On 3 January 1941, the 2nd AIF took part in the first major Australian battle of World War II at Bardia, Libya, when battalions of the 6th Australian Division penetrated the defences of the Italian stronghold. Despite some heavy resistance the town fell to the Australians just two days later. The Australians captured Italian war materiel as well as thousands of Italian prisoners of war (POWs), many of whom were shipped to prison camps in Australia.
Bardia, a small harbour town on the Mediterranean coast of Libya, is about 30 kilometres from the Egyptian border. It was developed as a military outpost during Italy's colonisation of Libya at the beginning of the 20th century and the Italians had fortified both the harbour and the town before World War II.
In June 1940, Italy declared war on the Allies and began to build up her troops in Libya. In September 1940, the Italian 10th Army invaded Sidi Barrani in British held Egypt, threatening British control of the Middle East and most particularly, the Suez Canal and British supply routes. British forces under General Sir Archibald Wavell expelled the Italians from Sidi Barrani and pursued them back towards the Libyan border. In December 1940, the 6th Australian Division was moved forward from training camps around Alexandria to relieve British troops around Bardia and at the end of December they were ordered to prepare to attack.
The allied attack was launched at 5.30 am on 3 January 1941.
The troops wore their greatcoats to keep out the intense cold of the desert at early morning and entered the fight singing and shouting. After blowing holes through wire obstacles, the infantry captured a number of enemy posts within half an hour – thus establishing a breach in the perimeter.
[Gavin Long, To Benghazi, Canberra, 1952]
The fighting continued on until 5 January when the Italian position had been cut almost into two. The allies took nearly 40,000 Italian prisoners and considerable amounts of enemy weapons, supplies and equipment. The battle for Bardia cost 130 Australian lives with 320 men wounded.
On 22 January 1941, the Italian held Tobruk fell to the AIF and 25,000 Italians became prisoners. During January and February 1941, the 6th Australian Division, together with British units, pushed the Italian army back across Libya, fighting successful actions at Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi. The Italian 10th Army, which had threatened Egypt, had been destroyed. In March 1941, the by-passed Italian force at the oasis of Giarabub was captured.
In early April 1941, the 6th Division was withdrawn from North Africa to defend Greece and replaced by the 9th Division which took part in the epic 'Siege of Tobruk' between April and November 1941 against Italian and German forces.