World War II's Opening Salvoes in North Africa
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jim Fox
Egypt in 1882 became a de facto British colony. This remained until 1922, when Britain gave Egypt its independence. However, British troops had the right to stay in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal from any invasion, and this enabled Britain to continue dominating Egypt's political life and to interfere in every aspect of Egyptian life until they were finally ousted in 1952.
But in 1940, the British troops were supreme in Egypt. Since the British knew very well the importance of Egypt and its geographical significance, the British army moved the headquarters of their Mediterranean fleet from Malta to Alexandria in North Egypt in the 1930s.
At the beginning of World War II (in North Africa, there had already been battles further south), there was no Rommel in Egypt, and only the Italians in Libya. Mussolini had, so far in the war, thoroughly embarrassed himself, and he was looking for both a way to improve his image with the Germans and to find a way to get a larger slice of territory as the spoils of war. Therefore, he ordered his supreme commander in Libya, Marsha Rodolfo Graziani, to attack the British in Egypt. On paper, it should have been a sure thing. His army of 250,000 faced a British force of barely 30,000. Italy fielded 400 guns to the British 150, and he had 190 fighter aircraft to the British 48. Furthermore, only 150 British tanks faced 300 Italian tanks. This is why Mussolini wrote to him saying, "It is not a question of aiming for Alexandria or even Sollum, I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you".
In all fairness to our Italian friends, and as most people already realize, many of the Italian people during World War II were as much victims of their government as were the enemies of Mussolini. It is true that, in North Africa at least, they did poorly in battle, but they did poorly because they had not the equipment or the leadership to do otherwise. It should be noted that, while the most decisive battle to take place in North Africa was fought at El-Alemein, most of the early fighting actually took place in Libya, though after Italy attempted to invade Egypt.
Yet, behind the overwhelming numbers facing the British were any number of weaknesses, and even Graziani knew this. First of all, the Italian 10th and 5th Armies in Libya marched on foot, while the British rode in trucks. Two of his six divisions were Blackshirt militia outfits, clad in fancy black uniforms, but poor soldiers. His army as a whole was badly trained. Also, Italian divisions had been reduced from three regiments to two, a paperwork shuffle that created more Italian divisions but weakened their strength. And this seems to have been the least of his problems. The Italian forces had poor equipment. Armored cars dated back to 1909. The L3 tank only mounted two machine guns. The underpowered and thinly-armored M11 was little better. Its 37mm gun could not traverse. The heavyweight M13 packed a 47mm gun, but crawled along at nine miles per hour. None could match the British Matilda with its 50mm armor and 40mm gun. Italian troops were short of antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, ammunition, and radio sets. Artillery was light and ancient. Furthermore, Italian soldiers were stuck with the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, an 1881 model, which suffered from low bullet velocity and their Breda machine guns were clumsy to operate and jammed easily. And they had a problem with the Model 35 "Red Devil" hand grenades blowing up in the hands of their users. On the other hand, the British troops used the reliable .303 caliber Lee Enfield rifle, the very good Bren and Vickers machine guns and the safe and deadly Mills grenade.
The Italians also had problems in the air. While they could sortie 84 modern bombers and 114 fighters, backed up by 113 obsolete aircraft, they were completely outclassed by the British Hurricane. Furthermore, the British army, which had trained for years in the Egyptian desert, was much better at maintaining their aircraft under these extreme conditions.
Actually, the Italians had sold off their newest aircraft and weapons to foreign buyers such as Spain and Turkey in order to ease their balance of payments problems, and now they were facing crack British troops. Italy was hopelessly outclassed by her British opponents. The British army in Egypt had trained for years in the appalling desert climate. It consisted of crack regiments like the Coldstream Guards and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The British 7th Armoured Division was its model mobile force, and it was backed up by the 4th Indian Division and the 6th Australian Division, the elite of both nation's armies.
Finally, both sides were preparing to fight a war in the most inhospitable climate imaginable, Egypt's" Western Desert". This sprawling expanse, occasionally pocked by mud huts or the odd well, was appallingly hot by day, freezing by night. The only paved road ran along the coast and wasn't finished. Dusty trails crisscrossed the rest. Vehicles that traversed them left their tracks in these trails which are still visible to today's oil explorers.
None of this mattered to Mussolini. At first, Graziani created a battle plan that could not work in order to soothe Mussolini. When Mussolini replied with an order to attack, Graziani pleaded for a postponement, but Mussolini would have none of this, and ordered his Marshal to attack or be replaced.
