Libya / North Africa
During the first two years of the War, Australia's contribution to the ground war effort took place against the Germans, Italians and Vichy French in North Africa. The Second Australian Imperial Force ( 2nd AIF) played a key role fighting alongside Britain and her allies.
The Second AIF was formed from troops recruited from volunteers for overseas service after the declaration of World War II on 3 September 1939.
The Second AIF consisted of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Divisions. After troops were recruited and trained, the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions were sent to the Middle East, with some elements being first assigned to garrison duties in the UK when the threat of invasion was imminent in the summer of 1940. The 8th Division was sent to Malaya (modern Malaysia) and is addressed in other Campaign pages 'Malaya Singapore' (/explore/campaigns/48), 'Australia's Northern Periphery' (/explore/campaigns/49) and 'Prisoners of War (/explore/campaigns/56)'.
Fig 1. Map of the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations - Libya is centre bottom of the map
The 6th Division was the first into action in North Africa. It fought in Libya in Operation Compass from December 1940, against the Italian Fascist forces of Benito Mussolini. Italian military operations in North Africa were centred on Italian colonies in Libya from which they advanced east toward the British in Egypt. The Italian plan was to strike through Egypt to the Suez Canal. This posed a threat to British positions in Egypt and Sudan, and to communications with India. The Italians began their advance in September 1940 with half a million troops, outnumbering the British and Commonwealth forces.
The Australian 6th Division and British 7th Armoured Division counterattacked, supported by the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Under the leadership of British Corps Commander Lieutenant General Richard O'Connor, combined Allied forces drove the Italians back across the desert under 'Operation Compass'.
On the morning of 3 January 1941, the men of the 16th Brigade of the 6th Australian Division attacked Bardia, breaking through the western face of the defensive perimeter, while soldiers of the 2/6th Battalion launched a diversionary attack on the southern side. Later in the morning, the 17th Australian Brigade joined in the attack. On 4 January, the 16th Brigade encircled Bardia and during the afternoon Australian soldiers entered the town. Little Italian resistance remained in the northern sector but fighting continued in the southern sector until the following day.
Fig 2. Australian soldiers advance along a ridgeline on approach to Bardia January 1941. Photo by Damien Parer
On 5 January, the following bulletin was issued by General Headquarters in Cairo: “All resistance at Bardia ceased at 1330 hrs today”. 130 Australians had been killed in the action, and 326 were wounded. However, they had taken over 40,000 prisoners, 400 guns and 127 tanks.
A very detailed description of the battle is HERE (community.timeghost.tv)
Captured on 7 February, Benghazi.
Over 65 000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoner, as well as vast quantities of equipment and munitions. Italian resistance was variable. At Bardia, the Australians lost 130 men. Operation Compass resulted in the destruction of nine Italian divisions and the surrender of over 130 000 Italian troops.
Australian soldiers gained confidence and were proud of their successes, heartened that they had upheld the legacy of the fathers in the 1st AIF.
This quote by war correspondent John Hetherington encapsulates the pride the men of the 6th Division felt in their accomplishment:
Men who since childhood had read and heard of the exploits in battle of the First AIF, who had enlisted and trained under the shadow of their fathers’ reputation as soldiers, had come through their ordeal of fire and built a reputation of their own.
Fig 3. Australian soldiers after the battle of Bardia
However the Italian defeat triggered a much bigger threat - after the collapse of Italian power in North Africa, Hitler was forced to intervene and send his own troops, the legendary Afrika Korps under charimsatic commander General Erwin Rommel, "The Desert Fox". They arrived in March 1941. Reinforcing the Italians, they advanced across the deserts of North Africa on 31 March 1941 and quickly regained territory lost to the Australians and British. Allied forces were pushed back by the tactical superiority of the Afrika Korps. The combined German-Italian forces duly arrived at the approaches to the Port of Tobruk.
Thus began the 'Siege of Tobruk (/explore/campaigns/85)', in which the 9th Division and the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division under Australian General Sir Leslie Mooreshead distinguished themselves and earned the sobriquet "The Rats of Tobruk".
After 242 days, the Germans abandoned the siege. The activities in Tobruk occurred at the same time as operations in Greece and Crete (/explore/campaigns/10). Both of those campaigns resulted in debilitating losses for the Australian 6th Division.
The 7th Division was committed to Syria - Operation Exporter (/explore/campaigns/16) in mid 1941.
Meanwhile in Libya, subsequent fighting led to the Germans pressing towards Egypt, where they were held. Logistics supply problems were curtailing their combat power. The Allied counter attack began with the Battle of El Alamein (/explore/campaigns/53) in late 1942, in which Australia was represented by the 9th Division. By this time the 6th and 7th Divisions had been withdrawn to Australia to face the Japanese invasion of New Guinea. The 9th Division followed at the conclusion of the El Alamein, battle leaving only the RAAF No. 3 Squadron 'in theatre' for the rest of the war, along with many individual RAAF personnel serving in RAF squadrons.
The campaigns in North Africa during World War II lasted for two years. All three services, Army, Navy and Airforce were involved and the fighting ultimately claimed 3,000 Australian lives.
Updated Steve Larkins Feb 2022