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Captured Italian POWs from Operation Compass

Operation Compass was a successful series of attacks made by British Commonwealth forces that forced Italian troops out of Egypt. The attacks lasted from December 8, 1940 to February 9, 1941. Before the operation began, Italian and British forces had been raiding each other's lines following Italy's declaration of war against the Allies on June 10, 1940.

On 19 June 1940, in the first recorded dogfight over North Africa, five CR.42 Falcos from 84a Squadriglia of the Tobruk-based 10° Gruppo that were escorting Breda Ba.65 light-bombers encountered four Gladiators from No. 33 Squadron and a Hurricane from No. 80 Squadron. In the encounter that followed, Sergeant Giuseppe Scaglione successfully attacked the Gladiator of Sergeant Roy Leslie who is lost with the aircraft, but the Italians lose two CR.42s and their pilots (Lieutenant-Colonel Armando Piragino and Sergeant-Major Ugo Corsi).

In the last week of June 1940, the pilots of the Aeronautica della Libia 2° Stormo report having shot down six Royal Air Force (RAF) Blenheim bombers, losing one CR.42 when Second Lieutenant Gianmario Zuccarini was forced to make a forced landing. The British admit the loss of two Blenheims near Tobruk (L5850 and L8522), lost on 21 and 29 June along with their crews (Sergeant B. T. M. Baker, Corporal W. C. Royle, Leading Aircraftman A. F. Crohill and Flight Lieutenant J. B. W. Smith in the first aircraft and Sergeant R. H. Knott, Sergeant J. D. Barber and Leading Aircraftman J. P. Toner in the second aircraft).

During July 1940, the RAF admits the loss of another three Blenheims, L8529 (Flight Lieutenant A. M. Bentley injured, Sergeant J. F. Taylor killed) on 5 July, L1491 (Pilot Officer E. Garrad-Cole, Leading Aircraftman W. B. Smith and Aircraftman 2nd Class E. P. Doolin, all captured) on 15 July, and L6661 (Sergeant G. B. Smith, Sergeant R. A. Steele and Sergeant G. A. Sewell, all killed) on 23 July.

On 13 September 1940, the Italian 10th Army attacked Egypt with over five divisions. The original plan was for Libya's governor Marshal Italo Balbo to capture the Suez Canal although Balbo hesitated. Balbo was shot down and killed on 28 September, when the SM.79 that he was flying from Derna was hit by the battle-cruiser RM San Giorgio immediately after a British air raid. His replacement, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, followed the orders Benito Mussolini gave, and attacked with the new mission to capture Mersa Matruh. They met mixed resistance and in only three days, the advance stopped to await reinforcements. To counter the Italian gains, the British then launched compass on 8 December, and subsequently won the every engagement. In total, some 500 British Commonwealth troops were killed, 1,300 wounded and 50 reported missing or captured. The Italians and Libyans on the other hand were dealt a crippling blow, losing 3,000 killed, 100,000[1][2][3]or 150,000 captured (depending on the source), 700 or 1,200 aircraft, 845 or 1,290 field guns and 200 or 400 tanks. 

Italian invasion[]

On 13 September, Graziani set in motion Operation E and the Tenth Army in the form of two Libyan and three Italian divisions advanced into Egypt against a screen force of 10,000 British and 10,000 Egyptian troops[4], capturing Fort Capuzzo, Sollum and Halfaya Pass in the first phase from a determined British rearguard.[5]Under the cover of a desert storm, the Libyan divisions completed the second phase and captured Sidi Barrani and Maktila. [6] The Royal Navy (in the form of the aircraft-carrier HMS Illustrious and warships from the Mediterranean Fleet), and Royal Air Force support the British defenders, and the invaders and rear-echelon units are heavily bombed and strafed by Wellington and Blenheim bombers from Nos 30, 70, 84 and 211 Squadrons and Gladiators and Fairey Fulmars fighters .[7] British aircraft also attack Italian shipping, sinking the Regia Marina (RM) destroyer Borea and damaging the destroyer Aquilone off Benghazi.

The Italian 10th Army had advanced approximately 95 kilometers in three days, suffering about 120 dead and 400 wounded[8]in the process, and now took up defensive positions while waiting for water trucks and armoured cars. On 17 September, Italian bombers from 278a Squadriglia intervened and put out of action the cruiser HMS Kent, killing 31 British sailors in a torpedo attack that took place at 11:55 hours. 


In preparation for any British attack, the Italians had little in the way of preparation besides the construction of some field fortifications. In fact, the Italian intelligence had assumed the British would be diverting all available resources to the defence of Greece and would not mount an attack in North Africa The British meanwhile had all but cracked the Italian cipher codes and knew almost precisely what the Italians were thinking. Furthermore, the British forces, commanded by General Archibald Wavell had been given a shipment of new Matilda II tanks, heavily armored for the time, and very valuable.[9] As such, they became a key part in his planning for an attack, they would end up leading the British advance through Italian lines. However, the British only had a total of 36,000 men at their disposal, consisting of the 7th Armored Division, 4th Indian Division, and 4th Australian Division and three RAF fighter and seven RAF bombers squadrons, [10]compared to a good part of the Italian 10th Army with the support of several Regia Aeronautica squadrons. Since Graziani was worried about another mass Senussi uprising and feared a Free French Force attack from neighbouring Chad, he fortified the Giarabub Oasis and kept a 30,000-strong garrison dug in an around Benghazi in case of a British seaborne landing.

