A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert.
Fighting began with a desultory and ill-prepared Italian advance into Egypt from Tripoli that ended in disaster for Italy. The British struck back in Operation COMPASS starting on December 8, 1940. The British counteroffensive saw a breakthrough assault by the Western Desert Force at Sidi Barrani, 60 miles inside the Egyptian border. In the first week of January 1941, Major General Richard O’Connor sent freshly arrived Australians into their first offensive action in the desert at Bardia . More sharp fighting and additional Italian defeats followed at Tobruk and Beda Fomm in February. O’Connor hoped to press the attack to Benghazi, but was held back by shortages of supplies and men as he reached the end of a stretched logistical tether—pulled even thinner because Britain simultaneously mounted another assault on the Italian empire in East Africa. The Western Desert Force thus halted at El Agheila. It had lost just over 1,700 total casualties while inflicting over 130,000 Italian casualties, killed or wounded or taken prisoner. The cumulative effect of COMPASS was destruction of Italian 10th Army and large stocks of Regio Esercito war matériel. The Western Desert Force also advanced nearly 500 miles, the first of several lateral movements across the top of Africa that would become a singular mark of the desert campaign. At the time, it remained to be learned by both sides that desert advances might be just as quickly turned into comparable or even worse reverses.
By January 1941, with Operation Compass exceeding all expectations, Churchill began to press the case for Greece once again. British intelligence had discerned that a Wehrmacht invasion was in the offing, though its precise timing was a matter of conjecture. Armed with this information, the Prime Minister sent a note to General ‘Pug’ Ismay, his trusted assistant and go-between with the Chiefs of Staff. 'It is quite clear to me that supporting Greece must have priority after the Western flank of Egypt has been made secure,’ he wrote. Three days later, Wavell - who was at this point overseeing O’Connor’s advance towards Tobruk and Benghazi - was told in unequivocal terms that Greece was hence- forth to take precedence over all other operations in his command.
The general did not attempt to conceal his dismay. In a cable to London, he argued that the German concentration in Romania was merely ‘a move in the war of nerves' designed both to prop up the Italians and to induce the Chiefs of Staff to arrest the advance in Libya and 'disperse our forces in the Middle East ... We trust the COS will reconsider whether the enemy's move is not bluff'.
In Whitehall, the Director of Military Operations, Major General John Kennedy, strongly sympathised with Wavell’s reluctance to divert forces from the desert to Greece. He made an appointment to see Dill, the CIGS and his immediate superior. Insisting that his team judged that ‘at least twenty divisions, plus a considerable airforce' would be needed simply to hold Salonika, let alone to confront a full-scale Wehrmacht invasion, he argued tartly that the Germans' could overrun Greece with the utmost ease if they wanted to do so', and concluded that ‘we stood more to gain by winning the African coast for ourselves than by denying Greece to the Germans.' Kennedy did not prevail. The Chiefs of Staff sided with Churchill, whose response to Wavell was brusquely dismissive.
'Our information contradicts the idea that German concentration in Roumania is merely a "move in the war of nerves" or "a bluff to cause dispersion of forces",' he told Wavell in a cable on 10 January. On the contrary, there was ‘a mass of detail' confirming that the build-up was the prelude to an early and’ deadly' onslaught against Greece which would 'eclipse victories you have gained in Libya'.
Instructing his Middle East commander-in-chief to 'conform your plans to larger interest at stake', he peremptorily closed off further discussion with the words, ‘We expect and require prompt and active compliance with our decisions, for which we bear full responsibility.' As a loyal soldier, Wavell had little choice but to obey or resign.
The nickname Desert Rats was applied to at least three British army organizations that were instrumental in the North African Campaigns against the Italians and Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The name derives from the jerboa, a nocturnal rodent native to North Africa, which hops like a kangaroo.
The 4th Armoured Brigade, which was formed in Egypt in 1938, before the outbreak of war but after the Munich Conference and Agreement, has traditionally claimed to be the first British unit to have adopted the sobriquet Desert Rats. However, the 7th Armoured Division appropriated the name and preceded the 4th Armoured Brigade back to England in preparation for the Normandy landings (D-day). The 4th Armoured Brigade left North Africa and participated in the fighting in Italy before returning to England prior to the D-day invasion. When the 4th reached England, it discovered that the 7th was not only calling itself the Desert Rats, but had created a divisional badge featuring an image of a jerboa. Thus spurred, the 4th Armoured Brigade created its own jerboa badge. Finally, the nickname the Desert Rats was also often applied generally to the entire Eighth British Army to honor its combat success against the Axis forces in North Africa.