January-February, 1941 – British, Australian and New Zealand forces are sent to North Africa to fight against the Vichy French and Italians.
They achieve notable victories at Bardia and Benghazi, and also capture the vital Libyan port of Tobruk. In response to Italian cries for help, the Germans join the campaign by deploying the crack Afrika Korps, commanded by General Erwin Rommel. British, Australian and New Zealand forces would battle against the Afrika Korps throughout 1941 and 1942.
The Battle of Bardia is fought over three days between 3 and 5 January 1941, as part of Operation Compass, the first military operation of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. It is the first battle of the war in which an Australian Army formation took part, the first to be commanded by an Australian general and the first to be planned by an Australian staff.
Major General Iven Mackay’s 6th Division assaults the strongly held Italian fortress of Bardia, Libya, assisted by air support and naval gunfire, and under the cover of an artillery barrage. The 16th Infantry Brigade attacks at dawn from the west, where the defences are known to be weak. Sappers blows gaps in the barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes and fills in and breaks down the sides of the anti-tank ditch with picks and shovels. This allows the infantry and 23 Matilda II tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment to enter the fortress and capture all their objectives, along with 8,000 prisoners.
The victory at Bardia enables the Allied forces to continue the advance into Libya and ultimately capture almost all of Cyrenaica. In turn this leads to German intervention in the fighting in North Africa, changing the nature of the war in that theatre.