During World War II, it was the site of a major Italian fortification, commanded by General Annibale "Electric Whiskers" Bergonzoli, so nicknamed because of his spiked beard. On the 21 June 1940, the town was bombarded by the 7th Crusier Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet. In this fleet was the HMAS Sydney (later disappeared off the coast of Western Australia). The town was taken during Operation Compass by Commonwealth forces comprised mainly of the Australian 6th Division in fighting over 3-5 January 1941. The Axis later reoccupied the town and it was taken again by the South African 2nd Infantry Division, including New Zealand cavalry units, on 2 January, 1942. The South Africans, many of them ill-trained and ill-equipped police, lost hundreds of men, but the operation freed some 8,000 Allied prisoners of war and took some 6,000 Axis prisoners.
It is also the location of a unique mural created during World War II, a favorite site to visit by tourists, known as the Bardia Mural.