Wehrmacht In Action2 March 2015

Operation Sunflower


74 years ago, Erwin Rommel had an immediate impact on the North Africa theater in one of the great achievements of the deployment of a fluid, mobile offensive.On 6 February 1941, the order was given to deploy German troops to North Africa to shore up the Italian forces there. The operation was codenamed Sonnenblume - “Sunflower”. The initial deployment was by men of the 5th Light Division (later renamed 21st Panzer Division). By far the most important individual was the commander of these men, Erwin Rommel.

By the time of Rommel’s arrival in Africa the Axis situation seemed most precarious, and a lesser man would probably have given up. By 15 February, the day after his arrival, the British were in control of Cyrenaica after a brilliant and furious offensive operation that saw the two divisions of the Western Desert Force take 130,000 Italian prisoners, 850 guns, 400 tanks and thousands of other motorized vehicles. For all practical purposes, Italy’s African army had ceased to exist, and the road to Tripoli lay open to a British advance.

It seemed likely that Rommel and his tiny army would be swept out of North Africa if and when British commander Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor renewed his offensive. When he had won the victory of Beda Fomm, O’Connor signalled, “The Fox killed in the open”. In fact, the Fox had just arrived, and he was very much alive. The British halted their advance on 12 February at Sirte. Had they pressed on towards Tripoli, the city would probably have fallen into their hands. However, the British high command’s decision to intervene in Greece to support it and Yugoslavia against a German invasion, put paid to the proud Irish general’s hopes to take the Libyan capital.

During most of February, the British were unaware of the Germans presence. Then, on 27 February, a German patrol along the Via Balbia driving east and a British one driving in the opposite direction encountered each other. The convoys of armoured cars passed each other without recognition. Probably wondering why these “Italians” wore such strange uniforms, the British commander finally woke up and shouted: “My God, did you see who they were? Germans!” With that realization, the British turned and so did the Germans, driving at full speed towards each other. Only the command vehicles opened fire, while the other vehicles swerved and struck the sand dunes on either side of the road. There were no casualties, and both protagonists could withdraw with their dignity intact.

Rommel’s men had landed at Tripoli and then advanced some 563km (350 miles) east without encountering any resistance. On 19 March, Rommel flew back to Germany to get Hitler’s permission to invade Cyrenaica on the basis that the British were not prepared to take the offensive. This was given, but Brauchitsch told Rommel that he could advance only as far as El Agheila as he would not receive any reinforcements. By 11 March, the entire 5th Panzer Regiment (105 medium and 51 light tanks) had arrived, supported by a Luftwaffe force of some 50 Stukas and 20 fighter planes - although coordination was not as good as Rommel would have liked since the Luftwaffe squadron in North Africa remained outside his control.

The British were having problems of their own, and the Western Desert Force had lost its best units to Greece. However, there seemed to be no threat of a German attack since the British had estimated that it would take Rommel until May to be ready for an offensive. This argument might have held true had the British been dealing with an ordinary German general, but Rommel was too impatient and struck before the British were prepared. On 24 March, he took El Agheila in a lightning strike that left the British shocked. Two days later, Churchill telegraphed overall commander Wavell to say “we are naturally concerned at the rapid German advance to Agheila. It is their habit to push on wherever they are not resisted. I presume you are only waiting for the tortoise to stick his head out far enough before chopping it off. It seems extremely important to give them an early taste of our quality.” What Churchill could not have realized at the time was that Wavell’s enemy was not a slow-moving, cautious tortoise but a fast-moving fox.

On 31 March the 21st Panzer Division beat the 2nd Armoured Division at Mersa Brega, which gave the Germans a morale booster, since it showed how weak the British had become. The following day, the Germans attacked in three directions, like a fan, across Cyrenaica, and by 1 April Rommel had taken Agedabia. Flying his Storch light aircraft above the whirling dust clouds of the advancing German columns, Rommel constantly urged his commanders to attack and exhorted them to move faster. He lost patience with Streich, commander of the 5th Light Division, when he asked for four days to refuel and refit his tanks. Rommel replied brusquely: “You have 24 hours.”

On 3 April the British abandoned Benghazi, but not before they had destroyed the supply dumps there. Rommel, writing home that same day, was pleased at the his “dazzling success” which surprised even the German high command and - and certainly astonished the Italian Comando Supremo. “The British are falling over each other to get away. Our casualties are small. Booty can’t be estimated.” No doubt Rommel felt that this was France 1940 all over again and that the British, like the French, would need only a few hard punches to be broken. When the Luftwaffe reported that the road to Mechili was open, Rommel ordered Colonel Schwerin, leading a composite force of Germans and Italians to “make for it. Drive fast.” This order was typical of Rommel, whose style of command was direct, simple and aggressive. When in doubt, attack and drive hard.

The following day, Streich ran out of fuel halfway to Mechili; General Kirchheim’s column was checked by the Australians (whose tough fighting prowess was to be respected by the Germans); and Colonel Olbricht’s column had not even left Antelat. Rommel was infuriated at the incompetence and slowness of his subordinates. On 5 April he took personal command of Streich’s unit and ordered Ponath’s machine-gun battalion to unite with Olbricht’s panzer battalion, and advance on Derna. Nevertheless, Rommel was delighted with his progress so far, but he knew success depended completely on his personal leadership and presence at the very tip of the advance.

On 5 April, Schwerin’s column (to which Streich belonged) captured Tengeder, and the following day (6 April) Mechili fell to the Germans. The 2nd Armoured Division had lost all of its armour, and only the 7th Australian Division was fighting back with determination. Around Derna, a British staff car was captured, and inside were the two senior British commanders, including O’Connor. The capture of O’Connor was an unmitigated disaster. He was the only British desert general who had the competence and experience of mobile warfare to give Rommel a serious run for his money. The British were desperate enough to suggest that they exchange O’Connor for six or more Italian generals.

On 7 April Derna fell, and the day after another senior British commander, Major-General General Gambier-Perry, commander of the 2nd Armoured Division, was captured. Rommel was photographed in conversation with the British officer.
Meanwhile, von Wechmar’s 3rd Reconnaissance Unit was advancing on Bardia, while Lieutenant-Colonel Knabe’s motorized infantry approached Sollum and Mersa Matruh. By 12 April, the DAK had taken Bardia and reached the Egyptian frontier.

In just six weeks, Rommel had changed the rules of warfare in North Africa.