Sunday, December 12, 2010


Italian Berseglieri in action
On June 10, 1940 Italy, under Benito Mussolini, went to war at the side of Nazi Germany, first participating in the invasion of France. However, by late June, from their colonies in Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, and Ethiopia, the Italians had invaded Kenya, British Somaliland, and the Sudan with ten divisions. On June 28, Mussolini ordered a mass invasion of Egypt, as he said, "that great reward for which Italy is waiting." He had good reason to be over confident, as he had 250,000 troops to scarcely 36,000 defenders.

Italy start the ofensive unprepared to fight, in terms of war resources as well as in terms of will to fight. The Fascist regime and the Armed Forces were well aware of that; but Mussolini believed that in few months his ally Hitler would have easily defeated England and France, just like he had Poland. So he took the opportunity to join the war in time to obtain the maximum result with the minimum effort. He did not consider the iron will of the British people who bravely stood alone resisting against all the Axis forces.

The first clash between the foes was a British attack to an Italian position on the Egypt-Lybia border: the Italian soldiers were not even aware of the declaration of war (just an example of the disorganization that existed among Italian armed forces!).

However, it wasn't until September 13 that the Italians departed, but with 5 divisions, with 80,000 men and 200 tanks (albeit outdated M11/39s and M13/40s), and then the Italians only advanced to Sidi-el-Barrani, where, in spite of success, they were turning the place into a defensive fortress. They left a spot unguarded, about a 15 mile strip of land. It was here the British decided to test Italian strength.

Italian soldiers surrender to the British Army at the
Sidi-el-Barrani strong post ruins
The Italian Army, led by Marshal Graziani, and inadequately equipped, after an initial successful invasion of Egypt, was severly defeated by British general Richard O'Connor who took around 130.000 prisoners and huge quantities of material conquering all Cyrenaica at a price of only small losses.

Shortly After 7:00am, December 9, 1940, as the Italians brewed coffee and made breakfast, the first Matilda II tanks of the British 7th Armoured Division burst into the camp. Shells from the Matilda II's flattened scores of M13/40s parked outside the main compound, and Italian antitank gun shells bounced off the British armour. At the small village of Matika, which was in the 15 mile area, the camp commander, surrendering, said, "Sir, we have fired our last cartridge." He was standing right next to a huge supply of ammunition. The British commander, who planned this as a 5 day raid, as so many Italians were surrendering, turned it into a major offensive.

The survivors withdrew to Bardia, a coastal stronghold. Its garrison comprised 45,000 men and 400 guns. The Commander Liet. General Annibale Bergonzoli, nicknamed "Electric Whiskers," radioed Mussolini, "In Bardia we are, and here we stay." On January 3, 1941 now with the Australian 6th Division, after an all night aerial bombardment by the RAF, The Australians attacked as three battleships bombarded. 40,000 prisoners were taken, out of the garrisons 45,000. Now the Italians retreated to Tobruk, a vital coastal port. But they surrendered on the 22nd, 25,000 more Italians surrendering. The Italians continued to retreat, to Derna, Mechilli, and finally to Tripoli, where Erwin Rommel's offensive would begin.

Italians gunners and one 47 mm. anti tank gun in 1941 near El Aghelia in Lybia - Picture by contribution of Luke
In all the truth, Graziani was well aware of the inadequate preparations the Italians took against the British, he wrote after having received the order to advance in Egypt. before God and my men I'm not responsible for what is about to happen.

The British command had the tremendous advantage of being able, by its Ultra system to read the Axis messages encrypted by its Enigma system. This was extremely useful during the conflict.


The British advance from Egypt in January the 3rd
to Beda Fomm in February 9 of 1941

On February 12st 1941 General Erwin Rommel and the first Deutsche Afrika Korps Men and equipment arrive at Tripoli on Libya.


Hitler's orders were simple: hold a defensive line. Rommel's own orders were: take the offensive.

On March 24, 1941 against Hitler's explicit orders, Rommel attacked and captured El Agheila with components of the 3rd Reconnaissance Detachment. They enemy quickly withdrew to Mers Brega, 30 miles to the northeast. This led Rommel to wonder if the Tommies (British nickname like US GIs) were as formidable as thought.

The newly reinforced Axis forces started the offensive to retake Cyrenaica. Benghazi was captured in April, and the offensive continued to Tobruk which was encircled. Sollum and Halfaya Pass were retaken from the British, but the Tobruk's garrison still resisted.

British General O' Connor was captured on April 7th 1941.

The map shows the German advance beginning in
24 of March to 15 of April 1941
The Afrika Korps do the same that the British do in one month, in reverse, and only in three weeks...

Here we see the vast expanses over which the Desert War would rage for almost two years. Overland supply was an endless trip, and air supply was dangerous, but logistics and a steady supply of men and materiel were the essential factors that would prove most difficult to maintain.

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