Operation Compass was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. It resulted in British and Commonwealth forces pushing across a great stretch of Libya and capturing almost all of Cyrenaica and over 113,000 Italian soldiers and over 700 guns with very few casualties of their own.
We move toward a defeat which, in the desert, must inevitably develop into a rapid and total disaster.
As the Italians advanced, the small British force at Sollum withdrew to the main defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. 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 in three days. On September 16, the advance stopped at the town of Maktila, ten miles (16 km) beyond Sidi Barrani. The Italians then dug in, fortified their positions, and awaited reinforcements and supplies. They created a number of fortified camps around Sidi Barrani which ran from Maktila east of the coast southward through Tummar East, Tummar West and Nibeiwa to Sofafi on the escarpment to the south-west.
According to Virginio Gayda, Italian newspaper editor and mouthpiece for Mussolini's fascist regime: "Nothing can save Britain now.
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.
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 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division. The XXI Corps had the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division, the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division and the 63rd "Cirene" Infantry Division . The XXIII Corps had the 4th " 3 January" Blackshirt Division and the 64th "Catanzaro" Infantry Division. The newly created "Group of Libyan Divisions" (Gruppo Divisioni Libiche) had the "Maletti Group," the 1st Libyan Colonial Infantry Division commanded by Major-General Luigi Sibelle, and the 2nd Libyan Colonial Infantry Division commanded by Major-General Armando Pescatori.
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 armored 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 armored 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. 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 Armored Division (the "Desert Rats"). From December 14, 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 were more than match to the M11/39s. The British also had a limited number of heavy Matilda Infantry tanks that, while slow, were strongly armored and well armed. The armour of the Matilda tanks could not be pierced by any of the Italian anti-tank or field guns available at the time.
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. Assuming a successful outcome, Sidi Barrani would be attacked on the second day and a westward exploitation would follow.
Preparations were made in the strictest secrecy and many of the troops involved in Operation Compass were not informed that the operation was not an exercise until they were very nearly engaged in combat.
On 9 December, the disposition of the forward Italian fortified positions 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 63rd "Cirene" Infantry Division and the Headquarters for the XXI Corps were located at Sofafi. The 64th "Catanzaro" Infantry Division was located at Buq Buq. 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. The Headquarters for the XXIII Corps and the 2nd "28 October" Blackshirt Division were located in Sollum and in the Halfaya Pass area repectively. The 62nd "Marmarica" Infantry Division was located at Sidi Omar to the south of Sollum. By the time Berti arrived back in Libya to resume command, so had the British.
The opening stage of Operation Compass was known by the Italians as the "Battle of the Marmarica". The British knew it as the "Battle of the Camps". The "Battle of the Marmarica" name was derived from the name of the coastal plain where the battle was fought. The "Battle of the Camps" name was derived from the individual Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside of Sidi Barrani.
At 07.00 on 9 December, 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, with 7 RTR in support, attacked the fortified Nibeiwa Camp which was occupied by the Maletti Group.By 08.30, after some fierce fighting, Nibeiwa was taken and Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, commander of 4th Indian Division, ordered his 5th Indian Infantry Brigade to move up and take positions for the attack on the Tummars. The attack commenced on Tummar West at 13.50, after 7 RTR had refueled and re-armed. By mid-afternoon Tummar West was overrun and the point of attack shifted to Tummar East, the greater part of which was captured by nightfall. Meanwhile 7th Armoured Division while performing flank defence had pushed forward to cut the Sidi Barrani to Buq Buq road
On 10 December 16th Infantry Brigade with elements of 11th Indian Brigade under command was ordered forward in lorries and attacked Sidi Barrani in the early afternoon. The attack, again with the support of 7th RTR, was successful and the town was captured by nightfall.
