Operation Attack on Nibeiwa

The 'Attack on Nibeiwa' was the British-led assault on the Italian base near Nibeiwa in western Egypt (9 December 1940).

In this attack, the Italian fortified camp held by Generale di Divisione Pietro Maletti’s Ragruppamento 'Maletti', which was the brigade-sized armoured force of Generale d’Armata Mario Berti’s Italian 10a Armata, was overrun by British and Indian troops. The attack was the opening engagement of the British 'Compass' (i) raid which, if successful, was to be followed by an undertaking to expel the Italians from Egypt. Italy had declared war on France and the UK on 10 June 1940, and in the Italian 'Operazione 'E'' invasion of Egypt (9/16 September 1940) the 10a Armata had reached Sidi Barrani and dug in to await the completion of the Via della Vittoria, an extension of the Via Balbia, being built from the frontier. The Raggruppamento 'Maletti' garrisoned a camp at Nibeiwa, 12 miles (19 km) to the south of the port of Sidi Barrani.

The British had fought a delaying action during the Italian advance with Brigadier William Gott’s 7th Support Group of Major General Michael O’Moore Creagh’s British 7th Armoured Division and kept their main force at the railhead of Mersa Matruh about 80 miles (130 km) to the east of Sidi Barrani. The British probed the Italian defences continually and then planned the 'Compass' (i) five-day raid on the Italian camps, which had been built in an arc from the coast at Maktila to Sofafi in the south-west on the inland escarpment. The British intended to advance into the Nibeiwa/Rabia gap and attack Nibeiwa from the west and the, should this attack prove successful, continue with attacks on the camps at Tummar West and Tummar East. The tanks of the 7th Armoured Division would form a defensive screen to the west to intercept any Italian counterattack and to protect the flank of Major General N. M. de P. Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division as it attacked the camps.

The British and Indian infantry rehearsed an attack with the tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment late in November and another rehearsal was announced for early December, though this was in fact the actual attack. On the night of 9/10 December the attack began with diversions on the eastern side of Nibeiwa as the main force closed up from the west. The real attack took the Italians by surprise, destroyed the 28 tanks before their crews could react and then broke into the camp. The Italian and Libyan garrison resisted the attack with great determination but was systematically overrun by a combination of tanks, infantry and artillery fire at pointblank range. The Italian and Libyan troops suffered 4,157 casualties for a British loss of 56 men killed and 27 tanks disabled or broken down. The success at Nibeiwa began the collapse of the Italian position in Egypt.

The Italian 'Operazione 'E'' invasion of Egypt began against Lieutenant General R. N. O’Connor’s Western Desert Force on 13 September 1940, after several days of operations on the Italian side of the border to push back British troops. The original goal of the offensive had been an advance by the 10a Armata from Italian Libya along the northern coast of Egypt to the Suez Canal though, after numerous delays, the offensive’s aim was reduced to the capture of the port of Sidi Barrani, an advance of about 65 miles (105 km). Two divisions of the 10a Armata advanced and met the screening forces of the 7th Support Group, which fell back slowly from Sollum. On 16 September, the 10a Armata halted and took up defensive positions, in the area round Sidi Barrani, to build fortified camps while the Via Balbia was extended by the Via della Vittoria. Once the road had been completed and supplies had been accumulated, an advance on Mersa Matruh, about 80 miles (130 km) farther to the east, was then to begin. Camps were built from Maktila with the 1a Divisione libica 15 miles (24 km) to the east of Sidi Barrani, south through Tummars (east and west) with the 2a Divisione libica, to Nibeiwa with he Raggruppamento 'Maletti' and thence to four camps at Sofafi to the south-west, on the escarpment above the coastal strip. 'Blackshirt' divisions held Sidi Barrani and Sollum, and an Italian metropolitan division garrisoned Buq Buq. Italian engineers worked on a new road from Fort Capuzzo through Sollum to Buq Buq, close to Sidi Barrani and a water pipe from Bardia. In December, the 10a Armata in Egypt had about 80,000 men, 120 tanks and 250 pieces of artillery.

The British Middle East Command, under General Sir Archibald Wavell, had in Egypt and Palestine about 36,000 British, commonwealth and Free French soldiers, 275 tanks, 120 pieces of artillery and 142 aircraft, the last in the form of two squadrons of Hawker Hurricane single-engined monoplane fighters, one of Gloster Gladiator single-engined biplane fighters, three of Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers, three of Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers and one of Bristol Bombay twin-engined bomber/transport aircraft, in all about 46 fighters and 116 bombers. O’Connor’s Western Desert Force comprised Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division and Creagh’s British 7th Armoured Division. The British had some fast Cruiser Mk I, Cruiser Mk II and Cruiser Mk III tanks with 2-pdr guns, and these were superior to Italian M11/39 medium tanks. The British also had one battalion of Matilda II infantry tanks which, though slow, carried the 2-pdr gun and armour that was impervious to the fire of Italian anti-tank guns and field guns.

