Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) was the dispatch of German troops (the Afrika Korps) to North Africa in February 1941, during the Second World War. The German 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 the German Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) to Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH) and Air Force High Command (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, OKL) 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 the 21st Panzer Division) arrived in Tripoli, Libya. These units were the Reconnaissance Battalion 3 and Tankhunter Unit 39, which were sent immediately to the front line at Sirte.
In early 1941, after the big British and Commonwealth victory in Cyrenaica, the military position was soon reversed. The best-equipped units in XIII Corps went to Greece as part of Operation Lustre in the Battle of Greece. Adolf Hitler responded to the Italian disaster with Directive 22 (11 January) ordering Unternehmen Sonnenblume (Operation Sunflower), the deployment of a new Afrika Korps (DAK) to Libya, as a Sperrverband (barrier detachment). The DAK had fresh troops with better tanks, equipment, air support under the command of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel.
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. The regiment of 155 tanks consisted of 25 Panzer I, 45 Panzer II, 61 Panzer III, 17 Panzer IV, three kleine Panzerbefehlswagen and four Panzerbefehlswagen. While the tanks 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 ten Panzer III and three Panzer IV. Ten replacement Panzer III, a mixture of Ausf F and G models, were requisitioned from 6. Panzer-Regiment and three new Panzer IV Ausf E were shipped to Libya between 10 and 14 April and reached the regiment on 29 April. A further 25 Panzer I Ausf A, to reinforce the regiment arrived in Tripoli on 10 May.
The establishment of the 5th Light Division in North Africa was,
- 50 Panzer I
- 45 Panzer II
- 71 Panzer III
- 20 Panzer IV
- 3 kleine Panzerbefehlswagen
- 4 Panzerbefehlswagen
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)
8. Panzer-Regiment was part of the 10. Panzerdivision before being reassigned on 18 January, to the new 15. Panzerdivision, which was created from the 33. Infanteriedivision. 8. Panzer-Regiment was shipped across to Libya in three convoys between 25 April and 6 May 1941. The regiment had 146 tanks strong, consisting of 45 Panzer II, 71 Panzer III, 20 Panzer IV, four kleine Panzerbefehlswagen and six Panzerbefehlswagen. By 28 May, the assembly of the regiment was complete.
After the Battle of France (10 May – 25 June 1940), the Heer began to increase the amount of armour on tanks. New tanks were built with more armour and existing tanks had extra armour plates bolted on and most of the tanks from the 5. and 8. Panzer-Regiments shipped across to North Africa during Operation Sonnenblume were of this type. The tanks were also modified for desert conditions, with better engine air cooling, by increasing the speed of the radiator and cutting holes into the hatch covers of the rear decks on the tanks.
Axis supplies came from Europe and deliveries to Libya were then moved by road; after Operation Compass (December 1940 – February 1941), only Tripoli remained, with a maximum capacity of four troopships or five cargo ships at once, about 46,000 tonnes (45,000 long tons) of freight per month. Tripoli to Benghazi was 970 kilometres (600 mi) along the Via Balbia, which was only half-way to Alexandria. The road could flood, was vulnerable to the Desert Air Force (DAF) and alternative desert tracks increased vehicle wear. The Axis advance of 480 kilometres (300 mi) to the Egyptian frontier in early 1941, increased the road transport distance to 1,800 kilometres (1,100 mi). Benghazi was captured in April but coastal shipping could only carry 15,000 tonnes (15,000 long tons) and the port was within range of the DAF. Tobruk could take about 1,500 tonnes (1,500 long tons) per day but lack of shipping made its capture irrelevant.
A German motorized division needed 360 tonnes (350 long tons) per day and moving the supplies 480 kilometres (300 mi) took 1,170 2.0-tonne (2-long-ton) lorries. With seven Axis divisions, air and naval units, 71,000 tonnes (70,000 long tons) of supplies per month were needed. (Vichy agreed to the use of Bizerta but no supplies moved through the port until late 1942.) From February–May 1941, a surplus of 46,000 tonnes (45,000 long tons) was delivered; attacks from Malta had some affect but in May, the worst month for ship losses, 91% of supplies arrived. Lack of transport in Libya left German supplies in Tripoli and the Italians had only 7,000 lorries for deliveries to 225,000 men. A record amount of supplies arrived in June but at the front, shortages worsened.
