The division that would become famous later as 90th Light Division started its life as a formation of odds and sods, thrown together quickly out of whatever was available while a much more important war raged in the east. During Operation CRUSADER, on 27 November, it was renamed 90th Light Africa Division (90. leichte Afrika-Division), and it was under this name that it would acquire a fighting record that made it well respected by its enemies. But before that, it would be very severely depleted in the two weeks from the start of Operation CRUSADER, so much so that it did not play a combat role in the January counteroffensive in 1942, although it did participate in the advance.
The division had originally been formed in June 1941 for service in Africa. It lost some elements to enemy action during transport across the Mediterranean, and had other elements added to it after arrival. In the end it was a hotchpotch, and lacked vital supply, signals, and logistics elements which would have been standard in ordinary divisions, making it much less combat-capable than the name implies. The lack of motorization was going to be a real problem during the retreat from Tobruk, and probably contributed to the decision to take the division out of the line and send it to Agedabia in early December, two weeks before the general retreat.
The division was also very weak indeed in artillery (one of its two assigned artillery battalions came from the artillery regiment originally formed for 21st Panzer). Nevertheless that did not matter too much, since it was meant for stationary use on the Tobruk siege front, where it would be responsible for the break-in planned for late November, with all the support (and it was plenty) of the heavy artillery of Arko 104 at its disposal.
Unknown command post, probably Tobruk-Belhamed sector, November/December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
A few remarks about the structure of the organisation, which was peculiar in other aspects as well. It is worth noting that the infantry companies had very high firepower when it comes to light machine guns, including many captured Empire weapons. With the exception of the 3rd battalion 347th Infantry Regiment (III./I.R.347) the rifle companies had double the firepower of the standard rifle company. It is no wonder that the account of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch of their attack against the siege front on 21st November speaks of the heavy volume of automatic weapons fire they encountered, and that the ridge where it came from became known to them as “Spandau Ridge” (“Spandau” in this case not referring to the Berlin suburb, but the German army light machine gun, a term originating in World War I).
What is also noticeable about the order of battle is the lack of balance in the infantry companies. The companies in the 155th Regiment are very well equipped for firepower, especially by the standards of the typical German infantry company at the time. With heavy mortars, a lot of machine guns, and two light infantry guns, any strongpoint defended by such a company would have been a serious obstacle to an attack. The companies in the 3rd battalion 347th Regiment are a bit less well equipped, but are still doing okay. On the other hand, the companies in the 3rd battalion 255th Regiment, and especially all companies in the “Afrika” Regiment 361 are much weaker, and according to the war diary, most of the heavy weapons of the regiment seem to have been stuck in Naples when CRUSADER started.
The order of battle below is from the NARA records, and dated 11 November 41. Many thanks to my friend James for getting it.
The interpretation of the hand-written/-drawn OOB would not have been possible without the explanation of the symbols on Dr. Leo Niehorster’s OOB site at this link.
Afrika Artilleriebatallion 361
The Artillerieabteilung did not join the division prior to CRUSADER. It arrived on two Italian navy armed merchant cruisers (Citta di Genova and Citta di Tunisi). See this older entry. Its men were then stuck in Benghazi and without guns. They never joined the siege front.
An interesting question has arisen about the guns of “Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 – the drawn order of battle clearly shows mountain guns, presumably 7.5cm Gebirgskanone 36, although it is also possible that an older type would have been used for this cinderella formation. But information I recently was made aware of by a fellow researcher shows that captured Russian field guns, presumably the Feldkanone 36(r).
I have my doubts that the first issue of guns to the “Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 was of this type, but if anyone knows for sure, or has pictures that can clearly be dated to CRUSADER or before, I’d be very grateful. Following CRUSADER, the number of captured Russian guns in the desert became substantial, as this Intelligence Bulleting shows.
Order of battle: Division z.b.V. “Afrika”
Motorised Signals Platoon
259th Motorised Mapping Detachment
155th Rifle Regiment (Schützenregiment 155)
Staff with Signals, Despatch Riders, Engineer Detachments (all motorised)
Three Infantry battalions
Each battalion with:
staff (signals, engineers);
three rifle companies with 18 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, 2 8.1cm mortars and 2 7.5 cm light infantry guns each; and
one support company with 8 heavy machine-guns and 6 8.1 cm mortars.
3rd Battalion 255th Infantry Regiment (III./I.R.255)
Three rifle companies with 18 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, no mortars, no heavy anti-tank rifles; and
one support company with 8 heavy machine-guns.
3rd Battalion 347th Infantry Regiment (III./I.R.347)
Three rifle companies with 15 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, and 2 8.1cm mortars; and
one support company with 12 heavy MGs and 6 8.1 cm mortars.
“Afrika” Regiment 361
Two Infantry battalions
Each battalion with;
three rifle companies with 18 light MGs; and
one support company with 2 heavy machine-guns.
605th Anti-Tank Battalion (Panzerjägerabteilung 605)
Staff with Signals Platoon (motorised)
Three companies with 5 light MGs and 9 4.7cm ATGs (Czech) on Panzer I chassis, each.
Staff platoon with 3 armoured MG carriers (captured) attached.
One platoon motorised with 6 VW un-armoured cars Kübelwagen.
One platoon armoured cars (tracked? Probably an error)
Artillery Regiment 155 (Artillerie Regiment 155)
2nd Battalion 155th Artillery Regiment (II./A.R.155)
Staff with motorised signals and survey platoon
Three batteries with 2 light MGs and 4 10.5 cm light Field Howitzers 18, no prime movers
“Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 (Afrika Artillerieabteilung)
Staff with signals platoon
Two batteries with 2 light machine guns and 4 7.5 cm mountain guns each, no prime movers
Engineer Battalion 900 (motorised) (Pionierbatallion 900)
Staff with 1 heavy anti-tank rifle and 1 3.7 cm ATG
Two motorised engineer companies with 12 light MGs each.
Light engineer column (motorised)