The Uniforms of the Desert

An examination of the gear worn by both Axis and Allied forces at the Siege of Tobruk.

The rest of this article can be found in the April 2017 issue of The Armourer.

1941 saw the likes of General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox himself, testing the might of his Afrika Korps against the steely resolve of the British Western Desert Force (WDF) in Northern Africa. The WDF troops, including British, Australian and Indian troops, would pit themselves against the Germans; defending against a siege on the small coastal town of Tobruk on the northern coast of Libya where they were stationed. The siege lasted 241 days and would see the German War Machine stopped solidly in its tracks for the first time since World War II began. These stalwart defenders would come to be known as The Rats of Tobruk and would wear their adopted name proudly in the face of German military might.

 

The Afrika Korps

The military uniform of the Wehrmacht is one of the most iconic pieces of military equipment. With its sleek design and distinct insignia, it is a collector’s dream. However, perhaps one of the most evocative uniforms to come from the German Wehrmacht would be those worn by the Afrika Korps. Thanks in no small part to Rommel’s legendary strategic abilities, the uniform has come to represent some of the most amazing campaigns ever fought in one of the most difficult theatres of battle the German army had yet to face: the desert.

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WDF Soldiers preparing for the siege

The Wehrmacht was largely considered to be a very well-equipped and advanced army, when compared to their neighbours, with weapons and clothing designed to handle most situations, however this was to prove false on the Eastern Front wherein Wehrmacht soldiers found themselves vastly ill-equipped to deal with the Russian winter. The unstoppable German army lost traction and men at an alarming rate and it quickly became one of the most disastrous campaigns for the Wehrmacht. Not so for the North African campaign and Rommel’s Afrika Korps, who quickly discovered their equipment to be more than up to the challenge in the harsh climate of the desert areas thanks to the Tropical Institute of Hamburg University who were commissioned to ensure German troops had the necessary gear.

The field cap

The single most popular headgear item amongst the original troopers who fought in WW2, as well as current collectors, would be the distinctive peaked field cap, which has come to symbolise the Afrika Korps in most cases for collectors and historians alike. Constructed of an olive canvas, it was modelled after the German Army Bergmütze ski-cap following the need for a cap that provided excellent protection for the eyes from the sun. Much like other Wehrmacht head gear, the interior was lined with red cotton and the exterior of the cap had the quintessential national eagle/swastika and national colours cockade badges embroidered on the cap-fore. The cap also had embroidered piping in a similar manner to the sidecap denoting different ranks and branches.

Image result for Bergmütze ski-cap
Bergmütze ski-cap
Field Cap 1
Afrika Korps Panzer trooper’s field cap

Something interesting to note is that the peaked cap is not just a modern symbol of the North African campaign, but during the campaign itself a faded cap was often a symbol of a veteran of the Afrika Korps and some green recruits would reportedly bleach their caps as a darker, cleaner cap would denote a fresh field deployment and thus their raw status.

Field Cap 2
Afrika Korps Chaplain’s field cap

The military tunic

After headgear, the torso hosts some of the most recognisable aspects of any military uniform and is a must-have for a collector interested in uniform sets. The Wehrmacht has some of the most distinct uniforms of any conflict and, thanks to popular culture, are almost instantly recognisable for most of the general public. The Afrika Korps have their own distinct look, which takes cues from the original Army uniform but had been altered to accommodate a more practical approach for the desert campaign.

Tunic
Afrika Korps Panzer Grenadier Officer’s tunic

The military tunic is one of the more distinctive designs often associated by the public with the military and the field tunic (also called the Feldbluse which translates to field blouse) demonstrably maintained its specific origins from the original Wehrmacht design, although with noted colour changes to olive to match the rest of the uniform and being manufactured out of cotton rather than wool. Pleated pockets, an open-neck design, adjustable buttoned cuffs and olive green, metal buttons were present on the tunic with the collar being standardised to allow for relevant rank and insignia. Of course, the national eagle/swastika is present for all ranks and NCO’s and CO’s would have relevant shoulder straps (with the notation that those serving in the Afrika Korps would have a copper colour rather than the standard silver of the Wehrmacht officers in Europe.)

 

Find out more, including about the Western Desert Force, in the April 2017 issue of The Armourer.

The Western Desert Force

The WDF was the main arm of British resistance to the encroachment of the German war machine in North Africa. They were undermanned, outgunned, underequipped and many times outmanoeuvred by the superior German military forces. Yet, despite this, they did prevail on many fronts and the Siege on Tobruk is where they did indeed shine. The British had called upon their colonies at the start of the war for assistance, and at Tobruk this unity of purpose would shine. The WDF at Tobruk consisted of British, Polish, Czech and Indian troops, however the majority of the defenders were Australian, and they would quickly become the most famous of the besieged thanks to their ingenuity and stubborn bravery.

WDF
The Siege of Torbruk – 1941

“Berlin Radio made a fatal mistake in trying to jibe and scare the Australian soldier into surrender. The longer the odds Lord Haw Haw offered against the Diggers chance of getting out, the more heavily the digger backed himself.”

~Chester Wilmo

For the most part, troops in the Western Desert Force were issued standard British Tropical battledress, with any variation in the uniform to distinguish different colonies coming primarily from headwear or insignia. Much like the Afrika Korps the WDF made use of a uniform which had been altered for hotter climes – shorts, cotton shirts and ankle boots were common. The colouration of the uniform was a khaki colour rather than the olive colouration the Afrika Korps made use of. Much of the British uniform had stayed the same since the early 1900’s, however the uniform underwent an upgrade in 1937, though many units serving during the course of the war would still have the original version due to not being re-equipped.

Find out more, including about medals, tunics and boots, in the April 2017 issue of The Armourer

 

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