30 October 2012

The Desert War: 1940 - the Italian Botch-job

A British Matilda tank during Operation Compass

This is the second part of my series on the history of the North Africa campaign.

To say that things were not going well for the Allies in the first half of 1940 was something of an understatement. The loss of Norway to the Germans forced Neville Chamberlain from office and Winston Churchill's first day in office coincided with the Axis invasion of Benelux. The British Expeditionary Force was routed by the tides of Panzers, with a certain divisional commander called Erwin Rommel playing an important role. We'll hear more about him later.

With the bulk of British armour and motor transport (about eight to ten divisions worth) left behind in the chaotic/heroic retreat from France via Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe starting to pound the British homeland and forces preparing for Operation Sealion, one could be forgiven for thinking that the game was almost up.

At this point, Benito Mussolini, who had held Italy back from war in 1939, decided that it was time to get in before the war was over so he could have a share of the spoils at the victory table. Thus, on 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France.

The Italian involvement in Europe was on the whole ineffective - the Greek campaign required the Germans to come to deal with a Greek counter-attack and the Italian aerial contribution to the Battle of Britain was limited due to inadequate equipment.

In East Africa, things were a bit more successful - British Somaliland proved a walkover, but the British inflicted disproportionate casualties on the Italians before withdrawing in relatively good order. For political reasons, this evacuation was allowed to occur without aerial interference.

North Africa would be an entirely different kettle of fish.

Initial attacks

On the declaration of war, British forces in Egypt were ordered to undertake defensive measures, but try to avoid provoking the Italians. This policy swiftly went out the proverbial window and a series of cross-border raids occurred, with the forces under General Archibald Wavell taking a fort near Sollum called Fort Capuzzo, which would change hands a number of times over the course of the campaign.

These raids came to an end on 25 June - with France's surrender, their forces in Tunisia were no longer a threat to Italy (although they were not going to join the Axis forces either), allowing the forces in the west of Libya to redeploy. Wavell ordered his forces onto the defensive.

Sending the tanks

While the Italians prepared for the main invasion of Egypt - after missing a 8 August deadline, then aiming to coincide it with the never-launched Sealion - Winston Churchill made a very risky decision in London. Faced with the prospect of a German cross-channel invasion, but needing to defend Suez, he decided to send two full tank divisions, half the surviving British armour, the long way round Africa (as sending them through the Med was too risky) to reinforce the forces in Egypt. This meant those forces were effectively off the table for two whole months - there was a chance that they could end up arriving too late in Africa and leave Britain exposed at home.

In the end, they weren't needed in Britain and would play an important role in North Africa.

The Invasion of Egypt

On 9 September, 10 Italian divisions (mostly of the Tenth Army under Mario Berti) led by Rodolfo Graziani launched an assault on Egypt - target Suez. The initial attack pushed the British back, but the retreat was orderly and mines were left behind to slow down the Italian advance. Egypt basically allowed British occupation to defend against this attack and while the British were heavily outnumbered, they could trade ground for time. The air battle was even - both sides were using obsolescent planes and were able to conduct deep strikes.

This combined with overheating vehicles and a lack of trucks (which Berti had repeatedly asked for) led to the attack stalling at Sidi Barrani, only 65 miles east and way short of Suez due to supply problems - they did not even reach the main British positions at Mersa Matruh. Rodolfo Graziani planned to restart the offensive once he had supplies - asking Rome for mules to assist with this. He aimed to do this in mid-December, in the meantime digging in.

The offensive wasn't going to restart.


Italy was about to get another major blow. On 11 November 1940, British carrier-borne aircraft attacked the Italian fleet at anchor in Taranto. In this move that directly inspired the later Pearl Harbor attack, half of Italy's small capital ship fleet was destroyed or disabled, allowing the British much greater freedom of action in the Mediterranean, so they could provide better naval fire support - important in what was to come.  

Operation Compass 

After Italy's halting, Wavell gave an order to one of his subordinates, Lt Gen Henry Wilson, to plan for a limited five-day raid to push the Italians back into Libya. As their confidence grew, Wilson was allowed to escalate the operation into a full counter-offensive if the situation justified doing so.

The plan was to hold the Italian division headquartered at Sofafi with support elements of the 7th Armoured Division, while conducting the main assault between there and Nibeiwa with the rest of 7th Armoured and the Indian 4th Division. RN fire support at Sidi Barrani was also planned.

On 8 December 1941, the assault was launched, taking the Italians completely by surprise - Berti had been unwell and was heading back to the front when it started. An air raid took out 29 Italian aircraft on the ground and Nibeiwa, with a large supply cache, was taken the following day. Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq fell two days latter and naval ships had easy targets on the enemy trapped on the road.

38,300 prisoners were taken in four days and the Allies had their first real victory of the war. While Wavell wanted to go after the Italians, he also wanted to deal with their forces in East Africa. The Indian division went to Sudan and an inexperienced, under-equipped Australian division was introduced to the theatre of operations.

A full-scale rout of the Tenth Army was under way, but this success wasn't going to last. For the Allied forces were about to encounter the Desert Fox and a group of Australians were about to go to a place called Tobruk.

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