Military Wiki
Operation Compass
Part of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II
The British Army in North Africa 1940 E443.2.jpg
British Vickers light tanks on desert patrol
Date9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941
LocationSidi Barrani, Egypt to El Agheila, Libya
Result Allied victory

 United Kingdom

  • British Raj British India
 Free France
Italy Italy
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Archibald Wavell
United Kingdom Henry Maitland Wilson
United Kingdom Richard O'Connor
Italy Rodolfo Graziani
Italy Italo Gariboldi
Italy Mario Berti
Italy Giuseppe Tellera
Italy Pietro Maletti
Italy Annibale Bergonzoli (POW)
36,000 soldiers[1]
120 artillery pieces
275 tanks
142 aircraft[2][nb 1]
150,000 soldiers
1,600 artillery pieces
600 tanks, mostly tankettes
331 aircraft[3]
Casualties and losses
500 killed[4]
55 missing[4]
1,373 wounded[4]
15 aircraft[5]
3,000 killed
115,000 captured
400 tanks
1,292 artillery pieces
1,249 aircraft [nb 2]

Battle Area of Operation Compass December 1940 to February 1941

Map of Italian attack and British counterattack (Operation Compass)

Operation Compass was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. British and Commonwealth forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and eastern Libya in December 1940 to February 1941. The operation was a complete success. Allied forces advanced from inside Egypt to central Libya suffering very few casualties and captured 115,000 Italian prisoners. The Italians lost hundreds of tanks and over a thousand each of artillery pieces and aircraft.[6]


First skirmishes

Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940. During the next several months there were raids and skirmishes between Italian forces in Libya and British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt.

The Italian advance into Egypt

Marshal Italo Balbo was Governor-General and military commander of Italian North Africa (Libya). Italian dictator Benito Mussolini urged Balbo to attack the British in Egypt. Mussolini's aim was to capture the Suez Canal and link up with Italian East Africa. But for many reasons, Balbo was reluctant.

After Balbo's death in a mysterious "friendly fire" accident on 28 June, Mussolini urged his replacement, General Rodolfo Graziani, to attack. Like Balbo, Graziani too was reluctant, stating that the water supply was inadequate. On 8 August 1940 he said to Foreign Minister Ciano "We move toward a defeat which, in the desert, must inevitably develop into a rapid and total disaster."[7]

6 pounder Anti-Tank Gun of the 7th Support Group

Graziani ultimately followed Mussolini's orders. On 13 September 1940, elements of the Italian Tenth Army advanced into Egypt in "Operation E".

As the Italians advanced, the small British force at Sollum withdrew to the main defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh.[8] The Italian advance was harassed by the 7th Support Group, a mobile element of the 7th Armoured Division.

After recapturing Fort Capuzzo, progress was slow. The Italians advanced approximately 95 kilometres (59 mi) in three days. On 16 September, the advance stopped at the town of Maktila, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) beyond Sidi Barrani. The Italians then dug in, fortified their positions, and awaited reinforcements and supplies. They created a line of fortified camps around Sidi Barrani which ran from Maktila, 24 kilometres (15 mi) east on the coast, southward through Tummar East, Tummar West, and Nibeiwa, to Sofafi on the escarpment to the south-west.[9]

Virginio Gayda, Italian newspaper editor and mouthpiece for Mussolini's fascist regime, wrote "Nothing can save Britain now."[10] However, the British Royal Navy had transferred assets, including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to the Mediterranean to reinforce the British Mediterranean Fleet, making provisioning of North Africa problematic for the Italians.[11] The Germans offered units to the Italians in summer 1940 to attack Egypt, but Benito Mussolini rejected it in October in a meeting with Adolf Hitler.

Opposing forces

When war was declared, the Italian Fifth Army commanded by General Italo Gariboldi was located towards the west in Tripolitania and the Italian Tenth Army commanded by General Mario Berti was located towards the east in Cyrenaica. Once the French in Tunisia no longer posed a threat to Tripolitania, the assets of the Fifth Army were used more and more to supplement the needs of the Tenth Army. When Balbo was killed, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani took his place as Governor-General of Libya. Graziani expressed doubts about the capabilities of his larger but largely un-mechanized force to defeat the British, who, though smaller in numbers, were largely motorised.[nb 3]

Italian L3/35 .

After being reinforced at the expense of the Fifth Army, the Tenth Army controlled the equivalent of four army corps. The XX Corps had the Italian 60 Infantry Division Sabratha.[13] The XXI Corps had the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division, the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division and the 63 Infantry Division Cirene. The XXII Corps had the 61 Infantry Division Sirte.[14] The XXIII Corps had the 4th "3 January" Blackshirt Division and the 64 Infantry Division Catanzaro. The newly created "Group of Libyan Divisions" (Gruppo Divisioni Libiche) had the "Maletti Group", the 1 Libyan Division Sibelle commanded by Major-General Luigi Sibelle, and the 2 Libyan Division Pescatori commanded by Major-General Armando Pescatori.[15]

The only unit Berti had that was not an infantry division was the partially motorized and lightly armoured "Maletti Group." This group was commanded by its namesake General Pietro Maletti and comprised some 2,500 Libyan colonial infantry and seventy tanks. Maletti Group's tanks were evenly divided between the lightly armoured and machine gun-armed Fiat L3s tankettes and the slightly heavier M11/39 medium tank. The M11/39 featured 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. The medium tank was also relatively poorly armoured and was mechanically unreliable.

Initially the British Middle East Command under General Archibald Wavell only had about 30,000 troops stationed in Egypt to defend against the approximately 150,000 Italian troops stationed in Cyrenaica. Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor commanded the Western Desert Force. Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse commanded the 4th Indian Infantry Division and Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh commanded the 7th Armoured Division (the "Desert Rats"). From 14 December, troops of the 6th Australian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General Iven Mackay, replaced the Indian troops.

In comparison to the Italian tanks, the British were able to field some faster cruiser tanks (the Mk I, Mk II, and Mk III) which with their 40mm 2-pdr guns were more than a match to the M11/39s. The British also had a limited number of Matilda II infantry tanks that, while slow, were well armoured and also equipped with the 2-pdr. The armour of the Matilda tanks could not be pierced by any of the Italian anti-tank or field guns available at the time.

At the onset, aircraft available to both sides in the desert tended to be older biplanes. The Italians had Fiat CR.32s and Fiat CR.42s while the British had Gloster Gladiators.

British plans

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. Wavell had noted that the Italian defensive positions were dispersed with the fortified camps separated by large distances which meant they could not provide mutual support.[16] Operation Compass, for administrative reasons, was originally planned as a five-day raid[17] but was extended after its initial success.[18] Wavell was confident of his smaller force's capabilities and on 28 November wrote to Wilson expressing a belief that an opportunity might occur for converting the enemy's defeat into an outstanding victory:[19]

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

The British plan was for 7th Armoured Division's Support Group to observe the Italian camps at Sofafi to prevent any intervention from them while the rest of the armoured division and 4th Indian Division passed through the gap between Sofafi and Nibeiwa. A brigade from the Indian Division supported by Infantry tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR) would then attack Nibeiwa from the west while the Armoured Division protected their northern flank. Once Nibeiwa was captured a second Indian brigade, again supported by 7th RTR would attack the Tummars. Meanwhile the Matruh Garrison Force (3rd battalion Coldstream Guards plus some artillery) would contain the enemy camp at Maktila on the coast and the Royal Navy would bombard Maktila and Sidi Barrani.[20] Assuming a successful outcome, in the second phase Sidi Barrani would be attacked on the second day by the Indian Division and a westward exploitation would follow.[21]

Preparations were made in the strictest secrecy. Only a few officers knew during the training exercise held on 25 and 26 November that the objectives marked out on ground near 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.[22] Many of the troops involved in Operation Compass were not informed that the operation was not an exercise until 7 December as they arrived at their start positions.[19]

Battle of Marmarica/Battle of the Camps

The opening stage of Operation Compass was known by the Italians as the "Battle of the Marmarica".[23] The British knew it as the "Battle of the Camps". Marmarica was a name for the coastal plain where the battle was fought.[24] The "Battle of the Camps" name was derived from the individual Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside of Sidi Barrani.

On the nights of 7 December and 8 December 1940 the Western Desert Force under the command of Major-General Richard O'Connor and comprising British 7th Armoured Division and Indian 4th Infantry Division reinforced by British 16th Infantry Brigade advanced a total of 113 kilometres (70 mi) to their start positions for the attack.[25] The RAF made attacks on Italian airfields destroying or damaging 29 aircraft on the ground.[3] Selby Force, a mixed force of 1,800 under Brigadier A. R. Selby, moved up from Matruh and having stationed a brigade of dummy tanks in the desert as a decoy for the Italian airforce, had by dawn on 9 December taken position a few kilometers south east of Maktila. In the meantime Maktila had been bombarded by the monitor HMS Terror and the gunboat HMS Aphis, while Sidi Barrani had been shelled by the gunboat HMS Ladybird.[3] In the afternoon of 8 December an Italian reconnaissance airplane notified the Italian command in Benghazi about the preparations for an imminent attack on Maktila and Nibeiwa, but General Maletti was not informed; the historian Indro Montanelli later defined this action as "sabotage"[26]).

On 9 December, the disposition of the forward Italian fortified positions in Egypt were as follows: The 1st Libyan Colonial Infantry Division was located at Maktila. The 2nd Libyan Colonial Infantry Division was located at Tummar. The "Maletti Group" was located at Nibiewa. The 4th "3 January" Blackshirt Division and the Headquarters for the "Libyan Corps" were at Sidi Barrani. The 63 Infantry Division Cirene and the Headquarters for the XXI Corps were located at Sofafi. The 64 Infantry Division Catanzaro was located at Buq Buq. The Headquarters for the XXIII Corps and the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division were located in Sollum and in the Halfaya Pass area respectively. The 62 Infantry Division Marmarica was located at Sidi Omar to the south of Sollum.[27]

The commander of the Italian Tenth Army, General Mario Berti, was on sick leave when the British launched their attack against his forces in Egypt. In his place was General Italo Gariboldi. Gariboldi, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division, and the Headquarters for the Tenth Army were located far from the front lines in Bardia. By the time Berti arrived back in Libya to resume command, so had the British.


