D.A.K. War Diary 9 April 1941

9 April 1941

Aerial reconnaissance during the morning 9 April showed: Mechili – Gadd el Ahmar free of enemy, there one of our detachments. 40km east of Gadd el Ahmar retreating enemy column. Tmimi our troops, 40km east the most forward German patrol. About 10 ships in the port of Tobruk.

Lt.General Rommel decided to continue the pursuit, encircle the enemy at Tobruk, and to destroy him. The Commander[1] planned to bring the divisions into the following jumping off positions for the attack.

During the evening 8 April, Major-General von Prittwitz[2] had already been given the task to lead the elements of 5.lei.Div. which were advancing as forward detachments on Tobruk. He reported at 08.00 hours 9 April to the Commander at the command post of the Afrikakorps on Derna airfield: “Forward Detachment Ponath 50km east of Derna. Mass (A.A.3, I./A.R.75, Pz.Jaeg.39, 6./M.G.2, Regt.Stab z.b.V. 200) will close up during the morning.”

At 10.15 hours General von Prittwitz received the order: “Group Prittwitz advances via Ain el Gazala into the area south of Tobruk and reconnoitres from south and southwest against Tobruk.”

At 12.25 hour order from Lt.General Rommel to General Zambon[3]:

“Div. Brescia advances from west onto enemy at Tobruk and opens fire on him with all heavy weapons and the artillery. It does however advance only so far as to stay outside the enemy fire zone.[4] Make lots of dust in the terrain.”

At 18.30 hours Lt. General Rommel arrived by plane at 5.lei.Div., which secured at Mechili to the north and northwest, and was busy repairing and maintaining its motor vehicles. Lt.General Rommel ordered to assemble all drive-ready elements into combat groups and to be ready with these by daybreak at the Via Balbia in Gazala, to be able to reach the jumping off point for the attack soonest. On 9 April, more or less immobile, the groups Schraepler, Taetz, and  Div.Ariete stood in the desert in the area Gadd el Ahmar – Tengeder.

The reconnaissance of Group Schraepler noted a heavy English tank battalion at el Adem.

[1] ‘Lt.General Rommel’ and ‘Commander’ are being used interchangeably.
[2] Commander of 15.Pz.Div.
[3] General Bortolo Zambon relinquished the command of Brescia on 10 October 1941. His career thereafter is not clear. He was involved in the liberation of Milano by anti-fascist forces at the end of the war, having spent time in prison.
[4] How exactly this feat was to be achieved is not clear… One presumes that if you can shoot at the other guy, he’ll be able to shoot at you…

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 8 April 1941

8 April 1941

At 08.00 hours 5.lei.Div. with I./Pz.Regt.5 led by Major Bolbrinker[1] (8 tanks) took Mechili. One English general[2], 60 officers, and about 1,700 men[3] were captured, an immeasurable volume of booty consisting of vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and rations fell in our hands. The garrison had received additional forces from the west in the morning and repeatedly tried to break through the encirclement. According to an Italian air report, around this time an enemy column of about 200 vehicles was breaking out, passing north by Mechili.

At 12.00 hours Lt. General Rommel ordered: “The Italian formations occupy Mechili. 5.lei.Div. secures to the north and northwest, Forward Detachment Schwerin and all arriving elements of Combat Group Olbrich to be tasked for Derna.”

Lt.Col. Graf Schwerin jumped off at 13.30 hours.

Since the evening of 7 April, Lt.Col. Ponath was engaged in a heavy battle against enemy breakthrough attempts on Derna airfield. During the afternoon of 8 April he was reinforced by Fliegerfuehrer Afrika with 3 Ju 52, carrying 60 men from an AA unit and 3 2cm guns.

At 18.35 hours Lt.General Rommel arrived with the van of Forward Detachment Schwerin on Derna airfield. Lt.Col. Ponath reported to the Commander: “Airfield Derna and Via Balbia reached evening 7 April. Great booty of weapons, ammunition and petrol, about 800 prisoners, including many officers and four generals[4]. Div.Brescia has reached Derna town.[5]”

Detachment Ponath was sent on Tmimi during the evening of 8 April. Task: establish contact with the enemy and reconnoitre against Tobruk. It reported on 9 April current location Tmimi, no contact with the enemy, reconnaissance on Tobruk underway.

Marching group Olbrich did not come to enter the battle at Mechili. At 10.00 hours it stood with its most forward elements still halfway B. el Beter – Mechili. Major Schraepler with elements Corps staff, one AA MG company[6], one AT company, elements I./Flak 18 and Signals Battalion Libyen reached Gadd el Amahr, elements of marching group Taetz and Div. Ariete Tengeder. All marching groups had to be sent rations in repeated operations of air transport units.

Further elements of the command squadron of the Afrikakorps were sent to Derna. The Ia with a radio section remained in Agedabia.

The commander of Div.Trento met the Ia and reported the arrival of the first elements of his division in Agedabia. He received the order to reach Derna by the evening of 12 April with one infantry regiment, one artillery battalion, and two companies of AT guns, and to pull up another infantry regiment, one MG battalion and two companies of AT guns by 13 April.

The Italian high command received the request for accelerated bringing up of Div.Trento and the remainder of Div. Brescia.  

