OPERATIONAL HISTORY - Jason Pipes
The history of the 90th Light Africa Division is shorter than most typical German divisional units because it existed for only two years. Those two years followed the entire North Africa Campaign from 1941 until May of 1943 when all Axis units surrendered in Tunisia. The history of this unit follows directly the fortunes of all German units stationed in North Africa.
What follows is an overview of the operational history of the 90th Light Africa Division which has been gathered together from as many primary and secondary resources as possible. The division is somewhat more obscure and some aspects of its operational history are relatively hard to track down. It is hoped this operational overview will provide the reader with an excellent understanding of its history and that any mistakes or omissions are taken into consideration given the nature of the division.
The 90th Light Africa Division went though a number distinct changes in name and organization between 1941 and 1943. The division was originally formed on June 26th, 1941 when a number of units were brought together under the operational control of “Division Command for Special Use Africa”, otherwise known in German as Divisions-Kommando z.b.V Afrika. This formation initially controlled approximately two regimental sized infantry units. In August of 1941 that unit became simply the “Division for Special Use Africa” (Division z.b.V Afrika). From this point the naming of the division is somewhat confused. Numerous sources list the division as becoming the 90th Light Infantry Division on November 27th, 1941, and later the 90th Light Africa Division in March of 1942, but two rather prominent sources (Rolf Stoves “Die gepanzerten und Motorisierten deutchen Grossverbande 1935-1945” and Peter Schmitz & Jurgen Thies “Die Truppenkennzeichen der Verbande und Einheiten der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen-SS und ihre Einsatze im Zweiten Weltkrieg 1939-1945”) list the division as becoming the 90th Light Infantry Division on April 1st, 1942 and later the 90th Light Afrika Division on July 26th, 1942. Some confusion appears to exist regarding the actual date on which the division changed from the Africa Special Use Division to the 90th Light. An important piece of the puzzle is provided by official records. Roger Bender in his excellent reference work “Uniforms, Organization and History of the Afrikakorps” states that according to official German war records the unit was referred to as the 90th Light as of November 28th, 1941. As can be seen some aspects of this units history are sadly murky.
In September of 1940, well before the Germans had arrived under the command of Erwin Rommel and the Africa Corps, the Italian Army in North Africa (spurred forward by demands from Rome) launched an offensive into the Western Desert in an attempt to defeat the British. The Italian forces advanced across the Egyptian frontier and initially had limited success. By the winter of 1940 the Italian offensive had come to a grinding halt. On December 8th, 1940 the British launched a counter offensive named Operation Compass at Sidi Barrani and the attack was a roaring success. As the Italians pulled back they lost control of not only the Egyptian frontier but all of the vital coastal towns between Egypt and El Aghelia, including Sollum, Tobruk, Gazalla, Benghazi, and Beda Fomm. In less than two months the British had advanced 500 miles and caused the loss of over 130,000 Italian troops in exchange for less than 2000 of their own. It was a stunning defeat for the Axis. It was into this disaster that the Germans were landed in February, 1941 when Rommel arrived in Tripoli with his blocking forces intended to reverse Axis fortunes. It was with these initial German blocking forces that the origins of the 90th Light Africa Division can be traced.
By late March, 1941 British forces in Libya had been greatly reduced to help support the fighting in Italian East Africa to the south and the fighting in Greece to the north. In addition, much needed armor had been pulled from the front and moved to Egypt for rest and refit. Against these much reduced British forces Rommel launched the first major German offensive of the North Africa Campaign on March 31st, 1941. The German-Italian force hit the now quiet British lines near the El Agheila frontier, battled for and recaptured El Agheila and Beda Fomm, and retook Benghazi. Within two weeks they were once more at the Egyptian frontier and Tobruk was under siege. Within less than five months both sides had fought back and forth across the entire Libyan coast covering more than 900 miles in the process!
