Chapter 19: Graziani is Swept out of Cyrenaica (January–February 1941)
See Map 17
ON JANUARY 21st, the day of the assault on Tobruk, the Chiefs of Staff informed the Commanders-in-Chief that the capture of Benghazi was now of the greatest importance. General O’Connor had already arranged for 7th Armoured Brigade to press on towards Derna, and for 4th Armoured Brigade to begin its 100-mile move to Mechili. By the next evening the former was in contact with the enemy 20 miles from Derna, while the latter had patrols astride the tracks leading west, south, and south-east from Mechili.
The advanced troops were now approaching a type of country quite unlike any of the previous battlefields of the desert war. The change from the familiar desert takes place roughly along a line between the Gulf of Bomba, which is midway between Tobruk and Derna, and Soluch, which is just south of Benghazi. To the north of this line the bulge of Cyrenaica rises to over 2,500 feet above sea level to form the Jebel Akhdar, or Green Mountains. Together with its foothills this range forms a district of fairly fertile soil, with a temperate climate and a rainfall sufficient for the needs of cultivation. It had become an important centre of Italian colonization. In Benghazi, with its 65,000 inhabitants, one third were Italians; and large numbers of Italian families had been planted in the smaller towns and villages. In contrast to the desert it was a settled district with an administrative and social existence.
The communications within the Jebel area were moderately good. The port of Benghazi was linked by rail through Benina northwards to Barce, and southwards to Soluch. The main coastal road which linked Tripoli with Cyrenaica turned inland just north of Benghazi and was duplicated for most of the way along the Jebel, regaining the coast at Derna. Secondary roads were few and of poor quality, and the winter rains were apt to turn the heavy red soil into thick mud. On the airfields in the region, such as farce, Benina, and Berka (Benghazi), this meant that vehicles were apt to be bogged
and aircraft unable to take off—a serious disadvantage which did not apply in the Derna region or farther east, where the airfields had hard desert surfaces.
Fifty miles inland from Derna is Mechili, where tracks from all directions converge. One of these runs due west to Benghazi, right across the grain of the southern foothills of the Jebel. In fact, an arc stretching from Derna to Mechili and round to Soluch embraces broken and difficult country all the way, and higher up the slopes of the Jebel the ground becomes more rugged still, with steep rocky outcrops, presenting severe, and often complete, obstacles to wheeled or tracked vehicles. The Jebel area thus lends itself to defence against an advance from the east or south.
In the desert which lies to the south of the line Mechili—Soluch ran various caravan tracks, ill-defined, mostly waterless, and affording every variety of ‘going’ from vile to good. Together they formed a tenuous connexion between the Tobruk—Bomba coast and the Gulf of Sidra. From Tobruk to Agedabia is 250 miles by air, and a great deal more by the desert tracks. The Italians were content to leave to nature the task of opposing any move by these routes, and themselves prepared to impose as much delay as possible in the Jebel area.
The information at 13th Corps headquarters was that Derna and Mechili were probably being held as advanced localities, the 60th Sabratha Division being at Derna, less one regiment which was at Mechili together with General Babini’s armoured brigade. The composition of this brigade, which had so far been kept in reserve, was not accurately known; still less was known about its efficiency. It was certain, however, that it contained medium tanks—probably two battalions—and was clearly to be reckoned with. Of the dispositions farther back in the Jebel the information was rather vague, but it seemed that Headquarters, 10th Army, was at Cyrene and 20th Corps at Giovanni Berta, and there were thought to be units of the 17th Pavia and 27th Brescia Divisions around Cyrene and Slonta. The enemy’s response to patrol activity showed that he intended to fight; he seemed to be plentifully supplied with mines; and the inference was that he would make full use of the natural delaying power of this piece of country.
The Italian Air Force had now been forced back to its last group of airfields in Cyrenaica and was finding the greatest difficulty in maintaining its remaining aircraft. The numbers serviceable on January 20th were about 46 bombers and 34 fighters; of the ground attack aircraft only a handful remained. The Royal Air Force, too, were feeling the effects of nearly two months’ hard fighting in desert conditions, and they had the additional complication of establishing new airstrips in step with the advance of the Army. To make the
squadrons properly mobile much more motor transport would have been required—a need that could not be met by transport aircraft, of which by this time there were very few. It was indeed, fortunate that the Italians had abandoned large quantities of aviation petrol and bombs which the Air Force were able to use.
After the fall of Tobruk Nos. 73 and 274 Fighter Squadrons moved to Gazala and the Army Co-operation Squadrons to Tmimi. Air Commodore Collishaw opened his own headquarters at Tobruk, and from January 25th, with the agreement of the Army, directed his whole bomber effort against the tottering Italian Air Force. The airfields at Apollonia, Barce, Maraua, Soluch and El Magrun were attacked with increasing intensity, with results which contributed greatly to the collapse of the enemy’s air effort.
On January 24th the 19th Australian Brigade Group took over from the 7th Armoured Brigade south of Derna and began to work forward across very difficult ground to probe the enemy’s defences. The same day a large force of the enemy, including about fifty medium tanks, was encountered by 4th Armoured Brigade to the north of Mechili. A tank v. tank fight ensued, in which the enemy lost eight medium tanks destroyed and one captured; the British losses were one cruiser and six light tanks.
