Volume II contains 15 original Panzer Corps maps used during the campaign. Most of these are topographic maps on which trafficability data has been drawn using colored pencils to mark various classes of terrain. Some of the maps depict hydrographic data showing locations for water, areas for drilling, etc. The maps may be of interest to someone desiring to study the techniques used by the Africa Corps for this kind of terrain intelligence or for someone interested in the specifics of water availability and terrain types in Libya and western Egypt during the period 1941-43. However, it is not possible to reproduce the maps. They may be viewed in the National Archives.
Volume II contains 55 photos of terrain in the western desert. All have captions. Some of the photos show general types of terrain in unspecified locations, such as oasis, wadi, marshes, highway, gravel desert, sandy desert, terraced hillsides, rain-flooded areas, steppe area, etc. The views of the escarpment illustrating its steep slopes and impassibility are striking. some of the photos are of specified locations such as the Wadi Zem Zem, Gebel Mefusa, and Cyrenaica coast. Other photos illustrate military situations, such as several shots of a Volkswagen stuck in the sand, use of rope netting under the vehicle wheels to help it get out of sand, water supply points, water drilling apparatus, and camouflaged tents. These photos cannot be reproduced. The reader may view them in the National Archives or refer to standard books for similar illustrations.
This annex consists of 10 organization charts (wiring diagrams) of the Panzer Army, Africa Corps, 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, Italian XX and XXI Corps, and several of the Italian divisions. The most important of these are been reworked and the information is contained in this reprinted edition.
The Volume contains thirty original, very large aerial photographs which are available in the National Archives. Several show airfields and assorted artillery and infantry positions. The amount of detail visible is striking, but not necessarily to the untrained eye. The positions have been identified and marked by trained photo interpreters, otherwise much of the information would not be apparent. Other photos are provided to illustrate the general look of the terrain in different parts of the war zone.
The medical equipment used in the North African desert by the German Army has been available since the beginning of German colonization. Equipment developed during the First World War was the result of the experience of German specialists in tropical diseases, army medical officers, missionaries, and others. Later some firms, in part in collaboration with missionary societies, continued research on suitable equipment for various uses overseas: no plantations, for transportation by ship, for expeditions and small mission hospitals. In this connection, see the work by Professor Olpp, Hervorragende Tropenserste (Outstanding Specialists in Tropical Diseases) and by Dr. A. Hauer, Kumbuke - Erfahrung eines deutschen Militaerarztes in Ostafrika (Kumbuke - The Experience of a German Medical Officer in East Africa). The layman will find a tropical medical kit developed by Dr. Hauer worthy of recommendation. This is produced by the pharmacist Mueller, in Kiel-Gaarden. The firms of Lautenschlaeger, Leitz, and Zeiss have developed practical laboratory kits which contain microscopes and litters. In the manufacture of German medical equipment for use in warm and humid climates, durability of the equipment and medicines and transportability were of prime importance. Medical equipment for use in the tropics complemented the ordinary medical equipment of the field forces, which had proved extremely effective in the European theater of war. The German medical equipment for use in the tropics proved its usefulness during the North African Campaign from 1941 to 1943. What shortages there were, were mainly due to supply difficulties.
In Libya the authorized strength of the medical personnel and vehicles was twice that allowed for Europe. Each company had two medical noncommissioned officers, each battalion two trucks for medical equipment. IN addition to the motor ambulances in use in the German Army, armored regiments had an armored personnel carrier for the transport of wounded.
The equipment of the men was adapted to the warm climate and to life in the desert: it consisted of a tropical uniform, a belly band, a tropical helmet (which, however, did not have to be worn(, a mosquito net, a tropical gas mask, a first-aid packet, and a small gasoline stove. At the beginning of the African Campaign every soldier was issued a one-man tent: subsequently, however, the troops were issued larger tents, with awnings to protect them from the sun. Officer gear was kept in a tin box protected from dust, humidity, and insects by rubber weather stripping.
In North Africa the transport of the wounded often had to be effected over great distances and under unfavorable road conditions. To a limited extent, Storch airplanes were available to carry head and stomach casualties from the advanced employment ofaid stations to the medical installations in the rear. This is undoubtedly an ideal method of transportation because of its speed and the protection it gives the transportation ofwounded. In addition, Ju-52 medical aircraft were available for transport of the sick and wounded. Medical officers with the combat units had an ambulance and a medical equipment truck. The medical officer had an infirmary tent and sometimes even an additional tent for lightly wounded and sick cases, either for the purpose of caring for them at the front or as a transit tent until they were evacuated. The auxiliary medical officer in the supply train had the same equipment at his disposal: in many instances dental treatment could also be given.
Special ration supplies to supplement the diet of the diet
forwounded were moved up to the field forces in large quantities. Instruction
detachments regularly trained the army cooks in the special preparation
required in warm climates for food and rations for the sick. Further training
was given by means of a field cook book for warm countries issued
on 30 June 1942 and based on the experience gained in North Africa.
The actions of a medical officer had at his disposal the medical equipment uniformly introduced in the German Army. It was contained in five wooden chests and included all equipment and drugs needed for first aid. For every day use the contents of Chest No. 2 sufficed.
An additional description ofmedical chest for use in the tropics contained medical supplies for 150 to 200 men. Medical officers in North Africa had this chest in addition to the medical equipment ordinarily issued. This particular chest weighed about 45 kilograms. Weather stripping protected it from the air, humidity, dust, and insects. The method used to pack the chest and, especially, the arrangement of the supplies in the box, which made it easy to find things when they were needed, proved very useful. Breakage in transport was a minor factor. The arrangement of the equipment and the keeping of a list of what had been used made it possible at any moment to see what was available and to order new supplies in good time. the bottom of the chest was divided into three parts. Over this there were two superimposed trays which could be hung on the sides of the chest, when in use. Contents of the individual compartments were given on a list.
Quinine was hardly ever used in North Africa. The few cases of
treatment ofmalaria were treated with stropine-plasma, as is customary.
In other cases, where quinine had been previously used, for instance in the case of inflammation of the lungs, sulfa drugs were used. The flasks of dysentery bacteria cultures contained in the tropical kit were soon discarded since from the standpoint both of prophylactics and therapeutics they did not prove effective. Instead the drugs most in use were increased. Immunization against dysentery was introduced only in 1943. It is advisable to include in the kit small quantities of serum for typhus, paratyphus, cholera, and also spotted typhus, as well as anti-snake-bite serum.
Small units without their own medical officer had a medical noncommissioned officer. The latter had a tropical medical chest at his disposal. The chest weighed about 40 kilograms. It contained the drugs, bandages, and equipment necessary for first aid. A list of the contents was attached to the chest. With this equipment the medical noncommissioned officer could administer first aid on the basis of this training.
These chests, because of their weight, were not suitable for mountain warfare. In the desert, however, the equipment proved its worth in spite of the heat and sand storms. The flasks or containers sealed off the drugs from the air and protected them against the effect of the sun. This tropical medical equipment was fully suited for transport by air, train, ship, or horse-drawn vehicles. Each truck and aircraft was equipped with a first aid box, which likewise proved its usefulness in North Africa.
Ample equipment with hydrochloric acid pepsin tablets (salt tablets) would have been a help. During the decrease in the production of hydrochloric acid which takes place in the hot summer months, absorption of hydrochloric acid prevents or decreases bowel disorders. Hydrochloric acid was a valuable preventive for bowel disorders.
Ample means of fly control must be available for the sick tents, and also they must be protected as much as possible from the rays of the sun. This can be done, for example, by spreading a sun shield half a meter or a meter above the tent.
The weight of the heavy wooden chests could be considerably decreased if light metal boxes were used. For actual experience in the field the following study may be consulted: Hygienische Erfahrungen ueber Klimaeinwirkung bei militaerischen Unternehmungen in heissen Zonen (Hygienic Experience in Climatic Influence on Military Operations in Tropical Zones) in the book by Handloser-Hoffman on Wehrhygine (Military Hygiene), published n 1944.
Bowel disorders were an important factor. The chief special desert problemsailments were Flexner Dysentery and amoebic dysentery. Numerous soldiers were afflicted with ecthyma of the legs. After the wearing of long trousers or high boots had been enforced and small skin wounds carefully tended the number of these doses diminished very quickly. Rest was the most important prerequisite fora quick cure of the skin diseases.
To kill flies contact poison - Cix - was used toward the end of the campaign.
I. Camouflage of Personnel, Materiel, and Positions
In the vast space of the desert there were few natural camouflage possibilities because there is little or no vegetation and the terrain is so monotonous that any object seems larger than nature and is bound to be noticed. Camouflage possibilities are offered by the steep margins of ridges, the wadis(1) (from ground and air observation), shallow depressions (from ground observation), moonless nights, which in Africa are particularly dark, sand storms, which take place frequently, and mirages, which occur from late in the morning until afternoon.
Artificial camouflage accordingly is as important as it is difficult.
Movements by large forces cannot be camouflaged because of the dust they unavoidable raise.
In the desert camouflage and deception go hand in hand. Deceptive measures in one place are used to conceal operations in another place.
2. Technical Means of Camouflage
Camouflage of Personnel
The clothing of soldiers in the desert must approximate the coloring of the desert, that is to say, it must be a yellowish brown. The German uniform was unsuitable because it was olive-green and was fit only for the camel's thorn areas near the coast. the British uniform was also too dark. The yellow-brown uniform of the German Luftwaffe was suitable. The sun and the dust, however, gradually adapted the uniform of the German army troops to the natural color of the desert. Since the desert is the same color summer and winter one color of Camouflage colorsuniform sufficed for all seasons. No special camouflage clothing is required in the desert, if the color of the ordinary uniform is similar to that of the desert. Only in camel's thorn (2) country is it advisable to have a camouflage suit of the type used in Europe. The base color would have to be yellow-brown, speckled with other colors. The camouflage color for men and materiel should be yellow-brown.
Camouflage of movements by use of smoke is hardly possible in the desert because the heat and the wind, blowing in varying strength almost always, makes its use almost impossible. Even the English, who love to use smoke, seldom if ever used it in the desert. The use of smoke is often replaced by natural sand storms produced by the wind and artificial storms occasioned by vehicles, fan, propellers (see below).
Weapons, Equipment, Vehicles
Camouflage of Camouflage ofweapons, equipment, and vehicles is possible: for example. tanks can be made to look like trucks. The British were very successful in this, placing dummy trucks specially made for the purpose, over their tanks. The tanks were able to fire through the dummies without difficulty or else they dropped them off during the attack and surprised the enemy. In troops movements or marches to the front the armored forces could be disguised as supply columns to mislead the enemy air and ground observers. The only thing that revealed the deception was the caterpillar tracks in the sand. The same can be done with guns.
Color, Camouflage Nets, Blankets
Weapons, equipment of all sorts, trucks, and tanks should be the
color of the desert (yellow-brown). If they have not been given this color
before arriving in the desert, they can be given a coating of oil and sprayed
with sand. The sand sticks to the tanks. In this manner a temporary coating of
camouflage is applied. But the application will have to be frequently repeated.
The German weapons, trucks, and tanks arrived in Africa without a coating of desert camouflage. The above described measure was used.
In contrast to the Germans who were sent into the desert without
them, the British had excellent use of in desert conditionscamouflage nets.
However, the Germans soon caught up with captured British materiel. Camouflage
nets are of great importance not only in the camel's thorn zone but especially
in the barren sand desert. In order to give the weapon or the motor vehicle
protective coloring it can, according to the color of the soil, be camouflaged
with camel's thorn bushes or strips of yellow cloth. But every weapon, every
vehicle, and every tank should be equipped with camouflage nets, as was the
case in the British Army.
Tents (naturally in the color of the desert) can be used to camouflage weapons and vehicles either alone or in conjunction with camouflage nets. Tarpaulins and blankets can also be used for camouflage, if they are the same color as the desert.
Cover, in desert conditions Concealment, Mimicry
In the desert, where there is excellent visibility, weapons, vehicles, tanks, occupied tents, and even individuals will in principle have to vanish into the ground; they will have to dig in so that no ground observer can see them. While this is difficult to do during short stays in an area, it is an absolute requirement if the troops remain anywhere for long, because of even the threat of an air attack. The foxholes should be covered with camouflage nets or shelter halves so that the men or equipment in them cannot be seen from the air. Experience has shown that it is not only the color of the net and the branches woven into it or the colored pieces of cloth attached to it but also the irregular form given to it which insures good camouflage. Branches, camel's thorn shrubs or grass clumps used for camouflage were often, especially if the troops were tire, taken from the immediate neighborhood of the vehicles. This defeated the purpose of camouflage since the vehicles stood out as dark spots in light surrounding s from which all the vegetation had been removed. The effect of shadows in the vast desert expanse, which exaggerates the size of things, makes it mandatory that the troops dig themselves in. The troops in Africa were used to doing so as soon as they had reached their destination, if only from the wish to survive. In the case of large and heavy vehicles or weapons it was often very difficult to dig the required holes quickly and also get the vehicles out under their own power if the ground was unfavorable (loose sand) without the use of planking to provide traction.
In the desert it is hardly possible to conceal the muzzle flash of
guns and the smoke. On the other hand the dust raised by each round fired can
be decreased by laying shelter halves or blankets around the gun. According to
the experience gained, however, this measure is not absolutely necessary,
because in the desert dust is raised by all kinds of sources, so that it is
impossible to tell whether it had been raised by a muzzle blast or by a
The windshields of the motor vehicles glitter in the sun and can be seen from very far away. They must be covered with tarpaulins.
The tracks made by the movement may be quickly covered by the wind, providing it is strong enough and last long enough. Artificial camouflage is difficult. However, it is possible to deceive the enemy by putting down tracks running in another direction. This naturally camouflages the true tracks. This method was seldom used because the effort was out of all proportion to the benefits received.
It is possible to camouflage the easily identified caterpillar tracks of the tanks by having wheeled vehicles run over them.
Concealment in desert conditionsMovements of troops can be camouflaged by artificially raising dust clouds, so that the enemy cannot tell the strength and direction of the movement.
It is especially important to camouflage all sources of light in the desert because light can be seen from much farther than in the European terrain. This is easily done with the usual black-out precautions. All motor vehicles must be equipped with black-out driving lights so that they can move through the dark moonless nights without light.
Camouflage of Various Positions
Stationary camouflage ofpositions in the desert are dug in such a way that they do not show above the ground, that is to say they are built level with it, so as to be protected from ground observation. Positions can be detected only by the wire obstacles in front of them. It is impossible to camouflage the obstacles because in the batten terrain they can be seen by both ground and air observers. The positions (trenches, strong points) are camouflaged by means of nets and shelter halves.
On the other hand, the quickly dug field positions of all arms including the individual rifleman cannot be made level with the ground. In stony desert terrain in fact, instead of digging in the positions, they will have to be constructed above ground, in the form of stone walls. To camouflage such positions is extremely difficult and can only be carried out in an improvised fashion with the use of camouflage nets or shelter halves.
