Wednesday, December 15, 2010

HELMUTH ORSCHIEDT`S WAR IN AFRICA

FOTOS AND DESCRIPTION OF THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA 1941-43
TAKEN BY HELMUTH ORSCHIEDT AND OTHERS.

This is a document from experiences of Helmuth Orschiedt, an Afrikakorps veteran, that take part on the North African theatre from 1941 to 1943. All the pictures and text was a great contribution for this website from Mr. Helmuth itself.
HELMUTH ORSCHIEDT (1941)
HELMUTH ORSCHIEDT (2000)


Kanonier, Gefr., Uffz (40-42); 42-43 Fhj.-Wachtmeister; 44-45 San.-Feldwebel 
DAK 33rd Artilerie Regiment, 15th Pz Division

Born May 9, 1923

Summer 1940: In the 8th grade of the Realgymnasium (High School) at Ludwigshafen we youngsters (17 and 18 years old) were afraid we would be late to be „victorious". Most of us went to the local recruiting office and volunteered. At that time this was a matter of honour. My father wanted me to become an officer in the artillery like he was one. Before joining the army, I had to pass several days examination for physical and mental fitness.

October 1940: The day of joining the army had come. I was drafted to the reserve battalion of the 33rd. Artillery Regiment, located at Darmstadt, Cambrai-Barracks. I got my „Abitur" (Highschool Graduation) on the grounds of existing ratings. Basic drill began and it was tough, specially under the supervision of senior NCOs having undergone tough training themselves in the Reichswehr. Our chief drillmaster was Sgt. Maurus, a little man, Bavarian, ruthless and with a voice like the trumpets of Jericho. He drilled us how to walk, great, stand in line, march, handle the rifle (Carbine 98k) and other things „to become a soldier".

November 1940: Transfer to Landau where the regimental HQ was stationed. Further training on the new LFH 18, 105 mm (Light Field Howitzer). The regiment was still horse-drawn and in a transition of being motorised, i.e. the guns got hard rubber rimmed wheels, half-track tow trucks arrived and soldiers were trained to driving the new equipment. Training was more aimed towards handling the equipment. Our chief drillmaster was Staff-Sgt. Wengermeyer, also Bavarian, tall, slim, tough. We respected him.

Burning British infantry tank Mark II (Mathilda) in front of Fort Capuzzo during „Operation Battle Axe" 15th to 17th June 1941. Photo by Fritz Sturm.
The same tank under artillery fire of the German defence before it was on fire. The crew got out alive and was taken prisoner. Photo: Fritz Sturm.
January 1941: Transfer to the 1st Battalion A.R.33 stationed at Bergzabern. I was newcomer to a seasoned troop which had already participated in the French Campaign. I met new comrades, some nice men, with whom I was in touch till their death some years back.

February 1941: The entire regiment moved to the field training camp Baumholder. We continued training together with tanks and infantry and shot life ammunition, improved our knowledge of changing positions fast and how to fire at tanks directly. What an experience of firing an artillery piece! I learned driving car and light truck. Specially this was a pleasant activity because we often drove away from the camp on state roads and on the new Autobahn, like on an excursion.

April 1941: All of a sudden we were informed our next trip would go South to North Afrika. In a hurry all equipment received tan camouflage, our grey uniforms were exchanged against tropical khaki, we were examined for physical fitness. Within less than 2 weeks the regiment was ready to go, equipment loaded on platform train wagons and we rolled south through Germany and Italy till we arrived at Naples. Coming out of the cold April we enjoyed the warmth of the Italian spring. All along our train ride we were greeted and when stopping at a station Italians came with vine and oranges wishing us good luck. Our quarters in Naples were in the suburb of Bagnoli. Aside from drill on our guns we toured the area, Pompei, Mount Vesuvio, Ercolaneo, Sorrento, Blue Grottoes etc. The good life was over soon.

May 1941: During the first week we started loading equipment on board of the merchant ship „Ernesto"and sailed on 8th May around Sicily, passing the little island of Pantelleria. My 18th birthday was on 9th May. After 3 days we arrived at Tripoli, safe of having been torpedoed or bombed and strafed by aircraft. The convoy was unloaded immediately. During the first half hour on land we staggered around like seamen. We drove out of the port as soon as we could and headed for camp on km no.5. There were still other troops of the 15th Panzer Division. Gradually, they moved out and travelled East to the front. Our 2nd and 3rd battalions had already moved to Tobruk. After a few days in Camp km No.5 in order to get used to the hot Libyan climate orders came to take position on the Egyptian border. The trip on the Via Balbia to the West of Tobruk and from there on the dusty perimeter trail to the East of Tobruk, back on the Via Balbia to Ridotta Capuzzo took us about a week. We took position near point 206, about 5 km South of Capuzzo right at the barbed wire fence which formed the Egyptian border. Digging in was impossible because of an absolutely rocky underground. We had to build up stone walls for eventual shrapnel protection. An Italian battery was already in position to our right. Nice guys. It was quiet. The British were far away, out of our shooting range and so were we out of theirs. Accidentally, I met my old school mate Fritz Haege, member of MG Battalion 115 and visited him in his position about 1 km forward, not suspecting that this was the last time I saw him. He was killed in action on 2nd December 1941 near Bardia.