It seemed to General O’Connor that, although the enemy’s forces at Mechili appeared to be strong in tanks and artillery, there was a weakness in the general dispositions owing to the distance between Mechili and Derna. This offered a chance of inflicting a defeat in detail and, of the two forces, he decided to destroy or capture General Babini’s first. He accordingly gave orders for the 6th Australian Division to apply pressure on the Derna front and to send one brigade to join the 7th Armoured Division which, strongly reinforced by artillery, would carry out the Mechili operation. He gave explicit orders that the Armoured Division was on no account to allow the enemy to escape from the Mechili area.
To General O’Connor’s great disappointment, General Babini succeeded in withdrawing his force northwards during the night of January 26th. It was attacked on the way to Slonta by fighter aircraft next day, and pursued fruitlessly by 4th Armoured Brigade until the 28th. The bad going, heavy rain, numerous mechanical breakdowns, and shortage of petrol then combined to bring the pursuit to a stop.
Although the Italians had succeeded in keeping their armoured brigade intact, they were disappointed with the result of the encounter of the 24th at Mechili, and Marshal Graziani was disturbed by a report by Babini on the weakness of his tanks and on the greatly superior numbers of the British, which made it necessary to withdraw. (The dummy tank regiment may have contributed to this
impression.) The truth is that the Italians had in all about 100 medium and 200 light tanks, of which perhaps rather more than half were serviceable, while the British had reached the stage where many of their vehicles were on their last legs, and on January 27th only 50 of the cruisers were able to run.
As if the situation in Cyrenaica were not bad enough, Graziani now began to receive disquieting news from Rome of sinister stirrings in Algeria and of a possible British intention to attempt a landing in French North Africa. Mussolini himself sent him a warning against French dissidents. The presence of Weygand, although he was not a follower of de Gaulle, was regarded with great misgivings. Added to this was the unwelcome news of the exploits of the Long Range Desert Group and the French Patrols, which had lost nothing in the telling. The fact that they had been accompanied to Murzuk by the old Senussi Chief and bitter opponent of the Italians, Abd el Galil Seif en Nasr, suggested that more trouble might be brewing in the inner desert.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Graziani must have realized that a withdrawal from Cyrenaica was almost inevitable, though as Governor-General of Libya he must have found the prospect very unwelcome. When it seemed clear to him that the British would not be content with securing the use of Tobruk, but meant to conquer the whole of Cyrenaica, he decided that delaying action in the Jebel would only result in the loss of the remaining elements of 10th Army and that the right course was to save what he could from the wreck as quickly as possible. On February 1st he reported to the Duce that he intended to withdraw the remains of 10th Army to the vicinity of Sirte, where General Gariboldi, commanding in Tripoli, had been instructed to organize the defences. The next day he ordered General Tellera to take over command of all forces in eastern Libya from 3rd February, with the task of withdrawing from Cyrenaica and reassembling in Sirtica. Graziani himself left Benghazi early on February 3rd by road.
Meanwhile General O’Connor was considering what to do after the mishap which left at large the strong force of Italian tanks that he had hoped to isolate and destroy. The enemy’s withdrawal from Mechili was followed on January 29th by the evacuation of Derna, with the result that the Italian forces were now more concentrated than before. The detachments high up on the Jebel to the northwest of Mechili showed every sign of resisting strongly. There was a report, later shown to have been wrong, that German troops—probably anti-aircraft units—had arrived at Benghazi. If this were true it was unlikely that the Italians would give up their, positions in the Jebel without a fight and they probably intended to resist at, and to the east of, Benghazi. Therefore an advance towards Benghazi
by the direct track from Mechili would be likely to meet opposition in country which was correctly judged to be unfavourable for tanks; and it would not turn the flank of the enemy’s probable position.
An advance south-west across the desert to Msus, on the other hand, was far less likely to be expected and would open up attractive possibilities. General O’Connor therefore proposed that the Australian Division (less one brigade) should continue to exert pressure in the coastal region and that 7th Armoured Division and one infantry brigade should advance to Msus. If the enemy stood at Benghazi, this force would continue its move westwards to Soluch, cut the road to Tripoli, and attack Benghazi from the south. If, however, the enemy had begun to withdraw, the British force would move farther south through Antelat and strike at the line of retreat from that direction. This outline plan was submitted on January 31st and was approved by General Wavell next day.
The timing depended upon two main factors. The first was the maintenance situation which was difficult, but improving. Since January 27th the forward troops had been drawing from Nos. 12 and 13 Field Supply Depots, both about 60 miles west, of Tobruk. Water had become less of a problem, at least in the coastal zone, thanks to the resources of Tobruk and of a few places to the west of it. There were serious shortages of petrol from time to time, and maintenance generally continued to be an anxiety for some days. Tobruk harbour was swiftly cleared by the Royal Navy and the unloading of the first ship began on January 28th—several days earlier than was expected. By February 1st the port was handling 900 tons of cargo a clay, which greatly eased the strain on the transport which had hitherto been lifting nearly everything from Sollum. The new plan for advancing across the desert made it absolutely essential to have sufficient reserve stocks well forward at the outset; another Field Supply Depot (No. 14) was therefore formed 25 miles south-west of Mechili, into which ten days’ stock of food and petrol and two refills of ammunition were to be put—nearly 3,000 tons in all—with special arrangements for water. To do this over and above the daily routine running was estimated to require twelve days. The only way of reducing this time was to use the port of Derna, which was much nearer than Tobruk, but it was so poorly equipped as to be useless except for cased petrol.
