Operation Compass

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Operation Compass
Part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War
The British Army in North Africa 1940 E443.2.jpg
Date9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941
Result British victory
Recapture of western Egypt and occupation of Cyrenaica

Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  British Empire

Flag of Free France (1940-1944).svg  Free France

Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg  Kingdom of Italy

Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Archibald Wavell
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Henry Wilson
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Richard O'Connor
Flag of Australia (converted).svg Iven Mackay
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Rodolfo Graziani
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Giuseppe Tellera  
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Pietro Maletti  
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Annibale Bergonzoli   White flag icon.svg
36,000 men
275 tanks
120 guns
142 aircraft
150,000 men
600 tanks & tankettes
1,600 guns
331 aircraft
Casualties and losses
500 killed
1,373 wounded
55 missing
26 aircraft
5,500+ killed
10,000 wounded
133,298 captured
420 tanks
845 guns
564 aircraft
(incl. reinforcements)

Operation Compass (also la battaglia della Marmarica) was the first large Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) during the Second World War. British and other Commonwealth and Allied forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, from December 1940 to February 1941. The Western Desert Force (Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor) with about 36,000 men, advanced from Mersa Matruh in Egypt on a five-day raid against the Italian positions of the 10th Army (Marshal Rodolfo Graziani), which had about 150,000 men in fortified posts around Sidi Barrani in Egypt and in Cyrenaica.

Allies of World War II Grouping of the victorious countries of World War II

The Allies of World War II, called the "United Nations" from the 1 January 1942 declaration, were the countries that together opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War (1939–1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and Italian aggression.

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea lies between Great Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom's 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi) were home to an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Commonwealth of Nations Intergovernmental organisation

The Commonwealth of Nations, normally known as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 53 member states, nearly all of them former territories of the British Empire. The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations between member states.


The 10th Army was swiftly defeated and the British continued the operation, pursuing the remnants of the 10th Army to Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The British took over 138,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners, hundreds of tanks, and more than 1,000 guns and aircraft, against British losses of 1,900 men killed and wounded, about 10 per cent of the infantry. The British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to broken down and worn out vehicles and the diversion, beginning in March 1941, of the best-equipped units to the Greek Campaign in Operation Lustre.

Beda Fomm is a small coastal town in southwestern Cyrenaica, Libya. It is located between the much larger port city Benghazi to its west and the larger town of El Agheila further to the south-west. Beda Fomm is known mainly for being the site of the final engagement of Operation Compass in World War II.

Tank Tracked heavy armored fighting vehicle

A tank is an armoured fighting vehicle designed for front-line combat. Tanks have heavy firepower, strong armour, and good battlefield manoeuvrability provided by tracks and a powerful engine; usually their main armament is mounted in a turret. They are a mainstay of modern 20th and 21st century ground forces and a key part of combined arms combat.

Artillery class of weapons which fires munitions beyond the range and power of personal weapons

Artillery is a class of heavy military ranged weapons built to launch munitions far beyond the range and power of infantry's small arms. Early artillery development focused on the ability to breach defensive walls and fortifications during sieges, and led to heavy, fairly immobile siege engines. As technology improved, lighter, more mobile field artillery cannons developed for battlefield use. This development continues today; modern self-propelled artillery vehicles are highly mobile weapons of great versatility providing the large share of an army's total firepower.


10th Army

Italian L3/33 tankettes in North Africa, April 1941. Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-783-0107-27, Nordafrika, italienischer Panzer L3-33.jpg
Italian L3/33 tankettes in North Africa, April 1941.

When war was declared, the 5th Army (General Italo Gariboldi) was in Tripolitania the western Libyan province and the 10th Army (General Mario Berti) was in Cyrenaica to the east. Once the French in Tunisia no longer posed a threat to Tripolitania, units of the 5th Army were used to reinforce the 10th Army. When Governor-General of Libya Italo Balbo was killed by friendly fire, Marshal Graziani took his place. Graziani expressed doubts about the capabilities of the large non-mechanized force to defeat the British, who though smaller in numbers were motorised. After being reinforced from the 5th Army, the 10th Army controlled the equivalent of four corps with 150,000 infantry,1,600 guns,600 tankettes and tanks and 331 aircraft. [1] The XX Corps had the 60th Infantry Division Sabratha and the XXI Corps had the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo, the 2nd Blackshirt Division 28 Ottobre and the 63 Infantry Division Cirene. XXII Corps had the 61st Infantry Division Sirte and XXIII Corps had the 4th Blackshirt Division 3 Gennaio and the 64th Infantry Division Catanzaro. [2] [3]

Italo Gariboldi Italian general

Italo Gariboldi was an Italian senior officer in the Royal Army before and during World War II. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by German Führer Adolf Hitler, for his leadership of Italian forces in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Tripolitania Place

Tripolitania is a historic region and former province of Libya.

