Operation Compass was the first big Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. British and other Commonwealth forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and eastern Libya in December 1940, with great success. The Western Desert Force (Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O'Connor) with about 30,000 men, advanced from Mersa Matruh in Egypt on a five-day raid on the Italian positions of the 10th Army (Marshal Rodolfo Graziani), which had about 150,000 men in fortified posts around Sidi Barrani and in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica).
The 10th Army was swiftly defeated and the British prolonged the operation, to pursue the remnants of the 10th Army to Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The British lost 1,900 killed and wounded, about 10 percent of their infantry and took 100,000–115,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners, hundreds of tanks and over 1,000 guns and aircraft. The British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to broken-down and worn out vehicles and the diversion of the best-equipped units to the Greek Campaign.[f]
- 1 Prelude
- 2 Battle of the Camps
- 3 British pursuit
- 4 Desert operations
- 5 Aftermath
- 6 Quotes
- 7 See also
- 8 Footnotes
- 9 Citations
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940. During the next few months there were raids and skirmishes between Italian forces in Libya and British and other Commonwealth forces in Egypt. On 12 June 1940, the British attacked Tobruk. The British naval force involved, including the cruisers HMS Liverpool and HMS Gloucester bombarded Tobruk and exchanged fire with the Italian cruiser San Giorgio. Royal Air Force Blenheim bombers from Squadrons No. 45, No. 55, and No. 211 scored a direct hit on the San Giorgio with a bomb. On 19 June, the British submarine HMS Parthian fired two torpedoes at San Giorgio, but these missed. San Giorgio's main role was then to support the local anti-aircraft units, her guns claiming to have shot down or damaged 47 British aircraft. San Giorgio also shot down in error the Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 aircraft carrying Italo Balbo, the Governor-General of Libya and Commander-in-chief of Italian forces in North Africa. The aircraft flew low over Tobruk shortly after an attack by British bombers on 28 June, and was hit, killing all aboard.
On 19 June 1940, in the first dogfight over North Africa, five CR.42s from 84a Squadriglia of the Tobruk-based 10° Gruppo that were escorting Breda Ba.65 light bombers encountered four Gladiators from No. 33 Squadron and a Hurricane from No. 80 Squadron. In the encounter that followed a Gladiator was shot down but the Italians lost two CR.42s In the last week of June 1940, the pilots of the Aeronautica della Libia 2° Stormo claimed to have shot down six Royal Air Force Blenheim bombers, losing one CR.42. The British report the loss of two Blenheims near Tobruk. On 23 July 1940, the RAF lost another three Blenheims. On 7 December 1940, an Italian fighting patrol from Maktila raided British positions in the area, and according to Marshal Graziani, captured several defenders. On 21 December 1940, an Italian reinforced platoon or company reconnoitering the area of the Australian 2/2nd Battalion got within 1,600 metres of the forward platoons before being discovered and forced to retire.[g]
Italian advance into Egypt
Marshal Italo Balbo was Governor-General and military commander of Italian North Africa (Libya). Italian dictator Benito Mussolini urged Balbo to attack the British in Egypt. Mussolini's aim was to capture the Suez Canal and link up with Italian East Africa. But for many reasons, Balbo was reluctant. After Balbo's death in a friendly fire accident on 28 June, Mussolini urged his replacement, General Rodolfo Graziani, to attack. Like Balbo, Graziani too was reluctant, stating that the water supply was inadequate. On 8 August 1940, he said to the Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano "We move toward a defeat which, in the desert, must inevitably develop into a rapid and total disaster." Graziani ultimately followed Mussolini's orders. On 13 September 1940, elements of the Italian Tenth Army advanced into Egypt in "Operation E". As the Italians advanced, the small British force at Sollum withdrew to the main defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italian advance was harassed by the 7th Support Group, a mobile element of the 7th Armoured Division.
After recapturing Fort Capuzzo, progress was slow. The Italians advanced approximately 95 kilometres (59 mi) in three days. On 16 September, the advance stopped at the town of Maktila, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) beyond Sidi Barrani. The Italian high command claimed that the Italians advanced 60 miles in a desert sandstorm that surprised the British garrison at Sidi Barrini and that the British rearguards had been "crushed everywhere." The Italians then dug in, fortified their positions, and awaited reinforcements and supplies. They created a line of fortified camps around Sidi Barrani which ran from Maktila, 24 kilometres (15 mi) east on the coast, southward through Tummar East, Tummar West, and Nibeiwa, to Sofafi on the escarpment to the south-west.
Virginio Gayda, Italian newspaper editor and mouthpiece for Mussolini's fascist regime, wrote "Nothing can save Britain now." However, the British Royal Navy had transferred assets, including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to the Mediterranean to reinforce the British Mediterranean Fleet, making provisioning of North Africa problematic for the Italians. The Germans offered units to the Italians in summer 1940 to attack Egypt, but Benito Mussolini rejected it in October in a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
When war was declared, the Italian Fifth Army commanded by General Italo Gariboldi was located towards the west in Tripolitania and the Italian Tenth Army commanded by General Mario Berti was located towards the east in Cyrenaica. Once the French in Tunisia no longer posed a threat to Tripolitania, the assets of the Fifth Army were used more and more to supplement the needs of the Tenth Army. When Balbo was killed, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani took his place as Governor-General of Libya. Graziani expressed doubts about the capabilities of his larger but largely un-mechanized force to defeat the British, who, though smaller in numbers, were largely motorised.[h]
After being reinforced at the expense of the Fifth Army, the Tenth Army controlled the equivalent of four army corps. The XX Corps had the Italian 60 Infantry Division Sabratha. The XXI Corps had the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division, the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division and the 63 Infantry Division Cirene. The XXII Corps had the 61 Infantry Division Sirte. The XXIII Corps had the 4th "3 January" Blackshirt Division and the 64 Infantry Division Catanzaro. The newly created "Group of Libyan Divisions" (Gruppo Divisioni Libiche) had the "Maletti Group", the 1 Libyan Division Sibelle commanded by Major-General Luigi Sibelle, and the 2 Libyan Division Pescatori commanded by Major-General Armando Pescatori.
