The issue of water supply in the desert came up on the Axis History Forum, and I am deeply indebted to User Raúl M. (tigre) to have provided the text below, which is provided here in its entirety with his permission.
Nachschubstab für Wasserversorgung 580.
Going deeper into the subject of water as of February 1942, the DAK had the Nachschubstab für Wasserversorgung 580 as a troop at Corps level. This staff was organized on September 5, 1941 in the Military District (WK) III. It was established as an army-level force for Panzer Group Africa. On July 16, 1942, it was renamed as Bataillonsstab für Wasserversorgung 580. The unit was disbanded on February 28, 1943.
Drinking water for the troops is as important for the German-Italian Panzerarmee as fuel for the trucks. It is not released for consumption and filled into portable canisters until a bacteriological check has been completed. (German PK Picture, date and location unknown)
After Italy declared war on France and Britain in 1940, an Italian offensive into Egypt was carried out from Libya in September 1940. After the attack was repelled, a successful British counter-offensive took place in December 1940, leading to to the conquest of Cyrenaica. In January 1941, the “German Africa Corps” was formed under its Commander-in-Chief (Oberbefehlshaber), General Erwin Rommel. In 1941, the Deutsche Afrika Korps (DAK) managed to recapture Cyrenaica with the exception of Tobruk. A renewed German-Italian attack in 1942 through Benghazi – El Gazala – Tobruk and across the Egyptian border to Marsa Matruk, got bogged down at the El Alamein position due to lack of supplies.
In addition to assessing the terrain for armored vehicles, supplying water for Rommel’s Afrika Korps was one of the main tasks of Military Geology Unit 12 (Wehrgeologenstelle 12), headed by geologist Leo Medard Kuckelkorn. The appropriate equipment for the groundwater investigations was transported in a geologists’ heavy truck with a trailer. Lieutenant Werner Jessen was responsible for the underground geophysical measurements, for which an array of 4 probes was used to record the electrical (apparent) resistivity profiles. Once these measurements determined the thickness of the aquifer layer and the depth of a dam horizon, water drilling was performed with a trailer-mounted drilling rig.
An assessment of water points based on Italian and regional documents gave General Rommel in North Africa a quick overview of the location, well construction and performance of water points during attack and defensive battles. During the Africa campaign, Military Geology Unit 12 supported the advance of armored units by evaluating aerial photos and the German Africa Corps drinking water supply by evaluating documents from the area. During the first phase of Rommel’s attack on Cyrenaica in the spring of 1941, the first military geological work for a water supply was carried out on the 1:500,000 map sheet, Bardia. Exploration of the water supply at Bardia involved three wadis excavated deep into the coastal plateau, leading to its own groundwater horizon in its rubble soil, which was opened by the Italians through large well systems with extensive filtration galleries. The wells were still in order while the power and pumping station, which was supposed to pump the water from the bottom of the wadis to the plateau, was completely destroyed during the British offensive in January 1941. During Rommel’s greatest advance to the east, numerous hydrogeological investigations of groundwater and repair work on destroyed water supply systems were carried out.
In April 1941, a water survey was carried out at El-Adem airfield, south of Tobruk. A widely branched system of drainage shafts and galleries was laid out on a dry plateau flowing into the deeper cistern. In this area there was no continuous water table, but occasional precipitation was collected to a depth of 2-3 m. An investigation of the Agheila el Garbia waterhole revealed, in contrast to Italian opinion, a freshwater groundwater body located above the salt water.
Geophysical survey (electrical resistivity) in progress at Bugeheim Wadi, Libya, late April 1941, led by Lieutenant Werner Jessen of Wehrgeologiestelle 12. (German PK Picture)
In July 1942, during the attack of the German-Italian armored units on the heavily developed British fortress of Tobruk, the Military Geology Detachment 12 (Wehrgeologenstelle 12) drew up a report on the possibility of expanding the water point of Bagush-Burbeita. A report by the head of Military Geology Unit 12 states that the Italian troops in North Africa had no military geological organization at all, while the German troops had no personnel trained in well construction and vice versa. However, it was known about the organization of water supply in the Italian armies: each army had a company of sappers versed in water supply, endowed with equipment, hand and motor pumps, drills at a depth of more than 100 m, pipes, containers and tank trucks.
