Michael Rolke

1942: Sonderkommando Dora

“Germans in the Sahara”: the title of a message sent by GHQ MEF to HQ Tps Sudan and OC LRDG does not refer to Operation Salam, but to another operation of the German Abwehr: Sonderkommando Dora.
The German Abwehr, Abteilung 1, had created a special unit consisting of cartographers, geographers, astronomers and geologists, all in all 13 scientists, with a support crew of about 60 soldiers, people who had pre-war experience in Africa together with a small protective detachment.The unit was sent to Libya in May of 1942 and its tasks were various. The scientists were employed to collect information and to do mapping of the middle and southern part of Libya, to conduct terrain survey, to find possible locations for future military airfields, to investigate water sources and to find out possible ways of enemy attacks and to carry out many further military and scientific tasks, such as testing vehicles and equipment under the harsh desert conditions. Since October 1942 they had the special task of finding out about an assumed concentration of Free French troops in the Tibesti area of Chad. The reports transmitted to Berlin gave clear evidence of French intentions but did not lead to any German countermeasures.
Although not a fighting unit and relatively small, Sonderkommando Dora had the full range of light military equipment available to conduct its tasks. Several aircraft and gliders were permanently at their disposal, as were Mercedes and Opel trucks, Horch Kfz.15s, Kfz.17s (radio) and VW Kübelwagen. The only six Steyr 1500As ever to see service in Libya were to be found in their motor pool. They were better equipped than many of the front-line units, that lacked all sort of transport and fuel for most of the time. To obtain their data, Sonderkommando Dora was equipped for aerial photography and terrestrial surveying with a lot of special equipment that a Zeiss engineer had brought with himself. The scientists were able to draw their sketch-maps in the shortest time while en route during their expeditions. The results of their missions were 23 sketch-maps in scales between 1:50’000 and 1:200’000. Their base was at the oasis of Hon, but they undertook expeditions as far west as Ghat, to Waw en Namus and as far south as the Tibesti Mountains (the Dohone Region at BirSarfaya), the Tümmö Mountains south of Bir Mushuru and along the Gebel ben Ghnema.
Following the withdrawal of Axis forces from Libya in January 1943, the important scientists of Sonderkommando Dora were urgently evacuated back to Germany by aircraft, and finally the remainder of the unit followed in their vehicles from Hon to Tripoli.
In consequence of World War II, the results of the research of Sonderkommando Dora, their reports, maps and photographs ended up in various archives in Freiburg, London and Paris. The unique route-maps of Sonderkommando Dora were published for the first time in 2003. Their precision is such that even today a traveller can follow their tracks and sometimes they provide more detail than modern maps of the area.

Historical Photographs

All historical photographs are cuortesy of Michael Rolke

Then & Now

It was in August 2007, when Michael Rolke was guiding us on the few traces SKDo Dora has left in the Libyan Desert. One of the most fascinating moments, when the history has touched us, was when we arrived at a particular spot where a patrol of SKDo DORA had camped just a few moments ago. It looked like this:


  • Nikolaus Benjamin Richter, Michael Rolke (Hg.): Unvergessliche Sahara, Belleville, Munich 1999
  • Michael Rolke (Hg.): Die Karten des Sonderkommando Dora 23 vierfarbige Croquis von Südlibyen, Belleville, Munich 2003
  • Kuno Gross, Michael Rolke and Andras Zboray: Operation Salam, László Almásy’s most daring Mission in the Desert War, Belleville, Munich 2013