Chapter 11: Beda Fomm and Benghazi
The troops on the ground made no contact with the enemy on 3rd February, but the pilots of scouting aircraft brought in increasing evidence that the Italians were withdrawing from what was left to them of Cyrenaica. They had seen columns of vehicles moving west from Luigi Razza, Maraua and even Marsa Brega, 150 miles south of Benghazi; more significantly the enemy had evidently abandoned the aerodromes at and near Benghazi. General O’Connor had decided late on the 2nd that ‘if he struck with his armoured force (as he had planned) on 12th February, it would be too late, and therefore ordered General Creagh straightway to move his division to Msus whence it could advance to Soluch across the line of the Italian retreat. At the same time he ordered General Mackay to continue to pursue the enemy along the roads that led over the Jebel Achdar, ferrying forward a unit at a time if need be.
In response to this instruction Mackay on the 3rd ordered Brigadier Savige to move one battalion forward the following day to Slonta to relieve a detachment of the armoured division, and another to Luigi di Savoia on the northern road. Thereupon Savige ordered King of the 2/5th to occupy Cyrene next day, Walker of the 2/7th to occupy El Faidia, and placed Porter of the 2/6th in command of a column, including that battalion and detachments of artillery, engineers and machine-gunners, to advance to Slonta. (In fact the armoured detachment had found the Mechili-Slonta track impassable and had not reached Slonta.)
In the meantime, however, Robertson, chafing at the delay imposed on his brigade and anxious to hasten the pursuit and to lead it, urged Mackay that the next move should be made by a fully-motorised force if the enemy was to be caught. Mackay told Robertson to spend the rest of the day on vehicle maintenance but to be ready to advance at short notice.
An infantry division did not possess enough motor vehicles to move all its men and equipment on wheels at the same time; it was a force of foot-soldiers attended by trucks and vans which transported heavy equipment and supplies. About one-third of its men normally rode in these vehicles, but to each infantry platoon of, say, thirty men there was only one truck, the conventional duty of which was to carry the heavy weapons, ammunition and rations. An infantry battalion could be motorised only by the employment of a reserve motor transport company or by borrowing vehicles from other units and thus, for the time, immobilising those units. By “cannibalisation”, by commandeering of captured Italian trucks, and employing the trucks of the 16th Brigade now stationary at Tobruk (its proposed move to Mechili had been cancelled), the 6th Division had contrived to maintain enough vehicles to keep it supplied with its needs and, when troops had to be moved forward rapidly over long distances, to transport a brigade at a time. Mackay could now continue the advance
at top speed only by reducing his six forward battalions (three having already been left behind in Tobruk) to three.
Savige’s battalions began moving forward early on the morning of 4th February, the 2/6th in trucks provided by divisional headquarters, the 2/7th in trucks lent by his attached artillery regiment (the 2/2nd) and the 2/5th on foot. Savige then went to Mackay’s headquarters to propose that he should move forward the part of his brigade that was now on wheels as fast as possible. However, when he arrived at divisional head-quarters at Giovanni Berta he found that Robertson had already been summoned and ordered to embus his whole brigade (which was fresher than Savige’s) in vehicles being collected from the artillery and the services, to pass through Savige’s brigade and take up the pursuit. Already instructions were on their way to Porter’s force, which was then leading the advance, to push on to Slonta as soon as it could and send its vehicles back to help in moving the 19th Brigade. This decision disappointed Savige, who pointed out to Mackay that he was nearer Barce than Robertson and already had enough transport to lift two of his three battalions. “A sense of real disappointment was felt and expressed at missing this opportunity,” he wrote later.
However, by midday, Robertson’s leading battalion, the 2/8th, was on the move, and by 4 p.m. the whole brigade group was rolling briskly along the smooth Slonta-Barce road in a column twenty-five miles in length, with some armoured cars of the 11th Hussars and a troop of the 6th Divisional Cavalry leading the way. The weary infantrymen who had now been marching and fighting with little rest since the 25th, lay closely packed on the floors of the vehicles and slept; all that could be seen of them were rows of boot-soles bouncing in time to the movements of the trucks. The long convoy travelled along, halted, then moved on again, in response to the checks that are inevitable to a long convoy when speed is not regular, and because occasional halts had to be made while land mines or barricades of boulders were removed from the road. After leaving the settlements at Luigi di Savoia the southern road passed through well-timbered country with grass growing between patches of flat rock. For a few miles there would be no sign of habitation, and then a single white farmhouse or a crumbling fort. At intervals a truck, wrecked and overturned by the roadside, showed where a retreating Italian column had been hit by one of the Hurricanes which, unseen by the pursuing infantry, were strafing the enemy convoys. At a few points along the road were signs that the Italian commanders had ordered that a rearguard position be prepared and had changed their minds: an anti-tank ditch half-dug, or an abandoned dump of ammunition.
At Slonta, a group of old thick-walled barracks, the head of Robertson’s column passed the 2/6th Battalion of Savige’s brigade. Thence, in the late afternoon, it moved on through Maraua and Tecnis. Three miles beyond Tecnis, as the three British armoured cars leading the column rounded a bend in the road, they came upon a group of Italian soldiers laying mines in the road. These ran into the bush as the cars approached. The
Hussars climbed out of their vehicles and were removing the mines when, from only a few hundred yards ahead, light guns and machine-guns began firing accurately and fast. In a minute the three armoured cars were disabled or destroyed and a truck in which two war correspondents and a conducting officer were travelling was riddled.1 As soon as the leading infantry about a mile behind heard the firing, they jumped from their trucks and deployed across the road. The ambush took place at 6.20 and the light was fading as the infantry began to advance, one company on each side of the road, and the long column stationary behind them. Robertson, fearing that the task of the Italian rearguard had been to delay him while craters were blown in the road winding down the escarpment ten miles ahead, ordered Colonel Mitchell to push on during the night. He did so, but towards midnight, when the leading companies were still only three miles beyond the ambush, a long rumbling explosion was heard in the distance; and Mitchell and Anderson,2 Robertson’s brigade-major who was forward at Mitchell’s headquarters, guessed that a stretch of the steep road leading down to Barce had been blown up.
Meanwhile the task of advancing along the road to Apollonia and along the northern of the two roads that crossed the Jebel Achdar had been entrusted to Onslow’s squadron, less two troops which were with Robertson. Onslow himself led a small party which drove along the road towards Apollonia until it reached a point where a gap had been blown in the road. Thence he with Captain Eden3 of the Royal Horse Artillery and four others walked forward on foot and were met on the outskirts of the town by the mayor and leading townsmen who received them with courtesy and gave them a meal. Onslow’s party hoisted an Australian flag and marched back to the break in the road, followed by a procession of townspeople.
