21st Panzer Division
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Planning to send a German force to Libya began in the summer of 1940, as soon as Italy entered the war and North Africa became an active theater of war. Third Panzer Division, recently returned to its home station at Wünsdorf after the campaign in France, would be the primary component.
Nothing came of this move; the initial Italian invasion of Egypt, launched without proper logistical preparations, unraveled in a disaster well before any German troops could join them. German intervention in Libya during the summer of 1940 would not have made any positive impact: the Italians could not support the troops they'd already poured into the province. Adding more mouths to feed and vehicles to fuel might have only increased the scope of the disaster.
When the Germans did send troops in late 1940, they finally began with support units instead of combat troops. Water filtration and transport specialists, tire engineers, stevedores and rations administrators, not panzers, would be the spearhead of the Afrika Korps. While this represented a good start, German arrogance would not allow them to seek Italian advice, and the Germans landed without enough air filters for their vehicles or warm clothing for their troops (desert nights can get very cold) while hauling around excessive quantities of water.
With the Italians reeling back out of Cyrenaica, and the garrison of Tripolitania having been stripped of its best units, weapons and vehicles to support the invasion of Egypt, German combat forces arrived in February 1941. A reconnaissance company and motorized anti-tank battalion, both detached from the 3rd Panzer Division, came under command of a special formation called Sperrverband Libyen (“Blocking Unit Libya”). They were soon joined by a pair of motorized machine-gun battalions drawn from the Army High Command’s reserve and a motorized engineer company from the 33rd Infantry Division, in the process of converting to a panzer division.
On 18 February Sperrverband Libyen became the 5th Light Division, and three days later Erwin Rommel’s special command in Libya became the German Africa Corps. Over the next several weeks more assorted units arrived in Libya to flesh out the new division. German panzer divisions were re-organizing, giving up one of their two panzer regiments in exchange for more motorized infantry, and 3rd Panzer Division provided its 5th Panzer Regiment to the new formation as well as the staff of the 3rd Panzer Brigade. The division also contributed motorized artillery, engineer and anti-tank units, while the Army High Command kicked in a heavy anti-tank battalion and an anti-aircraft battalion.
Assigned to help defend Tripoli’s port from the advancing British, Maj. Gen. Johannes Streich had no opportunity to exercise his motley “division” before Rommel ordered an advance to the east. The ramshackle division pushed the British spearheads out of El Agheila and by early April a “reconnaissance in force” was in progress.
21st Panzer Division's Recon Battalion pushes into Egypt. June 1942.
Italian generals pointed out that Rommel had greatly over-extended his forces, but the British had begun to pull back of their own accord to divert forces to the campaign in Greece and the feared counter-attack did not occur. Fifth Light Division assaulted the Australian-held fortress of Tobruk twice in April, failing both times with heavy casualties, and Rommel responded by sacking Streich.
In May and June, the motley division fought off a pair of British offensives, then spent July sitting outside the Tobruk perimeter. In August a reorganization took place, and 5th Light Division became 21st Panzer Division. The 200th Special Purpose Regiment was dissolved (its number would re-appear later), and the 104th Motorized Infantry Regiment from the newly-arrived 15th Panzer Division took its place. Instead of two motorized infantry regiments, each of four battalions, the two panzer divisions of the Afrika Korps each had one motorized infantry regiment of three battalions. One of the motorized machine gun battalions of the 5th Light Division joined the 104th Regiment, the other went to the 15th Panzer Division.
Other new units joined the 21st Panzer Division or were swapped between the two formations. The two divisions were somewhat smaller than the official tables of organization required.
During the British offensive known as Operation Crusader, 21st Panzer Division fought well in the initial stages and destroyed a British armoured brigade and a South African infantry brigade. But losses mounted and the division lost much of its effectiveness when its commander, Johann von Ravenstein, drove his staff car into a New Zealand position.
By battle’s end, 21st Panzer Division was no longer combat-effective with only a handful of tanks remaining. The division, no more than a battle group, retreated along with the rest of the Axis forces and participated in a counter-attack in December. The Axis pushed the British back, and by February were at the Gazala line where both sides now rebuilt their shattered divisions and piled up supplies.
The Axis struck in late May 1942, with 21st Panzer in the thick of the fray: with 15th Panzer out of fuel and the Italian Ariete Division hung up attacking the Free French at Bir Hakeim, 21st Panzer made the bulk of Axis gains and continued to act as Rommel’s spearhead in the days that followed. The Allies began a general retreat on 14 June, and 21st Panzer led the pursuit and the assault on Tobruk that followed.
Despite Rommel’s misgivings, the Axis launched a pursuit of the battered Allies forces into Egypt. The division continued to fight well, inflicting a serious defeat on the Allies at Mersa Matruh but failing to penetrate their new line at El Alamein. Both sides attempted to build up their forces through the rest of the summer, but the Allies greatly outstripped the Axis and the offensive they launched in October 1942 was very successful. Twenty-First Panzer Division suffered heavy losses attempting to stem the tide, and when the Axis finally retreat the division took command of all remaining German tanks (about three dozen) and served as the rear guard all the way back across Libya.
Retreating into Tunisia, the division would fight there through the first half of 1943 before its remnants surrendered. But that campaign is another story.
Twenty-First Panzer Division is slightly under-strength in our Gazala 1942 game, and we can correct that with a small set of counters you can download right here.
The division should include three rather than two motorized infantry battalions, and one motorized engineer battalion. These set up with the other units of the division in the Opening Moves and Operation Aida scenarios, and enter play with the rest of the division in the Strike First scenario.
The Axis player is going to need that extra strength, because there are duplicated units in his order of battle: remove four of the motorized infantry battalions from 90th Light Division. These are the same troops depicted (correctly) by the 200 and 361 non-motorized infantry regiments.
Panzer divisions operated in North Africa on a reduced establishment, with just three motorized infantry battalions instead of the four called for in the official tables of organization. As a variant, you can add the fourth motorized battalion to 21st Panzer Division in all scenarios.
As an even more pro-Axis variant, use the 4/21 mechanized infantry battalion instead. Very few examples of the SPW armored halftrack served in North Africa, but at the time of the Gazala battles a few panzer divisions on the Eastern Front were equipping one of their panzer grenadier battalions with this armored personnel carrier which greatly increased their fighting power.
Send 21st Panzer into action! Order Gazala 1942 right now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.