Chapter 10: The Engagement at Derna
From Tobruk the bitumen road ran along the coastal shelf through Gazala and Tmimi, skirted the Gulf of Bomba (where a side road led to a small Italian seaplane base) and, leaving the coast, travelled across an open plateau to Derna. West of the road as it nears that town the country is cut by the Wadi Derna, which reproduces on a vastly larger scale the wadis which had protected each extremity of the semi-circle of posts at Bardia and Tobruk; this ravine travels about twelve miles south and south-west from Derna before it turns west and loses itself in the uplands. Near its mouth it is, in some places, a mile wide from lip to lip, and the banks so steep that they descend 700 feet in a horizontal distance of 400 yards. On the coast, for some thirty miles to the east of the wadi’s mouth, the plateau ends in an escarpment from 400 to 700 feet in height. The road zigzagged down this escarpment to Derna, which was built on a mile-wide ledge at the mouth of the wadi; then it travelled along the narrow shore for five miles before winding up the escarpment again into the Jebel Achdar.
There were two other principal routes to the tablelands beyond Derna: one was a track from Martuba, which skirted the southern end of the Wadi Derna and then turned north to Giovanni Berta; the other route was along desert tracks to Mechili, forty miles south of Giovanni Berta, the meeting place of a web of tracks leading north, west and south. On this southern track, by-passing Derna and the tableland, it was possible to cross the desert to the Tripoli road south of Benghazi.
What lay ahead? When Tobruk fell the headquarters of the Italian Tenth Army were believed to be at Cyrene, of its XX Corps at Giovanni Berta, but of this army and this corps there probably remained only the 60th (Sabratha) Division, believed to be in position east of Derna, with a regiment at Mechili, where there was also an armoured brigade possessing sixty or seventy tanks commanded by General Babini. It was considered possible, on the 23rd, that two additional Italian divisions were farther west in Cyrenaica, namely the 17th (Pavia) and the 27th (Brescia), recently arrived from Tripolitania.
At a conference with General Wavell in Cairo soon after Bardia had been taken General O’Connor had proposed that, after the fall of Tobruk, he should continue the advance to Mechili, whence he could threaten the flank of the Italian force on the coast. Wavell showed him an appreciation of a proposed raid as far as Benghazi, but O’Connor wished, after Mechili, to undertake “a more permanent operation on Benghazi.” Soon after his return to the desert O’Connor was instructed by the staff of General Wilson that the proposal to advance on Benghazi was not to be proceeded with (probably an outcome of the instruction received from the Chiefs of Staff in London on 8th January). Promptly O’Connor, who had been
chafing under what he considered a complicated system of command, protested that he had received conflicting instructions. Soon afterwards XIII Corps had been placed directly under Wavell’s command; Wilson was informed by Wavell that he was to become Military Governor of Cyrenaica; and O’Connor instructed to prepare plans for an advance to Benghazi. By the 22nd, in consequence of the negotiations recorded in the previous chapter, O’Connor learnt that the capture of Benghazi was now considered of the greatest importance. The proposal of the Chiefs of Staff was that it be converted into a strong air and naval base, receiving its supplies by sea instead of over the uneconomical land route through the desert.
On the same day, in obedience to O’Connor’s orders, and while the Australians were entering the town of Tobruk, the armoured division began to move west;1 an advance-guard of the 6th Division was ordered to move towards Derna on the 23rd. That advance-guard was to comprise Onslow’s squadron of the 6th Cavalry with some artillery, machine-gunners, engineers and detachments of other troops.2 As soon as this force reached Martuba, eighteen miles from Derna, it was to relieve a detachment which the armoured division would place across the road there. Mackay considered that this little force might be able to take Derna “as a gift for Australia on Anniversary day (26th January)” – as he told Onslow, encouraging this ardent young leader. But in case resistance was too strong for so small a force he ordered that the 19th Brigade, strengthened with artillery, engineers and machine-gunners, was to advance towards Derna, absorb Onslow’s force and (so ran the orders) “facilitate attack by 6th Division, or attack and occupy the town.”3
Meanwhile, on the morning of the 22nd, the 7th Armoured Brigade had advanced along the main road, and found it blocked in the neighbourhood of Martuba. The 11th Hussars sent patrols from Bir el Aleima both north and south of Mechili. By nightfall the 4th Armoured Brigade was advancing towards Mechili. On the 23rd patrols of the 7th Armoured Brigade had established touch with the enemy astride the road at Siret el Chreiba, ten miles from Derna, and the 4th Brigade was twenty-five miles east of Mechili, with patrols west of it, and had blocked the tracks leading into Mechili from west, south and south-east. On the 24th the 4th Armoured Brigade encountered a force including fifty medium tanks on the Derna-Mechili track and, in an ensuing engagement, destroyed nine Italian tanks, losing one cruiser and six light tanks of its own. Artillery of the armoured
division engaged an enemy force estimated at two-thirds of a division with fifty tanks and six batteries on a knoll north-west of Mechili fort.
By 4 p.m. on the 24th Onslow’s advance-guard of the 6th Division had reached the Martuba area. Here, just as the cavalrymen arrived, an Italian landed in a CR-42 and, when he was bailed up by an Australian, explained that he did not know that the aerodrome was occupied by the enemy. (His machine was captured intact and afterwards flown by No. 3 Squadron, RAAF) Onslow moved forward during the afternoon and found that a squadron of the 1st Royal Tanks was forward of him and, with the support of a troop of field guns, was shelling Siret el Chreiba, a square white blockhouse near the southern edge of an Italian aerodrome which lay on the right of the road where it crosses the flat bare plain before descending to Derna.
At daybreak on 25th January Onslow took over from the British force, which had then occupied the blockhouse. He gave one small group of his carriers the task of protecting the blockhouse, where an artillery observation post was established, while a second group moved round the right flank and reached a point at the top of the escarpment whence the town itself could be seen. During the morning the carriers probed forward round the aerodrome, finding in the gently rolling ground little cover against the intermittent fire of some Italian anti-tank and machine-guns. Occasionally Italian guns would fire along the road and on the British artillery positions each side of it. It was soon apparent that they would not be able to rush Derna without the help of infantry; the fire was not heavy, however, and the cavalrymen decided that the aerodrome was held only by some artillery, including anti-tank guns, and a few machine-gunners, and passed on this opinion to the infantry of the 19th Brigade, now beginning to arrive.
