Three German officers confer together atop a tank in North Africa.
|Active||12 February 1941 – 13 May 1943|
|Garrison/HQ||Tripoli, Italian Libya|
|Engagements||World War II|
|Seal of the Deutsches Afrikakorps|
The Afrika Korps or German Africa Corps (German: Deutsches Afrikakorps, DAK listen (help·info)) was the German expeditionary force in Africa during the North African Campaign of World War II. First sent as a holding force to shore up the Italian defense of their African colonies, the formation fought on in Africa, under various appellations, from March 1941 until its surrender in May 1943. The term "Afrika Korps" is actually pseudo-German (so-called "cod-German"), deriving from an incomplete German title, which was in any case written as a single word. The German term referred solely to the initial formation, the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK), which formed part of the Axis command of the German and Italian forces in North Africa. However, the name stuck, with both news media and Allied soldiers, as the name for all subsequent German units in North Africa. The reputation of the Afrika Korps is closely associated with that of its original commander, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel.
The Afrika Korps formed upon Adolf Hitler's personal orders on 11 January 1941 and Erwin Rommel was designated as commander on 11 February. Rommel himself landed on African soil in Libya on 12 February 1941, ahead of his troops. The German Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) had decided to send a "blocking force" (Sperrverband) to Libya to support the Italian army. The Italian army group had been routed by the British Commonwealth Western Desert Force in Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941). The German "blocking force", commanded by Rommel, at first consisted of a force based only on Panzer Regiment 5, which was put together from the second regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division plus various small ancillary units, such as water treatment and medical care. These elements were organized into the 5th Light Division when they arrived in Africa from 10 February – 12 March 1941. In late April and into May, the 5th Light Division was joined, piecemeal, by various elements of 15th Panzer Division, transferred from Italy, though this division was not complete until after Rommel had made a counter-offensive, re-taken most of Cyrenaica and then subsequently gone back over to the defensive. At this time, the Afrika Korps consisted of the two divisions, plus various smaller supporting units, and was officially subordinated to the Italian chain of command in Africa, an organisation that Rommel had not troubled for authorisation when he initiated his offensive.
On 15 August 1941, the German 5th leichte Division was redesignated 21st Panzer Division (commonly written as 21.PD), the higher formation of which was still the Afrika Korps.
During the summer of 1941, the OKW increased the presence in Africa and created a new headquarters called Panzer Group Africa (Panzergruppe Afrika). On 15 August, the Panzergruppe was activated with Rommel in command, and command of the Afrika Korps was turned over to Ludwig Crüwell. The Panzergruppe comprised the Afrika Korps, with some additional German units now in North Africa, plus two corps of Italian units. The term Gruppe, in this context, is usually translated as Force, with the same flexible, or indeterminate, meaning as the English term. The Panzergruppe was, in turn, redesignated as Panzer Army Africa (Panzerarmee Afrika) on 30 January 1942.
After the defeat at El Alamein and the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria Operation Torch, the OKW once more upgraded the presence in Africa by adding first the XC Army Corps, under Nehring, in Tunisia on 19 November 1942, then an entire and additional 5th Panzer Army on 8 December, under the command of Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.
On 23 February 1943, the original Panzer Army Africa, which had since been re-styled as the German-Italian Panzer Army, was now redesignated as the Italian 1st Army and put under the command of Italian general Giovanni Messe. Rommel, meanwhile, was placed in command of a new Army Group Africa (Heeresgruppe Afrika), created to control both the Italian 1st Army and the 5th Panzer Army. The remnants of the Afrika Korps and other surviving units of the 1st Italian Army retreated into Tunisia. Command of the Army Group was turned over to von Arnim in March. On 13 May, remnants of the Afrika Korps surrendered, along with all other remaining Axis forces in North Africa.
Composition and terminology
The principal units of the Afrika Korps were the 15th Panzer Division and the 21st Panzer Division. In addition, Rommel concentrated the formation's artillery into an Artillery Group which he placed under the command of General Karl Böttcher. Separate from the Afrika Korps was the Division zbV (zur besonderen Verwendung: special purpose) Afrika, which was created as an infantry division and slowly upgraded to a fully motorized division, and then redesignated as the 90th Light Afrika Division. Other divisions included: 164th Light Afrika Division, the 999 Light "Afrika" Division, also the 334th Infantry division; and the Luftwaffenjäger-Brigade 1 or Fallschirmjäger-Ramcke Brigade Ramcke Parachute Brigade, named after its commander Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke.
When Rommel was promoted to the newly formed Panzerarmee Afrika, his command included a number of Italian units, including four infantry divisions. Two Italian armoured divisions, Ariete and Trieste initially remained under Italian control as the Italian XX Motorized Corps under the command of General Gastone Gambara.
German unit organizations were based, as were Allied units, on an Establishment or table of organization:Kriegsstärkenachweisungen (KStN). Every unit in the German Army raised had one, and all orders raising units indicated the corresponding KStN number and date which applied to them. For instance, the 5. leichte "Afrika" or 5th Light "Africa" had an organizational structure that was missing specific elements to make it a complete Panzer division as did its late April to May 1941 arriving "full complement" partner division in Africa, the 15. Panzer Division. The 5. (le.) Division "Afrika" eventually became at least partially expanded into the 21.PD or 21st Panzer Division. It was given German unit elements that were in North Africa and some replacement equipment to meet the prescribed full Panzer division KStN constraints (except for the Motorcycle Battalion component, which was never complete) and then renamed in August 1941.