June 1941: At sunrise on 15th June, after a cold night, I woke up by the screaming noise and explosions of artillery shells in front of our position. I was scared. The first time I experienced shelling. The whole battery got ready as shelling continued. Orders were shouted. Quiet life at the Egyptian border had ended. The Tommy was attacking our positions, though we did not see him at all. Our gun received orders to pull out and join another battery, a company of tanks and a battery of 88 mm FLAK and some infantry. Our tow truck pulled in and we hooked up. We drove first West and then South and during the day, always moving, had several contacts with British tanks, mostly crusaders MK IV. Their attempts to break through our defence lines were not successful. Our tanks and the 88 mm FLAK hit many of them and by the afternoon the desert was full of smoke from burning tanks and other vehicles. I saw the first dead soldiers both German and British. We rested during the night and continued fighting the next day, again moving a lot like in a sea battle. During another attack, when firing our gun, I was swirled around and hit with my right leg the left strut of the guns carriage. My leg swell and walking was painful but I did not want to leave our crew. The injury got better after several hours. During another attack of British tanks a tank grenade hit the axle of our gun and wounded our 1st gunner, Cpl. Ludwig Selig. After he was bandaged, he also stayed with the crew. The damage to the gun was not very severe and we could still move. We suffered very much from thirst, the heat and being dirty all over from the dust without any possibility to wash up. On the third day the fighting was over and the Tommy had retreated to his starting positions. We called this „The Sollum Battle", the British called it „Operation Battleaxe". Their goal was breaking the siege of Tobruk, but their efforts failed with the loss of nearly 100 tanks. But the units of the Afrika-Korps also had to lick their wounds.

I had no idea where we had been driving around, except I could sense we had been going South and East in our counter attack. Then we returned towards Bardia and rested, not taking our former position at the Egyptian border. We maintained and repaired our equipment, washed our uniforms, went swimming in the bay of Bardia, repaired the Via Balbia, helped to salvage goods from a half-sunken British freighter at the rock coast West of Bardia. We needed ropes to climb down the cliffs and swam over to the ship. The salvaged goods were tied together into rafts and then pulled ashore and hoisted up the cliff. We salvaged tinned fruit, potatoes, bacon, butter, sausages, meat, powdered milk, biscuits, tobacco, cigarettes and much more. All those goods helped to improve our tough living conditions in the summer heat of the desert.

22.Juni 1941: We were informed that the German army had started to attack the Soviet Union. We could not say much but looked into our eyes and discovered our thoughts. Some of the older soldiers said it was about time to get out of here, some others wondered how to get this engagement here finished. One had to be careful with remarks, anyway.

Then, all of a sudden, the ever present wind turned into a storm and a wall of sand approached from the South : GHIBLI, the much feared sandstorm killed every activity for three days. Sand and dust everywhere, even inside wrist watches. We wrapped our heads in clothes and laid down. Nothing else could be done to survive. We hardly could eat, always biting on sand. Then it was over as suddenly as coming.

Life in the desert was tough. Before starting out for North Africa I do not remember that we were told anything about conditions and how to cope with the different climate. But we learned very fast.

Most aggravating was the shortage of potable water. Derna was the only place to get good water. But for that the supply trucks had to make a three day journey around Tobruk on that ill-reputed dust trail and back. And there was always a shortage of petrol. Water wells between Tobruk and the frontier were few. Those accessible had been damaged or were polluted by the enemy. Anyway, the water we got most of the time was kind of dirty and tasted of salt. Did you ever drink coffee or tea made with salty water? Aside from being of inferior quality, water was extremely scarce. Water purification plants were not available. With our personal equipment, we had small canvas washing basins which helped much to conserve water.

Then our diet which was kind of dull: Dried vegetable soup, A.M.= Amministrazione Militare = tinned beef (we called it „Alter Mann" = Old Man), tinned sardines, hard cheese, ADA Tubenkäse (soft cheese), Knäckebrot (thin dried rye bread) preserved dark bread (Wittler Dauerbrot), occasionally captured British food which we considered a delicacy.

Our unit (I./Pz.A.R.33) took position during the second half of May 1941 about 5 km south of Fort Capuzzo at the Libyan-Egyptian border right behind the barbed wire fence which marked the frontier, after having arrived by ship convoy in Tripolis, coming from Naples, Italy. We marched to the front along the Libyan coast on the „Via Balbia" and on a very dusty trail around Tobruk. Our battalions II and III./Pz.A.R.33 had arrived earlier and had taken positions at the Tobruk perimeter. Here at the frontier we reinforced our gun positions by stone walls. Also the dugouts for the gunners were made of piled-up stone because the underground was absolutely rocky. At first, there was no fighting action because the British had retreated far back into Egypt. To protect ourselves, we built a crew tent behind our position and called it „Selig´s Nachtlokal" (Selig´s Night Club). This Ludwig Selig of Mainz/Germany was 1st gunner on our piece, an old soldier who already had participated in the French theatre. On top, he was always cheerful who was never at a loss for a bright idea. Our gun leader was Seargent Spang, also an old soldier. He is 2nd from right. I stand 2nd from left. The Foto was taken by a comrade with my camera.

