Panzerarmee Afrika’s Sonderkommando

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Sonderkommando Dora Steyr truck Model by Gary Radford. The only six Steyr 1500As ever to see service in Libya were to be found in their motor pool.

The first German unit to go far south was “Gruppe Schwerin” of Regimentsstab z.b.V. 200. Starting from Sirte via Hon they went as far South as Murzuk. The mission was started in the attack of LRDGs T & G Patrol on Murzuk in December 1940 with the intention to boost the Italian morale in the far South. Hardly mentioned in the German sources is the fact that together with them was the remainder of the Italian Compagnia Autosahariana di Cufra which had made it to Hon after they had to abandon Kufra in March 1941 under the attack of Leclerc’s Free French troops.

The Abwehr (German intelligence service) was the only German service that successfully created a desert-raiding force, and this owed much to a fortuitous meeting in Budapest between an Abwehr officer and Count Ladislas (Laszlo) von Almaszy, a former major in the Austrian Army whose desert-going experience matched that of Bagnold.

Following the German intervention in North Africa, the chief of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, ordered the Luftwaffe’s Major Nikolaus Ritter (chief of the Luftwaffe’s section of the Abwehr I department, espionage) to form a Sonderkommando (special unit) for special operations in North Africa. The main task of this unit was to infiltrate German spies into Egypt and to establish contact with the chief-of-staff of the Egyptian Army, el Masri Pasha. Despite von Almaszy’s advice, Ritter decided to use aircraft to infiltrate these agents and the attempts ended in repeated failure until 16 July 1941, when Ritter was wounded after one of the aircraft crash-landed. Six months later, on 26 January 1942, the German General Staff (OKW) authorized the creation of a special unit, named Sonderkommando Dora. Put under the command of Panzerarmee Afrika’s Abwehr officer, Oberstleutnant Walter Eichler, the Sonderkommando Dora included a number of specialists such as geologists, cartographers and mineralogists, who were intended to provide support for the unit’s special mission, which consisted of deep raiding and infiltration in the desert.

Even before Sonderkommando Dora had established itself in the desert, von Almaszy carried out his own mission. On 11 May 1942 his own Sonderverband carried out Operation Condor, which infiltrated two German spies into Egypt. Although quite strong and well equipped, Sonderkommando Dora (With 19 officers, 18 NCOs and 56 enlisted men) was poorly suited for operations in the deep desert. With the exception of the Kübelwagen, its vehicles were not suited to the conditions in the Sahara and they lacked adequate range and speed. Their aircraft were also of little use apart from the delivery of supplies. It is probably for this reason that they focused their attention towards the weaker Free French forces in Chad, although the orders from Berlin clearly stated that Egypt was to be their main theatre of operations. Nevertheless, in early July two patrols were organized, the first with one heavy Horch staff car, three Kübelwagen and two Opel trucks (a strength of eight officers, three NCOs and 14 enlisted men), the second with four Kübelwagen and a single Opel truck (a strength of six officers, six NCOs and six enlisted men). For three weeks they carried out a long-range patrol in the Fezzan, mostly to acquire experience that was later used by the second half company of Brandenburgers. This unit was mustered in Tripoli in mid-June and, after the capture of Tobruk (and of large quantities of booty), had been equipped with suitable British-made vehicles. Under the command of Oberleutnant Conrad von Leipzig, the unit was about 100 strong and was equipped with 24 British vehicles (half of which were armed with 40mm guns), four jeeps, a command and a radio truck plus many other trucks for supplies; they even had a Spitfire fighter to provide air protection. In early July, after a two-week period of preparation, the unit began its march toward Murzuk, where it arrived by mid-July. There it split into three with two patrols heading for Chad and a third patrol heading west to Algeria. While training, Sonderkommando Dora also supported the Italian defence of the Sahara, setting up two reconnaissance patrols to work in the Hon area. In November 1942, following the Axis retreat from EI Alamein, both Sonderkommando Dora and the Brandenburgers were withdrawn from the Sahara. The former was eventually disbanded on 21 January 1943, the latter joined the Abteilung von Koenen to fight in Tunisia.

FRIEDRICH VON KOENEN, (1916-1944)

The commander of a North African Abwehr unit during World War II, Friedrich von Koenen was born in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) on 28 June 1916. Raised in German South West Africa (now Namibia) he joined the Abwehr’s emerging Brandenburg Division in 1941 and assumed command of the Tropenkompanie (Tropical Company; later named Tropenabteilung Koenen, or Tropical Division Koenen) in North Africa. Its members were handpicked, fluent in other languages, and used equipment acquired from Allied forces (such as a British Spitfire aircraft). Deployed on numerous commando and reconnaissance missions, the Tropenkompanie served as an advance unit for Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. One particular success occurred in February 1943, when Koenen conducted a raid against American troops at the village of Sidi-Bou-Zid, Tunisia, and captured 27 tanks and armored troop carriers along with large supplies of guns and munitions. A Knight’s Cross was awarded to him later that year. Transferred to Yugoslavia, Koenen was killed in action on 22 August 1944 near Visegrad, Croatia.

13./Lehr Regiment Brandenburg, also known as the Tropen Kompanie (Tropical Company).

This unit was formed in May 1942 under the command of the Oberleutnant Friedrich von Koenen and had a structure similar to that of the other Brandenburger companies (total strength was about 300). From late October it had a Halb-Kompanie (half company) in Greece with Sonderverband 288 and a second one stationed in Italy, at Naples. The former, probably with the schwere Zug, was sent to North Africa with the Sonderverband, and the latter only arrived in June. In May 19-12 the Kompanie von Koenen (as the half company was then known) was attached to Kampfgruppe Hecker, which also included the third battalion of the Italian ‘San Marco’ marine regiment and the Pionier Landungs Kompanie 778. The latter, equipped with landing barges, was intended to land the Brandenburgers and the Italian marines behind the British defence line at Gazala to assault the Via Balbia while Rommel launched his attack south of Bir Hacheim. The seaborne operation was not carried out. Instead on 29 May Kampfgruppe Hecker was moved to Bir Hacheim and, reinforced with Rommel’s Kampfstaffel (combat detachment), attacked the French-held fortress. The company fought as a special reconnaissance force with the Afrika Korps until El Alamein, after which it withdrew to Tunisia to became part of von Koenen’s battalion.

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