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.
After the Battle of France (10 May – 25 June 1940), the Heer (German army) began to increase the amount of armour on tanks, by building new tanks with more armour and bolting on extra armour plates to existing ones. Most of the tanks from the 5th and 8th Panzer regiments sent to North Africa in Unternehmen Sonnenblume were of the modified type. The tanks were also modified for desert conditions, with better engine cooling, by increasing the speed of the radiator and cutting holes into the hatch covers of the rear decks on the tanks.The 5. Panzer-Regiment (5th Panzer Regiment) of the 5. leichte-Division (5th Light Division) arrived in North Africa aboard two convoys from 8–10 March 1941. The regiment had 155 tanks, three kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen (small command vehicles) and four Panzerbefehlswagen (command vehicles).[a] Another 25 Panzer I Ausf A to reinforce the regiment arrived in Tripoli on 10 May. All the tanks in the ''5. Panzer-Regiment were still painted dark grey (RAL 7021 dunkelgrau) and carried the 3. Panzerdivision (3rd Panzer Division) emblem of an inverted Y with two strikes. The 8. Panzer-Regiment (8th Panzer Regiment) part of the 10. Panzerdivision (10th Panzer Division) was reassigned on 18 January, to the new 15. Panzerdivision (15th Panzer Division), which was created from the 33. Infanteriedivision (33rd Infantry Division). The 8. Panzer-Regiment comprising 146 tanks, was shipped to Libya in three convoys between 25 April and 6 May 1941 and by 28 May, had completed its assembly.
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. The distance from 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. (The Vichy French agreed to the use of Bizerta but no supplies moved through the port until late 1942.) From February to May 1941, a surplus of 46,000 tonnes (45,000 long tons) was delivered; attacks from Malta had some affect but in May, which was the worst month for ship losses, 91 percent 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, after the British defeat of the 10th Army and 5° Squadra, 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 had also been worn out in the later stages of Operation Compass. 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 (CYRCOM: 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 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.[b]
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, which was 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 CYRCOM and predicted that the armoured division would lose many tanks through breakdowns if it had to move far. (Neame also discovered that for communication he had to rely on the local telephone system and its Italian operators.) Neame recommended a proper armoured division, two infantry divisions and adequate air support to hold the area and was told by Wavell that there was little to be sent and nothing before April. In early March, the 9th Australian Division began to relieve the 6th Australian Division at Mersa Brega for operations in Greece, which demonstrated the difficulty of tactical moves with insufficient transport and the division was withdrawn north of Benghazi, where it could be supplied.
There were no positions for infantry between El Agheila and Benghazi, the terrain being open and good tank country; Neame was ordered to conserve the tank units as far as possible, to inflict losses on the Axis forces if they attacked, to retire as far as Benghazi if pressed and to abandon it if necessary. The high ground nearby was to be held for as long as possible, since there was no prospect of reinforcement before May. Infantry and artillery would fight a delaying action up the Via Balbia towards Benghazi and then the defiles to the north near Er Regima and Barce; the tanks would move inland to Antelat and 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 and was based at Martuba, with lorries but no tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns and only half its wireless sets, ready to move towards Derna, Barce or Mechili if the Axis attacked.
24 March – 5 April
On 24 March, Rommel advanced with the new Afrika Korps. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was south-east of Mersa Brega, where the 2nd Support Group held an 8-mile (13 km) front; the Australians were 150 miles (240 km) to the north, minus a brigade left at Tobruk, deficient in much equipment and out of contact with the 2nd Armoured Division. British air reconnaissance had observed German troops west of El Agheila on 25 February and by 5 March, it was expected that the German commander would consolidate the defence of Tripolitania, try to recapture Cyrenaica and then invade Egypt, using bases at Sirte and Nofilia but not before April. Rommel was identified on 8 March but local intelligence was hard to find under the restrictions necessary to preserve the few troops and vehicles near the front and the danger from the faster German eight-wheeler armoured cars inhibited British reconnaissance.
