Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) (February-March 1941) was the codename for the initial movement of German troops to North Africa, after the Italians had been forced out of Cyrenaica and appeared to be struggling to hold on to Tripolitania.
When Italy entered the war the front line in North Africa ran along the Egyptian-Libyan border. The British were badly outnumbered, but the Italians were unable to take advantage of this. They did advance across the Egyptian border, but a British counterattack, originally carried out with limited objectives, soon developed into a major offensive (Operation Compass). In just over a month the Italians were forced back from their positions across the Egyptian border all the way to El Agheila, on the Gulf of Sirte. British troops captured Tobruk (21-22 January), Benghazi (7 February) and El Agheila (9 February). The Italians were prepared to abandon the Sirte area and make a standard around Tripoli, but unknown to them the British offensive had now run out of steam. General Wavell, the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, had been ordered to send troops to Greece and the troops that had taken part in the advance were now exhausted. The British stopped at El Agheila, and rotated most of their experienced troops back to Egypt to rest. Fresh troops with little or no desert experience replaced them.
The Germans and Italians were unaware of this. Hitler feared the worst, and in order to prevent a total collapse of the Italian position in Africa decided to send a small German force to help defend Tripolitania.
The new force was limited to two divisions – 5 leichte division, which would arrive first and 15 Panzer Division, which would follow on. General Erwin Rommel, who had served as the commander of Hitler's escort battalion before the war and commanded the 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France, was chosen to command the new force.
On 6 February Rommel met with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, who outlined his new role, and then with Hitler, who gave him a detailed outline of the position in North Africa and explained that he had been selected for the role as he was believed to be the man most able to quickly adapt to the new circumstances. On this date the situation appeared to be very critical, with the British about to take Benghazi and showing no signs of stopping.
On 11 February Rommel visited the Italian High Command in Rome, where he got approval for his plan to defend a line running south from Buerat, at the western end of the Gulf of Sirte. He then flew to Sicily, where he ordered the first German raids on Benghazi, to harass the British supply lines.
On 12 February Rommel flew to Tripoli. After visiting the new Italian commander, General Italo Gariboldi, he then flew over the Sirte area, and decided to make his stand there. Gariboldi hadn't been very supportive earlier, but by the time Rommel returned new orders had arrived from Italy, and he cooperated with the Germans.
The German plan was for the first units of the light division to arrive in February 1941, with the movement to be completed by mid-April. 15 Panzer would follow by the end of May. Rommel had been given clear orders not to go onto the offensive until his entire force was present, and then only to make a limited move.
When Rommel arrived in Africa Sirte was only defended by one Italian infantry regiment. Rommel was impressed by these troops when he visited them, but reinforcements were urgently needed. Two Italian divisions ('Brescia' and 'Pavia') were ordered up to the front, with the first moving on 14 February. The armoured 'Ariete' division was ordered to move to a position further west, although its tanks weren't terribly impressive.
The first troop ship reached Tripoli on 14 February. This carried Reconnaissance Battalion III of the light division (Aufklärungsabteiling 3(mot)), commanded by Major Baron von Wechmar, and an anti-tank battalion. Rommel insisted that this ship should be unloaded non-stop and overnight. By 11am on 15 February the unit was ready to be paraded through Tripoli. The unit was then rushed to the front, arriving on 16 February. At this point Rommel officially took command of the front line, sending Major General Johannes Streich, the commander of the 5 leichte division, to represent him.
At about this time Hitler decided to name the new unit the Deutsches Afrikakorps, and on 21 February 1941 Rommel's headquarters officially became StabDAK. This was the birth of the German Africa Corps. At no point did this unit contain all of the Axis forces in Africa. At first it operated alongside the Italians, and later when more German forces arrived it became one part of a larger army, but for their opponents the name would soon come to stand for all of the Axis forces in North Africa.
Over the next month the rest of V Panzer Regiment (part of the light division), arrived, completing its movement on 11 March. This gave Rommel 155 German tanks – 25 Panzer I Ausf A, 45 Panzer II, 61 Panzer III, 17 Panzer IV and 7 command tanks (Rommel wrote that this gave him 120 tanks, perhaps suggesting that he didn’t count the Panzer Is or command tanks). The 61 Panzer IIIs were the most potent anti-tank weapons, and ended the reign of the British Matilda II as 'Queen of the Desert'.
15 Panzer Division didn't complete its movement until May, but by then Rommel's First Offensive was well under way. The British were forced out of Cyrenaica nearly as quickly as they had advancing, setting a pattern of advance and retreat that would dominate the Desert War for the next two years.