Faced with dismissal, Graziani shuffled his plans. The southern swing was abandoned, the Libyan Corps moved near the coast, and the 23rd Corps under General Annibale "Electric Whiskers" Bergonzoli, ordered into the primary attack. The 62nd Marmarican and 63rd Cyrene Divisions, joined by the 1st and 2nd Blackshirt Divisions, would lead the assault. The Italian armored warfare included more than 300 tanks (about 230 L3-type light tanks and 70 medium M11/39).
The British were led by two brilliant men, Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O'Connor, who commanded the Western Desert Force, and Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, supreme commander of Egypt. O'Connor was a former infantryman who saw the value in tanks and mobility. Wavell possessed a fluid understanding of desert warfare. O'Connor's plan to face Graziani was simple. He would conduct delaying actions and withdrawals in order to drag the Italians beyond their supply line. Then he would pounce.
Wavell thought the same. The day after Graziani moved, Wavell ordered O'Connor to prepare plans for a drive on Tobruk. Yet Wavell himself was under siege. The Middle Eastern theater involved highly complex political relations with Arab leaders, a source of endless headaches. Wavell also had responsibility for East Africa, where Mussolini's troops were threatening the Sudan. Palestine had to be policed. Vichy French Syria had to be watched. Wavell's relations with Prime Minister Winston Churchill were cool, and England, bracing for invasion, had little with which to reinforce Wavell. However, when Wavell promised London unspecified offensive action, the War Office sent him 152 tanks (including 50 heavy infantry tanks, the Matilda II), which brought Wavell up to parity with the Italians, along with 48 anti-tank guns, 48 25-lbr. (86mm) field guns, and 500 Bren guns.
From the start, the Italian offensive was a bungle. Vehicles' engines overheated. One division got lost. Radio Rome announced the impending offensive to the world and British intelligence. When Graziani's men finally moved on September 10th, the British 11th Hussars, screening the Italian move, had a good laugh watching the Italians try to figure out its location from compasses, speedometers, and maps.
The entire 1st Libyan Division, including a regiment of paratroopers who gloried in the title, but had never dreamed to jump out of an aircraft, attacked Sollum on the Egyptian northern coast, held by a single platoon of Coldstream Guards. The British laid mines and withdrew. The Italian were left with the laborious task of mine-clearing.
It took Graziani's men four days to reach Sidi Barani, where they stopped, having outrun their supplies, exhausted their infantry, and worn down their vehicles. Graziani needed to extend the metalled road and water pipeline to his frontline units. Italian casualties were 120 dead and 410 wounded. The British had lost only 40 men.
Map of the Opening Campaign in North Africa
At Sidi Barani, the Italians dug in, while their commander radioed Rome for more trucks in order to haul his supplies, which he never received, and after 40 days, Mussolini once again demanded that the offensive continue if Graziani were to keep his post. Graziani wired back to say he would resume the offensive on December 15th.
But Mussolini created even more problems for his Italian commander, now in Egypt. He invaded Greece, hoping as ever for a quick victory. Instead his legions were defeated in the Albanian mountains. On November 11th, Royal Navy Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked Taranto, sinking an Italian battleship and damaging two more. The Regia Marina fled to western Italy, taking it out of the North African game. Wavell could now look to the offensive.
O'Connor devised a simple and straightforward five-day raid, called Operation COMPASS, that would take advantage of the spread out Italian forces. It would be the first British offensive of World War II. However, it was, at the time, only meant to be a five day raid. Between the 63rd Division's camp at Rabia and the Maletti Group at Nibeiwa was the 20-mile undefended Enba Gap. O'Connor planned to pour his 4th Indian and 7th Armoured Divisions through it and drive to the sea, thus trapping four Italian divisions. The British 16th Brigade, reinforced by a battalion of motorized Free French Marines, would be the anvil of this hammer. Wavell approved the plan without telling O'Connor that as soon as the raid was over, 4th Indian would be withdrawn to Sudan.
Planning was detailed and secrecy was paramount. For better than a month prior to the impending surprise offensive, Major General O'Connor had the troops practice their parts in the attack.
Thanks to RAF reconnaissance, O'Connor had precise photo-mosaics of Italian vehicle routes, so he knew how to avoid Graziani's mines. To maintain surprise, British leave was not stopped, troops were not given notice of the offensive, forward dumps were called precautionary, and even the medical teams were not advised to expect extra casualties.
At the same time, the Italians suffered a number of command problems. Graziani removed his Chief of Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio and soon afterwards, the 10th Army commander, General Berti, went home to Italy on sick leave.
