Chapter 15: The First British Offensive in the Western Desert—II
See Map 17
ONE OF the first reactions in London to the Italian defeat was to consider whether the moment was favourable to invite Egypt to enter the war. The view of the Commanders-in-Chief was that no military advantages would be likely to accrue. In the Ambassador’s opinion it would be best to leave the Egyptian Government to declare war of their own free will, if they so wished. There, for the time being, the matter ended.
Within a few days the Prime ‘Minister was expressing his wish to see the success in the Western Desert driven well home. ‘I feel convinced’, he wrote, ‘that it is only after you have made sure that you can get no farther that you will relinquish the main hope in favour of secondary action in the Sudan or Dodecanese. The Sudan is of importance and eminently desirable and it may be that the two Indian Brigades can be spared without prejudice to the Libyan pursuit battle. ... The Dodecanese will not get any harder for a little waiting. But neither of these ought to detract front the supreme task of inflicting further defeats upon the main Italian Army’.
The Commanders-in-Chief had always been acutely aware of the importance of the Red Sea route, and hence of the Sudan, and had stressed the point when commenting upon the Prime Minister’s Directive of August 1940. The Dodecanese were certainly likely to wither in Italian hands but there was always the chance of German help. As regards the despatch of the Indian division, General Wavell was convinced that only one division in addition to the armoured division could be maintained in Cyrenaica without the use of Tobruk harbour; and if the Indian troops in the Sudan were to be reinforced for operations in Eritrea there were obvious advantages in sending another Indian division well suited to the type of country. Finally, on the question of driving home the initial advantage, the three Commanders-in-Chief had already resolved to give the enemy no respite. In the hope of inducing the garrison of Bardia to abandon the place or surrender before the shock or defeat had worn off, they decided to try the effect of a hammering from the sea and air while preparations for an assault were being made.
Accordingly HMS Terror, having replenished after bombarding Maktila, began on the 14th to engage targets systematically in the defended area of Bardia, and continued to do so for the next three days. On one night she was unsuccessfully attacked by a MTB, and by torpedo-bombers on another. At dawn on the 17th she supported an impertinent adventure by the Aphis, which entered Bardia harbour and remained inside for an hour while she engaged targets at point blank range. The Terror remarked that the volumes of black smoke rolling out of the harbour entrance indicated that the Aphis ‘was having a good time’.1 An attempt to repeat the exploit next day found the Italians on the alert, and the gunboat was pursued along the coast with fire from mobile artillery, her withdrawal being covered by the Terror.
The main bomber effort was also shifted on to Bardia from December 14th to 19th. More than 150 sorties were flown, the heaviest attack being made on the night 15th/16th by 36 aircraft. Wellingtons from Malta, released by bad weather in the Adriatic from their primary tasks, now joined in the attack on Italian airfields, and between the 18th and 22nd no less than 44 aircraft were destroyed or damaged at Castel Benito, Benina, and Berka, apart from other material results.2
By December 19th it seemed certain that the enemy intended neither to fight his way out to Tobruk nor to surrender out of hand. The attack for which General Mackay had begun to prepare, in accordance with General O’Connor’s instructions, would therefore have to be carried out. The situation on December 19th was that the 16th (British) Infantry Brigade was moving up to gain contact with the southern portion of the Bardia defences, and the leading Australian Brigade—also numbered the 16th—was relieving the Support Group who had been patrolling along the south-western sector. This enabled the whole of the 7th Armoured Division to be disposed farther north, ready to deal with any attempt at reinforcement from Tobruk. The second brigade group of the 6th Australian Division could not arrive for another week, with the third a few days behind. The lines of communication were being severely strained by these movements superimposed on the tasks of maintaining the Western Desert Force and of building up resources for the attack on Bardia. It is appropriate therefore to see how the maintenance situation was developing.
In preparing for the ‘five day battle’ of Sidi Barrani it had been necessary to establish two Field Supply Depots (F.S.D.)—Nos. 3 and 4 on the map—far enough forward to be within daily reach of the divisional transport columns during the battle. These depots could
not be added to (except for some water) until the reserve transport companies were released from their troop-carrying role. This occurred at the same time as the decision was taken for 7th Armoured Division to carry out the pursuit to the frontier. By December 12th the portion of this division operating south of—that is, above—the escarpment was 170 route miles from its railhead. Their F.S.D. (No. 4) had dropped nearly 100 miles behind and it was urgently necessary to form a new one. By concentrating the 4th Indian Division about Sidi Barrani it was just possible to collect enough transport to do this; the new depot was No. 5, east of Rabia. Within a few days even this was too far back and No. 6 had to be formed half way between Sofafi and the frontier. Meanwhile for the troops in the coastal area No. 7 F.S.D. was formed near Sidi Barrani, and had the weather been better it would have been stocked by sea instead of by road from Matruh. The next to be formed were No. 8 at Sollum for the Australian Division and No. 9 at Capuzzo for the Armoured Division.
The pattern is therefore of two chains of depots, one along the coast and one following roughly the line of the escarpment; the depots in each chain being about 50 miles apart. Naturally the depots did not all exist simultaneously, for as soon as a new one was opened the previous one was eaten down and not re-stocked. This system resulted in the turn-round of the divisional transport columns being kept more or less within practical limits, but the distance covered by the transport companies employed on stocking the depots grew greater and greater.
