Tropen-Abteilung “von Koenen”

Five companies, based on the former Afrika-Kompanie and led by Fritz von Koenen. 5th Co. was a coastal raider unit (1.-5.).

Beginning in mid-1941, the 13th Company of the 800th Special Purpose Construction Training Regiment Brandenburg was readied in Brandenburg as a “catch basin” for the formation of a tropical company. On 28 October 1941 the first half-company under Oberleutnant Wilhelm von Koenen departed Brandenburg for Tripoli via Naples. It was to be employed as a supply company.

The first live action by the Brandenburgers in North Africa took place during Panzer Group Africa’s eastward advance which began on 22 January 1942.

As this move into Africa had been so quickly conceived and executed, Canaris had had no time to prepare for the employment of his agents there. Within Brandenburg were men who had lived or worked in tropical lands. Most of them were from families that had colonised the former German possessions of East and South West Africa. There were also Palestinian Germans and others from South Africa. Volunteers were called for and these former émigrés came forward in such numbers that within weeks more than sixty had been sifted, interviewed, selected and accepted. To the number of those chosen for the ‘Afrika Kompanie’ were added communication experts. Command of the Company was given to Oberleutnant von Koenen, a man of wide experience with a great knowledge of Africa. He divided the Company into two half-Companies and sent them to Tripoli where the first half-Company arrived in October 1941. The second detachment sailed four months later. Most of the men in ‘Africa Kompanie’ not only spoke English more or less fluently, but also had command of Arabic and Swahili as main languages, backed up by several of the African dialects.

It was intended that the Brandenburg detachments be used for reconnaissance operations: to penetrate a short distance into the British lines and glean information about the conditions awaiting the Panzer Army. This idea of short, sharp missions was changed during June 1942, when it seemed as if Rommel had defeated the British Eighth Army and was about to drive on to the Nile.

In May 1943 the unit managed to escape to Italy. After North Africa was in in action with unit in Greece and Yugoslavia in 1944.

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.

1942: Sonderkommando Dora

“Germans in the Sahara”: the title of a message sent by GHQ MEF to HQ Tps Sudan and OC LRDG does not refer to Operation Salam, but to another operation of the German Abwehr: Sonderkommando Dora.

The German Abwehr, Abteilung 1, had created a special unit consisting of cartographers, geographers, astronomers and geologists, all in all 13 scientists, with a support crew of about 60 soldiers, people who had pre-war experience in Africa together with a small protective detachment. The unit was sent to Libya in May of 1942 and its tasks were various. The scientists were employed to collect information and to do mapping of the middle and southern part of Libya, to conduct terrain survey, to find possible locations for future military airfields, to investigate water sources and to find out possible ways of enemy attacks and to carry out many further military and scientific tasks, such as testing vehicles and equipment under the harsh desert conditions. Since October 1942 they had the special task of finding out about an assumed concentration of Free French troops in the Tibesti area of Chad. The reports transmitted to Berlin gave clear evidence of French intentions but did not lead to any German countermeasures.

Although not a fighting unit and relatively small, Sonderkommando Dora had the full range of light military equipment available to conduct its tasks. Several aircraft and gliders were permanently at their disposal, as were Mercedes and Opel trucks, Horch Kfz.15s, Kfz.17s (radio) and VW Kübelwagen. The only six Steyr 1500As ever to see service in Libya were to be found in their motor pool. They were better equipped than many of the front-line units, that lacked all sort of transport and fuel for most of the time. To obtain their data, Sonderkommando Dora was equipped for aerial photography and terrestrial surveying with a lot of special equipment that a Zeiss engineer had brought with himself. The scientists were able to draw their sketch-maps in the shortest time while en route during their expeditions. The results of their missions were 23 sketch-maps in scales between 1:50’000 and 1:200’000. Their base was at the oasis of Hon, but they undertook expeditions as far west as Ghat, to Waw en Namus and as far south as the Tibesti Mountains (the Dohone Region at Bir Sarfaya), the Tümmö Mountains south of Bir Mushuru and along the Gebel ben Ghnema.

Following the withdrawal of Axis forces from Libya in January 1943, the important scientists of Sonderkommando Dora were urgently evacuated back to Germany by aircraft, and finally the remainder of the unit followed in their vehicles from Hon to Tripoli.

In consequence of World War II, the results of the research of Sonderkommando Dora, their reports, maps and photographs ended up in various archives in Freiburg, London and Paris. The unique route-maps of Sonderkommando Dora were published for the first time in 2003. Their precision is such that even today a traveller can follow their tracks and sometimes they provide more detail than modern maps of the area.

Michael Rolke


    Nikolaus Benjamin Richter, Michael Rolke (Hg.): Unvergessliche Sahara, Belleville, Munich 1999

    Michael Rolke (Hg.): Die Karten des Sonderkommando Dora 23 vierfarbige Croquis von Südlibyen, Belleville, Munich 2003

    Kuno Gross, Michael Rolke and Andras Zboray: Operation Salam, László Almásy’s most daring Mission in the Desert War, Belleville, Munich 2013