Moving West to defend Benghazi

The war on land in Libya must be over for we met convoy after convoy of guns going back – sixty pounders, twenty-five pounders, 4.5 inch howitzers – nearly fifty guns in all and there could not be many more than 150 in the whole campaign on our side – an incredible thought in view of the hundreds of captured guns which we had seen ourselves alone!

An official portrait of the triumphant British soldier: few kept anywhere near this degree of smartness whilst in the desert.

Kenneth Rankin was with a Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battery. His unit moved west from Derna on the 17th February 1941 to their new position at Benghazi. The Italians had just been defeated and there were still prisoners being moved back to Egypt but there were also many units being withdrawn from the front. It would have been a reasonable assumption  that the ‘war on land in Libya’ was over – but in fact the presence of the Luftwaffe heralded quite the opposite:

Set off in our long convoy to the west along the coast road and admired the beautiful blue waters. Soon we were climbing a big hill with long sweeping bends – looking down, the sea was dead calm and covered by a vague mist, and the guns, lorries and trailers laboriously following up the road looked like toys, hundreds of feet below. Evidence of damage to the road, quickly repaired by the Australians, and we passed some high Italian officer prisoners.

Passed many more wrecked cars and lorries, lots of them British ones wrecked by explosion of land mines. Engineers had been digging these up all along the road and they were now lying safely by the side.

Passed numerous poor dead dogs and camels, killed on the roads, and saw little cemeteries marking the sad remains of soldiers killed by bombs, shells and bullets.

The heat was considerable, like best English July and as we stopped for a short rest we conversed with troops returning eastwards, who gave vivid accounts of German dive bombers operating at Benghazi every day – so there is plenty of fun for us.

The war on land in Libya must be over for we met convoy after convoy of guns going back – sixty pounders, twenty-five pounders, 4.5 inch howitzers – nearly fifty guns in all and there could not be many more than 150 in the whole campaign on our side – an incredible thought in view of the hundreds of captured guns which we had seen ourselves alone!

See Kenneth Rankin: Top Hats in Tobruk

Oppression in Zichenau, Poland

At that time the Jews were ordered to restrict their area of residence. With us it was a ghetto, but it was the only ghetto that was not closed although it was a defined area which Jews were forbidden to leave. Anyone found outside this restricted area was shot. At that time they destroyed many of the old houses in the centre of the town; they were mainly Jewish houses and the people whose good homes were taken away had to enter the restricted area.

Jews in Zichenau, Poland are informed by Public Notice that their homes are to be demolished, February 1941.

Noach Zabludowicz was 21 years old and a resident of Zichenau, also spelt Ciechanow, in Poland in 1941. He was a witness at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, describing the treatment of the Jews by the occupying Germans at the time:

Q, What happened to Jewish property?

A. At the same time they issued a confiscation order. All property was confiscated – not houses, since you cannot take houses away – but shops and the contents of shops, and also monies and flour mills and stores. Everything belonging to Jews was confiscated.

Q, What about food? What food did you receive?

A. They confiscated all the Jewish bakeries, and one bakery remained for the Jewish public, and then they distributed two hundred grams of bread to each Jew. Jews were forbidden to walk in the street from 7.30 p.m., from the time it became dark. When the Jews were shut off in their homes, the Gestapo men began their brutal treatment. I still remember several of their names: Rosmann, Barsel and others like them, who came late at night. . . Pardon me, I want to go back for a moment: At that time the Jews were ordered to restrict their area of residence. With us it was a ghetto, but it was the only ghetto that was not closed although it was a defined area which Jews were forbidden to leave. Anyone found outside this restricted area was shot. At that time they destroyed many of the old houses in the centre of the town; they were mainly Jewish houses and the people whose good homes were taken away had to enter the restricted area.

Judge Raveh: What period are you talking about?

Witness Zabludowicz: Of 1940-1941. We took another four families into the apartment in which we lived. The Germans began their cruel treatment. They used to knock on the entrance doors, break down these doors and enter the houses. Inside the rooms people had settled down by making tiers of bunks in each room, right up to the ceiling, at three or four levels, and couples occupied each bed. They used to come into the houses and say,”You up on top come down; you over there come down; you down below get off.” Then they would ask the man “Why are you sleeping with this woman?” The reply would be: “This is my wife.” The same way they questioned another and a third. And then they would exchange the men and the women and then they would compel them at pistol point to have sexual relations in the presence of the children and all their families; and all kinds of things, and blows and killing.

