Operation Battle of Sidi Barani

The 'Battle of Sidi Barrani' was the opening clash of the British 'Compass' (i) operation against the Italians in the 'Western Desert Campaign' (10/11 December 1940).

Lying on the Mediterranean coast of north-western Egypt, Sidi Barrani had been occupied by Generale d’Armata Mario Berti’s Italian 10a Armata during the Italian 'Operazione 'E'' invasion of Egypt (9/16 September 1940) and in 'Compass' (i) was attacked by British, commonwealth and imperial troops, who recaptured the port.

While retreating from Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq, the divisions of the 10a Armata crowded the coast road and were easy targets for the 15-in (381-mm) guns of the monitor Terror and the 6-in (152.4-mm) guns of two gunboats, which bombarded the Sollum area all day and for most of the night of 11 December. By a time late on 12 December, the only Italian positions left in Egypt were at the approaches to Sollum and the vicinity of Sidi Omar.

The British took 38,300 Italian prisoners for the loss of a mere 624 men, and continued the five-day raid on Italian positions in Egypt, eventually capturing Cyrenaica and most of the 10a Armata between Sollum and at the 'Battle of Beda Fomm', to the south of the port of Benghazi.

The eastern province of Libya, Cyrenaica had been an Italian colony since the Italo-Turkish War (1911/12). With Tunisia, a part of French North Africa to the west and Egypt to the east, the Italians prepared to defend both of Libya’s frontiers under the supervision of a North African supreme headquarters under the command of the governor-general of Libya, Maresciallo dell’Aerea Italo Balbo. This supreme headquarters had the Generale d’Armata Giuseppe Gariboldi’s 5a Armata in the west and Berti’s 10a Armata in the east, and by the middle of 1940 these two formations had nine metropolitan divisions of about 13,000 men each, three 'Blackshirt' (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale divisions and two Libyan colonial divisions with 8,000 men each.

In the late 1930s, Italian divisions had been cut from an establishment of three regiments to two regiments for increased mobility once they had been mechanised; reservists were recalled in 1939, along with the usual call-up of conscripts. Morale was considered to be high and the Italian army had recent experience of military operations. The Regia Marina had prospered under the Fascist regime, which had paid for fast, well-built and well-armed ships and a large submarine fleet, but lacked experience and training. The Regia Aeronautica had stagnated and by 1939 was not considered by the British to be capable of a high rate of operations. The 5a Armata, with eight divisions, held Tripolitania, the western province adjacent to Tunisia, and the 10a Armata, with six divisions, held the eastern province of Cyrenaica adjacent to Egypt. When war was declared in June 1940, the 10a Armata moved Generale di Divisione Giovanni Cerio’s 1a Divisione libica to the frontier from Giarabub (Jaghbub) to Sidi Omar and Generale di Divisione Carlo Spatocco’s XXI Corpo d’Armata from Sidi Omar to the coast, Bardia and Tobruk; Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enrico Pitassi Mannella’s XXII Corpo d’Armata moved to the south-west of Tobruk as a counter-offensive force.

The British had based military forces in Egypt since 1882, but their number had been greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and commonwealth force still based in Egypt garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route, which was vital to British communications with the UK’s Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. In the middle of 1939, General Sir Archibald Wavell was appointed as the general officer commanding-in-chief of the new Middle East Command, whose purview extended over the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice, the French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5a Armata on the Libya/Tunisia border. In Libya, the Italians had some 215,000 men, and in Egypt the British had about 36,000 troops with another 27,500 men training in Palestine.

The British forces included Major General P. C. S. Hobart’s Mobile Division (Egypt), which was one of only two British armoured training formations and in the middle of 1939 was renamed as the Armoured Division (Egypt): on 16 February 1940 it became the 7th Armoured Division. The Egypt/Libya border was defended by the Egyptian Frontier Force and in June 1940, the headquarters of Major General R. N. O’Connor’s 6th Division assumed command in the Western Desert, with instructions to drive back the Italians from their frontier positions and dominate the hinterland if war began. The 7th Armoured Division, less the 7th Armoured Brigade, assembled at Mersa Matruh and sent the 7th Support Group toward the frontier as a covering force, where the RAF also moved most of its bombers; Malta was also reinforced. The headquarters of the 6th Division, which lacked complete and fully trained units, was renamed the Western Desert Force, under O’Connor, newly promoted to lieutenant general, on 17 June.

