The additional questions asked by the Research and Development Board
in connection with MS # P-129 are answered in the present manuscript by
Generallieutnant a. D. Fritz Bayerlein, who was chief of staff to Field Marshal
Rommel during the campaign in Africa. In replying to the more important
questions, those relating to the problem of water supplies in the desert,
General Bayerlein has made use of two studies by Regierungsbaurat Dr. Sigismund
Kisnow, a geologist of high repute who served with the German Africa Corps as
military geologist from 1941 to 1943. These two studies are included in this
manuscript as Chapter 3.
In order to stress the importance of the several problems treated and maintain coherence within this present work, it has been necessary to repeat some of the information given in MS # P -129, the original study on German experience in desert warfare.
If it is found that certain subjects are not treated exhaustively in the sense of the questions asked, this is due either to the fact that no adequate experience is available in the field in question or to the fact that the fighting in Africa took place in areas in which the features of a true desert were not present.
In any theater of operations, success hinges upon the troops being furnished an adequate supply of all means of combat. However, the proper flow of these supplies is influenced decisively by geographical and climatic conditions.
The problem involved in the present study is not so much what influence the supply services at strategic level, that is, the movement of supplies across the Mediterranean Sea, had on the course of operations. The problem to be examined has to do rather with an examination of the methods employed in supplying the troops, whether the flow of supplies had any restrictive effects on operations and, if so, what those effects were, and whether any improvements can be suggested. So far as combat operations are concerned, the replies given by the author are satisfactory.
Assuming that adequate supplies can be moved currently to one or more strategic supply bases, the movement of supplies of combat material to the troops is exclusively a matter of organization, the availability of means of transportation, and the possibility to carry out transportation. IN ground transportation it must be borne in mind that it is far easier to surmount difficulties by a flexible adaptation to existing circumstances than by endeavoring to force nature. Transportation by air makes practically unlimited flexibility possible.
In modern desert warfare it will always be necessary, once the
course of a battle takes a favorable turn, to establish advance supply depots
in areas not yet reached by the units in combat so that the enemy can be
completely defeated in pursuit. These advance bases will have to be established
and protected by airborne troops, who might first have to seize the terrain in
The more important items to be moved forward to the troops in action are fuel, food, water, and spare parts for armored vehicles.
The place of the responsible supply officer is on the field of battle. There, he will be able, by means of radio communications or liaison planes, to transmit the appropriate orders and instructions without delay. If kept currently informed on the situation, a properly trained supply staff must be able to function smoothly and reliably even if it receives only brief radio instructions.
All available means of transportation on the ground, in the air, and on the sea definitely must be controlled by one central agency. A concentration of effort is just as important in the supply service as it is in combat operations.
Transport planes must be constructed for landing in the desert since
time, labor, and materials usually are not available for the construction of
air strips or permanent air fields when advance bases have to be established or
supplies moved forward to advancing troops. This is particularly the case
during critical situations, when enveloped troops have to be supplied, or when
enemy troops have been pocketed.
Until heavier types of planes with a bigger carrying capacity ar so constructed that they can land safely under desert conditions it will be necessary to favor lighter types with a lesser carrying capacity. The further development of tracklaying landing gear might do much to improve the situation in this respect. The supply of combat materiel to advance detachments, encircled smaller units or to patrols employed on missions of several days duration by airdrop is an important factor.
Whether the development of special types of vehicles for ground transportation is necessary or practicable is a moot point. Usually, specializations in the transportation services harbor dangers: what might be excellent in one theater of operations might be useless in another. If paved or unpaved firm roads are available, wheeled vehicles will be given preference, for economical reasons if for no other. however, if roads have to be constructed, the very necessity to do so may decide the pace of operations. This fact the commander of a theater of operations can and must accept as a constant. He must fight his battle and endeavor to defeat the enemy when the situation seems most favorable for this purpose. The supply service and everything connected therewith must be adapted to this requirement.
A force which had transportation vehicles capable of moving at the same pace as its combat vehicles can operate independently, as far as supplies are concerned. Here, a high rate of speed is not as important as a steady speed and all-terrain mobility.
It is hardly likely that the assignment of a road construction unit to each division, as suggested by General Bayerlein, will prove practicable. Under desert conditions, a division might move hundreds of kilometers in a direction entirely different from that in which its road construction unit has prepared a road. It would appear more advisable to concentrate all road construction units in a pool and employ them in constructing a really good supply route in the main direction of thrust of the army
If the operations follow the general direction of a coast, coastal ships with a small draft will play an important role in the transportation services. They are less vulnerable to attack by submarines than large ships and their vulnerability to air attack is relatively negligible. They will prove particularly valuable if they are so constructed and equipped that they can discharge their cargoes on open coasts, thus making the establishment of intermediate bases possible. They can also render excellent service in moving supply bases farther forward.
Water supply columns should not differ visibly from fuel supply
columns. The standardization of vehicle types facilitates the functioning of
the supply services. It is recommended that water and fuel vehicles should be
interspersed in columns to lessen fire hazards.
