Bergonzoli gives his excuses

The crew of a British Matilda tank celebrate by flying a captured Italian flag.

The journalist Alan Moorehead had followed the whole of Operation Compass since he first learnt of the ‘important raid’ from General Wavell on the 9th December.

By Friday morning it was all over, and the British were sweeping on to occupy Agedabia and Agheila, nearly two hundred miles south of Benghazi.

Only a few Italian tanks and a few score vehicles had escaped the battle of Beda Fomm. And now we had in our hands seven generals and their staffs, about twenty thousand more prisoners, 216 guns, 101 tanks and vehicles in hundreds. And Cyrenaica was ours.

In all this fighting, here and on the coast from Sidi Barrani to Beda Fomm, the entire British casualties had not exceeded three thousand in dead, wounded and missing. It was complete victory – even though the world never had time to realise it before the reverses set in.

Paul Farrell gives an account of the capture of Bergonzoli on BBC People’s War.

Alan Moorehead went on to interview General Bergonzoli, the Italian commander nick-named ‘Electric Whiskers’ who quite candidly explained how he had escaped capture at Tobruk by fleeing on foot and hiding in caves. He also gave his reasons why his forces had finally been defeated at Beda Fomm:

‘We had no time to prepare defences outside Benghazi. In any case, it was an open town. We had no wish to expose the women and children there to any more misery. We decided to leave with our army for Tripoli. You were here too soon, that is all.

Your forward units found us on the coast on Wednesday morning when we were in an exposed and dangerous position. But we gave battle at once. Our tanks and artillery and men were tired and at a considerable disadvantage on the coast, but they came quickly into position and gave battle magnificently. We launched two counterattacks that were very nearly successful. Our tanks against superior numbers broke right through the English lines. Our second attack was made when our forces were largely decimated and our ammunition almost exhausted.

And always, here as everywhere else, we were grossly outnumbered. So when our second attack was unable to prevail we had no choice but to make an honourable surrender.’

All this was spoken in Italian through an interpreter, but when the interpreter translated, ‘I ran away,’ Bergonzoli snapped in English, ‘Not ran away, drove away.’

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

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