In Egypt the declaration of war found the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) [11th Hussars wikipedia] under Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe [John Frederick Joyce Combe (1895-1967) wikipedia] lying close to the frontier.
With instructions to raise hell, they immediately crossed the fence of barbed wire built by Italian engineers along the 400-mile (644km) border. In a series of dashing hit-and-run raids, they attacked forts and shot up transport columns, capturing bewildered soldiers whom nobody had bothered to inform about Mussolini’s declaration.
By dawn on 12 June, all their patrols had returned, bringing with them 70 prisoners and having suffered no casualties. More importantly, they had established a moral superiority over the Italians.
Encouraged by this start, plans were made to assault Fort Maddalena and Capuzzo [Frontier Wire (Libya) wikipedia]; the attacks were launched on 14 June. Joined by elements of the 4th Armoured Brigade commanded by Brigadier J. R. L. ‘Blood’ Caunter (named after his favourite exhortation ‘Buckets of Blood!’) and 1st Battalion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps [Kings Royal Rifle Corps wikipedia], Fort Meddalena fell without a shot being fired, having already been abandoned by all but 18 of the garrison. Fort Capuzzo offered some small resistance, but its 226 men also surrendered without bloodshed. Of some significance was the result of an encounter with six Italian Fiat-Ansaldo L3 Tankettes [L3/35 wikipedia]. These were engaged with a Boys anti-tank rifle [Boys anti-tank rifle wikipedia], which knocked one out immediately while the others ran ‘like a lot of little pigs’.
Two days later, two troops of 11 H were ‘swanning around’ between Sidi Omar and Fort Capuzzo when one troop encountered an Italian column of 12 L3s and 30 lorries, apparently on their way to re-garrison the fort. At almost the same time, the second troop reported another column of 17 L3s and 60 lorries heading to meet the first. Although the squadron commander ordered them to withdraw, the two troops had eagerly charged forward to engage the enemy. During a brisk skirmish, they managed to knock out three of the L3s before retiring behind a slight rise when the column produced a field gun. Combe quickly gathered all the available reserves, including a mixed squadron of Light and Cruiser tanks from 7th Queen’s Own Hussars [7th Queen’s Own Hussars wikipedia], and an anti-tank troop of the Royal Horse Artillery from 4 Armd Bde, and rushed to join the action. When he arrived at the rise, he was staggered to see the column (the second one never appeared) some three miles away on a completely open plain, formed up in square as if fighting colonial tribesmen.
Unsure if the Italians had more artillery, Combe sent forward some of the tanks who were fired at by the single gun and charged by the L3s. These were knocked out with one shot each, whereupon the tanks circled the square in Red Indian fashion, shooting up the unprotected infantry and lorries. They made two complete circuits before the Italians revealed hidden guns at each corner. After a bitter but intense fire-fight in which the gallant gun detachments were shot down to a man, the square broke, only to be promptly rounded up. Barely 100 men and a dozen lorries were left to make the sad journey into captivity. Thus ended the ‘Battle’ of Nezuet Ghirba. Among the dead was Colonello D’Avanso whose pocket yielded his orders. They were to ‘destroy enemy elements which have infiltrated across the frontier, and give the British the impression of our decision, ability and will to resist.
The free-wheeling continued until the end of July, by which time the Italians were deploying heavy all-arms columns supported from the air. Steadily, their strength was increasing, including support from a few M11/39 tanks [Fiat M11/39 wikipedia] and invariably from their efficient and brave artillery. At sea, the Royal Navy shelled a flotilla of minesweepers in Tobruk harbour, an action admired by an 11 H patrol on the beach, only 100 miles (161 km) behind enemy lines! Apart from continuous anti-submarine operations, the RN encountered no surface opposition and bombarded Bardia on 21 June. The Italians retaliated with night air-raids on Alexandria and Aboukir. A week later they attacked Royal Air Force bases at Sidi Barrani and Mersa Matruh, whose Gladiator fighters matched the opposing Fiats. But they failed to launch an effective air campaign, either against the RAF or against vulnerable Allied shipping.
Desert conditions impose considerable wear and tear on equipment, especially on vehicles, and in mid-August, 4 Armd Bde was withdrawn and replaced by 7th Armoured Brigade and 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group under Brigadier W.H.E. ‘Strafer’ Gott [William Gott (1897-1942) wikipedia]. His orders were to maintain observation and impose delay with his two infantry battalions, artillery regiment and supporting elements. 11 H were ordered to reduce their activities and rest half their number. Neither side had made any territorial acquisitions but the opportunity had been there for the testing of equipment, techniques and, most importantly, of men. Both sides suffered from technical deficiencies but where the Italians had the benefit of superior numbers, the British undoubtedly held a professional and moral advantage. The first three months of the campaign saw the British inflict 3,500 casualties upon the Italians for the loss of just 150.
