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British attack Italians in the Desert

Bren-gun-carriers advancing across Desert
Bren gun carriers advancing across the Desert. The speed of of the British advance caught the Italians off guard throughout December.

When the Italians had invaded Egypt in September they had moved forward some 60 miles and then established a series of armed camps in the desert. Covert British reconnaissance had established that there were wide gaps between the forts and they did not form a linked defensive line. Furthermore although parts of the encampments were heavily fortified, with large mine fields in front of them, there were many weak spots, as the Italians required their own access in order to resupply them. The Italians commanded forces of around 150,000 whereas the British had around 36,000 troops and had far fewer tanks and guns. Nevertheless it was felt that a surprise attack was possible.

On 9th December Operation Compass was launched with dawn attacks on the Nibeiwa camp with a heavy artillery barrage. Surprise was complete and there was widespread confusion amongst the Italians. Italian tanks in the camp areas were unable to mount a co-ordinated counter-attack. Then they discovered they had no weapons capable of dealing with the slow moving but heavily armoured British Matilda ‘infantry’ tank.

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


There was no lack of bravery on the part of the Italians, many of whom died at their guns. However by 8.30am General Malletti was dead and 2,000 Italians were surrendering.

It was only later that General Wavell called in journalists to inform them of the attack:

We have attacked in the Western Desert. This is not an offensive and I do not think you ought to describe it as an offensive as yet. You might call it an important raid. The attack was made early this morning and I had word an hour ago that the first of the Italian camps has fallen. I cannot tell you at this moment how far we are going to go — it depends on what supplies and provisions we capture and what petrol we are able to find.

The race was now on to exploit this early success.

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

General Wavell, Commander in Chief, Middle East inspecting troops in Egypt. He was careful to maintain his normal public routine prior to the attack so as not to alert anyone to the impending offensive.

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