British troops, whose steel helmets were more appropriate both in shape and
weight, being lighter than the German helmets. The tropical coats issued, which
were made from a thick woolen material, were good, but the English, which were
fur-lined and reached only to the knees, were better. Owing to the stiff
material from which it was made, the German tropical shirts were inferior to
the British, which was made of so-called "tropic" material. To
protect the abdominal area of the body against colds, the wearing of belly
bands was obligatory, which proved a wise measure. Tropical helmets and
mosquito nets proved an unnecessary expenditure. The majority of the troops got
rid of them immediately after debarking from the ships, since they were not
able to take them along owing to insufficient transportation space.
The troops were also furnished wall tents, which had a special sun apron. An
illustration of this type of tent, which proved admirable suitable, will be
found as item 54 in appendix 2. With the exception of footwear, no leather was
used in any article of apparel; it was replaced everywhere by thick linen.
The types of vehicles used were the same as those used in Europe. Vehicles with
Diesel engines were not used in order to avoid the necessity of transporting
two different types of fuel. However, experience showed hat it would have been
advisable to accept this disadvantage in order to facilitate transportation,
since fuel oil could have been transported in bulk containers, such as tank
trailers. The excellent coastal road would have allowed the use of such
Volkswagens were used in great numbers and proved excellent. for use under
desert conditions the following alterations ere made to adapt the standard
model: Air intakes were placed inside the vehicles to reduce the amount of duct
in the air taken in by the motor. In place of the standard tires, aircraft
oversized tires were used, which proved exceptionally good on rocky terrain and
in sandy stretches. On rocky ground they reduced jolting because of their low
air pressure while on sandy tracks the wide treads of the tires prevented the
vehicles from sinking into the sand and getting stuck. On the whole, however,
the British motor vehicles, as a result of the extensive experience of the
British in desert conditions, were superior to the German, being better adapted
to the special conditions in respect to tires, power, higher ground clearance,
and lower bodies. Double tires proved unsuitable, particularly in areas where
the surface was covered with stones, as the stones became compressed in large
quantities in the space between the two tires. In the desert, motor vehicles
must always carry something or other, such as rope ladders or grids, to place
underneath the wheels if they get stuck in the sand.
To reduce the effect of sand and heat, additional air filters for all types of
vehicles were developed and used. They proved very valuable although it was not
possible to eliminate the effects of sand on the motors altogether.
Troops employed under desert conditions should be furnished a certain number of
aircraft compasses, which should be mounted on the windscreen next to the
driver's seat. By means of a small magnet, deviation were excluded, so that the
driver was able to drive in the direction ordered. The sun compasses, which
were developed for the same purpose, did not meet requirements, since they were
too complicated and failed to function properly around midday, between 1000 and
1400 hours. Pocket compasses were indispensable and had to be issued to each
man individually, since the individual soldier plays a greater role in the
desert than in any other theater of operations. This compass used by the
British, in which the dial floated on oil, was better than the German and was
preferred by the German troops when they managed to capture any.
The Germans failed to develop anything special as a protection against flies
and other insects, which became particularly pestiferous in summer.
Insecticides similar to FLIT were an urgent requirement for the combat units.
c. Special Training.
It was not possible to give the troops, which were rushed to Africa
suddenly and at short notice, any specialized training. All that was done was
to have them attend a number of lectures by specialists in tropical medicine
and by officers who had a vague knowledge of conditions from traveling.
However, those lectures gave the troops wrong impressions of what they were to
expect from the effects of heat, sand, insects, and diseases instead of
orienting them properly. The instructions on hygiene in the tropics, on the
other hand, were good. Even units that were transferred to Africa during the
further course of the campaign there received no real specialized training
owing to the fact that the orders for their transfer usually came so
unexpectedly that there was no time for this purpose. However, in a suggestion
submitted to he Army High Command by the army in Africa, the following training
subjects were considered important:
(1) Exercises of all types in marching and combat in open, sandy terrain;
(2) Cover and camouflage in open terrain;
(3) Aiming and firing of all weapons in open terrain and at extremely long
(4) Recognition and designation of targets without instruments. The aiming and
firing exercises were to be carried out by daylight, at night, in the glaring
sun, during twilight, facing the sun, with the back to the sun, with the sun
shining from one side, by moonlight and with artificial lighting;
(5) Exercises during extreme heat;
(6) Exercises of long duration with no billeting accommodations;
(7) The construction of shelters in sandy terrain;
(8) Practice in night driving and in driving over sandy terrain;
(9) Night marching in level terrain;
(10) Orientation by compass, by the stars, and so forth;
(11) Driving by march compass;
(12) Recovery of tanks and other vehicles in sandy terrain;
(13) Laying and removing mines in sandy terrain;
(14) Exercises in mobile warfare;
If it had been possible to train the troops in these subjects and to
prepare them thoroughly, considerable losses could probably have been averted.
d. Acclimatization of the Troops.
So far as the first divisions transferred to Africa were concerned, no
measures were taken to accustom the troops to excessive heat. Some of the
replacements sent forward later had the opportunity of spending a certain
period in south Italy or in the Balkans for acclimatization. The climate in
these two regions is very similar to the climate in the coastal areas of North
Africa. In the light of experience, however, a familiarization period is not
considered absolutely essential, since the troops employed without a prior
period of acclimatization proved no less efficient in combat than those who had
lived for a time in southern Italy or in the Balkans. It was not the climate
alone that caused the heavy losses that were suffered, but the poor food, and
the hardships during combat combined with the effects of the climate; the
troops had in no way been prepared for these circumstances.
It proved very unwise to transfer units or replacements to the desert in
summer, during the hottest part of the year and the time when the flies proved
most troublesome. A parachute brigade provides a typical example. The brigade
was transferred from Europe in July 1942, the hottest time of the year, and
employed in defense in the rocky wilderness around El Alamein. The unit
consisted of handpicked men and within a very short while more than 50 percent
of them were sick from the combined effects of the heat, with its accompanying
discomforts, jaundice, and festering sores which healed only very slowly. The
causes were the brackish drinking water, which contained as much as one gram of
salt per liter, and the inadequate diet, which consisted almost exclusively of
canned foods. Blond and red-haired men with blue eyes and fair skins were
particularly susceptible, while the brown and dark haired types soon recovered
from the disorders which were almost inevitable in the beginning.
These points were not taken into account in the medical examinations, the
main emphasis being placed on sound teeth and a strong heart. The result was
that the elite units, such as the paratroopers, suffered particularly heavy
losses. Even prior acclimatization would not have protected them.
The following experience was gained in respect to the acclimatization of
persons to hot climates: Men who had lived before in temperate zones stood the
intense heat very well in the first year, during which they were far more
efficient than the indigenous population and Europeans who had been living in
the country for a ling time. This proved to be the case when German troops were
employed in Sicily, for instance, where summer temperatures are the same as
those in the deserts of Africa. In the average case, the powers of resistance
of the new arrival decline after the first year and his efficiency sinks below
the level of that of the persons who have spent a linger time in the country.
His efficiency only starts to improve gradually after a few years but never
reaches the same standard as that of the first year. The following inferences
can be drawn from this experience:
(1) No prior lengthy acclimatization should take place, since this would
waste part of the first year of maximum efficiency.
(2) Only a brief transitional period should be allowed in a hot climate,
during which the troops can be instructed in the manner of living under
tropical and desert conditions and the best protective measures they should
take without the added difficulty of enemy actions.
(3) After approximately one year on active service in a hot climate, the
troops should be rotated to some other theater of operations. The disadvantage
that they experience gained by the men can only be exploited for a relatively
short time must be accepted.
e. Development of Special Equipment.
The following special types of equipment were developed:
(1) Special tropical clothing and uniforms, as dealt with in detail in
(2) Special air filters for motor vehicles, including tanks. This subject has
also been discussed in Section 2,b.
(3) Special medical equipment for use in tropical climates, which subject is
dealt with in Annex 5.
3. Logistical Planning
Logistical planning is an integral part of operational planning. (Section
2,a) In this operation, plans for the supply services also had to be prepared
at top speed. The main concern in these plans was to provide for the
transportation of the supplies for the German troops by rail to Italian ports
and by German or Italian ships from there to ports in North Africa. The
selection of transportation media and supervision of the loading was the
responsibility of a special branch, the Branch for Transportation to Africa. It
operated under the command of the German General attached to Italian
Headquarters, hitherto the German military attache in Rome. Unloading in
African ports and further transportation to the troops was the responsibility
of the Supply and Administration Officer of the Africa Corps, later of the
Chief Supply and Administration Officer of the Panzergruppe(1) Afrika, which
later again was redesignated the Panzer Army of Africa and finally the
German-Italian Panzer Army.
Initially all bulk commodities, as well as all troops, were transported by
sea, but when shipping losses mounted, personnel were transported by plane.
In November 1941, Field Marshal Kesselring arrived in Italy as Commander of the
Second Air Force. In coordinated action with the Italian navy and air force,
his mission was to protect German and to prevent British transportation in the
Mediterranean. It is said that shortly after his arrival, he sighed: "Now
it is clear to me that in conducting a war across the sea, the proper delivery
of the means of combat at their proper place is of far more importance than any
worries as to whether the enemy should be attacked on the right or left
In was not possible with the mans available to the supply command or with any
improvised measures to secure adequate supply services for the armored forces
in Africa. To keep open the supply lanes or to open these lanes was the
responsibility of the operational command, which rested with the Italian
Supreme Command. The Wehrmacht High Command had supported the Italian Supreme
Command but had also occasionally interfered in the conduct of operations. It
was imperative that this problem be solved if an adequate supply service was to
be secured for the troops in Africa. As no solution was found, the supply
service collapsed as a natural consequence after all improvised means had
failed. The following dates and information concerning the functioning of the
supply services has been furnished by the German General attacked to the
Italian Supreme Command during the period from February 1941 to May 1943:
a. February to May 1941
The transportation of troops and supplies across the Mediterranean
functioned without interruption. The convoys reached Tripoli regularly and
almost without losses. Immediately after its capture, Benghasi was used as a
prot of debarkation. At the request of the German command, Italian submarines
were used as early as April 1941 to transport fuel for the most advanced
elements of the Africa Corps. They discharged their cargo at Derna. Coastal
shipping along the African coast was organized with small ships and sailing
boats with auxiliary motors.
b. June to December 1941
British surface and submarine craft interfered with the transportation of
German troops and supplies. The losses in shipping space and in materiel were
considerable. To relieve the situation, air transportation groups were employed
to move troops and materiel, while naval barges transported tanks and important
spare parts. The use of Bardia as a prot of debarkation close to the front was
prevented by the British air force. in December, Italian battleships had to be
used to protect the convoys.
c. January to June 1942
During this period transportation was favored by German superiority in the
air, which was gained by the German Second Air Force under Kesselring, and also
by the fact that Malta was held down. The transportation of troops and supplies
functioned smoothly and with very few losses. Enough supplies were moved
forward to enable the German-Italian Army to launch an offensive with limited
objectives, which advanced as far as the borders of Egypt in May-June. In
addition, adequate supplies were stockpiled for a period of six to eight weeks
against the eventuality of the air forces and naval vessels being employed in
an operation to capture Malta.
d. July 1942 to May 1943
As a result of Rommel's advance into Egyptian territory after the capture
of Tobruk (this advance was contrary to the plans of the Italian Supreme
Command) the supplies deposited in the Benghasi and Tripoli areas for the front
were practically useless since the distances ere too great for transportation
on land and coastal shipping was prevented by the British. The Second Air Force
was compelled to transfer some of its units stationed in Sicily and southern
Italy to Africa and Greece in order to support the Panzer Army, which was
fighting desperately at El Alamein. As a result, the Luftwaffe was so heavily
engaged that it was unable even to screen Malta. The British forces on Malta
regained their strength and employed new types of bombers equipped with radar
and having a wider radius of action. They succeeded in bringing German convoy
traffic to an almost complete standstill. The Italian battleships were in port
at Tarento and La Spezia, unable to operate because of lack of fuel. Losses in
materiel and fuel were so heavy that it was barely possible to obtain adequate
supplies from Germany. The sea routes to Tripoli and Benghasi were completely
severed. Air transportation from Crete now played the major role but quite
naturally the volume was far too small to meet even the most urgent demands of
the front. In addition, the Wehrmacht High Command moved an infantry division
from Crete to Egypt. This division had no motorized vehicles whatever, so that
it became an added strain on the transportation and supply services in Africa.
After the occupation of Tunis the distances across the sea were admittedly
shorter. Nevertheless, in spite of the use of the military transport ships
which had been constructed meanwhile and numerous ships of the smallest types,
it was not possible to relieve the strained supply situation. Anglo-American
power in the air was growing steadily and transportation capacities were
sinking from day to day. Even a temporary increase of the quantities
transported by air to 1000 tons failed to bring any relief. Once the
German-Italian forces in Tunis were enveloped, the Anglo-American fighter
planes had such complete mastery in the air, even over the Straits of Sicily,
that it was hardly possible for even the smallest ships to reach Africa safely.
Around 20 April, the German-Italian air transportation units ere subjected to a
Thus, the point must be brought out that, as a result of the gradually
developing anglo- American supremacy at sea and in the air in the
Mediterranean, North Africa was cut off from Europe. The German-Italian forces
operating in Africa therefore could not be adequately reinforced or supplied.
This lack of any possibility of maintaining supply traffic was not due to any
failure on the part of the German or Italian headquarters responsible for the
movement of supplies, but solely to the fact that the German-Italian
operational command did not succeed in keeping the supply routes to Africa
open. Any examination of the question why these routes were not kept open or
could not be kept open, is beyond the scope of this study.
Plans for supplying the troops in the desert had provided for adequate
supply transportation space and also an additional water supply service. Each
division had the same transportation space, the same motor vehicle and weapons
maintenance units, the administrative, medical, and military police units as a
division in Europe, plus a water distilling company. The corps supply services
included an additional, special water supply company, filter and distilling
units and geological teams, details of which can be found in Annex 3.
Return to top
4. General Description of the Zone of Operations
The zone of operations in the North African Campaign in Libya and Egypt
consisted of a strip of land, sometimes as much as sixty kilometers wide,
bounded on one side by the coast and on the other by the desert interior.
The ground surface was either firm gravel, sand-covered gravel, rocky, or
mixed sand and gravel. Within this entire zone, large parts of which were level
plain, the desert could be traversed by all types of vehicles. The only
exceptions were patches of deep sand, and steep wadis, which could not always
be ascertained from the map, and salty swamps, such as those at Marada, roughly
forty kilometers south of Marsa el Brega. Natural defiles were formed by the
serpentines of Derna and the Halfaya Pass at the border between Libya and
Egypt. It was possible to create defiles by the use of mines.
Undulating, steppe-like terrain predominated. It consisted of low mounds
and long ridges, whose average height above the surrounding terrain was from
four to twenty meters. At times they had gentle slopes and at times they rose
steeply from broad, level valleys in which there were not watercourses. The
summits were naked rock covered with loose rocks of varying size which made
motor traffic difficult but not impossible. In the valleys the rocky bottom was
covered by a layer of dust or clay of varying thickness. In dry weather this
ground could be traversed without difficulty by vehicles with four-wheel drive
and capable of cross-country travel, but not without raising dense clouds of
dust. The steppe-like terrain had patches of camel's thorn shrubs, around which
the dust had blown to form small dunes. Traffic followed the broad paths,
called Trighs or Pistes, which connected the few settlements and water holes.
This terrain extended from the coast to a line roughly thirty or forty
kilometers inland. The coast itself was fringed by a belt of dunes behind which
was a zone of salt swamps. called Sebchen, which were usually dry. This coastal
zone was frequently used as a bivouac area for troops, since it offered good
opportunities for digging in tents and vehicles and had good water supply
facilities. The only parts of the coast at which there were not dunes were the
cliff sections at Tobruk, Bardia, and Sollum. There, the coastal sector was
often intersected by deep wadis and was difficult to penetrate.
Towards the interior, the steppe-like zone gradually merged with the desert
proper, which is practically devoid of any type of vegetation. On the whole,
motoring was easier in the desert proper than in the steppe-like zone, although
movement was rendered difficult in parts by very rugged areas. Instead of the
rocky surface, patches with a deep covering of sand are encountered, which make
rapid travel possible. Here, the valley floors were clay pans, as flat as table
tops, which were submerged in water during the rainy periods. It is only at the
foot of steep cliffs that a rocky bottom was found or a soft sandy bottom, into
which the vehicles easily sank. This soft sand also covered the beds of the
numerous wadis, by which the steep faces of the ridges are broken, so that it
was often extremely difficult to surmount the obstacles presented, even by
comparatively low steep ridges.
Farther south these patches of soft sand increased in size and seriously
impeded operations by armored units. The dividing line between those parts of
the desert in which mobility was good and those in which it was bad is in
eastern Libya and western Egypt; between the 29th and 30th degree latitude.
South of the 29th degree latitude the vast dune-covered expanses began, and to
cross it was considered quite a sporting feat.
We can thus see that the area suitable for military operations was confined
to the relatively narrow strip along the coast and the southern, desert, zone
which was more favorable for rapid movement on the whole than the northern,
steppe-like zone, if the tarred coastal road is left out of consideration.
Within the zone described, the following types of terrain obstacles were to
a. Mountain ranges.
Three mountain ranges played an important part on the war in Africa,
(1) The Cyrenaica Mountains At points these mountains reached a height of
875 meters above sea level; they intercepted the moisture carried inland by the
north wind. The heavier rainfall here is the reason why, in this area, the
chalky ground carried a growth of macchia in contrast to the desert or
steppe-like areas. These mountains rose in tow high, steep terraces, which
could be traversed at only a few points and were intersected by numerous deep
valleys which made it impossible to conduct sizeable operations except along
roads. South of the topmost ridges, the mountains sloped down gradually to the
desert terrain which was good for vehicular traffic. For this reason the
Cyrenaica region was vulnerable to attack from the south, a fact which Rommel
recognized at once during his attack in the spring of 1941. For this reason he
delivered his main attack against Mechili, a desert fort designed to protect
the southern approaches to the Cyrenaica. The fact that it was so easy to
bypass is the reason why the Cyrenaica was never held with any degree of
determination by either side during the entire campaign, although it could be
called a natural fortress. During every retreat, every effort was made to pass
through this region as rapidly as possible in order to avoid being intercepted.
(2) The Gebel Mefusa Mountains protruded like a barrier between the coastal
plains of Tripoli and those of Misurate. South of Tripoli they rose to a height
of 700 meters above sea level, the first 300 meters of which were a gigantic
cliff. In the southeast they descended in a gradual slope. In the northeast,
towards the sea, the height was less than 200 meters above sea level at Homs.
In the central parts, this mountain range was extremely rugged and motorized
troops could only pass along the roads. The southeast slope was covered with a
deep layer of wind-blown sandy loess, which made vehicular traffic difficult.
From the north, this mountain range formed an impregnable fortress. From the
southeast, it was vulnerable to attack in spite of the mountainous and
intersected nature of its approaches, since the attacking forces could find
favorable assembly areas in the foothills and could approach under cover to the
proximity of the defense positions. Possibilities for by-passing existed and
were taken advantage of by the British in the attack in January 1943.
(3) The Matmata Mountains, a range in south Tunisia, had a steep drop of
100 to 200 meters in the east. In the west they sloped down gradually to a high
plateau, which was sandy in parts, while in others the ground was good for
motor traffic, so that it could be crossed by motorized columns in spite of
occasional difficulties. The steep cliff-like wall in the east and north was
interrupted by numerous wadis, through some of which an ascent to the high
plateau was possible.
The Matmata Mountains narrowed down the coastal plains of southern Tunisia
considerably, so that it was possible to organize a defense line at the
narrowest point, at Mareth. However, the steep mountainside was only a weak
protection against flanking attacks, since it could be by-passed with little
difficulty. Only if the German-Italian forces had been numerous enough to hold
all passes and if they had had a mobile reserve available to repulse any enemy
attempts at detouring the mountains, would this range have constituted an
important factor in the defense.
b. Steep terraces.
Most of the steep terraces in the steppe-like terrain were not high and
followed a course parallel with the coast so that they hardly interfered with
troops movements. In the numerous caves, overhanging cliffs and gorges, good
opportunities could be found for troops shelters, for which purpose they were
frequently used, since they were the most effective protection against air
attack that was to be found. Some of the steep terraces, and other similar
terrain features, however, became of outstanding importance, namely,
(1) The northern rim of the Quattara Depression, on which the southern
flank of the El Alamein line was based. This rim towered about 300 meters above
the floor of the depression, which was 80 meters below sea level. Within the
sectors held by the German-Italian forces there were only three points at which
motor traffic was possible, and even there difficulties were encountered
because of the deep sand. Throughout the entire campaign no better protection
for a flank was ever found than in the El Alamein line.
(2) The steep terrace at Sollum, between the Bardia-Capuzzo high plateau
and the Sollum coastal plain. There were two roads, with numerous serpentines,
across the terrace, one from the Via Balbia - the tarred coastal road, the
other from the Halfaya Pass road. During the period of positional warfare in
the summer of 1941, the terraced was within the combat area.
(3) Large-sized wadis. These were found in the Cyrenaica region and in the
eastern approaches to the Tripolitanian Gebel mountain and extended as far as
the Bay of Sirte. Usually the bed of a wadi consisted of a layer of soft sand.