In defense, tanks are camouflaged by digging the vehicles in or else surrounding them with a wall of stones and then covering them with large camouflage nets.
Camouflage of in desertObstacles, Mines
Artificial obstacles on a large scale cannot be camouflaged in the desert unless they are built on a reverse slope and so concealed from the sight of the ground observer. Complete camouflage of antitank ditches from air observation can only be achieved by making extensive use of shelter halves and camouflage nets.
For safety, in the desert manifolds are usually fenced in and can
accordingly be detected from the ground. In order to deceive the enemy frequent
use was made of dummy manifolds or of mixed manifolds. Dummy dummy and
concealedmine fields were made by burying bits of iron which the mine detectors
picked up or else by digging small mounds of earth to simulate the placing of
mines. In this way real manifolds were camouflaged as dummy fields and dummy
fields as real fields. Complete camouflage of a mine field in the desert is
possible only if the field is not surrounded by a fence and if the places where
mines are buried are made level with the surrounding ground by means of a
broom. Very often the traces are effaced by the driving sand and dust. However,
mines buried in loam or sand will soon be uncovered by the wind and will then
be easily discernible. That is why frequent repetition of the camouflage is
Roads and beaten tracks, as well as vehicle tracks, within the system of positions can only be camouflaged by multiplying the tracks and preparing dummy tracks to divert enemy reconnaissance from the real tracks. Dummy positions should always be provided with dummy tracks. The sand carried by the wind will often camouflage any tracks of its own accord.
Supplies, stocks of materiel and fuel will in principle have to be
stored under the ground. The dumps then must be camouflaged with nets and
shelter halves. Dummy depots were often constructed in the vicinity of the real
dumps in order to divert the enemy reconnaissance and the air bombardment
following from the important target. In the fall of 1941 the British built up
the supply dumps for their enveloping attack in the rear of the German Army and
camouflaged them very effectively from ground and air reconnaissance. The
materiel was dug in and provided with a great number of camouflage nets. Tracks
leading to it were rubbed out.
At a few of these depots, it was later learned, wooden imitations (dummies) of the then greatly feared British Mark II tanks had been set up. German armored reconnaissance cars did not identify the depots as such but, hoodwinked by the British tanks, they retired.
4. Permanent camouflage and concealment ofFortifications
The permanent fortified positions in the desert, such as Tobruk, Bardia, Marsa Matruk, and Alamein, were camouflaged against ground observation by extensive adaptation of the works (with the exception of the wire obstacles) to the surroundings.
Example: Tobruk as Fortified Defense System: Tobruk was protected on the east and the west by rocky and pathless terrain, on the south it spread into a sandy plain. The Italians had made great improvements to the fortifications. They had taken into account all means of combat available to storm fortifications. The numerous works surrounding Tobruk had been built into the earth in such a way and so skillfully camouflaged that an attacker could identify them only from the air. They consisted of an underground system of galleries opening into antitank and machine gun positions. Each of the individual works was provided with up to ten machine guns and cast off their artificial camouflage only when the danger was greatest. Then they poured destructive fire on the attackers, the enemy artillery, because of the lack of any kind of superstructures and embrasures in the fortifications, was useless for direct fire. Each individual works was surrounded by an antitank ditch and multiple belt entanglements. In addition at places passable by tanks, there were deep antitank ditches, which were not camouflaged. Behind the fortification system of the outer ring there was massed artillery in well camouflaged positions. Most installations were protected by mine fields extending far in depth.
The wire obstacles could not be camouflaged, but the mine fields could be identified only to the extent that they had been fenced in. Camouflage of antitank ditches requires large quantities of material (nets, tarpaulins). In view of the extent of the Tobruk fortifications it was impossible to camouflage them completely.
Camouflage of works and obstacles by means of vegetation is altogether impossible in the desert.
II. Camouflage Through Measures Taken by the Command
Since in the desert it is impossible to conceal concealment
ofmovements undertaken during the day because of the dust raised, marches can
be concealed from sight only if the troops move at night. Neither during the
day nor at night can noise be fully camouflaged, for instance, by artillery
fire or by aircraft motors because the motor noised of columns on the march can
be heard from very far away.
During moonlit nights it is almost impossible to prevent enemy air observation from detecting friendly forces. Using his constantly increasing air superiority to advantage, the enemy in North Africa illuminated vast areas of the desert with parachute flares, thereby making any attempt at concealment impossible.
During effect on marchessand storms, of course, camouflaged
movements could be carried out both by day and by night. Such marches, however,
are very difficult to execute because of the lack of orientation, the need for
halts to re-establish contact and the dust, which makes it hard for drivers to
find their way.
The march undertaken by the German Africa Corps on 26 and 27 May 1942 is an instructive example of the camouflage measures used in a large scale enveloping march to attack an enemy on the flank and in the rear. Rommel conducted a frontal feint attack, using artillery in strength, in order to divert the attention of the enemy from the envelopment movement.
The envelopment march of the attackers was conducted over a distance of more than 100 kilometers directly across the desert, with more than 10,000 motor vehicles of all types. The following camouflage measures were used:
The camouflage could be regarded as tactically successful to the extent that the enemy remained uncertain about these two points. But the fact that the attacker was marching on the enemy's flank could not be concealed from the operational point of view because of the size of the forces advancing and the noise which the 10,000 vehicles made in the night.
To camouflage an concealment and deception forattack at any one place in the desert a feint attack must be prepared elsewhere by noticeable movement, adjustment of artillery, the noise of motor vehicles, putting down wheel and caterpillar tracks, and raising dust clouds.
Camouflage of reconnaissance, disposition, and the adjustment of
artillery fire is camouflaged in the desert in the same way as in Europe.
Camouflage of the movement into the assembly position is however far more
difficult, because of the dust raised during the day and the noise of the
motors at night.
For the attack from the El Alamein position aiming at Egypt, which took place at the end of August 1942, Rommel used the following camouflage methods:
The attack was to be carried out at a weak place in the southern part of the positions and was to envelop the flank and rear of the enemy. Since July the main part of the tanks and motor vehicles had been situated behind the northern part of the position, where they had been sheltered in camouflaged "compartments" (holes in the ground covered with camouflage nets). Several weeks before the attack Rommel had about the same number of empty compartments dug in the southern part of the position. Gradually, during the night, the tanks were moved from the northern to the southern compartments. The number of the compartments was known to the enemy through the constant night air reconnaissance he carried out. The tank tracks leading from the northern to the southern compartments were carefully effaced each time with brooms. By 29 August 1942, the day before the attack, nearly all tanks had been moved from the northern to the southern compartments. The enemy was unable to tell whether the tanks were in the northern or the southern compartments because the northern ones, covered with camouflage nets, had been kept intact. The other motor vehicles of the attack forces were moved into the southern area only during the night before the attack, but even the compartments of these vehicles in the northern area were kept intact.
Large-scale camouflage measures such as these take a lot of work and are possible only in the desert, but there they are necessary, because the vehicle parks of both sides are under constant observation by air reconnaissance. The strength of the enemy can be estimated on the basis of these parks and any changes in their disposition can be observed. These camouflage measures would have succeeded fully if spies had not informed the British about the plan to attack from the south.
In a great number of cases it was possible to mislead the enemy about the strength (or weakness) of the forces engaging in an attack by raising additional dust clouds.
Artificial raising of dust is effected in the following manner:
a. By the motor vehicles, which can raise considerable dust by driving in zigzags.
b. By appliances to raise dust such as ropes and wire rolls dragged behind motor vehicles.
c. By propellers mounted on motor vehicles. This produces a gigantic cloud of dust.
In camouflage by means of dust clouds the direction of the wind is of great importance. When there is little or no wind the dust clouds remain over the marching or resting troops for a very long time. If there is a cross wind the dust cloud, depending on the force of the wind, will slowly or quickly draw away from the unit producing the dust and remove their camouflage. In such cases the dust raising vehicles will have to move further away from the side of the troops. The most favorable case is that in which the wind is behind the attacking or advancing forces and the dust cloud blows toward the enemy, blinding him. The most difficult camouflage is that in which the wind comes from the enemy's side and the dust is blown away from the attackers, so that they are revealed.
If the enemy has air superiority, enabling him to reconnoiter the
friendly forces when and as he pleases, operational camouflage of defensive
measures and positions is impossible. However, tactical in the
defensecamouflage of individual defensive positions against ground and air
reconnaissance is easier. It can be achieved by means of the measures described
in the section dealing with Stationary Positions.
Good reverse slope positions, concealing defensive works from ground observation, are not frequently found in the desert. However, the troops should be schooled to recognize such positions and to exploit them.
Use of alternate positions and dummy positions in order to deceive
the enemy is easier in the desert, but it is also more necessary than in
Use of such positions was successfully made on several occasions in the fighting for the Alamein position in November 1942.
Example: In the night of 3 November the German position at Tel el Aquaquir was evacuated, but it was kept intact as a dummy. The new defensive position was organized about 5 kilometers further to the west, at Tel el Napara. When the enemy attacked on the morning of 4 November, the artillery preparation covered the dummy position. It was midday before the enemy identified the new position and attacked it.
Because of the dust raised withdrawal movements cannot be camouflaged in the daytime. However, the enemy can be deceived tactically regarding strength and composition of friendly forces by dust clouds. There are many possibilities of simulating attacks against the flank of the advancing or pursuing enemy by the use of dust clouds and in this manner to camouflage the weakness of one's forces.
During the withdrawal of the German Africa forces from Tobruk to the Bay of Sidra in December 1941 these measures were used separately. On the other side, south of Cyrenaica, the British simulated a large scale enveloping movement through the open desert from the Bir Hacheim area and on the overland connection of Agedabia by means of extensive dust clouds. In this way they concealed their limited strength and made Rommel withdraw all his forces quickly to Agedabia and, as a result, give up Cyrenaica.
In spite of the lack of vegetation there are enough opportunities for camouflage in the desert. Resourceful troops and their commanders can exploit these opportunities.
The tactical use of dust clouds as a means of camouflage in part replaces the employment of smoke, although dust clouds are substantially influenced by the force and direction of the wind.
Troops in the desert must be amply equipped with camouflage nets,
since they are the alpha and omega of camouflage in the desert. Every single
motor vehicle and every single tank, every gun must have one or more large-size
camouflage nets and tarpaulins and every units, as far as there is space
available on its vehicles, should have large numbers of nets to camouflage its
foxholes, bunkers, and position. Camouflage in the desert demands a great deal
of physical labor, but it must be done if casualties are to be avoided.
Camouflage of strategic measures is not possible in the desert, but tactical measures can be camouflaged, although, as has been said, a lot of work is involved.
It is impossible to camouflage movements during the day because of the dust unavoidable raised. If camouflage is necessary, the marches will have to take place at night.
The side that has air superiority and thus has the enemy under
constant observation, can of course carry out its camouflage measures in the
desert better than the other side.
The expense and labor required for camouflage in the conduct of operations in the desert is in direct proportion to the benefits derived by the troops. Camouflage always pays. That is the primary lesson learned by the Africa Corps in its two years of fighting in the desert.
The organization, width, and depth in the route march plan used in
the desert depended on whether there was contact with the enemy or not. When no
contact with the enemy was expected, for instance, moving into the assembly
area east of Bir Hacheim on 26 June 1942, the width required for the division
was about 500 meters.
In the sector of 500 meters, for instance, the eight companies of an armored regiment were brought forward next to each other in files with intervals of 50 meters and the three headquarters in advance of the rest.
The depth in the case of 20 tanks in a company, and with 50 meters distance between them to avoid the dust, was 1000 meters for an armored regiment, exclusive of combat vehicles and supply vehicles.
The of division on march or attack - depth for the whole division was 8-10 kilometers.
During the night marches or in difficult stretches of terrain, which the wheeled vehicles were unable to cross as quickly as the armor and prime movers, the intervals were substantially increased, that is to say they were doubled or tripled. This happened during a march in a pitch-dark night in the summer of 1942 between Tobruk and El Alamein, in which the column had been broken up as a result of the difficult terrain and the individual units - even though march tables had been issued - had gone so far from each other, that the next morning the division had to be reassembled.
In the case when contact with the enemy was expected, the for division in desert - attack sector of the armored division was from 2.5 to 3 kilometers wide.
In commitment of the armored regiment in width the two battalions could each put in the first line two companies, each with two platoons, that is to say a total of four companies or eight platoons, each with five tanks, making a total of forty tanks. As a result there were company combat sectors 750 meters wide for ten tanks in the first line with 75-100 meters intervals from tank to tank in the first line, echeloned to a depth of 75 meters.
The reserve platoons which had not yet been employed were brought up with an interval of 350-500 meters. As a result the armored company in the first line had a combat sector 750 meters wide with a depth of 750 meters, including the reserve platoons and the security vehicles sent on ahead. The reserve companies were brought up at intervals of 500-750 meters. The combat sector of an armored battalion was 1500 meters, with a depth of 1300-1500 meters; an armored regiment had a front of 3,000 meters, the same as the armored division, and a depth of 1500 meters. UP to the moment of contact with the enemy the intervals of the remaining units of the armored division were the same, or if necessary, double the distance.
Because of the much wider combat sectors when contact with the enemy was anticipated looser formations were possible even without increased intervals.
Depth of the division was 10-15 kilometers.
When contact with the enemy was made, the artillery went into position and the units without armor stopped, so that shifts could be made out of range of enemy observers.
Ever since October 1941, Rommel had reckoned with the possibility of a British offensive against Tobruk. The English had sent great quantities of war materiel and large reinforcements to Egypt in early autumn. The dispatch of the South African division and the New Zealand division from the delta of the Nile to Marsa Matruk had been discovered in September by employed by Germansradio reconnaissance and had later been confirmed through interrogation of prisoners. Nevertheless, the 21st Panzer Division's reconnaissance in force into Egypt in the area south of Sidi el Barani in mid-September did not give evidence upon which to base suspicion of an impending attack. Aerial observation in the border area was not able to establish the presence of enemy supply dumps capable of sustaining a large-scale attack, although, as it later developed, the enemy in preparation for the advance had built up and excellently camouflaged over a long period of time many such dumps, not only in the border area but also far behind the German-Italian line of defense.
The assembly of the enemy troops for the offensive was not discovered by the German reconnaissance. The concealment of British preparations was excellent, especially since in the desert this is an exceptionally difficult feat. Since radio silence had been improved, warning of the advance of the troops into assembly position could not be intercepted by radio reconnaissance. The British relocations were probably not noticed as a result of the fact that their troops marched at night and utilized an excellent system of camouflage by day. In the desert clouds of dust betray even the movements of small units. For this reason the British only advanced on moonless nights. In the daytime they camouflaged themselves by entrenching personnel, materiel, and vehicles and by making abundant use of camouflage nets.
