Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Ambush at Gebel Sherif
Ambush at Gebel Sherif
After the death of d’Ornano, Colonel Leclerc19 succeeded to the command of the French forces in Chad. Eventually he led these forces through the Fezzan to link up with the Eighth Army in Tunisia. In January 1941 he planned a thousand-mile advance from his headquarters at Fort Lamy to Kufra. His chief difficulty was the provision of supplies and transport. The Free French could expect little assistance from the British, who were then attacking the Italians in Cyrenaica with forces much weaker in numbers. Leclerc combed the scrapheaps of Chad to equip his expedition. Colonel Bagnold flew from Cairo to Fort Lamy to discuss the Kufra operation, for which the LRDG was to be temporarily under the command of the French.page 26
Clayton’s force of G and T patrols travelled over some very difficult country from Zouar to Faya, the French base about half way between Fort Lamy and Kufra. From Faya they were to act as an advanced guard for the French force and were to reconnoitre to Uweinat. As it happened, the Italians had evacuated their posts at Uweinat. The LRDG left Faya on 27 January and reached Tekro two days later. The guard at the French post had been increased to twelve; they included the three men who had challenged T patrol when they first visited Tekro. Next day the LRDG left for Sarra, where G patrol stayed in reserve while Clayton took T patrol to Bishara. The Italians, who must have been expecting an attack on Kufra, had filled in the wells at Sarra and Bishara.
When T patrol was at Bishara on the morning of 31 January, an Italian aircraft came overhead. The trucks scattered and made for some hills, and the plane flew away without attacking them. The patrol took cover among some rocks in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif, camouflaged the trucks, and prepared to have lunch. The plane returned and circled over the wadi, to which it directed a patrol of the Auto-Saharan Company, the enemy’s equivalent to the LRDG. The Italian vehicles were seen approaching but disappeared behind a hill. Clayton told Trooper F. W. Jopling20 to back his truck towards the entrance of the wadi to see if the enemy was there. The enemy patrol then attacked with heavy and accurate fire at a range of about 200 yards. Three T patrol trucks were set on fire, and Corporal F. R. Beech21 and two of the Italian prisoners were killed. At least three of the attacking party were killed and two wounded.
T patrol comprised thirty men in eleven trucks. The enemy who were forty-four strong in two armoured fighting vehicles and five trucks had the advantage of close co-operation with aircraft and of being armed with Breda guns. They made the mistake, however, of covering only one entrance to the wadi. Clayton took the eight remaining trucks out the other end, circled round and prepared to counter-attack. At this stage the enemy aircraft, which were now increased to three, began low-flying attacks with bombs and machine guns. The trucks scattered and swerved away across the boulder-strewn ground.
Machine-gun fire punctured two tires, the radiator, and the petrol tank on Clayton’s truck. The crew changed the tires, refilled the radiator, but ran out of petrol. The aircraft continued to attack and the enemy ground troops arrived, so that Clayton, who was wounded in the arm, and his two New Zealand companions (Lance-Corporals L. Roderick22 and W. R. Adams23) were forced to surrender. The other seven trucks of T patrol returned to a rendezvous in the south and, under Lieutenant Ballantyne, rejoined G patrol and the French.
