Australian’s dawn attack on Bardia

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.

British artillery gun firing in the desert
The assault on the Italian garrison at Bardia was accompanied by an artillery barrage.

The initial phases of [permalink id=9482 text=”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.

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

The Italian base at Bardia besieged

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.

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

This was the first British offensive in the area since the Italian 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.

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.

German forces ambushed by Norwegians near Bagn

A series of images that illustrate just one action when German forces were attacked by the Norwegians on 18th April 1940.

German troops on the march

A series of images that illustrate just one action when German forces were attacked by the Norwegians on 18th April 1940. The full story is available in Norwegian. The images presented here are probably not in chronological order. Continue reading “German forces ambushed by Norwegians near Bagn”

The British supply anti-tank bombs for the Winter War

I was never allowed to accompany them on raids and was generally protected from even the mildest dangers. I spent my time making” clams” to blow up tanks.” 808″ or “plastic” was the explosive used for these charges, with a block of guncotton to hold the detonator and fuse. The whole was then wrapped in a piece of mackintosh, proof against damp, and fitted with magnets so as to make it cling, clam-like, to the tank. The tent was redolent with a smell of almonds and geraniums emanating from the explosives, and I got rather bored with sitting cross:legged on my palliasse and gradually covering it with neat little rows of these samples of my handicraft.

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”