The only unit Berti had that was not an infantry division was the partially motorized and lightly armoured "Maletti Group." This group was commanded by its namesake General Pietro Maletti and comprised some 2,500 Libyan colonial infantry and seventy tanks. Maletti Group's tanks were evenly divided between the lightly armoured and machine gun-armed Fiat L3s tankettes and the slightly heavier M11/39 medium tank. The M11/39 featured a hull-mounted 37 mm gun as its main armament. This gun was difficult to bring to bear on targets because of its limited traverse. The medium tank was also relatively poorly armoured and was mechanically unreliable.
Initially the British Middle East Command under General Archibald Wavell only had about 30,000 troops stationed in Egypt to defend against the approximately 150,000 Italian troops stationed in Cyrenaica. Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor commanded the Western Desert Force. Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse commanded the 4th Indian Infantry Division and Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh commanded the 7th Armoured Division (the "Desert Rats"). From 14 December, troops of the 6th Australian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General Iven Mackay, replaced the Indian troops.
In comparison to the Italian tanks, the British were able to field some faster cruiser tanks (the Mk I, Mk II, and Mk III) which with their 40mm 2-pdr guns were more than a match to the M11/39s. The British also had a limited number of Matilda II infantry tanks that, while slow, were well armoured and also equipped with the 2-pdr. The armour of the Matilda tanks could not be pierced by any of the Italian anti-tank or field guns available at the time.
Following the Italian advance, Wavell ordered the commander of British Troops Egypt, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson to plan a limited operation to push the Italians back. Wavell had noted that the Italian defensive positions were dispersed with the fortified camps separated by large distances which meant they could not provide mutual support. Operation Compass, for administrative reasons, was originally planned as a five-day raid but was extended after its initial success. Wavell was confident of his smaller force's capabilities and on 28 November wrote to Wilson expressing a belief that an opportunity might occur for converting the enemy's defeat into an outstanding victory,
I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.—Wavell
The 7th Support Group was to observe the Italian camps at Sofafi and prevent intervention, while the rest of the division and 4th Indian Division passed through the Sofafi–Nibeiwa gap. An Indian brigade and Infantry tanks (I tanks) of 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR) would attack Nibeiwa from the west, as the 7th Armoured Division protected their northern flank. Once Nibeiwa was captured a second Indian brigade and the 7th RTR would attack the Tummars. The Matruh Garrison Force (3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards plus some artillery) would contain the enemy camp at Maktila on the coast and the Royal Navy would bombard Maktila and Sidi Barrani.
Assuming success, Sidi Barrani would be attacked on the second day by the 4th Indian Division and a westward exploitation would follow. Preparations were made in the strictest secrecy. Only a few officers knew during the training exercise held from 25–26 November that the objectives marked out near Matruh were replicas of Nibeiwa and Tummar and that the exercise was a rehearsal; the troops were also told that a second exercise was to follow. Many of the troops involved were not informed that the operation was real until 7 December, as they arrived at their start positions.
Battle of the Camps
Late on 8 December, an Italian reconnaissance aircrew reported that attack on Maktila and Nibeiwa was imminent but General Maletti was not informed.[i] On 9 December, the 1st Libyan Colonial Infantry Division was at Maktila and the 2nd Libyan Colonial Infantry Division was at Tummar. The "Maletti Group" was located at Nibiewa and the 4th "3 January" Blackshirt Division and the headquarters of the "Libyan Corps" were at Sidi Barrani. The 63 Infantry Division Cirene and the headquarters of XXI Corps were at Sofafi and the 64 Infantry Division Catanzaro was at Buq Buq. The headquarters of the XXIII Corps and the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division were in Sollum and Halfaya Pass respectively and the 62 Infantry Division Marmarica was at Sidi Omar, south of Sollum. The commander of the 10th Army, General Mario Berti, was on sick leave and General Italo Gariboldi, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division and the 10th Army HQ were far back at Bardia. (By the time Berti arrived in Libya, so had the British.)
Operation Compass (la battaglia della Marmarica Battle of the Marmarica) began on the night of 7/8 December. The Western Desert Force (Major-General Richard O'Connor) comprising the British 7th Armoured Division, Indian 4th Infantry Division and the British 16th Infantry Brigade advanced 113 kilometres (70 mi) to their start line. The RAF made attacks on Italian airfields destroying or damaging 29 aircraft on the ground. Selby Force of 1,800 men (Brigadier A. R. Selby), moved up from Matruh, set up a brigade of dummy tanks in the desert and reached a position south-east of Maktila by dawn on 9 December. Maktila had been bombarded by the monitor HMS Terror and the gunboat HMS Aphis; Sidi Barrani had been shelled by the gunboat HMS Ladybird.
