(Feb. 26, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, after a siege lasting more than a month, Free French troops, under the command of Col. Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque (“Leclerc”) finally captured Kufra, an oasis in the Sahara Desert that lies 530 miles south of Tobruk and the Mediterranean Sea.
It was not a part of Libya that the Italians acquired in the pre-WWI war with the Ottoman Turks. Technically, it was a part of Egypt until after WWI, when, as a reward for entering the war on the Allied side, Great Britain coerced Egypt into ceding some of its worthless desert in the west to the Italians. That is the reason that the border between the two countries is such a straight line.
The oasis, where daily summer temperatures average above 100 degrees, contains seven villages: Al Jawf, with a population of 17,000; Buma, where Kufra Airport is located; Buema, located to the east of Al Jawf; Es Zurgh, located 2.5 miles southeast of Al Jawf; El-Tleilíb, to the southwest of Al Jawf; El Talláb, located 12 miles southwest of Al Jawf; and El-Tag, which was founded by Muhammad El-Mahdi es-Senussi in the Nineteenth Century.
El-Mahdi was the son of the founder of the Senussi order, Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, from Algeria, who was descended from the Prophet Mohammed”s daughter, Fatima.
Muhammad’s grandson, King Idris I, ruled Libya from 1951 until overthrown by a revolution led by Col. Omar Khadafi. Muhammad immigrated to Libya and established a mosque in the coastal city of Baydā, in Cyrenaica, which today has a population of 250,000.
However, in 1858, the Turks ran him out of the coastal area and he resettled in Jaghbub a/k/a Giarabub, which is located 200 miles south of the Mediterranean port of Bardia, and 40 miles west of the Egyptian border, and just north of The Great Sand Sea. Eventually, in 1895, the Turks ran them out of Giarabub as well. This is when El-Mahdi resettled in El Tag.
In 1931, Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, vice-governor of Italian Cyrenaica, in a bit of ethnic cleansing, captured Kufra and all of its villages, driving most of the Senussi survivors, including El-Mahdi, to Egypt. In the movie “Lion of the Desert,” produced by the Libyan government, which depicts the Italian efforts, Marshal Graziani is portrayed by Oliver Reed. Once the Italians had firm control, they began construction projects, such as the airport and a fortress at El Tag. By the time of WWII, the fortress was outdated.
The French colony of Equatorial Africa bordered Libya to the south. After the defeat of France, the colony threw in with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French. At a meeting with Gen. de Gaulle on Nov. 17, 1940, Leclerc was ordered to attack Libya.
He arrived in the Equatorial African colony of Chad, which bordered Libya, in mid-December 1940, where he commanded 6,000 “native” and 460 European soldiers.
Leclerc’s family was of ancient French aristocracy. His ancestors served in the Third and Eighth Crusades. His great-grandfather, Constantin, and two other members of his family, served in Napoleon’s Grande Armée during the invasion of Russia in 1812.
Leclerc’s father, Adrien, served in the French Army during World War I and was twice awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry. Leclerc was graduated from the French military academy of Saint-Cyr, the French equivalent to West Point, on Oct. 1, 1924.
In August 1940, Gen. De Gaulle had ordered him to French Equatorial Africa, where he led the Free French assault on Gabon. Leclerc would become known as the “French Desert Fox.”
For the attack on Kufra, Leclerc assembled the following force: 400 men (of which 101 were Europeans) in 60 trucks, two scout cars, four cross-country personnel carriers and two 75 mm (2.95 in) mountain guns. The Italian defenders included two machine gun companies and 280 local infantry (askaris), supported by the Auto-Saharan Company, which consisted of 45 Italians and 75 Libyans. The Italians also had the support of the Regia Aeronautica.
Leclerc enlisted the help of the British Long Range Dessert Group, led by Major Pat Clayton. However, when the LRDG tangled with the Auto-Saharan Company, on Jan. 31, 1941, the British got pretty mangled, losing Maj. Clayton to captivity. Maj. Clayton served as the model for the character of Peter Madox, in the movie, “The English Patient.”
The licking that the British took did not deter Leclerc’s force. On Feb. 16, 1941, the French arrived at the fortress of El Tag. By now, they were down to 350 men. The next day the French were attacked by the Auto-Saharan Company and ultimately beat them back.
The French then surrounded the old fortress. The one remaining French 75 was set up two miles from the fort — out of range of the Italian guns — and began to bombard the fort. Each day it fired 20 shells “...at regular intervals from different places to give the appearance of more guns.” The French also used 81 mm mortars in the bombardment of the fort. Finally, on March 1, 1941, the Italians surrendered.
The garrison had consisted of 11 officers, 18 NCOs and 273 Libyan soldiers, of which one officer and two Libyan soldiers were killed and four wounded. The French lost four with 21 wounded. The Italian prisoners were released.
After the battle, Leclerc told an American correspondent that one of his truck drivers had been a New York cabbie, and that, “Nothing could stop him!”
On Aug. 10, 1941, Leclerc was promoted to Brigadier General. He died in a plane crash on Nov. 28, 1947, and was named a Marshal of France on August 23, 1952.
Next week: Death of German submarine ace Günther Prien
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.