Major Salvatore Castagna

Major Salvatore Castagna

(Dec. 25, 2020) This week, 80 years ago a regiment of the 6th Australian Division, under the command of George Wootten, was besieging the Italian garrison of Giarabub, commanded by Maj. Salvatore Castagna.

Giarabub, now known as Jaghbub, is located in the eastern Libyan desert, 200 miles south of the Mediterranean port of Bardia.

The administrative seat of the Jaghbub Basic People’s Congress, it is 40 miles west of the Egyptian border, and just north of The Great Sand Sea in the Butnan District. It currently has a population of less than 3,000, mostly Berber.

Giarabub was a part of Egypt, until December 1925, when the British forced Egypt to cede it to Italy, as belated partial compensation for Italy’s help in WWI. This was highly unpopular with the local Bedouin, because Sayyid Muhammid ibn Ali as-Senussi was buried there.

He was the founder of the Senussi religious movement to which many of the Arab tribes adhered.

His grandson, King Idress I was born in Giarabub. He was the leader of the Senussi, and following World War II was made King of Libya by the United Nations.

He claimed to be descended, through his grandfather, from the Prophet Mohammad, through the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah.

The Italian administration, under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, built a barbed wire fence, stretching from Bardia to Giarabub. The wire was 5.6 feet high, stretched from concrete bases.

Forty miles east of Giarabub, in Egypt, is Siwa, which has a population of about 32,000, mostly Berbers, which served as a base for the Australians.

Maj. Castagna’s forces, garrisoned in Giarabub, numbered 1,350 Italian, and 750 Libyan soldiers.

On Dec. 2, 1940, the Australians began arriving at Siwa to relieve the existing British garrison. The first contact between the Australians and the Italians occurred at the Italian outpost at Garn-el-Grein, which is 40 miles north of Giarabub, on Dec. 12.

After some sparring, the Australians on Dec. 24 captured an outpost at Ain Melfa, on the east side of Giarabub, which had been defended by colonial troops. Shortly thereafter, they captured El Qaseibieya, southwest of Giarabub.

An Italian relief convoy was destroyed on Jan. 8, 1941, by the Royal Air Force. This was the last attempt to supply the garrison by land.

After that, it would be up to the Regia Aeronautica. By this time, Commonwealth forces had defeated the Italian Tenth Army and were threatening Tripoli.

On Jan. 9, 1941, the German warlord decided to intervene to prevent his Italian ally from being embarrassed by the loss of Libya.

He opted to send a small force, which, when combined with the Italians, would prevent the further encroachment of Commonwealth forces into Libya. On Feb. 19, the German force became known as “Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK).”

With the air strip subject to bombardment, supplies had to be dropped to Giarabub’s defenders, and they were insufficient to feed the garrison. Libyans began to desert.

By the end of February, most were gone, with 629 captured. In the meantime, the first Germans were arriving in Tripoli, along with their commander, Gen. Erwin Rommel.

On March 17, the heights south of Giarabub were taken by the Australians, and Gen. Rommel sent the garrison his congratulations on their stout defense of the isolated oasis, promising relief soon. Two days later, the heights southeast of Giarabub were taken.

The Australians launched their final attack at 5:15 a.m. on March 21. The next day Deutsches Afrikakorps captured El Agheila, located on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, which had been occupied by Commonwealth forces during their pursuit of the defeated Italian Tenth Army.

After about two days of heavy fighting, the Aussies took Giarabub. During the siege, the Australians lost 17 men killed, and 77 wounded.

The entire Italian garrison was either killed or captured. The next day, Gen. Rommel launched his first offensive, driving Commonwealth forces out of Libya, except for Tobruk. After capturing the garrison, the Aussies withdrew to Siwa, leaving the oasis to the Berbers.

The defenders of Giarabub were hailed as heroes by the Italian government.

Scalera Film produced a movie, “Giarabub,” lionizing the defenders. Goffredo Alessandrini, who was married to Anna Magnini, directed the film, which starred Carlo Ninchi as Maj. Castagna.

Renzo Rossellini, brother of director and producer Roberto Rossellini, composed the score.

Next week: Australians Capture Bardia

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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