July 09, 2020
By Neal S. Shera
In the fall of 1940 Great Britain was in its worst situation at war since 1588. It was without any major allies to assist them against the super power of the day. The British Army was in shambles after a disastrous campaign in France. The Royal Navy was holding the line, but it was proving to no longer be the indomitable force capable of protecting the waning empire. The Royal Air Force had suffered heavy losses and barely averted disaster in the Battle of Britain. Churchill needed a major victory to boost morale for the country, and maintain the nation's will to resist the Nazis.
At the time there was only one option available to Winston Churchill, and it was with a small fighting force in Egypt. The overall commander of the Middle East Theater was General Archibald Wavell. He had several combat elements from around the Commonwealth under his command. At the center of this fighting force was the British 7th Armored Division, which was activated only earlier that year. Needing a success, Churchill began to pour in what little available reinforcements he had. This included the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and its 40 plus Matilda II (designated A12) infantry tanks.
The A12 had been the only bright spot of the failed campaign in France. This modest 25-ton tank reliably cruised at a relatively slow 16 mph, but it was intended to support walking infantry. Its most noteworthy feature was it was covered with thick armor, 60-78mm, on the front and sides. The Matilda II’s ability to shrug off 37mm and 50mm anti-tank gun rounds had come as a shock to German gunners, and the British were eager to put them to work against the Italians. Though they carried a relatively small caliber Quick Firing (QF) 2-Pounder gun (40mm rapid fire) it would be more than adequate in North Africa. If you want more information on the Matilda II and its history please follow this link to a previous article.
In late 1940 the British beginning planning what became known as Operation Compass. This was basically a “Hail Mary” offensive against the Italian 10th Army in Western Egypt and Cyrenaica. The Matilda II would play an important role in this campaign. The British elements, known as the Western Desert Force at the time, consisted of just 2 divisions with about 36,000 men. Unlike in France, the vast terrain required the British infantry to have motorized transport. Due to this they were generally limited to only their trusty SMLE No. 1 Mk III* .303-inch rifles, Bren guns and 2-inch mortars. The famous .303-inch Vickers Machine Guns, due to their weight and need for cooling water, could only be effectively utilized if they were set-up in prepared positions should the offensive stall.
The British infantry were supported by the A12 Matilda IIs, as well as an assortment of outdated light and medium tanks. The British Mk VI light tanks, although numerous, were only armed with machine guns and their thickest armor was only 14mm. This made them worthless in a fight against other tanks. Total amount of armor available was 275 tanks. For heavier support the British had 120 artillery pieces and 142 aircraft. The total force didn’t amount to much, but it was all they had, and they had to strike before the Italians took the initiative.
On the other side the Italians looked like they had every advantage. General Rodolfo Graziani had 150,000 men in 10 divisions and multiple independent units. He had set-up a strong defensive position which was supported by 600 tanks, 1600 artillery and 331 aircraft. So, by these numbers it looked like the British were doomed to failure. However the devil is in the details. Most of the Italian tanks were little more than lightly armored tracked armored cars. While the Italians did have some impressive examples of modern artillery, aircraft and other equipment at their disposal, fuel and ammunition supply was a constant issue. This was compounded by a horrible Italian army chain of command. So, while it might have appeared to be a giant in comparison, the Italian forces had significant weaknesses. One in particular was their tanks, so let’s turn our attention to them.
The Italians had two main tank models plus an assault gun at their disposal. The tanks were the M11/39 and the M13/40. Although both Italian tank designs were very recent, they were inferior to their contemporaries. The Carro Armato M11/39, the more common of the two, was a simple 11-ton machine of riveted construction crewed by 3 men. This small vehicle had a maximum armor thickness of just 30mm on the front and only 14mm on the sides. The thin riveted armor could be easily penetrated by the British 2-Pounder. Not only was it lightly armored it was also slow, with a top road speed of just 20 mph. Speed cross country was considerably less. Almost its entire design was relatively poorly conceived, with its main armament, a 37mm Vickers-Terni L/40 gun, located in the hull front rather than the turret. Due to this it had limited traverse, (30 degrees total) requiring the entire tank to be turned towards its target. Muzzle velocity was relatively low at approximately 2,100 fps and armor penetration was listed at 34mm, but at what distance I cannot say. The small offset one-man turret only housed twin 8mm machine guns. The crew compartment was very cramped, at full recoil the main gun could hit the turret gunner if he was not careful, and general ergonomics were poor. Reliability of the vehicle was also poor and the design was further handicapped in service by the lack of a radio.
