Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 10. Panzer-Division: In Action in the East, West and North Africa, 1939-1943


The request of the Commander-in-Chief South to the German Army High Command to create a field-army headquarters for Northwest Africa was granted. Generaloberst von Arnim arrived at the Führer Headquarters in Rastenburg on 3 December, where Hitler personally briefed him on the situation. In a conversation with Generalfeldmarschall Keitel that followed, the latter promised von Arnim three armored divisions and three motorized rifle divisions in short order.

On 6 December, when Generalmajor Gause and Oberst von Manteuffel arrived in Bizerta, they informed Nehring that they had brought an ultimatum from Hitler with them for Admiral Dérrien, the French commander in Tunisia, to lay down his arms, surrender his forts, and discharge his soldiers. If the French commander turned down that demand, Gause was authorized to use force to make it happen.

Nehring was surprised. Up to that point, the French in their coastal fortifications had done nothing against the German forces already there. But, he had to admit, they could turn against the Germans in a crisis situation, in which all of Tunisia and the German forces there would be lost.

Generalmajor Gause brought another bit of news. He informed Nehring that von Arnim would soon be taking over command in Tunisia and that he would be arriving in Tunis around 8 December. In fact, von Arnim did arrive on 8 December.

Nehring had continued his preparations for a continuation of the attack on 9 December. While that attack was launched, Nehring announced to his forces that he was taking his leave of them as Commanding General of the XC. Armee-Korps. That same morning, the special operations against the French forces in Bizerta were conducted. Gause succeeded in convincing Dérrien that the spilling of any blood would be senseless. Dérrien and his forces were allowed to keep their weapons until 1700 hours and strike their flags with full military honors.

Events unfolded at other French bastions similarly. The French forces in Ferryville surrendered, as did their naval vessels at anchor outside Ferryville and Bizerta.
The German attack on 9 December, spearheaded by the 10. Panzer- Division, rolled out as planned and was successful. The enemy armored forces, which had advanced far forward, were thrown back. The situation in the bridgehead stabilized further. The German armored forces initially reached the area around Toum, southwest of Tebourba. By that evening, lead elements were three kilometers northeast of Medjez el Bab. The paratroopers of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 5 went forward and established defensive positions in the area north of the salt lake at Sebchet el Kouriza at a farm. It was later referred to as the “Christmas Farm.” A German 5-centimeter and two Italian antitank guns were established along the road to Goubellat.

The 10. Panzer-Division and the Superga Division moved to the left wing of the Axis positions in Tunisia, establishing themselves on a line running along Pont du Fahs–bottleneck north of the Djebel Saidar–bottleneck southwest of the Djebel Garce (15 kilometers west of Enfidaville)–southwest edge of the lake south of Enfidaville.

The various attacks by the Allies on 23 and 24 December were turned back by Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 5.

Kampfgruppe Bürker, named after Oberstleutnant i.G. Bürker, the operations officer of the 10. Panzer-Division, successfully launched an attack against “Christmas Mountain” on 24 December in unbelievably tough fighting against the trench lines of the British 78th Infantry Division. The next morning—- Christmas Day—General Evelegh committed his Guards Brigade against the hill, which the British referred to as “Longstop Hill,” which then again changed hands.

At the same time, tanks of the British 6th Armoured Division advanced on Massicault on the right flank and took it. The Northants Infantry reached the Tebourba Plateau. It looked like the Allies would launch another raid against Tunis.

At the moment, the weather intervened in favor of the Germans. A winter rain started and, two hours later, all of the vehicles were stuck in the seemingly bottomless mud. On 26 December, Oberstleutnant Bürker tried to take back “Christmas Hill.” His battle group took the first three hilltops in quick succession. The remaining three hilltops had to be taken in hard hand-to-hand combat against the dug-in enemy, however. After the dramatic fighting, 500 English surrendered. The hills, which secured the Tunis Bridgehead to the west, were again in German hands.
On the Allied side, 24 December had been earmarked for an attack. When General Eisenhower arrived at Souk el Khemis, the headquarters of the British V Corps, the Commanding General reported that the preparatory attacks were underway as well as a feint on Goubellat. He added that the rain was making things difficult, however.