Until February 1941, the water was not verified by geologists but by dowsers. Failures occurred in both a 1,000 m deep well in Tobruk and twelve other wells which remained dry. An article in the Italian magazine “Tempo” of October 03, 1940, which reported on dowsers in Italian water companies, showed that the use of the dowsing rod for the search for drinking water was very popular in the Italian army. Five liters of water per man/day were envisaged. The water requirement for cooling a motor vehicle was 50 l/day, for a mule 50 l/day and for a camel 200 l/day.
A German Africa Corps (DAK) instruction of September 17, 1941 regulated the “Water Competencies” within the corps personnel. The “Water” Group reported to the intendant and was made up of a group leader, the corps geologist, the corps hygienist, the water engineer, and a water officer.
The tasks were established as follows:
- The water group was responsible for the acquisition, testing, replenishment and distribution of drinking and service water required.
- The group leader was to ensure the anticipated cooperation of the individual administrators and report to the mayor on the water situation.
- In addition to his other duties, the Corps Geologist was responsible for exploring and providing practical testing of the water.
- The hygienist of the Corps ordered the first chemical and bacteriological examination of the water. He also arranged for hygienic control of all water transport and storage vehicles.
- The hydraulic engineer was in charge of the technical repair, maintenance, expansion and new construction of water points and water pipes, as well as the filtration of water where necessary.
- The water officer processed the instruction of the German and Italian divisions for the water distribution points and the load levels according to the type and strength of the vehicle and its distance from the distribution point. He proposed the use of the water columns and supervised their activity.
This is what a well-reinforcement installed by our soldiers looks like. (German PK Picture, date and location unknown)
Simultaneous with this clear division of responsibility for water tasks between corps geologists, corps hygienists, water engineers, and water officers, Wehrgeologenstelle 12 reported in September 1941 that the performance of the water points in the area of the Deutschen Afrikakorps was declining:
- The performance of the DAK water points decreased both in quantity and quality. For example, the Agheila el Garbia group of wells near Aim Gasala was still supplying 200 m3 of very good water per day with 15 wells in July 1941. In September, despite further expansion, 17 wells only supplied 120 m3 of poor quality water. Similar development was in progress or expected at the other water points. After all, it was to be expected that the water supply system would deteriorate quantitatively and qualitatively in the coming months.
- This phenomenon had three causes. The main cause was seasonal. Groundwater reserves were supplemented almost exclusively by winter rains, which fell mainly in December and January. Since a period of 0-60 days was needed from the normal case to the increase in yield of a well, all the water points had a much higher yield in spring than in autumn. The second reason was that the last six winters were particularly low in precipitation. For geological reasons, the decrease in total production caused by this was more evident in the fall. Third, groundwater supplies in the coastal zone were so limited that the extraordinarily high consumption by the troops the previous year was probably already noticeable in the weakening performance.
- The remedy was only possible to a limited extent. It was advisable to expand as many water points as possible, regardless of the perhaps lower demand at this time and regardless of the “economics” in relation to the work done, costs, etc. To support this work, instructions were issued to the maintenance companies (Werkstattkompanien) so that any repairs to the drilling rig or other equipment required to expand or explore the water points be carried out as quickly as possible.
Wasserstelle (Water Well) Bagush-Burbeita (German PK Picture, date unknown)
As can be seen from a list of the New Zealand Divisional Engineers dated 12 November 1941 (CRE W4/733 SECRET), the water supply for the British Corps in North Africa was also in the hands of the Sappers. The „Eighth Army Tps Engineers“ were also tasked with restoring wells destroyed by German troops or establishing new wells. As with German troops, drinking water was only issued to English units after a hygiene examination by the military doctor (medical officer, M.O.). The British Medical Bulletin contained practical instructions for all officers to use the ‘Horrocks Box’, named after Sir William Heaton Horrocks (URL2), for sand filtration and chlorine sterilization of water for drinking use.
Fuentes: Militärische Trinkwasserversorgung – einst und jetzt. Berichte der Geologischen Bundesanstalt, ISSN 1017-8880, Band 113, Wien 2015
Wehrgeologenstelle 12 – Rommel’s Military Geology Team in North Africa 1941-43