(Jan. 22, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Australians continued their pursuit of the beaten Italian Tenth Army, now under the command of Lt.-Gen. Giuseppe Tellera, after capturing Tobruk.
The next stop was Derna, a small port 90 miles west of Tobruk on the Mediterranean.
The commander of Derna’s defenses was Lt.-Gen. Annibale Bergonzoli who had escaped, first from Sidi Barrani to Bardia, then to Tobruk, and now to Derna.
Because of his beard, Gen. Bergonzoli was known as “Barba Elettrica” (“Electric Beard”). Barba Elettrica had commanded the Littorio Division in the Spanish Civil War, and in the recent invasion of Egypt, was commander of the XXIII Corps.
At the time, Derna had a population of about 10,000. Today, its population tops 100,000. The city is located at the eastern end of Jebel Akhdar (“Green Mountain”), making it the rare forested area in Libya. There has been a city at that site for more than 2,000 years.
Of interest to Americans is that the Battle of Derna, in 1805, was the first time American soldiers had been deployed on foreign soil.
The incident arose during the fourth year of the First Barbary War. It was also the first American attempt at “regime change.” Sadly, it was not the last.
The U.S. sought to overthrow the ruler of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli. It sent William Eaton, “Naval Agent to the Barbary States,” to Alexandria, Egypt, and he recruited Yusuf’s brother, Hamet, who had been deposed by Yusuf in 1793. The two began to assemble an “army.”
Most of the 500 soldiers were Arab, Greek, and Levantine, with eight U.S. Marines led by 1st Lt. Presley O’Bannon and Midshipman Pascal Peck.
The new army departed Alexandria on March 8, 1805, following the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with stops at El Alamein and Tobruk, where it was resupplied by U.S. warships, Argus, Hornet, and Nautilus, under the command of Isaac Hull.
The little army arrived at Derna on April 25, and after taking on more supplies and resting, began plotting its next move. On the afternoon of April 27, Eaton launched an assault which, ultimately, was successful. Of the Marines, two were killed and two wounded.
This action was the basis of the line “...to the shores of Tripoli...” in the Marine Hymn, “The Halls of Montezuma.” Shortly after the invaders occupied Derna and Hamet was installed as the Pasha, an army from Tripoli arrived.
It was then learned that peace had been concluded. Hamet and the Americans were secretly removed by the U.S. Navy, leaving the rest to their fate.
At Derna, Barba Elettrica’s forces included elements of Sabratha, Pavia, and Brescia Infantry Divisions commanded by Gens. Guido Della Bono, Pietro Zaglio, and Giuseppe Cremascoli.
In the Italian Army, most infantry divisions had no transportation, so that wherever they went, they walked!
The task of capturing Derna fell to the 6th Australian Division, commanded by Gen. Iven Mackay, which had already captured Bardia and Tobruk.
At the same time, units of the British 7th Armored Division, commanded by Gen. Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh, were ordered to the small, desert village of El Mechili, 50 miles south of Derna, on the southern side of Jebel Akhdar, in an effort to outflank the Italian position at Derna. El Mechili was an old Turkish fort with water.
To prevent the Aussies from outflanking his position, Barba Elettrica placed Gen. Della Bono’s Sabratha Infantry Division, together with a small Libyan parachute unit, between the city and the Derna airport, which was south of Derna.
For the defense of El Mechili, which was further south, the Italians were able to pull together: the “Babini” Group, which included 1,000 of the elite Bersaglieri, the Brigata Corazzata Speciale (Special Armored Brigade), which included 57 medium tanks, a regiment of 75mm guns, and was commanded by Brig.-Gen. Valentino Babini; the “Piana” Group, containing 2,500 soldiers, commanded by Mario Piana; the “Bignami” Column, with two battalions of the elite, motorized, Bersaglieri, commanded by Brig.-Gen. Mario Bignami.
On Jan. 23, the Italians launched a tank attack against the British armor, driving it back. That same day, the 4th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division reached Fort Mechili in the desert, but was unable to take it because of the strength of Italian defenses, requiring the assistance of the rest of the division.
The two armored forces met on the morning of Jan. 24, and fought to a draw. Two days later, the Aussies took on Gen. Della Bono’s Sabratha Division, which had been reinforced by the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment from General Babini’s Group, at the Derna airfield.
With the aid of the Regia Aeronauctica, the Italians held. On the night of Jan. 26, in the face of the entire Australian armored division, the Italians abandoned Fort Mechili.
Two days later, Gen. Bergonzoli, having been out-flanked, ordered the abandonment of the defense of Derna, once again escaping the clutches of the Aussies! They would meet again, in a few days, at Beda Fomm.
The remnants of Gen. Tellera’s Italian Tenth Army began retreating south along the coast of the Gulf of Sirte, on the Via Balbia, first to Benghazi, the capital of the eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica,. Benghazi had a peacetime population of 65,000, 20,000 of whom were Italians.
As for Derna, it changed hands four more times in World War II, and several times in the Civil War, following the American-led regime-change of the Quadafi government.
Next week: Keren
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.