In Tunisia, the French had eight divisions, capable of only limited operations, and in Syria three poorly armed and trained divisions, with about 40,000 troops and border guards on occupation duties against the civilian population. The Italian army and Regia Aeronautica in Libya greatly outnumbered the British in Egypt but suffered from poor morale and were handicapped by some inferior equipment. In Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) were another 130,000 Italian and African troops with 400 pieces of artillery, 200 light tanks and 20,000 lorries; Italy declared war from 11 June 1940.[4]

The standard Italian supply route to Tripoli, Libya’s man port, was west around Sicily and then close to the Libyan coast to the port, a voyage of about 690 miles (1110 km), a route selected to avoid interference from British aircraft, ships and submarines based at Malta. Once landed, the supplies had to be carried long distances by road or in small consignments by coasting vessels. The distance from Tripoli to Benghazi is about 650 miles (1045 km) along the Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia), the coast road built by the Italians and only half-way to Alexandria; a third of the Italian merchant marine was interned after Italy declared war. The road could flood, was vulnerable to the attentions of the Desert Air Force and the use of alternative desert tracks increased vehicle wear. The Italian invasion of Egypt late in 1940 increased the road transport distance from Tripoli over the Khedival motor road, which was much inferior to the Via Balbia.

Its geographical position made it possible for Italy to close the Mediterranean if war came, making Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s British Mediterranean Fleet, based in Egyptian ports, dependent on the Suez Canal for supply. In 1939, Wavell began to plan a base in the Middle East for about 15 divisions (300,000 men) as six in Egypt, three in Palestine and the other six farther afield. Much of the material was imported from the colonies and the rest obtained locally by stimulating the production of import substitutes. The plan to establish the infrastructure for a garrison of nine divisions in Egypt and Palestine was increased to 14 divisions by June 1941 and then to 23 by March 1942. In 1940, British military forces had the terminus of the Egyptian state railway, road and the port of Mersa Matruh 200 miles (320 km) to the west of Alexandria, as a base. Work began on the construction of a water pipeline along the railway and sources of water were surveyed. Wells were dug but most became tainted by salt water and in 1939, the main sources of fresh water were the Roman aqueducts at Mersa Matruh and Maaten Bagush. Water boats from Alexandria and a distillation plant at Mersa Matruh increased supply, but rigorous economy had nonetheless to be enforced and much water had to be moved overland to outlying areas. The number of vehicles available in 1939 was inadequate and trucks were diverted to provide the Armoured Division with a better rear link; only the desert-worthy vehicles could be risked off-road, which left tanks unable to move far from Mersa Matruh, which is 120 miles (195 km) to the east of the Libyan border. From the border, there was no water at Sollum, and for 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Sollum as far as Sidi Barrani there was only the Khedival motor road, which was deliberately kept in poor condition in case of an invasion, which meant that an invader would have to move through a waterless and trackless desert to reach the main British force. In September 1940, the New Zealand Railway Battalion and Indian labourers began work on the coastal railway, and had reached Sidi Barrani by October 1941.

The war was fought primarily in the Western Desert, which is about 240 miles (386 km) wide from Mersa Matruh in Egypt to Gazala on the Libyan coast, along the Via Balbia, the only paved road. The Sand Sea 150 miles (240 km) inland marks the southern limit of the desert at its widest at Giarabub and Siwa. In British parlance, Western Desert came to include eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. From the coast, extending inland, lies a raised, flat and stony desert about 500 ft (150 m) above sea level, and this stretches 125 to 185 miles (200 to 300 km) south to the Sand Sea. Scorpions, vipers and flies are common in the region, which was inhabited by a small number of Bedouin nomads, whose tracks linked wells and the more easily traversed ground.

Navigation was reliant on the sun, stars, compass bearings and 'desert sense', the last a good intuitive perception of the environment gained from experience. In the spring and summer, the days are miserably hot and the nights very cold. A hot desert wind, the sirocco (gibleh or ghibli) blows clouds of fine sand, which reduce visibility to a few yards and coat eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment; motor vehicles and aircraft need special oil filters and the barren ground means that supplies for military operations have to be transported from outside. German engines tended to overheat and tank engine life fell from between 1,400 and 1,600 miles (2255 and 2575 km) to between 300 and 900 miles (485 and 1450 km), which was made worse by the lack of standard parts for German and Italian types of equipment.

On 11 June 1940, hostilities began and the British were ordered to dominate the frontier and begin the 'Siege of Giarabub'. The British crossed into Libya that night, exchanged fire with Italian troops at Sidi Omar and discovered that some of them were unaware that war had been declared. On 14 June, the British captured Fort Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena, taking 220 prisoners. Two days later, the British raided a convoy on the road linking Tobruk and Bardia, killed 21 Italian troops and took 88 prisoners, including Generale di Brigata Romolo Lastrucci, the 10a Armata's chief engineer. At an engagement near the frontier wire at Nezuet Ghirba, an Italian force of 400 infantry, 17 light tanks and four pieces of artillery was defeated by a mixed force of British tanks, artillery and motorised infantry.