Between April and June, 1941 both sides established new lines at the Egyptian frontier. On May 15th the British launched Operation Brevity in the hopes of taking control of Sollum and Halfaya passes along with Fort Capuzzo and relieving Tobruk. The operation failed and the German lines held. Again on June 15th, 1941 the British launched another assault, Operational Battleaxe, in the hope of once more clearing the frontier and relieving the Tobruk garrison. By the 17th after fierce fighting for two straight days the British were forced to withdraw. The attack had been another major failure. It was during this time that the predecessor of the 90th Light Division, the Division Command for Special Use Africa, was created on June 26th, 1941. It consisted of two regimental units already in action, the 155th Rifle Regiment and 361st Infantry Regiment. The title “for Special Use” (z.b.V or zur besonderen Verwendung in German) implied that the formation was created for a particular task or operation. The title z.b.V generally implied that a unit wasn’t intended to exist in that form for very long or that it was being formed quickly on the spot from available resources. In this case the “special use” the unit was formed for was the assault on Tobruk and defense of the lines around the besieged town.
After Operation Battleaxe ran its course both sides were exhausted and settled in to rest and refit. The besieged Australian garrison at Tobruk also continued to hold out against repeated German attacks of which the Division Command for Special Use Africa was involved. In August the Division Command for Special Use Africa’s title changed slightly when it became simply Division for Special Use Africa (Division z.b.V Afrika). It continued to hold the lines between the frontier and around Tobruk.
After four months of reorganizing the waiting was over. On November 18th, 1941 the British launched Operation Crusader to clear German and Italian units from the frontier and relieve Tobruk. During these attacks the Division for Special Use Africa fought at Sidi Rezegh and helped repulse a significant counter-attack by the Australians out of Tobruk itself. Their attack was beaten back with heavy losses to both sides. Shortly after on November 27th the Division for Special Use Africa was renamed the 90th Light Infantry Division while it continued to fight in the swirling battles between the frontier and Tobruk. In two weeks of fierce and bloody fighting German and Italian units were finally forced back, first to the Gazala positions west of Tobruk and shortly after all the way back to the El Agheila frontier. By December 17th the Axis forces were in full retreat. During this time the 90th Light was involved in numerous blocking efforts to help stem the British advance. The 90th Light moved along the interior route through Cyrenaica from Gazala to Mechili, Msus, Agedabia, Marsa El Brega and finally to the defensive positions at El Agheila.
When the Axis arrived at El Agheila the British didn’t expect much in the way of a counter-attack but Rommel wasn’t about to remain idle. German and Italian forces quickly received reinforcements and were once more ordered on the offensive on January 21st, 1942. The 90th Light advanced from El Agheila to Agedabia, Antelat, and then to the coast to help re-secure Benghazi.
By February 6th, 1942 German and Italian forces were back near Gazala. Once more the see-saw battle in North Africa raged. This was desert warfare at its most classic; swirling and unrelenting. As with the earlier Cyrenaica offensive the Germans were now overextended and in dire need of re-supply. British forces too were exhausted and battered after their retreat. After re-establishing lines at Gazala both sides settled in while their units reorganized, refit, and re-supplied for the inevitable struggle for Tobruk. The 90th Light was at the fore of these operations.
On May 26th, 1942 Rommel launched an attack to forestall an impending offensive by the British. The operation was aimed at breaking out of the Gazala positions and finally taking Tobruk. The 90th Light fought at El Adem south of Tobruk, at Sidi Rezegh, in the Knightsbridge position in which fierce fighting took place, and most famously at Bir Hacheim as the southern flank of Rommel’s drive to outflank and encircle the British line. The fighting during the Gazala offensive lasted for nearly three weeks and by June 12th the British were forced to retreat having suffered the loss of hundreds of tanks and thousands of men. Nearly 200 British tanks were lost on the 5th and 6th of June alone.
