Operation compass began on 7 December with a two-day, 70-mile march by British forces across the desert. After passing through a gap between the Italian camps, Major General Noel Beresford-Peirse's 4th Indian Division stormed Nibeiwa camp from the rear, with 50 Matilda infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment at the spearhead. The British surprised the Italian garrison and took 4,000 prisoners, almost without loss.
British forces also stormed Tummar East and West camps that same day, and overran the camps around Sidi Barrani the next day. On the third day, Major General Michael Creagh's 7th Armoured Division—the famous Desert Rats—swept westward to the coast beyond Buq Buq and cut the Italian line of retreat. In three days, the British captured 40,000 Italian troops and 400 guns; the remnants of the Italian army took refuge in Bardia, the first town inside Libya, and were rapidly surrounded.
These astonishing results were unforeseen and caused immense problems. The Indian 4th Division was recalled for dispatch to Sudan, as previously planned, leading to the unusual spectacle of British troops withdrawing eastward just as the Italians fled west. The Australian 6th Division, commanded by Major General Iven Mackay, was transferred from Palestine, but the shortage of trucks and the need to feed and evacuate huge numbers of prisoners led to a three-week delay before the operation could be resumed. The ingenious development of field supply dumps in the desert alleviated the problems of transporting supplies across long distances, but the operation's success was only possible because of the capture of large numbers of Italian trucks.
Generale di Corpo (U.S. equiv. lieutenant general) d'Armata Annibale "Electric Whiskers" Bergonzoli signaled to Mussolini, "In Bardia we are and here we stay." The Australian infantry, supported by British battleship gunfire support, began the assault on 3 January 1941. After three days, the Italian garrison of 45,000 men surrendered, with 462 guns and 129 tanks. The Matilda tanks, which were almost invulnerable to the Italian guns, were again the key to the rapid success, and the Australian commander claimed that each tank was worth an entire infantry battalion.
Even before the fighting concluded, 7th Armoured Division drove west to encircle and isolate Tobruk, which was attacked on 21 January. Although just 16 of the precious Matildas were still running, they once again made the vital penetration, and the fortress fell the next day, yielding 30,000 Italian prisoners, 236 guns, and 87 tanks.
Tobruk's large port allowed supplies to be delivered by sea direct from Alexandria, and O'Connor intended to allow XIII Corps, as the WDF was known from 1 January 1941, to recuperate. On 3 February, however, intelligence revealed that the Italians were preparing to abandon Cyrenaica and withdraw beyond the El Algheila bottleneck. O'Connor immediately planned a daring initiative and sent his depleted tanks from Mechili across almost 100 miles of the roughest country in North Africa in just 33 hours to cut off the fleeing Italians at Beda Fomm late on 5 February. In a fitting climax, the miniscule British force of no more than 3,000 men and 39 Cruiser tanks held off Italian attempts to break out until the morning of 7 February when, completely demoralized, 20,000 Italians surrendered, with 216 guns and 120 tanks.
In a scant 10 weeks, the Commonwealth force of two divisions advanced more than 700 miles and captured 130,000 Italian prisoners, more than 380 tanks, 845 guns, and well over 3,000 vehicles at the relatively slight cost of 500 killed, 1,373 wounded, and 55 missing. O'Connor far exceeded all expectations, but he was confident that he could continue his advance to Tripoli and completely clear Africa of all Italian forces. Historians have since argued that a golden opportunity to finish the war in Africa was wasted, but recent research has shown that, without an operational port at Benghazi to maintain an advance, supply difficulties would have proven impossible. Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill had already directed Wavell to halt the advance at Benghazi in favor of the campaign in Greece and leave only a minimum force to hold Cyrenaica against the recently arrived German general Erwin Rommel.
Paul H. Collier
Baynes, John. The Forgotten Victor: General Sir Richard O'Connor. London: Brassey's, 1989.; Collier, Paul. "The Capture of Tripoli in 1941: ‘Open Sesame' or Tactical Folly?" War and Society 20, no. 1 (May 2002): 81–97.; Pitt, Barrie. The Crucible of War: Western Desert, 1941. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.