This was a British offensive by Lieutenant General R. N. O’Connor’s Western Desert Force against the Italian forces in western Egypt and eastern Libya (6 December 1940/9 February 1941).
Often known as the Battle of Sidi Barrani, although this was only the first of several engagements within the operation, the undertaking was a complete success as the British forces advanced from positions inside Egypt to central Libya, took 115,000 prisoners, and destroyed thousands of tanks, pieces of artillery and aircraft in exchange for only the lightest of their own losses.
Some 10 days after her entry into the war on 10 June 1940, Italy had in her Libyan colony some 250,000 men under the overall command of Maresciallo dell’Aerea Italo Balbo, the governor general of Libya and commander-in-chief of Africa Settentrionale Italiana (Italian North Africa). On 28 June Balbo was killed when his aeroplane was shot down in a ‘friendly fire’ incident, and was succeeded by Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani. At this time the Italian army in North Africa comprised Generale di Corpo d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s 5th Army and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Mario Berti’s (from 23 December Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giuseppe Tellera’s) 10th Army 1. After being reinforced by elements of the 5th Army, the 10th Army controlled the equivalent of five corps 2, and the only formation that Berti had under command which was not an infantry division was the partially motorised and lightly armoured Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’, with some 2,500 Libyan colonial infantry and 70 tanks. These latter were approximately equal numbers of the lightly armoured L/3 tankette armed only with machine guns and the slightly heavier M11/39 medium tank with 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, and the M11/39 was also relatively poorly protected and mechanically unreliable.
On the other side of the frontier wire General Sir Archibald Wavell, commanding the British forces in North Africa and the Middle East, had just 63,000 men disposed as 36,000 in Egypt and 27,000 in Palestine. In comparison to the Italians, the British were able to field some faster Cruiser Mk I, Mk II and Mk III tanks, which were more than a match for the M11/39. The British also had a limited number of heavier Matilda infantry tanks which were slow but also well protected and adequately armed. The Matilda’s armour could not be penetrated by any of the Italian anti-tank or field guns available at the time.
So far as dispositions were concerned, on the Egyptian/Libyan frontier was the Western Desert Force under O’Connor, then a major general but soon promoted to lieutenant general. The Western Desert Force had come into existence on 17 June on the basis of the headquarters of the 6th Division.
Immediately after Italy’s declaration of war, the Western Desert Force started to undertake probing attacks into Libya. O’Connor’s task was to undertake aggressive patrolling along the frontier, and began a programme to gain and hold control of no man’s land by the use of ‘jock columns’, which were mobile units based on units of 7th Armoured Division and comprising tanks, infantry and artillery. It was these small but well trained regular forces that made the first attacks and raids on the Italian convoys and fortified positions across the border, and within a week of Italy’s declaration of war the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) had seized Fort Capuzzo in Libya, and in an ambush to the east of Bardia the British captured the 10th Army’s chief engineer, Generale di Brigata Romolo La Strucci. This persuaded the Italians that the British strength was greater than it was, and thus helped to delay the implementation of the Italian plan for an advance into Egypt.
Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, was determined to link Italian North Africa and Italian East Africa into a contiguous African empire by taking Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and at the same time to capture the Suez Canal and the Arabian oilfields, and accordingly ordered the invasion of Egypt by the 10th Army, reinforced by Bergonzoli’s XXIII Corps, to begin no later than 8 August, though this deadline had to be extended for logistical reasons.
The British rightly assessed that the Italians would attack from the west, and were working on the assumption that the Italians would advance along the Mediterranean coastal road for a distance some 140 miles (225 km) to seize the rail head and base at Mersa Matruh through this part of the Western Desert, which was an area ideal for unhindered manoeuvre by mechanised forces. There was an escarpment running parallel to the coast some 10 miles (16 km) inland to the south, and the area in between the escarpment and the coast gave wide scope for a diversified approach along numerous axes of advance. However, the escarpment and the coast converged at one point near the small port of Sollum, and here mobility was severely constrained by the presence of masses of rock and other natural obstacles.
In the undeveloped and waterless land that the Italian invaders would have to traverse, the radius of action of a force operating any distance from the coast depended on two factors: the quantity of mechanical transport the force had at its disposal, and the volume of supplies that the force could carry. Food, petrol, and spare parts were important, but water was primary among all supplies.