On 1 April, Rommel sent two columns to capture Mersa Brega, Panzer Regiment 5, Machine-Gun Battalion 8, Reconnaissance Unit 3 and anti-tank guns and artillery moved along the Via Balbia as Machine-Gun Battalion 2 and some anti-tank guns made an outflanking move to the south but this soon bogged down. The British withdrew from Mersa Brega, followed up by the Germans and the Italian Ariete and Brescia divisions moved forward from Tripoli. The 5th Light Afrika Division was ordered on to Agedabia and the harbour of Zuetina, despite Italian objections. Air reconnaissance reports on 3 April that the British were still retiring and Rommel ordered a probe around the southern flank by an Italian detachment and several German platoons (Lieutenant-Colonel Graf Schwerin) towards Maaten el Grara, from where they were to observe the situation towards Msus and Ben Gania. Reconnaissance Unit 3 was ordered to reconnoitre towards Soluch and Ghemines. During the evening Rommel ordered them on to Benghazi.
On 3 April, Gambier-Parry had received a report that a large enemy armoured force was advancing on Msus, site of the main divisional supply dump. The 3rd Armoured Brigade (Brigadier R. G. W. Rimington) moved there and found that the petrol had been destroyed to prevent capture. The tank brigade was reduced by losses and breakdowns to 12 Cruiser tanks, 20 light tanks and 20 Italian tanks. Neame received conflicting reports about the positions of the British and Axis forces and news on 5 April, that a large Axis force was advancing on El Abiar led him to order the 9th Australian Division back to Wadi Cuff and the elements of the 2nd Armoured Division to guard the desert flank and retire to Mechili. Other reports led Neame to countermand these orders, which caused the Australians much confusion. On 6 April, British air reconnaissance reported that there were Axis columns in the desert and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade repulsed an attack at Mechili, which led to O'Connor at the CYRCOM headquarters (Neame had left to visit Gambier-Parry) to order a general withdrawal.
The headquarters of the 2nd Armoured Division and the 2nd Support Group were ordered back to Mechili followed by the 3rd Armoured Brigade. Rimington decided that the armoured brigade lacked the fuel to reach Mechili and ordered a move to Maraura, where some petrol was found. Rimington planned to move to Derna via Giovanni Berta to obtain more fuel and was captured with his deputy when he motored ahead. The brigade continued on and crowded the Australians who were by-passing Derna as they withdrew to Gazala. The Australians had collected every vehicle that could move and began to withdraw at 5:00 p.m., behind extensive demolitions covered by the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), a motor battalion which had arrived from Egypt. The 2/13th Australian Battalion was rushed to Martuba to block the track from Mechili and the first units of the division reached Tmimi by 4:30 a.m. on 7 April, where the 26th Australian Brigade held the town until the division and stragglers from other units had passed through.
The 5th Light Afrika Division, between Agedabia and Zuetina, reported that it needed four days to refuel, Rommel ordered that every supply vehicle be unloaded along with spare fighting vehicles and sent back 40 miles (64 km) west of El Agheila to collect fuel within 24 hours, while the rest of the division waited immobile. Despite more objections from Gariboldi the Italian commander Rommel decided that the advance must go faster, if the British were to be prevented from retiring. On the night of 3/4 April, Reconnaissance Unit 3 entered Benghazi and that morning Rommel ordered it to continue to Mechili as soon as the Brescia Division arrived. As units reached Benghazi, Rommel formed them into columns and gave them distant objectives, Group Schwerin was sent to Tmimi, Group Fabris (motorcyclists and Ariete Division artillery) to Mechili, followed by the rest of the Ariete Division, General Streich, the 5th Light Afrika Division commander was ordered on to Tobruk with Machine-Gun Battalion 8, part of Panzer Regiment 5 and an anti-tank company. Lieutenant-Colonel Olbrich, the Panzer Regiment 5 commander was sent with the regiment Machine-Gun Battalion 2, artillery, an armoured battalion of the Ariete Division via Msus to Mechili or Tmimi and Major-General Heinrich Kirchheim, who was in the area by coincidence, was ordered to advance with two columns along the Via Balbia and through the Jebel Akhdar with the Brescia Division.
