The last hours in Africa

A group of Luftwaffe soldiers pose before the camera as they are about to go back to Europe. This could be in 1942 or early 1943, before the collapse of the German Forces in North Africa. Some of the soldiers wear pith helmets, the tropical helmets associated with troops in warmer climes. The kneeling guy on the left keeps his rifle in a cloth bag, which protects it from sand and dust. Most of them wear dark brown greatcoats, indicating that the photo might have been taken early in the morning before the temperature rose. How will they go back? Neither transport by air, nor by ship was safe. The Allied forces harried the German transport routes, which was one of the reasons why the Germans were beaten in North Africa; troops, supplies and fuel were lost to Allied attack aircraft, submarines, torpedo boats, and so on. Crossing from Tunisia via Sicily to the Italian mainland was the shortest route, and the fact that the soldier who mounted that photo in his album could write the caption tells us that he and his friends made it.

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“Heia Safari!”

Gefreiter wearing the tropical uniform used in North Africa and some parts of the Mediterranian Theater of Operations. While I cannot say for sure that he belongs to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, it is likely that the photo was shot either in southern Italy while waiting to be shipped over, or shortly after the arrival to Africa. Troops who had served in Africa for two months got the right to wear the “Afrikakorps” cuff title on the left sleeve.

Still, the young soldier in the photo has some experience. He has the ribbons for the Iron Cross, 2nd class (button hole) and the Kriegsverdienstkreuz (War Merit Cross, over left breast pocket). The War Merit Cross, which was often awarded to non-combatants and rear-area troops, was called das Feldküchensturmabzeichen (the Field Kitchen Assault Badge) by cynical frontline troops… The Infanterie-Sturmabzeichen in silver shows that he has participated in three separate assaults while serving in an infantry unit (as opposed to a motorized Panzer unit), and the Verwundeteabzeichen (Wound Badge), probably in black (paint rubbed off to reveal the brass underneath), for one or two combat wounds.

He’s wearing the tropical uniform, with the early high-laced canvas-and-leather boots, and the peaked cap. The tunic sleeves are too short, which is odd, as the Germans were pretty intent on having well-fitted uniforms (at least in the early years of the war). At least he hasn’t been issued the pith helmet (tropical helmet, which would make him look like an explorer), as the early versions of the tropical uniform was inspired by British styles.