The 'Battle of Bardia' was part of 'Compass' (i) and was fought between British commonwealth (primarily Australian) and Italian forces for the town of Bardia on the Mediterranean coast of Italian Libya in the 'Western Desert Campaign' (3/5 January 1941).
'Compass' (i) was the first British military operation of the 'Western Desert Campaign', and was also the first battle of the war in which an Australian army formation took part, the first to be commanded by an Australian general and the first to be planned by an Australian staff. In the battle, Major General Iven Mackay’s Australian 6th Division assaulted and took the strongly held Italian fortress of Bardia with the aid of air support and naval gunfire and under the cover of an artillery barrage. The Australian 16th 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. This allowed the infantry and 23 Matilda II infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment to enter the fortress and capture all their objectives, together with 8,000 prisoners.
In the second phase of the operation, the Australian 17th Brigade exploited the breach made in the perimeter and pressed to the south as far as a secondary line of defences known as the Switch Line. On the second day, the Australian 16th Brigade captured the township of Bardia, cutting the fortress in two. Thousands more prisoners were taken and the Italian garrison now held out only in the northern and southernmost parts of the fortress. On the third day, the Australian 19th Brigade advanced to the south from Bardia, supported by artillery and the six operational Matilda tanks. Its advance allowed the Australian 17th Brigade to make additional progress, and the two brigades reduced the southern sector of the fortress. The Italian garrisons in the north surrendered to the Australian 16th Brigade and the Support Group of the British 7th Armoured Division outside the fortress. In all, some 36,000 Italian prisoners were taken.
The victory at Bardia enabled the Allied forces to continue the advance into Libya and capture almost all of Cyrenaica, which led to 'Sonnenblume', the German intervention in the fighting in North Africa, thereby changing the nature of the war in this theatre.
Italy declared war on the UK and France on 10 June 1940. Bordering the Italian colony of Libya was the Kingdom of Egypt. Although neutral, Egypt was occupied by the British under the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, which allowed British military forces to occupy Egypt if the Suez Canal was threatened. A series of cross-border raids and skirmishes began on the frontier between Libya and Egypt. On 13 September 1940, an Italian force advanced across the frontier into Egypt, reaching Sidi Barrani on 16 September, where the advance was halted until logistical difficulties could be overcome.
Italy’s position in the centre of the Mediterranean made it unacceptably hazardous for the UK to send ships to Egypt via that route, so British reinforcements and supplies had to travel around the Cape of Good Hope. For this reason, it was more convenient to reinforce General Sir Archibald Wavell’s Middle East Command with troops from Australia, New Zealand and India. Nonetheless, even when the UK was threatened with invasion after the 'Battle of France' and equipment was urgently required to re-equip the British army after its losses in the 'Dynamo' evacuation from Dunkirk, troops and supplies were still despatched to the Middle East Command. A convoy which departed the UK in August 1940 brought guns, stores, ammunition, and three armoured regiments, including the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, equipped with Matilda II infantry tanks.
On 9 December 1940 the Western Desert Force under the command of Lieutenant General Richard O’Connor attacked the Italian position at Sidi Barrani. The position was captured, 38,000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoner, and the remainder of the Italian force was driven back. The Western Desert Force pursued the Italians into Libya, and the 7th Armoured Division established itself to the west of Bardia, cutting land communications between the strong Italian garrison there and Tobruk. On 11 December, Wavell decided to withdraw the Indian 4th Division and send it to Sudan for commitment in the 'East African Campaign'. Major General Iven Mackay’s Australian 6th Division was brought forward from Egypt to replace it, and Mackay assumed command of the area on 21 December 1940.
Unlike the Great Sand Sea, the coastal portion of the Libyan desert is stony rather than sandy, but it is no less arid, and supports little in the way of vegetation. Close to the coast, the ground is broken by wadis (dry water courses). Military vehicles could traverse the stony desert with little difficulty, although the heat, dust and wind caused their rapid deterioration. Because the area was so thinly populated, bombs and shells could be used with minimal risk of civilian casualties. Winter nights could be bitterly cold, yet the days could still be uncomfortably hot. There was almost no food or water, and little shelter from the cold, the heat or the wind. The desert was, however, relatively free from disease.
After the disaster at Sidi Barrani and the withdrawal from Egypt, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Annibale Bergonzoli’s Italian XXIII Corpo d’Armata faced the British from within the strong defences of Bardia. Mussolini wrote to Bergonzoli that '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 that '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.' Bergonzoli had some 45,000 men under his command. The Italian divisions defending the perimeter of Bardia included remnants of four divisions. The 'Gerfeh' northern sector was held by the 2a CCNN Divisione '28 Ottobre', the 'Ponticelli' central sector by the 1a CCNN Divisione '23 Marzo' and elements of 62a Divisione fanteria 'Marmarica', and the 'Mereiga' southern sector by the 63a Divisione fanteria 'Cirene' and the rest of the 62a Divisione fanteria 'Marmarica'. Bergonzoli also had the remnants of the disbanded 64a Divisione fanteria 'Catanzaro', some 6,000 frontier guard troops, three companies of Bersaglieri, part of the dismounted Reggimento 'Cavalleggeri di Vittorio Emanuele II' and one machine gun company of the 60a Divisione fanteria 'Sabratha'.