A captured British medium tank Mark IV (Cruiser). The British tank brigades ware primarily equipped with Mark II and Mark IV tanks, whereby the Mark IV was distinctly faster but had a lighter armour. Both were armed with a long-barreled light gun (ca. 4 cm caliper) and 2 MGs. In as much as British tanks were captured in serviceable condition, they were used to make up for own losses, after having been marked with German symbols. However, there were only a few because most tanks falling in our hands were either badly damaged or burnt out. Photo: unknown.

We suffered much from flies. They were everywhere. We had fly nets we wore around our head to prevent a permanent molestation.

Personal hygiene was another issue. Washing, brushing teeth and shaving maybe three to four times a week. Primitive latrines (Donnerbalken) were only built when we stayed any length of time in one place. Otherwise, you walked away some distance with a spade or shovel and dug in your excrement. We called it „Spatengang"= spade walk. It was a strict order to do it that way. Unfortunately, the Italians cared less about it. The same order applied to discarded food tins or wrappings.

We also suffered under the heat. During the summer months midday temperatures ranged 40-45 degrees, night time temperature went down to near zero. But during the day there was always a breeze and almost no humidity in the air. This made the heat bearable. To find some shadow, we crawled under vehicles or under the struts of the gun carriage. The tropical helmets we were equipped with had been worn out quickly but we preferred the visor cap, anyway.

Our khaki uniforms of cotton cloth were quite adequate but during the summer we usually wore only shirt and shorts. Against the sunburn we were provided a milky liquid labelled „Tschamba Fji" which provided excellent skin protection even for the light skinned. I never had a sunburn myself because me skin took tanning easily.

In the background there is the little town of Bardia, heavily damaged during the fighting. In the middle ground one can see a cut in the terrain which is the port and our favourite bathing place to which we drove down occasionally to take a refreshing bath and wash our uniforms. Above all, washing in salty sea water was extremely difficult with normal soap because you could not get enough foam. It was easier with so-called swim soap which had some addition to produce foam. In the foreground one can see all sorts of vehicles spread over the terrain with a large distance between each to make it more difficult for an occasional strafing enemy fighter to hit. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

July/August/September 1941: On 26th July I received my routing order back to Germany for more training at the Artillery School Jueterbog (80 km S of Berlin) together with several other buddies from our regiment (Hans Meyer, Dieter Hagen, Heiner Chelius, K.H.Bunke, Hajo Mächtel, Schauß, H.G. Louis, Scheuermann, u.a.). We packed our things and started our trip back the following day, hitchhiking to Derna, the last time on the dusty trail around Tobruk. At Derna we cought a JU 52 transport plane and flew via Benghasi and Tripoli to Catania, Sicily. After resting there and cleaning up we continued by train to Naples. Again several days layover with health examination, sightseeing and hanging around. Then by train to Germany. Our trip ended at Homburg, Saar.

Our Reserve Battalion had been moved there in the meanwhile. We all got two weeks leave which I spent at home, wearing proudly my faded Africa uniform. I had become quite skinny and my dear mother did everything possible to spoil me with good home-cooked food. I enjoyed it like never before. My father, meanwhile promoted to Major and my brother, still going to highschool were also there. Leave over, I was detailed to attend driving school and learn horseback riding in a barracks at Niederlahnstein on the Rhine River. I learned to drive heavy trucks and enjoyed the horses, but also asking myself „what for?" What do they have in mind? I am member or a motorised troop! It was fun anyway.

September 1941 to June 1942: 26th Training Course at the Artillery School Jueterbog. Of course we changed to feldgrau (field grey) uniforms. We learned all the tricks of sophisticated artillery shooting. Over the weekends we drove to Berlin quite often, arriving at the Anhalter Bahnhof (no longer existing). We had a nice hotel, saw movies, went to shows, operas and theatres. I also visited my father who had been transferred to a regiment in Russia but got very ill (pneumonia) after 3 or 4 weeks and was flown back to Berlin for treatment. I left Artillery School with the rank of Fahnenjunker-Wachtmeister (Ensign-Sgt.) and was routed back to the reserve battalion. The day before changing uniform and equipment to tropical garment, I fell sick with scarlet fever: 8 weeks quarantine in the hospital! In the radio I heard of the DAK-attacks in North Africa and the successful advance into Egypt and the conquest of Tobruk. I envied my comrades who made it to Africa without catching scarlet fever. Finally, after 2 weeks of rehabilitation leave and some more organisational delays, I departed by train to Munich and from there with another troop transport by train to Athens, Greece.