On December 6th, 25,000 troops, under the pretext of more training, were quietly moved forward nearly 40 miles and lay motionless in the desert all the next day. The following day, they moved forward again and that evening the troops were told for the first time that it was no training exercise.
O'Connor began his attack with air and naval bombardment of the Italian camps at 7:00 am on December 9th, 1940. British surprise was complete. That morning the British moved forward, troops dragging extra grenades, wearing heavy underwear and woolen sweaters in the cold pre-dawn air.
The advance was almost an anticlimax. The Italians didn't know the British were upon them, even though they had surrounded them during the night between December 8th and 9th, until they heard the rumble of Matilda tank treads and the plaintive skirl of Scottish bagpipes. The 11th Indian Brigade charged into Maleni Group's Nibeiwa Camp, defended by 20 tanks, 12 field guns and 2,500 Libyans. The tanks were caught with their crews at breakfast, and quickly disabled.
"Frightened, dazed or desperate Italians erupted from tents and slit trenches, some to surrender supinely, other to leap gallantly into battle, hurling grenades or blazing machine-guns in futile belabour of the impregnable intruders," wrote G. R. Stevens in his history of 4th Indian Division. Italian artillerymen gallantly swung their pieces on to the advancing monsters. They fought until return fire from the British tanks killed them. General Maletti, the Italian commander, sprang from his dugout, machine-gun in hand, but fell dead from an answering burst His son, beside him, was struck down and captured. More than 2,000 POWs and 35 tanks were captured. The Indians lost 56 officers and men.
Meanwhile, the 5th Indian Brigade jumped the Tummar Camps from behind at 1:30 pm. At Tummar, Italian artillerymen fought to the last, but their shells bounced off British tanks. Nearly 4,000 Italians were captured, along with considerable wine stocks.
Also, the 7th Armoured's tanks roared up on Buq Buq, held by the 64th Division. By the end of December 10th, the 4th Blackshirt and the1st Libyan Divisions were surrounded and the British took back Sidi Barani at 4:40 pm. The Arabs and paratroopers of Is' Libyans fought hard on the 10th amid a howling sandstorm, but on the 11th the division began to disintegrate. The Leicesters' official history wrote, "A formidable body of men emerging from their trenches...as if in mass attack; but they came stumbling, with their hands up, 2,000 Blackshirts had had enough. A rot had set in."
Meanwhile, the 7th armoured division had reached the sea, west of Sidi Barani, cutting off any retreat by the coast road. Hence, on the 11th, when the 2nd Blackshirts and 64th Cantanzaro Division tried to flee, they ran smack into the British tanks, and disintegrated. On the same day, O'Connor counted 20,000 POWs, 180 captured guns, and 60 tanks, at a cost of 600 of his own casualties. 250 of those came from 16th Indian Brigade. RAF Hurricanes had routed Italy's CR 42s, and the remaining Italian forces were in full flight. The obvious thing would be to follow up success.
But as O'Connor sketched his next moves, he received the telegram from Wavell ordering the detachment of 4th Indian to Sudan. The 6th Australian Division would replace it, but not right away. That would leave O'Connor with only the 6th British Brigade, the 7th Armoured (whose tanks needed repair) and the Selby Force with its French Marines. This was not really enough to guard POWs, collect abandoned vehicles, or provide water for all. Therefore, the logical move was to stop his advance, as Wavell in fact advised. Instead, O'Connor, who was an admirer of Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, decided to maintain the pace of the offensive.
On the night of the 11th, the Italian 62nd and 63rd Divisions began pulling out under a sandstorm. Graziani finally took action. "Recognizing the impossibility of damming the enemy march on the desert flats, I thought it essential to put to full use the unique natural obstacle at Halfaya, while throwing strong reinforcements into Bardia and Tobruk," he signaled Mussolini. To defend the pass, the only gap in the long escarpment, Graziani threw in an armored brigade.
O'Connor's plan called for the 7th Armoured Division to keep charging. The 3rd Hussars, in their light Mark Vl tanks, tried to do so, but beyond Buq Buq they ran into heavy Italian artillery and airpower.
O'Connor called for RAF Gloster Gladiators to intercept, but the biplane fighters were out of action after the exertions of the past few days. Therefore, O'Connor used his superior 25-lbr. guns, and the offensive, despite the loss of a number of tanks, was on again. The 7th Armoured Division rumbled forward, heading for Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo, the white brick fort guarding the Libyan border. The Coldstream Guards, who had been stationed at Mersa Matruh, reported capturing "five acres of officers and 200 acres of other ranks." Despite losses of vehicles to gunfire and maintenance, O'Connor's forces were riding the crest of a wave, boosting morale back in England.