‘The 2/11th, the leading battalion of Robertson’s brigade, dismounted from its trucks a mile south of Siret el Chreiba at 12.30 p.m. and advanced astride the road with two companies forward. Lieut-Colonel Louch4 ordered Captain Egan’s5 company, on the right, to occupy the edge of the escarpment, while Captain Honner’s advanced across the aerodrome itself. Captain Horley’s6 company was to protect the left flank. Thus the West Australians who, alone among the infantry battalions, had had little fighting at Bardia or Tobruk, went into their first real action.
Honner’s company marched three miles astride the road before it came to the forward outpost of the cavalry on the southern edge of the aerodrome, where he was assured by the cavalrymen that all was quiet ahead except for spasmodic artillery fire and perhaps two machine-guns mounted on motor-cycles some 500 yards forward. In the morning, he was told, carriers of the cavalry squadron, and Colonel Barker of the artillery, had been forward as far as the hangar. This was comforting news because the ground ahead was as flat as a table and devoid of cover. Honner, an exceptionally cool and resolute leader, deployed his company with two platoons forward and one in reserve, and advanced at 1.30 p.m. The Italian motor-cyclists opened fire but were quickly overrun and captured. Heavier fire from artillery and machine-guns now began to sweep the aerodrome but, “remembering the victory of speed over fire at Bardia”, the men kept moving steadily across the open plain until the fire, from ridges two miles away, became so heavy that they went to ground. Honner sent back a signal asking for support and, at the same time, ordered his reserve platoon forward on the right of the road to give covering fire for a final dash. This platoon was pinned down under the Italian fire while it was yet 3,000 yards from the objective. An attached company of the Northumberland Fusiliers tried to bring their machine-guns forward but neither they nor the anti-tank gunners could advance far enough to gain effective range.
Determined to obtain supporting fire, Honner ran back to a truck carrying one of the battalion’s mortars and, himself carrying a load of bombs, led the team forward to the infantry who were steadily crawling forward in the open. As they advanced the fire became heavier and casual-ties mounted until seven men of the two platoons had been killed or wounded. Lieutenant McRobbie,7 on the right, kept moving coolly from one of his sections to the other controlling their snakelike movement, while, on the left, Lieutenant Johnson8 and four men, later joined by Honner himself, went well forward until they reached a ditch beside the
road a few hundred yards south of the hangar. From this point Honner was able to see beyond the hangar some of the Italian gun positions, and Corporal Bremner9 and Private Graffin,10 who joined Honner and Johnson, fired on them with Bren and rifle. This brought a concentration of fire on the little party, the tracer bullets clearly revealing its origin: there were machine-guns firing from buildings some thirty yards beyond the hangar, and behind the low ridges 300 to 400 yards farther on were four tanks with eight trucks on which machine-guns were mounted. These vehicles were in hull-down positions along a front of 1,000 yards firing tracer and explosive bullets. More fire was coming from guns in buildings and on trucks on the left of the road, and from a slight ridge behind these buildings. At this stage some Italian aircraft dropped a string of bombs on an east-west line between the Australian and Italian positions. As the bombs hit the ground the Australians spontaneously leaped to their feet and raced forward into the dust until it subsided and the Italian fire again became heavy. Thus they gained perhaps 100 yards.
It was now late in the afternoon and Honner decided to hold on until dusk and then capture the group of buildings, and establish his company there as a base for further operations. As Graffin lay out in the open firing burst after burst at the Italian gun positions, Private Rogers11 went back to summon the remainder of the two platoons forward. Honner’s third platoon was still pinned down by galling fire on the flat ground left of the road and well to the rear.
At dusk, a 3-inch mortar arrived, though without a range-finder (its bearer had been killed) and with only six bombs. Although the Italian fire had not diminished it was now too dark for the Australians to be seen by the Italians on the ridges yet light enough for the attackers to move in on the hangars. Honner ordered McRobbie’s platoon to cross the road, advance along the left of it till the men were level with the hangar, and then charge. McRobbie set off, but soon word came back to Honner that McRobbie had been hit and the platoon was not moving. Immediately he led the remaining platoon forward with the three Bren gunners in front ready to give fire from the hip. As he drew level with McRobbie his platoon too moved forward. Farther on the men lay flat while the company’s mortar fired with good effect along both sides of the hangar in preparation for a final advance. Bursts of fire suddenly came from new Italian positions only a few yards ahead in the semi-darkness, causing more casualties,12 but not so many as would have been suffered if Honner had not, fortunately, chosen that moment to keep his men’s heads down for the mortar bombardment. After a few mortar bombs had been sent over the Italian fire died down and the Australians advanced to the
hangars. A few moments later an Italian motor-cyclist rode into the Australian positions, was brought down with a pick handle hurled by McRobbie, and captured. He informed Honner that he was carrying a message from an Italian company on the left of the road to another that had been occupying the hangars. The motor-cycle was used to send a report back to Louch.13
While Honner’s company was attracting most of the enemy’s fire, Egan’s on the right had advanced across the north-east corner of the airfield and, without loss, reached its objective – the edge of the escarpment over-looking Derna and the coast. During the night Honner established his whole company in the hangar area. A party of the Northumberland Fusiliers arrived with two machine-guns, and an artillery observer joined the infantry. At dawn on the 26th one or two tanks were seen in the gloom forward of Honner’s men, but their crews were shot down as they moved towards them. There followed a prolonged exchange of fire between the Australians on the aerodrome, now supported by well-directed artillery fire, and the Italians along the ridges. By 8 a.m. the Italian fire had slackened and an hour later the West Australians and the machine-gunners of the Northumberland Fusiliers had taken the ridges and were on the edge of the escarpment above the town of Derna. In the fight two men in Honner’s company had been killed and twenty-one wounded severely enough to be sent back to the field ambulance and beyond, a low cost for an advance across a featureless plain in the face of an uncommonly determined Italian rearguard which greatly outnumbered the attackers and had the support of tanks as well as artillery.
