January 1941 marked the first engagement of an Australian Army formation in World War 2. The action involved the capture of Bardia, an Italian-held town in Libya by troops of the 6th Australian Division.
On the declaration of war the Australian government, echoing the historical precedent of 1914, offered a force of 20,000 men, organised as an infantry division and supporting arms, for overseas service. As the previous five AIF divisions still existed in the militia, the new division was created as the 6th Division, 2nd AIF. In its final form, the division comprised the 16th, 17th and 19th Infantry Brigades and deployment to the Middle East was complete by December 1940.
During the division’s build-up, training and re-equipment in Palestine and Egypt, events in North Africa became critical. In June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France. Following years of expanding their African possessions, the Italian army in Libya fielded 15 divisions, strongly supported by artillery and armour and with air and naval assets readily available. Impressive on paper, the force was weakened by problems of under-manning, incomplete training, poor morale and weak leadership. On 9 September, despite the extreme reluctance of the commanders and at the insistence of Mussolini, the Italians began a cautious advance into Egypt. Observed and delayed by a British screening force, the Italians reached Sidi Barrani on 13 September where they dug in to await reinforcements. This gave General Wavell, commanding British forces of which the 6th Division was part, time to prepare a counter-stroke.
Operation Compass was launched by Lieutenant General O’Connor’s Western Desert Force on 7 December 1940. By the 11th, the forward Italian camps and the town of Sidi Barrani had been captured, along with thousands of prisoners, and the Italians were hurriedly withdrawing into Libya. The end of December found the force, now with the 6th Australian Division having replaced the 4th Indian Division, closed up on Bardia. The Australians’ first test was about to begin.
Bardia was a small coastal settlement, important to both sides. To the British it represented the first major position in Italian territory, offering the only protected anchorage east of Tobruk. This, and the locally available water supplies, made it a suitable logistics base for any further operations. For the Italians, Bardia was the command centre for the border defences and therefore critical for holding the British advance into Libya.
The area around the town had been extensively fortified over a period of years. The defensive area was surrounded by a 29-kilometre arc, the ends of which were anchored on the sea, north and south of the town. The arc consisted of a continuous anti-tank ditch covered by a double line of concrete fighting positions which were, themselves, contained within a double barbed wire fence. This outer line was protected on the south and west by large, mixed minefields, and had a further line of fighting positions, some 200 – 400 metres to the rear. The weight of the defence was oriented to the south, the expected approach of any force from Egypt. It was, however, a perimeter defence, with no real depth for counter-penetration or counterattack measures. The Bardia defences were manned by the Italian XXIII Corps, comprised of what was left of the 10th Army which had invaded Egypt in September – some 43,000 all ranks.
On Christmas Eve Major General Iven Mackay received orders from O’Connor to plan for the capture of Bardia by the 6th Division. The attack, as devised by Mackay and his senior operations staff officer, Colonel Berryman, was for a two-phase attack by the division’s 16th and 17th Brigades, against the western sector of the Italian defences. The operation would be supported by a maximum air effort and naval bombardment.
Phase One commenced at 5.30 am on 3 January 1941. Following the opening barrage, 16th Brigade infantry, supported by engineers, breached the wire and anti-tank ditch on a narrow front. Matilda tanks then passed through the breach and, with the infantry, rolled up the fixed-fighting positions from the flanks. Some intense, close-quarter fighting was needed to capture the strong-points as follow-on units widened the breach and secured high ground inside the perimeter. The Phase Two attack by the 17th Brigade, south-east into the rear of the strongest defences, was much more difficult. Fierce fighting continued all night, before Mackay ordered the brigade to hold where it was until relieved. By the end of the first day, the division had captured almost two-thirds of the Italian position and was close to Bardia itself. On 4 January the 16th Brigade advanced, capturing the town by mid-afternoon. To the south, the fresh 19th Brigade relieved the 17th, overcoming the remaining resistance.
In its baptism of fire, the 6th Division had captured a strongly fortified town in a well-executed, formal attack. At a cost of 130 dead and 326 wounded, the division secured the harbour intact, taking guns, tanks and trucks, and 40,000 prisoners. An unintended consequence was that the severe Italian reverse led Hitler to order German support to stem British advances into Libya, resulting in the deployment of the Africa Corps to the theatre.
Article written by Rod Margetts
- who is a battlefield tour guide for Boronia Travel Centre.
Image Top Left:
25-pounder gun crew of the 2/1st Field Artillery Regiment at Baria, 29th December 1940. Source: Wikipedia
Image Middle Right:
Bardi Port today. Source: Wikipedia
Image Middle Left:
Senior officers of the 6th Division. Front row, left to right: Brigadier Arthur Allen, 16th Infantry Brigade; Major General Iven Mackay; Brigadier Horace Robertson, 19th Infantry Brigade. Back row, left to right: Colonel Frank Berryman, GSO1; Brigadier Stanley Savige, 17th Infantry Brigade; Colonel Alan Vasey, AA&QMG. All six had been awarded theDistinguished Service Order in the Great War. Source: Wikipedia
Image Bottom Right:
Australian troops enter Bardia (Date 3-5 January 1941). Source: Wikipedia