O'Connor continued his five-day old raid to grab the small Egyptian border port of Sollum, through which the Royal Navy could re-supply him. Then O'Connor could push on to Bardia, after moving the now 38,000 POWs and the 4th Indian Division back and bringing his supplies and the 6th Australian Division up.
On the 12th, artillery slowed the British. Exhausted troops drove along in the dark under blackout conditions, wearied by noise, repairs, smoke, heat and cold. The next day, O'Connor stripped his 7th Armoured's Support Group of vehicles, so that he had more trucks to keep his tanks topped up with gas. Meanwhile, Graziani, from his bunker, wired Rome in a panic to say that Cyrenaica was lost, and recommending retreat to Tripoli. Apparently, that fell on deaf ears. In Cyrene, Graziani, faced with the probable loss of Sollum and Fort Capuzzo, retreated the bulk of his force to Bardia. On the 16th, the British hit Sidi Omar, which was held by the 62nd Division, amid minefields and a white stone fort, lacking infantry. When the lead tank roared into the center of the fort, the tank commander traded pistol shots with stunned Italians. However, before the defenders could overwhelm the Matilda, its squadron mates arrived, and the Italians collapsed.
By the 20th, the 7th Armoured, despite exhausted crews and vehicles, had seized Capuzzo and Sollum, but Bergonzoli had been able to muster a considerable defense in Bardia with four divisions of 21st Corps plus fortress troops, border guards, an anti-tank ditch, concrete blockhouses, and remnants of fleeing units. Altogether Bergonzoli had 45,000 men and 400 guns, and a brigade of M13 tanks. He also had a message from Mussolini, exhorting him to fight to the last.
In order to soften up the Italians the RAF, on January 1st, lunched Wellingtons, Bombays and Fleet Air Arm swordfish from their respective airbases. By morning, over 20,000 pounds of bombs had been dropped on the Italina defences. This barrage continued unrelentingly all the next day by Blenheims, making a total of 44 sorties. As the evening of January 2nd approached, the Blenheims retired and again the Willingtons and Bombays took over and dropped an additional 30,000 pounds of bombs. At the same time, Blenheims bombed the airfields at Gazala, Eerna and Tmimi to keep the Italians on the ground, while Hurricanes patrolled over the area to fend off those that were able to get airborne.
O'Connor also employed three battleships, and HMS Aphis, a gunboat that sank several coasters in Bardia harbor. He also cut loose the 6th Australian Division, the first Diggers to see action in World War II. The division rode trucks painted with the division's symbol, a leaping kangaroo, to the battle area.
McKay planned to assault Bardia with the 16th and 17th Brigades, estimating the Italian defenses had only 20,000 men. The valuable armor would prevent the escape of the garrison to Tobruk when Bardia fell. The infantry would drive a wedge through the center of the Italian line, cutting roads, and enabling his men to assault the Italian defenses from behind and annihilate them.
However, supplies were still short. 11,500 sleeveless leather jackets to keep the Diggers warm didn't arrive until New Year's Day, and 350 wire cutters didn't show up until the next, the night before the attack. The three-inch mortars did, but without sights. A 17th Brigade officer hopped into a jeep and drove all the way to Cairo and back to pick the sights up.
At 2:30 on January 3rd the Australian troops, looking huge in Jackets, greatcoats, and tin hats, lugging 150 rounds of ammo and three days of food, moved forward behind a heavy barrage. Engineers led the way with wire cutters and bangalore torpedoes to remove Italian wire. Gladiators flew low offensive patrols to cover the advancing troops and simultaneously bombers were dispatched to bomb the aerodromes in Cryenaica to keep the enemy on the ground.
The intense artillery bombardment had thoroughly frightened the 1st Blackshirt Division, who had no combat experience as such. Now, they were under heavy shelling, and facing what appeared to be enormous Australian infantrymen at point-blank range. So the Italians surrendered. Some thought the Aussies' leather jerkins were bulletproof. Australian troops marched at ease through the positions, passing Italian troops waving white flags.
"It was now half an hour after midday, and there were now 6,000 new POWs , and the British command had a rude shock when a POW officer told them the enemy defenses were 40,000 men strong. But the battle raged on. Italian artillerymen fought hard, but the Australians had the advantage of mobility, and moved around the gunners, leading to more surrenders. The Australians found a line of L3 tanks with their motors running, but one quick Bren gun burst and 200 Italians surrendered their little tanks. A Sergeant W. T. Morse fired one shot into a wadi and out came 70 Italians, 25 of them officers, waving white flags. It was the headquarters of an artillery outfit. The Australians were stunned to find enameled baths, silk clothing, and cosmetics. Before long the Wadi yielded 3,000 POWs.