This distance would be reduced eventually by the projected extension of the railway and water pipeline forward from Matruh, but this was no solution to the immediate problem and without additional transport there would obviously have been a breakdown. But by 12th December the men of a newly arrived Reserve M.T. Company, which hitherto had had no vehicles, had taken over 80 captured Italian 5- and 6-ton diesel trucks. On the 15th 50 heavy lorries, each with a 7½-ton desert payload, arrived with their drivers from Palestine—an invaluable addition to the transport pool. Many captured vehicles could not be used for want of drivers, though some were appropriated by units to make up their own deficiencies. By the end of December the wastage of vehicles in the Western Desert Force was nearly 40% of the establishment—the cumulative effect of several contributory causes. Most of the vehicles were already old; they had been driven unceasingly by tired drivers over rough desert tracks (even on the coast road the going was very bad) in perpetual dust, and swallowed up from time to time by sandstorms. The difficulty of ensuring routine maintenance in these conditions was aggravated by the lack of adequate workshops within easy reach.
On December 16th the small port of Sollum fell into British hands, and provided a means of alleviating the load on the overland routes. A small naval organization had existed for the purpose of supplying Matruh, should it be cut off by land, and this was now brought into use. As early as December 12th a quantity of rations, water, petrol, and stores was on passage, and owing to the bad weather most of it was still loaded when access to Sollum harbour first became possible. Until the port was working the whole Australian Division could not be maintained from No. 8 F.S.D. on the coastal axis, but unfortu-nately Sollum was hardly a port at all; it had only two small lighterage piers, with no equipment for handling heavy loads.3 There were no dock or transportation troops available in the Middle East, and discharging was begun on the 8th by troops of the 16th Infantry Brigade, joined later by two Pioneer Companies of the Cyprus Regiment; the work of clearance was done by No. 4 New Zealand M.T. Company. The anchorage was very exposed to weather and to air attacks; there was also spasmodic shelling by a long-range gun from Bardia. All this caused delay and there were many casualties: on Christmas Eve 60 New Zealanders and Cypriots were killed or wounded by bombing. At the end of the month 100 stevedores from Alexandria and a detachment of the Palestine Regiment (Pioneers) were also at work. The despatch of anti-aircraft units to Crete and Greece had left only 20 heavy and 32 light A.A. guns for the Western Desert Force and the whole of the lines of communication; of these one heavy battery was allotted to Sollum. The three fighter squadrons (Nos. 33, 73 and 274) covering the forward area were formed into a fighter wing, but they were greatly handicapped by the lack of any organization for giving warning of the approach of enemy aircraft.
The lack of water was one of the worst anxieties. The storage tanks at Capuzzo, normally filled by pipeline from Bardia, were found to be very salt, and 12,000 gallons had to be sent all the way from Matruh by road. In spite of all attempts to find and use local sources it was necessary to cut the ration for several days to half a gallon. As soon as possible water was brought in by sea to Sollum, but the lack of any means of off-loading and storing in bulk made the discharge very slow. The same applied to petrol, and the wastage from the flimsy 4-gallon containers was very high. From the 21st to 23rd the Aphis and Ladybird lent a hand in landing water from the armed boarding vessel Fiona and delivered it straight into water-carts waiting on the beach. (Incidentally, there were not nearly enough desert-worthy water-carts.) Next day the one and only water-carrier, Myriel, arrived from Alexandria with over 3,000 tons, and the Terror assumed what was for her an unusual role and
brought a further 200 tons. These efforts on the part of the Navy saved the situation, and by the end of the month the sources at Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq had been put in order and the tanks at Capuzzo were kept filled by pumping from Sollum.
It will be realized that the task of maintaining the 7th Armoured Division and the growing numbers of Australians and their supporting units was by no means easy. It was made harder still by the need to prepare for the deliberate attack on the Bardia defences. These were much more elaborate than the desert camps, and the attacking infantry would therefore need strong fire support; large quantities of ammunition had consequently to be brought forward. On top of all this the Commanders-in-Chief decided on 26th December that operations in Libya were to have priority over all others, at least as far as the capture of Tobruk. This meant that a further programme of forward stocking would have to be undertaken as soon as Bardia fell.
The Air Force too had many difficulties to overcome as its established air bases dropped farther behind. Reconnaissance and fighter aircraft were using improvised landing grounds which lacked signal communications and equipment generally. The shortage of men and the demands of the Greek campaign had made it impossible to do more than improvise additions to the Air Stores Park and to the Repair and Salvage Unit which supported the Western Desert squadrons. The frequent sandstorms rendered the task of maintaining aircraft especially difficult and trying, and kept them un-serviceable much longer. A special Air Explosives and Fuel Park was formed, which made the utmost use of captured bombs and petrol, and created dumps from which the squadrons collected their requirements.
Marshal Graziani knew well enough what the pause in the British advance meant. He had given orders to General Gariboldi, the acting commander of the 10th Army in the absence on leave of General Berti, that Bardia and Tobruk were both to be held. This decision was promptly endorsed by the Duce but Graziani was not easy in his mind that it was a sound one. On 17th December he ventured to point out that it would be difficult to reinforce Bardia and that it would be only a matter of time before the British assembled enough strength to overcome the defences. Would it not be wiser to concentrate all the available forces for the defence of Tobruk, and so gain time for the arrival of the troops and air forces which he hoped were being sent from Italy? Mussolini replied that everything possible must be done to delay and exhaust the enemy, and that a prolonged resistance at Bardia would make a useful con-tribution. Meanwhile certain units were being prepared in Italy for despatch to Tripoli.
