At the beginning of 1941, Adolf Hitler was furious at Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his failing adventures in the Balkans and Africa. The Italians simply couldn’t hold onto any territory they took: they invaded Greece in the autumn of 1940, and in the process they were not only thrown out of Greece but also lost a third of their colony in Albania. The British were pushing on Italian Somaliland, just landed to retake British Somaliland, and were pounding into Eritrea. Finally, and most disconcertingly, the Australians stormed Tobruk, and British armor was spotted just east of El Alghelia in Libya.
These Italian failures threatened the flank of Hitler’s upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union in the late spring. As part of a deception plan to hide his intentions in the East, he just railed against Britain and spoke of the upcoming amphibious invasion of the British isles. So seizing Greece and shoring up the Italians in North Africa would help that effort (or so the logic went).
As part of Germany’s Southern strategy was the Deutches Afrikacorps, or the German Africa Corps or DAK. On 5 February 1941, MajGen Erwin Rommel was given command and tasked with forming the DAK, transporting it to Libya, and securing North Africa. It was really just a sideshow of a sideshow at the time. The DAK would be formed around the the 3rd and and 15th Panzer Divisions. For the next week, Rommel organized the two divisions for rail movement to Southern Italy. In the process, he fast tracked (ha!) the 5th Panzer Regiment, an infantry battalion, and engineer, medical, anti aircraft, and water purification companies for immediate transport and told his executive officer to follow with the rest. Newly promoted LieutGen Rommel flew to Tripoli on 12 Feb 1941 ahead of the world’s first brigade combat team, where he met them two weeks later. (The rest of the DAK would arrive over the course of the next three months .)
Rommel, with the first units of the Africa Corps, would attack the British as soon as the 5th Panzer Regiment was off the ships.