16. GERMAN WIRE COMMUNICATION IN NORTH AFRICA

The following report on German communication in North Africa during World War II was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 15, December 31st, 1942.

The following report was made after observation and inspection of the system of wire nets used by the Germans in North Africa.

a. General

The German use of wire communication is very flexible, and the extent of use varies according to the time available, conditions, and the tactical situation.

At periods when the troops are not engaged in active operations, a complete wire net is laid, and radio is used only by forward patrols and as an emergency means in case of interruptions and excess traffic over the wires.

Wire is not used as a means of communication during periods of inactive operations when mounted messengers are available. In forward areas, the Germans take every precaution against interruption of messages sent over the wire nets.

It is definitely known that in at least one German battalion, the orders issued to it specified that operational traffic was to be sent by telephone or telegraph until the latest possible moment: i.e., until the lines were cut by enemy action, and only then was radio to be used.

The following notes concern the wire network of the German Afrika Korps from June to October 1941. During this period there were no important operations; hence, what follows probably shows the fullest extent to which wire has been used in Africa by the Germans.

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A DAK soldier equipped for the daily battle with the elements which made life a misery for the participants on both sides.

b. Wire Nets

The wire nets for a large unit like the Afrika Korps may be divided into four classes.

(1) Local lines to the individual staff officers, corps headquarters, and communications personnel.

(2) Lines direct to lower units, corps troops, corps artillery etc., which are controlled directly by corps headquarters.

(3) Lines to the main units (divisions) under the command of the corps headquarters. These units themselves had large switchboards, through which corps headquarters could communicate directly with the regiments and battalions of the particular division.

(4) Lines to large centrals at fixed geographical points, such as Capuzzo, Gambut, and Gazala. These centrals were not in any unit headquarters, but provided a medium whereby corps headquarters could contact organizations not directly connected with it.

It must be noted, however, that there is no very clear distinction between (3) and (4) above. There are frequent instances of division switchboards acting as intermediaries between corps headquarters and non-corps divisions, or even of fixed centrals doing this, in addition to their normal function as the central exchange for their own regiments. Thus, in July and early August, the Trento Division switchboard carried the Afrika Korps communications to the Afrika Korps headquarters' switchboard at Gambut and Acroma, and to other Italian divisions such as the Brescia and Pavia (none of the Italian divisions belonged to the Afrika Korps.) In June, the Afrika Korps actually had no direct wire to the German divisions under its command. These were contacted through the Trento switchboard. Similarly, in September, the Bologna Division had nearly all the German heavy artillery units as subscribers, while at the same time the Afrika Korps headquarters' switchboard provided wire to the XXI Italian Army Corps, the Brescia and Littorio Divisions, and fixed centrals at Acroma and Gazala.

Furthermore, no distinction is made in the circuit diagrams between unit switchboards and fixed centrals.

Another interesting fact about the function of unit switchboards is that comparatively minor units frequently had more important units as subscribers. In August, for example, in the 15th Armored Division's wire net, the 1st Battalion, 33d Flak Regiment was the central for both the 15th Motorcycle Battalion and the 104th Motorized Infantry Regiment.

c. Extent of Afrika Korps Wire Communications

The comprehensive wire net developed after a period of static warfare can be shown by taking each of the four categories separately.

(1) Local Switchboard

In July there were some 21 lines from the Afrika Korps staff switchboard. The subscribers were either individual staff officers, or the officers of the various sections of the staff. Five or six additional lines were used for communications personnel (wire maintenance sections, etc.).

(2) Lines Direct to Corps Switchboards

The number of these lines varied according to circumstances. At one period in December, the Afrika Korps seems to have been acting as a fixed exchange for the Italian division at Bardia, and this involved a number of extra lines to installations and detachments. Normally, however, there were about six of these lines, and the units served were AA batteries protecting the headquarters, corps signal battalion, the intercept company, the air cooperation headquarters, and at some periods a reconnaissance unit and an airfield.

(3) Lines to Unit Switchboards

These lines again varied considerably. In June, 1941 the Afrika Korps had no direct lines to its own divisions. Instead, these were contacted through the Italian Trento Division. In October, there were direct lines to switchboards of all three German divisions, and the corps headquarters, while all Italians units were contacted through fixed centrals.