A similar problem, differing only in degree, had arisen in respect of the troops then holding positions on the frontier at Capuzzo and Sollum. Lieutenant-General Bergonzoli, commander of the 23rd Corps, represented to the Army Commander on December 15th that without them he had not enough troops to hold Bardia. Marshal Graziani stepped in and insisted on their withdrawal; the Italian force at Capuzzo succeeded in eluding 7th Armoured Brigade in the dark, with the result that Bergonzoli was able to collect within the Bardia perimeter the whole or part of the following divisions: 1st and 2nd Blackshirt, 62nd Marmarica, 63rd Cirene and 64th Catanzaro, in all, the equivalent of about four divisions, totalling with fortress troops and frontier guards 45,000 men and over 400 guns. The British estimate at the time was much less—only about half the true figure.
On December 21st Major-General Mackay assumed command in the Sollum area. Much had already been learned from air photographs and captured documents about the Bardia defences. These ran in a rough arc eighteen miles long round the small harbour and town. Near the coast the ground was deeply indented by wadis; elsewhere the perimeter ran across a flat and dusty plain. There was a main outer line of fortified posts, 500 to 800 yards apart, containing gun and machine-gun emplacements, shelters, and trenches, mostly of concrete. Each post was protected by a ditch and surrounded by barbed wire. Along part of the front there was a second line of posts, a few hundred yards back, and there were various isolated posts covering vulnerable points farther back still. Along the whole front ran a thick continuous double-apron barbed wire fence, and except where the wadis made it unnecessary a sheer-sided anti-tank ditch twelve feet wide or more and about four feet deep. There were six separate minefields along the front and at other points mines had been scattered inside and outside the wire. The southern corner of the defended arc had been strengthened by the provision of a second or ‘switch’ line of posts, which gave additional protection to the area in which were most of the artillery positions.
As soon as the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier A. S. Allen) took over the sector south of the Bardia—Tobruk road they set to work to secure mastery of the ground up to the Italian perimeter, and by aggressive patrolling to verify the information about the defences and discover the enemy’s dispositions. Every night patrols were busy examining the Italian wire and measuring the ditches. The Italians were alert and prompt to open fire, but did little patrolling of their own. On December 27th the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier S. G. Savige) came up on the right of
the 16th, and in the process of closing up to the enemy defences met with a certain amount of opposition; it was here that the enemy seemed to be most sensitive. From all these activities and from the latest air photographs General Mackay had obtained enough information by December 28th to make his plan.
By now it was realized that there were elements of five Italian divisions in Bardia, but it was still thought that the total strength was little more than 20,000 with over 100 guns. The attack of this force in its strong defences was to be the 6th Australian Division’s first engagement. This was the first formation to be sent overseas by Australia; it was composed of early volunteers, who were proud of, and eager to rival, the fighting reputation of their forerunners of the A.I.F. of the First World War. Their training in Palestine had been vigorous and realistic, though handicapped by shortages of equipment, from which they still suffered. Part of the division had been in the convoy diverted to England in May 1940,4 and, although a third infantry brigade—the 19th—had been formed in Palestine, some of the divisional troops were still absent. There were only two field artillery regiments instead of three; one of these had obsolete guns and howitzers, and the other had only very recently received its 25- pdrs. There was no machine-gun battalion, and no anti-tank regiment—the brigades had eleven anti-tank guns between them; carriers, mortars, and transport were all short. Only one squadron of the divisional cavalry regiment was present, the remainder being engaged farther inland, in the vicinity of the frontier posts at Jarabub and Siwa. In respect of morale, however, nothing was lacking; the chief concern of the Australians was lest they should be too late, and find the enemy gone. For the attack on Bardia the division was supplemented by two regiments and a battery of field artillery, and one medium regiment; which meant that 120 of the 154 available guns were under General Mackay’s command. So were 7th RTR—who, although severely handicapped by the lack of spare parts, had managed to make 23 tanks serviceable—and a machine-gun battalion, 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The 16th (British) Infantry Brigade was not to be used for the actual attack.
General Mackay chose for the point of attack the western face, about two and a half miles south of the Tobruk road. This would give access to a slight rise from which good observation would be obtained, and to gently falling ground over which the ‘I’ tanks could operate freely. It was opposite the junction of two defensive sectors; and it lent itself well to support by the artillery. A breakthrough here would cut the defences in half and would isolate the bulk of the Italian guns. Moreover it was thought that the Italians would hardly
expect the main attack to come from the west, but from nearer to the Capuzzo road.
General O’Connor suggested to General Mackay that the plan, as at Nibeiwa, should be shaped to suit the tanks, and had also suggested a fundamental difference in the methods to be adopted to give them a good start. At Nibeiwa they suddenly appeared at dawn at a point which reconnaissance had shown was not tank-proof; and by a rapid break-in they made it possible for the infantry to follow. At Bardia, on the other hand, the way had to be prepared for the tanks to cross the ditch and get safely through the mines; therefore the first stage was an attack by the infantry to secure a bridgehead.
On December 28th General Mackay decided that zero hour should be 5.30 a.m. on January 2nd, but on the 30th he was obliged to make a postponement of 24 hours owing to the late arrival of the necessary ammunition. Between 31st December and 2nd January the Air Force made 100 bomber sorties against the Bardia area culminating in a heavy attack by Wellingtons of No. 70 Squadron and Bombays of No. 216 Squadron on the night 2nd/3rd. Through-out January 2nd HMS Terror and the gunboats carried out harassing shoots against Bardia and the northern sector.
At 5.30 a.m. on 3rd January, when it was still dark, the artillery barrage opened on a front of about half a mile, with concentrations on selected targets north and south. The 2/1st Australian Battalion advanced from its start line to cover the 1,000 yards to the enemy’s position, and met little opposition other than shell fire. The engineers blew gaps in the wire with Bangalore torpedoes; the infantry secured a bridgehead across the ditch; crossing places were made for the tanks; and nearly 100 mines were removed. In less than an hour the battalion had gained its objectives.
