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|German 21st Panzer Division|
|Active||August 1, 1941 – May 8, 1945|
|This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (April 2009)|
|German 21st Panzer Division|
|Active||August 1, 1941 – May 8, 1945|
The 21st Panzer Division was a German armoured division best known for its role in the battles of the North African Campaign from 1941–1943 during World War II when it was one of the two armoured divisions making up the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK).
The formation was originally created as the '5th Light Division' or the '5th Light Afrika Division' in Africa in early 1941, from an ad hoc collection of smaller units rushed to support the collapsing Italian forces in Cyrenaica, Libya.
It comprised elements of the 3rd Panzer Division, the unit initially earmarked for North Africa in the summer of 1940.
The first unit incorporated was the 39th Panzerjäger (anti-tank) Battalion. This was a motorised unit with halftracks and trucks to tow heavy equipment, including nine 3.7 cm PaK 36 and two 5 cm PaK 38 guns. The armoured element, 5th Panzer Regiment, was moved from the 3rd Panzer Division. Its strength included 20 PzKpfw IV, 75 PzKpfw III, 45 PzKpfw II and 25 PzKpfw I Ausf B tanks which included a number of Befehlspanzer (command vehicles). Even with these seemingly impressive numbers the unit was understrength. The infantry forces were the 200th Schutzen (Rifle) Regiment, the sole artillery unit was a single battalion of the 75th Regiment. The Divisional staff, also from 3rd Panzer Division, included the Chief of Staff, Major Hauser and the intelligence officer; Hauptmann Von Kluge.
The formation was officially named on 18 February 1941; its first divisional commander was Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross winner Generalmajor Johannes Streich, who had commanded the 15th Panzer regiment during the successful French Campaign in 1940. By this time most of the units had arrived in Tripoli, but the last tank elements did not deploy until 12 March 1941, missing the first battles of General Erwin Rommel's Cyrenaica offensive.
The 5th Light did not have a full establishment of tanks immediately following its deployment. Having only 150 machines of all types of which 130 were actually combat worthy, the rest being an assortment of command and unarmed observer vehicles.
Despite the slow build-up, largely due to most Wehrmacht reinforcements being directed to the Eastern Front to support Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union), by September 1941 the 5th Light Division had achieved Panzer Division strength. It was then renamed the 21st Panzer Division.
Throughout its war in the Desert, the Afrika Korps's units were nearly always understrength, made up of any men and equipment that were available.
Still known as 5th Light Division, the formation was somewhat fortunate in the early skirmishes with the British Army. The British XIII Corps had captured Tobruk on 21 January 1941 and General Richard O'Connor was poised to cut off and destroy the Italian forces in Cyrenaica and move on to Tripoli. The loss of this vital supply base would effectively eliminate all the Axis forces from North Africa.
For the Axis Powers, fortune intervened, as O'Connor was ordered by Commander-in-Chief Archibald Wavell to rest and replenish his forces, delaying the advance for two weeks. The British resumed their advance on 4 February. Benghazi and Beda Fomm both fell on 7 February despite a determined resistance by the 21st Italian motorized corps. El Agheila followed on 8 February. The British attempt to clear North Africa of Axis Forces were stifled by their own government, who responded to the Greek government's request for aid against a possible German invasion by withdrawing considerable parts of the desert force to Greece and suspending operations in Libya. This respite gave the Germans and demoralised Italian forces time to recover.
On 2 March 1941 the first 88 mm dual purpose guns arrived and provided much needed firepower.
Although DAK's commander, Erwin Rommel, was under strict orders that the formation must remain defensive, the daring German commander ordered an attack on 31 March by the '5th Light' and 4th Italian divisions; it turned into a major offensive success, as the British began a retreat that would, by April, see German forces pushing into Egypt after an advance of some 600 miles.
The disarray of the British forces was compounded by a change in command as the British commander in Cyrenaica, Lieutenant-General Phillip Neame VC, an officer with a good reputation, but inexperienced in desert fighting, was captured along with his predecessor, Lieutenant-General O'Connor, who had been sent from Cairo by Wavell to assess the situation. Furthermore, the highly experienced 7th Armoured Division, with virtually no serviceable tanks, was withdrawn to Cairo for refitting and was replaced by the newly formed 2nd Armoured Division.