The Italian defenses were better suited to a colonial war. Within five hours of the onset of combat, the Italian positions were overrun, General Pietro Maletti was dead, and about 4,000 Italian and Libyan soldiers were dead or captured. Over the next few days the British 4th Armoured Brigade and 7th Armoured Brigade encountered significant resistance and found it extremely difficult to advance. Due praise went to Italian anti-tank and artillery gunners who managed to destroy eighteen British tanks but eventually, 237 artillery pieces, 73 light and medium tanks, and about 38,300 Italian and Libyan soldiers would be destroyed or captured. The Rajputana Rifles lost 41 officers and 394 men killed and wounded in the attacks and dozens of British tanks had been destroyed or disabled. 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.
Ian W. Walker describes the destruction of Maletti Group in his 2003 book Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts. The following is quoted from a review of that book:
Section commander Nazzareno Ganino, 86th Infantry Regiment, 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division later described the patrol actions of the period:
Mussolini wrote the following to Bergonzoli:
To Mussolini, Bergonzoli replied:
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 eighteen-mile 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 64th "Catanzaro" Infantry Division and some "fortess troops" in Bardia itself. Unfortunately for Bergonzoli, he had little more than a month's supply of water.
Graziani daily recorded his apprehension. He bemoaned the situation and his fate. He accused Marshal Pietro Badoglio (Supreme Chief of the Italian General Staff) of treachery, threatened suicide, and demanded mass intervention by German aircraft. While Bergonzoli prepared the defenses of Bardia, Graziani began the evacuation of colonists from between Tobruk and Derna.
On 3 January 1941, following the reorganisation of his forces (now re-named XIII Corps), O'Connor resumed his offensive. As the Commonwealth forces advanced, several large Italian units were surrounded, cut off from supply, and defeated. After some hard fighting, one position after another surrendered. The Australians captured Bardia on January 5, taking 45,000 prisoners and 462 guns for a loss of 130 dead and 326 wounded of their own. The war booty included 462 guns of various kind, 12 serviceable medium tanks, 115 L3/35 tankettes and 708 motor vehicles. However the fighting was fierce. An Australian historian later wrote that "in parts their defence was most efficient and often extremely brave.
The assault on Bardia was launched at dawn on the south-western perimeter of the defences by the Australian 6th Infantry Division, supported by 1st battalion (machine gun) the Northumberland Fusiliers and the remaining 25 tanks of 7th RTR. 7th Armoured Division (which included companies of Free French Forces) were to ensure that the Bardia garrrison could neither withdraw nor be reinforced. By nightfall had penetrated two miles (3 km) of the defences on a nine-mile (14 km) frontage, capturing 8,000 prisoners.
On crossing the startline the Australian 2/1st Battalion started to suffer casualties, losing 4 killed and 10 wounded. Nevertheless, it still continued to advance under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Eather while still under fire from mortar crews and artillery guns. The Australian 2/2nd Battalion found that it was best to keep skirmishing forward throughout this advance, because going to ground for any length of time meant sitting in the middle of the enemy artillery concentrations that inflicted further casualties. The Australian troops made good progress. Italian morale was broken, worn down by six weeks of aerial and naval bombardment. But other units were determined to fight. The companies of the 2/1st Battalion succeeded in taking 500-600 prisoners, a battalion of the 1st Blackshirt Division. However, the machine-gun carriers under Major Onslow encountered problems as they moved forward during the initial attack. One of the Bren gun carriers was hit and destroyed in the advance and another along the Wadi Ghereidia.
At 7:50 a.m. the Australian 2/3rd Battalion moved off for Bardia. Major Abbot's company advanced to the Italian posts, and attacked a group of sangers with very close fighting; the enemy platoons were cleared with grenades. The Italian soldiers were now irretrievably losing. However, they were fighting desperately, but were basically involved in fighting against a better equipped enemy, who realized that a patient deployment of its machine-gun carriers would bring victory.