By 7 a.m. the tanks had moved into the bridgehead; five troops turned right and moved off to the south-east, closely followed by 2/2nd Australian Battalion. A series of sharp minor encounters now began. Some posts showed fight; others surrendered after receiving a burst of fire from the tanks. It was highly individual and very mixed fighting, in which the tanks were sometimes leading and sometimes led by the infantry. The 2/2nd Battalion soon reached the line of the Bardia-Capuzzo road. Meanwhile 2/1st had formed a flank facing north, and 2/3rd together with the divisional cavalry squadron in their Bren carriers had advanced two miles towards Bardia. While seeking to exploit this success the cavalry squadron was counter-attacked by six Italian medium tanks, which penetrated some distance among the 2/3rd Battalion before being all knocked out by two anti-tank guns.
By 8.30 a.m. the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade had occupied practically all its objectives, and had captured about 8,000 prisoners
and a large quantity of weapons. There had been a good deal of shell fire, though it was somewhat wild and inaccurate and there had been very few casualties, though the tanks had been severely battered by field and anti-tank guns, and rallied very slowly to refill.
Meanwhile patrols of the Support Group demonstrated to the north of the Tobruk road, and three companies of the 2/6th Australian Battalion made a diversionary attack on posts at the extreme southern corner of the perimeter; two of the platoons came under heavy fire and were killed or wounded almost to a man.
At 8.10 a.m. the battleships Valiant and Barham, led by the Commander-in-Chief in the Warspite, with seven destroyers, opened fire with their main armament, and for 45 minutes a rain of 15-inch shells fell on the area north of the Bardia-Tobruk road. Shore batteries were heavily engaged by the secondary armament, and the Illustrious provided spotting aircraft and protective patrols. After the bombardment was over, the Terror and gunboats kept up intermittent fire for some hours, in which the artillery of the Support Group joined.
The main bomber effort was lifted on to the airfields at Gazala, Derna, Martuba and Tmimi. The Lysanders directing the artillery fire were covered by fighters. Other fighters of Nos. 33, 73 and 274 Squadrons patrolled the area between Tobruk and Bardia. On each homeward journey they carried out low-flying reconnaissances of Bardia. The Italian Air Force took little part in the battle. During the preliminary phase they had been busy withdrawing from the airfields in the Tobruk area to those which were now being attacked, and had been able to do little beyond making their daily attacks on Sollum and the ships anchored there.
The second phase began at 11.30 a.m. with an attack by 17th Australian Infantry Brigade against the perimeter east of the Bardia-Capuzzo road. The 2/5th Battalion, with two companies of the 2/7th under command, tired after a somewhat complicated approach march, soon came under accurate artillery fire; among the first casualties was the Commanding Officer. Six tanks took part, but delays in rallying made them late; on the left the attack was checked, and the 2/6th Battalion was pinned to its ground all day. Nevertheless, by the end of the day the attack had reached the ‘switch’ line, where confused fighting was still going on.
During the night 2/8th Battalion of the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier H. C. H. Robertson) moved up within the perimeter behind 16th Brigade. Orders had been issued during the afternoon for the 16th Brigade to renew the attack at 11 a.m. Only three tanks were available to accompany each of the two attacking battalions. The 2/2nd made progress straight towards Bardia, and 2/3rd struck northwards to the Bardia-Tobruk road. The 2/8th Australian
Battalion (19th Brigade) protected the right flank of 2/2nd Battalion. Artillery support was mainly by observed fire; the enemy’s resistance was weak, and the attack made rapid progress. Thousands of prisoners were taken, and so surprised was the enemy by the speed that he failed to destroy the water supply plant or the limited harbour facilities. By the end of the day the only Italians still holding out were those in the extreme north and south.
Next morning the 2/11th Battalion, 19th Australian Infantry Brigade, supported by artillery and six tanks, attacked the remaining pocket of resistance. The tanks penetrated the gun area and fire gradually slackened. The 17th Australian Infantry Brigade was then able to move forward, and by 1 p.m. the enemy had given in. Meanwhile in the north Italians were surrendering wholesale to the Support Group.
In the three days’ fighting the 6th Australian Division had 456 casualties. The ‘I’ tanks had again been invaluable, though they were by no means invulnerable. Many were stopped by mines, and others had their turrets jammed by direct hits from shells. Only six were still in action on the third day. The Italians lost over 40,000 officers and men, killed and captured; more than 400 guns; 13 medium and 117 light tanks—many of them serviceable; several hundred motor vehicles, and many documents of immediate value. The Corps Commander, General Bergonzoli, had escaped.
In just under a month, eight Italian divisions had been completely destroyed. It would be surprising if there had been no recriminations after a disaster of this magnitude, and, in fact, the Commander of the 10th Army, General Berti, was replaced on December 23rd by Graziani’s Chief of Staff, General Tellera, so that the 10th Army had three different commanders during the battle.
No time was wasted in complying with the decision of the Commanders-in-Chief that after the capture of Bardia the advance should be continued to Tobruk. On the morning of January 5th, before all resistance at Bardia had ceased, 7th Armoured Brigade was on the move westwards to El Adem, and next day was operating to cut off Tobruk. The 19th Australian Brigade Group left Bardia on the evening of the 6th and during the next morning gained touch with the eastern sector of the Tobruk defences. The 16th Brigade came up on its left; 4th Armoured Brigade extended the investing line to the west, with the Support Group blocking the western exits and 7th Armoured Brigade operating farther west still.
