Cairo, Egypt · September 13, 1940

On this date in 1940, 250,000 soldiers of the Italian Tenth Army under the com­mand of Marshal Rodolfo Gra­ziani crossed from the Ital­ian colony of Libya into Egypt (see map), where British troops were pro­tecting the Suez Canal, the vital water­way to the Middle Eastern oil­fields and beyond that to Brit­ish holdings in India, Burma, Singa­pore, and Malaya. Four months earlier, on June 10, 1940, Italian dic­tator Benito Musso­lini had declared war on Great Britain and France. Gra­ziani’s incur­sion into Egypt was Italy’s first offen­sive against British forces in North Africa. The Italian Tenth Army halted 60 miles inside Egypt and dug in. Only 30,000 Brit­ish defenders were available to chal­lenge the inva­ders, so the Ital­ian halt was likely due to their being largely unmecha­nized and un­aware of Brit­ish strength, as well as the poten­tial of the Royal Navy to interfere with Italian supply lines in the Mediterranean region.

Nearly three months later, on Decem­ber 8, 1940, the British Middle East Com­mand, com­posed of British, Indian, and Aus­tralian troops under Gen. Archi­bald Wa­vell, launched Opera­tion Com­pass (Decem­ber 8, 1940, to Feb­ru­ary 9). Orig­i­nally planned in great sec­recy as an ex­tended raid, Com­pass suc­ceeded in cap­turing tens of thou­sands of enemy troops. The Ital­ian Tenth Army was vir­tually destroyed, and it seemed that the Ital­ians would be swept from North Africa. At that cru­cial mo­ment, how­ever, British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill ordered the advance stopped and troops dis­patched to defend Greece, which Mus­so­lini’s armies had in­vaded on Octo­ber 28, 1940, from Italian-occupied Albania lying on Greece’s northern frontier.

Mussolini moved quickly to rein­force Ital­ian gar­ri­sons in West­ern Libya (Tripoli­tania), bringing troop strength up to 150,000. Weeks later, in Feb­ruary 1941, the nucleus of the German Afrika Korps led by the ener­getic young Gen. Erwin Rom­mel arrived in Libya to rein­force Adolf Hitler’s Axis partner. Neither the Ital­ians nor the Germans would be finished off until mid-May 1943, when their armies stood down and sur­rendered to the Allies, whose pre­sence had been strength­ened by the Torch landings in North­west Africa in Novem­ber 1942. More than 250,000 Ital­ian and German prisoners were taken, which ended the Axis threat in North Africa.

Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Western Egypt, 1941–1942, Site of See-Saw Engage­ments Between Axis and Allied Armies

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

Above: Map of Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Western Egypt, 1941–1942.

Italian-held Tobruk besieged by Operation Compass forcesBritish Vickers Mk VIB light tanks on patrol, August 2, 1940

Left: Approximately 25,000 Italians defended the important har­bor town of Tobruk in Cyre­naica (exact cen­ter in above map). 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.

Right: British Vickers Mark VIB light tanks on desert patrol, August 2, 1940. First produced in 1936 for the dual roles of recon­nais­sance and colo­nial war­fare, the lightly armored Mark VI pos­sessed a crew of three—commander/­radio opera­tor, gunner, and driver. Its main arma­ment was a .50‑in Vickers machine gun. In a Decem­ber 12, 1940, attack, the light tanks got bogged down in salt pans and were severely mauled by the Italians.

Captured Italian L3 cc and L3/35 tankettes, Libya 1942Italian soldiers march into Allied captivity, January 6, 1941

Left: Like the lightly armored Vickers Mark VI tank, Italy’s Fiat L3 tan­kettes were machine gun-armed. First built in 1933, L3s and their variants carried a two-man crew and were mainly used for light infan­try support and recon­nais­sance. They saw service against Haile Selassie’s army in Ethi­opia (1935–1936) and in Spain, France, the Bal­kans, Libya, and Italian East Africa. In this photo an L3 cc on the left and an L3/35 on the right are shown on the harbor road overlooking Bardia, Libya.

Right: Operation Compass was a complete success. 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, Libya, is marched to a British Army base.

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