On 9 September 1940, Graziani’s forces, with a total strength of six divisions and one raggruppamento with 300 tanks, invaded Egypt from Cyrenaica, their base area in the eastern part of Libyan. Berti would have liked to play the standard desert warfare gambit: an advance along the coast road using the predominantly infantry formations of the XXI Corps. The metropolitan infantry divisions of the XXI Corps had only the most limited experience of desert conditions, and would be flanked to the south by the Libyan divisions, which were much more experienced in local conditions, and by the motorised forces of the Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’.
Berti’s ground forces would be supported by the Italian air force’s Comando Aereo della Libia with 300 aircraft of various types. The command had four bomber wings, one fighter wing, three other fighter groups, two reconnaissance groups, and two squadrons of colonial reconnaissance aircraft. The command was organised to follow and support the army in the field as a self-contained unit.
Unlike that which he could expect from the air force, Berti’s naval support was very strictly limited as the Italian navy had lost 10 submarines since 10 June and the surface fleet was deemed too important to risk at this juncture. In addition, the Italian navy was already suffering from the serious shortage of fuel which would bedevil its capabilities right through the war.
Facing the Italian invasion was the Western Desert Force, currently comprising Major General Major General M. N. de la P. Beresford-Peirse’s understrength Indian 4th Division and Major General M. O’Moore Creagh’s equally under-strength 7th Armoured Division. In anticipation of an Italian thrust toward Mersa Matruh, the British had by mid-August withdrawn the bulk of their armoured units into a concentration near Mersa Matruh, leaving the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group, under the command of Brigadier W. H. E. Gott, to hold the front. Totalling three motorised infantry battalions with supporting artillery and detachments of engineers and machine gunners, the Support Group was instructed to harass the Italians and, if attacked, to impose delay without getting seriously involved. In this way, few losses would be incurred defending the ground between the border and Mersa Matruh, and the capacity to defeat a determined thrust would be maintained at Mersa Matruh.
The British defence plan was essentially simple. Light forces (mostly the Support Group together with the 11th Hussars, which was division’s reconnaissance regiment) were to inconvenience the Italians as much as possible, and then fall back by stages before the Italian advance on Mersa Matruh. There, a strong infantry force would await the Italian attack, while from the escarpment on the desert flank, the bulk of the 7th Armoured Division would be ready to counterattack. The object of the covering force was to appear larger than it actually was. Most of the Support Group would use its mobility to cover the desert flank, while closer to the coast would be a force comprising the 3/Coldstream Guards reinforced by a company of the 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps and a company of Free French ‘motor marines’ together with supporting artillery and machine gunners.
At the end of May 1940 the RAF in the Middle East had a first-line strength of 205 aircraft including 96 obsolete Bristol Bombay medium and Bristol Blenheim light bombers, 75 obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, and 34 other types. In July four Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters arrived, but of these only one could be spared for the Western Desert.
By the end of July, the Royal Navy had secured mastery over the Eastern Mediterranean. So complete was this control, moreover, that British warships were able to bombard Italian coastal positions and to transport an almost uninterrupted flow of supplies along the coast to Mersa Matruh and beyond without any real fear of meeting surface opposition.
On 10 August 1940, an impatient Mussolini sent a strict instruction to Graziani to take the offensive as part of a concerted Axis plan in which the major effort was to be the German ‘Seelöwe’ invasion of the UK. Mussolini informed Graziani that the offensive had no territorial objectives as such, but rather the pinning and destruction of the British forces. Graziani therefore ordered Berti to have his 10th Army ready to move by 27 August. Despite his assurances to Mussolini, like Berti and the other Italian commanders in North Africa, Graziani believed that an offensive was impossible. Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, Mussolini’s chief-of-staff had promised ample supplies and transport, but these were still to arrive. After being threatened with dismissal, on 8 September Graziani agreed to advance into Egypt on the following day.
The Italian force that started the advance comprised five infantry divisions and the Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’. The advance included most of the available Libyan units. The Libyan regular cavalry formed part of the Gruppo Divisioni Libiche: this included desert and camel troops, infantry battalions, artillery and irregular cavalry. The Italian plan was modified to work around the Italian forces’ shortage of motor transport: a flank move through the desert was abandoned and the 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions were brought closer to the coast road to act as a spearhead for the XXIII Corps’ infantry divisions. The Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’ was to operate as a flank guard.
