May 1, 1943 - In the Tunisian desert south of Majaz al Bab
The unforgiving sun hung like a fireball high over the shifting and scorching sands blown about in violent hot gusts one moment and then eerily still in another. Here and there sand berms had formed as high as 20 feet but, in the distance, they flattened and disappeared, as though they had never existed.
Gradually, about a half-mile away, a dust cloud appeared. It grew larger as two dark yellow armored reconnaissance half-track vehicles came into view. They were driving point over the sands in a wedge type formation. The black and white Balkenkreuz, straight-arm cross emblem of the German Army, was featured prominently on their sides. Inside the open body sat the driver, who doubled as the tactical radio operator and a gun crew of two manning the anti-aircraft gun. The soldiers wore soft caps and protective goggles to guard against the blowing sands. They were on heightened alert scanning the horizon for enemy American or British tanks they might have to engage before they reached Majaz al Bab, a small town strategically situated on the main road to the capital city of Tunis 38 miles away. Their orders were to rendezvous with another Panzer group and together attack and reclaim the town from a British ad hoc force, the Y Division, reinforced by the tank elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division.
At a safe distance behind the recon vehicles came an almost mile long column inching along. It was comprised of two companies of 14 Panzer IV tanks, 28 in all. They were mechanized elements of the 15th Panzer Division of the German Afrika Corps. Behind them were a light armored staff car, two half-tracks transporting the gun crews for the two towed long-barreled 50-mm antitank guns, four half-tracks carrying troops, a supply line of six fuel tankers and, bringing up the rear of the column, two three-ton cargo trucks carrying what remained of the water and food and ammunition supplies.
A 25-ton Panzer IV painted a desert sand color and bearing a stylized and stenciled design of a swastika superimposed on a palm tree—the insignia of the 15th Panzer—led the column. Like the others it roared through the desert powered by its 12-cylinder 300 horsepower Maybach engine. With black smoke streaming from the exhaust funnel mounted above the rear engine compartment and trailing twin plumes of sand kicked up by its wide metal treads, it led the others toward their rendezvous. Alert for the enemy the tank commanders stood in their open hatches. They swept the desolate terrain with their field glasses the clanking of metal treads digging into the sand, the drone of the heavy engines incongruous in the otherwise silent desert.
Obersturmbannführer Lieutenant Colonel Carl von Glasow, 38, tall and thin and once boyish-looking, but now burned by the sun his features hardened by the war, was the Panzer's regiment commander. He sat in the passenger seat next to the driver of the open light armored vehicle that, in the desert, doubled as his command car. He carried a holstered and loaded Walther P38 down at his side. His jacket discarded as usual, von Glasow wore a tropical field cap and a shirt and trousers of matching mustard yellow cotton. His shirt, opened wide at the neck, was dirty and stained with perspiration. The usual blue-gray on beige Litzen insignia of the German Army was pinned to his collar. But it was the death's head skulls on his lapels, and the pink piping on his shoulder straps, that distinguished his affiliation with the Panzer Army.
The driver, who wore a tan field cap, a matching tan uniform shirt, short pants, high socks and ankle high canvas-and-leather boots was doing his best to keep the vehicle aligned with the last of the Panzers in front of him. Von Glasow watched him for a moment as he struggled to drive over the shifting sands. Both men had lowered their sand goggles over their eyes. The metal frame holding the glass windshield had been flattened over the hood to minimize the reflection of the sun on their faces. Overhead was a tattered bleached canvas roof. It was an insufficient attempt to completely block the fireball sun, the smell of the scorched material mixing with the hot gasoline and diesel fumes trailed by the tanks.
In the back seat were the two tank company officers who routinely rode along with him. Unaccustomed to the harsh environment neither had thought to bring along the bulky and uncomfortable sand goggles they had been issued. They squinted instead and lowered the bills of their caps. One was Captain Alfred Runge, 34, new to the Afrika Corps and recently promoted. Unlike von Glasow, who had previously distinguished himself under Rommel, first in France, in the Libyan Desert at Tobruk and at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, Runge had no experience leading tanks in the desert. He had only served in Italy and knew nothing of the grim environment of the Tunisian Desert and was still learning the tactics of war required.
The other was 42-year old Captain Helmut Fenkel, a memorable-looking officer. With dirty blond-colored hair he wore an ill-fitting black patch over his right eye. Below it the flesh of his cheek down to his jaw line was horribly mangled. He had been injured when hit by shrapnel while serving under Rommel as a tank officer in France with the 7th Panzer Division. A devoted fan of Hitler's he extolled the SS and bemoaned his inability to join its ranks, having been turned down for reasons he would not explain. Like Runge he was inexperienced in the desert and detested the hostile conditions so unlike France with its gentle rolling hills and plowed fields that had proven so uncomplicated to manoeuver across with a mechanized force.
In one hand von Glasow, sitting up stiffly, gripped a clipboard on which were attached the daily fuel consumption reports from his tank commanders. He glanced at them again. Both he and his fellow Afrika Corps officers knew from experience that in the desert the maximum distance a mechanized army could operate from its base and return was about 200 miles. But he also knew that, at even less than 100 miles out, about a third of his half-track vehicles would become unserviceable before they reached the enemy. And that furthermore as much as 35–50% of the extra fuel brought along would be consumed just to transport it across the desert.
Glancing at the columns and the scrawled number of gallons remaining for every Panzer IV he noted that 22 of them had sufficient fuel remaining to engage the enemy and still be able to return to their base. Six would have to be refueled. And finally the special tropical oil filters that prevented sand from damaging the engines would have to be changed on all of the tanks to guard against any breakdowns in battle. Installing filters on 28 tanks was a six-hour ordeal that would consume most of the darkness that night, their final night in the desert before reaching Majaz el Bab. All maintenance had to occur before the sun rose in order to avoid being spotted—immobile in the desert—by Allied aircraft during the day and risk being strafed. But also because with the sun up, and the engines hot, replacing the filters was an uncomfortable and dangerous procedure.
In his other hand von Glasow held what was left of the burning Lucky Strike cigarette he was enjoying. He often allowed his men to strip packs of cigarettes from the dead bodies of American tank crews they had engaged and defeated, or happened to run across, as a reward for successful engagements against the enemy while also searching for Intelligence, maps and code books, but also for tins of food. Cigarette rations were always running short and the smooth Virginia tobacco was much prized.
"Oasis," said Runge suddenly. He sat up, extended his arm, and pointed, wagging his finger as they drew near. On his lap was an open map of the Tunisian Desert. He glanced back down at it. He leaned forward. "Not marked, Obersturmbannführer."
"They never are," said von Glasow raising his voice over the roar of the engine and without turning his head. "Mark it on your map if you want, Captain, but we leave it alone for the Bedouins."
He leaned forward. "We should destroy it then, if there's water. So the enemy can't find—"
"No," yelled von Glasow sharply. He turned in his seat halfway to face Runge and Fenkel. He did not bother to lift his goggles from his eyes. "Pay attention to my words, captains. If it's important for our mission we'll do what we have to, but we leave the Bedouins and their water alone. This is not their war and Rommel agrees. Besides we carry water, they don't. Understood? These are my orders."
"Yes, Colonel," said Runge unwilling to argue any further. He liked von Glasow, but he feared him as well. He sat back when von Glasow turned around.
"Von Glasow and his shit," grumbled Fenkel turning to him. "You know, maybe we should report this to Panzer Army Africa, or better yet to the SS." He grinned unevenly. Then he added. "Saving water for the enemy to find? Think about it, Runge. This is treasonous behavior. What would Hitler think?"