Operation Compass: The First Campaign of the Desert War December 1940 – February 1941 (Part 2)

Beda Fomm
The Bigger Picture
Suggested Reading


North African Campaign, 1940-1942
North African Campaign,
The force set off at sunrise on 5 February, creating huge dust clouds that the few remaining Italian aircraft could not have failed to notice. Combeforce quickly outdistanced 7th Arm'd Div and reached the main road near Sidi Saleh, just south of Beda Fomm. They formed a roadblock and dug in, establishing an observation post of a hill nicknamed 'The Pimple', seven miles north of the roadblock. The first Italians arrived shortly after and began uncoordinated attacks on the roadblock, and while initially weak, quickly gained in strength as additional combat units arrived. The lead elements of 4th Arm'd Bde arrived and attacked the lengthening Italian column, taking a large number of prisoners, before dusk brought the action to a halt. Italian numbers continued to grow as the 6th Aus Div entered Barce the same day. Tellera ordered Bergonzoli to break out of the cordon, who planned to mount a holding attack against Combeforce and swing infantry and armour around The Pimple and take the roadblock in the flank and rear. Creagh ordered the 7th Support Group (a reinforced 1 KRRC) to head for Sceleidima and on to the coast to attack the column in the rear, while Combeforce and 4th Arm'd Bde (now consisting of 3rd Hussars, 7th Hussars and 2nd RTR with 22 cruisers and 45 light tanks) were to maintain their hold. Caunter believed the critical point would be Beda Fomm but Creagh refused to release 7th Arm'd Bde as it constituted his only armoured reserve but this would prevent Caunter (who was on the spot) from communicating with them directly and integrate them properly into the battle.

Beda Fomm

The next day would see two separate but related battles, Combeforce at the roadblock and 4th Arm'd Bde at Beda Fomm. The weather had made a turn for the worse and visibility was very variable. Daylight revealed the Italians strung out in a long column, some having prepared positions but many having remained in their vehicles. As 3rd and 7th Hussars reached the column they encountered a number of attacks by Italian M-13s which pushed them back to a ridge a mile to the east. They then had a running battle around The Pimple, which erupted in Italian artillery fire. The British were becoming dangerously short of fuel and ammunition and were steadily loosing tanks to enemy artillery fire and mechanical difficulties. 1st RTR's support was desperately needed but they were having communication difficulties and were lost in a sandstorm around Antelet. 2nd RTR managed to get resupplied and rejoined the action but by then, The Pimple had been occupied by Italian artillery. Communications were finally restored between the RHA and their OP and they cleared the Italian artillery off The Pimple. Numerous Italian attacks went in against the roadblock during the morning, but all were repulsed. The Italians then put together a large combined arms force of infantry, tanks and artillery that managed to break past 2nd RTR at around nightfall and arrived at Combeforce at 21.00. Many managed to make it right through the roadblock but two more attempts failed to breakthrough. Bergonzoli realised that his plan was not going to work and time was running out – both the 6th Aus Div (having captured Benghazi) and 7th Support Group (which had captured Sceleidima) were closing in from the north. At dawn, the final Italian attack was pressed home with vigour and desperation. The remaining M-13s, supported by infantry, went head-to-head with 106 RHA and its supporting infantry and managed to overrun them but were stopped by the 2nd Btn, Rifle Bde. The battlefield descended into an eerie silence. The Italians, lacking any more tanks, realised they could no longer fight their way out of the trap and surrendered. The news quickly reached Cairo that the operation had been a complete success. O'Connor later visited the captured Italian generals and apologised for the rough conditions in which they were being held. 'Thank you very much' replied Generale Ferdinando Cona, 'we do realise that you came here in a great hurry'.