Less frequently the beds were salty swamps with a growth of camel's thorn. The
banks were usually steep but not continuous, since they were cut by numerous
cross-wadis. On the whole they could be considered as terrain obstacles, but as
obstacles that could be overcome without difficulty unless obstinately
During the German-Italian retreat from El Alamein to Tunis, only one
defense position was based on a wadi, namely the Buerat Line, which extended
along the Zem-Zem wadi south of the Via Balbia. However, after careful
deliberation, the line was developed east of the wadi in order to prevent an
approach by the enemy under cover and not on the low-lying west bank, since the
west bank was dominated by the higher opposite bank.
The Buerat line could be by-passed easily. It was therefore evacuated by
the infantry before the attack began and held only for a short while in a
delaying action by mobile units.
(4) Dune terrain. Large sandy areas were found close to the coast, near
larger wadis, and in the desert proper, where the ergs(2) present barriers that
sere impenetrable for traffic.
Big dunes along the coast, which interfered with traffic, were found around
Agedabia, on the shores of the Bay of Sirte, south of Misurata, and in the
neighborhood of Tripoli, thus mostly in western Libya. They impeded traffic
seriously off the roads and even the roads were affected, since the dunes
shifted constantly. After severe storms the roads became so deeply covered with
sand that they had to be cleared. For this reason, a constant road maintenance
service was necessary where the roads crossed dune areas.
A large area of dunes was also found north of the El Fareh wadi, between El
Agheila and Marada along the shores of the Bay of Sirte. It protected the
German Marsa el Brega position against flanking attacks and forced the British
to make a wide detour through the region south of the El Fareh wadi, where
vehicular traffic was possible.
The big dunes of the desert proper were all south of the zone of operations
and only a section of them along the border between Libya and Egypt played a
role of some tactical importance, since they afforded protection for the south
flank of the German Alamein positions. The dunes in the desert proper were not
crescent shaped like the dunes along the coast, but formed continuous ridges
anywhere between forty and fifty meters high, which extend usually from north
to south. A number of these ridges could be so driven by the wind to form a
labyrinthine confusion of dune ridges with completely encircled hollows in
which the firm ground could be seen. This enormous ocean of dunes formed what
might be called a collection of honeycomb dunes. In order to cross them in was
necessary to have the very best cross-country vehicles available and to drive
at top speed at the first dune, break through its crest and on driving down the
opposite slope, to gather speed for the next dune. While driving, the vehicle
was enveloped in a dense cloud of dust, which reduced visibility to practically
nil. In this way one to two kilometers might possibly be covered per day.
Serious losses in personnel and materiel were unavoidable.
The Great Eastern Erg, a similar large dune area, extended from south
Tunisia to south Algeria close to the western border of Libya. If adequate
German manpower had been available to extend the Mareth position across the
Matmata Mountains and Fort Le Boeuf to this dune area, the flank would have
been as well protected as was the case in the Alamein line.
(5) Salt swamps. These swamps developed at those points where the water in
the subsoil of the desert rose to the surface. owing to the constant
evaporation which takes place, the salts carried by the water were deposited
and the resultant brine formed either a lake or, when mixed with sand and clay,
a patch of thick tough mud on which salt marsh vegetation could take root. Once
a person was caught in a salt swamp it was impossible for him to escape without
help. Photos in Annex 2 show how vehicles which were sunk in salt marshes could
be recovered. However, this method was successful only in terrain which was not
too swampy. In really soft swampy ground the vehicle had to be pulled out by
another vehicle, which was often extremely difficult and could only be done if
the latter was on firm ground and had a very strong engine. Most of the salt
marshes were crossed by fords, which were known to the natives. Many of the
fords could carry vehicular traffic, so that any salt marshes within a
defensive position should always be kept under observation and all fords
crossing it must be carefully reconnoitered with the aid of native guides.
Frequently, the salt marshes dried out completely and then presented no
obstacle at all.
The biggest salt marsh in the Libyan and Egyptian desert was the Quattara
Depression, the surface of which was 80 meters below sea level. This depression
and its northern rim protected the flank of the El Alamein line. The swamp
itself was skirted by a zone of soft sand varying between one and two
kilometers in width, on which a few vehicles could travel with some difficulty.
All other ground outside of the actual swamp but within the Quattara Depression
was also soft and difficult to cross with vehicles. The salt marsh which was
within the German zone of operations in the Marsa el Brega line was
considerably smaller. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the sandy patches and
dune areas, it provided good protection against frontal attack in spite of the
fact that it had numerous fords. The salt marshes of southern Tunisia, called
Schotts, were of more importance. The Dscherid Schott was a feature which led
to the decision to construct the Gabes line, which served as a rear line for
the Mareth line. In most parts, the Dscherid Schott was considered an
impassible obstacle but its eastern part, the so-called El Fedjad Schott, had
numerous good fords which could be crossed without difficulty by vehicles.
Both Benghasi and Tripoli had good ports with very ample capacities for
shipping and landing, for which reason the former was used as the main supply
base. The capacities in the ports of Derna and Bardia, as well as the naval
port of Tobruk, had much smaller capacities.
There was no continuous railroad in Libya. The two railroads, each about
thirty kilometers in length, in Tripolitania and in the Cyrenaica were of no
importance from the military point of view.
The only permanent signal communications system consisted of an open-wire
telephone line, on poles, from Tripoli to Bardia. The distances were extremely
great and the line made only limited communications traffic possible.
Furthermore, it was frequently interrupted by the frequent air attacks against
the Via Balbia.
The water supply facilities along the Via Balbia were adequate. The water
holes in the desert, usually with a small supply of brackish water, were
generally known only to the natives and were not indicated on maps.
During the main part of the year the air was very hot but dry, the hottest
months being June, July, and August. The highest temperatures registered around
midday were about 140· Fahrenheit. At night, even in summer,
temperatures dropped to about 5· Fahrenheit. In winter, from November to
January, the nights were quite cold, temperatures dropping to around 5·
and rising again during the daytime to about 85· Fahrenheit. Rain fell
only in winter, but was then sometimes very heavy, starting suddenly and
swamping extensive areas, sometimes stopping all traffic, even on roads, for
protracted periods. The only other moisture was the very heavy dew at daybreak
and in the evenings.
The outstanding weather feature was the sandstorms, which are called
Ghiblis. These sandstorms recurred pretty regularly every four weeks in
all seasons of the year. They usually lasted three days and since they reduced
visibility to nothing they brought all operations by ground and air forces to a
standstill. During these sandstorms the range of vision was often reduced to
less than three meters, so that orientation was impossible.
Owing to the wind from the sea, the climate in the coastal regions is
almost always healthy. In spite of the enormous number of flies, there were few
cases of malaria. On the other hand, the troops proved extremely susceptible to
jaundice and dysentery.
5. Order of Battle of Army and Luftwaffe Units
The first units to be transferred to Africa between February and May 1941
were the corps headquarters of the Africa Corps and headquarters units (the
corps signal battalion and several supply units) together with the 5th Light
Division, which was later reorganized to form the 21st Panzer Division, and the
15th Panzer Division.
During the summer months a number of so-called oasis companies, a few
battalions and some coastal batteries were moved in, with an Africa Division
Headquarters which was to control them. In the autumn of 1941 these units were
consolidated to form a division, later designated the 90th Light Africa
Thus, the German combat troops in Africa at the end of 1941 consisted of two
armored and one light division. The two armored divisions remained under the
command of the German Africa Corps. In the summer of 1941 this corps and the
other army units in Africa were placed under the command of the newly created
Panzergruppe Afrika. On 21 January 1942 this headquarters was redesignated
Headquarters of the Panzer Army of Africa, which designation was changed again
in the autumn of 1942 to Headquarters of the German-Italian Panzer Army.
In the summer of 1942 the 164th Light Africa Division and the Parachute
Instruction Brigade were transferred to Africa. As they were transported by
plane, and since the sea transportation capacities were steadily sinking, these
units never received their vehicles, so that they remained non- mobile to a
great extent, a fact which was to have a very adverse effect on the withdrawal
from El Alamein.
In 1942 about eighteen batteries which were not included in any of the
divisions and consisted of Army headquarters batteries, coastal batteries, and
new batteries of captured guns, were consolidated as Army Headquarters
Artillery. This artillery was organized in two regiments and was placed under
the command of the Commander of Artillery in Africa. In addition the
reconnaissance battalions of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and the 580th
Reconnaissance Battalion ( a GHQ unit) were consolidated to form a
reconnaissance brigade under the immediate control of the army headquarters.
The army also had the 900th Engineer Battalion, formerly a GHQ unit, available
as a headquarters unit.
At the end of 1942 the ground forces employed in combat therefore consisted
of the following:
- 2 armored divisions
- 2 light divisions
- 1 parachute brigade
- 1 reconnaissance brigade
- 2 regiments of headquarters artillery
- 1 engineer battalion
- the 288th Special Unit, a reinforced battalion originally
organized as an elite battle group for employment in the Middle East.
The above list does not include the numerous units available to the army
for logistical support.
The divisions were organized as follows:
a. Armored divisions:
- Division headquarters;
- 2 armored infantry regiments of each 2 battalions;
- 1 tank regiment of two battalions with a T/O of 100 tanks each;
- 1 artillery regiment of two light and one heavy battalion; (9
batteries with 24 light field howitzers, 8 heavy field howitzers and 4 100.
- 1 antitank battalion of three companies each with three guns
with prime movers;
- 1 engineer battalion of two companies;
- 1 signal battalion with one telephone and one radio company;
- supply and transportation units.
Total strength of each panzer division: 12,000.
b. Light division:
- Division Headquarters;
- 3 infantry regiments of two battalions each;
- 1 artillery regiment of two light and one heavy battalions (24
light and 12 heavy field howitzers);
- 1 antitank battalion of three companies (armament as for panzer
- 1 engineer battalion of two companies;
- 1 signal battalion (as for panzer division);
- supply and transportation units.
Total strength of the light division: 12,000.
c. Parachute Instruction Brigade:
- Brigade headquarters;
- 4 battalions;
- 1 engineer company;
- 1 light artillery battalion;
- 1 mixed signal company.
Total strength of the Parachute Instruction Brigade: 5,000.
In addition to the above the following units were landed in Tunis and
employed in combat from November 1942 to the end of the campaign:
- considerable parts of the 10th Panzer Division;
- 1 battle group of regimental strength of the Herman Goering
Parachute Panzer Division;
- considerable parts of three infantry division, a number of GHQ
armored battalions and the German Arab Legion, which latter was a unit of
Thus, the ground forces employed in combat in the African theater of
operations were equivalent to:
- 3 armored divisions at full strength;
- 2 light divisions at full strength;
- 2 infantry divisions at full strength;
- 1 parachute brigade.
The fact must be stressed at the outset, that the air force units stationed
in Africa were kept at a low level of strength in order to avoid further
complicating the already difficult supply situation.
Additional air support was given by air force units stationed at Italian or
Greek air bases which were transferred occasionally for temporary periods to
We must differentiate between three phases in respect to the organization and
composition of air force units stationed in Africa, namely:
- Phase a. February - November 1941
- Phase b. December 1941 - December 1942
- Phase c. January - May 1943
Command: Air Force Commander in Africa. The commander was subordinate to
the X Air Corps (stationed in Athens and later on Crete) and was in tactical
support of the Africa Corps (later the Panzer Army of Africa).
Flying forces in Africa:
- 1 long range reconnaissance squadron (F-121 type planes);
- 2 squadrons of the 14th Close Range Reconnaissance Group;
- 1 fighter group, later replaced by the 77th Fighter Wing of
- 2 groups of the 3rd Dive bomber Wing
- 1 destroyer plane group;
- 1 desert rescue squadron.
1 regiment of four battalions, tactically assigned to the Africa Corps
(later Panzergruppe Afrika).
Air Signal troops:
· 1 air signal battalion;
Logistical support troops:
· 1 team detailed by the Luftwaffe General in Italy.
Command: Air Force Commander in Africa. The commander was subordinate to
the 2nd Air Force and was assigned tactical support of the Panzergruppe Afrika
(later Panzer Army in Africa).
Flying forces in Africa:
· same as in Phase a;
·Organized in the summer of 1942 to form the 19th Flak Division and
tactically assigned to the Panzer Army;Organ
Air Signal troops:
· same as in Phase a:
Logistical support troops:
· From 1942 on the Air force Administrative Command, Africa,
controlled by the Luftwaffe General in Italy.
Command: Air Corps Africa, with Air Commanders 1 and 2.
- the Air Corps Africa was subordinate to the 2nd Air Force and
was required to cooperate as follows:
- Air Corps Africa with Army Group Africa;
- Air Commander 1 with the 5th Panzer Army;
- Air Commander 2 with the German-Italian Panzer Army (later
redesignated the 1st Italian Army);
Flying forces in Africa:
- 2 Fighter wing (53rd and 77th );
- 1 dive bomber wing of 2 groups;
- 1 destroyer plane group;
- 2 antitank plane squadrons;
- reconnaissance units as in Phase a;
- 19th Flack Division, tactically assigned to the German-Italian
Panzer Army (later redesignated the 1st Italian Army);
- 20th Flak Division, tactically assigned to the 5th Panzer Army;
Air signal troops:
· 1 reinforced air signal battalion;
Logistical support troops:
· Air Force Administration Headquarters Tunis with three air base areas.
The order of battle in Annex 3 shows the status as of January 1942, but
does not reveal the number and types of weapons available. The organization and
the main items of armament were the same as in Europe with the exception of the
additional supply units assigned for service in the desert, namely the water
supply service units, the meteorological survey teams, and so forth. It must be
emphasized in respect to the tables of organization that the units at no time
had the stated authorized strengths. The actual strengths were constantly
subject to fluctuations according to the losses suffered and the replacements
Thus, the combat efficiency, which also depended on the shipment of
replacements in personnel and materiel, also fluctuated.
6. Reasons for Changes in Organization and Equipment
Initially, the German units were transferred to Africa with their normal
tables of organization and equipment. Changes which were effected immediately
in respect to equipment were as follows:
a. All vehicles were immediately fitted with new special dust-filters.
b. Special units, namely, water supply companies, water transportation columns
and geological teams, were organized immediately to take care of water supply
and transportation problems. However, owing to the steadily increasing
transportation difficulties, large parts of these units remained in Italy until
the campaign was over.
c. All vehicles were camouflaged by a coat of desert-colored paint.
d. Uniforms and other clothing. The troops were issued tropical shirts;
khaki-colored linen jackets, breeches, and shorts; lace boots and lace shoes,
both cotton-lined; linen caps with visors; tropical helmets; belly bands;
In 1941 the following additional changes became necessary:
a. The antitank battalions arrived in Africa with 37mm antitank guns. In
the summer of 1941, these were exchanged for 50mm guns, which were exchanged
again in early 1942 for captured Russian 76.2mm antitank guns. This was
necessary because of the increased effectiveness of weapons used on both sides.
b. From early 1942 on, all infantry units were also assigned antitank guns,
since tank warfare is the deciding factor in desert warfare, where the antitank
gun becomes of even greater importance to the infantry than the machine gun.
The aim of furnishing each battalion eighteen 76.2mm antitank guns was never
c. Types I and II tanks, some of which were armed with machine guns and some
with 20mm guns were withdrawn after the summer of 1941 and replaced by Type III
tanks, which had 50,, guns. These again were replaced after the winder of
1941-42 by Type IV tanks, which had 75mm guns.
d. The replacement of all motorcycles by Volkswagens. Even the half-track
motorcycles that were used for a while proved unsatisfactory.
7. Description of the More Important Battles
a. 31 March to 19 April 1941: The first counter-attack to reconquer
Contrary to the views of General Garibaldi, Commander in Chief of the
Italian forces in Africa, Rommel, who had arrived in the theater of operations
on 11 February 1941 as commander of the German Africa Corps, was of the opinion
that waiting would worsen the situation. The British forces were still in a
long drawn out column and were momentarily in a precarious condition, which
fact had to be exploited immediately. Rommel was able to substantiate his
opinions by reconnaissance and, therefore, his views prevailed. Immediately
after the 5th Light Division commenced landing at Tripoli on 11 February 1941
and moving up to the front, Rommel commenced a series of reconnaissance thrusts
west of Agheila on 24 march, which he followed up on 31 March by an attack with
limited objectives in the direction of Agedabia. The sole object of this attack
was to drive back the British troops in the advanced positions of Agedabia.
Since these British troops retreated immediately, Agedabia itself was attacked
and taken on 1 April, the enemy withdrawing toward Benghasi. The attack toward
Benghasi, which then followed, was also successful and on 4 April that city and
the port were taken by German forces.
In view of the obvious weakness of the enemy, who had been taken by surprise by
the German attack, it seemed advisable to continue the advance. Rommel decided
not to continue the pursuit through the Cyrenaica, but to launch an enveloping
attack through the desert, in order, if possible, to prevent the retreat of
considerable enemy forces. For this reason he pushed forward the bulk of the
5th Light Division south of Benghasi straight through the desert towards
Mechili and Derna, with weaker forces moving by way of Msus in a flanking
drive. This move also succeeded and on 6 April more than 2000 prisoners were
taken at Mechili, Derna being captured on the same day.
On 9 April the pursuing columns reached the Libya-Egyptian border at Bardia, so
that all territory lost in Libya had been recovered. Only the Tobruk fortress
remained in British hands. It was enveloped with weak forces by 11 April. Two
attempts to take it in raids on 13 and 14 April and a third attempt in a
properly prepared attack on 30 April failed. The forces available were
inadequate for this task.
Rommel now had to decide whether to break off the siege of Tobruk and to
withdraw to the elevated terrain of Ain el Gazala or to maintain the siege with
the disadvantage that he would have to establish a second front in a line level
with Sidi Omar-Sollum-Bardia. He decided on the second solution. Chiefly
Italian troops, namely, the X and XXI Corps, with a total of four infantry
divisions, which were to be increased to five at a later stage, were to
maintain the siege of Tobruk. The Sidi- Omar-Sollum front was held only in
strong points in order to release the bulk of the German forces for mobile
employment in the open field.
(The units which took part in the actual offensive operations were as
- the 5th Light Division, which at that time consisted of three
- one tank regiment;
- one reconnaissance, one light artillery, one antitank, one
engineer, and one signal battalion.
(2) The important factors that brought about this speedy and thorough
success were the following:
(a) The momentary weakness of the British forces, whose supply transportation
had not yet been able to catch up fully with the rapid advance;
(b) German supremacy in the air;
(c) The direct attack through the desert, which the enemy had not expected.
(3) A special feature of these operations was the advance through the desert
from south of Benghasi toward Mechili and Derna, which advance was ordered by
Rommel in spite of the serious misgivings of most of the commanders serving
under him. The actions brought out the necessity of having the commanders of
mobile units far ahead in the unit column in desert warfare and of employing
all means, including liaison planes, to maintain contact within the pursuing
force. There is no other possible way of remaining close on the heels of the
(4) Logistical requirements were not given the proper consideration. This is
the reason why some of the units failed in the desert. But, on the other hand,
Rommel could not afford to wait for the arrival of further fuel transports, as
he would then have lost contact with the enemy.
(5) Here, for the first time, the units had to cross a long stretch of desert,
some of them 300 kilometers and more, and while doing so had to gather the
experience they lacked. This experience included recognition of the necessity
to carry along ample supplies of fuel and water and the difficulties of
orientation. In the desert it is hardly possible to establish one's position by
the sun, since the sun is usually almost directly overhead. The available maps,
which were reprints of Italian maps, were inadequate. Practically no reference
points existed, so that all orientation had to be done by compass. Furthermore,
the eyes of the troops had to become accustomed to the glare of the sun, which
made contours unclear, so that it was extremely difficult to recognize objects,
for instance, to differentiate between tanks and trucks.
(6) Together with the fact that any movement causes immense clouds of dust, the
above factor was originally exploited by Rommel, who had his supply and baggage
trains move in tank formation in order to mislead the enemy. Later, this came
to the notice of the enemy, so that later attempts to employ this ruse were
(7) At that stage, the German forces suffered little from enemy air attacks.
(8) Here, for the first time, the 88mm antiaircraft gun proved an effective
antitank weapon. Later it became indispensable for this purpose.
b. May-June 1941: Battles for the positions on the border.
The British left Rommel no peace and in these months seized the initiative
several times in attempts to take from the Germans the border positions, which
commanded the outpost area, and particularly in attempts to take the Halfaya
Pass. In the mountain range extending from the coast to the interior of the
desert, a distance of more than 30 kilometers, the Halfaya Pass was the only
point at which tanks could cross.
On 15 May the British succeeded in recapturing Sollum, Capuzzo, and the Halfaya
Pass. In an immediate counterattack Rommel succeeded two days later in retaking
Sollum and Capuzzo, while the Halfaya Pass remained in British hands. However,
on 27 May the pass was finally retaken in an attack in which the 15th Panzer
Division, which had meanwhile reached the front, also took part.
On 15 June, after careful preparations, the British launched a major offensive
which aimed at retaking the border positions and advancing on Tobruk. They
by-passed the German border positions and pushed forward almost as far as
Bardia. The situation was critical. However, on 17 June, Rommel, again
employing the 15th Panzer Division, succeeded in defeating the enemy by
concentrating his forces in an attack on the west flank of the enemy, who had
advanced northwards. The enemy forces were compelled to withdraw southward to
avoid the encirclement of some of their units.