Lieutenant Mills, with one troop, drove along the northern road through Beda Littoria and on to the larger colony of Luigi Razza where they overtook a party of 300 Italian troops plodding along the road in formation. When a burst of machine-gun bullets was fired over them the Italians surrendered. They were a remnant of the 86th Regiment which had fired on the cavalrymen’s medical aid post in the ambush at the Wadi Derna and on whom they had sworn revenge, but having caught these dejected men the pursuers felt only pity for them. Mills sent two of his carriers back with the prisoners while the remainder advanced and found the road broken beyond repair where it crossed the wide and rugged Wadi Cuff about five miles south-west of the settlement. The mayor and the priest of Luigi Razza asked for protection against the Arabs who were roaming through the settlement, and nine cavalrymen were left to spend the night there. They ate at the cafe (where they paid with lire found in the Italian camps at Bardia and Tobruk) while a band of settlers whom the
Australians armed with captured Italian swords patrolled the town; the cavalrymen themselves fired a few rounds of tracer ammunition into the air now and then to inform the Arabs of their presence.
At dawn on the same day – the 4th – the armoured division, its strength now reduced to forty or fifty cruiser and eighty light tanks – the equivalent of only one brigade – and with only two days’ rations, set off from Mechili over the stony foothills of the Jebel. For the first fifty miles the surface was strewn with boulders and there were occasional patches of soft sand. Some trucks broke down, but beyond Bir el Gerrari the track was smoother. The dust was so dense that groups of vehicles lost their way and did not rejoin the column until hours later. At 3 p.m. the advance-guard (one squadron of the 11th Hussars) reached Msus and engaged the garrison of twenty native troops who eventually made off in two lorries. The Hussars advanced thirty miles along the Antelat track that evening. Harding, O’Connor’s chief staff officer, had flown to Creagh’s head-quarters and agreed that Creagh should send a force not only west to Soluch but south-west through Antelat to block the retreating Italians. Thereupon he detached a flying column (named “Jockforce” after its commander Lieut-Colonel “Jock” Campbell4) consisting of the 2/Rifle Brigade and two batteries of artillery, to move forward, come under the command of Colonel Combe of the 11th Hussars at Msus, and hasten to the Sidi Saleh area to block the Benghazi-Agedabia road. At nightfall on the 4th this column was at Msus, advanced headquarters of the division and the remainder of the 4th Brigade four miles east.
Early on the 5th reconnaissance aircraft reported that long columns of vehicles were moving south along the Benghazi-Marsa Brega road. At midday vehicles were seen moving from El Abiar to Benina and dumps were burning near the jetties at Benghazi. It was reported that there were small enemy flank guards at El Abiar, Sceleidima and Soluch. It was evident that what remained of the Italian Tenth Army was in full retreat towards Tripolitania.
Meanwhile, when the head of the 2/8th Battalion neared the edge of the tableland on the morning of the 5th they saw a new land spreading out from the base of the 600-foot escarpment – an orderly green patch-work of flat farmland, cut by straight roads and scattered with square white houses. Half-way to the horizon was the large town of Barce, a meeting place of three roads and a railway. This belt of green country was part of a fertile shelf fifteen to twenty miles wide between the Jebel and a final escarpment leading down to a narrow coastal ledge. To reach the plain the road falls steeply down the western wall of the Jebel and there, the infantrymen found, the Italian rearguard had blown six large craters in the road and destroyed a bridge – damage so severe that the engineers estimated that it would take days to mend it, not hours as at
Derna. As the leading platoon was climbing down the broken road a large and dusty man, bare-headed and wearing a leather flying jacket appeared at the side of the road. He was a Hurricane pilot who had been strafing Italian trucks near Barce the previous morning when an Italian fighter attacked him. He shot it down but his aircraft received so many hits that he was forced to land. He said that, from a hiding place beside the Tocra road, he had watched Italian vehicles streaming past all night until 3 a.m. After that the roads were empty.
Early in the afternoon, Onslow reported that he had reconnoitred an alternative track to the plain and found it passable. This road wound its way south over the tableland towards El Abiar, and along it Robertson sent the trucks carrying the 2/4th and 2/11th Battalions, leaving the 2/8th on the main road to advance by way of Barce and Tocra if it could. Seven miles from the main road the leading infantry vehicle mistakenly turned left into a side track and some delay and confusion resulted, but by dusk the main part of the brigade group was on the plain and preparing to bivouac in wheat fields among stacks of hay.
In the meantime engineers of the 2/8th Field Company, under Lieutenant Frazer,5 had succeeded in making a track at a grade of one in three down the face of the escarpment overlooking Barce, by-passing the craters in the road. A troop of the 2/1st Field Regiment fired six rounds bracketing Barce, whereupon, at 12.35, a white flag was seen flying from a large building and a white Very light was fired. A small party from the 2/1st proceeded into the town which, at 3 p.m., was formally surrendered to an officer of the artillery regiment. Later Onslow led some carriers into Barce from the south and inspected the town and particularly a large dump of ammunition. At 4.20, a few minutes after they had left the dump, it exploded with a roar which shook the town and provided the watchers on the escarpment above with a memorable spectacle: a huge opalescent ball of smoke and flame shot up into the air, apparently from the centre of the town, billowed out and rose on a stem of smoke until it resembled a vast toadstool. At dusk a company of the 2/8th entered Barce and found, as usual, that their first task was to drive off bands of Libyans who were looting the houses and dumps. During the night fires of unexplained origin broke out in several stores along the main street and they were burnt out. That night Robertson gave orders to the 2/4th to move along the route through El Abiar to Benina, beginning at 7 a.m., and to the 2/11th and other troops under his command (except Mitchell’s detachment) to follow. All night a cold wind blew and just before dawn it began to rain.
Meanwhile, fifty miles to the south-east Colonel Combe, with a squadron of armoured cars and one of tanks, had left Msus at 7 a.m. on the 5th February and at 10.34 reached Antelat and found it abandoned. There he was joined by the remainder of the flying column including the 2/Rifle Brigade and two batteries of artillery, and thence he sent armoured
car patrols to Beda Fomm and Sidi Saleh. Both patrols advanced to positions commanding the main road; and at midday the 2/Rifle Brigade and “C” Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, took up a position north-west of Sidi Saleh astride the main road and a track through the sandhills west of it. Half an hour later an enemy column came into view moving south and was dispersed by the guns, the Italians abandoning their vehicles and taking up firing positions between the main road and the sea. Enemy lorries and three medium tanks were put out of action. At 3 p.m. a column of thirty lorries approached Combe’s road block; after a short fight the British troops captured it, taking between 200 and 300 prisoners. At 5 o’clock an apparently unending column of vehicles carrying about 5,000 troops and civilians appeared and they too surrendered as they reached the road block.