7th Armored Division tanks Patrol, 1940

Units of the 7th Armored Division on patrol in the Desert, 1940

Battle of the Camps[]

The first skirmishes of Operation Compass began with the RAF attacks carried out by No. 202 Group of the Desert Air Force. Their target would be the nearby Italian airfields, successfully destroying twenty-nine aircraft over the course of two days from 7 December - 8 December. Further support came from the Malta-based Mediterranean Fleet in the form of HMS Terror, HMS Ladybird, and HMS Aphis that shelled the Italian positions. On 9 December, the British Commonwealth forces (under General Archibald Wavell) commenced their attack. Under the cover of darkness and bombardment, the 4th Indian Division and British 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7 RTR), penetrated deeply behind Graziani's forces, overrunning and capturing the Nibeiwa camp outside Sidi Barrani. The commander of the Italian garrison, General Pietro Maletti, is killed fighting and posthumously decorated with the Medaglia D'Oro, Italy's highest award for bravery.[11] About 2,000 or 4,000 (depending on the source) Italian and Libyan soldiers fall into the hands of the Rajputana Rifles and Cameron Highlanders.

The next day, the British 7th Armoured Division pushed into Sidi Barrani and Buqbuq, forcing the surrender of the Catanzaro Division and capturing the town. Italian artillery gunners and anti-tank crews proved troublesome, damaging forty cruiser tanks from Lieutenant-Colonel L. S. Harland's 6th Royal Tank Regiment (6 RTR) on 10 December[12]and damaging thirteen light tanks near Buq Buq on 11 December. Nevertheless, in four days' fighting, four Italian divisions are overrun and some 20,000 [13]or 40,000 (depending on the source) Italians are captured (including four generals) along with 180 or 400 guns (depending on the source) and some 50 tanks .[14]The Italian Cirene Division, defending Rabia and Sofafi, manage to escape under the cover of a sandstorm, and regroup at Halfaya Pass.

The Italian regular units took and inflicted heavy losses, with US War Correspondent Edward Kennedy reporting that the 4th 3 Gennaio Blackshirt Division had fought well in defence of the Maktila positions:

With the dawn the British column, made entirely of English and Scottish regiments—started for Sidi Barrani with tanks leading the way ... Two-thirds of a mile south of the town they came under the fire of Italians entrenched on a ridge ... After seven hours of hard fighting, in which the British said the Blackshirts fought well and inflicted considerable casualties, the British drove them back and took the ridge at 2 pm.[15]

The loss of eighteen tanks and overwhelming number of prisoners of war (POWs) would eventually take its toll on the British Commonwealth forces, slowing their advance and eventually allowing the arrival of Major-General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and the first Luftwaffe units. Also, orders to redeploy the 4th Indian Division in order to counter the Italian invasion in East Africa would slow down the advance even further, with the Australians having to relocate from Syria in order to replace the Indians. Nonetheless, the attacks were soon renewed, pushing the Italian Army out of Tobruk, Bardia, Derna and Benghazi.[16] 

On 14 December, Italian fighters in support of Graziani's retreating 10th Army, destroy five armoured cars from the 11th Hussars Regiment, forcing the British unit to temporarily withdraw in order to replace losses sustained in combat and through wear and tear.


After the defeat at Sidi Barrani and the withdrawal from Egypt, the Tobruk garrison commander, General Annibale Bergonzoli, prepared to meet the British from within the fortress of Bardia.

Bergonzoli (according to British intelligence) had approximately 20,000 troops under his command, but this number would double in the postwar studies. 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 Marzo Blackshirt Division, and the 2nd 28 Ottobre Blackshirt Division. These divisions manned an eighteen-mile defensive perimeter which had a permanent anti-tank ditch, extensive wire fence, and a double row of concrete strong points. Bergonzoli also had the remnants of the 64th Catanzaro Infantry Division. Unfortunately for the Bardia defenders, they had little more than a month's supply of water and little food to consume.

Bardia and Tobruk were heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force, forcing the Regia Aeronautica to be on permanent alert and during one massive fighter sweep over Bardia on 14 December, the Italian pilots were able to shoot down one Blenheim and extensively damage seven others bombers. [17][18]

The British and Italian patrols were very active during this period, and there were several clashes, between fighting patrols, in and around observation posts and fixed company positions. On 21 December, an Italian infantry force from Bardia reconnoitering the area of the Australian 2nd/2nd Battalion, got within 1,600 metres (1,700 yd) of the forward company before being discovered and forced to retire.[19]Despite British artillery fire, a strong column of Italians tanks, trucks and motorcycles ventured 5 kilometers along the Tobruk Road in an attempt to locate the 2nd/2nd Field Regiment on 29 and 30 December.[20]On 31 December, Lieutenant-Colonel Godfrey's 2nd/6th Battalion ambushed an Italian company patrolling their forward positions, but the Italians counter ambush and are able to fall back to Bardia, reportedly losing seventeen dead.[21]

On 3 January 1941, following the reorganisation of his forces (now re-named 13th Corps), Wavell resumed his offensive. As the British Commonwealth forces advanced, several large Italian units were surrounded, cut off from headquarters, and surrendered. After some hard fighting, one position after another surrendered. The Australians captured Bardia on 5 January, taking 25,000 or 45,000 prisoners (depending on the source) for a loss of 130 dead and 326 wounded of their own. The war booty included 462 or 216 field guns (depending on the source), close to 130 tanks and 708 motor vehicles. However the fighting had been fierce in several places. An Australian soldier that fought at Bardia told British war correspondents that one of the bravest men in the fighting proved to be an Italian combat medic:

We were so surprised when we first saw him, and before we realised ... we ceased fire. Followed by two stretcher-bearers, he walked calmly to where two of our men were lying wounded. He brought both men through our line, and attended to them, and then walked back and picked up two wounded Italians. I talked to him in French when he was with us. He said there was a brotherhood among doctors.[22]

The assault on Bardia was launched at dawn on the south-western perimeter of the defences by the Australian 6th Infantry Division, supported by the 1st battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers and the remaining 25 tanks from the 7th RTR. The Free French Forces and 6 RTR were tasked with ensuring that the Bardia garrison could not escape or receive reinforcements from Tobruk, and would lose four tanks carrying out this mission. By nightfall, the Australian infantry and British armour had penetrated two miles (3 km) of the defences on a nine-mile (14 km) frontage, capturing 8,000 prisoners.

On crossing the startline, Lieutenant-Colonel Eather's 2nd/1st Battalion suffered 4 killed and 10 wounded. Nevertheless, the battalion continued the advance under fire from enemy mortar crews and artillery batteries. The lead platoons advanced accompanied by engineer parties carrying bangalore torpedoes - 12 foot (4m) pipes packed with ammonal - as Italian artillery fire began to landl, mainly behind them. Immediately after the torpedoes were fired, the Australian infantry scrambled to their feet and rushed forward while the engineers hurried to break down the anti-tank ditch. Post 49 and 47 were rapidly overrun and Post 46 soon fell in the second line of defences. Within half an hour Post 48 had also fallen and another company had taken Posts 45 and 44. The rifle companies now advanced beyond these positions as enemy artillery began to fall along the broken wire. The Australian 2nd/2nd Battalion found that it was best to keep skirmishing forward throughout the early morning advance, because going to ground for any length of time meant sitting in the middle of the Italian artillery concentrations that inflicted further casualties. The Australian troops made good progress and at 06:30 hours, six tank crossings were ready and mines between them and the wire had been detected. Five minutes later, 23 Matildas of 7 RTR advanced, accompanied by the 2nd/2nd Battalion that were smoking and singing "South of the Border". Passing through the gaps, the British tanks swung right along the double line of posts. Italian morale was clearly broken, worn down by six weeks of aerial and naval bombardment and lack of sleep, food and water. But several units were determined to fight. The companies of the 2nd/1st Battalion succeeded in taking several hundred prisoners, a battalion of the 1st Blackshirt Division. However, Major Denzil Macarthur-Onslow's 'A' Squadron from the 6th Division's Cavalry Regiment, soon encountered problems as they moved forward. One of the Bren gun carriers was hit and destroyed during the initial attack, and another lost near Wadi Ghereidia.

At 07:50 the Australian 2nd/3rd Battalion, supported by the 6th Cavalry Regiment moved off for Bardia. Major Abbot's company advanced to the Italian posts, and attacked a group of sangers with very close fighting; the Italian platoons were cleared with grenades. By 09.20 they had linked with another battalion, strung out in a very thin line, but a squadron of enemy tanks counterattacked, overrunning part of 2nd/3rd Battalion before turning their attention to battalion headquarters while the supporting British armour dismissed all reports of the Italian tanks. Finally, the Italian tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guns wheeled into position by trucks, with Corporal Arthur Pickett putting out of action four of the attacking tanks. The Italian units were now irretrievably losing. However, some units were fighting desperately, but were fighting against a better trained infantry force, who realized that a patient deployment of its machine-gun carriers and tanks would bring victory. By midday, 6,000 Italians had already reached the provosts at the collection point near Post 45, escorted by increasingly fewer guards whom the attacking companies could ill afford to detach. Close to midday, the Australian advance was greatly assisted by the heavy shelling from the British Mediterranean Force in the form of HMS Barham, HMS Valiant and HMS Warspite, firing for nearly an hour at the Italian field gun batteries near the town.