The second limiting factor was the state of the vehicles of 7th Armoured Division, most of whose fifty remaining cruiser tanks were due for a major overhaul. While General O’Connor was prepared to employ the Armoured Division as long as it had a tank that could run, it seemed to him necessary to await the two fresh cruiser regiments of 2nd Armoured Division, which were expected to join him between February 7th and 9th. In the meantime he decided to make
up 4th Armoured Brigade with all the best cruiser and light tanks at the expense of 7th Armoured Brigade.
Taking everything into account it was hoped to begin the new advance between February 10th and 12th. On January 30th, in reply to an urgent enquiry by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Wavell said that, as a rough forecast, he expected to capture Benghazi by the end of February.
On 31st January the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade gained touch with the enemy six miles west of Derna; fifteen miles or so inland was the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade. Farther to the left, opposite Chaulan, patrols of the 11th Hussars were also in contact. On 1st February, there were reports from the air of westward movement between Giovanni Berta and Barce, but it was not clear whether this indicated a retirement from the coastal sector or the start of a general withdrawal. By the afternoon of February 2nd reports from air and ground led General O’Connor to think that a withdrawal might be in progress on a much larger scale than the events of the last few days had suggested. Clearly no time was to be lost, and in this new situation three questions in particular required immediate answers: Could he afford to wait for the two fresh cruiser regiments? Could the 7th Armoured Division be launched in its mechanically doubtful condition across 150 miles of unreconnoitred desert? If so, could it be maintained?
General O’Connor’s mind was soon made up. He would not await the armoured reinforcements, and 7th Armoured Division must move until it could move no longer. As for maintenance, the first convoys loaded at Tobruk were beginning to arrive at Mechili, and by February 4th it would be just possible for 7th Armoured Division to set out with its supply vehicles full; it could be followed by a convoy containing two days’ supplies, water, petrol, food and two refills of ammunition. No other convoy would be able to reach Msus before these amounts were exhausted.
These were the plain facts; and whatever the tactical fortunes of the advance might be, the risks of such a close-run administrative situation were clear enough. General O’Connor accepted them, and as it turned out the Armoured Division was kept supplied—but only just—until it had achieved its object.
The warning order to 7th Armoured Division was issued that evening and was followed next morning by an instruction to start the move to Msus at first light on February 4th, with a view to making a further advance to Soluch and Ghemines as soon as the administrative arrangements permitted. The stated objects were to prevent any Italian forces south of Soluch and Ghemines from
joining those around Benghazi, and equally to prevent these from withdrawing southwards. The 6th Australian Division was to press on with all speed; this they certainly did, and before nightfall had entered Cyrene.
Air reports during the 3rd provided definite evidence of a general withdrawal from Cyrenaica. Columns of transport were seen moving westward in the Jebel area, and were constantly attacked by the Blenheims. Sixty tanks were seen, and bombed, on rail at Barce. Retreating columns were moving south from Benghazi, and the inactivity of the Italians in the air indicated that their Air Force was quitting its southern airfields. To supplement the Blenheims a detachment of six Wellingtons of No. 70 Squadron reached El Adem from the Canal, and Tripoli harbour and the airfield at Castel Benito were attacked by Wellingtons from Malta.
As opposition in the air gradually diminished, the fighter squadrons were able to devote more and more of their efforts to harassing the retreating enemy. Marshal Graziani refers to the grievous losses caused by these attacks, and to the severe strain on morale already sorely tried by the vicissitudes and fatigues of the past few days.1 But on February 3rd the shortage of Merlin engines put a stop to this activity. (There were no spare Merlin engines in Egypt nor any spare parts; 32 engines awaited overhaul in the depots.) Air Commodore Collishaw had certainly used his force to the limit; he could now look forward to the prospects of being able to reach Tripoli with his bombers, and of the Nile Delta being out of range of any Italian aircraft in North Africa. For the immediate task of supporting the advance to Msus he ordered forward a flight of Lysanders and Hurricanes from No. 208 Army Co-operation Squadron to Mechili to co-operate with 7th Armoured Division.
General Wavell flew up to Tmimi on February 4th and gave his approval to General O’Connor’s plan. At first light that morning the 11th Hussars2had left Mechili to lead the advance over ground which had purposely not been visited, lest the intention should be disclosed. Low-flying aircraft had reported to General O’Connor that the ‘going’ looked possible, though very difficult. It proved, over the first fifty miles, to be the worst of any yet encountered in the desert. Rocks and steep wadis caused much delay, especially to the light tanks. By 3 p.m. the armoured cars had covered the ninety-four miles to Msus, from which a small Italian garrison fled on their approach. Some of the armoured cars then drove on a further 30 miles towards Antelat. The night was moonlit, and by daybreak on the 5th the whole division was just east of Msus.
