A Matilda tank advances through Egypt as part of Operation Compass.

A Matilda tank advances through Egypt as part of Operation Compass.

(Dec. 4, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the Commonwealth’s Western Desert Force, under the command of Major-Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor, launched “Operation Compass” against the Italian Tenth Army commanded by Gen. Mario Berti.

Three months earlier, Gen. Berti’s Tenth Army had been on the offensive. Three of its corps — XX Motorized, XXI and XXIII Infantry — had moved from the eastern Libyan Province of Cyrenaica, east, along the Mediterranean, into Egypt, approximately 60 miles, recapturing Forts Capuzzo and Maddalena on the Libyan side of the border and occupying Sollum and Sidi Barrani in Egypt.

Sollum is a port town of 14,000 just inside the Egyptian border, while Sidi Barrani is about the same size and is located 60 miles east of the border, and about 200 miles west of Alexandria, home of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

There, Gen. Berti, following orders from the Governor-General of Libya, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, ordered his army to dig-in and to create fortified strong points in an arc from the Mediterranean coast south. Unfortunately, the strong points were too far from each other to give mutual support, and what armor was available, Gen. Berti scattered among the strong points, thereby eliminating his mobile reserve.

The three corps were commanded by Giuseppe di Stefanis, Lorenzo Dalmazzo and Annibale Bergonzoli, a/k/a “Barba Elettrica” (Electric Beard). Gen. Bergonzoli’s XXIII Corps was dispersed all over the desert. The Libyan Corps headquarters and 3rd Gennaio Camicie Nere Division (named for the date of an important speech given by Mussolini in the Italian Parliament in 1925), commanded by Fabio Merzari, were at Sidi Barrani; First Libyan Colonial Infantry Division, commanded by Luigi Sibille, was at Maktila, 10 miles to the west of Sidi Barrani; Second Libyan Colonial Infantry Division, commanded by Armando Pescatori was at Tummar; Cirene Infantry Division, commanded by Carlo Spatocco, was at Sofafi, south of Sidi Barrani; Marmarica Infantry Division, commanded by Ruggero Tracchia, at Sidi Omar, south of Sollum on the Egyptian/Libyan border.

Likewise, Gen. Dalmazzo’s XXI Corps’ 28 Ottobre Camicie Nere Division (named to honor the Fascist march on Rome of Oct. 28, 1922, that brought the party to power in Italy), commanded by Franceso Argentino, was at Halfaya Pass, west of Buq Buq and near the Egyptian/Libyan border, two miles south of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Sirte Division, commanded by Vincenzo della Mura, was at Tobruk, while the Catanzaro Infantry Division, commanded by Giuseppe Stefanelli, was at Buq Buq, to the west of Sidi Barrani. Tenth Army headquarters and 23rd Marzo Camicie Nere Division (so named to honor the date of the founding of the Fascist Party), commanded by Francisco Antonelli, was at Bardia in Libya, less than 9 miles west of the Egyptian border.

The Camicie Nere, or Black Shirt, divisions were composed of Fascist Party “volunteers.” It was thought that their Fascist ardor and elan would compensate for lack of training and proper equipment.

On Oct. 26, Il Duce telegraphed Marshal Graziani and said, “Forty days after the capture of the city of Barrani, I asked myself the question, to whom has this long halt been any use, to us or the enemy? I did not hesitate to answer! It has been of use indeed, more to the enemy! It is time to ask whether you wish to continue in command.”

After much prodding and cajoling by Il Duce, Marshal Graziani had promised that the Tenth Army would resume its offensive on Dec. 15. However, on Oct. 28, Il Duce launched the invasion of Greece, which adventure sucked away supplies that the Tenth Army had been promised, and which it needed, to advance further, and to contest the full strength of the Commonwealth forces.

On Dec. 8, the British commenced their own offensive by an air and naval bombardment of the Italian strong points. The next morning the Tommies moved forward against the position at Nibeiwa, which was 12 miles south of Sidi Barrani. As the Italians were eating breakfast, they heard the swirl of Scottish Bagpipes, and more ominously, the rumble of the heavy Matilda tanks.