In overall terms, Berti planned to use his artillery and armour to escort to his infantry as his army advanced through hostile territory.
On 9 September Italian aircraft took to the offensive against the British air strength. Fiat CR.42 biplane fighters fought Gladiator biplane fighters in the skies over eastern Libya and western Egypt; each side’s bombers struck at the opposing land forces’ positions; the British bombed Tobruk and other staging areas in the Italian rear; and the Italians attempted to soften up the invasion route.
Right from the start the Italian ground advance was beset by problems: one division became lost, and the engines of many vehicles overheated. The greatly outnumbered British laid minefields and fell back. Unfortunately for the Italians, the Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’ had become lost while moving up to its pre-battle staging position at Sidi Omar just inside Libya near the border with Egypt. As a result, the Italian invasion began only slowly, a fact which the Italians broadcast in clear and thereby revealed to the world. It was not until 10 September that the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars spotted the Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’ making its way through the desert, a heavy mist concealing the British and allowing them to shadow the slow Italian build-up.
As the mist cleared, the 11th Hussars became the target of Italian aircraft from above and of sorties by tanks and guns on the ground. On 13 September the 1st ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione retook Fort Capuzzo in the far east of Libya, and the Italians then crossed the border into Egypt.
Thus it was only four days after it had started that the ‘invasion of Egypt’ actually reached Egypt. On the same day, a single platoon of the 3/Coldstream Guards at Sollum found itself the solitary object of attention of the entire 1st Divisione libica. Before the British platoon, on the open plain, the Libyans were drawn up in ranks of guns, tanks and transport vehicles. An artillery bombardment fell on the British outposts on the plateau, but by this time the outposts’ occupants had already fallen back through the Halfaya Pass. The artillery fire did, however, hearten the Italian soldiers who had already come under harrying fire from the light British force that seemed to be invisible and just over the horizon.
The mass of four Italian divisions progressed slowly through the pass with little incident. The Italians suffered some losses from the mines that the British had laid before their departure, but only rarely did the Italians see any British troops, and the major indication of the prior British presence was broken and abandoned British vehicles. On 16 September the 3/Coldstream Guards was almost cut off when a large group of Italian tanks moved inland from the coastal road in the region of Alam el Dab, but in response to a radio message calling for aid the 11th Hussars arrived to prevent the trap from closing. By the end of the same day, most of the covering forces had successfully withdrawn to the vicinity of Mersa Matruh and the Italian advance had progressed about as far as it was going to go as the 1st ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione took Sidi Barrani.
The Italians did manage to press forward another 10 miles (16 km) to Maktila, but there Graziani halted, citing supply problems. Reporting to Mussolini and Badoglio, Graziani said that the approach march to Mersa Matruh would take six days since his forces would all be on foot. Among other things, the list of items he now requested 600 mules, and it seems that the Italian commander in North Africa had abandoned all hope of receiving more motor transport vehicles. Despite Mussolini’s demands for a renewed advance, Graziani ordered his forces dig in at Sidi Barrani, and also ordained the establishment of nicely organised complex of nine fortified camps at Maktila, Tummar (two), Nibeiwa and on top of the escarpment at Sofafi and Rabia (four). To his rear, he positioned Italian divisions at Buq Buq, Sidi Omar, and the Halfaya Pass. The Italians were now about 80 miles (130 km) to the west of the main British defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, and planned to resume the offensive only after the Italian supply problems had been overcome. Mussolini constantly urged Graziani to continue the advance, but Graziani was determined to wait until his forces had been resupplied.
On 17 September warplanes from the British fleet carrier Illustrious bombed the Italian installations at Sidi Barrani and Benghazi. The Italian and Libyan colonial forces were now organised into their nine new fortified camps, whose siting clearly indicated that the Italians were not expecting the type of bold counterstroke which the British had now planned.
Away to the north, meanwhile, Italian forces invaded Greece on 28 October in 'Emergenza G', and the focus of Italian attention was thus switched away from Egypt and Graziani, who was thus in a position to continue his leisurely planning. An Italian advance on Mersa Matruh was scheduled to start on 15 December, or possibly three days after this.
However, the time was now close for Graziani and the Italians to lose control of events in western Egypt. Following the Italian advance, Wavell had ordered the commander of the British Troops Egypt, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, to plan a limited offensive to drive back the Italians. Wavell had noted that the Italian defensive positions were dispersed with the fortified camps separated so far apart from each other that mutual support was not possible.
For administrative reasons, the resulting ‘Compass’ (i) was initially planned as a five-day raid, but its initial success paved the way for its great enlargement. Wavell was confident of his smaller forces’ capabilities, and on 28 November wrote to Wilson expressing a belief that an opportunity might occur for converting the anticipated Italian defeat into an outstanding British victory.
The British plan was for the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group to observe the Italian camps at Sofafi and Rabia, and so prevent any intervention from that direction, while the rest of the armoured division and the Indian 4th Division passed through the gap between Sofafi and Nibeiwa. A Indian brigade supported by infantry tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment would then attack Nibeiwa from the west while the 7th Armoured Division protected its northern flank. Once Nibeiwa had been captured, a second Indian brigade, again supported by the 7th RTR, would attack the two Tummar camps. Meanwhile the garrison of Mersa Matruh (3/Coldstream Guards and some artillery) would contain the enemy camp at Maktila on the coast and the Royal Navy would bombard Maktila and Sidi Barrani.
Assuming a successful outcometo this first phase, in the second phase of ‘Compass’ (i) Sidi Barrani would be attacked on the second day by the Indian 4th Division to open the way for an exploitation to the west.
The British preparations were made in the strictest secrecy. Only a few officers knew during the training exercise held on 25/26 November that the objectives marked out on ground near Mersa 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. Many of the troops involved in ‘Compass’ (i) were not informed that the operation was not an exercise until 7 December as they reached their start lines.
On 8 December the British launched a raid against the fortified Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside Sidi Barrani. With Berti absent on sick leave, command of the Italian forces was exercised temporarily by Gariboldi. The opening phase of ‘Compass’ (i) was known by the Italians as the Battle of the Marmarica and to the British as the Battle of the Camps.
During the nights of 7/8 and 8/9 December O’Connor’s Western Desert Force (Creagh’s 7th Armoured Division and Beresford-Peirse’s Indian 4th Division reinforced by Brigadier C. E. N. Lomax’s 16th Brigade) advanced a 70 miles (115 km) to its start line, and British bombers attacked Italian airfields, destroying or damaging 29 aircraft on the ground. The 1,800 men of Brigadier A. R. Selby’s ‘Selby’ Force moved up from Matruh, positioned a ‘brigade’ of dummy tanks in the desert as a decoy for the Italian air force, and by dawn on 9 December had taken position just south-east of Maktila. In the meantime this town had been bombarded by the monitor Terror and gunboat Aphis, while Sidi Barrani had been shelled by the gunboat Ladybird.
During the afternoon of 8 December an Italian reconnaissance aeroplane notified the Italian command in Benghazi that British preparations were being made for an imminent attack on Maktila and Nibeiwa, but Maletti refused to believe this. On 9 December the forward Italian positions, each based on a fortified camp, comprised the 1st Divisione libica at Maktila, the 2nd Divisione libica at Tummar, the Raggruppamento ‘Maletti’ at Nibeiwa, the 4th ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione and the headquarters of the Gruppo Divisioni Libiche at Sidi Barrani, the 63rd Divisione autotrasportabile and the headquarters of the XXI Corps at Sofafi, the 64th Divisione autotrasportabile at Buq Buq, the headquarters of the XXIII Corps and the 2nd ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione in Sollum and the Halfaya Pass area respectively, and the 62nd Divisione autotrasportabile at Sidi Omar to the south of Sollum. Together with the headquarters of the 10th Army and the 1st ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione, Garibaldi was far from the front in Bardia. By the time Berti arrived back in Libya to resume command, the British had entered this Italian colony.
At 05.00 on 9 December a detachment of British artillery launched a one-hour diversionary bombardment on the fortified camp at Nibeiwa 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 Brigadier R. A. Savory’s Indian 11th Brigade, with the 7th RTR under command, attacked Nibeiwa from the north-west which reconnaissance had established as the weakest sector. By 08.30 a short but fierce fight had ended with Nibeiwa in British hands, Maletti dead and 2,000 Italian prisoners taken. The Indians also took large quantities of supplies, and the British and Indian losses were only eight officers and 48 men.
