Western Desert Force:
The Initial Campaign, Part Four

By David Lippman
March 2016

In Part Three, Australian Diggers stormed the Italian fortress of Bardia, taking 40,000 prisoners and making Mussolini sad. It was about to get worse for Il Duce.

The battle raged on. Italian artillerymen fought hard, but the Australians had the advantage of mobility, and moved around the gunners, leading to more surrenders. The 2/5th Australians found a line of L3 tanks, motors running. One quick Bren gun burst and 200 Italians surrendered their little tanks. Sgt. W.T. Morse fired a shot into a wadi’s pit and out came 70 Italians, 25 of them officers, waving white flags. It was the headquarters of an artillery outfit. The Australians were stunned to find enameled baths, silk clothing, and cosmetics. Morse saw some heads behind a wall nearby, and found 200 more Italians ready to quit. Overall, the 2/5th took 3,000 PoWs in the wadi.

Two of the "little tanks" surrendered at Bardia.

Now the Australians stormed the Italian outpost line, using machine-gun fire and grenades to winkle out the defenders. At Post 22 an Italian leaped up from a pit and shot down Capt. D.I. Green, then dropped his rifle, and surrendered, smiling broadly. A furious Australian threw the Italian down into his post and emptied his Bren gun into him. Another Australian officer intervened to prevent a massacre of other surrendering Italians.

Post 25 was nearby, and the Italians there saw this action. They sent an emissary to surrender. With help of the emissary, Posts 23 and 20 fell in short order.

The 2/3rd ran into six Italian tanks, which opened fire at 30 yards. An Australian ran forward and fired into the turret of one tank with his pistol. The other five moved south and released 500 Italians held prisoner while calling on the Australian guards to give up. Outnumbered, the Australians handed their rifles to their captives. The tanks moved off to find other prey. Just then a nearby Australian Bren gun opened up, and the 500 Italians surrendered again. Fortunately, three British 2-pounder antitank guns, mounted on trucks, turned up and destroyed the attackers. This was the most vigorous Italian counterattack of the whole battle.

Still, it wasn’t all easy. Seventeenth Brigade ran into determined Italian resistance. So did the French Marines. By Jan. 4th, the 17th Brigade was scattered, 16th Brigade exhausted. Mackay sent in his reserve, 19th Brigade, for the coup de grace.

Backed by tanks and the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Australians moved in on the town, taking hundreds of PoWs. Italian guns and tanks traded salvos like battleships at sea, but British mobility defeated Bergonzoli’s forts and posts.

A British tank unit rumbled up to an Italian fort, and charged. When the Italians saw the tanks coming, they opened the gate, and the tanks rolled through a mob of surrendering men. Another platoon walked down a goat track into the town and took thousands of PoWs.

Hordes of Italian support troops tried to hide from the attackers, but were scooped up by Aussies shouting, “Lashay lay armay,” a corruption of the Italian phrase “Lascie le armi,” which meant, “Lay down your arms.” The Italians obeyed, climbing up the goat tracks.

Col. G.W. Eather of the 2/1st Battalion, a future general, was told some Italians had been captured. Thinking it was a dozen or so, he said, “Bring them in.” More than 1,500 came in. Eather, embarrassed at the number of his PoWs, told them to come back in the morning.

It was impossible to count the horde. Some Italians meandering across the battlefield were “captured” several times. Among the PoWs bagged by 19th Brigade were the commanding generals of 62nd and 63rd Divisions, Tracchia and Guida, respectively.

While the ground forces advanced, RAF Blenheim bombers blasted Italian airfields to the west, clearing the skies.

There was nothing left for Bergonzoli but to burn his code books and flee, doing so on foot. Meanwhile, his men shuffled into captivity, officers clutching swords, while Australians moved into Bardia, and ransacked the Italian stores of wine and clean linen.

The British claimed to have captured 44,868 PoWs, while the Italians estimated their dead at 40,000 and that the British captured 38,000. The victory was smashing. Thirteenth Corps captured twice as many guns as were in its inventory, along with 12 M13 tanks, and 113 L3 tankettes, and, most importantly, 708 motor vehicles, badly needed to relieve 7th Armoured’s exhausted trucks. Australian casualties were 136 dead and 320 wounded.

Australian troops equipped themselves with captured pistols, watches, compasses, gunsights, and signal equipment. “The behaviour of the troops in the face of quantities of liquor was exemplary,” the Australian provost marshal noted. However, the Aussies threw away useless Italian rifles and grenades.

