09 December 1940 - Operation Compass , General Wavell's strike against Italian Army in Egypt starts

Operation Compass (also *la battaglia della Marmarica) was the first large Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) during the Second World War. British and other Commonwealth and Allied forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and Cyrenaica , the eastern province of Libya , from December 1940 to February 1941. The Western Desert Force Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor with about 36,000 men, advanced from Mersa Matruh in Egypt on a five-day raid against the Italian positions of the 10th Italian Army led by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, which had about 150,000 men in fortified posts around Sidi Barrani in Egypt and in Cyrenaica.

The 10th Army was swiftly defeated and the British continued the operation, pursuing the remnants of the 10th Army to Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The British took over 138,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners, hundreds of tanks, and more than 1,000 guns and aircraft, against British losses of 1,900 men killed and wounded, about 10 per cent of the infantry. The British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to broken down and worn out vehicles and the diversion, beginning in March 1941, of the best-equipped units to the Greek Campaign in Operation Lustre.

After death of Marshal Italo Balbo due to friendly AA fire in June 1940 , 58 year old Marshal Rodolfo Graziani (known as “Butcher” by Senusi tribesmen in Libya ) was appointed to be commander in Chief of Italian Army in Libya (mainly 10th Italian Army and 14th Italian Army) On taking up his post , Graziani was apalled to learn that he was expected to advance 300 miles into Egypt and capture Alexandria. At once he flew to Rome to plead both to Mussolini and Italian Chief of Staff Badoglio. His forces , Graziani argued would be no match for the British. He had motorised transport no more than four battalions. (considering Italian motor car production industry ,this was a disgrace) Some of the weapons at the disposal of Italians were better suited to a war suprlus dump : some cannons and rifles dating back to 19th Century and rusting machine guns. Graziani was also short of up to date equipment like planes , medium tanks , anti aircraft guns and anti tank guns and even mines. At places along Egyptian border Italian soldiers on night patrols were forced to defuse and steal British mines to sow their own minefields. But Mussolini hungered for some sort of victory in North Africa and Graziani’s protests proved unavailing. Under Mussolini’ pressure eventually on 13 September , 10th Italian Army with six divisions crossed the wire on Libyan-Egyptian border and to the suprise of British scout Italians some with motorised vehicles trucks and on top of light tanks but mostly on foot , marched on ordered columns on foot as if on a review they were easy to spot with dust they were creating visible miles away , sticking on coastal road mostly close to water wells , without disguising themselveswith camouflage and marching only on daytime , advanced 60 miles till small Egyptian coastal settlement at Sidi Barani which was already evacuated. Low on supplies , Graziani halted 10th Army here and 10th Army under command of General Mario Berti set up seven camps from coast to South till promised reinforcements from Italy arrived. Over next three months these outposts took on the leisurely air of peacetime cantonement , down to such refinements such as colognes , silver hairbrushes in officers quarters , engraved glasses in their clubs , tinned hams and Frascati wines at their tables. Rallying slogans from Musolini were engraved everywhere and blared from speakers “Chi se ferma e perduto” (He who hesistates lost) or “Sempre avanti” (Ever Forward)


Marshal Rodolfo Graziani


General Archibald Wavell

British forces actually retreated 80 miles east to a small fisherman village on coast called Mersa Matruh. Once known as Paraetonium where where Mark Anthony and Cleopatra swam in blue waves of Mediterranean , Mersa Matruh was terminus of a narrow gauge railway link frıom Alexandria. It gave British a huge advantage. If Italians continued their advance , their supply lines would be extended and exposed to attack , while the British close to their own sources of supply could afford to wait an appropriate moment for counter action. Here too British dug in at Mersa Matruh and prepared defensive positions with more spartan conditions and regular rations like corned beef stew and strong seeet tea under watchful eye of Western Desrt Force Commander General O’Connor. At British Middle East Headquarters Commander in Chief Middle East General Archibald Wavell also bided his time , waiting for troop reinforcements and for a shipment of I (Infantry support) Matilda tanks for his operations. Matilda was 30 tons , medium heavy for its time and its armor was inpenetrable to Italian guns (who did not have any proper anti tank guns anyway and using field artilery guns without armor piercing rounds for that purpose)

But more than weapons needed for military campaigning in this desolate land. Terrain as well as enemy presented unque challanges to each side. The Western Desert was 500 miles long and 150 miles wide. Behind a sandy plain that bordered on Mediterranean lay a igh deserrt plateu , much of its dun colored expense strewn with boulders and pebbles. Despite the havoc the stony stretches played with tank treads and truck springs , crossing the plateu was fairly easy , but getting to it was not. Between it and the coastal strip loomed an escarpment with cliffs as high as 500 feet and only a few places passable by wheeled and tracked vehicles. British could act only after making a through force and supply build up , adapt accomodate to desert then went to offensive. All British commanders in North African Campaign (Wavell , Auchinleck and Montgomery) would follow this sensible operational method unlike Italians and Germans who preferred a much more initiative taking and oppurtunistic oprastional approach. From a military standpoint the worst aspect of Western Desert was lack of distinctive landmarks. Traversing it , except along one coastal road , was like sailing an uncharted sea , navigable only by sun., stars and compass.