The British patrolled the frontier area as far to the west as Tobruk, establishing dominance over the 10a Armata. On 5 August, 30 Italian tanks and the 8th Hussars fought an inconclusive action, and at this time Wavell came to the conclusion that vehicle wear made it impractical to continue operations when an Italian offensive loomed: as noted above, sand abrasion quickly wore out equipment, shortening the engine and running gear life of tanks, spare parts ran out and only half the tank strength could be kept operational. A lull fell from August to a time early in September, as the 'Hats' naval operation reinforced the Mediterranean Fleet and helped to bring an army convoy of tanks and crews via the Cape of Good Hope. The British claimed to have inflicted 3,500 casualties for a loss of 150 men between 11 June and 9 September. Further afield, both sides established scouting groups, the Long Range Desert Group and the Compagnie Auto-Avio-Sahariane (Auto-Saharan Companies) which ranged the desert, observed British dispositions and raided.

On 13 September 1940, the invasion began as a limited tactical operation toward Mersa Matruh, rather than the strategic objectives sketched in Rome, as a result of the chronic lack of transport, fuel and wireless equipment, even with transfers from the 5a Armata. Musiad was subjected to a 'spectacular' artillery bombardment at dawn and occupied. Sollum and its airfield were taken by the 1a Divisione libica, and by the evening Generale di Divisione Armando Pescatori’s 2a Divisione libica, Spatocco’s (from 24 September Generale di Brigata Allesandro de Guidi’s) 63a Divisione fanteria 'Cirene', Generale di Divisione Pietro Maletti’s Raggruppamento 'Maletti' from Musaid and Generale di Divisione Ruggero Tracchia’sthe 62a Divisione fanteria 'Marmarica' from Sidi Omar had pushed past British harassing parties and converged on the Halfaya Pass. The British withdrew past Buq Buq on 14 September and continued to harass the Italian advance, while falling back to Alam Hamid on the next day and Alam el Dab on 16 September. An Italian force of 50 tanks attempted a flanking move, which led the British rearguard to retire to positions lying to the east of Sidi Barrani. The port was occupied by Generale di Divisione Francesco Antonelli’s 1a CCNN Divisione '23 Marzo, and Graziani then halted the advance. The British resumed observation and the 7th Armoured Division prepared to challenge an attack on Mersa Matruh.

The Italians dug in around Sidi Barrani and Sofafi, about 80 miles (130 km) to the west of the British defences at Mersa Matruh. British road demolitions were repaired, wells cleaned and work launched on a water pipeline from the frontier, to accumulate supplies for the resumption of the advance in the middle of December. Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis, and Italian aircraft bombed Cairo on 19 October. British naval and air operations to harass the Italian army continued and caused damage which prisoners reported had caused a lowering of morale. British armoured car patrols dominated no man’s land but the loss of advanced landing grounds reduced the effectiveness of the RAF and Malta had been put out of range. An extra armoured car company joined the British reconnaissance operations far behind the front line and the Western Desert Force was reinforced by a new tank regiment with Matilda II infantry tanks. The British began to prepare a four- to five-day raid on the central group of Italian encampments, and then advance on Sofafi rather than wait for the Italians.

Following the Italian advance, Wavell had ordered the commander of British Troops Egypt, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, to plan a limited operation to push back the Italians, whose defensive positions, Wavell had noted, were too far apart for mutual support. For administrative reasons, the 'Compass' (i) operation was originally planned as a five-day raid, though extension was contemplated if it succeeded. Brigadier W. H. E. Gott’s 7th Support Group was to observe the Italian camps at Sofafi and prevent Italian moves from the west, while the rest of the division and Major General N. M. de la P. Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division passed through the Sofafi/Nibeiwa gap. An Indian brigade and infantry tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment were to attack Nibeiwa from the west, as Major General M. O’Moore Creagh’s 7th Armoured Division protected their northern flank. Once Nibeiwa had been captured, a second Indian brigade and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment were to attack the Tummars.

The Mersa Matruh Garrison Force (3/Coldstream Guards plus some artillery) was to contain the Italian camp at Maktila on the coast, and warships of the Royal Navy were to bombard Maktila and Sidi Barrani. Assuming success, Sidi Barrani would be attacked on the second day by the Indian 4th Division and a westward exploitation would follow. Preparations were made in the strictest secrecy and only a few officers knew during the training exercise of 25/26 November that the objectives marked out near Matruh were replicas of Nibeiwa and Tummar and that the exercise was a rehearsal; the troops were told that a second exercise was to follow and many did not know that the operation was real until 7 December, as they arrived at their start positions.