Meanwhile, when Brigadier Robertson’s second battalion, the 2/4th, arrived at Martuba on the 25th, he ordered it to get a grip on the Wadi Derna (not necessarily to cross it), and block the two roads leading south to Mechili. That afternoon Lieut-Colonel Dougherty moved his battalion, still in its trucks, along the road leading west from Martuba, dismounted them near Gabr el Carmusa and, having detached two platoons to guard the roads, sent two companies to the Wadi Derna north-west of Gabr es Saeti. Steering with the aid of compasses the leading company (Captain Rolfe’s) reached the southern edge of the wadi – at this point a ravine about 500 yards wide – late in the evening. Dougherty ordered it to cross. By daybreak some fourteen men of Lieutenant Lindsay’s14 platoon had crossed the wadi and established themselves on the far side after a fight in which one Australian was killed and one wounded and nine Italians were taken prisoner.
At O’Connor’s headquarters it appeared that the enemy’s main strength was at Mechili, where evidently some 9,000 men with about sixty tanks occupied a position from the fort to a point about ten miles to the north-
west covering the tracks at El Faidia and Slonta. It now seemed certain that the bulk of the 17th and 27th Divisions were still in Tripolitania, but that both regiments of the 60th were in the Derna area. On the northern flank the enemy was in a position of great natural strength; the West Australians had taken the airfield but were under hot artillery fire; although part of the 2/4th Battalion had crossed the immense Wadi Derna it would be difficult to carry supplies to troops there. O’Connor decided, however, that he could isolate the main enemy force at Mechili and, on the evening of the 25th, sent a message to General Creagh of the armoured division stressing the necessity of preventing the Italians from escaping north-westward along the road to Slonta. The chances of cutting off the main enemy force seemed bright. The Support Group was deployed to prevent the enemy force at Mechili from moving east or north; the 4th Armoured Brigade on its left had the task of investing the enemy force to the south, west and north-west; on the 26th the 7th Armoured Brigade, which had hitherto been held in reserve for lack of petrol, was ordered to cut the Mechili-Slonta track; the 11th Hussars were patrolling on the southern flank for thirty miles south of Mechili. O’Connor urged Creagh to use his Support Group to cut the track to Slonta if the going was too hard for tanks, and he instructed Mackay to bring the 17th Brigade forward to attack the enemy force at Mechili while the armoured division contained him. The trap seemed to have been set.
Brigadier Robertson’s orders for the 26th were that Louch should patrol strongly and clear the enemy from the scarp east of the wadi, the 2/4th should maintain its bridgehead across the wadi and cut the road which travelled along the ridge parallel to the wadi on the western side, while the 2/8th Battalion marched in between the 2/11th and the 2/4th, ready to cross the wadi west of Siret Medaanat and advance on Derna along the above-mentioned road. He placed Onslow’s cavalry squadron on the left to guard against Italian attack along the two roads leading into his left rear from the west and the south. He believed that the force opposed to him consisted of about 400 infantry with some artillery and medium tanks.
In the morning of the 26th Robertson sent a liaison officer to Louch to tell him that there was information that the enemy had
withdrawn from his forward posts and to instruct him to advance on Derna. Louch summoned his company commanders and gave orders that Egan on the right should climb down the escarpment and move along the beach towards the town, Captain Shanahan15 in the centre should move through Honner’s weary men and along the main road, while Horley’s company advanced to the edge of the high ground overlooking the wadi. Then about 2.30 p.m., he himself went forward with Barker of the 2/1st Field Regiment to the road junction 500 yards beyond the northern edge of the aerodrome to control the attack. There they found that the enemy was still resisting strongly, particularly with guns that were firing point-blank from one of the old stone forts that lay ahead. Shanahan’s company were shelled as they moved across the aerodrome to take over from Honner, who had now advanced to the road elbow beyond the airfield. With a platoon of machine-gunners of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the fresh company advanced astride the road until it came to a belt of mines and a rough stone wall across the road. Here they met machine-gun fire and two men were killed and four wounded, including Lieutenant Chapman,16 one of the platoon commanders. Shanahan withdrew his men to the shelter of a steep-sided wadi on the south side of the road.
Egan’s men clambered down the almost precipitous escarpment to the narrow shore and advanced west. The leading platoons (Lieutenants Webster17 and Daws18) came under point-blank artillery and machine-gun fire. Daws lost four men, Webster three. At dusk Webster had reached a point close to an Italian fort armed with one gun, and, although he himself was wounded, he decided to remain where he was and attack the fort at nightfall. However, it was impossible to have food and water carried down the cliffs to the hundred or more men below, and they were ordered to return. All night they clambered up the Wadi Haseien, a narrow cleft in the escarpment. So rough was the country that nine men were missing the following morning.19 Farther left the 2/8th advanced into the wadi in obedience to Robertson’s order. The leading companies came under fire and an officer and two men were wounded.
Early on the 26th the enemy attacked the little group which the 2/4th had put across the wadi during the night. At first the Italians advanced boldly, but the Australians held their ground and the attack faded out. Later that morning the remainder of Rolfe’s company and McCarty’s company reached the far side of the wadi. Next morning a large group of Italians blundered on to the Australian posts and about 40 were killed and 56 surrendered.
Robertson’s plan for an advance on Derna along the western side of the wadi was cancelled because of news from the Australians’ southern flank that throughout the day Italians on motor-cycles and in tanks had exchanged fire with Onslow’s cavalrymen and platoons of the 2/4th astride the tracks leading south to Mechili. From No. 3 Squadron RAAF, now based on Martuba airfield, came news that 200 Italian trucks had been seen a few miles south-west of the 2/4th’s position. The question that exercised Robertson was: were these Italians the advance-guard of a force moving out from Mechili to strike his lightly-protected flank? His three battalions, except for two companies, were now pressed against the wadi, leaving only the cavalry and two companies of infantry to guard the tracks leading to the main road behind him and to Martuba. In addition, also on the 26th, he was instructed by Mackay that his role was now to contain the enemy in the Derna-Giovanni Berta area, while the attack at Mechili proceeded.