These divisions held an 18-mile (29-km) perimeter, which had an almost continuous anti-tank ditch, extensive barbed wire fence and a double row of strongpoints. These last were situated about 800 yards (730 m) apart, and each had its own anti-tank ditch, concealed by thin boards. Each was armed with one or two 47-mm Cannone da 47/32 anti-tank guns and two to four machine guns. The weapons were fired from concrete-sided pits connected by trenches to a deep underground concrete bunker which offered protection from artillery fire. The trenches had no fire steps and the weapon pits lacked overhead cover. Each post was occupied by a platoon or company. The posts of the inner row were similar, except that they lacked the anti-tank ditches. The posts were numbered sequentially from south to north, with the outer posts bearing odd numbers and the inner ones even numbers. The actual numbers were known to the Australians from the markings on maps captured at Sidi Barrani, and were also displayed on the posts themselves. In the southern corner was a third line of posts, known as the Switch Line. There were six defensive minefields and a scattering of mines in front of some other posts. The major tactical defect of this defensive system was that if an opponent broke through, the posts could be picked off individually from the front or rear.
The defence also included a strong artillery component, which included 41 Breda modello 35 20-mm anti-aircraft guns; 85 47-mm anti-tank guns; 26 Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifles; 41 65-mm (2.56-in) Cannone da 65/17 modello 13 infantry support guns; 147 75- and 77-mm (2.95- and 3.03-in) Cannone da 75/32 modello 37 field guns; 76 Skoda 100-mm (3.94-in) Model 1916 guns and 105-mm (4.13-in) Schneider Canon de 105 mle 1913 guns; and 27 120-mm and 149-mm (5.87-in) Obice da 149/12 modello 14 howitzers. However, the large number of gun types, many of them quite old, created difficulties with the supply of spare parts. The older guns often had worn barrels, which caused problems with accuracy. Ammunition stocks were similarly old and perhaps as many as two-thirds of the fuses were out of date, resulting in excessive numbers of dud rounds. There were also several machine gun models, with seven types of ammunition in use. The Breda modello 30, the principal light machine gun, had a low rate of fire and a reputation for jamming. The Fiat-Revelli modello 1914 was a bulky and complicated weapon prone to stoppages. Some of these had been rebuilt as Fiat-Revelli modello 1935 weapons which, while an improvement, were still unreliable. The principal medium machine gun, the Breda modello 37, had shortcomings, of which the most significant was its use of 20-round strips of cartridges, which gave it a reduced rate of fire. Shortages of raw materials, coupled with the increased technological sophistication of modern weapons, had led to production problems that frustrated efforts to supply the Italian army with the best available equipment. As a result, the firepower of the Italian defenders was neither as great nor as effective as it should have been.
As a 'mobile reserve' there were 13 M13/40 medium tanks and 115 L3/35 tankettes. The L3 machines were generally worthless, while the M13/40 machines were effective medium tanks with four machine guns and a turret-mounted 47-mm anti-tank gun for its main armament, and were 'in many ways the equal of British armoured fighting vehicles'. The 20 mm (0.79 in) of armour on the M13/40 tanks was considerably thicker than that of the tankettes, but could still be penetrated by the British 2-pdr anti-tank gun, and the tankettes were no match for the British Matilda infantry tanks in either armour or firepower. None of the tanks at Bardia was equipped with radio, making a co-ordinated counterattack difficult.
Bergonzoli knew that if Bardia and Tobruk held out, a British advance deeper into Libya must eventually falter under the logistical difficulties of maintaining a desert force using an extended overland supply line. Not knowing how long he had to hold, Bergonzoli was forced to ration his stocks of food and water so that O’Connor could not simply starve him out. Hunger and thirst adversely affected the defenders' morale, which had already been shaken by the defeat at Sidi Barrani. The poverty of the medical conditions, most especially the abundance of lice and prevalence of dysentery, also served to undermine morale, and resulted from poor sanitation.