The Bigger Picture

In the final battle for Beda Fomm, the Allies captured over 25,000 prisoners, 216 guns, 1,500 wheeled vehicles and 100 tanks (enough of which were serviceable to re-equip 6th RTR). This brought the total haul for the campaign to some 110,000 troops (including 22 generals, an admiral and the official Italian Army brothel), 180 medium and 200 light tanks, a huge number of soft-skinned vehicles and 845 guns. The cost was around 500 dead, 1,373 wounded and 55 missing. The Italian Air Force lost some 58 aircraft in combat, 91 captured intact on their airfields and some 1,100 damaged or destroyed. The RAF lost 6 Hurricanes, 5 Gladiators, 3 Wellingtons and 1 Valentia. O'Connor (who had earned the name 'The Little Terrier' from the Australians) was all for finishing the job and was keen to keep pushing on to Tripoli and clearing the Italians out of North Africa altogether, despite the tiredness of his men and the condition of his equipment. However, his success was merely one less thing for Wavell to worry about and when Dorman-Smith went to present O'Connor's plans to him in Cairo on 12 February, the maps of the North African desert had been replaced by those of Greece. Wavell had received instructions from the Defence Committee to send an expeditionary force to Greece before the Germans invaded the country. Although the idea of continuing to Tripoli was briefly considered, the opportunity quickly slipped away and many of the units who were in Cyrenaica were moved to Greece where they were first routed by the German blitzkrieg and then forced to withdraw from Crete following the German airborne invasion. It would be a long time before the British would get an opportunity to go for Tripoli again, for on the same day that they were ordered to halt, there arrived in Tripoli another form of predator – a desert fox, also known as General Erwin Rommel, and he was soon to be followed by the lead elements of the Deutsches Afrika Korps (Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) February-March 1941).


How did the Allied forces manage to achieve such a resounding victory? It was a combination of doctrine, tactics, equipment, logistics, airpower and leadership. However, while they were sufficiently developed to achieve victory against the Italians, they were insufficient to achieve the same result against the Germans just a few months later. The British Army's doctrine had been formulated through the inter-war years and concentrated on fighting a strategic conflict against a well-equipped, trained and motivated enemy. The first time this was put to the test, resulted in a serious defeat in France and the Low Countries (although many of the factors for this were not the fault of the British). This should have highlighted its deficiencies (including equipment) to the General Staff and Defence Committee but it seems that little additional information was passed to the either Wavell or O'Connor, so presumably the methods used in Operation Compass were built on the same general principles. Given that it succeeded (beyond anyone's expectations) points to a failure of the Italians rather than anything intrinsic to the doctrine. As with any contemporary doctrine, did anyone consciously refer to it? It seems unlikely, although the officers involved probably unknowingly implemented it given they had all gone through command and staff training in the years leading up to the Second World War. The WDF had undergone rigorous training before the operation and the only major failing, that of the difficulty in operating at night, was only really applicable to the armoured force as they lacked the equipment and technology to fight at night, and the British had shown they could stay mobile at night in the advance on Sidi Barrani and Beda Fomm. The Italians on the other hand were a very mixed bag. Their infantry and armour lacked any training to operate effectively either independently or together, although the same could not be said for the artillery, who were well trained, and fought with high élan.

The tactics employed by the WDF evolved from its rigorous training, and its lengthy presence in the desert, where it was able to hone its skill at operating in that environment. In particular, it never allowed the Italians to gain control of the No-Man's land and vigorously contested its control in order to dominate it, even when they were faced with logistical difficulties. The Italians on the other hand, continuously handed over the control of the desert to the British and suffered tactically as a result. It seems they lacked any sort of grasp of even the most basic military tactics either in defence or attack. As a force, the Tenth Army was tactically weak. In terms of equipment, the British enjoyed a superiority equivalent to that enjoyed by the Germans over them. This superiority meant that the Italians quickly learnt that they had lost control of the air, were unable to stop the heavier British tanks, and did not have enough artillery to do an efficient job. The British were able to exploit their strengths, particularly the Matilda and the 25-pdr field gun. Logistically, the Italians were also very weak as they had large numbers of troops who needed food, water and ammunition but had little transport in order to move it between the garrisons and support an offensive. This forced the Italian commanders to remain static for long periods of time and to stockpile whenever they could. The fragility of this system was exposed as soon as Operation Compass started. The British, while never luxuriously supported, had an effective supply system and never lacked for the essentials. O'Connor demonstrated an understanding of logistics and a grasp of when to take risks. Thus he was able to keep the WDF mobile and fight battles when necessary and thus outmanoeuvre the (relatively) immobile Italians. In desert operations (as was demonstrated throughout the North African campaign, in the Arab-Israeli Wars and both Gulf Wars), mobility is the key to victory.