Now the Australians stormed the Italian outpost line, using machinegun fire and grenades. Post 22 fell, and when Post 25 saw saw this, they sent an emissary to also surrender. With help of the emissary, Posts 23 and 20 fell in short order. Still, it wasn't all easy.
The 17th Brigade ran into determined Italian resistance, and so did the French marines. By January 4th, the 17th Brigade was scattered, and the16th Brigade was exhausted. The reserve19th Brigade had to be sent in to finish off the attack. Backed by tanks and the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Australians moved in on the town, taking hundreds of POWs. Italian guns and British tanks traded salvos like battleships at sea, but British mobility won out in the end.
A British tank unit rumbled up to an Italian fort, and charged. When the Italians saw the tanks coming, they opened the gate, and the tanks cruised through a mob of surrendering men. Another platoon walked down a goat track into the town and took thousands of POWs. Hordes of Italian support troops tried to hide from the attackers, but were scooped up by Aussies shouting, "Lashay lay armay," a corruption of the Italian phrase "Lascie le arm," which meant, "Lay down your arms." The Italians obeyed, climbing up the goat tracks.
It was impossible to count the horde. Some Italians meandering across the battlefield were "captured" several times. Among the POWs captured by the 19th Brigade were the commanding generals of the 62nd and 63rd Divisions, Tracchia and Guida, respectively.
The collapse of Bardia left Graziani with only two Italian infantry divisions, 60th Sabratha and 615'Sirte, in Cyrenaica, and four more in Tripolitania. Of the 248,000 Graziani began the campaign with, some 80,000 had been lost.
Now, with the collapse of Bardia, Wavell ordered O'Connor to keep moving towards Tobruk in order to seize this town with its water-purification plant and superb natural harbor, though at the same time, Churchill was demanding that Wavell withdraw three divisions and an armored brigade to Greece. That would have put a halt to O'Conner, but while the leaders bickered, O'Connor moved on.
Tobruk, a fortress town that would become legend, was held by 25,000 men, including Gen. della Mura's 61st Sirte Division, 45 light and 20 medium tanks, 200 guns, and the usual antitank ditches, two forts, Solaro and Pilastrino, and strong points. There was also the Italian cruiser San Giorgio, which had run aground after being bombed by the RAF, but which still had working guns. Twice as much ground and half as many men as at Bardia. But the Italians had no illusions about this defense.
So the Aussies marched on, short on supplies, running out of vehicles so that trucks were being cannibalized. Tanks had thrown their treads, and the Cavalry were forced to re-equip themselves with captured, slow moving Italian M-13 tanks, all painted with the Aussies' leaping kangaroo symbol.
O'Connor planned to hit Tobruk from the town's southeast corner, relying on the 16th Brigade to punch a hole, the 17th Brigade to follow up, and the 19th Brigade to exploit the efforts of the first two Brigades. Australian gunners prepared their bombardment thoroughly, to make up for the shortage of tanks. There were only 18 to support the attack.
The assault began on January 21st, delayed three days by dust storms. The Italians fought back, relying on barbed wire and booby traps to augment their machine guns. However, the Italian posts began to fall, and the Australian drive became a torrent, as troops fanned out and the defenses collapsed under accurate Australian artillery fire. Once again, the Italians began to surrender. One Aussie company captured 300 men, while another hauled in 1,000 POWs, including a general. By mid-day, the 19th Brigade was moving on Fort Pilastrino, which was the headquarters of the Italian 61st Division. However, the fort turned out to be a simple collection of barrack buildings surrounded by a wall, and the Australian infantry took it quickly.
The 2/4 and 2/ll Battalions were also attacking, supported by British and Australian artillery. Their first objective was Fort Solaro, which housed the Tobruk garrison's headquarters. After a battle with Italian tanks on Tobruk's airfield, the Australians also took that fort, which was really just a few army buildings. In doing so, they also took another 600 POWs. The Australians continued to fight their way through sangars and wadis with tommy guns, and stumbled into some tunnels, which were obviously an enemy headquarters. There, they took another 1,600 POWs, including a commander. When asked to surrender Tobruk, the commander told his captors that his troops had orders from Mussolini to fight to the finish.