At 05.00 on 9 December, a detachment of artillery commenced a diversionary firing for an hour at the fortified Nibeiwa camp which was occupied by the Maletti Group from the east. At 07.00 the main divisional artillery started to register targets and by 07.15 a full concentration had started. At that moment 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, with 7 RTR under command, attacked Nibeiwa from the northwest, which reconnaissance had established as the weakest sector. By 08.30,[j] after some fierce fighting, Nibeiwa was taken; Major-General Pietro Maletti was killed and 2,000 Italian and Libyan soldiers were captured. Maletti along with Captain Burroni Sigfrido would be posthumously awarded the Medaglia d'oro al Valore Militare, Italy's highest award for bravery. Large quantities of supplies were also taken intact while O'Connor's casualties amounted to eight officers and forty-eight men. Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, commander of 4th Indian Division, ordered his 5th Indian Infantry Brigade to move up with supporting field artillery and take positions for the attack on the Tummars.[k]
The attack commenced on Tummar West at 13.50, after 7 RTR had refuelled and re-armed and artillery had softened the defences up for an hour. Here too a north west approach was made and the tanks broke through the perimeter without too much difficulty and were followed twenty minutes later by the infantry. However, the defenders put up stronger opposition than at Nibeiwa[l] but by 16.00 Tummar West was overrun, except for the extreme northeastern corner. The tanks shifted their point of attack to Tummar East, the greater part of which was captured by nightfall. Meanwhile, the 7th Armoured Division's 4th Armoured Brigade, while performing flank defence, had advanced to Azziziya where the garrison of 400 surrendered. Light patrols of the 7th Hussars pushed forward to cut the road from Sidi Barrani to Buq Buq while armoured cars of the 11th Hussars ranged further west. The tanks of 7th Armoured Brigade was held in reserve.
Unaware of the situation at the Tummars, Selby sent units to cut the western exits from Maktila but the 1st Libyan Division filtered through and escaped.
Sidi Barrani, Buq Buq and Sofafi
On 10 December 16 Infantry Brigade was brought forward from 4th Indian Division reserve and with elements of 11th Indian Brigade under command was sent forward in lorries to attack Sidi Barrani. Moving forward that morning across exposed ground the force took some casualties but with support from artillery and 7 RTR it was in position barring the south and south western exits to Sidi Barrani by 13.30. At 16.00, supported by the whole of the division's artillery, the attack, again with the support of 7th RTR, went in. The town was captured by nightfall and the remains of the two Libyan Divisions and the 4th Blackshirt Division were trapped between the 16th Infantry Brigade and the Selby Force. On 11 December Selby Force supported by some tanks attacked and secured the surrender of the 1st Libyan Division. By evening the 4th Blackshirts had also ceased resisting. Edward Kennedy, an American war correspondent wrote that the Blackshirts had fought well:
With the dawn the British column, made entirely of English and Scottish regiments—started for Sidi Barrani with tanks leading the way ... Two-thirds of a mile south of the town they came under the fire of Italians entrenched on a ridge ... After seven hours of hard fighting, in which the British said the Blackshirts fought well and inflicted considerable casualties, the British drove them back and took the ridge at 2 pm.
On 11 December 7 Armoured Brigade was ordered out of reserve and relieved 4th Armoured Brigade in the Buq Buq area to clear it of remaining opposition and made large captures of men and guns. On 11 December a patrol from 7th Support Group entered Rabia to find it empty. The Cirene Division had withdrawn from there and Sofafi overnight. An order to the withdrawing 4th Armoured Brigade to cut them off west of Sofafi arrived too late and they were able to make their way along the top of the escarpment to link with Italian forces at Halfya.
Over the next few days the British 4th Armoured Brigade, on top of the escarpment, and 7th Armoured Brigade, on the coast, endeavoured to pursue vigorously. They encountered acute supply problems exacerbated by the large number of prisoners (twenty times the number planned for) and found it extremely difficult to advance. Italian forces crowded into the coast route while retreating from Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq were easy targets for the Terror and the two gunboats which bombarded the Sollum area all day and most of the night of 11 December. By late on 12 December, the last Italian positions in Egypt were at the approaches to Sollum and a force in the region of Sidi Omar.
73 Italian tanks and 237 artillery pieces were destroyed or captured and depending on the source, 10,000–38,300 Italian and Libyan soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. The British had suffered fewer than 700 casualties. The British and Indian forces having licked their wounds, moved quickly west along the Via della Vittoria, through Halfaya Pass and again captured Fort Capuzzo in Libya.
Section commander Nazzareno Ganino, 86th Infantry Regiment, 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division later described the patrol actions of the period,
I held the rank of corporal and was in charge of a small squad of about eleven or so men, our job was to go on night patrols into enemy held ground, either cutting wire or reporting on enemy activities or positions. Because of the nature of the work there was nearly always casualties, where one or sometimes more would not make it back to camp, either through capture or even death. We faced fear and sometimes lost our way in the darkness and featureless landscape, but I always tried to avoid unnecessary loss of life.
On 22 December 1940, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that "patrols have penetrated three miles into the Bardia's outer defences and clashed with Italian patrols at several points." On 2 January 1941, an Italian fighting patrol raided the positions of Lieutenant Bill Sherlock's 12 Platoon of the Australian 2/6th Battalion's B Company, capturing Major A.E. Arthur, Lieutenant J. Crawford, Private P. Russell and some signallers of the 2/2nd Field Regiment.
