Wavell had been looking for an opportunity to attack the Italians since before the invasion of Egypt, and had ordered a study into the possible problems presented by an advance into eastern Libya as early as 11 September 1940. After Graziani’s force had been immobile around Sidi Barrani for a month he ordered Lieutenant-General Wilson to begin planning for a rapid, limited attack involving the 7th Armoured Division, the 4th Indian Division and the Mersa Matruh garrison. By this time the Italians had four divisions and Raggruppamento Maletti ensconced in a chain of ten fortified positions located roughly on a line running south for the thirty-odd miles between Maktila and Bir Enba on the edge of the coastal escarpment, and then west along the escarpment for a further twenty miles to Sofafi. Starting at the coast, Sidi Barrani was held by the 4° MSVN Division, with the 1° Libica Division holding Maktila and a fortified camp to the east of the town. The 2° Libica Division occupied three camps around Tummar, Raggruppamento Maletti one at Nibeiwa, and the remaining four at Rabia and around Sofafi were held by the Cirene Division. Further west, the Catanzaro Division was concentrated near Buq Buq, the Marmarica west of Sofafi and around Halfaya, and the 1st and 2nd MSVN Divisions were located near the border at Sidi Omar and the Sollum-Fort Capuzzo region respectively.
The information painstakingly gathered by the 11th Hussars and Jock Columns showed that while the Italian camps were generally well constructed and laid out, frequently with protective minefields, anti-tank ditches and wire, they were too far apart to provide mutual support. This was especially the case in the centre of the Italian line where the camps at Nibeiwa and Rabia were separated by almost twenty miles, an opening dubbed the Enba Gap. Graziani later claimed to have brought this to the attention of the commander of 10° Armata in November 1940, but whether that was ex post facto justification or not, nothing was done. Initial planning discussions involved only Wilson, his Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant-General O’Connor and Major-General Creagh, in part because the raid on the Maktila camp had stressed the importance of tight security. The resulting scheme, codenamed Operation COMPASS, was largely O’Connor’s and envisaged a two-pronged attack. The northern prong involved an advance along the coast road to attack the 1st Libica Division at Maktila and thus distract Italian attention from the Enba Gap, by a 1,800 strong force drawn from the troops holding Mersa Matruh. Christened ‘Selby Force’ after its commander Brigadier A.R. Selby, it was made up of the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards, three companies drawn from the Northumberland Fusiliers, the South Staffordshire Regiment and Cheshire Regiments respectively, a detachment from the Durham Light Infantry, and tanks from A Troop, 7th Hussars.
The main blow was to be delivered from further south. The 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions were to carry out a sixty mile approach march to a concentration area approximately fifteen miles south-east of Nibeiwa. They would then attack through the Enba Gap, with the 4th Armoured Brigade heading north toward Azziziya, midway between Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani. Its running mate, the 7th Armoured Brigade, was to form a screen between the Gap and the Italian camps at Rabia and Sofafi, and act as an exploitation reserve. While the armour was rampaging around the Italian rear areas as Hobart had envisioned the 4th Indian Division would attack the Italian camps around Tummar from the rear. Supplies for the operation were to be stockpiled in two large dumps forty miles west of Mersa Matruh from 5 November, well inside the disputed zone between the two armies. Field Supply Depot No.3 was located near the Sidi Barrani–Mersa road ten miles from the coast, and No.4 Field Supply Depot a further fifteen miles to the south, a hundred mile round trip across difficult terrain for the transport units tasked to shuttle the materiel forward from dumps near Qasaba. Each Depot was stocked with sufficient fuel, ammunition, hard scale rations and water for personnel and vehicle cooling systems to last for five days, the period of the attack.48 Thereafter the forces involved were to withdraw and revert to their former defensive posture.
