Wednesday, August 31, 2005

By 1pm on February 6th, 1941, there had been a big tank battle

Starting from earlier in the morning, the 2/RTR and 7th Hussars had fought a series of engagements against Italian tanks. They actually had to deal with the tail of one column and the head of the next. The brigade commander, Brigadier Caunter, estimated that they had fought as many as 100 Italian tanks. Reinforcements were on the way, thankfully, as the HQ 7th Armoured Brigade and 1/RTR, with an artillery battery, were headed for the battle from Antelat. By 1pm, the 2/RTR was reduced to six cruiser tanks. Only slightly later, the 3rd Hussars was reduced to four cruiser tanks. They were fighting Italian medium tanks (probably largely M13/40's). This is based onthe account in To Benghazi.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The 7th Armoured Brigade and Support Group on February 5th and 6th

The 7th Armoured Brigade and the Support Group were sent off toards Soluch to prevent the Italians from retreating back towards Benghazi. The leading elements were from the 11th Hussars, and they found a fort that was blocking the way. The Support Group was lead by Brigadier Gott, who is well-known to us for his participation in the campaigns of later in 1941 and 1942. The 7th Armoured Brigade altered course to head for Antelat, to reinforce the 4th Armoured Brigade. On the 6th, leading elements of the Italians advancing on the road attacked the blockers. One squadron of the 2nd RTR fought with 12 M13/40's. Both sides moved to reinforce their side and the rest of the 2nd RTR was forced to move to more defensible ground, but eventually drove off the Italians who had lost 8 tanks. The British were taking losses as well. By 1:45pm, "the regiment withdrew to replenish". This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Beda Fomm and Sidi Saleh on February 5th, 1941

On February 5th, after Colonel Combe had reached Antelat, Jock Campbell's flying column joined his forces. The flying column was the 2/Rifle Brigade and two artillery batteries. From there, armoured cars advanced to Beda Fomm and Sidi Saleh. By noon, the 2/Rifle Brigade and "C" Battery, RHA, were blocking the main road south, along with a parallel track in the hills. When the head of the Italian column reached this point, the guns halted them, and the Italians dismounted and took up positions to fight. At 3pm, a new Italian column arrived with 200-300 troops and surrendered. Soon, another 5,000 surrendered. This group included civilians as well as troops. At 4:30pm, the 4th Armoured Brigade had reached Antelat and heard Combe's communications about the size of the advancing Italian column. They advanced to the road and the 7th Hussars and a squadron of the 2/RTR hit the column in the flank. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The capture of Barce on February 5th, 1941

After finding the road towards Barce impassible, the 2/8th Field Company was able to construct a ramp down the escarpment that was negotiable by vehicles. After the 2/1st Field Regiment had "fired six rounds bracketing Barce", they could see a white flag and a flare. the artillerymen moved into Barce, which surrendered at 3pm. Australian cavalrymen, led by Major Onslow, entered from the south and found a large ammunition dump. When the 2/8th Battalion reached Barce, their first task was to restored order and stop Libyans from looting. This is based on the account in To Benghazi, by Gavin Long.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Within sight of Barce on February 5th, 1941 (UPDATED)

The 2/8th Australian Battalion was on the edge of a fertile land, and could see Barce in the distance. They found that "the Italian rearguard had blown six large craters in the road and destroyed a bridge". The leading unit encountered a Hurricane pilot who had been forced to land after shooting down an Italian fighter. He had observed the Italians withdrawing from his hiding place. In the afternoon, the 6th Australian Divisional Cavalry was reconnoitering the area and found an alternate rout that should be passable. Brigadier Robinson sent the 2/4th and 2/11th Battalions in trucks in that direction. The 2/8th would need to continue up the road, as best they could, towards Barce. One squadron of the 11th Hussars, with one tank squadron, led by Colonel Combe, had pushed out of Msus in the early morning and had reached Antelat at 10:32am. The Italians had already withdrawn. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Friday, August 26, 2005

We hear of Jock Campbell

General Creagh sent out a "flying column" commanded by Lt-Col Jock Campbell, in response to General O'Connor's order to send a force past Soluch "through Antelat" to block the retreating Italian army. Air reconnaissance could see long lines of vehicles on the road, headed towards Tripolitania. Jock Campbell's force consisted "of the 2/Rifle Brigade and two batteries of artillery". Jock Campbell was a colorful character who appeared periodically on the scene, until he was killed in an automobile accident in March 1942. He was eventually promoted to Major-General, and had a VC. His group was to advance, and be under Colonel Combe's command. The 11th Hussars and Jock Cambell's force (nicknamed "Jockforce") would head for the vicinity of Sidi Saleh to block the road from Benghazi to Agedabia. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The 7th Armoured Division on February 4th, 1941