However, by the end of the 21st, the Australians knew they had won. Most Italian guns were silent and Tobruk harbor was covered with black smoke, as the enemy was destroying ammunition and fuel. Behind Australian lines some 8,000 POWs were trying to keep warm by lighting fires. Unfortunately, during the night, Italian SM.79s flew in to bomb the Australians, saw the fires lit by the POWs, and bombed them instead.
The next day, the 22nd, the Australians advanced on a wide front. They bagged the commander of the 61st Division, and though he refused to surrender to the junior officer who caught him, thousands of his men were shuffling in to give themselves up anyway. Another Australian officer rode over the edge of a depression on his Bren gun carrier only to find 3,000 more Italians drawn up in parade formation, ready to surrender.
This put the Australians at the last escarpment before the actual town of Tobruk. A Lt. E. C. Hennessy was first to roll into Tobruk in a Bren carrier, but he hit a barrier consisting of an iron girder supported by sandbags. As several of his crew hopped out to remove it, two Italians ran out to help. They then proceeded on and into the port, where a neat Italian officer came forward to lead Hennessy to naval headquarters, where Admiral Massmiliano Vietina was waiting to surrender.
Hordes of defeated Italians came up from bunkers and shelters to surrender, while Australian troops fanned out to take control. About 25,000 POWs had been taken, along with 208 guns, 23 tanks, 200 vehicles, the water distilleries, the port, and enough tinned food to keep the Italians going for two months. Australian casualties were 49 killed and 306 wounded. Now, one of the largest problems was just feeding and caring for so many captives.
At this point, only five of the original twelve Italian divisions in Cyrnaica remained, with nearly half of the 250,000 man force dead or captured.
O'Conner now turned his attention to Derna, where "Electric Whiskers' Bergonzoli, the Italian commander was organizing his 20th Corps. His forces consisted of the 60th Sabratha Division, the 17th Pavia Division and the 27th Brescia Division, reinforced by Group Babini, a 70 tank strong armored brigade.
As the 7th Amoured was on the move lead by the 11th Hussars, they had a number of problems. First, the ran into a group of 50 Italian M13 tanks, destroying nine but at a loss of seven British Tanks. Then, the 1/4 Armoured Brigade got lost in the unmapped terrain, and could have been attacked and chewed up by the Babini tanks, but were not.
O'Connor's plan called for the 6th Australian Division to hit Derna and the Italian 21st Corps on the coast, while the 7th Armoured would put the Babini Tank Brigade at Mechili in a pincer, cutting the Italian armor inland from the coastal infantry.
As usual, the Italians reacted slowly, hampered by a chain of command and a lack of radios. But Babini fought hard on the 23rd at Mechili, ripping up the 11th Hussars' light tanks and knocking the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment off balance. But in a desert tank battle that looked like battleships maneuvering on the high seas, the 2nd RTR counterattacked, caught the Italians skylined on a ridge, and picked them all off. The Italians withdrew the rest of their forces.
At Derna, the Australian's 19th Brigade slugged it out with enemy artillery and machine guns for control of Dema's airstrip at Siret el Chreiba, taking on an "uncommonly determined" Italian rearguard. Little progress was made. Also, the 7th Armoured was stalled, too, mostly because its vehicles and men were exhausted from six weeks' campaigning and a stretched supply line.
Furthermore, the defense of Derna was determined and efficient. Their guns were well placed, and the Bersaglieri troops fought hard. Italian supplies were plentiful, while the 6th Australian's guns were down to 10 rounds a day. Nevertheless, British pressure was considerable, and the Italians at Drna asked Graziani for more tanks. This was not to be.
Therefore, Graziani ordered his field commanders to "disengage speedily" from Derna. The Italians, after a burst of gunfire, set their ammo dumps ablaze, and retreated. The next morning, local Arabs told the baffled Aussies that the Italians were gone and the 6th Australian charged into an empty town.
But Bergonzoli had fled, and the British couldn't pursue just yet; as the 6th Australian lacked transport, and the 7th Armoured's tanks had practically all thrown their treads. More importantly, the 6th Australian found itself responsible for protecting nearly 90,000 Italian civilians who had been brought to Libya to colonize the place
Yet, the Aussies did keep moving. One battalion marched 70 miles in three days, slowed mostly by booby traps. Graziani, whose Cyrene bunker was now under RAF attack, fled to Tripoli, leaving Tellera and Bergonzoli in command. O'Connor now needed a new plan, and he found a very risky one. His Australian infantry would continue to drive steadily on Benghazi. Meanwhile, the overworked and exhausted 7th Armoured would cut across the desert tracks south of Benghazi to a hamlet called Beda Fomm, and cut off the retreating Italian 10th Army in a classic ambush. If the move worked, the 10th Army would collapse. If it failed, the 7th Armoured would have only three days of supplies to hold out in the desert. After that, it would be doomed.
