Today marks the 80 anniversary of the launch of Operation Compass, the first large scale British operation in North Africa and Britain’s first successful major land operation of the Second World War.
Operation Compass was originally planned as a limited raid against numerically superior Italian forces with the objective of pushing them out of Egypt.
Following intricate planning and preparation, the 36,000 men of the UK’s Western Desert Force (WDF), under the command of Lieutenant General Richard O’Connor, were launched against well-constructed Italian defensive positions.
After several days of tough fighting, the Italians, who outnumbered the British by over four to one, broke under the incessant pressure of British and British Indian attacks and began retreating rapidly into Libya. By 12 December 1940, the Italians had sustained over 38,000 casualties against British losses of just 634.
The overall commander of British forces in Egypt, General Sir Archibald Wavell, had instilled in his subordinates the requirement to exploit any opportunities which arose and, with considerable agility, the plan was changed. The core of the WDF was the British 7th Armoured Division which remained in the fight, but the British Indian 4th Division was swapped for fresh Australian troops who began a dogged pursuit.
Fresh troops, aggressive action, and rapid manoeuvre were to pay dividends for the British who eventually cut off the Italian retreat, surrounded them and defeated them at the Battle of Beda Fomm; by the end of the Operation on 9 February 1941 they had advanced hundreds of miles into Libya, captured, wounded or killed over 138,000 Italians, and utterly defeated the Italian 10th Army.
In reporting the success to Wavell, Lieutenant General O’Connor said, “I think this can be termed a complete victory as none of the enemy escaped…fox killed in the open”.