The Italian base at Bardia besieged

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

Operation Compass was progressing in North Africa. Launched on the [permalink id=9482 text=”9th December”] the Italian base at [permalink id=9504 text=”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.

The crew of a Bren gun carrier pause on their way to the forward area in the Western Desert to look at a monument erected by the Italians to commemorate the capture of Sidi Barrani a few months previous, 16 December 1940.
The crew of a Bren gun carrier pause on their way to the forward area in the Western Desert to look at a monument erected by the Italians to commemorate the capture of Sidi Barrani a few months previous, 16 December 1940.

Fierce fighting on the Abyssinian border

Indian troops in the Sudan
Troops from the Fifth Indian Division during training before their advance into Italian occupied Abyssinia - now Ethiopia.

From the Military Situation for the week:

Gallabat was captured by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade on the 6th November. It was then lost again on the 7th November as the result of enemy air counter-attack, and partially recaptured on the 10th November. The action continues.

The town of Gallabat lay just inside the Sudanese border with Abyssinia. It had been occupied by the Italians. British Empire forces in the Sudan, jointly administered by Egypt and Britain, began their offensive to re-take Italian East Africa with this action. This was the first British offensive in the area since the I[permalink id=7398 text=”talian occupation of Somalia”]. Brigadier William Slim’s attack initially made good progress but his small force of tanks were damaged by the rocky ground and by mines, and the spares were destroyed in the constant air attacks that followed.

The Italians attack in the Desert

The British A9 Cruiser tank as commanded by Lieutenant Rea Leakey in September 1940. It was relatively lightly armoured and only had a two pounder gun but was fast and proved effective against the Italians.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.

Mussolini had opportunistically joined the war as soon as he saw that that Hitler was poised to defeat France. He had high hopes that he might expand his African ‘Empire’ by seizing British territory. On paper his armies were well placed to succeed, especially while Britain was distracted by the threat of invasion at home.

In practice the Italian army was much less enthusiastic than their national leader, especially after they managed to shoot down their commander in chief. Their capacity for battle was demonstrated in the way that they attacked on the first day.

The British General, Lord Wavell’s forces in Egypt were massively outnumbered by the Italians, whose invasion of Egypt had long been expected. The British strategy was to keep the bulk of their forces in reserve, leaving only a small screening force on the border itself.

Lieutenant Rea Leakey was commanding a tank with 1 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), based in the western desert of Egypt – facing the Italian Army in Libya. When the attack came, on the 13th September, Leakey was part of this small force, which was deployed to present what resistance it could whilst minimising casualties – the orders were to ‘make a fighting withdrawal, but under no circumstances are tanks to be lost in battle’:

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

We had a battery of 25-pounder guns supporting us, and they started dropping their shells into this vast target moving towards us. When our tanks were spotted, the column of vehicles heading for us halted, and in no time they had unloaded guns and the battle was on.

We were now given the order to form ‘battle line’ and race towards the enemy at full speed with all guns blazing. It was certainly an exhilarating ride. We must have frightened the enemy even if we failed to kill them, but when we were some 400 yards from them, the order came to turn tail and get out of the cauldron. Our Commanding Officer obeyed orders – no tanks were to be lost. And indeed on that charge we were lucky, even though most of the tanks had been hit and a number had to be backloaded for major repairs.

Credit must be given to our experienced drivers like Doyle. If they missed their gear-change on the turn, the tank would present an easy target to the anti-tank gunners.

And so throughout that day we moved slowly back towards Mersa Matruh, fighting these inconclusive actions but certainly taking a toll of the enemy. When darkness fell we moved a few miles back into the desert, knowing full well that the Italians were as tired as we were, and equally as hungry. It had been a tiring day and we had been bombed and shelled almost continuously from dawn to dusk.

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

Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.

The British supply anti-tank bombs for the Winter War

Soviet-T26-tank
A Soviet-T26-tank destroyed by a Finnish satchel charge

Malcolm Munthe was of Anglo-Swedish origin. On the outbreak of war he joined the British army and was almost immediately recruited by the War Office for special operations in Scandinavia. This was an irregular operation set up even before the establishment of the Special Operations Executive. Sent to Finland to arrange the supply of munitions to the Finnish Army, and to act as an advance party for British volunteer forces, he took with him some experimental explosive devices. Continue reading “The British supply anti-tank bombs for the Winter War”