The more important features of these operations are as follows:
(1) The pursuit phase was now over, and the actions described are those of
attack and defense.
(2) Stronger forces were employed on both sides, than hitherto. On the German
side, both division, the 5th Light and the 15th Panzer - minus certain elements
tied down on the Tobruk front - were fully employed, as well as one Italian
division. Without the 15th Panzer Division, the German forces would not have
been able to hold their own, particularly in the battle from 15th to 17th June.
(3) Whereas the fighting during the pursuit in March and April took place on
either side of the Via Balbia, all the actions just described took place in the
(4) The German side no longer had absolute mastery of the air; British bombing
units were taking part in the fighting in concentrated attacks for the first
In these skirmishes and battles the 15th Panzer Division gained its first
experience in desert warfare. The fields in which experience was gained were
the same as those described for the 5th Light Division in section a.
New features in the operations were as follows:
(1) For the first time, all German units were exposed to lively enemy
activity in the air, a feature they were to experience daily from now on. At
first, several instances occurred where severe losses were suffered owing to
the bunching up of vehicles and troops. It was weeks before the troops learned
to counter this new combat factor by a wide dispersal of units in breadth and
depth, a particularly important requirement in the desert, where no cover
whatever is to be found. (The minimum distance between vehicles should be 50
and if possible 100 meters.) It also proved necessary to dig in immediately all
vehicles that were halted for any considerable time. They were to be dug into
the ground to at least a depth that protected the axles in order to lessen the
effects of bomb fragments. in the same measure it was necessary to camouflage
the vehicles. This was only possible with the use of camouflage nets, so that
it was extremely difficult. Furthermore, it was now necessary for each and
every man to dig a foxhole as protection during air raids.
(2) The danger of radio stations being intercepted and located made it
imperative to have all radio instruments and particularly central radio
stations removed at least one kilometer from headquarters sites in order not to
have the functioning of staff headquarters interfered with. The resultant delay
in the transmission of orders and reports had to be accepted as an unavoidable
disadvantage. By the use of messengers with motor vehicles, this delay had to
be reduced as far as possible.
During the time discussed above, consolidating measures were also taken in the
envelopment of Tobruk. The intention to withdraw all German troops from the
besieging force could not be carried out, particularly at Ras el Mdauuar, on
the southern front, where two German battalions remained in position until the
autumn of 1941.
(3) The danger of enemy tanks breaking through the front made it necessary to
develop all- around defense positions protected by antitank mines. Rommel
issued a bulletin describing the development of such positions, each held by a
reinforced company, in a system of strong points. Above all, this system was
adopted along the border, where the Italian "Savona" Division was
employed in addition to five German oasis companies.
c. July to mid-November 1941. The siege of Tobruk and preparations
for the attack on the fortress.
It was clear to Rommel that Tobruk had to be taken as soon as possible and
it was obvious that the enemy would do everything possible to prevent this
happening. Speed was therefore necessary. The following factors make it
difficult for Rommel to take the steps which he recognized as essential:
(1) The necessity of awaiting the arrival of further troops, infantry and
particularly heavy artillery, and large supplies of ammunition from Europe,
since the available forces were inadequate.
(2) The steadily decreasing capacities for seaborne transportation as the
result of the mounting losses of ships.
As early as in July it became evident that it would definitely not be possible
to commence any systematic attack before mid-September. At an early stage it
was realized that this deadline would have to be extended to october, then to
November and finally to December. Gradually, the hopes dwindled that the attack
could be launched before the expected British offensive commenced.
The summer months ere spent in executing the following measures:
(1) Reinforcement of the enveloping forces by artillery and through
development of the terrain;
(2) Improvement of training;
(3) The movement of large quantities of ammunition and fuel to Benghasi and
(4) Improvement of the medical services, which had hitherto perforce been
(5) Overhauling and maintenance of arms, equipment, and vehicles;
The following is to be said about the activity during these months:
(1) All attempts to reduce frontage and thereby strengthen the enveloping
line failed since the Italian troops, by whom the greater part of the line was
held, were not able to withstand counterattacks by the British. (2) The
reinforcement of the artillery forces was pressed forward vigorously; for this
purpose a special artillery commander was assigned. Flash and sound ranging
proved indispensable in the location of the enemy batteries.
(3) Again and again the order had to be stressed that all units employed were
to dig themselves in as deep as possible in order to reduce losses.
(4) Demonstration exercises took place to improve the standard of training,
with particular emphasis on combined infantry - artillery - tank, artillery -
tank - air force action and the practical application of the all-around defense
strong point system.
(5) It was only from Tripoli and Benghasi that ammunition and fuel supplies
could be moved forward to the front. The lack of any rail connections proved a
serious disadvantage. Investigations showed that to construct a railroad to
meet even the most modest demands, at least 60,000 tons of shipping space for
locomotives, cars, rails, under structures, and so forth, would be required,
and a period of about twelve months for the Tripoli-Benghasi section and an
additional three months for the extension to Derna would be needed. Ammunition
and fuel had to be stored in the open, both in the vicinity of the ports and
near the front, since tank installations and shelters were non-existent. This
made wide dispersal and the burying and camouflage of all supplies at the
storage depots all the more important. These precautions ere frequently
disregarded so that unnecessary losses occurred.
(6) Warm clothing after sundown was particularly important in the desert, and
especially so for new arrivals, as a precaution against dysentery and skin
diseases, since the difference between the daytime temperatures and those at
night was extreme. After sunset it was absolutely essential for every man to
wear trousers and a belly band. Experience showed, in fact, that it was
advisable to wear the latter day and night. An appropriate diet was essential
to prevent jaundice, which occurred frequently. A large proportion of the cases
of jaundice which occurred in 1941 were due to the fact that the rations issued
included large quantities of pulses and conserved meat with a high fat content.
Above all, food with a high Vitamin B and C content proved necessary and on the
whole, the food had to be light. Vitamin C tablets could not take the place of
fresh vegetables. owing to inadequate air transportation space, it was usually
only possible to fly in fresh vegetables and fruit for air force personnel in
(7) In weapons maintenance, protection of the inside parts of the weapons
against sand proved a particularly important point. For this reason, all bolts
and moving parts of the weapons were wrapped in sailcloth, besides the use of
the standard muzzle covers. All weapons had to be cleaned very carefully, but
after cleaning oiled only very thinly; otherwise the dust would eat its way
into the surfaces. No special means to protect the weapons against dust were
available. What has been said about the care of weapons applies in equal
measure to the care of other equipment and motor vehicles.
(8) A high standard of training in the use and care of weapons, equipment, and
vehicles was particularly important in desert warfare and the work of the
higher echelon ordnance technicians handling weapons, equipment, and vehicles
was of great significance in maintaining the combat efficiency of the troops in
In an overseas theater of operations extensive maintenance services with
well-equipped workshops for the repair and maintenance of weapons, tanks, and
other motor vehicles were just as indispensable as stocks of all types of spare
parts, particularly for tanks.
It was also during the summer that Italian forces constructed the road to
by-pass Tobruk, which was roughly sixty kilometers long. This road was metalled
and tarred, and its construction which took three and a half months in the heat
of summer, must be regarded as an outstanding performance. On the whole, the
German troops, who were unaccustomed to the heat also came through the summer
with very few losses.
On 14 and 15 September, Rommel launched an operation for reconnaissance in
force in the direction of Bir el Habata, in the Egyptian desert, from the
border positions. The operation was directed by the headquarters of the German
Africa Corps, and was carried out by the 21st Panzer Division, which had been
organized from the 5th Light Division. This operation, which was designated
SOMMERNACHTSTRAUM, must be considered a failure since it failed in its purpose
of discovering how far the British were in their preparations for their
offensive. No opponent was contacted, as the British reconnaissance forces had
recognized the German intentions and had withdrawn in good time. On the other
hand, the 21st Panzer Division suffered considerable losses in a number of air
attacks owing to the fact that it lost three and a half hours on Egyptian
terrain in refueling, as the fuel trucks first had to move forward. These
losses could have been avoided if sufficient fuel had been carried along in
cans and if the fuel column had accompanied the combat units. Further losses
were sustained while moving back through German mine fields, the locality of
which was not known precisely to the various units.
d. Mid-November 1941 to mid-January 1942. Repelling the British
autumn offensive and the retreat to the Gulf of Sirte.
The British offensive opened on 18 November 1941. At strategic level it had
been expected, but nevertheless it came as a tactical surprise. This was
because, from the end of October on, the German air reconnaissance hardly ever
succeeded in penetrating into Egypt and because the enemy had concealed all
general preparations and signal traffic with extreme skill.
Excluding the Tobruk garrison (1½ divisions and 1 armored brigade)
the ground forces of the enemy, which had meanwhile been consolidated to form
the British Eight Army, consisted of:
- XIII and XXX Corps Headquarters
- 3 motorized divisions
- 1 armored division
- 1 armored brigade
with a total of about 700 tanks.
Apart from the 5th Italian Division and one German division and the GHQ
artillery besieging Tobruk, Rommel had available for operational employment:
- 2 German armored divisions with roughly 360 serviceable tanks
- 1 Italian armored division with roughly 150 inferior tanks
- 1 Italian motorized division, the efficiency of which was also
The XXX British Corps, with the bulk of the available armor, advanced
through Maddalena in order to relieve Tobruk while the XIII British Corps
enveloped the border positions from the south.
The 21st Panzer Division, which was echeloned forward in the direction of
Bir el Gubi, had the mission of halting the British advance, but met with no
success in its efforts. For a long while the situation remained unclear to
Rommel because the division reported too infrequently and because its reports
were confusing. On 23 November it seemed that the situation would improve when
Rommel succeeded at Sidi Rezegh in battering the XXX British Corps so badly
that the commander of the Eighth British Army seriously considered breaking off
the offensive. Overestimating the scope of his success, Rommel then decided on
an enveloping pursuit on the next day. On 24 November he advanced with the
Africa Corps in the direction of Maddalena, then wheeled north and arrived back
at the Tobruk front on 28 November. Here, the situation had developed
unfavorably in the meantime, since the enveloping forces had not been able in
the long run to beat off the repeated attempts of the enveloped British forces
to fight their way out. The enveloping ring had been breached already on 22
November at el Duda, although the breach was locally restricted. The Africa
Corps how only had roughly 100 serviceable tanks available and was no longer
strong enough to restore the situation, so that it became necessary to raise
the siege on 7 December. The difficult maneuver of swinging the Italian
Division, the Africa division and the artillery forces westward was performed
successfully and a new front was established in the Ain el Gazala line. This
position had to be abandoned on 16 December because it was in danger of being
enveloped from the south.
For tactical reasons, Rommel thought it impossible to hold the Cyrenaica, which
protruded northward and provided ideal opportunities for the enemy to by-pass
it, although the Italian command, for political reasons, demanded that he do
so. He therefore decided to withdraw toward Benghasi - Agedabia.
This movement was carried out in the following manner:
(1) The Africa Division was dispatched through the Cyrenaica in order to
take possession of the important town of Agedabia before the arrival there of
an enemy column reported to be advancing westward through the desert.
(2) The Italian division was also moved through the Cyrenaica to the rear on
vehicles of the supply transportation columns.
(3) The Africa corps and the motorized Italian division at Mechili were to
advance straight through the desert to Benghas.i
The motorized units carried out the movement successfully, but the
available transportation space was unfortunately inadequate to move all Italian
infantry forces to the rear.
At Christmas the Panzer group was ahead of Agedabia. On the last day of the
year the Africa Corps, which was echeloned to the right, was once again clearly
successful in a defensive action against the pursuing enemy forces and
destroyed a large number of enemy tanks.
Two additional factors alleviated the situation for the armored group. One
factor was the considerable reinforcement of the German air forces through the
transfer of the Second Air Force Command, with the II Air Corps from the East
Front to Italy and Sicily, which transfer had commenced toward the end of
November. As a result, the hitherto overwhelming superiority of the British in
the air was somewhat reduced. The second factor was the fact that the extremely
tense supply situation was relieved by the arrival of two big convoys at
Tripoli with supplies of all sorts, replacement tanks and two tank companies
and artillery which were organic to the units in Africa. This was the first
supply shipment to arrive between 16 September and 15 December 1941, during
which period not a single ship had reached African ports.
In spite of the relieved situation, Rommel decided not to await the enemy
attack in the Agedabia area and in early January retired to the Marada - Marsa
el Brega line, where he hoped that his right flank would be better protected by
the salt marshes.
The more important lessons learned in the battle that has been described
above in broad outline are as follows:
(1) The old maxim that reports should be sent in as frequently as possible
was frequently not observed, although orders had been given that a brief radio
report was to be sent in every two hours, with the provision that the single
word "unchanged" or a statement of position would be sufficient.
(2) Similarly, not all of the units reacted automatically to any development by
carrying out new reconnaissance.
(3) The use of the "directional line" with the aid of a few natural
reference points in reporting and in issuing orders proved an excellent system,
particularly under desert conditions. This system is as follows: A directional
line is drawn between two points on the map, from Point A to Point B. Starting
at Point A, this line is marked and numbered consecutively at intervals of one
centimeter. Positions can now be reported by this line; for instance, 3 right
of 37 would mean a point 3 centimeters east of 37 on the map, as shown below.
The starting number for the consecutive numbering of the centimeter marking can
be fixed as desired. Brief orders can be signalled in clear text with the aid
of the directional line. It goes without saying that the line must be changed
(4) Another point that had adverse effects was the fact that not all unit
commanders or their General Staff officers were at all times precisely informed
on the supply situation of their units. At all times every unit commander and
his assistants must know exactly how much fuel and ammunition of the more
important types his unit has available, what quantities of supplies are to be
expected within the next twenty-four hours and what percentage of the most
important weapons are ready of action. This knowledge is indispensable as a
basis for all command decisions.
(5) Under desert conditions the frequent penetrations by armored forces and the
open terrain expose the higher level staffs to danger to a far greater extent
than is the case in any other theater of operations, so that all staffs must be
protected by close defense antitank weapons. For this reason the Panzergruppe
and the Africa Corps had organized so-called combat detachments consisting of
tanks, antitank and antiaircraft guns in battalion and company strength, which
also proved very useful as a tactical reserve.
(6) One feature peculiar to the desert operations in 1941-42 was the constant
threat to the southern flank of the side that happened to be on the defensive,
the northern flank generally being well-protected since it extended to the
coast. This danger to the German right flank made it necessary to have strong
mobile force, with ample supplies of fuel, echeloned far to the right in order
to avoid being forced to abandon a position by-passed by the enemy.
(7) In desert warfare retrograde movements will usually be restricted to roads
and will be difficult owing to the lack of natural obstacles favoring new
defense lines. Only if a firm control is maintained during retrograde movements
over great distances will it be possible to prevent the retreat continuing
beyond the intended point and the danger of disintegration. For this purpose it
is also necessary to compel the rear echelons, such as the transportation
columns and so forth, to halt at intervals.
(8) Owing to the dust that is caused by any movement on the ground, it is
difficult to differentiate between friend and foe from the air. For this reason
bombing stop lines must be established and clearly defined with due allowance
for safety factors.
e. Mid-January to the end of May 1942: The counter-offensive to
retake the Cyrenaica; preparations for the attack on Tobruk.
On 10 January 1942 the Panzer Group reached the Marada-Marsa el Brega line,
where new defense positions were to be established. However, the remaining
units, particularly the Italian troops, had been so far reduced in numbers
during the previous fighting, that they would hardly be able to hold the sixty
kilometers of frontage against any major attack by the enemy for longer than
twenty-four hours. As careful examination of the situation revealed that the
enemy forces ere still echeloned far to the rear, so that they were in a
critical situation similar to that they had been in the previous year. The
coastal road remained closed to them until 17 January, when Rommel approved the
surrender of the troops holding the Halfaya Pass since their supplies of
ammunition and foods were exhausted. A careful examination of the strength
rations showed that at the moment the German and Italian forces were even
superior to the hostile forces at the front. Now was the moment to take
preventive action, to interrupt the assembly of the enemy forces through a
counterattack and to delay his preparations for the continuation of the
Rommel therefore decided to launch an attack with limited objectives in
order to decide on further action as the situation developed.
The attack was scheduled for the morning of 21 January. Various deceptive
measures were taken to conceal the German intentions, including strict secrecy
concerning the intended attack. Thus, regimental commanders were informed only
one day before the attack was to start. Also all vehicular traffic in the
direction of the front was to cease during daylight from the fourth day
preceding the attack. From then on vehicular traffic toward the front was
firmly restricted to the nights. These measures proved fully successful.
The attack was carried out as follows:
The 90th Light Division, hitherto the Africa Division, was to break through
the enemy lines on either side of the coastal road and to advance toward
Agedabia. The motorized Italian corps was to follow immediately and was then to
advance south of the Via Balbia while the Africa Corps was to start out from an
assembly area thirty kilometers south of the Via Balbia in an enveloping
pursuit designed to prevent the retreat of as many as possible of the enemy
forces. The breakthrough by the 90th Light Division succeeded as planned, but
Army headquarters, to which the command had been upgraded on 21 January 1942,
received no reports from the Africa Corps for a long time. The corps had run
into a patch of deep sand, so that it could only move forward with difficulty.
The intended envelopment thus failed.
On 22 January Agedabia was taken. In the following days two attempts to
pocket sizeable enemy forces in the Antelat - Saunnu area failed as the German
forces were too weak and their intention had been recognized at an early stage.
However, large quantities of materiel were captured in a surprise raid on Msus.
The Italian Supreme Command approved an advance as far as Agedabia but not
beyond that point. It feared reverses that might again endanger the Italian
infantry divisions because of their lack of mobility. The employment of these
division forward of the Marada - Marsa el Brega line was therefore not
permitted. Rommel nevertheless persisted in his intention to take advantage of
the opportunity of the moment. He advanced through the desert at the head of a
specially organized battle group and on the evening of 29 January captured the
Benina quarter of the city of Benghasi. There he received Mussolini's belated
approval of this advance. On 30 January Benghasi was captured and a brigade
taken prisoner. In the following days the pursuit was continued straight
through the Cyrenaica. Derna was taken on 4 February.
The condition of the troops and the lack of fuel prohibited any attempt at
attacking Tobruk so that, from 7 February on, this units were compelled to
organize themselves in defense positions, with the north flank based on the Bay
of Bomba in front of the British positions at Ain el Gazala.
Since it was now to be expected that the exhaustion of the troops on both sides
would lead to a period of comparative quite, Rommel flew to Rome and Germany in
order to learn the intentions of the Italian supreme Command and of the
Wehrmacht High Command with regard to the conduct of war in the Mediterranean,
in 1943. He found that practically no plans existed and that the Italians were
even every averse to any offensive operations before autumn.
In April Rommel therefore again took the initiative on his own responsibility.
His opinion was that it was necessary to take anticipatory action against a new
offensive by the enemy, which he expected in June, probably with even stronger
forces than before. It was vitally important to capture both Tobruk and Malta,
the latter of which, as a naval and air base, interfered with German seaborne
supply traffic to an extent that could not be tolerated. However, since the
German air force could support only one of these operations at a time, it would
be necessary for them to take place in succession. He considered it desirable
to attack Malta first and then Tobruk. However, if the preparations for the
capture of malta required too much time, he thought it best to attack Tobruk
first so that, after that town had been taken and the border line from Sidi
Omar - Bardia reached, all air force strength could be concentrated against
Malta.(3) Rommel's suggestion was that the attack on Tobruk should open in the
second half of May.
After some argument, this suggestion was approved and it was decided that
Tobruk was to be attacked first owing to the fact that it would take longer to
prepare for the attack on Malta. The supply situation was exceptionally
favorable in May, so that adequate quantities of fuel were available in Africa
by the intended date of the attack, 26 May. To a considerable extent the
ammunition situation was also relieved.
Important lessons learned in this phase of the campaign:
(1) In pursuit actions, success depends not so much on the strength of the
pursuing force as on speedy action, and thus to a considerable degree on the
personality of the commander involved. Relatively small units under young and
energetic commanders ()colonels) proved most effective.
(2) It is highly important to assign air liaison staffs to the pursuit forces.
These staffs must be equipped with radios, so that they can direct the close
support air units to worthwhile targets and above all so that they can
constantly report the lines reached to units in the air, and thus prevent the
air forces form bombing their own forces on the ground.
(3) To envelop enemy forces is more difficult in the desert than elsewhere,
since natural obstacles such as rivers and so forth, through which manpower can
be spared, do not exist.
(4) It is not to be expected that any attempt to take the enemy be surprise
through the use of deceptive measures that have once proved successful, such as
air attacks on the enemy headquarters, will meet with success.
(5) Terrain reconnaissance cannot be carried out too carefully.
f. Late May - July 1942: The battle of Tobruk and the pursuits to El
The operational plan underlying Rommel's new offensive was as follows:
(1) Frontal attacks by the X and XXI Italian Infantry Corps, which had been
consolidated temporarily to form Armee Abteilung Cruewell,(4) to commence on
the afternoon of 26 May in order to tie down the enemy forces in the Gazala
(2) Advance of the five mobile units under Rommel's personal command in a move
around the right flank of the enemy at Bir el Hacheim in order to wheel in on
the rear of the enemy on the 27th and complete the envelopment by 28 May.
