Operation Compass – O’Connor’s Victory

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December 1940 the Western Desert is preparing to counter attack the Italian armies that are menacing Egypt. Operation Compass provided a much needed morale boost to the British people. A quarter of a million Italian soldiers are defeated by a British force numbering 36,000 in Egypt and Libya, setting the tone for Italy’s poor North African campaign.

 

The Italian invasion of Egypt in September 1940 ground to a halt at Sidi Barrani, 60 miles short of Mersa Matruh, having apparently run out of gas, water and energy. The leading Italian formations then spent the next two months building a number of fortified camps running in a quadrant out into the desert from Maktila on the coast to Sofafi at the top of the Escarpment. On December 9 General Richard O’Connor launched Operation Compass, a five day raid by both divisions of the Western Desert Force. It was intended to attack two or more of the fortified camps, menace the others on the Escarpment, shell Italian barracks and garrisons in Sidi Barrani and Maktila, and, if all went, advance as far as the frontier wire and destroy any other enemy installations there.

They were then to collect as many prisoners as possible before withdrawing either along the coast to Mersa Matruh or down into the desert. It caught Italians totally by surprise, with the majority of the garrisons in the course of preparing breakfast. Ponderous and irresistible, the line of Matildas appeared over the crest half a mile from the main entrances to the camps, brushed aside any vestige of defense put up against them, burst through the gateways and fanned out across the camp areas like avenging furies. They were impervious to any fire, even from the Italian artillery.

Nibeiwa was in British hands by noon, the Tummar camp to the north by evening and the camp nearest to the coast surrendered the following morning without firing a shot. Meanwhile Sidi Barrani had been occupied, the forward patrols of the 7th Armored Division were probing westward to the wire, and by the evening of December 10 on of the greatest problems facing Western Desert Force was dealing with some 20,000 Prisoners. Bardia was surrounded by the Australians by December 17 and assaulted by them on January 3, by the evening of January 6, the last Italian defenses had collapsed, thousands more prisoners were trudging eastwards, and one British armored brigade – the 7th had reached El Adem on their drive to seal off Tobruk. Their vehicles desperately needed overhauling the drivers eyes were red rimmed and everyone was hungrier and thirstier than they had believed possible but they were winning and this made up for everything The Australian 19th Brigade and the riflemen of the 7th Support Group arrived on the Tobruk perimeter on January 12, the other two Australian brigades following on the 17th.

On January 21, covered by the guns of the support group and the small calibre fire of the tanks, the Australian infantry mounted the first attack on Tobruk. It was all over in 36 hours few of the Italian posts were held with any degree of determination, and the naval garrison around the port gave up with out a shot fired. The folowing morning new orders reached the men of Western Desert Force: they were now to mount a raid on Benghazi, so their advance must continue westwards – the Australian movin on Derna, 7th Armored Division concentrating at Mechili, on the Trig el Abd, south of the Jebel Akhdar bulge. They were there by February 2.

Excitement kept them all going. They were driving vehicles in dire need of service and maintenance, over appalling country about which almost nothing was known except that it led in the right direction. They had aboard the vehicles two days supply of food and water, just enough petrol to get them to the target area and as much ammunition as they could find room for. But the leading armored cars were chasing an astonished garrison out of the fort at Msus by the afternoon on February 4, the first cruiser tanks arrived there the following morning, and by the afternoon guns and infantry of the support group had raced down to Antelat and then across the coast road at Beda Fomm. By 1600 a battalion of the rifle brigade was established across the road with gun positions in support to their rear and armored cars patrolling the stretch of beach on their left. Altogether, the force consisted of about 600 men.

Italian Counter Attack

When the morning came one small attack was launched against the British lines by 13 M13 tanks, which had been brought up to the head of the column during the night; but it was met by a storm of fire. When the smoke of battle cleared, the astonished watchers saw 13 smoldering and stationary Italian tanks, some with their tracks blown off, some with their crews shot by fire, one stopped only meters from the tent from which the action had all been directed. In ten weeks, General O’Connors force had advanced 500 miles and destroyed the Italian 10th Army, taking 130,000 prisoners including sever generals at a cost to themselves of 550 killed or missing, and 1373 wounded.

It was a remarkable feat by any standards and now, despite the condition of their equipment, all the men of the force were sure they could drag themselves farther, on and into Tripoli, thus driving the Italians completely out of North Africa. With this in mind O’Connors chief staff officer dashed back to Cairo. He arrived early in the morning on February 12, and at 1000 was ushered into General Wavell’s office. All the maps of the desert that had previously covered the long wall were gone; in their place was a huge map of Greece. “You see Eric” said Wavell gesturing towards it. ” I am planning my spring campaign!” Development in the Balkans had conspired to rob O’Connor and his men of their greatest victory.

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