British airpower also played a central role. It quickly neutralised the Italian Air Force's numerical superiority, which enables the ground forces to conduct movement without (much) interference. Italian aircraft were technically inferior to RAF aircraft but also suffered from poor logistics – a large number of aircraft, grounded for the lack of spare parts or fuel, were captured by the WDF. The final factor to consider and possibly the most decisive, is leadership. O'Connor led the WDF from the front, was energetic and realised the potential that armoured and mobile forces (properly supported) had in the desert. Most of his plans conformed to a greater or lesser extent to established doctrine, but he still remained flexible and adaptable. He understood the value of integration between the services (in today's terminology, 'jointness') and used his presence and personality to influence airpower, logistics and those under him. Compared to him, Graziani and the other Italian senior officers were at best ineffectual (that's not to say they weren't brave) and that they failed to lead their troops. Morale is a product of both leadership and training, with the morale of opposing armies often indicative of the opposing leaders.

Operation Compass was undoubtedly a British success, although one helped by Italian weaknesses, however a number of factors, including doctrine, leadership and logistics played significant, even crucial roles. Had it been a German force, it is unlikely that the WDF would have enjoyed the success it did, given the Germans' superior (compared to the Italians and a lesser extent the British) training, leadership and equipment, combined with high morale. The Italian Tenth Army had none of these, and these weaknesses led to their shattering defeat. The decision however, not to continue the advance and exploit the success achieved by the operation has been a source of contention since the end of the Second World War. The campaign in North Africa hinged enormously upon logistic considerations and any judgement about the chances of continuing Operation Compass with the objective of taking Tripoli needs to take those considerations into account. At the beginning of the war, almost none of the components of a practical supply system for the WDF existed, with the railway still being developed and the only major supply route being a single metalled road that ran along the coast. No pipelines existed for either fuel or water and the small harbour at Sollum offered few facilities for supply. There were also few available supply trucks which meant that 7th Arm'd Div had no third line transport and was restricted to within forty miles of the railhead at Mersa Matruh. Wavell ordered an immediate improvement to the situation and during late 1939 and early 1940 the rail connection and water supply between Alexandria and Mersa Matruh was improved, additional transport found and organised into companies to provide third line transport for 7th Arm'd Div. The British also evolved (under Lt Col C M Smith and Lt Col W J F Eassie) the concept of replenishment points and a system of daily and periodic maintenance for an armoured force operating in the desert in the face of the enemy.

These developments, as well as careful husbanding of resources allowed the WDF (later XIII Corps) to demolish an Italian force ten times their own size, but the margin of victory was closer than many suspect with shortages of fuel and ammunition at the final encounter at Beda Fomm more critical than at any other time in the campaign. The attacks on Sofafi, Sidi Barrani, Sollum, Bardia and Tobruk were all designed to allow time for additional supply to come forward and be built up before the next round of operations when demand would naturally increase. To maintain a constant rate of supply during offensive operations is very difficult even under perfect conditions, but to do so at the end of an extended and vulnerable line of supply with inadequate transport is impossible. At Beda Fomm, the British had barely enough fuel and ammunition to hold off the piecemeal Italian attacks – had the Italians launched better coordinated attacks or held out a little longer then the supply situation would have become unbearable for a system that was starting to collapse under the strain as it was. It was a triumph, but one strongly tinged with relief.