After officially being renamed the 21st Panzer Division, the unit did not enjoy any particular success throughout the remainder of the year. The British regrouped and reinforced up to seven divisions organised as two corps (XIII and XXX Corps) forming Eighth Army. They launched Operation Crusader on 18 November which had forced Rommel to retreat to El Agheila by the end of the year, allowing the British to re-occupy Cyrenaica. However, the division, along with 15th Panzer Division, did score a notable victory over XXX Corps (and in particular the 7th Armoured Division) on 22 November at Sidi Rezegh, and broke through to the Egyptian border posing a major threat to 8th Army's continued existence in North Africa. However, over-stretched supply lines and the urgent need to assist the Axis forces around Tobruk which were being hard-pressed by XIII Corps, obliged them to withdraw. On returning to Sidi Rezegh, the division lost its experienced commander Major-General Johann von Ravenstein, who was captured while performing a reconnaissance on 29 November.
Although joined by the 90th Afrika Division (officially renamed as the 90th Light Infantry Division on 27 November 1941), a formation which was also made up from an assortment of smaller elements in August 1941, the German forces in this theatre were vulnerable.
In the early months of 1942 the supply situation improved, with the British island fortress of Malta coming under intense air attack, allowing Axis supply convoys from Italy to get through.
The British Operation Acrobat was initiated to drive the DAK back to Tripoli, but a quick counter-offensive by Rommel surprised the British and pushed them back out of Cyrenaica. Reaching Derna by 3 February, the 21st Panzer was the linchpin of the assault. Just days earlier, on 30 January 1942, Major General Georg von Bismarck was appointed as the new divisional commander.
More success followed. Gazala was taken on 5 June, and during the heavy fighting of 20–21 June, 21st Panzer along with 90th Light Division and 15th Panzer Division broke through the centre of the British lines surrounding Tobruk, capturing nearly 35,000 prisoners. As a result the British Eighth Army fell back.
The fighting had taken its toll on the division, with the 15th and 21st Panzer only able to field 44 tanks between them. Four-fifths of their transport vehicles having been captured when they crossed into Egypt.
The British prepared a new defensive line at Mersa Matruh on 26 June. Rommel, again using 21st Panzer to spearhead the assault, defeated the British and pushed them back to a new line at El Alamein.
On 3 July, British resistance broke Rommel's impressive progress. With the 21st Panzer leading the assault to outflank the British positions on 31 August during the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the Germans were again repulsed, ending the DAK's lightning advances. In a series of battles in this area the 21st Panzer's Commander Von Bismarck was killed by a British mine, and Oberst C.H. Lungerhausen took command until Major General Heinz von Randow arrived on 18 September.
El Alamein was the beginning of the end of German successes in the desert. Now vastly outnumbered, the war became a battle of attrition which the Germans could not win. The British 7th Armoured Division had undergone another armour upgrade, and was now equipped with new M4 Sherman tanks, which had been transferred from the US 2nd Armored Division. These had a turret mounted 75 mm high velocity gun, providing them with greater range and making them capable of penetrating the armour of any German vehicle.
On 23 October, the British offensive and the Second Battle of El Alamein began. The Germans were overwhelmed and 21st Panzer was reduced to only four tanks by 7 November. During the long retreat to Tunisia 21st Panzer fought the rear guard actions.[N 1]
To compound German problems, the Americans landed in Morocco and Algeria during Operation Torch and Panzerarmee Afrika, as it was now called, was threatened with annihilation, as it would be caught in a vice.
On 21 December another Divisional Commander was killed, Major General von Randow.
By the time it reached Tunis, 21st Panzer had ceased to exist as a cohesive unit and was split up into Battle Groups (Kampfgruppen) Pfeiffer and Gruen. They were subsequently renamed Battle Groups Stenkhoff and Schuette.
The last operational success in Africa for the German forces came during February 1943 when they won a notable victory against American forces at the Kasserine Pass.
Major General Von Hulsen surrendered the remnants of the division on 13 May 1943.
In France, the division was reconstituted in June 1943, where it remained for rehabilitation and garrison duty until the Allied landings at Normandy. The new division's commander was Oberst Edgar Feuchtinger who was promoted to Generalmajor on 1 August 1943 and Generalleutenant (equivalent to Major-General) exactly a year later. It was heavily engaged in the fighting at the Normandy beachheads, being the only Panzer division to engage the Allies on the first day.