General Creagh had been told that the enemy were in full retreat, attempting to escape. The Air Force would do all they could to harass and delay them, and General O’Connor made it very clear that General Creagh was to press forward with the utmost vigour in order to head the enemy off. Accordingly he decided in the first place to form a small column on wheels only, to push ahead of the slower tracked units and cut the Benghazi–Agedabia road as quickly as possible. Secondly, acting on information from the air, he decided to move his main body south-west from Msus instead of west towards Soluch. To this decision General O’Connor afterwards gave the credit for the completeness of the ultimate success.
Next morning, February 5th, the force on wheels (a squadron each of 11th Hussars and 1st KDG, C Battery RHA, some antitank guns of 106th Regiment RHA, and the 2nd Rifle Brigade) reached Antelat and came under command of Lieut.-Colonel J. F. B. Combe, 11th Hussars.3 By about 12.30 p.m. patrols of 11th Hussars were observing the main road between points west of Beda Fomm and Sidi Saleh. The remainder of the force soon followed and even as it was arriving an Italian column came in sight and was engaged by C Battery RHA, the leading anti-tank guns of 106th RHA and B Squadron KDG. It was thrown into confusion and many prisoners were taken. In the afternoon the Rifle Brigade, commanded by Lieut.-Colonel J. M. L. Renton, established themselves astride the main road against some opposition. During the rest of the day the Italian columns kept piling up, without making any co-ordinated attacks, which suggests that the enemy had no idea how small was the force which barred the way. But small as it was it repelled all attempts to break through, destroyed many vehicles, and continued to take prisoners.
The 4th Armoured Brigade had succeeded in reaching Antelat by 4.30 p.m. and heard from the air and from Combe’s Force the news that the enemy were piling up along the road. Colonel Combe advised that there was good tank going close to Beda Fomm, and the brigade, moving off at once past that place, began to attack the enemy column on the main road at two points three miles apart, to destroy its cohesion. The first attack caught the enemy halted, as a result of the way being barred to the south by Combe’s Force. By dusk, when the action was broken off, many more vehicles had been destroyed and about 1,000 more prisoners taken. But it was evident from the continual movement of guns and lorries that the strength of the enemy was building up in this area, and large numbers of vehicles were reported from the air to be moving south of Ghemines, on the main road.
The coastal plain which stretches from Benghazi towards Agedabia
is bounded on the east by an escarpment. North of Sceleidima this is an almost complete obstacle to vehicles but to the south it becomes progressively less steep until, in the neighbourhood of Antelat, it is no obstacle at all. The 7th Armoured Brigade, now reduced to only one regiment of tanks, and the Support Group (less the Rifle Brigade) had been directed westward from Msus with the initial object of capturing Sceleidima. Contact had been made with Sceleidima fort when General Creagh received the information that large columns were already south of Ghemines. He thereupon ordered the 7th Armoured Brigade to move with all speed to Antelat, leaving the tasks in the northern area to be carried out by the Support Group. Early on February 6th the fort at Sceleidima was attacked, and in three hours the garrison was driven out. The Support Group then went on to occupy Soluch and sent out patrols towards Ghemines and Benghazi, preparatory to chasing the enemy southwards along the coast road next morning.
Meanwhile in the Jebel Akhdar area the 6th Australian Division was pressing on as hard as it could. The 17th Brigade, with its own few vehicles, contrived to leap-frog its leading battalion as far as Slonta, where it was passed by 19th Brigade mounted on transport collected from the rest of the division and running entirely on captured petrol. Hampered by mines and road blocks this brigade reached Barce on February 5th, and next day, in spite of heavily mined roads and rain which turned the ground into a morass of red mud, pressed on to Benghazi and reached it before nightfall.
The scene of the decisive actions of February 6th was the country bordering a 14-mile stretch of main road between Beda Fomm and the sea. It was sandy but firm, and generally flat with small hummocks and a number of long low ridges running north and south which provided some cover for the armoured vehicles of both sides without being obstacles to their movement. A low round hillock, the ‘Pimple’, which was crossed by the main road to the west of Beda Fomm, gave observation up and down the road, and was the scene of much fighting. West of the main road the flat sandy tract stretched for two miles before merging into the coastal sand dunes. Thus it was by no means an ideal battlefield for a delaying action by a small force if the enemy were suitably disposed for dealing with opposition.
Throughout the morning of February 6th the Italians tried to force their way down the main road. The object of 4th Armoured Brigade was to prevent this, and to attack and destroy the enemy wherever encountered. The vital task of Colonel Combe’s force was to continue to block the road to the south. The 2nd Royal Tank Regiment started the day in possession of the ‘Pimple’ area, and in general their role was to stop the head of the enemy’s column and attack it from the east. Their fit tanks numbered nineteen cruisers and seven light.
Farther north the 7th Hussars (with one cruiser and twenty-nine light tanks) tried repeatedly to locate the enemy’s tail and attack it from both sides of the road. One light tank squadron of the 3rd Hussars was watching the tracks leading north towards Soluch and Sceleidima from Antelat, and only one squadron of six light tanks and one of seven cruisers were available for operating against the enemy from eastward, to the north of 2nd RTR. The fact that the Italians had groups of medium tanks distributed along their columns made it difficult for the British light tanks to approach, but they managed to do a good deal of damage and added to the general confusion.