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

At 05.00 on 9 December a detachment of artillery commenced a diversionary firing for an hour at the fortified Nibeiwa camp which was occupied by the Maletti Group[21] 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 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, with 7 RTR under command, attacked Nibeiwa from the northwest, which reconnaissance had established as the weakest sector.[28] By 08.30,[nb 4] after some fierce fighting, Nibeiwa was taken; General Maletti was killed and 2,000 prisoners were taken.

The destruction of the Maletti Group is described by Walker in Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts:[30]

The initial British assault would fall on Nibeiwa Camp, where the only available Italian armoured unit was based, and it achieved complete surprise. Raggruppamento Maletti, or Maletti Group, under General Maletti, was an ad hoc formation consisting of 2,500 Libyan soldiers and 2 Armoured Battalion, with thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks and thirty-five L3/35 light tanks. It was earmarked for early destruction in the assault, which commenced at 05:00hr with what appeared to be no more than another raid on the eastern side of the camp. At 07:00, however, forty-eight Matilda tanks suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the camp. They struck twenty-three unmanned M11/39 tanks of the Maletti Group, which had been deployed to guard the unmined entrance to the camp. The Italians were caught completely off guard and many did not even reach their tanks, including General Maletti, who was killed emerging from his dugout. They were slaughtered and their vehicles destroyed by the British in less than ten minutes. The Italian artillery fought on valiantly, firing on the Matildas and recording many hits, some at point-blank range - but none penetrated their 70 mm of armour. The remaining Italian tanks were captured intact, and the Libyan infantry, left practically defenceless, quickly surrendered. The British had captured Nibeiwa and destroyed the only front-line Italian armoured unit in less than five hours.

Large quantities of supplies were also taken intact while O'Connor's casualties amounted to eight officers and forty-eight men.[29] Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, commander of 4th Indian Division, ordered his 5th Indian Infantry Brigade to move up with supporting field artillery and take positions for the attack on the Tummars.[21]

The Tummars

The attack commenced on Tummar West at 13.50, after 7 RTR had refuelled and re-armed and artillery had softened the defences up for an hour. Here too a north west approach was made and the tanks broke through the perimeter without too much difficulty and were followed twenty minutes later by the infantry. However, the defenders put up stronger opposition than at Nibeiwa[nb 5] but by 16.00 Tummar West was overrun, except for the extreme northeastern corner.[29] The tanks shifted their point of attack to Tummar East, the greater part of which was captured by nightfall. Meanwhile 7th Armoured Division's 4th Armoured Brigade, while performing flank defence, had advanced to Azziziya where the garrison of 400 surrendered. Light patrols of the 7th Hussars[31] pushed forward to cut the road from Sidi Barrani to Buq Buq[21] while armoured cars of the 11th Hussars ranged further west. The tanks of 7th Armoured Brigade was held in reserve.[31]


Unaware of the situation at the Tummars, Selby decided nevertheless to send units forward to seal off the western exits from Maktila. During that night, however, the 1st Libyan Division was able to filter through and make good its escape.[31]

Sidi Barrani

On 10 December 16 Infantry Brigade was brought forward from 4th Indian Division reserve and with elements of 11th Indian Brigade under command was sent forward in lorries to attack Sidi Barrani. Moving forward that morning across exposed ground the force took some casualties but with support from artillery and 7 RTR it was in position barring the south and south western exits to Sidi Barrani by 13.30. At 16.00, supported by the whole of the division's artillery, the attack, again with the support of 7th RTR, went in. The town was captured by nightfall[32] and the remains of the two Libyan Divisions and the 4th Blackshirt Division were trapped between the 16th Infantry Brigade and the Selby Force.[33] On 11 December Selby Force supported by some tanks attacked and secured the surrender of the 1st Libyan Division. By evening the 4th Blackshirts had also ceased resisting.[33]

Buq Buq

On 11 December 7 Armoured Brigade was ordered out of reserve and relieved 4th Armoured Brigade in the Buq Buq area to clear it of remaining opposition and made large captures of men and guns.[33]


On 11 December a patrol from 7th Support Group entered Rabia to find it empty. The Cirene Division had withdrawn from there and Sofafi overnight.[33] An order to the withdrawing 4th Armoured Brigade to cut them off west of Sofafi arrived too late and they were able to make their way along the top of the escarpment to link with Italian forces at Halfya.[33]


Matilda tank with crew displaying a captured Italian flag

Over the next few days the British 4th Armoured Brigade, on top of the escarpment, and 7th Armoured Brigade, on the coast, endeavoured to pursue vigorously. They encountered acute supply problems exacerbated by the large number of prisoners (twenty times the number planned for) and found it extremely difficult to advance.[34]

Italian forces crowded into the coast route while retreating from Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq were easy targets for the Terror and the two gunboats which bombarded the Sollum area all day and most of the night of 11 December By late 12 December the only remaining Italian positions in Egypt were at the approaches to Sollum and a force in the region of Sidi Omar.[34]

73 Italian tanks and 237 artillery pieces were destroyed or captured and approximately 38,300 Italian and Libyan soldiers killed or captured. The British had suffered fewer than 700 casualties.[35] The British and Indian forces having licked their wounds then moved quickly west along the Via della Vittoria, through Halfaya Pass, and again captured Fort Capuzzo in Libya.