The Australian 6th Division had been formed in September 1939 as part of the Australian 2nd Imperial Force. Prime Minister Robert Menzies ordered that all commands in the division were to go to reservists rather than to regular officers, who had been publicly critical of the defence policies of right-wing politicians. These policies favoured the Royal Australian Navy, which received the majority of defence spending in the period between the two world wars. The result was that when war came, the army’s equipment was of World War I vintage and its factories were capable of producing only small arms. Fortunately, these World War I-era small arms, the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Vickers machine gun, were solid and reliable weapons that would remain in service throughout the war; they were augmented by the more recent Bren light machine gun. Most other equipment was obsolescent and would have to be replaced, but new factories were required to produce the latest items, such as 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars, 25-pdr gun/howitzers and motor vehicles, and Australian war cabinet approval for their construction was slow in coming.The training of the Australian 6th Division in Palestine, while 'vigorous and realistic', was therefore hampered by shortages of equipment. These shortages were gradually remedied by deliveries from British sources. Similarly, the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 3 Squadron had to be sent to the Middle East without aircraft or equipment and there supplied by the Royal Air Force at the expense of its own squadrons.
Despite the rivalry between regular and reserve officers, the staff of the Australian 6th Division was an effective organisation. Brigadier John Harding, the chief-of-staff of the XIII Corps, as the Western Desert Force was renamed on 1 January 1941, had been a student at the Staff College, Camberley along with Mackay’s chief-of-staff, Colonel Frank Berryman, at a time when O’Connor had been an instructor there. Harding later considered the Australian 6th Division’s staff to be 'as good as any that I came across in that war, and highly efficient.' Australian military doctrine emphasised the importance of initiative in its junior leaders, and small units were trained in aggressive patrolling, particularly at night.
As it moved into position around Bardia in December 1940, the Australian 6th Division was still experiencing shortages. It had only two of its three artillery regiments, and only the 2/1st Field Regiment was equipped with the new 25-pdr gun, which it had received only that month. The 2/2nd Field Regiment was still equipped with 12 18-pdr guns and 12 4.5-in (101.7-mm) howitzers. Only A Squadron of the 2/6th Cavalry Regiment was on hand, as the rest of the regiment was deployed in the defence of the frontier posts at Al Jaghbub and Siwa oasis. The 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion had been diverted to the UK and its place taken by a British machine gun battalion, the 1/Northumberland Fusiliers. The 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment had likewise been diverted, so each infantry brigade had formed an anti-tank company but only 11 2-pdr guns were available instead of the 27 required. The infantry battalions were particularly short of mortars, and ammunition for the Boys anti-tank rifle was in short supply.
To compensate for this, O’Connor augmented Brigadier Edmund Herring’s Australian 6th Division Artillery with part of the XIII Corps' artillery: the 104th (Essex Yeomanry) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, equipped with 16 25-pdr guns; F Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, with 12 such guns; the 51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, with 24 such guns; and the 7th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery with two 60-pdr weapons, eight 6-in (152.4-mm) howitzers and eight 6-in (152.4-mm) guns. There were also two anti-tank regiments, the 3rd and 106th Regiments, Royal Horse Artillery, equipped with 2-pdr and Bofors 37-mm guns.
The Italian gun positions were located using sound ranging by the 6th Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery. These positions disclosed themselves by firing at Australian patrols, which now went out nightly, mapping the anti-tank ditch and the barbed wire obstacles. Aerial photographs of the positions were taken by Westland Lysander single-engined army co-operation aircraft aircraft of the RAF’s No. 208 Squadron escorted by Gloster Gladiator single-engined biplane fighters of the RAAF’s No. 3 Squadron. British intelligence estimated the strength of the Italian garrison at 20,000 to 23,000 men with 100 guns and discounted reports of six medium and 70 light tanks as exaggerated, but this was a serious intelligence failure.
At a meeting with Mackay on 24 December 1940, O’Connor ordered Mackay to prepare an attack on Bardia. O’Connor recommended that this attack be centred on the 23 serviceable Matilda infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel R. M. Jerram. The attack was to be made with only two brigades, leaving the third for a subsequent advance on Tobruk. Mackay did not share O’Connor’s optimism about the prospect of an easy victory and proceeded on the assumption that Bardia would be held resolutely, requiring a well-planned attack. The plan developed by Mackay and Berryman involved an attack on the western side of the Bardia defences by Brigadier Arthur Allen’s Australian 16th Brigade at the junction of the 'Gerfah' and 'Ponticelli' sectors as an attack at the junction of two sectors would help to confuse the defence. The defences here were weaker than in the 'Mereiga' sector, the ground was favourable for employment of the Matilda tanks and provided good observation for the artillery. There was also the prospect that an attack here could split the fortress in two. Brigadier Standlet Savige’s Australian 17th Brigade was then to exploit the breach in the fortress defences in the undertaking’s second phase. Most of the artillery, grouped as the 'Frew' Group under a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Frowen, was to support the Australian 16th Brigade, while the Australian 17th Brigade was to be supported by the 2/2nd Field Regiment. In the event, the artillery density was 96 guns for an attack on an 800-yard (730-m) front, and Mackay insisted that the attack required 125 rounds per gun. This meant that the attack had to be postponed to 3 January for this ammunition to be brought forward.
