The initial phases of Operation Compass had been very successful. The Italians had been surprised in the fortified encampments which they had established inside Egypt. They were pushed back over the border into Libya but they had had the opportunity to consolidate in a string of fortified positions along the coast. The need to bring up the Australian 6th Division to replace the 4th Indian Division had given them something of a breathing space. The British forces no longer had the advantage of surprise but were determined to press on. The Australian troops were put into battle almost as soon as they arrived.
In the early hours of the 3rd January 1941 Australian troops formed up for a assault on the garrison of Bardia, the first small port town in the line of the advance along the coast. It was a bitterly cold night in the desert and some men found the water freezing in their water bottles. A heavy artillery bombardment preceded the attack, supported by naval gunfire from the sea. Then the main infantry assault moved forward with Bangalore torpedoes which blew apart gaps in the Italian wire. Very soon the Italian defensive positions had been breached. Resistance was very mixed. Some units surrendered in their bunkers immediately, elsewhere there was fierce fighting. As the day progressed increasing numbers of Italians sought to escape further along the coast.
Tanks were used to support diversionary attacks in different places along the defensive perimeter. Captain Rea Leakey describes how Matilda tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment rushed up to the wire and then turned about before repeating the process to draw the fire of the Italian guns. ‘As the shelling increased each tank jinked and dodged about to give the enemy a difficult target’. Most of the tanks had their hatches closed down, reducing the commanders visibility but providing greater protection against the shellfire.
In the last run that we made, one of the light tanks got a little too close to an anti-tank gun and received several direct hits which penetrated the armour. Of the crew of three the driver was killed by the first shot, and the commander, our newest young officer, had one of his hands shattered. The driver’s foot still rested on the accelerator and the tank continued to motor in towards the enemy. All this the young commander told us over the air, and we were powerless to help him.
He was still talking on the wireless when suddenly he yelled, ‘the tank’s on fire.’ He must have then dropped his microphone, but the wireless was switched to ‘send’, and it broadcast to the rest of the squadron the happenings inside that turret.
The tank was closed down, and before the two in the turret could bale out they had to open up the hatches. We heard the gunner yelling to his officer to help him because by this time he had evidently been wounded, while the commander shouted that both hatches were stuck fast.
Then all we heard were the most terrible screams of agony; they were being burnt alive while their tomb of fire still drove on towards the enemy. This was one of the worst experiences I have had, and even after many years I wake up in a cold sweat and realize that I have been haunted by that so vivid scene.