(Feb. 5, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, Commonwealth Forces completed the destruction of the remnants of the Italian Tenth Army at Beda Fomm in Libya.
Beda Fomm, is in the province of Cyrenaica, which is the eastern most of the three Libyan provinces, and borders on Egypt in the east.
Beda Fomm was near the coast in the west of the province, east of the Gulf of Sirte and south of Jebel Akhdar, which was a raised area with plenty of water and vegetation.
By this time, the Tenth Army had been driven out of Egypt and out of most of Cyrenaica. The Governor-Gen. of Libya, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, on Feb. 1, 1941, decided to abandon Cyrenaica and concentrate his forces for the defense of the western-most Libyan province of Tripolitania, and the colony’s capital of Tripoli.
He intended to concentrate the remnants of Tenth Army at Sirte, which was described as, “...a shabby little Arab village of mud huts, clustered on the banks of a foul smelling stream.”
Twelve and a half miles south of Sirte lies the village of Qasr Abu Hadi, where long time Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was born on June 7, 1942.
Marshal Graziani had, on Dec. 23, 1940, promoted Gen. Giuseppe Tellera from a corps commander to commander of the remnants of the Tenth Army.
Since that time, his army had done nothing but endure beatings and retreat. Bardia had been captured on Jan. 3, 1941.
That was followed by the fall of Tobruk on Jan. 23 and Derna on Feb. 3. Benghazi was abandoned on Feb. 6. The remnants of Gen. Giuseppe Tellera’s Tenth Army consisted of elements of the Sabratha, Pavia, and Brescia Infantry Divisions, commanded by Mario Soldarelli, Pietro Zaglio and Bortolo Zambon and an armored brigade commanded by Gen. Valentino Babini.
The Commonwealth commander, Gen. Richard O’Connor, planned to send the 7th Armored Division, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Michael O’Moore Creagh, south of Jebel Akhdar, through the desert, to intercept the Tenth Army’s retreat from Derna along the coast road, the Via Balbia.
The problem for the Commonwealth was logistics. The British tanks had been operating since the first week of December and all needed major work.
The 6th Australian Division, commanded by Gen. Iven Mackay, was at that point not motorized, so they, like the Italians, were mostly walking across the desert. And by this time, the Division had walked 250 miles from Sidi Barrani, captured Bardia, then captured Tobruk, finally captured Derna, and were heading toward Benghazi, which today has a population of 630,000, and is the second largest city in Libya.
These Aussies were tired and needed a break. In addition, their supply line was stretched pretty taut.
Gen. O’Connor sent the 7th Armored Division through the desert while Gen. Mackay’s Australians slogged along the coast road chasing the Italians. But the desert route was very rough on the tanks, so Major-Gen. Michael O’Moore Creagh, the commander of the British Amour, formed a wheeled combat force that could travel faster and use less fuel.
At dawn on Feb. 4, a force of about 2,000, under the command of Lt. Col. John Comb, set out across the dessert from Fort Mechili in an effort to intercept the retreating Italians. The intersection point would be at the village of Beda Fomm, on the Via Balbia, about 70 miles south of Benghazi.
The lead elements began arriving at Antelat, 124 miles distant, the next day. Antelat was a small Arab village about 20 miles east of the coast.
By 2 p.m., the British had established a blocking force of about 2,000 across the coastal road, 30 minutes ahead of Tenth Army’s arrival. Within an hour, the Italians launched their first attack.
Another came at 5 p.m. By the end of the day, the British had to deal with 5,000 prisoners.
The fighting grew more intense on Feb. 6, as the Italians struggled to avoid capture. Nine times they hurled themselves at the British guns and each time they were thrown back.
Gen. Mackay’s Australians reached the outskirts of Benghazi on the evening of Feb. 6, and entered the city unopposed to the cheers of its Libyan residents! Six Italian generals were captured with the city.
At dawn on Feb. 7, the Aussies began attacking the retreating Italians from the north. Now they were being squeezed from north, south and east, with the sea to the west.
Gen. Tellera led his tankers on a last-ditch effort to avoid capture. The last 20 of the Italian medium tanks broke through the British line, and were only stopped by British artillery yards from British headquarters.
After the battle, Gen. Tellera was found in his tank, badly wounded. He died in the hospital the next day. The British buried him with full military honors in Benghazi.
He was, posthumously, awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valor, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor.
With the death of the brave Gen. Tellera, command devolved to Lt. Gen. Annibale Bergonzoli. With the balance of 7th Armored arriving across the desert, and the Aussies in their rear, the Italians had no choice but to surrender — including the elusive Barba Elettrica.
Gen. O’Connor observed that, “I think this may be termed a complete victory as none of the enemy escaped.” Gen. O’Connor’s bravado would prove premature when he was, himself, captured within less than two months.
Italian losses at Beda Fomm included 25,000 prisoners, 107 tanks, and 93 guns.
Commonwealth forces proceeded to occupy Ajdabiya, which today has a population of 77,000 and is located 93 miles south of Benghazi, 530 miles east of Tripoli and four miles east of the Gulf of Sidra.
There, on Feb. 9, 1941, Prime Minister Churchill ordered a halt, although some British troops proceeded to El Agheila, located at the southern end of the Gulf of Sidra, where they would soon have their first encounter with the vaunted Afrika Korps. Today, El Agheila has a population of less than 5000.
Thinking that all was under control in Libya, the prime minister began to transfer resources to Greece, where they were squandered. By the time the Germans arrived in Libya, the Commonwealth’s desert veterans were being wasted in Greece.
Next week: Afrika Korps Arrives In Tripoli
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: email@example.com.