The Carro Armato M13/40 was a big improvement over its predecessor in design and general layout. While it was based on the older M11/39, the entire superstructure was changed and improved. The main gun was relocated from the hull to the revolving turret. Road speed was still slow at just 20 mph. Weight had grown to 15 tons. It had a larger crew of 4 and their protection had improved. The turret front had 45mm thick armor while the hull front was 30mm, side armor was 25mm thick. So, while armor thickness was improved, it was still relatively thinly armored. The main gun, a 47mm cannone da 47/32 AT gun, was actually quite effective, except when it came to Matilda IIs. It used both a high velocity AP and a HEAT round with maximum penetration of 43mm and 55mm respectfully.
Only the Semovente 75/18 assault gun stood any real chance of fighting the Matilda IIs on equal footing. It had 50mm frontal armor its 75mm gun had access to a powerful HEAT round. Like the M11/39 and M13/40 though, the Semovente 75/18 was relatively slow. Plus, the Italian crews were poorly trained when it came to acting in the role of a tank destroyer.
The action started in the morning hours of December 9th 1940 when both British divisions focused at the southern end of a line of encampments. Each encampment held an Italian combat group which included tanks and artillery. The 7th RTR led the charge following a quick barrage. The Italians were just waking up and were caught totally unprepared. The A12 Matilda IIs laid down a withering fire from their Besa machine guns as they advanced. Those Italians lucky enough to get their M 11/39 tanks into action were horrified to see their 37mm AP shells bounce harmlessly off the A12 Matilda II’s thick armor. Not a single Italian tank escaped that first encampment. The QF 2 Pounder guns punched holes in the enemy vehicles as the British tanks rolled over every object they could. Similar scenes played out as the British encircled the Italian’s first defensive line. By the end of the action nearly 40,000 Italian soldiers had been captured, along with a large amount of equipment, and scores of Italian tanks were “brewed up”. One Matilda II took 38 hits from anti-tank gun fire and remained in action.
When the British renewed their attacks, the 7th RTR was paired with units from the newly arrived 6th Australian Division on the coastal road to Tobruk and Benghazi. In these engagements, like the encampment battles, the British A12 Matilda IIs remorselessly rolled through, and over, the enemy forces. Their thick armor shrugged off multiple hits from Italian 20mm, 37mm and 47mm AP shells. A small number of Matilda IIs could easily take on a much larger force of Italian armor, and come out on top. At the end of an action the armor of many Matilda IIs was pockmarked from direct hits, one took some 46. Yet still they rolled on. It was the Aussies who would first call the A12 the “Matilda”, after a popular song called “Waltzing Matilda”, and the name stuck. The two groups moved together as a seemly unstoppable monster, snapping at the heels of the retreating Italians.
This allowed the 7th Armored Division to take a shortcut, which led to a decisive battle at Beda Fomm. It didn't matter that the lighter armored British cruiser tanks were on equal footing to the Italians. The Italian army was in shambles at this point. When combat operations ceased on February 9th only 15 A12 Matilda II tanks were still operational. Matilda II losses were almost exclusively due to the strain from being pushed so hard in some of the worst conditions a tank could fight in. The maintenance shops would be very busy getting them back in working order. As for the Italians, 130,000 troops were taken prisoner, 380 tanks and 845 guns were captured or destroyed.
The repercussions of this highly successful offensive would have a ripple affect across the entire European Theater that went beyond the obvious. England had its morale boost, and now a theater by which to keep the pressure away from the home islands. Germany would have to send military units to North Africa to halt the British, and prevent the Italians from embarrassing the Axis Alliance. This expeditionary force would be a huge drain on German supply efforts. The Matilda II had also proven that a heavily armored tank was the best option for breaking through enemy defensive lines. This was the confirmation that Hitler needed to promote his concept for a new heavy tank, one that would eclipse all others in name during the war. This also provided a key piece of the puzzle to Soviet tacticians who were continuing to refine their “Deep Battle” strategy. The later German and Soviet heavy tanks of the Second World War might get all the notoriety, but it was the British Matilda IIs that first waltzed through enemy shell fire unscathed, while dealing death to their enemies.