O'Connor wanted to continue the offensive at least as far as Benghazi. On 11 December, General Wavell whose command stretched down into Africa, ordered the Indian 4th Infantry Division to withdraw to take part in the East African Campaign against Italian forces in Italian East Africa. O'Connor said,
[This] came as a complete and very unpleasant surprise . . . It put 'paid' to the question of immediate exploitation . . .—O'Connor
The Australian 6th Division replaced the Indian troops from 14 December. The Australians had barely finished training, were missing their armoured regiment and as yet had only one artillery regiment equipped with the new 25-pounder field guns.
Sollum, Halfaya and Fort Capuzzo
Exploitation continued nevertheless by the two armoured brigades and the Support Group of 7th Armoured Division with the infantry of 16th Infantry Brigade (which had not gone with the Indian division to the Sudan) following up. By 15 December, Sollum and Halfya had been captured as well as Fort Capuzzo while all Italian forces had been cleared from Egypt. 7th Armoured Division was concentrated south-west of Bardia, awaiting the arrival of 6th Australian Division for the attack on Bardia. By this time the Western Desert Force had taken 38,000 prisoners and captured 400 artillery pieces and 50 tanks while suffering casualties of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing.
After the disaster at Sidi Barrani and the withdrawal from Egypt, Lieutenant General Annibale Bergonzoli's XXIII Corps faced the British within the strong defences of Bardia. Mussolini wrote to Bergonzoli,
I have given you a difficult task but one suited to your courage and experience as an old and intrepid soldier—the task of defending the fortress of Bardia to the last. I am certain that 'Electric Beard' and his brave soldiers will stand at whatever cost, faithful to the last." Bergonzoli replied: "I am aware of the honour and I have today repeated to my troops your message — simple and unequivocal. In Bardia we are and here we stay.—Mussolini
Graziani daily recorded his apprehension. He bemoaned the situation and his fate, accused Marshal Pietro Badoglio (Supreme Chief of the Italian General Staff) of treachery and he demanded mass intervention by German aircraft. While Bergonzoli prepared the defences of Bardia, Graziani began the evacuation of colonists from between Tobruk and Derna. On 23 December, Graziani replaced Berti with General Giuseppe Tellera as commander of the 10th Army. That same day, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that "patrols have penetrated three miles into the Bardia's outer defences and clashed with Italian patrols at several points."
Bergonzoli had approximately 20,000 men in Bardia. The Italian divisions defending the perimeter of Bardia included remnants of the 62nd "Marmarica" Infantry Division, remnants of the 63rd "Cirene" Infantry Division, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division and the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division. The divisions guarded a 29-kilometre (18 mi) perimeter which had a permanent anti-tank ditch, extensive wire fence and a double row of concrete strong points. As a "mobile reserve" there were a dozen medium tanks and over one hundred L3 tankettes. While the L3s were generally worthless, the medium tanks for the first time included a few M13/40 with the turret-mounted 47 mm anti-tank gun as its main armament. This was a vast improvement over the hull-mounted 37 mm gun of the M11/39s. Bergonzoli also had the remnants of the 64th Infantry Division Catanzaro and some "fortress troops" in Bardia. Unfortunately for Bergonzoli, he had little more than a month's supply of water. On 23 December 1940, the British East Command in Cairo reported that the Bardia garrison lacked water.
Following the reorganisation of his forces, now named XIII Corps, O'Connor resumed his offensive. On 3 January 1941, General Mackay's Australian 6th Division assaulted Bardia. Its Australian 16th Infantry Brigade attacked at dawn from the west, where the defences were known to be weak. Sappers blew gaps in the barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes and filled in and broke down the sides of the anti-tank ditch with picks and shovels. On crossing the start line the Australian 2/1st Battalion started to suffer casualties, losing 4 killed and 10 wounded. It continued to advance while still under fire from mortar crews and artillery. Post 49 and 47 were rapidly overrun and Post 46 in the second line beyond. Within half an hour Post 48 had also fallen and a second company had taken Posts 45 and 44. The two remaining companies now advanced beyond these positions, as artillery began to fall along the broken wire. At 06.30 the Australian 2/2nd Battalion found that it was best to keep skirmishing forward throughout this advance, because going to ground for any length of time meant sitting in the middle of the enemy artillery concentrations that inflicted further casualties. The Australian troops, supported by 23 Matilda II tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment made good progress. Morale in some Italian units was broken, worn down by six weeks of aerial and naval bombardment but other units were determined to fight. At one Italian position, about 50 conscripts walked out and surrendered as soon as their position came under direct attack but the officer and NCOs in charge of the platoon kept on fighting and were killed manning a machine-gun. The companies of the 2/1st Battalion succeeded in taking 600 prisoners.
At 07.50 the Australian 2/3rd Battalion, accompanied by the 6th Cavalry Regiment moved off for Bardia. One company advanced to the Italian posts and attacked a group of sangers with very close fighting; the enemy platoons were cleared with grenades. By 09.20 they had linked with 2/1st Battalion, strung out in a very thin line and around 11.00 a squadron of M11/39 and M13/40 tanks overran part of the 2/3rd Battalion, freeing 500 captured Italians and capturing several Australians in the surprise counter-attack. The tanks continued pushing to the south while the crews of the Matildas dismissed reports of them. Finally, they were knocked out by the three 2-pounders of the anti-tank platoon portée (mounted on trucks). By midday, 6,000 captured Italians had reached the provosts at the collection point near Post 45. In the meantime, the defenders of Bardia were bombarded by the British battleships, Barham, Valiant and Warspite, accompanied by four destroyers firing at selected targets in the town.