The full testimony of Noach Zabludowicz can be read at JewishGen.org

British housing destroyed or damaged

People were out and so did not stand a chance. It destroyed five streets of houses and spread damage for three miles – so the lady said. Many killed and injured and made homeless. It was a working class district of Hendon. The three young people on the roof found themselves tied in knots, and did not know if they were dead or alive.

The original caption for this official image was entitled ‘The Sun Still Shines’ – images of wartime damage were carefully controlled and every effort was made to present a story of cheerful defiance.

The Home Security Situation report for the week records that:

Up to the 15th February, 1941, the following damage to domestic house property in London and elsewhere has been reported ::—

Destroyed and damaged beyond repair—

In London 33,595
Elsewhere* 60,290

Seriously damaged but repairable—

In London 123,395
Elsewhere* 175,520

*excluding Scotland

In just one incident on the 13th February:

at Hendon 366 houses were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable and a further 400 suffered damage by a single large-calibre bomb. Seventy-five people were killed and 145 seriously injured.

The aftermath of bombing in 1940-41. Collecting water at a standpipe ‘somewhere in England’.

On the 15th February 1941 Vere Hodgson recorded what she had learnt of the incident in her diary:

Saturday, 15th

Heard the news of Thursday night’s damage today in the Mercury. I could not understand why one bomb should cause such a considerable amount of damage.

A lady explained to me that her son was on Hendon aerodrome with two W.R.A.F.s, and they saw the thing come down. It is a new kind of bomb. Had a flare attached to it. It fell on High St. before the Warning.

People were out and so did not stand a chance. It destroyed five streets of houses and spread damage for three miles – so the lady said. Many killed and injured and made homeless. It was a working class district of Hendon. The three young people on the roof found themselves tied in knots, and did not know if they were dead or alive.

See Vere Hodgson: Few Eggs and No Oranges

 

Piles of rubble and timber are all that remains of this building on the corner of Grant Street in Birmingham, after an air raid, c 1940/1941.
Bomb damage in early 1941.

 

 

Random savagery in the Warsaw ghetto

The very physical weakness of his victim inflamed the soldier. As soon as the peddler fell, he began stamping on him and beating him mercilesslv with his whip. He beat him in various ways, cruelly and sadistically – sometimes on the head, sometimes on the face, sometimes a kick, sometimes a jab. He didn’t leave a single part of him unharmed. From a distance it looked as though he was beating a corpse.

Conditions for those left on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto were very grim.

Living conditions for people inside the ghetto’s of Poland were worsening all the time, but they varied for different groups of people. Most had roofs over their heads but some were completely destitute, as the Nazi’s moved whole populations from outlying towns into ever more crowded urban ghetto’s.

Chaim Kaplan kept one of the most valuable records of life in the Warsaw ghetto, which had been closed on the 15th November. His ‘Scroll of Agony’ recorded his thoughts and feelings as well as eye witness accounts of the persecution of the Jews. A large section of his diaries is missing and this is one of his last surviving entries for 1941.

February 14, 1941

Karmelicka Street, which is the only artery of traffic between the Nalewki ghetto and the Grzybowska ghetto, is always ripe for acts of savagery. A few days ago I witnessed a tragic scene of that sort through my window, which faces Karmelicka Street.

At first I was startled and frightened by the terrible sound of a mass of people moving, like the roaring of the sea; after two or three minutes I was frightened by the silence that followed. I looked through my window and the street was empty. Not a living soul was there; it was as if all of creation were dead.

In less than a minute a Nazi murderer with a face as red as fire, whose every movement expressed burning wrath, came striding with a singularly heavy step in search of a victim. In his hand was a whip. Behind him, at a distance of a few paces, came his comrade. Both of them glanced in every direction with malicious eyes. The Jews had all disappeared.

Near the building at 25 Karmelicka they met a poor ragged peddler, whose every aspect bespoke oppression, standing near his basket of wares. An awful encounter. The unfortunate peddler became a target for the blows of the murdering beasts. He fell to the ground at once, and one of them left him and went away.

But not so his companion. The very physical weakness of his victim inflamed the soldier. As soon as the peddler fell, he began stamping on him and beating him mercilessly with his whip. He beat him in various ways, cruelly and sadistically – sometimes on the head, sometimes on the face, sometimes a kick, sometimes a jab. He didn’t leave a single part of him unharmed. From a distance it looked as though he was beating a corpse.

The beaten man lay flat, without a breath of life. But the tormentor would not let him alone. It would be no exaggeration to say that he beat him without stopping, without pity, for about twenty minutes. It was hard to comprehend the secret of this sadistic phenomenon. After all, the victim was a stranger, not an old enemy; he did not speak rudely to him, let alone touch him. Then why this cruel wrath!