To obtain a measure of air superiority, 11 Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers from Malta attacked Castel Benito on 7 December and destroyed 29 Italian aircraft on the ground. On the following day, three fighter squadrons patrolled the British concentration areas and during the night, 29 Wellington and Blenheim bombers attacked Benina and damaged 10 aircraft. Obsolete Bristol Bombay twin-engined bombers attacked the Italian camps and Blenheim bombers raided advanced airfields.

The ground operation began when Brigadier A. R. Selby’s 1,800-man 'Selby' Force from the Mersa Matruh garrison, the largest group which could be carried by truck, advanced from Mersa Matruh to cut off Maktila and thereby prevent prevent the garrison from reinforcing the Tummars. The force put a dummy tank brigade in the desert as a decoy for Italian aircraft and by dawn on 9 December, was just short of Maktila. During the night the village had been illuminated by flares dropped from Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish single-engined aircraft and bombarded by Terror, an 'Erebus' class monitor, and Aphis, an 'Insect' class gunboat. Sidi Barrani was bombarded at the same time by the gunboat Ladybird.

In December 1940, the 10a Armata in north-western Egypt had been reinforced to about nine two-regiment, 'Blackshirt' and colonial divisions in the area to the east of the frontier and had launched a programme of formation and unit reliefs, which made it harder for the British to establish the Italian order of battle. Fortified camps had been built spaced widely on an arc about 50 miles (80 km) long from the sea to the escarpment. The 10a Armata in the area of Sidi Barrani numbered about 40,000 men and on 8 December, Cerio’s 1a Divisione libica and Pescatori’s 2a Divisione libica of General di Corpo d’Armata Sebastiano Gallina’s Corpo d’Armata Libico were deployed on a 22-mile (35-km) line in the fortified camps at Maktila and Tummar, with Generale di Divisione Fabio Merzari’s 4a CCNN Divisione '3 Gennaio' in reserve, about 12 mi (19 km) away at Sidi Barrani, together with Gallina and the headquarters of the Corpo d’Armata Libico.

Maletti’s Raggruppamento 'Maletti' was at Nibeiwa, and de Guidi’s 63a Divisione fanteria 'Cirene' of Spatocco’s XXI Corpo d’Armata was at Rabia and Sofafi 19 miles (31 km) to the west of Nibeiwa. Generale di Brigata Giuseppe Amico’s 64a Divisione fanteria 'Catanzaro' had been shifted from a position to the east of Buq Buq to the area of Khur and Samalus behind the Nibeiwa/Rabia gap. To the west was Generale di Corpo d’Armata Annibale Bergonzoli’s XXIII Corpo d’Armata with Antonelli’s 1a CCNN Divisione '23 Marzo' and Argentino’s 2nd CCNN Divisione '28 Ottobre'. And Tracchia’s 62nd Divisione fanteria 'Marmarica' was on the escarpment between Sofafi and Halfaya.

The 10a Armata had about 80,000 men, 120 tanks and 250 pieces of artillery inside Egypt.

The British believed that Generale di Squadra Area’s Felice Porro’s 5a Squadra Aerea in Egypt had about 250 bombers and an equal number of fighters, with reinforcements in Italy. On 9 December, the actual number was 140 bombers, 191 fighters and ground-attack aircraft. Some bombers were far to the west at Tripoli and others at Benghazi and Tmimi. The short-range fighters and reconnaissance aircraft were at Tobruk, El Adem and Gambut.

'Selby' Force guarded the eastern approaches to Sidi Barrani as the rest of the Western Desert Force attacked the fortified camps further inland. On 10 December, Brigadier J. A. L. Caunter’s 4th Armoured Brigade, which had been screening the attackers from a possible Italian counterattack from the west, advanced to the north, cut the coast road between Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq, and sent armoured car patrols to the west. Brigadier H. E. Russell’s 7th Armoured Brigade remained in reserve and Gott’s 7th Support Group blocked an approach from Rabia and Sofafi to the south. At 15.20, news of the fall of Nibeiwa reached Selby, who despatched troops to block the western exists from Maktila. Difficult going and darkness slowed the move and the 1a Divisione libica escaped. Late on 9 December, O’Connor and Beresford-Pierce sent Brigadier C. E. N. Lomax’s British 16th Brigade from the Indian 4th Division’s reserve to cut the roads into Sidi Barrani. Two field artillery regiments supported the advance and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment rushed to get unserviceable tanks back into action. Sidi Barrani was defended by two Italian divisions in eight strongpoints, each held by one battalion, but the defensive perimeter was too long for effective command.