Section commander Nazzareno Ganino, 86th Infantry Regiment, 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division later described the patrol actions of the period:[36]

I held the rank of corporal and was in charge of a small squad of about eleven or so men, our job was to go on night patrols into enemy held ground, either cutting wire or reporting on enemy activities or positions. Because of the nature of the work there was nearly always casualities, where one or sometimes more would not make it back to camp, either through capture or even death. We faced fear and sometimes lost our way in the darkness and featureless landscape, but I always tried to avoid unnecessary loss of life.

British redeploy Indian Division to the Sudan

O'Connor wanted to continue attacking. He wanted to get at least as far as Benghazi. However, on 11 December General Wavell whose command stretched down into Africa, had ordered the Indian 4th Infantry Division to withdraw to take part in an offensive against Italian forces in Italian East Africa.[37] O'Connor would state, "[This] came as a complete and very unpleasant surprise . . . It put 'paid' to the question of immediate exploitation . . . ". The Australian 6th Division replaced the Indian troops 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 pounder field guns.

British advance resumes

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

Exploitation continued nevertheless by the two armoured brigades and the Support Group of 7th Armoured Division with the infantry of 16th Infantry Brigade (which had not gone with the Indian division to the Sudan) following up. By 15 December Sollum and Halfya had been captured as well as Fort Capuzzo while all Italian forces had been cleared from Egypt. 7th Armoured Division were concentrated south-west of Bardia awaiting the arrival of 6th Australian Division to make the attack on Bardia. By this time the Western Desert Force had taken 38,000 prisoners and captured 400 artillery pieces and 50 tanks while suffering casualties of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing.[32]


Gunners of HMS Ladybird bombarding Bardia before the assault, 2 January 1941

After the disaster at Sidi Barrani and the withdrawal from Egypt, Lieutenant General Annibale Bergonzoli's XXIII Corps faced the British from within the strong defences of Bardia. Mussolini wrote to Bergonzoli: "I have given you a difficult task but one suited to your courage and experience as an old and intrepid soldier—the task of defending the fortress of Bardia to the last. I am certain that 'Electric Beard' and his brave soldiers will stand at whatever cost, faithful to the last." Bergonzoli replied: "I am aware of the honour and I have today repeated to my troops your message — simple and unequivocal. In Bardia we are and here we stay."[38] Graziani daily recorded his apprehension. He bemoaned the situation and his fate, accused Marshal Pietro Badoglio (Supreme Chief of the Italian General Staff) of treachery, and he demanded mass intervention by German aircraft.[39] While Bergonzoli prepared the defences of Bardia, Graziani began the evacuation of colonists from between Tobruk and Derna.[40] On 23 December, Graziani replaced Berti with General Giuseppe Tellera as commander of the 10th Army.[41]

Bergonzoli had approximately 40,000 defenders under his command. The Italian divisions defending the perimeter of Bardia included remnants of the 62nd "Marmarica" Infantry Division, remnants of the 63rd "Cirene" Infantry Division, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division, and the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division. These divisions guarded an 29-kilometre (18 mi) perimeter which had a permanent anti-tank ditch, extensive wire fence, and a double row of concrete strong points. As a "mobile reserve" there were a dozen medium tanks and over one hundred L3 tankettes. While the L3s were generally worthless, the medium tanks for the first time included a few M13/40 with the turret-mounted 47 mm anti-tank gun as its main armament. This was a vast improvement over the hull-mounted 37 mm gun of the M11/39s. Bergonzoli also had the remnants of the 64 Infantry Division Catanzaro and some "fortress troops" in Bardia itself. Unfortunately for Bergonzoli, he had little more than a month's supply of water.[40]

Captured Italian L3 tankettes outside Bardia in 1941

Following the reorganisation of his forces, now renamed XIII Corps, O'Connor resumed his offensive.[37] On 3 January 1941, General Mackay's Australian 6th Division assaulted Bardia. Its Australian 16th 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 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 Royal Tank Regiment to enter the fortress and capture all their objectives, along with 8,000 prisoners. In the second phase of the operation, the Australian 17th 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 Infantry 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, the 19th Infantry Brigade advanced south from Bardia, supported by artillery and the Matilda tanks, now reduced in number to just six. Its advance allowed the 17th Infantry 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 Infantry Brigade and the Support Group of the British 7th Armoured Division outside the fortress. In all, some 36,000 Italian prisoners were taken.[42] Bergonzolli escaped and was able to stay just ahead of the Allied forces as they then advanced to Tobruk along the coast road, the Via Balbia.[43]


22 January 1941. The Australian 2/11th Infantry Battalion regroups on the escarpment at the south side of Tobruk harbour, after penetrating the Italian outer defences and attacking anti-aircraft positions.

Following the fall of Bardia, 7th Armoured Division with Australian 19th Brigade advanced to Tobruk which was isolated by the 7th Armoured Division on 6 January. By 9 January it was surrounded.[37] After a twelve-day period building up forces around Tobruk, O'Connor attacked on 21 January and Tobruk was captured 22 January, yielding over 25,000 prisoners along with 236 field and medium guns,[6] 23 medium tanks and more than 200 other vehicles. The Australian losses were 49 dead and 306 wounded.[44][45] Some fierce fighting took place and a company was forced to withdraw in an Italian counter-attack, in which the Australian troops lost 100 killed, wounded and captured.

There were approximately 25,000 Italian defenders at Tobruk under the overall command of General Petassi Manella, commander of the XXII Corps. Besides "fortress troops," the defenders comprised the 61st "Sirte" Infantry Division, sixty-two tankettes, twenty-five medium tanks, and some two-hundred guns. The perimeter was about forty-eight kilometers long and was fortified with a combination of anti-tank ditch, wire, and a double row of strongpoints. In many ways the defenses at Tobruk were a replica of the defenses at Bardia.[14]

The Allied infantry force comprised the 16th, 17th and 19th Brigades of Australian 6th Division under Major-General Iven Mackay supported by the 16 remaining Infantry tanks of 7 RTR and the machine-gun battalions of the Northumberland Regiment and Cheshire Regiment. 7th Armoured Division with its unit of Free French Marines were to play the same containing role they had at Bardia. Given the lack of tank numbers, heavy artillery bombardment was used to soften the Italian defenses.[46] With their Browning machine guns, and four bombs each, the Vickers Wellington and Blenheim bombers also played an important part in the softening up of defenses of the Tobruk garrison.

British 6-inch howitzers firing on Tobruk, January 1941.

On the morning of 21 January, the assault went in under the cover of darkness. Once it appeared that the 2/3rd Battalion had breached the Italian defenses, the leading companies of the 2/1st Battalion started their advance. However, one of the companies ran into booby-traps that killed or wounded several in a platoon. Major Abbot's company was given the task of clearing the forward platoon outposts, which it took after some confused fighting, having initially been held up by Post 55. Sergeant Hoddinot hurled grenades to overcome the bunkered platoon. At Post 62, despite tank and artillery fire, the enemy stood firm. Lieutenant Clark poured a mixture of crude oil and kerosene through the gap in the bunker to silence it. Eleven Italians died and 35 surrendered. As Captain Campbell's company reached the end of the first phase of the advance it came under fire from dug-in tanks. Captain Anderson and Lieutenant Russell were wounded and Lieutenant Russell killed. Despite encountering some stiff opposition, the 2/8th Battalion took 1,300 prisoners. At the same time, Italian gunners brought down fire on the battalion and Italian infantry counterattacked with the support of nine tanks. Under pressure from this strong battalion force, Campbell's company was forced to withdraw, having lost 100 killed, wounded and captured. At this point help arrived in the form of two British Matilda tanks. The companies fought their way forward with grenade, Bren, rifle and bayonet. They were met by a hail of fire. Lieutenant Trevorrow and Sergeant Duncan were seriously wounded, and two of the platoon commanders had bullet holes in their clothing or equipment. At this point Captain McDonald called forward two of the British Infantry tanks to engage a platoon holding Post 42. Some close-quarter fighting saw the enemy cleared from Post 41. As Captain Abbot's company continued its advance it came under fire from the Italian platoons dug in Posts 34 and 35, and was forced to withdraw.

During the night 19th Brigade HQ attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with the commander of the Italian XXII Corps and garrison in Tobruk. It was hoped they would succeed, but a telephone call from the Italian supreme command put paid to their efforts. Mussolini himself had spoken personally to General Manella, forbidding him to surrender, and informing him that squadrons of Italian bombers were on their way as reinforcements. Later that night Italian SM.79s carried out a surprise low-level attack, which bombed some 8,000 prisoners who had been gathered inside a fenced enclosure, killing and wounding hundreds of their men. This bombing broke the will of many among those still prepared to fight.

In the end, General Manella surrendered some 12 hours after the fighting began. But Manella refused to order the surrender of his forces. This meant that it took a further day to clean up any resistance.

Next day, the capture of the remaining outposts from R1 to S11 was completed and assisted strongly by Infantry tanks of the Support Group and the 2nd Rifle Brigade and 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps which had arrived as reinforcements that morning. Meanwhile, the 7th Armoured Division which had also entered the perimeter from the Derna road that morning stood by to advance into the town if required.

On the afternoon of 22 January, Brigadier-General Vincenzo della Mura and the remaining 17,000 defenders surrendered. General della Mura was the commander of the 61 Infantry Division Sirte. The Italians had lost 25,000 killed, wounded and captured. The Australians by comparison had 400 killed, wounded and captured.


A British Matilda tank on its way into Tobruk, displaying a captured Italian flag, 24 January 1941.

In the meantime the Italian Supreme Command moved quickly to organize the "Special Armoured Brigade" (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS) consisting of fifty-five M13/40 tanks, artillery pieces, and supported by infantry formations specializing in the anti-tank role and sappers equipped with anti-tank mines. In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this volunteer force under General Valentino Babini to North Africa. The M13s in the BCS were a vast improvement to the M11s. They had a better turret-mounted 47 mm tank 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. Communicating for most Italian tankers required the use of signal flags.

Babini's tank force included the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st "Centauro" Armoured Division and should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-twenty M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days of "acclimatization" prior to operation.[47]

Following the fall of Tobruk, HQ British Troops Egypt was removed from the existing unwieldy line 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 7th Armoured Division south of the Jebel Akhdar mountains towards Mechili.[37] On 24 January the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged armoured elements of BCS on the Derna - Mechili track. While the British managed to destroy nine Italian tanks in the battle, they themselves lost one cruiser and six light tanks.[48] The 2/11th Battalion first made contact with infantry of the BCS at the Derna airfield on 25 January and progress was difficult against particularly determined resistance. In the Derna-Giovanni Berta area, held by the 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division and infantry elements of the BCS, 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 a thousand Italians.[49] That same day, concealed soldiers of the BCS ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment and took three of the survivors prisoner. The advance of other units further to the south of the Wadi Derna eventually threatened the BCS with encirclement and it disengaged on the night of 28 January. Derna, a town of 10,000 residents itself was captured on 26 January.[37] Precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 15 Australians were killed fighting the BCS and "Sabratha" Division.[50] The Italians lost a good part of the 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division in the fighting.

Battle of Beda Fomm

The rapid British advance caused the Italians to make a decision to evacuate Cyrenaica. In late January 1941, the British learned that the Italians were evacuating Cyrenaica along the main coastal road from Benghazi. The British 7th Armoured Division under Major General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh was dispatched to intercept the remnants of the fleeing Italian Tenth Army.

Creagh's division was to travel via Msus and Antelat (the bottom of the semicircle), while the Australian 6th Division chased the Italians along the coast road round the north of the Jebel Akhdar mountains (the curve of the semicircle). The poor terrain was hard going for the tanks, and Creagh took the bold decision to send a flying column on wheels only[51] (christened "Combe Force") south-west across the virtually unmapped Libyan Desert. Combe Force, under its namesake Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe of the 11th Hussars, consisted of an armoured car squadron from each of 11th Hussars and King's Dragoon Guards,[51] 2nd Rifle Brigade, a Royal Air Force armoured car squadron, anti-tank guns from 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (RHA), C Battery 4th RHA, and the 106th (Lancashire Hussars) Regiment RHA with nine portee-mounted Bofors 37 mm anti-tank guns.[52] The force totalled about 2,000 men.

In the afternoon of 5 February 1941, Combe Force arrived at the Benghazi – Tripoli road and set up road blocks near Sidi Saleh, some 32 kilometres (20 mi) north of Ajedabia and 48 kilometres (30 mi) southwest of Antelat. The leading elements of the Italian Tenth Army arrived 30 minutes later and were blocked. By the evening 4th Armoured Brigade had reached Beda Fomm, overlooking the coastal road some 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) to the north of them while 7th Armoured Support Group took a more northerly route to threaten the retreating Italian Tenth Army's flank and rear and prevent a breakout across the desert.[37] The following day, the Italian army had concentrated and attacked. The fighting was intense and, as the day progressed, increasingly desperate.

Through 6 February, the riflemen, tanks, and guns of Combe Force managed to hold off about 20,000 Italian soldiers supported by sixty M13/40 medium tanks and two hundred guns. Initially, Babini's "Special Armoured Brigade" (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS) was in the vicinity of Benghazi. The BCS was part of the rear guard and included approximately one-hundred tanks. But, because at least thirty tanks were kept back at Benghazi for rear guard purposes, the BCS was limited to sixty tanks to make the crucial break through at Beda Fomm. The fighting was close and often hand-to-hand. At one point, a regimental sergeant major captured an Italian light tank by hitting the commander over the head with a rifle-butt.