On the morning of the 27th, however, the disappointing news arrived at O’Connor’s headquarters that at daybreak patrols of the 7th Armoured Division had found that the Italian force at Mechili had vanished in the night. O’Connor was incensed by the failure of the armoured division to hold and destroy this Italian force, the main body of which was discovered from the air to be moving north-west towards El Faidia. However, the departure of the Italians left the desert route open and, after discussion with Wavell, O’Connor made a plan for a decisive blow. Wear and tear had reduced the armoured division to 50 cruiser and 95 light tanks, but on the 7th and 9th of February two regiments from the newly-arrived 2nd Armoured Division were due to arrive in the forward area. Insufficient fuel and ammunition was forward to enable the armoured regiments to undertake a long advance, but supplies were gradually being increased. O’Connor decided that, while these reinforcements and supplies were brought forward, the 6th Division, with the 17th Brigade now coming in on the left of the 19th, should press on towards Derna and Giovanni Berta where there were still, apparently, some 6,500 troops of the 60th Division, in an effort to persuade the enemy that the main thrust was west and north-west. As soon as both petrol and the new regiments were avail-able (which would probably not be before 12th February) Creagh’s division would make a swift advance across the desert south of the Jebel Achdar and cut the road south of Benghazi, thus bottling up what remained of the Italian army. The 16th Brigade would occupy Mechili.
Here was a situation which brought out in strong relief the dependence of a motorised army upon its supply services. Ahead of the British commander was the stubborn rearguard of a beaten army. The obvious manoeuvre was to send off the armoured force to pursue and finally encircle the enemy. But wear and tear of tanks and lack of enough vehicles to bring petrol, ammunition and food forward along the desert roads tied the pursuers to the ground as surely as if a powerful enemy force opposed them; and the estimate was that columns of trucks would have to churn east and west along the dusty tracks for a fortnight before the armoured
force could advance again. And at the back of O’Connor’s mind was now a fear that his advance would be halted so that additional troops could be sent to Greece.
Meanwhile, on the 27th, before Robertson’s message cancelling the order to advance on Derna from the south had reached him, Dougherty moved his companies up to make their attack. Captain Rungie’s20 company of Dougherty’s battalion and two platoons of machine-gunners of the Northumberland Fusiliers had reached the opposite side of the wadi to join the two companies already there before Dougherty could order them to return. It took so long for the orders to reach the forward troops that the reinforcing company had been on the opposite side for four hours before the return journey began, and it had exchanged shots with a strong party of Italians who dismounted from trucks about 1,200 yards away. Already a strong attack had developed against the two forward companies. McCarty had advanced and was astride the track to Derna more than a mile beyond the top of the wadi when about 400 Italians appeared advancing from the south. McCarty’s men – two platoons of about twenty-five each – hurriedly began to build low stone breastworks and prepare to give battle. The Italians attacked with a determination they had seldom shown at Bardia and Tobruk and were reinforced by new arrivals until they numbered more than a thousand. The leading Italians were within 300 yards of the Australians and lapping round the flanks of their position when machine-gunners of the Northumberland Fusiliers arrived, set up their weapons, and opened fire so effectively that the Italians were held. Soon, however, ammunition began to run short and the little force with-drew platoon by platoon to the bank of the wadi, where they joined the other companies, which had also been engaged in the fight, though less severely.
Impressed by the strength of this attack and conscious of the precarious situation of the advanced companies, Dougherty ordered that some trucks be driven to and fro along the Martuba road to create a dust and give the impression that he was being reinforced. The little force across the wadi was indeed in an uncomfortable position of which the Italians were attempting to take full advantage. Ammunition and rations had to be manhandled across the wadi and the journey took several hours. At night the men were so cold that they slept huddled together in the shallow trenches they had dug.
Indeed, the rearguard on the Wadi Derna was now reacting to the Australian thrusts with uncommon determination and enterprise. In the course of the 27th the cavalrymen on the extreme left sent patrols south-wards, particularly to discover whether any Italians remained in the area where tanks had been seen the previous day. When the troop led by Sergeant McQuillan21 reached this point, he saw some Italians moving
about in the distance, and took his carriers and an artillery truck forward to gain a better view. He had just halted when an anti-tank gun and machine-guns opened fire from well-concealed trenches only thirty yards from the leading vehicle. A shell blew one wheel off the truck which escaped in great haste on three wheels and a hub. McQuillan signalled the troop to withdraw, but, as his own carrier turned, it struck a mine which mortally wounded his driver, Ferguson,22 broke McQuillan’s arm and disabled the carrier. After the remaining two carriers had reached the shelter of a wadi 150 yards farther back, Corporal Matchett23 set out on foot to rescue the wounded McQuillan. McQuillan met him half-way, ordered him to go back to report to Lieutenant Mills (for the batteries of the wireless sets were spent and there was no way of recharging them) while he himself returned to help Ferguson. In the disabled carrier Corporal Teece24 was still firing his Bren gun at the enemy, who were so close that their bullets were piercing the armour of his cabin.
As soon as Matchett reported, Mills took forward all the carriers he had with him and also a medical truck. He led his vehicles along the cover of a wadi to where the third carrier of McQuillan’s troop lay, posted a Vickers gun there to give covering fire and began to go forward on foot but was pinned down by machine-gun fire. Sergeant Martin25 meanwhile took the medical truck to within twenty yards of the disabled carrier, dismounted and had put McQuillan on a stretcher when Italian fire pinned him to the ground. The Italians then came forward with a white flag and took McQuillan, Martin and two other men prisoners.