The forward movements of 10 December were confused by uncertainty over Italian dispositions, bitter cold and a dust storm which reduced visibility to 50 yards (46 m). Lomax’s 16th Brigade started its advance at 06.00, without waiting for the artillery and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, which were late, but was repelled by Italian artillery fire; three hours later, after two heavy artillery regiments had arrived, the 16th Brigade attacked again, supported by a squadron of Matilda tanks, RAF aircraft, the fire of Royal Navy warships, and artillery fire. The fighting continued right through the morning, without substantial gains, until 13.30, when the 'Blackshirts' holding two strongholds on the western side of the perimeter suddenly surrendered. Shortly afterwards, the brigade cut the southern and western roads from Sidi Barrani. Beresford-Pierce ordered an attack before dark since the dust storm was sporadic and the British would be exposed to view. The brigade advanced with the last of the infantry tanks, an extra infantry battalion and support by the cruiser and light tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, on the left flank. The attack began just after 16.00,. backed by the divisional artillery. After driving 3.5 miles (6 km), the dust storm abated and the infantry dismounted as Italian artillery opened fire. The last 10 Matilda infantry tanks moved up on the left and drove into the western face of Sidi Barrani’s defences, to the south of the main road, then disappeared into the sandstorm. Italian artillery ammunition proved ineffective against the Matilda tanks, and the gunners fought on with rifles and hand grenades before being overrun. The attack became a mle and at 10.00, when the 16th Brigade began to advance, about 2,000 'Blackshirts' rose, apparently ready to counterattack, but in fact they had lost heart and instead surrendered. In two hours the first objectives had been captured along the port’s western side, and part of the southern side and the artillery lines had been overrun. By 18.00, only a sector 2 miles (3.2 km) east of the harbour, held by a 'Blackshirt' legion and the remnants of the 1a Divisione libica, was still offering resistance.

British reinforcements released by the fall of the Tummars arrived to the west of the 16th Brigade and advanced through the port, trapping the last of the 1a Divisione libica, the 2a Divisione libica and Generale di Divisione Fabio Merzari’s 4a CCNN Divisione '3 Gennaio' against 'Selby' Force, for a loss of 277 casualties. 'Selby' Force had followed the retreat of the 1a Divisione libica as it moved the 15 miles (24 km) from Maktila to Sidi Barrani and drove part of the column into sand dunes to the north of the coast road. Cruiser tanks of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment arrived in the sandstorm and overran the Italians in the dunes at about 17.15, then joined 'Selby' Force to continue the pursuit. The Italian defenders were caught in a pocket measuring 10 by 5 miles (16 by 8 km) and backing onto the sea. When the British attacked again at dawn on 11 December, mass surrenders began except at Point 90 (known to the Italians as Ras el Dai), where 2,000 troops of the 2o Battaglione and 16o Battaglione of the 2a Divisione libica held out until the early afternoon of 11 December.

Between 9 and 11 December the British had taken 38,300 prisoners, 73 tanks, 237 guns and about 1,000 vehicles, for their own loss of just 624 casualties. The Italian forces also suffered the loss of 47 officers and 2,147 men killed, and 78 officers and 2,208 men wounded.

On 11 December, the 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered out of reserve to relieve the 4th Armoured Brigade in the Buq Buq area and mop up. Large numbers of men and guns were captured, and a patrol from the 7th Support Group entered Rabia to find it empty as the 63a Divisione fanteria 'Cirene' had withdrawn from there and Sofafi during the night. An order to the 4th Armoured Brigade to cut off he retreating Italians arrived too late and the Italians fell back along the top of the escarpment to the Italian garrison at Halfaya. The 4th Armoured Brigade, on top of the escarpment and the 7th Armoured Brigade on the coast, tried to pursue the Italians despite acute supply problems, exacerbated by the large number of prisoners (some 20 times greater than expected) and found it extremely difficult to advance.

While retreating from Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq, Italian forces crowded on the coast road and were easy targets for Terror and the two gunboats, which bombarded the Sollum area all day and most of the night of 11 December. By a time late on 12 December, the remaining Italian positions in Egypt were those at the approaches to Sollum and the vicinity of Sidi Omar; by 15 December, Sollum and the Halfaya Pass had been captured. The British advance bypassed Italian garrisons farther to the south in the desert. Fort Capuzzo, 40 miles (65 km) inland at the end of the frontier wire, was captured en passant by 7th Armoured Division as it advanced westward to Bardia. The 7th Armoured Division concentrated to the south-west of Bardia, awaiting the arrival of Major General Iven Mackay’s Australian 6th Division.