How is it possible to attack a stranger to me, a man of flesh and blood like myself, to wound him and trample upon him, and cover his body with sores, bruises, and welts, without any reason?

How is it possible? Yet I swear that I saw all this with my own eyes.

See The Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan.

The Indian Ocean fleet in action

It is probable that one hit was made with a torpedo on a ship lying at a jetty in the Northern Harbour, where a submarine and a supply ship had been reported by reconnaissance, and one merchant ship was sunk outside, also by torpedo. A second merchant ship was also sunk either by torpedo or bomb. In the bombing attack on the main harbour one probable hit was made on a large destroyer.

The aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, pictured later in the war.

The campaign in East Africa is often overlooked, and the Naval campaign that supported it probably even more so. A lack of photographic record leaves some of these dramatic events quite forgotten, despite their significance at the time. HMS Formidable was the sister ship to [permalink id=9889 text=”HMS Illustrious”] and would soon be replacing her in the Mediterranean.

On the morning of the 13th fourteen aircraft from H.M.S. Formidable attacked the harbour at Massawa. The attack was considerably hampered by fighter opposition. It is probable that one hit was made with a torpedo on a ship lying at a jetty in the Northern Harbour, where a submarine and a supply ship had been reported by reconnaissance, and one merchant ship was sunk outside, also by torpedo. A second merchant ship was also sunk either by torpedo or bomb. In the bombing attack on the main harbour one probable hit was made on a large destroyer. Two of our aircraft did not return one of which made a forced landing 20 miles from Massawa owing to engine trouble.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week.

US Recognition chart of the Illustrious Class.

 

Rommel takes command in North Africa

Hitler had no particular strategic interest in North Africa but he could not see Mussolini totally humiliated. Erwin Rommel had demonstrated his zeal for aggressive independent leadership during the invasion of France and was regarded as the ideal man to lead the relatively small Panzer force that would become known as the Afrika Corps.

The German General Erwin Rommel, soon to earn the nickname ‘the Desert Fox’ took command on the 12th and probably arrived in Tripoli on 14th February 1941.

Hitler had now decided that he had to provide his main ally Mussolini with military support – before there were political repercussions in Italy itself. The Italian army had suffered a series of reverses. It had been pushed out of Greece after its invasion from Albania on 28th October, and was now under pressure from Greek forces in Albania itself. And it had just been been comprehensively routed in Egypt and pursued back into Libya by much smaller British, Indian and Australian forces in Operation Compass. Hitler had no particular strategic interest in North Africa but he could not see Mussolini totally humiliated.

Erwin Rommel had demonstrated his zeal for aggressive independent leadership during the invasion of France, when he had surprised the Highland Division at St Valery. He was regarded as the ideal man to lead the relatively small Panzer force that would become known as the Afrika Korps.

Just as Hitler was making the political decision to intervene in the Balkans, Greece and North Africa, Churchill was making the political decision to divert troops from Libya and Egypt to support the Greek army. The British lost the opportunity to seize the whole of Libya and, in a weakened state, would soon face a long and difficult campaign against German troops. But Hitler was diverted and delayed from his main objective, Russia. The decisions made now would have knock on effects for the whole of the war.

Bombers lost in fog over Britain

As we had be airborne for over 10 hours and it would seem had only a few minutes petrol left I gave instructions to abandon aircraft when flying at about 10,000ft. After the crew had all baled out I trimmed the aircraft and as we were over hilly open landscape I left by the forward escape floor hatch.
According to the previous ground instructions we had received, one waited 10 seconds before pulling the rip cord of the parachute. Whether I did or not I don’t know but I was wearing a breast type chute and expected to feel a rush of silk pass my face and when this did not happen my immediate thought was ‘it’s not opening’ only to be pulled up with a sudden jerk as the chute opened and left me swinging without any sense of falling.

The first British four engined bomber, the Stirling, made its first operational flight on 10th/11th February 1941.

RAF bombers provided the principal means of hitting back at Germany during the early years of the war but there was a long learning curve as they developed the aircraft and the tactics to become effective. Weather conditions hampered British bomber operations as much as they did the the Germans. It was not just weather over the target that was important, on the 11th February a fifth of the bombers that were despatched crashed on their return due to heavy fog.

Weather conditions were unfavourable during most of the week, but on the 10th/11th February, in clear weather, our heaviest night operation of the war was carried out. Two hundred and eighty-four aircraft were employed, including three Stirlings operating for the first time, and each carrying 8,000 lbs. weight of bombs; four aircraft were lost.