From 7.30 a.m. onwards 2nd RTR was continually in action against repeated attempts by groups of tanks to break out, all of which were stopped. A number of Italian vehicles left the road and made towards the dunes, but they were engaged and destroyed and 350 prisoners were taken. During the morning the weather deteriorated and the visibility was greatly reduced from time to time by squalls and scudding rain. All this time the enemy columns were coming on, repeatedly attacked by the cruisers while the light tanks snapped at the column and bit it when the escorting medium tanks permitted. Some of these encounters were local, others broadened into a general mêlée. By noon forty of the enemy’s medium tanks had been accounted for, but there still seemed to be fifty or more in action, which was a serious matter because the cruiser strength of 4th Armoured Brigade was now reduced to fifteen.
In the afternoon the Italians showed no signs of giving up the contest and brought fresh troops and tanks into action against the weary British crews. The only reserve of cruiser tanks in the whole of 7th Armoured Division was eleven in 1st Royal Tank Regiment. Unfortunately the overnight move of this unit from near Msus had been much delayed for want of petrol, but it was ordered forward from Antelat after replenishing and reached the battlefield in the early afternoon. By this time the enemy had succeeded in occupying the Pimple and was threatening to broaden the front by breaking out to the east. His great superiority in numbers of tanks made this situation dangerous, but it was restored, first, by the action of 2nd RTR who, supported by F Battery RHA (the results of whose shooting was plainly to be seen next day), reoccupied the Pimple; secondly, by the arrival of 1st RTR who appeared just in time to head off a number of Italian tanks breaking out eastwards from the road a little farther north. But in the meantime a number of enemy vehicles with at least thirty tanks had succeeded in passing through to the south of the Pimple, and warning was sent to Combe’s Force to expect attack.
While the day-long battle had been swaying about the Pimple, Combe’s Force had resisted a series of attacks. These varied in
strength and cohesion but most of them were supported by artillery and tanks. The Rifle Brigade, admirably supported by C Battery RHA and nine Bofors guns of 106th RHA, repulsed them all, preventing the breakthrough which the enemy might well have achieved at any moment by sheer weight of numbers. As the day wore on, the country became littered with derelict vehicles, under cover of which some groups of Italians exchanged fire with the Rifle Brigade; many others, more demoralized, surrendered. After dark the enemy made his last bid of the day, when some of the tanks which had escaped from the Pimple appeared and tried to find a way through. Four were destroyed by mines and gunfire; four and a number of lorries broke right through; the remainder lost heart and abandoned the attempt.
At daybreak on February 7th the enemy made a final determined attempt to escape, when thirty tanks heading a column of lorries advanced straight down the road. The tanks broke through the forward companies of the Rifle Brigade, and so tense was the moment that the officer commanding C Battery RHA asked for, and received, permission to engage targets in the areas occupied by the infantry. The anti-tank guns, which now numbered eleven, gradually knocked out the advancing tanks, the last one being stopped a stone’s throw from the Officers’ Mess. Meanwhile the forward companies had stood firm, and their fire and that of the guns brought the Italian infantry to a standstill. White flags then began to appear. The Rifle Brigade and the supporting artillery had splendidly accomplished their task.
Farther to the north the 4th Armoured Brigade had hemmed in another large mass of enemy and by about 9 a.m. all resistance ceased. The leading Australian troops were now approaching El Magrun (fifteen miles south of Ghemines and the same distance from the Pimple), with the rest of a whole brigade group about two hours behind. This was the result of a message from General O’Connor to General Mackay asking him to press on against the retreating enemy; the speed with which the 19th Brigade Group was ferried forward would have soon settled the issue if the enemy had not collapsed when he did.
The battlefield was an astonishing scene of wreckage and confusion—fifteen miles of lorries, guns, and tanks in abandoned jumble. Everywhere were herds of prisoners, reckoned at 25,000, amongst them the mortally wounded General Tellera, commander of the 10th Army, his entire staff, and General Bergonzoli, commander of the 23rd Corps, who, having long avoided capture, surrendered at last to the Rifle Brigade. More than 100 medium tanks and well over 100 guns were destroyed or captured. The success of the plan to cut off the 10th Army, as it retreated from. Cyrenaica, could not have been more complete; hardly a man or a vehicle escaped.
Yet there was a great disparity between the forces, and particularly in the armour, for the Italian medium tanks outnumbered the British cruisers by about four to one, and most of them had run only a few hundred miles whereas the British tanks had covered over 1,000 miles in the last two months’ campaigning. It was the speed of the final dash across the desert that came as a surprise to the Italians, although they knew that such a move was possible. Even if their air force failed to keep 7th Armoured Division under observation, the danger of being intercepted on the coast road ought to have been apparent once the British armoured cars had appeared at. Msus, which they did on the early afternoon of February 4th. If on February 5th the retreating Italian columns had been on the alert, in expectation of finding the road barred by a weak British force, and if they had been properly disposed so that their guns and tanks could be used on a co-ordinated plan, instead of piecemeal, the result might have been very different.
As for the British plan, it was fully realized that only the boldest and most vigorous action would be likely to succeed and that it would be very difficult to ensure the timely deliveries of petrol, food and ammunition for anything but a short encounter. There were several anxious moments during the battle on this account, and the margin could not have been narrower.
