By Clement V. Kelly
In his operation “Compass,” British General Richard O’Connor had driven what remained of Italian 10th Army, 500 miles across the Libyan desert from 50 miles inside Egypt to the border of Tripolitania. He was approaching the town of Sirte when his advance stopped at El Aghelia. A small Italian rearguard remained at Sirte hoping to delay the expected British advance. There was to be no advance on Sirte as O’Connor had planned, having been ordered by the British Government to stop where he was.
Battle of the Sirte Medal - Photos by Ron Leverenz, Doughboy
Military, Springfield, MO
Because of Churchill’s sending a British Expeditionary corps to Greece, O’Connor had lost a considerable number of his troops, including the 7th Armored Division, the famed “Desert Rats.” He was also at the terminus of a very overstretched supply line.
The Italians had expected to lose all of Libya and by the middle of December 1940 the Italian General Staff faced the fact that Cyrenacia had been overrun by O’Connor. The Italian colony of Libya was divided into Cyrenacia to the East bordering on Egypt and Tripolitania to the West bordering on Tunisia. The panicked Italian General Staff sent a message to Berlin reading, “Need urgent help, otherwise Cyrenacia is lost.” The Italian Marshall, Emilio De Bono said, “The Italians have lost he war. The Axis will have to win it.”
Mussolini’s Axis partner, Hitler, to keep Italy in the war, and to protect the forces Germany had in the Mediterranean area, decided to send a small blocking force to Libya, consisting of the 5th Light Division, to be followed by the 15th Panzer Division. On February 6, 1941, he appointed General Erwin Rommel to command this two-division force.
Although Rommel was actually his second choice, Hitler’s luck came through again, as it was not possible for him to have found a more suitable commander for desert warfare. On February 11, on his way to Africa, Rommel stopped off in Rome to consult with the Italian General Staff and wrote, “…where the plan to shift the defense of Tripolitania into the Gulf of Sirte met with complete approval.”
Upon his arrival in Tripoli, on February 12, he told his Italian superior, General Gariboldi, who had relieved General Graziani, “…that we could only come to their help if they really made up their minds to hold the Sirte.” As soon as possible, Rommel, who was still without troops, flew to Sirte to see what Italian forces remained there as a rearguard to slow the expected British advance. He was to comment that there were, “perhaps a regiment of troops”, which was all there were between the British and Tripoli.
On March 11, the German 5th Light Division began to come ashore at Tripoli, with its 5th Panzer Regiment containing 120 tanks (although only 60 of them were modern Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs), and was immediately directed to Sirte. On March 15, Rommel established his headquarters at Sirte. When Rommel arrived, he found that the recently debarked Italian Ariete Armored Division, commanded by General Ettore Baldassare was joining him at Sirte.
From Germany, Rommel was sent a direct order to refrain from any significant action until the 15th Panzer Division, due in May, had arrived to reinforce him. This order was intercepted by the British ULTRA and passed on to the British command in Cairo. It reinforced British opinion that the front would remain static, at least until May and they could build up their supplies and send in reinforcements at their leisure.
Rommel, meanwhile, had made an aerial observation of the Sirte area, which gave him an appreciation of the Axis and British dispositions. Having been reinforced by the Italian Pavia and Brescia Infantry Divisions, he disregarded his orders and launched an attack on the British on March 31, which surprised the British as well as the German and Italian General Staffs. This surprise attack resulted in the capture of General O’Connor, which deprived the British of the services of their best desert general, who would be sorely missed during the subsequent battles with the German Afrikakorps.
Rommel, in defiance of orders from General Gariboldi to stop his attack, drove the British forces into Egypt (with a short pause to invest the fortress of Tobruk) where he occupied Fort Capuzzo, Sollum and Halfaya Pass, thus clearing the British from Libya.
BATTLE OF THE SIRTE MEDAL
To celebrate this turnaround, now that it was the British who were demoralized, defeated and retreating in disorder across the desert, the gloating Italians coined the Battle of the Sirte Medal which, no doubt alludes to the desert area below the Gulf of Sirte (now the Gulf of Sidra), where the actual fighting took place rather than the town of Sirte. The town of that name was the site of Rommel’s first headquarters and the jumping off point of the Italian/German forces but no battle was actually fought there.
The medal is of very dark bronze, 33mm in diameter, the obverse reads, “CON LA GERMANIA ALLA GOLA” (With Germany at the throat) behind the figure of a German soldier to the right and “E LA ITALIA ALLA CINTOLA (And Italy at the back) behind an Italian soldier to the left. The German soldier has seized a dragon (Britain) by the throat and is about to plunge a raised dagger into its body and the Italian soldier has a firm grip around the dragon’s body. The reverse has a winged centaur at the top, above a Roman warrior standing on the prow of a Roman war vessel, above a centaur. To the right of the prow, in three lines, is “BATTAGLIA/DELLA/SIRTE (Battle of the Sirte).
The suspension ribbon is red with 3mm black stripe and 3mm white stripe at the right edge and at the left side a 3mm white stripe and 3mm green edge stripe, displaying the German and Italian national colors. The ribbon is led through a large circular ring, which is held by a smaller flattened vertical ring through a small lug at the top of the medal.
This is a significant and virtually unknown medal which commemorates the opening battle of the famed Desert Fox’s Afrikakorps in the Libyan desert beginning the “War Without Hate,” which ended with the surrender of the Afrikakorps’ battered remains on Cap Bon, Tunisia, May 13, 1943. The war in North Africa claimed over a hundred thousand dead: 18,594 Germans, 13,748 Italians, 36,478 British and 16,500 Americans.