As with the Balkans, the North Africa theater was not an area of interest to Hitler. It was only after the disastrous mishandling of the Italian forces there and the effective destruction of the Italian 10th Army by the British that Hitler agreed to help his friend Mussolini by dispatching German forces to the beleaguered theater of war. The Germans arrived in early 1941 under the command of the legendary Erwin Rommel. Operations against the British were initiated by the end of March that year, starting a series of offensives and counteroffensives that earned the Germans and Rommel the begrudging respect of the British and have captured the popular imagination ever since. What started out as a small “blocking force” (the essentially ad hoc 5. leichte Afrika-Division) turned into a corps—the famous Deutsches Afrika Korps—that summer.
Rommel turned out to be a much more effective tactical leader on the battlefield than an operational planner. He constantly took risks, despite an extremely precarious supply situation, that frequently caused him to pause or even call off operations due to a lack of fuel and other logistical support. The German lines of communications extended across the Mediterranean, thus making the DAK the only German force to fight overseas. Despite the relatively close distance to friendly Italian ports, the waters were controlled by the British and a large percentage of materiel—including precious combat vehicles—was sent to the bottom of the sea. By October 1942, the British had the upper hand in sheer numbers and were able to force the German forces back toward Tunisia after the Second Battle of El Alamein. A few weeks later, Allied forces landed in Algeria and Morocco, causing the collapse of the Vichy forces stationed there and directly threatening the Axis forces pulling back from Egypt and Libya.
Instead of realizing that the fate of his forces in Africa was sealed, Hitler ordered more troops into the theater, expanding what had essentially been a reinforced corps into a Panzerarmee. Stalemate ensued through the winter of 1942–43, followed by local victories on the part of the Axis—most famously at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass—but the end was inevitable, and the Axis capitulated on 13 May 1943.
Fighting in the desert is often compared to naval warfare, given its vast expanses of open terrain, dotted with the occasional “island” of civilization. A narrow strip along the North African coastline was sparsely inhabited and home to most of the infrastructure, including the only improved roads, while the hinter-lands were desolate and largely uninhabited. This naturally occasioned fighting to control the coastal avenues, leaving the open desert for enveloping movements for forces to leapfrog their way forward.
The open flanks of the desert were the “homeland” of the reconnaissance forces of both sides. Since it was physically impossible to continuously man a static defensive line extending into untrafficable portions of the desert, strongpoints were established or standing patrols dispatched to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the higher-level commands. For that reason, the German reconnaissance battalions associated with the desert fighting—primarily Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot), Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 33 (mot), and Aufklärungs-Abteilung 580 (mot)—are prominently featured in histories of the campaign. It is interesting to note that these three reconnaissance battalions were often temporarily combined for operations, especially deception and economy-of-force missions. Because of the seesaw nature of the fighting, reconnaissance battalions were also used extensively as rear guards for the force whenever the German–Italian forces were pushed back. Due to their speed on the battlefield, they were also occasionally positioned behind Italian lines in an effort to provide moral support to their often wavering allies.
Since it was difficult to replace vehicles and other equipment, great value was placed on captured enemy stores and materiel. As such, the reconnaissance eventually came to have a battery of captured British guns added to its organizations. This was done unofficially—that is, through “command channels”—initially, but eventually the batteries became a KStN in their own right. That said, the forces in the desert often retained a sort of ad hoc organizational status since many of the changes that were applied to the organizations of the Panzertruppe on Continental Europe were never applied in North Africa.
Among the first elements to be deployed in North Africa by an impatient Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel was Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) of the 5. leichte Division. Almost as soon as they arrived by ship at Syrte on 16 February, the armored cars of the battalion, were sent forward to determine the size, location, and disposition of the enemy:
The Conquest of Cyrenaica
The first German combat forces, Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39, arrived in Syrte on 16 February . On the same day, Generalleutnant Rommel assumed command of all German and Italian forces at the front. Deviating from his initial plan to establish a defensive line at Buerat, he proposed to the Italian High Command to employ a battle group east of Syrte, which would set up for defensive operations at En Nofilia. That formation, consisting of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and an Italian battle group, had the mission of fending off small-scale attacks and, in the event of heavier attacks or the danger of being bypassed, to fall back to the positions at Syrte. In order to feign larger forces, dummy tanks were constructed.
Aerial reconnaissance reported concentrations of British formations on 18 February between El Agheila and Agedabia. En Nofilia was clear of enemy forces. At that point, the battle group was pushed further to the east and was able to take the important but salt-laden well there. Two days later, there was the first contact with the enemy. Armored scout sections from Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) encountered British armored reconnaissance elements. At that point, Rommel wanted to know what forces were facing him. [The reconnaissance battalion] received orders to bring in prisoners. On 25 February—some sources state 24 February—armored reconnaissance sections ran into two combat vehicle sections of the King’s Dragoon Guards and a section of Australian antitank forces. Wechmar’s troops opened fire, destroying an armored vehicle, two small armored cars and a truck. Lieutenant Rowley of the Australian 6th Division and two soldiers from the Dragoons were captured with no friendly casualties.