Counting from the right, the five units were disposed as follows: 90th Light
Division, German Africa Corps with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, the
Italian motorized corps with the "Ariete" Armored and the
"Trieste" Motorized Divisions.
(3) After the elimination of the bulk of the British Eight Army's forces in the
field, attack on Tobruk.
These plans miscarried for the following reasons: The two Italian infantry
corps were too weak to tie down the strong enemy forces effectively. Initially,
the enemy was admittedly taken by surprise by the forces that by-passed his
south flank. Then, however, the attacking column spread out fanwise as the
result of the 90th Light Division turning northeast and the German Africa Corps
north, while the Italian motorized corps, pivoting on the inner flank, was
forced to move toward Bir el Hacheim and also reduced the speed of its advance.
This fan-like disposition of the attacking forces greatly facilitated the
On the evening of 27 May, the attacking mobile force, which had split into
three groups, was in a critical situation and in serious danger of itself being
encircled. Furthermore, up to 29 May, Rommel to a great extent was unable to
exercise his command, having become separated from most of his radio stations.
Supplies had to be routed around Hacheim and, as convoy forces were lacking,
large amounts of materiel and numerous vehicles were lost.
Nevertheless, in spite of this unfavorable development, Rommel steadily
persisted in his intention to take Tobruk. He concentrated his forces once
again, established a defensive front facing east and, from 1 to 6 June
succeeded in eliminating a number of enemy strong points south and west of the
enemy position one after the other. In this way, and in coordinated action with
Armee Abteilung Cruewell, he succeeded by 31 June in opening up a direct supply
route which, however, was under fire during the daytime in most parts.
Having thus eased the situation behind the center of the enemy front, he
proceeded to eliminate Bir el Hacheim, a bastion in his rear. This point was
well fortified with field-type positions and was tenaciously defended and it
was not taken until 123 June. Now the German Africa Corps advanced northward on
Acroma, were it destroyed considerable armored forces by 14 June and threatened
to cut off the two divisions in position in the northern sector. One of these
division fought its way out eastward, while the other cut its way through the
Italian forces by way of Bir el Hacheim toward the south. Now at last the road
was open to Tobruk, which the British were determined to defend. A new
deceptive ruse by Rommel's now proved successful. In the afternoon of 19 June
he moved his German Africa Corps eastward past Tobruk on the south, moved it
back during the dark and on the morning of 290 June attacked the fortress from
the southeast. On the following day the fortress with its garrison of 25,000
and enormous stocks of supplies was compelled to capitulate. On 23 June Rommel
crossed the border with the bulk of his forces, the 90th Light Division already
having advanced to Sidi Barani.
Thus, the operational objective had been gained and the time had arrived to
release the bulk of the air forces for operations against Malta. The Italian
Supreme Command and Field Marshall Kesselring, Commander of the Second Air
Force, still had the intention of now directing their attention to Malta, but
Rommel believed that he now had an opportunity that would never recur of
pushing ahead to the Nile. He was supported by the German High Command in this
opinion and succeeded in getting his way. The attack on Malta was postponed and
the main mission of the air forces was to continue supporting the pursuit in
the direction of the Nile.
On 28 June Mersa Matruh was captured and on 30 June Rommel arrived with his
thoroughly exhausted troops and only fifty serviceable tanks before the El
Alamein position, which was better fortified than any position hitherto
encountered. Two attempts to break through the newly established British front
there failed on 1 and 10 July, whereas serious crises resulted from numerous
counterattacks by the British between 15 July and the end of the month, the
British directing their attacks chiefly against sectors of the front that were
held by Italian troops.
Supply traffic again diminished considerably, so that for this reason alone, if
for no other, any new offensive was out of the question. It was found that
Tobruk, as a naval base, had far smaller off loading capacities than had been
In order to hold the front of about seventy kilometers, new units had to be
transferred to Africa and the 164th Light Africa Division, the Parachute
Instruction Brigade and the Italian Folgore Parachute division were brought
across by air and sent into action. Transportation of the Italian infantry
divisions from Libya took a great deal of time.
The more important lessons to be learned from this phase of the campaign
were the following:
(1) Once again, several tactical surprise actions had been successful,
because methods were changed each time. On the other hand, the "dust
deception" ruse was no longer effective. Rommel had had airplane
propellers installed in a number of vehicles for the purpose of creating clouds
of dust. These vehicles had been organized into a dust producing platoon from
which he expected good deceptive results which, however, did not materialize.
(2) It is dangerous for a force to leave a major strong point in its rear
unguarded even temporarily. If the forces available are inadequate to envelop
the strong point, strong reconnaissance forces capable of combat should at
least be left to keep it under observation and if possible to contain it.
(3) The British mine fields, the extent and distribution of which was unknown
to the German command, and the mined zones in the Ain el Gazala position
frequently compelled the command to make tactically disadvantageous changes in
its plans. They also proved a good substitute for terrain obstacles, of which
there is a lack in deserts.
(4) Attack columns must be held together tightly and units should only be
detached for some separate purpose in cases of extreme urgency.
(5) Commanders at higher levels should not change their positions too
frequently, even if the attack is progressing favorable. The commander
definitely must designate some specific spot as his command post and must
maintain that post as a fixed point, even if the situation is unclear.
(6) In air attacks on enveloped strong points or gases it is necessary to
designate the targets to be bombed with minute precision in order not to
endanger the attacking ground forces. This is particularly difficult under
(7) Supply columns are defenseless and require protection in convoys when the
situation is unclear or confused. Otherwise they are apt to fall prey to the
(8) In defense positions, the tanks also should be dug in at once. This should
be done in such a manner that they can drive out of the positions immediately
if necessary. The space between the tank and the surrounding ground in the
trench provides good protection for personnel against enemy fire and bombs.
g. August - early November 1942: The battles around El Alamein.
At the beginning of August the strengths on both sides were about equal.
Neither the Eight British Army nor the German forces had any appreciable
measure of superiority.
It was clear to Rommel that time was working against him and that as soon
as the enemy had brought forward sufficient reinforcements he would launch a
He therefore did everything possible to improve the German positions, with
particular stress on the use of mines, including air bombs which were buried
and prepared for electrical detonation. He even had what he called "mine
gardens" laid in the outpost area and had all battalion command posts
surrounded by mine fields. In distributing the forces in the northern half of
the defense line, which he considered the most endangered and which was in the
zone of the Italian XXI Corps, he placed Italian battalions and battalions of
the 164th Light Africa Division alternately.
As soon as the supply situation permitted, Rommel intended making another
effort from the other end of the line to break through to Alexandria. However,
for the moment this was not possible, especially because of the fuel situation.
toward the end of the month sufficient supplies of fuel would at last be
available if a large tanker, which had left Europe, managed to reach Tobruk. It
was on this hope that Rommel supported by the Italian Supreme Command and by
Kesselring, based his plan to break through the southern part of the front,
which was held by weaker forces than the rest of the British line, on the night
of 30-31 August and advance by way of Alam el Halfa to Alexandria.
The breakthrough, which was to take place at night at two points and in two
waves, with the German Africa Corps on the right and the 90th Light Africa
Division on the left, followed by the Italian motorized corps as the second
wave, was delayed until after daybreak. The commander of the 21st Panzer
Division was killed and the commanders of the German Africa Corps and of the
90th Division were both wounded. When this blow was followed in the morning by
the news that the tanker, which had arrived in Tobruk, had been torpedoed and
sunk, Rommel intended breaking off the operation. However, the chief of staff
of the German Africa Corps induced him to continue the attack, which was making
good headway. Field Marshal Kesselring also very emphatically favored
continuation of the attack. The attack actually soon began to move forward but
already in the evening of 31 August the shortage of gas began to make itself
seriously felt. Furthermore, a sandstorm which had been blowing continuously,
stopped after several hours and enemy air attacks commenced with an intensity
that had not been experienced before. At this stage the five German and Italian
divisions were behind the enemy front, where they were unable to move for
several days. They were attacked by the enemy air forces daily between 0700 -
1700 and 2200 - 0500 and suffered very heavy losses in personnel and materiel.
Kesselring had promised to deliver 400 tons of fuel per day by air if
necessary, but only a fraction of this quantity reached the troops. The reason
for this was that the transporting planes consumed most of the fuel themselves
on the long trip. It was only on 3 September that sufficient fuel was available
to commence moving back to the jump-off positions, which were reached on 6
The following weeks were utilized mainly to further improve the defense
positions. The three German and three Italian mobile divisions (the Italian
Littoria Armored Division had arrived meanwhile), were organized in three
tactical reserve groups, one German and one Italian division to each group, and
held ready for action. Toward the end of September heavy air attacks were
launched by the enemy against German airfields and the ground installations of
the German air force, which fact could be taken as a sign of an impending
The offensive commenced at 2300 during the night of 23 October which was a
dark, moonless night.
In this offensive, the British Eight Army employed:
- 3 armored divisions:
- 7 motorized infantry divisions;
- 7 tank regiments, which operated independently.
For the defense, Rommel had available:
German forces:2 Panzer divisions;
2 light divisions;
1 parachute division;
Italian forces:2 tank divisions;
1 motorized division;
1 parachute brigade;
4 infantry divisions.
The British had 1200 tanks, among which were some of the latest Grant
models. Rommel had 200 German and 250 Italian tanks; the latter of very little
value in combat.
The Allied superiority in the air was more pronounced than ever before,
reaching a ratio of 10:1 at times in heavier type bombing aircraft.
In artillery and ammunition supplies the enemy likewise was overwhelmingly
The British attack opened on the northern part of the front, with the point of
main effort shifting southward later, and by 29 October the defenders had been
forced to throw their last tactical reserves into the battle.
The first attack was on the Italian strong points, and after taking these, the
British enveloped the points still held by German forces.
The "mine gardens" referred to previously did not have the desired
effect, because many of the mines had been detonated by the artillery fire or
during bombing attacks.
Although every inch of ground was hotly contested, a few kilometers being
lost each day at the utmost, it was impossible to hold the field permanently.
Rommel therefore found himself forced to withdraw if he did not want to risk
complete destruction at Alamein. Consequently, he commenced withdrawing at the
last possible moment on 3 November, contrary to Hitler's express orders. By
that time the enemy had broken through the German lines on a front of twenty
kilometers. The 90th Light Africa Division had been moved to the rear
previously in order to take up support positions at Fuka, where no defense line
had been prepared owing to the lack of forces. The bulk of the Italian forces
were captured because no vehicles were available to render them mobile, as had
been done with the Parachute Instruction Brigade and the 164th Division. A
great part of the German divisions succeeded in escaping capture.
From this phase of the campaign the more important lessons to be learned
(1) The fact that the decision to attack on 30 and 31 August was based on a
very insecure supply situation and the hope that the 5000 tons of fuel would
arrive, was risky, but to persist in this decision, after it was learned that
the fuel tanker was sunk, resulted in dire consequences.
(2) Once again it was proved that only fully motorized units can be used in the
(3) The defense would have been more successful if some of the mines laid
within the main battle zone had been used in the rear to compel the enemy to
change the direction of his drive frequently. In this way, the effectiveness of
the main defensive weapon would not have been spent so soon.
(4) In transporting fuel by air, due allowance must be made for the fuel which
the transporting planes themselves will consume.
h. November 1942 - January 1943: The retreat to the border between
Libya and Tunisia.
The retreating troops, consisting almost exclusively now of German forces,
particularly of the German Africa Corps and the 90th Light Africa Division, did
not succeed in establishing a new line of resistance at Fuka, and even Mersa
Matruh had to be abandoned on 8 November because of the danger of its being
by-passed. Whereas the German forces had been under constant attack from the
air by day and by night, these attacks gradually decreased temporarily because
of the effects of heavy rains on the British airfields in the Nile Delta. A
halt of one day was called at Sidi Barani, where considerable elements of the
Parachute Instruction Brigade rejoined the army. They had set out to march
through the desert on foot but had captured vehicles in a successful raid on
British supply columns, so that they were again mobile.
Thanks to the precautionary measures that had been taken to build up an
effective antiaircraft defense there, the Halfaya Pass, which would have
presented difficulties owing to the enemy superiority in the air, was crossed
without serious losses.
The idea of defending Tobruk was weighed but rejected almost immediately as it
would have amounted to voluntarily accepting a siege. The retrograde movement
continued, the Cyrenaica being abandoned up to the Marada - Marsa el Brega
line, which was reached by the first combat units on 18 November. Rommel
expected a long stay at this point, since the enemy required time to close up
his units from the rear and to move forward his supply bases.
On 28 November Rommel flew to Hitler's headquarters, where he
unsuccessfully suggested that the African theater of operations ge abandoned.
After his return from this trip, he decided to construct a rear position at
Buerat. On 8 December work on this position commenced. German units which
required a period of rehabilitation, namely, the 164th Light Africa Division
and the parachute Instruction Brigade were employed for this purpose as well as
rear elements of the German Africa Corps and native labor, all under the
direction of the commander of the 164th Light Africa Division. One of the main
features planned by Rommel in this line was an antitank ditch in front of the
positions, but owing to the lack of time and the inadequate labor forces
available, only parts of this ditch were completed.
On 10 December Rommel found himself compelled to abandon the Marada - Marsa
el Brega line, since he feared that it would be by-passed. For the same reason
he abandoned the Buerat positions on 18 January 1943. At no point did he have
sufficient armored reserves with an adequate supply of fuel to counter any
attempts the enemy might make to outflank him.
Altogether, fuel supplies had become the major problem of this retreat. As no
ships at all arrived in African ports, with the exception of a few military
transporters with a gross tonnage of 400 tons, the army was entirely dependent
on air transportation so far as fuel supplies were concerned. On one single day
200 tons were delivered in this way, but on all other days the performances
were far lower, rarely being more than eighty tons and on one day only two tons
arrived. At any rate, the promised performance of three to four hundred tons
daily to be delivered by air was never achieved because of weather conditions
and enemy activity. The fuel shortage was so serious that it was not even
possible to take advantage of very favorable opportunities which presented
themselves frequently to damage the pursuing enemy forces, since every drop of
fuel had to be hoarded. Things even got so bad that, in order to conserve fuel
supplies, one motor vehicle was used to tow several others. This could usually
be done along the coastal road, which was fairly level in most parts.
On 23 January Tripoli was abandoned and the retreat continued toward the
Tunisian border, which was reached by the end of the month.
Important experience gained in this phase of the African Campaign includes
the following points:
(1) Before the battle began, Army Headquarters should have combed out the
transportation columns of the German Africa Corps and the 90th Division
rigorously. These services were, admittedly, extremely limited anyway, but a
number of vehicles could have been obtained in this way to form a
transportation reserve separate from the supply transportation services, and
this reserve would have been available for transportation of the infantry.
(2) In the face of enemy superiority in the air, it is impossible to maintain
supplies for large units by air.
(3) The rule that during a retreat all dispensable elements must be set moving
to the rear under a central command ahead of time, but must be directed firmly
from point to point, apples in desert warfare.
(4) In proved even more difficult than in the previous year to intercept
stragglers, since there were no natural features in the terrain that
facilitated the establishment of straggler intercept lines.
(5) Even during the retreat the lack of engineer forces was seriously felt.
(6) The mining of air fields by scattering mines indiscriminately proved to be
effective for a shorter time than had been expected.
(7) The Allied air forces made the mistake of attacking at regular times of the
day. They commenced flying their sorties at about 0800 each day, ceased about
1200 and then continued from 1400 to 1700 hours. The German troops were able to
take advantage of the intervals to increase the speed of their march.
i. November 1942 to March 1943: The occupation of Tunisia and the
battles fought in Tunisia.
Extraordinarily heavy convoy traffic in the direction of the Straits of
Gibraltar was observed on 6 November 1942. The Italian Supreme Command in Rome
as well as Field Marshal Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South and Commander of
the Second Air Force, immediately feared that the Allies were going to land in
force in French Northern Africa, a view which the Wehrmacht High Command,
however, did not share. In fact, Goering, as Commander-in-Chief of the
Luftwaffe, forbade the employment of strong air forces against the ship
movements, which Kesselring had intended.
When the Allied forces landed in Morocco and Algeria on 8 November, they were
met by French troops alone. The German and Italian control organs of the
Armistice commission were only a few hundred strong and were valueless for
It was only on 10 November that the Wehrmacht High Command ordered the
Commander-in- Chief, South,(5) who now for the first time was to take a part in
ground operations, to occupy tunisia. The only forces in Italy at that time
were individual units of Rommel's Army, which were awaiting transportation to
Africa. No integrated body of troops was available. For this reason the
occupation of Tunisia bore the imprint of an improvisational measure from the
very outset. The first unit to be moved there was a guard battalion of the
Luftwaffe, which was transported by air. This unit was followed by a fighter
group and Italian elements.
On 15 November General der Panzertruppe Nehring(6) assured command over all
units employed in Tunisia as Commander of Tunisia. He succeeded in gradually
extending the occupation, which at first had been confined to the immediate
surroundings of Tunis, so that by the end of November, Sfax and Gabes, in the
south were also occupied.
After the transfer of additional German units, the advance units of the British
First Army, operating in the north, were pushed back to Tabarka and Medjez el
Bab. The port of Bizerta was surrendered by the French without any resistance.
On 8 December 1942, Generaloberst von Arnim, as commander of the newly
created Fifth Panzer Army, assumed command over all army forces in Tunisia.
Owing to the beginning of the rain period, the Allied forces in Morocco and
Algeria were unable to move their units eastward, so that it was possible to
consolidate the position in Tunisia by the end of the year and to establish an
admittedly thin line of resistance against the British in the north, French
forces in the center, and a US Corps in the south, in a general line east of
Tabarka - Medjez el Bab - Fenduk - Faid - Maknassy. In the battles which took
place on this front in early 1943, particularly in the central sector, a number
of local successes were gained.
Early in February, Rommel arrived with his army in the Mareth Line. This was a
line of French fortifications at the former border which had been stripped at
the demand of Italy after the defeat of France in 1940. The Mareth Line offered
several advantages. It was only 35 kilometers long, was protected by a
continuous line of antitank obstacles and its south flank was securely anchored
on the almost impassable Matmata hills, so that it would only be possible to
dislodge the German - Italian Armored Army by an enveloping movement entailing
a wide detour. On the other hand, there was the disadvantage that the supply
route to Tunis, which was more than 400 kilometers long, could easily be cut by
advancing US forces, since the 100 kilometer section between Maknassy and
Schott el Djerid was not protected owing to lack of forces.
To remove this threat to his rear, Rommel, on 14 February 1943, attacked at
Faid, employing the bulk of his forces in the attack, some of them advancing by
way of Gafsa, while the enemy forces were contained by elements at Fonduk. In
this attack he had available units of the Africa Corps, including the 21st
Panzer Division, and the 10th Panzer Division, which had been made available to
him temporarily by the Fifth Panzer Army. Rommel succeeded in breaking through
at Faid and in advancing to Tebessa through the Kasserine Pass, which he held
for ten days. The American troops, which were still unaccustomed to combat,
suffered considerable losses, and for the time being the threat to the rear
communications was removed. However, he no longer had sufficient forces for the
drive on el Kef which Hitler and Goering desired.
Since the German-Italian Armored Army under Rommel and the Fifth Panzer Army
under von Arnim had now come into immediate tactical contact, a reorganization
of the chain of command became urgently necessary. On 1 March 1943 the Army
Group Africa was created and Rommel appointed as its commander. This army group
was assigned the Fifth Panzer Army and the First Italian Army, the latter under
the command of General Messer. Hitherto, the First Italian Army had been a part
of Rommel's army. The African Air Corps, which also had just been created, was
to cooperate with the army group.
On 6 March the Africa Corps launched what was to be its last attack in Africa.
The plan of this attack was to strike the British Eighth Army on the flank
while it was preparing for its new offensive. The armored units carrying out
the attack were to operate from the Mareth Line. However, the general
commanding the forces in this attack had no experience in this theater of
operations and the attack was halted by the heavy antitank defense of the enemy
and as a result of the clear superiority of the enemy in the air. Heavy losses
were suffered. Rommel had seriously doubted the chances of success from the
beginning, but was unable to escape the necessity of gaining time.
At the express order of Hitler, Rommel left the African theater of operations
on 9 March 1943, Generaloberst von Arnim succeeding him as commander of the
army group, while General von Vaerst assumed command over the Fifth Panzer
On 16 March the British Eighth Army commenced its preparatory attacks against
the Mareth Line, following up with the main attack in the night of 19 March.
After crossing the antitank ditch, which was accomplished with difficulty, the
enemy, with strong air support, succeeded in expanding the penetration.
Nevertheless, a German counterattack on 22 March succeeded in recovering the
greater part of the ground that had been lost. Then, however, on 26 March,
Montgomery, employing two divisions, succeeded in breaking through the flank
position so that the Italian First Army had no choice but to withdraw to the
Akarit wadi, where the line was thirty kilometers long and well protected on
The following are the main points of the experience gained in this phase of
(1) It took some time before the command and troops of newly arriving units
in Africa accepted and adapted themselves to the conclusions that had to be
drawn from the overwhelming Allied air superiority. One of these conclusions in
that, in the face of enemy air superiority, the employment of massed armored
units is doomed to failure.
(2) Once again the value of speedy action was proved by the seizure of Tunisia,
which took place solely with improvised means.
