On this day, British and Commonwealth forces enter the port at Tobruk, in Libya, and tens of thousands of Italian occupiers are taken prisoner.
Italy declared war on Great Britain in June 1940. At that time, Gen. Rodolfo Graziani had almost 10 times the number of men in Libya than the British forces in Egypt under Gen. Archibald Wavell, who was commissioned to protect the North African approaches to the Suez Canal. A vast western desert stretched between the antagonists, who sat for months without confrontation. During that time, Italian forces passed into Egypt-but by that point Britain had reinforced its own numbers and decided to make a first strike. On December 9, Maj. Gen. Richard Nugent O’Connor launched a westward offensive from Mersa Matruh, in Egypt. Thirty thousand Brits warred against 80,000 Italians-but the British had the advantage of 275 tanks to the Italians’ 120. Within three days, 40,000 Italian prisoners were taken. The battle marked the beginning of the end of the Italian occupation of North Africa.
General O’Connor then began a sweep of Italian positions in Libya. Under his direction in early January 1941, the British 7th Royal Tank Regiment drove westward from Bardia, which it had just taken from the Italians, with the intention of isolating Tobruk until the 6th Australian Division could aid in an assault. The attack on the coastal fortress of Tobruk was finally launched on the 21st and it fell the next day, yielding 30,000 Italian prisoners, 236 guns, and 87 tanks. The 7th Royal Tank Regiment was a remarkable unit, winning a quick series of battles in Libya despite a paucity of resources.