Deutsche Afrika Corps – Camouflage in the Desert

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Deutsche Afrika Korps, Camouflage of Personnel, Material and Positions
1. General

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 (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.
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2. Technical Means of Camouflage
(a. 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 camells-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 uniform 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 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 material 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 it use almost impossible. Even the English, who love to use smoke, seldom if ever used in the desert. The use of smoke is often replaced by natural sand storms produced by the wind and artificial storms occasioned by vehicles, fans, propellers (see below).

(b. Weapons, Equipment, Vehicles)

Camouflage of weapons, 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 propose, 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. A low spiny shrub. In troop movements or marches to the front the armored forces could be disguised as a 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.

(c. 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 camouflage nets. However, the Germans soon caught up with captured British material. Camouflage nets are of great importance not only in the camelis 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.

(d. Cover, Concealment, Mimicry)

In the desert, where there is excellent visibility, weapons, vehicles, tanks, occupied tents and even individual 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 pieced of cloth attached to it but also the irregular form given to it which insured good camouflage. Branches, camel’s-thorn shrubs or grass clumps used for camouflages were often, especially if the troops were tired, 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 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 to 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 vehicle. 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 lasts 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. Movements 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.

(e. Positions/Camouflage of Various Positions)

Stationary positions 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 barren terrain they can be seen both by 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 the 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.

3. Obstacles, 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 a ground observer. Complete camouflage of antitank ditches from air observations can only be achieved by making extensive use of shelter halves and camouflage nets. For safety, in the desert minefield are usually fenced in and can accordingly be detected from the ground. In order to deceive the enemy frequent use was made of dummy minefield or of mixed minefield. Dummy minefield 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 minefield were camouflaged as dummy fields and dummy fields as real fields. Complete camouflage of a minefield 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 hurried 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 necessary. 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 or material 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 targets. In the fall of the 1941 the British built up the supple dumps for their enveloping attack in the rear of the German Army and camouflaged them very effectively from ground and air reconnaissance. The material 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 Fortifications

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 is spread into a sandy plain. The Italians had made great improvement to the fortifications. They had taken into account all means of combat available to storm fortifications. The numerous works surrounding Tobruk has 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 work was surrounded by an antitank ditch and multiple-bait entanglements. In additions, at places passable by tanks, there were deep antitank ditches, which were not camouflaged. Behind the fortification systems of the outer ring there was massed artillery in well camouflaged positions. Most installations were protected by minefield extending far in depth. The wire obstacles could not be camouflaged, but the minefield 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 dessert.

Camouflage Through Measures Taken by the Command
(1. Marches)

Since in the desert it is impossible to conceal movements under taken 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 noises 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 sand storms, or 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 the 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 km directly across the desert, with more than 10,000 motor vehicles of all types. The following camouflage measures were used :

    a. Radio silence. This made it very difficult to command and keep the forces together
    b. Night march with complete black-out
    c. Diverting the attention of the enemy at the main front by meant of a large-scale feint attack
    d. Noise camouflage by means of powerful artillery fire and aircraft motors on the main front
    e. The gigantic clouds of dust raised by the 10,000 motor vehicles and in part by artificial dust-producing devices cast a pail over large sections of the terrain, so that precise direction of the movement and the strength of the enveloping force could not be estimated by the enemy

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 motor vehicles made in the night.

(2. Attack)

To camouflage an attack 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 assemble 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 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 week place in the southern part of the position 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 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 tanks 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 areas 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.

(3. Defense)

If the enemy has air superiority, enabling him to reconnoiter the friendly forces when and as he pleases, operational camouflage of defense measures and positions is impossible. However, tactical camouflage of individual defense 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 Europe. Use of such positions was successfully made on several occasions in the fighting for Alamein positions in November 1942. Example :

    In the night of November 3, 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 Kepsra. 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.

(4. Withdrawal)

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.

(5. Evaluation)

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 unit, as far as there is space available on its vehicles, should have large numbers of nets to camouflage its foxholes, bunkers and positions. 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 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.

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