Lieutenant-Colonel Walker's 2nd/5th Battalion from the 17th Brigade, now took over the advance, having covered 15 miles (24 km) in nine hours. The battalion's task was to clear "The Triangle". The sun had risen, so Captain Smith's company came under effective fire from machine-guns within 700 yards (640 m), and was pinned down. suffering several casualties. Captain Griffiths called for 3-inch (76 mm) mortars and Vickers machine-guns from the The Northumberland Fusiliers ("The Fighting Fifth") to fire at the Italian positions. This proved effective. Another company worked along the Wadi Scemmas, eventually collecting 3,000 prisoners. After Post 24 had been taken, two Matildas arrived and they helped take Post 22. Here an unfortunate incident occurred. As the prisoners were being rounded up, one reportedly shot the company commander dead before surrendering. He was immediately thrown back and a Bren machine gun emptied into him. The company second-in-command had to intervene to prevent the Australians from massacring the rest of the prisoners. The incident was witnessed by the Italians at Post 25 some 500 yards (455 m) away who promptly surrendered. Brigade Major Brock, upon hearing of the losses in the 2nd/5th Battalion, now without two officers that had been wounded. sent Captain Savige's company from the 2nd/7th Battalion to take "The Triangle". Savige gathered his platoons and with fire support from machine-guns attacked the objective, 3,000 yards (2,700 m) away. The company captured several artillery batteries, machine-guns and many prisoners on the way, but sustained 50 percent casualties in the process.

Before nightfall on 4 January, the Italian units occupying the whole of the northern sector of the defences had been forced to surrender, and the only remaining enemy resistance was confined to a restricted area in the southern zone of the perimeter defences.

That night, the Australian 2nd/7th Battalion's D Company under Captain Halliday, attacked Posts 14, 17 and 19 from which had put up fierce resistance. After some chaotic night-fighting, during which it sustained some casualties, the company cleared the enemy platoon positions and took 103 prisoners.

During the remainder of the night, the two exhausted attacking Australian brigades consolidated their positions. General Wavell decided to reinforce the Australian attack with the 19th Brigade to clear the Italian artillery units still resisting south of the town. At first light, several hundred Italians attempted to recapture Posts 7 and 9, overrunning D Company and very nearly overrunning C Company from the 2nd/6th Battalion, which waited until their attackers were at close range before opening fire. [23][24]Supported by tanks, the fresh Australian reinforcements closed in on the town of Bardia. At 13.00 on 5 January, Major-General Iven Giffard Mackay, who commanded the 6th Infantry Division, formally accepted the surrender of the 25,000 or 45,000 Italian and Libyan troops that had defended Bardia.[25] [26] [27] [28] The Australians also captured 127 tanks and 216 or 400 field guns.[29]Australian losses totalled 130 dead and 326 wounded. The surrender was a complete relief for Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Godfrey's 2nd/6th Battalion, that had been defeated in their attempts to capture Post 11, and forced back and dispersed in the night fighting.[30]

On 15 January, the Minister for the Australian Army, Percy Spender explained that the Bardia had been a hard-fought battle and that Allied firepower had proved decisive in the outcome:

Bardia was reduced because of brilliant staff work, by perfect coordination and understanding between the services, by amazingly accurate intelligence as to the Italian defences, by able leadership, by the weight of terrific naval bombardment, by the incessant attacks of the air arm in which Australian pilots participated, by the surprise qualities of the attack itself, by the efficiency of the British mechanised forces, and by the dash, daring, and great bravery of Australian troops.[31]

Among the captured of the Bardia garrison, was Captain Tua Felice, commander of a rifle company from the Cirene Division, who won the Medaglia D'Oro. He had been badly wounded in the fighting and in an effort to save his life, the British transferred him to a Cairo military hospital . He recovered and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in British India. Upon his return to Italy in May 1946, he resumed his military career, retiring with the rank of full colonel.

Captain Halliday was awarded the Military Cross (MC), and Corporal Pickett was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), for their outstanding courage and leadership in the battle. Sergeant Harry Kirkham from 6 RTR would receive the DCM for towing a damaged tank and trapped crew to safety, from enemy fire they encountered on Bardia's western outskirts.


Following the fall of Bardia, 7th Armoured Division with an Australian brigade advanced to Tobruk which was surrounded on 9 January. The Italian defences at Tobruk comprised General della Mura's 61st Sirte Division, backed up by 45 tankettes, 20 medium tanks and 200 other guns. In overall command was General Petassi Manella, commander of the XX Corps. The attacking Allied infantry force comprised the 16th, 17th and 19th Brigades of the Australian 6th Division under Major-General Iven MacKay. The Free French Marines would also support the Australian attack. The RAF Blenheim bombers from Nos. 55 and 113 Squadron along with the Mediterranean Fleet in the form of HMS Ladybird, HMS Terror, HMS Aphis and HMAS Stuart and HMAS Vampire, would play an important role in reducing the defences of the Tobruk garrison.

