The Afrika Korps was formed February 19, 1941, after the German Armed Forces High Command had decided to send an expeditionary force to Libya to support the Italian army, which had been routed by an Allied counteroffensive, Operation Compass. The German expeditionary force, commanded by Erwin Rommel, at first consisted only of the 5th Panzer Regiment and various other small units. These elements were organized into the 5th Light Division when they arrived in Africa in February. In the spring the 5th Light Division was joined by the 15th Panzer Division under Generalleutnant Walter Neumann-Silkow, though it did not arrive until after Rommel had made a counter-offensive and re-taken most of Cyrenaica and gone back over to the defensive. At this time the Afrika Korps consisted of the two divisions plus various smaller supporting units, and was officially subordinated to the Italian chain of command in Africa (though Rommel had conducted his offensive without any authorization).
On October 1, 1941, the German 5th Light Division was redesignated as the 21st Panzer Division, under Generalmajor Johann “Hans” von Ravenstein , still attached to the Afrika Korps. Johann von Ravenstein died on 26 March 1962, in Duisburg at the age of 74 years.
In a series of battles fought in July, the Eighth Army, under Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham 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 Haifa, but the Germans were again repulsed. In a series of battles in this area the 21st Panzer Division commander Georg von Bismarck, here with Rommel was killed by a British mine and Oberst C. H. Lungerhausen took command until Generalmajor Heinz von Randow arrived on 18 September. On 21 December 1942, south of the Syrtis in Libya, he hit a land míne and died, age 52.
During the summer of 1941 OKW invested more command structure in Africa by creating a new headquarters called Panzer Group Africa (Panzergruppe Afrika). On August 15 Panzer Group Africa was activated with Rommel in command, and command of the Afrika Korps was turned over to Ludwig Crüwell. The Panzer Group controlled the Afrika Korps plus some additional German units that were sent to Africa, as well as two corps of Italian units. (A German “group” was approximately the equivalent of an army in other militaries, and in fact Panzer Group Africa was redesignated as Panzer Army Africa (Panzerarmee Afrika) on January 30 1942.)
After the defeat at El Alamein and the Allied invasion in Oran, Algeria Operation Torch, OKW once more upgraded its presence in Africa by creating the XC Army Corps in Tunisia on November 19 1942, and then creating a new 5th Panzer Army headquarters there as well on December 8, under the command of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.
On February 23 1943 Panzer Army Africa, (now called the German-Italian Panzer Army,) was redesignated as the Italian 1st Army and put under the command of an Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani while Rommel was placed in command of a new Army Group Africa (Heeresgruppe Afrika) created to control both the Italian 1st Army under General Giovanni Messe and the 5th Panzer Army. The remnants of the Afrika Korps and other surviving units of the 1st Italian Army retreated into Tunisia. Command of the Army Group was turned over to von Arnim in March. On May 13 remnants of the Afrika Korps along with all other remaining Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. Giovanni Messe died on 18 December 1968, at the age 85.
After victory by the Allies in the North African Campaign, the stage was set for the Italian Campaign to begin. The invasion Sicily followed two months later. Nearly 400,000 Axis and Allied troops were either lost, injured, or died of disease by the end of the North African Campaign.