By late on 4 April, Group Schwerin was stranded near Ben Gania with the Italian contingents trailing behind and Group Streich had got only as far as Maaten el Grara and next day a party from Group Streich reached Tengeder with the rest straggling behind for 20–30 miles (32–48 km). Reconnaissance Unit 3 was stopped by the 2nd Support Group artillery west of Charruba. Group Olbrich had got to Antelat, with a machine-gun unit east of Sceleidima and Group Kirchheim had a column at Driana and the other at Er Regima. Air reconnaissance on 5 April showed that the British were still retreating and Rommel ordered the Axis columns to meet at Mechili. Group Fabris and the Ariete Division were stalled between Ben Gania and Tengeder and in the evening Rommel detached Machine-gun Battalion 8 (Lieutenant-Colonel Ponath) from Group Streich and led it to Mechili, where the advanced units of Group Schwerin arrived early on 6 April. Ponath was sent on towards Derna with a small party, by which time Group Kirchheim had a column near Maddalena and the other east of El Abiar. Reconnaissance Unit 3 had hardly moved and Group Olbrich had run out of fuel again. Ponath reached the coast road and advanced on the airfield south of Derna early on 7 April.
Kirchheim sent the non-mechanised parts of the 17th Infantry Division Pavia and 27th Infantry Division Brescia along the Via Balbia and the mechanised and motorised units through the Jebel Akhdar. On 6 April, the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete reached Mechili. Around noon, Ponath re-assembled his group near Derna airfield and cut one of the British withdrawal routes and the 5th Royal Tank Regiment (5th RTR: Lieutenant-Colonel H. D. Drew), repulsed two determined attacks and then counter-attacked with the last four British tanks. The rest of the British force disengaged before the tanks were knocked out and the road was also opened for any stragglers left in Derna. Neame had ordered CYRCOM headquarters to move back to Tmimi, west of Tobruk, where the Chief of Staff Brigadier John Harding arrived early on 7 April to find no sign of Neame or O'Connor. Harding ordered CYCOM to move into Tobruk and reported his fears to Wavell in Egypt. During the withdrawal, Neame, O'Connor andBrigadier Combe had left Maraua at 8:00 p.m. and taken a desert track at Giovanni Berta but had then turned north towards Derna, instead of east to Tmimi and ran into Group Ponath near Martuba.
Rommel had intended to attack Mechili on 7 April but the Axis forces were scattered, short of fuel and tired. Group Fabris moved forward during the morning but the Ariete Division and Group Streich took all day to arrive, having been attacked all day by the RAF. A Squadron of the LRDP had appeared from the south, to harass Axis movements. By nightfall on 7 April, the 9th Australian Division (less the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade) with the 2nd Support Group had blocked the Via Balbia at Acroma, about 15 miles (24 km) west of Tobruk, where the 18th and 24th Australian Infantry brigades were preparing the defences. (The 18th Australian Infantry Brigade had arrived from Egypt by sea after the dispatch of the 7th Australian Division (Major-General John Lavarack) to Greece had been cancelled.) A small force held El Adem, south of Tobruk to observe the approaches from the south and south-west and at Mechili, Gambier-Parry had the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters soft-skinned vehicles and a cruiser tank, most of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, M Battery 1st Royal Horse Artillery, part of the 3rd Australian Anti-tank Regiment and elements of other units.
The Germans tried twice to bluff Gambier-Parry into surrender but he received orders from CYRCOM to break out and retreat to El Adem and decided to attack at dawn, to gain a measure of surprise. On 8 April, A Squadron of the 18th Cavalry broke through and then turned to attack Italian artillery, as some Indian troops of the 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force) got away. Most of the garrison was pinned down and after a second attempt at 8:00 a.m. when small parties of the 2nd Royal Lancers escaped. The garrison had fired most of its small-arms ammunition at the vision slits of the German tanks, which had hung back in fear of mines and when Italian infantry attacked, had little left. Gambier-Parry and 2,700–3,000 British, Indian and Australian troops surrendered to the Pavia Division (General Pietro Zaglio).
Siege of Tobruk
Rommel hoped to pursue CYRCOM across Egypt and take Alexandria but overstretched supply lines, opposition from OKW and the British defence of Tobruk 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 the Axis forces were distracted by the siege, while the British rebuilt their strength in Egypt. By 8 April, the most advanced German units had arrived at Derna but some units which had cut across the chord of the Jebel Akhdar, ran out of water and fuel at Tengeder. Prittwitz, the commander of the 15th Panzer Division was sent ahead with a column of reconnaissance, anti-tank, machine-gun and artillery units, to block the eastern exit from Tobruk, as the 5th Light Afrika Division moved from the south-west and the 27th Infantry Division Brescia advanced from the west.
