Desert Warfare, German Experiences in World War II
Maj Gen Alfred Toppe
Generalolberst Franz Halder
In spite of the time limit imposed on him, Maj Gen Alfred Toppe, the topic leader, with the collaboration of the leading German experts on the African campaign, has succeeded in this work in answering the assigned questions. The esprit de corps and the justified pride of the African veterans were a decided factor that helped to make the contributions so good and comprehensive that they could, to a large extent, be fitted into the attached study. This in no way detracts from the services of the topic leader. It was his initiative and organizational ability that resulted in this excellent study, despite the time restriction. The German experiences in African desert warfare are made unique by the fact that the command and the troops were faced with a mission in no way either planned or prepared, and they entered into it completely without prior prejudices. The experience gained, therefore, is free from outside theories and opinions and was only achieved by their struggling with an entirely new military situation; it thus has the value of originality. The value is diminished, however, by the fact that the experiences are in part negative and could not be developed further in a positive direction due to the lack of time and the limited means at hand. The particular conditions in Africa under which they were gained will have to be kept in mind in any evaluation. The impossibility of securing a supply line across a body of water dominated by the enemy, the numerical and material inadequacies held by the Germans ‘and even more their allies’ and the increasing lack of Luftwaffe fighting and transport units : these are all negative aspects of the campaign. On the positive side belongs the tempo and performance of field forces under the leadership of Rommel, forces which were without a doubt far above the average in initiative, spontaneity, and soldierly zeal.
Generaloberst Franz Halder
18 June 1952
Two and a half months was the total time allotted for the preparation of this study. Prerequisite was that such German officers be induced to contribute who had had as broad as possible a view in the conduct of overall operations, who possessed practical combat experience, and, furthermore, who had exact knowledge of as many factors as possible that exerted a determining influence on desert warfare. In addition to the contributors listed below, a number of former members of the German Africa Corps also made contributions. The organization of this study was based on the individual questions assigned; German manuals were not used. The presentation, therefore, can be evaluated on the basis of actual experiences. A number of questions could not be answered exhaustively. The reason for this lies in the fact that no experience bad been gathered in such areas, or else operations took place in areas in which the typical attributes of a real desert were not present. The request attached to the major question that accounts by ‘individuals or groups’ be added concerning ‘Special Equipment and Procedures for Aircraft Crews’ could not be fulfilled because no authorities on this subject could be contacted in the short time available.
A board survey of important battles has been included in chapter II, section 7. The official documents contained in Field Marshal Rommel’s notes also have been utilized as a valuable source of information. Those who have contributed information and analysis to this study include :
– Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, COS, DAK, 1941-1942
– General der Flieger Paul Deichman, COS, Luftwaffe
– Oberst Helmut Hudel, CO 7.PanzerRegiment in Tunisia
– Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, CO DAK, 1942-1943
– Regierungsbaurat, Dr Sigismund Kienow, Military Geologist, 1941-1943
– Generalmajor Gerhard Mueller, CO, 5.PanzerRegiment, 1942
– General der Kavallerie Siegfried Westphal
– Dr Wilhelm Wagner, 21.PanzerDivision, 1941-1942
– Hubert Ziessler, Artillery Regiment Commanding Officer, 1941-1943
I. Prior Planning
1. Intelligence Planning
a. Desert Terrain and Climate
When the first German units were shipped to Africa in February 1941, the officers responsible for the operational planning had no data of any kind on the nature of the terrain and circumstances in the desert. The Intelligence data furnished by the Italians was extremely meager, and the Italian maps were so inaccurate and so incomplete that they were used only for lack of something better. For this reason, the German command had to obtain all necessary information itself through reconnaissance. In the papers found in his estate, Field Marshal Rommel wrote :
