July 18, 2015

German Combat Methods in the Libyan Desert

German artillery in North Africa

A U.S. Army information bulletin presents the German combat methods which had been experienced by the British in Libya. At the time, summer 1942, U.S. Army was preparing to enter the Mediterranean theater.

Security Force
A platoon of Pz II light tanks advancing
2. A platoon of Pz II light tanks 
advancing in the desert.

Whether acting on the defensive or the offensive, the German covers his front with a protective screen of armored car patrols supported by the other elements of his reconnaissance units, which include a motorcycle company, antitank troops, and a few infantry guns. In each of his armored car companies he has a proportion of 8-wheeled armored cars which he uses to support his lighter armored cars. Occasionally he employs a few tanks in support of his reconnaissance elements, and in some reconnaissances light tanks entirely supplant armored cars.

These reconnaissance detachments are very active and highly trained. The information which they pass back is usually accurate, and they report not only our movements but those of their own units. Skill and determination, knowledge of the terrain and changing road conditions, along with the ability to deal effectively with small mixed columns, including tanks, are necessary both to pierce this screen and to prevent enemy reconnaissance detachments from penetrating our own protective screen. 

The Attack

A column of Pz IIIs
3. A column of Pz IIIs. The heavier Pz IVs were
used to destroy enemy heavy weapons,
while the more maneuverable Pz IIIs were
penetrating into the enemy rear area.
When the German has decided to attack, he first makes a very thorough reconnaissance, probing the position from all directions to test its strength, and endeavors to induce the defenders to disclose their dispositions by opening fire. During this period his observation posts keep close watch and note the location of guns or antitank guns which disclose their position so that these may be dealt with when the main attack begins.

Having decided where to strike, the enemy next brings forward his tanks supported by some motorized infantry. He covers this move by a screen of antitank guns, and endeavors to bring his forward elements to within some 2,000 yards of his objective. At this stage he may be expected to refuel his tanks under the cover of his forward detachments.
German infantryman
4. German infantryman.

Choosing a time when the position of the sun will most favor his attack, the enemy then proceeds to carry out his final preparations. He first engages our antitank guns and artillery with his Pz IV tanks and supporting guns; meanwhile, Pz III tanks form up for the assault and frequently challenge the defended area at different points in strong compact formations. Then, having decided where to launch his main thrust and having endeavored to reduce the power of the defense by the fire of his Pz IV tanks and artillery, he launches a strong attack with his Pz III tanks followed by motorized infantry and guns direct on his objective. In addition, the enemy often directs at least one column containing tanks, artillery, and motorized infantry on some important locality in our area, such as the field maintenance center. There may be one or more of these thrusts.

As a. rule, the Germans try to develop a pincer movement, the two lines of advance converging on the final objective. An attacking column will move fast and straight to its objective irrespective of events elsewhere. If one of the German tank columns succeeds in penetrating and overrunning any part of the defenses, motorized infantry, carried forward to within a few hundred yards of the objective, rapidly endeavor to mop up and consolidate the position. The infantry is closely followed by machine guns and antitank guns, and every effort is made to turn the captured position as quickly as possible into a defense area or series of defense areas, with all around defense against any form of attack. As the enemy often launches his attacks in the late afternoon in order to have the advantage of the sun at his back, the light will generally have begun to fail by the time the action is completed.

The Pursuit

If, by his attacks, the enemy forces us to carry out a general withdrawal, he will follow up, as a rule, with the whole of his armored forces as long as his administrative resources permit. When he becomes separated from his supply elements, he will probably attempt to continue the advance with battle groups that are really mixed columns and usually include some tanks. These columns are boldly and skillfully handled and always aim at outflanking our rearguards. During the German advance in the Western Desert in January 1942, these battle groups were concentrated on one axis. Such action is typical of German tactics, concentration of effort being a principle the German rarely, if ever, fails to follow.

The Defense
An 88 A/A-A/T gun with kill rings on its barrel
5. An 8.8cm A/A-A/T gun with kill rings on its barrel.

Speed is another characteristic of the action of his armored forces. In defense, the enemy chooses the most suitable ground for combined action by infantry, machine guns, antitank guns, artillery, and tanks. He usually constructs a series of defense areas capable of all-around defense against any form of attack. These areas are in such depth as his resources permit. His tanks will be found echeloned in depth on the most dangerous flank, or located so as to protect weak points in his defensive system. His artillery will be placed where it can support either his defense areas or his tanks if they are launched in a counterattack.

On more than one occasion, he has disposed his tanks in two separate groups and has used the two groups to execute a pincer movement against our attacking troops. When used in such a counterattack, his tank columns are accompanied by artillery, machine guns, and motorized infantry, and they operate on the same general lines as in the attack. The garrisons of his defense areas fight stubbornly and cannot as a rule be maneuvered out of position. 

Retrograde Operations
An Sd.Kfz. 10 carrying a 37mm A/T gun
6. An Sd.Kfz. 10 towing a 37mm A/T gun.

When the German has decided to withdraw, first of all he thins out his transport. He does this skillfully, and the operation is often hard to detect. As often as not, his tanks then move forward, either to form a protective screen, to carry out a demonstration of considerable force, or to launch a definite counterattack to cover the withdrawal of the remainder of his force. This often takes place in the evening, and during the night the whole force withdraws, leaving only reconnaissance elements supported by a few guns to hold up our patrols in the morning. These enemy patrols are normally provided by the reconnaissance units, who then resume their role of forming a protective screen.

The German does not fight a delaying action with his main forces. He will form small battle groups, which correspond to our mobile columns, to support his reconnaissance units and to act as rear guards, but his main forces - which, in case of withdrawal, will probably include all his tanks - will break off the engagement completely and move quickly to the next area in which he has decided to offer serious resistance. 


In any type of operation, the enemy can be expected to employ wide-ranging raiding parties consisting of detachments of motorized infantry with a few guns. These raiding parties endeavor to operate against our landing grounds, headquarters, and communications. Unless adequate protection is provided against them, they can cause serious dislocation. They are particularly menacing to advanced landing grounds and transport columns.

Motorized Troops in North Africa

Military Intelligence Service, U.S. War Department. German Methods of Warfare in the Libyan Desert. Information Bulletin No. 20. Washington, D.C. July 9, 1942.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-787-0510-31/Troschke/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-783-0149-24/Valtingojer/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-782-0016-27A/Moosmüller/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-785-0285-14A/Otto/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-443-1574-23 / Zwilling, Ernst A./CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-782-0016-34A/Moosmüller/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-782-0015-01/Moosmüller/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons