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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Battle of Sidi Barrani

9 December 1940 to 7 February 1941

Theatre: North Africa
Location: Egypt and Cyrenaica (a province of Libya)
Players: Allies: General Richard O'Connor's Western Desert Force (renamed 13th Corps on 1 January 1941) consisting of 7th Armoured Division, 4th Indian Division (until December 1941) and 6th Australian Division (after December 1941). Italy: General Rodolfo Graziani's Italian 10th Army.
Outcome: Defeat of the Italian army in North Africa.

Australian troops await the signal to crash the defences at Bardia. These troops captured nearly 40,000 prisoners during Operation Compass
Australian troops await the signal to crash the defences at Bardia. These troops captured nearly 40,000 prisoners during Operation Compass©
In September 1940, Graziani launched an incursion from Cyrenaica, the eastern province of the Italian colony of Libya, into Egypt, which was nominally independent but under British tutelage at the time.

The Italian 10th Army halted at Sidi Barrani, 80km (50 miles) inside Egypt. British and Indian divisions launched a counter-offensive codenamed Operation Compass on 9 and 10 December. Sidi Barrani fell on the second day; 20,000 Italian troops were taken prisoner.

General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, now withdrew the 4th Indian Division for service in East Africa. Augmented by the 6th Australian Division, O'Connor's force pressed on, cutting off the Italian retreat and taking a further 18,000 prisoners.

The second phase of Operation Compass took the battle into Cyrenaica. The coastal town of Bardia fell on 5 January 1941, two days after being attacked, and 40,000 prisoners were taken.

The port of Tobruk, 160km inside Cyrenaica, fell to Australian troops on 21 January after a 12-day siege; 27,000 prisoners were taken.

Graziani now ordered a full-scale evacuation of Cyrenaica, with O'Connor in hot pursuit. On 5 February, 13th Corps cut off the Italian retreat into Tripolitania (western Libya); two days later the Italian 10th Army surrendered. O'Connor's men took 25,000 more prisoners, bringing the total to 130,000; 13th Corps had also captured 500 tanks and 800 guns, while suffering less than 2,000 casualties.

Although O'Connor wished to press on into Tripolitania, 13th Corps was now dispersed and O'Connor himself recalled to Egypt. Operation Compass, the first British offensive of the war, can be judged a significant victory - and for Italy a resounding defeat.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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