It has probably never happened before in modern warfare that an operation of this type was undertaken with so little preparation. On February 11, I reported to Gen Garibaldi, the commander in chief of the Italian forces and informed him of my mission. Initially, he showed no enthusiasm for my plan to organize defense positions in the region of the Bay of Sirte as a first measure. Using the poor and inaccurate Italian map material, I then proceeded to explain to Garibaldi my ideas as to approximately how the war in Tripolitania should be conducted. Garibaldi, who was unable to give me any precise information about the terrain that would be involved, advised me to reconnoiter the terrain between Tripoli and the Bay of Sirte personally, and said that I could not possibly have any idea of the enormous difficulties this theater of war presented. Around midday I took off aboard a Type He 111 plane to reconnoiter the combat area. We saw the field-type fortifications and the deep attack antitank ditch east of Tripoli and then flew over a wide belt of dunes which presented a good natural barrier before the fortifications of Tripoli and would prove difficult to cross with wheeled or track vehicles. Then we flew across the mountainous country between Taruna and Horns, which appeared hardly suitable for operations by armored units in contrast to the patches of level terrain between Horns and Misurate. Like a black band the Via Balbia road could be seen extending through the desolate country, in which no tree or shrub was visible as far as the eye could reach. We passed over Buerat, a small desert fort on the coast with barracks and a landing stage, and finally circled above the white houses of Sirte. Southeast and south of this locality we saw Italian troops in their positions. With the exception of the salty swamps between Buerat and Sirte, which extended only a few kilometers southward, we found no features in any sector that would favor a defense, such as, for instance, a deep valley. This reconnaissance flight supported me in my plan to fortify Sirte and the terrain on either side of the coastal road and to concentrate the mobile units for mobile operations within the area of the defense sector in order to counterattack as soon as the enemy started an enveloping attack.
From the above, it will be seen that Rommel himself had to gather the information on the terrain and on the peculiarities of the desert that he required for the conduct of operations. It was only during a later stage that the so-called military geographical description was made available to the Germans, which gave a general survey of the terrain but was based mainly on information gleaned from literary works and contained none of the detailed information required by the troops. This data was of only small military value. The military geological unit attached to the German Africa Corps commenced a systematic assembling of data and methodical reconnoitering immediately after arrival. The English maps captured by the German troops proved an excellent help. The results of the methodical reconnaissance were consolidated in what might be called a traversability map and in reports, and these were made available to the command.
These maps contained the following details :
– Terrain that could be traversed by any type of vehicle in all parts and directions
– Terrain outside the Pistes (Tracks) that was moderately or poorly suited for vehicles
– Terrain with many steep cliffs
– Salty swamps and depressions that were impassable after rain
– Sand dunes that were difficult for vehicular traffic
– Information on plant growth
– Broken terrain
– Impassable cliffs
– Cliffs that were leas steep and that could be traversed
– Passes over the cliffs, with information as to whether they could be used by wheeled or only track laying vehicles
– Trails, with information as to their usability for wheeled or track laying vehicles
The military geological unit compiling these maps consisted of two geologists and ten auxiliaries. However, they were inadequately equipped so that it was only possible to reconnoiter the areas that happened to be tactically important at any given time. Occasional inaccuracies and deviations in the lines marking the limits of the traversable terrain on the maps were unavoidable.
Here, a word might be said about the work of the British Long Range Desert Group that, apart from its intelligence and sabotage missions, carried out reconnaissance far behind the Italo-German fronts in Libya. The results obtained in this reconnaissance work formed the basis for the British maps on the Italian colony of Libya, which were incomparably better, so far as quality, accuracy, and detail were concerned, than the Italian maps. The British maps were considered a particularly valuable prize when captured.
b. Scope of the Evaluation
The above serves to show that in deserts, the command must employ adequate personnel with adequate equipment organized in specialized units if it wishes to obtain usable maps within a brief space of time. After the winter of 1941, the traversability maps served as permanent data for the German command. The preparations for attacks and for defense positions were based on them.
c. Influence of Intelligence on Planning
The available intelligence information was so inadequate in the spring of 1941 that it influenced in no way the employment of the German forces. As previously stated, Field Marshal Rommel had to gather the necessary information on the terrain and on the characteristics of the desert. On the basis of this information, he performed his mission of halting the British advance and preventing the loss of the whole of Libya.
