North Africa Before Rommel
By David H. Lippman
At 2:30 the Australian troops, looking enormous in jerking, greatcoats, and tin hats, lugging 150 rounds of ammo and three days of bully beef, drank a tot of rum, and moved forward behind a heavy barrage. Engineers led the way with wire cutters and Bangalore torpedoes to remove Italian wire. When the torpedoes went off, the Australians charged through the wire.
The intense artillery bombardment thoroughly frightened the 1st Blackshirt Division, whose only combat experience had been beating helpless civilian "enemies of the state" back in Calabria. Now the Fascist "goons" found themselves under heavy shelling, and facing enormous Australian infantrymen at point-blank range. So the Italians surrendered. Some thought the Aussies' leather jerkins were bulletproof.
Australian troops marched at ease through the positions, passing Italian troops waving white cloths. Sgt. Ian Mcintosh of New South Wales, a World War I veteran, led 24 men to capture 3 field guns, an anti-tank gun, 12 machine guns, and 104 PoWs. Lt. A.C. Murchison of Newcastle led a bayonet charge that caused the Italians facing him to surrender. As Murchison moved forward, the surrenders took on a chain reaction, and the Aussies were soon thumbing the Italians back, yelling, "Avant)." The company next to Murchison took 300 PoWs.
"It was now half an hour after midday. By this time an apparently endless column of Italian prisoners was streaming back though the gaps in the perimeter; the officers in ornate uniforms with batmen beside them carrying their suitcases; the men generally dejected and untidy, strangely small beside their captors," wrote the Australian official history. "When the 2/5th Battalion, marching into the perimeter, saw this column moving toward them, their first thought was that 16th Brigade was being driven back -- then came the realisation that the close-packed column, winding like a serpent over the flat country, was a sample of a defeated Italian army." By noon 6,000 PoWs were in the cage, and McKay had a rude shock when a PoW officer told him the enemy defenses were 40,000 men.
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.
Now the Australians stormed the Italian outpost line, using machinegun fire and grenades to winkle out the defenders. At Post 22 an Italian leaped up from a pit and shot down Capt. D. L. 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-lbr. 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. 17th Brigade ran into determined Italian resistance. So did the French marines. By 4 January, 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 British tanks traded salvos like battleships at sea, but British mobility defeated Il Duce'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 cruised 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 arm," 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. Meanwhile, his men shamed 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. 13th 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 615'Sirte, in Cyrenaica, and four more in Tripolitania. Of the 248,000 Graziani began the campaign with, some 80,000 had been lost.
Now Mussolini was upset. On 12 January, 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 11 January he ordered German armour be sent to North Africa, and dispatched 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 harbour, and drive the Italians back.
But now Churchill was intervening, demanding that Wavell withdraw three divisions and an armoured 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, and the usual antitank ditches, two forts, Solaro and Pilastrino, and strongpoints. There was also the Italian cruiser San Giorgio, which had run aground after being bombed by the RAF, but which 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 Australians advanced, short of water. 10th 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 21 January, 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 S5. 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 2/8 Battalion was moving on Fort Pilastrino, the 61st Division's headquarters. The 2/8 came under fire from dug-in Italian tanks, so the Australians charged with bayonet and grenade, destroying the first tank. The rest surrendered. Next, 2/8 captured some mobile tanks, then some machine-gun positions.
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 ran, Australian infantrymen charging after them.
Fort Pilastrino fumed out to be simply a collection of barrack buildings surrounded by a wall, and Australian infantry took it quickly.
The 2/4 and 2/ll 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 also found Solaro, which was just a few army buildings, unworthy 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 2/4 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 his troops had orders from Mussolini to fight to a finish.
2/3 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 harbour was covered with black smoke, as the enemy was destroying ammunition and fuel. Behind Australian lines some 8,000 PoWs were trying to keep warm 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. I. 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 Very flares to signify that Tobruk had fallen. An Australian soldier lowered the green and red flag of Italy and replaced it with a Digger's hat. Tobruk had fallen.
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.
16th 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 2/7 Battalion seven hours to feed all its captives. 2/2 Battalion kept its PoWs occupied by having them sing.
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 Dema, where "Electric Whiskers" Bergonzoli 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 armoured brigade.
While the Australians sorted out Tobruk, 7th Ammoured was on the move. Wavell approved the advance to continue to Mechili and Dema, 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 Ammored 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 avoid the fatality of the future!"
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, 4 Armoured Brigade got lost in the unmapped terrain -- O'Connor's men had literally driven off the edge of their maps -- but Babini Brigade's tanks didn't attack, missing a chance to chew up the 4th.
O'Connor rewrote his plan. 6th Australian would hit Dema and Bergonzoli's 21st Corps on the coast, while 7th Armoured would put Babini Brigade at Mechili in a neat pincer, cutting the Italian armour inland from the coastal infantry.
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), and Graziani lost his nerve, and ordered his armour to withdraw.
"If I had an armoured unit, I could manoeuvre around enemy lines," he wired Mussolini. Graziani had an armoured unit. 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.