(3) The hopes centered on the short supply route from Sicily to Tunis did not
materialize. The chance no longer existed of forcing the enemy to dissipate his
air reconnaissance and air combat forces by using a number of sea routes. The
enemy was now able to concentrate his air attacks against the one existing sea
and land route of supply. For this reason, the supply situation, which was
eased temporarily in early 1943, worsened steadily. From the end of March 1943
on transportation by large ships, which was the only way in which requirements
could have been met, ceased almost completely.
k. April - May 1943: The final battles in Tunisia
The attack by the British Eight Army against the German - Italian positions
at the Akarit wadi began at daybreak on 6 April. Although the defenders were
taken by surprise, the attack failed to penetrate. However, the increasing
number of Italians who deserted showed how the morale was declining. In the
German units the shortage of ammunition for the artillery and special weapons
was becoming more and more serious.
An attack by the US Corps in the direction of Gafsa - Fonduk resulted in a
breakthrough at Gafsa and, in view of the threat to the rear that now
developed, made the evacuation of the Akarit wadi position unavoidable.
In the rear of the Akarit wadi position was an extensive section of hilly
country, which offered no good protection for the west flank, so that it was
now necessary to retire to the Pont du Fahs - Enfidaville line, about 150
kilometers to the rear, and to abandon the intervening terrain to the enemy
almost without a fight. On 13 April, the Italian First Army moved into this
line, which was holding the 120 kilometers of front extending from the coast in
the north to Pont du Fahs.
In May event followed event in rapid sequence. On 3 May the British First
Army penetrated as far as Mateur which necessitated withdrawal of the north
flank of the German-Italian front to the area immediately west of Bizerte.
In the decisive and final attack, the enemy moved in two divisions of the
British Eight Army and directed his point of main effort at the center of the
sector held by the Fifth Panzer Army, which he penetrated, with strong air
support, at 1530 on 5 May. Tunis was captured by the Allied forces on the same
day, Bizerte on 7 May. The southern flank, which was held by the Italian First
Army, was not under such heavy pressure and was still intact when the western
On 12 May all resistance by isolated groups ceased. Crowded together on the Cap
Bon peninsula, more than 250,000 men, more than half of whom were German, were
The Commander-in-Chief, South, had intended consolidating all staffs and
withdrawing all specialists, such as gunners, radio specialists, tank crews,
armorer artificers, and so forth, in order to fly them to Europe and thus
prevent the capture of at least the more important personnel. He was supported
in this intention by the Italian Supreme Command but was prevented from putting
it into effect by the Deputy Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, who
intervened in April.
The following points in this final phase of the campaign in Africa deserve
(1) The smaller the area becomes which is available to the defending
forces, the more concentrated will be the effects of the force attacking with
superior power, particularly in the present age of long-range weapons. A
superior air force can almost completely paralyze all movements on the ground.
(2) The brief descriptions of the individual phases of the campaign given in
sections a to k show that the time chosen for attack varied. Rommel preferred
moonlit nights, while Montgomery chose a dark night at Alamein, for instance,
but on the whole usually commenced his offensives at various times of the
morning. For the side that lacks air superiority, moonlit nights are
particularly advantageous for attack, provided the troops have been adequately
(3) The side that is weaker in air strength must restrict all movements of
troops and supplies to the night, as otherwise raids by enemy fighter bombers
along the roads would cause too heavy losses and might even bring all movements
to a complete standstill for a considerable period of time. Movement at night
requires careful planning and organization. Even for vehicles traveling alone
it is advisable during the daytime to avoid main roads.
So far as the German side is concerned, the reasons for the defeat in
Africa were to be found in the poor balance between ground forces, air forces,
and naval forces. This poor balance resulted in the temporarily inadequate
support rendered to the ground forces in November-December 1941 and the
permanently inadequate support from the autumn of 1942 on, which was
insufficient in spite of the self-sacrificing efforts that were made.
It also resulted in the constant lack of adequate air and naval protection for
supply transportation from Europe to Africa, the volume of which was adequate
only once, in April-May 1942. This again resulted in the ground forces always
being short of supplies and later in their being handicapped by an acute lack
of supplies of all kinds, particularly fuel and ammunition.
In operations in an overseas theater of war in particular, a well-considered
balance between the three branches of the armed forces in of decisive
importance. Attempts should never be made to offset deficiency in strength in
the one branch by an increased use of another, which in the present case was
Return to top
a. Effect of Troops, Weapons and Equipment
Men in the desert are constantly exposed to the effect of dust. This
bothers the fighting man all the more because he has to endure it in
conjunction with heat and the lack of water. There is no universal remedy
against dust in the desert. Dust is a betrayer, which enables one to perceive
every movement for great distances, even by individual vehicles, both from the
ground and the air. Every footstep on the surface of the desert throws up dust
and sand; moreover the almost perpetual winds carry along dust with them,
generally in the form of dust columns as high as a house, which form themselves
into whirlwinds and wind-spouts. In the beginning the German troops in the
desert suffered considerably from dust and had to fight against mental
depression. However, they quickly became accustomed to it, so that their
fighting power was not affected to any appreciable extent. The dust there does
not cause any injury to health, since it does not contain any angular or
sharp-edged particles which might lead to lung diseases. The eye inflammations
caused by dust did not have any serious consequences. It proved helpful to wear
dust goggles, especially in the large clouds of dust produced by moving columns
of motor vehicles. Therefore, every soldier in the desert was equipped with a
pair of dust goggles.
The effect of dust on weapons and equipment, including motor vehicles, is
considerable in the desert. Dust had the greatest effect on motor vehicles,
because the dusty air which was sucked into the cylinders attacked the
cylinders and pistons and caused these parts to wear out quickly. Special air
filters reduced the wear, but could not prevent it altogether. In general
purpose cars (Volkswagen) the air intake openings were installed in the
interior of the car in order to give the engine purer air. In tanks the air was
sucked out of the battle compartment. In spite of this the average lifetime of
a Volkswagen engine in the desert was only 12-14,000 kilometers in comparison
with 50-70,000 kilometers in other theaters of war. In the desert it was
necessary to change tank engines after about 3,500 kilometers, while they would
last for 7-8,000 kilometers in Europe. To be sure, this was due not only to the
effect of dust but also to a considerable degree to the necessity of driving
longs distances across country in low gears. The other parts of the motor
vehicles (such as the brakes, chassis, and all parts which could be penetrated
by dust) also suffered considerably more wear and tear than under normal
conditions. It is not possible to give any figures on this point. What is
certain is that motor vehicles in the desert need substantially more
lubrication than in other theaters of war. No special greases and lubricants
The barrels of guns, as well as all unprotected moving parts, were especially
affected by dust. The wear on barrels, therefore, was considerably higher than
in a European theater of war. Machine guns, submachine guns, and other small
arms were the weapons most endangered, because inasmuch as they were used on
the surface of the ground they were especially exposed to the effect of dust.
It was, therefore, necessary to protect all the movable parts of guns and
equipment, especially the breach blocks, by such expedients as wrapping them up
when not in use, covering them with shelter halves, or by other means. The
barrels of artillery pieces and rifles had to be provided with muzzle
protectors whenever they were not being fired. In view of the effects of dust,
special importance was attached to the care of weapons and equipment, as well
as to cleaning them frequently. Improvised dust proofing devices have been
discussed in detail in the former German field manual Combat in Deserts and
Steppes and therefore no further mention will be made of them in this
b. Effect on Combat Operations
The generation of dust made it practically impossible to conceal marching
columns. Dust clouds could be seen even at great distances and enabled one to
recognize the size of the columns and sometimes even the type of vehicles
(wheeled or track-laying). On the other hand, the effect of dust was also taken
advantage of for purposes of camouflage and deception. Dust was often created
artificially in the desert chiefly for purposes of deception. Rommel was the
first to recognize the possibilities of this method, and he employed it up to
the summer of 1942. However, even he often fell a victim to enemy deception
measures. For details concerning the use of dust for purposes of deception and
camouflage see Annex 6, Camouflage in the Desert.
We shall quote the following passage from the diary of Field Marshal Rommel
concerning the importance and effect of dust:
"On 13 March 1941 I transferred my headquarters to Sirte so that I
could be closer to the front. In order to save time I attempted to reach this
area by airplane. In the area of Tauroga a sandstorm came up. The pilot of the
airplane turned around, although I tried to get him to fly on. The trip was
then continued by car. We were now forced to admit that we had had really no
idea of the tremendous force of such a sandstorm. Huge clouds of a reddish hue
obscured our vision and the car crawled slowly along the coastal road. Often
the wind was so strong that one could not drive at all. Sand dripped down the
car windows like water. It was only with difficulty that we could breathe
through a handkerchief held in front of the face and perspiration poured from
our bodies in the unendurable heat. That was the ghibli. In the silence
I made my apologies to the pilot of my airplane. One Luftwaffe officer actually
crashed with his airplane in the sandstorm that day.
"On 4 April 1941 I got underway with my combat staff at
0300 in order to bring the artillery battalions into their positions before
daybreak. In the complete darkness we did not find the columns. On the next
morning we repeated our attempt and were finally able to locate the artillery,
Among other things, we ran into the rear of a British outpost area without
knowing it. Although we only had three vehicles, of which only one was fitted
with a machine gun, we drove up to the enemy at high speed while raising a
great deal of dust. This apparently made the Englishmen nervous and they
evacuated their position in great haste, leaving weapons and materiel
Attention is also drawn to the various references to the effect of dust on
combat operations in the description of the most important battles in the
desert (see Chapter II, Section 7).
c. Effect on Tactical Measures
During the first attack on Tobruk dust had the following effects,
concerning which we quote the following passage from Marshall Rommel's diary:
"The "Brescia" and "Trento" Divisions were
supposed to attack Tobruk from the west and to raise a great deal of dust in
the process in order to deceive and pin down the enemy. During this time the
main attack group was supposed to swing around south of Tobruk in a wide arc
through the desert and attack from the southeast. The dust which was thrown up
deceived the enemy so thoroughly that he guessed that the attack would come
from the west and paid no attention to the enveloping movement. When the
enveloping group had reached its jump-off positions, their columns were struck
by heavy British artillery fire. However, the air was soon full of heat
vibrations and gusts of sand blew into the faces of the enemy. Good visibility
soon vanished completely.
"On 11 April the encirclement of the fortress of Tobruk was completed.
The "Brescia" Division opened the attack. A great deal of sand was
blowing and the British artillery could therefore not be expected to direct any
"At about 1300 several enemy tanks moved past Ras el Madauer toward
our lines. Because of the tremendous amount od dust, which moreover was being
blown toward our positions, it could not be seen whether they were followed by
any additional tanks and whether they were followed by any additional tanks and
whether it was really a major attack. Therefore, I immediately committed all
the antitank guns which we available in this area. It actually was a major
attack and we succeeded in knocking out several tanks and halting the enemy
"Around 1800 on 30 April a new attack was opened against
Ras el Madauer. Numerous Stukas cooperated with us. Soon the hill was hidden in
the thick clouds of smoke and dust. The visibility of the enemy was reduced to
zero. It was impossible for them to deliver any aimed fire. Our attack led to a
During the advance of the German Africa Corps from the Alamein position
into the British rear area the effects of sand varied:
After the Africa Corps had replenished its supply of motor fuel and
ammunition in the morning of 1 September, it began to move about 1300. At first
the attack made good progress in the violent sandstorm which blew into the
faces of the enemy. Unfortunately, the Italian divisions were very far off and
were unable to take advantage of the camouflage provided by the dust clouds in
their advance. They vehicles and tanks toiled laboriously through the deep sand
drifts which covered the attack area. A fitful sandstorm raged all day and
prevented the British air force from attacking in strong formations. When the
sandstorm abated during the evening, the spearheads of our attack were engaged
in stubborn combat with a strongly fortified enemy defense position and the
attack came to a halt. Incidentally reference might also be made here to the
statements given in Chapter II, Section 7.
The intervals which the advancing units were ordered to keep from each other in
order to avoid dust varied according the whether the dust cloud was being blown
in the direction of the advance or to the side. Moreover, since these desert
expanses were in general easily traversed by all kinds of motor vehicles, it
was possible to drive with gaps between the separate vehicles, thus reducing
the effect of dust on the driver and his visibility. In general we used
intervals of fifty meters, both in depth and width. During the night this
interval had to be shortened for the sake of visibility in order to maintain
contact with the man in front.
The generation of dust through the recoil of the power gasses in artillery
firing, therefore, was of no special importance for the detection of artillery
positions, because the combat zone was always enveloped in dust clouds anyhow.
The discharges of guns of especially flat trajectory with a low barrel
elevation--antitank guns --could be observed and recognized with particular
east by the enemy because of their characteristic dust clouds. Naturally, they
also prevented the gun crews from observing the effects of their own fire.
d. Effect on Aircraft and Their Crews.
Sand and dust had no appreciable immediate effect on airplanes and their
engines, since sand filters were attached to the intake valves. Dust had no
effect on the efficiency of the engine, but nevertheless one had to expect more
rapid wear and tear on the engine, because very fine dust particles ere not
entirely kept out by the air filter. Even the special precautions taken during
refueling did not always provide hundred percent security.
Very heavy sandstorms made flights practically impossible because of the
extremely poor visibility when taking off. However, they were comparatively
rare. The ghibli brought sand out of the interior at heights of as much
as 5,000 meters; it was still easily visible 100 kilometers out to sea, and
indeed occasionally was even carried as far as the European continent. This
greatly hampered horizontal visibility, especially against the sun. Sometimes
visibility was reduced to below ten meters. On the other hand, vertical
visibility was only slightly impeded. It was only in exceptional cases that
direct observation and aerial photography furnished satisfactory results about
target details. In all airfields which consisted merely of sand it was
difficult, and sometimes dangerous, for several airplanes to take off and land
together. When there was no wind the dust remained hanging over the ground for
an endlessly long time, so that in spite of extensive improvisations, formation
take-offs failed in their purpose. Landings had even more unfavorable effects,
since machines with empty fuel tanks simply had to land, in case they could not
reach an alternate airport. When the wind was blowing, airplanes took off with
a slight cross wind, so that the dust raised by the take-off would be blown to
one side and not disturb the pilot behind. Difficulties also arose in dropping
bombs on point targets, since the dust thrown up by the first bomb made it
impossible to sight the target accurately. Although the breathing, sight, and
other functions of the men in the machine were hardly disturbed by sand, the
radio equipment was more sensitive. Many radio failures could be traced to this
cause. The most widely different methods were adopted to reduce the ill effects
of dust in the airfields.
(1) By selecting surfaces that were somewhat grassy or crusty even if they
possessed other disadvantages.
(2) By laying out abnormally large airfields or several airfields located close
(3) By reinforcing the surface of airfields with asphalt or mats.
Nevertheless, dust and sand also had certain advantages for observers and
scouts. They made it easier for the latter to detect every movement, even on
trails and airfields. However, inexperienced crews often overestimated the
strength of the enemy.
The tracks visible in the desert sand also enabled one to recognize where enemy
troops had passed, as well as the strength and objective of the movement.
Besides the sand filters attached to the intake valves no protective devices
ere installed either in the engine or in the airplane itself. On the ground it
was possible to protect airplane, engines and machine parts against sand only
to a limited extent by the use of awnings. Repairs were made in repair tents.
Summing up, it can be said that the Army and the Luftwaffe in general protected
themselves successfully against dust in the desert by the most widely different
means and by taking particular care of weapons, equipment, and machinery. In
general weapons failed because of dust sooner than engines. These failures,
however, were not of vital importance.
a. Influence on Tactical Measures
A general description of the terrain was already given in Chapter II,
Section 4. From this it is apparent that with the exception of places with deep
sand and rugged valleys, the desert in the combat zone of the German troops was
in general passible for both wheeled and track-laying vehicles.
The influence of terrain on tactical operations is just as decisive in the
desert as in other theaters of war. It is only more difficult to take advantage
of the peculiarities of the terrain for one's own intentions, since due to the
lack of forest, cultivation areas, villages, etc. It is seldom possible for
troops to approach and assembly under cover. However, even in the desert there
are the most widely different opportunities to take advantage of the terrain
and, for example, to conceal troop assemblies in ravines and valleys from
ground observation and - to a limited extent _ even from air observation.
In both attack and defense the important thing was always to have
reconnoitered the terrain carefully in advance.
In attack, importance was attached to choosing ground which could be easily
traversed by motor vehicles, and, quite especially which offered a covered
approach, at least in parts, through the utilization of terrain contours. The
fact that the desert surface was very easily traversed by motor vehicles made
it easy to advancer in light formations with few casualties, as well as to make
all kinds of enveloping movements. In actual practice there were only a few
limitations on freedom of movement. Thus, it was also easily possible to shift
the direction of an attack. During an attack the tank battle always occupied
the foreground. The attempt was made to compensate for the lack of good
observation posts by sending out forward observers. Difficulties arose for the
attacker if he was compelled to use the southern portion of the desert proper,
which in places was covered with soft soil. In its attack on 30 August 1942
from the Alamein position, the Africa Corps had to contend with these
difficulties. Above all, many motor vehicles became stuck in the passes which
led from the ridge of hills to the depressions and thus offered welcome targets
to the enemy air forces. The failure of this attack can be attributed in part
to the unfavorable ground, together with the overwhelming air superiority of
the enemy, the weakness of our own forces and the lack of motor fuel.
In defense terrain was preferred which offered an opportunity to prepare
reverse slope positions echeloned in depth. Moreover, the efforts of the troops
to "crown the heights," which was dictated by the desire to see
farther into the country lying ahead, had to be constantly combated. It was
naturally also desired to have terrain in front and on the flanks which was not
easily traversed by motor vehicles, but this wish could seldom be fulfilled.
The following positions offered the most favorable opportunities for defense in
the North African desert:
(1) The El Alamein Position: Here, although it was necessary to defend a
strip of open desert and steppes sixty kilometers long by field fortifications,
there were no possibilities for envelopment movements by major formations,
since the position was blocked off on both flanks. In the north it was
protected by the Mediterranean. In the south it had direct flank protection in
the form of the northern edge of the Quattara Depression, (Sanke), which has
only three, easily guarded passes, namely, the one directly west of the Alamein
position at Munquar Abu Dweis, then along the trail between Mersa Matruh and
the Quara Oasis, and along the trail between the Quara Oasis and the Siwa
Oasis. Of these only the first was actually guarded by mine fields and troops;
the two others, however, were utilized by the small sabotage teams of the Long
Range Desert Group to penetrate our rear area.
Furthermore, the sandy soil of the Quattara Depression itself, which was filled
with salt marshes, hampered movements by major units. Farther to the south the
great sandy desert served as a barrier to the hinterland. The only passage
between the steep edge of the Quattara Depression and the sandy desert led
through the Siwa Oasis, which was fortified as a strong point.
(2) Farther to the west the Marsa el Brega position was the first to offer good
opportunities for defense again. Here the area of steppes and desert south of
the coast contains many salt marshes and dunes, so that only narrow zones have
to be guarded by field fortifications. The open desert begins south of the El
Fareh wadi and extends to the area north of the Marada Oasis. The attacker,
therefore, in forced to make a wide detour.
(3) The Tarhuna - Homs position east and south of Tripoli is flanked by the
Djebel Nefusa in Tripolitania and takes advantage of the mountainous terrain,
which is not easily covered by motor vehicles. Since the mountains descend
steeply to the west but gently to the east, it can be more easily defended from
attacks from the west.
(4) The two positions farthest west, which are the ones most favored by nature,
lie in Southern Tunisia in the area of Mareth and Gabes. The former takes
advantage of the heights of matmata Mountains and is protected against
extensive envelopment in the south by the Great Eastern Erg (region of sand
dunes). There is open terrain there in the form of a twenty-five kilometer
strip between the coast and the Djebel Matmata, eighty kilometers wide between
the southern end of Matmata Mountains and the great sandy desert. The Mareth
position could be enveloped along this strip eighty kilometers wide, as first
became evident during the fighting around the Mareth position.
The Akarit position situation north of Gabes is partially protected along
its front and in its southwestern flank by salt marshes, which cannot be
traversed by major units. and in the northeast by the sea. During the fighting
here the British broke into this position at the places which were not
protected by salt marshes and forced the defenders to surrender.
Between the five positions named above there were also three more defense lines
which were used by either the Germans or the British during the hostilities.
These positions are without any protecting obstacles and were only established
as the result of the combat situation at the time, when the area behind them
had to be held by the defender for tactical reasons. These were the following:
The Sollum position had no frontal obstacles. All strong points had to be dug
into the ground. The northern flank was protected by the sea, the southern
flank was open and could be easily enveloped. This position was chosen out of
necessity, since the Germans intended to hold Tobruk and since this position
was the key to the coastal highway and the important Halfaya Pass. Mobile units
were organized behind the defense front in order to repel any enemy attempts at
envelopment by mobile operations. During the British offensive in the winter of
1941 the front of this position was pinned down and enveloped in the south by
strong British forces.
The Gazala position west of Tobruk was selected by the British as an outpost
area for the fortress of Tobruk. It had no frontal obstacles, was protected in
the north by the sea, and was open in the south. In May 1942 Rommel surrounded
this position in a wide enveloping movement.
The Buerat position east of Tripoli had one weak frontal obstacle (Wadi
Zem-Zem). The northern flank was protected by the sea; in the southern flank
were several wadis which could be easily overcome by an attacker. Occupation of
this position was ordered by the Wehrmacht High Command for the purpose of
defending the eastern outpost area of Tripoli. It was enveloped by Montgomery
during the British offensive in January 1943.