The plan may have been straightforward, but preparations proved to be less so. Wavell had originally intended to keep knowledge of COMPASS from an increasingly impatient Churchill until the planning and preparation was complete, to avoid raising unrealistic expectations and long-range micromanagement from London. This strategy succeeded until the Italians invaded Greece on 28 October 1940, for the effort to assist the Greeks threatened to remove aircraft, troops, anti-aircraft guns and transport needed for COMPASS. Ironically, this placed Wavell in virtually the same predicament as his opposite number Graziani; on 5 November Mussolini informed the latter that he ought to be attacking in Egypt to tie up British forces that might otherwise be sent to Greece. In order to avoid having the forces allocated to COMPASS stripped away Wavell therefore revealed the operation to Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden when the latter visited the Middle East on Churchill’s orders on 8 November; the latter was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what he perceived as Wavell’s failure to make the best use of his reinforcements. Churchill reacted with characteristic aggression on learning of COMPASS, insisting that any success should be exploited to the full, and his dissatisfaction with Wavell was reinforced when he saw the content of a cable from him to Chief of Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John Dill pointing out that ‘undue hopes [were] being placed on this operation which was designed as a raid only. We are greatly outnumbered on ground and in air, have to move over 75 miles of desert and attack enemy who has fortified himself for three months. Please do not encourage optimism.’ Churchill’s response was equally forthright, expressing shock and the opinion that Wavell was ‘playing small’ and thus failing to rise to the occasion in the spirit required. This may have been the driver for a memo Wavell sent to Wilson while the COMPASS force was moving to its jump off positions, which acknowledged that it was ‘possible that an opportunity may offer for converting the enemy’s defeat into an outstanding victory’, and asking that if so all ranks be ‘prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest’.
Be that as it may, it was too late for Churchill to interfere for good or ill as COMPASS was scheduled to begin on 9 December 1940. Security remained tight, and the Western Desert Force’s senior commanders were not informed of the plan until 2 November 1940; Wavell briefed the senior commanders in Kenya and the Sudan the same day. O’Connor issued strict instructions that nothing was to be committed to paper until shortly before the attack commenced, and the troops were not to be informed until they were en route to their assembly areas. The latter thus had no idea that Training Exercise No.1 carried out near Mersa Matruh on 25–26 November was actually a full-scale rehearsal for COMPASS, and that Training Exercise No.2 was in fact the opening stages of the Operation. The first unit to move was the 7th RTR, which reached Field Supply Depot No.4 en route to an ‘exercise’ area in the vicinity of Bir el Kenayis, forty miles south west of Mersa Matruh, on Thursday 5 December. Having only been in Egypt for two months, this was the unit’s first foray into what desert veterans referred to as ‘the blue’, and its early start was necessary because the forty-five Tank, Infantry, Mk.IIs with which the unit was equipped were only capable of eight miles per hour cross country. Despite this the unit was O’Connor’s ace in the hole, and not merely because the Italians were unaware of its presence in Egypt. The twenty-six ton Matilda, as the vehicle was popularly known, weighed over twice as much as the Italian M11/39, and the former’s 78mm cast armour was not only twice as thick but also impervious to Italian anti-tank weapons. The 4th Indian Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, followed on 6 December, and remained dispersed around Bir el Kenayis for thirty-six hours, to give the impression of routine training; an Italian reconnaissance aircraft flew overhead during a well attended church parade on 7 December.
The 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Brigadier J.R.L. Caunter in lieu of a temporarily hospitalised Creagh, left its nearby harbour area for the forward concentration area on 7 December; as this was only fifteen miles from Nibeiwa the division went into hard routine on arrival, with no fires or unnecessary movement. The air preparation for COMPASS began the same night, with a raid by eleven Malta-based Wellingtons that destroyed or damaged twenty-nine Italian aircraft at Castel Benito airfield near Tripoli. The following night a mixed force of Wellingtons and Blenheim Mk.IVs destroyed ten more at Benina, while other Blenheims attacked Italian forward airfields. Even obsolete Bristol Bombay bomber/transports from No. 216 Squadron were pressed into service to bomb the Italian forward positions. No. 202 Group’s fighter contingent were employed in creating and maintaining air superiority over the COMPASS ground forces; almost 400 fighter sorties were made in the first week of the Operation, with some pilots carrying out four in a single day. In the process they claimed thirty-five Italian machines shot down and a further twelve possibles for a loss of six RAF aircraft and three pilots.
That lay in the future, however, and by the late afternoon of 8 December the 4th Indian Division had also reached the concentration area near Nibeiwa and O’Connor had set up his forward HQ nearby at a location codenamed ‘Piccadilly Circus’. This was no mean feat in itself, involving as it did moving some 36,000 men and in excess of 5,000 vehicles undetected across sixty miles of open desert. The move may not have gone totally unnoticed, for an Italian reconnaissance pilot reported 400 vehicles at various points approximately forty miles south-east of Nibeiwa at around midday on 8 December, but no account appears to have been taken of his report. O’Connor’s force carried out its final preparations and moves up to start lines under cover of darkness on the night of 8–9 December. The 7th Armoured Division moved up into the Enba Gap, and sent back guides to direct 7th RTR and 11th Indian Brigade to their jump off positions for the opening attack on the Nibeiwa camp. To the north the noise of Selby Force moving into position was concealed by Royal Navy gunfire. A Bombarding Force consisting of HM Monitor Terror, the minesweeper Bagshot and the gunboats Aphis and Ladybird had sailed from Alexandria at 20:00 on 7 December. Terror and Aphis were to concentrate on Italian strongpoints and transport parks, while Ladybird was to shell gun positions and troop tents just to the west at Sidi Barrani; the latter was intended as cover for a Commando raid against Italian communications and pipelines, but the landing was prevented by heavy seas that also prostrated the raiders with seasickness. The bombardment began at 23:00 on 8 December and lasted for ninety minutes, although dust and misdropped flares from supporting Fairey Swordfish from HMS Illustrious made spotting difficult.
