North Africa Before Rommel
By David H. Lippman
Now events accelerated. On 28 October, Mussolini invaded Greece, hoping as ever for a quick victory. Instead his legions were defeated in the Albanian mountains. Britain had to support its new ally. On 11 November, Royal Navy Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked Taranto, sinking an Italian battleship and damaging two more. The Regia Marina fled to western Italy, taking it out of the North African game. Wavell could now look to the offensive.
O'Connor devised a simple and straightforward five-day raid, called Operation COMPASS, that would take advantage of the spread out Italian forces. Between the 63rd Division's camp at Rabia and Maletti Group at Nibeiwa was the 20-mile undefended Enba Gap. O'Connor planned to pour 4th Indian and 7th Armoured Divisions through it and drive to the sea, thus trapping four Italian divisions. British 16th Brigade, reinforced by a battalion of motorized Free French Marines, would be the anvil of this hammer. Wavell approved the plan without telling O'Connor that as soon as the raid was over, 4th Indian would be withdrawn to Sudan.
Planning was detailed. Thanks to RAF reconnaissance, O'Connor had precise photo-mosaics of Italian vehicle routes, so he knew how to avoid Graziani's mines. To maintain surprise, British leave was not stopped, troops were not given notice of the offensive, forward dumps were called precautionary, and even the medical teams were not advised to expect extra casualties.
Meanwhile, the Italians marked time. Graziani himself helped intrigue to remove the Chief of Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who resigned on 26 November. A few days later, the 10th Army commander, Gen. Berti, went home to Italy on sick leave, leaving Gen. Gariboldi in field command. That caused command paralysis, as no replacement for Badoglio was assigned until 6 December, when Marshal Ugo Cavallero took over.
The next day, O'Connor began his attack with air and naval bombardment of the Italian camps. British surprise was complete. On the morning of 9 December, the British moved forward, troops dragging extra grenades, wearing heavy underwear and woollen sweaters in the cold pre- dawn air.
The advance was almost an anticlimax. The Italians didn't know the British were upon them until they heard the rumble of Matilda tank treads and the plaintive skirl of Scottish bagpipes. 11th Indian Brigade charged into Maleni Group's Nibeiwa Camp, defended by 20 tanks, 12 field guns and 2,500 Libyans. The tanks were caught with their crews at breakfast, and quickly disabled.
"Frightened, dazed or desperate Italians erupted from tents and slit trenches, some to surrender supinely, other to leap gallantly into battle, hurling grenades or blazing machine-guns in futile belabour of the impregnable intruders," wrote G. R. Stevens in his history of 4th Indian Division. "Italian artillerymen gallantly swung their pieces on to the advancing monsters. They fought until return fire from the British tanks stretched them dead or wounded around their limbers. General Maletti, the Italian commander, sprang from his dugout, machine-gun in hand. He fell dead from an answering burst; his son beside him was struck down and captured." More than 2,000 PoWs and 35 tanks were captured...the Indians lost 56 officers and men.
5th Indian Brigade jumped the Tummar Camps from behind, hieing the mostly native 2nd Libyans. At Tummar, Italian artillerymen fought to the last, but their shells bounced off British tanks. Nearly 4,000 Italians were captured, along with considerable wine stocks.
Meanwhile, 7th Armoured's tanks roared up on Buq Buq, held by 64th Division. Soon a British officer radioed, "Up to second 'B' of 'Buq Buq.'" By the end of 10 December, 4th Blackshirt and 1st Libyan Divisions were surrounded, with the British taking Sidi Barrani at 4:40 p.m. The Arabs and paratroopers of 1st Libyans fought hard on the 10th amid a howling sandstorm, but on the 11th the division began to disintegrate. The Leicesters' official history wrote, "A formidable body of men emerging from their trenches...as if in mass attack; but they came stumbling, with their hands up, 2,000 Blackshirts had had enough. A rot had set in."
The disaster fell on the head of Gen. Gallina, who commanded 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions. His water supply and communications had been cut. "Territory between Sidi Barrani and 2nd Libyan Division infested by mechanized army against which I have no adequate means," he radioed Graziani.
It fell on Mussolini in Rome, too. "News of the attack on Sidi Barani comes like a thunderbolt," wrote Ciano on the 10th."At first it doesn't seem serious, but subsequent telegrams from Graziani confirm that we have had a licking." Mussolini took the news calmly, talking of how it would affect Graziani's prestige.
On the 11th, 2nd Blackshirts and 64th Cantanzaro Division tried to flee, but ran smack into British tanks, and disintegrated.
On the same day, O'Connor counted 20,000 PoWs, 180 captured guns, and 60 tanks, for a cost of 600 casualties. 250 of those came from 16th Indian Brigade. RAF Hurricanes had routed Italy's CR 42s, and the remaining Italian forces were in full flight. The obvious thing would be to follow up success.
But as O'Connor sketched his next moves, he received the telegram from Wavell ordering the detachment of 4th Indian to Sudan. 6th Australian Division would replace it, but not right away. That would leave O'Connor with only 16th British Brigade, 7th Armoured (whose tanks needed repair) and Selby Force with its French Marines. Not enough to guard PoWs, collect abandoned vehicles, or provide water for all.
The logical move was to halt the advance -- and Wavell was advising just that.
Instead, O'Connor -- an admirer of Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant -- decided to maintain the pace of the offensive.