The three positions mentioned above were thus of slight value for the defense.
The terrain situated between all these eight positions is unsuitable for a
lasting defense, because everywhere it contains more or less extensive areas of
open desert and steppes. A defense in these areas, therefore, can only be
conducted along mobile lines.
The fact alone that for a distance of 3,800 kilometers there are only five
natural defense positions of any use shows the great superiority of the
attacker in desert warfare.
b. Influence on the Construction of Field Fortifications and the Use of
The German troops constructed only field type fortifications in the desert.
In building them an effort was made to keep the upper slope at ground level in
order to prevent the enemy from recognizing them too soon. Special difficulties
arose in constructing positions for antitank guns and heavy antiaircraft guns
(high superstructures). They had to be emplaced on the reverse slope. In places
were this was not possible the expedient was adopted of keeping these weapons
in readiness in some place in the rear and not bringing them up to the position
until they were urgently needed.
No experience was gained in the construction of permanent fortifications.
However, it should be pointed out that the Italians laid out the fortifications
of Tobruk so cleverly that they met with Rommel's unqualified appreciation.
Their emplacements, which were level with the ground, were later introduced
into the German Army as "Tobruk positions" and used both in Italy and
on the Western Front.
From a purely technical point of view it is extremely difficult to prepare
field fortifications in the North African steppes and desert. Wherever the
ground in the steppes is stony it is very hard, because there is a layer of
so-called "surface chalk" on the surface which had been formed in the
following way: the rain water absorbed during the winder rises to the surface
again during the summer and evaporates. During this process the dissolved
matter, such as chalk, silicic acid, etc., is separated again and cements the
top layers into a firm crust, having a thickness of from fifty centimeters to
two meters. Under this surface chalk layer there is a so-called
"lixiviation stratum," which is especially soft and therefore easier
to work. In constructing field fortifications it is first necessary to
laboriously blast away the surface chalk layer. Work of this kind can only be
done if sufficient time is available. If a temporary defense system is being
established, one had to be content with erecting positions built out of such
stones as may be laying around, or else use steep slopes or ravines and
fissures in order to get at the lixivation stratum quickly.
The surface chalk layer is of maximum depth in the steppe area, which extends
about thirty kilometers form the coast to the interior. In the desert proper
its thickness and firmness diminish, and its is finally replaced by a gravelly
crust a few centimeters thick which is of only slight importance for the
construction of field fortifications.
Naturally, foxholes and shelters can be dug in the loose loam or clay of the
depressions. However, because of the complete lack of timber, construction work
presents difficulties, so that it is necessary to limit one's self to bare
essentials. The use of sandbags and filled gasoline containers is of great
Difficulties with underground water have to be expected in the salt marshes, in
which there is salt water to a depth of about one meter, even when the surface
It is impossible to lay mine fields in rocky soil, in ground consisting of
loam, clay and sand it is necessary to bear in mind that the mines will be
exposed within a few weeks because of the action of the winds, or else be
Experience has shown that the effect of artillery and machine gun fire are
substantially more intense on rocky ground than on soft ground. Shells fired
with percussion fuzes do not penetrate the ground and therefore can have an
especially strong fragmentation effect. If solid projectiles are fired, the
effect is increased by the frequent ricochets.
If it is at all possible to construct fortifications --this requires time and a
great deal of materiel -- they provide especially good protection. As an
example it might be mentioned that on some occasions the Africa Corps used
dried-up cisterns (indicated on the maps by the word "Bir") dating
from Roman times as command posts, ammunition dumps and shelters for the
troops. These cisterns had a small influx hole in the upper chalk layer,
beneath which were large square caves of about 100 square meters and larger in
area, which extended through the lixiviation stratum. The roofs consisted
merely of a layer of surface chalk one or two meters thick and were not
supported for a length of thirty-five meters. They held out against heavy
artillery bombardments and air raids.
How difficult it is to capture well-constructed fortifications, if they are
resolutely defended, became evident during the siege of Tobruk from April to
November 1941, in the engagements around the desert fortress of Bir el Hacheim,
south of Tobruk, in June 1942, and on the El Alamein front from July to October
The most important fortresses of the North African desert were Tobruk, Bardia,
and Mersa Matruh, as well as the Alamein position, which was constructed like a
fortress. The three former fortresses served to protect coastal harbors, the
latter was a barrier erected at the gateway to Egypt. All desert fortresses are
built in such a way that their works cannon be seen from the ground, that is,
they are built level with the ground, have low wire obstacles, communication
trenches which are mostly of concrete, and strong antitank ditches. At the
fortress of Tobruk the outer ring consists of two lines of strong positions
which were not built like bunkers with embrasures but were completely sunk in
the ground. In some places the works in the outer line were surrounded by an
antitank ditch. This antitank ditch was partly covered with light boards and a
thin layer of sand and stones, so that its outline could not be perceived even
at a very close distance. The average length of one work was eighty meters. The
work itself consisted of several shelters, well protected with concrete, which
together could accommodate a crew of thirty to forty men. The different
shelters were connected by a communication trench with combat positions for
machine guns, antitank guns and mortars at their points of intersection. Like
the antitank ditch, the communications trench, which was about two and a half
meters deep, was also covered over with boards and a thin layer of earth, which
could be easily opened at any desired point. The works were surrounded with
strong wire obstacles and the individual positions were connected by barbed
wire obstacles. The second line, which was about 200- 300 meters behind the
first, was of similar design.
The desert terrain had a great influence on the selection and use of the
various weapons. It was found that one cannot have too many ranks in the
desert, for because of the almost unlimited possibilities for using and
deploying tanks they bear the brunt of the desert warfare. An abundant supply
of antitank guns is necessary, since in view of the almost endless distances,
reconnaissance naturally assumes special importance.
All guns should have the longest possible range, since the enemy can be seen
even at a great distance and it is necessary to get him accurately within your
sights before he has you covered. Since there is very little cover and only a
few reverse slope positions in the desert, it is advisable for the most part to
use only weapons and vehicles (including tanks) with a low superstructure. With
tanks it is especially important to have one which is fast, maneuverable and
equipped with a long range gun. Then the question of whether the armor plate is
of greater or lesser thickness is of no vital importance.
In the course of time mines acquired tremendous importance in the desert. They
were generally used for furnishing unobstructed terrain with artificial
obstacles. All fortresses, strong points and fortifications were protected by
mine fields. In the course of the fighting the employment of mines in the
desert developed into a real art on both sides.
c. The Tactical Importance of the Recognition of Vehicles Tracks by Air
The tracks of motor vehicles in the desert can be easily recognized in
aerial photographs. Together with other observations they were constantly
evaluated for the following purposes:
- to ascertain troop assemblies and concentrations;
- to ascertain enemy supply routes;
- to determine whether terrain in enemy territory was passible
for motor vehicles.
It was, therefore, very often possible to detect enemy movements in the
flanks and rear of friendly territory, especially the movements of the British
long range reconnaissance detachments which were operating in the area of the
d. The Use of Vehicle Tracks for Deception of the Enemy
An attempt was made to do this during the first few months of the African
campaign, but it was later abandoned because the expenditure of motor fuel was
disproportionate to the results achieved
e. The Use of Wheeled and Track Vehicles
The only track vehicles used in the desert were tanks, or else guns mounted
on tank chassis, and antitank guns. The armored personnel carriers and
artillery prime movers were half-track vehicles.
Wheeled vehicles, the same types as were also used in Europe, were employed for
all other purposes, especially to transport troops, equipment and supply goods,
as well as to tow guns in an emergency.
Whereas track and half-track vehicles were able to traverse all kinds of desert
terrain, wheeled vehicles frequently had difficulties, especially in getting
over sand dunes or steep slopes. It would be desirable to use only track-laying
or half-track vehicles in desert operations. Then there would be no
difficulties whatsoever in moving troops. weapons, equipment, and supplies,
except in getting over salt marshes.
Instructions concerning driving in the desert are contained in the German field
manual Combat in Desert and Steppes. These instructions were written on
the basis of the experience gained by German troops in the desert and can be
described as very useful.
f. Influence of Desert Terrain on the Development of New Tactical
Principles for the Use of Motorized Units
Since desert warfare is determined by the terrain and his to be carried out
on a mobile basis, mobile engagements will be decided almost exclusively by
motorized units. Combat in the open, unobstructed terrain must be carried on
after the manner of a naval battle. Above all, it is essential to recognize the
enemy's intentions quickly and react immediately to them. This is only possible
if the chain of command is short. The commanders, therefore, must be stationed
in the immediate vicinity of, or right among, the combat troops and should not
be hampered in their decisions by orders from headquarters which are far from
the front. In desert warfare a unit commanded from a rear headquarters runs the
risk of being encircled and annihilated.
To a large extend, Rommel's victories were based on the fact that he realized
these tactical necessities of desert warfare and consistently acted
accordingly, while the British adhered strictly to orders which they had
received a long time previously and which were no longer applicable to the
existing situation. Rommel's successes diminished as he became more and more
bound by orders from higher headquarters in Germany and Italy.
Open country permits a rapid concentration of forces at the decisive point.
Long range weapons of all types are of decisive importance.
The troops engaged in the operations should carry along supplies for as long a
time as possible, since it is often impossible to send supplies after them
because the lines of communication are threatened. Supplies must often be sent
to the troops by the convoy system.
Field Marshal Rommel expressed his own views concerning the influence of
the desert terrain on the development of a new system of tactics for motorized
units as follows:
"The North African desert was probably the theater where
war was waged in its most modern form. On both sides the brunt of the fighting
was borne by completely motorized units, for use of which there were highly
favorable opportunities in this level, unobstructed terrain."
Here it was possible to really apply the basic principles for the conduct
of tank warfare as they had been taught in theory before the war, and more
especially to amplify them. Here out-and-out tank battles were fought between
division size armored units. Although the war slowed down into infantry and
position warfare from time to time, its most important phases -- the British
winter offensive of 1941-42 and the German summer offensive of 1942 --
demonstrated the principle of full mobility. In desert warfare non-motorized
troops can only hold their own against a motorized or armored opponent in
elaborately prepared positions. If such a position is breached or outflanked, a
retreat means delivering up such troops to the enemy. The most then can do is
to resist in their positions to the last cartridge. During the withdrawal from
Cyrenaica in the winter of 1941-42 practically all the Italian infantry and
many German infantry units had to be moved out by shuttle traffic of a few
truck column, or else march on foot. Only sacrifices by the motorized units
made it possible to cover the retreat of the German and Italian infantry units.
Moreover, Marshal Graziani's failures in the winder of 1941-42 were largely due
to the fact that a large part of the non-motorized Italian army was helplessly
exposed in the open desert to attacks by inferior numbers of completely
motorized British troops. The weak Italian motorized forces could not engage
the British with any prospect of success.
From the nature of warfare in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts, it is possible
to derive principles that differ from those applicable in other theaters of
Enemy units encircled in a pocket can be destroyed under the following
(1) Non-motorized enemy forces, or forces that must give support to other
troops that lack mobility;
(2) Enemy forces that are clumsily employed, or forces whose commander had
decided to sacrifice them in order to rescue other forces;
(3) Forces whose strength is already broken, so that signs of disorganization
and panic are visible among them.
The following points are worth of mention:
(1) A commander should strive to concentrate his own forces with respect to
time and space, while he tries to scatter his opponents and to defeat them one
at a time. The terrain offers unlimited possibilities for such action.
(2) Supply routes in the open desert are unusually vulnerable. A commander
should protect his own supply routes with all available forces and try to
destroy or cut off those of the enemy. Operations across the enemy's line of
communications can often force him to break off an attack at another point,
since the supply system is essential for combat and therefore must be protected
above all else.
(3) The armored troops are the backbone of the motorized army. Everything
depends on the tank; the other units are there merely to support it. Therefore,
the battle of attrition against the enemy armored units must be fought as much
as possible by one's own tank-destroyer units. One's armored troops should
deliver the final thrust.
(4) Reconnaissance data should reach the command in the shortest possible time,
and the command should make its decisions and convert them into action as
quickly as possible. The commander who reacts most quickly wins the battle.
(5) It is the speed of one's own movements and the organizational unity of the
troops which decide the battle and deserve special attention, since the desert
terrain places hardly any obstacles in the way of swift movements.
(6) It is of great importance to conceal one's intentions. Deception maneuvers
should be encouraged by all means, not least in order to make the enemy
commander uncertain and induce him to resort to caution and delay.
(7) When the enemy has been thoroughly beaten, the attempt can be made to
exploit one's success by overtaking and destroying major elements of his
defeated units. here, too, speed in exploiting the unobstructed desert terrain
is everything. It is necessary to reorganize one's forces for the pursuit as
rapidly as possible, as well as to reorganize the supply system quickly for the
g. Influence of Rainfall on Mobility in Desert Terrain
In the steppes, heavy rainfalls occur only a few days in the year and in
the desert proper even more rarely. A few hours after the rain has commenced
the wadis begin to fill with water. The water rises quickly and converts the
otherwise dry valleys into raging torrents. In the first wincer of the African
campaign the troops lost equipment and even men as the result of this natural
phenomenon. In spite of the fact that the troops had been warned and were
required to evacuate the wadis, there were still numerous living quarters in
the valleys during the first big rainfall. the water began to rise during the
night and washed away tents and motor vehicles. The strong effect of the rain
could be attributed above all to the fact that the troops were stationed in the
mountainous area between Tobruk and Bardia, which was full of numerous steep
slopes and deep wadis. In the area of El Alamein (winter 1942-43) the effects
of the rains, which commenced at the beginning of October, were substantially
slighter, because the terrain was more level and the troops had gained
experience in the meantime.
After a rainfall the water collects in depressions and lowlands and renders
them impassable. In the steppes near the coast large connected areas became
impassible for traffic for this reason. It was even impossible to drive over
the trails, since most of them followed the depressions. After one or two days
the wa evaporated and the difficulty was removed.
In the desert proper rain had less effect on the surface. The water collected
quickly in clay pits and changed them into lakes which lasted for several days
-- in some places even for several weeks. However, they only filled the deepest
parts of the depressions, while the border areas, were the troops generally
pitched camp, remained dry. On the whole, rain had only a slight effect on the
passability of terrain in the desert proper.
Rainfalls had considerable influence on military operations during the retreat
from the Alamein position in 1942. Near Fuka one panzer unit became stuck fast,
so that the tanks had to be blown up. However, the rain bothered the British
even more. They could not carry out their pursuits because of the mud, while
the German troops continued their retreat along the coastal highway without
The water supply for the German troops in Africa was never a troublesome
problem. It therefore did not influence or hamper operational decisions either.
The chief reason for this was that there were always enough wells available. In
the Africa Corps the entire water supply for the German troops was centralized
and was under the supervision of the corps surgeon.
b. Requirements for Troops and Vehicles, Economy Measures, etc.
During active operations four to five liters were provided as a minimum
supply for one man per day. This quantity was only issued to the field kitchen
which used it for cooking and for making tea and coffee. Pure water was never
issued as drinking water. During quiet periods unlimited amounts of water were
issued to the troops whenever possible.
The amount of water required daily by a battalion with an actual strength of
600 men -- not including water for motor vehicle radiators -- was about 3,000
liters. The amount of water required by the medical units was fixed at twice as
much per man per day, i.e. about eight or ten liters. The amount of water
required for the radiators of motor vehicles varied according to the type of
engine and fluctuated between three and ten liters per vehicle per day. The
figures for the water rations were generally the same at all times of the year.
There were no important effects caused by evaporation. No appreciable losses
occurred because of evaporation, since the water was poured directly into
covered containers or tanks at the standpipes and remained in them until it was
The problem of keeping water cool remained unsolved.
There is no data available concerning the relation between water requirements
and evaporation at different times of the year and in different temperatures.
In combat units serving in the desert the water consumption was generally so
limited that the men even had to go without washing almost entirely. Each man
usually received a canteen (three fourth of a liter) in the morning filled with
coffee or tea, which had to last the whole day. Normally no water was used to
clean vehicles and equipment.
c. Water and Motor Fuel Requirements
In all combat operations our chief concern was about motor fuel and not
about the water supply. Only the garrison of Halfaya suffered severely from the
lack of water after its well had been destroyed by gun fire.
d. Tactical Importance of the Presence of Water Sources
Even in the operations of advance detachments the motor fuel supply was of
more importance than the water supply. This is especially remarkable if one
compares the required quantities. For example, a tank needs an average of fifty
liters of motor fuel for 100 kilometers, whereas the three crew members need
only an average of twelve to fifteen liters of water per day. Added to this is
the radiator water, averaging about seven liters. In a daily run of 100
kilometers, therefore, each vehicle requires fifty liters of motor fuel and
twenty-two liters of water.
No great lack of water developed, for the reason that the fighting was always
in the coastal area. In numerous places in the coastal dunes there are
sufficient supplies of fresh water to take care of the needs of the troops.
Above a stratum of salt underground water there is a more or less thick stratum
of fresh water which is constantly increased during the winter by rainfall and
which does not evaporate in summer as much as is the case in areas farther from
the coast. This water is collected by laying out an extensive network of
drainage ditches and by careful pumping. If too much is removed, the salt water
underneath forces its way in and renders the installation useless.
There are water sources of this kind in the sand dunes along the entire western
coast of Egypt from Sollum to El Alamein. In addition there are a number of
wells in the solid rock in the coastal plains which yield fresh water.
East of Sollum and extending as far as Ain el Gazala there is a strip of steppe
coastline which has no continuous ridges of stand dunes and therefore contains
only a few water sources of this kind. Here it was necessary to dig for water
in the bottoms of the wadis which opened on the sea, but only small quantities
could be found and it was of poor quality. The water supply situation of the
German troops, therefore, was at its worst during the siege of Tobruk and
during the defense of the Sollum front. During this time the troops were given
water which was barely palatable and which contained one gram of cooking salt
per liter. At some times it was only agreeable to the taste if used in hot
coffee. The result was a great increase in the number of intestinal diseases.
f. Well Drilling Equipment
On the whole, no experience was gained concerning well drilling. The
Abyssinian wells, with which the troops were likewise equipped, did not prove
suitable for this purpose.
Some of the water supply companies were equipped with heavy mobile deep boring
equipment, Salzgitter type (Meissel percussion drills). Their size and
efficiency are not known. They were not actually put to use and probably would
not have been successful. It the fighting had shifted to the area south of the
Nineteenth Parallel, we would have been in the region of the static underground
water stratum and probably could have used the heavy boring equipment here to
advantage. It probably would have taken several weeks to make a boring of this
The Benoto drill, a drilling scoop attached to a heavy drop weight, on the
under side of which were sharp moveable steel claws, proved useful for
operations in the coastal region. The drop weight fell freely onto the ground,
whereupon the claws dug into the earth and then closed automatically. When the
drop weight was raised, the earth held in the claws was brought up with it and
then disposed of when the claws were opened. The drill was named after its
French inventor and was manufactured in Germany on a royalty basis (both heavy
and light models). With the heavy Benoto drill it was possible to dig wells
fifteen to twenty meters deep in one day in loamy or gravelly soil, for which
it was especially well adapted. However, it was impossible to drill below the
underground water level with it, because the force of its fall was greatly
broken by the water. The small Benoto drill was chiefly used for test borings.
It drilled a hole about ten meters deep and seventy centimeters in diameter in
one day. The principle according to which it was built was good, but
unfortunately the construction was imperfect, so that there were often
operating difficulties. In particular the wire cables were too weak and were
subjected to much wear and tear at the guide pulley. Nor were the claws able to
stand up under the heavy strain. If these faults sere eliminated, this drill
might prove a very useful tool in desert warfare.
The water distilling company was equipped with six water distillers mounted on
trucks. This unit was employed only in special cases, since its fuel
consumption was disproportionately high (one liter of fuel was required to
obtain ten liters of water). During the German advance toward Egypt this unit
performed very important service, since all the wells had been contaminated by
the British during their retreat with neat's foot oil.
g. Method of Distribution
As a matter of principle, all water was issued in canisters from the mobile
water purification unit, which served as an intermediate container. At the end
of the water purification unit was a hose fitted with twelve faucets, which
made it possible to fill twelve canisters at the same time. As a matter of
principle, all water -- both drinking water and radiator water -- was carried
in canisters. Bakery companies were not issued any fresh water, since by baking
with sea water it was possible to save salt.
The standpipes were manned by teams from the water supply companies. The water
was distributed according to a table prepared by the quartermaster according to
the personnel strength and vehicles of the various units. The water was taken
away by the supply vehicles of the units.
If a position is occupied for a fairly long time, it is advisable to lay
water pipes, since this saves considerable transport space. Aluminum pipes are
to be recommended, since they can be laid quickly and connected with each other
by a bayonet catch. Of course, strict supervision of the pipeline and
standpipes is urgently necessary. When moving into the Alamein position we made
use of a British pipeline. In spite of strict orders, it was impossible to
prevent it from being illicitly tapped. The available water supply was
therefore soon exhausted.
Even the very high temperatures during the hot seasons of the year were
unable to impair the efficiency of the German troops to any noticeable extent.
