Operation Sonnenblume

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A Panzer II of the Afrika Korps. Note the faded insignia on the front, left of the visor and just below the turret.

Operation Sonnenblume ("Sunflower") was the deployment of German troops (the Afrika Korps) to North Africa in February 1941, during the Second World War. These troops reinforced the remaining Italian forces in Libya after the Italian 10th Army was destroyed by British attacks during Operation Compass.

The order for the operation was issued by Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW; Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) to Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH; Army High Command) and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL; Air Force High Command) on 6 February 1941. Two days later, the first units departed Naples for Africa and arrived on 11 February. On 14 February, the first units of the 5th Light Division (later renamed 21st Panzer Division) arrived in Tripoli, Libya. These units were the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and Tankhunter Unit 39; they were sent immediately to the front line at Sirte.

In March, German commander Erwin Rommel began his operations with a feinting advance, to test the British defenses; caught off-guard by his aggression and assuming the Germans were stronger than actuality, the Western desert force withdrew to Mersa El Brega. Rommel sensed their unwillingness to fight and pursued them; what began as an initial reconnaissance turned into a full-scale offensive. Despite the low casualties on both sides, the British increasingly panicked and fled across Cyrenica to Egypt, while a number of them formed a strong garrison in the port of Tobruk. Axis forces swept along the coast and on inland roads, taking several towns and a number of enemy supplies before their drive was checked near the Egyptian border.

During the following months, more 5th Light Division units arrived, and in May the 15. Panzerdivision was embarked for North Africa.

5th Light Division[edit]

The 5. leichte-Division '​s (mot) (5th Light Division) tank regiment—5. Panzer-Regiment—arrived in North Africa aboard two convoys between 8 and 10 March 1941.[1] The regiment—155 tanks strong—consisted of 25 Panzer Is, 45 Panzer IIs, 61 Panzer IIIs, 17 Panzer IVs, three kleine Panzerbefehlswagens and four Panzerbefehlswagens.[2]

A Panzer Mk II still in the dark grey paint scheme knocked out in the western desert.

While the tanks of the regiment were being loaded onto Italian cargo ships in the port of Naples, the cargo ship Leverkusen caught fire and sank, resulting in the loss of the 10 Panzer IIIs and three Panzer IVs on board. Ten replacement Panzer IIIs—a mixture of Ausf F and G models—were requisitioned from 6. Panzer-Regiment, and three newly built Panzer IV Ausf Es were shipped to Libya[2] between 10 and 14 April.[3] However, they did not reach the regiment until 29 April.[2]

A further 25 Panzer I Ausf A were shipped over to North Africa to reinforce the regiment arriving in Tripoli on 10 May.[2]

The on paper peak strength of the 5th Light Division in North Africa was therefore:

  • 50 Panzer Is
  • 45 Panzer IIs
  • 71 Panzer IIIs
  • 20 Panzer IVs
  • 3 kleine Panzerbefehlswagens
  • 4 Panzerbefehlswagens

All the tanks in 5. Panzer-Regiment were still painted dark grey (RAL 7021 dunkelgrau) and carried the 3. Panzerdivision '​s divisional emblem (inverted Y with two strikes)[4]

15. Panzerdivision[edit]

Erwin Rommel (first from the left) in a command halftrack, SdKfz.250/3.

8. Panzer-Regiment was previously subordinate to the 10. Panzerdivision before being reassigned on 18 January to the newly created 15. Panzerdivision, itself created from the 33. Infanteriedivision.[2]

8. Panzer-Regiment was shipped across to North Africa in three convoys between 25 April and 6 May 1941. The regiment—146 tanks strong—consisted of 45 Panzer IIs, 71 Panzer IIIs, 20 Panzer IVs, four kleine Panzerbefehlswagens and six Panzerbefehlswagens. By 28 May, the entire regiment had assembled at the front.[5]

Tank modifications[edit]

Following the fighting which had taken place from 1939 through 1940, the Heer was in the process of increasing the armour thickness to improve protection and survivability on all tank designs. New factory production tanks were built with increased armour thickness. For those tanks already in service, field modifications were made with armoured plates bolted onto the tanks to help increase their armor protection.

The majority, but not all, of the tanks from the 5. and 8. Panzer-Regiments shipped across to North Africa during Operation Sonnenblume had received these field modifications, though a small number had the added armor from the new factory production run.[6]

All tanks which were sent to North Africa were also modified for desert conditions, including improving the engine air cooling circulation, increasing the speed of the radiator and cutting holes into the hatch covers of the rear decks on the tanks.[6]

Rommel goes on the offensive[edit]

On 24 March, Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Afrika Korps, sent out a reconnaissance patrol to assess Allied defensive positions, which had been reduced in order to support Greece and Crete. Sensing an opportunity, he assembled all his mobile forces that had arrived (less than a full division) and ordered a feinting attack, supported by the Italian forces. This was against explicit orders by his Italian colleagues and German High Command to assume a defensive posture until the Afrika Korps was fully arrived and ready; since the Allies had learned of this order via Ultra intercepts, Rommel's improvisation caught them off-guard. Rommel disguised a number of transport vehicles with cardboard to make his armored forces appear larger[citation needed]; this, and the dust clouds deliberately raised behind the vehicles, made the Allies believe they were facing a larger attack then they were and they quickly abandoned their positions at Agedabya.

Rommel pressed on despite a lack of supplies, unwilling to give the Allies time to build up in Mersa El Brega. His attack once again caught the British off-guard, and the town was taken after one day of fierce fighting. The British, intimidated, rapidly began withdrawing across Cyrenaica. Despite orders to halt from both Italian and German HQ,[citation needed] Rommel sensed the Allies were unwilling to fight a decisive action and pursued them, dividing his forces into three columns. One pursued the Allies along the coast while the other two drove along inland roads, attempting to cut the enemy off. On 4 April, Benghazi fell, yielding substantial supplies to the Germans. Lieutenant-general's Philip Neame and Richard O'Conner (the latter brought to the front as an adviser) attempted to restore order to the retreating Allied forces as they retreated, but on 7 April both of them were captured when their staff vehicle encountered a German reconnaissance patrol. The next day, Gazala fell after the Allies abandoned it.

Rommel now hoped that he could pursue the Western Desert Force across Egypt and take Alexandria, but his overstretched supply lines, opposition from OKW and the presence of Allied forces in Tobruk rendered this impossible. Though Rommel's offensive, considering how small his forces really were, had been a resounding success, he could go no further than the Egyptian border as long as the port of Tobruk was held by the Allies and thus relinquished the initiative to the Allies. Rommel now faced the prospect of a prolonged siege to take the fortress of Tobruk to shorten his supply lines, while the Allies rebuilt their strength in Egypt.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jentz, p. 214
  2. ^ a b c d e Jentz, p. 37
  3. ^ Jentz, p. 215
  4. ^ Jentz, p. 36
  5. ^ Jentz, p. 38
  6. ^ a b Jentz, p. 24-38

Sources[edit]

  • Jentz, Thomas L. (1998). Tank Combat In North Africa: The Opening Rounds, Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe, February 1941 - June 1941. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7643-0226-4. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956]. Butler, J.R.M, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1. 
  • Rommel, Erwin; Basil Liddell-Hart (1982) [1953]. The Rommel Papers. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80157-4.