In early February 1941, the Italian Army was retreating through Cyrenaica to eastern Libya as fast as possible while trying their best to slow down the Australian advance along the coast road. On the 6th, the Aussies overwhelmed their blocking force at Benghazi and the Italian retreat turned into a rout.
Cutting across the base of the Cyrenacian Hump were the Desert Rats of the British 7th Armored Division, who were determined to prevent the Italian escape. But the realities of fighting in the unforgiving Western Desert far from their supply depots in Egypt had slowed the advance considerably. All the necessities of modern mechanized warfare: fuel, water, ammunition, spare parts, lubrication etc, had to be convoyed hundreds of miles in trucks that were using most of the very fuel they were tasked to move forward. The Desert Rats’ Matilda and Crusader tanks could go no further, and the division stopped to reoganize and conduct maintenance at Mechilli, about 150 miles from cutting off more than 40,000 men of the Italian X Army.
But the division commander, MajGen Creagh, was not going to abandon his mission. He formed an ad hoc force from all of his brigades’ armoured car battalions, two infantry battalions and some engineers in trucks, and a few towed batteries of field guns and anti-aircraft guns. It was desgnated “Combeforce” after it’s commander Lieut. Col. J.F.B. Combe.
Combeforce raced ahead (at an average of 5mph) for 30 hours over brutal terrain and arrived at Beda Fomm on the coast road in the late afternoon on 7 Feb. They immediately set up a hasty ambush, and fortunately for them they did so because the Italians appeared less than 30 minutes after they arrived. Combeforce attacked and forced the shocked Italians back north. The trap was sprung.
The next morning the Italians conducted a series of increasingly desperate combined arms attacks to breakout. The British armored cars were clearly outmatched by the Italian tanks, and the infantry lacked any viable anti-tank weapons, short of climbing on the tanks and throwing grenades in them. In many instances, they just let the Italian tanks roll over them to engage the supporting Italian infantry at close quarters. The final Italian attack was only stopped by Combeforce’s battery of 25pdrs firing point blank over open sights, in one case, at less than 30 yds.
Unable to break through the British to their south and with the Australians bearing down on them from the north, the Italian X Army surrendered the next day: 25,000 men, and over two hundred tanks and artillery pieces.
The road to Tripoli was open, but the Brits and Aussies were wrecked in the process. The Battle of Beda Fomm is the classic case of culmination – the Allies were spent and they wouldn’t get any closer to Tripoli, or throwing the Axis out of Africa, for another two years.