Meanwhile the 4th Armoured Brigade, which had reached Antelat about 4.30 p.m., intercepted a message from Combe’s force that a stream of lorries and motor-cycles was moving down the road, and advanced west through Beda Fomm to attack it in the flank on a wide front. The 7th Hussars on the left struck “a soft part of the enemy column” and took, first, 400 prisoners, and, later, with a squadron of the 2nd Royal Tanks, 600 prisoners including men of the 60th (Sabratha) Division. At dusk the tank regiments withdrew to a position commanding the road from the east.
At 10.30 a.m. that day General Creagh had placed the Support Group under the command of Brigadier Russell6 of the 7th Armoured Brigade and ordered this combined force to advance through Sceleidima, secure the escarpment there, and patrol thence to Sidi Brahim and Soluch. Thus while Combe blocked the advance of the Italian column and Caunter attacked it in the flank, Russell would cut off its retreat. By 3 p.m. a squadron of the 11th Hussars leading this column had found that a fort on a hill about 100 feet above the valley leading down the escarpment at Sceleidima was strongly held. At 5 p.m. the remainder of the column having arrived, the 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps and a battery of artillery began to engage the enemy. The capture of the fort was a job for infantry and gunners, and consequently at 5.45 p.m. Brigadier Russell handed over to Brigadier Gott of the Support Group and led his brigade towards Antelat to reinforce Brigadier Caunter.
Thus, at nightfall on the 5th, Combe’s force was astride the road west of Sidi Saleh, the 4th Armoured Brigade in the Beda Fomm area, the 7th Armoured Brigade on its way to Antelat and the Support Group at Sceleidima. In the pocket between these columns and the sea, a pocket about forty miles deep and, at the bottom, only five miles wide they evidently contained all that was left of the Italian Tenth Army and with it a large part of the Italian population of Benghazi.
At dawn on the 6th, in blinding rain, the head of the enemy column attacked the southernmost road block, but a gun supporting the Italians
was quickly put out of action by the horse artillery, and white flags were soon flying from many enemy vehicles. At 8.50 a.m. twelve Italian M13 tanks attacked a squadron of the 2nd Royal Tanks which was commanding the road seven miles farther north. The remainder of the regiment moved forward from Beda Fomm to support the forward squadron. More Italian tanks joined the action supported by field guns, and forced the leading squadron of the 2nd to withdraw to a ridge three miles west of the road, where it was again attacked by enemy tanks at 9.30. Another squadron attacked these in flank and the Italian tanks moved south after eight had been put out of action. About ten tanks then engaged the British squadrons. One squadron, now reduced to seven cruiser tanks, attacked these, while another moved south against a column on the main road and knocked out ten tanks. At 11.25 twelve enemy tanks with artillery and a long column of vehicles attacked the regiment. Five British tanks were put out of action and at 1.45 the regiment withdrew to replenish.
By 11 a.m. the 7th Hussars had advanced to a position astride the road north of the 2nd Royal Tanks, with the tail of the column attacking the 2nd Tanks to their south and the head of another column advancing from the north. Twenty tanks from the northern column advanced and the Hussars withdrew to a position on the eastern flank of the enemy column. At 1 o’clock Brigadier Caunter believed that his regiments had engaged 100 enemy medium tanks and disabled forty of them. As a result of mechanical breakdowns his own strength in cruisers had been reduced to nine fit for action. However, the headquarters of the 7th Brigade with the 1st Royal Tanks (with eleven cruisers in action) and a battery of artillery was on its way from Antelat to Beda Fomm. About 1 p.m. the 7th and 3rd Hussars attacked the enemy column slowly moving south towards Combe’s force, the 3rd engaging twenty medium tanks at the head of the convoy; after exchanging fire with enemy tanks and guns for about forty-five minutes they withdrew. The Italian column stretched north as far as patrols of the 7th Hussars could see.
Having replenished its ammunition, the 2nd Royal Tanks, now only six cruisers strong, advanced from near Beda Fomm against fifteen to twenty enemy tanks and lorries packed two deep on the road nearby. They came under sharp fire from tanks and artillery. Between 2.30 and 3 p.m. the 3rd Hussars (with only four cruisers remaining) and the 7th engaged a large force of enemy tanks, some twenty-six of which were eventually contained by the 3rd Hussars. At this time the 1st Royal Tanks reached Beda Fomm just in time to intercept thirty medium tanks trying to break away to the south-east and, with the help of their attached troop of artillery, knocked out three and drove the remainder north-west. The 1st Royal Tanks, now in touch with the 2nd to the south of it, pursued these tanks, while the 2nd, with “F” Battery, RHA, engaged some thirty tanks assembled on a knoll near the road supported by artillery. About 4.30 both these groups of enemy tanks were withdrawing north-west. At length the group from the knoll was caught between the 1st Royal Tanks on the east and the 2nd on the south and six were put out of action.
While this fight was in progress the 3rd and 7th Hussars and “F” Battery were blazing at the densely packed column of lorries and tanks on the road farther north.
At length, at 6 p.m., in failing light the Italian column succeeded in breaking through the 4th Armoured Brigade and, under fire from “F” Battery, moved slowly southwards, the tanks and some lorries on the main road, but most of the soft-skinned vehicles on the coastal track to the west. The three regiments of the 4th Brigade had fought almost to a standstill; the 3rd Hussars had only four cruisers and twenty-four light tanks in action, the 7th Hussars one cruiser and twenty light, the 2nd Royal Tanks ten cruisers and seven light. It had destroyed fifty-one M13 medium tanks for a loss in action of three cruisers and seven men. Other forces had knocked out thirty-three. Ten thousand prisoners had been taken in the day. The enemy force was then, at 6.30 p.m., moving south in two long columns towards Combe’s position astride the main road, which was now blocked by abandoned tanks and lorries, six deep and stretching far northwards. By 8 p.m. Combe was being attacked by about thirty tanks. Three were disabled by mines, one by artillery fire. At 8.30 four tanks and thirty lorries evaded the road block and escaped south-wards, but by 10 p.m. the attack had died down.
Meanwhile the 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps had attacked the Sceleidima fort at 7.30 a.m. but lost two carriers on a minefield. This delayed the attack, but at 10 a.m. a group of medium tanks withdrew from the fort and made off. Half an hour later the leading troops of the Support Group had entered the fort and found it abandoned. A squadron of the 11th Hussars hastened to Soluch which it entered at 12.30 and found to be clear of the enemy. From Soluch one troop of the 11th Hussars advanced north to Giardina and on towards Benghazi, and another to Ghemines where it took 400 prisoners. By 4 p.m. the main body of the Support Group had reached Soluch. The enemy’s position was hopeless. He had fought with some determination but had lost many tanks and was caught in the trap.
