Operation Dora (i)

This was a German special forces raid by men of Oberstleutnant Paul Haehling von Lanzenauer’s Lehr-Regiment ‘Brandenburg’ zbV 800 (from 20 November 1942 Sonderverband ‘Brandenburg’) into southern Libya for an attempted disruption of the Allied lines of communication across the African continent (26 January 1942/21 January 1943).

It was in the closing stages of 1941 that the Sonderverband 288 of the Lehr-Regiment ‘Brandenburg’ zbV 800 was first ordered to operate in the region to the south of the main Axis positions in North Africa.

Separately, a reinforced Brandenburg company numbering about 300 men was organised for African operations under the command of Oberleutnant (later Hauptmann) Fritz von Koenen, the the son of a farmer from the former German colony of South-West Africa taken by the South Africans in World War I. Other officers and men of this company were also African-born or the sons of settlers from the colonies lost in World War I (Cameroon, Togo, German East Africa and German South-West Africa), and still others were from the Arab-speaking world.

The company was officially the 13th Kompanie of the 13th Lehrregiment 'Brandenburg' zbV 800, and was otherwise known as the Tropischen-Kompanie (Tropical Company) or Afrika-Kompanie. In October 1941, a half-company under von Koenen flew from Brandenburg to Naples and thence to Tripoli. The other half-company went to Naples to serve as a replenishment, recuperation and staging area for Brandenburger operations.

The Brandenburgers at first did little but acclimatise themselves, for Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander of the Panzergruppe 'Afrika' (from January 1942 Panzerarmee 'Afrika') was not well disposed to special forces operations. Thus it was not until June 1942 that the Brandenburgers saw action after they had been tasked to link with anti-British Egyptians for sabotage operations, seize bridges and other key objectives, etc. The classic Brandenburger tactic, as practiced on the Eastern Front, was to use captured vehicles and wear enemy greatcoats over their uniforms, mix into retreating columns and seize an objective before the retreating troops could destroy it ahead of the main advance.

Like the British Long Range Desert Group, the Brandenburgers also operated to the south into the Sahara Desert in search of oases and other water sources would make it possible for larger forces to bypass coastal defences and outflank the British forces. Several Brandenburgers were killed at Bir Hakeim in June 1942 and in the 1st Battle of El Alamein during July. After the failure to break through at El Alamein, a stalemate ensued in Egypt until Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery launched his 8th Army counter-offensive late in October 1942 in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.

On 5 December 1942, two half-strength companies under the command of von Koenen were flown to Hammamet in Tunisia with orders to take the field against the US and French forces on the southern flank of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army, which had landed in French North-West Africa in 'Torch' on 7 November.

On 26 December, von Koenen’s 30-man Brandenburger commando team departed from the airfield at Bizerte on the Tunisian coast in three DFS 230 gliders, and after release glided toward their first target, the railway bridge near the village of Sidi bou Baker spanning the Wadi el Kébir in central Tunisia. Protected by French troops, the bridge was about 120 ft (36.5 m) long, and was destroyed by the Germans after they had overcome the little French guard force. The German team then destroyed its gliders and started its 120-mile (195-km) to the Italian garrison fortress of Maknassi.

On the same day, a second team of 10 Brandenburger commandos under the command of Leutnant Hagenauer completed a similar mission against a bridge near Kasserine in southern Tunisia. The Germans arrived as planned and destroyed the target bridge but then, as they were returning toward the German lines, they were intercepted by a French light armoured reconnaissance patrol and captured.

On 18 January 1943, a team of Brandenburgers led by Leutnant Fuchs destroyed the bridge over the Wadi el Melah in southern Tunisia. The arrived at their target in a truck and destroyed the target which was, in fact, of little importance to the Allies.

In 'Dora' (i), the German force established a base at an abandoned Italian airfield as a listening post to intercept Allied radio communications in North Africa, and as a hub from which Allied lines of supply could be raided.

In June 1942 the Brandenburgers had despatched a Sonderkommando (task force) from Tripoli, capital of the Italian colony of Libya, on a 2,485 mile (4000 km) journey across the Sahara desert to the French colony of Chad in central Africa. Under the command of Oberleutnant Conrad von Leipzig, the task force of about 100 men travelled in 24 captured and refurbished British military vehicles, including 12 trucks each fitted with a 40-mm gun, four Jeeps each armed with machine guns, one command vehicle, one signals truck, one fuel tanker, one water tanker and one small maintenance truck.

