The 21.Panzer-Division was ordered formed by the Oberkommando des Heeres from the 5.Leicht-Division on August 1st, 1941. The date of formation listed by various sources is conflicting, and this seems due to the fact that although the unit was ordered formed on August 1st, it most likely did not come together until late in 1941. Many sources list the date of formation as being in October, 1941. Panzer-Regiment 5, previously a part of the 5.Leicht-Division already stationed in North Africa, continued to function as a combat unit. When the change of formation took place, the new 21.Panzer-Division began to form while Panzer-Regiment 5 continued to operate in North Africa.
Erwin Rommel 1891-1944
Most divisional histories list the 21.Panzer-Division as seeing action first during the British launched Operation Crusader, and although this is indeed the first major action the unit saw, Panzer-Regiment 5, along with other units now a part of the division, did see limited action much earlier. On September 14th, 1941, units of the 21.Panzer-Division took part in Operation Sommernachtstraum. This operation was to be a major reconnaissance of the enemy lines across the border into Egypt, but did not actually result in any significant engagement with the British.
When the British launched Operation Crusader, the 21.Panzer-Division fought very well until depleted armour and a resolute 8th Army forced Rommel to pull back his forces to positions around Gazala. After continued British pressure, Rommel pulled back even more to positions around El Agheila. All the while, the 21.Panzer-Division fought a number of rear-guard actions against the advancing British. Thanks in part to the actions of Panzer-Regiment 5 of the 21.Panzer-Division, the retreat back to El Agheila was successful, although by this time the siege on Tobruk had now been lifted and the British garrison was once again reunited with the 8th Army. The relief would only be temporary.
In early January, 1942, after being resupplied and refitted, the DAK went on the offensive against the British. In two weeks time, the DAK had retaken Benghazi (January 29th) and had moved almost 350 miles. The offensive slowed as the Germans reached the British position at Gazala. All the while, the division took part in the advance. The British position stretched from Gazala to Bir Hacheim in a ring of heavily mined and fortified lines. The front settled here for the rest of Winter until May, 1942, when Rommel once again launched an offensive against the British. This offensive saw the division fighting in intense battles for the Gazala line, eventually pushing the British from their positions, finally taking Tobruk, and then moving all the way into Egypt, stopping finally at Alma Halfa.
The 21.Panzer-Division next saw action in the Battles for El Alamein, fighting in desperate battles against a vastly growing number of enemy tanks. Against heavy loses and a growing number of British AFVs, the Germans were pushed back from the El Alamein lines, and the division saw action in rear guard operations that partially allowed the Germans to retreat back across the border, across the Libyan Desert, all the way to Tunisia.
When the 21.Panzer-Division arrived in Tunisia, it was put under the control of 5.Panzerarmee, and then used as a number of Kampfgruppen in a series of successive engagements against the Allies. From January 30th, 1943 to February 3rd, 1943, the 21.Panzer-Division was split into two Kampfgruppen for action in the Faid-Maknassy engagements. Kampfgruppen Grun was led by Werner Grun and was formed from Panzer-Abteilung I/Panzer-Regiment 5, while Kampfgruppen Pfeiffer was led by Major Pfeiffer, being formed from the Panzergrenadier-Bataillon II/Panzergrenadier-Regiment 104, Panzergrenadier-Bataillon III/Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 104 and Tunis-Battillon 2. Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer was then itself divided into “task forces” consisting of Nord, Mitte and Sud.
Throughout the battles in North Africa, the 21.Panzer-Division was used in numerous kampfgruppe formations like the one above, with Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer taking part in many different actions being used again and again. Later in the defensive battles in Tunisia, Rommel himself took control of the 21.Panzer-Division while it fought in the battles for Kasserine Pass. The Division was halted before being able to reach the actual pass itself. Kampfgruppe Pfieffer surrendered on May 11th, while the rest of the 21.Panzer-Division surrendered on May 13th when the Tunisian Bridge-head in North Africa finally fell.
After being destroyed in North Africa, the 21.Panzer-Division was reformed in June of 1943 in France. It remained stationed in France for the next year, being deemed unfit for service on the Eastern Front. The 21.Panzer-Division was still in France when the Allies launched their invasion of Normandy in June of 1944, and the division was thrown into action against the Allied positions as the only Panzer unit to do so on the 1st day of the attack, June 6th. Most of its armour was lost early in the battles, but the Grenadiers of the Division fought in and around Caen for many weeks.
When the Allies began the massive breakout of the Normandy beach area, the division withdrew along with the rest of the German forces. The 21.Panzer-Division was then used in the Southern Sector of the Western Front until it was pulled from the lines to refit and reform in Germany in August, 1944. It was then rushed back to the Western Front to fight in defensive actions during the general withdrawal through France, mainly in the Saar and Alsace regions.
In Early 1945, the 21.Panzer-Division was used in a drive on Strasbourg, and was then shifted to the Eastern Front in February, 1945 where it fought in defensive actions until being taken by the Soviets later in April, 1945.
Area of operations:
North Africa (Aug 1941 – May 1943)
France (July 1943 – Dec 1944)
Germany (Dec 1944 – Feb 1945)
Poland & eastern Germany (Feb 1945 – May 1945)