There was also a clash of character sbetween British Middle East Commander General Wavell and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (which would lead dismissal of Wavell eventually in 1941 summer) Churchill was outspoken and articulate, Wavell was withdrawn and taciturn. Throughout the fall of 1940 , Churchill kept up a barrage of advice , comments and critism all the way from London to Cairo , which Wavell succintly summed up as “barracking”-an Australian term for the heckling engaged in by spectators at a sporting match to distract the players. Though aware that Churchill had began to suspect him of being less than resolute , Wavell was determined not to attack until he felt his preperations were complate at desert. (later other good and talanted British generals were unfairly critised for this systematic and metodical operational approach throughout the entire war but this was how British Army worked ans operated back then in a methodical way. If it lack finesse in daring and maneuver , it was also decreasing casaulties and lowered risks from unpredictable suprises of enemy. If any critism should be made it should be directed to pre war defence budget allocations made by British politicians that kept army really small and underfunded until 1939) He was also determined not to reveal his plan for future operations developing except to key subordinates. Fortunetely when Anthony Eden , British Foreign Minister (who was tasked to divert military resources to Greeks who were struggling against Italians since October 1940) visited Cairo , when Wavell revealed his plans for operations in future , Eden conveyed these plans to Churchill with consent of Wavell. To Wavell’s astonishment Churchill was delighted , Prime Minister wrote later “I purred like six cats”.

The plan hinged on a piece of information reported by Long Range Desert Group Patrols and aerial photos taken by RAF. Italians left a 15 mile gap , unpatroled and unfortified between two of the seven advance camps they set up as a shield at Sidi Barani. The gap was between Nibeiwa and Rabia camps which were fortified on eastern side facing British at Mersa Matruh. If British could pass undetected through this gap , then they would be able to wheel about and fall upon Italian positions from the undefended rear (western) side of camps. As refined by Wavell and Western Desert Force Commander General O’Connor this plan called for use of two British Commonwealth divisions. 4th Indian Division (infantry) and 7th Armored Division. Both divisions would pass through Nibeiwa - Rabia gap then 4th Indian Division and 7th Royal Tank Regiment would attack and capture Nibeiwa camp from rear. After that 4th Indian Division and rest of 7th Armored Divisiıon would attack and capture rest of four Italian camps in a rolling maneuver to north towards coast and last assault Sidi Barani. Meanwhile a frontal asaault on Maktila camp at coast with gunfire support from Royal Navy would divert Italian attention to further north till rest of Italian forces in Sidi Barani were mopped up. Then most of the 7th Armored Division would head northwest to Buq Buq , a point on the coastal road between Sidi Barani and Libyan border to prevent Italians bringing up reinforcements from Libya. Then rest of 7th Armored Division would swing westward to attack other Italian camps Rabia and Sofafi.


Wavell did not contemplate a major offensive. He planned no more than a five day raid with Buq Buq , 25 miles west of Sii Barani as ultimate halt line. His aim was more about testing Italian combat capabilities.

I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.

— Wavell

He was for a (pleasant) suprise though.


Against some 80.000 Italians ,General O’Connor had only 30.000 men –a polygot force of Englishmen , Ulstermen , Cameron Highlanders , Sikhs , Pathans and Hindus.

At 07:00 am on December 6 , two divisions (7th Armored Division and 4th Indian Division) moved out of their assembly areas and tank laygers in Mersa Matruh , tanks , gun carriers and trucks spaced 200 yards aparton a 2.000 yard front. Rocks and camel’s thorn often slowed them often slowed them. They had 75 miles to cover before engaging a battle but desert wise O’Connor aware of the great strain imposed by terrain , had planned accordingly. For one entire day , 30.000 men would pause and lie down out in the open between Mersa Matruh and Italian camps. Though they would be at the mercy of Italian spotter planes as little as possible would be left to chance. O’Connor even stripped windshields stripped off trucks and jeeps lest sun’s reflections caught eye of enemy patrols.

The real genius part of British plan was logistics to sustain the advance and offensive going. Ahead of the advance suplies were buried deep in desert cisterns-planted by British patrols in style of warring Saracens over 1400 years ago. Enough food , ammunition and gasoline to last for full five days of march and combat.

On 8th December , the troops moved on. Their way were lit now by a chain of beacons. At 01:00 AM one mile to the rear of Italian camp Nibewia , British halted They were unaware of how well their luck was holding. Earlier that day they had been spotted by Italian aircraft. The recon report was relayed to Marshal Graziani who first insisted to have that sighting in writing. Graziani later claimed he had notified his subordinates about approaching British columns but no action was taken.