Wavell came to O'Connor's aid with a supply convoy that sailed to Tobruk. The vehicles were sent to Mechili to re-supply the 7th Armoured's panniers. It was just possible for the division to move out with full vehicles. The 11th Hussars had already started, but the rest of the division would move on the 5th, with barely 45 heavy tanks, 80 light tanks, two days' supplies of food and water, and two refills of ammunition. Hardly enough against Tellera's four divisions.
The Italians got word of this risky maneuver, but thought that the enemy could not pull it off. The British were not very sure themselves, and indeed, there were massive problems with tired men and worn equipment, and poor weather. On the way, they met blowing sandstorms and freezing rain. As one tank commander put it, "he march was a complete nightmare and I remember little about it because most of the time I was too tired and bruised by my bucking tank".
Nevertheless, with the indefatigable 11th Hussars leading, Msus was reached and cleared of a small Italian detachment on 4 February. However, while the British advanced, word came down that the Italians were retreating into Tripoli. Hence, the 7th Armoured was ordered to increase the speed of their offensive.
Creagh, who commanded the 7th (known as the Desert Rats), organized his fastest vehicles into an ad hoc team under Lt. Col. John Combe, and sent them on ahead. This force consisted entirely of the 11th Hussars, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, C Battery of the 4th Royal Horse Artillery, and the 106th Battery RHA with is truck mounted 37mm anti-tank guns. Most vehicles were wheeled. They had 2,000 men and no tanks, and their job was to pin down the Italians until the rest of the division arrived.
Combe chose to cut the Italian retreat off et a spot called Beda Fomm, which consisted of a few huts and a mosque. Just before dawn on the 5th, his force jolted across the terrain, armored cars leading, artillery behind, across uncharted ground, relying on compass bearings to stay on track. At noon the 11th Hussars reached the coast to find no Italian vehicles. That meant the Italians had yet to arrive. Relieved, Combe settled his infantry into a system of shallow ridges through which passed the road from north to south. The Bren carriers were left behind, out of gas. Behind the infantry the artillery and armored cars dug in. He had won the race by two hours.
The Italians, soon seen coming up the road, were weary men of the 10th Bersaglieri, escorting a motley collection of air force ground-crew, colonial administrators, gunners without guns, and frightened civilians. As they made the turn in the road, the vehicles came under machine gun fire, and hit land mines.
The Italian10th Bersaglieri had to stop its retreat to take on the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, but came under 25-lbr. artillery fire. The Italians, realizing their retreat was blocked, attacked with ferocity, but made no headway against British fire-discipline.
At dawn on the 5th, the 4th Armoured Brigade moved towards Beda Fomm behind the Combe force, making the 40-mile journey by 4 pm. They reached the scene north of the British ambush line to find an endless line of Italian vehicles strung along the Coast Road, waiting to retreat. The 4th Armoured was down to its last drops of fuel, but it charged into the Italian line.Soon the British infantry dismounted to take more than 800 POWs and salvage captured vehicles. Some of them were fuel trucks, and British tank crewmen refueled their empty vehicles on the spot.
Yet, the battle was not over. The British fanned across the area. One British squadron shot its way along the ten miles of fighting, replenished its shells and fuel, and then fought all the way back. When Italian tanks tried to counterattack, Royal Engineers moved forward, laid a minefield in front of the enemy, and the attack was halted.
The 2nd RTR rolled north and dismembered a flak battery, sweeping up guns, men and vehicles by the light of burning trucks. The Italians were in a shambles. The problem was, so were the British. They were down to the last of their fuel, despite some captures. Tankers were siphoning fuel from their gunner vehicles. Creagh ordered his division to dig in for the night, refuel, and move 5,000 POWs out. During the night, the British supply vehicles came up to refill its panniers, but overall, the British were practically out of supplies.
On the next day, a wet and windy February 6th, both sides were exhausted. Tellera and Bergonzoli were determined to break through to safety. To the east of Benghazi, the Australians advanced. Barce's Italian ammunition dump went up in a dramatic ball of smoke, and Babini Group faced the whole of the 6th Australian. At Sceledeima, Italian troops fought hard against advancing Australians.
