The German Afrika Korps was the corps-level headquarters controlling the German Panzer divisions in Libya and Egypt during the North African Campaign of World War II. Since there was little turnover in the units attached to the corps, the term is commonly used to refer to the headquarters plus its attached combat units.
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, 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, still attached to the Afrika Korps.
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 Col.-Gen. 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 general, while Rommel was placed in command of a new Army Group Africa (Heeresgruppe Afrika) created to control both the Italian 1st Army 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.
Strictly speaking the term Afrika Korps refers only to the corps headquarters and its attached units, though it is commonly used by amateur writers, the news media and veteran Allied soldiers, as a name for all the German units in North Africa before the retreat to Tunisia. The most notable of those other units were the Afrika zbV ("special purpose") Division, which was created as an infantry division and slowly upgraded to a fully motorized division, and then redesignated as the 90th Light Afrika Division; the 164th Light Afrika Division, also an infantry division; and the Ramcke parachute brigade (named after its commander). There were also eight Italian divisions under Rommel's command in Panzer Army Afrika, including two armoured divisions with very inferior equipment, two motorized divisions, three infantry divisions, and one parachute division. The army was supported by a number of smaller units from both the German and Italian armed forces.
The designation "Light" (German: Leichte) did not refer to a standardized table of organization and equipment (TOE) for the various German divisions that bore that designation. For instance, the 5th Light Division had an organization very similar to the 21st Panzer Division, whereas the 164th Light Afrika Division was at first a partially motorized infantry division and never had any tanks at all. Various German divisions in Africa occasionally reorganized or re-equipped without a change of name, or conversely were redesignated with a new name without any substantial reorganization.
The Axis forces in Africa surrendered on May 12, 1943. However, three of the German divisions that had fought in the Western Desert were reconstituted in Europe. The 15th Panzer Division was reconstituted as the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, the 90th Light Division was reconstituted as the 90th Panzergrenadier Division, and the 21st Panzer Division was reconstituted under its own name.