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GORDON WILLIAMSON, colour plates by RON VOLSTAD
AFRIKAKORPS 1941-43

Major units (March 1943)

Fallschirmjäger Regt. (mot) 'Barenthin' (Luftwaffe); Panzergrenadier Regt. (mot) 160; Bersaglieri Regt. (mot) 10 (Italian); IV/Afrika Artillerie Regt. (mot) 2; variously numbered Army and Luftwaffe divisional units.

Division 'Hermann Göring'

This formidable formation evolved from Polizei-abteilung zbV Wecke, established in February 1933 by Hermann Göring in his capacity as Prussian Minister of the Interior. Initially a Police unit used against enemies of the state such as Communists, by September 1935 it had been reformed as a Landes-polizei Gruppe, and then as a Regiment, but still under Police control. On 24 September 1935, however, Göring had the unit transferred en bloc to the Luftwaffe as 'Regiment Hermann Göring', and supplied cadre personnel for the Luftwaffe's first Fallschirmjäger units.

Accorded elite status from the start, the unit had very strict recruitment standards; and like its counterparts - the 'Leibstandarte' in the SS and 'Grossdeutschland' in the Army - it had a high profile in pre-war years, appearing at parades and ceremonial events and boasting a fine regimental band. The unit took part in the Austrian Anschluss and the occupation of the Sudetenland.

A small element took part in the Polish campaign, and 'Hermann Göring' sub-units were also involved in Norway; the regiment also acquitted itself well during the fall of France. Committed to the Balkan campaign, the regiment served in Rumania before taking part in Operation 'Barbarossa', the invasion of the Soviet Union. It distinguished itself at Radzrechow, Dubno, Kiev and Bryansk. In March 1942 the regiment was expanded to brigade status; in October 1942 it was enlarged yet again, to divisional strength. It was during this period of expansion that the division was ordered to Italy; and in late 1943 elements were sent to North Africa. Two battalions of the division's Jäger Regiment were first into action in March 1943, and saw combat while attached to 10. Panzer-Division. Units arriving piecemeal in North Africa came under control of the advance party 'Vorkommando Hermann Göring' under Oberst Schmid (promoted Generalmajor on 1 March) and were known as 'Kampfgruppe Schmid'.

By mid-February 1943 Kampfgruppe Schmid was located on the southern sector of the Tunisian front. 'Hermann Göring' units sent to North Africa were often reinforced in combat by piecemeal elements of other units committed as they arrived. Formed units included: I/Panzer Regiment 'HG'; I & III/Grenadier-Regt. 'HG'; I & III/Jäger Regt. 'HG'; I & II/Flak Regt. 'HG'; and various reconnaissance elements.

These units fought with distinction until forced to surrender on 12 May, a small number of personnel managing to escape by air to Sicily. The formation was very rapidly rebuilt in southern France and Italy as a Panzer Division.

Fallschirmjäger Brigade Ramcke

Originally intended for the invasion of Malta, this Luftwaffe paratroop formation was sent to Africa in response to Rommel's call for reinforcements in summer 1942, being flown in during August. Commanded by Generalmajor Bernhardt Ramcke, it comprised four rifle battalions, an artillery battalion, an anti-tank and a pioneer company. The unit, airlifted from Europe, had no transport, and was driven directly to the front by a Flak unit. It took up positions between the Italian 'Bologna' and 'Brescia' Divisions facing the southern sector of the El Alamein line. After bitter resistance to the British offensive in late October the brigade was forced to withdraw from the collapsing front of the Italian X Corps; it had already been written off as destroyed by Rommel's staff. In fact some 600 men of the brigade carried out an epic 200-mile retreat across open desert dominated by the enemy, capturing British transport and supplies on the way, and rejoining the German forces near Fuka. The brigade later fought with distinction in Tunisia.