During a raid lasting six hours, 146 tons of high explosive and 25,500 incendiary bombs were dropped on the industrial centre of Hanover and many large fires were left blazing in the target area. Rotterdam petrol harbour was also heavily and effectively bombed and Cherbourg and Ostend were attacked by aircraft of Coastal Command.

The following night, under conditions of heavy cloud, Hanover was again attacked in addition to targets at Bremen. Owing to sudden deterioration in weather, resulting in widespread fog, twenty-two heavy bombers of the 109 despatched crashed in.this country on return, but only one crew was lost.

From the Air Situation Report for the week ending 13th February, see TNA CAB 66/15/4

Squadron Leader H. J WALTERS was flying a Whitley Bomber from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire that night. After returning from the raid on Bremen his aircraft was caught in the fog:

After circling for some time we were finally diverted to Drem Aerodrome in Scotland and with petrol getting very low we headed north. We were flying at 11,000ft in the cloud and the W/T operator reported hearing numerous other aircrafts calling for assistance.

Eventually the clouds began to thin and at the same time when the petrol gauges were reading zero the W/T operator obtained a wireless bearing from Drem and I was given a course heading which took us back into all the bad weather we had just cleared.

As we had be airborne for over 10 hours and it would seem had only a few minutes petrol left I gave instructions to abandon aircraft when flying at about 10,000ft.

After the crew had all baled out I trimmed the aircraft and as we were over hilly open landscape I left by the forward escape floor hatch. According to the previous ground instructions we had received, one waited 10 seconds before pulling the rip cord of the parachute. Whether I did or not I don’t know but I was wearing a breast type chute and expected to feel a rush of silk pass my face and when this did not happen my immediate thought was ‘it’s not opening’ only to be pulled up with a sudden jerk as the chute opened and left me swinging without any sense of falling. After a short time I saw aircraft lights coming towards me and thought that I was going to be struck by it but it passed underneath me and I realised it was my own aircraft which crashed not far away.

I could then see the ground and a very wide river, which I later realised was the Clyde and to which I seemed to be drifting but then the ground appeared to be coming up fast and I dropped in the middle of a ploughed field close to a white farm house.

Read his full account on BBC People’s War.

Whitley Mark V, T4162 ‘DY-S’ “Ceylon”, of No. 102 Squadron RAF, on the ground at Topcliffe, Yorkshire. It failed to return from a bombing raid on Cologne on the night of 1/2 March 1941.
The pilot of a Whitley bomber gives the ‘thumbs up’, 29 August 1940.
Original wartime caption: The power-operated rear gun turret of a Whitley, fitted with four Browning machine guns.
Original wartime caption: A mobile power-operated gun turret, as fitted to the tail of a Whitley which is used by the air gunners for training at the butts.
The bomb train goes out to an aircraft.

First British Airborne Raid

Plans for the men to be evacuated by submarine had to be abandoned when the rendezvous site was compromised, and the plan had made no provision for an alternative rendezvous point. In any event the the escaping men, who travelled in four groups, found it extremely difficult to travel covertly across country in a landscape packed with small farms. They were all soon captured.

Early British parachute training from a converted Whitley bomber.

The 11th Special Air Service Battalion made history on the 10th February with the first British parachute raid on enemy territory, Operation Colossus. Thirty five men were dropped in southern Italy and blew up the Tragino Aqueduct which supplied water to Naples and the surrounding area. The raiders successfully blew up the aqueduct but it was repaired within a matter of days.

Plans for the men to be evacuated by submarine had to be abandoned when the rendezvous site was compromised, and the plan had made no provision for an alternative rendezvous point. In any event the escaping men, who travelled in four groups, found it extremely difficult to travel covertly across country in a landscape packed with small farms. They were all soon captured. The Italian interpreter, Fortunato Picchi, who accompanied the group posing as a member of Free French forces, was shot as a spy. One officer, Lieutenant Deane-Drummond, managed to make his escape the following year. His account and many more documents can be found at Paradata.

Undated image of early British Parachute training. Original wartime caption: Types of British parachute troops.
Parachute troops photographed through the exit from the carrier aircraft.
Parachute troops enter the aircraft.
Troops are released from the aircraft.
An officer gives instructions to parachute troops by means of a loud speaker during a training drop. The men can control their descent by manipulating the parachute cords. At Ringway.
Original wartime caption: Parachute troop “type” armed with Tommy gun.

‘Give us the tools to finish the job’

With every month that passes the many proud and once happy countries he is now holding down by brute force and vile intrigue are learning to hate the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name, as nothing has ever been hated so fiercely and so widely among men before. And all the time, masters of the sea and air, the British Empire – nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world will be on his track bearing with them the swords of Justice.