Beresford-Peirse now ordered Brigadier W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 5th Brigade to move up with supporting field artillery and ready itself for the attack on the two Tummar camps. The attack on Tummar West started at 13.50 after the 7th RTR had refuelled and re-ammunitioned, and artillery had softened the defences up for an hour. Here too an approach from the north-west was made and the tanks broke through the perimeter without too much difficulty, to be followed 20 minutes later by the infantry. The defenders put up stronger opposition than those at at Nibeiwa, however, but by 16.00 all of the Tummar West camp except the extreme north-east corner had been overrun.
The tanks then moved their point of attack to the Tummar East camp, most of which had been captured by nightfall. Meanwhile Brigadier J. A. L. Caunter’s 4th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, while performing flank defence, had advanced to Aziziya, whose 400-man garrison surrendered. Patrols of the 7th Hussars advanced to cut the road linking Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq, while armoured cars of the 11th Hussars swept farther to the west. The tanks of Brigadier H. F. Russell’s 7th Armoured Brigade were held back in reserve. Unaware of the situation at the two Tummar camps, Selby nonetheless decided to send units forward to seal off the western exits from Maktila. During that night, however, the 1st Divisione libica was able to filter through and escape.
On 10 December Lomax’s 16th Brigade was brought forward from 4th Indian Division reserve and with elements of Savory’s Indian 11th Brigade under command was sent forward in lorries to attack Sidi Barrani. During that morning, as this force moved across exposed ground it took some casualties but with support from artillery and the 7th RTR was in position barring the south and south-west exits from Sidi Barrani by 13.30. At 16.00, supported by the whole of the divisional artillery, the attack, again with the support of the 7th RTR, was committed. The town was captured by the fall of darkness, and the remains of the two Libyan colonial divisions and the 4th ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione had been trapped between Indian 16th Brigade and ‘Selby’ Force. On 11 December the latter, supported by some tanks, attacked and took the surrender of the 1st Divisione libica. By evening the resistance of the 4th ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione had also ended.
On 11 December the 7th Armoured Brigade relieved the 4th Armoured Brigade in the Buq Buq area, where it cleared the rest of the opposition and captured many men and pieces of artillery. On the same day a patrol of the 7th Support Group entered Rabia and discovered it empty as the 63rd Divisione autotrasportabile had departed both Rabia and Sofafi during the night. The withdrawing 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to cut off the division to the west of Sofafi, but this instruction arrived too late and the Italians were able to make their way along the top of the escarpment to link with other Italian forces at Halfaya.
During the following few days the 4th Armoured Brigade, on top of the escarpment, and 7th Armoured Brigade, on the coast, tried to make a vigorous pursuit but were beset by acute supply problems and to cope with a number of prisoners 20 times greater than had been expected. The retreating Italians massed on the coast route while retreating from Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq were easy targets for Terror and the two gunboats, which bombarded the Sollum area all day and most of the night of 11/12 December. By a time late on 12 December the only Italian positions left in Egypt were at the approaches to Sollum and a force in the region of Sidi Omar. Up to this time the Italians had lost 73 tanks and 237 pieces of artillery as well as about 38,300 men killed or captured, whereas the Western Desert Force had lost just 133 men killed, 387 wounded and eight missing.
The British and Indian forces now swept to the west along the Via della Vittoria coastal highway, through the Halfaya Pass, and again captured Fort Capuzzo in Libya. O’Connor wished to pursue his advantage farther, and to reach a point as far to the west as Benghazi. On 11 December, however, Wavell had ordered the withdrawal of the Indian 4th Division in preparation for its movement to Sudan and involvement in the campaign against the Italian forces in East Africa. Major General I. G. Mackay’s Australian 6th Division thus replaced the Indian 4th Division 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-pdr gun/howitzer. Even so, the British exploitation was continued by the 7th Armoured Division’s two armoured brigades and support group, followed by the infantry of Lomax’s 16th Brigade which had not gone with the Indian 4th Division to Sudan.
By 15 December Sollum, Halfaya and Fort Capuzzo had been captured, and the Italian forces had been wholly cleared from Egypt. The 7th Armoured Division was now concentrated to the south-west of Bardia awaiting the arrival of the Australian 6th Division before making the attack on Bardia.