An increase in the tracks of vehicles, which might have pointed to large movements of troops, could not be discovered by the German aerial observation, since tens of thousands of such tracks were visible in the assembly area and it was impossible to determine whether these tracks were fresh or old.
In contrast to conditions in Europe, the concealment in desertassembly area in a desert can be far removed from the point of departure, since the lack of terrain obstacles permit vast areas to be covered in very short periods of time. As a result the troops can arrive at the point of departure very shortly before the beginning of the attack. In each of their offensives, the British, by holding the attack forces back until the last moment, have been successful in properly camouflaging the moment for the start of the attack.
An additional reason lies in the fact that no German aerial reconnaissance could be completed on 17 November, as a cloudburst made the airfields useless for operations. It often happens in the rainy period in the desert (October, November) that sudden rain squalls cause floods. The German airfields had been built directly on the sand without any other auxiliary means; the British, on the other hand, successfully utilized steel landing mates to make the runways firm and thus kept their fields usable in the worst weather.
Not until the afternoon of 18 November after the enemy movements had already commenced did the German command realize that a major attack was in the making. The German reconnaissance forces were pushed back by superior enemy units from a security line running between Bir el Gobi and Sidi Omar. The statement of a captured British soldier belonging to the staff of the 4th Indian Division gave the German command detailed information on the enemy troops and their plans as follows:
The XIII Corps was employed from the area northwest of Habata, in order to attack the Sollum front with the 4th Indian Division and then, circumventing the Sollum front, to thrust into the area between Bardia and Tobruk with the New Zealand division.
The German and Italian forces were organized as follows on 18 November:
The Sollum front was held by non-motorized mixed Italo-German troops, who had been charged with drawing the enemy forces in their direction and thus split up the attack.
The fortress of Tobruk was besieged by Italian divisions and the German 90th Light Division in order to prevent a breakout on the part of the enemy and a union of the garrison with the advancing offensive forces.
As for the mobile German and Italian forces, the Triest Division was in the vicinity of Bir Hakeim and the Ariete Division in the vicinity of Bir el Gobi. They had been ordered first to prevent enemy envelopment movements to the area west of Tobruk and then, if occasion arose, they were to be employed for mobile defense together with the German armored divisions.
The German Africa Corps was located in the area between Bardia and Tobruk. The 21st Panzer Division southeast of Gambut and the 15th Panzer Division north of the town were ready to be employed for mobile defense against the enemy forces.
For the organization and armament of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions see appendix at the end of this annex.
For the assembly of the Italo-German forces see Sketch I.
(See Sketches II, III, and XI)
By noon of 18 November, the whole area between Maddalena, Sidi Omar, and Gabr Saleh was covered by thick clouds of dust. The Africa Corps' armored reconnaissance established an advance by armored forces in undeterminable strength from this area in the direction of Sidi Resegh. Rommel decided to use the 21st Panzer Division, which was available southeast of Gambut, to push into the enemy line of march in the direction of Gabr Saleh and thus disorganize the enemy forces and divert them from their goal of Tobruk.
The 15th Panzer Division was not ready to march until evening, because the heavy rainfall of the previous night had so wrecked havoc with units camping in the flooding ofwadis north of Gambut by flooding the dumps and washing away weapons and equipment that a state of march readiness was not secured until the morning of 19 November.
The 21st Panzer Division advanced southward through the plain. The armored regiment served as advance force with about sixty tanks, Types III and IV, both battalions being committed in waves. The artillery and several 88mm gun batteries followed immediately behind the tank waves in order to give the tanks fire protection in the event of contact with the enemy. Antitank units secured the flanks of the attacking Kampfgruppe.(3)
The terrain along the route of advance was a completely flat plateau overgrown with camel's thorn bushes. Hardly any possibilities for cover existed. As a result shortly after the division reached the Trigh Capuzzo in the area of Bir Bu Meliha, a strong enemy armored unit was sighted, which was slowly advancing in the direction of Sidi Resegh. The division artillery immediately took up position and secured the advance of the armored regiment, which was organized in depth. A favorable opportunity to hit the enemy tanks in the flank seemed to have arisen. Speeding up, the armored regiment began to attack, supported by the 88mm batteries and the 2nd Armored Battalion. Violent battle developed with the surprised enemy, which had presumably not expected an attack from this direction. The enemy advance was halted and during the time the British tanks were turning from their previous direction to the northeast the armored group was attacked in an envelopment movement from the east and southeast by the 2nd Battalion of the German armored regiment. This attack was a decisive success. Forty tanks were destroyed and the enemy thrown back to Gabr Saleh by evening. By sunset the armored regiment had reached the area of Bir Uaar, where it took up an all-around defense position. The other elements of the division were distributed in depth through the entire area as far back as Trigh Capuzzo and also took up all-around defense positions as Kampfgruppen.
The bold attack of the division had halted the advance of the enemy and had drive a wedge into the enemy offense group. It the 15th Panzer Division could also have participated in this attack, a really decisive success would have been gained.
While this fighting was taking place, British forces in the strength of an armored brigade had pushed forward to a line Sidi Resegh- Bir Sciafsciuf and had engaged the weak Italo-German security forces in heavy combat. The latter defended themselves valiantly at the edge of the djebel southeast of Tobruk. These forces had completely inadequate equipment and only a few tanks, but they were able to prevent the enemy from pushing on to Tobruk by way of the cross-country highway and uniting with the besieged garrison.
In the meanwhile the Sollum Position was surrounded from the east and south by the Indian 4th Division and by elements of the New Zealand division from the west. The strong points were involved in heavy defensive fighting. rommel decided to strike the New Zealanders, who had been reported to be advancing with a brigade reinforced by an armored battalion, from the area west of Sidi Omar toward Sidi Azeiz. He, therefore, employed both armored divisions against this enemy force on 20 November. The 21st Panzer Division headed toward Sidi Omar from the area of Bir Uaar in the early hours of the morning, secured to the west and south. The 15th Panzer Division, which had recovered from the consequences of the catastrophe occasioned by the flood, advanced south of the Trigh Capuzzo toward Gabr Lachem. In view of these superior forces, the reinforced New Zealand brigade fell back by way of Sidi Omar to the south, without suffering losses of any great size. This brought both armored divisions of the German Africa Corps into the area west of Sidi Omar by the evening of 20 November. On the following morning they were to attack the flank and rear of the main enemy attack group located between Gabr Saleh and Sidi Rezegh.
The mission was begun in the early morning (Sketch 3). Both armored divisions advanced side by side on a broad front and echeloned in depth. At Gabr Sredi they met a strong armored group composed of about 100 tanks, which were attacked immediately. While the 15th Panzer Division was occupied with this enemy, the 21st Panzer Division, advancing to the left, pushed forward energetically to Sidi Muftan and there encountered the rear elements of the British 4th Armored Brigade, which was attacking the German defenders at the djebel edge near Sidi Rezegh. The division attacked the enemy in the late afternoon and was able to destroy about twenty tanks, whereupon the enemy fell back to the southwest toward Bir al Gobi. Approaching darkness prevented pursuit.
The 21st Panzer Division built up an all-around defense position in the area north of Sidi Muftan for the night of 21 November. The reconnaissance forces of new enemy tanks, approaching from the southeast, were already trying to feel out the division.
After successful combat in the vicinity of Bir Bu Meliha, the 15th Panzer Division had reached the ridge near Bir Sciafsciuf and had built up an all-around defense position. Here too, there were new enemy feelers.
The newly arrived enemy forces and the unfavorable battle terrain - the steep rim of the plateau restricted mobile operations to the north - diminished the operation possibilities that existed for the German Africa Corps. Therefore, the 15th Panzer Division was transferred eastward by way of the Trigh Capuzzo during the night of 21 November and assembled in the area south of Gasr el Arid. It was intended to attack the flank and rear of the newly arrived enemy group, which was obviously also heading in the direction of Tobruk.
The 21st Panzer Division was employed for the defense at Sidi Rezegh - Belhamed, in order to prevent an enemy breakthrough to Tobruk and a subsequent union with the garrison in the fortress.
By noon on 22 November, the new enemy group had reached the area south of Bir Sciafsciuf by way of Bir Bu Meliha. The 15th Panzer Division arrived from the area of Gabr el Arid and one column (one armored battalion, one artillery battalion and one 88mm battery) attacked the enemy's flank near Hagfet Hauna. The second column (one armored battalion, two artillery battalions, one 88mm battery and a rifle regiment) lunged through Bir Bu Meliha and hit the rear of the enemy group. Violent tank combat developed, in the course of which about eighty enemy tanks were put out of action. By evening the enemy group ( the British 4th Armored Brigade, reinforced by artillery) was surrounded by three sides and its commander offered to capitulate. Nevertheless, elements of the brigade managed to escape westward, since the pocket could not be closed on that side.
While this was going on, a strong attack, supported by fifty infantry tanks, was made from the southeast section of the fortress of Tobruk. The enemy broke through the encirclement front, penetrated across the main highway and destroyed a good part of the Italian Bologna Division. A counterattack by elements of the 21st Panzer Division succeeded in restoring the situation, thus shattering the enemy aim of uniting the garrison at tobruk with the attacking group from Egypt.
The Italian garrison at Bir el Gobi succeeded in repulsing strong enemy attacks and thus preventing an enemy advance into the area west of Tobruk.
The British Offensive was based on the idea of thrusting with superior forces from the Egyptian Border area to Tobruk, of relieving the fortress and destroying the German forces in the Marmarica. The English armored forces which were employed were about four times as strong as their German opponents. The Italian tanks did not count for much because of their limited capacity. Despite this numerical superiority enjoyed by the enemy, Rommel, by utilizing the mobility of his forces and the lack of barriers in the terrain, managed in four days of battle to nullify the British plan. While the British were throwing one after another of their tank brigades into the combat and thus draining their strength, Rommel concentrated his armored forces at the most favorable spot and dealt one British brigade after another considerable damage. He was moreover thus able to prevent a union of the offense group with the fortress. If the British had not stubbornly followed the orders prepared so long in advance, that is to thrust toward Tobruk, and if they had instead attacked the German armored forces wherever they found them and according to the situation at the moment and then destroyer them by a concentration of their own forces, they would certainly have achieved their second objective, the elimination of the German armored units. The above-cited fighting is an example of how one can conduct mobile operations in the desert. It is necessary to grasp the situation quickly and promptly take the proper measures. Desert terrain with its lack of barriers is ideal for a rapid concentration of forces at decisive points.
(sketches 5 and XI)
The Italo-German forces south of Tobruk on the morning of 23 November were organized as follows:
The 15th Panzer Division, after its victory over the British 4th Armored Brigade, was preparing for the decisive battle in the area south of Bir Sciafsciuf.
The 21st Panzer Division was organized for defense in an all-around defense position in the area of Sidi Rezegh and was capable of being employed if necessary for mobile warfare to the south. The Italian Armored Division Ariete, which had successfully repulsed all enemy attacks up to this time, was still in the area of Bir el Gobi, and the Italian Motorized Division Treiste occupied the area Bir el Hacheim - Bir Harmat in order to prevent the enemy from penetrating into the area west of Tobruk.
The enemy armored forces with corresponding strong artillery support, antitank units and motorized infantry were collected in the area around Sidi Muftan - Bir el Haiad and had intended to begin the decisive attack on Tobruk on 22 November. The following British units were established:
· the three brigades of the 7th Armored Division which had been attacked previously, that is the 7th and 22nd Armored Brigades and the 7th rifle Brigade, and also the South African 1st Division.
Rommel intended to destroy these forces in one concentric attack on 23 November.
The following measures were planned:
The 21st Panzer Division was to defend the edge of the djebel on both sides of Sidi Rezegh and, if necessary, to pass over to a counterattack with both wing elements.
In the west, more or less along the route Tobruk - el Adem - Bir el Gobi, the Italian Pavia Division and elements of the Ariete Armored Division were to close off the combat area and prevent an advance or a possible evasion of the enemy to the northwest and west.
The 15th Panzer Division, together with the Ariete Division was to lead the main attack, enveloping the enemy and throwing him against the front of the 21st Panzer Division.
The operations of the 15th Panzer Division and the Ariete Division are of special interest in the execution of this large-scale battle of encirclement and they are described below.
At about 0730 the 15th Panzer Division began to advance. It was divided into tow Kampfgruppen, each containing one armored battalion, one artillery battalion, one 88mm battery and one antitank company. The rifle units, the heavy artillery and antitank units were held in reserve for the time being in the area east of Bir Sciafsciuf.
During the advance southward strong enemy tanks (about sixty) were discovered in the area of Sidi Muftan. The western kampfgruppe of the division received the order to make an enveloping attack on this enemy force and to block the area east of Sidi Muftan.
The eastern Kampfgruppe continued its advance southward, in order to establish contact with the Ariete Division, which was advancing from Bir el Gobi northeastward, and then in a joint operation to attack the enemy's rear from the south.
Numerous enemy combat units with vast vehicle parks, many tanks and guns were established to be in the area Bir el Haiad - Hagfet Nadira. For this reason the Commander of the Africa Corps, who was leading the envelopment group, launched an even more comprehensive envelopment movement.
In the meantime, the front of the 21st Panzer Division had been attacked by superior forces and was engaged in a serious defense against the enemy tanks charging Sidi Rezegh and Zafraam. After a sudden artillery concentration the garrison of Fortress Tobruk, supported by sixty tanks, made an attack in the direction of Bel Hamid at noon, intending at long last to unite with the main offense group. The Italian siege front around the fortress tried to offer a defense in the confusion but was forced to relinquish numerous strong points in the encirclement front about Bir Bu Assaten to the superior enemy forces. The Italian Pavia Division was committed for a counterattack and managed to seal off the enemy breakthrough.
By early afternoon General Gruewell under continuously heavy fighting had reached the area around Hagfet el Nadira deep in the rear of the enemy. The spearheads of the Ariete Division arrived with about 100 Italian tanks and General Gruewell sent the combined Italo-German armored forces north against the enemy northward against the front of the 21st Panzer Division.
The attack began well but soon the divisions struck a broad front of artillery and antitank guns, which had ben hurriedly constructed by the enemy between Bir el Haiad and Bir el Chelb. The western Kampfgruppe of the 15th Panzer Division attacked the pocket from the east nd, after enemy guns had inflicted considerable casualties, reached the area of Sidi Muftan in the late afternoon, where the attack petered out.
General Gruewell's group was engaged in heavy fighting with the enemy artillery and antitank gun positions in the late afternoon. The entire artillery had to be committed and at places used direct fire at the enemy gun positions. Every single gun had to be silenced by the joint activity of tanks, antitank guns and artillery. By evening several breaches had been made in the enemy front. The armored attack could now continue, and tank duels developed in the midst of the battlefield, in which both sides suffered considerable losses. The enemy attack group was soon compressed into a narrow area as a result of the concentric attack in which the 21st Panzer Division and its wing elements now also participated. Since even the thrust from Tobruk had not relieved the pressure on he enemy, only a breakout from the pocket seemed to offer a safeguard against annihilation.
