Messerschmidt BF.110D-1s in flight off the coast of North Africa.
On 14 February 1941 a new and more aggressive enemy appeared in the skies above Libya, the first twin-engined Messerschmidt Bf 110C heavy fighters of the Fliegerkorps X startling the thin-skinned armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards on reconnaissance forward of El Agheila. In fact German aircraft had been operating in Libya since January, but their numbers grew dramatically during the first two months of the year. The persistence of the Luftwaffe pilots in pressing home their attacks came as something of a shock for the British accustomed to the Regia Aeronautica. Private Harry Buckledee recorded the effect of a German air attack on British Marmon Harrington armoured cars:
One afternoon . . . I saw three [Me] 110s attack one of our troops, and in about two or three minutes they had destroyed all three cars. Our troop was sent to their assistance. I was anxious as I knew my mate, Lance Corporal Bob Ramshaw, from West Stanley, Durham, who had joined up the same day as me, was in that troop. All but two of the crews were dead or wounded. Bob was badly wounded but recovered from his wounds, although he had a leg amputated.
By late February near-daily Luftwaffe attacks had made Benghazi unusable as a port, forcing 13th Corps to rely for its supplies on the long road back to Tobruk and thence via sea or land to Egypt. HMS Dainty, bringing in stores to Tobruk, was sunk by Stukas on 24 February. These unwelcome events heralded the arrival of a small German land force – part of Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) – designed to insert backbone into the Italian defence of Tripolitania. The commander of this force, the newly promoted Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, arrived in Tripoli by the ubiquitous Junkers Ju 52 transport plane – distinctive as much for its three motors as for its square, corrugated sides – from Rome via Catania in Sicily at midday on 12 February 1941. Flying at low level across the Mediterranean, Rommel noted a constant stream of Junkers crossing in the opposite direction, the aircraft having deposited supplies for the Fliegerkorps X build-up in Tripoli.
On 11 January, much against his will and following the disasters at Sidi Barrani and Bardia, a humbled Duce was forced to accept the offer of a German light (motorized) division to support the reinforcements that the Italians were even then shipping to Libya. These included the 132nd Ariete (‘Ram’) Armoured Division, with its complement of 6,949 men, 163 tanks (only 70 of which were the M13, the remainder the puny L3), 36 field guns and 61 anti-tank guns.
The original plan of the German armed forces high command, the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), was for Rommel’s single light division to act as a Sperrverband (blocking formation) to prevent any further British advance towards Tripoli. But the 5th Division was in fact much more powerful than its British equivalent. It consisted of the 5th Panzer Regiment (three panzer battalions each with forty Mark III and Mark IV tanks) together with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion with armoured cars, a machine-gun regiment (again with three battalions), a battalion of the 75th Artillery Regiment and an anti-tank (Panzerjäger) regiment equipped with a mixture of mobile 20-millimetre cannons and the powerful 88-millimetre anti-aircraft/ tank gun. The 5th Light Division was, with 9,300 men, 130 tanks, 111 guns and 2,000 vehicles, a powerful formation, all the more so when led by a determined and capable commander. Hitler had insisted that Italian mechanized forces also come under Rommel’s command, although Rommel himself was nominally subordinate to the Italian commander-in-chief in North Africa.
Erwin Rommel’s orders were to stabilize the front and prevent the British from humiliating Mussolini any more than they had already done, by ensuring that Tripoli did not fall. He had received his orders a mere six days before his arrival in Libya from the Fuhrer and Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht commander-in-chief, in Berlin. Hitler showed Rommel British illustrated magazines describing Wavell’s humbling of the 10th Italian Army in Cyrenaica. Sidi Barrani, Capuzzo, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna and Barce had fallen, and now Benghazi was threatened. The Italians were in no mental state to resist the British. Panic had set in among the troops in their haste to escape the British advance, and Tripoli was full of staff officers with packed suitcases seeking a quick exit back to Italy.
