Fact File : Italy Invades Egypt
September 1940 to February 1941
Theatre: North Africa
Area: Egypt and Cyrenaica (now Libya)
Players: Allies: Western Desert Force under Major General O'Connor, comprising 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Infantry Division (replaced by 6th Australian Division on 19 December 1940). Italy: 22nd Corps, comprising 4th Blackshirt Infantry Division at Sidi Barrani, 2nd Blackshirt Infantry Division at Sollum and 64th Infantry Division at Buqbuq.
Outcome: A timid advance into Egypt by massively superior Italian forces was rebuffed and the British drove the Italians back past Benghazi, taking thousands of prisoners.
'First one and then another white flag appeared ... until the whole column was a forest of waving white flags ... Italians of all shapes and sizes ... swarmed out to be taken prisoner ...' - Cyril Joly, 7th Armoured Division, on the Italian surrender at Beda Fomm, 7 February 1941
Italian leader Benito Mussolini assumes a characteristic pose as he speaks to an audience in Italy in 1934©
At the start of the war, Italian troops in Cyrenaica massively outnumbered British forces in Egypt. The Italians finally moved into Egypt in September 1940, leaving six divisions at Sidi Barrani. Two months later, the British attacked their camps there and intercepted a large column of retreating Italians at Buqbuq. In three days they took nearly 40,000 prisoners.
The remnants of the Italian forces retreated to Bardia, in Cyrenaica. On 3 January 1941, the British began their attack. After only three days, the Italians surrendered; Tobruk followed on January 24. All in all, another 75,000 Italians had surrendered.
On 3 February, O'Connor ordered his tanks to cut though the desert and intercept the Italian retreat to Agheila. At Beda Fomm, the two sides engaged and the Italians were soon surrendering in droves: 3,000 British troops took 20,000 prisoners. However, a further move on Tripoli was blocked by the need for troops in Greece, reducing British strength in North Africa.
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.