Desert war. British infantry unfolds an attack in the Western Desert. Against all the odds the British managed to beat superior enemy forces.



In the summer 1940 deep transformations came to East Europe. Lithuania, Lettonia and Estonia increased the number of republics of the Soviet Union; towards the end of June Moldavia, since the First World War occupied by Romania, became a Soviet republic too. Under the German pressure, the Bucharest régime inclined more and more to the right; but the new rulers of the country did not manage to keep Transylvania, which was handed over by the Germans to the Hungarians, or Dobruja, taken over by the Bulgarians. In face of the complete ruin of the state, king Charles II of Romania, famous for his love affairs, in November abdicated the throne in favour of his son Michael, taken under Gen. Ion Antonescu's restraint. Since then started the open hitlerization of Romania, which joined so-called Tripartite Pact, binding Germany, Italy and Japan. Extremely rich resources of the Romanian oil, since some time feeding the German war for the conquest of the world, now were transferred under the direct hitlerites' administration. Soon Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact too, and then began the political pressure on Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile in the Middle East was fought a campaign, the British started in the most unfavourable circumstances but were to finish with a considerable triumph.

On the day Italy had declared the war, 10 June 1940, British forces in Egypt consisted of the 7th Armoured Division, two (instead of three) brigades from the 4th Indian Division, a New Zealand brigade and some artillery: altogether 36,000 men. Furthermore 9,000 British soldiers were deployed in Sudan, 5,500 in Kenya, 2,500 in Aden, 1,500 in British Somaliland, 27,000 in Palestine and about 1,000 in Cyprus.

The Italians had 215,000 men in Libya and Cyrenaica and further 200,000 in Abyssinia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. They menaced communication routes both in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. They also had almost quadruple superiority in aircraft. On top of it all, after the fall of France Syria was transforming day after day into a hostile area, from where one might expect a strike against Palestine. For short, the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, Gen. Archibald Wavell, could frankly say that he had found himself in a virtually hopeless position.

However it was not in vain that Wavell, although a professional militaryman, was a passionate poet and even an author of a respected poetic anthology. The tactics he assumed and successfully applied on the Egyptian frontier gave Italian commanders a complete daze.

The reasons of foreign policy made it impossible to him, until the official declaration of war, to prepare defence positions; the matter was not to deliver a pretext to Benito Mussolini. But Mussolini did without a pretext. And then on the border between Egypt and Cyrenaica Wavell struck against several times stronger enemy.

Of course it was out of question to keep stuck to any regulations so hardly laboured during the peacetime or to apply prescriptions from basic tactics textbooks. Unit commanders had received an instruction, which stated: Make one man appear to be a dozen, make one tank look like a squadron, make a raid look like an advance. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).] It was what the historian John Frederic Charles Fuller called later the strategy of exaggeration or lethal propaganda. The propaganda in this case actually proved to be lethal, but for the Italians. It was an obvious bluff, but the Italian command got duped.

The British attacked literally on the very day after the declaration of war, when Italian commanders on the Egyptian frontier had not any specific orders. They would have expected rather a herd of devils than the British, hitherto sitting as far as by Mersa Matruh, it means about two hundred kilometres away from the border. But as early as on 11 June, the day after the declaration of the war, small units detached from the 7th Armoured Division struck against Italian outposts, crushed them and captured many prisoners. On 16 June the panic spread in a deep Italian rear; on the strategic motorway between Bardia and fortress Tobruk, located on Italian territories about a hundred kilometres from the Egyptian border, like ghosts had emerged British armoured cars and destroyed everything whatever they could catch up. Italian groupings were scattered, whole regiments were fleeing. Gossips multiplied British forces. Among all that mess on 28 June the Italian commander-in-chief, Marshal Italo Balbo, was killed during the raid of drolly-small number of obsolete aeroplanes on Tobruk. In fact this war, alongside hitlerite Germany, was not popular among Italian soldiers, who did not put either enthusiasm or military spirit in it. Whereas Italian generals turned wholesale fossilized routinists deprived of drive and invention. On top of it all so-called soldier luck was against them.

The Italians had gained some seeming successes only in secondary sectors. They seized Kassala in Sudan, a town on the border with Italian-occupied Abyssinia, they incurred into Kenya's forests, not to hazarding themselves too far from the frontier though, and finally they seized the whole but not too wide territory of British Somaliland. Those were though the successes without a bigger meaning since Egypt was still the key position in the Middle East.

Wavell of course had not an easy life. Practically his tiny forces were exposed to attacks from four corners of the world. He could not expect reinforcements from Britain; London daily expected a German invasion. Actually Sir Winston Spencer Churchill did not forget Egypt, in witness whereof he left there the only existing at the time British armoured division. But he could not do more. He insisted on introduction to the fights in the desert of a South African brigade, but without a bigger success; the distant Pretoria did not understand the danger of a fall of Egypt. In that situation Wavell, after a successful pursuit after the Italians, flew in the late summer to London. There he got himself in troubles, but finally had extorted fifty modern tanks, so successful in the French campaign, twice so anti-aircraft and some anti-tank guns. He also obtained the 9th Australian Division, which was to become one of the most splendid allied units.