The division was formed from the elements of the newly created Schnelle Division West (Fast Division West), a newly designed, highly mobile type of formation that was intended to be able to cover a great deal of territory to reach a point of invasion. It was thought that a number of these formations would be set up in France, each with greater mobility and transport than a standard panzer division. German industry was unable to provide the vehicles for these units, and only a single brigade was formed, known as Schnelle Brigade West. This was largely fitted out with captured French halftracks and light tanks that had been armoured and up-gunned by a mechanical engineer by the name of Alfred Becker. Working at a conversion facility near Paris called Baukommando Becker, Becker provided the unit with most of its transport and all of its assault guns. On June 17, 1943 Schnelle Brigade West was upgraded to Schnelle Division West, and on June 27, 1943 was assigned the name 21st Panzer Division in memory of the unit that had fought and been captured in North Africa. Major Becker was assigned the command of the division's assault gun battalion, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 200.
The only unit specially formed for the division was the 305th Army Flak Battalion. The 1st Battalion of this unit was now fully equipped with four companies of 88 mm guns mounted on half tracks and two companies of 20 mm guns, also mounted on halftracks. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were equipped with 150 mm Hummels (self-propelled artillery). The Division did operate mainly captured French tanks, which were supposed to have been replaced by three companies of 22 PzKpfw IIIs per Battalion and one company of 22 PzKpfw IVs. This transfer was not carried out until the first weeks of May 1944 and even then the Battalions only received 17 Mark IIIs and 14 Mark IVs.
Rommel believed that the invasion needed to be stopped on the beaches, Gerd von Rundstedt the Commander-in-chief West, along with Geyr von Schweppenburg (Panzer Group West) disagreed. Hitler vacillated and placed the armour in the middle, far enough back to be useless to Rommel, not far enough for von Rundstedt. As a result of this 21st Panzer was placed near Caen, in the area of the British /Canadian landings. The SS units that were supposed to support the division could not be released as they were under Hitler's direct command.
For the first day of the Allied landings, 21st Panzer operated alone. Hampered by enemy air attacks, it managed to find and engage British Paratroop forces at Ranville. The division gave the British a hard fight until it received orders to withdraw in the late morning.
Ordered to check the British advance on Caen in the evening, the Germans succeeded in reaching the coast at Lion-sur-Mer and drove a wedge between the British 3rd Infantry and the 3rd Canadian Divisions.
Rommel had been away from the front during the first days of the invasion but arrived back and re-assumed command on 9 June. The division was grouped with two SS units under the command of Sepp Dietrich which were to push northwest to retake Bayeux but this plan was abandoned when the divisional staff were killed in a bombing raid.
The division continued to fight as part of the front throughout June and July. Between 6 June and 8 July, 21st Panzer reported the loss of 54 Panzer IVs, with 17 Panzer IVs arriving as replacements. On 3 July a German report stated the following number of enemy tanks destroyed by 21st Panzer according to weapon used: Pz: 37, Sturmgeschütz: 15, Mot. Pak & Flak: 41, Artillery: 3, Infantry: 5. Total 101. To 27 July German tank losses continued in similar numbers.
Between 6 June and 7 August, British reports based on captured vehicles suggested that about half of the German tanks knocked out were because of armour-piercing ammunition; the rest by a roughly equal combination of infantry anti-tank weapons, artillery, aircraft rockets or cannon, or were abandoned/destroyed by their crews.
The surviving forces of the 21st Panzer were then almost entirely lost in the Falaise Pocket. The remnants of the unit merged with the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. Of the 223 tanks of the 21st and other Divisions captured in the area by British forces between 8–31 August, about three quarters were abandoned/destroyed by their crews.
In September 1944 the division was boosted by merging the 112th Panzer Brigade with the 100th Panzer Regiment, which had been equipped with two companies of Panther tanks and two companies of Panzer IVs. The much reduced division took part in the retreat to the German border and fought notable defensive battles in Epinal, Nancy, Metz and the Saar area. It was withdrawn to refit in Kaiserslautern.
On 25 January 1945 the division was reformed as a much reduced Panzer Division, reminiscent of its 'African' days. Its last commander was Oberst Helmut Zollenkopf. The division contained just a single battalion, based on the 22nd Panzer Regiment. It contained one Flak platoon, two Panther companies, and two more of Panzer IV tanks. The last recorded delivery of reinforcements was made on 9 February 1945 when it was redeployed to the Eastern Front. It fought the advancing Red Army at Goerlitz, Slatsk and Cottbus, inflicting heavy losses. Exhausted and lacking any servicable tanks the unit surrendered to the Soviets on 29 April 1945, the day before Adolf Hitler's suicide in his Berlin Bunker.
Commander: Lieutenant General Edgar Feuchtinger
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