Western Desert Force:
The Initial Campaign, Part Five

By David Lippman
March 2016

In Part Four, Tobruk fell to Australian troops with 25,000 prisoners and all sorts of food, weapons and equipment. But the offensive continued.

Only five of the 12 Italian divisions in Cyrenaica were left, and nearly half of these 250,000 men dead or captured.

O’Connor’s new target was Derna, where “Electric Whiskers” was organizing his 20th Corps. This force consisted of 60th Sabratha Division, 17th Pavia Division, and 27th Brescia Division, reinforced by Group Babini, a 70-tank armored brigade.

While the Australians sorted out Tobruk, 7th Armoured was on the move. Wavell approved the advance to continue to Mechili and Derna, 11th Hussars leading the way. They ran into 50 M13s on the track and in the battle, destroyed nine for the loss of seven British. Clearly the Italians weren’t done yet.

But Graziani was in despair. The Ariete Armored Division hadn’t arrived from Italy, and he frantically wired Rome that he faced 17 British divisions. “I had a vision of the future,” he wrote, “I saw that it was not possible to avert the fatality of the future!” In despair, he wrote his will.

The two British divisions Graziani actually faced rumbled on through abandoned Italian colonial homesteads being torn up by looting Arabs. O’Connor planned to grab the Mechili crossroads by coup de main. Errors ensued. First, 4th Armoured Brigade got lost in the unmapped terrain - O’Connor’s men had literally driven off the edge of their maps - while Babini Brigade’s 120 tanks didn’t attack, missing a chance to chew up the 4th.

O’Connor rewrote his plan. 6th Australian would hit Derna on the coast and Bergonzoli’s 21st Corps, while 7th Armoured would put Babini Brigade at Mechili in a neat pincer, cutting the Italian armor off inland and away from the infantry on the coast.

As usual, the Italians reacted slowly, hampered by a Byzantine chain of command and a lack of radios. But Babini fought hard on the 23rd at Mechili, ripping up the 11th Hussars’ light tanks and knocking the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment off balance. In a desert tank battle that looked like battleships maneuvering on the high seas, 2nd RTR counterattacked, caught the Italians skylined on a ridge, and picked them all off.

Even so, Graziani was pleased: his men were fighting back. He ordered 10th Army’s commander, Tellera, to order Bergonzoli, to in turn order Babini, to attack the British flank. Tellera wavered, reporting that Babini had seen 150 British tanks (he was wrong). Graziani lost his nerve, and ordered his armor to withdraw.

“If I had an armored unit, I could maneuver around enemy lines,” he wired Mussolini. Graziani had one. He just didn’t use it. “I am more or less in the position of a captain in command of his ship which is on the point of sinking, because errors are present on all sides,” he whined.

Meanwhile, the Australians took their whacks at Derna. 19th Brigade slugged it out with enemy artillery and machine guns for control of Derna’s airstrip at Siret el Chreiba. The Aussies took on an “uncommonly determined” Italian rearguard. Little progress was made.

Seventh Armoured was stalled, too, mostly because its vehicles and men were exhausted from six weeks’ campaigning and a stretched supply line. O’Connor doubted he would take Benghazi before German reinforcements arrived.

Bergonzoli’s defense of Derna was determined and efficient. He placed his guns well, and his Bersaglieri troops fought hard. Italian supplies were plentiful, while 6th Australian’s guns were down to 10 rounds a day. But the British pressure was too much. Bergonzoli asked Tellera to ask Graziani for more tanks.

Graziani (left) received this flimsy with another signal from Mussolini on the 27th: “I want you to know, dear Marshal, that we are eating out our liver, night and day, to send you the necessaries for this arduous battle.” The message promised more aircraft, the Ariete Armored Division, and more delays.

Graziani ordered his field commanders to “disengage speedily” from Derna. The Italians, after a burst of gunfire, set their ammo dumps ablaze, and retreated. Next morning, local Arabs told the baffled Aussies that the Italians were gone. Sixth Australian charged into an empty town of modern box-like houses on the coast, with gardens full of flowers and fresh vegetables, the first the Australians had seen in a month. Libyans and Australians proceeded to loot the place. When McKay himself drove into town, he found the few roads clogged with supply vehicles and Australian soldiers driving captured Fiats and trucks. The general fired off a blistering memo to his senior officers to get the Military Police in town to restore order and traffic control, then spent the 31st playing traffic cop at an intersection.