The Italian camp at Nibeiwa was occupied by Generale Pietro Maletti’s Raggruppamento, with a battalion of M11/39 medium tanks, a battalion of L3/35 Light Tanks and 2,500 Libyan infantry. The camp measured a mile by a mile and a half and was protected by a perimeter wall, an anti-tank ditch and berm, barbed wire and a perimeter minefield. However, on the night of 7–8 December a reconnaissance patrol from the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade located a gap in the defences at the north-western corner of the camp where supply columns passed back and forth; approximately twenty tanks, mostly M11/39s, were deployed outside the camp in a screen to protect this weak point. The action began shortly before 05:00 on Monday 9 December with an hour long diversion against the eastern side of the camp, followed by a light shelling on the south-east corner of the camp at 07:00. The main attack commenced at 07:15 with a simultaneous artillery concentration from seventy-two guns on selected targets within the perimeter and attack by two Squadrons of the 7th RTR against the north-western gap. The vehicles in the protective tank screen were unmanned, and the Matildas proceeded to pick them off at leisure before advancing into the camp proper, followed at 07:45 by the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and the 1st/6th Rajputana Rifles.
As at Nezuet Ghirba back in June, some of the Italians attempted to make up for operational incompetence with raw courage. Artillery men fired ineffectually at the Matilda IIs at point blank while others attacked the armoured behemoths with hand grenades, and the British were obliged to bring up artillery pieces to reduce some stubborn groups of defenders. Most were simply overawed by the speed and surprise of the assault, however, and by 10:40 Nibeiwa camp had been secured at a cost of fifty-six British and Indian casualties. Italian losses are unclear, but the dead included Generale Maletti and his aide-de-camp son, who had been cut down as they emerged from the tent where they had been awaiting breakfast. The British captured between 2,000 and 4,000 prisoners and twenty-three tanks along with numerous transport vehicles, water and supplies. The latter included large numbers of dress uniforms and associated accoutrements, freshly made beds and a positive cornucopia of food and drink. According to a journalist on the spot, the latter included freshly baked bread, fresh vegetables, jars of liqueurs, hundreds of cases of Rocoaro brand mineral water, huge amounts of spaghetti and macaroni and Parmesan cheeses the size of wagon-wheels.
While this was going on the 4th Armoured Brigade was forging northward. Elements of the 11th Hussars reached the Sidi Barrani-Buq Buq road at 09:00, and within a few moments had captured eight trucks and fifty POWs. They were joined by the rest of the Brigade shortly thereafter, which had taken another 400 POWs at Azziziya when the garrison surrendered without firing a shot. With Sidi Barrani thus cut off from reinforcement the 11th Hussars began probing to the west while the 7th Hussars crossed the road and patrolled north toward the coast. Back to the south-east the 5th Indian Brigade had attacked the next camp in the chain, Tummar West, with the arrival of the 7th RTR at around 11:00, although the latter had lost six Matilda IIs immobilised by mines leaving Nibeiwa. Preparations were complicated by a sandstorm and the arrival of the Regia Aeronautica, which scattered bombs randomly into the dust cloud. However the Matildas and infantry from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers attack finally went in through another gap in the defences at 13:30.
The Tummar West garrison put up stiffer resistance and the Fusiliers were obliged to fight through with grenades, bayonets and rifle-butts; one group of dug-outs in the centre of the camp held out until Matildas were brought in to crush the shelters under their tracks. By 16:00 the surviving defenders had been pinned down in the south-east corner of the camp, and they surrendered after negotiations by an Italian general and thirteen senior officers, putting another 2,000 POWs into the British bag. The garrison of the Tummar East camp had been reduced substantially when two M11/39 tanks, six trucks and a large number of infantry sallied forth to assist their neighbours and unwittingly traversed the frontage of the 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles and a machine-gun detachment from the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers. The tanks were knocked out with Boys anti-tank rifles and the infantry driven back into their camp, leaving 400 dead and wounded behind them. The 7th RTR’s sixteen running Matilda IIs redeployed and penetrated Tummar East in the early evening but the attack was called off due to the onset of darkness and a thickening of the ongoing sandstorm.