Mario Berti Italian general

Mario Berti (1881–1964) was an Italian officer during World War I and a general in the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

The new Group of Libyan Divisions (Gruppo Divisioni Libiche) had the Maletti Group, the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle (Major-General Luigi Sibelle) and the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori (Major-General Armando Pescatori). [3] The only non-infantry formation was the partially motorised and lightly armoured Maletti Group. The Raggruppamento Maletti (General Pietro Maletti) was formed at Derna on 8 July 1940, with seven Libyan motorised infantry battalions, a company of Fiat M11/39 tanks, a company of L3/33 tankettes, motorised artillery and supply units as the main motorised unit of the 10th Army. On 29 August, as more tanks arrived from Italy, the Comando carri della Libia (Libyan Tank Command) was formed under the command of Colonel Valentini, with three Raggruppamenti. Raggruppamento Aresca (Colonel Aresca) with the I Medium Tank Battalion and the 31st, 61st and 62nd light tank battalions, Raggruppamento Trivioli (Colonel Antonio Trivioli), with the II Medium Tank Battalion, less one company and the IX, XX, and LXI light tank battalions and Raggruppamento Maletti with the LX light tank battalion and the remaining M11/39 company from the II Medium Tank Battalion. [4] Raggruppamento Maletti became part of the Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali della Libia (Royal Corps of Libyan Colonial Troops), with the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle and the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori. [5]

Maletti Group

The Raggruppamento Maletti was an ad hoc mechanised unit formed by the Italian Royal Army in Italian North Africa, during the initial stages of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The Italian army had three armoured divisions in Europe but all were needed for the occupation of Albania and the forthcoming invasion of Greece, which began on 28 October 1940. The Raggruppamento Maletti was formed in June 1940, as part of the 10th Army and contained all of the M11/39 medium tanks in Libya.

The 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori was an Infantry Division of the Corps of Libyan Troops of the Italian Army during World War II. In December 1940, it was in Libya as part of the Italian XXIII Corps together with the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo and 2nd Blackshirt Division 28 Ottobre, took part in the Italian invasion of Egypt and was destroyed during Operation Compass.

Pietro Maletti was an Italian General who participated in World War I, the subjugation of Italian North Africa, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, and World War II. He was killed in action during the early stages of the North Africa Campaign.

Western Desert Force

Cruiser Tank Mk I (A9) Mk1CruiserTank.jpg

Middle East Command under General Archibald Wavell had about 36,000 soldiers, some outside Egypt, 120 guns and 275 tanks. The RAF had 142 aircraft in two squadrons of Hurricanes, one of Gloster Gladiators, three of Bristol Blenheims, three of Vickers Wellingtons and one of Bristol Bombays, about 46 fighters and 116 bombers. [6] The Western Desert Force (WDF) was commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor with the 4th Indian Infantry Division (Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse) and the 7th Armoured Division (Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh). From 14 December, troops of the 6th Australian Infantry Division (Major-General Iven Giffard Mackay), replaced the 4th Indian Division, which was sent to East Africa, less one brigade. The British had some fast Cruiser Mk I, Cruiser Mk II and Cruiser Mk III tanks with Ordnance QF 2-pounder guns, which were superior to Fiat M11/39 tanks. The British also had a battalion of Matilda II infantry tanks that while slow, were also equipped with the 2-pounder; the armour of the Matildas could not be penetrated by Italian anti-tank guns or field guns. [7]

Middle East Command

Middle East Command, later Middle East Land Forces, was a British Army Command established prior to the Second World War in Egypt. Its primary role was to command British land forces and co-ordinate with the relevant naval and air commands to defend British interests in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.

Bristol Blenheim British light bomber aircraft

The Bristol Blenheim is a British light bomber aircraft designed and built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company (Bristol) which was used extensively in the first two years and in some cases throughout the Second World War. The aircraft was developed as Type 142, a civil airliner, in response to a challenge from Lord Rothermere to produce the fastest commercial aircraft in Europe. The Type 142 first flew in April 1935, and the Air Ministry, impressed by its performance, ordered a modified design as the Type 142M for the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a bomber. Deliveries of the newly named Blenheim to RAF squadrons commenced on 10 March 1937.