The author's remark on page that water decontamination tablets were not available in the Wehrmacht is not correct. If these tablets were not used by the combat units during the campaign in Africa, their use was apparently unnecessary because the army water decontaminating equipment met all requirements.
In the German Africa Corps, experience showed that the quantities of
water required by the combat troops under desert conditions were not greater
than the minimum quantities stipulated by regulations in temperate zones. This
may sound unlikely but it is born out by experience gained in the 1941-43
period. Under civilian conditions, a person will use far more water than he
actually needs and is extremely reluctant to forego his usual habits, for
instance, his hygienic practices, particularly if he knows that an abundant
supply of water is available. Furthermore, the very sight of water or of other
potable liquids induces a feeling of thirst. In contrast, a soldier arriving in
a desert immediately adapts himself psychologically to the expected lack of
water and with surprising speed accustoms himself to managing with a minimum
quantity consistent with health.
Explorers place the minimum requirement at two liters per day per person. However, this applies only to trained athletes with extremely high performances and very moderate requirements and should not be applied to the average man.
In the German army, the minimum daily water ration was four liters,
of which amount two liters were used for cooking and two for drinking purposes.
No allowance was made for washing. However, the water supply situation was
never so critical that the troops had to be restricted to this minimum ration
for any length of time. If such a situation arose, the troops perforce had to
forgo hygienic habits and use only one quarter or one half of a liter of water
for such purposes. One case in which this necessity arose was during the German
retreat from the Tobruk area to the Gulf of Sirte in December 1941.
Regardless of temperatures or seasons, the normal daily consumption of water was six to several liters. Since this ration was already very low, it was not reduced during the winter months. On the other hand, owing to the shortage of transportation vehicles and motor fuel, it was also not possible to increase the ration in exceptionally hot weather, even if adequate supplies of water were available.
In the British army the normal ration was one gallon (4.54 liters) in regions where water was very scarce and 1.5 gallons per man for troops and other men employed at heavy labor in the vicinity of major water supply points. Details on this subject will be found in Chapter 3, in the copy of a report prepared by the military Geological Detachment of the German Africa Corps on the water supply organization in the British army
Only geological methods were employed in the search for supplies of
water. For this purpose the geological unit assigned to the German Africa Corps
based its work on the following considerations:
Two subsoil water levels exist in the eastern part of the Sahara Desert, a deep-water level in the limestone or sandstone strata of the tertiary or chalk formation and a near-surface water level in the loose deposits of wadis, depressions, loose rock hills and dune areas.
The origin of the deep-water level of Libya and the so-called western desert of western Egypt is in the regions of high rainfall of the Sudan. The water flows northward through the Nubian sandstone strata and the tertiary chalk and marl formations, as can be seen from the geological profile prepared by the 12th Military Geological Detachment, assigned to the German Africa Corps. in October 1942 (sketch 1, page 9). In valleys and other depressions this water level rises almost to the surface and causes the formation of salt marshes and oases. Under elevated terrain, however, it is very far below the surface and can only be tapped by means of deep well drilling. (Photo 1, page ). The northern limits of this water level are to be found in the belt of oases along the 29th parallel, a part of which region is below sea level. The belt includes the Siwa, Giarabub, Gialo, Augila and Marada oases with their strong artesian springs (photo 2).
The Cyrenaica, with its high rainfall, is a typical barren rock region. The subsurface water is confined to crevices and finds its way to the surface in strong springs (sketch 8, Water Supply Map, cyrenaica, 1942).
Circumstances are different in Tripoli, where the high Nefusa mountain stops and condenses the moisture carried by the wind from the Mediterranean Sea. The water thus condensed seeps down to lower levels and collects in impervious strata, so that an adequate supply of water can be found in the deep water level of the Djefara, the coastal plain of Tripoli. In certain parts, the water supply is tapped by artesian wells. This water level extends eastward to the region of Misurata, where strong artesian wells were drilled and made the settlement of the region possible (photo 3 ).
As far as the availability of water supplies for the Italo-German forces were concerned, the situation therefore was as follows:
The above surface and near surface water levels were far more
important factors. Immediately after rain commenced, measures should have been
taken to catch and conserve the water and to follow it up though all stages of
its downward flow in order to store as much of it as possible.
In foggy coastal areas it is possible to obtain water from the air by means of corrugated iron plates, gravel pits and so forth. The quantities are extremely small but often quite useful. House and tent roofs should be constructed to catch rain water.