After a 12-day build-up period around Tobruk, O'Connor attacked on 21 January and Tobruk was captured on 22 January, yielding around 15,000 prisoners along with 200 field and medium guns, 23 medium tanks and more than 200 other vehicles. [32][33] [34] Some fierce fighting took place and an infantry company was forced to withdraw in an Italian counter-attack.

The assault went in under the cover of darkness on the morning of 21 January. Once it appeared that the 2/3rd Battalion had breached the Italian forward defences, the leading companies of the 2/1st Battalion started their advance. However, one of the companies soon ran into booby-traps that killed or wounded several in a platoon. Major Abbot's company was given the task of clearing several platoon outposts, which it took after some confused fighting, having initially been held up by the defenders manning Post 55. Sergeant Hoddinot hurled grenades to overcome the bunkered platoon. At Post 62, despite tank and artillery fire, the defenders continued to resist. Lieutenant Clark poured a mixture of crude oil and kerosene through the gap in the bunker to silence it. Eleven Italians died and the remaining 35 surrendered. As Captain Campbell's company reached the end of the first phase of the advance it came under fire from dug-in tankettes. 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 a tank squadron.[35][36] 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 defending 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 XX Corps and garrison in Tobruk. It was hoped they would succeed, but a call from the Italian Supreme Command put paid to their efforts. Mussolini himself had spoken personally to General Petassi 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, but bombed some 8,000 prisoners who had been gathered inside a fenced enclosure, killing and wounding hundreds of their men. This bombing helped break the will of among those still prepared to fight.

Next day, the capture of the remaining strong points 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.

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 the 26 January after a siege lasting 20 days and nights, General della Mura and the remaining defenders surrendered. The Italians had lost 15,000 -35,000 (depending on the source) killed, wounded or captured.The Australian losses were 49 dead and 306 wounded. The Free French Force lost 5 killed and 40 wounded.


In November 1940, the Italian Supreme Command moved quickly to organize the "Special Armored Brigade" (Brigata Corazzato Speciale, or BCS) consisting of fifty-five M13/40s tanks, artillery pieces, and supported by three Bersaglieri battalions specializing in the anti-tank role and sappers equipped with anti-tank mines. In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this all-volunteer force under General Valentino Babini to North Africa. The M13/40s in the BCS were a vast improvement to the M11/39. 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.

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. 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. The 2nd/11th Battalion first made contact with infantry of the BCS at the Derna airfield on 25 January and progress was difficult against determined resistance. Italian bombers and fighters flew sorties against the 2nd/11th Australian Battalion as it attacked the Italian-held airfield and nearby heights.

In the Derna-Giovanni Berta area held by 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.[37]

That same day, concealed soldiers of the BCS ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment (taking three of the survivors prisoner), and on 4 February ambush another armoured column from the 11th Hussars Cavalry Regiment, destroying three armoured cars and killing and wounding several. The advance of other units further to the south of the Wadi Derna eventually threatened the BCS and the Sabratha with encirclement and the Italians disengaged on the night of 28/29 January, assisted by darkness and heavy rain. Derna, a town of 10,000 residents itself was captured on 26 January. Precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 20 Australian and British were killed.

On 4 February, Italian pilots from 368a Squadriglia shot down a Blenheim (Mk.I L8538) and an Australian Hurricane from 73 Squadron, but lose a Caproni Ca.133 from 366a Squadriglia and a CR.42 Falco from 368a Squadriglia.

Beda Fomm[]

The rapid British advance forced the Italian Supreme Command to issue order for the 30,000-strong garrison defending Benghazi to withdraw and instead defend Tripoli. 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 cut across Msus and Antelat (the bottom of the semi-circle), while the Australian 6th Division pursued the Italians along the coastal road round the north of the Jebel Akhdar mountains (the curve of the semi-circle). The poor terrain was hard going for the tanks, and Creagh took the bold decision to send a flying column (christened Combe Force) south-west across the virtually unmapped Libyan Desert. Combe Force, under Lieutenant Colonel John Combe of the 11th Hussars, consisted of 11th Hussars, a squadron of King's Dragoon Guards, 2nd Rifle Brigade, a Royal Air Force armoured car squadron, anti-tank guns from 3 Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) and 'C' battery 4 RHA. The force totalled about 2,000 men. For the sake of speed, only light and Cruiser tanks were part of the Combe Force flying column.

In the afternoon of 5 February 1941 Combe Force arrived at the Benghazi – Tripoli road and set up road blocks near Sidi Saleh, some 20 miles (32 km) north of Ajedabia and 30 miles (48 km) 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 10 miles (16 km) 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. The following day, the Italian army had regrouped and counter-attacked. The fighting was intense and as the day progressed increasingly desperate.

in a 30-hour battle, the riflemen, tanks, and guns of Combe Force managed to hold off about 15,000 Italian soldiers supported by 120 medium tanks, 75 field guns and 50 anti-tank guns. In this engagement most of the Italian tanks were the newly arrived Fiat M13/40 The M13/40s were a vast improvement to the M11/39. 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

The fighting was close and often hand-to-hand, with the British losing then regaining an important hillock nicknamed the "Pimple" several times.