These movements were almost unopposed. The offensive by air and the advance by land had seriously injured and disorganized the Italian Air Force. Many aircraft had been destroyed, the principal
airfield and repair depot in Cyrenaica—El Adem—had been captured, and the Italians were having great difficulty in maintaining the aircraft that were left. According to Marshal Graziani, the 5th Squadra had on 5th January 119 aircraft available, half of which were fighters.5 But as soon as Tobruk was invested the Italians abandoned Derna airfield, and their fighters were obliged to work from Maraua, 170 miles away instead of 90, and were consequently unable to respond to the many calls for air support from Tobruk. Meanwhile the headquarters of No. 202 Group had advanced to Sollum, bomber and fighter squadrons were in the area Bardia-Sollum, and the Army Co-operation Squadrons were at Gambut; so that all were well placed to continue the offensive.
Against this had to be set the demands of the Greek campaign, described in Chapter 18, the effect of which upon the Air Force in the Western Desert was now to deprive them of one Blenheim squadron and one Gladiator squadron, while Alexandria had to part with its one Hurricane squadron. In the face of the weakened Italian Air Force these withdrawals were unwelcome but not disastrous; they were very disturbing, however, now that the Luftwaffe was known to be establishing itself in Sicily and might be expected to come to the help of the Italians in Libya before long.
By now the Italian strength at Tobruk was known with some accuracy. The garrison was commanded by General Pitassi Mannella, commander of the 22nd Corps, and consisted of 61st Sirte Division, a number of medium and light tanks, two battalions, and some frontier guards; about 25,000 men in all, and more, than 200 guns. There were no other forces nearer than Derna, where 60th Sabratha Division had arrived from Tripoli, and an armoured brigade of unknown quality was near Mechili. Graziani seems to have expected no more of Tobruk than that it should gain time for resistance to be organized on a front between Derna and Mechili, and for further forces, principally artillery, to arrive from Tripoli. The Ariete Armoured Division and the Trento Motorized Division were being prepared for despatch from Italy, but could not possibly arrive in time to be of any use.
The 7th Armoured and 6th Australian Divisions outside Tobruk were out of reach of their Field Supply Depots at Capuzzo and Sollum; a new depot was therefore formed for each division (Nos. 10 and 11) about 35 miles east of Tobruk. The problem this time was to supply their daily needs; build up the requirements for the attack; and create enough reserves to tide over the time that would be required before the port of Tobruk was in working order. This meant another period of intense road convoy work in which captured lorries played an important part, but even so it was a very difficult
period for the transport and there was one local crisis after another. One day it was aviation petrol; on another, rations. The worst troubles were due to the sandstorms, which upset all calculations; one convoy carrying five days’ supplies for 7th Armoured Division was lost in a storm for four days. Water was a problem, as usual, and at first had to be carried from Capuzzo to fill cisterns at Gambut: once again the allowance was down to half a gallon a day.
The leap-frogging of Field Supply Depots in such a way that a division should always have one of them within reach had been on the whole very successful, but it was beginning to fail in respect of many items which the fighting troops could do without for a few days, though a flow of them was necessary if fighting efficiency was to be kept up. It will be seen later that the Field Supply Depot was to grow into the much more elaborate Field Maintenance Centre, which was practically a small advanced base containing rations, petrol, water and ammunition, as well as ordnance, engineer, and medical stores, and containing also a transit camp, army post office, and a prisoners’ cage. But this was yet some way off; present condi-tions were distinctly hand to mouth.
The basic difficulty at such a time is to relate bulk despatches—in this case by sea from Alexandria—to the ever changing circumstances of the tactical situation. Until a reserve can be created from which detailed issues can be made (corresponding to a retail organization in civil life) it is impossible to meet a sudden demand; a shipload of ammunition is no answer to an urgent need for petrol or rations; that particular ship was so loaded in response to a forecast made several days before, and every ship is not suitable for every kind of cargo. Even when mixed cargoes arrive, the consumer will want certain items to be offloaded urgently, regardless of the effect on the general turn-round of the shipping. At Sollum the army’s share of the working of the port was run by an advanced detachment of General Wilson’s headquarters, largely with the object of taking some of the load off General O’Connor and his 13th Corps (as Western Desert Force was called after 1st January). Experience showed, however, that in the rapidly changing situation it was a handicap to 13th Corps not to control the working of the sea-head. It was accordingly agreed that when Tobruk was captured 13th Corps would be responsible for the working of the port, at any rate until sufficient stocks had been landed to make them independent of the arrival of bulk cargoes. The whole relationship between the three headquarters was reviewed, and General Wavell decided to relieve General Wilson of responsibility for 13th Corps, which then came directly under his own head-quarters.
The port of Bardia added almost nothing to the capacity of the L. of C., and it was mainly used for sending small cargoes to Greece.
Sollum remained for practical purposes the only sea-head, and great efforts were made to increase its capacity. By the middle of January it was able to handle 350 tons a day and by the end over 500; in addition it was shipping prisoners away at the rate of 3,000 a day, and evacuating casualties. Even so, it was necessary to run some road convoys all the way from Matruh; only in this way were 120,000 gallons of petrol on one occasion, and 16,000 rations on another, obtained to meet an emergency.
On 5th January the ships employed off the North African coast, which since 15th December had been operating under Captain H. M. L. Waller, R.A.N., were formed into the Inshore Squadron under the command of Captain H. Hickling. They were the monitor Terror; gunboats Aphis, Gnat, and Ladybird; three minesweepers; four anti-submarine trawlers; various schooners and small motor-vessels captured and commissioned under the White Ensign; and numerous lighters and store-ships, British and Egyptian. Captain Hickling had a mobile headquarters ashore and acted as chief naval liaison officer with the Army and Air Force in the field.