O'Connor recognised the immense tactical opportunities before them and started to reorganise XIII Corps and formulate a plan to continue the advance, despite there looming the distinct possibility that forces would be withdrawn for a campaign in Greece. Continuing this advance however would necessitate that a force be despatched to occupy both Sirte and Homs (most likely the 11th Hussars and the 7th Support Group), while the RAF and RN interdicted any Axis reinforcements reaching Tripoli and Benghazi be opened as quickly as possible as a source of supply. An armoured force could then be despatched to Tripoli via Misurata, possibly combined with the amphibious transport of an infantry brigade from Benghazi. The Joint Planning Staff (JPS) in Cairo also recognised the possible benefits of seizing Tripoli as it would deny the enemy their last major base in North Africa, provide the RN with a potential resupply base if Malta fell and bring them one step closer to opening the short supply route through the Mediterranean, as well as provide air bases from which to conduct operations in the central Mediterranean and influence the French in North Africa. According to JPS intelligence reports, there were only some 35,000 enemy troops in Libya with little armoured or artillery support and only some 20 German and 400 Italian aircraft, although more could be sent very quickly. The terrain also presented few obstacles. The success of this operation therefore depended upon the speed with which it could be put into effect, the maintenance situation of the forces involved, the acquisition and build up of additional supplies in Cyrenaica, something that would necessitate additional transport being brought forward. This would entail the supply line between Barce and Tobruk being dispensed with, a move that would require Benghazi to be reopened as a source of supply, followed by Tripoli itself if a sizeable garrison were to be kept in the area.

General Wavell gave his tentative support to the operation, and communicated to Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that the 'extent of the Italian defeat at Benghazi makes it seem possible that Tripoli might yield to a small force if despatched without undue delay'. Meanwhile, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, had raised the possibility of continuing the operation on to Tripoli with the Defence Committee on 20 January and Field Marshal Dill had been made aware of the appraisal by Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India, who belonged to the Middle East Committee, that an advance to Tripoli should not only be considered to exploit the British success in North Africa but as key to any future large-scale operations in the Mediterranean. However, it is here that Churchill had decided that, following the request on 8 February 1941 by the Greek Government that a British Expeditionary Force be sent, moral and political consideration should take precedence. He instructed General Wavell to hold Cyrenaica with a minimal force and move troops to Greece.

O'Connor felt a great deal of disappointment at this decision in that a great opportunity with immense potential advantages and political / military consequences had been let slip. After his capture, a number of German and Italian officers expressed consternation that he had not been allowed to continue the pursuit, since little effective resistance could have been mounted, a view echoed by General Rommel. Both O'Connor and the JPS emphasised that the key to success would have been the logistics arrangements to support both the troops left in Cyrenaica and those advancing on Tripoli, the central elements of which were the opening of the port of Benghazi as quickly as possible and the capacity of the supply companies to move supplies. While a scratch force of about brigade strength could have been mounted, it could only have been supported logistically if had reached Tripoli and not have had to fight. The two divisions on the frontier were posing enough problems for the supply system as their second line supply trucks could only be expected to go back as far as No. 18 FSD at Ghemines, itself about 300 miles form Tobruk. There was also the growing threat from the Luftwaffe which had been making its presence felt since the end of January. To secure Tripoli would have necessitated a force of sufficient size and strength to fight the Axis forces already there, as Rommel was already receiving reinforcements and could count on the Brescia and Pavia Infantry Divisions, the Ariete Armoured Division and the German Reconnaissance Battalion 3 and Panzer Jäger Battalion 39, as well as holding the city against Axis operations aimed at disrupting British operations. It would have been nigh impossible to sustain such a force by road convoy alone. With Benghazi in British hands, it was thought that it would have to handle some 12,000 tons of supplies on a fortnightly basis (three or four ships carrying 3 – 4,000 tons), to maintain a force of around 50,000 in the forward area. This force however, would have consumed some 10,000 tons of supplies in the same time, so there would have been little room for manoeuvre or a chance to build up any substantial reserve. The port would have had to have been developed to maximum capacity and kept in that state despite the growing attention from the Luftwaffe. It had already suffered from both British and German bombing and was severely limited in the amount of ships it could handle.

