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Today's Honour Roll

January
25
Today's Honour Roll recognizes 88 Australians who fell on this day in history.
See Full List
Name Date of Death Conflict
ROGERS, Douglas 25 Jan 1944 World War 2
HODGKISSON, Joseph William 25 Jan 1953 Korean War
CLARK, Ross Tasman 25 Jan 1971 Vietnam War
GLUYAS, John Edgar 25 Jan 1902 Boer War
DUCAT, Ross Macleay 25 Jan 1959 Malayan Emergency

Welcome to 2021!

80th Anniversary - The Capture of Bardia
Australia’s first battle in World War II

By Ned Young
The 6th Division Australia

The 6th Division was the first division formed within the 2nd Australian Infantry Force, raised on 28 September 1939. It consisted of the 16th, 17th and 18th Brigades initially, but when the 18th Brigade was sent to England in June 1940, the 19th Brigade joined as the third infantry brigade within the division.

The 6th Division arrived in Palestine in February to complete their training with the intent of joining the British Expeditionary Force in France. This changed when France fell to Germany in July 1940, and while some small field and artillery regiments were sent to the United Kingdom in preparation for the expected invasion, the rest of the division stayed training in the Middle East. What the division lacked in the latest equipment (World War I era arms like the Lee-Enfield rifle and Vickers machine gun were the 6th Division’s primary weapons), they made up for in vigour and grit. The units were trained “aggressively” and became “highly efficient”.[i]

Italian Tenth Army

Italy declared war on the United Kingdom on 10 June 1940. The Italian colony Libya bordered Egypt, which was occupied by the British. The Italian Tenth Army, based in Cyrenaica and commanded by General Italio Gariboldi, began a series of cross-border skirmishes against the British which culminated in a full-scale invasion of Egypt on 13 September. The Tenth Army hoped to seize control of the Suez Canal, but only managed to reach Sidi Barrani, a town less the 100 kilometres from the Libyan border, before logistical difficulties forced them to halt.

The British Western Desert Force, operating under Major General Richard O’Connor, launched Operation Compass and attacked Sidi Barrani on 9 December, capturing 38,000 Italian prisoners. The remainder of the army were pursued back into Libya where they fortified themselves in the city of Bardia. Sidi Barrani, and the entire Egyptian invasion, was a disaster for the Italian Tenth Army, and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini was furious.

Lieutenant General Annibale Bergonzoli was put in charge of protecting the Bardia fortress. Bergonzoli was infamously known as ‘barba elettrica’ (‘electric whiskers’) within the Italian army for his short and wiry beard. Mussolini ordered “barba elettrica and his brave soldiers” to “stand at whatever cost, faithful to the last”.[ii]


Lieutenant General Annibale Bergonzoli and his ‘electric whiskers’
Imperial War Museum

Preparing to take Bardia

The 4th Indian Division were withdrawn to Sudan on 11 December 1940. The 6th Australian Division were moved up from their training camp near Alexandria to replace the Indians, with Major General Iven Mackay assuming control.[iii] The 6th Division were still undermanned and short of equipment. To make up for the shortages, artillery, cavalry, anti-tank and field regiments were brought in from the British XIII Corps.

On Christmas Eve 1940, Major General O’Connor directed Major General MacKay to plan an attack on Bardia. The attack was to be made with only two brigades, leaving one to advance on Tobruk after Bardia fell. MacKay knew that Bardia would be determinedly held, and would require a carefully planned attack. He proposed that the 16th Brigade penetrate the western defences at the junction between two sectors of the Italian fortress. This would, in theory, spilt the defence in two, allowing the 17th Brigade to breach Bardia.

Meanwhile, the Italians awaited an Allied onslaught. Bardia was staunchly fortified. The 29 kilometre perimeter had a continuous anti-tank ditch, extensive barbed-wire and strongpoints armed with heavy machine guns. However, much like the 6th Division, the Tenth Army were equipped with less than ideal weaponry (the Fiat-Revelli model guns in particular, were notoriously unreliable and prone to jamming [iv]), which undermined their excellent defences.


