Battle of Nibeiwa
The Battle of Nibeiwa was fought on 9 December 1940 near Nibeiwa, Egypt, where an Italian fortified camp held by the Maletti Group was overrun by British and Indian forces. It was the opening engagement of Operation Compass.
In September 1940, the forces of the 10th Army stationed in Libya had conducted Operazione E, the Italian invasion of Egypt. The much smaller Western Desert Force under General Richard O'Connor had made a fighting withdrawal, but supply difficulties had halted the Italian advance at Sidi Barrani, only 150 kilometres (93 mi) from the Libyan frontier. The Italian forces were then deployed to defend the area they had occupied but this led to their dispersal in fortified camps, which were spaced too far apart for mutual support.
The Maletti Group, commanded by general Pietro Maletti, was a motorized force composed of five battalions of Libyan motorised infantry, one tank battalion with Fiat M11/39 tanks and some artillery batteries. This force was deployed on the hills surrounding Nibeiwa, about 20 kilometres (12 mi) south of Sidi Barrani. The Italian fortified camp consisted in a rectangle about 1 by 2 kilometres (0.62 mi × 1.24 mi), surrounded by walls, an anti-tank trench and a minefield. The minefield was incomplete, as there was a gap on the back of the rectangle (partly in order to allow easier access for supply trucks). British reconnaissance forces soon noticed this gap.
On 7 December 1940 Operation Compass, the British counter-offensive, began. The operation was initially aimed only at attacking the Italian forces, disrupting their lines and recapturing Sidi Barrani. The British plan was to cut the main Italian supply line (the Buq Buq–Sidi Barrani road) with the tanks of the 7th Armoured Division, while the 4th Indian Infantry Division would march through the desert and outflank the Italian vanguards, launching a frontal assault on the fortified camps. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade (General Reginald Arthur Savory) with one British battalion and two Indian Rajasthan battalions, would attack Nibeiwa, supported by 47 Matilda II tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment.
After marching through the desert for a day, the British came within sight of Nibeiwa camp in the morning of 9 December 1940. At 5:00 am, a diversionary bombardment by British artillery started; the artillery fired from east, so as to mislead the Italians about the direction from where the attack would come.
At 7:15 a.m the artillery of the 4th Indian Division started a heavy shelling of the Italian camp, taking the Italian troops by surprise. At 7:45 a.m. the Indian infantry launched their attack, supported by Matilda tanks, against the north-west corner of the camp; the 23 M11/39 Italian tanks were stationed there, outside of the perimeter wall and they were quickly overwhelmed, 15 of them being destroyed and the remaining eight captured. The Italian tank troops had been caught while they were warming up the tanks' engines and they had no time to react (their 37 mm guns would have done little damage to the heavily armoured Matildas). According to a different version, the M11/39s launched three counter-attacks but were blown up one by one.
The battle then moved inside the camp, Italian and Libyan forces fought a determined defensive action but were overwhelmed. General Maletti was killed while firing a machine gun against the British tanks, still wearing his pyjamas. Italian artillery and machine-gun fire tried to counter the attack and isolated parties of Italians hunted British tanks with hand grenades. Around 8:30 am. organized resistance ceased, although it took still two hours for the British to sweep the camp.
The Maletti Group had been destroyed; 819 of its men had been killed, 1,338 wounded and 2,000 captured, for only 56 British casualties. The loss of the Nibeiwa fortified camp opened a wide gap in the Italian defensive line, allowing the 4th Indian Division to penetrate behind the other Italian strongholds, thus leading to the success of the early part of Operation Compass.
The book "Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts" by Ian W. Walker gave a different version of the battle of Nibeiwa. According to Walker, there was no battle between Italian and British tanks, as Italian tank soldiers were annihilated by an attack with bayonets by the Indian Division in the night between 8 and 9 December, before they were able to reach their tanks. When the Matildas arrived, the Italians had already been killed by the bayonet attack, and the Matildas used the unmanned Italian tanks for target practice, destroying fifteen and capturing the remaining ones.