1. The Political Situation at the End of 1940 and Beginning of 1941
As it became apparent that the German Armed Forces were to emerge victorious from the campaign in the West, Italy, which was part of the Berlin-Rome "Axis," declared war on France on 11 June 1940. Italy's entry into the war did not result in the desired help for Germany. It soon became apparent that Italy was incapable of resolving any military issues without the assistance of Germany.
After Italian demands for French territoryNice, Corsica, Tunis and parts of Algeria-were turned down by Hitler, Mussolini believed he would be able to be successful in North Africa on his own. On 13 September 1940, the Italian 10th Army of Marshall Graziani moved out from the Italian colony of Libya-a colony since 1912-in an offensive against the British in Egypt. The Italian soldiers were inadequately equipped with obsolete weapons; in addition, they were poorly led. They had fought for nearly three decades against natives in Libya and Abyssinia, but they had never fought against an army equipped with modern weaponry, such as the British had. After 80 kilometers, the Italians called off their attack at Sidi Barani, so as to firm up their logistical lines of communication.
On 6 December, the English 8thArmy of General Archibald Wavell launched its counteroffensive. Advancing rapidly, it pushed the Italians back
across the Egyptian-Libyan border and attacked the naval base at Tobruk, which was protected by Italian fortifications and took it on 22 January 1941. It was expected the British would continue their advance in the direction of Tripoli. Based on the critical development of the situation, Mussolini felt compelled to ask the Germans for military help.
Although Hitler had declared on 9 January 1941 that he was "indifferent to the war in North Africa,"' he felt compelled to intervene. The following reasons tipped the scales, since the loss
• would have allowed England opportunities to intervene in French North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco);
• would have allowed the blockade around Europe to be completed in the south;
• would have enabled the possibility of an invasion of Europe from the North African coastal region;
• would have tied down strong German forces on a southern front once an invasion was launched; and
The North African Theater of War
• would lead to the loss of Italy as an ally.
All of these assumptions would later prove themselves correct in 1943.
Accordingly, Libya could not be permitted to be lost, either for political or military reasons.
The first support measure taken was the movement of the X. Fiieger-Korps2 with 200 aircraft to Sicily, from where it could strike British Mediterranean naval convoys and attack the British ground advance in North Africa.
2. Preparations for Employment in Africa
As early as 4 October 1940, in a discussion between Hitler and Mussolini, German assistance for an Italian offensive in north Africa had been arranged. On 11 October, the 3. Panzer-Division was directed to be prepared to provide troop elements for employment in North Africa. The soldiers of the division were medically examined for fitness for duty in tropical climates; then preparations were put on hold for a while.'
In the face of the potential loss of Libya and the entreaties for help from Mussolini, the German Army High Command directed the formation of a "Holding Formation" for Operation "Sonnenblume" ("Sunflower") in accordance with Riker Directive No. 22. The operation was intended to stabilize the Italian Front. The commander of the new formation was to be Genera irnajorFreiherr von Funck, who had commanded the regiment in France.'
Von Funck flew to Libya to conduct a leader's reconnaissance. On 1 February 1941, he reported back to Hitler. It had been determined that a relatively weak "holding formation" would not be sufficient to help their pressured allies. Correspondingly, Hitler ordered the following:
• Expansion of the "holding formation" to a complete light division (5. IvichteDivision)
• Preparations for the sending of an armored division (15. Panzer-Division)
• Command of the German Army forces in Libya by Generalmajor Rommel s
Von Funckwas released from his previous mission and assumed command of the 7. Panzer-Division from Rommel. The 3. Panzer-Division was directed to be the lead organization for providing forces for most of the units and formations composing the 5. leichte Division. The division gave up Panzer-Regiment 5, commanded since 13 October 1940 by Oberst Olbrich, representing the largest formation it had to release.
The two battalions of the regiment prepared for their shipment to Africa. The regiment had received new Panzer III's with the 5-centimeter main gun and started to reorganize in accordance with a TO&E dated 1 February 1941.
According to the TO&E (1 February 1941), a tank battalion was supposed to have the following tanks:
The entire regiment was allocated the following number of tanks:
3. Organization and Strength of the Regiment for the Campaign in Africa
As was the case in France, the actual numbers of vehicles varied from the authorized ones. In
addition, the regiment was still missing its 3rd and 7th Companies. The regiment's strength on 27 February 1941 was as follows.'
In contrast to the 3. Panzer-Division, Panzer-Regiment 5 was the only tank formation in the 5. leichte Division.
4. Troop Elements of the 5. Leichte Division (mot) on 10 February 1941 (Minus Command and Logistics Elements)
5. leichte Division
Commander: Generalmajor Streich
(Division headquarters and staff formed from the 3. Panzer-Brigade)
Aufhlkrungs-Abteilung3 (from the 3. Panzer-Division)
Flak-Bataillon (Sfl) 606'
Panzerjkger-Abteilung39 (from the 3. Panzer-Division)
2./Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 39 (from the 3. PanzerDivision)
I. /Flak-Regiment 33 (mot)9
I/Artilierie-Regiment 75 (from the 3. Panzer-Division)
Infanterie-Regiments-Stab zbl' 200 (mot)10
Maschinen-Gewehr-Bataillon 2 (mot) and MaschinenGewehr-Bataillon 8 (mot)."
There has been no definitive proof of a divisional insignia for the 5. leichte Division.'2 Some of the vehicles of the regiment, as well as the other formations that originally came from the 3. PanzerDivision, bore the divisional insignia of their original formation, which had been changed after the campaign in the West. At the beginning of 1941, the design was as follows:''
A Panzer II of the 2nd Company on the sea journey from Naples to Tripoli in March 1941. It still has the insignia of the 3. Panzer-Division.
Regimental pennant in black-pink-black.
Pennant for the 2nd Battalion: Pink-black-pink. (The 1st Battalion was analogous.)
Preparing their Panzer TVfor new operations. The crew still wears the "continental" Panzer uniform, soon to be replaced by items designed for wear in tropical climates.
Rail transport to Naples. The rail car of the train commander and the train guards.
The German soldiers were greeted at the railway stations by women with baskets of fruit. As a token of appreciation, other soldiers and airmen from previous transports have left souvenirs for the women.
4 March 1941: Waiting to be loaded on ships at the Naples Harbor.
The 8th Company is loaded out.
A wheeled vehicle from the regiment is loaded aboard. The JR stands for Instandsetzung Regiment, a regimental maintenance asset.
A Panzer III from the 5th Company is raised by the cranes. A crewmember and dock workers help steady the vehicle.
APanzer IZlfrom the 6th Company onboard its tranport.
A Panzer I of the regimental headquarters boards the Kybfels.
10 March 1941: Unloading in Tripoli.
APanzerlIof the regimental headquarters performs guard duty during the sea transport. Since Axis control of the seas was by no means assured, the soldiers all wear life vests.