d. Availability and Evaluation of Terrain Intelligence
The pamphlets Military Geographical Descriptions for Libya, Northeast Africa, and Egypt were published by the Military-Geographical Branch of the German Army High Command. Since they contained only information on cities, roads, oases, (Some of these maps are found in Toppe’s original, complete manuscript) and a general survey of the entire region, they could serve the command only as a source of general orientation, for which purpose they proved valuable. They contained very few important tactical details. They were put out in such large numbers that they could be made available down to regimental staff level. At these lower levels, their value was naturally restricted.
e. Use of Historical Data for Planning Purposes
With the exception of the experience gained by General Graziani’s army during its advance on Egypt in the winter of 1940, no information taken from military history was used in planning the campaign. One lesson that this experience pointed out is that troops that are not motorized are valueless in desert warfare and can do nothing whatever against a motorized enemy. General Graziani’s army consisted almost exclusively of infantry units, and it was tied down, enveloped, and destroyed by the well-motorized British forces because it was unable to conduct mobile operations. The African Campaign took on such entirely new forms owing to the almost exclusive use of mobile troops by both sides in the desert. It was not possible in planning to make use of any examples taken from military history. Indeed, the methods of modern desert warfare were created by Field Marshal Rommel.
Prior to World War II, not a soul in the German armed forces imagined the possibility of it becoming necessary in any future war to conduct land warfare outside of Europe. This is why no particular attention was paid in the army to the military experiences of this type gained during World War I, particularly in the former German colony, German East Africa. It was only in 1935 that a subsection for colonial affairs was created in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Reich Ministry of War. This subsection was staffed with only one officer who had fought in German Southwest Africa. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, no preparations of any sort had been made in the German Army for any desert warfare that might possibly become necessary in the future. All preparatory work in the operational, organizational and training fields had been restricted exclusively to preparations for the conduct of war on the continent of Europe. This was why a suggestion submitted by the Mapping and Survey Branch of the German Army General Staff in 1938 that the maps to be issued in the eventuality of mobilization should include maps of Denmark, Norway and North Africa, was disapproved as entirely unnecessary by the appropriate representative of the Operational Branch under instructions from the chief of that branch. It is an actual fact that early in 1941, the German troops reached the African theater of operations almost entirely unprepared for their new missions. Up to the summer of 1940, the information available to the German Army General Staff on North Africa was restricted to the reports furnished by the German military attaché in Rome and reports from agents of the German counterintelligence service. From the autumn of 1940 on, Special Detachment Dora, a detachment of the German counterintelligence branch, was in Libya. Its main mission was to keep the French territories in Africa under observation. Most of the data on which the German military attaché in Rome based his reports came from his liaison officer attached to the governor general, who was simultaneously commander in chief of all forces in Italian North Africa, and on personal impressions gained while traveling. All positive information of a military nature on North Africa was taken from the manuals of the Foreign Armies Intelligence Branch (West) on the British, French, and Italian armed forces.
Originally, Hitler had decided to leave Italian dictator Benito Mussolini an entirely free hand in conducting operations in the Mediterranean theater, which was another reason for the small interest of the German General Staff in this subject. A change in this fundamental view of Hitler only took place in the summer of 1940, when it became evident, on the one hand, that Italy was apparently avoiding any decisive action in the Mediterranean theater, while the British, on the other hand, were continually reinforcing their troops in Egypt without their transportation being appreciably affected by the Italian Navy.
At the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in October 1940, the dispatch of a German Panzer Corps to Libya was discussed, but no decision was reached. Following the discussion, a general of the armored force who was attached to the German Army High Command was sent to Italian North Africa for an on the spot study of the possibilities of employing a German expeditionary corps there. Shortly after this, Italy rejected the support offered by Germany; quite obviously, Mussolini did not want any German military support in North Africa.
