Bardia had been taken. The Italians lost 40,000 men (killed, wounded and captured), 400 guns, 13 medium tanks, 115 light tanks and 706 trucks.
Battle of Bardia
3rd to 5th January 1941
Questions often asked on the topic of Italian prisoners of war begin with WHY? Why were Italian prisoners of war working on Queensland farms? Why were there so many Italian prisoners of war in Australia? Why did they so readily surrender? Why were they content to be prisoners of war in Australia? Why didn’t they escape and/or cause havoc?
An understanding of the battles they fought in North and East Africa# and the war they fought on Mussolini’s behalf gives a context to the situation of the Italian prisoners of war.
Australia’s first group of Italian POWs arrived in May 1941, four months after the Battle of Bardia and five months after the Battle of Sidi el Barrani. Place of Capture for many of the first POWs is recorded as Libya, but the date of capture pinpoints the place… 4th January 1941… Bardia.
Bardia was a military outpost in Libya, developed by Italy during its colonial rule of the country. Situated on the coast, it encompassed a small town and harbour and roads leading east to the Egyptian border and west to Tobruk. It was fortified by what the Italians believed was an impenetrable 18 mile arc of modern defences. These defences incorporated a steep anti-tank ditch – 4 feet deep by 12 feet wide, dense barbed-wire entanglements and minefields with two lines of steel and concrete bunkers 800 yards apart.
Map of Battle of Bardia, Position at Dusk on 3rd January 1941, from Battle of Bardia Wikipedia
Il Duce had given instructions to General Bergozoli, commander of Bardia, “the task of defending Bardia to the last”* to which Bergozoli replied, “In Bardia we are, and here we stay.”* Bergozoli had 45,000 men and 400 guns to hold Bardia. (*The Desert Generals by Correlli Barnett)
General Annibale Bergozoli is pictured centre.
He was known as “barba elettrica” [Electric Whiskers]
Capture of Bardia – Three of the captured Italian Generals and their staff were brought from the Western Desert by air, and here they are arriving at an aerodrome in Cairo. (Photo by unknown British Official photographer)
The allies on the other hand were poorly equipped, equipment had suffered due to the poor condition of roads and the assault force was one third of the garrison’s strength. This battle was part of Operation Compass and was the first battle of war in which an Australian Army formation took part:
(from 3RAR Museum Display: Lavarack Barracks Townsville)
The allies had taken Sidi el Barrani 9th – 10th December 1940, which was the first battle of Operation Compass and continued to push westward into Italian held territory. This meant that Italian forces not taken prisoner at Sidi el Barrani, retreated westward and engaged in combat at Buq Buq, Sollum, Fort Capuzzo, Halfaya Pass on their out of Egyptian territory. Many were taken prisoner at these battles between Sidi el Barrani and Bardia. This British Pathe film discusses Operation Compass.
Western Desert Campaign
In preparation for a land assault, Bardia was attacked by air support. Between 31st December 1940 and 2nd January 1941 100 bombing sorties took place. This was followed by heavy air raids on the night of 2/3 January 1941. As well, tanks with exhaust baffles removed roared up and down the perimeter defences through the night and early morning. Images of the Battle Bardia are captured in this British Pathe film.
3rd January 1941:At 5.30 am, the ground assault began when every gun available opened the battle. The objective was to breech the western defences using Bangalore torpedoes and captured Italian wire cutters. The Australians had 120 guns and 23 ‘I’ tanks. By the last hours of darkness, the first Italians emerged from their bunkers. By 6.30am, the Aussies had cleared two corridors and 6 “I” tanks attacked toward Bardia. Dog fights ensued between the Italians and the Aussies. By 8am with the first objective taken, 8000 prisoners had been taken. A pause in the ground attack, was followed by the second phase of assault at 11.30am when the fleet laid a barrage and the airforce bombed Italian airfields. Heavy naval bombardment consisted of 244 x 15 inch shells, 270 x 6 inch shells and 240 x 4.5 inch shells which rained down on Bardia.
Ferdinando Pancisi was captured on this day, he remembers:
“I was a male nurse for the Red Cross, I had to care for and help the sick, injured and look after the people. I was on the Front where all the soldiers were and where everything was happening. I saved myself. We were 40,000 [captured at Bardia]. All the countries of the world were fighting against Italy, Germany and Japan.
[After capture] we hadn’t eaten for days. Food wasn’t arriving. We tried our best to survive. We were trying to make do looking for food on one side or the other of the Front, looking everywhere that we could and we survived. Well those who managed, survived, many others didn’t make it. I went for 7 days and 7 nights without food or water because the English were not giving us anything. I tried asking a British guard for some food or water and he’d always reply “tomorrow, tomorrow”.
4th January 1941: By midday, the Fortress of Bardia had fallen and the harbour was taken without damage. Sporadic fighting continued in the north and south throughout the day.
Costanzo Melino was captured on 4th January 1941 and recounts his experiences as a soldier in this battle: Captured at Bardia.
Two captured Italian Carro Veloce CV33 Tankettes on the road overlooking Bardia Harbour. Bardia can be seen on the far hill. (Negative by B.M.I., photographer Unknown British Official photographer)
5th January 1941 : The battle was over by lunch time. It was said that the Australians ‘lunched on Italian champagne’. Bardia had been taken. The Italians lost 40,000 men (killed, wounded and captured), 400 guns, 13 medium tanks, 115 light tanks and 706 trucks.
Angelo Valiante was captured on 5th January 1941, he remembers: “After one month, at the front, 23 kms walk, and no bottom of shoe, none left, nothing. Stopped one month there. Night time, they say, all soldiers have to go back. English people chase us, to go back. At night time. We go back.[to Bardia] In the night time, the cold, the body, the arms, can’t walk, too tired, no food, no water.”
Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. 6 January 1941. Aerial view taken on the day that Bardia fell shows a long line of prisoners stretching down the road being rounded up by the Allied land forces and transported in the back of trucks.
Near Bardia. 6.5 MM Breda Model 1924 and 6.5MM Fiat Revelli Model 35 Machine Guns Captured from the “Ities” (Italians) lined up by the roadside (Negative by F. Hurley)
Below are the recollections of an Italian soldier who was captured at Bardia. Giovanni Palermo was imprisoned at Zonderwater, South Africa:
From Noi! Prigionieri Africa 1941-47 P.O.W.104702 by Giovanni Palermo
Noi! Prigionieri Africa 1941-47 P.O.W.104702 by Giovanni Palermo in English
# Further and more detailed information about the war in North Africa can be found in the books : Bardia by Craig Stockings and The Sidi Rezeg Battles 1941 by Agar-Hamilton and Turner. Acknowledgement to these books for the details provided in this article.