The broad area south of Sidi Resegh had been transformed into a sea of dust and steam and smoke. Visibility was limited and no one could distinguish friend or foe. Considerable British forces thus managed to break out of the pocket to the south in the direction of Bir el Gobi. A large part of the troops were not able to escape, however, and were captured or destroyed during the course of the night.
Not until the morning of 24 November could any clear impression be gained of the preceding events, nor could the forces be reassembled and the casualties established. German fighting power was struck such a bad blow that the whole Africa Corps only had forty tanks to commit on 24 November.
This battle resulted in the removal of the danger to the encirclement ring about Tobruk, the destruction of a large part of the enemy armored strength and the morale effect on the enemy of being forced by a considerably weaker opponent to renounce temporarily offensive plans.
Special tactics involving the employment of mobile forces developed in this fighting: rapid evaluation of the situation by personal observation, making a quick decision and acting promptly by moving the forces to the decisive position. Likewise the concentration of forces in order to be able to attack the enemy with local superiority at any time is highly important in desert operations.
In the morning of 24 November General Gruewell reported to General Rommel, who had not yet been informed of all the details of the task battle south of Tobruk, that in his opinion the enemy had been destroyed at Sidi Resegh, and only a few elements had been able to escape the encirclement. This fact reinforced Rommel's determination to thrust to the southeast deep into the enemy hinterland in order to assail the latter's east front and destroy the Indians and New Zealanders before they could unite with the remnants of the defeated offense group and then make a combined advance on Tobruk. At the same time he wanted to seize Habata and Maddalena in order to cut off enemy supply lines. By making use of the disorganization and confusion which doubtlessly existed within enemy ranks, he desired to make a bold thrust into the area south of the Sollum front and thus completely unnerve the enemy and perhaps even occasion a withdrawal to Egypt. All mobile troops would have to participate in such an operation. South of Tobruk a weak defense force, created from various elements, would remain, in order to be able to ward off any possible new moves on the part of the enemy. The defense of Bir el Gobi and of the encirclement front around Tobruk would retain the forces previously assigned.
In spite of the exhaustion of the men and the heavy casualties suffered in the fighting of the last days, about noon of 24 November the German Africa Corps and the Ariete Division began to march across the plain in the direction of Sidi Omar. The village was reached that evening in a lightning advance that paid no attention to any possible threat to the flanks from British elements. Rommel, himself, was at the head of this pursuit column and led the 21st Panzer Division right through the 4th Indian Division into the area by Sidi Suleiman in order to seal off the Halfaya front from the east. The 15th Panzer Division was to attack the enemy at Sidi Omar. A combined-arms Kampfgruppe was assembled to seize the supply center of Maddelena and another force was to destroy the dumps around Habata at the terminus of the British desert railroad.
The briefing for this operation took place at Bir Sheferzen late in the afternoon of 24 November. Thereafter Rommel drove over to the 21st Panzer Division and launched it in the direction of the Halfaya Pass. During that night, the division, in opposition to its original instruction but in consequence of an incorrectly transmitted order from the army's rear echelon, cut through the Halfaya Position to Capuzzo, where it had casualties.
The attack of the 15th Panzer Division proved a failure, and it became clear that the enemy was still everywhere a good deal stronger than the German victory would have led one to believe. The enemy quickly recovered from shock occasioned by the defeat, and, as was later learned, it was General Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief of the Middle East, himself, who, hastening over from Egypt, personally intervened to save the situation at the last moment by opposing the decision of the commander of the Eighth Army to evacuate the Marmarica and fall back to Egypt.
Although the British 7th Armored Division and the South Africans had been badly shaken up, the New Zealanders, the Indians, the Guards Brigade, and the garrison of Tobruk were all still fully intact. In view of this situation Rommel unfortunately had to refrain from carrying out the operations against the supply centers of Maddelena and Habata. Such time-consuming, extensive raids would no longer have come as a surprise and would have signified an irresponsible dissipation of heavily decimated forces. Rommel instead concentrated all his mobile forces against the New Zealanders.
On 25 November the heavy fighting at Tobruk again grew in intensity. The covering force became the objective of a simultaneous pincer movement frontally from the southeast and in the rear from Tobruk. By utilizing all available forces the attack could be partially beaten off and a deep enemy breach halted by an Italian counterthrust.
This critical situation (Sketch 7) caused Rommel to break off the
fighting on the Sollum front and transfer all elements as rapidly as possible
for commitment at the point of main effort at Tobruk. Meanwhile the 15th Panzer
Division had surrounded and captured a New Zealand brigade and many tanks near
Sidi Azeis. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, accompanied by the
Ariete Division, then advanced along a bread front westward, where
the defense group was having difficulty defending itself from attacks on all
While the 21st Panzer Division hurried to Gambut on 28 November along both sides of the coastal highway and gained the area south of Zafraan, the 15th Panzer Division, constantly threatened on its flank by mobile enemy forces, utilized the Trigh Capuzzo. It had to fight its way in heavy fighting up the outer slope of the djebel and finally in the evening reattained the old battlefields south of Tobruk.
In the meanwhile the enemy had burst the encirclement ring and had
occupied the dominating hills of El Dude, Bel Namid and Zafraan.
Rommel intended to encircle the New Zealand division, which had united with the tobruk garrison, and thus to close the ring around the city again. He concentrated all available forces for this operation and laid the point of main effort of the attack at the west wing in order to prevent a withdrawal of the New Zealanders into the fortress area. The 21st Panzer Division sealed the pocket from the east, simultaneously being forced to defend itself against relief attacks from the south. The 15th Panzer Division, advancing northward by way of Bir Bu Creimisa, captured the important ridge of El Duda in the evening. The 90th Light Division thrust south of its positions as far as Nagen Belhamid, without being able to join the 15th. The ceaseless British attacks from the south against the battle front could be repulsed. The Ariete Division was moved forward to reinforce the encirclement ring. El Duda was lost again during the night. On the morning of 30 November the enemy armored and infantry forces made a thrust against the southern covering line Creimisa-Rezegh - Zafraan. Since the attacks were not directed uniformly, however, they could all be repulsed. On the other hand the 15th Panzer Division was not able to take Belhamed despite repeated attempts to storm the hill, nor was it able to restore contact with the 90th Light Division or seal off the pocket from the fortress. Not until the next day could he sealing be completed after heavy fighting, after which a concentric attack ended by wiping out the bulk of the encircled New Zealanders, all attempts at relief from the south and east having failed.
With this the garrison of Tobruk was shut in again, and the enemy
had suffered such heavy losses that the fighting had to cease for the time
being - as was learned from an intercepted British radio message.]
Rommel still could not spare his troops, which so badly needed rest and rehabilitation. The Sollum front was engaged in still defensive battle with the Indians and the fortress of Bardia was seriously threatened. For this reason Rommel sent two combined-arms Kampfgruppe across the Trigh Capuzzo and the coastal highway to the Sollum front in order to free the lines of communication. He prepared the bulk of his German and Italian mobile forces southeast of Tobruk in such a way that while they were resting they could still at any time be committed southward against the main British forces.
The enemy forces carried out their reorganization and regrouping in an area on both sides of the Trigh el Abd and secured themselves by means of a veil of armored reconnaissance units along the line Sidi Maftan - Capuzzo.
During 4 December the army finally gained a clear picture of the enemy dispositions. A new force had been assembled at Bir el Gobi, whose mission obviously was to thrust in an enveloping movement into the area west of Tobruk and to dislodge the siege front. Rommel decided to immediately attack this not yet completely prepared enemy force with all the mobile elements available to him.
Since the forces encircling Tobruk were too weak, he made preparations to give up the eastern portion of the front. During the night of 4 December the German Africa Corps rolled westward through the corridor between el Duda and Sidi Resegh, now only three kilometers wide, to its assembly position west of el Adem. Its mission was an attack on Gobi, which was to be carried out jointly with the Italian motorized corps (Ariete and Trieste Divisions) coming from the northeast. Since the Italians were neither assembled or ready for attack, the Africa Corps had to attack alone at noon on 5 December. Both of the armored divisions advanced organized in depth and on a broad front along the route from el Adem to Bir el Gobi. Northwest of Gobi they united with the Young Fascist Division, which had fought there for a long time and very bravely. The Corps first met the British Guards Brigade and then the newly reequipped bridges of the British 7th Armored Division. In spite of this they reached the area eighteen kilometers northwest of Gobi by nightfall. At the same time the British 70th Infantry Division, supported by tanks, broke out of Tobruk and seized the ridge line el Duda - Belhamed. As a result of this move, the siege of the east front of Tobruk had to be relinquished for good.
On 6 December the German Africa Corps again had to continue the attack on Gobi without the assistance of the Italian corps. The Italians reported that their troops were worn out and no longer capable of waging battle. Although the enemy gradually withdrew toward Bir el Gobi, a destruction of strong elements or even an encirclement was no longer possible.
The attack was nonetheless continued on 7 December, but it led to a success and resulted in heavy German casualties. Having considered the strong enemy superiority and the condition of his own troops, Rommel decided to give up Tobruk entirely and to fall back to the Ain el Gazala position for the time being. To have remained at Tobruk any longer would have led to gradual attrition of his own very weak forces and thus to the less or Libya in the long run.
While the defense of the west front at Tobruk was continued, the German Africa Corps and the Italian Motorized Corps disengaged from the enemy in the night of 7 December. Elements of the Italian non-motorized XXI Corps and the 90th Light Division had already attained the Gazala position. the major danger during the withdrawal movement was located on the southern flank, which could have been enveloped by the enemy without any trouble. The Africa Corps was therefore entrusted with the mission of assuring flank protection to the entire armed forces. the enemy did not attempt such a large-scale operation, however, but limited his attacks to frontal thrusts all of which could be repulsed. Falling back by stages and engaged in part in still individual combat, all the forces had reached the Gazala position by 12 December without the enemy having succeeded in cutting off any sizeable elements or having caused them any particularly high casualties.
On 13 December the reinforced British Guards Brigade broke through
the position of the Italian XX Motorized Corps, and its reconnaissance forces
reached Bir Temrad twenty miles behind the front. At the same time, enemy
armored forces enveloped or circumvented the German Africa Corps' position on
the flank of the defense front. The danger was obvious that the British might
be able to gain the trail junction at El Mechili and thereby cut off the supply
line and force a shifting of the withdrawal route through Cyrenaica. By
exerting all its energy and committing its last man and weapon the Africa Corps
was able to attack the enemy, who had broken through, and destroy a large
portion of the Guards Brigade. Eight hundred prisoners including the brigade
commander were taken and many guns and twenty tanks destroyed. A thrust by
about 150 British tanks against the rear of the Africa Corps was successfully
repulsed by the employment of a few antitank guns and artillery.
In spite of these apparently favorable circumstances, one should not forget that the strength of the Axis soldiers was at its end.
The German Africa Corps and the motorized corps, both under General
Cruewell, fell back in the evening of 17 December across the southern edge of
the Cyrenaica Mountains to El Abiar, while the Italian infantrymen marched
The withdrawal into the area of Agedabia was completed on 25 December. The enemy had not utilized the many opportunities which offered themselves to envelop the German forces. The non-motorized Italo-German forces occupied a defense position built for the emergency on both sides of the town. The Africa Corps and the Italian motorized corps prepared for mobile defense in the Agedabia area.
It will always remain a mystery why the English did not advance through the easily passable desert and catch up with the German troops. They could have stopped the withdrawal once and for all at this critical spot. Such fears, which always hung over Rommel, fortunately did not materialize. Yet even after the arrival at the Agedabia position, which was tactically unfavorable, the danger of a broad envelopment did not subside. The condition of the troops, particularly the Italians, and the scanty supplies did not seem to make it advisable to remain long in the position but rather to fight a delaying action and to withdraw the bulk of the troops into the far more advantageous marsa el Brega line as soon as conditions seemed favorable.
Since the Agedabia position, itself, could not have withstood a strong enemy attack, the defense had to be secured by means of mobile counterattacks. In the meantime the British had pushed forward very close to the front, so that both a frontal as well as an enveloping attack could be expected. On 27 December the rehabilitated British 22nd Armored Brigade, once again fully capable of giving battle, thrust across El Haseiat at the same time as other forces attacked along the Agedabia front. It was possible in a three day tank battle to envelop the enemy, force him to give battle with reversed front, push him against the antitank positions and finally encircle him. The defeat cost the British 146 tanks and 300 prisoners. The brigade's remaining thirty tanks were able to escape to the east, but only lack of fuel on the part of the Germans saved them from destruction. As a result of this defeat, elements of the Guards Brigade and the 7th Armored Division, which had been attacking frontally, fell back to the northeast. This removed any immediate danger for the Agedabia position. Rommel utilized this favorable situation, evacuated the Agedabia position and withdrew by stages into the Mersa el Brega line without the exertion of any enemy pressure. The movement began on 2 January with the departure of the Italian infantry. Last to follow were the mobile forces, and on 12 January all units were ready for employment in the Brega position.
The course of this winter campaign clearly indicated that the decisive role in desert warfare falls to the tank, chiefly because there are no barriers and the tank's possibilities are unrestricted. The dimensions of victory or defeat are, therefore, apparent from the number of tanks which have been destroyer. Yet it is not only the total number of tanks which is important; even more essential are the technical capabilities - mobility, maximum range, and caliber of their guns. For it is important in the open desert to take the enemy under effective fire earlier and hit him earlier than he, himself, is in a position to do. To be further from the enemy than he from you is a cardinal principle in the desert. The English Mark II tank was feared because it had such heavy armament that it was difficult to destroy. At the same time it was slow and had a short, small-caliber gun. The German tank Types III and IV were still superior to their counterparts in range, caliber, and also partially in maneuverability in the winter battle, but in May 1942 the British evened the gap with the Grant and the Lee and later the Sherman tanks. A great share of the German success in the winter battle can thus be attributed to the superiority of the tanks.
The same principles were true for gun capabilities too. Here the English had the superiority. It was highly unpleasant when they directed fire from great distances with their 87.6mm guns and the Germans could muster no effective counterfire. On the other hand the Germans had a weapon in the 88mm antitank-antiaircraft gun greatly envied by their opponents because of its large caliber. The infantry was of lesser importance on both sides, and it was only in the position warfare at Sollum that it played a more important role.