On the night of the 11th, the Italian 62nd and 63rd Divisions began pulling out under a sandstorm. Graziani finally took action. "Recognizing the impossibility of damming the enemy march on the desert flats, I thought it essential to put to full use the unique natural obstacle at Halfaya, while throwing strong reinforcements into Bardia and Tobruk," he signaled Mussolini. To defend the pass, the only gap in the long escarpment, Graziani threw in an armoured brigade and Bergonzoli, a Spanish Civil War veteran whose huge beard was reputed to give off sparks, hence the nickname "Electric Whiskers."
In Rome, Mussolini faced the loss of four divisions, two of them Blackshirts, with remarkable cool. Mussolini "maintains that the many painful days through which we are living must be inevitable in the changing fortunes of every war," Ciano wrote.
While Graziani cut orders from his 60-footdeep Cyrene bunker, O'Connor did the same from his staff car in the desert. 7th Armoured Division was to keep charging. The 3rd Hussars, in their light Mark VI tanks, tried to do so, but beyond Buq Buq they ran into do so, but beyond Buq Buq they ran into heavy Italian artillery and airpower.
O'Connor called for RAF Gloster Gladiators to intercept, but the biplane fighters were out of action after the exertions of the past few days. O'Connor used his superior 25-lbr. guns, and the offensive, despite the loss of a number of tanks, was on again. 7th Armoured Division rumbled forward, heading for Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo, the white brick fort guarding the Libyan border.
The offensive so far was turning into a lark, with 14,000 PoWs in the bag, cheerfully organizing their journey back to Egyptian cages. The Coldstream Guards reported capturing "five acres of officers and 200 acres of other ranks." Despite losses of vehicles to gunfire and maintenance, O'Connor's force was riding the crest of a wave, boosting morale back in England.
Now the aggressive O'Connor extended his five-day raid to grab the small Egyptian border port of Sollum, through which the Royal Navy could re-supply him. Then O'Connor could push on to Bardia. The problem was to move 38,000 PoWs and 4th Indian Division back and bring his supplies and 6th Australians up.
The pursuit went on. Western Desert Force was renamed 13th Corps. On the 12th, artillery slowed the British. Exhausted troops drove along in the dark under blackout conditions, wearied by noise, repairs, smoke, heat and cold. Next day, O'Connor stripped 7th Armoured's Support Group of vehicles, so that he had more trucks to keep his tanks topped up with gas.
In his bunker, Graziani showed more vigor with his signals pad than with his army. He wired Rome in a panic, to say that Cyrenaica was lost, recommending retreat to Tripoli, claiming the battle was "a flea against an elephant." Churchill later wrote that "the flea had devoured a large portion of the elephant."
Mussolini said, "Here is another man with whom I cannot get angry, because I despise him."
On 4 December, 7th and 4th Armoured Brigades came under heavy Italian air bombardment. SM 79s ranged unmolested -- Wavell had been forced to send some of his aircraft to Greece. Next day, the British offensive resumed.
In Cyrene, Graziani faced the inevitability of losing Sollum and Fort Capuzzo, and retreated the bulk of his force to Bardia. On the 16th, the British hit Sidi Omar, which was held by 62nd Division, amid minefields and a white stone Beau Geste fort. Lacking infantry, the British bombarded the fort with 25-lbr. guns while the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment’s Matildas charged the place in best cavalry fashion. The unorthodox manoeuvre worked. The lead tank roared into the center of the fort, where the tank commander traded pistol shots with stunned Italians. Before the defenders could overwhelm the Matilda, its squadron mates arrived, and the Italians collapsed.
By the 20th, 7th Armoured, despite exhausted crews and vehicles, had seized Capuzzo and Sollum, but Bergonzoli had been able to muster a considerable defense in Bardia: four divisions of 21st Corps plus fortress troops, border guards, an anti-tank ditch, concrete blockhouses, and remnants of fleeing units. Altogether Bergonzoli had 45,000 men and 400 guns, and a brigade of M13 tanks. He also had a message from Mussolini, exhorting him to fight to the last.
Against this O'Connor hurled RAF Wellington bombers, three battleships, and HMS Aphis, a gunboat that sank several coasters in Bardia harbour. He also cut loose Maj. Gen. Iven Mackay's 6th Australian Division, the first Diggers to see action in World War II. The division, a mixture of "old sweats" and new volunteers, rode trucks painted with the division's symbol, a leaping kangaroo, to the battle area. The Australians were eager to find out if it was true that Bergonzoli's beard gave offsparks.
The Australians were weighted down with 70 lbs. of kit per man and restricted to a half-gallon of water per day. A man could shave or wash, but not both. "The discomforts the desert imposed were greater than those inflicted by the enemy," the Australian official history noted.
McKay planned to assault Bardia with 16th and 17th Brigades, estimating the Italian defenses had only 20,000 men. The valuable armour would prevent the escape of the garrison and move on to Tobruk when Bardia fell. The infantry would drive a wedge through the center of the Italian line, cutting roads, and enabling his men to assault the Italian defenses from behind and annihilate them in detail.
Supplies were still short -- 11,500 sleeveless leather jerkins to keep the Diggers warm didn't arrive until New Year's Day, and 350 wire cutters didn't show up until the next, the night before the attack. 300 pairs of gloves to protect the hands of men cutting wire were handed out as the infantry moved into their assembly areas, but tape to mark attack routes never arrived. 3-inch mortars did, but without sights. A 17th Brigade officer hopped into a jeep and drove all the way to Cairo and back to pick the sights up.
"Tonight is the night," wrote 16 Brigade's official diarist. "By this time tomorrow (5 p.m.), the fate of Bardia should be sealed. Everyone is happy, expectant, eager. Old timers say the spirit is the same as in the last war. Each truckload was singing as we drove to the assembly point. The brigade major and party taped the start line -- historic, for it is the start-line of the Australian soldier in this war."