The collapse of Bardia left Graziani with only two Italian infantry divisions, 60th Sabratha and 61st Sirte, in Cyrenaica, and four more in Tripolitania. Of the 248,000 men with which Graziani began the campaign, some 80,000 had been lost.

Now Mussolini was upset. On Jan. 12th, he told Ciano that the Italians were “a race of sheep,” adding that “In the future we shall select an army of professionals, selecting them out of 12 to 13 million Italians there in the valley of the Po and in part of central Italy. All the others will be put to work making arms for the warrior aristocracy.”

Graziani himself was also depressed. He sent his wife to Ciano with a letter pleading for the Luftwaffe . . . blamed the whole mess on Badoglio . . . and finally talked of suicide.

But Adolf Hitler was looking hard at North Africa, too. On Jan. 11, he ordered German armor be sent to Libya, and sent Luftwaffe Fliegerkorps 10 to Sicily. Germany’s Fuhrer did not want to be drawn into a campaign in North Africa, but had to support his ally.

“The success at Bardia demonstrated that there is no fortress so strong in its engineering that men of determination and cunning, with weapons in the their hands, cannot take it,” wrote the Australian official history. With Bardia in hand, Wavell ordered O’Connor to keep on towards Tobruk, seizing this town with its water-purification plant and superb natural harbor, and drive the Italians back.

But now Churchill was intervening, demanding that Wavell withdraw three divisions and an armored brigade to Greece. Such a move would halt O’Connor in his tracks. While the leaders bickered, O’Connor rolled on.

Tobruk, a fortress town that would become legend, was held by 25,000 men, including Gen. Della Mura’s 61st Sirte Division, 45 light and 20 medium tanks, 200 guns, the usual antitank ditches, two forts, Salaro and Palastrino, and strongpoints. There was also the Italian cruiser San Giorgio, which had run aground after being bombed by the RAF, but still had working guns. Twice as much ground and half as many men as at Bardia. But the Italians had no illusions about this defense.

The ancient armored cruiser San Giorgio, scuttled in Tobruk's harbor.

The Australians advanced, short of water. Thirteenth Corps was running out of vehicles due to the difficult terrain and dust storms. Trucks were being cannibalized. Tanks had thrown their treads. The Australian Divisional Cavalry had been forced to re-equip with captured and slow-moving Italian M-13s, all painted with the Aussies’ leaping kangaroo symbol. Australian troops replaced their boots with captured Italian gear. The advance was slowed by fleas, lice, and Italian booby traps.

O’Connor and Mackay planned to hit Tobruk from the town’s southeast corner, relying on the 16th Brigade to punch a hole, the 17th Brigade to follow up, and the 19th Brigade to exploit. Australian gunners prepared their bombardment thoroughly, to make up for the shortage of tanks; there were only 18 to support the attack.

The assault went in on Jan. 21st, delayed three days by dust storms. At Bardia, the Aussies were weighted down with equipment. At Tobruk they only wore jerkins, and carried weapons and ammunition.

The Italians fought back, relying on barbed wire and booby traps to augment their machine guns. Sgt. F.J. Hoddinott of Queensland hurled grenades to overcome Post 55. After half an hour, it fell. Post 62 fought back under tank and artillery shelling until Lt. F.D. Clark of Adelaide poured a mixture of crude oil and kerosene through the post’s windows to silence it. 11 Italians died and 35 surrendered.

The expanding Australian drive became a torrent, as troops fanned out, losing contact with each other. Officers had to send dispatch riders out on captured motorcycles through the dust. Italian defenses collapsed under accurate Australian artillery fire. Again came heavy surrenders: one company captured 300 men. Another hauled in 1,000 PoWs, including a general.

By mid-day, 19th Brigade’s 2/8th Battalion was moving on Fort Pilastrino, the 61st Division’s headquarters. 2/8th came under fire from dug-in Italian tanks, so the Australians charged with bayonet and grenade, destroying the first tank. The rest surrendered. Next, 2/8th captured some mobile tanks, then some machine-gun positions.

Oi! An M13/40 tank pressed into Australian service; note the two styles of kangaroo.

The Italians counterattacked with nine tanks and hundreds of infantrymen. Private O.Z. Neall knocked out three Italian tanks with his Boyes anti-tank rifle, a feat that astounded everyone - the Boyes rifle was noted for its uselessness. But the Italians continued to advance until two British Matildas rumbled up. At that point, the Italians fled, Australian infantrymen charging after them.