Troops who are to fight in deserts need appropriate training and instruction in this subject. Every man must realize that every quart of water that he can obtain for himself relieves the burden on the supply services. His resourcefulness must be developed and he must be taught to help himself and not to depend on others. This type of training would have saved us many difficulties on the El Alamein front, but, unfortunately, it was neglected in the German desert army
Similarly to roofs. flat rock surfaces can be employed to catch
water and the water thus obtained can be stored in cisterns. natural models for
the type of installation suggested here can be found in many arid regions; a
few examples are the rock bank water-holes of Southwest Africa, the Ugurangas
of East Africa, the Gnamma holes of Australia, the rock tanks of Arizona and
the Galts of Egypt, all of which are the result of the chemical disintegration
of rock, the effects of which are particularly concentrated in small hollows
because of the water collecting there. The hollows are enlarged by the action
of water during the rain seasons and by the action of the wind during dry
seasons, and, if the circumstances are favorable - in the shade, for instance -
can contain an appreciable amount of water well into the dry season. They can
be enlarged, provided with mud catching devices and protected against animals,
and can prove useful in the establishment of strong points in the desert or as
water supply points for patrols, small detachments and so fort.
Large cisterns were constructed in ancient times by the Romans (photos 4-7). However, most of these old cisterns are no longer of any use today, in some cases because their catchment areas have been destroyed in the course of time owing to the natural disintegration of rock. Modern large cistern installations were constructed by the Italians in Libya long before the campaign in northern Africa began (photos 8-10 ).
One important mission of the agency responsible for the supply of
water is to ascertain the site of all cisterns existing within the zone of
operations and in the communications zone, to examine them in order to
determine their usefulness and, if necessary and practicable, to take steps to
repair or improve them
The surface water rapidly finds its way into sand filled dry river beds called wadis, and from there to pans called deira or zhigfeds and rain lakes called sebkhas, vleys, and so forth. Here it evaporates or becomes brackish. Rain lakes of this type can prove extremely useful in the supply of water for larger bodies of troops for temporary periods.
Some of the water will sink to lower levels through the loose deposits in the lake bottoms. The coarser the deposits are, the greater the amount of water that will sink in this way, but very little of it finds its way to the permanent subterranean water that forms a uniform subsoil water level. The balance of it is retained nearer the surface by capillary action and forms what is called ground moisture, that is gradually drawn upward again into the evaporation areas.
Generally speaking, ground moisture cannot be recovered, although methods are known by which, under certain circumstances, small quantities of water can be recovered that might suffice for patrols or advanced outposts. The indigenous population are masters at recovering water from the ground moisture. They will dig a hole nine to twelve feet deep in the evening and wait a few hours until water had collected in the bottom (photos 11-13). The next caravan to arrive will dig a similar hole a few yards away for the same purpose. These water sites can always be recognized by the large number of holes that have been dug in the bed of a wadi. An inexperienced person is liable to think that they are a sign of permanent subsoil water and is disappointed when, upon digging a hole, he finds no water in it. It is necessary for him to know that his labor will only be rewarded if he digs after sunset and that he must wait until the water raised by capillary action finds its way into the hole he had dug.
At times, small mounds form over moist ground, the sand firming down
because of the moisture so that it is not blown away by the wind. Areas with a
heavy growth of vegetation are also often and indication of plentiful ground
moisture (photo 12) so that the presence of vegetation can not always be taken
as a sign of subsoil water.
True subsoil water is rarely found in the loose deposits of the rear desert. It is only were such deposits are thick or where they cover the entire floor of a valley fora long distance and are protected against evaporation that they occasionally carry water in isolated arteries in certain rubble and gravel strata, the course of which does not always follow the general direction of the valley. The point of confluence of two dry river beds is usually a favorable spot for drilling. If the bed of a dry river is impermeable for some distance, a close inspection might reveal sand or gravel filled potholes that might contain water for a long time after rain. If the river bed contains coarse gravel, an effort should be made to find the deepest points on the rock bottom.
The chances of finding water are better in broad, open valleys than in narrow steep gorges, but it would be wrong to dig or drill at spots where the flow of the water had been so slight that it has deposited only a fine sedimentary substance.
Water is often found on the upstream side of rock banks in dry river
beds; on the downstream side of such banks there is also a possibility that
water may have collected in small quantities in the sand filled potholes formed
by the water spilling over the banks. Where a river bed bends sharply, it is
always best to concentrate first on the outer bank at the bend, where deep
holes may sometimes be found that have been formed by the swirling action of
The closer one gets to the coast, the more subsoil water will be found in dry valleys. Within an sector of the coast extending over several kilometers, water can be found with certainty in the wadis or in dune areas, often in sufficient quantities to supply fairly large bodies of troops. However, the quality of the water is variable.
In the vicinity of the coast even the rainwater contains salt in
varying degrees, although the chlorine content of 1420 milligrams found by
Kaiser in Southwest Africa in 1919 will rarely be found. At Luederitzbucht,
Southwest Africa, Kaiser found 244 milligrams of chlorine per liter of water
obtained from the heavy fog and this content is likely to be closer to the
average chlorine content of water thus obtained. In the ground, the water
becomes more salty, since a great part of the rain water soaking into the
ground subsequently rises again to the surface and evaporates, leaving behind
the salt it contained. The result is that the ground and the subsoil water
become more and more salty with the passage of time.