The campaign which began at Nibeiwa and Sidi Barrani and ended ten weeks later at Beda Fomm was the first in which two modern armies, with comparable air forces, had met and fought over undeveloped country. The result exceeded all expectations. A British force of never more than two divisions—one of them armoured—with a proportion of Corps troops, advanced 500 strenuous miles and totally destroyed an army of ten divisions, for a loss of 500 killed, 1,373 wounded, and 55 missing. The captures were 130,000 prisoners; 180 medium tanks and more than 200 light; and 845 guns of the size of field guns and above.
The 5th Squadra, whose first line strength early in December was about 380 aircraft, also suffered crippling losses. Apart from the wrecks of the many aircraft destroyed by the continual attacks of the Royal Air Force, 91 aircraft were abandoned intact on the enemy’s main airfields. To these losses must be added those aircraft destroyed in combat, shown by the Italian records to have been 58 of all types. In fact, the 5th Squadra was so completely mastered by the Royal Air Force that it made no effective contribution to the campaign. The British had always assumed that reinforcements of aircraft would be sent from Italy if the need should arise, though the opening of a new front in Greece obviously affected the number that could be spared.
During December and January some aircraft did in fact arrive in Libya from Italy, but in the confusion of constant withdrawals the ground organizations were quite unable to deal with the aircraft already in the country, so that the reinforcements achieved very little, and in the final stages the retreating army was left practically without air support.
Many reasons contributed to the Italian failure. In the first place the nation was not ready for a war in 1940 and was only pitch-forked into it by the Duce, who judged that there were valuable prizes to be won without any serious fighting and that the shortcomings of the Italian war machine would therefore not be noticed. For the particular war in which he soon found himself involved there were no comprehensive plans and no clear military objectives, and there was no competent central direction capable of reaching sound strategic conclusions in a new situation. The direction was in the hands of Mussolini, with a Chief of Staff, Marshal Badoglio, who was nominally a co-ordinator but in reality a fifth wheel. (It will be seen that General Cavallero, who succeeded Badoglio, later made some radical changes in the central direction.) The instructions to Marshal Graziani were more the expression of political hopes than the outcome of careful consideration by the Service Chiefs. Thus he was forced against his will to sprawl forward to Sidi Barrani—a move which was obviously unsound unless followed by the capture of Matruh. Having placed him in this position the Duce seems to have been unable to decide whether to order the next step or not. Instead, for reasons which were other than military, he opened up a rival front in Greece, a singularly ill-judged enterprise for which the Italians were even less well prepared than they were for the invasion of Egypt.
Marshal Graziani’s position, then, was not a happy one, and his frigid relations with Marshal Badoglio made it no better. There was much truth in his complaints about the material deficiencies of his forces, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that with better leadership they would have been able to achieve much more than they did. Their own experience of supplying a large force by road over a long distance should have shown the Italians that the surest way of putting a brake on the British advance would be to deny them the port of Sollum. Instead of making every effort to do this they let it go, and locked up most of their resources in the defence of Bardia, whereas, after Sollum, the next place worth denying to the British was Tobruk. When it came to defending Tobruk there were not enough forces left.
Graziani never ceased to protest that he had no means of dealing with the British armour, although this was an exaggeration. It was, of course, true in general that in the desert the army with the
superior mobile troops possessed the means of turning the enemy’s flank, and whereas the British had an organized armoured formation the Italians had not; they habitually used their tanks in penny packets. But the number of British cruisers was persistently overestimated, and was in fact far less than the total of captured Italian medium tanks.4 Moreover, all tanks were vulnerable to artillery fire, as the Italian gunners had shown on more than one occasion, and they were also extremely sensitive to minefields. What was really lacking was a clear appreciation by the higher commanders of the nature of mechanized desert warfare, and the determination to do everything possible with the means available. Perhaps the most generous and not the least accurate view of the attitude of most of the Italian junior leaders and soldiers is that they had no heart for this particular war.
This in no way alters the fact that the British thoroughly deserved their success. They had formed a much more accurate estimate of the type of force required in the desert, and in spite of the threat of invasion of England and of many difficulties and set-backs they persevered in building it up; it was comparatively small, below strength, and short of equipment, but it was nevertheless well suited to the task, imbued with a fine spirit, well trained, and resolutely led. Throughout this campaign its employment was a model of well-judged adjustment of means to suit the end. Deception and surprise—especially by the choice of the unorthodox course—were sure to be essential ingredients of any plan of General Wavell’s, but their use was not confined to the opening phase, where, naturally, there was great scope for it; at Bardia and Tobruk, and on other occasions where an attack was obviously to be expected, the enemy was kept guessing as to the time, the place, and the method.
Reviewing the factors that had contributed to this remarkable victory—the first British success on land over either of the Axis powers—and after giving credit to the unfailing response of officers and men to every call made upon them, General Wavell referred to the good workmanship that had enabled heavy—indeed, almost outrageous—demands to be made also upon. the endurance of British-made vehicles. These had withstood great strains over a long period in appalling conditions, and yet were capable of the final and protracted effort which proved decisive.