Vickers Wellington British twin-engined, long-range medium bomber

The Vickers Wellington is a British twin-engined, long-range medium bomber. It was designed during the mid-1930s at Brooklands in Weybridge, Surrey. Led by Vickers-Armstrongs' chief designer Rex Pierson; a key feature of the aircraft is its geodetic airframe fuselage structure, which was principally designed by Barnes Wallis. Development had been started in response to Air Ministry Specification B.9/32, which was issued in the middle of 1932. This specification called for a twin-engined day bomber capable of delivering higher performance than any previous design. Other aircraft developed to the same specification include the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and the Handley Page Hampden. During the development process, performance requirements such as for the tare weight changed substantially, and the engine used was not the one originally intended.

Border skirmishes

Area of operations December 1940 to February 1941 (click to enlarge) WesternDesertBattle Area1941 en.svg
Area of operations December 1940 to February 1941 (click to enlarge)

Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940. During the next few months there were raids and skirmishes between Italian forces in Libya and British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt. On 12 June 1940, the Mediterranean Fleet bombarded Tobruk. The force included the cruisers HMS Liverpool and HMS Gloucester also exchanged fire with the Italian cruiser San Giorgio. Royal Air Force Blenheim bombers from No. 45, No. 55 and No. 211 squadrons, hit the San Giorgio with one bomb. [8] On 19 June, the British submarine HMS Parthian fired two torpedoes at San Giorgio but missed. San Giorgio's role was then to support the local anti-aircraft units and claimed 47 British aircraft shot down or damaged. San Giorgio also shot down the Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 aircraft carrying Italo Balbo, the Governor-General of Libya and Commander-in-chief of Italian forces in North Africa. [9]

French Third Republic Nation of France from 1870 to 1940

The French Third Republic was the system of government adopted in France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War, until 10 July 1940 after France's defeat by Nazi Germany in World War II led to the formation of the Vichy government in France.

Mediterranean Fleet fleet of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom

The British Mediterranean Fleet also known as the Mediterranean Station was part of the Royal Navy. The Fleet was one of the most prestigious commands in the navy for the majority of its history, defending the vital sea link between the United Kingdom and the majority of the British Empire in the Eastern Hemisphere. The first Commander-in-Chief for the Mediterranean Fleet was the appointment of General at Sea Robert Blake in September 1654 the Fleet was in existence until 1967.

HMS <i>Liverpool</i> (C11) Gloucester-class cruiser ship 1938‒1952

HMS Liverpool, named after the port city of Liverpool in north-west England, was a Town-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy in service from 1938 to 1952.


Operazione E

Areas of Operazione E and Operation Compass (click to enlarge) AfricaMap1.jpg
Areas of Operazione E and Operation Compass (click to enlarge)

On 13 September 1940, the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt in Operazione E. As the Italians advanced, the small British force at Sollum withdrew to the main defensive position east of Mersa Matruh. [10] The Italian advance was harassed by the 3rd Coldstream Guards, attached artillery and other units. [11] After recapturing Fort Capuzzo, the Italians advanced approximately 95 kilometres (59 mi) in three days and on 16 September, the advance stopped at Maktila, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) beyond Sidi Barrani. The Italians dug in and awaited reinforcements and supplies along the Via della Vittoria , an extension of the Via Balbia being built from the frontier. Five fortified camps were built around Sidi Barrani from Maktila, 24 kilometres (15 mi) east along the coast, south to Tummar East, Tummar West and Nibeiwa and Sofafi on the escarpment to the south-west. [12]

British plan

Following the Italian advance, Wavell ordered the commander of British Troops Egypt, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, to plan a limited operation to push the Italians back. Operation Compass, for administrative reasons, was originally planned as a five-day raid but consideration was given to continuing the operation to exploit success. [13] [14] On 28 November, Wavell wrote to Wilson that,

I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.

Wavell [15]

The 7th Support Group was to observe the Italian camps on the escarpment around Sofafi, to prevent the garrisons from interfering, while the rest of the division and 4th Indian Division passed through the Sofafi–Nibeiwa gap. An Indian brigade and Infantry tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR) would attack Nibeiwa from the west, as the 7th Armoured Division protected their northern flank. Once Nibeiwa was captured, a second Indian brigade and the 7th RTR would attack the Tummars. Selby Force (3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards plus some artillery) from the Matruh garrison was to contain the enemy camp at Maktila on the coast and the Royal Navy would bombard Maktila and Sidi Barrani. [16] Preparations were kept secret and only a few officers knew during the training exercise held from 25–26 November, that the objectives marked out near Matruh were replicas of Nibeiwa and Tummar; the troops were also told that a second exercise was to follow and did not know that the operation was real until 7 December, as they arrived at their jumping-off points. [17]

