Australians herd their Italian prisoners

A few guards escort the masses of Italian prisoners of war from Bardia into captivity, 8th January 1941.

Pictures of the masses of Italian prisoners taken at Bardia were flashed around the world. Mussolini’s military pretensions were revealed to be little more than a posture. His troops were also retreating in Albania, reeling from their failed invasion of Greece. German military predictions that the Greeks would prevail had proved correct. Hitler had now to consider his support for his principal ally. Strategically he was uninterested in North Africa but he could not allow Mussolini’s regime to fail and that meant giving him military support.

Meanwhile the reputation of Australian troops was in the ascendant. They had been in Egypt for over a year and had been eager for action. Wavell may even have believed that they would have caused more trouble in the base areas had they not been brought into the campaign. They had been brought into the battle late, even while they were under equipped, but their success now resounded around the world.

Operation Compass was far from over and troops were needed to maintain the momentum on Tobruk. Outnumbered by their enemy during the battle, the few troops left to guard the prisoners were now massively outnumbered. Their reputation was such that they encountered few difficulties:

Australians, cigarettes in the corner of their mouths and steel helmets down over their lined eyes, squatted here and there among the prisoners, or occasionally got to their feet with a bayoneted rifle and shouted, ‘Get back there, you,’ when some Italian started to stroll away.

These men from the dockside of Sydney and the sheep stations of the Riverina presented such a picture of downright toughness with their gaunt dirty faces, huge boots, revolvers stuffed in their pockets, gripping their rifles with huge shapeless hands, shouting and grinning — always grinning — that the mere sight of them must have disheartened the enemy troops.

For some days the Rome radio had been broadcasting that the ‘Australian barbarians’ had been turned loose by the British in the desert. It was a convenient way in which to explain away failures to the people at home.

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

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