Italian soldiers taken prisoner during Operation Compass

The final Italian effort came in the morning of 7 February when the last twenty Italian medium tanks broke through the thin cordon of riflemen and anti-tank guns. However even this breakthrough was ultimately stopped by the fire of British field guns located just a few yards from regimental HQ. After this final failure, with the rest of the British 7th Armoured Division arriving, and the Australian 6th Division bearing down on them from the Benghazi, the Italians surrendered. Among the dead was the commander of the 10th Army, Tellera. Among the prisoners captured was Babini and the elusive Bergonzoli.[53]

By mid-morning on 7 February, O'Connor wrote: "I think this may be termed a complete victory as none of the enemy escaped."[54] Later, after surveying the shambles of what was left of the Italian 10th Army at Beda Fomm, O'Connor sent his celebrated message to Wavell: "Fox killed in the open." He dispatched the 11th Hussars westwards to Agedabia and then on to El Agheila to round up any stragglers and to keep in contact with a quickly departing enemy.[55]

Battle of the oasis

General Wavell's advance had cut off a garrison of approximately 800 Italians and 1,200 colonial troops at Giarabub (marked as Jarabub on the map) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Castagna. Giarabub was an oasis 257.5 kilometres (160.0 mi) to the south of Bardia and 85.5 kilometres (53.1 mi) from the border. Although the colonial troops surrendered quickly, the regular troops held firm and were still in place in mid-March. Although cut off, the garrison was supplied by air and the 6th Australian Division's divisional mechanised cavalry unit which was observing the oasis did not have the strength to attack the position.[56]

In late March Wavell needed the oasis clear to allow him to withdraw the divisional cavalry regiment to join the rest of the division to travel to Greece. The cavalry was joined by 2/9th Australian Infantry battalion and an attack launched under the leadership of Brigadier Wootten.[56] On 21 March, the final attack on Giararub lasted for about two days and once again the Australians and Italians took heavy casualties but the Australians prevailed although 2/9th Battalion lost 17 killed and 77 wounded. It was estimated that 250 casualties had been caused to the Italian battalion under the weight of artillery softening up fire, hand to hand combat and the British air strikes.


Italian batteries captured by the British

After ten weeks, the Italian Tenth Army was no more. The Allied forces had advanced 800 km, destroyed or captured about 400 tanks and 1290 artillery pieces, and captured 130,000 Libyan and Italian prisoners of war besides a vast quantity of other war material.[4] Their prisoners included 22 generals.[37] The Italian general staff on the other hand records 960 guns of all types lost. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 494 dead and 1,225 wounded. The issue of Life Magazine that went out on 10 February 1941 included a story entitled: "Mussolini Takes a Bad Licking in Africa."

On 9 February 1941, as the British advance reached El Agheila, Churchill ordered that it be stopped and troops be dispatched to defend Greece. The Greeks were already in a war with the Italians and a German attack was soon expected.

Italian Fiat CR-32 with Stuka in background.

The British advance stopped short of driving the Italians totally out of North Africa. While only about 32,000[57] demoralized Italian troops 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. The 17th "Pavia" Infantry Division, the 25th "Bologna" Infantry Division, the 27th "Brescia" Infantry Division, and the 55th "Savona" Infantry Division had contributed much equipment and most of the better artillery to the divisions lost in Cyrenaica but reinforcements continued to arrive from Italy. Several of the infantry divisions in Tripolitania were "motorized" in theory, but much of the motor transport had been contributed to the 10th Army.

Among the recently arrived units were the reformed 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division (the original being lost at Derna), the 102nd "Trento" Motorised Division and the 132nd "Ariete" Armored Division (minus the armour lost at Beda Fomm). This brought the total of Italian soldiers in Tripolitania to about 150,000. The Italians had already lost almost as many soldiers in Cyrenaica and most of the better equipment and armour available, but fresh equipment and armour continued to arrive from Italy.

On 11 January 1941, HMS Illustrious had suffered a crippling dive-bomber attack from Italian Stukas (called Picchiatello in Italian service). This loss allowed the first troops of the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrikakorps, DAK) to begin arriving in Tripolitania. On 11 February, as part of Operation Sonnenblume ("Sunflower"), elements of DAK started to arrive. With the arrival of DAK, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, the desert war would take a completely different turn.[58]

On 25 March 1941, General Italo Gariboldi replaced Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. Graziani had requested to be relieved and was granted his request. By 19 July, Gariboldi himself was relieved because of his alleged lack of cooperation with Rommel.

Towards the end of April, the Italian divisional commanders reviewed the Italo-German forces. A German officer shouted: "At the beginning of Italian-German cooperation on African soil, we swear to make the greatest effort for a joint victory for Great Germany and Great Italy. Long live Great Italy! Long live Great Germany!" The assembled troops roared: "We swear it!"[59]

Given other setbacks suffered during the early war years, the Allied troops of Operation Compass were highly publicized and became known as "Wavell's Thirty Thousand," which was used as the title of a 1942 British documentary chronicling the campaign.[60]