Lt. Col. G. R. Stevens of the Fourth Indian Division described the Italian response: “Frightened, dazed or desperate Italians erupted from tents and slit trenches, some to surrender supinely, others to leap gallantly into battle, hurling grenades or blazing machine guns in futile belabour of the impregnable intruders.”

They had no answer for the heavy Matildas. Italian artillerymen continued firing at the heavily armored British tanks, while their shells bounced off the armor, until they were overrun, sometimes literally, by the monstrous 25-ton Matildas.

Gen. Pietro Maletti commanded the garrison of 4,100 soldiers and 23 tanks at Neibeiwa. The general would die at his post directing the ineffective Italian antitank fire. The attack, which had begun at 7:30 a.m., was over in three hours and resulted in Italian and Libyan casualties of 819 dead, 1,338 wounded, 2,000 captured and the loss of 23 tanks.

Following the action at Neibeiwa, Commonwealth forces headed north to Tumar West, which was captured after 2.5 hours. Gen. Pescatori’s Second Libyan Colonial Infantry Division suffered 26 officers and 1,327 soldiers killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded, with the rest captured. Tumar East fell shortly thereafter, finishing Gen. Pescatori’s Second Libyan Colonial Infantry Division when the 4,000 remaining Libyans surrendered.

The layout and spacing of the Italian strong points allowed the British to concentrate superior force against each, reduce them, and then move onto the next. Lt.-Gen. Sebastiano Gallina, commander of the Libyan Corps, reported that the battlefield was, “...infested by a mechanized army against which I have no adequate means.”

To further compound the problems, Gen. Berti was absent on sick leave! The commander of Fifth Army (which was still headquartered in Tripoli, 900 miles away) Italo Gariboldi, was given temporary command of Tenth Army, and relocated, temporarily, to Bardia, 80 miles distant. Eventually, on Dec. 23, Giuseppe Tellera was given command of the remnants of Tenth Army.

In his diary, on Dec.10, Mussolini’s son-in-law, the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, wrote, “News of the attack on Sidi Barrani comes like a thunderbolt. At first it didn’t seem serious but subsequent telegrams from Graziani confirm that we have had a licking.”

Gen. Sibille’s First Libyan Division surrendered that day. For the day, the British captured 20,000 Italian soldiers, 180 guns and 60 tanks at the cost of 600 casualties. One of those escaping the disaster at Sidi Barrani was Lt. Gen. Bergonzoli. The next day, Buq Buq and Sofifi were captured. Count Ciano noted in his diary that Mussolini, “... maintains that the many painful days through which we are living must be inevitable in the changing fortunes of every war.”

By 5 p.m. on December 11, Sidi Barrani had fallen, with 15,000 Italian and Libyan soldiers captured, in exchange for 500 Commonwealth casualties. In the meantime, Prince Albert’s Own Hussars, commanded by Lt. Col. John F.B. Comb engaged Gen. Stefanelli’s Catanzaro Infantry Division at Buq Buq (“murmuring wind”), a few miles west of Sidi Barrani, with the result that it was driven west to Bir Tisdida, south of Sollum, a small port on the Egyptian side of the Libyan border, 90 miles east of Tobruk.

On Dec. 12, Marshal Graziani, in his headquarters far from the battle front, wired Rome to say that Cyrenaica (the eastern half of Libya) was lost, recommended a retreat to Tripoli, and claimed that the battle was like, “a flea against an elephant.”

Mussolini confided to his son-in-law that, “Here is another man with whom I cannot get angry because I despise him.”

Italian Marshal Emilio di Bono commented that, “The Italians have lost the war. Now it is up to the Axis to win it!” Marshal Graziani observed that, “from the harsh experience of these bitter days, we must conclude that in this kind of war a single armored division is more powerful than a whole army.” Both Italian marshals were proved correct.

Next week: Lend-Lease Arrives

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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