The Australian 2/5th Battalion now took over the advance and covered 15 miles (24 km) in nine hours. The battalion's task was to clear "The Triangle". The sun had now risen and soon the lead company was pinned down inflicting many casualties almost at once. Support from 3-inch (76 mm) mortars and Vickers machine-guns of the 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers proved effective and another company worked along the Wadi Scemmas, eventually collecting 3,000 prisoners. After Post 24 had been taken, two Matildas arrived and they helped to take Post 22. In the Wadi Gerfain, two troops of six Italian L3 tankettes were destroyed. 2/7th Battalion were then sent forward to take "The Triangle". A company attack was made on the objective, 3,000 yards (2,700 m) away with fire support from machine-guns. The company captured several artillery guns, machine-guns and companies on the way, but sustained 50 percent casualties.
Before nightfall on 4 January, the Italian troops occupying the whole of the northern sector of the defences had been forced to surrender, and the only remaining enemy resistance was confined to a restricted area in the southern zone of the perimeter defences. The soldiers of the 2/3rd Battalion took over the area of the Italian field hospital at the Hebs el Harram and found more than 500 wounded Italians and about 30 Australian patients. According to an Australian war correspondent, the Italian military battlefield surgeons at Bardia were dedicated professionals, and soon won the admiration of the Australians.
An Australian soldier claimed that one of the bravest men of the battle proved to be an Italian combat medic:
We were so surprised when we first saw him, and before we realised ... we ceased fire. Followed by two stretcher-bearers, he walked calmly to where two of our men were lying wounded. He brought both men through our line, and attended to them, and then walked back and picked up two wounded Italians. I talked to him in French when he was with us. He said there was a brotherhood among doctors.
The Australian 2/7th Battalion's D Company resumed the advance and attacked under the cover of darkness Posts 14, 17 and 19 from which a heavy volume of fire had been laid down. After a fierce fight, the company cleared the platoon positions and took 103 prisoners.
That evening, the Italians put in a last-ditch heavy regimental-sized counter-attack in the southern sector. This was repulsed by A Company, which waited until their attackers were at close range before opening fire. Supported by tanks, the attackers closed in on the town of Bardia. While the two brigades consolidated through the night, O'Connor, agreed plans to introduce 19th Brigade to clear the main Italian artillery force to the south of the town. At 13.00 on 5 January, Major General Iven Giffard Mackay, who commanded the 6th Infantry Division, accepted the surrender of the remaining defenders.
Some 25,000–40,000 Italian troops were captured in Bardia, together with 216 field guns, 146 anti-tank guns, 12 medium tanks and 115 L3s; and most important of all, 708 vehicles. Australian losses totalled 130 dead and 326 wounded.
In the aerial engagements of 5 January, the Royal Air Force claimed eleven Italian aircraft without the loss of a British fighter. Bergonzolli escaped and was able to stay just ahead of the Allied forces as they then advanced to Tobruk along the coast road, the Via Balbia.
Among the prisoners was Captain Tua Felice, commander of a rifle company from the "Cirene" Division, who won Italy's Medaglia d'Oro for bravery. He had been badly wounded and treated in a Cairo hospital and later spent several years as a prisoner of war in British India. Upon his return to Italy in May 1946, he resumed his military career, retiring with the rank of full colonel. According to historian Craig Stockings, the captured Italian soldiers were in a terrible state, having survived on little water or food during the 19-day siege of Bardia:
The impact of insufficient food and drink on the Italian defenders at Bardia was soon quite clear to the Australians ... many were dying and weak with hunger and thirst ... They went down on their knees and drank up puddles of water ... Warrant Officer R. Donovan, 2/21 Field Regiment was haunted by mass cries for 'aqua, aqua,' ... Some died of exhaustion and thirst.—C. Stockings
On 15 January, the Minister for the Australian Army, Percy Spender explained that the battle had not been the walkover some had suggested and that Allied firepower had proved decisive in the capture of Bardia,
Bardia was reduced because of brilliant staff work, by perfect coordination and understanding between the services, by amazingly accurate intelligence as to the Italian defences, by able leadership, by the weight of terrific naval bombardment, by the incessant attacks of the air arm in which Australian pilots participated, by the surprise qualities of the attack itself, by the efficiency of the British mechanised forces, and by the dash, daring, and great bravery of Australian troops.—Spender
Following the fall of Bardia, 7th Armoured Division with Australian 19th Brigade advanced to Tobruk which was isolated by the 7th Armoured Division on 6 January and by 9 January it was surrounded. On 14 January, the Italian defenders killed Corporal Vic Jarvis and captured Leading Aircraftsman John Parr, after blowing up their truck with an anti-tank shell. There were approximately 25,000 Italian defenders at Tobruk under the command of General Enrico Petassi Manella, commander of the XXII Corps. Besides "fortress troops", the defenders comprised the 61st "Sirte" Infantry Division, two infantry battalions and frontier guards. The defenders had 62 tankettes, 25 medium tanks and about 200 guns. The perimeter was about 48 kilometres (30 mi) long and was fortified with a combination of anti-tank ditch, wire, and a double row of strongpoints. In many ways the defences at Tobruk were a replica of the defences at Bardia.
