Western Desert Force:
The Initial Campaign, Part Two

By David Lippman
March 2016

In Part One, the Italian Tenth Army moved slowly into Egypt, and then stopped. Initiative passed to the British.

British Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor devised a simple and straightforward five-day raid, called Operation Compass, that would take advantage of the spread-out Italian forces and their poor deployments. Between the 63rd Division’s camp at Rabia in the south and Maletti Group at Nibeiwa to the north was the 20-mile undefended Enba Gap. O’Connor planned to pour 4th Indian Division and 7th Armoured Division through it and drive to the sea, thus trapping four Italian divisions from behind. 16th British Brigade, reinforced by a company of motorized Free French Marines, would be the anvil of this hammer, pinning the Italians from the East while the tanks and Indian troops stormed in from behind, in the West. Wavell approved the plan without telling O’Connor that as soon as the raid was over, 4th Indian would be withdrawn to Sudan.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. When the troops headed west to their start-lines, they were told they were merely going on “Training Exercise No. 2.”

There would be no artillery firing for registration. Instead O’Connor’s guns would blast away at the eastern side of the Italian defenses at the precise time his infantry and tanks hit them from the west. That would require an approach march through the enemy defense zone and a start-line in its rear; both violations of staff college procedure.

The British were outnumbered by their Italian opponents, and the British material quality varied greatly. The infantry would go into battle armed with reliable Lee-Enfield .303-caliber rifles, Bren machine-guns, Mills grenades, and well-tried tactical procedures. Artillery centered around the reliable and maneuverable 25-pounder (86mm) field gun, which was mounted in battle on a giant wheel, enabling it to turn quickly, and offered a high rate of fire.

Armored fighting vehicles, on the other hand, came in a wide array. The 11th Hussars, a regiment so exclusive it did not commission officers from the ranks even in wartime, drove 1910-model Rolls-Royce armored cars around the desert. The British Matilda tank packed a reliable 2-pound (40mm) in incredibly thick armor, but moved very slowly.

The Royal Air Force had years of experience at maintaining and flying aircraft in the horrible desert climate, where sand got into every moving part, but the aircraft were outdated even by 1940 standards. The primary British fighter was the Gloster Gladiator, the RAF’s last major biplane fighter, which at least offered its pilot a closed cockpit. The Blenheim and Wellington bombers were reliable machines, but many other planes were outdated: Vickers Valentia and Bristol Bombay transports, for example. There were only a few Hurricanes, and absolutely no Spitfires – these were not deployed out of besieged Britain until 1942.

The human equation was better. Many of the British and Indian troops were long-service men, with years of experience at fighting rebels and raiders on the Afghan border and playing hard soccer games in their cantonments. They spoke a peculiar mix of English, Arabic, Hindustani, and Urdu, knew their jobs, tactics, and equipment, and took their jobs seriously, themselves less so.

Another problem O’Connor faced was that the whole paraphernalia of modern offensive warfare in the desert had not even been invented yet. He lacked water pipelines, tank transporters, tank recovery vehicles, and tank-towing vehicles. All British vehicles had to carry themselves everywhere, which wore out their engines, consumed fuel, and exposed them to natural and man-made hazards, even before they faced the enemy. The British fuel can was inferior to its German rival, and spilled a great deal of petrol, wasting nearly 30 percent of British gasoline. Trucks to carry everything from toilet paper to tank shells were in short supply.

That ubiquitous marvel of the latter half of the war, the American deuce-and-a-half ton truck, had not appeared, either. The British had to use Bedford army lorries, which had nowhere near the reliability or capacity of their later American replacements. To solve this logistics gap, O’Connor ordered supply dumps to be laid out ahead of his troops’ advance. With the supplies deployed ahead of the advance, O’Connor’s vehicles would simply carry men and guns.

“I can’t describe my feelings,” O’Connor wrote later, “other than to say that I was sure it would be successful. It was a sound plan, a bit complicated perhaps, but I had every reason to rely on my commanders, their staff and the troops – all who were in good heart.”