Fort Pilastrino turned out to be a collection of barracks buildings surrounded by a wall, and Australian infantry took it quickly.

The 2/4th and 2/11th Battalions were also attacking, supported by British and Australian artillery. Their first objective was Fort Solaro, which housed the Tobruk garrison’s headquarters. After a battle with Italian tanks on Tobruk’s airfield, the Australians found Solaro, which was just a few army buildings, not worthy of the title “Fort.” Capt. H.S. Conkey saw some Italians driving away in trucks, and he and his pals hopped on some Italian motorcycles to capture the enemy. He scooped up 600 PoWs, but not Tobruk’s top defenders. They had already fled.

The Australians continued to fight their way through sangars and wadis with tommy guns, and stumbled into some tunnels, which were obviously an enemy headquarters. Soon enough, an Italian officer came out, telling Lt. J.S. Copland of the 2/4th battalion he would surrender only to an officer.

“I’m an officer,” Copland said, and Gen. Petassi Manella, commander of the 22nd Corps and the Tobruk garrison, looking dignified, quiet, and tired, handed over his pistol to Copland, in tears. Along with Manella, Copland bagged his chief of staff and 1,600 PoWs.

Manella was driven to 19th Brigade HQ and requested to surrender all of Tobruk. Manella told his captors that his troops had orders from Mussolini to fight to the finish.

2/3rd Battalion relied on heavy fire to make up for its lack of strength (a dozen men in one platoon) to intimidate the Italians. Soon Capt. J.N. Abbot’s company was finding hundreds of Italian soldiers approaching, waving white rags.

By the end of the 21st, the Australians knew they had won. Most Italian guns were silent, Tobruk harbor was covered with black smoke, as the enemy was destroying ammunition and fuel. Some 8,000 PoWs were trying to keep warm behind Australian lines by lighting fires.

During the night, Italian SM 79s flew in to bomb the Australians, saw the fires lit by the PoWs, and bombed them. Italian bombs killed hundreds of their own men.

Next day, the 22nd, Mackay ordered the coup de grace. The Australians advanced on a wide front. Gen. Della Mura of the 61st Division was bagged early and refused to surrender to the junior officer who caught him. No matter, thousands of Della Mura’s men were shuffling in to give up, anyway. At 9:30, Capt. J.R. Savige took the surrender of a local commander, who was persuaded to phone other Italian positions and order them to give up, too.

Lt. Col. K.W. Eather rode a Bren gun carrier over the edge of depression, saw a line of white flags, and found 3,000 Italians drawn up in parade formation with the officers in front, holding their luggage. The officers were shaven and wore well-tended uniforms and polished boots. Eather took the officers’ pistols - the other ranks had already thrown away their Mannlicher-Carcanos - and thumbed them back.

Now the Australians were at the last escarpment before town. Lt. E.C. Hennessy of divisional cavalry rolled into Tobruk in a Bren carrier. He hit a barrier consisting of an iron girder supported by sandbags. Sgt. G.M. Mills hopped out with his crew to remove it and two Italians ran out to help. Then Hennessy and his team drove into the port.

As they clattered down a street a neat Italian officer came forward to lead Hennessy to naval headquarters where Adm. Massmiliano Vietina was waiting to surrender. Hennessy sat the officer on the front of his carrier as “a guarantee of good faith” and they rattled through town to a large building. There stood Vietina, ready to offer his sword.

Hennessy declined it, and sent a carrier back to fetch Brig. Robertson, who came quickly, along with a brace of Australian and British war correspondents.

The ritual was perfunctory. Vietina and his 1,500 men wished to surrender. All the booby traps and mines in town had been “sprung” and so were the ammo dumps and confidential papers. After the ceremony, Robertson and his men fired off Verey flares to signify that Tobruk had fallen. An Australian soldier lowered the green-white-and-red flag of Italy and replaced it with a Digger’s hat.

Hordes of defeated Italians trooped up from bunkers and shelters to surrender, while Australian troops fanned out to take control. About 25,000 PoWs had been taken, along with 208 guns, 23 tanks, 200 vehicles, the water distilleries, the port, and enough tinned food to keep the Italians going for two months. Australian casualties were 49 killed and 306 wounded.

Sixteenth Brigade soon found that victory was melancholy, as they had the near-impossible task of caring for thousands of PoWs, amid dust storms. The Australians themselves were short on water and supplies. It took 2/7th Battalion seven hours to feed all its captives. 2/2nd Battalion kept its PoWs occupied by having them sing.

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.