General O’Connor’s orders for 7th February were that Mackay should send a brigade group to Ghemines, while Creagh moved the Support Group southward along the main road and the coastal track. Next morning at 6.30 a column of lorries headed by thirty medium tanks, the spearhead of a column stretching eleven miles and a half to the north, advanced against the 2/Rifle Brigade at Combe’s road block. Two guns of the horse artillery knocked out the leading tank and damaged seven others before they were themselves silenced. Later the artillery and the anti-tank rifle-men of the Rifle Brigade disabled a number of vehicles, and soon after 7 o’clock the entire column-5,000 to 6,000 men – surrendered, with the exception of one medium tank which advanced into the centre of the battalion’s position, where at 8.30 it was knocked out by a damaged gun of the 106th RHA. By 8.55 a.m. resistance had ceased all along the road.
After the fighting had ended the desert looked like a film producer’s conception of a battlefield. For ten miles the stony floor was littered with hundreds of Lancia and Fiat trucks, many overturned and splintered by shell fire, and with dozens of dark-green tanks with crews dead inside them. There were lines of abandoned field guns with ammunition boxes scattered round. Rifles, machine-guns, grenades, boxes and tins lay where they had fallen, and everywhere, on the ground or caught in the low dry bushes, were pieces of paper – letters, cards, notepaper and army forms. Northward, along the road by which they had hoped to escaped streamed in trucks some 20,000 prisoners, the last remnant of the Italian Tenth Army, leaving behind them on the battlefield 112 medium tanks, many newly-arrived, an uncounted number of light tanks, 216 guns and 1,500 wheeled vehicles. Their commander, General Tellera, had been killed in this battle and the elusive Bergonzoli captured. The campaign was over. In two months, for a cost of 475 killed, 1,225 wounded and 43 missing or prisoners,7 O’Connor’s corps of two divisions, extravagantly described in communiques as “the Army of the Nile”, had advanced 500 miles and taken 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,290 guns. It had destroyed ten Italian infantry divisions – the 60th, 61st, 62nd, 63rd, 64th; the 1st, 2nd and 4th Blackshirts, 1st and 2nd Libyan – and considerable armoured forces.
Probably some 35,000 men of the Italian XX Corps succeeded in withdrawing from the Derna-Mechili area to Benghazi where there were about 13,000 troops, mostly of base and anti-aircraft artillery units. Of the 48,000 who thus remained in Cyrenaica about 28,000 withdrew to Tripolitania before the final battle or during it. There were then in Tripolitania the 17th (Pavia), 25th (Bologna), 27th (Brescia) and 55th (Savona) Infantry Divisions, and the recently arrived 132nd Ariete Armoured Division. Three of the infantry divisions lacked their artillery regiments and all four lacked their machine-gun regiments, these having been sent forward to Cyrenaica. A total of 30,000 Italian troops were due to arrive at Tripoli from Italy during February.
During the eventful day of the final battle, the lorries containing the vanguard of the 6th Division had been ploughing their way along a muddy road through El Abiar (where they arrived at 10 a.m. on the 6th) to Er Regima, and Benina, the site of the principle aerodrome in Cyrenaica. At Benina where the column arrived at 5.30 p.m. Robertson’s signallers picked up the message from Creagh to Mackay, mentioned above, asking him to press on against the retreating Italians from the north. Robertson immediately warned Louch of the 2/11th Battalion that at dawn the following morning he must move to Ghemines, and soon afterwards Colonel Vasey arrived at Robertson’s headquarters and expressed approval of this plan. At this stage Robertson did not know exactly where his 2/8th Battalion was, and appealed to divisional headquarters to divert it towards
Benghazi if the division made contact with it. In addition the trucks which had been carrying the greater part of the 2/4th had returned from Benina to ferry other troops forward in accordance with orders from Mackay’s headquarters, and consequently that battalion was immobile. Late that night Robertson received news that Mackay himself had met the 2/8th – at Tocra on the coast thirty-five miles north-east of Benghazi – and had ordered it to move south along the coastal road and join Robertson at Ghemines.
The 2/8th, which Robertson had left at the broken road leading down the escarpment to Barce, had made rapid progress. By 3 a.m. on the 6th the last of its trucks had managed to negotiate the road and reached the plain below, and by 10.40 a.m. the column had reached the edge of the second escarpment, and was overlooking Tocra. Here again the road had been cratered and three hours were spent repairing it. At 2.30, however, the Australians entered the town, where the inhabitants welcomed them with a show of cordiality. Thence Colonel Mitchell moved on through Driana to Sidi Chalifa, ten miles from Benghazi and, at dusk, was about the same distance north of the Italian city as Robertson was east of it, though neither yet knew where the other was. At Sidi Chalifa an Arab official from Benghazi appeared and made a speech of welcome to the Australians, and Mitchell’s signallers, like Robertson’s, heard Creagh’s appeal for pressure from the north. Being unable to raise either their brigade or divisional headquarters, they relayed the message to Cairo.
Meanwhile, just before dusk, Robertson had sent Onslow and the brigade Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Knox,8 into Benghazi with orders to direct the civil and military authorities there to come to him forthwith. They drove into the city with an escort of cavalry carriers the leader flying a white flag but with its machine-guns loaded. The citizens, who included many Greeks and Jews as well as Italians and Arabs (the normal population exceeded 50,000), waved and cheered as this business-like little procession passed along the streets of the city. The newcomers drove to the town hall where the mayor, the bishop, the chief of the police and other dignitaries and officials were awaiting them. Knox handed the mayor a letter from Robertson saying that he intended to enter the city next morning and, until then, was relying on the Italian officials to preserve law and order. With the help of a Greek priest who stepped forward to act as interpreter, and described the Australians as “our brave Allies”, Knox learnt that a few soldiers were left in the town and that the police had remained to preserve order – a necessary precaution because Arabs were already looting houses on the outskirts. Onslow and Knox then took the mayor, the bishop and a few other officials back to Benina, where Robertson again informed them that he would make a formal entry in the morning.
Next morning (the 7th) after a delay of more than an hour caused by a report that Italian tanks were on the road south of Benghazi (there was,
in fact, one tank but it had been abandoned), a column commanded by Louch and consisting of his own battalion plus the squadron of the 6th Cavalry, four armoured cars, a battery of field guns and a troop of anti-tanks guns, set off for Ghemines. All Louch knew was that the armoured division was in action to the south, so he moved cautiously until he met a truck-load of wounded Italians with a British doctor in charge who told him that the fighting was not at Ghemines but near Agedabia, sixty miles farther on. Thereupon, Louch, with the ever-active Vasey who had now joined him, increased speed and the column sped along the smooth road that leads southwards into the desert. From British units encountered fifteen miles beyond Ghemines, Vasey learnt that the battle was virtually over.