Much depended on the Western Desert Force (soon to become the XIII Corps) moving fuel, water and supplies forward. The Australian 6th Division’s assistant adjutant general and quartermaster general, Colonel George Alan Vasey, said that 'This is a Q war.' Captured Italian vehicles and fuel were used to haul supplies wherever and whenever possible. On 12 December, a reserve mechanical transport company took over 80 Italian 5- and 6-ton Diesel trucks that had been captured at Sidi Barrani, and these were supplemented on 15 December by 50 7.5-ton trucks that arrived from Palestine. The British were unfamiliar with Diesel engines, and a lack of spare parts, indifferent maintenance and hard use under desert conditions soon took their toll, leading to many breakdowns. By the end of December the Western Desert Force’s vehicle fleet was at only two-fifths of its establishment strength.
Supplies were stocked at the No. 8 Field Supply Depot at Sollum, where a jetty was constructed by the Royal Engineers. Men of the Australian 16th Brigade began working at the port on 18 December, and were soon joined by two pioneer companies of the Cyprus Regiment and one pioneer detachment from the Palestine Regiment. Stores were hauled to No. 8 Field Supply Depot by the New Zealand 4th Mechanical Transport Company. The port was shelled at long range by medium guns in Bardia and by Italian air attacks. Only one anti-aircraft battery could be spared for Sallum. An air raid on 24 December killed or wounded 60 New Zealanders and Cypriots. Without a proper warning network, interception was very difficult. On 26 December eight Gladiator fighters of the RAAF’s No. 3 Squadron attacked 10 Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 three-engined medium bombers escorted by 24 Fiat CR.42 single-engined biplane fighters over the Gulf of Sollum: the Australians claimed to have shot down two CR.42 fighters, while three Gladiator fighters were damaged.
On 23 December the water carrier Myriel reached Sollum with 3,000 tons of water, while the monitor Terror brought another 200 tons. The water was taken to storage tanks at Fort Capuzzo. Efforts were made to stock No. 8 Field Supply Depot with fuel sufficient for seven days, stores and 500 rounds of ammunition for each gun. The effort to do so proceeded satisfactorily despite Italian air raids and blinding sand storms. Last-minute efforts were also made to rectify the Australian 6th Division’s remaining equipment shortages. Over the last few days before the battle, some 95 additional vehicles were obtained, of which 80 were assigned to hauling ammunition. A consignment of barded wire and 11,500 sleeveless leather jerkins for protection against the cold were distributed, as were 350 sets of captured Italian wire cutters. The Australian 17th Brigade finally received its 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars only to discover that these lacked their sights, though an officer dashed back to Cairo to obtain these in time. Some 300 pairs of gloves and 10,000 yards (9145 m) of marking tape arrived with only hours to go. The gloves were distributed but the tape did not reach the Australian 16th Brigade in time, so rifle-cleaning flannelette was torn into strips and used insteadof the tape.
A series of air raids was mounted against Bardia during December, in the hope of persuading the garrison to withdraw. Once it became clear that the Italians intended to stand and fight, bombing priorities shifted to the Italian air bases around Tobruk, Derna and Benina. Air raids on Bardia resumed in the lead-up to the ground assault: 100 bombing sorties were flown against Bardia between 31 December 1940 and 2 January 1941, climaxing with a particularly heavy raid by Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers of the RAF’s No. 70 Squadron and Bristol Bombay twin-engined light bombers of the RAF’s No. 216 Squadron during the night of 2/3 January. Lysander aircraft of the RAF’s No. 208 Squadron directed the artillery fire, and fighters of the RAF’s Nos 33, 73 and 274 Squadrons patrolled between Bardia and Tobruk.
A naval bombardment was carried out on the morning of 3 January by the 'Queen Elizabeth' class battleships Warspite, Valiant and Barham together with their destroyer escorts. The aircraft carrier Illustrious provided fighter cover as well as aircraft for spotting. The battleships and their escorts withdrew after firing 244 15-in (381-mm), 270 6-in (152.4-mm) and 240 4.5-in (114.3-mm) shells, handing over to Terror and the smaller 'Insect' class gunboats Ladybird, Aphis and Gnat, which continued to fire throughout the battle. At one point fire from Terror's two 15-in (381-mm) guns caused part of the cliff near the town to give way, taking Italian gun positions with it.