The arrival of the clearance convoy was a signal for the start of a series of heavy raids on the port. Any sustained use of Benghazi would have necessitated the provision of a major RAF presence, which was short of fighter squadrons in the theatre as it was. It only had three spare fighters which were concentrated on Tobruk and no radar system as yet available to be installed in Benghazi. The raids became heavy enough for the new C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham to withdraw the RN ships already at Benghazi. Even the British had decided to delay sending an expeditionary force to Greece, it is doubtful if the RAF and RN would have been strong enough to guard the entire length of the line of communication as well as provide around-the-clock protection for Benghazi. The WDF had succeeded over and above the expectations of most British officers, in part due to the weak defence displayed by the Italian Army and near complete lack of opposition or interference from the Italian Air Force. The Luftwaffe could not be expected to act in the same way.

Operation Compass had seen a British force, which never exceeded two divisions and corps troops, advance some 700 miles, destroying the Italian Tenth Army and badly mauling the Italian 5th Squadra, taking well over 100,000 prisoners and an enormous haul of tanks, guns, trucks, small arms and supplies. As originally envisaged, the operation was meant to be a major raid, although no objective was given, and if successful was to be exploited as far as the meagre resources would allow. The WDF's logistics difficulties were formidable to begin with and were unlikely to become easier the further they advanced west or father from the single metalled road they diverted. Even with the use of FSDs, convoys often became lost in sandstorms, becoming delayed, and their timely arrival could not always be counted on. WDF was always caught between pursuing a retreating enemy and risking that supplies might not arrive, or awaiting the arrival of supplies and missing the chance to catch up with an enemy rearguard before it could consolidate it position. O'Connor had to repeatedly decide between these conflicting demands and so logistics always had the capacity to bring the campaign to a sudden halt.

Any judgement as to whether XIII Corps could have continued the advance to Tripoli must take into account the overall logistic situation, including the fact that the naval and administrative staff at Benghazi admitted that they were unable to prepare the port to receive sufficient stores or to build up an adequate reserve. Neither the Brigade Major for 4th Arm'd Bde, Major Roberts, nor the Staff Captain (Q) of 7th Arm'd Div, Captain R M P Carver, were aware of the suggestion that they should continue the advance or were involved in any planning for it. As it stood, the logistic situation in February 1941 would not have been conducive to an advance on Tripoli. The decision not to pursue such a course of action has been the source of a great deal of heated debate, as General Rommel observed on O'Connor's operation: 'When, after a great victory which has brought the destruction of the enemy, the pursuit is abandoned on the quartermaster's advice, history almost invariably finds the decision to be wrong and points to the tremendous chances which have been missed.' History however, often overlooks the subtle but critical role of logistics in all military operations, as it is usually the more glamorous arms such as the armour, artillery and infantry who are the focus of attention. As General O'Connor and General Wavell stated in their Special Orders of the Day: 'Apart however, from the fighting troops the work of the various services has been magnificent. This work may not have the glamour of that of the fighting troops, but its importance cannot be overstated.'

Books with Amazon

Latimer, Jon. Operation Compass 1940: Wavell’s Whirlwind Offensive, Latimer, Jon, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2000, Campaign Series No. 73. cover cover cover

Alamein: War Without Hate, Bierman, John & Smith, Colin, Viking, London, 2002. cover cover cover

The Imperial Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942, Bramall, Field Marshal Lord and Gilbert, Adrian. (Eds), Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1992. cover cover cover

The British Army 1939 – 45 (2) Middle East & Mediterranean, Brayley, Martin J., Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002, Men-At-Arms Series No. 368. Part two of a three part look at the British Army during the Second World War, this book provides a good summary of the fighting around the Mediterranean, including North Africa and Italy, looks at the special uniforms needed in these theatres and includes an overview of the British Artillery. [see more]
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How to cite this article:Antill, P. (8 October 2005) Operation Compass: The First Campaign of the Desert War, 1940-1941 (Part Two), articles/battles_compass2.html

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