When Tobruk had fallen and the capture of the Jebel area was in sight, General Wavell decided to create a Cyrenaica Command, as distinct from the Egypt Command, the fundamental difference being that Cyrenaica was Italian territory, and its occupation involved
setting up an organization to replace the civil administration. On February 4th Lieut.-General Sir H. Maitland Wilson became Military Governor and General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Cyrenaica, and Lieut.-General O’Connor shortly afterwards took over command in Egypt. The 1st Australian Corps (Lieut.-General Sir Thomas Blamey) was ordered to take over from 13th Corps, and the 7th Armoured Division, which had now been in contact with the enemy for nearly eight months without rest, was to be relieved by the 2nd. In conformity with the Chiefs of Staffs’ policy of ‘no serious operation beyond Benghazi’ the attitude in the forward area was to be generally defensive. Should the enemy try to advance he was to be stopped west of El Agheila, at the southernmost point of the Gulf of Sidra, which British troops had occupied on February 8th. The present indications were that there were no enemy troops, except stragglers, any nearer than Sirte. There were four Italian divisions in Tripolitania, most of whose artillery had been sent to Cyrenaica and lost.
The Air Force set up a corresponding Headquarters in Cyrenaica, with No. 3 Squadron R.A.A.F. (rearming with Hurricanes) and No. 73 Squadron, for the defence of Benghazi and Tobruk respectively; No. 6 Army Co-operation Squadron; and No. 55 Bomber Squadron (Blenheim); and the necessary ancillaries. Headquarters, No. 202 Group, and Nos. 45, 113 and 274 Squadrons were withdrawn to Egypt for refit, in readiness to meet further calls for help to Greece.
It has been related how the first lorries loaded at Tobruk only reached Mechili two days before the departure of 7th Armoured Division on its dash to Beda Fomm. Tobruk was gradually replacing Sollum as the sea-head for supplies, though the discharge of ships was hampered by heavy weather, sandstorms, and Italian air attacks. On the night of February 4th the German Air Force joined in by mining the harbour; the next day a petrol ship struck a mine, caught fire, and set alight an ammunition ship. This was a serious turn of events, as the two minesweepers were under repair. Owing to bad weather the force detailed to clear Benghazi harbour could not sail from Tobruk until February 12th, and no sooner had it arrived than the Luftwaffe began to make regular attacks on Benghazi. The Army’s slender resources did not allow of a reasonable anti-aircraft defence to be provided here in addition to Tobruk, and this fact coupled with the shortage of small ships made it impossible for Admiral Cunningham to accept the commitment of building up Benghazi as an advanced base; all that he could undertake was to send an occasional small convoy there, perhaps once a fortnight. The first supply convoy of four ships arrived on the 17th but was so heavily attacked that it could not be unloaded and had to return to Tobruk.
The upshot was that the possession of Benghazi did almost nothing to relieve the Army’s long overland haul from Tobruk, which to the farthest post, El Agheila, was as much as 450 miles by the coastal road.
The German aircraft did not, however, confine themselves to the persistent bombing and mining of Benghazi. They also attacked lorry convoys, airfields, and the troops in the forward area, though not without loss to themselves. As the intervention of the Germans in this theatre was soon to be attended by a violent reversal of fortunes, it is pertinent to see how it came about.
After the chilly report by General von Thoma on his visit to the Italian 10th Army in October, the Führer had lost interest in North Africa.5 The disasters of December caused Mussolini to remind him that Italy was very short of many essential weapons and raw materials and was bearing the brunt of the war against Britain; but Hitler still appeared to treat the matter as if it were no concern of his. On December gist he informed the Duce that he did not believe that a counter-attack on a large scale could be made at present; preparations would take some months, and it would then be the wrong time of year. The best course was to improve all the measures for defence against tanks, and weaken the British sea power by every means other than by offensives on land.
It was not long before Hitler changed his mind, largely as the result of the views of his naval staff, who regarded the latest development in the Mediterranean with grave misgiving. The Italian defeat had removed at a stroke the threat to Egypt and hence to Britain’s entire position in the Eastern Mediterranean, which had now been firmly consolidated. The British would be able to send strong forces from Egypt to Greece—in fact the process had already begun. The naval staff considered that the British had gained a great strategic success; their fleet could not now be driven from the Mediterranean, although this was a step which, in the opinion of Admiral Raeder, was vital to the favourable outcome of the war.
On the heels of this report came von Rintelen’s views from Rome on the causes of the Italian misfortunes. The army in Libya had not been properly equipped, especially in tanks and anti-tank weapons. The Italian soldier, though patriotic, enduring, and brave in attack, had not the temperament to enable him to resist to the last. As for the generals, he considered their ideas to be so out-of-date that they were unable to do even such things as their limited means made possible. The Italians were now asking for forces and weapons, and von Rintelen suggested that if these were sent it would be advisable for the Germans to be given a share in the conduct of operations.
Shortly after the fall of Bardia Hitler decided that it was important for the Axis that an Italian collapse should be prevented, and made up his mind to do everything in his power to avert the loss of North Africa. He realized that the opportunities of sending German aid were limited by the need to use the few available ports for handling Italian supplies and reinforcements. He did not consider it possible for the Italians or the Germans to reopen the offensive against Alexandria with any prospect of success. He could not force German leadership too brusquely upon the Italians; nor did he wish to have to inform them of his operational plans. He had decided, however, to support them with German anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and tank units, which he insisted were on no account to be lost.
