Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The German Army of World War II: Part II The Afrika Korps

The Wehrmacht made few preparations for operating in foreign environments. It did not prepare well for Russia and its winter. That was one of its biggest failures. On the other hand, there were some steps made toward operating in the tropics. Germany had at one time maintained colonies and bases in Africa and the Pacific. Cameroon, German Southwest Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (Tanzania) were German possessions until World War I. Germany also had a presence in Samoa, the international communities at Peking and Shanghai, and the Chinese port of Tsingtao.* The old German Army maintained a colonial contingent that garrisoned these tropical possessions. All were lost by the end of the First World War.

Perhaps the German Army never lost its feeling for its tropical adventures. The Wehrmacht eventually devised a tropical uniform loosely based on the Italian model. That is the only thing that was loose. It had a snug fit for a sharper appearance. For the desert, a looser fit is more comfortable. The Italians had operated in Africa for a very long time and understood the necessities posed by tropical conditions. They were especially good with the North African deserts. Italian troops were issued loose clothing. Many chose to wear short pants and sandals.

In military terms, the German Army was far superior to its Italian counterpart. Germany had better leadership at al levels and better training. Its equipment was more modern and robust. When Italy tried to invade Greece in 1940, it was repulsed. Germany had to come in to force the issue for the Italians. When Italy attacked the British in North Africa, they thought they were chasing a whipped enemy who had suffered irreparably at Dunkirk. The British retreated at first. They then counterattacked and drove the Italians all the way to Tunisia. Because British forces needed reinforcements in Greece, their desert army shrunk so much that it had to halt its counteroffensive. That gave Italy enough time to get help from Germany again. No doubt the Germans did not want to lose access to Libyan oil. They arrived and began operations, Their leader, Erwin Rommel ,was a dynamic commander who knew how to create opportunities and to exploit enemy mistakes when they occurred. He sent the British reeling back towards Egypt. So began the North African campaign, a back-and-forth series of battles wherein Rommel humiliated several British commanders.

Field Marshall Erwin Rommel
The Afrika Korps soon rid themselves of those tight uniforms and acquired more comfortable gear. Italian "sahariana" jackets were very popular with the Germans. And amazing as it sounds, the German army that was trained for Central Europe adapted themselves, their equipment and vehicles to war in the desert.

To his credit, Rommel was a man of honor. His campaign was devoid of Nazi atrocities and other shenanigans. He tried to keep the war as gentlemanly as possible. Of course, he was also brilliant. Rommel trained his staff officers to take command when necessary. He prepared his troops well and expected the most from them. Rommel also trained two Italian divisions. One operated so well afterward that the British mistook it for a German unit.

Indeed, two thirds of the Axis troops in North Africa were Italian. Though poorly trained and poorly led, they were numerous enough to make a difference. People tend to neglect mentioning them, focusing instead on the German Afrika Korps. In truth, Rommel could never have succeeded without his Italian allies.

Britain sent in a new general named Bernard Montgomery. He had new weapons, including the "new" Sherman tank. Montgomery was able to beat Rommel at a place in Egypt called El Alamein. In Fall of 1942, Montgomery’s forces drove the Afrika Korps out of Egypt and pushed them toward Tunisia. Meanwhile, a combined US and British force landed in French North Africa. They pushed the German forces there into Tunisia. Unable to continue fighting, German and Italian forces capitulated in 1943. Rommel had already been called back to Germany. Hitler refused to try to evacuate the army, leaving 175,000 combat experienced veterans to fall into enemy hands. (The same thing happened at Stalingrad.)

As uniforms went, the Afrika Korps looked like a motley band of brigands. As for fighting effectiveness, they were excellent. Had they been evacuated, the survivors could have brought their experience to other units in Europe. Certainly, that many men might have made it nearly impossible to invade Sicily and southern Italy.

One thing the Afrika Korps did was replace as much leather gear as possible with webbed or cloth equipment. Their tropical boots were mostly canvas with a leather shoe. The webbed belt was better suited to the tropics. Equipment was also repainted for the desert. The olive drab mess kits and grey helmets were repainted mustard yellow. The symbol of the Afrika Korps was a stylized palm tree with a swastika in the middle of its trunk. This was painted on vehicles. It was also marked on the left side of the helmet, replacing the black shield with eagle. Luftwaffe troops in North Afrika did not replace their flying eagle & swastika, which was on the left side of their helmets. As far as I can tell, the Luftwaffe did not adopt the Afrika Korps palm tree.

Temperatures in the desert can drop to 40 degrees F at night. That is why many troops on both sides retained their overcoats.

German 88mm Flak gun
The one weapon which the Germans had that was superior was their 88mm dual purpose gun. It could penetrate any allied tank. The version Rommel used was actually an anti-aircraft gun. The crew was in the open and would have been vulnerable to mortars or artillery. Rommel designed tactics to draw the enemy within range of the 88s. Many fell for the bait. In the matter of tanks and other weapons, the Afrika Korps was not superior to the Allied equipment. Only when the Panzer IV F2 arrived could their tanks outgun anything the Allies had at the moment. As in the invasions of Poland and France, tactics rather than equipment made the difference.**

Here are reliable images form a US intelligence manual.

Most sets of toy German soldiers made from the war’s end into the 1970s show Rommel’s influence. Indeed, Rommel made that big of an impression on the wartime and Postwar British psyche. He personified the German forces, especially the leadership. Toy soldier sets by Crescent, Lone Star, Charbens, Airfix and Matchbox all have a figure in an officer cap, a la Rommel.

That brings me to homecasting. For years, the only World War II mold around was a three-cavity metal one by Rapaport - Castings inc -REB. It made copies of three Charbens soldiers. More recently, Dunken made molds that copied the Matchbox Afrika Korps figures. Their officer is undoubtedly meant to be Rommel.

Below is one of the figures I converted into Afrika Korps. I will show how it is done in future articles.

*My wife’s grandfather was a Norwegian merchant sailor. During World War I, he was on three ships that were torpedoed. Prior to the war, he was on a ship headed to China. Outside the Chinese port, they had a brief run-in with pirates. The port, probably Tsingtao, was under German control. On docking, the ship’s captain reported the pirates to the German port authority.

A German gunboat was sent out to find the pirates. It did, returning several hours later with Chinese pirates hung from the railings. The Germans were firm when dealing with piracy.

**A common myth of The Wehrmacht was that their tanks overwhelmed the enemy with superior armor and firepower. Up until the Panzer IV F2, that was not the case. The early Panzer IIIs and IVs were no better armed than the enemy. In fact, most French tanks had better firepower and armor. The same problem arose when Germany first encountered the Soviet T34 tanks. The Wehrmacht’s advantage was its tactics for using tanks. The much-improved Panzer IV H, Tiger and Panther tanks did not arrive until 1943

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