This my Order of Transfer (I still have the original) with which I was sent to the Artillery School at Jueterbog for further sophisticated training. On the top edge one can see the entry of the medical examination at the Naples Check Point which says the I am free of infectious diseases. Everything had to have its regulation. Before starting training at Jueterbog, I got 2 weeks of leave which I spent at home, my mother preparing me all the goodies because I got very skinny in Afrika. Then I had to learn truck driving to obtain this class of drivers licence. (I had a car drivers licence before). Likewise, I had to attend a horseback riding course in which I saw no sense at all because I was member of a motorised troop. I liked it anyway. The training at Jueterbog lasted full six months during the winter and this one was very cold and windy, specially there 80 km south of Berlin. Coming out of the desert heat, I had a tough time. After Jueterbog followed transfer to the reserve unit where I fell sick with scarlet fever. Six weeks quarantine and 2 weeks rehabilitation leave followed. Finally, I was ordered on a train through the Balkans to Athens and from there flew to Crete and on to El Adem South of Tobruk. From there hitchhiking to my regiment, now at the El Alamein front.

This is the „Thank you for condolence card" of the parents of my school buddy Fritz Haege with whom I went to the same school for 11 years. He served in the MG-Battalion of the same division I was in. We had met the last time in our positions at point 206 in June 1941. He fell in Operation Cruisader in autumn 1941 near Bardia when his battalion drove into an ambush of the New Zealand Maori Battalion. The MG Battalion was nearly anihilated and only 14 out of about 450 got out alive. At that time I was in Jueterbog/Germany for training.

July to October 1942: Having arrived in Athens on 3rd July in the summer heat, I flew after 3 days from Tatoi Airport to Heraklion, Crete, and after a layover of 2 days to El Adem, the airport South of Tobruk, as backboard gunner. We flew only 20 to 30 meters above the water in a convoy of about 30 planes and I had volunteered to man the backboard MG 15 thinking of defending myself rather than sitting helpless in the cabin in case of an enemy air attack. But crossed over safely. Having landed at El Adem we were rushed out and away. 15 Minutes later a British bomber squadron bombed the airfield but in the meantime the JU 52 were already on their way back to Crete. There was no time to waste.

I found a truck heading East to the front and we drove off while first going down to the port of Tobruk picking up supplies. Unbelievable: I was IN TOBRUK! Everything was in a mess. Only ruined buildings and the port full of sunk ships. But the depots were full of Tommy stuff. Two days later I was let off at our regiments supply unit near El Daba. I met some old buddies who invited me for something to eat. What a change to 1941: All had British equipment such as Primus petrol stoves, pans, food and squatted in the dunes to cook something exotic. They also wore British shirts, shorts, boots and underwear. I also noticed the large number of captured British vehicles, now with our symbols. The prey at Tobruk must have been enormous. Our pleasure was spoiled, however, by a British fighter strafing our area. One of us was hit in the heel and our meal was full of sand. I learned from the others of the growing presence of British planes. The general situation was noticeably different from 1941. In the afternoon we drove to a building at El Daba which had been used by the British as a bakery. There was a pile of fresh bread and some more in the still hot ovens. What a difference to our bread! It was white, fresh and we ate it like cake.

A map of the Libyan coastal region where most of the fighting took place.
(click to a biggest version)

On the following day I drove with a ¾-ton truck across the desert to the middle section of the El Alamein front to report to our regimental headquarters (El Ruweisat). All were pretty excited and in a great hurry because the first battle of El Alamein was still going on. I was quickly detailed to join the 5th battery of the 2nd battalion of our regiment. Back from the HQ a few hundred meters in a wadi I met Hajo Maechtel who invited me for some cooking while I was waiting for transportation to my battery. Again, this meal was spoiled by a flight of 2-engined bombers which crossed our wadi and dropped their bombs right into it. I had barely the time to jump in a foxhole for protection. Now, my senses began to sharpen. This was another fighting compared with 1941. Soon after this bombing surprise I found transportation to the 5th battery. Now what a surprise: I reported to our old Staff-Sgt. Josef Wengermeyer, our drillmaster from Landau, who had been promoted to Oberleutnant (Lt. 1st class) and was our battery chief. Although now an officer himself, I had the feeling he did not like officer aspirants very much. I was detailed to head the ammunition supply lorries. In view of growing air superiority of the Tommy and with the idea of lorries loaded with artillery ammunition this was quite an awkward feeling. Anyway, I did not make many trips between ammunition depot and battery position because there was mostly nothing to transport. We carried out several changes of position and always the front part of the lorries (and other vehicles likewise) had to be dug in for protection against shrapnels. This saved us a lot of material, indeed. Occasionally the Tommy started to fire at us like crazy, at one occasion throughout the night. We suffered some dead and wounded and material damage. It was terrible to lie in your dugout and wait for the direct hit. Praying to the All mighty and thinking of home helped to somewhat quiet your mind and to await the inevitable, if it had to be. This was war, different of what we thought it would be when we were the innocent youngsters. And it was the time of our youth which we spent out there in the African desert, helping the inadequately armed Italians to fight the Tommy. We did it for our fatherland and our Führer - we thought. We learned the other side was as efficient and stubborn and good fighters, just as we were.