The object of the raid was first to assess the Free French situation in Equatorial Africa, and second to undertake tactical operations against the Allied trans-African supply route extending from the Gulf of Guinea via Chad to Port Sudan in the British colony of Sudan.

Supported by aircraft of the Kampfgeschwader 200 and operating from the existing forward base on the Tassili plateau in southern Libya, the Sonderkommando was despatched in three columns toward the Tibesti mountains and the oasis of Ghat.

Departing in either June or July 1942, the convoy drove 620 miles (1000 km) via Hun and Sabbah to Marzuq, an Italian garrison in south-eastern Libya. Here an airstrip was built about 35 miles (55 miles) from the town of Al Qatrun to the south of Marzuq where, it was hoped, a number of Supermarine Spitfire fighters, captured from the British and refurbished, could be deployed for operation by Brandenburger pilots. Al Qatrun was to serve as the Brandenburger’s primary base of operations.

Leading the first of the three columns, von Leipzig then headed toward the Tassili plateau in south-eastern Algeria, where the Brandenburgers hoped to establish a forward staging base. No sooner had they reached the Tassili mountain region, however, than the Brandenburgers were discovered by a French light armoured unit, which immediately attacked them. For the next few days the Germans managed to keep one step ahead of the French, who then planned trap the Brandenburgers in a small Arab village located about 35 miles (55 km) from the little town of Ghezehida in Algeria.

By this time the British and the French were reacting to the totally unexpected arrival of German troops in that part of Africa. More French and British colonial troops, supported by special forces, were ordered to converge on the Brandenburgers. von Leipzig decided that he had to extricate his men, who buried their German uniforms and donned captured French kit, and then drove straight to a French unit and told them that they were one of the many parties sent to the region to catch the German infiltrators. The ruse worked, and the French local commander gave them food and supplies. Then, however, a French officer gave one of the Brandenburgers an order, and this man happened to be the only one who spoke no French. In the resulting confusion, von Leipzig ordered his men to their trucks and escaped without loss before heading for the Libyan border once more. The French outpost awaited the arrival of a more senior officer before responding, and by this time it was too late. Of von Leipzig’s column, only four men were killed, in the course of a firefight with French forces on a mountain top.

Under the command of Feldwebel Stegmann, the second column moved through Tibesti mountain range in northern Chad and thence headed toward Lake Chad. The column’s assignment was to operate in French Equatorial Africa and cause as much havoc as possible. Two days after departing, the column was charged by Bedouin tribesmen, but Stegmann maintained his composure and ordered his men to remain perfectly still. It then became clear that the charge was a Bedouin test of courage. The Tibbu Bedouins vehemently opposed French rule, and were therefore more than willing to help the Germans. With Bedouin help, the Germans were able to infiltrate the ancient caravan town of Bardai, which was held by only a company-sized unit of French troops.

It did not take the Germans long to ascertain the fact that a strong contingent of French troops were on their way to the area, though, so Stegmann decided to return to Libya, and 14 days later his column reached Marzuq.

Under the command of Leutnant Becker, the third column was to advance toward Ghat in south-western Libya and thence probe into southern Algeria. The column was to avoid combat situations if possible. Beyond Ghat, however, Becker’s column entered a village occupied by French forces. Through a series of clever subterfuges, the Brandenburgers were able to create a condition of medical quarantine in the region, and no additional French forces dared to enter the quarantine area. The local population supported the German ruse, for it too was against French rule.

This third column also returned without loss to the German lines in Libya.

After being recalled from Marzuq as a result of the British victory in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, von Leipzig reported that it would take several divisions and a more effective logistical base to undertake the task of destabilising the French and British position in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, and severing the Allied logistical route across Africa. On the day that the Brandenburgers were recalled to Tripoli, the promised Spitfire aircraft arrived. A few reconnaissance missions were flown, the resulting reports were not encouraging as the Axis position in North Africa was now too precarious. Shortly before the capitulation of all the German and Italian forces in North Africa during May 1943, the surviving Brandenburger men in North Africa were withdrawn and brought back to Germany and there readied for redeployment into the Balkans.