Western Desert Force:
The Initial Campaign, Part Seven

By David Lippman
April 2016

In Part Six, the Battle of Beda Fomm began with great but futile expression of Italian bravery.

At 10 a.m. of February 6th, The Italian defenders at Sceledeima were told to pull out and reach the Pimple. They raced down the road and into the 7th Hussars.

Even so, the British were still in trouble. The Italians were coming down in an endless stream. Sixty tanks had been knocked out, but more were coming, and 2nd RTR was out of ammunition. Fourth Brigade needed more help. Where was 1st RTR?

At 11:25 a.m., 2nd RTR was down to 13 cruiser tanks. At noon it only had 10. 7th Hussars was in worse shape; they had only one cruiser tank left. The Italians, sensing victory, kept charging, firing artillery over open sights at point-blank range.

The crisis came at 3 p.m. Seventh Hussars found the tail of the Italian column and attacked it. Third Hussars battled Italian tanks. Second RTR, driven off the Pimple, tried to break round. British radio communications had broken down. At this point, it seemed the British might crack.

British armor advances at Beda Fomm.

But the 1st RTR finally arrived, and rumbled towards the sound of the guns, driving the Italian tanks northwest. Bergonzoli was halted. Second RTR had destroyed 51 M13s for a loss of three tanks and seven men. Other outfits destroyed 33 tanks. Ten thousand Italians had surrendered.

Poring over his maps, Bergonzoli decided to try a night attack on the sand dunes west of the Coast Road. No luck: British artillery closed that route. Both sides, exhausted, flopped down in the gathering desert dusk.

To the north, the Australians enjoyed yet another success, as 6th Division finally entered Benghazi. Lt. W.M. Knox of 2/8th Battalion drove into town to find the population of 5,000 Greeks, Jews, Italians, and Arabs, waving and cheering the Australian column. Knox drove to town hall where the Italian civic rulers awaited him. Knox handed the Italians orders that charged them with maintaining law and order until the rest of the division could arrive. The mayor delivered a speech of welcome, calling the Australians “our brave allies,” which baffled the Diggers.

Next morning, at Beda Fomm, Bergonzoli mustered his last 30 tanks for one final dawn assault. With 6th Australian breathing down his neck, Bergonzoli was out of time, space, and ideas.

The attack was based on the courage of desperation, and it hit the 106th RHA’s mounted 37mm guns. The Italians pressed through, having knocked out all but one of the anti-tank guns. That gun was manned by the battery commander, his batman, and a cook. They destroyed the last Italian tank.

British infantry battered the attacking Italian riflemen, leaving the M13s 20 yards from their objective, but completely unsupported. Tellera himself led a bayonet charge and was mortally wounded. Tenth Army was defeated. At 9 a.m., white flags went up over the Italian lines.

O’Connor himself, who had directed the British battle, drove to a farmhouse near Soluch where half a dozen Italian generals in snappy uniforms and polished boots were held prisoner, the elusive “Electric Whiskers” among them. O’Connor, like Grant at Appomattox, was casually dressed: corduroy trousers, leather sleeveless jerkin, tartan scarf, and sagging cap.

“I am sorry you are so uncomfortable,” said O’Connor. “We haven’t had much time to make proper arrangements.”

“Thank you very much,” said Gen. Cona, for his defeated colleagues. “We realize you came here in a great hurry.”

O’Connor’s aide Dorman-Smith fired off a message to Wavell, “Fox killed in the open.”

Around O’Connor was the wreckage of the Italian 10th Army. He surveyed a scene clogged with more than 25,000 PoWs, more than 100 tanks (some of which were serviceable), 216 guns, and 1,500 wheeled vehicles. Under the blue African sky, small gazelles bounded through the scrub.

“I have seldom seen such a scene of wreckage and confusion as existed on the main Benghazi road,” wrote O’Connor. “Broken up and overturned lorries; in some places guns, lorries and tanks in hopeless confusion. Elsewhere guns in action and broken down M13s. All over the countryside and everywhere masses of prisoners. Most of the enemy tanks had dead men inside them . . . Gen. Tellera, the Army Commander, was in one lying seriously wounded. He died later in the day.”

The mess was too great for even the Arabs to loot. The wreckage of 10th Army lay strewn around Beda Fomm for years.

O’Connor wasted no time. Within hours, 11th Hussars, topped up from captured fuel, was speeding along the road to El Agheila, where they stopped, ending the “five-day raid” two months after it began.

Italian M13/40 tanks captured at Beda Fomm.

The campaign was over. It was a complete British triumph, one that would be studied for decades in staff colleges. For a loss of 500 dead, 55 missing, and 1,373 wounded, 30,000 British troops had advanced 500 miles in two months, destroyed an army of 10 divisions (including Mussolini’s vaunted Blackshirts), and taken 130,000 PoWs, 400 tanks, and 1,290 guns. Fascist Italy’s reputation had been torn to shreds.

So had Graziani’s. He was summarily fired, and replaced by his subordinate, Gen. Italo Gariboldi. He dug in to await the inevitable British drive on Tripoli.

It never came. Wavell’s eyes were on Greece. O’Connor sent Dorman-Smith to Cairo for permission to advance, but was too late. “I am beginning my spring campaign, Eric,” Wavell told Dorman-Smith.

Seventh Armoured was sent to Egypt to re-fit. 6th Australian and 2nd New Zealand Division shipped out to Greece. The new 2nd Armoured Division was to man the line at El Agheila. The British had given up the initiative in the Libyan desert.

This decision, made by Churchill, and backed completely by Wavell, to drain off scarce British strength to hold Greece, was one of the worst of the war. The Axis had lost the Italian 10th Army, and Mussolini what was left of his reputation, but Hitler was about to rewrite the play on Libya’s barren stage.

“Dearest Lu. Landed at Staaken 12:45. First to C-in-C of the Army, who appointed me to my new job, and then to the Fuhrer. Things are moving fast. My kit is coming here. I can only take barest necessities with me. Perhaps I’ll be able to get the rest out soon. I need not tell you how my head is swimming with all the many things there are to be done. It’ll be months before anything materializes. So ‘our leave’ was cut short again. Don’t be sad, it had to be. The new job is very big and important . . .”

So wrote Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel of the German Army to his wife Lucie on Feb. 6th, the day of the battle of Beda Fomm. The “new job” was to take over an outfit the Germans were shipping to Libya, the Afrika Korps. The whole shape of the desert war was about to change completely, and a legend was about to be born.

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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.