Late on 8 December, an Italian reconnaissance aircrew reported that attack on Maktila and Nibeiwa was imminent but Maletti was not informed. On 9 December, the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle was at Maktila and the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori was at Tummar. The Maletti Group was at Nibiewa and the 4th Blackshirt Division 3 Gennaio and the headquarters of the Libyan Corps were at Sidi Barrani. The 63rd Infantry Division Cirene and the headquarters of XXI Corps were at Sofafi and the 64th Infantry Division Catanzaro was at Buq Buq. The headquarters of the XXIII Corps and the 2nd Blackshirt Division 28 Ottobre were in Sollum and Halfaya Pass respectively and the 62nd Infantry Division Marmarica was at Sidi Omar, south of Sollum. [18] Berti was on sick leave and Gariboldi, the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo and the 10th Army Headquarters were far back at Bardia. (By the time Berti arrived in Libya, so had the British.) [19] Operation Compass (la battaglia della Marmarica/Battle of the Marmarica) began on the night of 7/8 December. The Western Desert Force with the 7th Armoured Division, 4th Indian Division and the 16th Infantry Brigade advanced 70 mi (113 km) to their start line. The RAF made attacks on Italian airfields and destroyed or damaged 29 aircraft on the ground. Selby Force (Brigadier A. R. Selby) with 1,800 men (the maximum for whom transport could be found), moved up from Matruh, set up a brigade of dummy tanks in the desert and reached a position south-east of Maktila by dawn on 9 December. Maktila had been bombarded by the monitor HMS Terror and the gunboat HMS Aphis; Sidi Barrani had been shelled by the gunboat HMS Ladybird. [20]

Battle of the Camps


A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert. Matilda Compass.jpg

At 5:00 a.m. on 9 December, a detachment of artillery commenced diversionary fire from the east on the fortified camp at Nibeiwa for an hour, which was held by the Maletti Group and at 7:15 a.m. the divisional artillery began a preliminary bombardment. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, with 7th RTR under command, attacked Nibeiwa from the north-west, which reconnaissance had established as the weakest sector. By 8:30 a.m., Nibeiwa had been captured; Maletti had been killed in the fighting along with 818 men and 1,338 wounded; 2,000 Italian and Libyan soldiers were taken prisoner. [21] Large quantities of supplies were captured for British casualties of 56 men. [22]

The Tummars

The attack on Tummar West began at 1:50 p.m., after the 7th RTR had refuelled and artillery had bombarded the defences for an hour. Another approach from the north-west was made and tanks broke through the perimeter, followed twenty minutes later by the infantry. The defenders held out for longer than the Nibeiwa garrison but by 4:00 p.m. Tummar West was overrun except for the north-eastern corner. The tanks moved on to Tummar East, the greater part of which was captured by nightfall. The 4th Armoured Brigade had advanced to Azziziya, where the garrison of 400 men surrendered and light patrols of the 7th Hussars pushed forward to cut the road from Sidi Barrani to Buq Buq, while armoured cars of the 11th Hussars ranged further west. The tanks of 7th Armoured Brigade were held in reserve ready to intercept an Italian counter-attack. [23] The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded, with the survivors being taken prisoner. [24]


Unaware of the situation at the Tummars, Selby sent units to cut the western exits from Maktila but the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle filtered through and escaped. [25] Selby Force followed up the retreat as the 1st Libyan Division moved the 15 mi (24 km) from Maktila to Sidi Barrani and drove part of the column into sand dunes north of the coast road. Cruiser tanks of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment (6th RTR) arrived in a sandstorm and overran the Italians in the dunes at about 5:15 p.m., then joined Selby Force to continue the pursuit. The Italian defenders were caught at Sidi Barrani, in a pocket 10 by 5 mi (16.1 by 8.0 km) backing on to the sea. When the British attacked again at dawn on 11 December, mass surrenders began everywhere. except at Point 90 where troops of the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori held out for a short time, after which 2,000 troops surrendered. [26]

