(Sept. 11, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the Regio Escercito Italia (Royal Italian Army), crossed the border separating Libya and Egypt.
When the Kingdom of Italy declared war on the British Empire and the French Republic, its Libyan colony faced a three-front war. On its west, it bordered the French colonies of Tunisia and Algeria. To the east, it bordered the British-dominated Kingdom of Egypt. And to the south it bordered the French colonies of Chad and Niger.
However, once France surrendered, that threat was eliminated, and the colony had only to be concerned with English Egypt to the east. After Air Marshal Italo Balbo was killed by friendly fire over Tobruk in June of 1940, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani was named governor-general and commander of the troops in Libya.
Approximately a quarter-million Italian and Libyan soldiers were divided between the Fifth Army, commanded by Italo Garibaldi, posted on the border with French Tunisia, and the Tenth Army, commanded by Mario Berti, posted on the border with English Egypt.
They far outnumbered their English enemies in Egypt. However, corresponding to Mussolini’s boast that he was backed by eight million bayonets, the 250,000 soldiers in Libya were a hollow threat, and Marshal Graziani knew it. The soldiers were, for the most part, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led. Most, when properly led, trained and equipped, fought very bravely.
Marshal Balbo had understood the limitations of Italian arms, and before Il Duce had brought Italy into the war, the marshal had warned him, “It is not the number of men which causes me anxiety, but their weapons ... equipped with limited and very old pieces of artillery, almost lacking antitank and anti-aircraft weapons ... it is useless to send more thousands of men if we cannot supply them with the indispensable requirements to move and fight.”
Before he would authorize any large-scale offensive, Marshal Balbo demanded 1,000 trucks, 100 water tankers and more medium tanks and antitank guns. All of this was beyond his nation’s capability to supply. However, Il Duce viewed Egypt as part of, “That great reward for which Italy is waiting.”
To defend Egypt from the Italian forces in Libya and Italian East Africa, as well as keep a lid on the Palestinian kettle, British Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell’s Middle East Command numbered 36,000. Facing the Italian forces in Libya was the Western Desert Command under Lt.-Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor.
Although vastly outnumbered by its Italian enemy, it consisted of some of the best soldiers in the world, such as: the Cold Stream Guards, the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, the Fourth Indian Division, under the command of Major Gen. Noel Beresford-Peirse, which included, inter alia, three regiments of Sikhs and three battalions of Ghurkas, the Seventh Armored Division, commanded by Major-Gen. Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh, which soon earned the sobriquet “The Desert Rats.”
Most important, the British were mobile and the Italian Army was not. So wherever the Italian army went, it walked. This was a problem that would plague the Regio Escercito in every theater throughout the war. And, there was the British tank, Matilda, which was impervious to just about anything the Italians could throw at it.
But all this meant nothing to the boastful Mussolini, comfortably ensconced in Rome. He had been cajoling Marshal Graziani to attack since his appointment, telling him that, “Time is working against us. The loss of Egypt will be the coup de grâce for Great Britain!”
Il Duce ordered the invasion of Egypt to commence on Aug. 8. This would be the first of several deadlines that the new governor-general would miss, explaining that his troops were not properly equipped for such a venture and that it could not possibly succeed. Marshal Graziani then planed a strike across the border, against the small coastal village of Sollum, on Aug. 22. But for some reason, this had to be postponed as well.
Il Duce implored of the marshal, “It is not a question of aiming for Alexandria or even Sollum. I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you.” So Marshal Graziani dutifully prepared plans to launch an attack into neighboring Egypt, from Libya, on Aug. 27, 1940.
It was to be a two-prong attack, with one prong seated on the northern, coast, road — the Via Balbia — toward Sollum, and a motorized group to proceed on the south side of the escarpment that ran parallel to the Mediterranean and the road.
After finalizing the plans, Marshal Graziani sent them to Commando Supremo, in Rome, hoping that the plans themselves, without more, would assuage Il Duce’s desire for action. He then notified Commando Supremo that the offensive would have to be postponed because he did not have the transport for the southern arm of his offensive.
However, Il Duce ordered an attack by Sept. 9, 1940, or Graziani would be dismissed. On Sept. 8, Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, noted in his diary that, “Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders.” Marshal Graziani then changed the plans by abandoning the southern portion of the assault.
After Radio Rome announced the impending offensive to all the world, the Italian Tenth Army, composed of the XXI, XXIII & Libyan Corps, finally moved forward on Sept. 10. The XXIII Corps, which would lead the offensive, was commanded by Lt. Gen. Annibale Bergonzoli. As a result of his beard, he had earned the sobriquet, “Barba Elettrica” — “Electric Beard.”