The Armed Forces Daily Report of 26 February 1941 stated:
“During the morning hours of 24 February, a German and an English motorized scout section encountered one another along the Libyan coast southeast of Agedabia. A number of English motorized vehicles, including several armored cars, were destroyed and a few prisoners taken. There were no losses on the German side.”
This was the first mention of German forces being deployed on the African continent. Considering the important role reconnaissance forces played there, it is fitting that they were also the first combat elements mentioned. A reconnaissance officer, Hellmuth Schroetter, who was with the battalion from the beginning until the Second Battle of El Alamein, captured his impressions of that first meeting engagement:
In the vicinity of the Arco, the first contact took place between German and English forces on 20 February 1941. [This date is probably a typographical error in the German edition.] A battle group formed from motorcycle infantry and several armored scout sections had advanced east of the Arco without making enemy contact.
One of the armored scout sections received the mission to reconnoiter as far as the bottleneck at El Mugtaa, almost 70 kilometers east of the Arco. It was around 1500 hours and the section leader was contemplating turning around, when he suddenly thought he saw movement on the horizon. He then decided to take a closer look at the presumed enemy.
The same decision was reached by an armored scout section of the King’s Dragoon Guards, which had been employed west of El Agheila, when it thought it saw several fighting vehicles. And so it came to pass—a strange and stubborn “movement towards one another” with an armored car from each side on the Via Balbia [the improved coastal road that was of vital importance to both sides during the campaign] and a wingman following to either the left or right of the road. The enemy armored cars, weapons blazing, rolled past one another.
There was a quick turning around and, once again, they rolled towards each other. Both parties were determined to reach “his side” by force of arms. Afterwards, they took off in a flash towards their respective lines.
From a respectful distance behind a sand dune—only the turret jutted out over the top of the dune towards the enemy—both of the section leaders reported the strange enemy contact to their battalions, once their nerves had calmed down.
The German section leader thought to himself: Why wasn’t there any effect on the enemy from the 20mm ammunition? The hits were clearly seen because of the tracer elements. It was later determined that high-explosive ammunition had been loaded, and it simply shattered upon impact. The 20mm antitank rounds—solid shot, which would have penetrated the armor—had not been issued, since they were not considered “suitable for the desert.”
For his part, according to English sources, the section leader from the King’s Dragoon Guards thought he had seen 8-wheeled armored vehicles and Balkenkreuze.
My God! The Englishman thought. Those aren’t Italians, those are Germans! His superiors did not believe his observations, however.
On the German side, there was a quick reaction. General Rommel appeared at the location of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and issued orders:
• Increased reconnaissance in the direction of El Agheila.
• Advance of the main body of the [battalion] beyond the Arco and as far as the roadhouse (a building located on the Via Balbia).
• Reconnaissance from there to the east and to the south.
Over the next few days, reinforced armored scout sections advanced further to the east, destroyed enemy armored cars and took prisoners.
Schroetter was part of that first encounter only after he had first been sent out into the desert with his motorcycle infantry to acclimate themselves:
As the platoon leader of a motorcycle infantry platoon, I received the mission . . . to reconnoiter 50 kilometers into the desert to the south/southeast. Our hearts were beating in our throats. We were directed to go out into the desert by ourselves for the first time. It was all so very strange to us still, and it appeared to offer little in the way of orienting us . . .
. . . An unending expanse and a flat surface tempted us to go fast. But caution was required, since the small runnels formed during the rainy period dried out later on in the sun and became rock hard. They gave short jabs to the chassis and posed a danger to the shocks and springs. We made our first few unpleasant discoveries and drove more slowly: It was at the slower tempo that we reached our objective, a certain “nothing” in the desert, 50 kilometers south/southeast of the battalion. We did not encounter the enemy. There weren’t even any wheel tracks, which might have indicated the presence of English vehicles.
By March, Schroetter and his men also participated in the first few engagements with the British that are generally recorded in histories of the campaign, the fighting around El Agheila, Marsa el Brega, and Agedabia:
After the desert fort of El Agheila had fallen into German hands on 24 March 1941, the motorcycle infantry company of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) assumed the screening mission there. The armored scout sections were sent in the direction of Agedabia and into the desert to the south to reconnoiter.
During that time, Panzer-Regiment 5 moved past us: Armored scout sections had reported enemy forces at Marsa el Brega.
There was no longer any talk of a “Blocking Formation,” as the 5. leichte Division had been referred to when it was sent to North Africa. Our small formation, the 5. Leichte Division, now received its honorable nickname: “Die 5. Leichtsinnige Division” (The 5th Foolhardy Division).