Monday, March 16, 2015

The Afrika Korps: Beaten and Running

The Pursuers

A dangerous retreat for the Panzerarmee Afrika.

Once more Panzergruppe Afrika recovered, this time getting ready for the unavoidable enemy offensive which, as everybody knew, would be launched with overwhelming resources. On 20 October 1942 Panzergruppe Afrika combat units' rations strength was 48,854, with the following breakdown: 15.Panzer Division 9,368, 21.Panzer Division 9,517, 90.leichte Afrika Division 6,269, 164.leichte Afrika Division 9,623, 19.Flak Division der Luftwaffe 6,302, Luftwaffe Jäger Brigade 1 (formerly the Ramcke Brigade) 4,706, Höhere Artillerie Kommandeur Afrika 3,069. Actual infantry combat strength was 12,147, mostly with 164.Division (5,076) and the Luftwaffe Jäger Brigade (2,380). Panzergrenadier Regiment 104's combat strength was 1,792, while Panzergrenadier Regiment 115's was 1,393. Tank strength included 12 PzKpfw II, 38 PzKpfw III, 43 PzKpfw III Sp, two PzKpfw IV and 15 PzKpfw IV Sp with Panzer Regiment 8, plus another 18 PzKpfw II, 43 PzKpfw III, 43 PzKpfw III Sp, six PzKpfw IV and 15 PzKpfw IV Sp with Panzer Regiment 5.

The British offensive at EI Alamein started on 23 October, and the battle eventually ended on 4 November 1942 with Rommel's decision to withdraw, which marked the first, real defeat of the DAK. By 26 October Panzer Regiment 8's tank strength was down to eight PzKpfw II, 16 PzKpfw III, 16 PzKpfw III Sp, one PzKpfw IV and six PzKpfw IV Sp. It decreased steadily until the end of October (on the 30th it was six PzKpfw II, 11 PzKpfw III, 15 PzKpfw III Sp, one PzKpfw IV and four PzKpfw IV Sp), until Operation Supercharge was launched. On 4 November Panzer Regiment 8's tank strength was three PzKpfw III, one PzKpfw III Sp, one PzKpfw IV and one PzKpfw IV Sp. By 8 November it no longer possessed a single Panzer. On 18 November DAK's strength, inclusive of both 15. and 21.Panzer Divisions, was 17,767 (15.Panzer Division's combat strength on 21 November was 1,125, its rations strength 6,923). Army, corps and supply troops added 14,650 more. DAK's weapons inventory included 541 MGs, 14 mortars, 12 Paks, 35 Panzers, 16 armoured cars and 14 various guns. 90.leichte Afrika Division's strength was 5,118 (the division had 322 MGs, 22 mortars, 31 Paks, four armoured cars and seven guns). 164.leichte Afrika Division's strength was 4,935 (the division only had 127 MGs, 30 mortars and two Paks). The long road back had begun.

On 31 October, Montgomery renewed the attack with strong support from the Royal Air Force. Critically short of fuel and ammunition, Rommel was forced to disengage on 3 November. The following day, the 1,400-mile Axis withdrawal to Tunisia began.

For the next three months, Montgomery followed rather than aggressively pursued Rommel and the Axis forces across the northern coast of Africa. Rommel reached the Tunisian border at the end of January 1943. By the time he got there, however, another Allied force was waiting for him.

On 8 November 1942, four days after Rommel began his long withdrawal, the British and Americans initiated Operation TORCH, the invasion of Northwest Africa. U.S. Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower had overall command. In a coordinated series of landings, the Western Task Force under Major General George S. Patton Jr. landed on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca; the Center Task Force under Major General Lloyd Fredendall landed just inside the Mediterranean around Oran; and the Eastern Task Force under Major General Charles Ryder landed near Algiers. Although all the landing sites were in Vichy French territory, the ultimate objectives of the operation were the Tunisian city of Tunis and the port and airfield complex at Bizerte.

Once Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika crossed into southern Tunisia, it occupied positions in the old French fortifications of the Mareth Line. Rommel’s 10 divisions were well below half strength, with a total of only 78,000 troops and 129 tanks. Before he had to face Montgomery, rapidly closing from the rear, Rommel intended to eliminate the threat of the British First Army to his north. On 14 February, the Germans launched the first leg of a two-pronged offensive, with von Arnim’s forces attacking through the Faid Pass for Sidi Bou Zid. The following day, Rommel in the south attacked toward Gafsa. The bulk of Rommel’s forces, however, remained along the Mareth Line. By 18 February, the Kasserine Pass was in Axis hands, and the U.S. Army had suffered its first major defeat at the hands of the Germans. Rommel tried to advance north through the Kasserine Pass on 19 February, but he did not get the support he expected from von Arnim. Hampered by a divided German command structure and the rapidly massing Allied reinforcements, the attack stalled.

The Allies recaptured Kasserine Pass on 25 February. Rommel returned to the Mareth Line and prepared to face Montgomery. When the Eighth Army reached Tunisia, the Allies reorganized their command structure along the lines agreed to at the Casablanca Conference. General Eisenhower became the Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean west of Tripoli. Alexander became Eisenhower’s deputy and simultaneously commander of the 18th Army Group, which controlled the First and Eighth Armies, and the now separate U.S. II Corps commanded by Patton. On 24 February, the Axis powers also realigned their command structure, with Rommel becoming the commander of Armeegruppe Afrika, which included the Afrika Korps, von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army, and the Italian First Army under General Giovanni Messe. For the first time, the Axis powers had a unified command structure in Africa.

Montgomery’s units crossed into Tunisia on 4 February, reaching Medenine on 16 February. Hoping to catch the British off balance, Rommel on 6 March attacked south from the Mareth Line. Warned by ULTRA, Montgomery was ready. Immediately following the failure of the Medenine attack, Rommel returned to Germany on sick leave.

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