While Bergonzoli set about preparing the defences of Bardia, Graziani began the evacuation of colonists from between Tobruk and Derna. On 23 December, Graziani replaced Berti with Tellera as commander of the 10th Army.
After the disaster at Sidi Barrani and the withdrawal from Egypt, Bergonzoli’s XXIII Corps faced the British from within the strong defences of Bardia. The Italian commander had available to him some 45,000 men, who were the remnants of four divisions. The ‘Gerfah’ northern sector of the perimeter was held by the 2nd ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione, the ‘Ponticelli’ central sector by the 1st ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione and elements of the 62nd Divisione autotrasportabile, and the ‘Mereiga’ southern sector by the 63rd Divisione autotrasportabile and the rest of the 62nd Divisione autotrasportabile. Bergonzoli also had the remnants of the disbanded 64th Divisione autotrasportabile, some 6,000 frontier guard troops, three companies of Bersaglieri, part of the dismounted ‘Vittorio Emanuele’ Cavalry Regiment, and a machine gun company of the 60th Divisione autotrasportabile.
These divisions held an 18-mile (29-km) perimeter which had an almost continuous anti-tank ditch, extensive barbed wire fencing and a double row of strongpoints situated about 820 yards (750 m) apart and, in the case of those in the outer row, each with its own anti-tank ditch, concealed by thin boards, and armed with one or two 47-mm 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 providing protection from artillery fire. However, the trenches had no fire steps and the weapon pits lacked overhead cover. Each post was occupied by a platoon or company. The inner row of posts were similar but lacked the anti-tank ditches. The posts were numbered sequentially from south to north, the outer posts bearing odd numbers and the inner posts 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 to the British as the Switch Line. There were also 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 there was a breakthrough, the posts could be picked off individually from the front or rear.
Following the reorganisation of his forces as the XIII Corps, O’Connor resumed his offensive. On 3 January 1941, Mackay’s Australian 6th Division assaulted Bardia. Brigadier Arthur S. Allen’s 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 tanks of the 7th RTR to enter the fortress and capture all their objectives, along with 8,000 prisoners.
In the second phase of the operation, Brigadier Stanley G. Savige’s Australian 17th Brigade exploited the breach made in the perimeter, and pressed south as far as the Switch Line. On the second day, the 16th Brigade captured the township of Bardia, cutting the fortress in two. Thousands of prisoners were taken, and the Italian garrison now held out only in the northern and southernmost parts of the fortress. On the third day, Brigadier Horace C. H. Robertson’s Australian 19th Brigade advanced to the south from Bardia, supported by artillery and the Matilda tanks, now reduced in number to just six. Its advance allowed the 17th Brigade to make progress as well, and the two brigades reduced the southern sector of the fortress.
Meanwhile, the Italian garrisons in the north surrendered to the 16th Brigade and the Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division outside the fortress. On the afternoon of 22 January Generale di Brigata Vincenzo della Mura, commander of the 61st Divisione autotrasportabile, and 17,000 defenders surrendered even as Bergonzoli and other officers made their escape to the west along the Via Balbia.
The battle for Tobruk had yielded more than 25,000 prisoners along with 236 pieces of field and medium artillery, 23 medium tanks and more than 200 other vehicles. The Australian losses were 49 dead and 306 wounded.
Meanwhile the Comando Supremo in Italy had acted rapidly to create the Brigata Corazzato Speciale (special armoured brigade) with 55 M13/40 tanks, artillery, specialised anti-tank infantry units, and engineer units to lay anti-tank mines. In little more than one month the Italians dispatched this volunteer force, commanded by Generale di Brigata Valentino Babini, to North Africa. The new unit’s M13 medium tanks represented a major improvement improvement over the M11 medium tanks already in North Africa, for they had a better turret-mounted 47-mm 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. Thus communication for most Italian tank crews required the use of signal flags. Babini’s brigade included the 3rd and5th Battaglioni of Generale di Divisione Giorgio Conte Calvi di Bergolo’s 131st Divisione corazzata, and should have had at least 120 M13 tanks, but 82 of these had only just arrived by sea at Benghazi and required 10 days of ‘acclimatisation’ before being committed to combat.