Where the subsoil water appears above the surface, evaporation leads to such a strong concentration of salts in the residue of water that salt marshes develop. Relatively close to these salt marshes, water may often be found underground with a far lower salt content since less evaporation takes place. This may surprise the uninitiated but it serves to prove that, in subsoil water, the high salt content of one body of water percolates only slowly to water of a lower salt content. Experience shows, in fact, that the salt content varies both horizontally and vertically.
In the vicinity of the coast, potable water will often be found in thin layers or in small patches floating on top of the salty subsoil water, where it had collected during the last rain without as yet having absorbed salt from the water below it (sketch 2). Section II of Chapter 3 contains a report on the finding of a potable water patch of this type in a wadi at Sollum. This report may be taken as a model for the methods to be employed in similar circumstances. usually, the potable water in such patches is rap;idly exhausted and if pumped out too rapidly, salty water will flow into the well. Nevertheless, the supplies obtained thus proved highly valuable and helped to relieve the strain on the supply services.
On the whole, the demands made in respect to the quality of potable water in desert areas should not be as high as in more temperate climates. In the Marmarica region the troops at no time received water with a chlorine content lower than 1 gram per liter, which is usually sufficient to give the water an unpleasant taste. Owing to the large amounts of water used, the salt content of the water obtained from wells increased on the average to 1.2 grams per liter in the late autumn of 1941.
Both humans and animals can adapt themselves to water with a
relatively high salt content, and water that cannot be used for drinking
purposes often is suitable for baking or for preparing soups and even when it
is very brackish it still can be used for making cocoa.
Owing to the sparsity of vegetation and population, water in arid areas rarely contains impurities of an organic nature unless the ground in the vicinity is polluted, against which very strict precautions must be taken. Very severe penalties must be imposed on the pollution of the ground in all areas where wells are situated.
If water tastes and smells dank, the quality can be improved by stirring in some clean sand. When it is allowed to settle to the bottom, the clean sand will have absorbed some of the impurities. A small quantity of alum may be used to accelerate the precipitation of impurities and a few drops of iodine or permanganate of potash can be added to purify the water and improve its quality.
The table shows the types of water supply points likely to be found in desert areas, the sites at which they may be found, and further particulars.
Water Supplies in the Deserts of Libya and Egypt
Chiefly in the coastal region
The rain water is caught and stored in cisterns
Desert proper and coastal cegion
Sometimes large supplies
In wadis in the desert proper
Poor to fair
Very small quantities
Holes are dug as required after sunset
Near surface subsoil water level
In wadis, rubble hills, dunes
Small in thedesert proper,ample near thecoast
Wells and trenches
Deep subsoil water level
Tripolitania and south of the 29th parallel; oases areas
Usually good, frequently warm andwith a sulphur content
Deep wells, frequently artesian
Cyrenaica, Nefusa Mountain
Marmarica, western desert
Development of the springs
Development of the springs
The main source of supply for the German troops in the Sirte region and in the western desert of Egypt was found in the near-surface water level in dunes (sketch 3, sketch 4), in the Marmarica region in the near-surface water level in wadis, in the Cyrenaica region in springs (Map 2). Rainwater lakes also played a major role, particularly when the front was at El Alamein. The German forces at no time had to depend on the meager water supplies to be found in the desert proper. It is nevertheless imperatively necessary that the responsible water supply officers inform themselves thoroughly on the water conditions in the desert and instruct their troops currently, so that the troops will be able to help themselves in the case of an emergency. A knowledge of the experience related here has saved the life of many a soldier.
The water present in the deep subsurface water level is c\recovered
by means of deep drilling. For civilian purposes most of the water is pumped by
means of windmills (photos 14 and 15) which have proved extremely satisfactory
because of the steady winds that prevail, but that necessitate the above
surface storage of an adequate supply.
Springs must be properly developed. At times, the flow of water can be increased by clearing mud and other deposits from the opening of the spring and by removing the sinters. Great care must be exercised to avoid changing the established hydrological conditions in spring areas. Blasting is a hazard in spring areas as it might lead to a complete loss of the water supply.
It was found advisable to direct the flow of water from a number of springs into one central pipeline. Filters must be of a type that can be removed and replaced if necessary, since the water frequently contains lime and iron, which are precipitated in the presence of air and might decompose the filters. The diameter of the pipes used should be so wide that the pipes will not be filled to capacity even when the springs are at their highest flow. Illustrations of developed springs will be found in photos 16 and 17.
Water from the near-surface water level is recovered in pit type
wells or trenches. The wells are usually one to three meters in diameter. In
most cases the walls have been lined at least part of the way. The best method
is by means of concrete rings, but rings made of corrugated iron and angle iron
are also useful for this purpose. If metal is used, it is recommended that the
sections be joined telescopically. The use of timber is not recommended, but
frequently cannot be avoided. The timber requirements for a well 1.5 meters
square are given by appropriate experts as twenty-four 16¼" x 1"
If there is any danger that salt water from a lower level might enter the well, it is advisable to seal off the bottom with concrete and to provide holes in the lower sections of well lining, which will permit the entry of water from the sides. Another expedient that proved useful was to use a moveable intake attached to a float, so that water was always pumped only from just below the surface, where the salt content was lowest.