Hennessy’s troop was equipped with Australian-pattern carriers which had no wireless. Thus, knowing nothing of what had happened he drove forward along the road. One of his carriers saw a warning signal and stopped, but the other two did not halt until they had reached McQuillan’s vehicle. There they came under the same cross-fire of Italian anti-tank and machine-guns. As it turned Hennessy’s vehicle ran over three mines which failed to explode and he reached cover, having picked up one of the medical orderlies on the way.26 Sergeant Mills’ carrier, however, detonated two mines which disabled the carrier and mortally wounded Mills. Corporal Townsend,27 the driver, was killed by machine-gun fire; Trooper Murray,28 the gunner, was blown out of the carrier, and lay low until dark.29
Eventually the cavalrymen retired, having lost four of the finest NCOs in the squadron – McQuillan, Mills, Ferguson and Townsend – killed or mortally wounded, and three other men taken prisoner.30
During 27th January the Italians resisted strongly on the heights above the town itself. However, Shanahan’s company of the 2/11th captured Fort Rudero, taking 290 prisoners and five field guns in and round the fort, which they held until Italian artillery fire in this open area became so heavy and accurate that Shanahan temporarily withdrew his men to the shelter of near-by wadis. During the night patrols of the 2/11 th succeeded in clearing more enemy posts and some field guns from the top of the escarpment.31 One patrol under Lieutenant Daws found two field guns and some machine-guns which had been abandoned; later in the night a man32 in this patrol stepped on a mine which killed him and wounded five others. Lieutenant Fleay33 advanced to the point where the road turns north, capturing three guns and some prisoners. Lieutenant Thomas34 led a patrol along the ridge north of the road and captured a machine-gun and its crew. Thus, by morning, these ridges on top of the final slope leading down to Derna were in the hands of the West Australians, who could then look down into the town and see every movement on the roads below them. The fact that the ridges had been cleared of the enemy did not, however, reduce the volume of artillery fire which the Italian guns, firing from west of Derna, continued to bring down along the road. “The shelling, judged by 1918 European standards is really heavy,” Louch reported to Robertson. “He has more guns and far more shells than we have and his guns are skilfully placed and well served.” Whereas the Italian gunners appeared to be firing away accumulated stores of ammunition which would otherwise have to be destroyed when they finally with-drew, the Australian regiments were limited to ten rounds a gun a day. Louch was convinced that an effective attack on Derna from the south-east could not be made without greater artillery support.
Farther to the left on the 2/4th’s sector the Italians, on the 28th, attacked the two companies which remained on the western bank, but were repulsed by the infantrymen and by accurate artillery fire from guns of the 2/1st Regiment. Early next morning the Australians encircled and captured four officers and sixty-three men.
Progress on the left flank, however, was rapidly bringing closer the moment when the stubborn rearguard at Derna would have to withdraw so as to avoid being encircled.
On that flank, on the evening of the 28th, some armoured cars of the 11th Hussars were in the Chaulan area where they made contact with an Italian force with light guns which was evidently deployed across the tracks leading from the south through the hills to the colony area of Giovanni Berta and Luigi di Savoia. Savige’s brigade was now taking up its position on the left flank of the 19th, and farther left the Australian cavalry squadron had established contact with the 11th Hussars. Thus the net which was being swept round the Italians extended in a shallow arc from Derna on the right to the hills south of Giovanni Berta and Slonta. Mackay ordered both brigades to act vigorously with a view to dislodging the enemy. On this left flank the problem was to bring an adequate force within striking distance, because, between his positions along the Wadi Derna and the road to Giovanni Berta from the south, lay twenty miles of tangled hills through which the upper reaches of the wadi cut its way.
Once again, however, General Bergonzoli, now at Giovanni Berta commanding the Italian XX Corps, anticipated his enemy’s moves. The shelling of the 2/11th’s area was particularly heavy during the evening of the 29th, which had been a relatively quiet day. Louch decided this might be a “final flutter” before a withdrawal from Derna and ordered that a patrol be sent forward along the road when the artillery fire ceased late that night. The patrol was fired upon. In the early hours of the morning of the 30th fires were seen blazing in Derna. Lieutenant Johnson thereupon led a patrol towards the southern edge of the town but it, too, was fired on by a machine-gun. However, soon after daylight, a party of Libyans climbed up the scarp and informed Louch that the Italians had gone. Louch sent a patrol down the way the Libyans had come and, as soon as he had seen that they entered the town without opposition, he sent one company along the road, in which a large crater had been blown, and another clambering down the escarpment.
At Derna the desert ended. A town of some 10,000 people, it was the eastern outpost of the area of the Italian colonial settlements which extended over the Jebel Achdar and included the fertile plains round Barce and Benghazi. Its well-designed box-like houses stood in green shady gardens fed with water from the wadi. The gardens were bright with flowers, and cauliflowers, radishes and onions were growing – the first fresh food the Australians had seen for more than a month. As the infantrymen entered the town it appeared to have been deserted except by small bands of Arabs who were industriously piling loot on to the backs of donkeys – cases of food, sewing machines, tables and chairs, side-boards filled with cutlery. Little damage had been done by air bombardment and the houses appeared to have been abandoned in haste some days before.
The invading force had now entered the more settled area of Cyrenaica. Since the desert tribes had been brought under control – a task virtually completed by the occupation of the outlying oases in 1931 – the Italian Government had organised immigration into Libya with the object of
increasing the military strength of the colony. The aim was to establish 500,000 Italians in the North African colonies and, in 1938, 18,000 immigrants were established in Libya in ready-made settlements in which houses and community settlements had been built and water pipes laid before the new settlers arrived. The settlement plan was not on a large scale compared with similar enterprises in America and Australia, but by 1940 the civil population included some 90,000 Italians and 6,000 other Europeans in a total population of 890,000. Thus at Derna a problem of civil administration faced the Australians for the first time. Wholesale looting by the Libyans was quickly stopped by patrols of the 2/11th and by the provosts of the 6th Division, but, as more units passed through the town, small parties both of Australian and British troops carried on the work the Libyans had begun. There were sharp complaints at O’Connor’s headquarters that the Australians had “looted Derna”. The facts are that the town was promptly policed from the day that the 2/11th entered. On that day twelve Australians were arrested and charged with having stolen watches, fowls or wine. Captain Hawker, the Australian deputy-assistant provost-marshal, knowing that his force was being maligned by itinerant staff officers, interrogated many of the Libyan towns-people and reached the conclusion that the town had already been looted on four separate occasions: first, by the Italian troops when the civilians were removed; secondly, when the Italian military police were withdrawn and Libyan police were left in charge; thirdly, when the native police were withdrawn; and fourthly, by the Arabs when the garrison left the town. Such looting as occurred in the almost-empty town in the twenty-four hours after the arrival of the Australians was a fifth and relatively unimportant instalment.35 However, General Mackay, who arrived at Derna on the 31st, was persuaded by what he saw that the provosts were neither entirely preventing pillaging nor properly directing the traffic which now began to pour through the town. For a time he himself took up a position at a corner and directed the long line of trucks which carried the 19th Brigade and the units attached to it through Derna. He was probably not aware of the extent to which Derna had been plundered before his men arrived, but there can be no doubt that he had solid ground for concern about the road discipline of the division. The absence of attack from the air, the long distances to be covered, and the con-sequent difficulty of adequately policing the road had led to crowding and fast driving.