The Afrika Korps was restructured and renamed in August 1941. "Afrikakorps" was the official name of the force for less than six months but the officers and men used it for the duration. The Afrika Korps was the major German component of Panzerarmee Afrika, which was later renamed the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee and finally renamed Heeresgruppe Afrika (Army Group Africa) during the 27 months of the Desert campaign.
A number of additional German units sent to Africa became components of Panzerarmee Afrika, but were not a part of the Deutsches Afrikakorps. The 10th Panzer Division which fought in Tunisia would be one such example. Another, such as the 164. le. "Afrika" or 164th Light Africa Division was at first only a part-motorized infantry division and never had any tanks, only armored cars and reconnaissance vehicles. Various German divisions in Africa occasionally reorganized or re-equipped without a change of name, or conversely were renamed without any substantial reorganization. None of the German units fielded for service in North Africa ever completely met the service KStNs directed for their completion, as was common for this period of the war. Equipment attrition due to battle losses, losses suffered in transit across the Mediterranean and the tremendous wear on the vehicles all played a role in keeping formations under strength.
The designation "Light" (German: leicht) indicated the unit was lacking in heavy or armored formations, but did not refer to a standardized table of organization and equipment (TOE) for the various German divisions that bore that designation. For example, 5th Light Division had a single tank regiment, when the standard tank division complement was two, while 90th Light division was an infantry formation that was motorized, but never had a tank regiment as part of its make-up.
Ramcke Parachute Brigade
The Luftwaffenjäger-Brigade 1, known more commonly as the Ramcke Parachute Brigade, was sent to Africa in July 1942 after Operation Hercules, the planned invasion of Malta, was called off; just in time for the Second Battle of El Alamein. Initially subordinate to the 15th Panzer Division it was taken under direct command of the DAK's parent unit, Panzergruppe Afrika. Lacking transport, the brigade had to be abandoned by the German command when their defensive position crumbled. Ramcke lost some 450 men at El Alamein, but rather than surrender he led 600 of his paratroopers off into the desert on a march back to the Afrika Korps. Taking a British supply unit by surprise, they used the transport to travel some 200 miles on their own before catching up with the retreating Axis forces.
From the coast of North Africa extending inland lies a raised, flat plain of stony hard desert that runs 200 to 300 km in depth until the great dunes of the Sahara are reached. The battles of the Afrika Korps were largely fought in this rocky desert plain of Cyrenaica, what is now modern day Libya. Traversed by the nomadic Bedouins, the region is sparsely populated. The ground is a flat, hard scrabble with little or no cover, and difficult for infantry to dig into.
Conditions in the desert were harsh: miserably hot during the day, while temperatures dropped precipitously at night. The great coats of the German soldier were not discarded in Africa, nor were scarves, which were used not only for the cold of the desert night, but for the sand storms that were frequent and blinding. Sand storms made flying impossible, and travel by land difficult. "The Ghibli" was the Bedouin name for the Sirocco, the hot desert wind of Libya which produced the sandstorms. Navigation was by compass, and each man had one. Even the short trip to the latrine could result in a man being lost if he forgot to take his compass with him when a sand storm was flying. It was easy to become lost in the desert, and hard to be found again. The sand storms could last from a few hours to several days at a time. Sand would creep into everything, and was very hard on equipment. Replacement parts were essential. Trucks were fitted with special air and oil filters. Aircraft had heavily modified air intakes fitted. British and American built trucks were more rugged and durable in the desert than German or Italian vehicles. At times, as much as 85% of the transport in the Afrika Korps was British built. Of course, this meant that spare parts for the trucks the Germans were using were hard to come by.
To fight an armoured war in the desert, the two essential provisions were fuel and water. Neither of these were readily available. They had to be brought forward to the combat units, and husbanded carefully. Only the Bedouins knew where to dig in the desert for water. Beyond these difficulties, the hardest thing for the men to deal with was the oppressive number of flies. Flies by the score were present everywhere. They could not be escaped. They got into the food stores, making eating difficult. They also carried disease. Illness amongst the Afrika Korps was a major issue. Disease, monotonous diet and combat put considerable strain on the troops.
Loss of the Afrika Korps
According to Rommel's postwar account, the end of the Tunisia Campaign and the loss of the army in May 1943 were great blows to Germany and to himself. Most Afrika Korps POWs were transported to the United States and held in Camp Shelby in Mississippi and other POW camps until the end of the war.
Resurrection of units
Certain divisions were resurrected in Europe after the cessation of fighting in Tunisia:
- 15.Panzer Division (as 15th Panzergrenadier Division in Sicily, Italy and Western Front)
- 21.Panzer Division (in France)
- Hermann Göring Panzer Division (in Sicily and Italy)
- 90th Light Division (as 90th Panzergrenadier Division in Italy)
- Fliegerführer Afrika
- Ramcke Parachute Brigade
- Western Desert Campaign
- László Almásy
- Operation Salaam
- Hans von Luck
- Panzer Division
- Afrika Korps (game)
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