A serious difficulty, which is often encountered, is the sand that filters into the well from below and from the sides. This not only fills up the well, but, because of the sand settling down around the sides of the well, might make it difficult to keep the lining straight. In such cases it is helpful to place coarse gravel around the well; this gravel will settle with the sinking sand and finally will prevent any further sand from entering the well. It also proved helpful to place gravel and boulders, the finer gravel at the lower levels, in the bottom of the well before pumping commenced. In the case of wells with a very large diameter, the danger of sand filtering in is somewhat reduced.
If wells are sunk in the beds of dry rivers, everything possible
must be done to prevent the influx of above-surface water when the river is in
flow. This sides of the well must be walled with concrete. The walls must
either be raised well above the level of the river bed or must be flush with
the bead and so built that they can be securely covered. The best place for the
pumps is on the river bank and the pipes must be buried so that pumping can
continue even if the river is in full flow.
The well system at Tobruk is the largest to be found in a dry river ben in the Marmarica region. It was constructed by the Italians during peace and has two pumping stations that force the water into elevated reservoirs from which it flows into the water mains of the town (photo 18). During the siege of Tobruk, all attempts of the German air force to destroy these installations failed.
In many cases it is impossible to obtain sufficient water, no matter how large the well is. In such cases the catchment area is increased by means of trenches, which proved particularly useful in dune areas and in broad wadis. The sides of the trench may be lined with rock. When all work is completed the trenches are covered and sand shoveled over the top. The trenches are dug at right angles to the flow of the subsoil water with a fall in the direction of a central collecting well, where the pump is situated. The water trench system was used primarily in areas where water was thinly spread over a side area, an condition that will be found in most water supply points in arid regions. For this reason, the water trench system is the system usually employed in all large scale water recovery installations in the desert.
In the first year of the African campaign, from 1941 to the spring of 1942, water supply units were assigned to the headquarters of the German Africa Corps and to each of the two armored divisions. The corps headquarters water supply battalion consisted of:
Each division had:
When the African Panzer Army was formed in the spring of 1942, the water supply units were taken from the Africa Corps and from the divisions and assigned to the army headquarters, where they were controlled by the Water Supply Branch of the Chief Supply and Administration Officer of the army. The Chief of the Water Supply Branch was an engineering officer(1) with the rank of lieutenant colonel. The branch handled all planning and the employment of all water supply units. Whenever necessary, the chief of the Water Supply Branch assigned water supply units to corps headquarters, but never to any division. The assignments were usually only for a specified period and for specific purposes.
The heavy water supply construction company had deep well drilling
equipment. However, for the reasons previously stated, this equipment was never
needed and the company was therefore employed on missions similar to those of
the light water supply construction companies. The light companies were
intended for employment in the construction of pit type wells and water
trenches and were therefore equipped with normal tools, such as pickaxes,
spades, and shovels.
The water supply point operating company was employed by platoons or squads at operating the water supply points in the communications zone and at issuing water to the supply vehicles of the divisions.
The distilling company had six mobile water distilling plants with which drinking water could be distilled from sea water. The company was employed only in exceptional cases since the fuel consumed in this method of obtaining water was so great that it could be resorted to only in an extreme emergency, as was the case during the 1942 advance to Egypt, when all wells were found to have been polluted and the constantly growing enormous distances made the forward transportation of water impossible.
For units below division level, water supplies were forwarded together with other supplies by motor vehicles as part of the normal supply transportation service. Each unit was assigned a water supply point developed and operated by the army, from where it received its water rations according to its current strength. The greater part of the water was transported in twenty-liter Wehrmacht cans. Tanker trucks and transportable or permanent large water tanks, as normally used by the British army, were available in small numbers that had been captured and were highly prized by the troops. Unit medical officers were responsible for the supervision of proper sanitary measures.
The organization of the water supply service in Africa was simple but proved very satisfactory. The twenty-liter water cans in use in the Wehermacht proved very useful. They made the proper and rapid distribution of water possible and were easier to keep clean that the large tanks, which caused the British many difficulties so far a cleanliness was concerned.
To find water was the mission of the geological detachment, which
was equipped with the normal instruments and maps for this purpose. In
addition, the detachment had a direct current geo-electrical surveying
instrument, which had been developed by the Army Ordnance Office.
Unfortunately, this instrument was lost during operations in 1941 and could not
be replaced. An instrument of this type should prove extremely useful in
opening up water in the arid zones although it admittedly reacts far more
strongly to salt water than to potable water, since the latter does not induct
electric current as well.