Anti-tank ditch and wire entanglements at Bardia
AWM 022177

Air and Naval Operations

No. 70 Squadron and No. 216 Squadron RAF combined for a heavy air raid of Bardia on the night of the 2 January 1941. It was one of 100 sorties conducted against the Italian stronghold from the beginning of the new year.[v]

HMS Warspite, HMS Valiant and HMS Barham began bombarding the Tenth Army from below the cliffs of Bardia. They withdrew after firing 754 shells, replaced by HMS Terror, HMS Gnat, HMS Aphis and HMS Ladybird. The replacement ships continued to fire on Bardia throughout the battle, even collapsing part of the cliff where the Italians had positioned their guns.


The crew of the HMS Ladybird find time for a photograph during the Bardia bombardment
Damien Parer, AWM 005006

The Break-in


Map shows positions at dusk 3 January 1941
Hugh W. Groser

It was an early morning for the assault troops of the 16th Brigade on 3 January 1941. They began moving into position at 4:15am, and open fired on the western defensive perimeter at 5:30am. Sappers of the 2nd/1st Field Company were crucial in the advance. They slid Bangalore torpedoes, huge 3.7 meter pipes filled with explosive ammonal, under the barbed wire defences at 55 metre intervals. They were detonated in unison, allowing the infantry to rush forward as a unit. The sappers continued on and began breaking down the walls of the anti-tank ditch.

Positioned behind the barbed wire and anti-tank ditch at regular intervals were 83 posts, each manned by an Italian platoon or company. The first posts captured by the Allies were Posts 46, 47 and 49, all of which were easily overrun by the rapidly advancing 16th Brigade. The Australians attacked ferociously with hand grenades and bayonets once a post was breached, causing many of the Italian defenders to quickly surrender. Posts 44, 45 and 48 fell within half an hour. Over 400 prisoners were captured from these posts alone.[vi]

The Australians had made excellent progress. Through the gaps they had created in the defences came 23 Matildas of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, accompanied by the Australian 2nd/2nd Battalion. They were met by a dozen Italian M13/40 tanks, which managed to free about 500 Italian prisoners from the collection point that had been established near Post 45. The Italian tanks were systematically destroyed by British anti-tank platoons before they could inflict much more damage. The defensive perimeter had been substantially breached, and the Italians were not able to stem the advance. At midday, only 6 hours after the fighting began, 6,000 Italian prisoners had already been captured.[vii]


Some of the tens of thousands of Italian prisoners captured during the Battle of Bardia
Frank Hurley, AWM 005250

The Push to Bardia

The 17th Brigade joined the fighting, taking over the advance in the late morning. They were tasked with clearing the southern portion of the Italian resistance while the 16th Brigade advanced towards Bardia.viii The 17th Brigade captured a bounty of posts and prisoners, so many that the 2nd/7th Battalion was left with only 45 men at the end of the day - the rest assigned to guard the thousands of prisoners.[ix]

Progress had slowed by nightfall, but the 17th Brigade still managed to push on, suffering minimal casualties. The only setback came when Lieutenant Colonel Godfrey, Commanding Officer of the 2nd/6th Battalion, launched a rogue attack in defiance of the orders he had received from his superiors. Nevertheless, the “confused and…stagnant attack” still managed to capture Posts 7 and 9, and weaken Post 11. By midnight on 3 January, the 17th Brigade had captured 10 posts, a further 3 kilometres of perimeter, and even breached the secondary ‘Switch Line’ defence.

At 9am on 4 January, the 2nd/1st Battalion of the 16th Brigade made an advance further north to capture the remaining posts standing between them and Bardia. Post 54 proved especially stubborn and required over 4 hours of artillery and mortar bombardment before finally falling to the Allies.[x] The capture of Post 54 was perhaps the most crucial of all for the Australians. Upon seeing the post fall, Posts 56 and 61 surrendered without a fight, followed by Posts 58, 60, 63 and 65. The Australians had reached post 69 by nightfall, with only the 14 most northern posts left to contend with.[xi]

Breaching Bardia


Looking down at the township of Bardia, situated within one of the many wadis in the area
AWM 004931

Meanwhile, the 2nd/3rd Battalion were supported by the 104th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment as they continued their advance toward the city walls of Bardia. An eight-man reconnaissance party, sent to survey the wadis (valleys) outside the Bardia township, returned with 500 prisoners. Another company captured 2000 members of Italian technical units including 60 officers.[xii]

C Company of the 2nd/3rd Battalion and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment entered Bardia at 4:00pm on 4 January after the Italians surrendered and opened the gates for them. The 2nd/2nd Battalion attacked and captured a southern fort at 4:45pm, taking with them a further 300 prisoners. They joined the 2nd/3rd in Bardia, while the 2nd/5th Infantry Battalion and 2nd/1st Field Regiment continued to attack Italian batteries and capture prisoners.