At daybreak on February 4th, 1941, the rememnants of the 7th Armoured Division headed for Mechili. The tank strength was now down to 40 or 50 cruiser tanks (a regiment) and 80 light tanks (barely two regiments). They only had supplies for two days, which reflected the lack of supply transport. A squadron of the 11th Hussars headed the column and drove off 20 Italians when they arrived in Msus. By evening, the 11th Hussars squadron had advanced another 30 miles towards Antelat.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The divisional cavalry bags a wanted foe

In an ambush at the Wadi Derna, troops of the Italian 86th Regiment had fired on the 6th Division Cavalry's medical aid post. The cavalry men had "sworn revenge". On February 4th, 1941, Lieutenant Mills led a troop along a road in the north through Beda Littoria and towards Luigi Razza. At Luigi Razza they encountered a group of 300 forelorn Italian troops marching along the road. The cavalry fired a burst of machinegun fire over their heads and they surrendered. They were part of the 86th Regiment. Two carriers were sent to escort the prisoners to the rear and the rest advanced until they reached another break in the road. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The advance on February 4th, 1941

Brigadier Savige's brigade had no move forward in a piece-meal fashion. The 2/5th Battalion was reduced to marching. The 2/6th and 2/7th had borrowed trucks. General Mackay had already decided to push Robertson's 19th Brigade through the 17th, with all battalions on borrowed trucks. Three of 11th Hussars armoured cars lead the advancing 19th Brigade, along with a troop of 6th Australian Division Cavalry. At one point, they surprised Italians laying mines. As they disembarked to remove the mines, they were his by machine gun fire that disabled or destroyed all three armoured cars. This ambush took place near dusk on February 4th. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Italian retreat in early February 1941 (corrected)

The signs seen from air reconnaissance on February 3rd, 1941 led General O'Connor to believe that if he waited longer, the Italians would have succeeded in withdrawing their forces from Cyrenaica without further losses. The plan had been to wait until February 12th to send the 7th Armoured Division across country to block the retreat. The new plan was to send the 7th Armoured Division to Msus as a first step, and then on to Soluch. The 6th Australian Division was to continue to pursue the Italians. The 16th Australian Brigade, sitting at Tobruk, lost their vehicles so that the rest of the 6th Australian Division could continue to advance. Infantry divisions were not normally equipped with enough transport to be "motorized".

Sunday, August 21, 2005

February 2nd, 1941 in Western Cyrenaica

The situation on February 2nd was that the 11th Hussars found that first Eluet el Asel had been abandoned by the Italians. Then, as the British and Australians sent patrols out to reconnoiter, they found that not just the fort, but Giovanni Berta and Cahaulan were abandoned. The 6th Australian Divisional Cavalry and carriers from the 2/7th Battalion reached Giovanni Berta in the afternoon. Brigadier Savige made his headquarters in the local school, that night. Progress had been delayed by the need to repair the roads and because of minefields. The 17th Australian Brigade had advanced 70 miles in three days, much of it by foot, and the next phase would require them to rest and recuperate before advancing. They might only have overnight and half of the 3rd to so, however. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The advance to Giovanni Berta on February 1st and 2nd, 1941

On February 1st, 1941, he 2/5th Battalion was advancing towards the Italian town Giovanni Berta. The terrain was so bad, that the divisional commander, as well as Brigadier Savige, had thought that the battalion should pull back to better ground, so that they could be transported in trucks. The 2/5th, however, didn't have a radio, and they had moved forward for 5 hours before they were informed of their commanders' decision. It happened that the 2/5th had found an Italian supply depot with food and blankets. Water was available from springs, so the advance could continue "along the north side of the wadi without his vehicles". On February 2nd, the 11th Hussars found that the Italians had withdrawn in the night. Colonel Combe and Brigadier Savige had apparently predicted this, as that had become the pattern. The Italians were attempting to perserve their fighting strength, while slowing the British and Australian advance. This is based on the account in Gavin Long's book To Benghazi.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The 2/6th Australian Battalion on the attack on February 1st, 1941