The deep well drilling machines available were of the Salzgitter cable drilling type, which had been developed from the tried and tested models produced by Anton Racky A. G. Salzgitter. As previously stated, they were not used during the campaign, so that nothing can be said as to their suitability. If it had become necessary to use them, the great amount of water required for drilling would doubtless have proved a serious drawback, since it would have had to be transported to the drilling site.
This difficulty would have been avoided if the Beneto claw type drilling machine, which was also available, had been used. This drill was equipped with a heavy hammer, to the head of which moveable claws of specially hardened steel were attached. However, this drill could only be used in looser types of ground, such as sand, clay soil, rubble and so forth. In operation, the hammer was allowed to drop to the ground, where the claws were forced into the soil and automatically closed. In lifting the hammer, the soil was held and raised with the claws until released and deposited on the surface. The machine was named after its inventor, a Frenchman, and was constructed in two models, a light and a heavy model, under license in Germany With the heavy model, which was intended particularly for work in clay or gravel soils, it was possible to drill fifteen to twenty meters daily. However, it was not possible to continue drilling after the water level had been reached, since the water had too great a retarding effect on the velocity of the falling hammer. The lighter model was used chiefly for drilling, test holes, and could drill as much as ten meters daily. The diameter of the well thus sunk was seventy centimeters. The principles of operation of these machines were good but the construction was faulty, so that drilling operations were frequently held up. The main drawback was that the wire ropes were not strong enough and wore out too soon on the guide pulleys. Furthermore, the claws were not strong enough for the strain to which they were subjected. If these deficiencies can be removed, this type of drill will prove a very useful help in the desert warfare.
Distilling plants mounted on motor trucks were used to distill
potable water from sea water. They used gas as fuel, the consumption being one
liter of gas to produce ten liters of potable water. On account of this high
rate of fuel consumption they could only be used in emergencies but then
performed satisfactorily, as was the case particularly during the advance to El
Alamein. During this operation, the British had rendered all wells useless by
pouring bone oil into them, so that it would have been impossible to maintain
water supplies for the troops without the water distilling plants.
The standard types of army water filters were available for purifying water. These filters had been used previously in other theaters of operations. They were furnished in two sizes, a large and a small filter, in which the water was forced through the filter cloth impregnated with a decontaminating agent. These filters were used successfully when water supplies were taken from rain water lakes.
Water taken from wells and other sources was not filtered. In arid areas, water is not likely to be polluted by organic substances, and since all troops had strict orders not to use any water before boiling it, filtering was unnecessary. No steps were necessary to compel the troops to observe the order not to drink unboiled water, since the stagnant water that was found seemed hardly palatable. The German forces had no decontaminating tablets similar to those used by the British.(2)
As previously stated, the standard twenty-liter cans in use in the Wehrmacht were used in the distribution of water. They were marked with a white cross to distinguish them from gas cans.
How seriously water supply problems effect all combat operations in
the desert is best revealed by the following calculation: The daily solid food
ration for a soldier weighs roughly one kilogram. The minimum amount of water
required per man is four liters, the weight of which is four kilograms. Thus,
if there is no possibility of obtaining local water supplies, so that all water
has to be carried forward, the transportation space requirement are multiplied
by five. The situation will be found to be even more unfavorable if
consideration is given to the fact that the pay load of vehicles is far lower
in desert terrain than in more developed areas, since the vehicles not only
have to carry more fuel for the longer distances between gas supply points but
also require more fuel per mile traveled on account of the poor roads. The
ratio of supply troops to combat troops rapidly becomes so adverse the farther
the troops move from their supply bases that the conduct of an entire operation
It follows from what has just been said that ground operations will always be avoided in desert areas if the strategic objective can be reached in some other way. If ground operations cannot be avoided, the number of troops employed must be kept so small that they can obtain their water supplies from water supply points situated within the zone of operations. They quality of the personnel and materiel employed will have to make up for the quantities that cannot be employed. Only thoroughly trained elite troops and the very best equipment should be employed.
In any case it can be stated that, with modern means of warfare, a broad expanse of desert is a more effective barrier against attack than an ocean. This statement is borne out by the course of events during the African campaign. Both opposing armies clung desperately to the coastal zone with its ample supplies of water and only entered the real desert as far as water could be transported without difficulty, a distance of one hundred kilometers at the utmost.
Enveloping operations were only carried out if the distance from the coast was relatively short. The enveloping operation farthest from the coast was carried out by Rommel on 26 June 1942 and carried the German forces one hundred kilometers into the real desert. In that operation, Rommel bypassed the British Gazala position south of Bir Hacheim with all his mobile forces, namely five motorized and armored divisions, including the Italian units. However, the British succeeded in cutting his supply line within a very short while and Rommel was forced to open up a direct supply channel through the British positions. This he did by facing his forces about top attack the British and taking Got el Ualeb, the main point in the British defense system
However, neither side took advantage of the many possibilities to
outflank the enemy in a wide sweeping movement. Thus, the British did not
attack the Cyrenaica region from their positions at the Kufra oases, 1,000
kilometers south of the coast, nor did they bypass the German El Alamein
position by driving through the Siwa and Giarabub oases south of the impassable
Quattara Depression. Particularly during the 1941-42 winter operation, Rommel
feared that the British would attack the Agedabia narrows in a movement from
Giarabub. This attack would have severed the communications of the Axis forces
completely and irreparable, but it failed to materialize. Finally, the British
and Free French forces did not advance from Fort Lami and Lake Chad to
Although it must be admitted that serious terrain difficulties would have had to be surmounted in any of the operations just mentioned, the lack of water in the regions involved was by far the greatest deterrent.