The final Italian effort came in the morning of 7 February when the last 20 Italian medium tanks broke through the thin cordon of riflemen and anti-tank guns. But 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


General Wavell's advance had cut off a garrison of approximately 2,000 Italian and Libyan troops at Giarabub under the command of Major Salvatore Castagna. Giarabub was an oasis 160 miles (260 km) to the south of Bardia and 25 miles (40 km) from the border. Although the Libyan troops surrendered or deserted earlier on, the Italian 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 the force the position.

In late March Wavell needed capture the oasis to allow him to withdraw the divisional cavalry regiment to join the rest of the division to reinforce northern Greece. The cavalry unit was joined by 2/9th Australian Infantry battalion and an attack launched under the leadership of Brigadier Wootten. On 21 March, the final attack on Giararub took place and the fighting lasted two days with both sides taking heavy casualties, but the Australians prevailed although 2/9th Battalion lost 17 killed and 77 wounded. It was estimated that 250 defenders had been killed or wounded in the final assault and as a result of the artillery softening up fire and air bombardments.


After ten weeks of fighting, the great bulk of Graziani's 10th Army had been defeated. The British and Commonwealth forces had advanced 800 km, with several historians claiming destroyed or captured about 400 tanks, 1,200 aircraft and 1,290 artillery pieces and 130,000-150,000 Italian soldiers captured, besides a vast quantity of other war material. The Italian prisoners included 22 generals. The Italian general staff on the other hand records 960 guns of all types and 700 aircraft lost as well as 100,000 captured. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 494 dead and 1,225 wounded.

However, the British advance stopped short of driving the Italians out of North Africa. As the advance reached El Agheila, Churchill ordered that the offensive be stopped and infantry and armoured units dispatched urgently to defend Greece. The Greeks had most of their divisions deployed in Albania fighting the Italians and a German invasion was soon expected in northern Greece. The Italians were soon able to reinforce the Sirte, Tmed Hassan, and Buerat strongholds with the well-trained Ariete and Brescia Divisions equipped with 163 tanks and 97 guns.

Among the recently arrived units from Italy were the 17th Pavia Infantry Division, the 25th Bologna Infantry Division and the 102nd Trento Motorised Division, bringing the total of Axis defenders in Libya to about 150,000 Italian and Libyan soldiers. Both sides prepare for the battle of Tripoli. On 10 January 1941, the British aircraft-carrier HMS Illustrious suffers a crippling dive-bomber attack from German and Italian Stukas, when heavy bombs from 96° Gruppo (under captain Ercolano Ercolani) hit the aft-lift, allowing the Afrika Korps (under General Erwin Rommel) to begin arriving in Tripolitania (Operation Sonnenblume) unscathed. [38]

Rommel is determined to regain the intiative, and with General O'Connor stripped off fighter squadrons in favour of the defence of Greece, the Regia Aeronautica with 151 aircraft (mainly Fiat CR.42B Falcons and.Fiat R.20 Stork) wins back air superiority along with twenty Bf 110s, allowing the Afrika Korps to recover Benghazi, Derna, Mechili, Bardia, forcing the Australian 9th Division back to Tobruk.[39][40]


