Thursday, March 12, 2015

Desert Dawn Part IV

The long road of retreat. They may just make it as they have a vehicle.

North Africa Before Rommel

By David H. Lippman

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

7th 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 received this flimsy with another signal from Mussolini on 27 January: "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 Armoured 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. 6th 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 last day of January playing traffic cop at an intersection. 

Bergonzoli had fled again, and the British couldn't pursue to Benghazi; 6th 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. 

Risky and Dangerous
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 31 January. 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 with full vehicles 11th Hussars had already started; the rest of 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 lime to block the British advance over tracks through villages named Msus, Sceleidema, and Antelat. 

Can't Do It
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 and 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 1/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 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 4 February. 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. 

Creagh organized his fastest vehicles into an ad hoc team under Lt. Col. John Combe, called Combeforce, and sent them on ahead. This force consisted entirely of 11th Hussars, 2nd Rifle Brigade, C Battery ofthe 4th Royal Horse Artillery, and 106th Battery RHA with is truck mounted 37mm anti-tank guns. Most 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, armoured 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 armoured 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 land mines. 

10th Bersaglieri stopped its retreat to take on the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, but came under 25-lbr. 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, the 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. 4th 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 artillerymen, who added their 25-lbr. shells to the din.
British infantry dismounted to take more than 800 PoWs 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 Very pistol until he was politely handed a Breda automatic by an Italian who spoke English with an American accent and 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. 

2nd 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. 

Next Day
The next day, 6 February, dawned wet and windy. Both sides were exhausted, having been 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. 

Meanwhilc, the British, under Brig. J. A. L. Caunter, prepared for the attack. 4th Armoured Brigade was nearly at the end of its tanks 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 the Italian column, stretching for miles, was moving south. Caunter's men stood to. 2nd 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 armour, 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. 

At 10 am., The Italian defenders at Sceledeima were told to pull out and get to the Pimple. They raced down the road and into the 7th Hussars. 

Even so, the British were in trouble. The Italians were streaming down endlessly; 60 tanks had been knocked out, but more were coming...and 2nd RTR was out of ammunition...4th Brigade needed more help. Where was 1st RTR? 

By 11:25 a.m., 2nd RTR was down to 13 cruiser tanks. At noon it only had 10. 7th Hussars was in worse shape -- it had only one cruiser tank left. 

The Italians, sensing victory, kept charging, firing artillery over open sights at pointblank range.
The crisis hit at 3 p.m. 7 Hussars found the tail of the Italian column and attacked it. 3rd Hussars battled Italian tanks. 2nd RTR, driven off the Pimple, tried to break round. Now British radio communications had broken down. At this point, it seemed the British might crack. 

But the 1/RTR finally arrived, and rumbled towards the sound of the guns, driving the Italian tanks northwest. Bergonzoli was halted. 2nd RTR had destroyed 51 M13s for a loss of 3 tanks and seen men. Other outfits destroyed 33 tanks. 10,000 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 2/8 Battalion drove into town to find the population of 50,000 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 portee-mounted 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. 10th 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" Bergonzoli 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, on captured fuel, was speeding along the road to El Agheila, where they stopped, ending the "5-day raid" two months after it began. 

British Triumph
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. The reputation of Mussolini's Fascist Italy had been torn to shreds. 

So had Graziani's. He was summarily fired, and replaced by his subordinate, Gen. Gariboldi. Gariboldi 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, while looking at a map of the Balkans. 

7th Armoured returned 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. 

Rommel Arrives
"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 Germany Army to his wife Lucie on 6 February, 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 shape of the desert war was about to change completely, and a legend was about to be born.

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