British pursuit 9 December 1940 – 7 February 1941
|Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. B. Combe|
Combeforce or Combe Force, was an ad hoc flying column formed by the Western Desert Force to cut across the desert chord of the Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica and trap the retreating 10th Army, which was retreating along the coast road, the Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia).
Background[edit | edit source]
Operation Compass[edit | edit source]
In early December 1940, the British Western Desert Force began Operation Compass, a raid against the Italian 10th Army (General Giuseppe Tellera), which had conducted the Italian invasion of Egypt in September 1940. The Italians had advanced to Sidi Barrani and established defensive positions in a line of fortified camps, which were overrun during the raid. Sidi Barrani was captured and the scope of Compass was extended and the Italian garrisons in Bardia and then Tobruk were isolated and captured. The 10th Army attempted to establish a defensive line at Derna east of the Jebel Akhdar mountains, with XX Corps (Lieutenant-General Annibale Bergonzoli), comprising the 60th Infantry Division Sabratha and the Babini Group, an improvised armoured brigade, which had lost some of its tanks in Tobruk. The Babini Group, had all of the Fiat M13/40 medium tanks in Libya and held the south-west end of the defensive front near Mechili, the junction of several caravan routes, to block another British outflanking move.
Derna–Mechili[edit | edit source]
On 22 January, the British advanced towards Derna, with the 19th Australian Brigade of the 6th Australian Division and sent another Australian brigade to reinforce the 4th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division south of the Jebel Akhdar, for an advance on Mechili. On 23 January, Tellera ordered a counter-attack against the British as they approached Mechili, to avoid an envelopment of XX Corps from the south but communication within the Babini Group was slow because only the tanks of senior commanders had wireless (the other crews were reliant on flag signals limited to halt, forward, backwards, right, left, slow down and speed up.) Next day, the Babini Group attacked the 7th Hussars of the 4th Armoured Brigade, which was heading west to cut the Derna–Mechili track north of Mechili with 10–15 M13/40s. The Italians lost seven M13s by 11:30 a.m., for the loss of the cruiser and six light tanks.
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 already retired into the hills. On 26 January, Graziani ordered Tellera to continue the defence of Derna and to use the Babini Group to stop an advance west from Mechili–Derna. During 27 January, a column of Bren Gun Carriers of the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment was sent south from the Derna area to reconnoitre the area where the Italian tanks had been reported and was ambushed by part 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 and the Italians disengaged on the night of 28/29 January and rearguards of the Babini Group cratered roads, planted mines and booby-traps and managed to conduct several skillful ambushes, which slowed the British pursuit.
Prelude[edit | edit source]
Pursuit from Mechili[edit | edit source]
At dawn on 4 February, the 11th Hussars left Mechili, along a route towards Beda Fomm, which had not been reconnoitred by ground forces to avoid alerting the Italians. The vehicles were loaded to capacity with supplies fuel and ammunition, the ration of drinking water cut to about a glass a day and halts for food and rest were cut by half. Low-flying air reconnaissance had reported that the going was difficult and for the first 50 miles (80 km) the route was the worst yet encountered. The journey began in high winds and bitter cold and by the time the tail end moved off the winds had risen to gale force. The head of the column drive into windblown sand which cut visibility to nil, while at the tail, drivers and vehicle commanders standing up reading compasses, were hit by frozen rain. By 3:00 p.m. armoured cars had reached Msus, 94 miles (151 km) away, where the garrison left hurriedly and some cars followed up another 30 miles (48 km) to Antelat.
By dawn on 5 February, the tracked vehicles and the rest of the 7th Armoured Division had reached Msus. Creagh had been informed of air reconnaissance that the 10th Army was retreating and O'Connor ordered that the advance be pressed to cut off the Italian retreat. Creagh decided to send the wheeled vehicles on ahead, to block the Via Balbia between Benghazi and Agedabia as quickly as possible and to follow on to the south-west with the tracked vehicles, rather than westwards to Soluch. Combeforce (Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. B. Combe) consisted of an armoured car squadron from each of the 11th Hussars and King's Dragoon Guards, the 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade, an RAF armoured car squadron, six 25-pounder field guns of C Battery 4th Royal Horse Artillery (4th RHA) and the 106th (Lancashire Hussars) Battery RHA, with nine Bofors 37 mm anti-tank guns portée (carried on the back of a lorry, capable of being fired), a total of about 2,000 men.
Combeforce reached Antelat during the morning and by 12:30 p.m. had observers overlooking the Via Balbia west of Beda Fomm and Sidi Saleh, about 48 kilometres (30 mi) south-west of Antelat and 32 kilometres (20 mi) north of Ajedabia, with the rest of Combeforce following on. An Italian convoy drove up about thirty minutes later, ran onto mines and was then engaged by the artillery, anti-tank guns and armoured cars, which threw the column into confusion. Some members of the 10th Bersaglieri tried to advance down the road and others looked for gaps in the ambush on either side of the road.
The Bersaglieri had little effect, being unsupported by artillery, most of which was with the rearguard to the north. The attempts by the Italians to break through became stronger and in the afternoon, the 2nd Rifle Brigade crossed the Via Balbia into the dunes, to block the route south between the road and the sea. Combe also brought up a company behind the roadblock, placed some 25-pounders behind the infantry and kept some armoured cars manoeuvring in the desert to the east, to deter an Italian outflanking move. Several hundred prisoners were taken but only a platoon of infantry could be spared to guard them. The vanguard of the Italian retreat had no tanks, contained few front-line infantry and had been trapped by the ambush which forced them to fight where they stood.