After the fall of Tobruk, HQ British Troops Egypt was removed from the existing unwieldy chain 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 the 7th Armoured Division to the south of the Jebel Akhdar mountains in the direction of Mechili. On 24 January the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged armoured elements of the Brigata Corazzato Speciale on the track linking Derna and Mechili. While the British managed to destroy nine Italian tanks in the battle, they themselves lost one cruiser and six light tanks. The 2/11th Battalion first made contact with infantry of the Brigata Corazzato Speciale at the Derna airfield on 25 January and progress was difficult against particularly determined resistance.
In the area of Derna and Giovanni Berta, held by the 60th Divisione autotrasportabile and infantry elements of the Brigata Corazzato Speciale, there were fierce exchanges with Italian counterattacks taking place around Wadi Derna. On 27 January, an Australian battalion beat off a strong daylight attack from a force of at least 1,000 Italians. On the same day concealed men of the Brigata Corazzato Speciale ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment and took three of the survivors prisoner. The advance of other units farther to the south of the Wadi Derna eventually threatened the Brigata Corazzato Speciale with encirclement, and it disengaged on the night of 28 January.
Derna was captured on 26 January. There are no precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta, but at least 15 Australians were killed and the 60th Divisione autotrasportabile lost much of its remaining strength.
The pace and depth of the British-led advance now decided the Italians to evacuate Cyrenaica. Late in January the British learned what the Italians were doing, with the main coastal road from Benghazi as their primary route. This was the reason why the 7th Armoured Division was dispatched to cross the northward bulge of Cyrenaica, to the south of the Jebel Akhdar, and thus be in the position, it was hoped, to intercept the remnants of the fleeing 10th Army. Creagh’s division was thus to move via Mechili, Msus and Antelat along the chord of the semi-circle, while the Australian 6th Division chased the Italians along the coast road round the north of the Jebel Akhdar mountains along the longer curve of the semi-circle.
The poor terrain was hard going for the tanks, and Creagh took the bold decision to send a wheeled flying column, ‘Combe’ Force, to the south-west across the virtually unmapped Libyan desert. Led by Lieutenant Colonel John Combe of the 11th Hussars, ‘Combe’ Force of about 2,000 men comprised an armoured car squadron from each of the 11th Hussars and King’s Dragoon Guards, 2nd Rifle Brigade, an RAF armoured car squadron, anti-tank guns of the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, C Battery of the 4th RHA, and the 106th Battery RHA with nine portée-mounted 37-mm anti-tank guns.
During the afternoon of 5 February ‘Combe’ Force reached the road linking Benghazi and Tripoli, and established road blocks near Sidi Saleh, some 20 miles (32 km) to the north of Agedabia and 30 miles (48 km) to the south-west of Antelat. The leading elements of the 10th Army arrived only 30 minutes later to find their way blocked. By the evening the 4th Armoured Brigade had reached Beda Fomm, overlooking the coastal road some 10 miles (16 km) to the north of ‘Combe’ Force, while 7th Support Group took a more northerly route to threaten the 10th Army’s flank and rear and so prevent any break-out across the desert.
By the following day, the Italians had concentrated and attacked. The fighting was intense and, as the day progressed, increasingly desperate. Throughout 6 February the infantry, tanks and artillery of ‘Combe’ Force managed to hold off about 20,000 Italians supported by 60 M13/40 tanks and 200 pieces of artillery. At first the Brigata Corazzato Speciale was in the vicinity of Benghazi as part of the Italian rear guard, and now included about 100 tanks. As at least 30 tanks were kept back at Benghazi for rearguard purposes, the Brigata Corazzato Speciale was limited to 60 tanks with which to make the crucial breakthrough at Beda Fomm. The fighting was close and often hand-to-hand. The final Italian effort came on the morning of 7 February, when the last 20 Italian medium tanks broke through the thin infantry and anti-tank gun cordon. However, even this breakthrough was ultimately stopped by the fire of British field guns located just a few yards from the regimental headquarters.
After this final failure, with the rest of the 7th Armoured Division arriving and the Australian 6th Division bearing down on them from the Benghazi, the Italians surrendered. Among the dead was Tellera, the 10th Army’s commander, and among the prisoners were Babini and Bergonzoli.
On the same day O’Connor dispatched the 11th Hussars to the west in the direction of Agedabia and then El Agheila in order to gather Italian stragglers and to maintain contact with the quickly departing Italians.
