Western Desert Force:
The Initial Campaign, Part Six
By David Lippman
In Part Five, Allied and Italian columns began to converge on a small Libyan village known as Beda Fomm.
Maj. Gen. O’Moore Creagh, commanding 7th Armoured Division, organized his fastest vehicles into an ad hoc team under Lt. Col. John Combe, called Combe Force, and sent them on ahead. This force consisted entirely of 11th Hussars, 2nd Rifle Brigade, C Battery of the 4th Royal Horse Artillery, and 106th Battery RHA with its truck-mounted 37mm anti-tank guns. All vehicles were wheeled. Combeforce had 2,000 men and no tanks. They would pin down the Italians until the rest of the division arrived.
Combe looked at his maps, and chose to move via Antelat across the tracks and cut the Italian retreat off at a spot called Beda Fomm, which consisted of a few huts and a mosque.
Just before dawn on the 5th, Combeforce jolted across the terrain, armored cars leading, artillery behind, across uncharted ground, relying on compass bearings to stay on track. At noon the 11th Hussars reached the coast to find no Italian vehicles. That meant the Italians had yet to arrive.
Relieved, Combe settled his infantry into a system of shallow ridges through which passed the road from north to south. The Bren carriers were left behind, out of gas. Behind the infantry the artillery and armored cars dug in.
At 2:30 p.m., sharp-eyed British soldiers saw a cloud of dust heading towards them. It was the retreating Italian 10th Army. Combe and O’Connor had won the race by two hours.
The Italians were weary men of the 10th Bersaglieri, escorting a motley collection of air force ground crew, colonial administrators, gunners without guns, and frightened civilians. As they made the turn in the road, the vehicles came under machine gun fire, and hit landmines.
Tenth Bersaglieri stopped its retreat to take on the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps, but came under 25-pounder artillery fire. The Italians, realizing their retreat was blocked, attacked with ferocity, but made no headway against British fire-discipline.
At dawn on the 5th, 4th Armoured Brigade moved towards Beda Fomm behind Combeforce, clearing the 40-mile journey by 4 p.m. They reached the scene north of the British ambush line to find an endless line of Italian vehicles strung along the Coast Road, waiting to retreat. Fourth Armoured was down to its last drops of fuel, but it charged into the Italian mass with gusto.
The Italians themselves were shocked, and in many cases, unable to respond, as the columns were mostly poorly-armed support troops. Panicked Italian drivers turned their vehicles into sand dunes and became bogged down. Those that didn’t flee received 40mm ordnance, which set fuel trucks alight, providing illumination for Combe’s artillery, who added 25-pounder shells to the din.
British infantry dismounted to take more than 800 prisoners and salvage captured vehicles. Some of them were fuel trucks, and British tank crewmen refuelled their empty vehicles on the spot.
The battle took on bizarre tones. One Hussar sergeant kept his PoWs in check with his Verey pistol until he was politely handed a Breda automatic by an Italian who spoke English with an American accent. He had spent 11 years in the United States.
The British fanned across the area. One British squadron shot its way along the 10 miles of fighting, replenished its shells and fuel, and then fought all the way back. When Italian tanks tried to counterattack, Royal Engineers moved forward, laid a minefield in front of the enemy, and the attack was halted.
Second RTR rolled north and dismembered a flak battery, sweeping up guns, men and vehicles by the light of burning trucks. The Italians were in a shambles.
Problem was, so were the British. They were down to their last fuel, despite some captures. Tankers were siphoning fuel from their gunner vehicles. Creagh ordered his division to dig in for the night, refuel, and move 5,000 PoWs out.
While the British ate gummy bully beef, two Italian tanks came rumbling up. A 2nd RTR trooper knocked in turn on the Italian hatch tops, and at pistol point, persuaded the Italians to surrender.
During the night, the British supply vehicles came up, and 7th Armoured refilled its panniers. The situation was serious for both sides: The Italians were cut off, and the British were practically out of supply.
February 6th dawned wet and windy, both sides exhausted, unable to rest during the night. Tellera and Bergonzoli were determined to break through to safety. To the east of Benghazi, the Australians advanced. Barce’s Italian ammunition dump went up in a dramatic ball of smoke, and Babini Group faced the whole 6th Australian. At Sceledeima, Italian troops fought hard against advancing Australians.
Tasked with the breakout at Beda Fomm, Bergonzoli knew his 21st Corps was on its own. Lacking reconnaissance and adequate information, he voted for a short hook east through the desert and outflank the British defenders, relying on superior numbers.
The Italians moved out at 8:30 a.m., without artillery, targeting a small rise in the road just west of the mosque, logically called the Pimple.
Meanwhile, the British, under Brig. J.A.L. “Blood” Caunter, prepared for the attack. Fourth Armoured Brigade was nearly at the end of its tanks; the division’s reserve was only 10 cruiser tanks. Caunter had plenty of worries, cold, wind, rain, sandstorms, and the fact that he was far beyond the range of RAF support.
At dawn, patrols told Caunter that the Italian column, stretching for miles, was moving south. Caunter’s men stood to. Second RTR, with 19 tanks at the edge of a slope, faced 60 Italian machines at the Pimple.
But as the Italians attacked, the British got in the all-important first shot, their guns ripping through the Italian armor, turning M13s into burning coffins, wrecking eight. Before the stunned Italians could return fire, the British had withdrawn down the slope, to repeat the example, destroying seven more tanks with no loss. The Italians opened up with artillery and committed their reserves, as did the British.
The Italian numerical advantage was no help. Most Italian vehicles had no radios. The British instituted a drill movement right out of Salisbury Plain training exercises. With the snap order, “Hello all stations. Tanks left and attack the Pimple,” the British counterattacked.
The Italians, lacking the efficiency of radio, stolidly moved to their predetermined objectives, and waited for orders. The Italians fought with great determination but in total disarray.
A Squadron of 2nd RTR soon scooped up 250 PoWs. British artillery expended nearly all it ammunition to break up attacking Italian infantry columns.
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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.