A Sperrverband originally comprising one German light infantry division and a single Panzer division. It was formed on Adolf Hitler’s order in February 1941 and deployed in haste to Tripoli starting in March. Hitler never regarded the Mediterranean as a primary theater of operations for the Wehrmacht. The DAK was assembled from scratch and rushed into combat to assist the beleaguered Italians in North Africa, who were on the verge of catastrophic defeat by British and Commonwealth forces. Hitler could not allow that collapse on the eve of launching Operation BARBAROSSA against the Soviet Union. Other German air and ground units followed as the desert campaign (1940–1943) developed a logic of its own. Some Regio Esercito units were attached to Afrika Korps command, although nominally the DAK was under overall Italian authority. In practice, German troops responded exclusively to German officers.
The original Afrika Korps commander was Major General Erwin Rommel. He genuinely inspired the men of the DAK to exceptional battlefield acts and made tactical innovations in armored warfare and anti-tank fighting that won legendary status on either side of the lines. In fact, an inflated reputation of the Afrika Korps among British and Commonwealth troops was a real problem. It had to be overcome with training, but also with hard won victories, before British 8th Army was able to regain the initiative in North Africa and drive the Germans and Italians back into Tunisia. As the scale of fighting expanded in the western desert in 1942, the Afrika Korps was given progressively larger paper formation titles, though it was only marginally larger than the original DAK in fact. It was finally absorbed into Italian 1st Army in early 1943. Throughout the DAK’s time in Africa it suffered from severe shortages of tanks, aircraft, and fuel and ammunition. It increasingly faced much superior Western Allied logistics and larger forces, along with sea and air blockade of its own supplies conducted by the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and RAF interdiction along extended desert roads. It fared poorly in terms of resupply and reinforcement because Hitler’s attention was always primarily on the Eastern Front, which bled vast numbers of Wehrmacht men and vehicles during 1941 and 1942.
The war in the Western Desert had a character of its own. Fought on open country for the most part, with a scattered population, and between armoured and mobile forces that were relatively small by the standards of other theatres, there was much less bombing of civilians, no atrocities, and both sides treated the other generally with a respect not shown elsewhere. Indeed, they shared a common foe: the harsh conditions of the desert. It was a campaign determined ultimately by logistics of supply and material, but it had the aura of a pure clash of arms – not least because the Axis commander, General Rommel, preferred to ignore such matters.
The theatre opened in June 1940 when Italian forces under Marshal Graziani moved slowly into Egypt from Libya, halting at Sidi Barrani. Despite Britain being under threat of German invasion, Churchill sent armoured reinforcements to Egypt, to join three Commonwealth Divisions as the Western Desert Force (13 Corps) under General O’Connor. The C-in-C Middle East, General Wavell, launched a brilliant offensive on 9 December. They routed the numerically superior Italian forces, conquered Cyrenaica and by February 1941 130,000 Italian soldiers had surrendered after O’Connor had sped across the desert to get ahead of them at Beda Fomm.
With the British and Commonwealth forces on the verge of complete victory, and thus control of a vital part of the southern Mediterranean littoral, two fateful decisions were made. Hitler decided that he could not accept the political consequences of defeat for his ally, Mussolini. The 5th Light Division of the 3rd Panzer Division, which had fought in France, began to land in Tripoli in February, followed by the 15th Panzer Division in April. This new Deutsches Afrika Korps was commanded by Rommel, who had made a name as a panzer division commander in France. Initially, its sole purpose was to hold Tripolitania. Rommel had bigger ideas: the conquest of Egypt, the Suez Canal and access to oil in the Middle East.
Simultaneously, Churchill withdrew significant forces to send to the aid of Greece. Consequently, when Rommel made unauthorised probes forward as soon as he took up his command, he found little resistance. Moving into Mersa Brega on 31 March, the ease of advance prompted Rommel to a typically bold stroke. A three-pronged attack took the Afrika Korps to the Sollum–Halfaya line on the Egyptian border in two weeks, capturing the key port of Benghazi and the Beau Geste-style forts of Msus and Mechili along the way and placing the other main port of Cyrenaica, Tobruk, under siege.
Rommel was unable to breach the defences of Tobruk – a vital target for him as otherwise his supply-lines stretched back as far as Benghazi. On 15 June the British launched Operation Battleaxe to relieve the port. It was poorly coordinated and Rommel’s superior tactics thwarted the British. The next British and Commonwealth offensive was Operation Crusader in November. Their forces had been renamed 8th Army in September and now deployed over 750 tanks. Against this, the Axis forces, Panzergruppe Afrika, had 320 tanks, of which 146 were Italian and mostly obsolete. Churchill had replaced Wavell with General Auchinleck, and command of 8th Army was given to General Cunningham. The 8th Army attacked on 18 November, achieving surprise as Rommel was in the midst of preparing another attack on Tobruk. However, once again, by quick thinking and aggressive moves, Rommel was able to retrieve the situation. Unsatisfactory British tank tactics brought heavy losses against the German 88 mm anti-tank guns. Nonetheless, five days’ heavy fighting around Sidi Rezegh reduced Rommel to 100 tanks. He then made a typically bold dash for the frontier, threatening to outflank the whole Allied force, but ultimately failed to destroy them. Crusader itself had failed to relieve Tobruk or inflict defeat on the Axis forces, but such were Panzergruppe Afrika’s losses and depletion of supplies that they were forced to withdraw. Although the Italian generals insisted on holding at Gazala, Rommel knew that the logistics of the Western Desert meant pulling right back to El Agheila, whence they had started in March. Tobruk was therefore relieved and at the end of 1941 the British were again in possession of Cyrenaica, including Benghazi.
The Western Desert campaigns were determined by access to supplies. The naval war in the Mediterranean was therefore crucial to their outcome. At the end of 1941 the pendulum had swung back in favour of the Axis. The issues centred on a tiny British colony. As an important base for interfering with Axis convoys to North Africa, Malta was the key to the Western Desert campaign. Its air defences at one point early on were reduced to three obsolete biplanes named Faith, Hope and Charity. In December 1941, Fliegerkorps X was deployed to Sicily under Kesselring, along with a squadron of U-boats. Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham were sunk. Malta was close to starvation – more bombs were dropped on Malta between January and April 1942 than fell on London in the Blitz. The population moved underground. Only the arrival of the ‘Pedestal’ convoy in August 1942 saved Malta, although only five of its 12 merchant ships got through. During this time Rommel’s convoys were unmolested, so he was able to grow strong and harbour grand ambitions once again.