The Australian 2/5th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Walker, now took over the advance and entered the Italian perimeter. The battalion's task was to clear "The Triangle". The sun had now risen, so Captain Smith's company came under effective fire from machine-guns within , inflicting many casualties almost at once. Captain Griffiths called for mortars to fire at the machine-gun positions. This proved effective. In the Wadi Gerfain, two troops of six Italian L3 tankettes tried to overrun Lieutenant Jay's platoon but were destroyed. Italian fire was fairly heavy, mainly Breda machine-guns which jammed easily and Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 mm rifles, lacking the power of the Lee Enfield rifle with its .303 British cartridge. Brigade Major Brock, upon hearing of the losses to the 2/5th Battalion, sent Captain Savige's 5 Company of the 2/7th Battalion to take "The Triangle" now without two officers who had been wounded. Savige gathered his platoons and with fire support from machine-guns attacked the objective, away. The company captured several artillery guns, machine-guns and many prisoners on the way, but sustained 50 percent casualties.
Before nightfall on 4 January, the Italian troops 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.
The Australian 2/7th Battalion's D Company under Captain Halliday attacked under the cover of darkness Posts 14, 17 and 19 from which a heavy volume of fire had been laid down. After a fierce fight, during which it sustained some casualties, the company cleared the platoon positions and took 103 prisoners.
The Italians put in a last-ditch heavy regimental-sized counterattack in the southern sector, killing about 40. This was repulsed by Australian 2/6th Battalion, which waited until their attackers were at close range before opening fire. Supported by tanks, the attackers closed in on the town of Bardia. At 1130 hours on 4 January, Major General Iven Giffard Mackay, who commanded the 6th Infantry Division, accepted the surrender of the 45,000 Italian troops in Bardia.
The Italian commander, Bergonzolli, escaped and was able to stay just ahead of the Commonwealth forces as they then advanced to Tobruk. Ultimately Bergonzoli became a prisoner in Benghazi after the remnants of the Italian Tenth Army was cut off and defeated at Beda Fomm.
There were approximately 25,000 Italian defenders at Tobruk under the overall command of General Petassi Manella, commander of the XX Corps.. Besides "fortess 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 thirty miles 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.
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 Nothumberland 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. With their Browning machineguns, and four bombs each, the Vickers Wellington and Blenheim bombers also played an important part in the softening up of defences of the Tobruk garrison. 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 defences, 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 XX 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 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, 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 among those still prepared to fight.
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 17,000 defenders surrendered. The Italians had lost 25,000 killed, wounded and captured. The Australians by comparison had 400 killed, wounded and taken prisoner.
Bambini's tank force included the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st "Centauro" Armored Division and should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-twenty M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arived at Benghazi and required ten days of "acclimazation" prior to operation.
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 January 24 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 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 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. 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 January 26. Precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 15 Australians were killed.
Creagh's division was to travel via Msus and Antelat (the bottom of the semi-circle), while the Australian 6th Division chased the Italians along the coast 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 its namesake 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 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery (RHA), 'C' battery 4 RHA, and the 106th battery RHA with nine portee-mounted 37 mm anti-tank guns.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 north of Ajedabia and 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 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 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, Bambini's "Special Armored Brigade" (Brigata Corazzato 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.
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. 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.
After the fighting developed the Italian supply aircraft escorted by fighters would fly in replacement units to Giararub and evacuate the sick and wounded. There was great deal of patrolling, skirmishing and some air combat.
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 2/9th Battalion won the battle losing 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.
After ten weeks, the Italian Tenth Army was no more. The British and Commonwealth 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. Their prisoners included 22 generals. 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.
However, the advance stopped short of driving the Italians out of North Africa. As the 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. The Italians had reinforced the Sirte, Tmed Hassan, and Buerat strongholds.
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 to about 150,000 Italian soldiers. The scene was set for more bitter fighting. Also, on January 11, 1941, HMS Illustrious suffered a crippling dive-bomber attack from Italian Stukas (called Picchiatello in Italian service), allowing the first troops of the German Afrika Korps to begin arriving in Tripolitania (Operation Sonnenblume). With the arrival of the Afrika Korps commanded by General Erwin Rommel, the desert war would take a completely different turn.
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 commaders 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!
Given other setbacks suffered during the early war years, the Allied troops of Operation Compass were highly publicized and became renown as "Wavell's Thirty Thousand," which was used as the title of a 1942 British documentary chronicling the campaign.