The young fighters, the "shabab" as they proudly proclaim themselves, piled on to scores of pick up trucks with mounted machine guns and squeezed in to saloon cars with their Kalashnikovs hanging out of the windows. Some had no more than old hunting rifles. One man was waving a bayonet as his only weapon.
With threats to kill Muammar Gaddafi and cries of "God is great", vehicles packed with hundreds of men sped off to liberate the town of Ajdabiya, under siege by the Libyan dictator's forces five miles down the road.
Minutes later the charge was in terrified retreat after a clash that not only revealed the weaknesses of the rebel forces, not least their lack of discipline, but raised a question for the countries leading the air strikes on Libya: do they intend to fight the revolutionaries' war for them or are they prepared to accept the division of Libya?
The insurgent forces have pushed 85 miles along the coastal road west from Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, since the air strikes began. On Saturday, Gaddafi's army was fighting inside Benghazi. The next day the onslaught from the air sent it scurrying into retreat.
Destroyed and abandoned tanks, armoured vehicles and rocket launchers litter the windswept desert road west. Some of the tanks are blackened hulks, ripped apart by the missiles fired by unseen planes. Others appear to have no damage at all, suggesting the crews fled in fear. The rebels followed at a distance, retaking much of the ground they held in the early days of the revolution, but this time without a fight. They also moved in to the oil port of Zwitina, south of Benghazi, after Gaddafi's forces pulled out. A power station hit by shelling last week was still on fire.
By Monday morning, the revolutionaries' advance was halted outside Ajdabiya, where Gaddafi's army was still dug in around the town, suggesting that the air campaign has yet to break its will to fight despite a demand by coalition forces that the government pull back from the town as a "non-negotiable condition" of last week's UN resolution.
The rebels watched apprehensively as incoming shells dropped short in the desert with a flash of fire and a large puff of sand, further evidence that the Libyan leader's twice announced ceasefire means little on the frontline.
Then planes were heard, but not seen, overhead. Spotters with binoculars watched from the top of sand dunes, trying to assess the effect of the air strikes as black plumes rose above the town.
The sound of several deep explosions in the direction of Gaddafi's forces persuaded the rebels that the aircraft had knocked out the enemy's tanks and rockets. A cry went up to charge forward. The mechanical cavalry surged along the road certain that the planes had done the job and the government soldiers would be dead or fleeing in terror of more missiles.
But within a couple of minutes a rain of shells came down around them, exploding on the road and the desert, and the charge swiftly broke up. Drivers tore off across the sand shouting in alarm. Some stopped to pick up the wounded. Others flung their cars into U-turns and hit the accelerator. The advance was quickly consumed by panic and chaos as the rebels fled as fast as they could. No one stood and fought or continued to press forward.
By the time the rebel forces regrouped they had retreated about five miles from their earlier position. At least eight of them were dead and others wounded.
Farhad al-Marebi, a middle-aged revolutionary in a woollen hat, conceded that the advance had been a mistake.
"When we heard the sound of the planes, we thought they were shooting Gaddafi's army. So we decided to advance," he said. "I was sure the planes would attack the tanks like they did yesterday. That's why we went forward."
Karim Ali, a 55-year-old police officer, agreed that "it was a mistake".
The charge was not entirely driven by blind bravado.
Among the fighters was Abdul Jabal Najdi, a 41-year-old mechanic. He was keen to get to Ajdabiya because his family has been trapped in the town for days.
"We all have a lot of family there. We want to get there and save them," he said. "We took the decision ourselves to move."
That did little to mollify Adil Hasi, the man in charge of what the revolutionary leadership regards as the regular rebel forces in the area, mainly made up of former soldiers. He said he did not order the charge and that it was evidence of the indiscipline of the volunteer fighters.
"I didn't give the order to advance. These are civilians at war. They are not my guys. I gave orders that we can't attack and get near them because of the planes. We must keep away. They were under orders to wait until the air strikes," he said. "I had a plan that we were going to surround Gaddafi's forces, but then these guys pushed through. So my plan has failed."
Hasi said intelligence suggested that Gaddafi's forces still had at least three tanks, some rocket launchers and artillery.
The day's events around Ajdabiya provided further evidence that the rebels stand little hope of defeating Gaddafi's forces militarily on their own and are relying on coalition air strikes to destroy, or at least greatly weaken, the ability of the government's army to fight.
Some of the rebels mistake the air strikes for their own victories. They dance on the burned out tanks, wave V for victory signs and declare that they are beating Gaddafi.
But the revolutionaries outside Ajdabiya only advanced because they expected to move into the town with little resistance.
The rebel leadership frankly admits that it cannot defeat the government militarily on its own and acknowledges that if it cannot take a relatively small town unaided, its forces are unlikely to be able to seize the better defended cities further west – leaving France, Britain and the US to decide if they are going to fight the insurgents' war for them by clearing the way for the revolutionaries to advance.
Alongside the military campaign, the rebels' political leadership says it intends to encourage fresh popular uprisings in cities still under Gaddafi's control. But it may find it hard to persuade Libyans to take the risk unless they have the assurance that rebel forces are close enough to come to their rescue.
Members of the revolutionary council have already said they fear that the result of a limited air campaign will be military stalemate and a divided Libya. For that reason, they have called for an escalation of the air strikes to wipe out Gaddafi's army as a fighting force.
The chaos outside Ajdabiya holds another concern for ordinary Libyans in areas now claimed as liberated territory by the revolutionary council.
There is growing alarm in Benghazi in particular at growing disorder by young men with guns who have claimed the authority for themselves to set up arbitrary road blocks, order people around and fire their weapons for the fun of it.
Even in combat situations, they do not obey orders, shooting at will and wasting ammunition. Rebels manning an anti-aircraft gun were probably responsible for shooting down the revolutionaries' only fighter plane on Saturday.