On January 11th Hitler issued his instructions—Directive No. 22—on the assistance to be given by German forces in the Mediterranean area. He laid down that this assistance had become necessary ‘for strategic, political and psychological reasons’. Tripolitania must be held, and the German General Staff was therefore to prepare a special blocking detachment (Sperrverband) for early despatch to Tripoli. Fliegerkorps X was to operate from Sicily with the chief task of attacking British naval forces and the sea communications between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean; it was also to be prepared to support Marshal Graziani’s army by attacking British ports and coastal supply bases in Cyrenaica and Egypt.
Meanwhile the Italian General Staff had arranged to send the Ariete Armoured Division and the Trento Motorized Division to Tripoli between January 17th and February 20th. General Guzzoni, the new Deputy Chief of Staff, had given von Rintelen a written statement of the General Staff’s views on January 9th. Briefly, they expected Tobruk to fall, and recognized that this would ease the administrative problem for the British, so that, even if the further advance were slow, it would be difficult to bring it to a halt entirely. But the British supply line was becoming very long, and a pause would be forced upon them either at Tobruk or Benghazi. In any case, the reinforcements being sent to Graziani would enable him to attack the British, whether they halted in Cyrenaica or continued their advance into Tripolitania.
Hitler showed no inclination to discuss his intentions with the Duce. The subject of Libya was scarcely mentioned at the meeting between the dictators at Obersalzberg on January 18th, and the Führer even remarked that he could see no sense in committing German troops to months of inaction in Tripoli. The details of the intended assistance were given by Jodl to Guzzoni: the 5th German Light Motorized Division was being specially constituted and was to be despatched about the middle of February. It was particularly strong in anti-tank units, and its role was foreseen not as a reserve
but as a force to be committed at the point where the British armoured forces were expected to appear or where the final defence was to be organized. The code name for the move was ‘Sonnenblume’ (Sunflower).
On January 29th von Rintelen reported that Guzzoni thought it unlikely that any of the 10th Army would be saved for the defence of Tripolitania and that it would only be possible to hold a fortified camp at Tripoli itself. Von Rintelen was far from satisfied with this defeatist outlook, and was instructed to obtain further information, for if nothing more than a local defence of Tripoli were intended it would be useless to send German troops to Africa at all. It then transpired that Graziani was about to withdraw from Cyrenaica in view of the threat of encirclement from the south. There was no intention of using naval forces to delay the formation of British bases along the coast, but the Italian Air Force in North Africa had been reinforced and had now 90 bombers and 130 fighters. In answer to the question whether the allotted forces would be enough to defend Tripolitania if the British had not already broken through before they could arrive, Guzzoni replied that they would.
On February 5th, the first day of Beda Fomm, Hitler wrote to Mussolini expressing displeasure at the conduct of the campaign, and offering advice on what ought to have been done. He had come to the conclusion that the anti-tank formation that he had had in mind would now be insufficient, because it was essential that the defence should be conducted aggressively; a complete armoured division would therefore be necessary in addition, but he would only send it on condition that the Italians held on, and did not retreat to Tripoli. Malta must be bombed incessantly to reduce the scale of attack on shipping, and the British fleet must be prevented from establishing any new bases to support the advancing forces; combined naval and air operations would therefore have to be carried out against the British sea communications. On February 10th von Rintelen was able to report that the Duce had accepted the German advice and had ordered a forward policy for the defence of Tripolitania. Marshal Graziani was about to resign, and would be replaced by General Gariboldi.6
The same day the German General Staff issued their orders for ‘Sonnenblume’, and gave instructions for the conduct of German troops in Italian theatres of war. The principal points were that for tactical purposes, but in no other way, the German troops would be subordinated to the Italian Commander-in-Chief. Save in exceptional circumstances they were to be used as a formation under a German commander and not split up over the front. Should the
German commander receive an order which would, in his opinion, lead to failure and so prejudice the reputation of the German troops, it was his right and duty to appeal to his German superiors. Fliegerkorps X was to remain responsible to Marshal Goring.
On February 11th Lieut.-General Erwin Rommel, the commander designate of the enlarged German contingent, was received in Rome by Guzzoni, who assured him that the Duce’s orders complied in every way with the Führer’s views. The first line of defence in Tripolitania was to be at Sirte, and the main defence at Misurata: General Roatta was going to Tripoli next day to ensure that the Duce’s orders were carried out, Moreover, it had been decided that the Italian mobile formations—so far only the Ariete Division—would be placed under Rommel’s command.
Rommel left for Tripoli on the 12th to judge matters for himself. The first German troops for the lines of communication had already disembarked, and by the 16th a reconnaissance unit and an antitank unit had been pushed forward to Sirte. On the same day Rommel submitted to Gariboldi his suggestions for the conduct of the defensive battle at, and to the west of, Sirte. Shortly afterwards Hitler announced that the German forces under General Rommel would be known as the Deutsches Afrika Korps (D.A.K.). The Panzer Division to reinforce the 5th Light Division would be the 15th, and it would probably cross to Africa about March 20th. Such were the measures taken by the Germans to stiffen Italian resistance and to keep the British at a distance from Tripoli. Of 220,000 tons of cargo loaded for North Africa at Italian ports in February and March, only 20,000 failed to arrive.