After having seen that Louch’s column was on the move, Robertson drove into Benghazi. Captain Conkey’s company of the 2/4th had entered the city half an hour earlier, dismounted from their trucks near the town hall and marched into the small square in front of it. These sunburnt men in their drab khaki greatcoats and steel helmets, taller than Italians and wearing none of the adornments that the people of Benghazi were accustomed to on soldiers, obviously impressed the crowd, which began cheering and clapping so loudly and persistently that Conkey had to wait before shouting his orders. In the assemblage were several thousand men and women – Mohammedans in red tarbushes, Greek and Italian priests in cassocks, neat and prosperous-looking Italian, Greek and Jewish city folk. The small balconies that jutted from the sides of the three-storied buildings on three sides of the square were crowded with men and women who clapped their hands and waved. The atmosphere seemed entirely cordial.
When Robertson arrived in his car there was more cheering. He informed the group of officials through his interpreter that General Mackay would soon arrive to take over the city and that the citizens should carry on in a normal way; Colonel Dougherty, who had been appointed commandant of the town, would cooperate with the commander of the local carabinieri in keeping order. Soon little groups of Australian infantrymen and British gunners were standing at the counters of cafes and bars, eating rolls and butter and cake and drinking coffee or Chianti, and, to the evident surprise of the shopkeepers, were not looting but were paying with Italian bank notes. Few infantrymen had not put some Italian notes into a pocket at Bardia or Tobruk as souvenirs, never thinking that ahead of them lay a fine city in which this paper would buy food and drink and, later, when the shopkeepers opened their doors again, cameras, clothing and trinkets, for Benghazi seemed to lack nothing. At one of the principal hotels the anxious proprietor had piled bottles of wine and plates of cakes and rolls on tables in the hall, evidently to break the first rush of looters. Officers and men, dusty, tired and hungry, crowded in asking for rolls and, best of all, butter which they had not tasted for weeks, and for cups of coffee. It was a day or two before the shopkeepers so far recovered their equilibrium as to begin increasing their prices and withholding their goods. Before long, amiable citizens informed Australian officers that
there were hundreds – some said thousands – of Italian soldiers in Benghazi in hurriedly-assumed civilian clothes; the number of able-bodied young men who were strolling round the streets in groups suggested that this was so. Every citizen who had a motor-car or a truck able to make the journey across the desert to Tripolitania had fled.
No more infantry entered Benghazi that day, but by 10 o’clock two battalions and three companies of the third were moving south towards Ghemines, having by-passed the city. O’Connor, driving north that after-noon from his headquarters near Msus, was astonished to find that almost the whole Australian brigade group was as far south as Ghemines and the advance-guard some fifteen miles beyond it. His plan had worked without a hitch.
It will be recalled that Mr Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff in London had consistently regarded the advance through Libya as basically a defensive operation. Its purpose would have been achieved when “a safe flank for Egypt” had been secured, perhaps at Tobruk, perhaps at Benghazi. Thereafter all operations in the Middle East were to be subordinated to sending forces to the Balkans. In mid-January before Tobruk had been taken the Greeks had declined the offer of a new British contingent and this had led to a decision to continue the advance past Tobruk to Benghazi. (Thus to Metaxas and Papagos, the Greek leaders, belonged some of the credit for the final victory at Beda Fomm!)
On 29th January Metaxas had died. Early in February the new Government of M. Koryzis asked the British Government what help it could give to Greece if a German army attacked. On 12th February Churchill sent a cable to Wavell congratulating him on the conquest of Cyrenaica and adding:–
We should have been content with making a safe flank for Egypt at Tobruk, and we told you that thereafter Greece and/or Turkey must have priority, but that if you could get Benghazi easily and without prejudice to European calls so much the better. We are delighted that you have got this prize three weeks ahead of expectation, but this does not alter, indeed it rather confirms, our previous directive, namely, that your major effort must now be to aid Greece and/or Turkey. This rules out any serious effort against Tripoli, although minor demonstrations thither-wards would be a useful feint. You should therefore make yourself secure in Benghazi and concentrate all available forces in the Delta in preparation for movement to Europe ... Therefore it would seem that we should try to get in a position to offer the Greeks the transfer to Greece of the fighting portion of the Army which has hitherto defended Egypt, and make every plan for sending and reinforcing it to the limit with men and material.9
Churchill informed Wavell that Mr Eden and General Dill would arrive in Cairo on 14th or 15th February, survey the situation there, and then go to Athens, again to offer a contingent to the Greeks. “It is hoped that at least four divisions, including one armoured division, and whatever additional air forces the Greek airfields are ready for, together with all available munitions, may be offered in the best possible way and in the
shortest time.” If a satisfactory agreement with the Greeks proved unattainable the envoys must “try to save as much from the wreck as possible.”
We must at all costs keep Crete and take any Greek islands which are of use as air bases. We could also reconsider the advance on Tripoli. But these will only be consolation prizes after the classic race has been lost.10
The negotiations which followed and their outcome are described in the next volume of this series. It suffices here to recall that the Greek leaders accepted the British offer. Not until after many campaigns and many set-backs could the advance on Tripoli be reconsidered with reasonable prospect of success.
But General O’Connor, the commander on the spot and the main architect of the victory in Cyrenaica, was convinced that he should have been allowed to press on and exploit success to the full; and he was confident that he could take Tripoli. The troops were not tired; their casualties had been relatively low.11 Two fresh regiments of the 2nd Armoured Division were due to join him soon, and he considered that he had the equipment needed to complete the capture of Libya, provided he was given full air and naval support. He would (he wrote a few weeks later) have sent the Support Group on to Sirte immediately, made up an armoured force using the two new regiments then on their way forward and the best tanks of the old ones, and begun to advance from Sirte about the 20th.
After Beda Fomm only twelve cruiser tanks and forty light tanks were in action. The 3rd Hussars were re-equipped with all the serviceable light tanks and the 6th Royal Tanks with Italian mediums; there were about sixty new Italian M13s with only a few hundred miles on their speedo-
meters among those captured. Thus four armoured regiments would have been available for the renewed advance.