Away to the south of the main offensive, the British-led advance had cut off a garrison of approximately 800 Italians and 1,200 colonial troops at Giarabub (otherwise Jarabub) under the command of Tenente Colonnello Castagna. Giarabub is an oasis 160 miles (255 km) to the south of Bardia and 50 miles (80 km) to the west of the Libyan/Egyptian frontier. Although the colonial troops surrendered quickly, the regular troops held firm into the middle of March. Although cut off, the garrison was supplied by air, and the 6th Division’s divisional mechanised cavalry unit which was observing the oasis did not have the strength to attack the position. Late in March Wavell needed the oasis to be cleared in order that he could withdraw the divisional cavalry regiment to join the rest of the division for its transfer to Greece. The cavalry was joined by 2/9th Battalion and an attack was launched under the command of Brigadier George F. Wootten. Launched on 21 March, the final attack on Giarabub lasted for about two days and once again the Australians and Italians took heavy casualties. The Australians prevailed, although 2/9th Battalion lost 17 killed and 77 wounded. It was estimated that 250 casualties had been inflicted on the Italian battalion under the weight of artillery softening up fire, hand-to-hand combat and British air attacks.
With this small but very lively action, ‘Compass’ (i) may be said to have ended. The 10th Army had been totally destroyed as the British-led forces turned their initial ‘five-day raid’ into a 500-mile (800-km) advance which destroyed or captured about 400 tanks and 1,290 pieces of artillery, and captured 130,000 Italian soldiers (including 22 generals) as well as vast quantities of other war matériel.
The British-led forces suffered 494 dead, 55 missing and 1,373 wounded. On 9 February, as the British advance reached El Agheila, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered its halt so that more troops could be made available for despatch to the defence of Greece in ‘Lustre’. Thus ‘Compass’ (i) and its aftermath stopped short of driving the Italians totally out of North Africa. While only about 32,000 completely demoralised men of 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. General di Divisione Pietro Zaglio’s 17th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Pavia’, Generale di Divisione Alessandro Gloria’s 25th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Bologna’, Generale di Divisione Bortolo Zambon’s 27th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Brescia’ and Generale di Divisione Pietro Maggiani’s 55th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Savona’ had all contributed much equipment and most of their better artillery to the divisions lost in Cyrenaica, but were now reinforced from Italy. Several of the Tripolitanian infantry divisions were in theory motorised formations, but much of the motor transport had also been contributed to the 10th Army and thereby lost. Among the recently arrived units were Generale di Divisione Mario Soldarelli’s re-formed 60th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Sabratha’ replacing that lost at Derna, Generale di Divisione Luigi Nuvoloni’s 102nd Divisione motorizzata ‘Trento’ and Generale di Divisione Ettore Baldassare’s 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’ less the armour lost at Beda Fomm. This brought the total of Italian soldiers in Tripolitania to about 150,000.
More significantly, however, on 11 February, in ‘Sonnenblume’, the first elements of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel’s Deutsches Afrikakorps began to reach Tripoli, and the growth of this German force quickly started to change the entire dynamic of the war in North Africa as Rommel took the offensive. On 25 March Graziani was replaced, at his own request, by Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi, who was himself replaced on 19 July by Generale d’Armata Ettore Bastico because of his alleged lack of co-operation with Rommel.
In the east, Berti’s 10th Army directly controlled the 10th Army Motorised Artillery Regiment, Generale di Divisione Luigi Sibille’s 1st Divisione libica, Fortress ‘Benghazi’ with the 30th Frontier Guard Sector and its identically numbered frontier guard artillery regiment, and Fortress ‘Tobruk’ with the 31st and 32nd Frontier Guard Sectors and their identically numbered frontier guard artillery regiments. The army’s subordinate formations were Generale di Corpo d’Armata Lorenzo Dalmazzo’s XXI Corps (21st Corps Artillery Regiment, 21st Armoured Battalion, Generale di Divisione Francesco Laviano’s 62nd Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Marmarica’ and Generale di Divisione Carlo Spatocco’s 63rd Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Cirene’); and Generale di Divisione Enrico Pitassi-Manella’s XX Corps (22nd Corps Artillery Regiment, Generale di Divisione Nicola Spinelli’s 64th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Catanzaro’ and Luogotenente Generale Capo Manipolo Fabio Merzari’s 4th ‘Camicie Nere’ Divisione ‘3 Gennaio’).