The 2/6th Australian Battalion was to go over to the attack on February 1st, 1941. The 2/6th was on the track to Chaulan on the previous evening. The battalion, ably led by Porter, would attack with two rifle companies and the carrier platoon. They would be supported by artillery. The carriers would move around the right. When they did, the Italians withdrew. The company on that flank advanced and took at least 380 prisoners. The next objective was to move past Eluet el Asel, an Italian fort that blocked progress towards Givoanni Berta. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The 6th Australian Division on January 31st, 1941

By dusk on January 31st, 1941, the 6th Australian Division was positioned in a broad front to the west of Derna. The 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions advanced along the coast road, lead by a company of the 2/4th Battalion. To the South, the 2/5th, 2/6th, and 2/7th Battalions were advancing to the west, towards the general direction of Chaulan. To their southwest were the 11th Hussars and the 6th Divisional Cavalry.Brigadier Savige, on the south side, had his reserve battalion, the 2/7th move up to "form a chain of men along which rations and water could be passed across the wadi to the 2/5th." This is based on the account in Gavin Long's To Benghazi.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A hill dominated the route out of Derna

An Italian rearguard had been in a dominating position to prevent a further advance from Derna. Colonel Mitchell ordered one company to lead an assault in the dark, and the others would advance behind them. The way turned out to be heavily mined. The men carefully proceeded, and started to encounter unsuspecting Italian soldiers. When the Australians reached the top, they "completely surprised fifty Italians in an old fort there and made them prisoners." By the time that they had arrived, they could hear trucks driving away. The Australians started to advance, only to be brought under fire by the next rearguard group, concealed in the difficult terrain. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Road Discipline

When General Mackay, commanding general of the 6th Australian Division, arrived at Derna on January 31st, he was appalled by the lack of road discipline. He was also concerned about the obvious signs of looting. The general was not aware of the history, so he made the natural conclusion that it was Australians doing the looting. After his observations about the lack of road discipline, General Mackay wrote instructions to his subordinate commanders on the subject. The immediate need was to prepare to advance to the west, and the division needed to be prepared to face as stubborn resistance as it had at Derna. This is based on the account in Gavin Long's book To Benghazi.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

After Derna fell

After Derna fell, the Libyans started looting the Italian settlement. The 2/11 battalion stopped that. Gavin Long writes that when new troops came forward, they carried on with the looting. This included both British and Australians. The Australian "deputy-assistant provost marshal" concluded that Derna had been looted four times:
  1. by Italian troops, when the Italian civilians had been evacuated
  2. when Italian police were withdrawn and Libyan police were left in charge
  3. when Libyan police were withdrawn
  4. "by the Arabs when the garrison left town"
The small amount of looting by Australians didn't amount to much, compared to what preceded it. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The fall of Derna

Late on January 29th, 1941, the 2/11th Battalion was heavily shelled. Brigadier Louch thought that this might have been a final flurry before Derna was abandoned. He ordered that a patrol should be sent forward after the firing had stopped. They were blocked, and by morning, there were fires visible in Derna. Further attempt to advance were met with machine gun fire. After dawn, some Libyans scaled the escarpment to inform Brigadier Louch that the Italians had withdrawn, and the Australians were able to enter Derna. Derna marked the eastern edge of a fertile area that had been colonized by the Italians. It was an oasis of civilization amid the harsh desert.

Friday, August 12, 2005

While a direct attack on Derna would be difficult, outflanking would succeed

The Italians in the vicinity of Derna were staging a vigorous defence, on January 27-28, 1941. Their artillerymen were firing off large stocks of ammunition that were making the Australians very uncomfortable. Late on January 28th, the 11th Hussars had sent armoured cars to Chauan, where they encountered an Italian group that was situated across the tracks leading to Italian settlements (Gavin Long calls them a "colony"). The 17th Australian Brigade was now positioned to the left of the 19th Brigade. The divisional cavalry was now to their left, and in contact with the 11th Hussars. On the night of Janary 29th, the Italians had withdrawn from Derna. General Bergonzoli, the XXth Corps commander expected an attack, and withdrew before it could occur.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Australian position in front of Derna seemed precarious