Things moved along very quickly thereafter, by June 20th the Germans were able to capture Tobruk and they crossed the Egyptian frontier a few days later. The 90th Light helped secure Mersa Matruh on June 26th and 27th which was the last British fortress before El Alamein and Alexandria. With the loss of Tobruk and Mersa Matruh the British were in a precarious situation. By July the Allies retreated to hastily constructed defensive lines 60 miles to the west of Alexandria and the first battle of El Alamein began. From July 1st until July 8th the 90th Light fought from near Tell El Eisa as the northern most German division and pushed east coming up against Ruweistat Ridge, south of El Alamein. During these battles the 90th Light took harrowing losses; by July 8th its overall strength was less then 2000 men. It had literally been bleed white during the previous 5 weeks of fighting and the clashes south of El Alamein inflicted even great losses on the division. From July 8th to the 21st both sides continued to fight hard but the German attack ground to a halt.
Following the unsuccessful First Battle of El Alamein the Germans launched repeated attacks against the British, including the Battle of Alam El Halfa on August 30th and 31st, 1942. Many feel this attack was Rommel’s last chance at defeating the British in North Africa. German supply lines were severely strained by this point having to travel nearly 1000 miles to reach the front, and each combat loss was becoming harder to replace. The Germans could ill-afford setbacks; with each approaching day the British could withstand losses far better than their German counterparts. The window was slowly closing; the Germans were on the offensive but their chances of success fading. The fighting that ensued was desperate in every sense of the word.
The 90th Light took part in the fighting for Alam El Halfa located south of the main Axis blocking force which consisted of Italian infantry units acting as a diversionary force. Moving from the area of Deir El Quattara the 90th Light fought through the British lines to Deir Munassib, Deir El Ragil, and Deir El Agram. The division pushed hard and fought well but ultimately the British lines held. The 90th light continued to suffer appalling losses in these battles.
With the defeat at Alam El Halfa fighting culminated in the Second Battle of El Alamein from October 23rd until November 4th, 1942. As with the many battles before the 90th Light was holding the Axis line in the north closest to the coast when the British struck. Again the division suffered heavy losses in bitter fighting. With their rout in the Second Battle of El Alamein the Germans retreated back towards Libya, the British in close pursuit. Ironically the Allies never seriously contested the German retreat as they pulled back. This was partly aided by the fact that the 90th Light helped defend position by position El Daba, Fuka, and Bardia back to the Libya frontier. Each step the 90th Light helped establish blocking lines to prevent the Allies from overtaking the retreating and battered remnants of the Axis forces.
On November 8th Operation Torch was launched and the Western Allies landed a large Anglo-American force in Morocco and Algeria. This operation sealed the fate of the Axis in North Africa as a combined force was now set to converge on the German and Italian armies from both the east and west. By December, 1942 the Germans were back at El Agheila. Next to fall were El Agheila, Merduma, and Sirte. The 90th Light continued to serve as a blocking force at Homs and finally at Tripoli, the last bastion of the Germans in all of Libya. By mid February, 1943 all of Libya was firmly in British hands.
After the fall of Libya the Anglo-American advance on Tunisia encroached from both the northwest and the east. At the Tunisian frontier the 90th Light held positions in the Mareth Line which the British struck on March 23rd, 1943. Although the division was not as weak as it had been at El Alamein the previous fall it was still seriously short of men and material, amounting to approximately 5700 men. Under pressure from the advancing British the 90th Light pulled back to Gabes and acted as a perpetual rearguard as the Axis lines were continually shrunk. By May of 1943 the division was severely drained. Axis fortunes in North Africa were now at a close. The division surrendered at Enfidaville on May 12th, 1943 and the 90th Light survivors went into Allied captivity thereafter.
The 90th Light is remembered by the Allies as a hard-fighting and determined unit that was followed with great interest by British Intelligence. It fought in nearly every battle from the first attacks into the lines around Tobruk in November 1941 to the last stand in Tunisia in 1943. In the process it lost thousands of men and left an elite battle record second to none.