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After the fall of Bardia (5 January 1941) and Tobruk (22 January), the Commonwealth command aimed at completely destroying the remainder of the 10th Army, which was retreating from Cyrenaica. The 6th Australian Infantry Division headed towards Derna, advancing along the Via Balbia, while the 7th Armoured Division was sent into the backcountry, along the Trigh Capuzzo track, towards Mechili and Fort Capuzzo.
The 6th Australian Division was temporarily halted at Derna by the 60th Infantry Division Sabratha reinforced by the Libyan paratrooper battalion Ascari del Cielo and reserve units, while the 7th Armoured Division approached Mechili, a crossroads of strategic importance; its fall would have allowed the British forces to outflank the retreating 10th Army and encircle it.
The Italian forces defending Mechili consisted of the Babini Group, the Piana Motorized Group and the Bignami Column. The Babini Group included 138 officers, 2,200 men (which included the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment), 57 M13/40 medium tanks, 25 Fiat L3 tankettes, six armoured cars, eight 75/27 mm guns, eight 100/17 mm guns, eight 47/32 mm guns, sixteen machine guns (twelve Fiat 1935 and four 12,7 mm machine guns), seven Solothurn anti-tank rifles, six mortars, 30 flamethrowers, 90 light trucks, 160 heavy trucks and 180 motorcycles. The Piana Group was composed of 121 officers, 2,241 men, twelve 105/28 mm guns, twenty-four 75/27 mm guns, twelve 65/17 mm guns, sixteen Fiat 35 machine guns, eighteen 45 mm mortars, ten flamethrowers, 115 light trucks, 83 heavy trucks and 120 motorcycles. The Bignami Column was composed of the XXV and XXVII Bersaglieri Motorized Battalions, a group of twelve 75/27 mm guns detached from the Bologna Division and the VI and XXI Tank Battalions, with 37 M13/40 tanks each. Of this force, the Piana Group and the Bignami Column were kept in reserve.
The 7th Armoured Division had 50 Cruiser tanks and 95 Light Tanks Mk VI. The vanguard of the 7th Armoured Division was the 4th Armoured Brigade, with the 3rd Hussars (equipped with 25 light tanks and nine cruiser tanks), the 7th Hussars (26 Mk VI and one cruiser) and the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (six Mk VI, three Cruiser Mk I, seven were Cruiser Mk II and eleven Cruiser Mk III).
The battle took place between 24 and 25 January 1941. Near Mechili, on 24 January, a squadron of light tanks of the 7th Hussars ran into about 50 M13/40 Italian tanks of the Babini Group (this was the first tank clash which involved the newly arrived M13/40s). The M13/40s attacked the weaker Mk VIs, destroying six of them and forcing the others to retreat.
The British force was reorganized for a new attack; the more powerful Cruiser tanks were brought up, with 2-pounder anti-tank guns portée and some 25-pounder field guns, to support the tanks. The pursuing Italian tanks fell into an ambush by Cruisers and artillery; in the ensuing fight (which took place near a ridge, where the Italian tanks had sky-lined themselves), nine M13/40s were destroyed, for the loss of one A9 Cruiser (Italian sources claimed another 20–25 British tanks damaged). After this, the Italian force (having also lost radio contact with its command) retreated to Mechili.
The battle was stalled at this point, since the Italians were still holding Mechili with its crossroads. General Giuseppe Tellera intended to use the Babini Group to harass the southern flank of the British, to cover a withdrawal from Mechili but Marshal Rodolfo Graziani ordered him to wait on events. On 26 January, Graziani received wrong intelligence, which grossly overestimated the size of the approaching British force (150 tanks approaching Mechili) and he ordered Babini to withdraw, believing that he would not be able to repulse the attack. The 7th Armoured Division entered Mechili unopposed on 27 January; the road to Cyrenaica was now open.
Unlike Tobruk and Bardia, Derna had not been subjected to bombing before the attack. On 25 January in the north, the 2/11th Australian Battalion engaged the 60th Infantry Division Sabratha and the 10th Bersaglieri of the Babini Group at Derna airfield, making slow progress against determined resistance. Italian bombers and fighters flew sorties against the 2/11th Australian Battalion, as it attacked the airfield and high ground at Siret el Chreiba. The 10th Bersaglieri swept the flat ground with field artillery and machine-guns, stopping the Australian advance 3,000 yards (2,700 m) short of the objective.
The 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to encircle Mechili and cut the western and north-western exits, while the 7th Armoured Brigade cut the road from Mechili to Slonta but the Babini Group had retreated from Mechili during the night. The group retreated south of Slonta to Bir Melez and Antelat, covering 140 miles (220 km) through sandstorms and air attacks, pursued by the 4th Armoured Brigade until it had to stop on 28 January due to lack of fuel, exhaustion and camel tracks turning to deep mud in the rains. On 26 January, Graziani ordered Tellera to continue the defence of Derna and to use the Babini Group to stop an advance westwards from Mechili–Derna. Tellera requested more tanks but this was refused, until the defences of Derna began to collapse the next day. During the day, the 2/4th Australian Battalion in the Derna–Giovanni Berta area, attacked and cut the Derna–Mechili road and a company crossed Wadi Derna during the night. On the northern edge of the wadi, a bold counter-attack with artillery support was made across open ground by the 10th Bersaglieri of the Babini Group, which with reports in the morning that the group was attacking round the southern flank, deterred the Australians from continuing the advance on Derna, which cost 40 Bersaglieri killed and 56 captured.
During 27 January, Australian attempts to attack were met by massed artillery-fire, against which the Australian artillery were rationed to ten rounds per-gun-per-day; the 2/4th Australian Battalion repulsed another battalion-strength counter-attack. A column of Bren carriers of the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment was sent south to reconnoitre the area where the Italian tanks had been reported and was ambushed by a party of the Babini Group with concealed anti-tank guns and machine guns; four Australians were killed and three taken prisoner. The 11th Hussars found a gap at Chaulan south of Wadi Derna, that threatened the Babini Group and the defenders in Derna with encirclement and general Annibale Bergonzoli ordered a retirement. The Italians disengaged on the night of 28/29 January, before the garrison could be trapped and Babini Group rearguards cratered roads, planted mines and booby-traps and managed to conduct several skilful ambushes, which slowed the British pursuit.
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