Operation Siege of Giarabub

The 'Siege of Giarabub' (now Jaghbub) in eastern Libya was an engagement between British commonwealth and Italian forces during the 'Western Desert Campaign' (25 December 1940/21 March 1941).

In the aftermath of the 'Operazione 'E'' invasion of Egypt by the Italian 10a Armata (9/16 September 1940), the 'Compass' (i) British operation by the Western Desert Force, the 'Battle of Sidi Barrani' and the pursuit of the 10a Armata into Cyrenaica (16 December 1940/9 February 1941), the fortified Italian position at the Al Jaghbub oasis was besieged by parts of Major General Iven Mackay’s Australian 6th Division. The Australian 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment began the siege in December 1940 and isolated the oasis, leaving the Italian garrison dependent on the Regia Aeronautica for supply. Air transport proved insufficient and hunger prompted many of the locally recruited troops to desert. After being reinforced by the Australian 2/9th Battalion and one battery of the 4th Royal Horse Artillery, the Australians attacked Giarabub on 17 March 1941 and the Italian garrison surrendered on 21 March.

Giarabub is an oasis in the Libyan desert, some 200 miles (320 km) to the south of Bardia and 40 miles (65 km) to the west of the border with Egypt. The Great Sand Sea of the Sahara Desert lies to the south, and the town is at the western end of salt marshes which extend to the Egyptian border. Giarabub is the westernmost of a line of oases on the edge of the Sahara into Egypt and in 1940 was the southernmost Italian frontier post along the border with Egypt. Giarabub had been garrisoned by the Italians since 1925 after being ceded to Libya from Egypt by the British. In 1940, the garrison, commanded by Maggiore Salvatore Castagna, comprised 1,350 Italian and 750 Libyan soldiers, organised as four companies of border guards, five companies of Libyan infantry, one platoon of Libyan engineers, one artillery company with 14 47-mm Cannone da 47/32, four 80-mm (3.15-in) Cannone da 77/28 and 16 20-mm Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/77 cannon, signals engineers, one field hospital and one supply section. Gullies and re-entrants had been entrenched and barbed wire laid round the village. Giarabub was at the end of a long supply line, a situation exacerbated by the Italian forces' general shortage of vehicles. The Italian army lacked the mobility necessary to maintain outposts against opposition and the Regia Aeronautica could deliver only small quantities of supplies by air.

On 2 December 1940, B Squadron of the Australian 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Australian Imperial Force, was sent by the Western Desert Force to Siwa oasis in Egypt, about 40 miles (65 km) to the east of Giarabub, to relieve a British force which had been there since September. The 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment should have had Vickers light tanks and Bren gun carriers, but few such vehicles were available and those which were proved to be mechanically unreliable in the desert. A Squadron received the armoured vehicles, while B and C Squadrons were equipped with 15-cwt and 30-cwt trucks. On 11 December, after a week of patrols, a raid was mounted by B Squadron on Garn el Grein, some 40 mi (65 km) to the north of Giarabub. The Australians were outgunned and withdrew after the appearance of truck-mounted Italian infantry and three Italian fighters. On 14 December, B Squadron ambushed and destroyed a convoy near Fort Maddalena. The Australians patrolled to reconnoitre and isolate Giarabub, ready for an attack. On 31 December, the 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment suffered its first losses when a patrol was forced to retreat after coming under artillery fire, with two men killed and three vehicles destroyed.

On 20 December, C Squadron conducted a secret reconnaissance of Giarabub’s outer defences, and four days later part of B Squadron attacked and captured an outpost at Ain Melfa, at the eastern end of the Giarabub salt marshes, and then used it as an advanced post. With the capture of the El Qaseibieya, well to the south-western fringe of the marshes, the Australians dominated the area’s western end. On 25 December, a reconnaissance in force by C Squadron was met with artillery-fire and air attacks. The following night, a raid on an Italian gun position was forced to withdraw after being detected; one man was taken prisoner. On 8 January 1941, a relief convoy was destroyed by the Royal Air Force near Giarabub. This was the last Italian attempt to supply the oasis by land, after the defeat of the 10a Armata in 'Compass' (i) and its subsequent withdrawal from Cyrenaica.