Gen. Bergonzoli’s XXIII Corps consisted of the 23 Marzo and 28 Ottobre Camicie Nere (Blackshirt), and Marmarica Infantry Divisions, commanded by Generals Francisco Antonelli, Franceso Argentino and Ruggero Tracchia. The 23 Marzo was so named to honor the date of the founding of the Fascist Party on March 23, 1919, while Oct. 28, 1922, was the date of the Fascist march on Rome that brought them to power. Camicie Nere were Fascist “volunteer” militia and were supposed to compensate for their lack of military training with Fascist enthusiasm, ardor and elán.
Gen. Lorenzo Dalmazzo commanded the XXI Corps, which consisted of the Cirene and Catanzaro Infantry Divisions, commanded by Generals Carlo Spatocco and Giuseppe Stefanelli, and three battalions of mostly worthless Italian tanks.
The Libyan Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Sebastiano Gallina, consisted of the 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions and 3 Gennaio Camice Nere Divisions, commanded by Generals Luigi Sibille, Armando Pescatori and Fabio Merzari, and some tanks. Three Gennaio Camice Nere was named to honor the date when Mussolini assumed dictatorial powers — Jan. 3, 1925. The two Libyan divisions were filled with Libyans whose ardor for this war was less than the Italians.
The Italian press trumpeted this as a “... war for Egyptian independence,” and the liberation of, “... Egypt from the oppressive domination of the English.” Tellingly, Egypt did not declare war on Italy — nor did its army oppose the invasion.
Former Egyptian Prime Minister Isma’il Sidqi explained that “The Italian offensive is not an aggression against Egypt, but against another belligerent on the territory of a third and occupied power.” Writing for one of the Fascist newspapers, Il Giornale d’Italia, Virginio Gayda crowed, “Nothing can save Britain now!”
Up to that time, the British had inflicted 3,500 casualties on the Italians, at a cost of 150 to themselves, in various raids conducted by the Long Range Desert Group (inspiration for the TV show “Rat Patrol”) under the command of Capt. Ralph A. Bagnold, and the capture of some border strongholds, such as Forts Capuzzo and Maddalena.
The two forts were retaken by the Camice Nere on Sept. 13, and Italian forces finally crossed the Egyptian border, as Gen. Sibille’s 1st Libyan Division began an assault on Sollum, five miles on the Egyptian side of the border.
Today Sollum has a population of less than 15,000. When the Italians arrived on the outskirts, they discovered it was defended by tanks and artillery. In actuality, it was defended by a platoon of Coldstream Guards, and the guns and tanks were wood!
Vastly outnumbered, the Guards planted mines and departed. That evening, the Cirene, Marmarica, and Second Libyan Divisions converged on, and occupied, Halfaya Pass. The next day, the Italians advanced 30 miles east to Buq Buq.
By Sept. 16 the Camice Nere had taken the town of Sidi Barrani, which lies 60 miles east of the Libyan/Egyptian border. It was a seaport village of about 6,000, located about 80 miles west of the British headquarters in Mersa Matrûh which was connected to Alexandria by a rail line and to Sidi el Barrani by a paved road.
After reaching Sidi Barrani, Gen. Sibille’s 1st Libyan Division pushed on 10 miles further, to Maktila, and stopped to rest and await supplies. By now, the Italians were more than 700 miles from their supply port of Tripoli. Casualties were 120 dead and 410 wounded, to 40 for the British.
Marshal Graziani, safe in his headquarters in Tripoli, Libya, falsely announced that the Commonwealth forces had retired in disorder, while losing half of their armor! He ordered the Tenth Army to dig in and create fortified strong points from the Mediterranean south.
Unfortunately the strong points which Gen. Berti created were too far from each other to give mutual support. What armor he did have was scattered among the strong points, thereby eliminating a mobile reserve. He also stationed a division, each, at the villages of Buq Buq and Sidi Omar, and at Halfaya Pass near Sollum. All were on the route between the Libyan border and Sidi el Barrani.
Marshal Graziani then launched a torrent of telegrams to Commando Supremo demanding more equipment and supplies. Finally, on Oct. 26, an exasperated, Mussolini cabled, “40 days after the capture of Sidi Barrani, I asked myself the question, ‘To whom has this long delay been any use — to us or to the enemy?’ I do not hesitate to answer, it has been of use indeed, more to the enemy! It is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue in command?!”
Marshal Graziani replied that he would resume the offensive on Dec. 15, but Il Duce had already decided to “occupy” Greece, and the supplies, reinforcements, armor and transportation, which Marshal Graziani needed to continue the “offensive,” and which had been promised, were diverted to that theater. Before Marshal Graziani’s magic date arrived, the British struck.
Next: Dakar - More British vs. French
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.