Eisenhower, not quite convinced of Allfrey’s optimistic report, headed for the front in the pouring rain. He quickly became convinced that no attack could be conducted in the mud porridge that he was trying to navigate through. He had the U.S. II Corps, which was still in the greater Oran area to move forward to the area around Tebessa. Major General Fredendall was to have the 1st Armored, the 1st Infantry, the 9th Infantry, and the 34th Infantry Divisions—all U.S. formations placed under his command. As soon as the U.S. corps had staged in the south, it was to advance in the direction of Sfax and Gabes in order to block the retreat route of Panzer-Armee Afrika.

On the German side, the bridgehead of Tunisia had been divided into four defensive sectors at the end of December: A (area around Mateur under Gruppe von Broich); B (area around Medjez el Bab under the 10. Panzer- Division); C (area to the south of Tunis under the Superga Division); and D (area around Sfax and Gabes under General Imperiali’s “Brigade L”).

The Luftwaffe had destroyed the bridge over the Medjerda at Medjez el Bab. That held up the Allied supply columns considerably.

On 31 December 1942, the situation had stabilized for the Germans somewhat. The recently formed 5. Panzer-Armee had 103 Panzer III’s and IV’s and 11 Tigers at its disposal. In addition, Panzer-Abteilung 190 had another 53 tanks, and it was making its way to Kairouan. In the meantime, nearly the entire 334. Infanterie-Division had been transported to Africa.

The heavy rainfalls in January barely allowed any troop movements, with the result that the front lines became solidified. It was only in the south in the sector of the Superga Division that there were any operations. The French XIX Corps of General Koeltz with its three divisions and a brigade attacked from the area around Tebessa. Without anyone initially opposing it, the French corps was able to advance as far as the valley outlets to the east. But its offensive never really went anywhere.

On the German side, an attack was launched from the area around Pont du Fahs with the Codename “Courier I.” The attack was launched in the middle of January towards the southwest and placed under the overall command of Generalmajor Weber, the commander of the 334. Infanterie- Division. In addition to his division, Weber had elements of the 10. Panzer- Division, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501, two batteries of additional artillery, and Pionier-Bataillon 49. The main formation from the 334. Infanterie-Division was Gebirgsjäger-Regiment 756.

A supporting attack was also launched to the south by Infanterie-Regiment 47, which also had Italian formations in support.

The attack started on the morning of 18 January. A French Foreign Legion Regiment at the Djebel Solbia was defeated. Kampfgruppe Weber then advanced against the Djebel Mansour, which could not be taken in the first assault. The French, who had been reinforced with tanks from the U.S. 1st Armored Division and additional artillery, slowed down the German advance. There was bitter fighting south of the Djebel Chirich, which the Germans were able to decide in their favor. Djebel Mansour was taken, but the British Guards, who were inserted into the line, retook the position.

The mountain troopers of the 334. Infanterie-Division under Oberst Lang counterattacked and retook the hill. It was then held against several enemy attacks.

The German advance then continued in the direction of Pinchon. Infanterie-Regiment 47 of Oberst Buhse attacked into the village and took it. The German forces were soon forced back, however, when the enemy attacked with superior forces. The German infantry pulled back to the high ground east of the village.

After 48 hours of bitter fighting, the main effort of Weber’s forces reached Ousseltia. The French forces were scattered. More than 2,000 soldiers of the Oran and Constantine Divisions were taken prisoner.

Italian Convoy Effort II

HMS P.33 - U-class Submarine sister-boat HM S/M Unrivalled
Another of the unnamed submarines completed in May 1941 and deployed in the Mediterranean where she arrived to join the 10th Submarine Flotilla in June 1941.

In an early patrol she sank the Italian mercantile BARBIAGO off Pantellaria which was part of a five ship convoy escorted by three destroyers and three torpedo boats. Although under heavy depth charge attacks by the escort, the submarine was able to escape. Later on 12th August she was deployed to join HM Submarines P32 and UNIQUE to intercept an Italian troop convoy on passage to Tripoli. Whilst patrolling west of Tripoli she came under attack by anti-submarine vessels after which no contact could be made. Depth-charged and sunk by Italian torpedo boat Partenope off Pantelleria 18th August 1941.

On 3 June 1941, two Italian convoy ships were sunk by British bombers. The Italian submarines Zoea, Corridoni, and Atropo brought additional fuel to Bardia. The journeys by those submarines must be considered among the most dangerous of the entire war.

Of the two convoys that set out for Africa in the middle of July, a ship was sunk in the first convoy by the P 33 of Lieutenant Whiteway-Wilkinson. The attack by the submarine Unbeaten on a ship of the second convoy missed by a hair.