Although he had assured Adolf Hitler that preparations were complete for an invasion of Egypt on 17 July, Mussolini was still being fobbed off by his commanders six weeks later. Finally, on 7 September he lost his patience and issued an ultimatum to his commander in Libya, Maresciallo Rodolfo Graziani [Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955) wikipedia] – either invade or be sacked. Plagued by a chronic shortage of transport, Graziani quickly modified his plan and began preliminary moves on the 9th. Under heavy air attack and worried by rumours of huge British armoured forces operating south of the escarpment, he changed his plans again and made his main effort along the coast. Thus, the Italians finally crossed the frontier in strength on 13 September. Heralded by bombardments of empty desert, a cautious advance down the Halfaya Pass [Halfaya Pass wikipedia] (nicknamed, unsurprisingly, ‘Hellfire’ Pass by the British) was begun towards the tiny port of Sollum, in motor columns as if on parade.
The sole British presence was a platoon of 3rd Bn, Coldstream Guards [Coldstream Guards wikipedia] who quietly slipped away while the RHA and RAF caused havoc and carnage amongst the advancing Italians. The next day, the guns of the RHA pounded the plodding columns until it was time to retire, covered by 3 Coldm Gds, to the next position. The process was repeated until the Italians finally reached Sidi Barrani [Sidi Barrani wikipedia]. Here, after 60 miles (97km) and still barely half way to the main British defensive position, they stopped. Continually watched by 11 H, Graziani refused to advance another step without reinforcements, particularly guns and tanks as well as supplies. Instead, they began work to establish a new line of fortified camps. Weeks passed.
During the quiet, Mussolini decided to ‘occupy’ Greece on 28 October. This was prompted by a fit of pique at not having been informed before hand of the German occupation of Romania. The Greeks, however, had no intention of being occupied: humiliating defeat was repeatedly administered to the invaders. Reinforcements would not be available for Egypt.
Meanwhile, ‘Strafer’ Gott was responsible for dominating the 70 miles (113km) between the two armies, and protecting 11 H which remained the only reconnaissance force available to observe the enemy in his new camps. Since details of the camps were sparse, and both the camps themselves and the tempting gaps between them needed close scrutiny if they were to be attacked successfully, small all-arms groups known as ‘Jock Columns’ were instituted to protect the information gatherers and to dominate no man’s land. Named after Lt-Col (later Maj-Gen) J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell [Jock Campbell (VC) wikipedia] RHA, they included one or two motorised companies of infantry, engineers and anti-tank artillery, with the armoured cars and a few tanks and appropriate support vehicles, but relied for their real hitting power on their two troops of 25-pounder guns.
Two such columns were operating by October, lifting mines, harassing communications and rear areas, but other groupings were also involved in raids. One such raid on 23 October, by 2nd Bn, Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders [Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders wikipedia] and 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars [8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars wikipedia] on the Maktila Camp, found the garrison ready and waiting for them. Fortunately, they managed to extricate themselves without serious loss but a very valuable lesson had been learned. The raid was very obviously compromised by café gossip in Cairo, home to many Italian nationals and innumerable spies, and future operations could not afford such carelessness. The Italians, however, seemed content that these camps were proof against direct attack and remained inside them strengthening their defences. Meanwhile, they surrendered no man’s land and the initiative to the British.
Despite the apparent reduction of Italian effort to invade Greece, the effect on the British commanders in the Middle East was to add another burden to their considerable responsibilities, when Churchill offered the Greeks immediate assistance. At sea, the RN having had the best of early exchanges with their Italian counterparts were able to attack troop concentrations along the coast from as early as August. The gunboat HMS Ladybird [HMS Ladybird wikipedia] entered Bardia harbour and calmly selected targets by searchlight, destroying any guns foolish enough to reply. In the air, the Desert Air Force [Desert Air Force wikipedia] provided targets like Tobruk, while operating fighter cover with its Gloster Gladiators. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore [Arthur Longmore (1885-1970) wikipedia] used his single available Hurricane to good effort, sending it hither and yon to bluff the Italians into thinking it was but one of many. Nevertheless, the Regia Aeronautica [Regia Aeronautica wikipedia] fought back hard, bombing Alexandria and the vital island of Malta, and enjoying technical superiority for a while until Hurricane fighters arrived in significant numbers.
taken from Operation Compass 1940
[Campaign Series 73 – Osprey Publishing]