World War II: Operation Compass

Italian prisoners captured during Operation Compass, January 1941. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Operation Compass - Conflict:

Operation Compass took place during World War II (1939-1945).

Operation Compass - Date:

Fighting in the Western Desert began on December 8, 1940 and concluded on February 9, 1941.

Armies & Commanders:


  • General Richard O'Connor
  • General Archibald Wavell
  • 31,000 men
  • 275 tanks, 60 armored cars, 120 artillery pieces


  • General Rodolfo Graziani
  • General Annibale Bergonzoli
  • 150,000 men
  • 600 tanks, 1,200 artillery pieces

Operation Compass - Battle Summary:

Following Italy's June 10, 1940, declaration of war on Great Britain and France, Italian forces in Libya began raiding across the border into British-held Egypt. These raids were encouraged by Benito Mussolini who wished the Governor-General of Libya, Marshal Italo Balbo, to launch a full scale offensive with the goal of capturing the Suez Canal. After Balbo's accidental death on June 28, Mussolini replaced him with General Rodolfo Graziani and gave him similar instructions. At Graziani's disposal were the Tenth and Fifth Armies which consisted of around 150,000 men.

Opposing the Italians were the 31,000 men of Major General Richard O'Connor's West Desert Force. Though badly outnumbered the British troops were highly mechanized and mobile, as well as possessed more advanced tanks than the Italians. Among these was the heavy Matilda infantry tank which possessed armor that no available Italian tank/anti-tank gun could breach. Only one Italian unit was largely mechanized, the Maletti Group, which possessed trucks and a variety of light armor. On September 13, 1940, Graziani gave into Mussolini's demand and attacked into Egypt with seven divisions as well as the Maletti Group.

After recapturing Fort Capuzzo, the Italians pressed into Egypt, advancing 60 miles in three days. Halting at Sidi Barrani, the Italians dug in to await supplies and reinforcements. These were slow arriving as the Royal Navy had increased its presence in the Mediterranean and was intercepting Italian supply ships. To counter the Italian advance, O'Connor planned Operation Compass which was designed to push the Italians out of Egypt and back into Libya as far as Benghazi. Attacking on December 8, 1940, British and Indian Army units struck at Sidi Barrani.

Exploiting a gap in the Italian defenses discovered by Brigadier Eric Dorman-Smith, British forces attacked south of Sidi Barrani and achieved complete surprise. Supported by artillery, aircraft, and armor, the assault overran the Italian position within five hours and resulted in the destruction of the Maletti Group and the death of its commander, General Pietro Maletti. Over the next three days, O'Connor's men pushed west destroying 237 Italian artillery pieces, 73 tanks, and capturing 38,300 men. Moving through Halfaya Pass, they crossed the border and captured Fort Capuzzo.

Wishing to exploit the situation, O'Connor wanted to keep attacking however he was forced to halt as his superior, General Archibald Wavell, withdrew the 4th Indian Division from the battle for operations in East Africa. This was replaced on December 18 by the raw Australian 6th Division, marking the first time Australian troops saw combat in World War II. Resuming the advance, the British were able to keep the Italians off balance with the speed of their attacks which led to entire units being cut off and forced to surrender.

Pushing into Libya, the Australians captured Bardia (January 5, 1941), Tobruk (January 22), and Derna (February 3). Due to their inability to stop O'Connor's offensive, Graziani made the decision to completely abandon the region of Cyrenaica and ordered the Tenth Army to fall back through Beda Fomm. Learning of this, O'Connor devised a new plan with the goal of destroying the Tenth Army. With the Australians pushing the Italians back along the coast, he detached Major General Sir Michael Creagh's 7th Armoured Division with orders to turn inland, cross the desert, and take Beda Fomm before the Italians arrived.

Traveling via Mechili, Msus and Antelat, Creagh's tanks found the rough terrain of the desert difficult to cross. Falling behind schedule, Creagh made the decision to send a "flying column" forward to take Beda Fomm. Christened Combe Force, for its commander Lieutenant Colonel John Combe, it was composed of around 2,000 men. As it was intended to move quickly, Creagh limited its armor support to light and Cruiser tanks.

Rushing forward, Combe Force took Beda Fomm on February 4. After establishing defensive positions facing north up the coast, they came under heavy attack the next day. Desperately attacking Combe Force's position, the Italians repeatedly failed to break through. For two days, Combe's 2,000 men held off 20,000 Italians supported by over 100 tanks. On February 7, 20 Italian tanks managed to break into the British lines but were defeated by Combe's field guns. Later that day, with the rest of the 7th Armoured Division arriving and the Australians pressing from the north, the Tenth Army began surrendering en masse.

Operation Compass - Aftermath

The ten weeks of Operation Compass succeeded in pushing the Tenth Army out of Egypt and eliminating it as a fighting force. During the campaign the Italians lost around 3,000 killed and 130,000 captured, as well as approximately 400 tanks and 1,292 artillery pieces. West Desert Force's losses were limited to 494 dead and 1,225 wounded. A crushing defeat for the Italians, the British failed to exploit the success of Operation Compass as Churchill ordered the advance stopped at El Agheila and began pulling out troops to aid in the defense of Greece. Later that month, the German Afrika Korps began deploying to the area radically changing the course of the war in North Africa.  This would lead to fighting back and forth with Germans winning at places such as Gazala before being halted at First El Alamein and crushed at Second El Alamein.  

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Operation Compass." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II: Operation Compass. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Operation Compass." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).