Maggiore Vicyor Ceva’s 1e Battaglione di carri armati medi and Maggiore Eugenio Campanile’s 2e Battaglione di carri armati medi were equipped with M11/39 medium tanks of the of the 32o Reggimento Carri in Italy and had landed in Libya on 8 July 1940 and transferred to the command of the of the 4o Reggimento Carri. The two battalions each had an establishment of 600 men, 72 tanks, 56 vehicles, 37 motorcycles and 76 trailers. The medium tanks reinforced the 324 L3/35 tankettes already in Libya. The Raggruppamento 'Maletti' was formed at Derna the same day with seven Libyan motorised infantry battalions, one company of M11/39 tanks, one company of L3/33 tankettes, motorised artillery and supply units as the main motorised unit of the 10a Armata and the first combined-arms unit in North Africa.

Nibeiwa is about 12 miles (20 km) to the south of Sidi Barrani, and the campa established in 1940 was a double stone-walled rectangle measuring some 1,095 by 2,185 yards (1000 by 2000 m), with shelters about every 50 yards (45 m) behind an anti-tank trench and a minefield, which had a gap to the north-west to allow easier access for supply trucks. The 10a Armata started to ready an advance on Mersa Matruh for 16 December. Only the 9 Battaglione carri leggeri with L3/33 tankettes attached to the 2a Divisione libica 'Pescatori', the 2o Battaglione carri medi with M11/39 medium tanks with the Raggruppamento 'Maletti' at Nibeiwa, and the 63o and 20o Battaglioni carri leggeri with the headquarters of the XXI Corpo d’Armata were still in Egypt. The five fortified camps between the coast to the escarpment were well defended, but too far apart for overlapping fields of fire or any realistic form of mutual support, and the defenders were reliant on ground and air patrols to link the camps and keep watch on the British. Italian air reconnaissance spotted British vehicle movements in the area, but Maletti was apparently not informed. On 8 December, Maletti alerted the nearby 2a Divisione libica that unusual low-level flying by the RAF was probably intended disguise the movement of armoured units, and at 06.30 on 9 December Maletti contacted the commanders of the 1a and 2a Divisione libica to report British preparatory movements.

The British Training Exercise No. 1 was held on 25/26 November near Mersa Matruh, on a model marked to resemble the Italian camps at Nibeiwa and the Tummars, and the troops were told that another rehearsal would be run early in December. The exercise was useful in providing experience in night moves under moonlight and attack tactics against a defensive position in the desert. A 'Method of Attack on an entrenched Camp in the Desert' was distributed to units ready for Training Exercise No. 2.

The 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Division were reinforced with the British 16th Brigade, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and the Mersa Matruh Garrison Force of one Coldstream Guards battalion and one battery of field artillery. The Indian 7th Brigade was to be the reserve and protect the lines of communication. Guarded by the 7th Support Group, the rest of 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Division were to drive between Nibeiwa and the Sofafi camps and then attack Nibeiwa from the west with Colonel Richard Savory’s Indian 11th Brigade and 47 Matilda II tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. The cruiser tanks of the 7th Armoured Division were to prevent a counterattack from Sofafi and cover the Indian 4th Division’s left flank. Once Nibeiwa had been captured, the attackers would move on to the Tummars. Each division was to have a field supply depot about 40 miles (65 km) to the west of Mersa Matruh, and these were elaborately camouflaged and hold supplies for a five-day operation and water for two days. Should the attack succeed, the 7th Armoured Division’s tanks were to drive to the north in order to sever the Italian line of retreat from Sidi Barrani, while the Indians captured the other camps near the port. Maktila was to be cut off by the Mersa Matruh Garrison Force, and the tanks were to drive for Buq Buq to sever the line of retreat of the garrison to Sollum.