A group of officers, discussing. Left Colonel Crasemann, our regimental commander with two unidentified officers. Photo: unknown.
Sgt. Hans Waechter of Hassloch/Germany gets his back scrubbed by Sgt. Host Fargel of Bruchsal/Germany. It was a quiet day on the El Alamein front and a truck had brought water for washing. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

War Christmas 1942 during the retreat from the El Alamein front. To celebrate the day special rations were issued consisting of extra bread, red vine and some other goodies. We are on the retreat and the warrant officers were generous because supply depots were emptied and goods left were set afire. In the centre holding a bread loaf, that´s me. To my right is my driver Private Heimann of Panrod (Taunus)/Germany. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt (self timer).

One morning in August I felt lousy and threw up everything I had eaten. I reported to Old Wengermeyer and he sent me to see the doctor who only looked in my eyes, declaring I had jaundice (hepatitis infectiosa) and told me I was to go to hospital without further delay. Stumbling back to the battery I packed my things and an ambulance transported me and several others to the Field Hospital at Derna. A long way to go! I was more dead than alive when I arrived there. Against a receipt every patient had to turn his side arm. I said good bye to me good, reliable Spanish Revolver (a S&W copy) which I liked to much and which was my personal property. By the way, I did not get it back and had to be satisfied with a 7,65 mm pistol when I was released. Treatment was very good and after 2 weeks I felt much better and was again able to walk around. Almost every 2nd day I walked into Derna and bought fresh fruit, specially tomatoes, on the market. These helped me even more to recover. Besides Derna, Tripoli and Benghasi where about the only places where we got in touch with civilians. They were very friendly. Out in the desert where the fighting was, there were none. I heard of the Battle of Alam el Halfa (Sechs-Tage-Rennen - Six Day Race - we called it) and the failure and heavy losses. On the one hand, I was sorry not to be with my buddies, on the other hand I was glad to be in Derna. My blood and liver values became slowly better and I was able to recover the lost weight.

The day before I left the Field Hospital I attended the funeral of Flt.Cpt. Hans-Joachim Marseille, famous fighter pilot who had died after a fatal bail-out from his ME 109 fighter.

Hoisting on board of equipment (sFH 18 = schwere Feldhaubitze 18=Heavy Field Howitzer Mod. 18) in the port of Naples/Italy. Photo: Hajo Maechtel.
LFH 18 (Light Field Howitzer 18) of the II./Pz.AR 33 in firing position at Tobruk, April 1941. Photo: Heiner Chelius.
The travelled back to the El Alamein front by hitchhiking. Speaking about hitchhiking I made the experience that Italian drivers always stopped to give you a ride whereas German drivers often neglected the turned-up thumb. Italians in general were brave soldiers and very good comrades but many of their officers were „softies". They had a great handicap: Their weapons and tanks were lousy equipment, specially the tanks were „rolling coffins".

Back in my battery's position I reported to a new chief. Old Wengermeyer had been sent back to Germany for more Officer's Training, I heard. I was detailed to join the advanced artillery observer. I was there with my buddies Sgt. Hans Waechter and Sgt. Horst Vargel and a Lt. whose name I have forgotten. Squatting behind the „Scissors Telescope" (24 power), I could look across to see the Tommy building up a strong force of tanks and guns. Bombing aggravated and we knew the day of the British attack would not be far. After two to three weeks there, I was again detailed to command the ammunition lorries. Bombing became harder every day. Mine fields were behind us and we could transport supplies only through alleys cleared by our engineers. Of course, the British artillery knew these alleys and directed their guns to them. Irregularly, they sent over a few rounds. Thus it was always a gamble when to use those alleys. On one occasion I was right in there and we jumped for cover. Two of our men had been wounded by shrapnel.

I am writing a letter home. May 1941 at the egyptian border. Inspite of all the supply problems, mail service to home and back was pretty regularly. My mother even sent small dry cakes which always arrived in excellent condition. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt (a buddy has taken the shot).

May 1941: A captured British artillery tow truck, lightly armoured. It featured very efficient cross country tyres and an excellent motor. Inside the truck there was room for the gun crew with equipment. Note the swastika emblem for intended use of the truck at the front. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

23th October 1942: The front was fairly quiet except for some air activity of the enemy. With several buddies I was sitting in candle light under the canvas of a 3/4 ton truck playing cards. About a quarter to ten p.m. we called it a day and started to retire to our dug outs and tents through the moon-lit desert. Halfway to my tent which I shared with my driver Private Heimann, the eastern horizon lit up suddenly like flashes of a huge thunderstorm and seconds later I heard the thunder of artillery fire. I knew instantly: This is the beginning of the British attack and the release of the masses of tanks and artillery I had observed from my forward post as artillery observer. The fire did not reach us because it was directed against the large mine fields having been built for defence. After a while, maybe half-an-hour, the uninterrupted roar subsided and we heard sporadic shooting in the distance. Southeast of our position the same scene.