The Allied infantry force comprised the 6th Australian Division under Major-General Iven Mackay supported by the 16 remaining Infantry tanks of 7 RTR and the machine-gun battalions of the Northumberland Regiment and Cheshire Regiment. 7th Armoured Division with its unit of Free French Marines were to play the same containing role they had at Bardia, with the 7th Support Group and its remaining 69 Cruiser and 126 light tanks kept in reserve. Given the lack of tank numbers, heavy artillery bombardment was used to soften the Italian defences.
On 21 January at 5:40 a.m., the 2/3rd Australian Battalion advanced with massed artillery in support, as engineers lifted mines and cleared routes through the wire and over the anti-tank ditch. After an hour, the 16th Australian Brigade and 18 infantry tanks had broken through on a 1 mile (1.6 km) front to a depth of 1 mile (1.6 km). At 8:40 a.m. the 16th Brigade began to roll up the Italian defences and the 19th Australian Brigade advanced northwards behind an artillery barrage and bombardments of the Italian battery positions. The most determined Italian resistance was met on the left flank at the Bardia–El Adem road junction, with dug-in tanks and machine-guns against the 2/8th Australian Battalion. At 2:00 p.m. the Australian advance resumed and on the left was counter-attacked by a small force of tanks and infantry with artillery support, which was routed with help from British tanks and anti-tank guns. The Italian defences at Pilastrino held out until 9:30 p.m. but Solaro was captured quickly along with Manella.
From dawn, the Blenheims of 55 and 113 squadrons flew 56 sorties at Tobruk as 3 Squadron RAAF Gladiators and 73 and 274 squadron Hurricanes conducted offensive patrols west of the port against the Regia Aeronautica. As night fell, the sound of Italian demolitions was heard and a general advance was ordered for the next morning. As dawn broke, the 61 Infantry Division Sirte collapsed and the commander, Brigadier-General Vincenzo della Mura surrendered with several thousand men to the 2/8th Australian Battalion. Tobruk was entered by the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment and Admiral Vietina surrendered the naval forces. The British took 14,000 -25,000 prisoners, including 2,000 members of the Italian navy, 208 field and medium guns and 87 tanks. XIII corps had 400 casualties of whom, 355 were Australian. The British found that the harbour facilities were intact and the Inshore Squadron of the Royal Navy began minesweeping; by 24 January the port was open.
In late 1940, the Italian Supreme Command moved quickly to organize the Brigata Corazzata Speciale (BCS) and send the volunteer force to North Africa under the command of General Valentino Babini. The BCS included M13/40 the most modern Italian medium tank and far superior to the M11/39s used as part of the Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti). The M13 had a turret-mounted 47 mm tank gun capable of penetrating the armour of British light and cruiser tanks but except for command vehicles, the M13s did not carry radios. The BCS also had three Bersaglieri battalions, one motorcycle battalion, an artillery regiment, two anti-tank gun companies, an engineering company and supply units. The BCS tank force included the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st Armoured Division "Centauro" and should have amounted to 139 × M13s but 82 had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days to be made operational.
HQ British Troops Egypt was removed from the line of command so that O'Connor reported directly to Wavell at Middle East Command. O'Connor continued the advance towards Derna with the Australian 6th Division and sent the 7th Armoured Division south of the Jebel Akhdar mountains towards Mechili. On 24 January the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged tanks of the BCS on the Derna–Mechili track. The British knocked out nine Italian tanks and lost one cruiser and six light tanks. The 2/11th Battalion engaged the Sabratha Division and Bersaglieri companies of the BCS at the Derna airfield on 25 January and made slow progress against determined resistance. Italian bombers and modern fighters flew sorties against the 2/11th Battalion as it attacked the Italian-held airfield and nearby heights.
In the Derna–Giovanni Berta area, held by the 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division and Bersaglieri companies of the BCS, there were fierce exchanges with Italian counter-attacks taking place around Wadi Derna. On 27 January, the Australian 2/4th Battalion repulsed a battalion-strength attack.[m] The BCS ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment and took the survivors prisoner. The advance of other units further to the south of the Wadi Derna eventually threatened the BCS with encirclement and it disengaged on the night of 26/27 January. On 28 January the 4th Armoured Brigade gave up the pursuit due to mud, rain, breakdowns and fuel shortage; Derna fell on 30 January. Casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 15 Australians and two British airmen were killed. Much of the 60th Infantry Division "Sabratha" was lost. On 4 February, Italian pilots from 368a Squadriglia, shot down a Bleinheim over the Barce–Derna area. In another action that day a Hurricane from 73 Squadron, a Caproni Ca.133 from 366a Squadriglia, and a CR.42 from 368a Squadriglia were shot down.
Battle of Beda Fomm
The rapid British advance caused the Italians to make a decision to evacuate Cyrenaica. In late January 1941, the British learned that the Italians were evacuating Cyrenaica along the main coastal road from Benghazi. The 7th Armoured Division under Major General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh was dispatched to intercept the remnants of the Italian Tenth Army. Creagh's division was to travel via Msus and Antelat as the 6th Australian Division pursued the Italians along the coast road north of the Jebel Akhdar. The rugged terrain was hard going for the tanks and Creagh took the bold decision to send Combe Force (Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. B. Combe), a flying column of wheeled vehicles south-west across the virtually unmapped Libyan Desert. Combe Force consisted of an armoured car squadron from each of 11th Hussars and King's Dragoon Guards, 2nd Rifle Brigade, an RAF armoured car squadron, anti-tank guns from 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (RHA), C Battery 4th RHA and the 106th (Lancashire Hussars) Regiment RHA, with nine portee-mounted Bofors 37 mm anti-tank guns. The force totalled about 2,000 men.
In the afternoon of 5 February, Combe Force arrived at the Benghazi–Tripoli road and set up road blocks near Sidi Saleh, about 32 kilometres (20 mi) north of Ajedabia and 48 kilometres (30 mi) south-west of Antelat. The leading elements of the Italian Tenth Army arrived 30 minutes later and were blocked. By the evening 4th Armoured Brigade had reached Beda Fomm, overlooking the coastal road 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) to the north and the 7th Armoured Support Group took a more northerly route to threaten the flank and rear of the 10th Army and prevent a breakout across the desert. Next day the 10th Army had concentrated and attacked to break through the British road block. Combe Force managed to hold off about 20,000 Italian soldiers supported by sixty M13/40 medium tanks and two hundred guns. The BCS was in the vicinity of Benghazi as part of the rear guard with about 100 tanks but about 30 tanks were kept back at Benghazi as a rear guard and the BCS had only 60 tanks to force open the road at Beda Fomm.
The final Italian effort came in the morning of 7 February, when the last Italian medium tanks managed an advance against Combe Force but failed to break through. With the rest of the 7th Armoured Division arriving, and the 6th Australian Division advancing from Benghazi, the 10th Army surrendered. O'Connor wrote, "I think this may be termed a complete victory as none of the enemy escaped." General Giuseppe Tellera the commander of the 10th Army was killed, Babini and Bergonzoli the XXIII Corps commander, were captured. After surveying the wreckage of the 10th Army, O'Connor sent his celebrated message to Wavell, "Fox killed in the open." The 11th Hussars were sent westwards to Agedabia and then on to El Agheila to round up stragglers.
Fort Capuzzo, Giarabub and Kufra
The British advance by-passed Italian garrisons further south in the deep desert. Fort Capuzzo, 64 kilometres (40 mi) inland at the end of the frontier wire, was captured en passant by 7th Armoured Division in December 1940, as they advanced westwards to Bardia. Further south, on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, the oasis of Giarabub was attacked and invested in January 1941 and captured after a three-month siege by an Australian reconnaissance force, in March 1941. Further south, on the far side of the Sand Sea, the oasis of Kufra was attacked by Free French force from French Equatorial Africa, in concert with Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) patrols. Kufra fell after the two-month Battle of Kufra in March 1941. Further west, on the border with the French territory of Chad, the Italian base at Murzuk was raided during the Battle of Kufra in January 1941, when two patrols of the new Long Range Patrol Unit and a local sheikh travelled 2,100 kilometres (1,300 mi), to rendezvous near Kayugi with a small Free French detachment. The force attacked Murzuk and destroyed three aircraft and a hangar. The French commander was killed, most of the Italians surrendered and several prisoners were taken. The raiders shot up three forts and departed; after this the Italian garrison at Uweinat 970 kilometres (600 mi) inland and the closest Libyan base to the East African Empire was withdrawn. The British patrols visited Faya and met another French detachment with General Philippe Leclerc for an attack on Kufra. The British were attacked by aircraft and armoured cars of the Italian Auto-Saharan Company, which destroyed several lorries. Leclerc decided that an attack on Kufra was not possible and the remaining British returned to Cairo, after a 45-day round trip of 6,900 kilometres (4,300 mi). Kufra was captured on 1 March by the French and became the new LRDG base in April.
After ten weeks, the Italian Tenth Army was no more. The Allied forces had advanced 800 kilometres (500 mi), destroyed or captured about 400 tanks and 845–1,290 artillery pieces, captured 100,000–110,000 Libyan and Italian prisoners of war besides a vast quantity of other war material. The prisoners included 22 generals. The Italian general staff recorded 960 guns of all types lost. The British and other Commonwealth forces suffered 494 dead and 1,225 wounded, about ten percent of the infantry involved. The issue of Life Magazine that went out on 10 February 1941 included a story entitled: "Mussolini Takes a Bad Licking in Africa". The Italian defence had been robust enough to cost the attackers dear in tanks, with one American historian claiming that the British would have been hard-pressed in resuming their advance and taking Tripolitania,
... the British were at the end of their tether logistically, and speculation that O'Connor could have waltzed into Tripolitania is at best idle.—W. L. Hixson
On 9 February 1941, as the British reached El Agheila, Churchill ordered the advance to stop and troops to be dispatched to Greece. The Greeks were already fighting the Greco-Italian War, with the great bulk of the Greek Army struggling to contain the Italians inside the Albanian border. The Battle of Greece a German attack through Macedonia was thought imminent and British reinforcements were urgently required. The British advance stopped short of driving the Italians out of North Africa. Only about 32,000–50,000 men from the 10th Army escaped the disaster in Cyrenaica but the 5th Army had four divisions in Tripolitania. The Italians reinforced the Sirte, Tmed Hassan and Buerat strongholds, which brought the total of Italian soldiers in Tripolitania to about 150,000. The Italians had lost several divisions in Cyrenaica but replacements and armoured vehicles continued to arrive.
On 11 January 1941, Italian Stukas from 237 Squadriglie and Sparviero bombers from 279 Squadrigile inflicted extensive damage on HMS Illustrious, which forced the aircraft carrier to dock in Malta. On 12 May 1941, Illustrious arrived at the U.S. Navy Norfolk Naval Shipyard for repairs and did not return to service until 23 March 1942.
The first troops of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK, German Africa Corps) landed in Tripolitania on 11 February, as part of Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower). With the arrival of DAK, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, the desert war would take a completely different turn. On 25 March 1941, General Italo Gariboldi replaced Marshal Rodolfo Graziani who had requested to be relieved. Towards the end of April, the Italian divisional commanders reviewed the Italo-German forces. A German officer shouted: "At the beginning of Italian-German cooperation on African soil, we swear to make the greatest effort for a joint victory for Great Germany and Great Italy. Long live Great Italy! Long live Great Germany!" The assembled troops roared: "We swear it!"
The Allied troops of Operation Compass were highly publicized and became known as "Wavell's Thirty Thousand," which was used as the title of a 1942 British documentary chronicling the campaign.
- Bonner Fellers: "General Wavell told me they were going to do manoeuvres, so I went up as an observer, and God dammit — it was the works."
- An anonymous Coldstream Guards officer describing prisoners taken: "We have about 5 acres of officers and 200 acres of other ranks." (About 20,000 and 810,000 square meters respectively.)
- Anthony Eden: (after the battle of Bardia) "Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few."
- Rodolfo Graziani: (writing to Mussolini after the defeat) "In this theatre of operations a single armoured division is more important than an entire [infantry] army."
- Nigel de Grey of Bletchley Park (referring to Ultra decoding operations): [The campaign was] "a perfect, if rather miniature, example of the cryptographers' war."
- Adolf Hitler: (said with amusement to his generals) "Failure has had the healthy effect of once more compressing Italian claims to within the natural boundaries of Italian capabilities."
- 46 fighters and 116 bombers: two squadrons of Hurricanes, one of Gloster Gladiators, three of Blenheims, three of Wellingtons and one of Bombays.
- RAF losses for the same period (all causes) were 6 Hurricanes, 5 Gladiators, 3 Wellingtons and 1 Valentia.
- By mid-February, the British had taken about 115,000 POWs ... and destroyed about 200 of the 564 aircraft lost by the Italian air force.
- The Regia Aeronautica had also suffered heavy losses during Compass, with nearly 700 aircraft being destroyed in total.
- The number comprises 58 aircraft lost in combat, 91 captured intact on airfields and 1,100 damaged and captured.
- On 8 January 1941, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 70,000 Italian soldiers had been captured between 9 December 1940 and 7 January 1941.
- On 22 December 1940, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that "patrols have penetrated three miles into the Bardia's outer defences and clashed with Italian patrols at several points."
- This view is disputed by Sir David Hunt in his book A Don at War. He states:"In fact they had so much [motor transport] that we were able to motorise two brigades out of what we captured; ironically but for the captured transport, we could never have pushed so far into Libya, Of particular value were the large 10-ton Diesel lorries of which the 10th Army had large quantities." At this stage of the war, the Italian army had plenty of motorised transport which was used to supply Graziani's formations which he had chosen to adopt static defensive positions. Wavell's forces on the other hand were desperately short of motorised transport. Neither side were in a position to boast about their armoured strength but the British 7th Armoured Division had a superiority in heavier tanks.
- Indro Montanelli called this sabotage.
- Although the British Official History records that it took until 10.40 for it to be "all over"
- The initial British assault would fall on Nibeiwa Camp, where the only available Italian armoured unit was based, and it achieved complete surprise. Raggruppamento Maletti, or Maletti Group, under General Maletti, was an ad hoc formation consisting of 2,500 Libyan soldiers and 2 Armoured Battalion, with thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks and thirty-five L3/35 light tanks. It was earmarked for early destruction in the assault, which commenced at 05:00hr with what appeared to be no more than another raid on the eastern side of the camp. At 07:00, however, forty-eight Matilda tanks suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the camp. They struck twenty-three unmanned M11/39 tanks of the Maletti Group, which had been deployed to guard the un-mined entrance to the camp. The Italians were caught completely off guard and many did not even reach their tanks, including General Maletti, who was killed emerging from his dugout. They were slaughtered and their vehicles destroyed by the British in less than ten minutes. The Italian artillery fought on valiantly, firing on the Matildas and recording many hits, some at point-blank range - but none penetrated their 70 mm of armour. The remaining Italian tanks were captured intact, and the Libyan infantry, left practically defenceless, quickly surrendered. The British had captured Nibeiwa and destroyed the only front-line Italian armoured unit in less than five hours.
- The British Official History records that "the Italian gunners fought courageously"
- "The 2/4th Battalion had cut the road running south from Derna to Mechili and a company-sized group had managed to move north and cross the massive Wadi Derna ... The Italians counter-attacked this group on the northern edge of the Wadi and took heavy casualties, with 40 Italians killed and 56 captured."
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- TALES FROM BARDIA
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Compass.|
- La battaglia della Marmarica
- A few memories of Corporal Nazzareno Ganino of the Sabratha Division
- The Italian Army in Egypt during World War II
- Animated Map of Operation Compass
- Operation Compass Desert War.net