The German operations were governed by the effort to concentrate their inferior forces for attack at decisive points. The difficulties which are part of fighting in which allies are also concerned and the supply situation, which was always strained, set certain limits to these objectives. Nonetheless, Rommel always maintained that only offensive tactics could bring success. That was the reason that, even when he had to go over to the defense, he waged a mobile defense. His aim always was to envelop, encircle, and destroy enemy elements. It was due to his skill that his inferior forces could almost invariably be grouped and concentrated in accord with the new situation with whirlwind speed so that the enemy could then be defeated before other forces could intervene. That is the way he defeated the 7th Armored Brigade on 21 November after having regrouped the two German armored divisions at the former's flanks and rear the previous night. The next day he succeeded in encircling the 4th Armored Brigade in similar fashion. During the battle on Memorial Sunday it was not until just before noon during the fighting itself that a German armored division was brought up under constant fighting to the rear of the enemy, where it forced the enemy forces to fight with reversed front against the Italian division moved up from the other direction. The result was that it was caught in a pocket. Since the Axis forces were not sufficient to completely seal off the ring, considerable elements of the exceedingly strong enemy forces succeeded in breaking out and a total destruction could not be achieved. The encirclement of the New Zealand brigade south of Tobruk on 1 December after Rommel managed to concentrate his forces in spite of the most difficult conditions was a complete success for the Africa Corps.
The defeat of the Guards Brigade near Temrad was due to the quick action of General Cruewell in the defensive fighting during the withdrawal. The three day tank battle at Agedabia at the end of 1941 is a model of mobile warfare and cooperation between tanks and antitank guns. Rommel's combined forces were able to completely destroy the enemy.
The winter battle in the Marmarica is, therefore, of very special importance, because there the tactical principles of desert warfare were born, solidified, and tested. All later desert successes were built upon these experiences and are the basis for Rommel's success in the summer battles of 1942, where he succeeded by mobile warfare in gradually defeating an enemy with decided materiel superiority.
Organization of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions
The 21st Panzer Division (then still known as the 5th Light Division) was only organized on an improvised basis and consisted of the following troops.
The 15th Panzer Division was organized as follows:
The two otherwise completely different divisions were equipped exactly the same as far as tanks were concerned.
The divisions were also assigned one or two 88mm gun batteries.
The opening note of the offensive was to be sounded by a frontal attack by the Italian divisions (A) stationed in the Gazala position against the British 50th Division and the South African 1st Division. Strong artillery units were designated to support this attack. During the day and night of 27 May tank concentrations were supposed to be simulated behind the sector of the local attack belt. for this purpose tanks and motor vehicles were to drive around in circles.
By means of this deception maneuver Rommel intended to lead the British to expect the main German thrust in the north and central part of the Gazala position, so that they would bring up the armored units, which were stationed in the rear areas as a mobile reserve, to this sector. In case he was unable to induce the British command to transfer their entire armored units to that place, he nevertheless hoped that some of the armored units would be dispatched to this area, thus splitting the British offensive forces.
At dawn on 26 May the motorized troops were also supposed to move in
the direction of the attack front of the Italian infantry. After dark the
motorized group was then supposed to move into its assembly area (B) --see
Sketch II -- at Segnali-Bir es Sferi. This group consisted of the German Africa
Corps with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, the Italian XX Motorized Corps
with the Trieste and Ariete Divisions and the 90th
Light Division, to which were attached three reconnaissance battalions (3rd,
33rd, and 580th).
The beginning of the advance for the enveloping attack on Bir Hacheim was set for 2200 hours. From here the German Africa Corps and the Italian XX Corps were to advance past Acroma to the coast in order to cut off the British divisions in the Gazala position from their lines of communication and destroy them.
The reinforced 90th Light Division was supposed to gain the area of El Adem - Belhamed in order to prevent the withdrawal of the Tobruk garrisons as well as the movement of reinforcements into the Acroma area and to cut off the enemy from his extensive supply depots in the area around Tobruk. The division was equipped with numerous dust making machines (used to create dust cloudsairplane engines and propellers mounted on trucks), which were supposed to simulate the approach of strong armored units by creating a gigantic dust cloud. By this measure Rommel intended to prevent the British reserves in the area south of Tobruk from entering the battle of Acroma as long as his panzer units were still seeking a decision there.
Following the destruction of the enemy, it was planned to capture the fortress of Tobruk.
Concentration, Advance and Tactical Assembly (Sketch II)
At 1400 on 26 May, after strong artillery concentrations, the Italian infantry (A) launched a frontal attack against the Gazala position. In order to deceive the British, one armored battalion each from the German Africa Corps and the Italian XX Corps were attached to these assault units, but they were supposed to push back to their units again in the evening. The British reconnaissance groups in the outpost area of the Gazala position offered only slight resistance and withdrew from their main positions.
IN the meantime the offensive group (the 90th and 1st Divisions of the German Africa corps and the Italian XX Motorized Corps) assembled in the areas assigned to them (B). In order to deceive the enemy, elements of these units continued to march toward the attack point of the Italians on the evening of 26 May and, as had been planned, they could not help being recognized during this movement by the British night air reconnaissance units. Then these units also returned in great haste to their assembly area. At 2020 hours the 10,000 motor vehicles of the offensive troops began to move. The divisions advanced across the gravelly desert by bright moonlight in a cross-country march without interruption. The terrain was easily traversed by vehicles and contained hardly any obstacles. in the tremendous dust clouds, which reduced visibility almost to zero, the drivers had a great deal of trouble in maintaining contact with the vehicle ahead of them.
The dust thrown up during the advance of the 10,000 vehicles in the offense group was tremendous and greatly hampered driving. The commander of the panzer regiment writes concerning this:
This night march of 100 kilometers made heavy demands on the officers and drivers, since for reasons of secrecy we had to march without radio, i.e. without any signal communications, and since in spite of the full moon the huge clouds of dust made it almost impossible for the drivers to see anything.
The vehicles drove at intervals of thirty to fifty meters apart, both in depth and in the flanks. The division had a total march depth of approximately ten kilometers and a width of 500 to 1000 meters.
5. Orientation. All the men were given compass bearings, so that it was possible to follow the general direction of the march. In spite of this the columns frequently became separated and some of them diverged from the main direction. A night march of this kind requires great practice and experience on the part of the troops; otherwise it cannot be done on time.
The average marching speed was fifteen to twenty kilometers, which in view of the difficulties can be described as good. Smaller units marching alone can naturally make considerably greater speeds.
6. Mine fields. At Bir Hacheim the columns ran into extensive mine fields, which were fenced in, but some of them proved to be dummy mine fields. They created a considerable feeling of insecurity among the troops. In the Gazala position the British had made a large-scale use of mine fields for the first time in the desert warfare, and had strewn the unobstructed desert terrain with a mass of artificial obstacles which were more unpleasant than the natural obstacles (bodies of water, forests, buildings) of a European theater of war. Rommel writes the following about this in his diary:
A strongly mined defense area from eight to ten kilometers wide extended from the coast at Gazala toward the south. The 50th British and 1st South African Divisions had established themselves in it at numerous strong points. From the southern part of these positions a mine field about twenty kilometers wide led to Bir Hacheim. This village was the southern anchor of the British Gazala front. Its works were situated within broad mine fields. The position was fortified with great skill. This was the first time that an attempt had been made to establish a fortified area so deep in the desert. There were about one million mines within the area of these fortifications alone. Several kilometers east of the central part of the Gazala position was located the major base of Knightsbridge, which was surrounded by mine fields and was manned by the 201st British Guards Brigade. To protect the outpost area of Tobruk toward the south the British had strongly fortified and mined this area around El Hatain and Batruna.
The fortress of Tobruk was the supply base and permanent support point for the Gazala position. The British had energetically carried on the completion of the fortifications since 1941. In particular, extensive mine fields had been laid within the area of the fortress. All fortified points in the entire defense system possessed strong infantry, artillery, and armored reconnaissance units. Extensive supply depots had been established. All the fortifications were characterized by the extraordinary engineering skill of the British. Tremendous quantities of mines - over one and a half million in all the fields - were laid by the engineers.
Besides their completely motorized units in the fortified areas, the British also had strong armored and mechanized units (1st and 7th Armored Divisions, as well as several independent motorized brigades and battalions), which were organized as mobile reserves behind the fortifications.
Shortly before daybreak on 26 May there was an hour's pause in the area about fifteen to twenty kilometers southeast of Bir Hacheim. Then the great mass of vehicles sprang into movement again and in swirling clouds of dust and sand the units drove northward into the British rear area. British mine fields and dummy mine fields caused trouble in places, but by 0600 all units of the army were advancing steadily toward the objectives which had been assigned to them.
The 90th Light Division reached the area of El Adem as early as 1000. Large supply depots of the XXX British Corps, which had its supply base here, fell into its hands. The British command did not react until about noon, and then there was brisk fighting there.
In the meantime the panzer units of the Africa Corps had also come into collision with the 4th British Armored Brigade and the 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade about ten kilometers east of bir el Harmat. A tank battle ensued. The German panzer units entered the engagement without adequate artillery support. To their great surprise the German tanks were met by well aimed enemy tank fire even at great distances and soon many of our tanks were in flames. This far reaching tank fire caused astonishment, for in previous desert engagements the British had not been able to score good hits even at medium distances. However, in spite of heavy losses, the Germans finally succeeded, by committing all their forces, in driving the British back past Trigh el Abd. From there, however, they immediately returned in a counterattack.
The commander of the 5th Panzer Regiment (21st Panzer Division) gives the following description of these engagements (Sketch VIII):
After issuing new orders and supplying the troops and vehicles, we resumed our advance about 0600 on 27 May in the combat formation of the cross country march (Klaechenmarch). In place of the 1st Battalion of the panzer regiment, which had not yet been able to return to its position from the deception maneuver on the Gazala front, the antitank battalion was stationed in the foremost line in order to increase the number of our armor-piercing guns. It was obvious that this was only a makeshift, for in an attack against tanks the antitank battalion, which was only motorized (wheeled vehicles only, no track-laying vehicles) could not give the same performance as a tank battalion. Radio silence was ordered until contact had been established with the enemy. This considerably hampered the command and the cohesion of the division.
After a march of about ten kilometers the tank wave made its first contact with individual enemy tanks. In the area east of Bir el Harmat a furious battle then developed with enemy tanks, which had already opened fire at a great distance, as well as with enemy batteries. For several hours the battle raged here and there and caused us heavy losses in tanks and men. The battle was finally decided in our favor when our panzer battalion arrived at the right time from the Gazala front. The regiment destroyed many enemy tanks and several batteries, but we too had lost forty to fifty tanks. To be sure, they were not all complete losses, but in view of the fact that the total strength of the regiment was 170 tanks they represented a considerable percentage.
In the afternoon the regiment again attacked toward the north and slowly gained ground. The enemy launched an armored counterattack from the west into the deep flank of the division which cut off considerable elements from our combat troops. In particular, these elements included the supply train, which contained the motor fuel columns of the panzer regiment. The absence of the motor fuel supply units was felt most severely by the panzer regiment, for this regiment was not only our biggest gasoline consumer, but also because in contrast to other motor vehicles one of our tanks could only carry enough fuel for 100 kilometers even under very favorable conditions.
With the arrival of darkness the fighting came to an end and the regiment took up a hedgehog position(4) north of Knightsbridge in order to rest.
The following had occurred among the other elements of the offensive group in the afternoon of 27 May.
Around noon, when Rommel and his staff attempted to reach the 90th Light Division at El Adem, his column was attacked by British tanks and had to turn back. Contact between the 90th Light Division and the Africa Corps was broken. When attempting to fight its way back to the Africa Corps, it suddenly found itself confronted by a British battery, which was advancing from the area of Bir Hacheim in the direction of Tobruk. Although the staff did not have any forces to speak of at its disposal, they attacked the British from their march movement and captured them,
In the afternoon heavy tank fighting broke out northeast of Bir el Harmat. The 1st British Armored Division was brought up from the area south of Tobruk and entered the battle. Its strong armored units attacked chiefly form the northeast. While the British artillery furnished strong fire protection, they fired into the columns and tank units of the Africa Corps, which were visible at a great distance. Black smoke poured from the burning vehicles and tanks. The attack came to a halt. The divisions again suffered exceptionally high tank losses. A sudden sandstorm which prevented both sides from seeing and firing accurately, came at a very opportune time for the Africa Corps.
Numerous German columns became disorganized and withdrew in a southwesterly direction from the fire of the British artillery. While defending itself on the east, the Africa Corps fought its way step by step toward the north. Until darkness the battle continued to rage over the level country, which was covered with camel's thorn. The greater part of the Africa Corps advanced as far as the area twelve kilometers south and southwest of Acroma. During this movement a large part of the column vehicles unfortunately became separated from the panzer divisions and the majority of the armored infantry could not follow them.
1. Tactics. Rommel's attack with comparatively weak forces into the heart of the enemy Gazala position after a long enveloping march of about 200 kilometers was an enterprise of unprecedented daring and only possible in the desert. In Europe it is impossible to move such large numbers of troops in such a short time, since they have to follow the roads. The proportion of forces was three to one in favor of the British. However, the latter committed their superior tank forces in piecemeal fashion and in this way helped the German forces to win a victory - although at a heavy price. Rommel's papers contain the following comments about this:
In spite of this situation on the evening of 27 May, which confronted us with serious problems, my attitude toward the subsequent course of the battle was very hopeful. For General Ritchie had thrown his armored forces into the battle separately and at different times and had thus enabled us on each occasion to confront them with a more or less adequate number of our own tanks. This splitting up of the British armored brigades was incomprehensible. In my opinion there was no strategic or tactical purpose whatsoever behind the sacrificing of the 7th British Armored Division south and southeast of Bir el Harmat, for it would have been all the same whether my panzer divisions had been placed here or at Trigh el Abd, where the other British armored units finally entered the battle. What the British should have done was to commit all their available armored units at the same time. They should never have allowed themselves to be deceived into splitting up their forces before the battle or during our feint attack on the Gazala position. The fact that their units were completely motorized and that the unobstructed desert terrain was easily passable would have enabled them to collect their forces and cross the battlefield in every quick time. The battle of movement in the open desert was often correctly compared with a naval battle.
2. The Hedgehog Position After the fighting and during every rest period in enemy territory the practice of taking up a hedgehog position proved very useful. In this operation the troops were assembled in a specific area and the outer boundary of this area was guarded in the form of a circle by infantry and antitank guns, and possibly also by tanks. As a matter of principle the resting troops dug themselves in, in order to have protection in their foxholes from any possible air attacks.
3. Tanks. The American Grant tanks, which was then used in combat for the first time, furnished the German troops with an unwelcome surprise. It had a relatively long 75mm gun of superior range. Because of their ignorance of this fact, numerous German tanks were knocked out by the enemy just as they entered the engagement and before they could get the enemy in range with their shorter guns. Both of the German panzer regiments which were committed there had between them forty-eight Mark IV tanks armed with 75mm guns, which, however, had only a short barrel with a correspondingly short range. Only four Mark IV tanks in each of these two panzer regiments were equipped with the long 75mm guns and their supply of ammunition was low. Thus, on the first day of the attack these two panzer regiments lost a total of about 150 tanks out of the 380 with which they had entered the battle. To be sure, not all of these were totally destroyed, but they represented very serious losses. During the next few days the situation improved somewhat, since the German tanks quickly adjusted themselves to the superior range of the majority of the enemy tanks.