During the next days we had to change positions several times during that battle which moved back and forth but mainly to the advantage of the British. Bombing was quite heavy. When moving, we had developed a certain strategy to evade bomb carpets by closely observing the maneuvers of bomber squadrons and the instant they dropped bombs. With running motors we drove out full throttle at a ninety degree angle from the expected bombing carpet and normally, we made it to a safe distance. It was always a gamble but it worked, saving us casualties and material losses.

When the British attacked a ridge which was held by us we came again under heavy artillery fire which we answered with the few rounds we had available. We had to pull out and take another position to the rear. One of our howitzers had to be left behind because its half-track tow truck was damaged. My lorry, a strong Canadian Chevrolet, all steel, ammunition on board received the order to retrieve than gun. It was standing in a flat depression maybe 1 km away. Although the area was covered with enemy fire, we got it out in a hurry, not suffering any casualties.

Then I had to drive off with two lorries to get ammunition. On the way to the depot my lorry collided with a self-propelled ant-tank gun, changing position. The rear axle was hit and spring leaves bent. As I knew where to find the maintenance company we drove there whereas the other lorry continued to the ammo depot. They had a spare spring and guiding rod and with their help we exchanged it. Later at the ammo depot we loaded what we could find but there was not much left. I tried to find my battery and in driving around I was stopped by an officer and ordered to retreat. He said we have to go back, the defence line was no longer to be held and should report to a check point near Tobruk. By the time we arrived there, this check point had been moved to Benghasi. Retreat during the first few days was pretty fast because the British were always on our heels. As their supply lines became longer, their momentum slowed down much.

Our problem always was how to get petrol. I don't remember how but my driver Heimann always „organized" enough to keep us going. At the Benghasi checkpoint I received the order to join the „Ballerstedt Group" at Buerat. There we built the Buerat Line: Mine fields, trenches, barbed wire, dugouts, gun positions. This defence line extended south into the desert about 20 km. It did not help, anyway, because the main force of the British 8th Army travelled in the south and could easily cut off our troops. Our efforts had been useless.

An attempt to keep clean, often a futile attempt in the desert with poor water supply. To the left is my buddy Heiner Chelius who lives now in Melbourne, Australia and has become a honorary member of the „Rats of Tobruk" veteran organisation. The photo was taken in the position of the II./Pz.AR 33 before Tobruk in April 1941. Photo: unknown.

During a silent day before Tobruk. In the search for some comfort, the upholstered seats have been removed from a defective car. Note the fly net around the head of Heiner Chelius. Everybody has suffered very much under the fly plague. When eating something, one had to wave away the flies in order not to eat them, too. Photo: unknown.

Christmas 1942 was there and we were sitting in the desert. In spite of all the chaos connected with a retreating army, supply had found us and delivered vine, some chocolate, fresh bread and other goodies we hadn't seen in months. Temperatures were mild, around 20-25 degrees. Meanwhile the Americans had landed in Morocco. We knew this would be the end and only a question of time.

January/March 1943: After a short rest we moved on towards Tripoli, passing by the oasis of Beni Ulid in very hilly and rocky country. Coming down the hills I met my old buddy Lt. Hans Meyer who was in the staff of our battalion. After a short chat he told me the directions to Azizia, a small town South of Tripoli and that our division would join with fresh troops having been ferried over from Sicily in a hurry. On my trip between Buerat and Beni Ulid I was wounded on my right index finger. It was infected and hurt terribly. Near Beni Ulid I finally found a doctor. He cut a slit in my finger, new bandage, and let me go. After Azizia, where we stayed several days, well camouflaged under trees (!!), we moved in direction of Tripoli and further west towards Tunesia. I think we crossed the border of Tunesia around the 15th January 1943. Time went by with maintenance, reorganisation, -- and the problem with my finger which would not heal.

What a change in landscape! We thought having come to paradise, out of the almost vegetation free desert into date palm tree groves, little water brooklets, civilian people, houses, animals, back to civilisation. We heard the muezzin calling for prayer, ate fresh dates, had good water, shadow. The Mareth line was readied for defence. On a mission to Sousse my supply lorries were attacked by planes. We saw them coming early enough to jump for cover. Funny planes we thought, twin-hulled and quite maneuverable, we had not seen any of those before. Must have been American Lightnings. One lorry was hit and we had to leave it behind. When these Lightnings flew away, w thought of being safe. But were surprised of being machine gunned at from the rear of the cupola! There was another gunner!