This is shown particularly well by Rommel's summer offensive from May to July
1942. The achievements of the troops refuted the former opinion of the Italians
that European troops could not stand up under high temperatures. Even the
British showed no regard for the heat; they attacked at Sollum in June 1941 and
were planning a new offensive for June 1942. The most important thing for
standing up successfully under hardships of this kind are the toughness of the
troops and the good example set by their leaders of all ranks, who as a matter
of course should share all deprivations with their subordinates.
Experience has shown that men under thirty-five are best able to adapt
themselves to a hot climate. Acclimatization is easier in the open country than
b. Effect on Unaccustomed Troops
Newly arrived units had low fighting power and many losses through
sickness. The heat paralyzed the men's willpower and thus also their powers of
resistance. The diseases themselves were probably more a direct result of the
diet (bad water, canned food) and hardships than of the heat. The sudden
temperature drop in the evenings, causing abdominal colds, was also an
c. Effect on Tank Crews
In tanks the heat -- measuring forty-five degrees on the gyrostatic
thermometer (113· Fahrenheit) -- was naturally much greater. It became
unendurable in combat when the hatches had to be closed because of artillery
fire and when the engines and ventilating system had to be shut off during
pauses in the action because of the lack of fuel. The German tank crews held
out under even these temperatures.
d. Measures Taken to Avoid the Noonday Heat
In combat it was generally impossible to make any allowances for even the
greatest heat. During quiet periods in position warfare there was always a
noonday rest period of at least three hours. Cold rations were issued to the
troops at noon and hot rations at night.
e. Special Equipment for Protection Against Temperature Variations.
Measures were taken against temperature variation by requiring warm
clothing and belly bands to be worn after sundown. Each soldier had three
blankets, of which one had to serve as a ground sheet for protection against
the night dampness. For wounded men four blankets were required (two for
covering and two underneath).
f. Types of Shelter
In combat the troops had no shelter whatsoever, They either spent the night
in their position, or else in or underneath their vehicle.
Wall tents for four men with a double top awning were used chiefly as
shelter. They proved thoroughly useful and met all the requirements of desert
warfare. At the beginning of the campaign, low one man tents, likewise provided
with an awning, were issued, but later there was not a sufficient number of
them available. There were also larger tents for ten or twelve men. However,
these could be used for the most part only in rear areas, since it was
practically impossible to camouflage them.
g. Comparison Between the Efficiency of Troops in the Tropics and in
The Italian field hospital tents also proved highly successful.
After the men had become accustomed to desert warfare and after those who
could not adapt themselves to it had been eliminated, the efficiency of the
troops in combat operations was not inferior to that of troops serving in
temperate climates. Even the drivers achieved normal efficiency, since the wind
stream cooled them off and refreshed them. In all kinds of physical labor, on
the other hand, the heat greatly reduced efficiency. In this respect the
Italian troops were superior to the Germans. For this reason they did most of
the road construction work and mine laying. The detour road around Tobruk, for
example, was built by Italian labor units. It constituted an outstanding
achievement which German troops could not have accomplished in the same time.
h. Effect on Materiel and Equipment
The heat had no effect on guns, because they became so heated during firing
that this more or less neutralized the outside temperature. No damage to war
materiel and items of equipment was reported, or was to be expected.
i. Effect on Visibility
In the interior of the desert about ten kilometers from the coast the
vibration of the air makes accurate observation practically impossible for a
distance of more than one kilometer. All objects at a distance of one kilometer
and more appear to move, and it is hardly possible to decide whether a dark
spot on the horizon is an approaching motor vehicle or a destroyed vehicle. At
still greater distances all contours become so blurred that one always thinks
that one is surrounded by a sheet of water, from which certain elevations stand
out as "islands". In the beginning of the war in the desert, during
the first attack on Cyrenaica, several units fell victim to this deception.
They tried to drive around what they thought was a "lake" and
therefore did not reach their appointed objectives.
On the other hand, the vibration of the air protected small detachments in the
desert from being discovered by the enemy from the ground.
Surveying work suffered to an extraordinary extent from the vibration. It was
only in the morning hours (until around 1000) that satisfactory work could be
done with aiming circles or theodolites.
j. Effect on Airplanes in Taking Off and Landing
For the Luftwaffe great heat often had a considerable effect on take-offs
and landings. The density of the air was so reduced that the length of the
take-off and landing strips had to be increased by as much as fifty percent.
Landing operations could be indirectly disturbed by strong air reflections in
the heated ground layer, thus causing errors in the estimation of altitude.
If airplanes stand for a long time in strong sunlight, the polished metal
parts in the cabin, especially the glassed in cockpit, become so hot that they
cannot be touched. Therefore, the cabins have to be covered with tarpaulins.
For the same reason strong sunlight entering the cabin during flight is also
disagreeable for the pilots. Curtains relieved this difficulty, but hampered
Return to top
12. Cartographic Service
In Libya the German army was initially solely dependent on the hastily
reprinted Italian map (scale 1:200,000), since at first good German maps were
available only on the scales of 1:1,000,000 and 1:500,000, which were mainly
destined for use by the Luftwaffe.
The Italian maps were poor and often at distances of more than 20
kilometers from the coast, they were several kilometers off. In compensation,
there were captured British maps, which included Libya and Egypt. They were
excellent and as a result very much prized. Later they were reprinted.
The French maps, used for the first time in Tunisia, were serviceable, but
were later replaced by German maps.
In 1941 the Luftwaffe received a special map of a scale of 1:400,000 and a
conic projection, which fully met requirements.
b. Reliability and Methods of Use
Sufficient maps were available for the following regions:
- Tripolitania (area around Tripoli); Italian map, 1:50,000;
- Cyrenaica: Italian map, 1:50,000;
- Egypt (Western Desert): British map, 1:100,000;
- Southern Tunisia: French map, 1:100,000 and 1:200,000.
The lack of good maps made itself felt especially in defensive operations.
New photographs were accordingly taken of the area of the Marsa el Brega
position and of the Buerat position in cooperation with the Luftwaffe, the
cartographic detachment of the Africa observation battery, the cartographic
section of the Army High Command and the Military Geological Office. The
following method was used: The survey battery drew up a net of artillery points
(A.P.) by use of traverses which were emplaced at the triangulation points
(T.P.). The A.P. were clearly identified by means of ground panels. Then the
Luftwaffe took a series of aerial mosaics with 30 percent overlapping. The
results were transferred from the aerial photographs to the A.P. diagrams by
the Military Geologic Office. This work was more difficult than appears at
first, especially since only a simple steroscope was available for the purpose.
Correct evaluation of the form of the terrain and of the condition of the
ground on the basis of the aerial photographs required a great deal of
experience. Errors occasioned by the angle at which the photograph was taken,
the distortion at the edges of the picture, etc., had to be compensated for as
well as possible. After the rough drafts had been finished, clean copies were
made by the cartographic section and these were reproduced by the printing
section. In this way maps were produced in a short time which fully met the
requirements of the forces. They gave an accurate picture of the tactical
conditions on the terrain, permitted orientation and contained correctly
surveyed artillery points.
An important supplement in respect to tactics was constituted by the road
maps made by the Military Geologic Office.
The Italian, British, and French maps were redrawn and reprinted by the Mapping
and Surveying Service and then distributed to the forces by the cartographic
centers in Africa.
The maps were always available in adequate quantities, with the exception of
temporary scarcities brought about by the difficulties of supply.
The maps and documentary material of the Military Geographic Branch were used
by all headquarters down to regiment. They were used for the initial basic
orientation in the conduct of operations and as such were indispensable. In
addition, they contained a great deal of important information, especially in
their description of road conditions. However, since only such documentation as
was available at the beginning of the war could be used, there were gaps which
only reconnaissance could fill in.
The colored hachures indicating the passability of terrain or at least the
limitations on its passability, were important.
Camouflage is very difficult in the desert and in many cases impossible.
During the day it was impossible to camouflage the movements of troops and
columns from air observation. In the neighborhood of the front the troops could
only with difficulty be camouflaged from ground observation. The unavoidable
dust clouds raised betrayed any movement.
Nevertheless concentration of troops can be camouflaged, it great care is used.
Depressions in the terrain will have to be exploited for this purpose; all
vehicles will have to be covered with camouflage nets and vegetation (camels
thorn) attached to the nets. In the open desert all vehicles will have to be
dug in a deep as possible. It goes without saying that the vehicles will have
to be placed at as great a distance from each other as possible.
Although in most cases it will not be possible to camouflage the presence of
vehicles and weapons skillful camouflage can conceal the type of these vehicles
(the arm of service.) It would be altogether wrong to resign oneself and take
the viewpoint that camouflage in the desert is useless.
What has been said above is also valid for the troops in position.
Another means of camouflage, although on a small scale, is to seek out shifting
For details on camouflage, see Annex 6.
14. Evaluation of the Enemy Situation Through Aerial Photographs
The main emphasis in aerial photography, in addition to determining the
traffic on the Suez Canal, in the ports, on the roads, important paths, in the
villages, and on the airfields, was to provide details on the troops and
positions of the enemy.
In order to check on our own camouflage, from time to time the German positions
were photographed from the air.
Little by little it was possible to improve the methods of evaluating the
results of the aerial photography.
As the enemy's air superiority increased, however, the possibility of taking
aerial photographs diminished more and more.
Aerial photographs are indispensable. The evaluation was done by the Luftwaffe
Photographic Section in the usual manner. In regard to evaluation of the aerial
photographs to judge road and terrain conditions, see Annex 4.
In taking the aerial photographs dark yellow filters were necessary. Developing
required the addition of hardening material, since otherwise the coating of the
film melted and there was the danger that microbes would damage it. Dust proof
vehicles were used for the developing of the film. Relief maps were also
produced, but the need for them was not great, since the differences in
altitude in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts is inconsiderable.
15. Visibility at Night
In the North African desert the nights are much darker than in more
northern latitudes. It was often difficult to find a tent in one's own damp at
night, because it was impossible to orient oneself. As a result it was also
impossible for the enemy to detect troop movements taking place at night,
unless there was moonlight or parachute flares were dropped by the air forces.
During the daytime, on the other hand, it was possible to see very far in the
On nights when there was a moon the visibility was approximately as good as
that prevailing in Central Europe at the fall of dusk.
16. Choice of Camp Sites
This subject is taken up in detail in Chapter III, Section 9 (Terrain) and
in Annex 6 (Camouflage).
In the main, camp sites were selected for good protection from air attacks.
Preference was given to depressions in the steep sides of the djebels,
the banks of wadis and the dune districts. Only the latter offered an
opportunity to dig in vehicles and tents and to camouflage them.
17. Selection of Battle Sites
In attack the German Army preferred easily passable, open desert for a
battle site, because it made it possible for the armored forces to exploit
their mobility and their combat tactics, which were superior to those of the
In defense the positions selected depended to a large extend on the
terrain. They had to be difficult of access and provide flank protection,
otherwise on the whole they were useless for defense. Regarding selection of
positions see chapter III, Section 9 (Terrain).
18. Time of Day Selected for Combat
Marshal Rommel preferred to start fighting on moonlit nights or at dawn.
The fighting often lasted until dark, unless it was broken off sooner for
tactical reasons. There were no lulls in combat, even during the very great
heat prevailing around noon.
In general the Germans carried out no night attacks. On the other hand, at
the end of october 1942 the British carried out their large scale attacks on
the German positions at Alamein exclusively at night. They used parachute
flares to illumination the battle field and tracer ammunition to show their
troops the direction of the attack and the sector boundaries. The British
Commander-in-Chief, Montgomery, preferred night combat. The German and Italian
troops used the night for marches into their assembly areas, for large scale
shifts of forces and for surprise. These night regroupings could almost always
be carried out unnoticed by the enemy and, especially during the winter battles
of 1941- 42, they came as a big surprise to the British.
19. Influence of the Desert Climate on Daily Service Routine
The daily routine in the desert did not substantially differ from that in
other theaters of war. When not in combat the troops were as far as possible
given a lengthy rest period during the great heat around noon. The maintenance
troops (workshop companies) were also given a noon rest period. Supply traffic
could not afford to take these rests.
20. Special Problems of the Technical Services
The German technical services were faced by the following special problems
through the fighting in the desert:
a. They had to keep the motor vehicles, which because of the conditions in
the desert and the long supply routes were exposed to extraordinary wear and
tear, in running order. For this purpose an increased number of repair shops
were available. It is probable, however, that the problem would not have been
solved had the stock not been replenished by captured British material from
time to time.
b. The water supply had to be safeguarded. The troops specially assigned to
this task (see Chapter III, Section 10) did their work very well.
c. A detour had to be built around the besieged fortress of Tobruk. This task
was undertaken by Italian Labor forces and very well carried out.
d. The Capuzzo-Hersa-Matruh-Alamein railroad had to be operated.
The above statements may give the impression that the technical problems
encountered in the desert are less difficult than those in other theaters of
war. This is not the case, however. On the contrary, many of the tasks which
were necessary were so difficult that they were abandoned in advance. Among
others, these included the extension of the railroad beyond Capuzzo and at
least up to Tobruk and the procurement of steam locomotives, as well as the
construction of a fortified defense position with bunkers at the Alamein front.
21. Influence of Light, Shade, and Sandstorms on Combat
The intensive sunlight had a dazzling effect which was particularly
disturbing when the light was reflected by bright dunes. It was therefore
absolutely necessary to wear sunglasses. In the afternoon it was impossible to
tell vehicles from tanks at a distance of 1-2 kilometers and up. Favorable
times of day were the early morning and the afternoon hours from 1600 to 2000
In the desert range estimation cannot be depended upon. In most cases the
distance will be underestimated. It was therefore, advisable to use a range
finder. During sandstorms visibility was nil; moreover, visibility was
influenced by sand driven by the strong winds (from 5 meters per second) From
the air this produced an effect like local ground fog. During a sandstorm
fighting was impossible.
There were isolated instances for mirages.
Adaptation to the visibility conditions prevailing in the desert was relatively
22. Influence of Darkness on Radio Communications
Frequently, radio communication with Europe was interrupted for hours at a
time during the nights because of pronounced fading.
The wind constantly blowing near coast was regarded as very welcome by the
ground troops. It made it much easier to tolerate the heat.
For the Luftwaffe the fact that the general direction of the wind was
interrupted by periodic land and sea winds on the coast (during the day from
sea to land, during the night from land to sea) was of importance. Because of
the temperature differences between the water and the desert the winds on the
coast are stronger than on the European continent. They increase with their
altitude. In land the wind is weaker. Very often the direction of the wind is
constant, especially on the coast.
During sandstorms the wind went up to 150 kilometers per hour at the height of
the storm above 3,000 meters. On the ground the gusts blew at the maximum rate
of 60 to 80 kilometers per hour.
No data can be given on the wind velocity at various altitudes for comparison
with velocities elsewhere because no material is available on this.
24. Special Equipment and Procedures for Aircraft Crews
It was always advisable to try for an emergency landing because the
emergency equipment for desert landings, the armament, the radio and the
equipment for protection from the sun and the cold nights were ample. Aircraft
which had made an emergency landing were easier to locate from the air than
those that had crashed. The terrain was everywhere favorable for an emergency
landing even for aircraft with stationary landing gear. Even a belly landing
was preferable to bailing out. There is not case of crews having been lost in
the desert. The "desert emergency squadron" played an important part
in this. However, German aircraft were rather seldom employed in the interior
of the desert.
The briefing of crews on the native population and its customs was kept to a
minimum and was generally limited to the crews of single motored aircraft
(fighters, Stukas, close reconnaissance planes). The crews of long distance
reconnaissance planes and multi-engined bombers, and the parachutists to be
dropped behind the Tunisian front, were briefed on the basis of the experience
gained. It was possible to keep the briefing short because the Arabs throughout
had a friendly and helpful attitude. The sympathetic attitude of the Germans,
which was soon known in the desert, was calculated to encourage friendliness.
Small gifts and visits to the sheiks helped.
The crews were systematically briefed about the emergency measures to be taken
to survive in the desert on the basis of cases that had actually occurred.
On this occasion the following questions were discussed:
- Where are there oases, who occupies them, and what is their
- Where are the other water holes?
- What is the attitude of the local sheik?
- Should one assume that he is in touch with the Allies?
- Where are the nearest enemy forces?
Rewards in gold were given for the rescue of German soldiers. It was
difficult to live off the land since the natives had only just enough for
themselves. As a last resort the hunting gun included in the special equipment
was available. Because of the scarcity of game success in hunting depended
largely on the skill of the crew. Water was obtained by spreading tarpaulins
during the night to catch the morning dew.
Distress signals consisted of signal ammunition and smoke signals, which had to
be used at the right moment when the crew of a plane overhead was able to see
them. Large aircraft carried an emergency radio transmitter. In addition if
necessary, fuel and oil were to be set afire.
The crews had been told to remain near their place, if possibitems:le. Only if
they were close to an inhabited place were they to start marching immediately.
The aircraft had special equipment for the desert. This consisted of the
- 2 liters of bottled water;
- emergency rations (hard sausage, hard biscuits, coca-cola,
Dextro-Energen (grape - sugar tablets), Pervitin, cognac);
- Gasoline stove;
- One-man tent, sleeping bag, rubber mattress, linen cloth to
protect the head from the sun;
- "Storm" matches, flashlight with a portable
generator, sun reflector, first-aid kit:
- Emergency compass, signal pistol with ammunition,s red cloth
- Three-barreled hunting gun with ammunition, in dust-proof
packing, hunting knife;
- Foreign currency;
- Emergency radio transmitter;
- Blood transfusion sets were not included.
The search for mission aircraft was undertaken by the desert emergency
squadron. It consisted of 9 to 12 Storch planes and a number of personnel
carriers able to cross desert terrain. The planes patrolled the terrain in
British prisoners of war stated that their men had small compasses camouflaged
as uniform buttons and handkerchiefs printed with the map of North Africa and
southern Europe. This was undoubtedly a very good idea.
25. Dry Dock and Port Installations
The information contained in Chapter I, Section 1 should be consulted in
regard to the practicability and usefulness of the available signal
communications material. In the whole of Italian North Africa there was not a
single dry dock, except for small vessels. The port installations of Tripoli,
Benghasi, and Tobruk were good, if one considers the conditions prevailing in
the colonies. From the technical viewpoint there were no difficulties in
unloading supplies. Difficulties appeared only after the port and unloading
installations had been bombed. Besides the above mentioned three large ports
there were also some smaller unloading points, but they played little or not
role in large scale supply traffic. In Egypt itself only Marsa Matruk was used
as an unloading port. However, the capacity available was not used in full
because of the proximity of the enemy and the bombings from the air.
26. Reinforcement of Sand Surfaces for Landings by Amphibious Craft
The Germans had no experience in reinforcing the sand surfaces on the coast
and in the desert for landings by amphibious craft and landing fields. The
Luftwaffe used Italian and British airfields. The maintenance and improvement
of roads was in the hands of the Italians. The British had steel matting for
Except during the rainy season the surface of the desert was so hard that
reinforcement of roads and airfields was unnecessary (see Annex 4). Even the
asphalt via Balbia and the Egyptian coast road only had a foundation of broken
limestone without an intermediate layer.
Except for the ports mentioned in Section 25 no advanced supply bases were
established or used on the open coast. This was unnecessary because not even
the normal ports near the enemy lines could be used fully. As a result no steps
were taken to reinforce the beaches for landings of amphibious craft. The whole
of the coast consisted of sandy beaches where the special landing craft of the
German Navy, later imitated by the Italian Navy, were able to land. Basically
the difficulties which arose where caused by the sea, which made a landing
impossible when the wind blew from the shore.
27. Changes in Ship Loading and Unloading Procedures
The loading and unloading of ships was not influenced by the desert
climate. Moreover, in the coastal ports, as has been mentioned, the desert
climate did not prevail. In comparison with the interior, it was much milder.
In the main, native Arabs were used to unload the ships. The limited unloading
capacity in comparison with European standards was due to the performance of
these people, which is basically lower, and the difficulty of getting them to
go back to work after air attack alarms and bombing raids.
.During the hottest hours loading and unloading was interrupted, when the
28. Materiel Loss and Replacement Estimates for Desert Warfare
In has not been possible to check the accuracy of the German estimates on
materiel loss and replacement, because a large part of the needs of the forces
was covered by captured equipment, the amount of which was not listed.
29. Modifications in Supply Dump Procedures - especially for POL
There were no essential changes in stocking and distribution of fuel. They
were unnecessary. Fuel was conserved in German Wehrmacht jerry cans, which
proved effective even in desert warfare.
30. Diseases and Insect in the Desert
In 1941 there were a great number of jaundice and dysentery cases. The
reason was bower irritation provoked by the drinking of bad water. Quick
treatment with sulfa drugs afforded relief. (the tales that the health of some
people was gravely damaged by sand fleas and scorpions are pure fiction.)
Health of the troops required constant control, which should go hand in hand
with thorough instruction. The battalion and other medical officers do not
suffice for this purpose. It is accordingly advisable to assign a sanitation
officer to every company and battery to do this work in close cooperation with
the competent medical officer.
The sanitation officer would have to give special attention to the following
He will have to see that the soldiers wear warm clothes after sundown and that
they do not drink unboiled water. Excretory matter should be buried after each
movement of the bowels (the "spade system" is preferable to the
latrine system.) Whenever the situation permits the soldiers should observe a
siesta. Fly control should be organized (mosquito nets were used only in the
latrines.) Vitamin C should be taken regularly. In specified districts atabrine
tablets should be taken to prevent malaria. If necessary, the water supply
should be controlled (but only in the case of detached units.) There should be
a hygienic consultant for every two divisions. He should be provided with a
mobile bacteriological laboratory.