  1. "All that General Wilson had at his disposal were the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th (Indian) and 6th Australian Infantry divisions, and in six weeks between them they had captured over 100,000 prisoners, seven hundred guns, and a huge number of vehicles." The History of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 1939-45, Ernest Gordon Godfrey, Robert Frederick Kinglake Goldsmith, p. 88, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (Regimental History Committee), 1966
  2. "In these two months the British had taken 100,000 prisoners at the cost of 1, 966 casualties." LIFE, p. 78, 13 July
  3. "In the first three battles of his campaign, Wavell had captured 100,000 prisoners and an immense booty of useful war-material. His own losses, in almost incredible disproportion, figured less than 1,500." Wavell in the Middle East, Henry Rowan-Robinson, p. 95, Hutchinson & Company, 1942
  4. "Italian soldiers now vastly outnumbered the normal Egyptian garrison of 10,000 British and 10,000 Egyptian troops." Test Case : Italy, Ethiopia, and the League of Nations, George W. Baer, p. 84, Hoover Press, 1976
  5. "The Support Group under Gott and specifically 3rd Coldstream Guards, C Battery and part of F Battery RHA, one company of 1st KRRC, a machine gun company of 1st Battalion, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and a section of 25/26 Medium Battery RA were the obstacle to the advancing Italians, whose close formations were meat and drink to Srafer's gunners, but sheer weight of numbers obliged him to withdraw and this allowed the Italians to re-occupy Sollum." Strafer Desert General: The Life and Killing of Lieutenant General WHE Gott CB CBE DSO MC, N.S. Nash, pg. 82, Pen and Sword, 2013
  6. "Italian dispatches said today Libyan soldiers performed the seemingly impossible feat of marching 60 miles in a desert sandstorm to surprise a British garrison at Sidi Barrani, Egypt, and capture that strongly defended second line of defence." ITALIANS REPORT SUCCESS IN DESERT, Ludlington Daily News, 18 September 1940
  7. "...only a few days after the start of their offensive, the Italian pilots were confronted by the R.A.F. which had sent Nos 30, 211 and 84 Squadrons with Bristol Blenheim bombers, No 80 Sqn with Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and No 70 Squadron with Vickers Wellington bombers." In the Skies of Europe: Air Forces Allied to the Luftwaffe 1939-1945, Hans Werner Neulen, p. 38, Crowood, 2000
  8. 113 SQUADRON
  9. Latimer, Jon. Operation Compass 1940. Osprey Publishing (2000), Page 28
  10. "By these means the following air forces were assembled for operation 'COMPASS': two squadrons of Hurricanes, one of Gladiators, three of Blenheims, three of Wellingtons and one of Bombays, a total of 48 fighters, and 116 bombers, all under the operational control of Air Commodore Collishaw, commanding No. 202 Group, with headquarters at Maaten Baggush." The Mediterranean and Middle East: Volume I The Early Successes Against Italy (To May 1941), Major-General I.S.O. Playfair C.B. D.S.O. M.C., Commander G.M.S. Stitt R.N., Brigadier C. J. C. Molony, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. Toomer C.B. C.B.E. D.F.C., p. 28 , Pickle Partners Publishing, 15 Aug. 2014
  11. Medaglie Oro
  12. " ... 6 RTR suffered an unexpected bloody nose and were reduced to seven Cruisers and six light tanks. In a blinding sandstorm they had put in a shattering attack on the libyan defences and completely over-ran them, but later that night when they combined with Selby force for another attack, were thrown back by accurate and heavy Italian artillery." Monty's Marauders: The 4th and 8th Armoured Brigades in the Second World War, Patrick Delaforce, Page 13, Pen & Sword, 2008
  13. "By the evening of the 10th 5,000 POW had been taken. The 7th Hussars blocked the Italian retreat at Buq-Buq ... The final tally reached 20,000 POW and British casualties were only 700." Monty's Marauders: The 4th and 8th Armoured Brigades in the Second World War, Patrick Delaforce, Page 13, Pen & Sword, 2008
  14. "In three days they took over 20,000 prisoners with many guns, tanks and stores. Three enemy divisions and the Maletti Mobile Group had been utterly routed, while the Division had suffered less than 700 casualties." A Short History of the 57th Light Anti-Aircraft Regt., Royal Artillery, J. P. Allen, p. 92, Gale & Polden, 1947
  15. British Astonished At Great Italian Supplies, Ottawa Citizen, 16 December 1940
  17. "For example, during a raid on Bardia on 14 December by nine Blenheims of 55 Squadron, they were attacked by some 50 enemy fighters. Only one aircraft was shot down, but a further seven were severely damaged and on their safe return to base, required major repair work to be carried out on them by the already overworked ground crews. The first victory: O'Connor's desert triumph, Dec.1940-Feb.1941, George Forty, p. 132, Nutshell, 1990 "
  18. "To keep the pressure up the Royal Navy contributed HMS Terror which bombarded Bardia 14-17 December. This attack was joined by the RAF which flew over 150 bombing sorties against Bardia on the same days before switching to attack Italian airfields 18-20 December." Beda Fomm: An Operational Analysis, Major James G. Bierwirth, p. xiii, Pickle Partners Publishing, 15 Aug. 2014
  19. "On 21 December after an aerial bombardment of the 2/2 Battalion area, an Italian infantry company emerged from the fortress and approached to within 1600 metres of the Australian position." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 94, UNSW Press, 2009
  20. "On the afternoon of 29 December ... 18 Italian light and medium tanks, accompanied by 30 motorcycles, a staff car and three lorries of infantrymen, emerge from Bardia and drive 5 kilometres along the Tobruk Road ... The following morning the attempt was repeated. At the same time, back in front of 17 Brigade, an Italian patrol emerged from Wadi el Muatered and surrounded an Australian artillery observation post forward of 2/6 Battalion. The incident was observed by Brigadier Savige ... He suggested an immediate counter-attack ... As it moved forward, the Italians went to ground and called for defensive fire. The Australians advanced through it and drove the Italians back." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 102, UNSW Press, 2009