In open desert country, where it is often possible to see for great distances, the range of the guns is of decisive importance.
4. Staffs. All combat command staffs are almost always stationed in the foremost line. Thus, they are just as much exposed to the enemy as the combat troops and are often unexpectedly involved in unforeseen fighting. The staffs, therefore, should be escorted and protected by combat units armed with antitank guns and tanks. Mixed combat groups of approximately company strength proved useful for this purpose. In the enemy tank attack against the deep flank of the Africa Corps on the afternoon of 27 May, units of this kind were used almost exclusively for defensive purposes and they succeeded in halting the attack. to be sure, the effect of the dust and sunlight also contributed to this.
5. Effects of Dust and Sunlight. The sandstorm which arose in the afternoon of 27 May and concealed the front with dust (easterly winds) saved the Africa Corps during the enemy attack on its deep flank, where only weak forces could be committed for a defense.
Another great disadvantage for the enemy was that in the early hours of the afternoon they had to fight against the sun and because of the increased agitation of the air this made aiming extremely difficult. In the evening, on the other hand, the enemy had a good chance to aim at the Germans, who had the sun at their backs and so were silhouetted against the sky.
6. Supply. It was very difficult or even impossible to supply the combat troops, since the supply columns had been attacked and scattered by the enemy. In operations which are carried out deep into the territory of a superior enemy, columns moving in the open desert are in danger and must be protected (scout cars, antitank guns, self-propelled guns). Supplies can be moved only by the convoy system. However, it is best to give the troops such an abundance of all supplies, especially motor fuel, which in mobile desert warfare is of the highest importance, that they will have a side radius of action.
It would have been impossible for several days to supply the troops with water if they had not captured a fairly large fresh-water well at Bir el Harmat, which had been dug by the British shortly before that time. Otherwise it would have been necessary to transport drinking water over 250 kilometers of hostile country and the supply system would have been placed in jeopardy. Here the importance of water points in the desert becomes clearly evident.
Engagements on 28-29 May (Sketches II and III)
On the following day our forces were supposed to be concentrated for the purpose of continuing the attack toward the north. For this purpose the 90th Light Division was to disengage itself from the enemy in the area around El Adem, where they were being hard pressed, and attach itself to the Africa Corps in the west in order to increase the latter's striking power. At daybreak on 28 May British units were sighted advancing toward the northwest. We still did not have any contact with the individual elements of the panzer army. Shortly after daybreak British tanks fired on the army's headquarters. The Italian XX Motorized Corps was ordered to follow behind the Africa Corps and to advance to the north.
The 90th Light Division was unable to comply with the order to attach itself to the Africa Corps in the east and increase the later's striking power, for it was constantly under attack by strong British forces. About 100 British tanks were engaged in action there. Many airplanes of the RAF dropped bombs on the division, and several units were soon scattered from the main body. They had to take up a hedgehog position ten kilometers east of Bir el Harmat in order to ward off further attacks by the enemy. Fortunately, in the course of the morning we succeeded in establishing a defense front with at least some elements of the Africa Corps in order to protect our columns northeast of Bir el Harmat.
The situation was also very serious in the Africa Corps. By now the enemy had assembled almost all available armor north of the Trigh Capuzzo and were repeatedly attacking the Africa Corps.
Rommel now ordered the Italians to make a frontal attack from the Gazala position against the main enemy front in order to pin down the British forces committed there and to prevent them from joining in the action against the German envelopment forces. The Italian attack, which jumped off at noon on 28 May, made good progress forward at Eluet el Tamar against the resistance of weak British forces.
In the afternoon it became evident in the Africa Corps that there was a considerable lack of ammunition as the result of the failure of the supply system, so that some elements of the tank and artillery forces were no longer fit for action. It was, therefore, exceptionally important to bring up the supply columns quickly.
Rommel describes the subsequent course of the engagement:
Late in the afternoon of 28 May we, that is the combat staff, succeeded in advancing to a hill about fifteen kilometers north of Bir el Harmat with a few vehicles and antitank guns and from there we were able to see the German Africa Corps. A typical picture of desert warfare was revealed. Black clouds billowed up to the sky and gave the landscape a peculiarly somber charm. I proposed to send up the supply columns to the Africa corps along this route in the early hours of the following morning.
On our way back to the combat post we established further contact with one British and one Italian column. Even the latter took us for the enemy and opened a wild fire, from which we escaped by a speedy withdrawal. After dark, when we succeeded in reaching the area southwest of Bir el Harmat through one of the mine lanes cleared by the Italians and met some of our own troops, we learned that the British had overrun my staff headquarters during our absence. To be sure, numerous British tanks had been knocked out on this occasion by the Kiehl combat echelon (Kampfstaffel Kiehl). Other British columns had pushed forward as far as the supply units of the Africa corps, had created great confusion there and had shot up a large number of vehicles carrying gasoline and ammunition. During the night we succeeded in restoring order and in occupying our old positions.
I myself assembled the columns late in the evening for the purpose of sending them to the Africa Corps the following morning. In view of the slight cover which was available for protection, it would have been fairly risky for the columns to march through an area controlled by the enemy. Fortunately the 90th Light Division was able to disengage itself from the British during the night and establish itself around Bir el Harmat. The Ariete Division was sent into the gap between the 90th Light Division and the Africa Corps. This plan of organization made the route of the supply units a great deal safer. At daybreak I sent them to the Africa Corps. Everything went off smoothly. As we entered the combat area, the Africa Corps was just being attacked from the north and east by British tanks. Because of its lack of gasoline and ammunition the operations of the corps had been severely limited. Now for the first time it was possible to relieve this situation to a certain extent. I established my command post here on the same afternoon.
After full contact had been re-established with all elements of the army, I was able to gain an over-all picture of the situation.
We had now succeeded in uniting our forces on both sides of the Trigh el Abd and in forming a strong defense front here. Nevertheless, the German and Italian units had suffered badly. The supply route of the offensive units south of Bir el Hacheim had been practically cut off by British motorized battalions. The attack of the Italian infantry divisions against the Gazala position had run into the main British position and had stuck fast there in front of well prepared fortifications.
The commander of the 5th Panzer Regiment (21st Panzer Division) describes the engagements of his regiment as follows (Sketch VIII):
During the night the division took up a hedgehog position due north of the Trigh Capuzzo. The rest area was covered by enemy artillery fire from the northeast, east, and south. Although the supply train had not yet arrived on 28 May, the attack was continued in a northerly direction on the next day in the forward part of the division front, just as the panzer regiment had attacked on the day before. Enemy tanks tried to harass the assembly; consequently the regiment had to issue orders in advance for an attack with limited objective. The enemy was quickly repulsed and lost ten tanks and two batteries.
The division moved up and about noon reached the area ten kilometers southwest of Acroma and El Cuscia. The division opened up somewhat to the west toward the corps headquarters and took up a hedgehog position.
The supply situation became more critical, for it was not known whether the motor fuel columns had been destroyed in the enemy tank attack.
The 15th Panzer Division - which as far as I know was located southeast of the 21st Panzer Division - suffered even more from the supply situation.
The regimental engineer arrived in the evening and a few more supply columns during the night, so that the troops could be supplied and the fuel tanks refilled. It was not yet possible to remove the men who had been wounded in the morning of 27 May and so they were taken along with the combat echelons (Kampfstaffel) in captured trucks and empty supply vehicles.
29 may (Sketch VIII): Enemy tanks had made an attack from the east against the 15th Panzer Division, which was located farther to the south; upon orders from the Africa Corps the 1st Battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment was placed at the disposal of this division and entered the heavy tank battle.
The 2nd Battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment, which had been reinforces with one battery, one company of armored infantry and several engineers, had the mission of advancing to the north and harassing supply traffic on the Via Balbia with their 105mm battery. This mission was accomplished, and when the reconnaissance detachment, which had been sent out by the battalion commander, reported that the ridge of hills east of Sidi Mgherreb was occupied by the enemy, the battalion commander 91st Lieutenant Rochell) attacked and at Point 201 ran into an excellently fortified British strong point, which they captured although they suffered some casualties. Over one hundred prisoners were taken here.
Another company of the panzergrenadier regiment and the regimental staff of the panzergrenadier regiment were sent after the battalion in the afternoon with orders to hold the strong point.
On the same evening, however, the regiment received orders to close up toward the division with its detached elements. there it was learned that in order to improve its supply system the Africa corps had been ordered to return through the British mine field along mine lanes that were said to exist along the Trigh Capuzzo and the Trigh el Abd. One battalion of the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment with an attached company of the 5th Panzer Regiment was supposed to remain behind as a rear guard.
The march movements were carried out smoothly; the rear guard, which was pursued by enemy reconnaissance forces and tanks, did not arrive at the area assigned to it until the morning of 20 May.
Supply: The supply situation of the offensive group was gradually becoming catastrophic, because the supplies had to be moved over great distances in enemy dominated territory and because due to the lack of men, the supply columns had to drive without any escort. Some of the columns, therefore, became scattered, others were shot up, so that only an extremely small part of them or none at all ever reached the troops. Conclusion: Strong convoy guards should be assigned to columns in the desert. However, this is only possible if sufficient forces are available and at that time this was not the case.
Staffs: The danger to which combat command staffs were exposed in desert warfare was again made clearly evident. Therefore, the staffs attached combat echelons to them, which consisted of tanks, antitank guns, and antiaircraft guns and which were frequently able to take a successful part in an engagement.
Penetration of the Mine Fields (Sketch III)
In the evening of 29 May the British had concentrated their entire armored forces in front of the German-Italian offensive group. By the evening of 29 May the supply situation had become so critical that it was no longer possible to consider continuing the attack successfully toward the north. Rommel drew the right conclusions from this state of affairs and attempted to secure for the army a guarded supply route that would bypass the wide bend around Bir el Hacheim, which was dominated by the enemy. he proposed to break through the center of the British Gazala front by an attack from the east and to open a gateway to the west. For this purpose units of the 90th Light Division and elements of the Africa Corps were supposed to move against the mine fields from the east. In order to safeguard this operation, the other units were to organize themselves for defense along a shortened front. following the penetration of the Gazala fortifications, the southern anchor of the British front, the fortress of bir el Hacheim, was to be subdued.
30 May: In the gray light of dawn all the trucks that could be spared were assembled as supply vehicles in a convoy, to which tanks were attached. This measure appeared necessary because in the preceding days some supply columns of the Africa corps had been attacked by British scouting vehicles west of the Gazala - Bir el Hacheim position. Those with minor and serious wounds who could not be accommodated in the medical trucks were now sent to the rear in the empty supply vehicles. Unfortunately, the column did not start upon its trip to the rear until after dawn and was fired at by enemy artillery and aircraft. By driving at top speed the truck drivers attempted to evade the artillery fire, but were blinded by the enormous clouds of dust thrown up by the vehicles in front of them, so that they got off the mine lanes, most of which were only a single track wide, and drove over mines, resulting in heavy losses in vehicles and men. It was obvious that these mine lanes were not sufficient for supplying several armored and motorized divisions. First of all, however, it was necessary to repel the enemy, who was pressing hard on their heels from the north and northeast.
At daybreak the individual divisions arrived at the areas assigned to them and there established themselves for defense. During these movements we ascertained that there were strong British units accompanied by tanks in the area of Got el Ualeb. This was the 150th Brigade, which was attached to the 50th British Division. In the meantime elements of the X Italian Corps had succeeded in getting through the British mine fields and forming a bridgehead on their eastern side. The lanes that the Italians had already cleared through the British mine fields were, to be sure, exposed to heavy fire from the British artillery, which had an extremely disturbing effect on the column traffic. Nevertheless, by 1200 hours contact had been established between the offensive group and the X Italian Corps and a direct supply route opened to the west. In the course of the day the British brigade was surrounded at Got el Ualeb.
The enemy followed our disengaging movements only slowly. The withdrawal of the German-Italian units had apparently come to him as a surprise. Besides, the British command never reacted very quickly. In the morning, however, there were only a few British attacks against the Ariete division, which the Italians repulsed, and relatively weak thrusts at the rest of our front. Fifty-seven British tanks were knocked out on this day.
In the afternoon Rommel himself reconnoitered the possibilities of an attack against Got el Ualeb and ordered an attack to be made on the next morning against the British fortifications there by elements of the Africa Corps, the 90th Light Division and the Italian Trieste Division. The attack of these units began on the morning of 31 May. Step by step the German-Italian units fought their way forward against extremely stubborn British resistance. The British defense was conducted with considerable skill. As usual, the British fought to the last cartridge. In spite of it all, by the evening of 31 May we had driven a considerable breach into the British positions. On the following day the British garrison was to be finished off. After vigorous Stuka attacks, our infantry again flung themselves against the British field fortifications. The attack went on. Position after position of this system of fortifications, which had been built like a fortress, was captured by our troops, and early in the afternoon the fortress was in our hands. The last British resistance had been extinguished. We captured a total of 3,000 prisoners here and destroyed or captured 101 tanks and armored reconnaissance cars, as well as twenty-four artillery pieces of all types.
After the fall of Got el ualeb, the British made an attack with reinforced reconnaissance units in later afternoon on 1 june against our defense front to the east and southeast. Brisk concentrations of fire were suddenly directed, especially against our command post. Rommel's most important assistants were wounded that day.
Then the major base of Bir el Hacheim was to be surrounded and attacked on 2 June. British and French assault teams had repeatedly attacked our lines of communication from that base. This now had to come to an end.
It is necessary to equip the field units with facilities that will enable them to provide suitable treatment for seriously wounded cases for a fairly long time. In the German divisions this was not the case.
During the night of 1-2 June the 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division advanced against Bir el Hacheim. After these units had traversed the mine fields without heavy casualties the fortress was enveloped from the east. The demand for surrender, which we forwarded under a flag of truce, was rejected and the attack began about noon. The Trieste Division advanced against the fortifications, field positions, and mine fields of the French from the northeast, while the 90th Light Division attacked from the southeast. Our artillery preparation opened a battle of unusual severity, which was to last for ten days. The French defended themselves in field positions that were built very cleverly on a level with the ground and in combat positions such as fox-holes, small bunkers, machine gun and antitank gun positions, all of which had been surrounded with strong mine belts and built according to the proper rules for desert warfare. Fortifications of this kind are hard to recognize and extraordinarily insensitive to artillery fire and air raids, for a direct hit can wipe out only a fox-hole at the most. Therefore, it is necessary to use a great deal of ammunition if one wishes to inflict actual damage on the enemy in such a position.
It was especially difficult to clear lanes in the mine fields under
the French fire. Here the army engineers, who suffered heavy casualties, turned
out a superhuman performance. under smoke screens and the covering fire of
their own artillery, they had, in some places, to dig their way directly up to
the mines. The victory was to a large extent due to them.