The assault troops rose early on 3 January, ate breakfast and drank a tot of rum. The leading companies began moving to the start line at 04.16. The artillery opened fire at 05.30. On crossing the start line the 2/1st Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Eather, came under Italian mortar and artillery fire. The leading platoons advanced accompanied by sappers of the 2/1st Field Company carrying Bangalore torpedoes, which were 12-ft (3.7-m) pipes packed with ammonal explosive, as Italian artillery fire began to land, mainly behind them. An Italian shell exploded among a leading platoon and detonated a Bangalore torpedo, killing four men and wounding nine others. The torpedoes were pushed under the barbed wire at 60-yard (55-m) intervals, and the blowing of as whistle signalled that the mines were to be detonated the torpedoes: this signal could not be heard over the din of the barrage. Eather became anxious and ordered the engineering party nearest him to detonate its torpedo, which the other teams heard and followed suit.
The infantry scrambled to their feet and rushed forward while the sappers hurried to break down the sides of the anti-tank ditch with picks and shovels. TheAustralians advanced on a series of posts held by the 2 and 3/115 Reggimento. Posts 49 and 47 were rapidly overrun, as was Post 46 in the second line beyond. Within 30 minutes Post 48 had also fallen and another company had taken Posts 45 and 44. The two remaining companies now advanced beyond these positions towards a low stone wall as artillery fire began to fall along the broken wire. The Italians fought from behind the wall until the Australians were inside it, attacking with hand grenades and bayonets. The two companies succeeded in taking 400 prisoners. The 2/2nd Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel F. O. Chilton, 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 Italian artillery concentrations and suffering further casualties. The Australian troops made good progress: six tank crossings were readied, and the Italian mines between them and the wire had been detected. Five minutes later, the 23 Matilda infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment advanced, accompanied by the 2/2nd Battalion. Passing through the gaps, the tanks swung right along the double line of posts.
At 07.50 the 2/3rd Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel V. T. England, accompanied by the Bren gun carriers of A Squadron, 2/6th Cavalry Regiment under the command of Major Denzil MacArthur-Onslow moved off for Bardia. Major J. N. Abbot’s company advanced to the Italian posts, and attacked a group of sangars (improvised defensive positions made of stones). The Italian defenders were cleared with grenades. By 09.20 all the companies were on their objectives and had linked with 2/1st Battalion. However, the Bren gun carriers encountered problems as they moved forward during the initial attack: one was hit and destroyed in the advance and another along the Wadi Ghereidia.
The 2/3rd Battalion now came under attack by half a dozen Italian M13/40 tanks, which freed a group of 500 Italian prisoners. The tanks continued to rumble to the south while the British crews of the Matilda tanks, who were 'enjoying a brew, dismissed reports of them as an Antipodean exaggeration'. Finally, the Italian tanks were engaged by an anti-tank platoon of three 2-pdr guns mounted on portées. Corporal A. A. Pickett’s gun destroyed four of them until his portée was hit, killing one man and wounding Pickett. The survivors got the gun back into action and knocked out a fifth tank. The portée was again hit by fire from the sixth tank, fatally wounding another man, but it too was soon knocked out by another 2-pdr gun. By 12.00, 6,000 Italian prisoners had already reached the provosts at the collection point near Post 45, escorted by increasingly fewer guards whom the rifle companies could afford to detach. The Italian perimeter had been breached and the attempt to halt the Australian assault at the outer defences had failed.
Major H. Wrigley’s 2/5th Battalion of Savige’s 17th Brigade, reinforced by two companies of Lieutenant Colonel T. G. Walker’s 2/7th Battalion, now took over the advance. The battalion’s task was to clear 'The Triangle', a map feature created by the intersection of three tracks to the north of Post 16. Wrigley’s force had a long and exhausting approach, and much of its movement forward to its jump off point had been under Italian shellfire intended for the 16th Brigade. Awaiting its turn to move, the force sought shelter in the Wadi Scemmas and its tributaries. Wrigley called a final co-ordinating conference for 10.30, but at 10.20 he was wounded by a bullet and his second in command, Major G. E. Sell, took over. At the conference the forward observer from the 2/2nd Field Regiment reported that he had lost contact with the guns and could not call in artillery fire. A wounded British tank troop commander also reported that one of his tanks had been knocked out and the other three were out of fuel or ammunition. No tank support would be available until these had been replenished. Sell decided that the attack must be carried out without them.
The artillery barrage came down at 11.25, and the advance began five minutes later. The sun had now risen, and Captain C. H. Smith’s D Company came under effective fire from machine guns and field artillery 700 yards (640 m) to the north-east. Within minutes, all but one of the company’s officers and all its senior non-commissioned officers had been killed or wounded. C Company’s Captain W. B. Griffiths pulled his company back to the wadi and called on a detachment of 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars and a platoon of Vickers machine guns of the 1/Northumberland Fusiliers to fire at the Italian positions. This proved effective, and Griffith’s company and a platoon of A Company worked along the Wadi Scemmas, eventually collecting 3,000 prisoners.