[1]He received the Ritterkreuz for the action.
[2]Major-General Gambier Parry, General Officer Commanding 2nd Armoured Division.

o27connor_captured

General Gambier-Parry (right) awaiting transport in a Ju 52 after his capture, April 1941. Source: Wikipedia

[3]This was most of 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, arguably the most luckless formation on the Empire side in the desert, and the HQ of 2nd Armoured Division. Some detail on the action can be found at this link.
[4]The generals included Lieutenant-General Philip Neame VC, (centre on the picture above), and Lt.General O’Connor (rear centre), the victor of the COMPASS operation and the pursuit and destruction of the bulk of Italian forces just a few weeks before.
[5]This essentially joined the north-eastern push via Mechili and the eastern push via the Via Balbia and the Jebel Akhdar, but the encirclement closed too far west and allowed the main Empire forces in the Jebel as well as most of the remnants of 2nd Armoured Division to escape into Tobruk.

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 7 April 1941

7 April 1941

Weather: max. temperature 21 degrees Celsius

2nd Battalion Artillery Regiment 24 (10.5cm guns) “Frongia” was subordinated to the D.A.Korps[1]

Analysis of the intercepted radio messages gave the Ia the enemy picture, which resulted in a radio message to Lt.General Rommel, Colonel Olbrich, 2(H)14 and Fliegerfuehrer Afrika: “Forces at Tobruk apparently not particularly strong, have the task to defend at Acroma, and otherwise only to send patrols to the south and west. Probably retreat of a larger group, latest morning of 7 April, from the area south of Derna to Gazala and further east. Last elements of a larger group with staff of Quartermasster move into area south Derna, Mechili, by morning 7 April. Again point out appearance on morning 7 April of the tank group already heavily hit by Froehlich at Mechili. Panzerkorps Olbrich[2] will still be able to reach this group and finally beat it.”

A.A.3 was also oriented about the situation in a short radio message and driven to the highest urgency to reach the target of the attack, Mechili. Lt.General Rommel issued guidelines for the future conduct by the Ia in the following radio call: “06.40 hours: generally agree with all measures taken. Mechili – Derna decisive points today. Attack Mechili to take place 07.00 hours. Following occupation push on Derna. Supply of petrol is precondition. Keep Stuka ready for Derna. Armed reconnaissance[3] Derna – Tobruk – prevent enemy movement here. Brescia and Trento to be tasked on el Abiar and especially the coastal road Barce.”

The Commander personally organised the preparation for the attack in front of Mechili.

Following the collection of the last available petrol reserves of the 5.lei.Div. it was possible to bring Detachment Fabris in position south of Mechili at 08.15 hours. Negotiators sent out by the Commander to request the surrender of Mechili were sent back twice. Nevertheless there was no attack on Mechili on 7 April since, as Lt.General Rommel noted on a reconnaissance flight during early afternoon, Group Olbrich still hung back 50km in southwesterly, A.A.3 60km in westerly direction, and the mass of Group Streich with elements of the tank company only arrived in front of Mechili when night fell.

Lt.Col. Ponath pushed through to the airfield Derna at 17.00 hours on 7 April, and there blocked the Via Balbia in both directions. He reported “Good landing possibilities, lots of booty, water, petrol.”[4]

Group Olbrich reported 14.10 hours: “Marching group is resting because of terrain difficulties 15km south Bir el Beter. The marching group can only advanc e very slowly.” Repeated urgent directives were issued by the Ia, to push on to Mechili even only with elements of the force.

The group of Major Taetz rested 17.00 hours to 19.00 hours near Ben Gania. The elements of I./Flak 18 had however not followed. The van of Div. Ariete had by this time also reached Ben Gania, but had reached the end of its petrol supplies.

Across these substantial distances the direction of the different marching groups from the Corps command post in Agedabia was very difficult on 7 April. Sufficient radio communications only existed to 5.lei.Division. For the Commander radio messages had to be sent blind until the afternoon hours. With Group Olbrich a good communication existed only while the marching group was resting. From A.A.3 there was no report whatsoever since the evening of 6 April.

According to an incomplete radio message from Fliegerfuehrer the Aufklaerungsabteilung could be presumed to be at Ben Nagra around midday.

The northern group of Div.Brescia, which advanced only slowly due to mine fields and road blocks, reached Maraua by 16.30 hours.

A further addition to the general enemy picture came in the evening from the operations report of the Luftwaffe. It noted at 15.00 hours strong motor vehicle and tank concentrations around and east of Gazala, west of it in the sector Umm er Rzem – Gazala only weak occupation of the road, further west no enemy any more. The retreating enemy columns and noted concentrations at Gazala were attacked with bombs and MGs during the morning and afternoon, with greatest success.

Supply of troops in front of Mechili was carried out by heaviest operations of transport planes on 7 April. Since the required fighter cover was absent, two Hurricanes operating from the airfield at Mechili were able to destroy two Ju 52s while landing, and damage several more. The largest part of the supply vehicles hung back on the advance route, so that some troop elements had been without rations for four days.

To recover vehicle crews of vehicles that were stuck, and dispersed on both sides of the track, truck columns operating together with reconnaissance planes were used from 7 April.

During the night 6/7 April Tripoli was heavily attacked by English bombers. The field hospital suffered light, the Hotel Mehari heavy building damage. Losses: 1 Major of the Luftwaffe killed, two flying officers wounded.

[1] German forces in North Africa remained relatively weak in artillery until late summer of 1941.
[2] Not sure when ‘Group’ Olbrich morphed into an armoured corps.
[3]By aircraft.
[4]4 Blenheims of No. 55 Squadron R.A.F. had been destroyed on Gazala north landing ground when the airfield was abandoned the day before.