The Regia Aeronautica made several attempts to supply the oasis by air, but on 4 January four 25-pdr gun/howitzers arrived at Siwa and on 9 January bombarded the Italian airstrip at Giarabub, damaging one transport aeroplane and silencing two field guns. The Italians then dropped supplies, but these were insufficient to feed the garrison. Libyan troops began to abandon their posts and by the end of February, 620 had been taken prisoner.The Italian regular troops held on. The 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment had observed and harassed the defenders of the oasis, but lacked the strength to attack the position. An advanced landing ground was established by the RAF beyond Siwa, but this was rendered redundant by a lack of aircraft. Small Italian supply drops continued, but the garrison’s rations were reduced drastically.

Brigadier George Wootten, commander of the Australian 18th Brigade in the Australian 6th Division, was ordered to move his unit to Giarabub, but a lack of transport restricted the operation to a reinforced battalion, which had to end the siege within 10 days. 'Wootten' Force was assembled from the Australian 2/9th Battalion, reinforced by one infantry company, one mortar platoon, one machine gun platoon, one anti-aircraft platoon and one battery of the 4th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery with 12 25-pdr guns. 'Wootten' Force had no air support, little ammunition and no armour. The Australians reconnoitred the Giarabub defences on 12 and 16 March, finding a track across the southern marshes and a gap in the frontier wire large enough for vehicles. An Italian force in trucks tried to outflank the reconnaissance party but was driven off by artillery fire.

The heights to the south of the little town were judged to be crucial to the Italian defence, and B Squadron was ordered to take the Italian observation post (later named Wootten House) and advance to the north-west along the track toward Giarabub. B Squadron had taken Wootten House unopposed by 06.00 on 17 March, and then ambushed two trucks in which two Italians were killed, three wounded and 15 taken prisoner. The squadron pressed forward another 4.3 miles (7 km) and captured Daly House, the last post before Giarabub. The Australians were forced back by artillery fire and the post was reoccupied by the Italians, who used 20-mm Breda cannon to keep the Australians at a distance. On 19 March Wootten ordered an attack by two companies along the southern track to retake Daly House and drive the Italians back to the last line of the main Giarabub defences, thereby gaining a good jumping-off position to attack the southern heights. Two 25-pdr guns were pulled through the marsh behind the infantry through heavy going to Daly House, which delayed the attackers until 15.00.

The post was unoccupied and artillery and machine-gun fire from the town was inaccurate. The Australians pressed on and occupied the Tamma Heights south-east of the oasis against little opposition; 13 Platoon was sent to Ship Hill at the east end of the heights, to provide covering fire, while the other two platoons advanced towards the town. By dark they had reached the south-eastern corner, where the wire had been covered by sand. Two sections advanced into the Italian position and found that Post 42 had been abandoned. On the arrival of 10 Platoon, the party occupied Post 36 and at 02.00 an Italian counterattack was delivered and the Australians retired, suffering three wounded and having two men taken prisoner. By the morning of 20 March it had been decided to make the main attack in that area; supporting operations, a demonstration by the cavalry to the north and Post 76 on Brigadier’s Hill had been taken by D Company, 2/10th Battalion, which secured the flank of the attack and left the Italians unsure of the direction of the main attack.

Two companies of the 2/9th Battalion were to attack, covered by fire from the mortars and machine guns on Ship Hill and the guns of the 4th Royal Horse Artillery. The attack was to capture the southern redoubt and then the other two companies would attack along the flanks of the redoubt and D Company of the 2/10th Battalion, would advance from Brigadier’s Hill to open a track across the marsh and shorten the supply route. The cavalry would mount a subsidiary attack from the northern approach down Pipsqueak Valley, to take the airfield. A sand storm arrived, and clogged weapons had to be cleaned, then in the afternoon the storm abated but was sufficient to obscure the Australian assembly. There were exchanges of fire and from Ship Hill, the Australian machine gunners could hit the Italian defences around the oasis and suppressed several positions. An Italian sniper stalked the machine gun posts to no effect.