Meanwhile, Captain D. I. A. Green’s B Company of the 2/7th Battalion had captured Posts 26, 27 and 24. After Post 24 had been taken, two Matilda tanks arrived and helped to take Post 22. As the prisoners were rounded up, one shot Green dead, then threw down his rifle and climbed out of the pit smiling broadly. He was immediately thrown back and a Bren gun emptied into him. Lieutenant C. W. Macfarlane, the second in command, had to prevent his troops from bayoneting the other prisoners. The incident was witnessed by the Italians at Post 25 some 450 yards (410 m) away, who promptly surrendered. With the help of the Matilda tanks, Macfarlane was able quickly to capture Posts 20 and 23. At this point, one tank ran out of ammunition; anti-tank fire already had blown off the track of another in the attack on Post 20. Nonetheless, Posts 18 and 21 were captured without armoured support, using the now-familiar tactics of grenades, wire cutting and assault. With darkness approaching, Macfarlane attempted to capture Post 16, but the defenders beat him off. He retired to Post 18 for the night.
On hearing of the losses to the 2/5th Battalion, Brigade Major G. H. Brock sent Captain J. R. Savige’s A Company of the 2/7th Battalion to take 'The Triangle'. Savige gathered his platoons and, with fire support from machine guns, attacked the objective, 3,000 yards (2745 m) away. The company captured eight field guns, many machine guns and nearly 200 prisoners, but casualties and the need to detach soldiers as prisoner escorts left him with only 45 men at the end of the day.
Lieutenant Colonel A. H. L. Godfrey’s 2/6th Battalion was supposed to 'stage a demonstration against the south west corner of the perimeter', which was held by the 1/158o Reggimento and 3/157o regimento. Instead, in what has been described as one of the most 'disastrous example[s] of a CO seeking to make his mark', Godfrey decided instead to launch an attack, in defiance of the clear instructions he had received, and against all basic military logic and common sense. Although poorly planned and executed, Godfrey’s attack managed to capture Post 7 and part of Post 9, but Post 11 resisted stubbornly.
During the evening, Savige came forward to the 2/5th Battalion’s position to determine the situation, which he accurately evaluated as 'extremely confused; the attack was stagnant.' Savige approved a plan created by Walker for a night attack, which began at 12.30. Macfarlane advanced on Post 16. He sent a platoon around the flank to silently cut the wire on the western side, while he led another platoon against the northern side. A Bren gunner opened fire prematurely, alerting the defenders, but Macfarlane’s men were able to overrun the post. The same tactic was used to capture Post R11. Macfarlane was supposed to capture Post R9, but was unable to find it in the dark. His men tried to capture it at dawn, but the defenders were alert and responded with heavy fire, but with the help of a 2-in (50.8-mm) mortar, the second attempt was successful.
Meanwhile, Captain G. H. Halliday’s D Company moved to the south against Post 19. He drew the defenders' attention with a demonstration by one platoon in front of the post while the rest of the company moved around the post and attacked silently from the rear. This tactic took the defenders by surprise and D Company had captured the post and 73 prisoners by 02.30. Halliday repeated this tactic against Post 14, which was taken at 04.00 with 64 prisoners. Capturing the two posts cost one Australian killed and seven wounded. A third attempt against Post 17 failed: the previous attacks had alerted the post and D Company came under heavy mortar and machine gun fire. A furious battle raged until the post fell shortly before dawn. Another 103 Italians were captured at a cost of two Australians killed and nine wounded. Between casualties and men detached as prisoner escorts, D Company’s strength fell to 46 men, and Halliday elected to halt for the night.
Although the Australian progress had been slower than that achieved during the break-in phase, the 17th Brigade had achieved remarkable results. Another 10 posts, representing 3,280 yards (3000 m) of perimeter had been captured, the Switch Line had been breached, and thousands of Italian defenders had been captured. For the Italians, halting the Australian advance would be an immensely difficult task.
On the afternoon of 3 January, Berryman met Allen, Jerram and Frowen at Allen’s headquarters at Post 40 to discuss plans for the next day. It was agreed that Allen would advance on Bardia and cut the fortress in two, supported by Frowen’s guns, every available tank, MacArthur-Onslow’s Bren gun carriers and the 2/8th Battalion, which Mackay had recently allocated from reserve. During the afternoon the 6th Cavalry Regiment was pulled back to become the brigade reserve and the 2/5th Battalion relieved the 2/2nd Battalion and thereby to free it to advance on the next day. That evening, Berryman came to the conclusion that unless the Italian defence collapsed soon, the 16th and 17th Brigades would become incapable of further effort, and that Brigadier Horace Robertson’s 19th Brigade would therefore be required. Mackay was more sanguine about the situation, and reminded Berryman that his orders had been to capture Bardia with only two brigades. While they were discussing the matter, O’Connor and Harding arrived at the 6th Division’s headquarters, and O’Connor readily agreed to the change of plan.
