Bardia, Eastern Libya January 5, 1941

In June 1940 Italian dictator Benito Mus­so­lini declared war on Great Britain and France and began building up forces in his North African colony of Libya. That September the Italian Tenth Army under Gen. Rodolfo Grazi­ani invaded Egypt, a British colony to the east of Libya, threatening British inter­ests in the Middle East and British holdings in South­east Asia via the Egyptian Suez Canal. British and Common­wealth (mainly Austra­lian) forces under Gen. Archibald Wavell swiftly expelled the invaders from Egypt and pursued them back toward the Libyan border.

On this date, January 5, 1941, the small, heavily fortified Italian coastal town of Bardia fell to the 6th Aus­tra­lian Infantry Divi­sion in the face of staunch resis­tance from Italian troops. The cap­ture of Bardia, lying just inside Libya’s border, was part of Wavell’s Opera­tion Com­pass (Decem­ber 9, 1940, to Febru­ary 9, 1941). Begun two days earlier, the Battle of Bardia was the second mili­tary opera­tion in the nearly 3‑year‑long West­ern Desert Cam­paign. (The first was the Battle of Sidi Barrani (Decem­ber 10–11, 1940), which had started out as a British raid-in-force.) Bardia was the first battle of World War II to be planned by an Aus­tra­lian staff, the first to be com­manded by an Aus­tra­lian general, and the first major opera­tion to be fought by Aus­tra­lian troops. Though outnum­bered 3 to 1, the Aus­tra­lians took about 36,000 pri­soners, nearly 400 guns of various caliber, 129 tanks, and more than 700 vehicles. Australian casualties were one-tenth those of the Italians.

Two days later British and Common­wealth forces continued their west­ward advance to the stra­te­gic deep-water port of Tobruk, the only such port in Libya. The fall of Bardia had reduced the num­ber of troops avail­able to Gen. Graziani by more than half. On Janu­ary 22 Tobruk’s Italian garri­son surren­dered to the Allies, mainly the 6th Aus­tra­lian Divi­sion, who netted some 30,000 pri­soners, more than 200 pieces of artillery, and about 70 tanks.

Back in his Egyptian headquarters in Cairo, Wavell received orders on Janu­ary 21, 1941, to capture Ben­ghazi, the capi­tal of Eastern Libya (Cyre­naica), 470 miles west of Tobruk along the coastal high­way. The Italians fell back on Derna, mid­way between Tobruk and Ben­ghazi, which town they evacu­ated on Janu­ary 29 to escape encircle­ment. On Febru­ary 1 the Italians, demoralized and out­maneuvered, aban­doned Ben­ghazi with­out con­test (occupied by the Aus­tra­lians on Febru­ary 12) to form a new, more solid defense line at El Agheila on the border with Tripoli­tania (Western Libya). On that same day, Febru­ary 1, Musso­lini officially requested his war­time partner, Adolf Hitler, to send him rein­force­ments for his flagging North African cam­paign. Ten days earlier Hitler had already decided to send an expedi­tionary force (the famed Afrika Korps) under the com­mand of Lt. Gen. Erwin Rom­mel to save the Italians from an igno­min­ious defeat. Rommel’s arrival in Tripoli on Febru­ary 12 following a one‑day stop­over in Rome reversed Italian fortunes and abruptly shut down Operation Compass.

Operation Compass, Western Egypt and Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya), December 1940 to February 1941

Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Western Egypt, 1941–1942

Above: Operation Compass area of operations in Western Egypt and Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, December 1940 to February 1941.

Opera­tion Com­pass: Australian troops enter Bardia, Libya, January 1941Opera­tion Com­pass: Italian POWs enter British captivity, January 1941

Left: Australian troops of the 2/2nd Infantry Battalion, part of the 6th Aus­tra­lian Infantry Divi­sion, enter Bardia (seen on the map just north of the dashed border between Libya and Egypt). The Battle for Bardia (Janu­ary 3–5, 1941) cost 130 Aus­tra­lian lives with 326 wounded. The victory at Bardia enabled Allied forces to con­tinue their advance into Libya and ultimately capture almost all of Cyrenaica.

Right: Operation Compass was a complete success. Originally planned as an extended raid into Italy’s Libyan colony, Allied forces advanced 500 miles from in­side Egypt to cen­tral Libya, suffering just over 1,700 casual­ties and capturing 130,000 Ital­ian pri­soners, including 22 generals. The Ital­ians lost 400 tanks, nearly 1,300 artil­lery pieces, and a thou­sand air­craft. In this photo from Janu­ary 6, 1941, a column of Ital­ian pri­soners captured during the assault on Bardia are marched to a British Army base in Egypt. Many of the Ital­ian POWs were shipped to prison camps in Aus­tralia and India. Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill’s foreign secre­tary, Anthony Eden, paro­died his boss’s famous Battle of Brit­ain quote when he said on Febru­ary 12, 1941, “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”

Opera­tion Com­pass: Australians at the Battle of Tobruk, January 22, 1941British Matilda tank advancing through Egypt as part of Operation Compass

Left: Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Infan­try Divi­sion pic­tured during the Battle of Tobruk, Janu­ary 22, 1941 Approxi­mately 25,000 Ital­ians defended the impor­tant harbor town of Tobruk in Cyre­naica. After a twelve-day period building up forces around Tobruk and softening up Ital­ian defenses with heavy artil­lery bom­bard­ment, Aus­tra­lian, British, and Free French units took the town one day after launching an attack on Janu­ary 21, 1941. The Tobruk prize yielded over 25,000 pri­soners, 236 field and medium guns, 62 tan­kettes, 23 M11/39 medium tanks, and more than 200 other vehicles for a loss of 400 men, 355 of them Australian.

Right: One of the first tank battles of the North African conflict took place near Mechili, 170 miles east of Benghazi in Cyrenaica, on Janu­ary 21, 1941. Equipped with dozens of Matilda infan­try tanks, the British 7th Armored Divi­sion (famously named the “Desert Rats”) destroyed eight Italian M11/39 medium tanks and captured one, losing one heavy and six light tanks. An Italian Army doctor referred to the Matilda as “the nearest thing to hell I ever saw.” This photo from Decem­ber 19, 1940, shows a heavy (25‑ton) British Matilda II tank, nick­named “Waltzing Matilda,” advancing across the Western Desert as part of Opera­tion Com­pass. Limited by speed and arma­ment (its 40mm gun easily out­ranged by the German 75mm cannon when Rommel’s Afrika Korps reached the battlefields of the desert war), the Matilda rapidly became obso­lete by the spring of 1942. None­the­less, the Matilda was the only British tank to serve con­tin­u­ously through­out the war. In the Pacific Theater, Japa­nese defen­ders often fled from their forti­fi­cations rather than confront bunker-busting Matildas.

Axis and Allied Forces Battle for Control of North Africa, 1940–1943