Sidi Barrani, Buq Buq and Sofafi

On 10 December, the 16th Infantry Brigade was brought forward from 4th Indian Division reserve and with part of the 11th Indian Brigade under command, advanced in lorries to attack Sidi Barrani. While moving across exposed ground, some casualties were incurred but with support from artillery and the 7th RTR, it was in position barring the south and south western exits to Sidi Barrani by 1:30 p.m. The British attacked at 4:00 p.m. supported by the divisional artillery and the town fell by nightfall; the remains of the two Libyan Divisions and the 4th Blackshirt Division 3 Gennaio were trapped between the 16th Infantry Brigade and Selby Force. On 11 December, Selby Force and some tanks attacked and overran the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle and by the evening, the 4th Blackshirt Division 3 Gennaio had also surrendered. On 11 December, the 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered out of reserve to relieve the 4th Armoured Brigade in the Buq Buq area, mop up and capture large numbers of men and guns. A patrol from the 7th Support Group entered Rabia and found it empty; the 63rd Division Cirene had withdrawn from Rabia and Sofafi overnight. An order to the 4th Armoured Brigade to cut them off west of Sofafi arrived too late and the Italians were able to retire along the escarpment and join Italian forces at Halfaya. [27] Italian casualties were 2,184 men killed, 2,287 troops wounded and 38,000 prisoners. [21]


Matilda tank with crew displaying a captured Italian flag MatildaII.jpg
Matilda tank with crew displaying a captured Italian flag

Over the next few days the 4th Armoured Brigade, on top of the escarpment and the 7th Armoured Brigade on the coast, attempted a pursuit but supply problems and the large number of prisoners (twenty times the number planned for) impeded the advance. Italian forces crowded along the coast road and retreating from Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq, were bombarded by Terror and the two gunboats, which fired on the Sollum area all day and most of the night of 11 December. Late on 12 December, the only Italian positions left in Egypt were the approaches to Sollum and the area of Sidi Omar. [28]

The Italians had lost 38,289 Italian and Libyan casualties, most taken prisoner, 73 tanks and 237 guns, against 634 British casualties. [28] The WDF paused to reorganise and then moved quickly west along the Via della Vittoria, through Halfaya Pass and re-captured Fort Capuzzo in Libya. [29] On 7 December, Wellington bombers from Malta and Blenheim bombers from Egypt carried out raids on the Italian air bases at Castel Benito, Benina and El Adem, the attack on Castel Benito being particularly successful, with hits on five hangars and strafing runs which hit many Italian aircraft; the attacks continued until the end of the year. [30]


Sollum, Halfaya and Fort Capuzzo

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

Exploitation continued by the two armoured brigades and the 7th Support Group, with the infantry of 16th Infantry Brigade (which had been detached from the 4th Indian Division) following up. By 15 December, Sollum and the Halfaya Pass had been captured and the British by-passed Italian garrisons further south in the desert. Fort Capuzzo, 64 kilometres (40 mi) inland at the end of the frontier wire, was captured en passant by 7th Armoured Division in December 1940, as it advanced westwards to Bardia. The 7th Armoured Division concentrated south-west of Bardia, waiting for the arrival of 6th Australian Division. By this time the WDF had taken 38,300 prisoners and captured 237 guns and 73 tanks, while suffering casualties of 133 killed,387 wounded and eight missing. [31]


The 6th Australian Division (Major General Iven Mackay) attacked the Italian XXIII Corps Generale di Corpo d'Armata (Lieutenant-General Annibale Bergonzoli) Bardia from 3–5 January 1941, assisted by air support, naval gunfire and artillery barrages. The 16th Australian Infantry Brigade attacked at dawn from the west, where the defences were known to be weak. Sappers blew gaps in the barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes, then filled in and broke down the sides of the anti-tank ditch with picks and shovels. The Australian infantry and 23 Matilda II tanks of the 7th RTR, overran the Italian defences and took 8,000 prisoners. [32] The 17th Australian Infantry Brigade exploited the breach made in the perimeter and pressed south, as far as a secondary line of defences known as the Switch Line. On the second day, the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade captured Bardia, cutting the fortress in two. Thousands of prisoners were taken and the remnants of the Italian garrison held only the northern and southernmost parts of the fortress. On the third day, the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade advanced south from Bardia, supported by artillery and the remaining six Matilda tanks. The 17th Australian Infantry Brigade attacked and the two brigades reduced the southern sector of the fortress. The Italian garrisons in the north surrendered to the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade and the 7th Support Group outside the fortress; about 25,000 prisoners were taken, along with 400 guns,130 light and medium tanks and hundreds of motor vehicles. [33] Italian casualties also included 1,703 killed and 3,740 men wounded. [21]

Capture of Tobruk

Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941. Awm 005392 2nd11th.jpg
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The 2/3rd Australian Battalion attacked at 5:40 a.m. on 21 January and after an hour, the 16th Australian Brigade and 18 I tanks broke through to a depth of 1 mi (1.6 km) on a 1-mile (1.6 km) front. The 16th Australian Brigade fanned out at 8:40 a.m. and the 19th Australian Brigade advanced north, behind an artillery barrage and counter-battery fire on the Italian artillery. The 2/8th Australian Battalion was held up at the Bardia–El Adem crossroads, by a force of dug-in tanks and machine-gun nests but at 2:00 p.m., the Australians attacked again and broke through on the right. On the left, the Australians were counter-attacked by seven tanks and infantry behind an artillery barrage. The Italian attack was repulsed by the infantry, two anti-tank guns and two I tanks (after the tank crews realised that the tanks were Italian). More resistance was met near Pilastrino, which held out until 9:30 p.m. and the area around Solero was captured along with Mannella. [34]