The 2/1st Battalion began its advance on schedule at 09.00, but the leading platoon came under heavy machine gun fire from Post 54, and Italian artillery knocked out the supporting mortars. The 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery engaged the Italian guns and the platoon withdrew. Eather then organised a formal attack on Post 54 for 13.30, following a bombardment of the post by artillery and mortars. The Italian guns were silenced when an Australian shell detonated a nearby ammunition dump, and the Australians then captured the post. About a third of its defenders had been killed in the fighting, and the remaining 66 surrendered. This prompted a general collapse of the Italian position in the north. Posts 56 and 61 surrendered without a fight and white flags were raised over Posts 58, 60, 63 and 65, and the gun positions near Post 58. By the fall of night, Eather’s men had advanced as far as Post 69 and only the 14 northernmost posts still held out in the 'Gerfan' sector.
England’s 2/3rd Battalion was supported by the guns of the 104th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery and a troop of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. The tanks were late in arriving, and England postponed his attack to 10.30. The battalion came under artillery fire, mostly from a battery to the north of Bardia that was then engaged and silenced by the 104th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. The advance resumed, only to come under machine gun and artillery fire from the Wadi el Gerfan. An eight-man section under Lance Corporal F. W. Squires was sent to reconnoitre the wadi, but instead attacked a battery position and returned with 500 prisoners. The wadi was found to contain large numbers of Italian soldiers from technical units who, untrained for combat, surrendered in large numbers. One company captured over 2,000 prisoners, including 60 officers.
The brigade major, Major I. R. Campbell, ordered MacArthur-Onslow, whose carriers were screening England’s advance, to seize Hebs el Harram, the high ground overlooking the road to the town of Bardia. MacArthur-Onslow’s carriers discovered an Italian hospital with 500 patients, including several Australians, and 3,000 unwounded Italians. Leaving a small party at the hospital under Corporal M. H. Vause, who could speak some Italian, MacArthur-Onslow pressed on with two carriers to the Hebs el Harram, where they took over 1,000 prisoners. The tanks and the remainder of A Squadron continued along the road to Bardia under intermittent artillery fire, followed by C Company of the 2/3rd Battalion. The column entered the town at 16.00, its tanks firing only an occasional shot.
The 2/2nd Battalion, supported by the three Matilda tanks and the guns of the 7th Medium Regiment, advanced down the Wadi Scemmas toward an Italian fort on the southern headland of Bardia. After some hours of climbing, the 2/2nd Battalion reached the headland and attacked the fort at 16.45. Inside the fort were two 150-mm (5.91-in) guns, two field guns and five other guns. Fortunately, the 150-mm (5.91-in) guns had been sited for coastal defence and were unable to fire inland. One of the tanks made straight for the gate of the fort. The Italians opened the gate, and the tanks moved inside, taking the garrison of 300 prisoners. D Company then followed a goat track that led to lower Bardia. Thousands of prisoners were taken, most from service units. Two carriers of the 2/5th Battalion patrolling near the coast captured 1,500 prisoners. Captain N. A. Vickery, a forward observer from the 2/1st Field Regiment, attacked an Italian battery in his Bren gun carrier and captured 1,000 prisoners.
By the end of the second day of the 'Battle of Bardia', tens of thousands of Italian defenders had been killed or captured. The remaining garrisons in the 'Gerfan' and 'Ponticelli' sectors were completely isolated. The logistical and administrative units were being overrun. Recognising that the situation was hopeless, Bergonzoli and his staff had departed on foot for Tobruk during the afternoon, in a party of about 120 men. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giuseppe Tellera, commander of the 10a Armata, considered the possibility of sending a force to relieve the Bardia fortress but in the end concluded that such an operation had no chance of success.
On the morning of 5 January, the 19th Brigade launched its attack on the 'Meriega' sector, starting from the Bardia road and following a creeping barrage southward with the support of six Matilda tanks, all that remained in working order: the others had been hit by shells, immobilised by mines or had suffered mechanical failures. The company commanders of the lead battalion, the 2/11th Battalion, did not receive their final orders until 45 minutes before start time, at which point the start line was 3 miles (4.8 km) away. As a consequence, the battalion arrived late, and the intended two company attack had to be carried out by just one: Captain Ralph Honner’s C Company, albeit with all six Matilda tanks at his disposal. Honner’s men had literally to chase the barrage, and had only just caught up with it before it ceased. As they advanced, they came under fire from the left, the right and the front, but casualties were light. Most positions surrendered when the infantry and tanks came close, but this did not reduce the fire from posts farther away. By 11.15, C Company had reached the Switch Line and captured Post R5 and then Post R7. B Company, following on the left, cleared the Wadi Meriega, capturing Generale di Divisione Ruggero Tracchia and General di Brigata Alessandro de Guidi, commanders of the 62a and 63a Divisioni fanteria respectively. At this point, Honner halted to consolidate his position and allow Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Dougherty’s 2/4th Battalion to pass through. However, Honner took the surrender of Posts 1, 2 and 3 and his men did not stop advancing.