Winston Churchill raises his hat in salute during an inspection of the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, 9 January 1941. Behind, Mrs Churchill chats to a Guards officer. Lieutenant General Sir Bertram N Sergison-Brooke (GOC London Area) is standing on the right.
Winston Churchill raises his hat in salute during an inspection of the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, 9 January 1941. Behind, Mrs Churchill chats to a Guards officer. Lieutenant General Sir Bertram N Sergison-Brooke (GOC London Area) is standing on the right.

Winston Churchill’s radio broadcast of the 9th February 1941 was a particularly rousing affair. It was partly designed for his domestic audience, including British forces stationed around the world. Privately he considered the threat of invasion to Britain to be much diminished but he could not allow this perspective any publicity.

The speech was also an international appeal. He made clear the Nazi threat to the Balkans and to Russia itself, even while plans for these actual operations were closely guarded German secrets. By June Churchill would be passing definite intelligence on the German intention to invade Russia to Stalin.

It is not an easy military operation to invade an island like Great Britain without the command of the sea and without the command of the air, and then to face what will be waiting for the invader here.

But I must drop one word of caution, for next to cowardice and to treachery, overconfidence leading to neglect or slothfulness is the worst of martial crimes. Therefore, I drop one word of caution: A Nazi invasion of Great Britain last Autumn would have been a more or less improvised affair. Hitler took it for granted that when France gave in we should give in. But we did not give in. And he had to think again. An invasion now will be supported by a much more carefully prepared tackle and equipment for landing craft and other apparatus, all of which will have been planned and manufactured during the Winter months. We must all be prepared to meet gas attacks, parachute attacks and glider attacks, with constancy, forethought and practiced skill.

I must again emphasize what General Dill has said and what I pointed out myself last year: In order to win the war, Hitler must destroy Great Britain. He may carry havoc into the Balkan States; he may tear great provinces out of Russia; he may march to the Caspian; he may march to the gates of India. All this will avail him nothing. He may spread his curse more widely throughout Europe and Asia, but it will not avert his doom.

With every month that passes the many proud and once happy countries he is now holding down by brute force and vile intrigue are learning to hate the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name, as nothing has ever been hated so fiercely and so widely among men before. And all the time, masters of the sea and air, the British Empire – nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world will be on his track bearing with them the swords of Justice.

The United States administration was in the process of approving the Lend Lease Act, which would provide military assistance to Britain and China. Churchill was not going to miss an opportunity to aid that process of approval. He concluded by making a direct appeal to the United States.

Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.

Read the whole speech at iBiblio.

The Battlship HMS Barham which operated in the Mediterranean in 1941.

There are numerous accounts of how well the speech was received by those who heard it. Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN, heard it on HMS Barham and recounted his reaction in a letter written to his wife the next day:

I thought of you very frequently when I was listening to Winston Churchill’s broadcast last night. It came through to us exceedingly well and as it co-incided with our weekly cinema show special arrangements were made to have the address relayed through the cinema amplifier between parts of the film.

Believe me, a very novel and interesting entr’acte; all of us, including Admiral and Captain, listened with craning ears, and laughed with the Prime Minister as he scourged the Dictators with his tongue. Thank God for Winston Churchill at this time. I think that was the predominant feeling amongst us at the end of his most moving speech.

There is no other man on earth, I believe, who can inspire us with the spirit of dogged resolution and fierce desire to strike our enemies; who can so combine the art of moving oratory with the bite of ferocious justified invective. There is something of the boy in Winston Churchill; he loves to tease and anger his opponents; one can almost see him chuckling and licking his lips as he rolls out his blistering phrases about the Nazis and the “black-hearted” Mussolini. Yet none of his opponents can compete with him in reply; even if they could, he would be quite unmoved.

How Hitler and Mussolini must hate him. Last night’s oration was a masterpiece and to my mind should take a place in history alongside his inspired words after France had fallen. You remember “Let us brace ourselves to our duty …. if the British Commonwealth shall last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

The continuance of the cinema film after the broadcast came as a bit of an anti-climax. To be translated from the atmosphere of an inspired Churchill to that of Mickey Rooney portraying the adventures of the boy Edison detracted from the entertainment value of the latter.

This and other letters from Surgeon-Commander Sorley can be read at BBC People’s War.

On board the battleship HMS Barham - sponging out the 15" guns after being in action.
On board the battleship HMS Barham – sponging out the 15″ guns after being in action.
On board HMS Barham 1941 - Taking on board 15" shells.
On board HMS Barham 1941 – Taking on board 15″ shells.

Bergonzoli gives his excuses

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.

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