Tobruk had many military features in common with Bardia. There was the same hard flat desert floor sloping down to the coast in a series of steps, with the ground near the coast deeply indented by ravines. The defences formed a rough semi-circle eight or nine miles distant from the town and harbour, giving a perimeter of over thirty miles. They consisted of a double ring of concreted posts behind a barbed wire fence, all with excellent fields of fire; an anti-tank ditch, not everywhere complete, ran the length of the front. Numerous booby-traps, worked by trip-wires, were to cause many casualties. Nearer the town, and especially around the junction of the Bardia and El Adem roads and for some distance towards Forts Pilastrino and Solaro, were other localities forming the inner defences.
As compared with Bardia, Tobruk had half the number of men to defend twice the length of front, so it was hoped that its capture would not be difficult. It was important to waste no time since the port was badly needed as a sea-head. But in order to capture the harbour and other installations intact it was necessary that the attack, once launched, should go through with the utmost speed. This in its turn meant bringing forward 1,000 tons of artillery ammunition, almost all of which came by sea to Sollum.
There was unfortunately no alternative to a deliberate attack, for the Armoured Division, though first on the scene, was not capable of forcing its way through prepared defences. To launch it against them prematurely would have had a negligible chance of success but would certainly have blunted it effectively as a weapon of pursuit. The dwindling strength of 7th Armoured Division—now down to 69 cruisers and 126 light tanks—was already a cause of anxiety. Two
regiments (8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and 6th Royal Tank Regiment) were therefore withdrawn, and their tanks used to make up the remaining four regiments. Thus reconstituted, the division prepared to advance to Derna and Mechili as soon as Tobruk should fall. A second armoured division (the 2nd) had just arrived in Egypt from England; it, too, consisted of four regiments only. Its two cruiser regiments were moved up to Cyrenaica early in February though they were not in a satisfactory mechanical state.
The conduct of the attack was entrusted to General Mackay, and the plan was again based on the need for helping the ‘I’ tanks through the anti-tank belt. A portion of the perimeter about three miles east of the El Adem road was chosen as the narrow front on which a battalion of 16th Australian Infantry Brigade was to capture the inner and outer posts before daylight. Through this gap the remainder of the brigade and 7th RTR would pass, turn east and west along the perimeter, and make a thrust towards Tobruk to give depth to the bridgehead. The 17th Brigade and the Support Group were to carry out diversionary operations on the eastern and western faces of the perimeter. An important feature of this plan was the care taken to locate hostile batteries and to neutralize them during the attack.
During the preparatory period the Air Force was seriously hampered by sandstorms; such attacks as could be made were divided between the inner defences of Tobruk and the airfields at Benina and Berka where the Italian bombers were now based. From 3 to 6 a.m. on January 21st Wellingtons of Nos. 37 and 38 Squadrons were over the Tobruk area, bombing and drowning the noise of the assembling tanks and artillery. From midnight to 2 a.m. the Terror, with two gunboats and a minesweeper, bombarded the inner defences, while destroyers stood ready to intercept the cruiser San Giorgio should she try to break out.
At 5.40 a.m. on 21st January the 2/3rd Battalion, strongly supported by the artillery, crossed their start line and advanced to the attack; meanwhile the engineers, who had disarmed the booby traps earlier in the night, cleared the mines and made passages through the wire and over the ditch. Within an hour the 16th Brigade with eighteen ‘I’ tanks had punched a hole a mile wide and a mile deep against resistance which varied from the negligible to the very stubborn. At 8.40 a.m., while the 16th Brigade was still fanning out to east and west, the 19th Brigade took up the advance northwards under a heavy barrage and concentrations on hostile battery positions. Most of the opposition came from the left, at the defended locality at the Bardia-El Adem road junction, and 2/8th Battalion had some stiff opposition from dug-in tanks and machine-guns. Brigadier Robertson decided to go through with his plan and at
2 p.m. his brigade resumed its advance. Once more on the right and in the centre little opposition was met, but again the left battalion ran into trouble. First it met a counter-attack by seven medium tanks accompanied by some infantry covered by a barrage; this was routed by the Australians with the help of two anti-tank guns of 3rd RHA and two ‘I’ tanks. Then there was stubborn resistance from another locality near Pilastrino which was not overcome until 9.30 p.m. Meanwhile, the Solaro area had been captured, and with it the Fortress Commander, General Pitassi Mannella. So ended a successful but very strenuous day. The 2/8th Battalion perhaps had the hardest time of all; marching 20 miles since 4.30 a.m., fighting their way for 5 of them, and losing over 100 killed or wounded. Between dawn and dusk Blenheims of Nos. 55 and 113 Squadrons had made 56 sorties against enemy positions inside the Tobruk defences, while Gladiators of No. 3 Squadron R.A.A.F. and Hurricanes of Nos. 73 and 274 Squadrons had maintained offensive patrols west of Tobruk.
By nightfall nearly half the defended area had been captured, and it was clear that the battle had been won. The rising smoke and sound of explosions told that the Italians had begun their work of destruction. During the night, therefore, General Mackay ordered a general advance next morning. It was followed by an Italian collapse. At dawn Major-General Della Mura, commanding 61st Sirte Division, surrendered with several thousand officers and men to the 2/8th Battalion. Brigadier Robertson, who had followed a small party of 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment into Tobruk, received the surrender of Admiral Vietina and the naval garrison. By 3.45 p.m. the last strong point had surrendered. The captures included 25,000 prisoners (including 2,000 sailors), 208 field and medium guns and 87 tanks, The total casualties in 13th Corps were just over 400, of which 355 were Australians.