  • Bonner Fellers: "General Wavell told me they were going to do manoeuvres, so I went up as an observer, and God dammit — it was the works."
  • An anonymous Coldstream Guards officer describing prisoners taken: "We have about 5 acres of officers and 200 acres of other ranks." (About 20,000 and 810,000 square meters respectively.)
  • Anthony Eden: (after the battle of Bardia) "Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few."
  • Rodolfo Graziani: (writing to Mussolini after the defeat) "In this theatre of operations a single armoured division is more important than an entire [infantry] army."[61]
  • Nigel de Grey of Bletchley Park (referring to Ultra decoding operations): [The campaign was] "a perfect, if rather miniature, example of the cryptographers' war."[62]
  • Adolf Hitler: (said with amusement to his generals) "Failure has had the healthy effect of once more compressing Italian claims to within the natural boundaries of Italian capabilities."[63]

See also


  1. 46 fighters and 116 bombers: two squadrons of Hurricanes, one of Gloster Gladiators, three of Blenheims, three of Wellingtons and one of Bombays.[2]
  2. The number comprises 58 aircraft lost in combat, 91 captured intact on airfields and 1,100 damaged and captured.[5]
  3. This view is disputed by Sir David Hunt in his book A Don at War. He states:[12]"In fact they had so much [motor transport] that we were able to motorise two brigades out of what we captured; ironically but for the captured transport, we could never have pushed so far into Libya, Of particular value were the large 10-ton Diesel lorries of which the 10th Army had large quantities." At this stage of the war, the Italian army had plenty of motorised transport which was used to supply Graziani's formations which he had chosen to adopt static defensive positions. Wavell's forces on the other hand were desperately short of motorised transport. Neither side were in a position to boast about their armoured strength but the British 7th Armoured Division had a superiority in heavier tanks.
  4. Although the British Official History records that it took until 10.40 for it to be "all over"[29]
  5. The British Official History records that "the Italian gunners fought courageously"[29]
  1. Bauer (2000), p.95
  2. 2.0 2.1 Playfair p. 262
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Playfair p. 266
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Wavell in "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Latimer, p. 87
  6. 6.0 6.1 Churchill 1949, p.616
  7. Ciano, Diaries, p. 281
  8. Mackenzie (1951), pp. 26 & 27
  9. Mackenzie (1951), p.27
  10. "Liberation Out of Libya?". 30 September 1940.,9171,764743-2,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  11. "HMS Illustrious". Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  12. Hunt p. 52
  13. Macksey, p. 121
  14. 14.0 14.1 Macksey, p. 106
  15. Hunt, p. 51
  16. Wavell "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  17. Playfair, p. 264
  18. Mead, p.331
  19. 19.0 19.1 Playfair, p. 265
  20. Playfair pp. 260–261
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Wavell in "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  22. Playfair p. 263
  23. "Battle of the Marmarica". 23 December 1940.,9171,765077-1,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  24. Battle of Marmarica (in Italian)
  25. Initial British offensive (with detailed maps)
  26. Indro Montanelli.L'Italia della disfatta. second chapter
  27. Macksey, p. 68
  28. Playfair p. 267
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Playfair p. 268
  30. Walker, p. 62
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Playfair p. 269
  32. 32.0 32.1 Wavell in "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 33.4 Playfair p. 270
  34. 34.0 34.1 Playfair p 271
  35. Stevens.G.R, "The Fourth Indian Division", p.24
  36. Ganino, Nazzareno (26 July 2006). "A few memories of a POW and the Empress of Canada". Retrieved 2008-01-02. 
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 37.3 37.4 37.5 37.6 Mead, p.332
  38. Long 1952, p. 201
  39. Stockings (2009), p. 369
  40. 40.0 40.1 Macksey 1971, p. 99
  41. Stockings (2009), p. 84
  42. Playfair 1954, pp. 286–287
  43. Wavell in "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  44. "On to Derna". 3 February 1941.,9171,765212,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  45. Latimer, p. 64
  46. Wavell in "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  47. Walker, p. 63
  48. Latimer, p. 65.
  49. Coulthard-Clark (2001), pp. 178-179
  50. "Units: 2/11 battalion: Battle Honours: Derna". Australians at War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2008-04-12. 
  51. 51.0 51.1 Playfair, p. 358
  52. Macksey, p. 135
  53. "Fall of Benghasi". 17 February 1941.,9171,851005,00.html. Retrieved 17 December 2007. 
  54. Macksey, p. 151
  55. Macksey, p. 155
  56. 56.0 56.1 Wavell in "No. 37638". 3 July 1946. 
  57. James J. Sadkovich, "Of Myths ad Men: Rommel and the Italians in North Africa", The International History Review XIII, 199, p.293.
  58. Bierman & Smith, p. 50
  59. "Counterattack in Libya?". 10 March 1941.,9171,790024,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  60. "Wavell's Thirty Thousand". British Film Institute. Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  61. Bierman & Smith, p. 46
  62. "Seventy Years Ago This Month at Bletchley Park: December 1940". Bletchley Park National Codes Centre. Retrieved 2013-06-20. "The campaign has been called (probably by Nigel de Grey at BP): "a perfect, if rather miniature, example of the cryptographers' war"." 
  63. Regan, Geoffrey (2000). Brassey's Book of Military Blunders. Washington D.C.: Brassey. ISBN 1-57488-252-X. , p. 165


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