British 25-pounder (caliber 3.5in = 8.76 cm) howitzer in the first line of the German positions at point 206 at the Sollum front, about 5 km south of Fort Capuzzo. In this position the MG-Battalion 15 was stationed in which my school buddy Fritz Haege served. The photo was taken when I visited him in his position. The day before, he had visited with me in our artillery position, about 1.5 km away. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

Sollum front, May 1941: General Rommel with entourage inspecting our position. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.
In spite of seeing a doctor or medical as often as I could, my finger would not heal and one day my right thigh started to hurt which became worse from day to day. I had to go to hospital because walking was almost impossible. I remembered the Sollum Battle in June 1941 when I smashed against the gun's carriage. In the Sousse hospital they X-rayed my and discovered a swelling on the bone but did not dare to operate because of an uncertain diagnosis. My leg was put in splints, I was immobile and suffered from pain. Soon, I was told to be evacuated and two days later transported to Sfax, then the following day, still spinted and on stretcher loaded on a hospital ship anchored about 1 mile out on the Mediterranean. I left Africa about the 15th March 1943 and arrived a few days later via Naples and from there by hospital train at Rosenheim, Bavaria, where I stayed during the following six month.

Firing position of a light field howitzer 18 od the 5./Pz.AR 33 at the El Alamein front. It was a quiet day. The crew is standing in line behind. Foto: Helmuth Orschiedt.

A destroyed British Mark II (Mathilda) is being inspected thoroughly and searched for cigarettes, tobacco, biscuits, marmalade, sausages, corned beef, tinned potatoes and fruit, and other (for us) rare foods. The British also had very good sleeping bags and plankets which were much wanted because nights in the desert could get quite cold. They also had on each vehicle one or more petrol-fuelled Primus cooking stoves. These, too, were much wanted because we could then cook our own meals from captured food. With the British, however, I heard our field kitchens were much wanted as well as our canvas boots. Photo: unknown.

This is the famous bathing bay below Bardia at the Sollum front in May 1941. We could really enjoy bathing and swimming without fear of being strafed by enemy fighters. During the hot months daytime temperatures in the desert went up to 45 C or more. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

A German tank advancing through the desert. Note the enormous development of dust, not only by tanks but by wheel vehicles likewise. Because of the mine fields we generally used cleared trails on which the surface was ground to dust by the many vehicles. But also in open terrain a cloud of dust always trailed every vehicle, especially during mobile fighting. We heard from indigenous people that it had not rained for several years. Photo: unknown.

A heavy howitzer (LFH 18) of the III./Pz.AR 33 while firing. Note the heavy dust cloud. Position before Tobruk, May 1941. Photo: Hajo Maechtel.

Resting in a coastal oasis on our way to the front, May 1941. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

A heavy howitzer (LFH 18) of the III./Pz.AR 33 firing at British tanks. May 1941 at Tobruk. Photo: Hajo Maechtel.

Destroyed British tank (Mark II) May 1941 at Tobruk. Photo: Hajo Maechtel.

A view from the Halfaya Pass down to the bay of Sollum/Egypt. Specially during 1941 the Halfaya Pass saw heavy fighting because it was a key position to the British troops to facilitate easier supplies which otherwise had to go through the desert. Only late in 1941 The British succeeded to take it after the German troops under the command of Capt. Bach from Mannheim/Germany had spent all ammunition and were without water and food. During the Operation Battle Axe in June 1941 the British suffered heavy losses of tanks by the 8.8 Anti-Aircraft Guns having been dug into the defence line as Anti Tank Guns under Capt. Fromm. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

Captured Australian soldiers march behind the German lines. Photo: Hajo Maechtel.
This shows how we lived in the desert: Two-men tent, dug into the ground (which was not always possible). El Alamein front, August 1942. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

Examination of a captured British 25-pounder (caliber 3.5in = 8.76 cm) howitzer and taken into service on the grounds of an operating manual found in the gun-carriage. For this gun allone, we had more ammunition then for our own entire battery. Because of the well-balanced gun-carriage, the British howitzer was quite easy to operate, specially concerning change of horizontal directions. Only one man could lift the gun-carriage and swing the gun around because the wheels had air-tyres running on a circular steel plate. May 1941 at the Sollum front. Foto: Helmuth Orschiedt.

This is the entire gun train consisting of tow truck, ammunition trailer and howitzer. The 25-pounder had a calibre of somewhat under 100 mm and a range of about 12 km. As such was comparable to our LFH 18 with a calibre of 105 mm. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

Waiting at the Via Balbia for transportation to Benghasi on our way to Germany to attend training at the Artillery School, Jueterbog. Foto: Dieter Hagen.

Waiting for an opportunity at the Benghsi Airport to fly with a JU 52 to Tripoli and on to Catania, Sicily. From left: Heiner Chelius, Helmuth Orschiedt, Dieter Hagen and two more buddies, names forgotten. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt (selftimer).

El Alamein front: Sgt. Hans Waechter examines a British Mark II which was left by its crew after being hit by our gun in the chains. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

SFH 18 train at the „White House" before Tobruk waiting for orders to take position. May 1941. Photo: Hajo Maechtel.