Road discipline was appalling (wrote one diarist). No attempt to police or to reserve the road. The ASC are the worst offenders, closely followed by the
RAAF and divisional headquarters.
As a sequel to his observations on this occasion Mackay sent a memorandum to all commanding officers giving detailed instructions concerning the management of road traffic. In the course of this he pointed out that, despite the “record job” of the engineers in opening a road to Derna,36 the advance of the 19th Brigade was delayed by the “cluttering of the road by small unauthorised captured Fiat cars burning Australian Government petrol and driven by officers and others,” by drivers stopping their vehicles on the road instead of drawing to the side, by Arabs with donkeys, by signal-laying vehicles and other transgressors.
Encouraging though it was for the brigade on the right to see the end of the long and uncomfortable engagement on the heights east and south of Derna, the fact that the Italians had abandoned the town did not guarantee that they would not make an equally determined stand in the rugged country farther west and on the 30th, the day the town was entered, Mackay had ordered the two brigades (for Savige’s was now in position on the left) on the 31st to advance on a wide front to a line from Sidi Bu Hadia (on the coast road west of Derna), through Ain Mara (on a branch track two miles south of the main mountain road) to Hill 407, two miles south of the Martuba-Giovanni Berta track. At the same time Onslow’s cavalry squadron was ordered to establish daylight patrols on the Giovanni Berta-Mechili road, south from the road junction near Sidret Haraig. The immediate object of this advance, which would take the forward battalions to positions fifteen miles beyond Derna, was to secure the town against artillery fire and ensure control of the Giovanni Berta-Mechili road. The boundary between the two brigades ran between the mountain road and the Martuba road. Robertson therefore ordered his freshest battalion, the 2/8th, through Derna (where the 2/11th remained as a police force) and along the main road, while one company of the 2/4th advanced along the coast road towards Sidi Bu Hadia; the remainder of that battalion followed the 2/8th.
As if to proclaim that the desert had ended, it began to rain and blow on the morning of the 31st as the 2/8th moved through Derna. Beyond the town they advanced along the narrow plain between the mountains and the sea. About three miles beyond the town the leading companies were shelled by Italian guns on the heights above them and the advance slowed down. It was then 1 p.m.; by 4 p.m. the battalion had moved forward about a mile and was close to the point where the road began to climb the face of the escarpment. Farther on a newer by-pass road also climbed the escarpment, linking with the old road on top; both had probably been cratered. The leading companies came under accurate fire from four or five machine-guns on the forward slopes of the hills. A troop of 25- pounders of the Royal Horse Artillery was now close behind the infantry and the guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment were also in action farther back, but the Italian rearguard, though small, was in a dominating position and
Colonel Mitchell, who was with the leading companies, decided to wait until dark before attempting to send his men up the 700-foot slope which the old road – a mere ledge – climbed in a series of sharp zigzags. He ordered Captain J. A. H. Smith’s company to advance in the night and capture the Italian guns; the rest of the battalion would follow.
At 8 o’clock Smith’s company moved off, with Lieutenant Diffey’s37 platoon leading. Two scouts went first followed by the rest of the platoon in single file with ten paces between each man, all hugging the cliff both for protection and to make sure of not falling over the outer edge of the road. The remainder of Smith’s company followed, then came two more companies, also in single file. Silent, and in pale moonlight, the long line of about 300 men wound up the road. Footsteps were heard ahead of Diffey and the scouts, and out of the gloom appeared an Italian with a machine-gun on his shoulder. “Alt, chi va la!” said Diffey quietly. The scouts seized him, took his gun and pistol and made signs that he would have to march back up the hill with them. The Italian opened his mouth to cry out, whereupon Diffey grasped him by the throat with one hand and, with the other, hit him so hard with the butt of his pistol that he broke it. A few minutes later another Italian appeared, but he saw the Australians before they could grasp him, dropped over the lower side of the road and made off towards the gun positions on the opposite side of the deep gully.
As they went on up the hill, crossing a large crater which the Italians had blown in the road, the Australians could hear Italians talking on an opposite face of the escarpment where the new road wound up it. Then Diffey’s foot scraped metal – a land mine, he was sure, because he could see that the surface of the road had been disturbed. He halted the column, went back along the line to warn Smith, and the word was passed back. The leaders found that there were so many mines that to disarm them would have delayed the advance too long, so Diffey stood on one or two to make sure that a man’s tread would not detonate them, and continued the climb.38
Without further incident the column reached the top where the leading men completely surprised fifty Italians in an old fort there and made them prisoners. At the same time the Australians could hear trucks being driven away from the Italian gun positions beyond. Diffey, surmising that the man he had failed to capture had warned the gunners, obtained permission to take his platoon forward and capture the crews at the road junction. However, by the time he reached it the Italians had gone, though he could hear the hammering of a pneumatic drill farther along the main road. Dawn was breaking as he led his platoon on in single file. They had gone only a few hundred yards in the half light when a storm of fire broke out from the Italian rearguard only 250 yards ahead. The men went to ground and, as they lay, saw dimly the shapes of two tanks, and decided
that at least a dozen machine-guns were being fired at them. The fire ceased after about five minutes. The Australians lay for another ten minutes, and then Diffey dribbled his men back to the crossroads. Artillery fire was brought down on the enemy rearguard by guns of the 2/1st Reghnent which were still at the bottom of the escarpment and this soon drove out the Italians. Thus, without a casualty, the escarpment was climbed and ahead of the Australians wound the road that travels 100 miles across the green and wooded Jebel.