Meanwhile, the Italians dithered. Graziani himself helped intrigue to remove the Chief of Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who resigned Nov. 26th. A few days later, the 10th Army commander, Gen. Mario Berti, went home to Italy on sick leave, leaving Gen. Italo Gariboldi in field command. That caused command paralysis, as no replacement for Badoglio was assigned until Dec. 6th, when Marshal Ugo Cavallero took over.

On the evening of December 8th, O’Connor began his attack with air and naval bombardment of the Italian camps. The Cameron Highlanders’ bagpipes led the men into their forward positions under a full moon and starry sky. The British moved forward, troops dragging extra grenades, three days’ rations, wearing heavy underwear, overcoats, and woollen sweaters in the cold air. Vehicles of the 4th Indian Division rumbled into position, and were ready to attack the Italian camps from the west by dawn. It was the first British offensive since 1918, and not only were the Italians and Germans surprised – but the Americans, as well.

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. Eleventh Indian Brigade charged into Maletti 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. The Matilda tanks’ 78mm armor was impervious to Italian anti-tank weapons.

“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.” Maletti himself leaped up from his bed, firing his submachine-gun. A British burst cut up the general, and he staggered back into bed to die. His son was captured, along with more than 2,000 PoWs and 35 tanks. The Indians lost 56 officers and men.

Fifth Indian Brigade jumped the Tummar Camps from behind, hitting the mostly native 2nd Libyans. The Libyan troops fought with considerable gusto, being trained since childhood as soldiers. Italian artillerymen also fought to the last, but their shells bounced off British tanks. Nearly 4,000 Italians were captured, along with considerable wine stocks.

British and Indian troops swarmed all over the camps, finding donkeys and mules everywhere, braying helplessly. War correspondent Alan Moorehead was stunned to find that Italian officers lived in tents with clean sheets, with chests and drawers full of dress uniforms, medals, and braid. Moorehead himself went through 30 dugouts, finding wine, bread, mineral water, liqueurs, and tinned vegetables. The Italians also had a huge hospital, in which both sides’ doctors cared for the wounded.

The British also found vast quantities of field telephones, radios, typewriters, trucks, guns, and ammunition. British workshops got 15 captured M13 tanks running, but the 10-ton Italian trucks were less useful – their tires shook the vehicles to pieces. The battlefield was also covered with paper – left behind by Italian record-keeping.

Meanwhile, 7th Armoured’s tanks had a busy advance. Sgt. Harry Kirkham of 4th Brigade’s 6th Royal Tank Regiment found Italian vehicles surrendering left and right. His driver discovered a cash box with 35,000 Lira, which delighted the crew. Seventh Armoured roared up on Buq Buq, held by 64th Catanzaro Division. Soon a British officer radioed, “Up to second ‘B ‘ of ‘Buq Buq.’” The 7th Hussars reported, “As far as I can see we have captured acres of officers and hundreds of acres of men.” By the end of the 10th, both the 4th Blackshirt and 1st Libyan Divisions were surrounded, with the British taking Sidi Barrani at 4:40 p.m.

Sidi Barrani, where Radio Rome said the “trams were running,” turned out to be 20 houses and a police station, all wrecked, including two small brothels, both of which were open for business. The British found an abandoned Italian field hospital, complete with an appendicitis patient lying on the table, with instruments sticking out of him. The only thing still intact was Graziani’s six-foot high monument, decorated with Fasces, and an inscription, that “despite wind and sand and the wiles of the enemy,” Egypt and Libya were inseparably joined together under Fascist rule. The British disposed of the monument with armor-piercing shot.

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 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 mechanised army against which I have no adequate means,” he radioed Graziani.

It fell on Mussolini in Rome, too. “News of the attack on Sidi Barrani 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. Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels was calm, too, writing in his diary, “One can only comfort oneself with the fact that the Italians always suffer defeats but in the end always end up on the winning side. So it will be this time, too.”

On the 11th, 2nd Blackshirts and 64th Cantanzaro Division tried to flee, but ran smack into British tanks, and disintegrated. Alan Moorehead watched in amazement as 7,000 men of the Catanzaro Division, four abreast, in green coats and cloth caps, cheerily plodded into captivity, guarded by two Bren carriers.

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 remaining Italian forces were in full flight. The obvious thing would be to follow up success with a continued advance.

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.