Arrangements had been made to take over the installations as rapidly as possible, and it was a great relief to find that the demolitions had been confined chiefly to guns and ammunition. In the harbour the San Giorgio was beached and burning, and there were many other wrecks. A naval fuel plant had been destroyed and the floating crane sunk. The jetties were damaged but usable; the power-station was in working order, with 4,000 tons of coal; there was a complete bulk petrol storage installation; a refrigeration plant and a distillation plant were undamaged; and 10,000 tons of stored water were found. The Inshore Squadron began at once its task of sweeping for mines and on the morning of January 24th the harbour was ready to receive shipping.6
The whole of the desert campaign so far described took place in a comparatively narrow strip, though more than wide enough for the Armoured Division to make full use of its mobility. Farther to the south, beyond the oases of Siwa, Jarabub, and Jalo, lies the inner or Libyan desert (a part of the Sahara twice the size of France) of which the Western Desert is a mere fringe. Except within the oasis depressions, to the floors of which artesian water rises, the Libyan Desert is uninhabited and utterly without life, through lack of any local rain. This was the scene of many of the exploits of the Long Range Desert Group. (See Map 19 and Photo 22).
Through this inner desert ran the eastern frontier of Libya, and within their territory the Italians had established a system of military posts and landing grounds. They had organized special colonial forces for duty in the desert; of these the motorized ‘Auto-Saharan’ companies had the advantage of the permanent co-operation of a few reconnaissance aircraft, but were designed to operate over com-paratively good surfaces—principally between and around the posts. The French had also had special Saharan units, and at the Rabat meeting in May 1939 they had contemplated operations against Italian desert posts in Fezzan.
One series of Italian posts, linked by a well-used track, stretched south through Jalo and Kufra to Uweinat, 600 miles inland, the nearest Italian post to the East African Empire a thousand miles away across the Sudan. When war broke out the garrisons of these posts continued their watch and ward with their sense of security from ground attack undisturbed, thanks to the natural barrier formed by the great Egyptian Sand Sea which lay to the eastward.
The few people who knew by experience that sand seas were not complete obstacles to all forms of motor transport were a handful of Englishmen whose professions had taken them to the Middle East between the wars, and who had made a hobby of desert travel and exploration. Among these were W. B. Kennedy Shaw, P. A. Clayton, and G. L. Prendergast, with Major R. A. Bagnold as prime mover and usual leader. Between 1932 and 1938 they had learned much about motor travel in the inner desert, and some had actually crossed the Egyptian Sand Sea. They had acquired the skill to discern a course amidst the huge sand dunes, and had mastered the art of driving a vehicle up and across them without embedding or overturning it. They had invented ‘unsticking’ devices, such as the sand-channel; they had studied and adapted methods of navigation; and they had gained experience of desert surfaces of all types, from loose sand to fields of basalt.
One thing they knew was that this vast inland flank was unlikely to become the scene of operations by large forces. For one thing, the dune barrier of the sand sea could be crossed at only a few narrow
places, and at these the surface would not stand up to the passage of more than twenty or thirty trucks. Parties would therefore have to be small and, because distances were vast, would have to be self-contained for a long time. They would need to have great confidence in their own powers, especially of finding their position astronomically, for the chance of being lost in almost lunar surroundings is a great deterrent to moving far away from reliable tracks.
These considerations led to the adoption of the 30-cwt. truck as a basic ‘unit’ of organization, carrying petrol for 1,100 miles, and food and water for three weeks for a crew of two or three, besides weapons and much other equipment. Only Major Bagnold and his few colleagues knew how to organize and train parties to carry out long patrols over the many varied types of desert; how to modify vehicles for their special purpose; what to carry; how to find the way; in short, how to eat, drink, travel, work, and fight in the severe and unusual conditions. It was not every man whose temperament and aptitude qualified him as a recruit for this sort of campaigning. For all these reasons it was judged that long-range patrol work in the desert was essentially a task for small and highly skilled detachments.
In 1939 Major Bagnold foresaw the possibility of turning his experience to good account if Italy should enter the war, by creating patrols which could reconnoitre and harry the enemy in unexpected places. He submitted proposals which appealed greatly to General Wavell’s imagination and love of the unorthodox, but nothing came of them until Italy had entered the war and the French (and their Saharan troops) had dropped out. The formation of a Long Range Patrol Unit was then approved. Bagnold was present by chance and was soon joined by Shaw and Clayton. They felt that no recruits would be more suitable than men from the ‘outback’, like some of the Queenslanders in Palestine, but the Australian Government was opposed to its men serving outside Australian formations and General Blamey felt unable to agree. Three patrols, each of two officers and about thirty men, were chosen from the New Zealanders in Egypt and after six arduous weeks of training the small unit was inspected by General Wavell and declared fit for operations. Captain Clayton had already taken a small party on one valuable reconnaissance; he had discovered a second sand sea (the ‘Libyan’) to the east of the Jalo-Kufra track; and had found a way across it.
During September the new unit went out on its first long patrol. The crossings of the sand sea were further explored; several Italian landing grounds between Jalo and Kufra were visited and damaged; the exits from Kufra and Uweinat were reconnoitred, and some prisoners and transport were taken. Contact was also made with the French post at Tekro. Meanwhile quantities of petrol, food and water were dumped at points beyond the Libyan frontier for future
use, and with the help of the Air Force a number of sites for landing grounds were chosen.