Behind the leading infantry companies, however, lay the crater in the road, an obstacle which their supply trucks and the guns could not negotiate; and, in the morning, it was discovered that the new road had been blocked by no fewer than four craters.
Mackay had originally intended that both Robertson and Savige should reach their objectives on 31st January. It was now 1st February and the 19th Brigade, with a battalion of infantry on top of the escarpment but the guns and trucks immobilised at its foot, faced another day’s delay while the road was mended. The 17th Brigade, out on the left in the tangle of hills in which the Wadi Derna rises, had been able to make somewhat greater progress.
By the morning of the 30th Savige’s brigade had taken up a position on a front some nine miles astride and south of the Wadi Derna. On the right two companies of the 2/5th were on the far side of the wadi; on the left the 2/6th extended the front to near Bir es Salihin. Savige’s problem was to find a place where his vehicles could cross the wadi so that, in obedience to Mackay’s orders, he could take his place on the left flank of the 19th Brigade. The map showed that, once a crossing had been found, his vehicles could move along the track on the far side of the wadi, linking Giovanni Berta and Derna – the track towards which the 2/4th Battalion had been fighting before the 2/5th Battalion had relieved it. Savige’s plan was to form two forces each of a battalion plus artillery, engineer and machine-gun sub-units. The 2/5th Battalion group was to advance on the north side of the wadi, the 2/6th Battalion group on the south side. The 2/7th was in reserve.
By the morning of 31st January, Savige was in a position similar to that in which Robertson found himself the following day. Each had several companies of foot-soldiers on the far side of an obstacle which their vehicles and their artillery could not cross. During the 31st King had sent his remaining riflemen across the wadi, the men carrying their rifles, Bren and anti-tank rifles. They marched west in the direction of Giovanni Berta, while their trucks and the field guns and the machine-guns (of the 1/Cheshire) which Savige had placed under King’s command, kept pace on the southern side. At dusk the companies were due south of Ain Mara. King intended to continue to advance in the darkness, but there was firing ahead and he decided to halt until morning. The night was bitterly cold and the weary men, who had left behind their greatcoats, blankets and even their jerkins when they set out on the hard march, were able to get little sleep.
The firing which had halted King’s men was aimed not at them but at carriers of the 2/6th Battalion. In the morning the advance-guard of this battalion, marching west, had reached the minefield on which the cavalry squadron had been ambushed on the 27th with two wrecked carriers still lying there. Major Porter39 sent three of his companies through a gap in the minefield while the fourth moved along the lip of the wadi seeking a crossing. By 5 p.m. the head of the 2/6th was astride the track at the head of the Wadi Hescia, beyond the day’s objective. Its carriers,
under Lieutenant Warfe, patrolling forward, came under a sudden burst of fire from the anti-tank guns and machine-guns of an Italian force which was evidently holding this approach. Warfe, with characteristic dash and quick thinking, led his carriers forward to the cover of a small depression, and then manoeuvred his own vehicle into position to fire on the Italian guns while the other carriers withdrew.
Late that night Savige ordered that the reserve battalion, the 2/7th (which had already marched twenty miles during the day), should move to the wadi bank between the 2/5th and 2/6th and form a chain of men along which rations and water could be passed across the wadi to the 2/5th. This added another five miles and a half to the march of the
2/7th, this portion of it made in the dark, steering by compass, over tangled rock-strewn country which they had not reconnoitred. On the morning of the 1st February the 2/6th attacked.
Porter’s plan was to attack with two rifle companies supported by artillery and his carrier platoon. The initial move was to place a company in a suitable position to attack and one which would cover a knoll from which the artillery observer would direct fire. The carriers would then swing round the right flank over the ground they had fought on the night before. When the attackers were in position Warfe’s carriers and the left company moved forward, and the enemy fled. The right company moved in deployed formation and swung their right flank round the enemy troops, capturing more than 380 and establishing a bridgehead to cover the track from the north side of the wadi.
Savige’s task was now to advance through Eluet el Asel, an Italian fort astride the track to Giovanni Berta, and on to the town itself. Since no crossing over the Wadi Derna had been found over which trucks could be driven to the 2/5th Battalion, Mackay agreed with Savige that it should return to the south side. However, the order did not reach King, who had no wireless, until late in the afternoon, five hours after it had been given. This left no time for King to inform Savige that he had found an Italian supply dump containing rations and blankets and that he was drawing water from springs and thus could continue to advance along the north side of the wadi without his vehicles.
On the night of the 1st Savige ordered Walker of the 2/7th to lead the advance next morning, supported by the 2/2nd Field Regiment, some anti-tank guns and a company of machine-gunners. However, next morning Colonel Combe40 of the 11th Hussars, who were patrolling in the neighbourhood of Eluet el Asel, reported that the enemy appeared to have gone during the night (as both he and Savige had predicted during the conferences at Mackay’s headquarters the previous day). Thus, soon after midday, a patrol of the 2/7th entered the fort, where an Arab informed them that, during the night, Italians had withdrawn not only from the fort but from Giovanni Berta itself. About the same time the enemy abandoned Chaulan, which the Hussars entered that afternoon. Three hours later carriers of the 2/7th Battalion and Onslow’s cavalry carriers entered Giovanni Berta. It was a well-built little place with a normal population of 800, a handsome church (whose priest stayed at his post) and offices. The few Arabs who were there waved white flags and welcomed the Australians with cognac, eggs and fruit. Onslow tapped into the Italian telephone line and heard a girl operator, evidently at Benghazi exchange, call “Benghazi”. On Savige’s orders he cut the lines to prevent information reaching Italians east of the town or in the town itself. That evening companies of the 2/7th, which had marched twenty-four miles in the day, were on the main road east of the town, the 2/6th was astride
the road a mile to the west, and Savige’s headquarters were in the Giovanni Berta school.