That the relatively weak German forces employed were able for so long a time to hold a tiny bridgehead on the continent of Africa, which in its entirety was in the hands of the Allies, was due in no small measure to the broad desert zone of the Sahara, which had the effect of an obstacle zone.
The only forces employed by the British in widely sweeping movements
to bypass the German positions were small reconnaissance and sabotage
detachments, which consisted of officers and men with desert experience. The
most famous and best unit of this type was the Long Range Desert Group under
Lieutenant Colonel Stirling. The German forces restricted themselves to the
employment of a special unit, the Schuylse - Kampfhem Exploration Detachment,
in one single reconnaissance operation in the Mursuck region. As far as the
author is informed, this unit encountered no difficulties in respect to water
supplies; this was due to the fact that only a small body of hand-picked and
excellently equipped men was involved.
In the light of modern military experience it would seem that the employment of airborne units is the best method to surmount the difficulties of wide desert tracts, provided the side employing them has complete mastery of the air. Once a bridgehead with an ample local supply of water has been established in the enemy terrain, it will be possible to move forward all other supplies by surface transportation without serious difficulty.
It was only in a few isolated cases that the limited water supplies had a decisive effect on actual combat operations. A case in point was that of the strong points in the Italo-German Sollum Line. In January 1942 the Axis forces had withdrawn from the Tobruk region to the Gulf of Sirte. Roughly 600 kilometers east of the new German line, the Sollum strong points continued to hold out, tying down sizeable enemy forces. Supplies for the strong points were forwarded by air with great difficulty. IN mid-January British planes succeeded in destroying the wells from which the garrisons drew their water supplies and as a result the courageous garrisons had to surrender.
On the other hand, the story published in the Reader's Digest that in July the German forces had to halt their advance on Cairo because of a lack of water caused by the fact that the British had pumped sea water into the water system of El Alamein is a fable. The sole reason why the German advance was halted was the lack of striking power and had nothing whatsoever to do with water or other supply difficulties. As previously mentioned in this study, the lack of water was remedied during this operation by the employment of water distilling company, which distilled potable water from sea water.
The air transportation of supplies for ground units in action in the
African campaign was the last possibility to maintain the flow of supplies from
Europe to Africa when all other supply channels were closed. Thus, during the
October fighting around El Alamein, motor fuel and some types of ammunition
which were in short supply were transported by plane directly from Europe to
the front because the British, who had air superiority at that time, were
sinking all tankers. However, it was found that the German transport planes
themselves required at least fifty percent of the fuel they could carry. Air
transportation thus proved an extremely uneconomical undertaking that could be
employed only in cases of dire emergency.
When Rommel was to launch his enveloping attack against the British El Alamein position at the end of August, he stated that for this purpose he would require a daily supply of a least 500 cubic meters of motor fuel, the greater part of which naturally would have to be moved forward by air. Kesselring undertook to meet this demand but in actual fact only a fraction of this essential minimum arrived, so that the attack had to be halted. The transportation of such quantities by air was found to be impossible, chiefly because the enemy had complete mastery of the air.
During the final battles around Tunis, the brunt of the supply service was borne by the German air force, since hardly a single ship could cross the Mediterranean safely. As the enemy had air superiority, enormous losses were suffered, the scale of which was such that they could not be borne by the German air force for long. Thus, in the first few days of May, all twelve available large transport planes of the Gigant model were shot down and destroyed, together with their cargos.
The position would probably be far more favorable if at least air parity existed and if large, modern transportation planes of the type presently used by the USA in the Pacific were available. however, it will no doubt always depend on local circumstances whether air or ground transportation is preferable. If the terrain and the enemy situation permit. ground transportation will be preferred, since it is safer and cheaper, even though considerably slower. Nevertheless, air transportation units should always be held available during desert operations so that they can be employed immediately in cases of emergency of if the tactical situation requires their employment.
During the African campaign the German and Italian forces had no specialized types of transport vehicles. There was also no need for special types of vehicles because all heavy transportation could use the asphalt-paved coastal road. With the exception of a few impassable tracts, even the desert can be traversed on trails by normal types of trucks, although attrition, particularly in springs and shock absorbers, is higher than under normal road conditions.