During the day, Blenheims of 55 and 113 squadrons flew 56 sorties against Tobruk; the Gladiators and Hurricanes of 3 Squadron RAAF and 73 and 274 squadrons RAF patrolled to the west. Half of the Tobruk area had been captured by nightfall and the Italians began demolitions at the harbour. The armoured cruiser San Giorgio, having been ordered to stay and help with the defence till the end, fired on the advancing Australian troops until the naval base fell, then she was blown up by her crew to avoid capture. [35] [36] At dawn, Major-General Della Mura, commander of the 61st Infantry Division Sirte, surrendered with several thousand troops. The 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment reached the port and took the surrender of Admiral Vietina and the naval garrison. By 3:45 p.m.,20,000 prisoners, 208 guns and 87 tanks had been captured for the loss of 400 men,355 of them Australian. Italian casualties were 18 officers and 750 men killed,30 officers and 2,250 men wounded. [37] Most of the demolitions conducted by the Italians had been of stores rather than installations; the Inshore Squadron began mine sweeping and opened the port on 24 January. [38]


Tobruk-Agedabia, 1940-1941 Tobruk Agedabia road2.jpg
Tobruk–Agedabia, 1940–1941

The area east of the Jebel Akhdar mountains was garrisoned by XX Corps (Lieutenant-General Annibale Bergonzoli) with the 60th Infantry Division Sabratha and the Babini Group, which had 120 tanks. The tank force included 82 new M.13/40 tanks, which needed ten days to be made battle-worthy but had been rushed forward anyway. The Sabratha Division held a line from Derna, along Wadi Derna to Mechili, with the Babini Group at Mechili, Giovanni Berta and Chaulan, guarding the flank and rear of the infantry. [39] [40] On 23 January, the 10th Army commander, General Giuseppe Tellera ordered a counter-attack against the British, to avoid an envelopment of XX Corps from the south. Next day, the Babini Group, with ten to fifteen of the new M.13/40s, attacked the 7th Hussars as they headed west to cut the Derna–Mechili track north of Mechili. The British swiftly retired, calling for help from the 2nd RTR, which complacently ignored the signals. The British lost several tanks and knocked out two M.13s, until eventually, the 2nd RTR mobilised and caught the Italian tanks while they were sky-lined on a ridge and knocked out seven M.13s, for the loss of a cruiser and six light tanks. [41] [42]

To the north, the 2/11th Australian Battalion engaged the Sabratha Division and Bersaglieri companies of the Babini Group at Derna airfield, making slow progress against determined resistance. The 19th Australian Brigade began to arrive in the morning and Italian bombers and fighters attacked the Australians. The Italians swept the flat ground with field artillery and machine-guns, stopping the Australian advance 3,000 yd (2,700 m) short of the objective. [43] On 26 January, the 2/4th Australian Battalion cut the Derna–Mechili road and a company crossed Wadi Derna during the night against bold Italian counter-attacks. [44] The Italians disengaged on the night of 28/29 January, before the garrison was trapped and rearguards of the Babini Group cratered roads, planted mines and booby-traps and managed to conduct several skilful ambushes, which slowed the British pursuit. [45] Derna was occupied unopposed on 29 January and the Australians began a pursuit along the Via Balbia, closing on Giovanni Berta during 31 January. [46]

Battle of Beda Fomm

Italian and Libyan soldiers "in the bag" Italian soldiers taken prisoner during Operation Compass.jpg
Italian and Libyan soldiers "in the bag"

In late January, the British learned that the Italians were retreating along the Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia) from Benghazi. The 7th Armoured Division was dispatched to intercept the remnants of the 10th Army by moving through the desert, south of the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) via Msus and Antelat, as the 6th Australian Division pursued the Italians along the coast road, north of the jebel. The terrain slowed the British tanks and Combe Force (Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. B. Combe), a flying column of wheeled vehicles was sent ahead across the chord of the jebel. [47] Late on 5 February, Combe Force arrived at the Via Balbia south of Benghazi and set up road blocks near Sidi Saleh, about 32 kilometres (20 mi) north of Ajedabia and 30 mi (48 km) south-west of Antelat; the leading elements of the 10th Army arrived thirty minutes later. Next day, the Italians attacked to break through the road block and continued to attack into 7 February. With British reinforcements arriving and the Australians pressing down the road from Benghazi, the 10th Army surrendered. From Benghazi to Agedabia, the British took 25,000 prisoners, captured 107 tanks and 93 guns. [48]