During the night of 6/7 December, the Indian 4th Division left camp for Training Exercise No. 2 in a cold wind that raised dust and concealed the lorries of the New Zealand 4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies as they drove spread out over the desert, in 'air formation' (no lorry within 250 yards [230 m] of another). After driving for 50 miles (80 km), the force made rendezvous at Bir Kenayis, about 30 miles (48 km) to the south of Mersa Matruh, and dug slit trenches. The troops rested on 7 December, unseen by Italian air reconnaissance, and during the evening were told that the supposed training exercise was in fact to be the real attack. On 8 December, the advance continued into a bright, cold windless day at about 8 mph (13 km/h) at the front and in 40-mph (64-km/h) bursts at the back, with everyone expecting to be attacked by Italian aircraft, which never appeared. By a time late in the afternoon, the Indian troops were 15 miles (24 km) to the south-east of Nibeiwa, 100 miles (160 km) to the west of their jumping-off point. At dusk two battalions of the Indian 11th Brigade and the 7th Royal Tank RFegiment moved off and drove in moonlight to a position 6 miles (9.7 km) to the south-west of Nibeiwa, and before sunrise the units assembled at a jumping-off point 4,000 yards (3660 m) to the north-west of the camp. The third battalion drove about 3 miles (4.8 km) short of the camp’s eastern side on a flat plateau with a shallow valley on that side.

British aircraft bombed the camps and flew overhead all night to disguise the sound of the ground forces' vehicles and to keep Italian aircraft grounded. At 03.00, after the Indians had advanced on foot to the perimeter, they came upon listening posts and commenced firing, at which the Italian garrison sent up flares and returned fire. When the garrison ceased firing, the Indians shifted position and fired again. Under cover of the noise on the eastern side of Nibeiwa, the British tanks and trucks drove round the western side of the camp, and at 06.00 the Indian troops on the eastern side retired. A bombardment by British artillery began from the east the further to mislead the Italians. At 07.15, the artillery of the Indian 4th Division fired on Nibeiwa from the south-east, and at about 07.00 and 07.30 the tanks began the attack with the 31st Field Battery and flanked by the Bren gun carrier platoons of the Indian infantry.

The Italians had concentrated their 28 M11/39 tanks beyond the perimeter wall, where the tank crews were caught while warming their vehicles' engines. The Italian tank crews had no time to react before their tanks had been knocked out. The British tanks broke down the walls and drove into the camp, where the Italians had just breakfasted; Maletti advanced with a machine gun and was killed by a gunshot. At 07.45, the British and Indian infantry followed in trucks, which halted 700 yards (640 m) away for the men to disembark and charge into the camp. The Italian and Libyan artillerymen stood by their guns but found that even field artillery shells fired at 30 yards (27 m) were ineffective against the Matilda tanks' armour. The Italian and Libyan infantry continued to fight, and isolated parties stalked British tanks with hand grenades, but the British methodically occupied the camp with tanks, artillery and infantry co-operating to reduce isolated pockets of resistance. By 10.40, the last Italian resistance had been overcome, and large quantities of supplies and water were discovered intact.

The capture of Nibeiwa cleared the way for the next stage of the British attack, when the remaining operational tanks and the Indian 5th Brigade moved west of the Tummar camps and the British 16th Brigade closed on the area vacated by the Indian brigade. The Western Desert Force completed the capture of the camps and seized Sidi Barrani, destroying two Italian divisions by 10 December, as two more divisions were caught on the road linking Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani road and forced to surrender. By the time that Sidi Barrani was captured on 11 December, the Western Desert Force’s 'bag' had increased to 38,300 prisoners, 73 tanks and 422 pieces of artillery for a loss of 133 men killed, 387 wounded and eight missing. On 28 December, planning for the capture of Bardia began with the aid of photographs from reconnaissance aircraft and night patrol reports. This would not have the benefit of surprise, as had the attack on Nibeiwa, as Bardia had far less extensive defences and was too far from neighbouring camps to be supported. The defences of Bardia were reminiscent of the defensive structures used in World War I, and British artillery would be much more important than it had been at Nibeiwa. The experience of the attack there was important for the plan to use a combination of shock, firepower, tanks and the mobility of the infantry tanks to break into the port defences.

The attack on Tummar West began at 13.50, after the 7th Royal Tank Regiment’s tanks had been refuelled and artillery had bombarded the defences for an hour. Another north-western approach was made, the tanks breaking through the perimeter and being followed 20 minutes later by the infantry. The defenders held out for longer than those at Nibeiwa, but by 16.00 all of Tummar West had been overrun except for the north-eastern corner. The tanks then moved to Tummar East, the greater part of which had been taken by the fall of night. The 4th Armoured Brigade had advanced to Azziziya, where the garrison of 400 men surrendered, light patrols of the 7th Hussars pushed forward to cut the road from Sidi Barrani to Buq Buq, and armoured cars of the 11th Hussars ranged farther to the west. The 7th Armoured Brigade was held in reserve ready to intercept any Italian counterattack. The 2a Divisione libica lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded, and the survivors taken prisoner.