June 1941: German cemetary at the „White House". Photo: unknown.
June 1941: Again a grave has to be dug out for a German soldier having fallen at the War Cemetery near the „White House" before Tobruk. How many will lose their lives during the siege of Tobruk?. Photo: unknown.

View of the il-famed Telepraph track around Tobruk with ist ½ meter deep dust. The entire traffic between the war theatres West and East of Tobruk had to take this track. Summer 1941. Photo: unknown.

Funeral of Flt.Capt. Marseille of the 27th Fighter Squadron in Derny/Libya. At that time I happened to be in the Derna Hospital infected with jaundice (hepatitis infectiosa). After the tragic death of Hptm. Marseille, it appeared to me that the British gained absolute air superiority. Foto: Helmuth Orschiedt.

On forward artillery observation post at El Alamein. I am squatting behind the „Scissors" binoculars (24x) and observed the British moving lots of artillery and tanks into position. „Over there" was much activity and the increase of troops day by day. For shortness of ammunition, we were not allowed to fire. We were instructed to preserve ammunition for the „Big Bang". We could figure out when the British would start their assault. In the meantime our positions were bombarded almost every day in order to „soften up" our resistance. Photo:Helmuth Orschiedt (Sgt. Horst Vargel took the shot with my camera).

May 1941 after driving through Cirenaica we are dirty all over. For an unknown reason we had to get off Via Balbia and continue our march to the front on a sand road. The ground was deep red and so was the dust and we also. I am standing there 2nd from left. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt (selftimer).

June 1941 German War Cemetary at the „White House" before Tobruk. Photo: Fritz Sturm.

The grave of my buddy Guenther Wolf of Cologne/Germany in front of Fort Capuzzo. Guenther was a gunner at the 2nd gun of our battery (1./Pz.AR 33) and fall during the first hour of the Operation Battle Axe by MG fire from a British Mark II (Mathilda). Foto: Helmuth Orschiedt.

View of Fort Capuzzo which saw heavy fighting during Operation Battle Axe. First it was taken by the British (7th Tank Div.), then it was again conquered by us and the British forces retreated again into Egypt, passing by South of the Halfaya Pass. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

Boarding a JU 52 at Benghasi Airport to continue our transfer to Germany via Tripoli/Libya and Catania-Naples/Italy. July/August 1941. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

A LFH 18 of the 1./Pz.AR 33 waiting for instructions where to take firing position. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

In the desert material wear and tear was extraordinarily high. In this photo our crew exchanges hard rubber padding of the chains of our half-track tow truck. This was a tough, sweat-producing task which every crew member had to take part in. May/June 1941 at the Sollum Front. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

A typical soldier port card which we got to write home. I still have the original.
German Tanks assembling for refuelling. They are pretty closely assembled. In 1941 this was sill possible because the German Airforce had air superiority. Later in 1942 this would have been a titbit for British bombers. You never stop learning in war. Photo: unknown.

Front cover of my first war album which I designed during my home leave in 1941 for my Africa Photos. Drawing by Helmuth Orschiedt.

Having arrived in Tunesia after the retreat from El Alamein with several injuries I was transferred from Sfax/Tunesia on an Italien Hospital Ship to Naples and on by Hospital Train to Rosenheim/Bavaria/Germany, where I was treated in the Reserve Hospital „Maedchenoberschule" (Girls High School). In this photo I am sitting in the typical German hospital dress on a bench in the garden. July 1943 (Selfteimer).

Sollum Front May/June 1941: General Rommel with entourage inspecting our gun positions. Photo Fritz Sturm.

On our march to the front from Tripoli to the Libyan/Egytian border. This is how a gunner saw his gun (LFH 18) from the tow truck. At the side of the road there are some indigenous people with their donkeys. May 1941. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

Digging out gun positions in the desert at El Alamein in July 1942. Photo: Helmuth Orschiedt.

 Thank you very much Helmuth.

Total reproduction or part of this post is FORBIDDEN. you can use it for particular purposes only! And if you need something from this post, please contact me: sandgelb@gmail.com





7 comments:

  1. I'm looking for information Heiner Chelius, partner at DAK. I have his diary and letters and I am preparing a book Chelius, I need to know if you had a family, where he lived, etc..

    thank you very much

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello,
    The only information I have about Heiner Chelius is the one in ORSCHIEDT`S WAR IN AFRICA nothing more. I know he was a friend of Helmuth Orschiedt but I lost contact with Mr Helmuth about a year till now. I don't know if he still alive. Last news from him is that is very old and ill. No more news Im afraid...

    Try looking in Australia for Heiner Chelius and let me know what you found.

    Regards

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am related to Heiner Chelius. Please contact me with further info. Thanks

    kmc1945@gmail.com

    Kyle Chelius

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kyle: I send you an email. thanks

      Delete
    2. please contact me again, thank you.

      Delete
  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. Yes indeed is a fascinating subject also shows the archievements and evolution of mankind despite the horrors of the war. This article was writed for Mr. Helmuth itself I only use it with is permition.

      Delete