On 22 July, the Preußen was sunk south of Pantelleria by British air attacks. Two hundred Germans went down with the ship. In addition, 6,000 tons of munitions, 1,000 tons of fuel, 1,000 tons of rations, 320 vehicles of all types, and 3,000 mailbags were lost.

The bombers that flew those attacks were based on Malta. The submarines of the British 10th Flotilla were based in Malta’s harbor. They would lie in wait at the forced crossing points. Malta was a thorn in the flesh of the Axis forces in Africa.

Despite all those losses, around 25,000 tons of munitions, 32,000 tons of fuel and 18,000 tons of rations were offloaded in Bengasi alone from April to December 1941.

From June to the end of October, 40 ships were lost at sea. After the arrival of the 15. Panzer-Division in July, the monthly supply requirements for the Army rose to 30,000 tons, with a further requirement for 20,000 tons in reserve. In addition, the Luftwaffe needed 8,000 tons. For the offensive planned in November, it was estimated that 24,000 tons would be needed in Tripoli and 35,000 tons in Bengasi. The situation at sea continued to worsen, however. The negative trend ran from October through December. The lack of supplies for the DAK took on menacing dimensions. In October, around 50,000 ton of supplies were sent to Africa. Of that amount, approximately 63% was sunk. Of the 37,000 tons that were loaded on ships in November, only 23% reached their ports of call. All the rest was sunk from the air or by submarines.

Despite the almost superhuman efforts of the German and Italian sailors and the coastal waterway traffic, the needs of the DAK for its attack on Tobruk were only 40% met.

Italian Convoy Effort I

The Italian submarines Atropo and Zoea took fuel from Taranto to Derna in two operations. A single torpedo would have turned those boats into a flaming hell.

On 1 May 1941, the steamers Larissa, Arcturus, and Leverkusen were lost. The first ship mentioned ran into a mine, while the remaining two were sunk by British submarines.

Vessels carrying Italian forces were also lost. During a troop transport to Tripoli lasting from 22 to 25 May, which was conducted by four large freighters, which were escorted by two destroyers and three motor-torpedo boats, it was intended to bring 8,500 Italian soldiers to Africa.

Two cruisers and three destroyers were responsible for the long-range screening of the convoy. Despite that, the submarines form Malta were able to infiltrate. The Upholder of Lieutenant Commander Wanklyn sank the 17,879 registered ton Conte Rosso. Of the 2,500 soldiers on board, 820 went down with the ship.

A few days previously, the Italian freighter Birminia had reached Tripoli safely. In the bowels of the10,000-ton ship was ammunition for the DAK, including a number of 10-kilogram bombs, which were crated in bundles of 10. During the offloading, one of the crates was dropped and it went off. As a result of sympathetic explosions, all of the remaining ammunition went up, ripping off the deck of the ship.

Korvettenkapitän1 Meixner, the German harbor commander, and Hauptmann Otto, who would later become the senior logistics officer for Africa, raced to the pier. The Italian auxiliary cruiser Citti di Bari, which had been loaded with fuel, had also gone up. There were some 70 killed and 88 wounded in all.

Meixner then discovered that another two ships at sea that were inbound and due to arrive in the next 24 hours were carrying the same deadly cargo. He had them anchor in the roads. The anchors were not allowed to be dropped. Instead, they had to be lowered by hand into the water to avoid any shaking of the cargo. The Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe was asked what should be done. Göring replied that the ships should be taken out to sea and sunk. Of course, that was easy for him to say when the bombs were desperately needed at the front.

Meixner did not have the ships blown up. Instead, he put out a call for volunteers, who carefully opened the ammo crates on board the ships and checked to make sure the safety switches were properly mounted. Those that were properly mounted could be offloaded into the lighters and taken ashore. The first three crates had no problems. The fourth crate, however, had dislodged its safety devices. Captain Reinen, a captain who had been stranded in Tripoli when his ship had been sunk, volunteered to go aboard the ship with an explosives expert to attempt to disarm the bombs. On the first day, they succeeded in defusing six of them, one of which would have been enough to blow up the entire ship because of all the other munitions on board.

In five days, 22 bombs were defused. Reinen and his assistant remained in the bowels of the ship by themselves. Eventually, both of the ships were saved.

Kapitän Reinen became the first merchant marine captain to receive the Iron Cross, First Class. Oberleutnant Krüger, who replaced the explosives expert when he was called away, also received the same decoration.