Heavy fighting near Sabratha and Lisht. Following a hard fought defensive battle the 2nd Carthaginian Desert Army unleashed Operation Akira. The operation was a complete success. Allied forces advanced, captured 115,000 Egyptian prisoners, and destroyed thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, and aircraft, while suffering very few casualties.
As the Egyptians advanced, the Carthaginian force withdrew to the main defensive positions east of Sabratha. The Egyptian advance was harassed by the 7th Support Group, a mobile element of the 12th Tank Division.
Progress was slow. The Egyptians advanced approximately 95 kilometres (59 mi) in three days. On 16 September, the advance stopped at the town of Maktila, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) beyond Lisht. The Egyptians then dug in, fortified their positions, and awaited reinforcements and supplies. They created a line of fortified camps around Sidi Barrani which ran from Maktila, 24 kilometres (15 mi) east on the coast, southward through Tummar East, Tummar West, and Nibeiwa, to Sofafi on the escarpment to the south-west.
Ramen Hor Aga, Egyptian newspaper editor and mouthpiece for the Egyptian regime, wrote "Nothing can save Carthage now." However, the Carthaginian Royal Navy had transferred assets, including their aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean to reinforce the Carthaginian Mediterranean Fleet, making provisioning of North Africa problematic for the Egyptians.
The situation is best described by this news bulletin which was aired to our citizens on Sicily.
Following the Egyptian advance, Hasdrubal Barca ordered the commander of the 2nd Carthaginian Desert Army, Lieutenant-General Ura Niama to plan a limited operation to push the Egyptians back. Barca had noted that the Egyptian defensive positions were dispersed with the fortified camps separated by large distances which meant they could not provide mutual support. Operation Akira, for administrative reasons, was originally planned as a five-day raid but was extended after its initial success. Barca was confident of his force's capabilities and on 28 November wrote to Niama expressing a belief that an opportunity might occur for converting the enemy's defeat into an outstanding victory:
I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.
The opening stage of Operation Akira was known by the Egyptians as the "Battle of Sabratha". The Carthaginians knew it as the "Battle of the Camps". The "Battle of the Camps" name was derived from the individual Egyptian camps set up in a defensive line outside of Sabratha.
On the nights of 7 December and 8 December the 2nd Carthaginian Desert Army advanced a total of 113 kilometres (70 mi) to their start positions for the attack. The air force made attacks on Egyptian airfields destroying or damaging 29 aircraft on the ground. In the meantime Maktila had been bombarded by Carthagians bombers.
A Citorno tank of the 14th Tank Division
At 05.00 on 9 December a detachment of artillery commenced a diversionary firing for an hour at the fortified camp. At 07.00 the main divisional artillery started to register targets and by 07.15 a full concentration had started.
The destruction of the Arma Roha Group is described by Bernstein in Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts:
The initial Carthaginian assault would fall on Nibeiwa Camp, and it achieved complete surprise. Arma Roha Group, under General Roha, was an ad hoc formation consisting of 2,500 soldiers and 2 Armoured Battalion, with thirty-five medium tanks and thirty-five light tanks. It was earmarked for early destruction in the assault, which commenced at 05:00hr with what appeared to be no more than another raid on the eastern side of the camp.
At 07:00, however, forty-eight Citorno tanks suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the camp. They struck twenty-three unmanned M11/39 tanks of the Roha Group, which had been deployed to guard the unmined entrance to the camp. The Egyptians were caught completely off guard and many did not even reach their tanks, including General Roha, who was killed emerging from his dugout. They were slaughtered and their vehicles destroyed by the Carthaginian in less than ten minutes. The Egyptian artillery fought on valiantly, firing on the Matildas and recording many hits, some at point-blank range - but none penetrated their 70 mm of armour. The remaining Egyptian tanks were captured intact, and the Libyan infantry, left practically defenceless, quickly surrendered. The Carthaginian had captured Nibeiwa and destroyed one of the front-line Egyptian armoured unist in less than five hours.
Egyptian forces crowded into the coast route while retreating from Sabratha were easy targets for the unleashed Carthaginian tank divisions. The result was a "Highway of Death":
Given other setbacks suffered during the early war years, the Allied troops of Operation Akira were highly publicized and became known as "Barca's Army," which was used as the title of a Carthaginian documentary chronicling the campaign.