The 3.Panzerdivision, which in peacetime was garrisoned in the Berlin area, had been reorganized in all haste for employment in the tropics as a precautionary measure; it was now available for other employment. Later, when the British offensive, which gained huge initial successes, threatened to develop into a catastrophe for the Italian forces, Italy requested the dispatch of German forces to Libya. The first unit to be transferred was the X Luftwaffe, which was sent to Sicily. So far as ground forces were concerned, the original plan was to send only a defense unit of brigade strength that was to be specially organized for the purpose, but it soon became evident that such a weak unit would not be able to give Germany’s ally any really effective support.
In January 1941, Hitler therefore decided to make a special corps of two divisions available – the German Afrika Korps (DAK). Meanwhile, a special staff for tropical warfare (Sonderstab Trupen) had been formed at the headquarters of the commander of the Replacement Training Army in Berlin. It was composed of officers who had fought in the German colonies in World War I and was to assemble as speedily as possible all experience that could be helpful in the training, organization, equipment, and employment of troops in desert warfare. However, the march of events was too fast so that the first units of the DAK landed in Africa when the staff had just commenced its work in Libya. What has been said above goes to show that the German Army High Command was taken almost completely by surprise when the necessity arose to dispatch troops for warfare in the desert. In any event, the command had no time to make thorough preparations for this type of combat employment. For this reason, all preparatory work that was possible in the short space of time available had to be restricted mainly to the following measures :
(1) Medical examinations of all troops to determine their fitness for service in the tropics, with the application of very severe standards
(2) Equipment of all soldiers with tropical clothing
(3) Adaptation of a training program for combat in open terrain
(4) Camouflage of all vehicles with a coat of desert-colored paint
(5) Organization of special units to handle water-supply problems
(6) Familiarization of the troops with the hygienic measures necessary in tropical climates
(7) Orientation of the troops on the military-geographical conditions of the new theater and on the peculiarities of Germany’s allies and enemies
In this respect, it must be mentioned that initially only one military geographical bulletin was available. It had been prepared in a hurry and was not accurate in all points. A manual of instructions for the tropics was being drafted in the summer of 1942. It was not possible within Germany to accustom the troops to the intense heat to which they would be exposed, particularly at that time of the year, the winter of 1940. To a certain extent, the troops that had to wait any length of time in Italy for transportation to North Africa adapted themselves automatically to the heat.
b. Changes in Troop Organization and Equipment
The composition of the units employed in Africa was the same as those in Europe. The pressure of time alone made any reorganization impossible in 1941, and later experience showed that no specialized organization is necessary for divisions and other units that are to be employed in desert warfare. However, it is necessary to have a far higher ratio of tanks and antitank weapons, since these are the two decisive weapons in the desert. It goes without saying that all units employed in desert warfare must be motorized. The following special units were newly activated for employment in the desert :
– (1) Water-supply companies, under the command of engineer officers. They were assigned to the corps and operated under the Water-Supply Branch of the corps supply and administration officer. These companies had pumps and equipment for the drilling of deep wells, while some of them had installations for the distillation of water
– (2) Water-supply transportation columns that were organized in the same way as ordinary supply-transportation columns but were employed solely in the transportation of water to the troops. They had no tank trucks or tank trailers as was customary with the British units but had to transport water in twenty liter cans. This method of transportation proved extremely tiresome, quite apart from the considerable loading space required, which imposed an extra strain on the gas-supply services
– (3) Astronomical observation teams, directed by professional astronomers who were awarded regular or assimilated officer rank. These teams worked under the special staff officer for surveying attached to the operations officer of the army, and their function was to establish geographical points by astronomical means. They were rarely employed, since no serious orientation difficulties arose because most of the fighting took place in the region and not in the desert proper
The following changes proved necessary so far as equipment was concerned :
– long-range artillery
– long-range antitank guns
– tank guns
decisively influence the course of battle in desert warfare, and it was therefore necessary to employ were long range weapons. No alterations of the weapons themselves were necessary. In their 87.6-MM guns, the British had a light artillery piece with a longer range than the Germans’ guns, but the German forces in Africa soon received 100-MM and 170-MM guns that had a longer range than any of the British guns.