  21. "...a full Italian company approached Godfrey's forward positions. This time the Italians stumbled into what amounted to an ambush, but when engaged they held their ground and a fierce volume of fire kept the Australians in their foxholes. At dusk the Italians withdrew, leaving behind 17 dead and two soldiers captured." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 102, UNSW Press, 2009
  22. TALES FROM BARDIA, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 1941
  23. "In the early afternoon the overall situation deteriorated further. At around 3.00 pm, Captain Rowan's men near Post 9 came under a concerted counter-attack from the direction of Post 8 ... Although the Italian wave was repulsed, casualties mounted and ammunition ran low. Meanwhile, Captain Muhlhan's company, in and around Post 7, was attacked twice. The second time a party of Italian machine gunners managed to get to the southern side of the wadi and opened fire on the company from its rear right, driving the Australians in the area into Post 7 itself. Muhlihan's men held on, but only just." Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, Craig Stockings, p. 102, UNSW Press, 2009
  24. "At first light Rowan's company was again assaulted, this time by a force of 300 Italian infantrymen. The attack was repulsed only at the last moment." The Battle of Bardia, Craig Stockings, p. ?, Big Sky Publishing, 2011
  25. "The report filed by the British journalist Jan Yindrich for the Australian Associated Press on 5 January was headlined SMASH WAY THROUGH MODERN HINDENBURG LINE: FEW CASUALTIES IN CAPTURING 25,000 PRISONERS." The Longest Siege: Tobruk, The Battle That Saved North Africa, Robert Lyman, p. 59, Pan Australia, 2009
  26. "On the fifth, the remnants of the garrison of Bardia surrendered with 25,000 prisoners." The Great Ships: British Battleships in World War II, Peter Charles Smith, p. 133 , Stackpole Books, 2008
  27. "There had been no further news beyond that already published regarding the capture of Bardia. 25,000 prisoners had been taken including 2 Corps Commanders and four Senior Generals." The Churchill War Papers: The Ever-Widening War 1941, p. 29 , Heinemann, 1993
  28. "By Saturday night the whole northern sector of the Bardia defence had fallen into the hands of the Australians, and 15,000 prisoners had been taken. Only the south-eastern sector continued to resist, and next day the remainder surrendered. The number of prisoners rose to over 25,000." Flight International, Volume 39, p. 26, IPC Transport Press Limited, 1941
  29. "The Australians also captured much equipment (including 127 tanks and 216 field guns), but at the cost of 130 Australians killed." Paul Cullen, Citizen and Soldier: The Life and Times of Major-General Paul Cullen AC, CBE, DSO and Bar, ED, FCA, Kevin Baker, p. 56, Rosenberg, 2005 "
  30. "Godfrey was left with two companies marooned and vulnerable across the fire-swept wadi." Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War, Garth Pratten, Cambridge University Press, 2009
  32. "Early next morning, January 22nd, the Australian commander received the surrender of Tobruk in due form and the fighting had come to an end everywhere. Four generals and an admiral, with their staffs, over 15,000 prisoners, 200 guns, and quantities of other material of war, were among the trophies of a victory which had cost us less than five hundred casualties ... ." The Army from January 1941 to March 1942, p. 18, Eric William Sheppard, Hutchinson & Company, Limited, 1943
  33. "On the other side were ranged 15,000 Italian prisoners, including a number of high-ranking officers, and immense quantities of war materials." Prelude to Battle: New Zealanders in the First Libyan Campaign, p. 22, Army Board, 1942
  34. "In the January attack the Australians had conquered Tobruk by assault in thirty-six hours and had taken 14,000 prisoners only twenty days after the fall of Bardia." Australia at War, George Henry Johnston, p. 190 , Angus and Robertson Limited, 1942
  35. "The Italians counter-attacked with infantry and tanks just as the 2/8 was reorganising. Private Neall, using his Boys Anti-Tank Rifle, managed to knock out three tanks in quick succession ... Nevertheless the Italians continued their attack until two Matilda tanks made an appearance." The Western Desert Campaign, 1940-41, Glenn Wahlert, p. ?, Big Sky Publishing, 2009
  36. "Over 14,000 prisoners, including four generals and an admiral, were taken at Tobruk. The material seized includes 200 guns-. British troops have now reached the coast near Derna, and are at Mekili, a road junction 50 miles inland." Great Britain and the East, Volume 56, p. 56, Eastern Question, 1941
  37. "At one point the 2/4th Battalion was pinned down and almost overrun by a force of about 1000 enemy infantry. It was only the timely arrival of the Northumberland Fusiliers that checked the Italian attack." The Western Desert Campaign, 1940-41, Glenn Wahlert, p. ?, Big Sky Publishing, 2009
  38. "Around midday on January 10, waves of Italian air force Ju87 Stukas attacked the ship, and six or seven thousand-pound bombs hit their target, set fire to aviation fuel below decks and destroyed the carrier's steering system, the attack took only ten minutes." Aces, Warriors and Wingmen, Wayne Ralph, p. 15 , John Wiley & Sons, 2008
  39. "By the end of February 1941, 5th Squadra Aerea had more than 120 serviceable aircraft in Tripolitania, while the Luftwaffe had only 80 (20 Bf 110s and 60 Ju 87s). With this modest air support, Gen Rommel began an offensive on 24 March, and by 13 April had recaptured all of Cyrenaica with the exception of Tobruk. In the Skies of Europe: Air Forces Allied to the Luftwaffe 1939-1945, Hans Werner Neulen, p. 48, Crowood, 2000
  40. "The Royal Air Force had sent the best squadrons in the Middle East to support the operations in Greece, leaving the bombers and fighters of the Regia Aeronautica a free hand to harass the retreating British mercilessly. Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel, Daniel Allen Butler, p. 210, Casemate, 2015