Of the four Italian prisoners, two had been killed and two were recaptured by the enemy. Four men from T patrol who were missing were presumed to have been killed or taken prisoner; they were a New Zealander (Trooper R. J. Moore24), two guardsmen (Easton and Winchester), and an RAOC fitter (Tighe). Unknown to the patrol, they were hiding in Gebel Sherif. When their truck caught fire and the ammunition began to explode, they ran for shelter among the rocks. Encouraged by Moore, they decided not to give themselves up to the Italians, but to follow the patrol southwards in the hope that they might be picked up by the British or the French. Easton was wounded in the throat and Moore in the foot. They had less than two gallons of water in a tin and no food. Everything else had been burnt in the trucks.page 27
On 1 February they began walking southwards along the tracks of the patrol. Tighe, who began to feel the effects of an old operation and who could not keep up with the others, was left behind on the fifth day with his share of the water. The other three reached Sarra, 135 miles from Gebel Sherif, on the sixth day; Tighe arrived a day later and sholtered in some huts, where he was found three days later by a party of French returning from a reconnaissance of Kufra. They had to wait until dawn before they could follow the footmarks of the other three men, who had continued walking southwards from Sarra. On the eighth day Easton had dropped behind. Moore and Winchester were seen by two French aircraft that must have realised their plight, but as the ground was too rough for a landing, the planes circled about and dropped a bag of food and a bottle of water. The food could not be found and the cork had come out of the bottle, leaving only a mouthful or two. Next day Winchester, who was a veteran of Dunkirk, became too weak to continue. Moore shared the last mouthful of water with him and pushed on alone.
The French party left Sarra at first light on the tenth day. Fifty-five miles to the south they found Easton lying on the ground but still alive. Despite the efforts of a French doctor to save his life, he died that evening. Ten miles farther on they found Winchester, delirious but still able to stand. Another ten miles farther south, they overtook Moore, still walking steadily. He was then 210 miles from Gebel Sherif and believed he could have reached Tekro, eighty miles away, in another three days.
Moore, Winchester, and Tighe remained a month in the care of the French. They spent a week recuperating at an ambulance post at Sarra and were then taken to Fort Lamy, in Equatorial Africa. Eventually they were flown to Khartoum and returned to Cairo by Nile river-boat and train.
As the situation had changed following the ambush of T patrol, and as the Italians at Kufra were obviously on the alert, Leclerc had to change his plans. He formed a temporary base at Tekro and released the LRDG from further service with the Free French forces. One T patrol truck, under Lance-Corporal F. Kendall,25 stayed with the French to help them navigate. The two patrols started north-eastwards on 4 February and, passing to the south of Uweinat, reached Cairo five days later. Since setting out in December the LRDG had covered about 4500 miles of desert, with the loss of four trucks by enemy action and two by mechanical breakdown. One vehicle with a broken rear axle had been towed about 900 miles from Tummo to Faya before it could be repaired. The casualties included three dead and three captured by the Italians. The leader of the expedition, Major Clayton, now a prisoner of war, was awarded the DSO. The services of three New Zealanders were also recognised: Corporal Browne, who showed coolness and gallantry in the action at Gebel Sherif as well as at Murzuk, was awarded the DCM, while Moore’s march earned him the DCM, and Trooper McInnes’s mortar-shooting the MM.
Later in February Leclerc attacked Kufra with a force of 101 Europeans and 295 natives. They defeated the Auto-Saharan Company, which withdrew to the north and left the besieged garrison without mobile protection. The French shelled the fort for ten days with their one 75-millimetre gun. Although strong enough to hold out for weeks, the garrison of sixty-four Italians and 352 Libyans, armed with fifty-three machine guns and four Bredas, surrendered Kufra to the French on 1 March.page 28
General Wavell’s advance into Cyrenaica cut off a garrison of approximately a thousand Italians at Giarabub, an oasis in a depression below sea level 160 miles to the south of Bardia and twenty-five from the frontier. Giarabub is a holy city of the Senussi; a white-domed mosque contains the tomb of the founder of the sect.
While T and G patrols were co-operating with the French in south-west Libya, the other New Zealand patrol (R), under Captain Steele, assisted a force which included the 6th Australian Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the siege of Giarabub. To prevent any supplies reaching the garrison and the enemy from escaping, the Australians watched the northern approaches to the oasis and the New Zealanders the tracks to the west.
R patrol was engaged on this very tedious task for two months before it was relieved by T patrol on 2 March. The Italian garrison, supplied by aircraft, continued to withstand the siege until attacked by the Australians. A fierce assault during a sandstorm resulted in the capture of Giarabub on 22 March.