Realising the hopelessness of the situation, Lieutenant General Bergonzoli fled on foot to Tobruk. He arrived three days later after traversing 120 kilometres of desert. Clearly he had forgotten the message he sent to his Prime Minister some days earlier, “I am aware of the honour I have…in Bardia we are and here we stay”.[xiii]


(action leading to the fall of Post 11) by Ivor Hele depicts several known Australian soldiers from the 2nd/6th Battalion on their first attempt to capture Post 11 at Bardia on 3 January 1941.
Read more here
AWM ART27576

Bardia had been captured, but Italian resistance on the southern perimeter did not cease until the morning of 5 January.[xiv] The 2nd/11th, 2nd/7th and 2nd/6th Infantry Battalions had fought gallantly against a southern garrison which refused to surrender as timidly as their northern counterparts had. The defenders of Post 11 were the last to surrender at 1:30pm.[xv] “On a battlefield where Italian troops won little honour…their fight would have done credit to any army”.[xvi]

Aftermath

“The cream of the Empire troops and the finest and toughest fighting men in the world,”[xvii] is how the Daily Express in England described the Australian force after the Battle of Bardia. The men who had grown up hearing about the exploits of their fathers and uncles in the First World War had established themselves as just as hardy soldiers.

Signalman Arthur Hammond holds the honour of being one the first soldiers decorated in the 2nd AIF. Awarded the Military Medal on 9 May 1941 for his “bravery and devotion to duty”,[xviii] he told his parents in a letter that he “just had a bit of luck at Bardia”.[xix]


Signalman Hammond pictured in The Daily News Perth, 1 April 1941

Capturing Bardia lead to the entirety of Cyrenaica falling to the Allies. It also caused Germany to join the fighting in North Africa. Hitler was worried what might happen if the Italian public rose up against Mussolini in the wake of further military failure.

Australia lost only 130 men over the three days of fighting. A further 326 were wounded. The Italian casualties numbered 5,443 including 1,703 men killed, not to mention over 36,000 prisoners captured. Such a discrepancy in casualties is telling of the remarkable effort of the Australians in their first battle of the Second World War.


Australian soldiers celebrate their victory at Bardia with a much-deserved bath in the harbour
AWM 007864

 

References:

[i] Stockings, C 2008, Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, UNSW Press, Sydney.
[ii] Long, G 1952, To Benghazi: Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
[iii] Playfair, Major General I.S.O., Stitt, Commander G.S.M., Molony, Brigadier C.J.C, Toomer, Air Vice Marshall S.E. 1954, The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Early Successes Against Italy, Vol. 1, Lucknow Books, London.
[iv] Stockings, C 2008, Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, UNSW Press, Sydney.
[v] Playfair, Major General I.S.O., Stitt, Commander G.S.M., Molony, Brigadier C.J.C, Toomer, Air Vice Marshall S.E. 1954, The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Early Successes Against Italy, Vol. 1, Lucknow Books, London.
[vi] Long, G 1952, To Benghazi: Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Australian War Memorial, 2020, Battle Of Bardia [online], Australian War Memorial, Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84311>.
[ix] Stockings, C 2008, Bardia: Myth, Reality and the Heirs of Anzac, UNSW Press, Sydney.
[x] Long, G 1952, To Benghazi: Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] AWM
[xv] Department of Veterans Affairs, 2020, Bardia: Prelude To Tobruk [online], Australian War Memorial, London. Available at: <https://www.awmlondon.gov.au/battles/bardia>.
[xvi] Long, G 1952, To Benghazi: Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
[xvii] Department of Veterans Affairs, 2020, Bardia: Prelude To Tobruk [online], Australian War Memorial, London. Available at: <https://www.awmlondon.gov.au/battles/bardia>.
[xviii] Military Medal Citation.
[xix] Kalgoorlie Miner 1941, ‘Bravery at Bardia, West Australian Honoured, First Decoration to AIF’, Kalgoorlie Miner, 1 April, p. 2.