The Italian base at Bardia besieged

A Matilda II tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940.

Operation Compass was progressing in North Africa. Launched on the 9th December the Italian base at Sidi Barrani had been captured quickly and now other italian bases along the coast were in the sights of the British. Captain Rea Leakey was with the 7th Armoured Brigade as it pursued the Italian army into Libya. They found themselves slowed down by the number of prisoners wanting to surrender to them. Then on the outskirts of Bardia they encountered some Italian tanks and went in pursuit of them:

Leaving the prisoners to find their own way to captivity, we pushed on in pursuit of the tanks, and we now found ourselves deployed either side of the road leading to Bardia. As we came over a rise I could see the Italian tanks moving on to the road and in turn passing through the heavily fortified defences that surrounded Bardia. These stretched from shore to shore round the town and harbour. The barbed wire, concrete pill-boxes and anti- tank ditch remain to this day.

With each passing second we drew closer to the defences, and what an opportunity this was to penetrate them before the ‘gate’ was closed. I gave the order to advance with all speed and as my tank was on the road, I was soon well in the lead. We could not have been more than half a mile from the barrier when the whole desert seemed to erupt about me. Every gun in Bardia fortress which could bring fire to bear on this area was now in action, and it was quite clear to me that we were not going to win this battle. I gave the order to ‘about turn’ and get to hell out of the area as fast as possible.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives

The Italian garrison of Bardia now became the next objective but there was a pause in the action as the 6th Australian Division moved forward from Cairo to join the battle. From the Military Situation report for the week ending 19th December 1940:

Middle East. Egypt.

21. By the 13th December the elimination of the Italian 64th Division (captured complete at Buq Buq) and 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions had been confirmed, and the number of prisoners taken was estimated at 25,000. The enemy was then withdrawing from the Bir Sofafi area towards Sollum, pursued by a mobile column formed from the 7th Armoured Division. The withdrawal was subject to heavy air bombing.

22. On the 16th December Sollum and Fort Oapuzzo were evacuated, the garrisons withdrawing into the Bardia defences, the exit from which was blocked by 4th Armoured Brigade astride the Tobruk road.

23. By the 17th December the frontier forts of Musaid, Sidi Omar and Sheferzen had been captured, and a further 800 prisoners and a battery of artillery taken. The 16th Australian Brigade, operating from Siwa, dispersed an enemy column,withdrawing from Jarabub.

24. On the 19th December advanced elements of our troops, which have successfully contained numerically superior forces of the enemy in Bardia, were being steadily reinforced, and the position of the Italian Army in this area may be regarded as precarious.

25. The number of prisoners taken so far is 31,546, including 1,626 officers. Several thousand more prisoners are being evacuated from the battle areas.

26. The total British and Imperial casualties reported up to the 16th December are 72 killed and 738 wounded.

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