General Wilson, who was following the advance, preparing to take over as Military Governor, has recorded that after Beda Fomm he sent a signal to General Wavell “recommending that a light column be sent on to clear the Italians out of North Africa by advancing at least to Sirte and, if opportunity offered, to Tripoli;” but “owing to commitments with other campaigns, especially in regard to air forces, this request could not be acceded to ...”12
We now know that before Benghazi fell the Italian commanders also believed that the British forces would have little difficulty in swiftly overrunning Tripolitania, and that, as late as 12th February, the German and Italian staffs were still debating whether it would be worthwhile to send German units to Africa “only to be captured by the enemy.” O’Connor himself, unfortunately soon, had evidence of the despondency then existing in the enemy’s camp. In the report quoted above, written in an Italian prison later in the month, he said: “Having had the opportunity of speaking to several German and Italian officers on passing through Tripoli all asked why we did not go on to Tripoli as they said there was nothing to stop us. Such Italian units as were there were in a state of complete confusion and demoralisation. And no German troops landed until 12th February.”
What steps had the Italian and German leaders taken since the fall of Bardia to arrest the threatened debacle and what opposition was a continued British advance likely to have encountered? Throughout January and February Hitler and his staff were anxious lest Italy should collapse. It will be recalled that on 11th January Hitler had directed that the Italian forces in Africa be helped by sending a contingent of German troops equipped to offer effective defence against armoured divisions and by employing the X Air Corps, in Sicily, to attack British shipping and bases. On 14th January, it was decided that the German force to be transferred to Libya would be a “light motorised division”. Later it was decided that this would be the 5th Light Motorised Division, commanded by a General Funck, and would include a reconnaissance unit (equipped mainly with armoured cars), three anti-tank groups each with twenty-seven to thirty-six guns, thirty tanks, two motorised machine-gun battalions and ancillary units. It was thus to be approximately equal to the support group of a British armoured division.13 It should be ready to embark from 15th February onwards.
Funck went ahead to Tripoli to reconnoitre and on 26th January (four days after the fall of Tobruk) reported that the proposed force would be insufficient. Three days later the German military attaché in Rome, General von Rintelen, informed the German High Command that, in the
opinion of General Guzzoni, the Italian Under-Secretary for War, the best the Italian forces then in North Africa could do would be to defend a fortified camp at the city of Tripoli. Almost all the 132nd (Ariete) Armoured Division had arrived to reinforce the four infantry divisions already in Tripolitania but it had only light 3-ton tanks (and therefore was armoured only in name). Rintelen considered that a mobile force able to take the offensive was needed. (Also on that day it was reported that two German transports and one Italian had been sunk a few days before on the way to Africa.) On 1st February (Derna had now fallen) the German High Command informed Rintelen that it was doubtful whether there was still any sense in sending German defensive forces to Tripoli. If Funck’s “defence force” was not adequate and if the Italians wished to be rein-forced by a German armoured force, consideration must be given to the fact that it could not be in Tripoli before the end of April. Guzzoni was asked through Rintelen what Graziani’s plans were, and whether Tripolitania could be defended if the British army had not broken into it before the Italian 132nd (Ariete) Armoured and 102nd (Trento) Motorised Divisions and Funck’s force were ready for action. Until the Italians had answered these questions the forward movement of troops of Funck’s force was not to proceed, although the shipment of supplies to Naples might continue.
On 3rd February (the day after O’Connor had ordered the pursuit which culminated at Beda Fomm) Guzzoni informed the German staff in Rome that Graziani intended to withdraw from Cyrenaica, but that he considered that Tripolitania could be defended if the British had not arrived before the divisions mentioned above were ready for action. On the same day Hitler ordered that the X Air Corps should make heavy attacks on the British forces in Cyrenaica, and the shipment to Naples of Funck’s division (to which an armoured regiment and an additional artillery regiment were now to be added) should be resumed. In addition he ordered that preparations were to be made to reinforce it with a full armoured division drawn from the force allotted to the Balkans. General Rommel, who had distinguished himself in command of the 7th Armoured Division in France in 1940, was to lead all German forces in Africa. Hitler wrote to Mussolini on the 5th expressing disappointment at the Italian failures and saying that the arrival of a strong German armoured formation in Africa was conditional on the Italian army holding on and not retreating to Tripoli which could not be defended.
On 8th February (the day after the Italian surrender at Beda Fomm) the advanced party of the 5th Light Division’s unloading organisation sailed from Italy. It was expected that the division itself could begin to embark between the 15th and 20th February. Meanwhile the transfer of the Ariete Armoured Division to Tripoli had been completed about 31st January and the arrival of the Trento Motorised Division had begun; the shipment of the Trento was to be completed by 20th February.
Spurred by the German decision to reinforce him in Africa, and after receiving the reproving letter from Hitler, Mussolini on 10th February directed that the defence of Tripolitania be carried out as far forward as possible. He replaced the despondent Graziani with General Gariboldi, hitherto commanding the Fifth Army which, the Tenth Army having been destroyed, now constituted the fighting part of the army in North Africa. On the 11th Rommel arrived in Rome where he announced that the first line of defence was to be round Sirte, the main line at Misurata. It was agreed that Rommel was to make his advice available to General Gariboldi; and a mobile force, including the Ariete Division, would be formed under Rommel’s command. Rintelen reported Guzzoni as having said at this conference:–
If it becomes clear in the course of the next few days that Tripolitania cannot be held, I will be the first to admit that it is not worth sending German units to Libya only to be captured by the enemy. ... However, I am absolutely confident that the crisis will be successfully overcome.
“General Rommel and I,” added Rintelen, “agreed with these statements made by General Guzzoni. It remains to be seen whether there is still time enough to carry out the measures decided upon.” This was four days after the fall of Benghazi and about the time at which O’Connor planned to take Sirte.
Rommel arrived in Tripoli on the 12th, and on the 16th advised Gariboldi to concentrate at least three-quarters of his forces in the Sirte-Buerat area and conduct a defensive battle until the arrival of considerable German and Italian reinforcements. Already the 17th (Pavia) Division was being moved to the Sirte area, the 25th (Bologna) to the Tmed Hassan area and the Ariete Armoured Division to Buerat; and a mobile force consisting of the German reconnaissance unit, a German infantry battalion and an Italian motorised unit was being sent farther forward. However, it was not expected that the shipment of the 5th Light Division and German
Air Force units to Tripolitania would be completed until about 20th March.14
On 18th February Hitler decided that Rommel’s force should be known as the German Africa Corps; but at this stage the transfer to Tripolitania of a full panzer division was still only “envisaged”. However, on 26th February an order was given that the 15th Armoured Division would join the Africa Corps when the transport of the 5th Light Division and air force units had been completed. On the 28th Hitler wrote to Mussolini that he considered that the situation “could be restored. If we could have fifteen days more time in North Africa I am certain that a new British attempt to advance towards Tripoli would fail.”