(4) Lines to Fixed Centrals

Early in the period the Trento Division acted as the most important fixed central in the network, and the corps had direct lines also to central exchanges at Gazala and Acroma. During July and early August, the Trento Division and Capuzzo were the only centrals (apart from those of the German divisions) to which the Afrika Korps was directly linked. In mid-August the Bologna Division took over the complete role of the Trento Division. But in September and October, Afrika Korps had direct lines to two fixed centrals, Gambut and Capuzzo, which acted as intermediaries to all units not on the German division exchanges. These centrals correspond with the "North" and "South" sectors into which the Germans divided their main defensive area.

In the final stage of development of this network, after 3 months of position warfare, Afrika Korps had local lines for its various staff sections and staff officers, direct lines to six or seven corps troops units, lines to the switchboard of the corps headquarters, and of all three German divisions, whence lower echelons and units could be called, and finally lines to two large fixed centrals at Gambut and Capuzzo through which they could contact the main Italian units, smaller fixed exchanges, and other German units not covered by the corps wire net.

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Heavy artillery in action on the Tunisian front, January 1943.

d. Divisional Wire System

A similar development is shown by the circuit diagram of the 15th Armored Division for the same period. There was a staff switchboard with up to 20 lines: direct lines to small units (AA, communication, medical companies, etc.); lines to main units, whence smaller organic units could be contacted; and lines to main exchanges like the Afrika Korps, or to Gambut for rear and lateral communications.

e. Subsequent Examples

Another circuit diagram showing the communications of the 155th Light Infantry Regiment from April 20, 1942 is interesting as an example of the German wire system.

The Afrika Korps had moved shortly before the date mentioned above, and from the new position had communications only with the 15th Armored Division, 109th Motorized Infantry Regiment, and an Italian division. The old switchboard had not been moved, and was connected to the new one through a fixed central. This central and the old corps switchboard together provided the new installation with a means of communicating to the 21st Armored Division and other units.

The 90th Light Division, the unit to which the 155th Light Infantry Regiment was attached, had communication to the rear only to the XXI Italian Army Corps, to which command it was at this time attached. No lines to the front were shown from the 90th Division, and a radio net including the 155th Light Infantry Regiment is shown on this circuit diagram.

The 155th Light Infantry Regiment was amply supplied with forward wire lines, but had none to the rear except indirectly via a battery of the 611th Antiaircraft Battalion to the 104th Motorized Infantry Regiment, and thence to the Afrika Korps. The 155th Light Infantry Regiment had the following wire circuits:

(1) A staff switchboard with lines for the regimental commander, adjutant, signal detachment, observation post, etc;

(2) Lines from the switchboard terminating at telephones to the supporting artillery troops and antitank units;

(3) Lines to switchboards running to the two battalions of the regiment simplexed for telegraph.

The battalions had their own local staff lines and lines direct to company headquarters.

f. Forward Wire Communications - Infantry Battalion

Two circuit diagrams of the 1st Battalion, 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment, dated May 27 and June 16, 1941, respectively, show the wire net of an infantry battalion in the front line in Libya.

The earlier diagram shows rear and lateral lines from battalion headquarters to regimental headquarters, a neighboring battalion, and an artillery battery. On the later diagram there is an additional line to the 2d Battalion, 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment. On both dates, the line to regimental headquarters was simplexed for telegraph.

Communications within the battalion were, at the earlier date, as follows: lines from battalion headquarters to 1 and 3 Companies, and radio communication to 2 Company. Both 1 and 3 Companies had lines to 2 Company, and each company had a line to an attached mortar Or machine-gun section. In addition, battalion headquarters had lines to two observation posts manned by elements of the heavy weapons company, and from one of these, there was a line to a platoon of the cannon company.

By June 16, the three companies had been compressed to two, a "Left" Company and a "Right" Company, each with one platoon in front. Lines to platoons and sections of the heavy weapons company no longer went back from company headquarters, but forward from rear observation posts, and an additional line was provided from battalion headquarters to an engineer platoon. The radio net from battalion headquarters to 2 Company was no longer shown.

The 33d Artillery Regiment's wire communications were shown in a circuit diagram to be as follows:

(1) A switchboard with a line back to division headquarters, and local lines to the staff officers;

(2) A second switchboard with lines to each of the three battalions and to the observation posts.

Radio was used for communication between command vehicles of the regiment, and the battalion commanders and observation officers in tank-supporting artillery units; wire cannot be used for these purposes.

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