In October he was already prepared to advance, when on 28th day of the same month Mussolini assaulted Greece. Italian dictator (Churchill used to call him a "sawdust Caesar" or a "frog from Pontine Marshes") tried to compensate his inferiority complex and to balance at least partially German successes in the Balkans, namely hitching the Romanians and the Bulgarians to the German chariot. But his hopes for yet another easy loot were severely disappointed. The Greeks efficiently resisted Italian divisions tumbling through the mountains, quickly drove them back beyond their frontiers, and started to liberate quickly step by step Albanian soil.

Meanwhile Wavell received from London orders to hand over some land and air forces to support Greece's defence, and the offensive he was preparing in the Western Desert was delayed till December. On the Italian side Marshal Balbo was replaced by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, whose only, extremely doubtful, life success was a several years' earlier command of the Somalian front during the invasion of Abyssinia. He had gained there an easy victory thanks to herds of tanks and swarms of planes he used to send against the warriors armed mostly with bows and spears, but now he had to do with an enemy of another sort, armed with old, to be sure, but anyhow real guns and howitzers.

The command over forces deployed in the Western Desert was given, by Wavell's order, to General Richard O'Connor. He had about 30,000 men, 275 tanks and 120 pieces of artillery. He sent supplies for his soldiers forward by a day of march, what was possible due to a wide stripe of so-called no-man's land. Supply units experienced hours of emotions, but the risk was worthwhile and the troops' movement considerably sped up. O'Connor marched out on 6 December and two days later he met the enemy.

When after the halt of the Italian army tiny British units withdrew back to Mersa Matruh, the Italians deployed in the south of Sidi Barrani seven entrenched camps. Between two of them British scouts discovered a 30 kilometres' wide undefended gap. It let O'Connor's troops to get to the rear of five camps, successively surprise them and destroy. On 10 December the British had seized Sidi Barrani, and next day they struck against Sollum. They had taken 38,000 prisoners, more than numbered their own army, 400 pieces of artillery and 50 tanks. After the fall of Sollum they pressed on deeply into Cyrenaica, against Bardia and Tobruk. On 5 January Bardia had been taken by an assault. Tobruk looked more formidable, but there too all went unexpectedly well.

Tobruk is located about a hundred kilometres west of the Egyptian border; just like along the whole local seashore, the Western Desert reaches there the very sea. Next to the small town located at the comfortable bay the Italians had built a modern fortress, airfields, and a seaport. The first line of defence, as long as 50 kilometres, encompassed a wide area. It was stuffed with bunkers with machine-guns and light anti-tank weapons; the gaps between defence nests, usually at a distance no more than several hundred metres, were filled with mine-fields and wire entanglements. Inside the line were deployed heavy anti-tank guns and field artillery emplacements. The core of the second, main defence line constituted four old Turkish forts, appropriately modernized of course. This line encompassed the bay with the port, a small airfield, anti-aircraft artillery emplacements, and huge storages of ammunition and supplies of every sort, as well as cisterns of fresh water. Between the first and second line found themselves several hills; the highest of them, Medawar, let to have a deep view of the desert. The Italians had been building the fortress for years, permanently strengthening it and modernizing, spending sometimes huge money, and all that only to lose it within two days and then to fight for it for months.

Tobruk fell on 22 January after just two days' long fights and O'Connor saw before him the next objective: Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica. On the way he encircled and destroyed the last bigger Italian group commanded by Gen. Annibale Bergonzoli. On 7 February, two months after the beginning of the whole operation, he finished one of the most brilliant campaigns of the war, which emerged from a simple diversion excursion meant for just five days. Within two months the campaign led to annihilation of ten Italian divisions; the British captured 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,200 pieces of artillery. 

And when the rout of Italian troops in Cyrenaica was coming to the end, another bold operation had started. Its aim was to liberate Abyssinia. On 19 February the British commander-in-chief in Sudan, Gen. William Platt, marched out with two divisions, swiftly retook Kassala, and in the beginning of April he already had taken the whole Eritrea with its main towns Asmara and Massawa. Meanwhile the British commander in Kenya, Gen. Alan Cunningham, had been marching since 24 January with three divisions from Nairobi. On 18 February he crossed the Juba River, one of the most important natural obstacles he had to overcome, and a week later he had taken Mogadiscio, the capital of Italian Somaliland. As he had obtained Wavell's consent, he marched further to the north and on 25 March had seized Harar, one of the most important Abyssinian cities. From there was already close to Addis Ababa, the capital of the country. He had seized it on 4 April. Finally in Amba Alagi he caught up Duke of Aosta, the Italian commander-in-chief in East Africa, and forced him into the final surrender.

About that dual campaign General Wavell wrote:

The conquest of Italian East Africa had been accomplished in few months, from the end of January to the beginning of June. In this period a force of approximately 220,000 men had been practically destroyed with the whole of its equipment, and an area of nearly a million square miles had been occupied. Some of the chief features of its remarkable campaign were the storming by British and Indian troops of the formidable mountain barriers at Karen and Amba Alagi, the boldness and skill with which the operations from East Africa were pressed over a distance of about two thousand miles from the base, and the very skilful guerilla fighting in Western Abyssinia. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]