O’Connor had hoped to begin his advance from Sirte about 20th February. It appears that there were then in Tripolitania four Italian infantry divisions very short of field artillery, the Ariete Armoured Division with light tanks only, most if not all of the Trento Motorised Division, a German armoured car unit and a German infantry battalion. The head-quarters of the 5th Light Division reached Tripoli on 21st Fberuary. After the war General Wavell wrote:–
As for the advance to Tripoli, Italian opposition could be discounted as small and likely to be easily overcome, and nothing was at that time known of the dispatch of German forces to Africa; but even so our resources were not equal to the task. Our armoured vehicles were worn out by an advance of 500 miles; we had not enough mechanised transport to maintain even a small force for an advance of another 500 miles to Tripoli; and both in the air and on the sea we were still numerically inferior to the Italians alone without any German reinforcement. It would have been an intolerable strain on the Navy to maintain a military and air force at Tripoli when even Benghazi could not be used as a port for lack of AA artillery and other resources.15
General Dill too, influenced no doubt by the emphasis placed by Wavell’s staff on the difficulty of maintaining large forces so far forward into Italian territory, believed that it would not be possible for XIII Corps to continue its advance to Tripoli; in December Wavell’s Joint Planning Staff had expressed the opinion that an advance even to Benghazi was not justified. In January, however, they appear to have changed their views “We have convinced ourselves,” wrote Major-General de Guingand,16 then a lieut-colonel on that staff, “that once Tobruk and Benghazi were captured we could, after a pause of a week or two, advance with adequate forces to capture Tripoli.”17
O’Connor was just receiving two fresh armoured regiments, part of a newly-arrived armoured division; the shortage of vehicles was not substantially more acute at the end than at the beginning of the final stage of the advance, and at Beda Fomm many Italian vehicles (and brand-new tanks) had been captured. The strain on navy and air force was not likely to be as great as that imposed on them by an expedition to the Balkans. As mentioned above, it was the withdrawal of fighter squadrons after the decision to go on the defensive that caused the navy to declare the port of Benghazi unusable. The experience of the next few months seems to show that aircraft, in the numbers then possessed by the German air corps in Sicily, could not have made it impossible to maintain a garrison round Tripoli; they were unable to make Malta untenable, and in Greece later a large German air force did not succeed in seriously impeding the movement of the Anzac Corps on the roads or preventing its embarkation.18 In the light solely of the knowledge possessed by the British leaders at the time there were strong reasons for pressing on: the rapid and utter collapse of the Italian army in Cyrenaica, the existence in Tripolitania of an army of depleted and ill-equipped divisions, the defeat of the Italian air force, the relative inactivity of the Italian navy, the hints already received that Germany might send reinforcements and the need to anticipate them, the fact that the Middle East forces could safely be concentrated against this one objective, the attainment of which would be an achievement of immense military and political importance.
In the light of our present knowledge of the discussions and decisions of the German and Italian leaders it seems likely that if O’Connor had promptly taken Sirte and advanced from there on the 20th with full naval and air support, as he wished to do, Hitler would have ceased reinforcing the Italians and O’Connor would have rapidly occupied Tripolitania and defeated its garrison – a force less strong in fighting units than the one he had defeated at Sidi Barrani and Bardia, and likely to be less resolute. Thus, if O’Connor’s judgment was correct, a glittering prize was thrown away: possession of all Libya, air and naval bases opposite the narrow pass in the Mediterranean, the end of all danger of an advance on Egypt from the west supported by German arms, the isolation of French North Africa; perhaps the revival of French resistance. But Churchill’s eyes were fixed on the project to form a front in the Balkans and, in the event, his instructions were carried out swiftly, in such a way as to put an end to all possibility of resuming the African advance that winter.
A few days after the fall of Benghazi the force in western Cyrenaica had been reduced to a mere garrison. On 9th February (three days before Rommel arrived in Africa) General Wilson’s headquarters arrived at
Barce and as Military Governor he took command of all troops in Cyrenaica. On the 15th General Blamey’s I Australian Corps replaced XIII Corps, the staff of which was dispersed – a reckless step for an army which had no other corps staff that had conducted a successful campaign.19
On 18th February the 17th Australian Brigade replaced the 7th Armoured Division, which set off for Cairo three days later. On the 13th German aircraft (of the X Air Corps in Sicily, equipped with some 350 machines) had begun regularly bombing Benghazi and the surrounding area. The defending air force had been reduced.20 and on the 18th the naval convoy supplying the force through the port of Benghazi was withdrawn because there was inadequate protection against German air attacks, and thenceforward practically all supplies had to be transported overland from Tobruk. On the 24th the 19th Brigade was withdrawn to Gazala to ease the problem of supply and the only infantry left in western Cyrenaica was one brigade.
Meanwhile, towards the end of January, Wavell had initiated a more ambitious program in Italian East Africa. Encouraged by the success of a small mobile force under Brigadier Messervy21 that had been harassing the Italians in the Kassala area, and by the efforts of Brigadier Sandford22 and Colonel Wingate,23 who were conducting a guerrilla campaign within Abyssinia, he instructed General Platt in the Sudan, who then had two divisions – the 4th and 5th Indian – to press on towards Asmara. Soon afterwards he agreed to the request of General Cunningham in Kenya that he be allowed to advance on Kismayu early in February instead of waiting until May, after the rains.
In view of the complete defeat of the Italian forces in Cyrenaica (wrote Wavell later), I decided to allow the operations in Italian East Africa to continue for the present at any rate. I issued instructions to General Platt to endeavour to capture Asmara and Massawa and to General Cunningham to continue his operations
against Kismayu. I told General Platt that he was to continue his operations to the occupation of Eritrea and was not to advance south from Eritrea into Abyssinia and that I should withdraw two or three brigade groups from him as soon as possible after his capture of Eritrea. I told General Cunningham that if he was successful in capturing Kismayu, he should advance on Mogadiscio if possible, but I warned him that I should probably require the withdrawal of the 1st South African Division at an early date.24
On 24th February Wavell instructed Cunningham to advance to Harar after the capture of Mogadiscio, and that he wished that Berbera in Somaliland be reoccupied. Convinced that at least two months must elapse between the landing of German troops at Tripoli and their effective use in Cyrenaica, Wavell decided to garrison Cyrenaica with one raw infantry division (the 9th Australian) and a brigade of the newly-arrived 2nd Armoured Division. Thus he would be able to send to Greece the 6th and 7th Australian and New Zealand Divisions and two smaller formations – the 1st Armoured Brigade and the Polish Brigade Group.25
While these decisions were being made, the policing of the newly-gained territory and the supply of the garrison was becoming the principal preoccupation of General Wilson’s “Cyrenaica Command”. After the excitement of the Italian retreat and the entry of the British force, the people of Benghazi settled down into a mood of sullen hostility. Shops were shut and the streets relatively empty, a result partly of the army’s decision to fix the exchange value of the lire at 400 to the £1 Egyptian instead of the normal 150. From the 13th February the city was regularly bombed by German and Italian aircraft. In and around Barce were 12,000 European settlers (including some thousands of refugees from Tobruk and Derna) and perhaps twice as many native Libyans whom the Italian settlers feared far more than they feared the Australian troops. Fortunately, although the Arabs had looted the food stores in Barce and imported supplies were very short, there was enough wheat there and at Beda Littoria in the Jebel Achdar to last until May, and a new crop would be harvested in June.
