(March 19, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the new German commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) struck his first blow when he captured El Agheila from the British.
It is located on the coast at the bottom of the Gulf of Sidra, in far western Cyrenica. It had been captured by the British Western Desert Force in Februaryf 1941.
The first German troops arrived in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, on Feb. 11, 1941, and after a parade through the capital, were dispatched to a position east of Sirte, five days later.
Sirte lies 286 miles east of Tripoli and at the time was described as, “. . .a shabby little Arab village of mud huts, clustered on the banks of a foul-smelling stream.”
One of those huts, 12 miles south of Sirte, was the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi. Now, because of the discovery of oil, the city has a population of 128,000.
After discussions with the German Führer and the Italian Duce, Gen.f Erwin Rommel, on March 24, sent a force to attack El Agheila. The Brescia and Pavia Infantry Divisions, commanded by generals Bortolo Zabon and Pietro Zaglio, established a position 20 miles west of El Agheila.
The Ariete Armored Division, commanded by Ettore Baldassarre, guarded the right/southern flank.
At dawn the Axis attacked. After a short fight, the Commonwealth troops withdrew. They retreated 40 miles northeast to Marsa al-Brega, which at the time was merely a small fishing village, but now is an industrial town of 7,000, and is located on the southernmost point of the Gulf of Sidra.
Even though his superior, Gen. Italo Garibaldi, objected, Rommel continued the attack on Marsa al-Brega, which was defended by the British 3rd Army Brigade, placed behind extensive mine fields and supported by the Royal Air Force.
The Axis attack began on March 30, and by April 1, it had been captured along with 800 prisoners.
By April 2, Agedabia had been captured and the Axis were on the move again, up the Via Balbia Road, which hugged the Libyan coast. Agedabia is located 4 miles from the eastern end of the Gulf of Sidra, 530 miles east of Tripoli, and 93 miles west of Benghazi. Today, it has a population of 77,000.
Now, Gen.Rommel received a message from his titular Commander, Gen. Giraboldi, which said, “From information I have received, I deduce that your advance continues. This is contrary to my orders. I asked you to wait for me before continuing the advance.”
However, Gen. Giraboldi was several hundred miles away in his headquarters at Tripoli, while Rommel was at the front and could see the Commonwealth troops withdrawing and noting their disarray.
Now they unveiled their tank tactics. The German tanks would fake an attack, and then withdraw, hoping that the British armor would chase. Usually it did.
The British armor would chase the German tanks right into the barrels of the 88s which had no problem destroying any British tank thrown against them. It’s range far exceeded their own.
At that point, Rommel decided to not only pursue the retreating enemy along the coast road, but to also split his forces and cross the chord of the bulge, known as the Bight of Bamba, and advance along tracks, instead of roads, in the desert, to Derna on the coast, in an attempt to intercept and destroy the enemy.
This is what the Commonwealth forces had done in February, when they were chasing the remnants of the Italian Tenth Army. They had met the Italians at Beda Fomm on the Via Balbia. Only Rommel would throw in a wrinkle. He sent three columns across the desert!
The Germans then advanced 100 miles east to the Arco dei Fileni, which had been constructed by the Italians to mark the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and which Col. Gaddafi had dynamited in 1973.
By this time, Commonwealth forces were suffering several disadvantages. Some of their best soldiers were being shipped to Greece, where they would be wasted. Their supplies had to travel almost a thousand miles.
Before, they didn’t have to contend with enemy airpower, but now they had to contend with both the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the German Luftwaffe .
And the enemy’s equipment was better. Even the Italian equipment had improved. Gen. Baldassarre’s Ariete Armored Division now had much improved tanks.
Although they weren’t as good as the German or British, they were a whole lot better than the ones the Commonwealth had previously faced.
And the Ariete had received training in Germany, which greatly improved its performance. And what the British thought was an advantage — “Ultra” — was, at this stage, a disadvantage. “Ultra” was the program that allowed the British to decipher the German “Enigma” code machine, so that the British knew the German plans.
Except, in this case, the British knew, from “Ultra,” that Rommel had been ordered not to go on the offensive. But he did!
Once the Axis overran Marsa al-Brega, Rommel sent most of the Italian Brescia Infantry Division with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, of the 5th Light Panzerdivision, commanded by Baron Irnfried von Wechmar in pursuit of the retreating Commonwealth forces up the Via Balbia, along the coast, towards Benghazi.
Meanwhile, a column led by Count Gerhard von Schwerin, consisting of part of the 5th Light Panzerdivision and a reconnaissance battalion from the Ariete Armoured Division, headed to Ben Gania, in the desert, and then to Derna, on the coast, by way of Bir Tengedir.
Between these two columns, was a column which included the rest of Gen. Streich’s 5th Light Panzerdivision, and the rest of Gen. Ettore Baldassare’s Ariete Armored Division, headed east toward El Mechili, by way of Msus and Ben Gania. Another column, under Lt .Col. Gustav Ponath, diverted from Gen. Streich’s column, made for the Via Balbia, near Derna.
Next week: The Naval Battle of Cape Matapan
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. can be contacted at email@example.com.