A Hard Lesson Learnt

Following the end of the CRUSADER battles and the counteroffensive, Panzerarmee Afrika took stock, and made a number of requests for re-building and improving the capability of the Panzergruppe for the summer. These were wide-ranging. Of particular note are a very detailed proposal by 15. Panzerdivision for a wholesale restructuring of the tropical (as the German army jargon called it) Panzerdivision, based on the realization that its main combat power lay in the artillery and the tanks, the request to form a leichtes Afrika-Korps by building two light Africa divisions out of 90. Leichte Division, supported by a tank battalion, and a wholesale restructuring of the rifle companies in North Africa.

I want to focus on the proposed restructuring of the rifle companies. I have previously written about the plight of these, when faced with an attack by tanks – see here. At the same time, the (probably) unauthorized increase in light machine guns had itself shown to be effective, as shown in the attack by 2 Black Watch during the break-out from Tobruk – see here.

It is interesting to compare the newly requested organization with that of the prior special North Africa organization in the Oasenbatallion 300, which you can find here.

Oasenbatallion 300 Rifle Battalion Company Reorganisation 1942 (proposed) Rifle Battalion Company Organisation 1941 (estimated)
Number of rifle companies in battalion(1) 5 4 3 (plus one heavy company with 12 heavy MG and 4 heavy mortars)
Number of Weapons in company / battalion
Submachineguns Unknown 13 52 Unknown
Light Machine Guns 12 60 18 72 18 57
Heavy Machine Guns 0 0 2 8 0 8
Light Mortars 3 15 0 0 3 9
Heavy Mortars 0 0 3 12 0 6
Light Anti-Tank Rifles 3 15 0 0 3 9
Heavy Anti-Tank Rifles (2) 0 0 3 12 0 0
Anti-Tank Guns (3) 0 0 6 24 0 0
  1. The Oasenbattalion was a special, one-off formation, while the proposed rifle battalion organisation would have applied to the armoured divisions and 90th Light.
  2. These were the far more capable 28/20 sPzB41.
  3. Either 5cm Pak 38, 7.5cm French Schneider m1897, or 7.62cm Russian Zis-3 captured guns. The latter were intended for the companies of 90 leichte Afrika-Division, the former for the companies in 15. and 21. Panzerdivision.

What is immediately noticeable is the significant increase in automatic firepower. Also, the very heavy equipment with anti-tank weapons at company level, and the official disbandment of the heavy company, in favour of parceling out the weapons that it would normally control. Doctrinally, this would indicate a departure from the battalion as core combat formation towards the company. In the 1941 standard rifle battalion in the Wehrmacht, the main purpose of the heavy company, which held the heavy MGs and the mortars, was to be the central point of fire support to the battalion. Alternatively, in a widely spread out position, the company could be split out into three equally strong fire support groups, and these could be attached to the rifle companies. So in a way, this proposal almost completely removed the possibility of fighting the battalion as a unit. This was probably the right response to the conditions in North Africa, where individual company or platoon strong-points were far more the norm, and where these were often sited far away from support, simply because of the need to cover large areas with low numbers of troops. In particular the combination of heavy mortars and heavy machine-guns would enable the company to pin attacking infantry at a longer distance. The anti-tank guns could then engage e.g. infantry tanks that are trying to bring the infantry forward again.

2 thoughts on “A Hard Lesson Learnt

  1. Thanks Andreas, interesting post.

    What was the calibre of the proposed ‘heavy’ mortars – were they to be captured Russian 120mm? Also, I gather the proposal was never formally implemented.

    Regards
    Jon

    • Hi, sorry for the delay, your comment ended up in the spam folder, I just saw it.

      No, those would have been 81mm mortars.

      I have no idea if the proposal was enacted. I would not be surprised if it had been. It appears at least that Halder consented to it.

      All the best

      Andreas

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