At 05:00 British and Indian troops awoke to the darkness. In silence the men breakfasted on canned bacon and hot tea , topped by a”fighting dram” of rum. The muslim troops in 4th Indian Division , forbidden on alcohol , sucked on oranges instead. To the east , the fortified camp in Nibeiwa was gently astir. 07:15 first British Matilda tanks moved out. Incogrously as they advaned some British tankers and infantrymen took smell of hot coffee and rolls. Italians were preparing breakfast. But the eviction notification had already came.

Rank upon rank of British tanks came rumbling in. Riding on their flanks were Bren carriers , their machine guns uptilted in high angle fire against startled sentries on ramparts. Then came a sound unfamiliar to Italians , wild skirling of bagpipes sounding charge as Cameron Highlanders sprinted in with bayonet charge. Suprise was total. Italians had no chance. Twenty of their tanks were parked outside camp perimeter. Matildas shot them into smoking scrap metal and churned on. Italians tried to defend themselves with machine guns and grenades but many died bloodily under the Matildas tracks. Tanks forged on like according to an English infantryman “iron rods probing a wasps nest”

Other men retain other memories : the stench of bursting creosote barrels , Italian officers swathed in blue cavalry cloaks trying to rally their men., a litter of uneaten food and unused ammunition scattered among tents. Second Lieutenant Roy Farran described the pell mell attack as “a gold rush to Klondike” Nibeiwa camp commander General Pietro Maletti , sprang from his tent, firing a machine gun then he fell shot through his lung.

By 09:00 AM , the fighting was over. First Italian camp fell less than three hours. Against all expectations , the attack yielded 2.000 prisoners. As the offensive moved towards two Italian camps further north of Tummer East and Tummar West , a sense of euphoria seized the British. It was as if , like gamblers on a winning streak , they could not fail now. There were many bizarre moments. Lieut. Colonel Eustace Arderne of 1st Durham Light Infantry advancing with his men trowards Italian camp Maktila prepared to attack. But after two bursts from Arderne’s machine gunners Italians just put up a White flag. Inside a fortified camp an Italian brigadier and his 500 men stood rigidly attention waiting to give themselves up. Italian brigadier greeted Arderne in a diplomatic French “Monsieur , we have fired our last cartridge” Beside him , as he spoke was a heaping pile of unspent ammunition.

The sweep to Sidi Barani took two days. The town was quickly taken in same way-British achieved total suprise. So headlong was the Italian rout that as first Matildas entered the gutted streets , still smoking from prearrenged British naval bombartment , a hospitalised appendicitis victim , already cut open , was found abandoned on the operating table.

By 12th December , three days after the attack began 39.000 Italians were captured and surrendered , five fortified Italian camps in Sidi Barani was captured by British and 10th Italian Army was in ruins. One British tank commander radioded “I am stopped in the middle of 200 –no , 500-men with their hands up. For heavens sake , send up some bloody infantry” A battalion commander estmated his prisoners at “five acres of officers , 200 acres of other ranks." Unending lines of Italian prisoners in dusty grey uniforms choked the roads to Mersa Matruh. There British officers astonished the size of prisoner bag , furniahed the arrivals with wood and barbed wire and set them building their own temporary stockade.


A disenchantment wish Fascism and Mussolini was quickly apparent among Italian prisoners. At Nibeiwa , captured Italian engineers , seeing British gunners set to work on a new forward gun emplacement , promtly brought picks and shovels to help. Other prisoners showed some of their captors how to cook spagetti and tomato juice. One Pittsburgh born Italian POW summed mood of many of his comrades “If I could get my hands on that goddamned bastard Mussolini I would kill him right now”


In Cairo , Wavell was fast realising that his five day raid had acquired the irresistable momentum of a major campaign. Late on 11th December , a message from field reported “We have arrived in Buq Buq” where British offensive was supposed to halt. O’Connor’s men kept going instead.


By 16th December a week after offensive started 7th Armored Division captured Sollum and Halfaya Pass at Libyan-Egyptian border then next day entered into Libya and to take Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Omar strong points the Italians set up on escarpment near fortified coastal town of Bardia where rest of 10th Italian Army retreated into. Conducting Admiral Cunningham Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet Commander on a tour of War Room at Cairo HQ , Wavell confessed “You know I never thought it would ever go like this !” Churchill was jubilant and he briefly warmed to Wavell , even asked his pre war book Desert War and cheered him from Matthew 7:7 “Ask andf it shall ber given to you ; seek and ya shall find , unlock and it shall be opened” As O’Connor’s main force , now far beyond Buq Buq , swept on to besiege Bardia , one battalion was left behind on the battlefield to salvage Italian guns and vehicles to be sent to Greeks once they accepted British aid with Churchill’s backing.

The relationship between Graziani and Mussolini at the other hand was getting worse and worse. In a telegram Graziani accused Mussolini of never having listened to him and pushing him into a futile adventure. Graziani also called for a massive German air support , protesting that “one can not break steel armor with fingernails” Mussolini as always when a military disaster threatened , blamed his fighting men “Five generals of ours are prisoners and one is dead only.” he told to his son-in-law and Italian Foreign Secretary Count Ciano. “This is the percentage of Italians who have military characteristics and who had none”