While our air force attacked in waves, assault detachments made up of men from all the service arms of several different units attacked from the north and south. Our attacks repeatedly bogged down in the excellent French fortifications. During the first few days of our attack against the French, the British had remained amazingly calm. They only attacked the Ariete Division on 2 June, but it defended itself stubbornly. After a counterattack by the 21st Panzer Division, the situation there again became quiet.
On the morning of 2 June about twenty tanks of the 5th Panzer Regiment advanced in a scouting raid around Knightsbridge and returned with useful reconnaissance information.
Toward noon the 21st Panzer Division was supposed to make ready for
the attack toward the north. Orientation was extremely difficult because of a
violent sandstorm, and the assembly lasted longer than usual. As always, the
beginning of the attack was supposed to be ordered after the units had reported
themselves in readiness.
In the afternoon, when the sandstorm suddenly abated, some enemy tanks that had apparently been alarmed by the scouting raid of our tanks and had pursued them, appeared in front of the 5th Panzer Regiment, which was assembled for the attack, and opened fire.
Since haste was called for, the order to advance was given and the attack carried out immediately; the artillery attached itself to the regiment and in a free-moving attach the enemy was hurled back and pursued for a distance of fifteen kilometers until it became dark. Two batteries and about twenty-five tanks were destroyed during this operation, while our own losses were slight.
The regiment was ordered back during the night by the division commander and remained in front of the position, a battalion of the panzergrenadier regiment being brought forward as a covering force.
Since the division was not supposed to advance to the north again during the next few days, the panzer regiment was again withdrawn behind the main line of resistance.
Even during these days the regiment maintained telephone communication with the division and also with neighboring units whenever possible in order to make as little use as possible of radio messages, which might be intercepted.
The British were repeatedly harassing our supply columns with combat teams sent out from the area south of Bir el Hacheim. They laid mines in our supply paths and attacked our supply units. We had to use scout cars and self-propelled guns as a convoy guard.
The Africa Corps took advantage of these days of quiet in order to
make up for its heavy losses of materiel by repairs, but on 2 June the corps
still only had 130 tanks left out of the 320 it possessed at the beginning of
the battle. Now the number slowly increased again.
We sensed that there was something in the air. It was clear to us that the British would soon make another attack, either against the front of our panzer divisions in the north or against our siege group in the south. Therefore, in the night of 4-5 June we prepared the 15th Panzer Division for an attack to the east. Even the British slowly gave ground during this stubborn tank battle. A combat group blocked the Trigh Capuzzo to the east and thereby forced the British units into the fire of the German-Italian panzer division that were attacking concentrically. The combat team was soon exposed to vigorous attacks from the east. When it was enveloped by the enemy in the south, it had to withdraw during the night to Bir el Harmat.
Since we were able to press the British hard from three sides, they suffered considerable losses. Thus, 4,000 British troops were taken prisoner on 5 and 6 June.
During the night, at about 0200, there was suddenly a considerable sound of fighting in the right wing of our position where the Italian Ariete Armored Division was stationed. Thereupon the 21st panzer Division ordered a state of combat readiness, which was immediately carried out. At a result of this, all the tanks had to switch over to radio reception, which was otherwise forbidden in order to spare the batteries. When the strong artillery fire suddenly ceased about 0330, orders were given to suspend the state of combat readiness, although it was still dark. The order had hardly been given when tremendous artillery and machine-gun fire was directed at the left wing of our position against the 90th Light Division, which was removed from there to Bir el Hacheim - its sector was taken over by the 21st Panzer Division and the Italian divisions stationed in the mine lanes.
At dawn the enemy attacked with tanks in front of the entire
division sector, and especially at the mine lane. A company of the 1st
Battalion, the 4th Company of the 5th Panzer Regiment, which was sent forward
to the northwest at this time, independently launched a counterattack and was
soon supported by the 1st Battalion. By 0700 the 1st Battalion had knocked out
twenty enemy tanks. After consulting by radio with the division, which had
already received reports from other units, the regimental staff and the 2nd
Battalion were sent in to support the 1st Battalion.
The regiment launched a counterattack with a limited objective and in the course of the morning knocked out a total of about fifty tanks, captured several trucks and took about 150 prisoners, while sustaining relatively few casualties of its own.
The British attempt to cut off the Axis forces from the mine lane with this attack was thereby frustrated.
The enemy withdrew to the north with their tanks; thereupon the 5th Panzer Regiment was placed in a state of readiness at the right wing of the division, approximately in the area west of Bir el Aslagh, where, apart from minor movements it remained for several days.
Tank Actions in the Area Around Knightsbridge from 6 June to 10 June (Sketch IX)
Radiating from this point, tank actions were fought almost daily in the afternoon hours in the form of attacks with limited objective against the British armored units stationed around Knightsbridge, mostly with the 8th Panzer Regiment of the 15th Panzer Division. These attacks were generally not broken off until dusk, when it was no longer possible to distinguish between friend and foe, which frequently led to the most remarkable situations until the elements of the regiment could be withdrawn to their assembly area.
Especially notable was an operation presumably carried out on 6 June, in which the staff of the 5th Panzer Regiment together with the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment the 2nd Battalion of the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the 1st Battalion of the 155th Panzer Artillery Regiment, and a heavy antiaircraft battalion were ordered to advance past Bir el Aslagh to a ridge of hills along a permanent telephone line, presumably passing through Point 171 to Triangulation Point 169. They were to hold this line for the purpose of sealing off to the north an enemy group stationed farther to the south, which was supposed to be subjected to an enveloping attack by the 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Armored Division.
The combat group advanced from the sector of the 15th Panzer
Division without encountering any resistance forward, but after reaching its
objective it was under heavy enemy artillery fire from the north and south
until the afternoon and was repeatedly attacked by enemy bombers.
Then in the afternoon the enemy group was encircled and the 1st Battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment, which had to be committed by the division in order to extend the barrier to the west, broke into the pocket with elements of the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment.
Several thousand prisoners were taken. Many artillery pieces, antitank guns and motor vehicles were captured, so that the losses of our own unarmored units, which were not light, appeared slight in comparison.
Combat activity in front of the French fortifications of Bir el Hacheim had temporarily subsided. On 6 June the 90th Light Division resumed the attack. Their spearheads were able to advance to within 800 meters of the redoubt (small fort) of Bir el Hacheim. Then the attack bogged down again. The French poured a furious defensive fire into our ranks across the stony and completely open terrain. Toward evening the attack had to be broken off. The fortress was enveloped even more closely. In the night of 6-7 June the 90th Light Division cleared several mine lanes in its sector. In the darkness the assault teams advanced to within attacking distance. The fortress was taken under artillery fire and strongly attacked by the Luftwaffe . Then in the morning of 7 June the infantry flung themselves against the French positions. In spite of their gallantry, this assault also collapsed under the fire of all the enemy guns. In the north alone the combat group was able to effect several breaches. This defense was a remarkable achievement on the part of the defenders, who in the meantime were completely cut off from the outside world. We continued our attacks on 8 June also. Flares were sent up throughout the night and the defensive positions were covered with machine-gun fire in order to tire out the French. Nevertheless, when the assault troops attacked their positions the next morning, the French fire struck them with undiminished strength. The enemy remained stubbornly in their holes and were not to be seen.
On 9 June the Africa Corps sent up another combat group to support he attack on Bir el Hacheim. In the early hours of the morning waves of our infantry again rolled toward the French works. Toward noon the 90th Light Division, which had also supported from the south with its heavy weapons, the attack of the combat groups in the north, also attacked. With painful losses and under constant exposure to the hostile fire of the French, who defended themselves to the last, their assault troops worked their way to within about 200 meters of the redoubt of Bir el Hacheim. On 10 June the combat group of the Africa Corps finally succeeded in breaking deep into the main defensive area of the enemy north of Bir el Hacheim. The French defended every pocket of resistance with desperation and sustained exceptionally high casualties. After this penetration, however, they were unable to hold Bir el Hacheim any longer. We expected that the enemy would then send up relief troops in order to enable the French garrison to break their way out. Elements of the 7th British Brigade, which, as already mentioned, had hitherto occupied themselves with harassing our supply lines, had already been sighted by our reconnaissance patrols marching toward Bir el Hacheim. In order to be prepared for every situation, the 15th Panzer Division was also dispatched to Bir el Hacheim. The French garrison was to be finished off on the following day. Unfortunately, the French did not do us this favor, for in spite of our security measures they succeeded in effecting a breakthrough with a considerable number of their garrison under the leadership of their commander, General Koenig. They disappeared toward the west under the cover of darkness, where they joined up with the 7th british motorized brigade. It was later to become evident that the point where they had broken out of the encircling ring had not been sufficiently closed. It had again been proved that a resolute commander who does not throw in is cards at the first reverse, can achieve a great deal, even in situations in the desert which appear desperate. The 90th Light Division was able to occupy Bir el Hacheim early in the morning of 11 June. Five hundred Frenchmen fell into our hands there, but most of them were wounded. Our units were now free. Although these actions had cost the troops considerable casualties, the latter were in no proportion to the losses of the British, since thousands of British soldiers had to surrender in the bases besieged by us because of the lack of water and ammunition. For psychological reasons in particular it is generally a mistake to sacrifice units to the enemy.
Tactics: Movements as rapid as those carried out by the German troops in the first battle of Knightsbridge are only possible in the desert. This battle is a typical example of how decisions have to be made and quickly converted into action in the desert in order to achieve a decisive success. The envelopment of the British forces was thereby assured.
Fortress Bir el Hacheim: This was a typical desert fortification with the combat positions level with the ground, without superstructures, so that it could not be seen from ground level, surrounded by mine fields. This effective position withstood the attack of strong German forces for ten days. Tanks could not be used for the attack. The eight German tanks which were committed wee considerably limited in their movements by the mine fields and were quickly destroyed by antitank shells which came from directions which could not be determined.
Break-out from Bir el Hacheim: This is a typical example showing that it is only in the rarest cases that complete encirclement is possible in the desert, and then only if such strong forces are available that it is possible to seal the position off completely.
A bold, energetic defender can easily collect all his forces at any point in the pocket and break out of it there. The unobstructed desert terrain is suitable for a break-out. The defenders of Bir el Hacheim solved the problem in an exemplary way.
In the afternoon of 11 June the units committed at Bir el Hacheim were sent to the northeast for the purpose of seeking a final decision.
In the evening of 11 June the 15th Panzer Division, the 90th Light Division and the 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Battalions reached the area ten to fifteen kilometers south and southwest of El Adem. In order to circumvent this danger, the enemy moved the 2nd British Armored Brigade into the area cast of Knightsbridge. In the morning of 12 June, after stubborn fighting against the concentrated British armored forces, which had strong artillery support, the area around El Adem and south of the Trigh Capuzzo was captured. El Adem itself was occupied by the 90th Light Division. The British suffered considerable tank losses in this area and left 400 prisoners in our hands. The 29th Indian Brigade offered stubborn resistance in the El Adem box.
In the morning of 12 June another combat group of the 21st Panzer Division set out to the east. In this way the British armored units were driven closer and closer together and squeezed between the two German panzer divisions. During 12 June the enemy also moved up the 32nd GHQ Armored Brigade from the Gazala position into this area, which was already extremely congested. It therefore appeared likely that a continuation of the attack by the 15th Panzer Division in a northwesterly direction would be attended by great success.
On the following day the, 15th Panzer Division mopped up the foothills at El Adem, while the Italian Trieste and Ariete divisions forced the British into the area north of Trigh Capuzzo. During the violent sandstorm, which at times reduced visibility to zero, the 21st Panzer Division also arrived in the evening hours and attacked toward the east. The big tank massacre among the British units went on. Of the 150 tanks which the British still had left, one after the other was shot up. From several sides a murderous fire was poured into the closely compressed formations of the enemy, whose strength became weaker and weaker. Their counterattacks showed less and less vigor.
Unfortunately, on this day the 90th Light Division for several hours was unable to comply with the order to move up from the east to the 15th Panzer Division for the purpose of closing off the pocket entirely. It was close pressed by the British from all sides nd had to fight hard for its life. It could not disengage itself from the enemy until the afternoon, when it moved into its new area after bypassing strong British units.
On this day the Guards Brigade evacuated the base of Knightsbridge. after this place had been bombarded with all the available artillery there for the whole morning. This elite unit was almost a perfect embodiment of both the good and bad military qualities of the British Army. Extraordinary bravery and stubbornness were coupled with a rigid immobility. The greater part of the armored units which were attached to the British Guards were destroyed during the day, or else during their retreat during the night.
On 13 June all the forces of the German-Italian motorized troops were to be assembled for the purpose of forcing a breakthrough to the sea. The British divisions which had hitherto occupied the Gazala position and some elements of which were now withdrawing to the east along the coastal road were now to be thrown back to the west and annihilated. It was clear that we would have to fight hard during the next few days, for it began to be obvious that the British intended to hold the Acroma position under any circumstances in order to enable the units in the Gazala position to make their retreat. It seemed as if the enemy would sacrifice his last tanks for this purpose.
During the night before 14 June the two divisions of the Africa Corps west of the Trigh Hacheim trail were organized for an attack to the north. The Italian Ariete and Trieste divisions were supposed to cover their east flank. The 90th Light Division started off to the east in order to make the necessary preparations for a rapid occupation of the outpost area of the fortress of Tobruk.
In the morning the German panzer divisions began to move toward the north. the greatest haste was now called for, since the British were pouring eastward in thousands of vehicles. Suddenly they ran into a mine field. Here the enemy had attempted to form a new defensive front and for this purpose had committed all the tanks and artillery which he still had left. Our advance bogged down. Our vehicles were covered by a hail of British projectiles. The reconnaissance battalion was immediately given orders to clear lanes through the mine fields. The violent sandstorm which blew up toward noon proved an advantage for this work. Rommel ordered the 170mm guns to direct harassing fire against the Via Balbia. The thunder of the guns mingled with the sound of demolitions. The enemy was blowing up his ammunition dumps in the Gazala position.
Late in the afternoon the 15th Panzer Division launched an attack against Hill 187 southwest of Acroma. In spite of vigorous defensive fire from the British tanks, artillery and antitank guns, our attack gained more and more ground. Around 1700 the British fire slowly died down. Resistance crumpled. More and more British troops surrendered. Bu evening the British barrier had been broken through. After hard fighting, the success of which was indicated by the wrecks of forty-five British tanks lying on the battlefield, the German panzer divisions gained the area west of Acroma. The way to the Via Balbia was practically open. The 1st British Armored Division was no longer fit for action, and its remnants left the battlefield during the night.
During the darkness, elements of the British division succeeded in breaking out of the main front of the Gazala position to the southwest through the Italian troops of the X Corps. Although we knocked out 400 British vehicles there and captured several hundred prisoners, British troops with the strength of a brigade still managed to escape. After the successful breakthrough, the British commander led his troops in small columns through our supply area and caused considerable damage there.