Patrols went forward after dark to observe the Italian positions and make sure the Italians were not trying to slip away. An Australian listening post was met by an Italian patrol, which withdrew when challenged. The Australians found the Italians in the redoubt 'very nervous', firing and hurling grenades at shadows, and then withdrew for the start of the attack. Zero hour was set at 05.15, when A Company was to attack on the right and C Company on the left toward four knolls on the edge of the redoubt. When these had been secured, A Company was to take the fifth knoll farther to the rear. The 12 guns of the 4th Royal Horse Artillery would fire on the initial objectives, then lift onto the second objective, and the machine guns and mortars on Ship Hill were to give covering fire once the infantry advanced.

Before zero hour, the leading companies assembled amid another sand storm. A Company advanced to within 55 yards (50 m) of the wire and was then bombarded by the British gunners, who had underestimated the swirling wind and dropped short. The bombardment cut the line from the forward observer and the battery, which delayed an adjustment of range (shells also dropped short onto Ship Hill, causing one casualty). Some 12 men of A Company were killed and 20 others wounded, but the survivors reorganised and began to move forward. A Platoon had avoided the worst of the bombardment but lost contact with the rest of A Company and continued the attack. C Company found that the wire had been cut and advanced to the first objective. The Italians appeared too stunned from the bombardment to offer much resistance and the Australians quickly reached the first line of knolls.

The Australians made lavish use of hand grenades as they cleared the Italian dug-outs and soon exhausted their supply of these weapons. Some of the Australians had apparently been ordered to take no prisoners and were reluctant to advance when it became clear that few Italians intended not to fight on. The Australians were ordered to encourage the Italians to surrender and by 07.26 the 2/9th Battalion had occupied the first four knolls. As a result of the short shooting on A Company, a platoon of D Company, the battalion reserve, was sent forward to assist in the assault. The Italian defenders rallied, a mountain gun on the last knoll and Italian positions around the fort and plantation area opened fire, and an attempt by an Australian platoon to cross the flats into the town was repulsed. The fire of the mortars and machine guns on Ship Hill and from a machine gun detachment with A Company covered the Australians as they captured the fifth knoll just after 09.00.

Prisoners said that the garrison had not eaten for two days or nights. B Company on the left flank had advanced and regained contact with battalion headquarters at 10.00. In the north, the cavalry diversion down Pipsqueak Valley to the airfield began at 06.15, one hour after the attack on the southern redoubt had got under way. B and C Squadrons advanced to occupy the high ground on each side of the valley, with little Italian resistance except at the Egbert feature, which was bombarded and overrun. By 09.00, the cavalry was on the first objective, an east/west line through Egbert. D Company advanced through the cultivated area to the north-east of the redoubt into the town, but it took a long time to clear a minefield which had been spotted earlier by an RAF crew flying a Westland Lysander single-engined army co-operation aeroplane. At 11.25, the 2/9th Battalion advanced into the town and found the mosque intact. By mid-day the Australians had entered the fort and ended the siege.

After just two days the Australians withdrew from Giarabub because of the Italo-German advance on El Agheila.

On 17 March, Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, commander of the German forces in North Africa, had congratulated the garrison on its defence and promised that it would be relieved, and on 24 March Italo-German forces occupied El Agheila. The resistance of the Italian troops was greatly celebrated by the Fascist regime to mitigate the calamity in Cyrenaica. The Italian and British commonwealth forces had fought for three months on the edge of the Sahara, enduring large temperature variations, sand storms and shortages of water and food.

Differences in technical quality, leadership, training and supply had put the Italians at a total disadvantage to the besiegers. Leaving behind a salvage party, the Australians withdrew from the oasis on the next day, just before 'Sonnenblume' (24 March/9 April), an Italo-German counter-offensive which recaptured Cyrenaica. A few weeks later, the Australian 18th Brigade Group began its part in the long 'Siege of Tobruk'; the 6th Division Cavalry Regiment went east to take part in 'Exporter' (8 June.14 July 1941), which was the British-led invasion of Syria and Lebanon. Giarabub lost its tactical importance and became a backwater, eventually being used as a staging post for the Desert Air Force.

In the final assault, the 2/9th Battalion lost 17 men killed and 77 wounded, while the Italians lost about 250 men killed, 1,300 men taken prisoner (including Castagna, who sustained a head wound in the fighting) and 26 field guns.