Desert operations

Giarabub, Kufra and Uweinat

Map showing Kufra Oasis and Murzuk Carte Koufra.jpg
Map showing Kufra Oasis and Murzuk

Italian garrisons held Giarabub 150 mi (240 km) south of Sollum, Kufra Oasis, Jalo at the west end of the Great Sand Sea and Murzuk, 500 mi (800 km) south of Tripoli. The oasis of Giarabub was attacked in January 1941 and captured in March by the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment and an Australian infantry battalion. Further south, on the far side of the Sand Sea, the oasis of Kufra was attacked by Free French from French Equatorial Africa, in concert with Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) patrols. (Kufra later fell after the two-month Capture of Kufra in March 1941.) Further west, on the border with Chad, the Italian base at Murzuk was raided in January, when a patrol of the new Long Range Patrol Unit and a local sheikh travelled 1,300 mi (2,100 km) to rendezvous near Kayugi, with a small Free French detachment. [49] [lower-alpha 1] The force attacked Murzuk and destroyed three aircraft and a hangar; the French commander was killed, most of the Italians surrendered and several prisoners were taken. The raiders then shot up three forts and departed. [51]

Jebel Uweinat Jebel Uweinat.jpg
Jebel Uweinat

At Jebel Uweinat, a 6,000 ft (1,800 m) massif 600 mi (970 km) inland, at the junctions of Egypt, Libya and Sudan, were landing grounds with an Italian garrison. The base was the closest Italian outpost to the East African Empire and a raid from Uweinat on Wadi Halfa in Sudan was possible. Destruction of the dockyards and railway workshops and the sinking of vessels on the Nile, could cut the link between Khartoum and Cairo. [52] British patrols visited Faya and met another French detachment with General Philippe Leclerc for an attack on Kufra. The British were strafed by aircraft and attacked by armoured cars of the Italian Auto-Saharan Company, which destroyed several lorries. Leclerc decided that an attack on Kufra was not possible and the remaining British returned to Cairo, after a 45-day journey of 6,900 kilometres (4,300 mi). Kufra was captured on 1 March, by the French and became the new LRDG base in April. [51]



Approximate numbers of PoW and equipment captured,
Western Desert and Cyrenaica
(9 December 1940 – 8 February 1941) [53]
Place  (POW) TanksGuns
Sidi Omar90008

The success of the 7th Armoured Division encouraged a belief in the Royal Tank Regiment that manoeuvre could win battles; the engagement with the Babini Group on 24 January, led to a conclusion that armoured divisions needed more artillery. No integration of tanks with infantry or the use of anti-tank guns offensively was considered necessary. The lack of cover in the desert encouraged dispersion to avoid air attack but this reduced firepower at the decisive point. Due to the exiguous nature of supply and transport, conservation during lulls also encouraged the use of small jock columns (a motorised infantry company, a field-gun battery and several armoured cars). The success of such columns against the Italians led to exaggerated expectations, which were confounded when German troops, with better equipment and training, arrived in Libya. The 7th Armoured Division concluded that the defensive mentality of the Italians had justified the taking of exceptional risks, which would be unjustified against German troops. [54]


The WDF lost 500 killed,55 missing, and 1,373 wounded. [55] The RAF lost 26 aircraft, comprising six Hurricanes, five Gladiators, three Wellingtons, a Valentia and eleven Blenheims. A far larger number of aircraft became non-operational due to damage, which could not be repaired quickly for lack of spare parts, a problem made worse by the increased use of explosive bullets by the Italians. (On 14 December, a raid on Bardia by nine Blenheims cost one aircraft shot down and seven damaged by explosive bullets.) [56] The Italian 10th Army lost at least 5,500 men killed, about 10,000 wounded, 133,298 men taken prisoner, 420 tanks and 845 guns. [53]

Subsequent operations

A week after the Italian surrender at Beda Fomm, the Defence Committee in London, ordered Cyrenaica to be held with the minimum of forces and the surplus sent to Greece. In the WDF (now XIII Corps), the 6th Australian Division was fully equipped and had few losses to replace. The 7th Armoured Division had been operating for eight months, had worn out its mechanical equipment and was withdrawn to refit. Two regiments of the 2nd Armoured Division with the WDF were also worn out, leaving the division with only four tank regiments. The 6th Australian Division went to Greece in March, with an armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division; the remainder of the division and the new 9th Australian Division, minus two brigades and most of its transport sent to Greece, were replaced by two under-equipped brigades of the 7th Australian Division. The division took over in Cyrenaica, on the assumption that the Italians could not begin a counter-offensive until May, even with German reinforcements. [57]

