“I purred like six cats,” Churchill writes in his autobiographical The Second World War.
He was describing his reaction to General Wavell’s plans for a North African offensive. Archibald Wavell was C-in-C for the Middle East and then some—from Iraq to the Zambezi River. It would be left to one of his field commanders to carry out Operation Compass.
It was launched this week in the war: On 9 December 1940, the British Western Desert Force, commanded by General Richard O’Connor, attacked Italian positions around Sidi Barrani.
The enemy were caught completely by surprise. Two British divisions, the 4th Indian and the 7th Armoured, attacking Nibeiwa—a strongpoint in the Italian defensive ring. Nibeiwa fell, and 4,000 prisoners, and scores of tanks and trucks and guns were captured by the British.
There is no denying Wavell’s brilliance. His responsibilities were immense. British forces triumphed under his leadership, not only in North Africa, but throughout the Middle East and Eritrea and Abyssinia. He imagined a five-day raid. Attack Sidi Barrani and then withdraw. That was before he saw the chance of a major victory.
Even so, the plan for Compass was O’Connor’s. Equipment was in short supply—compared to later years—and O’Connor had to establish secret dumps of fuel and food. He had to move his troops unobserved across the open desert to the Italian lines some sixty miles away.
O’Connor’s forces not only captured Sidi Barrani but took 38,000 prisoners and drove the Italians completely out of Egypt. The 4th Indian Division, and the 7th Armoured (the Desert Rats) with their heavily armoured Matilda I tanks, had proved their worth.
O’Connor went on to capture Tobruk, deep inside Libya, and then Benghazi and beyond. But the completeness of his victory would lead to his destruction: Hitler had taken notice and decided to send the Afrika Korps to aid his allies; Churchill had taken notice and decided that North Africa could be safely neglected and troops and planes sent, instead, to help the Greeks.
For a time, O’Connor’s victory amazed the world. American reporters hurried to Cairo, convinced once more that the British Lion had teeth.
In his book The Desert Generals (George Allen & Unwin, 1960), Correlli Barnett describes O’Connor as a “…self-effacing man with the shy and gentle air of a scholar… He was as small and neat as a bird.”
O’Connor remains one of World War II’s most forgotten generals. He was captured by the Germans in early 1941 and spent more than two years as prisoner-of-war in Italy. He made two escape attempts, the second of which succeeded. After returning to England, he was appointed as a Corps commander for the Normandy invasion.