Special Units: Infanterie Lehr Regiment zbV Brandenburg

This famous unit was probably the nearest thing the Wehrmacht fielded to Britain's SAS. It carried out commando-type raids behind enemy lines, its soldiers being trained in sabotage techniques and often speaking several languages. Brandenburgers often operated in enemy uniforms, and recorded several ingenious successes in these operations on all fronts.

The first use of the Brandenburgers in North Africa was in June 1941 when they were used for deep reconnaissance tasks. A special Tropical Company was formed (Tropen Kompanie Brandenburg) under Oberleutnant Fritz von Koenen; half of this 300-strong unit reached Africa in October, and was used in late 1941 in sabotage missions behind enemy lines. It is known that German commando-type raids reached almost as far as Cairo, causing considerable damage and alarm to the British.

In December 1942, a small glider-borne force from I/Regt. 4 Brandenburg destroyed the rail bridge at Sidi Bou Baker in Tunisia and escaped unscathed. Another party was captured north of Kasserine.

Expanded to battalion strength and entitled Abteilung von Koenen in January 1943 the Brandenburg element based in North Africa took part in the last German attack of the desert war when it attacked US positions near Sidi Bou Zid on 14 February. The Americans were thrown back, losing nearly 30 tanks, 23 guns, 100 vehicles and over 700 prisoners. When the Deutsches Afrikakorps surrendered in May 1943 the Brandenburgers were not to be caught; they commandeered various boats and escaped over the Mediterranean to southern Italy. The unit later saw action against partisans in the Balkans, where Von Koenen was killed in August 1944.

Sonderverband 288

In mid-1941 a Brandenburg company designated Sonderverband 287 was formed at Potsdam-Ruinenberg, and later trained in tropical warfare in southern Greece. A sister company, Sonderverband 288, was formed and trained soon afterwards, and subsequently expanded and designated an independent motorised Kampfgruppe. Both units were originally intended to exploit the Rachid Ali uprising against the British in Iraq, and to make their way via Iraq into British-occupied Palestine and Egypt, perhaps even reaching the Suez Canal zone. The failure of the Iraqi uprising led to Sonderverband 287 being retained in Greece and later sent to Russia on anti-partisan duties; 288 was shipped directly to North Africa, commanded by Oberst Menton. It was organised in three small battalions totalling 12 companies capable of independent operations. Two battalions and all officers were selected from colonial Germans from the Middle East and former African colonies; the third was made up of Arabs.

Fine studio pose by a young DAK soldier in regulation uniform, his peaked field cap bearing the soutache of Waffenfarbe (in fact, the centrally sewn lace known as 'Russia braid') round the national cockade. Note loop-and-button fastening for the shoulder straps; and unobtrusive appearance of the 'all ranks' collar Litzen in grey-blue on tan.

Excellent portrait study of a Ritterkreuzträger, Stabsfeldwebel Wilhelm Wendt; the senior warrant officer of 5 Kompanie, Panzer-Regiment 5, 21 Panzer-Division, he was awarded the Knight's Cross on to June 11/41. The Held cap is so bleached as to appear white, contrasting with the dark olive tunic. The 'pips' on the shoulder straps, and the collar Litzen, both appear unusually light, and may have been 'worked on' for this, obviously his best walking- out dress. Of particular interest arc the Spanish Cross on his right pocket, and the Condor Legion Panzer Badge - a rare award - next to the conventional Panzer Battle Badge on his left pocket. (Josef Charita)

Attached to 90 leichte Afrika Division, Sonderverband 288 apparently fought with some distinction in the first six months of 1942. On 6 August a Panzerarmee Stab order reorganised and redesignated the unit as Panzergrenadier Regiment (mot) Afrika, though the actual redesignation did not take effect until 31 October. The unit continued to fight effectively, seeing action at Bir Hacheim, Tobruk, and in the retreat into Tunisia.

