History of War

ENTER THE AFRIKA KORPS

Source: Panzer tanks cross the desert. The turret hatch was often left open to improve visibility in the desert, but it put the crew in greater danger

‘Our first day on the African continent’ – German soldiers pose in newly issued tropical uniforms

Light howitzer crew training in the desert

Brand new Panzer IV F models in the desert. With their long 75mm guns they outclassed every Allied tank fielded in the African theatre of war. Yet numbers delivered were always low

“THE MEN UNDER HIS COMMAND WERE EXPERIENCED, BUT THEY HAD NEVER FOUGHT IN THE WATERLESS HEAT OF THE AFRICAN DESERT”

Even though the Italian forces in Africa initially outnumbered the British with over five times as many men, their first major engagements with the Allies were rather unsuccessful. The Italians suffered severe casualties and an even worse blow to their morale. At the Battle of Sidi Barrani the Italians lost a staggering 4,500 men killed and wounded and another 38,000 taken prisoner, against total British losses of only 624 men. Their beaten forces were pursued into Libya where, after a short siege, another 45,000 Italians surrendered to the Allies at Bardia.

Only a few weeks later disaster struck again during a brief but intense engagement at Tobruk, where another 27,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. After a relentless pursuit the Italian forces finally surrendered at Beda Fomm on 7 February 1941. Mussolini had lost over 130,000 men, 420 tanks and 845 artillery pieces in only two months of fighting. Germany’s intervention on behalf of its inept Italian allies became inevitable.

The first German units arrived in Tripoli on 14 February 1941 and comprised the Vorausabteilung (advance echelon) of the Fifth Light Division and elements of the 15th Panzer Division. It was a small but powerful force, commanded by Erwin Rommel. At this time Rommel was already legendary within army circles and was a highly respected soldier. During World War I he had received Germany’s highest military award, the Pour le Merite, and in the campaign in France at the start of World

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