Tasked with the breakout at Beda Fomm, Bergonzoli knew his 21st Corps was on its own. Lacking reconnaissance, he decided on a short hook east through the desert to outflank the British defenders, relying on superior numbers. The Italians moved out at 8:30 am., without artillery, targeting a small rise in the road just west of the mosque, logically known as the Pimple.
Meanwhile, the British, under Brig. J. A. L. Caunter, prepared for the attack. The 4th Armoured Brigade was nearly at the end of its tank division's reserve, with only ten cruiser tanks left. Caunter had plenty of worries: cold, wind, rain, sandstorms, and the fact that he was far beyond the range of RAF support.
At dawn, patrols told Caunter that the Italian column, stretching for miles. The 2nd RTR, with 19 tanks at the edge of a slope, faced 60 Italian machines at the Pimple. But as the Italians attacked, the British got in the all-important first shot. Their guns ripping through the Italian armor, turning M13s into burning coffins, wrecking eight of them. Before the stunned Italians could return fire, the British had withdrawn down the slope. The Italians opened up with artillery and committed their reserves, as did the British.
The Italian numerical advantage was no help. Most Italian vehicles had no radios, and so they were out maneuvered by the British. The Italians fought with great determination but in total disarray. A Squadron of the 2nd RTR soon scooped up 250 POWs, while British artillery expended nearly all it ammunition to break up attacking Italian infantry columns. At 10 am., The Italian defenders at Sceledeima were told to pull out and get to the Pimple. They raced down the road and into the 7th Hussars.
Even so, the British were in trouble. The Italians were streaming down endlessly; 60 tanks had been knocked out, but more were coming, and the 2nd RTR was out of ammunition. By 11:25 am, the 2nd RTR was down to 13 cruiser tanks. At noon it only had 10. The 7th Hussars was in even worse shape, having only one cruiser tank left. The Italians, sensing victory, kept charging, firing artillery over open sights at pointblank range.
The crisis hit at 3 p.m. The 7th Hussars found the tail of the Italian column and attacked it. The 3rd Hussars battled Italian tanks. The 2nd RTR, driven off the Pimple, tried to break round. Now British radio communications had broken down. At this point, it seemed the British might crack.
But the 1rst RTR finally arrived, and rumbled towards the sound of the guns, driving the Italian tanks northwest. Bergonzoli was halted. The 2nd RTR had destroyed 51 M13s for a loss of 3 tanks and seen men. Other outfits destroyed 33 tanks. 10,000 Italians had surrendered.
Poring over his maps, Bergonzoli decided to try a night attack on the sand dunes west of the Coast Road, but no luck. British artillery closed that route. Both sides, exhausted, flopped down in the gathering desert dusk.
To the north, the Australians enjoyed yet another success, as the 6th Division finally entered Benghazi. Lt. W. M. Knox of 2/8 Battalion drove into town to find the population of 50,00 Greeks, Jews, Italians, and Arabs, waving and cheering the Australian column. Knox drove to the town hall where the Italian civic rulers awaited him. Knox handed the Italians orders that charged them with maintaining law and order until the rest of the division could arrive. The mayor delivered a speech of welcome, calling the Australians" our brave allies," which baffled the Diggers.
Next morning, at Beda Fomm, Bergonzoli mustered his last 30 tanks for one final dawn assault. But with the 6th Australian Division breathing down his neck, Bergonzoli was out of time.
The attack was based on the courage of desperation, and it hit the 106th RHA's portee-mounted guns. The Italians pressed through, having knocked out all but one of the anti-tank guns. That gun was manned by the battery commander, his batman, and a cook. They destroyed the last Italian tank.
British infantry battered the attacking Italian riflemen, leaving the M13s 20 yards from their objective, but completely unsupported. Tellera himself led a bayonet charge and was mortally wounded. The 10th Army was defeated. At 9 a.m., white flags went up over the Italian lines. The campaign was over. It was a complete British triumph.
The British had lost 500 mean, with 55 missing and 1373 wounded. They had advanced 500 miles in two months, destroying an army of ten divisions and taking a total of 130,000 POWs. While O'Connor wanted to continue the advance, it was now too late. Wavell's eyes were on Greece now, and a new spring campaign.
The 7th Armoured returned to Egypt to re-fit, while the 6th Australian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division was shipped out to Greece. For now, the British had abandoned the initiative in the Libyan desert. This decision, made by Churchill, and backed completely by Wavell, to drain off scarce British strength to hold Greece, was one of the worst of the war. The Axis had lost the Italian 10th Army, and Mussolini reputation was in shambles, but Hitler was about to rewrite the play on Libya's barren stage.
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