'Free Arabian Corps'

After the failure of the Iraqi rising in summer 1941 numbers of Arab sympathisers were shipped out of the Middle East by the Germans and gathered at Cape Sunion, near Athens, as Sonderstab Felmy. In January 1942 the group, at company strength, was retitled Deutsche-Arabische Lehr Abteilung; the DAL was sometimes colloquially called the 'Free Arabian Corps', and received German Army tropical uniforms with the right sleeve patch illustrated (see Plates A, K). A second company was raised in summer 1942, mainly from French North African volunteers; and about 600 DAL personnel later saw active service in North Africa, though little combat-morale apparently slumped after the death of the CO, Oberst Meyer-Ricko. A third company raised in Greece in spring 1943 remained there on security duties.

UNIFORMS AND INSIGNIA

Unlike the unfortunate Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front who suffered the horrors of the Russian winter of 1941/42 in clothing suitable only for moderate climates, the soldiers of the Afrikakorps were well equipped. As soon as German involvement in the Mediterranean area and Middle East began to seem likely the Tropical Institute of Hamburg University was commissioned to develop a range of tropical uniforms, and by late 1940 large stocks were already available. The basic range of Army tropical clothing included the following:

Headgear

The Pith Helmet

This was a conventional sun helmet made from compressed cork, and covered with segments of olive green canvas cloth. The interior of the helmet was lined with red cloth and the underside of the rim with green cloth. It featured leather binding to the edge of the rim, a leather sweatband and a leather chinstrap. Insignia, matching that on the steel helmet, consisted of two light metal alloy shields, one featuring the national eagle and swastika emblem in silver on black, and the other the national colours of red, silver and black in slanting stripes. These were attached to the helmet by three prongs on the reverse.

The helmet was widely issued, but was not particularly popular with the troops, who almost invariably discarded it in favour of the field cap. It was, however, often worn behind the front lines for semi-formal occasions, parades, etc. A second version of the pith helmet was produced in compressed felt of a distinct brownish hue from late 1942 onwards. It is not thought that these saw issue in North Africa, but they were used in other parts of the Mediterranean theatre.

The Sidecap

Based on the continental M38 field cap, this was a peakless sidecap made in olive cloth lined with red cotton. Unlike those of the peaked field cap, the side flaps were not false and could be folded down. Ventilation was by a single metal grommet on each side of the crown. It was not particularly widely used, but was popular with the crews of armoured vehicles, where the long peak of the field cap could be awkward. Early examples featured a Waffenfarbe chevron over the cockade in the same manner as the peaked field cap.

The Peaked Field Cap

The most popular piece of headgear worn by the Afrikakorps was the ubiquitous peaked field cap. This was closely styled on the peaked 'ski-cap' or Bergmütze of the Mountain Troops. It was manufactured from light olive canvas material, and featured a long peak giving excellent protection to the eyes. Unlike the mountain cap, the flaps on the tropical model were false. The cap had two metal grommets each side of the crown for ventilation, and was lined in red cotton.

Both the sidecap and the peaked field cap were distinguished by woven aluminium braid piping to the crown scam and front 'scallop' on officers' versions; occasionally, however, other ranks' versions were converted by adding twisted cord piping to the crown and scallop.

Major Dr. Heinrich Drewes, CO of Kradschutzen-Bataillon 10, was decorated with the Knight's Cross on 24 April 1943, just before the end in Tunisia. Note hand-embroidered bullion collar patches; and continental breast eagle on dark green hacking, though unusually it seems to be machine-woven in 'other ranks" style rather than embroidered. The cap is an 'other ranks" model too, 'up-graded' by the addition of twisted silver cord to the crown seam and front scallop - issue officers' caps had woven aluminium piping, not twisted cord.

Insignia for all ranks consisted of a woven silk pale-blue-on-tan eagle and swastika over a silk cockade in the black/white/red national colours woven on to a tan backing. Prior to July 1942 an inverted chevron of Waffenfarbe colour piping was worn over the cockade to indicate the branch of service.

The olive colour of the cap quickly faded in the strong desert sun. Many soldiers deliberately bleached their headgear as a faded cap was the prestigious mark of the veteran campaigner, and a dark cap the mark of the 'new boy'.