The 2nd Armoured Division in Cyrenaica had the 3rd Armoured Brigade, with an under-strength light tank regiment, a second regiment using captured Italian tanks and a cruiser tank regiment from mid-March, also with worn-out tanks. The 2nd Support Group had only one motor battalion, a field artillery regiment, one anti-tank battery and a machine-gun company; most of the divisional transport had been sent to Greece. [57] A few thousand men of the 10th Army escaped the disaster in Cyrenaica but the 5th Army in Tripolitania had four divisions. The Sirte, Tmed Hassan and Buerat strongholds were reinforced from Italy, which brought the 10th and 5th armies up to about 150,000 men. German reinforcements were sent to Libya to form a blocking detachment (Sperrverband) under Directive 22 (11 January), these being the first units of the Afrika Korps (Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel). On 25 March 1941, Graziani was replaced by Gariboldi. [58]

Order of battle

10th Army, 9 December, Western Desert Force, 9 December. (Details taken from Christie (1999) unless specified.) [59] Supreme Commander Italian Forces in Africa Settentrionale Italiana (ASI, Italian North Africa): Marshal Rodolfo Graziani

10a Armata (generale d'armata Giuseppe Tellera)
13 September 1940

Western Desert Force

See also


  1. Cairo to Bahariya Oasis, Ain Dalla, Two Hills/Big Cairn, Murzuk, Traghen, Tummo, Zouar, Faya, Tekro, Sarra, Bishara, Jebel Sherif, Sarra, via Jebel Uweinat to the Nile and Cairo. [50]
  2. The Western Desert Force consisted of about 31,000 soldiers,120 guns,275 tanks and sixty armoured cars. The Italian 10th Army in Egypt consisted of 80,000 troops.250 guns and 125 tanks. The 4th Indian Division was exchanged with the 6th Australian Division for the pursuit after the first part of Operation Compass. [60]


  1. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 266.
  2. Macksey 1972, pp. 106, 121.
  3. 1 2 Hunt 1990, p. 51.
  4. Christie 1999, pp. 32, 48.
  5. Walker 2003, p. 61.
  6. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 262.
  7. Pitt 1980, p. 102.
  8. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 112–113.
  9. Hunt 1990, p. 21.
  10. Mackenzie 1951, pp. 26–27.
  11. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 210.
  12. Mackenzie 1951, p. 27.
  13. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 264.
  14. Mead 2007, p. 331.
  15. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 265.
  16. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 260–261.
  17. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 263, 265.
  18. Macksey 1972, p. 68.
  19. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 281.
  20. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 265–267.
  21. 1 2 3 IOH 1979, p. 374.
  22. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 267–268.
  23. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 268–269.
  24. IOH 1979, p. 375.
  25. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 269.
  26. Pitt 1980, p. 114.
  27. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 270.
  28. 1 2 Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 271–273.
  29. Bierman & Smith 2002, p. 46.
  30. Richards 1974, pp. 270, 273.
  31. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 273.
  32. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 282–284.
  33. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 284–287.
  34. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 292–293.
  35. Regio incrociatore corazzato San Giorgio.
  36. Arremba San Zorzo.
  37. IOH 1979, p. 376.
  38. Playfair et al. 1954, p. 293.
  39. Macksey 1972, pp. 121–123.
  40. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 353.
  41. Long 1952, p. 242.
  42. Macksey 1972, p. 123.
  43. Long 1952, pp. 242–245.
  44. Macksey 1972, pp. 124–127.
  45. Long 1952, pp. 250–253, 255–256.
  46. Macksey 1972, pp. 127–129.
  47. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 351–356.
  48. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 356–362.
  49. Pitt 1980, pp. 229–240.
  50. Pitt 1980, pp. 230–231.
  51. 1 2 Playfair et al. 1954, p. 297.
  52. Pitt 1980, p. 225.
  53. 1 2 Harding 1941.
  54. French 2001, pp. 215–216.
  55. Wavell 1946, pp. 3,268.
  56. Terraine 1997, p. 318.
  57. 1 2 Playfair et al. 1956, pp. 2–3.
  58. Playfair et al. 1954, pp. 359–362.
  59. Christie 1999, pp. 65, 68–78.
  60. Christie 1999, p. 86.

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Further reading