The Italian army in North Africa in late 1940 was far mightier than that of the United Kingdom. They had, according to The Reader’s Digest’s ‘The World at Arms’, 300,000 men in north-east Libya to Britain’s 30,000 men in Egypt, and far more guns, trucks, light tanks and aircraft besides. However, they did not have as reliable a supply line as Britain, their army was not as used to the heat (many of the British troops were Commonwealth forces, soldiers from Australia and India, and well accustomed to high temperatures) and they also didn’t have the formidable Matilda II (or Infantry Tank Mark II), the strong, heavy new armoured vehicle that had proven to be extremely resistant to Italian and German fire. The Italian tanks, meanwhile, rapidly buckled under any attack, and the Matilda was heavily armed; a few guerrilla raids by British troops in the past few months had given the Italian commanders a healthy respect for her capabilities.
All of these issues combined led to one thing; an Italian loss of confidence. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani was nervous about starting a campaign against the Allies, despite the odds of victory being in his favour, and wanted to wait until he had more supplies and the temperatures fell for the year. However, by September 1940 Mussolini would tolerate no more delays, and ordered Graziani to make his move. This he dutifully did, and, thanks to his superior strength he remained unchallenged at first as his forces crossed into Egypt. The British Army, under the command of Major General Richard O’Connor, beat a tactical retreat and waited for the Italians to stop and set up camp, which they did by September 17th 1941 after advancing almost 60 miles in just four days. Soon a line of fortified camps stretched for 50 miles south of Sidi Barrani, and Graziani, pleased with the strength of his position, settled down to wait for the cooler weather.
It was a mistake. As soon as he left the offensive, reinforcements arrived for O’Connor’s army. Had Graziani pushed forward strongly immediately, his still superior forces, aided by momentum, might have swept the British away. Now the ball was left in O’Connor’s court, and he responded with ‘Operation Compass’. Having quickly realised that, though the Italian camps themselves were strong and well-fortified, they were also very spread out, he looked for the weakest spot in the chain. A 15-mile gap presented itself on reconnaissance, and the wily General sent his 7th Armoured Division to block the Italian road of retreat, while the 4th Indian Division and 50 Matilda tanks sneaked through the unguarded gap and rounded on the Italians to attack their front line from the rear, with the two forces coming together in a neat pincer movement. On 9th December the trap shut.
First, the guns fired all at once, then the dreaded Matildas swept into the fray and destroyed the Italian tanks before they could even enter the fight. The troops then rushed in to fight the Italians at close range. The whole venture was such a success that two more camps had been over-run by the end, which mean large parts of the line were over-run, and Sidi Barrani, which had been pummelled by the Royal Navy guns all night, fell the next day. Realising that there was no escape, 38,300 Italian troops surrendered on 11th December, a small portion of the total, but representing a massive blow for Italian morale.
This was where Operation Compass was supposed to end, but O’Connor was so buoyed by the success of his attack that he decided to press his advantage in the way Graziani had not. The 6th Australian Division having replaced the 4th Indian, which had been called to East Africa, O’Connor pushed west towards Libya at the end of December. The beginning of the year saw the Italians at Bardiyah (Al Bardi) overwhelmed by combined attacks from the air, the water and the ground. Although Lt General Annibale Bergunzoli out up a furious fight, the fortress was taken in just three days of fighting, with victorious British forces celebrating their win on 6th January by charging still further west.
Tobruk (Tubruq) was the last stand in north-east Libya for the exhausted and harried Italians. As the defences of this second fortress crumbled to dust in the face of yet another excellently coordinated, multifaceted attack, they abandoned all hope of retaining the region and turned tail towards north-west Libya, with O’Connell’s troops in hot pursuit. The tussle for Tobruk was far from over – just a few months later the Allied army would find itself under siege as the Italians, now helped by the Germans, fought to regain the harbour town – but, for now, it was firmly under Allied rule, and Operation Compass was pronounced a resounding success. As ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’ edited by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab attests, by mid-February the British Army would have advanced 500 miles and gained an impressive 130,000 prisoners, only losing 550 men and sustaining 1,373 casualties in the process.
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