Word of events at the Tummar camps was carried by survivors to the main Italian force engaged with Selby Force east of Sidi Barrani. The senior Italian officer there, Generale di Corpo Sebastiano Gallina, had informed Graziani that afternoon that the entire area of his command was ‘infested’ with British mechanised forces against which he had no effective counter. The commander of the infestation came forward to 4th Indian Division’s HQ near Nibeiwa at 17:00 and expressed his pleasure with progress. Although nothing had been heard of Selby Force, the fact that 4th Armoured Brigade had been left largely unmolested astride the Sidi Barrani-Buq Buq road suggested that the Italian garrison at Sidi Barrani and Maktila were being kept occupied, while the camps at Rabia and Sofafi had also remained passive. O’Connor therefore instructed the 7th Armoured Division to despatch the 8th Hussars to a blocking position west of Sofafi, and ordered the 4th Indian Division to reduce the remaining camps at Tummar East and Point 90 the next day, and to send its reserve formation, the attached 16th Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier C.E.N. Lomax, north to join the 4th Armoured Brigade in preparation for an attack on Sidi Barrani; Lomax moved off on receipt of the order and covered part of the distance during the night.
Operations on 10 December were again hampered by sand storms but began well with the surrender of the Tummar East camp at dawn without a fight. The 16th Infantry Brigade was on the move by 06:00, prompted in part by Italian artillery fire on its exposed night position. After a stiff fight involving the 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Alam el Dab, eight miles or so east of Azziziya, the Brigade was in position across the routes running west and south from Sidi Barrani by 13:30. Eager to press his advantage, Beresford-Peirse engaged in some hasty reorganisation. The 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to cover the 16th Infantry Brigade’s left flank with the Cruiser-equipped 2nd RTR and to send the 6th RTR to reinforce Selby Force, and the 7th RTR’s remaining serviceable Matilda IIs were assigned to assist Lomax as well. That done, the 16th Infantry Brigade was ordered to launch an attack on Sidi Barrani, which began with a divisional artillery concentration at 16:00 hours. Within thirty minutes the attackers had passed right through the town in spite of a severe sandstorm, and at 17:15 the 6th RTR overran the Italian defences east of the town. The action cost the 16th Infantry Brigade 277 casualties but left the remnants of the 1° and 2° Libica and 4° MVSN Divisions trapped against the sea in a pocket ten miles long and five miles deep, bloodied but as yet unbowed; a subsequent attack at around midnight by the 6th RTR was rebuffed, largely due to the efforts of Italian artillerymen, and reduced the unit’s strength to twelve tanks.
Thus by the end of the second day of Operation COMPASS the Italian camps north of the Enba Gap and Sidi Barrani itself were in British hands. The exception was the camp at Point 90, where elements of the 2nd Libica Division continued to hold out. The impact of all this on the Italians only became apparent on the third day, 11 December. The Italian troops bottled up east of Sidi Barrani began to give up as soon as the British renewed the attack at dawn, the 1st Libica Division formally surrendering by 13:00, and the 4th MVSN Division by nightfall. To the south, patrols from the Support Group found that the Cirene Division had abandoned the camps at Rabia and around Sofafi during the night. The last to give in were the 2nd Libica holdouts at Point 90. When the Italian commander responded to demands for surrender by saying that he intended to fight to the death, a deliberate attack was organised by the 3rd/1st Punjab Regiment, supported by seven Matilda IIs from the 7th RTR, two of which turned up at the last moment after hasty repair, and two RA Field Regiments. They found 2,000 Libyan troops waiting patiently to surrender complete with packed luggage, the fight to the death threat being merely a face saving ploy by their commander. By nightfall on Wednesday, 11 December 1940 the British had captured between 20,000 and 38,300 prisoners, seventy-three tanks, 237 guns and over 1,000 transport vehicles. The fighting cost the British and Indians 624 killed, wounded and missing, with 153 of these coming from the 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Operation COMPASS had therefore far exceeded expectations for a limited raid within three days. In the process the military situation on Egypt’s western border was totally recast, prompting a shift in British thinking.