The break in the road up the escarpment which had delayed the 19th Brigade had been mended and, during the 2nd, the 2/8th Battalion had advanced to within seven miles of Giovanni Berta, having been briefly delayed by a demolished bridge and a minefield near the turn-off to Ain Mara. All that Robertson knew that evening of the progress of the 17th Brigade was that (according to an out-dated message) it was some miles south of Giovanni Berta, on which the supporting artillery was to fire at 3 p.m.41 A native told his forward troops late in the afternoon that there were no Italian troops left in the town.
In fact the pincers had closed on thin air. Before the weary infantry had reached Giovanni Berta the pilots of the Hurricanes flying over the road leading west had brought back reports that suggested that a large-scale withdrawal was in progress. They had seen no Italian vehicles east of Slonta, thirty-five miles farther along the road; already the armoured division had sent a force towards Slonta along the road leading to it from the south.
On 2nd February Mackay sent instructions to Savige to move next morning along the El Faidia road, and Robertson along the Cyrene road. Savige was to move first and, since the two brigades would use the same road as far as the fork beyond Lamluda, he ordered Robertson not to move until 10 a.m., by which time Savige had to be clear of Giovanni Berta. The objective for the day was a north-south line through El Ghegab. The warning order for this move did not reach Savige until a liaison officer brought it to him at 8 p.m. on the 2nd. He told this officer to tell the divisional staff that he was prepared to move but there was little prospect of all units being concentrated and on the road before midday. The men of the 2/7th were footsore; boots and socks were worn through, legs were chafed, and feet and ankles were bruised and blistered. The marches which the battalions of the 17th Brigade had achieved in the three days before the occupation of Giovanni Berta – the 2/7th, for example, covered seventy miles in three days – would have severely tested the fittest of troops if they had been made over flat or undulating country. In the tangled country at the eastern end of the Jebel Achdar, cut with rocky ravines, over stones and through dust, the nights so cold that sleep was difficult except for utterly weary men, the marches were a notable feat of endurance and a demonstration of the hardiness and high spirit of the troops.
Men with chafed legs were marching without trousers in the cold wind (wrote one diarist) . Their spirit was magnificent. At every stop feet were plastered and ankles strapped.
Mackay was aware of the fatigue of the brigade and told Savige that he hoped that the men would have some rest on the night of the 3rd. In the meantime they must press on as soon as possible. However, as Savige had predicted, his battalions were not clear of Giovanni Berta by 10 a.m. It was 8.45 a.m. before a crossing could be made over the anti-tank ditch which the Italians had cut across the road west of the town, and 3 p.m. before the last vehicle of the brigade was over it. During the afternoon the 2/6th, having marched fifteen miles, was astride the roads at El Ghegab.
In the morning the cavalry squadron also set out in their carriers along the road leading west. Beyond Giovanni Berta the rocky, lightly-timbered hills carry scattered areas of good soil and, on these, groups of Italian peasants had been settled in colonies whose names perpetuated the memories of Fascist notables. As the cavalrymen rattled along the road they saw the first cultivated land west of the Nile Delta, excepting the gardens at Derna and the oases far inland in the desert. Beside the road at every half mile or so stood a square white house in a cultivated field with a few cattle grazing. The farmer and his family stood glumly at the door of each farm and when soldiers walked over to question them, either in French or in a few halting words of Italian, the householder, perhaps truthfully, perhaps anxious to please the newcomers, would explain that he did not love Mussolini and the Fascists, that he was an exile and wanted to go home. A few miles farther on the cavalrymen reached Luigi di Savoia, where the farm houses were set close together on each side of the road. On every wicket gate a white cloth was waving and some house-holders were flying pillowslips and sheets on poles above their roofs. The settlers soon overcame their fear of the new arrivals and, as the cavalrymen halted their carriers, they gathered round them talking and gesticulating. They explained with eloquent gestures that as soon as their own soldiers had gone the Arabs had begun to loot the settlement. The storekeeper had locked the store, whereupon the Arabs had set it alight. They had no weapons with which to defend themselves against the marauders. Effusive and artless, they crowded round the stolid, smiling soldiers and made indignant speeches in Italian. When they found that the Australians were genial and evidently intended no harm, the women ran back into the houses and returned carrying bread and vegetables, bottles of home-made red wine and handfuls of glasses. Meanwhile cloaked Arabs were moving silently and purposefully in the background, entering the houses through the back doors. They loftily disregarded the indignant shouts of the Italians and, when an Australian chased one away, he would circle round and approach from another angle.
In the afternoon Onslow, having decided that there were no enemy troops for some distance ahead, took a truckload of men into Cyrene. They drove through the deserted streets of the modern Italian town which stands on a hill above the amphitheatre and broken walls and columns of the ancient Graeco-Roman city. The large hotel standing on the summit of the hill overlooking the rolling plain that leads to Apollonia, the
seaport of Cyrene, was shut and empty. A few Arabs, some in European clothing and some in robes, were wandering about the town, but Onslow found no Italians there.
In the Derna-Mechili area General Bergonzoli commanded the Italian XX Corps 39,000 strong, with headquarters near Giovanni Berta. At Mechili he reinforced Babini’s three tank battalions with the 85th Regiment (two motorised battalions) and two artillery regiments, one from the 60th and one robbed from the 17th Division in Tripolitania. On his left, holding Derna and the wadi, was the 86th Regiment. The headquarters of the 60th Division (General Della Bona), to which the 85th and 86th belonged, was at Giovanni Berta. The motorised battalions of the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment appear to have formed the rearguard for the 60th Division during the withdrawal from Derna and Giovanni Berta. The main bodies of the 17th (Pavia) and 27th (Brescia) Divisions, suspected by the British staff to be in Cyrenaica, were still in Tripolitania. But the machine-gun battalions of the four divisions in Tripolitania and the field artillery regiments of three of them had been sent to Cyrenaica.