Wear and tear was particularly heavy in the stony desert of El Alamein and if the coastal road had not been available, the supply services would have caused considerable difficulties. This was particularly noticeable in 1941,when German forces were besieging Tobruk. At that time the region traversed by the coastal road was held by the British and had to be bypassed by all German traffic. As a result, it proved extremely difficult to supply the forces employed east of Tobruk, since all vehicles had to travel very slowly through the extremely difficult terrain and quite a number of them broke down. If the entire route from the port of Tripoli to the front at Tobruk had consisted of trails of the type used here, it would have been necessary to treble transportation space and the motor fuel allowances would have had to be nine times as much as they were. Therefore, the development of a special type of sturdy transportation vehicle is extremely important in preparing for desert warfare.
The system of firming road surfaces rapidly by means of chemical
agents, recently developed in America, was unknown at the time of the African
campaign; otherwise it would have been used extensively by the German forces,
since nothing can facilitate supply transportation more than good roads. Even
if sturdy trucks of a special type are available, the fact remains that if
roads are poor they slow down the speed of all traffic. If the speed of traffic
can be doubled, transportation space requirements are halved. In desert warfare
it is therefore advisable to employ modern road construction machinery in such
quantities that at least one unit will be available to each division.
During the African campaign, road construction was restricted to a minimum but nevertheless necessitated the employment of large numbers of troops and took up much time. The troops employed for this purpose were furnished by Italian labor units. The most striking performance in this field was the construction of the road built to bypass Tobruk.
The significance of the rapid construction of supply routes is illustrated by a passage taken from Rommel's memoirs on Africa, which reads as follows:
The movement of supplies for our troops in the Sollum - Halfaya - Bardia line in the summer of 1941 presented special problems. Since the coastal road was closed by the British in tobruk, all supply traffic for the troops east of Gambut had to move through the terrain around Tobruk. The old trails which had been marked for use in this terrain were so worn out that they could only be traversed with difficulty. At many points it was found to be utterly insurmountable for small vehicles and trucks could only be driven through by taxing their motors to the utmost. If a column of trucks managed to cover the distance around Tobruk within a day, this was considered an excellent performance, and the distance was only roughly seventy kilometers. I therefore exerted all my influence in urging the top level Italian authorities to build a road bypassing Tobruk.
The road referred to by Rommel, which was called the Axis Road, was constructed in the summer of 1941 by specially qualified Italian construction units in work lasting two and one-half months. It was seventy kilometers long, five meters wide: the surface was ballasted but, in contract with the coastal road, was not asphalted. In view of the extremely primitive equipment available in northern Africa this performance was remarkable.
One of the most important requirements is the production of an
all-terrain truck with a capacity of three to three and one-half tons. It
should have a high-ratio gear, four-wheel drive and a differential lock. Low
pressure balloon tires should be used: two tires proved unsatisfactory as small
pebbles became wedged between the walls of the two tires.
Whether air cooled engines will prove suitable is a moot point. The Steyr factory in Austria had developed an aircooled engine, but trucks with this engine only arrived in the theater shortly before the close of the African campaign, so that they could not be adequately tested. While they were in use, they performed satisfactorily.
Particular attention must be paid to springs and shock absorbers. The helical springs used in the German Model 15 and 17 all-terrain cars were not satisfactory. The springs broke easily and replacements were not readily obtainable. Laminated leaf springs gave better service but should be stronger and each wheel should have independent suspension. This latter requirement was met by the British Ford, whereas the German Ford had transverse suspension of the front wheels. For this reason the British model proved superior to the German, in which the front spring was inadequate.
In the desert all vehicles should carry shovels and planks or brush
mats for use if they bog down in the sand. conditions in the Russian theater of
operations made similar equipment necessary.
It is also advisable to furnish each car and some of the trucks with compasses, which should be so placed that they are at all times visible to the driver. Each compass must have a magnet attached to compensate for deviations. At the time under review, suitable compasses were manufactured by the Askania Werke, Berlin Friedenau.
Passenger cars should be as light as possible. The Volkswagen met this requirement and performed satisfactorily. IN cars, air cooled engines are preferable. All cars must be able to carry a sufficient supply of fuel and water.
During the African campaign no single case occurred in which the
supply services failed to keep pace with the combat units owing to technical
difficulties. The fact must be taken into consideration here that all advances
and all combat action took place in proximity to the asphalted coastal road, so
that a secure supply route was available. It is true that difficult trails had
to be used in distributing supplies to the individual units, but it was
nevertheless possible to move forward all supplies to the combat troops in good
time because the German tanks could not travel faster in the desert than the
supply vehicles. Furthermore, combat action caused delays, which made it
possible for the supply columns to catch up with the advancing units.
If a unit is well integrated, operations need not be slowed down by the low speed of supply transportation, particularly in the unit had facilities to build good roads speedily and has special types of transport vehicles. More serious difficulties are only likely to be encountered if it becomes necessary to transport all water required, a subject which has been dealt with in Section V.
(1) Officers with technical college degrees; not to be confused with officers of the engineer arm.
(2) See introduction where this comment is disputed.