On 10 April, Rommel made the Suez Canal the objective of the Afrika Korps and ordered that a break-out from Tobruk be prevented. Next day the port was invested but the rush ended with the 5th Light Division on the east side, Group Prittwitz to the south (Prittwitz having been killed) and the 27th Infantry Division Brescia to the west. Reconnaissance Unit 3 went on to Bardia and a composite force was sent on to Sollum to try to reach Mersa Matruh. The British Mobile Force (Brigadier William Gott) on the frontier from Halfaya Pass to Sidi Barrani, conducted a delaying-action around Sollum and Capuzzo. Tobruk was defended by a force of some 25,000 Eighth Army troops, well stocked with supplies and linked to Egypt by the 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.
El Adem road
From 11–12 April, the 5th Panzer Regiment probed the defences of the 20th Australian Brigade near the El Adem road and was repulsed by artillery-fire; German infantry who reached the anti-tank ditch were forced back by Australian infantry. The Germans were surprised, having assumed that the shipping at Tobruk was to evacuate the garrison and planned a night attack by the 5th Light Division for 13/14 April. Groups of Axis vehicles were attacked by 45 and 55 squadrons RAF, which rearmed at the airfields inside the perimeter. The attack began after dark, with an attempt to get over the anti-tank ditch west of the El Adem road in the 2/17th Australian Battalion sector, which the Australians repulsed. Another attempt was made later and by dawn a small bridgehead had been established, where the 5th Panzer Regiment drove through and turned northwards, ready to divide into one column for the harbour and one to move west to stop the escape of the garrison. The Italians were slow to provide blueprints for the port fortifications and 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.
Orders of Battle
|5th Light Division | 15th Panzer Division|
|British Troops Egypt | Cyrenaica Command|
GHQ Middle East Forces
a) HQ British Troops Egypt
- While the tanks were being loaded onto Italian ships in the port of Naples, the Leverkusen caught fire and sank, with the loss of thirteen tanks. Ten replacement Panzer III, a mixture of Ausf (type) F and G models, were requisitioned from the 6. Panzer-Regiment (6th Panzer Regiment) and three new Panzer IV Ausf E models were shipped to Libya 10–14 April, reaching the regiment on 29 April.
- 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, pp. 24–38.
- Jentz 1998, p. 214.
- Jentz 1998, p. 37.
- Jentz 1998, p. 215.
- Jentz 1998, p. 36.
- Jentz 1998, pp. 37–38.
- 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. 2–4.
- French 2001, p. 226.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 4–6.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 6–8.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 9–11.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 25–26.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 28.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 29.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 26–27.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 27.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 30–34.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 30.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 29–35.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 35–36.
- Hoffman 2004, p. 35.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 37–38.
- Lewin 1998, pp. 39, 42.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 35–43, 153–159.
- Bauer, E. (2000) . Young, Peter, ed. The History of World War II (Orbis: London, rev. ed.). New York: Galahad Books. ISBN 1-85605-552-3.
- Creveld, M. van (1977). Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29793-1.
- French, David (2001) . Raising Churchill's Army: The British Army and the War against Germany 1919–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924630-0.
- Hoffman, K. (2004). Erwin Rommel. London: Brassey's. ISBN 1-85753-374-7.
- Jentz, T. 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, R. (1998) . Rommel As Military Commander. New York: B&N Books. ISBN 978-0-7607-0861-3.
- Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; with Flynn RN, 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: The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series II. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1.
- Wilmot, C. (1993) . Tobruk 1941 (Penguin ed.). Sydney: Halstead Press. ISBN 978-0-670-07120-3.
- Murphy, N. K. (2011). The "Lost" Battle of Mersa el Brega Libyan Desert, 31 March 1941 (PhD). Hull University. OCLC 809549608. Retrieved 28 March 2015.
- Rommel, Erwin; Liddell Hart, B. (1982) . The Rommel Papers. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80157-4.
- 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.
- Young, Desmond (1950). Rommel, The Desert Fox. New York: Harper & Row. OCLC 48067797.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Sonnenblume.|