Meanwhile, the Italian garrison elements in the north were surrendering to the 16th Brigade and Brigadier William Gott’s Support Group of the British 7th Armoured Division outside the fortress; the 2/8th Battalion had taken the area above the Wadi Meriega; and the 2/7th Battalion had captured Posts 10, 12 and 15. Godfrey was astonished to learen that the 2/11th Battalion had captured Post 8. The carrier platoon of the 2/6th Battalion attacked and captured Post 13 while the 2/11th Battalion captured Post 6. The only post still holding out was now Post 11. The 2/6th Battalion renewed its attack, with the infantry attacking from the front and its carriers attacking from the rear. They were joined by Matilda tanks from the vicinity of Post 6. At this point the Italian post commander, who had been wounded in the battle, lowered his flag and raised a white one. Some 350 Italian soldiers surrendered at Post 11. Inside, the Australians found two field guns, six anti-tank guns, 12 medium machine guns, 27 light machine guns, and two 3-in (76.2-mm) mortars. Godfrey sought out the Italian post commander, who wore a British Military Cross earned in World War I, and shook his hand.
Their victory in the 'Battle of Bardia' enabled the Allied forces to continue their advance into Libya and capture almost all of Cyrenaica. As the first battle of the war to be commanded by an Australian general, planned by an Australian staff and fought by Australian troops, Bardia was of great interest to the Australian public; congratulatory messages poured in and enlistment in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force surged.
In the USA, newspapers praised the Australian 6th Division. Laudatory articles appeared in The New York Times and the Washington Times-Herald, which ran the headline 'Hardy Wild-Eyed Aussies Called World’s Finest Troops'. An article in the Chicago Daily News told that Australians 'in their realistic attitude towards power politics, prefer to send their boys to fight far overseas rather than fighting a battle in the suburbs of Sydney'. During the battle, Wavell had received a cable from General Sir John Dill, chief of the Imperial General Staff, stressing the political importance of such victories in the USA, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was attempting to get the Lend-Lease Act enacted: it became law in March 1941.
Mackay wrote in a diary note on 6 January that the 'Germans cannot possibly keep out of Africa now'. In Germany, Adolf Hitler was unconcerned by the military implications of the loss of Libya but deeply troubled by the prospect of a political reverse that could lead to the fall of Mussolini. On 9 January 1941, he revealed to senior officers his intention to send German troops to North Africa in 'Sonnenblume', and henceforth German troops played an important role in the fighting in North Africa.
Within the Australian 6th Division, there were recriminations over what was seen as Berryman showing favouritism towards Robertson, a fellow regular soldier and Royal Military College graduate, in an effort to prove that regular officers could command troops. Savige felt that some of the difficulties of the 17th Brigade were caused by Berryman, through an over-prescriptive and complicated battle plan. The Australian 6th Division was fortunate to have been allocated to a 'set piece' type of battle, the type that most suited its World War I-based doctrine and training. Confidence and experience were generated and leaders and staff took away important tactical lessons. The Australian official historian considered Bardia 'a victory for bold reconnaissance, for audacious yet careful planning, for an artillery scheme which subdued the [Italian] fire at the vital time, and a rapid and continuing infantry assault which broke a gap in the [Italian] line.'
It is estimated that 36,000 Italian soldiers were captured at Bardia, 1,703 (including 44 officers) were killed, and 3,740 (including 138 officers) were wounded. A few thousand men, including Bergonzoli and three of his divisional commanders, escaped to Tobruk on foot or in boats. The Allies captured 26 coast-defence guns, seven medium guns, 216 field guns, 146 anti-tank guns, 12 medium tanks, 115 tankettes and 708 other vehicles. The Australian losses totalled 130 men killed and 326 wounded.
Bardia did not become an important port as supply by sea continued to run through Sollum, but did become an important source of water, after the repair of the large pumping station that the Italians had installed to serve the township and Fort Capuzzo. Axis forces reoccupied the town in April 1941 during 'Sonnenblume', Rommel’s first offensive in Cyrenaica. More fighting occurred between 31 December 1941 and 2 January 1942 before Bardia was re-taken by the South African 2nd Division. Bardia changed hands once more in June 1942, being occupied by Axis forces for a third time, and was retaken for the last time in November unopposed, following the Allied victory in the '2nd Battle of El Alamein'.