In 1941, the guns of the German Type III tanks had a longer range than the guns of the British tanks, and this was the reason for the success of the German tanks in that year, but from May 1942 on, the British employed American tanks of the Grant, Lee, and Sherman types that mounted guns with a considerably superior range of fire. In the Battle of Gazala, these guns came as a disconcerting surprise for the German tank units, and in the first phase of the battle, the British were able to gain considerable successes.
Clothing and uniforms were entirely different from the clothing and uniforms worn in Europe. The German army uniform was made from a watertight linen, cut in a style approximating the traditional uniforms of the former German colonial defense forces. These uniforms proved unsuitable both in style and material. The material was too stiff and did not’ give adequate protection against heat or cold. In the early mornings, the material absorbed moisture from the dew so that it became intolerable to wear the uniforms. The British tropical uniforms, in contrast, were made of pure wool and were excellent. Large quantities of the British uniforms were captured and worn by the troops of the German Africa Corps (with the addition of German insignia). The Germans especially liked the British trousers. The tropical uniforms of the German Air Force, however, were good. Their color, a yellowish-brown, was more appropriate than other German uniforms, and they were made from a material that was of a lighter and better quality which was cut in a more appropriate style. Uniforms of olive-drab color proved unfavorable.
In view of the normal camouflage difficulties in the desert, a yellowish-brown, which would have been a protective color, would have been best. High boats were unsuitable in every respect, since in hot climates, everything must be done to prevent soldiers wearing any apparel on the legs that restricts the circulation of the blood. In this matter, the troops helped themselves by wearing only slacks, most of which came from captured British depots and which the troops wore over their boats. The German shoe with laces and a cloth tongue proved suitable. The shorts issued to the troops could not be worn during combat, since they left bare legs exposed to injury by thorns and stones, and these injuries healed very slowly. The olive-drab caps with wide visors were excellent; the visor, in particular, was indispensable for the infantryman and for the gunner as protection against the intense glare of the sun. The tropical helmets that were issued could be used only in the rear areas and were entirely useless in combat. The German troops wore no steel helmets, in contrast to the British troops, whose steel helmets were more appropriate both in shape and weight, being lighter than the German helmets. The tropical coats issued, which were made from a thick woolen material, were good, but the English ones, which were fur-lined and reached only to the knees, were better. Owing to the stiff material from which it was made, the German tropical shirts were inferior to the British ones, which were made of so-called ‘Tropic’ material. To protect the abdominal area of the body against the cold, the wearing of belly bands was obligatory, which proved a wise measure. Tropical helmets and mosquito nets proved an unnecessary expenditure. The majority of the troops got rid of them immediately after debarking from the ships, since they were not able to take them along owing to insufficient transportation space.
The troops were also furnished wall tents, which had a special sun apron. With the exception of footwear, no leather was used in any article of apparel; it was replaced everywhere by thick linen. The types of vehicles used were the same as those used in Europe. Vehicles with diesel engines were not used to avoid the necessity of transporting two different types of fuel. However, experience showed that it would have been advisable to accept this disadvantage in order to facilitate transportation, since fuel oil could have been transported in bulk containers, such as tank trailers. The excellent coastal road would have allowed the use of such transportation. Volkswagens were used in great numbers and proved excellent. Far use under desert conditions, the following alterations were made to adapt the standard model : air intakes were placed inside the vehicles to reduce the amount of dust taken in by the motor in place of the standard tires, aircraft over-sized tires were used, which proved exceptionally good on rocky terrain and in sandy stretches. Because of their low air pressure, such tires reduced the shocks on rocky ground while on sandy tracks, the wide treads of the tires prevented the vehicles from sinking into the sand and getting stuck. On the whole, however, the British motor vehicles, as a result of the extensive experience of the British in desert conditions, were superior to those of the Germans, being better adapted to the special conditions in respect to tires, power, higher ground clearance, and lower bodies. Double tires proved unsuitable, particularly in areas where the surface was covered with stones, as the stones became compressed in large quantities in the spaces between the tires.