While waiting for the 4th Armoured Brigade, Combe reconnoitred to the north and near a small white mosque found several long, low, north-south ridges with folds between, in which tanks could hide from the road as they moved back and forth to fire at close range. The brigade set off from Msus at 7:30 a.m. but the journey was delayed by moving in single-file through a field of Thermos bombs and the brigade took until 4:00 p.m. to cover the 40 miles (64 km) to Antelat, where they came into the range of Combforce wireless transmissions. Combe briefed Caunter to head for the mosque north of the roadblock and then attack all along the Italian column, to reduce the pressure on Combeforce. Caunter ordered the 7th Hussars and the artillery at full speed to the Via Balbia followed by the 2nd RTR in their slower tanks and the 3rd Hussars were sent north-east, to cut the routes from Soluch and Sceleidima. The brigade moved westwards on hard, flat sand, raising clouds of dust and soon reached the Via Balbia.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
Subsequent operations[edit | edit source]
At the end of February, the 106th (Lancashire Hussars) Anti-tank Regiment, RHA was chosen to become a Light Anti Aircraft (LAA) regiment of three batteries with 36 x 20mm Breda guns captured from the Italians. The regiment was renamed the 106th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA (Lancashire Hussars). In March 1941, the regiment was sent to Greece in Operation Lustre as part of W Force and the regiment was sent to defend the airstrip at Larissa. The German advance forced the British to retreat to the town of Nauplion, where the 106th were the only anti-aircraft defence. After destroying their Breda guns, the regiment was evacuated to Crete on board HMS Calcutta. Most of the regiment ended the campaign in the defence of Suda Bay in the Battle of Crete and were taken prisoner. The regiment was placed in suspended animation in July and many of the survivors reinforced the 102nd (Northumberland Hussars) Anti-tank Regiment RA, which was refitting after being evacuated from Greece and Crete.
The 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade fought through the rest of the Western Desert Campaign and took part in the defence of Outpost Snipe from 26–27 October 1942 during the Second Battle of El Alamein. Along with the 239th Battery, 76th Anti-Tank Regiment RA and other units, the battalion advanced to a depression near Kidney Ridge, defended it against Axis armoured attacks and spoilt the biggest counter-attack against the ground captured by the Eighth Army during Operation Lightfoot.
See also[edit | edit source]
Footnotes[edit | edit source]
- Walker 2003, p. 64.
- Macksey 1972, pp. 121–123.
- Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 353.
- Parri nd.
- Long 1952, p. 242.
- Macksey 1972, p. 123.
- Macksey 1972, pp. 124–127.
- Long 1952, pp. 250–253, 255–256.
- Moorehead 1944, p. 111.
- Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 357–358.
- Playfair et al. 1954, p. 358.
- Macksey 1972, p. 135.
- Macksey 1972, pp. 137, 139.
- Macksey 1972, p. 139.
- Arthur 2003, pp. 16, 20.
- Arthur 2003, pp. 49, 54.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 132–133.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 88.
- Pitt 1982, pp. 153–165.
References[edit | edit source]
- Arthur, Douglas (2003). Forty Men – Eight Horses. Cambridge: Vanguard Press. ISBN 978-1-84386-070-9.
- Long, Gavin (1952) (PDF). To Benghazi. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 314648263. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1070200/. Retrieved 13 July 2015.
- Macksey, Major Kenneth (1972). Beda Fomm: The Classic Victory. Ballantine's Illustrated History of the Violent Century, Battle Books. 22. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-02434-6.
- Moorehead, A (2009). The Desert War: The Classic Trilogy on the North African campaign 1940–43 (Aurum Press ed.). London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 978-1-84513-391-7.
- Parri, M.. "Storia del 32° Rgt. Carri dalla Costituzione del Reggimento fino al termine del Secondo Conflitto Mondiale" (in Italian). http://spazioinwind.libero.it/cico85/carristi.html. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- Pitt, B. (2001). The Crucible of War: Montgomery's Command. III (Cassell ed.). London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-304-35952-1.
- Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; with Stitt RN, Commander G. M. S.; Molony, Brigadier C. J. C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S. E. (1954). Butler, J. R. M.. ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Early Successes Against Italy (to May 1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. I. London: HMSO. OCLC 888934805.
- Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; Flynn RN, Captain F. C.; Molony, Brigadier C. J. C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S. E. (2004). Butler, J. R. M.. ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. II. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1.
- Walker, Ian W. (2003). Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa. Marlborough: Crowood. ISBN 1-86126-646-4.
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Arthur, D. (2000). Desert Watch: A Story of the Battle of Beda Fomm. Bedale: Blaisdon. ISBN 978-1-902838-01-4.
- Bierwirth, J. G. (1994). Beda Fomm: An Operational Analysis (MAAS). School of Advanced Military Studies Monograph. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. OCLC 41972642. Docket ADA 284686. http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p4013coll2/id/1031. Retrieved 28 March 2015.
- Dando, N. (2014). The Impact of Terrain on British Operations and Doctrine in North Africa 1940–1943 (PhD). Plymouth University. OCLC 885436735. https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk//handle/10026.1/3035. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
- Latimer, Jon (2013). Operation Compass 1940: Wavell's Whirlwind Offensive. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 1-85532-967-0.
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