Soon after the fall of Benghazi the forward troops were visited by the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, who was on his way to London, and General Blamey. The journey into the desert gave Menzies a valuable opportunity of speaking to leaders and men in the field and obtaining first-hand impressions of the problems faced in an area where Australians were now playing a leading part.26
It will be recalled that since the 18th, when the 7th Armoured Division had begun to move back to Egypt, the force in the forward area had been the 17th Australian Brigade group.27 From it had been subtracted two of its three battalions and to it had been added the King’s Dragoon Guards (a newly-arrived armoured car regiment). It included a battery of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, two batteries of light anti-aircraft artillery, two companies of Free French troops and some ancillary troops, and was directly under the command of I Australian Corps. The other battalions of the brigade remained in the Barce-Benghazi area under the command of the 6th Australian Division. Savige, at the suggestion of Blamey, had advanced the defensive line to Marsa Brega where the front was partly covered by a marsh which was an effective obstacle to tanks.
Every day enemy aircraft (sometimes a single machine and sometimes as many as twenty-five) attacked vehicles and encampments along the road. They flew low and were briskly engaged by the gunners and the infantrymen who, in the first seven days, believed that they shot down seventeen between them. Some units had now equipped themselves with captured anti-aircraft guns. Savige’s first problem was to organise his supply line in such a way that it would be reasonably free from air attack. With this object he established a collecting point well forward. To it corps vehicles delivered rations by night and from it unit vehicles collected their loads and carried them forward also in darkness. Before daylight the dumps at the collecting point were camouflaged and all wheel marks removed by a broom-like contraption attached to the rear of a vehicle. In the forward area the troops and vehicles were widely dispersed, and low-flying aircraft were engaged with all available weapons and forced to higher altitudes. The brigade did not suffer any casualties from air attack in its forward defensive areas, though some men on patrol or other duties were hit. Infantry fire shot down two enemy aircraft in the forward areas.
On 20th February a troop of the Dragoon Guards commanded by Lieutenant Williams,28 exchanged fire with German armoured cars – the first seen in Africa.29 The pilots of scouting aircraft reported increasing but still small activity on the enemy’s side of the Tripolitanian frontier. On 21st February, for example, a pilot reported a column of sixteen vehicles, including three eight-wheeled, and therefore German, armoured cars whose crews wore a bluish uniform different from anything he had seen in Libya before.
Savige was wrongly advised that the armoured cars encountered on the 20th were probably Fiat Ansaldos but next day concluded that he probably faced German armoured vehicles, and he decided that more German troops and armoured vehicles might be landed at small harbours along the coast and advance overland; but at this stage the staffs farther back would not believe that a substantial German-Italian force was assembling on the frontier. In the following days the air force reported up to thirteen ships in Tripoli harbour, including some of about 10,000 tons. Wellington bombers flying from landing grounds in Cyrenaica and Malta were now making regular attacks on ships in Tripoli harbour and later at Sirte. On 24th February I Australian Corps, which was destined for Greece, handed over its responsibilities to the 6th Division and on the 27th General Neame30 replaced General Wilson as commander in Cyrenaica. (Five days earlier Wilson had been told that he would command the expedition to Greece.) There was then only a shadow force west of Derna. It consisted of Mackay’s headquarters with Savige’s brigade group and the 3rd Armoured Brigade under command.
On the 23rd the staffs of Cyrenaica Command and I Australian Corps were still expressing the opinion that an attempt to retake Benghazi was unlikely, but that day air attacks on Savige’s troops were intensified; and on the 24th scouting aircraft reported that 500 vehicles were moving south from Misurata, which is some 130 miles east of Tripoli. On the same day Savige’s force on the frontier received its most telling evidence so far of the aggressiveness of the troops opposing them. Two troops of armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards (including Williams’ troop), and a troop of Australian anti-tank guns were patrolling near Agheila when they were fired on by a force including tanks. Lieutenant Rowley,31
commanding the anti-tank troop, and two members of the crew of an armoured car, which was disabled, were captured by the Germans, who had seven tanks, three armoured cars and fourteen motor-cycle combinations. The Germans withdrew with their prisoners, and towing the dis-abled car. Next day Savige sent out an armoured care squadron with two platoons of infantry, a section of field guns and a section of anti-tank guns, to return the compliment by ambushing the German force should it appear again, but, although this force remained in position for four days, the enemy did not reappear on the ground. However, on the 27th, a strong enemy air force effectively strafed the would-be ambushers, damaging three armoured cars and two trucks and causing nine casualties.
When General Mackay had taken command of the fighting troops in western Cyrenaica on the 24th he had given the 3rd Armoured Brigade the task of protective reconnaissance west of a north-south line midway between Marsa Brega and El Agheila. The marsh mentioned above extended some ten miles south from the road in this area and, in practice, the 17th Brigade continued to occupy the divisional defensive area on the right while the 3rd Armoured Brigade patrolled south and south-west of the marsh. Mackay visited Savige on the 26th and, as a result, agreed to send another battalion forward to him (though two of its companies remained behind, on duty at Beda Fomm and Agedabia). After seeing Savige Mackay was impressed by the likelihood of a counter-attack and, in a note written on 28th February, said that the possibility of the enemy attempting to regain Cyrenaica “cannot be ignored and must be vigilantly guarded against.” To this end he ordered vigorous patrolling by mobile columns, the setting of traps and ambushes, the improvement of the map, and (looking ahead as he always did to a time when Australians would take part in a future decisive conflict with the main enemy) concluded “the occasion of our being in contact with the Germans in Libya is to be used to discover and defeat his tactics so that in future we may be thoroughly prepared to deal with them.” That day air force pilots reported that the column of 500 vehicles which had been near Misurata on 24th February was now near the frontier. The enemy had a great and growing superiority in the air and for some days had been carrying out effective daylight raids as far east as Tobruk. The British force in western Cyrenaica consisted of one seasoned infantry brigade and one armoured brigade which had had little experience of the desert.
On the 9th Brigadier J. J. Murray, commanding the 20th Brigade of the 9th Australian Division, arrived at Brigadier Savige’s headquarters to take over from him. That day General Mackay flew to Cairo to report to General Wavell and discuss the movement of the 6th Australian Division to Greece. Also on 9th March Rommel sent a report to the German High Command suggesting that he should go over to the offensive before the hot weather started.