Operation COMPASS was the Australian Army’s first experience of mechanised manoeuvre warfare, and was a stunning victory for the British and Commonwealth forces involved. Fought in the Western Desert during 1940-41 against the Italians, the operation demonstrated how a combined arms force could continually outmanoeuvre and defeat a stronger but less mobile foe. At Sidi Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk, Benghazi and Beda Fomm a small British and Commonwealth force of less than two divisions routed an Italian Army, capturing 130,000 troops and driving the Italians from Egypt. The tactics used by the British commander, Lieutenant General O’Connor, were copied and made famous by Rommel, and strongly influence the Australian Army’s present-day concept of manoeuvre warfare. Given Operation COMPASS’ influence on our existing doctrine, it is appropriate that an examination of the operation appears in the latest ADF Journal alongside commentary about what kind of force and equipment our Army might need to prevail in a future ‘close fight’.
Indeed, there are many parallels to the Australian Army’s current focus on modernisation: the British Commonwealth and Italian forces involved were both seeking to procure and employ increased mobility, firepower and protection, and to adapt to the tactical innovation that was Blitzkrieg. The British 7th Armoured Division in particular had been the Army’s main formation for conducting mechanised warfare experiments in the lead up to COMPASS. For their part the Italians possessed several potent armoured formations to support their new ‘Mechanisation’ doctrine, but the bulk of their light infantry force lacked the vehicles and training to employ it. Instead they fell back on their well-practised ‘Motorisation’ doctrine and sought to use their significantly superior mass to defeat British attacks. The article contends that it was the British who adapted faster and were able to better concentrate combat power, thereby gaining an improbable victory.
Contrary to popular opinion, there is little evidence that British equipment and armoured vehicles were significantly superior to Italian ones, or that the Italians lacked fighting spirit. Instead the British and Commonwealth forces shaped the battlespace using a joint approach, and exploited their superior mobility and logistics to continually defeat the Italians in deliberate and encounter battles. O’Connor employed superior tempo to unhinge the Italian’s plan to deny British access to the limited coastal ports for resupply, and orchestrated a manoeuvrist approach to which the Italian’s responded with defensive tactics which only served to further isolate and weaken their forces and hasten their eventual rout. The bold advance through almost untracked desert to cut off the retreating enemy at Beda Fomm, and how close that endeavour came to failing exemplifies O’Connor’s mastery of the operational art and his appetite for taking calculated risks. The operation is thus an example of how often the equipment matters less than how you use it. Superior British tactics and doctrine, not better arms, was the decisive factor.
The Operation also highlights the importance of the Joint and cooperative approach to war. O’Connor was only able to launch his attacks after the other Services had obtained control of the air and sea, and could only maintain his advance while his resupply routes were secure. All three Services cooperated during attacks, and while air-ground cooperation was rudimentary compared to later campaigns, it was superior to previous efforts and ultimately far more effective than their opponents. Logistics dominated O’Connor’s planning from start to finish, and ultimately enabled his triumph. Once again this success was built upon the British leaders’ superior understanding of the situation and how it could be altered to their advantage.
Operation COMPASS demonstrates why experimentation, understanding and effective tactics are as essential as modern equipment to maintain an edge over future opponents. Those looking to improve their understanding of contemporary warfare might consider how a small but well trained, skilfully led and adequately equipped force overcame much greater combat power.
About the author: David Cave is the Brigade Major of the 6th Combat Support Brigade and a graduate of the United Kingdom’s Advanced Command and Staff Course.