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Posted on Jul 15, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Just in Time!

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Historical Background

Operation Compass, instigated by British General Wavell on December 9, 1940, against the Italians, had been extremely successful. Although the British were outnumbered, they possessed an advantage in tanks. The Italians could field only 120 armored vehicles, while the British had 275 at their disposal.

The attacks were led by the 4th Indian Division and the 7th Armored Division, or "The Desert Rats." They were so called for the red Jerboa, a small ratlike desert creature, painted as an emblem on their vehicles. General Richard O Connor was a slender, soft spoken leader, who nonetheless possessed a streak of daring and a genius for command.

rats.jpg
The Desert Rats’ symbol

From Sidi Barrani, the Italians were routed, and headed westward in confusion. Even though some Axis soldiers showed individual acts of heroism, it was all for naught. The allied juggernaut rolled right over them. Literally thousands of Italian soldiers surrendered. Two Italian strong points, Bardia and Sollum, were cut off and bypassed as the Desert Rats relentlessly pursued the retreating enemy.

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By January 21, 1941, Tobruk, an important port city for resupply, had fallen to the British troops. The chase continued even though the 7th Armored Division was now down to 50 tanks, most of these running on liberated Italian fuel. Many vehicles were falling apart, and both sides suffered from thirst and exhaustion. The supply situation was a shambles as Allied troops outran their supply lines. In spite of this, General O’Connor, commander of the 7th, requested permission from General Wavell to go across country and cut off the retreating Italians at Benghazi. Wavell replied to the request, "You go ahead, Dick."

When it looked as though the ragged and tired British forces would not get there in time, General Creagh, leader of the 7th Armored Division, split off a small fast unit of trucks, anti-tank guns, and armored recon vehicles. It was called "Combeforce", and was under the command of Lt. Col. John Combe. The flying column included the 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade, C Battery of the 4th RHA, and some antitank guns of the 106th Regiment of the Royal Artillery. Its task was to get to a strategic point on the highway and form a blocking force to hold the Italians until the bulk of the 7th Armored Division could catch up to them.

The primary Italian tank at that time was the upgraded M13/39, with the nomenclature of M13/40. Opinions vary widely among authorities on armor as to its worth. Some praise it; others condemn it soundly. The biggest change of the newer version was a larger main gun. Instead of a 37mm antitank cannon, it had been improved with a much more effective 47mm one in a larger turret. With a crew of 4, it was 16.5 feet long and nearly 8 feet tall.

Its maximum road speed was 20 miles per hour. The armor plating was reasonable for that day, varying from one half inch to nearly two inches in the front. All in all it did not seem to be a bad tank. The British put over 100 captured M13/40s in service during the desert war. Its failure came in its use. Poorly led, with poor armor training, the Italian tankers invariably came out second best in the fight.

The opponent of the M13/40 in this engagement was the A-13 Cruiser tank. This tank was one of the main battlewagons of the Royal Armored Corps in the first two years of the war. It was found to be insufficient and at times unreliable. Its main armament was the 2 pounder antitank gun (similar to the US 37mm AT cannon).

By now the excellent Christie suspension system had been incorporated into the A models. Even though up-armored and with a larger turret, the tank was to prove inadequate for the standards of that day. Nevertheless, British tankers made do once and again with what they had, and for the most part performed admirably. In addition to the 2 pounder main armament, it carried two Besa machine guns (later upgraded to Vickers). It was 20 feet long and stood 8.5 feet high. Its maximum road speed was about 30 miles per hour and it had a range of almost 100 miles.

The engines on these tanks, as well as the transmissions, were very unreliable. Even with more armor, it only enjoyed a little over one inch of thickness on its frontal plates. Against the German 88 gun, it was certain suicide. It turned out to be a stopgap measure until better tanks could be made available. Many a brave British tank crew was lost due to inadequate equipment.

The Battle

Combeforce reached a junction in the coast road near Beda Fomm on February 6th, just 30 minutes before the first retreating Italian units appeared on the horizon. From that point onward, a series of desperate, disjointed attacks failed to break the British defensive positions. On February 7th, a strong Italian force assaulted the Combeforce positions, penetrating the line of resistance all the way to the Force Headquarters. Some British units were overrun, and both artillery and antitank guns were being fired at pointblank range.

By this time, another group of British, including A-13s of Squadrons A and C, 11 Hussars arrived at Beda Fomm and close vicious fighting occurred. One of the tank commanders in the group was Lieutenant Norman Plough. He and his crew took positions on the flank of the ridge at Beda Fomm and took on the Italian tanks. The battle raged fiercely for hours.

Plough’s gunner, "Topper" Brown was firing as fast as he could. His first target was an M-13/40 some 30 yards away.  The two pounder rounds leave a trail like a tracer. Topper thought that he had missed the tank. Suddenly light shone through a hole in the turret. It had been a hit. The tank had been so close that the tracer did not have time to ignite, so he thought he had missed it. The rapidly exiting crewmen from the Italian tank proved that it had indeed been hit. The Italians were fighting in desperation; the British, with determination.

It finally became too much for the Italian 10th Division and other units. White flags and handkerchiefs appeared, and before the struggle ended over 25,000 Italians had surrendered. It turned out to be a spectacular victory for the British people. The Desert Rats had effectively broken the back of the Italian Army in North Africa

Lieutenant Norman Plough was credited with 17 of the 79 armored Italian vehicles destroyed in this battle. Lt. Plough would continue to fight with the 7th Armored Division until he was killed in action near Tunis in 1943.

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