There should be a mobile medical company in each division. The company should
have 250 beds available. The German hospitals had the so-called Olympia beds,
which proved very useful.
The equipment of a medical company should include one light X-ray instrument
and three sets of blood transfusion instruments with plasma.
The corps and or army medical officer will have to have available two
surgical hospitals (with 300 - 400 beds) and two medical companies for every
two to three divisions. This is in addition to the medical companies in the
See Annex 5 for medical equipment for use in the desert.
In respect to insects, there are flies wherever there are people. At first
the troops had no effective means to combat them. It was only during the final
phase of the African campaign that the newly developed means (for instance, a
preparation called DDT) could be issued. There was no way of preventing
infectious diseases such as dysentery and contagious jaundice from spreading.
The only preventive measure tat could be taken was the order to bury all fecal
matter immediately. Infringements were severely punished. In contrast to flies,
which were everywhere, mosquitoes (anopheles) were present only in the oases
and their immediate vicinity. Since these insects fly only at night, use of
mosquito nets is an absolute necessity in these areas. Atabrine tablets ere
used to prevent the malaria transmitted by mosquitoes. Orders specified that
one atabrine tablet a day was to be taken. since the units did not often stay
in oases for long, malaria cases were few.
See Chapter III, Section 10 for treatment of water.
31. Desert Weather Service
It was the mission of the desert weather service to conduct weather
observation and to keep the Luftwaffe posted on the basis of the results of
these observations. The information was transmitted by a special radio
frequency to a collecting station and retransmitted from there.
The mission was carried out by small mobile teams consisting of one or two
meteorologists, three or four weather technicians and several radio operators.
A special vehicle contained the weather service equipment, the radio apparatus
(100 watt transmitter and receiver.) The work methods we as follows:
The synoptic system was used with ground weather reports from the numerous
ground observation stations distributed over the coastal area and also from the
Italian desert oases. Radio weather observing stations in Derna sent up two
balloons every day. At the front several pilot balloon spottings were made
especially early in the morning and in the afternoon (single station
pilot-balloon spotting was done, although it would have been better to use
double stations.) According to the velocity of the wind at a height of 200-250
meters it was easy to tell, while the temperature was still low and the wind
was weak, whether there would be sandstorms and at what time they would start.
Often errors occurred in the wind tests through local causes or because of a
rapid change in the atmospheric pressure, so that the estimate of sandstorms by
means of pilot balloons sent up early in the morning was unreliable. Severe
sandstorms will have to be predicted by means of the weather map, with special
attention being given to the variations in atmosphere pressure. Small
variations in pressure effect considerable changes in the wind at these low
In addition the Luftwaffe transmitted further information over a special radio
network. It transmitted individual weather reports but the main emphasis was on
providing fully worked out weather analyses and surveys and predictions
organized by districts.
There was a special encoding table for weather reports.
General Remarks and Experiences
Return to top
32. Special Equipment for Desert Warfare
The proposals, made on the basis of experiences gathered in the desert, for
the improvement and modification of equipment were carefully considered by the
agencies in the zone of the interior and followed through to the extent that
the limited time available permitted. The developments described below are of
special importance in desert warfare.
a. Decrease of the sensitivity to dust of vehicular and airplane fuel and
of especially sensitive weapons.
b. Experimentation in the production of a dehydrated fuel for vehicles which is
also fully effective in salt water solution. Such a dehydrated fuel greatly
alleviates the supply problem and would remove the danger of air attacks on
fuel dumps to a large extent.
c. Production of radar equipment to identify enemy forces which could not be
seen by ground observation.
d. Production of equipment for cooling drinking water or keeping it cool.
e. Procurement of effective smoke producing equipment, which would be capable
of sucking up large quantities of desert sand and then releasing it.
f. Motor vehicles: The mass production of a cross-country truck for supply
purposes with a three to three and a half ton capacity has high priority. The
truck will have to possess low range four- wheel drive, and a lock off on the
differential. It will need low pressure balloon tires. The advisability of
utilizing air-cooled motors is uncertain. The Steyr works developed an
air-cooled heavy command car, which, however, was not used until shortly before
the conclusion of the African campaign, so that it could not be adequately
tested. Insofar as an evaluation is possible, it seemed to have been in good
Special attention must be accorded the springs. The spiral springs used in
German command cars, Types 15 and 17 did not prove practical. The springs broke
easily and caused a bottleneck in supply. Leave springs were better, but they
also had to be strongly constructed.
All desert vehicles have to be provided with spades, boards, or rope ladders so
that they can be dug out when they get stuck and put in action again.
Desert conditions require a sturdy motor vehicle which does not weigh too much,
had not got a complicated motor and has deeply indented tires. Well equipped
replacement dumps and field workshops are a prerequisite. Both must be mobile
and capable of producing results rapidly.
Camouflage (paint) of all vehicles proved advantageous.
g. It is advisable to provide all passenger cars and some of the trucks with
compasses, which should be so built that they can be easily seen from the
driver's seat. The compasses must be compensated by magnets (suitable examples
are manufactured by the Askania Works in Berlin- Friedenau.
h. Tents. The field forces must be completely outfitted with tents (double roof
and dust proof where possible.) The roof can be flat.
i. Drills. The development of a dry drill similar to the Benoto, which can
reach water sources very quickly would be very useful. Mobile deep drills
should also be at hand, such as are produced in Germany by the Craelius
j. Distilling equipment. Since there is a lot more salt water in the desert
than fresh water, the field forces can often be supplied even when no fresh
water is available, by having distilling equipment at their disposal. For that
reason it is important to have such equipment. They should be sparing of fuel
and be mounted on cross country vehicles so that they can be taken along by
motorized troops. Capacity should be great enough to provide each man with four
to five liters of water daily.
k. Surveying equipment. Ordinary theodolites are adequate for surveying
purposes. Still it is a good idea to provide them with special protection
against dust. A military unit is advisable, which can quickly produce reliable
maps in cooperation with the air force and can carry out terrain
reconnaissance. One can recommend for the last mentioned mission an
organization which is a combination of the English Long Range Desert Group and
the German Military Geology Office.
l. Tanks and prime movers. The periscopes of the tanks were often damaged. The
motors of the Type IV tank (long) which were put into operation as of autumn,
1941, were very efficient. Depending on the condition of the terrain in which
operations had taken place a general overhauling was necessary after about
10,000 - 15,000 kilometers. The motors of the Tiger tank, later used in
Tunisia, were too weak and too sensitive.
The cross-country mobility of the prime movers could have been improved
upon. They were not up to the demands imposed by a thick ground covering of
33. Research and Development Possibilities for Special Desert Equipment
German industrial capacity was capable of satisfying all demands for
equipment necessary for desert warfare. It was not prepared for these demands
when they came, however. Since technical developments always require
considerable time, it was not possible in the comparatively short period during
which fighting went on in Africa to technically perfect new objects.
Distribution to the forces did not impose difficulties as a smooth working
distribution organization was available.
34. Unusual Supply Problems
The basic difficulties for the smooth functioning supply of German forces
in Africa have already been described in Chapter I, Section 3.
Overseas theaters of war require many unloading ports which are usable and as
near to the front as possible. Prerequisite is at least partial domination of
the sea and air lanes. Rail connections between unloading ports and the front
are very essential. In any event there must be adequate parking space for the
supply trains. In can never be too large, when one considers that all supplies
must be sent overland from the harbors to the front. Supply dumps near the
front are also necessary, which must be regularly kept well stocked.
It is very important that the commander of the army and his chief of staff are
daily oriented in detail on the supply situation. When waging war in another
section of the world, the supply situation must be calculated very accurately
as it exerts an even greater influence on the decisions of the command than
elsewhere. On the other hand the commander should not become overly dependent
on the supply situation, but he must expect a great effort to be made that
supplies get from unloading ports to the front. Only what has already been
unloaded can be included in calculations. Supplies still on their way cannot be
Tactical considerations will determine the portion of the available ship's
tonnage to be used for the transport of men and for that of supplies. This must
be directed by an over all authority and is just as true for air
transportation. The latter can only be of temporary assistance and otherwise
must be regarded as a secondary transportation means. The army in the desert,
itself, must determine what is to be sent over.
In unloading care must be taken because of the danger from air raids that the
ships be emptied as quickly as possible, after which the supplies, especially
fuel and ammunition, should be immediately moved from the danger zone into the
Strong antiaircraft protection and fighter escorts are indispensable at the
unloading ports as well as barriers against torpedoes and submarines.
Fuel and ammunition must be stored at widely scattered points, where it should
be buried and well camouflaged. Burial is absolutely necessary as protection
against the heat. Careful surveillance of the camouflage, especially in rear
areas, is important.
Rommel's supply columns were not assigned a maximum daily speed or travel time.
They were simply given the mission of travelling as rapidly and as long as
possible, because a shortage of column space always existed.
There was always a lack of fuel. After it was unloaded, it was transferred to
drums and then issued at the fuel dumps near the front in jerry cans.
Underground tank installations are of course desirable, but they did not exist
in North Africa at the time.
The average loss of weapons and equipment in the desert was abut 25 percent
higher than in an European theater of war. Accurate figures are, however, not
available (see Chapter IV, Section 28.)
Assimilation of food and production of body heat are about 20 to 15 percent
lower in hot areas than in Europe. Therefore, under normal conditions, the
total nutritional needs are less than in Europe. Heavy physical exertion
requires about the same food intake as at home. Too much meat, especially
canned meat, was rejected by the men.
A fundamental alteration of nutritional standards soon makes itself felt.
Vegetables and fruit are more popular than meat. Too great a meat consumption
considerable increases the body's need for water. The high caloric count of fat
is in contradiction to the above mentioned low production of body heat in hot
regions. Increased intake of vegetable products, especially marmalade, are
necessary to equalize the low fat requirements.
Fresh meat is preferable if refrigeration facilities are available. Smoked
meat, especially hard sausage which is not too fatty, finds a ready audience.
Eggs should never be eaten raw. Legumes should not be served too often. Because
of the danger of infection with intestinal diseases, greens should be
thoroughly washed with a solution of permanganate of potassium.
All sorts of dried fruits proved very satisfactory.
The consumption of concentrated alcoholic beverages should be carefully
avoided. The best principle is "No alcohol before sunset." The
furnishing of lemon and other citric juices is the best means of avoiding
vitamin C deficiency.
As wide a variety as possible should be attempted in the menu, as the troops
came to dislike foods that were served constantly.
Refrigeration of foods (meat and fresh vegetables) is achieved by means of so
called cooling units manipulated by aggregates, which can be set up in trucks.
The Luftwaffe also had refrigeration planes.
The "Field Cookbook for Improvised Cooking and Baking in the
Colonies" was drawn up as a cooking aid.
The crews of armored vehicles and of planes needed extra rations because of the
increased pressure exerted upon them.
Clothing of 100 percent pure wool is most practical. In general long
trousers which could be tightly closed at the bottom (slacks) were preferred to
breeches work with high laced boots. The slacks, such as were worn by the
Luftwaffe, should be broad and cut on a comfortable bias. this is also true as
regards the jacket, the most practical model for which is the Italian
Sahariana. A warm cloth coat is indispensable in the cool seasons and nights.
Woolen scarves become necessary in winter. Shoes should be constructed of a
light leather with a linen inlay and thick, firm soles.
Tents should be painted a striped and speckled green and brown on one side and
be the color of ocher on the other.
Camouflage nets with knotted strips of many colored cloth attached to them are
the vest for sending to the front. Such camouflage nets are practical for all
larger motor vehicles.
35. Comparisons with Desert Warfare in Southern Russia
The southern Russian steppes (Kirghis and Kalmuk Steppes) have much the
same rainfall as the ring of steppes in North Africa, 100-200 mm a year.
However, since the temperature is on the average lower, evaporation is less. In
Southern Russia, therefore, the surface of the ground is not covered with a
firm crust (surface lime), the vegetation is denser and watercourses with water
exist the whole year round, although, with few exceptions, they do not reach
the sea but instead filter down through the sand or end in salt lakes. From the
military point of view the differences have the following effect:
a. Water supply is easier; although it is not as easy as in cultivated regions,
it nevertheless does not present serious difficulties as long s an organization
for reaching it and distributing it exists.
b. In dry weather passability is at least as good as that in the open North
African desert. During rainy weather, however, it is worse, since districts
with a rocky sub-surface are lacking or are to be found only in mountainous
c. The building of field positions is easier, since the ground is composed of
clay or loam almost everywhere.
Like the North African desert, the South Russian steppes are better suited for
attack than for defense. The biggest difficulties are encountered during the
severe winter, especially when the enemy troops are accustomed to a harsh
The conditions arising from the dust are in general the same and those
prevailing in the pure steppe terrain on southern Russia.
36. Troop Welfare in the Desert
In the desert, as on no other theater of war, life was hard for officers
and men alike. Life in the rear areas, as it is known in Europe, was possible
only in the few supply centers in the rear, and then it was only a small
Because of the close contact of the troops with each other, all officers had to
give an example of soldierly bearing and good moral living. Any extravagance on
the part of an officer is noticed by the men and scrutinized with a magnifying
glass. On the other hand, life in the desert offers an excellent opportunity to
create a very high level of community spirit. This brings about a feeling of
solidarity in all ranks and prompts them to do their utmost.
It is especially the desert, where no diversions exist, that requires that
every superior be carefully concerned about the welfare of his personnel. The
fact that there are no outside attractions makes in easier for him - if that
should be necessary.
An oppressive feeling of immense loneliness overcomes everyone more or less
frequently in the desert, a feeling that one is cut off from everything that
one holds dear. The commander must recognize such moods and depressions and
offer sincere encouragement so that the pressure will disappear.
Even more important than rations for the well-being of soldiers in the desert
is the maintenance of regular communications with the zone of the interior. The
word "mail" occupies a placed of high priority in desert warfare. All
officers and agencies must, therefore, be concerned with assuring a rapid
distribution of mail lines.
A good newspaper that carries up-to-the-minute news and gives space to the
problems which absorb the soldier at the front is also indispensable. Movies
and theatrical performances at the front belong to the variations in the
monotony of his life which can be offered the soldier even in the desert.
The normal service time in the desert for a German soldier was six months.
Regular rotation could, however, often not be provided in Africa between 1941
and 1943 with the result that many soldiers had to serve in the desert for
twelve and even eighteen months. If relief is not possible after six months for
one reason or another, the men must be granted three week's leave. Otherwise
lasting damage to their health can easily result.
Proper leadership, training and welfare of the troops can lead to
extraordinary successes especially in the seclusion of a desert theater. Field
Marshal Rommel has proven this.
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15th Panzer Division 15, 20, 21
164th Light Africa Division viii, 15, 28, 29, 31
21st Panzer Division viii, 15, 23, 29, 33
3rd Panzer Division 4
5th Light Division 15, 19, 21, 23
90th Light Africa Division 15, 29-31
acclimatization 7, 8, 51
Africa Corps i, vii, viii, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 15, 17, 19, 23-29, 31-33, 41, 43,
Agedabia 13, 19, 24, 26
aircraft vii, 6, 30, 41, 58, 59
Akarit 34, 43
Algeria 14, 32, 33
ammunition 21, 22, 25, 27, 30, 34, 35, 41, 45, 56, 58, 59, 63, 64
antiaircraft guns 25, 44
antitank guns 5, 18, 41, 44-46
artillery viii, 5, 15-19, 21-24, 30, 34, 39-41, 45, 46, 51, 54
Astronomical observation teams 5
Bardia 9, 11, 13, 14, 19, 20, 26, 45, 48
Bay of Sirte 1, 13
belly bands 6, 18, 52
Benghasi 9, 10, 14, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26, 59
Berlin ii, 4, 62
Bir el Hacheim 27, 28, 45
British Eighth Army 33, 34
British First Army 33, 34
Buerat 1, 13, 31, 44, 54
Camouflage 4, 5, 7, 21, 22, 40, 41, 52, 55, 56, 62, 64, 65
Capuzzo 13, 20, 57
climate 1, 7, 8, 15, 51, 56, 60, 65
compasses 6, 59, 62
Crete 10, 17
Cyrenaica 12-14, 19, 24-26, 31, 47, 52, 54
deception 28, 40, 46, 48, 52
defense 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13, 20-22, 25-27, 29-31, 33, 41-44, 50, 56, 57,
Derna 9, 11, 14, 19, 20, 22, 26, 61
dust 11, 13, 18, 20, 22, 25, 28, 39-42, 55, 59, 62, 63, 65
Egypt 3, 4, 9-11, 13, 23, 27, 45, 50, 54, 59
El Agheila 13
El Alamein i, 7, 10, 13-15, 27-29, 43, 45, 48, 50
El Fareh 13, 43
Fifth Panzer Army 33, 34
fortifications 1, 33, 43-46
Gabes 14, 33, 43
Garibaldi 1, 19
Gazala 5, 19, 24, 26, 27, 29, 44, 50
Gebel Mefusa Mountains 12
data collection 2
Graziani 3, 47
Halfaya Pass 11, 13, 20, 25, 31, 44
helmets 6, 18
Hitler 4, 30, 31, 33, 34
Homs 1, 12, 43
infantry ii, 3, 10, 13, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 24, 26-28, 30, 32, 47
Initial provision of 1
Italian Folgore Parachute Division 28
Italian Supreme Command 9, 26, 28, 29, 32, 35
Italian XXI Corps 29
Italy 4, 7, 9, 10, 17, 18, 24, 32, 33, 44, 47
Kasserine Pass 33
Kesselring viii, 9, 28-30, 32
Libya 2-4, 11, 13, 14, 19, 28, 31, 54
Luftwaffe vi, 10, 15, 17, 32, 33, 40, 42, 53-55, 58, 59, 61, 64
machine gun 18, 40, 45
Malta 9, 10, 26-28
maps 1-3, 14, 20, 36, 45, 54, 55, 63
Marada 11, 13, 24-26, 31, 43
Mareth Line 14, 33, 34
Marsa el Brega 11, 13, 14, 24-26, 31, 43, 54
Matmata Mountains 12, 14, 43
Mechili 12, 19, 20, 24
medical examinations 8
Mediterranean 4, 9, 10, 26, 32, 43
Medjez el Bab 33
Mersa Matruh 28, 31, 43, 45
Montgomery 34, 35, 44, 56
Morocco 32, 33
Msus 19, 26
Mussolini 4, 26
oasis 15, 21, 43
Panzergruppe Afrika 8, 15, 17
Parachute Instruction Brigade 15, 16, 28, 30, 31
Preparations for campaign 4
Quattara Depression 13, 14, 43
radio 16, 21, 24, 28, 35, 42, 57-59, 61
Ras el Mdauuar 21
reconnaissance 1, 2, 15, 17-19, 23, 24, 27-29, 34, 45, 46, 48, 55, 58, 63
replacements 7, 18
Rommel i, vi, vii, 1-3, 9, 12, 19-21, 23-35, 40, 44, 47, 51, 56, 64, 66
Russia ii, 65
salt marsh 14
sand 2, 6, 7, 11, 13, 14, 22, 26, 39-43, 45, 46, 50, 57, 59, 60, 62, 63, 65
sandstorms 15, 41, 57, 58, 61
Schott el Djerid 33
Sicily 4, 8, 10, 24, 34
Sidi Omar 19, 26
Sirte 1, 13, 23, 40
Sollum 11, 13, 19, 20, 44, 50, 51
supply ii, vi, 4, 5, 8-11, 14-18, 20, 24-29, 31-35, 41, 45-51, 55, 57, 59,
surprise 4, 5, 19, 23, 26-28, 34, 56
tanks 5, 7-9, 16, 18, 20, 21, 23-25, 28-30, 39, 41, 42, 45, 46, 48, 49, 51,
Tobruk 9, 11, 14, 19-21, 23-29, 31, 40, 44, 45, 48, 50, 52, 57, 59
training i, ii, 3, 4, 7, 22, 66
Tripoli 1, 9, 10, 12-14, 19, 22, 24, 32, 43, 44, 54, 59
Tripolitania 1, 14, 43, 54
Tunis 10, 13, 16, 18, 33, 34
uniforms 5, 8, 18
Via Balbia 1, 13, 14, 21, 26, 59
von Arnim 33, 34
wadi 13, 34, 43, 44
water vi, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 14, 18, 20, 39, 40, 44, 45, 48-52, 57-65
water supply 4, 5, 10, 11, 14, 18, 49-51, 57, 60, 65
weather 11, 15, 32, 61, 65
Wehrmacht High Command 9, 10, 26, 32, 44
wind 12, 13, 15, 39, 40, 42, 52, 58, 60, 61
X Air Corps 4, 17
XIII British Corps 23
XXX British Corps 23
"Savona" Division 21
(1) An armored army with no rear zone administrative responsibilities.
(2) Large ares of shifting sand dunes.
(3) An advance into the interior of Egypt was thus not discussed.
(4) A temporary organization commanded by a corps commander with a corps
(5) Kesselring was given this title as the representative and coordinating
head of German forces employed in the Mediterranean theater of war. Up to this
point he had command authority only over the air forces and in a restricted
degree over the small naval combat units employed in the Mediterranean.
(6) Commander of the German Africa Corps from February to September 1942,
initially as deputy and then as successor to General Cruewell.
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