(This cap has become the single most popular item of Afrikakorps uniform among collectors, just as it was the single most recognisable 'symbol' of the desert soldier - indeed, it was often the only piece of uniform dress worn to show the nationality of its wearer. Originals of this cap arc now extremely expensive, and they are being widely reproduced. Some copies made in Germany are highly accurate and difficult to detect.)

Uniform garments

The Field Blouse

The tropical field blouse was manufactured in olive lightweight cotton in open-neck style with four pleated patch pockets, two at the breast and two on the skirt, with buttoned flaps. The blouse was fastened at the front by five olive green-painted metal buttons. Buttons on the tropical field blouse were removable, being held in place by split rings in the blouse interior. The blouse had a field dressing pocket on the right hand interior flap at the base, and had two belt hook retaining straps. The cuffs were adjustable, with button fastening.

Insignia included standardised collar patches for all ranks - pale blue-grey Litzen on a tan backing - and a machine woven silk breast eagle in pale blue on tan, also common to all ranks. Shoulder straps for NCOs and other ranks were cut from the same material as the blouse and piped in the appropriate Waffenfarbe around the edge. NCOs had the tunic- collar and the shoulder straps trimmed in NCO Tresse lace, the tropical-type lace being in a copper-brown colour rather than silver as on continental uniforms.

A group of Luftwaffe aircrew, wearing a variety of flying overalls and a mixture of blue-grey and tropical field caps, enjoy a meal on a North African airstrip in February 1942. (Josef Charita)

From late 1942 the tropical field blouse lost the pleats to the pockets, and shortly afterwards the scalloped edges of the pocket flaps were omitted, flaps being square cut subsequently.

Officers often elected to show their status by the use of the bullion hand-embroidered collar patches and breast eagle from their continental tunics instead of the basic tropical issue items. The removable pattern shoulder straps from officers' field grey continental tunics were standard wear on the tropical field blouse. General officers likewise often elected to wear all the insignia on the tropical field blouse in the standard form from their field grey dress. Senior officers occasionally had tailor-made tunics in tropical pattern, but cut from finer quality cloth than the issue olive green cotton.

The Tropical Shirt

A tropical shirt was issued in lightweight olive cotton; it was of the 'pullover' style with a four-button front, long tails, and two pleated patch breast pockets. It was often worn in lieu of the field blouse, with both breast eagle and shoulder straps added. A cotton tie of the same colour was issued with the shirt, but rarely worn.

Trousers

Long-legged olive cotton trousers were produced, featuring a concealed integral cloth waist belt, two slash side pockets, a hip pocket and a front fob pocket. The fly front was button-fastened. It was a popular fashion to sew a drawstring into the cuff of the leg to allow the trousers to be neatly 'bloused' where the trouser leg entered the boot. Breeches in similar material were also produced, as were shorts.

Trousers were popularly worn with the laced canvas and leather ankle hoot (the upper part and the ankle of the boot being canvas), while the breeches were usually worn with the alternative issue high leg lace-up boot, also in canvas and leather. In theory, at least, shorts were not permitted in the front line.

A young Luftwaffe private in the pale tan tropical uniform. The breast eagle is machine-embroidered in grey cotton on a tan twill base, and was normally worn by all ranks. Collar patches were not worn on the tropical tunic. (Paul Anderson)

The tropical Fliegermütze, in pale golden-tan cotton and usually lined in bright red; the light grey eagle and swastika are machine-embroidered on a tan base; the black/white/red national cockade, unlike the Army equivalent, is a raised boss.

A tine study of two 'Hermann Meyer' caps being worn without the button-on neck flap, by personnel of the 'Hermann Göring' units rushed to Tunisia - note cufftitle just visible on right sleeve of Unteroffizier, left. This NCO wears full machine-woven insignia on his cap (and, unusually, tropical Tresse braid round his upper collar, although no patches were worn). His comrade has a machine-embroidered eagle and swastika sewn to the cap crown, and an unsupported cockade on the hand. (Herbert E. Kail)

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