On January 27th, the order had gone out to the Australians to stand off from Derna. As they started the process, the Italians built up a force of about 1,000 very energetic troops. The battalion commander, Dougherty, decided that his battalion needed to pretend to be a larger force. He had some trucks driven back and forth on the Martuba road to raise dust. Meanwhile, a patrol from the 6th Australian Division Cavalry was ambushed and a truck damaged and a carrier knocked out by hidden anti-tank guns. Another troop drove up, into the ambush, where they ran onto mines and were hit by anti-tank and machine gun fire. Through the 27th, the Italians put up a strong fight. That night, though, Shanahan's company captured Fort Rudero, with "290 prisoners and five field guns". This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

General O'Connor decided to do a feint to the west and northwest

After the disappointment of the Italians at Derna escaping, General O'Connor decided that with the forces at his disposal, he could send the 6th Australian Division against Derna to see if the Italians would believe that the general thrust of the offensive would be towards the the west and northwest. The British believe that the Italian 60th Division, with 6,500 troops, was still in the Derna area. The real line of advance was to be across the desert to the southwest, to seal off the Italian escape route. The British were just not ready for that, until almost mid-February. The Australian 17th and 19th Brigades would take Derna, the 16th Brigade would move into Mechili, and the 7th Armoured Division would head for the coast road, "south of Benghazi". This is based on the account in To Benghazi, by Gavin Long.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Italian escape from Mechili on January 27, 1941

It was early on January 27th that General O'Connor was informed that the Italian force in Mechili had escaped during the night. That happened after General O'Connor had ordered the 7th Armoured Division to prevent such an escape, so we can understand the general's anger. A search from the air found that the Italian column was moving to the northwest. There was some benefit to Mechili being empty, as that allowed free access across the desert. Gavin Long says that at this pint, the 7th Armoured Division had "50 cruiser and 95 light tanks" left. This was when the arrival of two 2nd Armoured Division tanks was expected within about 10 days. Until more fuel and supplies could be brought forward to resupply the 7th Armoured Division, the advance would depend on the 6th Australian Division. This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Monday, August 08, 2005

"Old stone forts"

On January 26th, 1941, Brigadier Robertson, ordered his brigade to advance on Derna, as there was word that they Italians had pulled back from their forward positions. They quickly found that Derna was still being strongly defended. From one of the old stone forts, artillery was positioned to fire, "point-blank", what I would call "over open sights". The Italians even counterattacked Australian positions, at one point, although they were beaten back. No.3 Squadron RAAF, flying reconnaissance, saw a large Italian force very close to the southwest. Brigadier Robertson was concerned that this force with 200 trucks might be an attack on his weak flank. This changed the plans, as the Australians were now ordered to contain, but not attack the Italians near Derna. General O'Connor still hoped to defeat the force around Mechili, from where it seemed that this Italians

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The attack on the airfield, near Derna, was the 2/11 Battalion's first combat experience

The 2/11 Battalion, from the 19th Australian Brigade, was from west Australia, according to Gavin Long. They had not seen any real action until the attack on the airfield near Derna. At 1:30pm on January 25th, 1941, Captain Honner's company moved forward . They quickly outfought some Italian motorcyclists, and then kept moving under heavy fire, until they needed to take cover. On lesson learned from the capture of Bardia was the advantage offered by swift movement. Neither the Northumberland Fusiliers nor the anti-tank guns were able to get close enough to help. Captain Honner personally reconnoitered the forward positions to determine the location of the Italian machiner guns and artillery. Private Graffin lay in the open and fired a BREN gun at the Italian positions. Honner's men were able to find a 3in mortar and 6 bombs, and brought that to the forward position. Honner hoped to overrun the buildings after nightfall. A few mortar bombs did the trick, and they were able to reach the hangers in the dark. While Honner's company was fighting, Captain Egan's company was able to move across a corner of the airfield to the escarpment overlooking Derna. After the fight, Captain Honner's company had lost 2 killed and "21 wounded severely enough to be sent back to the field ambulance and beyond". This is based on the account in To Benghazi.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Italians could fight well

The 6th Australian Divisional Cavalry spearhead, under Onslow's command, was near an airfield on the plain that descends towards Derna. They realized that they would not be able to enter Derna without more troops than they had. It would take an infantry assault. They thought that the airfield might be easily taken. Elements of the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade were arriving on the scene. The cavalrymen offered encouragement, which was needed, as the terrain was flat, with no cover. The Italian fire pinned down the advancing 2/11th Battalion. This was on January 25th, 1941. With darkness, the Australians thought that they should be able to take the buildings from which the heaviest fire was coming. Early on January 26th, the Italians counterattacked, but withdrew after a fight. While this was happening, it bought time for the main Italian body to withdraw, to General O'Connor's disappointment. This is based on Gavin Long's account in To Benghazi.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Near Beda Fomm on February 5th and 6th, 1941