Rommel was an extraordinarily good choice for this command. ‘I picked him,’ remarked Hitler, ‘because he knows how to inspire his troops.’ This was true, although to a man his subordinate commanders and staff officers hated him, in part because of the demands he placed on them, and also because of his refusal to accept any attitude or behaviour on the battlefield that did not display the same thrusting aggression as his own. Not yet fifty years old, he was fit, highly motivated and experienced, having successfully commanded the 7th Panzer Division only months before during the invasion of France and prior to that in Poland. He was imbued with a personal dynamism and driving energy that set him apart from most of his peers. His three tactical principles, which he had learned in the First World War, developed through intensive study during the interwar period (including assiduous examination of the works of British commentators on mobile armoured warfare) and honed through experience in Poland and France, were: shock action, preferably against the enemy’s weakest point, in which massive and overwhelming firepower against ill-prepared opponents would shatter their will to resist; surprise, by which the enemy would be thrown off balance by an unexpected move; and speed, in which the sheer pace of his operations left the enemy unable to react quickly enough to changes on the battlefield. In all operations of war he sought to do the unexpected, to deceive, surprise and bluff. ‘His magic word is speed,’ wrote a fellow officer of Rommel’s tactics in France, ‘boldness is his stock in trade. He shocks the enemy, takes them unawares, overhauls them, suddenly appears far in their rear, attacks them, outflanks them, encircles them . . .’ The Germans even had a word for it: an enemy overwhelmed by these tactics was Gerommelt (Rommeled).
The First World War had taught Rommel that the psychological dimension to fighting was often more important in securing battlefield success than any other factor. If, by bold and decisive moves accompanied by overwhelming and concentrated firepower at the decisive point, he could persuade his enemy that all was lost, the battle would almost certainly go his way regardless of the true state of his forces. His personal courage in the face of the enemy was legendary, an inspiration to his men, and while his driving energy was often cursed, it also brought with it undoubted success, and it was success that soldiers – his own and his enemy’s – respected more than anything else. He was undoubtedly an unusual man, and like all men of action was not cut out for the certainties or forms of peacetime soldiering. His intensity made him more suited to the battlefield, particularly where full rein could be given to his creativity. As Private Frank Harrison of the Royal Signals was to observe with not uncritical awe, ‘One man does not make an army, but not since Napoleon had a military commander been such a symbol of leadership and battlefield victory over superior forces as Erwin Rommel.’
On arrival at the Castel Benito airfield outside Tripoli in the stifling heat of the Libyan noon Rommel knew very little of the Allied strength in North Africa. All he had to go on was what the headlines in the British newspapers were telling him: Wavell had launched a brilliant overwhelming attack on Italian forces in eastern Libya, and nothing now stood between the forward British units on the Gulf of Sirte and Tripoli. For all he knew, a further advance was being prepared to seize Tripoli. On landing, therefore, he immediately deluged Graziani’s successor, General Garibaldi (to whom he was, on paper at least, subordinate), with a flood of ideas to form a defensive line in the desert anchored on the Gulf of Sirte to block the route of a British advance on Tripoli and to allow space for the Luftwaffe to build up its strength around the capital. Garibaldi, who had only been in post for a day, dismissed the impetuosity of the German with the advice: ‘Go and see for yourself.’
Rommel did so. That very afternoon he and a small number of his staff flew by Heinkel 111 over the Gulf of Sirte, noting the Via Balbia, the metalled road hugging the coast from Tripoli to Bardia, built on the instructions of the late Italo Balbo, stretching out like a long black thread into the treeless distance. The flight confirmed Rommel in his determination to create a defence line at Sirte, 300 miles to the east of Tripoli and 160 miles west of the forward British positions at El Agheila. This would at least give him the ability to resist a British attack along the coast while collecting what armour he could muster to launch a counter-attack.
The vanguard of the 5th Light Division (Major General Johannes Streich), the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion commanded by Major Baron Irnfrief von Wechmar, together with the 39th Anti-Tank Battalion (Major Jansa) arrived in Tripoli on board the Saarfeld on 14 February, although the division would not be complete until mid-April. After disembarking his battalion from the 6,000-ton freighter during the night, von Wechmar was briefed by Rommel and was at Sirte by the 16th. Then, less than a week after his arrival, Hitler agreed to double the size of Rommel’s force by adding to it the 15th Panzer Division, naming the combined force the Deutsches Afrikakorps (more usually rendered in English as Afrika Korps). At the same time, Mussolini having instructed his forces to fall in with Rommel’s plans, the 10th Italian Corps – comprising the Brescia and Pavia Infantry Divisions, together with the newly arrived Ariete Armoured Division – began also to move forward. As the troops trickled into Tripoli over the coming six weeks, Rommel rushed them forward. On 5 March he wrote to his wife, Lucie:
Just back from a two-day journey – or rather flight – to the front, which is now 450 miles away to the east. Everything going fine.