Bergonzoli had fled again, and the British couldn’t pursue to Benghazi. Sixth Australian lacked transport and 7th Armoured’s tanks had practically all thrown their treads. More importantly, 6th Australian found itself responsible for protecting nearly 90,000 Italian civilians who been brought to Libya to colonize the place.

Still, the Aussies kept moving. One battalion marched 70 miles in three days, slowed mostly by booby traps. Graziani, whose Cyrene bunker was now under RAF attack, fled to Tripoli, leaving Tellera and Bergonzoli in command.

O’Connor, racked by fatigue and stomach trouble, was facing the certainty of his offensive stalling out in front of Benghazi. The Germans would reinforce through the port, and reverse Axis fortunes. O’Connor cast round for another scent.

O’Connor’s solution was breathtaking in its genius: his Australian infantry would continue to drive steadily on Benghazi. Meanwhile, the overworked and exhausted 7th Armoured would cut across the desert tracks south of Benghazi to a hamlet called Beda Fomm, and cut off the retreating Italian 10th Army in a classic ambush. If the move worked, the 10th Army would collapse. If it failed, 7th Armoured would have only three days’ of supplies to hold out in the desert. After that, it would be doomed.

It was the kind of move that Hollywood would later attribute to American generals, and not consider possible by British officers and troops: risky and dangerous, but with great potential if it worked.

O’Connor sent his chief of staff, Brig. Eric Dorman-Smith, back to Cairo with the plan on Jan. 31st. Wavell heard Dorman-Smith’s report and said, “Tell Dick he can go on, and wish him luck from me. He has done well.”

Wavell backed his quote with a supply convoy that sailed to Tobruk, whose vehicles were sent to Mechili to re-supply 7th Armoured’s panniers. It was just possible for the division to move out on Feb. 4th with full vehicles. The division would move on the 5th, with barely 45 heavy tanks, 80 light tanks, two days’ supplies of food and water, and two refills of ammunition. Hardly enough against Tellera’s four divisions.

“It is likely that tonight the enemy mechanical columns will move on Msus Sceleidima, marching even with lights on,” Tellera’s radio-intercept teams noted. The Italians were right, but Tellera could do little to block the British advance over tracks through villages named Msus, Sceleidema, and Antelat.

In any case, the Italians weren’t worried. “They can’t do it,” one Italian officer said. “And even if they do it we still have two days to spare.” The Italians confined countermeasures to light aerial minelaying, and alerting their detachments in the area.

The British weren’t sure the move was possible, either. British war correspondent Alexander Clifford wrote, “For mile after mile they juddered over great slabs of sharp, uneven rock. Then they crossed belts of soft, fine sand, which engulfed vehicles up to their axles. Sandstorms blew up, and the trucks had to keep almost touching if they were not to lose one another. Whole convoys lurched off into the gloom ad only re-established contact hours later. It was freezing cold, and the latter half of the division had to contend with fierce, icy showers. All kit had been cut to the bone, and there were no extra blankets or greatcoats, and scarcely more than a glass of water per man per day.”

A tank commander in 1st RTR wrote, “The march was a complete nightmare and I remember little about it because most of the time I was too tired and bruised by my bucking tank. It was bitterly cold, and, for much of the way, it was either raining or blowing a sandstorm . . . by day the squadron was deployed on a very wide front with the task of finding the easiest passage through the rough and rocky countryside. If a tank broke down, and many did, the crew reported its position and they stayed with it until the divisional recovery teams towed it back to Tobruk.”

One light tank, lost in this way, spent three weeks without recovery, eking out three days’ rations, until their word HELP, etched in the sand, caught the eye of a passing RAF aircraft.

With the indefatigable 11th Hussars leading, Msus was reached and cleared of a small Italian detachment on Feb. 4th. While the British advanced, word came down that the Italians were retreating into Tripolitania. Maj. Gen. O’Moore Creagh, commanding 7th Armoured, was ordered to speed his offensive.

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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.