Elements of the 7th Armoured Division had been directed to move west, but when "Combe Force" (as the augmented 11th Hussars battlegroup has become known) was astride the coast road, southwest of Antelat, General Creagh realized that the 7th Armoured Brigade needed to head south as fast as they could go. The 7th Armoured Division Support Group was left in the north to continue fighting there. On February 6th, in the morning, "the fort at Sceleidima was attacked". After three hours, the garrison fled. The Support Group took Soluch and moved west towards Benghazi. The 19th Australian Brigade, from the 6th Australian Division, "reached Barce on February 5th". They also headed for Benghazi, on the 6th. The going was slow due to rain and mined roads. The real action would take place at Beda Fomm on February 6th. Combe Force was astride the coast road, in the south. The 4th Armoured Brigade stop the Italians from breaking through and escaping. The 2nd RTR was down to 19 cruiser and 7 light tanks, at this point. The 7th Hussars were reduced to 1 cruiser and 29 light tanks. They attacked the Italian rear. The 3rd Hussars, with one squadron, were blocking, as best they could, the tracks to Soluch and Sceleidema, out of Antelat. Two squadrons, one of 6 light tanks, and another of 7 cruiser tanks, attacked the Italian column from the east. This is based on the account in Vol.I of the Official History.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The British advance in early February 1941

General O'Connor ordered General Creagh to cut off the Italian retreat from Cyrenaica. Based on air reconnaissance, he ordered the composite force from 11th Hussars, 1st KDG, and artillery (perhaps a later name) to head southwest, rather than to the west.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The advance to Msus in February 1941

With the approval of General Wavell, General O'Connor ordered the advance to Msus. In order to hide their intentions of going across country, the force, partly composed of the 11th Hussars, left Mechili on February 4th, 1941, heading across terrain not previously scouted. The force consisted of the 11th Hussars HQ and C Squadron, along with B Squadron from the 1st King's Dragoon Guards from the 2nd Armoured Division. The rest of the 11th Hussars were detached to operate with the 6th Australian Division and the 7th Armoured Division Support Group. The advance was supported by a flight from the No.208 Army Cooperation squadron. This was a mixed flight of Lysanders and Hurricanes. They reached Msus by 3pm, and found that the Italian garrison had already left. Some armoured cars continued on "towards Antelat". They traveled 30 miles past Msus. The entired 7th Armoured Division moved up to the east of Msus by dawn on February 5th.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

General O'Connor's plan in late January 1941

After it was clear that General Babini and the Italian armoured unit had escaped from Mechili, General O'Connor analyzed the situation and made a new plan. He believed that strong Italian forces were posted in the high ground in "the Jebel". There were reports that they were supported by German forces, possibly with 88mm AA guns. A direct assault on Benghazi no longer seemed like a reasonable plan. The indirect approach always was appealing. Send two brigades of the 6th Australian Division along the coast road towards Benghazi. Send the 7th Armoured Division, supported by one infantry brigade towards Msus, across desert in the south. The timing was now an issue. The 7th Armoured Brigade tanks were desperately in need of maintenance. Two 2nd Armoured Division regiments were due to arrive somewhere between February 7th and 9th, 1941. While he waited, he would put the best tanks (cruiser and light) into the 4th Armoured Brigade. Now, a move forward would not be until sometime between February 10th and 11th. This is based on the account in Vol.I of the Official History.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The situation in Western Cyrenaica in late January and early February 1941

General O'Connor had ordered that the 7th Armoured Division not let General Babini's force escape from Mechili, but they succeeded withdrawing to the north in the darkness. The 4th Armoured Brigade attempted to pursue, but rains, soft ground, and mechanical breakdowns, and lack of fuel thwarted that effort. The Italian armoured brigade was still intact, with 100 medium tanks and 200 light tanks. Of course, only slightly more than half were still runners. The British armour was in bad shape, with too many miles and only 50 running cruiser tanks. Marshal Graziani, Governor-General of Libya, decided to save what forces were remaining, and in early February, ordered a withdrawal from Cyrenaica. He left Benghazi on February 3rd. This is based on the account in Vol.I of the Official History.

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