In the early hours of the morning of 15 June elements of the 15th Panzer Division advanced past the Via Balbia to the sea. Unfortunately, the group which was supposed to block the Via Balbia was only seven tanks strong. British and south Africans were able to knock out these few tanks, break through the barrier and escape with additional elements, some of them in wild flight. Shortly afterwards, however, the gap was definitely closed. In the meantime the Italian divisions and the German brigade had moved after the British from the Gazala position. In the morning of 15 June the 21st Panzer Division had already withdrawn with the 90th Light Division and a reconnaissance group past El Adem for the purpose of eliminating the El Adem box with the strong points of Batruna and El Hatian. a brush fire broke out between our tanks and the Indians, who had dug themselves in. On the same evening the strong point of Batruna was stormed and 800 prisoners captured, as well as a number of artillery pieces and other war materiel. The division reached sidi Rezegh by the evening after being subject to violent British bombing raids, where its advance at first came to a halt in the face of strong British defensive fire. In spite of several attacks the 90th Light Division did not succeed in taking the main fortification of the El Adem box, El Hatian, that day.
In the meantime most of what was left of the British Eight
Army had withdrawn to the area of the Libyan-Egyptian border. Apparently the fortresses of Tobruk and El Hatian had the task of pinning down our units until the British had established a defensive position at the Libyan-Egyptian border. It was now necessary to attack and take Tobruk while confusion and depression still prevailed among the garrison of the fortress and while the spirit of resistance of the British troops was still weakened by our victory in the desert. Speed was again the paramount necessity.
As before, the Indians continued to defend themselves in El Hatian. On 16 June, in spite of all its gallantry, the 90th Light Division was unable to enlarge the breach in the fortifications which its assault teams had made on the preceding evening. Like all the British fortifications in Marmarica, this position had been constructed with great engineering skill and with the most modern methods. Here too, just as at Bir el Hacheim, elements of the garrison, which consisted of the 29th Indian Brigade, broke out during the night and withdrew toward the south. One advantage of the complete motorization of the British infantry! The Indians easily managed to form a point of main effort during the night, concentrate their firepower there and effect a breakthrough. Another proof of how difficult it is to effectively encircle a completely motorized opponent whose command apparatus is still in order. The rest of the Indians in El Hatian surrendered in the morning of 17 June. Five hundred prisoners and considerable war materiel fell into our hands here. (Sketch X)
In the morning the Africa Corps with the 21st Panzer Division had already taken the strong southern forts of Tobruk, El Duda and Belhamed. After the fall of El Hatian the command immediately committed the 90th Light division against several British strong points which were still holding out in this area. They were surrounded and attacked. The entire Africa Corps and the Ariete Division were ordered to march to Gambut and the area south of it. This move was intended to divert the attention of the British from Tobruk and at the same time clear the area in our rear for the attack on Tobruk. Above all, however, this advance was supposed to drive the British air force which, thanks to its short approach flights, had made itself extremely disagreeable, away from its bases at Gambut and so eliminate it during the assault on Tobruk.
In the evening the 21st Panzer Division was ordered to the north.
there was again a minor engagement south of Gambut. After we had had considerable difficulty with the extensive British mine fields, our spearhead reached Gambut around 2200. Of course, most of our troops halted in front of the mine fields during the night.
At dawn on 18 June British airplanes were again sighted over the 21st Panzer Division, which was continuing to move northward, Toward 0430 we reached the rail line and the road. The British had laid this rail line from Mersa Matruk to the outer zone of Tobruk during the last few months. While crossing it we tore up parts of the track. During the night the 4th Infantry Regiment had already taken 500 prisoners on the road. This number now rose steadily. On the airfields, which the British had evacuated at the last minute, we captured fifteen airplanes which were just ready to take off and considerable quantities of oil and gasoline.
In the course of 18 June we finished mopping up the area between Tobruk and Gambut. The necessary movements for encircling the fortress had been carried out. The supply measures for the attack on the British in Tobruk had been prepared with excellent administrative work. In some places we had found large artillery depots and ammunition dumps dating from 1941 which we had to evacuate during the Cunningham offensive. They were now to prove useful.
In the afternoon of 19 June the Africa Corps moved into its assembly area southeast of Tobruk (Sketches VII and X) while the 90th Light Division started off to the east in order to occupy the British supply base between Bardia and Tobruk. These movements were especially important in order to increase the uncertainly of the enemy concerning our intentions. Besides the 90th Light Division, the Pavia Division and the Littorio
Armored Division, elements of which had been sent up again during the last few days, were supposed to screen the attack on Tobruk to the east and south.
Tactics: In particular these engagements showed how important it is to grasp the situation quickly, as well as the importance of having both the unit commanders and troops react quickly to it. At the end of these actions Rommel wrote the following about this point:
"One of the first things I realized in motorized desert warfare was that here the speed of operations and the ability of the command to react quickly is a decisive factor. The troops must be able to operate in great haste and in perfect unity. Here one cannot be satisfied with any particular standard, but must always demand maximum performance, for the one who makes the greater effort is faster, and it is the faster side which wins battles in the desert.
The two battles of Knightsbridge are typical examples of how the available forces can be quickly concentrated at the decisive point in a given situation, for the desert terrain offers no obstacles to rapid movements. However, they also show how piecemeal commitment leads to disaster.
Battle of Encirclement: The 50th British Brigade, which was encircled in the west by the Indians and in the east by the Germans, concentrated its forces at one point in the pocket and broke its way through to the open desert, where it was received by another British combat group, furnished with supplies and sent on to the east. The encircled garrison of El Hatain broke its way out to the east after it had concentrated the bulk of its forces at the breakthrough point while fighting on its interior line. An example of how complete encirclement in the desert is hardly possible.
Deception: Rommel effected a masterpiece of deception by having his troops attack to the east in order to give the enemy the impression that he did not intend to attack Tobruk. The greater part of these troops, however, were led back to the assembly areas southeast Tobruk in the night before the attack. Zigzag movements of this kind within such a short time are only possible in free and unobstructed desert country. (Sketch VI, VII)
Supply: Immediately after the capture of Marmarica in the winter of 1941-1942, the British built a railroad line straight across the desert from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk and thus provided themselves with a rapid, cheap and fairly safe supply route almost as far as the foremost line of battle. Railroads of this kind can be built very easily in the desert, since there are no obstacles and the subsurface of the desert soil does not require any special railroad embankments. Unfortunately, the Italians and Germans neglected to construct a railroad of this kind from Tripolis and Bengasi to the combat zone, although it would have greatly relieved their always critical supply situation, which was actually only a question of transportation.
The British also erected dummy railroad stations (south of Tobruk for example), with dummy freight cars, ramps, sheds and tracks, with the result that the dummy installations were bombed while the real railroad stations remained untouched.
On the evening of 19 June we had the impression that the enemy had only partially and inaccurately recognized our rear movements toward Tobruk. In all probability, therefore, our attack came as a surprise. There were no longer any appreciable British armored forces in the Western Desert outside of the fortress of Tobruk. We could, therefore, feel very hopeful about our impending blow at Tobruk. In spite of the hard days that lay behind us, the army was full of energy and confident of victory. The garrison of Tobruk was organized for defense within the works of the fortress as follows:
Although in a purely numerical sense these units were strong, they could not be expected to offer stubborn and well organized resistance, for large parts of the garrison had already confronted us in battle and were depressed and weary. Moreover, the British, whose army organization always proceeded at a very slow pace, had had no time to develop their defense system. Besides these troops, the enemy also had five infantry divisions, of which three had been badly mauled. The other two had been brought up fresh by the British command. The two armored divisions of the British had been practically wiped out in the preceding fighting, but reinforcements and replacements were sent to them from the Nile delta.
Framed in the east and west by rocky, impassable terrain, the system of fortifications extended to the south along a flat, sandy plain. The Italians under Balbo had fortified it splendidly. Excellent consideration had been given to modern weapons of the type available at the present day for attacking fortresses. The numerous works which surrounded Tobruk like a belt had been built into the earth and camouflaged in such a way that they could only be properly recognized by an attacker from the air. They consisted of a system of underground trenches which opened into antitank or machine gun positions. The latter, of which each work had up to ten, did not unmask themselves until the moment of maximum danger and then overwhelmed the attacker with a destructive fire, to which he was unable to reply with direct fire because of the lack of embrasures. Every single work was surrounded by an antitank ditch and by multiple-belt entanglements. Moreover, at those points which could be traversed by tanks the entire fortified area was surrounded by a deep moat. Behind the fortified system of the outer belt, which was generally organized into several lines, were strong artillery concentrations, field positions, and several forts. Most of the works were guarded by deep mine fields.
The XXI Italian Corps, which was given several tanks as support, was assigned to make the feint attack in the southwest of the fortification front. The group that was to make the decisive attack on the fortress was composed of the German Africa Corps and the XX Italian Corps. The point of penetration in the southeast was to be bombed by all the German_Italian air forces then available in Africa. When the infantry had subdued the fortified lines, the Africa Corps was to thrust past the crossroad to the harbor and open the Via Balbia to the west. In conjunction with the Africa Corps the XX Italian Corps was to capture the British defense positions and drive through to Ras el Madauer in the rear of the South Africans.
During the night preceding 20 June the attack units moved into their assembly areas. Around 0520 several hundred Stukas pounded the point of penetration in the southeastern part of the fortress. It was possible to observe the considerable effect achieved by this attack. Tremendous fountains of dust rose high above the fortifications of the Indians whirling obstacles and weapons through the air. Impact after impact tore up the multiple-belt entanglement. Immediately after the attack by the air force, the infantry of the Africa Corps and the XX Italian Corps advanced. Lanes had already been cleared through the outer mine fields during the night. After only tow hours the German assault troops succeeded in breaking into the British positions. One work after another was attacked and taken in extremely stubborn hand-to-hand fighting. By 0800 the engineers had bridged over the antitank ditch. One can hardly imagine what it means to carry out work of this kind under very heavy British fire. The way was not clear and the panzer units were unleashed.
Immediately afterwards Rommel and his combat staff drove into the sector of the 15th Panzer Division. Here, riding in an armored personnel carrier, he managed to get as far as the mine lanes, which were under violent British artillery fire. Consequently, there was considerable congestion. In the meantime the Africa Corps was exposed to British tank attacks from the interior of the fortress. A violent tank battle developed, in which the artillery of both sides joined. Around 1100 the Ariete and Trieste Divisions, whose attack had bogged down within the British positions after crossing the antitank ditch, received orders to move up into the penetration area of the Africa Corps. The German attack made more and more progress. Around noon the Africa Corps reached the crossroad of Sidi Mahmud after knocking out fifty British tanks in hard fighting. From then on the key point of the fortress was in our hands.
Rommel accompanied the attack of the Africa Corps beyond the crossroad. Our assault troops were struck by a withering fire from the area of Fort Pilastrino and several emplacements on the descent of the djebel. British ships were now trying to leave the Tobruk harbor. Apparently the British intended to carry away the crews. Our antiaircraft guns and artillery immediately went into action and sank six ships.
The attack went on. Soon we reached the descent to the city. Here a British strong point defended itself with exceptional stubbornness. Rommel called on the garrison to surrender, but the British answered with a murderous fire at the vehicles of his combat staff.
On the same evening Fort Pilastrino offered to surrender. Fort Solaro was stormed. Another gunboat was sunk in the harbor. When darkness fell, two-thirds of the combat zone of the fortress was in our hands. The city and harbor had already been captured by the Africa Corps during the afternoon. At 0500 on 21 June Rommel drove into the city of Tobruk. Nearly all the buildings of this miserable hole had been leveled with the ground or were only ruins, most of them the marks of our siege in 1941. Then Rommel drove along the Via Balbia to the west. The headquarters of the 32nd British GHQ Armored Brigade offered to surrender. Thirty British tanks in good operating condition were then surrendered to us. Numerous vehicles were burning left and right on the Via Balbia. Everywhere were seen pictures of destruction and chaos.
General Klopper, the commander of the 2nd South African Infantry Division and commandant of the fortress, offered to surrender the fortress of Tobruk at 0900. He had no longer been able to avert defeat, although he had done everything to keep his troops in hand. However, it looked as if he no longer had the necessary communications to organize a breakout by his troops. Everything had simply gone too quickly. Incomprehensibly enough, the British outside the fortress had done nothing to interfere with the attack on Tobruk.
The victory in Tobruk was won by exerting our very last forces, since weeks of heavy fighting against an enemy who was superior with respect to both personnel and materiel had not failed to leave their mark on the German troops too. However, thanks to the tremendous amount of ammunition, gasoline, food, and materiel of all kinds which we had just captured, it was now possible to stock up for another offensive operation.
1. Attack Against Fortresses: Attacks against fortresses in the desert are no different from those in European territory. The assault by the infantry is preceded by the concentrated commitment of artillery and b. The attack against mine fields, obstacles, and strong points is carried out by the infantry and engineers, who have to force a breach through the mine fields, strong points, and trenches before armored forces can be sent into the interior of the fortress.
Permanent fortifications in the desert are difficult to attack from the ground, since all the works are constructed level with the earth and cannot be recognized by a ground observer. It is extremely difficult, therefore, to attack them.. No results can be achieved by direct fire. The artillery can attack fortifications only by indirect fire or by using high burst projectiles.
The weapons of the defense are located in flanking fire positions, which are so well concealed and camouflaged in the front that the attacker cannot recognize them.
2. Deception: By sending forward partial forces to Bardia, which gave the impression there of being strong forces by artificially creating large clouds of dust, and by sending back the Africa corps - which had advanced past Gambut to the east - into the assembly areas for the attack on Tobruk, Rommel was able to deceive the enemy about his overall intentions and about the presumable sector of the attack. He then deliberately attacked in a sector of the fortified front that was defended by an Indian brigade. Of all the defense units in the fortress this brigade was the worst. Its resistance was overcome surprisingly soon.
With respect to time and place, these deception maneuvers are only possible in the desert, where it is possible to move freely, quickly and without difficulty, forward, backward, and sideways.
3. Bombing Operations: The bombing of the fortifications of Tobruk had more of a psychological than an actual effect. Just as at Bir el Hacheim, the bombs could do little damage to the fortifications and the garrison. After a few bomb hits the amount of dust and smoke that was generated made it impossible to aim accurately any more. Therefore, most of the bombs had to be dropped unaimed into the immense clouds of dust.
In general, it can be said that bombs have a much slighter effect in the sandy or gravelly desert (Tobruk) than in a stony desert, such as Alamein, where the fragmentation effects are tremendous.
(1) Watercourses dry except in the rainy season.
(2) A low spiny shrub.
(3) A term loosely assigned to improvised combat units of various sizes.
(4) A strong point having an all-around defense.