A lot to do. Can’t leave here for the moment as I couldn’t be answerable for my absence. Too much depends on my own person and my driving power . . .
My troops are on their way. Speed is the one thing that matters here.
For the troops of the Afrika Korps the journey by sea to Tripoli was short but dangerous. For Sergeants Krugel and Wolff of the 15th Motorized Infantry Battalion the crossing from Italy in early March had been made in the Alicante, an old tramp steamer running the Royal Navy gauntlet in the Mediterranean. Both men had been horribly ill, and attempted to take their minds off their seasickness by standing in the bows of the old tub looking out for mines and submarines. Lieutenant Joachim Schorm, commander of the 6th Company of one of the three panzer battalions arriving on the Marburg in the same convoy, entered the relative safety of Tripoli harbour on 10 March with considerable relief:
We enter the harbour at Tripoli. We have done it! Fifteen miles from us . . . an Italian merchant ship and two tankers were sunk by submarines. The scene in the docks is indescribably picturesque. Rommel and German officers in field grey, the Luftwaffe in khaki trousers, breeches, shorts, the Italians in every conceivable uniform . . .
Schorm had reason to be jubilant at his survival as in early 1941 the Mediterranean remained a British lake. On 16 April Royal Navy destroyers sank an entire convoy off Sfax, Tunisia, carrying elements of the 15th Panzer Division: the 115th Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Schutz) and the 33rd Artillery Regiment. Three hundred and fifty men were killed and 300 vehicles together with 3,500 tons of stores lost. Despite these risks by the end of March 1941 some 25,000 men, 8,500 vehicles and 26,000 tons of stores had arrived safely in Tripoli in 15 convoys, with a loss of 9 German ships sunk and 9 damaged. Nevertheless, between January and May 1941 the Germans and Italians lost 31 ships attempting to supply the Afrika Korps in North Africa.
A month later, while their tanks and other vehicles attempted the journey by sea, a vast Luftwaffe fleet of Ju 52 transport aircraft – 208 in total – brought together for the forthcoming airborne invasion of Crete, flew 3,500 soldiers of the 15th Panzer Division from Sicily directly to desert airfields outside Tripoli. It was a dangerous journey. Flying in groups of three less than a hundred feet above the choppy waves and at a steady 150 knots the German aircraft were easy prey for British fighters flying out of Malta. For Private Rolf-Werner Volker it was his first ever flight and a daunting prospect. The only safety devices were uninflated rubber life jackets the eighteen soldiers in each plane were instructed to place over their necks and tie around their waists. They were to inflate them manually only if they found themselves in the sea. The Ju 52 had no seats, the troops making themselves as comfortable as they could for the 180-mile flight on the floor of the aircraft among their kitbags and weapons.
Völker’s worst fears were realized far out over the Mediterranean long after their Messerschmidt Bf 110 escorts had returned to Sicily. Suddenly, above the noise of their engines they heard the hammering of machine-gun fire. They were being attacked by British fighters. The pilot took evasive action, sharply twisting the plane from side to side, which threw men and equipment around the inside of the aircraft. Clinging on grimly for their lives they could see the British aircraft fleetingly through the windows in the fuselage, and sought a means to fight back. Taking a Spandau MG-42 machine gun from its packing they broke one of the windows and, feeding belt ammunition into the weapon, blazed away at the swooping enemy aircraft. As he did so, watching the tracer bullets from his weapon streaming into the sky, Volker realized that other men in other aircraft were doing the same thing: ‘I don’t know whether we hit any of them but it was good for morale to be able to shoot back and they seemed to be backing off. Then our pilot suddenly banked and before I could stop firing I had put several holes in our own wing. Luckily, I didn’t hit an engine or anything important.’