|Country Nazi Germany|
Role Armoured warfare
|Active 1 August 1941 – 8 May 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).
On 2 March 1941 the first 88 mm dual purpose guns arrived and provided much needed firepower. Although the DAK commander, Erwin Rommel, was under strict orders to remain on the defensive, he ordered an attack on 31 March by the '5th Light' and 4th Italian divisions, which was a big success, as the British began a retreat that would, by April, see German forces pushing into Egypt after an advance of some 600 miles (970 km).
Gazala was taken on 5 June, and during the battle from 20–21 June, 21st Panzer along with 90th Light Division and 15th Panzer Division broke through the Tobruk perimeter, 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 had been captured when they crossed into Egypt. The British prepared a new defensive position at Mersa Matruh. 21st Panzer was used to sweep behind the British XIII Corps, where it engaged in an intense combat with the 2nd New Zealand Division at the Battle of Mersa Matruh. The British were defeated and fell back to a new line at El Alamein. In a series of battles fought in July, the Eighth Army was able to stop the advance of the Afrika Korps at the First Battle of El Alamein. Shortages in equipment, ammunition and fuel limited further actions. Rommel made a last effort to break through the British positions on 31 August at the Battle of Alam el Halfa, but the Germans were again repulsed. In a series of battles in this area the 21st Panzer Division 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.
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, the 21st Panzer fought the rear guard actions. To compound German problems, the Anglo-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, von Randow was killed.
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, which took part in the Battle of 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 division was under the command of Rommel, who was responsible for German forces from the Netherlands to the Loire.
Rommel had been away from the front during the first days of the invasion on leave to visit his family; he 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 an air 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 last major action the 21st Panzer took part in on the Western Front was the stubborn resistance it gave the British Guards Armoured Division during Operation Bluecoat, on 1 August 1944.
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 December, Rundstedt decided not to commit the 21st to offensive actions in Operation Wacht am Rhein, leaving it to provide flank cover, which probably saved it from total destruction. On 29 December, 21st Panzer reported the following strength: 72 PzKpfw IVs, 38 PzKpfw Vs, eight Flakpanzer IV.
On 25 January 1945 the division was reformed as a much reduced Panzer Division and operated on the Eastern Front The unit surrendered to the Red Army on 29 April 1945.
Commander: Lieutenant General Edgar Feuchtinger
As 5th Light Afrika Division:
As 21st Panzer Division: