Operation Compass

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Operation Compass
Part of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II
The British Army in North Africa 1940 E443.2.jpg
British Vickers light tanks on desert patrol
Date 9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941
Location Sidi Barrani, Egypt to El Agheila, Libya
Result Allied victory
 United Kingdom  Australia
 Free France
Italy Italy
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Archibald Wavell
United Kingdom Henry Maitland Wilson
United Kingdom Richard O'Connor
Italy Rodolfo Graziani
Italy Italo Gariboldi
Italy Mario Berti
Italy Giuseppe Tellera 
Italy Pietro Maletti 
Italy Annibale Bergonzoli (POW)
36,000 soldiers[1]
120 artillery pieces
275 tanks
142 aircraft[2][nb 1]
150,000 soldiers
1,600 artillery pieces
600 tanks, mostly tankettes
331 aircraft[3]
Casualties and losses
500 killed[4]
55 missing[4]
1,373 wounded[4]
15 aircraft[5]
3,000 killed
100,000-115,000 captured
400 tanks
1,292 artillery pieces
1,249 aircraft [nb 2]
Battle Area of Operation Compass December 1940 to February 1941
Map of Italian attack and British counterattack (Operation Compass)

Operation Compass was the first major 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 to February 1941. The operation was a complete success from the perspective of the Allies. Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O'Connor's 30,000-strong Western Desert Force advanced from inside Egypt to central Libya suffering nearly 1,900 killed and wounded in the process, about 10 percent of infantry involved,[6] but captured 100,000[7][8][9][10]-115,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners of Marshall Rodolfo Graziani's 150,000-strong 10th Army. 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.[11] The Italians lost hundreds of tanks and over a thousand each of artillery pieces and aircraft.[12]


First skirmishes[edit]

Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940. During the next several months there were raids and skirmishes between Italian forces in Libya and British and other Commonwealth forces in Egypt.

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, Sergente Giuseppe Scaglione shot down the Gladiator of Sergeant Roy Leslie who was killed in the cockpit, but the Italians lost two CR.42s and their pilots Tenente Colonello Armando Piragino and Sergente Maggiore Ugo Corsi.[13]

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 when Sottotenente Gianmario Zuccarini was forced to make a crash landing due to battle damage.[14] The British report the loss of two Blenheims near Tobruk, L5850 and L8522, lost on 21 and 29 June along with their crews Sergeant B. T. M. Baker, Corporal W. C. Royle, Leading Aircraftman A. F. Crohill and Flight Lieutenant J. B. W. Smith in the first aircraft and Sergeant R. H. Knott, Sergeant J. D. Barber and Leading Aircraftman J. P. Toner in the second aircraft. [15]

During July 1940, the RAF lost another three Blenheims, L8529 (Flight Lieutenant A. M. Bentley injured, Sergeant J. F. Taylor killed) on 5 July, L1491 (Pilot Officer E. Garrad-Cole, Leading Aircraftman W. B. Smith and Aircraftman 2nd Class E. P. Doolin, all captured) on 15 July and L6661 (Sergeant G. B. Smith, Sergeant R. A. Steele and Sergeant G. A. Sewell, all killed) on 23 July.[15]

On 7 December 1940, an Italian fighting patrol from Maktila raided British positions in the area, and according to Marshal Graziani, captured several defenders.[16] 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.[17] 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."[18]

Italian advance into Egypt[edit]

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 Foreign Minister Ciano "We move toward a defeat which, in the desert, must inevitably develop into a rapid and total disaster."[19]

6 pounder Anti-Tank Gun of the 7th Support Group

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.[20] 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."[21] 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.[22]

Virginio Gayda, Italian newspaper editor and mouthpiece for Mussolini's fascist regime, wrote "Nothing can save Britain now."[23] 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.[24] 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.

Opposing forces[edit]

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.[nb 3]

Italian L3/35 .

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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28]

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.

At the onset, aircraft available to both sides in the desert tended to be older biplanes. The Italians had Fiat CR.32s and Fiat CR.42s while the British had Gloster Gladiators.

British plans[edit]

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.[29] Operation Compass, for administrative reasons, was originally planned as a five-day raid[30] but was extended after its initial success.[31] 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:[32]

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

The British plan was for 7th Armoured Division's Support Group to observe the Italian camps at Sofafi to prevent any intervention from them while the rest of the armoured division and 4th Indian Division passed through the gap between Sofafi and Nibeiwa. A brigade from the Indian Division supported by Infantry tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR) would then attack Nibeiwa from the west while the Armoured Division protected their northern flank. Once Nibeiwa was captured a second Indian brigade, again supported by 7th RTR would attack the Tummars. Meanwhile 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.[33] Assuming a successful outcome, in the second phase Sidi Barrani would be attacked on the second day by the Indian Division and a westward exploitation would follow.[34]

Preparations were made in the strictest secrecy. Only a few officers knew during the training exercise held on 25 and 26 November that the objectives marked out on ground near Matruh were replicas of Nibeiwa and Tummar and that the exercise was in fact a rehearsal. The troops were also told that a second exercise was to follow.[35] Many of the troops involved in Operation Compass were not informed that the operation was not an exercise until 7 December as they arrived at their start positions.[32]

Battle of Marmarica/Battle of the Camps[edit]

The opening stage of Operation Compass was known by the Italians as the "Battle of the Marmarica".[36] The British knew it as the "Battle of the Camps". Marmarica was a name for the coastal plain where the battle was fought.[37] The "Battle of the Camps" name was derived from the individual Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside of Sidi Barrani.

On the nights of 7 December and 8 December 1940 the Western Desert Force under the command of Major-General Richard O'Connor and comprising the British 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Infantry Division reinforced by the British 16th Infantry Brigade advanced a total of 113 kilometres (70 mi) to their start positions for the attack.[38] The RAF made attacks on Italian airfields destroying or damaging 29 aircraft on the ground.[3] Selby Force, a mixed force of 1,800 under Brigadier A. R. Selby, moved up from Matruh and having stationed a brigade of dummy tanks in the desert as a decoy for the Italian airforce, had by dawn on 9 December taken position a few kilometres south east of Maktila. In the meantime Maktila had been bombarded by the monitor HMS Terror and the gunboat HMS Aphis, while Sidi Barrani had been shelled by the gunboat HMS Ladybird.[3] In the afternoon of 8 December an Italian reconnaissance airplane notified the Italian command in Benghazi about the preparations for an imminent attack on Maktila and Nibeiwa, but General Maletti was not informed; the historian Indro Montanelli later defined this action as "sabotage".[39]

On 9 December, the disposition of the forward Italian fortified positions in Egypt was as follows: The 1st Libyan Colonial Infantry Division was located at Maktila. The 2nd Libyan Colonial Infantry Division was located at Tummar. The "Maletti Group" was located at Nibiewa. The 4th "3 January" Blackshirt Division and the Headquarters for the "Libyan Corps" were at Sidi Barrani. The 63 Infantry Division Cirene and the Headquarters for the XXI Corps were located at Sofafi. The 64 Infantry Division Catanzaro was located at Buq Buq. The Headquarters for the XXIII Corps and the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division were located in Sollum and in the Halfaya Pass area respectively. The 62 Infantry Division Marmarica was located at Sidi Omar to the south of Sollum.[40]

The commander of the Italian Tenth Army, General Mario Berti, was on sick leave when the British launched their attack against his forces in Egypt. In his place was General Italo Gariboldi. Gariboldi, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division, and the Headquarters for the Tenth Army were located far from the front lines in Bardia. By the time Berti arrived back in Libya to resume command, so had the British.


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[34] 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.[41] By 08.30,[nb 4] 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.

The destruction of the Maletti Group is described by Walker in Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts:[43]

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 unmined 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.

Large quantities of supplies were also taken intact while O'Connor's casualties amounted to eight officers and forty-eight men.[42] 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.[34]

The Tummars[edit]

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[nb 5] but by 16.00 Tummar West was overrun, except for the extreme northeastern corner.[42] 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[44] pushed forward to cut the road from Sidi Barrani to Buq Buq[34] while armoured cars of the 11th Hussars ranged further west. The tanks of 7th Armoured Brigade was held in reserve.[44]


Unaware of the situation at the Tummars, Selby decided nevertheless to send units forward to seal off the western exits from Maktila. During that night, however, the 1st Libyan Division was able to filter through and make good its escape.[44]

Sidi Barrani[edit]

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[45] and the remains of the two Libyan Divisions and the 4th Blackshirt Division were trapped between the 16th Infantry Brigade and the Selby Force.[46] 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.[46]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.[47]

Buq Buq[edit]

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.[46]


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.[46] 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.[46]


Matilda tank with crew displaying a captured Italian flag

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.[48]

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 12 December the only remaining Italian positions in Egypt were at the approaches to Sollum and a force in the region of Sidi Omar.[48]

73 Italian tanks and 237 artillery pieces were destroyed or captured and depending on the source, approximately 10,000-38,300 Italian and Libyan soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.[49][50] The British had suffered fewer than 700 casualties.[51] The British and Indian forces having licked their wounds then 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:[52]

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."[18]

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.[53]

British redeploy Indian Division to the Sudan[edit]

O'Connor wanted to continue attacking. He wanted to get at least as far as Benghazi. However, on 11 December General Wavell whose command stretched down into Africa, had ordered the Indian 4th Infantry Division to withdraw to take part in an offensive against Italian forces in Italian East Africa.[54] O'Connor would state, "[This] came as a complete and very unpleasant surprise . . . It put 'paid' to the question of immediate exploitation . . . ". 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.

British advance resumes[edit]

A 1924 Rolls-Royce Armoured Car with modified turret, in the Bardia area of the Western Desert, 1940.

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 were concentrated south-west of Bardia awaiting the arrival of 6th Australian Division to make 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.[45]


Main article: Battle of Bardia
Gunners of HMS Ladybird bombarding Bardia before the assault, 2 January 1941

After the disaster at Sidi Barrani and the withdrawal from Egypt, Lieutenant General Annibale Bergonzoli's XXIII Corps faced the British from 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."[55] 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.[56] While Bergonzoli prepared the defences of Bardia, Graziani began the evacuation of colonists from between Tobruk and Derna.[57] On 23 December, Graziani replaced Berti with General Giuseppe Tellera as commander of the 10th Army.[58] 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."[18]

Bergonzoli had approximately 20,000 defenders[59] under his command. 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. These 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 itself. Unfortunately for Bergonzoli, he had little more than a month's supply of water.[57]On 23 December 1940, the British East Command in Cairo reported that the Bardia garrison lacked water.[60]

Captured Italian L3 tankettes outside Bardia in 1941

Following the reorganisation of his forces, now renamed XIII Corps, O'Connor resumed his offensive.[54] 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 startline the Australian 2/1st Battalion started to suffer casualties, losing 4 killed and 10 wounded. Nevertheless, it still continued to advance under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Eather while still under fire from mortar crews and artillery guns. 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. Italian morale 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.[61]The companies of the 2/1st Battalion succeeded in taking 600 prisoners. However, the machine-gun carriers under Major Onslow encountered problems as they moved forward during the initial attack. One of the Bren gun carriers was hit and destroyed in the advance and another along the Wadi Ghereidia.

At 07.50 the Australian 2/3rd Battalion, accompanied by the 6th Cavalry Regiment moved off for Bardia. Captain Abbot's 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 the 2/3rd Battalion, freeing 500 captured Italians and capturing several Australians in the surprise counterattack.[62] The tanks continued pushing to 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 mounted on trucks, Corporal Arthur Pickett accounting for four of them, winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal. 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, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel T. G. Walker, 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, so Captain C.H. Smith's company came under effective fire from machine-guns within 700 yards (640 m), and soon the lead company was pinned down inflicting many casualties almost at once. Captain W. Griffiths called for 3-inch (76 mm) mortars and Vickers machine-guns of the 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers ("The Fighting Fifth") to fire at the Italian positions. This proved effective, 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 tried to overrun Lieutenant Jay's platoon but were destroyed. Brigade Major G.H. Brock, upon hearing of the losses to the 2/5th Battalion, sent Captain J. R. Savige's company of the 2/7th Battalion to take "The Triangle" now without two officers who had been wounded. Savige gathered his platoons and with fire support from machine-guns attacked the objective, 3,000 yards (2,700 m) away. 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. Major Onslow's cavalry squadron had also captured the Italian field hospital. The soldiers of the 2/3rd Battalion took over the area and found more than 500 wounded Italians and about 30 Australian patients at the Hebs el Harram hospital, wounded and captured in previous engagements.[53][63]According to an Australian war correspondent, the Italian military battlefield surgeons at Bardia were dedicated professionals, and soon won the the admiration of the Australians.[64]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.[65]

The Australian 2/7th Battalion's D Company under Captain G.H. Halliday 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 counterattack in the southern sector. This was repulsed by Captain J. Miller's A Company, which waited until their attackers were at close range before opening fire.[66] 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[67]-36,300 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 that eleven Italian aircraft were shot down without the loss of a single British fighter.[68]

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.[69]

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. Uponn his return to Italy in May 1946 he resumed his military career, retiring with the rank of full colonel.[70]

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[71]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.[72]

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.[73]


22 January 1941. The Australian 2/11th Infantry Battalion regroups on the escarpment at the south side of Tobruk harbour, after penetrating the Italian outer defences and attacking anti-aircraft positions.

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. By 9 January it was surrounded.[54]On 14 January, the Italian defenders killed Corporal Vic Jarvis and captured Leading Aircraftman John Parr, after blowing up their truck with an anti-tank shell.[74]After a twelve-day period building up forces around Tobruk and bombarding the defenders,[75] O'Connor attacked on 21 January and Tobruk was captured 22 January, yielding over 14,000 prisoners,[76] including 2,000 wounded along with 236 field and medium guns,[12] 23 medium tanks and more than 200 other vehicles. The Australian losses were 49 dead and 306 wounded.[77][78] Some fierce fighting took place and a company was forced to withdraw in an Italian counter-attack, in which the Australian troops lost 100 killed, wounded or captured.

There were approximately 25,000 Italian defenders at Tobruk under the overall command of General Enrico Petassi Manella, commander of the XXII Corps. Besides "fortress troops," the defenders comprised the 61st "Sirte" Infantry Division, sixty-two tankettes, twenty-five medium tanks, and some two hundred guns. The perimeter was about forty-eight kilometres 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.[27]

The Allied infantry force comprised the 16th, 17th and 19th Brigades of Australian 6th 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. Given the lack of tank numbers, heavy artillery bombardment was used to soften the Italian defences.[79] With their Browning machine guns, and four bombs each, the Vickers Wellington and Blenheim bombers also played an important part in the softening up of defences of the Tobruk garrison.

British 6-inch howitzers firing on Tobruk, January 1941.

On the morning of 21 January, the assault went in under the cover of darkness. Once it appeared that the 2/3rd Battalion had breached the Italian defences, the leading companies of the 2/1st Battalion started their advance. However, one of the companies ran into booby-traps that killed or wounded several in a platoon. Captain J.N Abbot's company was given the task of clearing the forward platoon outposts, which it took after some confused fighting, having initially been held up by Post 55. Sergeant F.J. Hoddinott hurled grenades to overcome the bunkered platoon. At Post 62, despite tank and artillery fire, the enemy stood firm. Lieutenant Clark poured a mixture of crude oil and kerosene through the gap in the bunker to silence it.[80] Eleven Italians died and 35 surrendered. As Captain Campbell's company reached the end of the first phase of the advance it came under fire from dug-in tanks. Captain Anderson and Lieutenant Russell were wounded and Lieutenant Russell killed. Although the Italian armour and supporting infantry were dug-in facing the wrong direction, the 2/8th Battalion encountered some stiff opposition before the Italian strongpoint was cleared around midday,[81] and 1,300 Italians captured. At the same time, Italian gunners brought down fire on the battalion and several hundred Italian infantry counterattacked with the support of about a dozen tanks that afternoon.[82] Under pressure from this strong battalion force, Campbell's company was forced to withdraw, having lost 100 killed, wounded or captured. At this point help arrived in the form of two British Matilda tanks. The companies fought their way forward with grenade, Bren, rifle and bayonet. They were met by a hail of fire. Lieutenant R. W. Trevorrow and Sergeant Duncan were seriously wounded, and two of the platoon commanders had narrow escapes with bullet holes in their clothing or equipment. At this point Captain R.W.F. McDonald called forward two of the British Infantry tanks to engage a platoon holding Post 42. Some close-quarter fighting saw the enemy cleared from Post 41. As Captain Abbot's company continued its advance it came under fire from the Italian platoons dug in Posts 34 and 35, and was forced to withdraw.

The Italian defenders in the southeast sector met with some success. These bunkered troops repelled the first attack through the pass in a few hours, but a second attack supported by British artillery fire and Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns used in direct fire, succeeded.[83]

Throughout the day, Blenheim bombers from three Royal Air Force squadron and artillery batteries mounted round-the-clock strikes against Italian infantry and artillery units.[84]

During the night 19th Brigade HQ attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with the commander of the Italian XXII Corps and garrison in Tobruk. It was hoped they would succeed, but a telephone call from Mussolini to the Italian Supreme Command put paid to their efforts. Mussolini himself had personally cabled General Manella, forbidding him to surrender, and informing him that squadrons of Italian bombers were on their way to bombard the attackers. Later that night Italian SM.79s carried out a surprise low-level attack, but bombed some 8,000 prisoners who had been gathered inside a fenced enclosure, killing and wounding hundreds of their men. This bombing broke the will of many among those still prepared to fight.

In the end, General Manella surrendered some 12 hours after the fighting began. But Manella refused to order the surrender of his forces. This meant that it took a further day to clean the remaining resistance.

Next day, the capture of the remaining outposts from R1 to S11 was completed and assisted strongly by Infantry tanks of the Support Group and the 2nd Rifle Brigade and 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps which had arrived as reinforcements that morning. Meanwhile, the 7th Armoured Division which had also entered the perimeter from the Derna road that morning stood by to advance into the town if required.

On the afternoon of 22 January, Brigadier-General Vincenzo della Mura and the remaining defenders surrendered. General della Mura was the commander of the 61 Infantry Division Sirte. The Italians were reported to have lost at least 14,000 captured,[76] including 2,000 wounded and several hundred killed. The Australians by comparison had 400 killed, wounded or captured.


In the meantime the Italian Supreme Command moved quickly to organize the "Special Armoured Brigade" (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS) consisting of fifty-seven M13/40 tanks, artillery pieces, and supported by three Bersaglieri battalions specializing in the anti-tank role and sappers equipped with anti-tank mines.[85] In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this volunteer force under General Valentino Babini to North Africa. The M13s in the BCS were a vast improvement to the M11s. They had a better turret-mounted 47 mm tank gun which was more than able to pierce the armour of the British light and cruiser tanks. However, other than command vehicles, Italian tanks were not equipped with radios. Communicating for most Italian tankers required the use of signal flags.

Babini's tank force included the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st "Centauro" Armoured Division and should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-thirty-nine M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days of "acclimatization" prior to operation.[86]

Following the fall of Tobruk, HQ British Troops Egypt was removed from the existing unwieldy 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 while sending 7th Armoured Division south of the Jebel Akhdar mountains towards Mechili.[54] On 24 January the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged armoured elements of BCS on the Derna - Mechili track. While the British managed to destroy nine Italian tanks in the battle, they themselves lost one cruiser and six light tanks.[87] The 2/11th Battalion first made contact with the Sabratha Division and Bersaglieri companies of the BCS at the Derna airfield on 25 January and progress was difficult against particularly determined resistance. The Italian Air Force also sent in bombers and modern fighters against the 2/11th Battalion[88] tasked with attacking the Italian-held airfield and nearby heights.[89] 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 counterattacks taking place around Wadi Derna. On 27 January, the Australian 2/4th Battalion beat off a strong daylight attack from a force of at least a thousand Italians.[90][91][92] That same day, concealed soldiers of the BCS ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment and took the survivors prisoner.[93] 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 28 January. Derna, a town of 10,000 residents itself was captured on 30 January.[94]Precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 15 Australians[95]and two British were killed fighting the BCS and "Sabratha" Division and supporting Regia Aeronautica. The Italians lost a good part of the 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division but were reported to have fought very determinedly:

Jan. 30.—The third major Italian bastion to fall in Libya—Derna, 175 miles west of the Egyptian frontier—was occupied today by British imperial troops after four days of the bitterest resistance offered by the Fascists in the whole of the African campaign. The town had been defended by less than 10,000 Italians, British sources disclosed, but they fought with a violence encountered nowhere else in General Sir Archibald P. Wavell's long continued thrust to the west.[96]

On 4 February, Italian pilots from 368a Squadriglia, shot down a Bleinheim bomber, Mk.I L8538 over the Barce–Derna area. Flight Lieutenant J. Paine evaded capture but Sergeants Harry Cecil Thomas Holmans and Sergeant Colin Pryce Edwards were killed. In another action that day, Sergente Antonio Camerini shot down a Hurricane from 73 Squadron (Pilot Officer Kenneth Milton Millist, evaded capture), but the Italians lost a Caproni Ca.133 (Maresciallo Giovanni Accorsi and engineer, 1o Av Mot. Callerani, both killed) from 366a Squadriglia and a CR.42 (Capitano Guglielmo Chiarini, killed) from 368a Squadriglia.[97]

Battle of Beda Fomm[edit]

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 British 7th Armoured Division under Major General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh was dispatched to intercept the remnants of the fleeing Italian Tenth Army.

Creagh's division was to travel via Msus and Antelat (the bottom of the semicircle), while the Australian 6th Division chased the Italians along the coast road round the north of the Jebel Akhdar mountains (the curve of the semicircle). The poor terrain was hard going for the tanks, and Creagh took the bold decision to send a flying column on wheels only[98] (christened "Combe Force") south-west across the virtually unmapped Libyan Desert. Combe Force, under its namesake Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe of the 11th Hussars, consisted of an armoured car squadron from each of 11th Hussars and King's Dragoon Guards,[98] 2nd Rifle Brigade, a Royal Air Force 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.[99] The force totalled about 2,000 men.

In the afternoon of 5 February 1941, Combe Force arrived at the Benghazi – Tripoli road and set up road blocks near Sidi Saleh, some 32 kilometres (20 mi) north of Ajedabia and 48 kilometres (30 mi) southwest 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 some 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) to the north of them while 7th Armoured Support Group took a more northerly route to threaten the retreating Italian Tenth Army's flank and rear and prevent a breakout across the desert.[54] The following day, the Italian army had concentrated and attacked. The fighting was intense and, as the day progressed, increasingly desperate.

Through 6 February, the riflemen, tanks, and guns of Combe Force managed to hold off about 20,000 Italian soldiers supported by sixty M13/40 medium tanks and two hundred guns. Initially, Babini's "Special Armoured Brigade" (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS) was in the vicinity of Benghazi. The BCS was part of the rear guard and included approximately one-hundred tanks. But, because at least thirty tanks were kept back at Benghazi for rear guard purposes, the BCS was limited to sixty tanks to make the crucial break through at Beda Fomm. The fighting was close and often hand-to-hand. At one point, a regimental sergeant major captured an Italian light tank by hitting the commander over the head with a rifle-butt.

Italian soldiers taken prisoner during Operation Compass

The final Italian effort came in the morning of 7 February, when the last Italian medium tanks broke through the thin cordon of British riflemen and anti-tank guns surrounding them. However, this breakthrough was ultimately stopped.[100] After this final failure, with the rest of the British 7th Armoured Division arriving, and the Australian 6th Division bearing down on them from Benghazi, the Italians surrendered. O'Connor wrote: "I think this may be termed a complete victory as none of the enemy escaped."[101] Among the dead was the commander of the 10th Army, Tellera. Among the prisoners captured was Babini and the elusive Bergonzoli.[102] Later, after surveying the shambles of what was left of the Italian 10th Army at Beda Fomm, O'Connor sent his celebrated message to Wavell: "Fox killed in the open." He dispatched the 11th Hussars westwards to Agedabia and then on to El Agheila to round up any stragglers and to keep in contact with a quickly departing enemy.[103]Second Lieutenant Toscano Oreste, a platoon commander of the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment was awarded the Medaglia d'oro al Valore Militare, Italy's highest award for bravery.[104]The young officer had lost an arm, but had continued to inspire his men during an Italian counterattack.

Operations in the deep desert[edit]

Wavell's advance had by-passed a number of Italian garrisons further south in the deep desert. Fort Capuzzo, 40 miles inland at the end of the frontier wire, was captured en passant by 7th Armoured Division in December 1940 as they advanced west to Bardia.

Further south, on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, the oasis of Giarabub was attacked and invested, in January 1941, and then captured, after a three month siege by an Australian reconnaissance force, in March.

To the south again, 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 LRDG patrols. It too fell after a two month operation in March 1941.

Further west, on the border with the French territory of Chad, the Italian base at Murzuk was raided in January 1941 by the Free French force, causing damage to the air forces stationed there.


Italian batteries captured by the British

After ten weeks, the Italian Tenth Army was no more. The Allied forces had advanced 800 km, destroyed or captured about 400 tanks and 1,290 artillery pieces, and captured 100,000[7][8][9][10]-110,000 Libyan and Italian prisoners of war besides a vast quantity of other war material.[4] Their prisoners included 22 generals.[54] The Italian general staff on the other hand records 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."

On 9 February 1941, as the British advance reached El Agheila, Churchill ordered that it be stopped and troops be dispatched to defend Greece. The Greeks were already in a war with the Italians and with the great bulk of the Greek Army struggling to contain the Italians inside the Albanian border and a German attack soon expected through Macedonia, British reinforcements were urgently required.

Italian Fiat CR-32 with Stuka in background.

The British advance stopped short of driving the Italians totally out of North Africa. While only about 32,000[105]or 50,000 men from the 10th Army escaped the disaster in Cyrenaica, Italy still had the 5th Army and its four divisions in Tripolitania. In readiness for additional British advances, the Italians reinforced the Sirte, Tmed Hassan, and Buerat strongholds. This brought the total of Italian soldiers in Tripolitania to about 150,000. The Italians had already lost several division in Cyrenaica, but fresh reinforcements and much needed armour continued to arrive.

On 11 January 1941, Italian Stukas from 237 Squadriglie, 96 Gruppo inflicted extensive damage on HMS Illustrious and the British aircraft carrier was forced to seek shelter in Malta[106][107] This loss allowed the first troops of the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrikakorps, DAK) to begin arriving in Tripolitania. On 11 February, as part of Operation Sonnenblume ("Sunflower"), elements of DAK started to arrive. With the arrival of DAK, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, the desert war would take a completely different turn.[108] On 25 March 1941, General Italo Gariboldi replaced Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. Graziani had requested to be relieved and was granted his request.

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!"[109]

Given other setbacks suffered during the early war years, 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.[110]


  • 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."[111]
  • Nigel de Grey of Bletchley Park (referring to Ultra decoding operations): [The campaign was] "a perfect, if rather miniature, example of the cryptographers' war."[112]
  • 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."[113]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 46 fighters and 116 bombers: two squadrons of Hurricanes, one of Gloster Gladiators, three of Blenheims, three of Wellingtons and one of Bombays.[2]
  2. ^ The number comprises 58 aircraft lost in combat, 91 captured intact on airfields and 1,100 damaged and captured.[5]
  3. ^ This view is disputed by Sir David Hunt in his book A Don at War. He states:[25]"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.
  4. ^ Although the British Official History records that it took until 10.40 for it to be "all over"[42]
  5. ^ The British Official History records that "the Italian gunners fought courageously"[42]
  1. ^ Bauer (2000), p.95
  2. ^ a b Playfair p. 262
  3. ^ a b c Playfair p. 266
  4. ^ a b c d Wavell in The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3268. 25 June 1946.
  5. ^ a b Latimer, p. 87
  6. ^ The American Experience in World War II: The United States in the European Theater, Walter L. Hixson, p. 247, Taylor & Francis, 2003
  7. ^ a b "Between December 1940 and February 1941, during Operation Compass, the first British offensive of the war, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O'Connor's 30,000-man Western Desert Force had defeated Marshal Rodolpho Graziani's 100,000-man Italian Tenth Army." Politics of Command: Lieutenant-General A.G.L. McNaughton and the Canadian Army, 1939-1943, John Nelson Rickard, p. ?, University of Toronto Press, 2010
  8. ^ a b "The British advanced five hundred miles between the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941, capturing 100,000 prisoners." World War 2: A Short History, Henri Michel, p. 8, Saxon House, 1973
  9. ^ a b "In these two months the British had taken 100,000 prisoners at the cost of 1,966 casualties." LIFE, p. 78, 13 July 1942
  10. ^ a b "During Operation Compass fighting alongside 7th Armoured Division it achieved a decisive victory at Sidi Barrani at the cost of 700 casualties, following which Western Desert Force advanced 500 miles ... and took more than 100,000 prisoners of war." The Indian Army in the Two World Wars, Kaushik Roy, p. 229, BRILL, 2011
  12. ^ a b Churchill 1949, p.616
  13. ^ "Scaglione had downed the Gladiator of Sgt Green, while both the CR.42s lost in this first encounter fell to the Hurricane." Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2, Hëkan Gustavsson, Richard Caruana, Ludovico Slongo, p. 14, Osprey Publishing, 2013
  14. ^ "At least three Blenheim IVs were downed. Although the Italian pilots lost one of their number when Sottotenente Gianmario Zuccarini was forced to crashland after being hit by defensive fire, they had claimed six victories, and two of them represented the first attributed to Tenente Giulio Torresi." Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2, Hëkan Gustavsson, Richard Caruana, Ludovico Slongo, p. 14, Osprey Publishing, 2013
  15. ^ a b RAF Commands. Part 4
  16. ^ Graziani Explains Setback In Full Report to IL Duce
  17. ^ "On 21 December after an aerial bombardment of the 2/2 Battalion area, an Italian infantry company emerged from the fortress and approached to within 1600 metres of the Australian position." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 94, UNSW Press, 2009
  19. ^ Ciano, Diaries, p. 281
  20. ^ Mackenzie (1951), pp. 26 & 27
  22. ^ Mackenzie (1951), p.27
  23. ^ "Liberation Out of Libya?". Time Magazine (30 September 1940). 30 September 1940. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  24. ^ "HMS Illustrious". Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  25. ^ Hunt p. 52
  26. ^ Macksey, p. 121
  27. ^ a b Macksey, p. 106
  28. ^ Hunt, p. 51
  29. ^ Wavell The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3261. 25 June 1946.
  30. ^ Playfair, p. 264
  31. ^ Mead, p.331
  32. ^ a b Playfair, p. 265
  33. ^ Playfair pp. 260–261
  34. ^ a b c d Wavell in The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3263. 25 June 1946.
  35. ^ Playfair p. 263
  36. ^ "Battle of the Marmarica". Time Magazine (23 December 1940). 23 December 1940. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  37. ^ Battle of Marmarica (in Italian)
  38. ^ Initial British offensive (with detailed maps)
  39. ^ Indro Montanelli.L'Italia della disfatta. second chapter
  40. ^ Macksey, p. 68
  41. ^ Playfair p. 267
  42. ^ a b c d Playfair p. 268
  43. ^ Walker, p. 62
  44. ^ a b c Playfair p. 269
  45. ^ a b Wavell in The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3264. 25 June 1946.
  46. ^ a b c d e Playfair p. 270
  47. ^ British Astonished At Great Italian Supplies
  48. ^ a b Playfair p 271
  51. ^ Stevens.G.R, "The Fourth Indian Division", p.24
  52. ^ Ganino, Nazzareno (26 July 2006). "A few memories of a POW and the Empress of Canada". Retrieved 2008-01-02. 
  53. ^ a b The Battle of Bardia
  54. ^ a b c d e f Mead, p.332
  55. ^ Long 1952, p. 201
  56. ^ Stockings (2009), p. 369
  57. ^ a b Macksey 1971, p. 99
  58. ^ Stockings (2009), p. 84
  59. ^ 20,000 Italians Told to Die in Bardia Defense
  62. ^ "The Italian tanks then moved towards a captured medical centre close to Hutchinson's main company position and engaged it ... One tank tried to break through a sangar protecting the aid post, but failed. Its crew then dismounted, entered the post, disarmed several Australians present, and re-armed some lightly wounded Italians to guard their captives. After taking a few items of equipment from the Australian prisoners, including rifles, grenades and greatcoats, the tank crew departed. From this point, still incapable of breaching the main sangar, the tanks departed towards McGregor's B Company. Unable to attack the main body of McGregor's men up the steep and rocky sides of Gheradia, the Italian tanks drove instead at a group of around 500 Italian prisoners nearby, and captured their six Australian guards." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 169, UNSW Press, 2009
  63. ^ "The site of the first Australian-Italian contact was the Italian fortress of Bardia ... The first patrol clashes, on 28–30 December, resulted in casualties on both sides." Fighting the Enemy: Australian Soldiers and Their Adversaries in World War II, Mark Johnston, p. 9, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  66. ^ "Meanwhile, Captain Miller's A Company had been advancing steadily and in parallel with C Company, around 1500 metres further east. Miller met his first serious challenge at 3.30 pm, when a group of 12 Italian tanks accompanied by infantry approached his left flank. Eather despatched the anti-tank gun recently in action with C Company, a section of carriers, and a detachment of mortars to reinforce Miller's position. Three light tanks and 50 Italian infantrymen managed to fight to withn 45 metres of Miller's leading platoon." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 226, UNSW Press, 2009
  67. ^ Bardia Falls to British, 25,000 Fascists Captured
  68. ^ British Drive Beyond Bardia Is Under Way
  69. ^ Wavell in The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3265. 25 June 1946.
  70. ^ MEDAGLIE d’ORO al Valor Militare conferite a militari, già in servizio nelle Truppe Alpine
  71. ^ Rome Reports Fierce Battle At Bardia
  72. ^ Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 316, UNSW Press, 2009
  74. ^ Corporal Vic Jarvis’s Death and LAC John Parr’s 'Resurrection'
  75. ^ British Guns Ringing Tobruk Pound at Italians' Wells and 'Pole Squatters'
  76. ^ a b British Capture 14,000 Men, Push 100 mIles Past Tobruk
  77. ^ "On to Derna". Time Magazine (3 February 1941). 3 February 1941. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  78. ^ Latimer, p. 64
  79. ^ Wavell in The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3266. 25 June 1946.
  80. ^ "The most spectacular progress was made by the east-moving 2/1st Battalion. Also accompanied by a troop of three Matildas, the Battalion had cleared or captured twenty-one Italian posts by 09:00, when it reached Via Balbia just west of the point where it passed through the perimeter toward Bardia. However, this also involved bypassing an especially stubbornly defended position to be dealt with by the supporting 2/6th Battalion. Post 26 also contained an Italian sector HQ, and its forty-six strong garrison held out against determined attacks for over three hours. They only surrendered after losing eleven dead and following a demonstration by the 2/6th Battalion's Pioneer Platoon that involved igniting a mixture of kerosene and crude oil that had been poured into a section of the post's communication trench." Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F Buckingham, p.?, The History Press, 2012
  81. ^ "The fire came from a complex of Italian positions in the path of the adjacent 2/8th Battalion, made up of bunkers and artillery emplacements protected with the usual minefields and booby-trapped barbed wire entanglements. It also boasted a new twist in the shape of a number of tanks, possibly CV33s, dug in as makeshift machine-gun posts complemented with fully mobile trucks. The Battalion's advance thus degenerated into a jumble of small scale fights as its constituent companies broke into platoons and tackled the nearest enemy strongpoint with rifles, bayonets and grenades ... The Italian positions were oriented to face an attack from the south rather than the east and were therefore unable to provide mutual support. This was especially fortunate as all but one of the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment's M13/40s rapidly succumbed to mechanical breakdown, leaving the infantry reliant on the single exception and machine-gun and Boys anti-tank rifle armed Universal Carriers for fire support. This made dealing with the dug-in Italian tanks especially difficult, and many were cleared at close quarters with hand grenades or by firing Bren guns into vision slits. Even so, the Italians put up a dogged resistance that cost the attackers an unprecedented number of casualties and one company was down to only twenty-one men when the complex was finally cleared at arround midday on 21 January." Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F Buckingham, p.?, The History Press, 2012
  82. ^ "The advance was resumed at 14:00 and once again the 2/8th Battalion bore the brunt of the action, almost immediately running into an Italian counter-attack involving several hundred infantry supported by around a dozen M13/40 tanks, seven of which got in amongst the Battalion's left hand company and overran its leading platoon. Initially the Australians had nothing to counter the tanks except a few marginally effective Boys anti-tank rifles but nonetheless succeeded in disabling some vehicles in a deadly game of hide and seek among the abandoned Italian trenches and fighting positions. The situation was saved by two Australian sergeants manhandling a captured Italian anti-tank gun into action and the arrival of two 2-Pounder Portees from the 3rd RHA. The surviving tanks finally withdrew with the appearance of two of the 7th RTR's Matilda IIs." Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F Buckingham, p.?, The History Press, 2012
  83. ^ "On January 21, as the Australians assaulted the city itself, the French marines were given the task of taking out five blockhouses in the south-east sector, all protected by minefields and wire. The marines attacked with their usual vigor, but were driven back, suffering five dead in the attempt. A second effort, aided by the 25-pounders of the British and with Bofors 40 mm antiaircraft guns used in direct fire, succeeded." Tricolor Over the Sahara: The Desert Battles of the Free French, 1940-1942, Edward L. Bimberg, p. 97, Greenwood Publishing, 2002
  84. ^ "All this was done to a backdrop of artillery concentrations on Italian gun positions and bombing by Blenheims from RAF Nos. 45, 55 and 113 Squadrons, while Gladiator and Hurricane fighters from RAAF No. 3 Squadron and RAF Nos. 73 and 274 Squadrons protected the battlefield from interference by the Regia Aeronautica." Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F Buckingham, p.?, The History Press, 2012
  85. ^ "The Brigata Corazzata Speciale ... was an all-arms formation ... and consisted of the 3° and 5° Battaglione del Carro Armato equipped with fifty-seven M13/40 medium tanks, three battalions of Bersaglieri light infantry, a motorcycle battalion and an artillery regiment; another eighty-two M13/40s were being modified for desert service after unloading at Benghazi. " Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F Buckingham, p. ?, The History Press, 2012
  86. ^ Walker, p. 63
  87. ^ Latimer, p. 65.
  88. ^ Fight for Airfield
  89. ^ "The 2/11th Battalion, having secured the airfield and the nearby ridges, moved slowly forward against accurate artillery and machine-gun fire." The Western Desert Campaign, 1940-41, Glenn Wahlert, p.?, Big Sky Publishing, 2006
  90. ^ "The 2/4th Battalion arrived at nearby Martuba that day and Robertson ordered it to gain control of the huge Wadi Derna ... They held off determined counter-attacks and were eventually joined by two companies." The Proud 6th: An Illustrated History of the 6th Australian Division 1939–1946, Mark Johnston, p. ?, Cambridge University Press, 2008
  91. ^ Coulthard-Clark (2001), pp. 178-179
  92. ^ "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." The Western Desert Campaign, 1940-41, Glenn Wahlert, p.?, Big Sky Publishing, 2006
  94. ^ 2/3rd Battalion
  95. ^ "Units: 2/11 battalion: Battle Honours: Derna". Australians at War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2008-04-12. 
  96. ^ British Take Derna After Fierce Fight
  97. ^ Sergente Maggiore Antonio Camerini
  98. ^ a b Playfair, p. 358
  99. ^ Macksey, p. 135
  100. ^ D.G, 'autocannoni e portees in Africa Settentrionale, Storia Militare Magazine 12/05, Albertelli editions, p.32-35
  101. ^ Macksey, p. 151
  102. ^ "Fall of Benghasi". Time Magazine (17 February 1941). 17 February 1941. Retrieved 17 December 2007. 
  103. ^ Macksey, p. 155
  104. ^ Medaglie d' oro in Africa
  105. ^ James J. Sadkovich, "Of Myths and Men: Rommel and the Italians in North Africa", The International History Review XIII, 199, p.293.
  106. ^ "Around midday on January 10, waves of Italian air force Ju87 Stukas attacked the ship and six or seven thousand-pound bombs hit their target, set fire to aviation fuel below decks and destroyed the carrier's steering system. The attack took only ten minutes." Aces, Warriors and Wingmen: The First Hand Accounts of Canada's Fighter Pilots in the Second World War, Wayne Ralp, p. 15, John Wiley & Sons, 2008
  107. ^ Italian Stukas, 1940-42
  108. ^ Bierman & Smith, p. 50
  109. ^ "Counterattack in Libya?". Time Magazine (10 March 1941). 10 March 1941. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  110. ^ "Wavell's Thirty Thousand". British Film Institute. Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  111. ^ Bierman & Smith, p. 46
  112. ^ Seventy Years Ago This Month at Bletchley Park: December 1940, Bletchley Park National Codes Centre, retrieved 2013-06-20, The campaign has been called (probably by Nigel de Grey at BP): "a perfect, if rather miniature, example of the cryptographers' war". 
  113. ^ Regan, Geoffrey (2000). Brassey's Book of Military Blunders. Washington D.C.: Brassey. ISBN 1-57488-252-X. , p. 165


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