(April 2, 2021) This week, 80 ago, Axis forces under the command of Gen. Erwin Rommel captured an old Turkish fort in the middle of the desert at a place called El Mechili. El Mechili is a small village located 170 miles east of Benghazi, at the eastern end of Jebel Akhdar, which was a raised area with plenty of water and vegetation.
The Axis had captured the village of Agedabia on the Mediterranean coast 93 miles south of Benghazi, on April 2. Because of the discovery of oil, its population has ballooned to 416,000. Although Gen. Rommel’s titular superior, Gen. Italo Gariboldi, had ordered him to halt, Gen. Rommel, being on the scene and at the front, could see the Commonwealth units withdrawing in disarray, and elected to continue the pursuit.
He divided his forces into four columns, three of which he sent into the desert toward El Mechili and Msus. Msus is located 81 miles southeast of Benghazi, in the desert. He pushed most of the Brescia Infantry Division, commanded by Bortolo Zambon, together with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, of the 5th Light Panzerdivision, commanded by Baron Irnfried von Wechmar, up the Via Balbia, along the coast towards Benghazi, which was captured in the early morning of April 4.
After its capture, Gen. Zambon’s Brescia Division pursued the retreating soldiers of the 9th Australian Division along the Via Balbia, while Baron von Wechmar’s 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion peeled off, and headed toward Ft. Mechili.
South of this column was 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. Advance elements of the Ariete arrived at Bir Tengedir, at 9 p.m. on April 4.
Between these two columns, was a column that included the rest of Gen. Johannes 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, arriving on April 6. Initially, this column only consisted of 10 trucks, carrying a machine-gun battalion. The next day, it arrived at Derna and its airfield, resulting in the capture of British Generals Sir Philip Neame, commander of Commonwealth forces, Richard O’Conner, and John F.B. Comb, together with 900 other prisoners. Gen. Neame is the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the American Medal of Honor, and an Olympic Gold Medal (for shooting).
Another column also headed to Mechili included the Pavia Infantry Division, commanded by Major-Gen. Pietro Zaglio.
While these columns were crossing the desert (for the first time!), Rommel was in his Fiesler-Storch, a light airplane, which he often piloted. He was monitoring the troops’ progress, and if they weren’t moving quickly enough, he would hustle them along, threatening to “come down!”
For the Commonwealth forces at Mechili, commanded by Gen. Michael Gambier-Parry, the future was becoming more clear, and the vision was not rosy! On April 6, and again the next day, the Axis demanded he surrender. That day the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade attempted an unsuccessful breakout. Upon Gen. Gambier-Perry’s refusal, the position was attacked during the night of April 7 from the north, south and east.
These were joined by elements of the Pavia Infantry Division, commanded by Col. Ugo Montemurro. In addition to Gen. Gambier-Perry, four other Allied generals and 2,000 soldiers, on April 8, surrendered to Col. Montemurro.
With the capture of El Mechili, the Axis forces solved their fuel problems for a month. In addition to the much-needed fuel and other stores, including very important documents which gave Rommel a better understanding of the enemy, Gen. Zaglio’s Pavia Division also captured an armored SUV. The Italians presented it to Rommel, and it became his signature command vehicle, his “Mammut” (Mammoth).
A German war reporter, Fritz Lucke, described it as, “an armored box as big as a bus, on giant balloon tires as big and fat as the undercarriage wheels of a Junkers plane. Walls are windowless and painted in blue-gray camouflage tints. Only the driver and his co-driver have windshields, protected behind armored visors.” Inside the “Mammut” was a pair of goggles that became Rommel’s signature look, as he wore them above the visor of his cap and below the eagle.
But Gen. Rommel refused to allow the Axis’ soldiers to rest on their laurels. He immediately ordered them to head north to Tobruk. Meanwhile, the 9th Australian Division, commanded by Gen. Leslie Morshead, together with a brigade of Indian troops utilized the delay caused by the action at Fort Mechili to retreat to Tobruk and began rejuvenating its defenses. A months-long siege would soon ensue.
The effect on Axis’ morale — especially the Italians — was incredible. From the devastating defeats of December-February, came captivating victories.
Next week: Invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece
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.