British defensive preparations
In February 1941, the British defeated the 10th Army and 5° Squadra and the British government decided to hold the area with minimal forces and send the remainder to Greece. The 6th Australian Division was up to strength but the vehicles of the 7th Armoured Division were worn out. The 2nd New Zealand Division had two brigades available and the 6th Infantry Division had no artillery and was training for operations in the Dodecanese. The 7th Australian Division and 9th Australian Division were poorly-equipped and still training, a Polish Brigade Group was short of equipment and the 2nd Armoured Division had lost two armoured regiments to the 7th Armoured Division, which were also worn out. The rest of the division had two cruiser regiments with worn-out tracks and two light tank regiments. The commander had died suddenly and was replaced by Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry.
The 9th Australian Division and the 2nd Armoured Division (minus a brigade group sent to Greece) were left to garrison Cyrenaica under Cyrenaica Command (Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland Wilson), despite the inadequacy of the force if the Germans sent troops to Libya. Command in Egypt was taken over by Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor and the XIII Corps HQ was replaced by the HQ of the 1st Australian Corps (Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey). It was believed by Wavell and the GHQ in Egypt that the Germans could not be ready until May, by when the 2nd Armoured Division tanks would have been overhauled and two more divisions and support troops, particularly artillery, would be ready along with the 9th Australian Division. The 2nd Armoured Division had a reconnaissance regiment, the 3rd Armoured Brigade had an understrength light tank regiment and one equipped with captured Fiat M13/40 tanks. The cruiser regiment arrived in late March, after many break downs en route, which brought the division up to an understrength armoured brigade.[a]
Attempts to open Benghazi were frustrated by lack of transport, poor weather and German bombing and mining of Tobruk from early February. Attacks on shipping in Benghazi harbour led the British to abandon attempts to use it to supply the force in Cyrenaica and to remove the mass of supplies and equipment captured during Operation Compass. Lack of transport made it impossible to supply a garrison west of El Agheila, at the most favourable position for a defensive line and restricted the 2nd Armoured Division to movement between supply dumps, reducing its limited mobility further. In February, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame took over Cyrenaica Command and predicted that the armoured division would lose many tanks through breakdowns if it had to move far. Neame recommended a proper armoured division, two infantry divisions and adequate air support to hold the area and was told that there was little to sent and not before April. In early March the 9th Australian Division began to relieve the 6th Australian Division at Mersa Brega for Greece, which demonstrated the difficulty of tactical moves with insufficient transport and it was withdrawn north of Benghazi.
There were no positions for infantry between El Agheila and Benghazi, being open and good tank country and Neame was ordered to conserve the tanks units and retire as far as Benghazi if pressed, to abandon it if necessary and hold the high ground nearby for as long as possible, with no prospect of reinforcement before May. Neame was to conserve the force and inflict losses and delay if attacked. Infantry and artillery would fight a delaying action up the Via Balbia towards Benghazi and then the defiles near Er Regima and Barce; the tanks would move to Antelat to operate against the flank and rear of an attacker moving up the road or across the desert to Tobruk, falling back on a flank if necessary. On 20 March, the 2nd Armoured Division took over from the Australians, who moved back to Tocra, near Er Regima. The force was to use depots at Msus, Tecnis, Martuba, Mechili and Tmimi, El Magrun and Bengahzi as a substitute for lorry-borne supply. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade arrived in late March, with lorries but no tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns and only half its wireless sets and was based at Martuba, ready to move towards Derna, Barce or Mechili.