By now it was apparent that the Italian policy was purely defensive; there were no signs of any intention to raid the Nile valley, and there had not even been any activity in conjunction with Graziani’s advance to Sidi Barrani. The initiative seemed to be left to the British, and in October the Patrol set out again, this time with more aggressive intentions. The road between Aujila and Agedabia was mined in half a dozen places; Aujila fort was attacked, and made no resistance; the Italian post at Ain Zuwaia was reconnoitred and a Savoia bomber found on the landing ground was destroyed; the track between Uweinat and Arkenu was mined; and a large dump of bombs and explosives was blown up. A landing ground was made at Big Cairn, and was used by a Valentia of No. 216 Bomber Transport Squadron fitted with long-range tanks, which co-operated with this patrol, carrying stores and first-aid equipment. Several other landing grounds were made ready for future use. The Patrol’s own tracks were studied from the air and many lessons in concealment learned; valuable because Italian aircraft were their worst enemies, and were already to be seen and heard from time to time.
These successes confirmed General Wavell’s opinion that the Patrol was making an important addition to the anxieties and difficulties of the enemy, and the War Office agreed with his proposal that the unit should be doubled and become the Long Range Desert Group. The right men were hard to find, however, because they were of the type which units could least well spare, and Major-General Freyberg was indeed asking for the return of his New Zealanders. A new patrol was formed from officers and men of the 3rd Coldstream Guards and 2nd Scots Guards, and in November this patrol and the New Zealanders were out in the southern and northern areas respectively. They explored the dunes between Jalo and Jarabub, and made new store and fuel dumps. In the Uweinat area they were bombed by aircraft, but attacked the Italian post at Ain Dua and inflicted several casualties.
The next step was to make touch with the Free French in the Chad Territory. It was hoped that they would join in harrying the Italians, and when Major Bagnold visited Fort Lamy in November he found that the prospect appealed to many, especially the junior officers. It was agreed that the French should send a detachment with the British patrols on a raid into Fezzan, and should also assist by transporting a small extra supply of petrol by camel to a meeting place north of the Tibesti Mountains. This plan was attractive to the British because its success would reduce the likelihood of Italian or tribal raids on the Takoradi air reinforcement route, especially in Nigeria. It was also arranged that the (British) West African
Command should send further supplies of petrol to Chad from Nigeria, if need be. Shortly afterwards Colonel Leclerc assumed military command of Chad and at once began to make preparations for the capture of Kufra by his own troops, but he asked that the British patrols, on their return from the forthcoming Fezzan operation, should join him.
Towards the end of December, while the Western Desert Force was preparing to attack Bardia, a New Zealand Patrol and the Guards Patrol left Cairo for the first Fezzan operation. With them went Sheikh Abd el Galil Seif en Nasr, a veteran of the long Arab struggle against Italian conquest, partly to act as guide and partly to remind the Italians that the Senussi had not forgotten them. A week later, having travelled 1,300 miles, the Patrols were joined, to the north of Kayugi, by the small French detachment under Lieut.-Colonel d’Ornano. The combined force then made a detour and attacked Murzuk from the north. The fort was strongly defended, but the raiders set fire to the tower, attacked the airfield—whose guards surrendered—seized the arms, wrecked the wireless, burned three aircraft, and destroyed the hangar. Five casualties were suffered, among them Lieut.-Colonel d’Ornano, whose death was a sad loss. A few Italian prisoners were carried off. The party then raided Traghen police fort, removed the arms, and destroyed the ammunition. Two other forts, which were now thoroughly alert, were fired into. Soon after this, the Italians decided to withdraw their garrison from Uweinat.
The British patrols returned by way of the French base at Faya, and were joined by a new French detachment: the whole then came under command of Colonel Leclerc for the operation against Kufra. Four days later the British force, while reconnoitring ahead of the French, was attacked from the air and by troops of an Italian Auto-Saharan Company. Captain Clayton was wounded and taken prisoner, and several men and trucks were lost. Colonel Leclerc then decided that he could not take Kufra on this occasion and released the British patrols, which reached Cairo in early February 1941, having covered 4,300 miles since they left it 45 days before. By this time Cyrenaica was almost clear of the enemy, and it was decided that for its future activities the Long Range Desert Group would need a base much farther west than Cairo. The spirited capture of Kufra on March 1st, by a French force no more numerous than the garrison, provided the new base, to which the Headquarters and three Patrols of the now enlarged Group moved in April, in readiness for further operations.
Further operations of 13th Corps, No. 202 Group, and the Inshore Squadron, which resulted in the Italians being driven out of Cyrenaica, are described in Chapter 19, where the story is resumed at the point reached in the present chapter, namely, the capture of Tobruk. It must be remembered that the three Commanders-in-Chief had a great deal to think about apart from the Western Desert, and their conduct of the war cannot be fully understood without considering the changing situation as a whole. For this reason it is necessary now to see how the maritime war was progressing, and how it came about that, almost simultaneously with the capture of Tobruk, the en-couraging naval and air situation in the Mediterranean took a violent turn for the worse. This was not the only anxiety, however, for in the middle of January there were discussions with the Greek Government to ascertain what help the Greeks would like to receive from the British. The Italian defeat in the Western Desert, the progress of the war on the Albanian front, and the prospect of German intervention in Greece formed the main background for these talks, which are described in Chapter 18. The result might well have been to put an end to the operations in Cyrenaica; but, as it turned out, the Greeks declined the offer of land forces, whereupon the British Government laid down that the capture of Benghazi was of the greatest importance. This intimation was received on the day of the assault on Tobruk. It necessitated no change in General O’Connor’s immediate plans, for he had already ordered the 7th Armoured Division and one Australian brigade group to be ready to resume the advance westwards, and this was the most that could be done until the supply situation improved.