In December 1940, Hitler began to investigate ways of aiding his Italian ally in North Africa. The X Fliegerkorps established air fields in Sicily towards the end of the month, although its role was to provide support for Axis operations throughout the Mediterranean area. The destruction of the Italian Tenth Army by the British during the winter of 1940-41 – in Wavell’s offensive made the need for German intervention all the more necessary. On 11 January 1941, Hitler issued Directive Number 22, which ordered the formation and despatch of a special detachment to North Africa. This would act as a blocking force to prevent the British from pushing on to Tripoli. At the time, the German army high command (OKH) had little interest in initiating offensive operations in Libya, but the man appointed to command this body of troops had other ideas.
Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel flew into Tripoli on 12 February. His exploits commanding the 7th Panzer Division in France had earned him the admiration of Hitler and an independent command leading Germany’s ground forces in North Africa. After reporting to the new Italian commander- in-chief in Libya, General Gariboldi, he set off on an aerial reconnaissance of the forward areas to personally assess the situation facing the Axis in North Mrica. Lieutenant Heggenreiner, a German liaison officer with the Italian army, had written a memorandum to Rommel explaining the poor state of Italian morale. Rommel noted that Heggenreiner, ‘described some very unpleasant incidents, which had occurred during the retreat, or rather the rout which it had become. Italian troops had thrown away their weapons and ammunition, and clambered onto overloaded vehicles in a wild attempt to get away to the west. Morale was as low as it could be in all military circles in Tripoli. Most of the Italian officers had already packed their bags and were hoping for a quick return to Italy. ‘While this was probably something of an exaggeration, Rommel’s comments summed up the pessimistic and defensive-minded mentality of the Italians.
Rommel takes command
The Italian army in Libya now comprised five poorly equipped divisions, of which one, the Ariete division, was a mechanised formation that had been assigned 60 light tanks. So rife was the despondency in the Italian camp at this point in the desert campaign that Rommel even had difficulty in persuading Gariboldi that a defensive line should be established well to the east of Tripoli at Sirte, directly opposite the forward British positions at El Agheila.
Although technically under the command of Gariboldi and the Italian high command, Rommel had the right to appeal to OKH if he considered his forces to be endangered by an Italian order. Complicating the command structure further, Rommel was given control over the Italian mechanised forces. From the start, however, Rommel acted in an independent capacity and ignored the directives of his nominal Italian superiors and, at times, even OKH itself.
Two days after Rommel’s arrival, armoured cars of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion were unloaded at the docks in Tripoli, the advance element of the 5th Light Division (renamed 21st Panzer Division in October 1941). This was the beginning of the renowned Africa Corps, or Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), which officially came into being on 19 February 1941. The rest of the 5th Light Division was due to arrive by mid-April, while the other German formation promised to Rommel, the 15th Panzer Division, would not be ready for action until the end of May. But in early March, a small force capable of offensive operations had arrived, and in addition to the well-armed reconnaissance battalion, it included the 5th Panzer Regiment, which was allotted 105 medium and 51 light tanks. The Luftwaffe provided direct support in the form of a fighter screen plus 20 medium bombers and 50 dive-bombers. More aircraft were on call from the main bases of X Fliegerkorps in Sicily. And during the course of the next few months, Rommel would receive further aircraft from Europe, giving the Germans the edge over the British in terms of air superiority.
The first German moves
With the forces at his disposal, Rommel decided to test the enemy positions around El Agheila. The first clash with the British took place on 24 February and their negative response to this meeting convinced Rommel that the time was ripe for an all-out offensive. The British position in Cyrenaica was, in fact, more vulnerable than it seemed at first sight. The experienced units of Wavell’s offensive had been replaced by troops new to combat: the 6th Australian Division had been exchanged for the 9th Australian Division and the loss of 7th Armoured Division was in no way compensated for by the arrival of 2nd Armoured Division, which was seriously under-strength and lacking in knowledge of desert conditions. O’Connor had been transferred back to Middle East Command, and the new British commander, Lieutenant General Philip Neame, failed to measure up to his predecessor. Supported by the Italian mechanised Ariete Division, the newly-formed Africa Corps struck on the 24 March. The British fell back in disorder. Capitalising on British disarray, Rommel pressed his advantage and raced forward along three axes of advance, further confusing his opponents. In order to avoid encirclement, the British rapidly gave ground and retreated to Gazala, but this did not prevent the capture of Generals Neame and O’Connor (the latter had been sent up to advise Neame as the situation deteriorated). The staff car containing Neame and O’Connor was intercepted by a German patrol near Derna on 7 April. O’Connor’s capture was a great loss to the British cause, although his wry comment on the incident was typical: ‘It was a great shock and I never thought it would ever happen to me; very conceited perhaps, but it was miles behind out own front and by sheer bad luck we drove into the one bit of desert in which the Germans had sent a reconnaissance group, and went bang into the middle of them.’ The Africa Corps surrounded Tobruk on 11 April and Rommel immediately ordered an all-out assault in the hope of gaining the port before the British had a chance to organise a proper defence. The attacks failed and the Axis forces had to set about mounting a conventional siege operation, and so began the epic 242-day investment of Tobruk. Under the command of the tough Australian Major General Leslie Morshead (nicknamed ‘Ming the Merciless’ by his troops) the garrison of Tobruk was a mixed force comprising Australian infantry (the 9th Infantry Division plus and extra brigade) supported by British artillery, anti-aircraft guns and engineer units, plus a few Matilda tanks from the Royal Tank Regiment. Morshead immediately stamped his authority over the garrison when he declared: ‘There’ll be no Dunkirk here! If we should have to get out, we shall have to fight our way out. No surrender and no retreat.’