On 24 March, Rommel sent a reconnaissance patrol to assess the defensive positions of the Western Desert Force (WDF) at El Agheila. Experienced units had been withdrawn from the WDF and sent to re-equip in the delta or to Greece. Rommel assembled his mobile forces (less than a full division) and ordered a feinting attack, supported by the 10th Army. Rommel went against the orders of his nominal Italian commanders and German High Command (OKW) to stay on the defensive until all of the Afrika Korps had arrived and was ready. The British had learned of this via Ultra intercepts and the improvised offensive caught them understrength and off-guard. Rommel disguised a number of lorries with cardboard, to make his armoured forces appear larger; this and dust clouds deliberately raised behind vehicles, bluffed the British into believing that they were outnumbered and they retired from El Agheila. On 31 March, Mersa El Brega was captured and the British withdrew to Agedabya.
Despite orders to halt from the Italian and German headquarters, Rommel pursued the British, dividing his force into three columns. One pursued the British along the Via Balbia while two drove inland, attempting to cut off the British retreat. On 4 April, Benghazi fell, yielding substantial supplies to the Germans. Neame and O'Connor (the latter brought to the front as an adviser) attempted to reorganise but on 7 April, they and temporary Brigadier John Combe were captured by a German reconnaissance patrol. The next day, Gazala was occupied. Rommel now hoped that he could pursue Cyrenaica Command across Egypt and take Alexandria but his overstretched supply lines, opposition from OKW and the Tobruk garrison made this impossible. The first Italo-German offensive had been a tactical success but supply constraints made it impossible to advance further than the Egyptian border. As long as the port of Tobruk was held by the British, the Axis position on the border was unstable and a prolonged siege of Tobruk began, while the British rebuilt their strength in Egypt.
Siege of Tobruk
Tobruk was defended by a force of some 25,000 Eighth Army troops, well stocked with supplies and linked to Egypt by the Royal Navy. The garrison had armoured cars and captured Italian tanks, which could raid Axis supply convoys as they passed Tobruk for the frontier, which made impossible an Axis invasion of Egypt. Rommel immediately attempted to take the port but the 9th Australian division (General Leslie Morshead), defended the port resolutely. The Italians were slow to provide blueprints for the port fortifications and several attacks were repulsed. After three weeks Rommel suspended the attacks and resumed the siege. Italian infantry divisions took up positions about the fortress, while the bulk of the Afrika Korps maintained a mobile position south and east of the port.
- Most of the British tanks were worn out and the Italian tanks were slow and unreliable. The Support Group (roughly the size a brigade at full establishment) had only a motor battalion, a 25-pounder field regiment, an anti-tank battery and a machine-gun company. The division was short of transport and its workshops were understaffed and lacked spare parts. Two Brigades of the 9th Australian Division were swapped with two from the 7th Australian Division, which had less training, equipment and transport.
- Wilmot 1993, p. 65.
- Bauer 2000, p. 121.
- Jentz 1998, p. 214.
- Jentz 1998, p. 37.
- Jentz 1998, p. 215.
- Jentz 1998, p. 36.
- Jentz 1998, pp. 37–38.
- Jentz 1998, pp. 24–38.
- Creveld 1977, pp. 182–187.
- Creveld 1977, pp. 182–185.
- Creveld 1977, pp. 185–187.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 1–2.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 2–3.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 4–6.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 6–8.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 10–15.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 17.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 19–29.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 29–35.
- Hoffman 2004, p. 35.
- Lewin 1998, pp. 39, 42.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 35–43, 153–159.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 2–4.
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- Jentz, Thomas L. (1998). Tank Combat In North Africa: The Opening Rounds, Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe, February 1941 – June 1941. Atglen, PN: Schiffer. ISBN 0-7643-0226-4.
- Lewin, Ronald (1998) . Rommel As Military Commander. New York: B&N Books. ISBN 978-0-7607-0861-3.
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- Murphy, N. K. (2011). The "Lost" Battle of Mersa el Brega Libyan Desert, 31 March 1941 (PhD). Hull University. OCLC 809549608. Docket hull:5595. Retrieved 28 March 2015.
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- Young, Desmond (1950). Rommel, The Desert Fox. New York: Harper & Row. OCLC 48067797.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Sonnenblume.|
- Schreiber, P. K. (1998). Rommel's Desert War, The Impact of Logistics on Operational Art (PDF) (Report). Newport, RI: Naval War College. OCLC 831666288. Retrieved 20 March 2015.