The Sword of Islam. To stir unrest in the North African colonies of his French and British rivals, Benito Mussolini posed himself as the protector of Islam. On 17 March 1937 he was presented with a symbolic golden sword from the hands of a Berber chieftain Yusuf Cherbish.



The spring of 1940 brought the war to North Africa. Although the political borders dividing that region have survived historical turmoil, it is worth to outline the contemporaneous political situation, as the borderlines roughly coincided with the frontlines, or at least the spheres of influence and colonial possessions of the European countries.

What is nowadays Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia belonged to France. Morocco and Tunisia were her protectorates, while Algeria - an overseas territory. East of Tunisia and Algeria, Libya, since 1912 was under the Italian rule. More complicated was the situation in Egypt and Sudan. Egypt since 1922 was a formally independent kingdom, whereas Sudan - an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. That formal constellation did not change the fact that Great Britain controlled both countries since the end of the 19th century.

In 1880s the British influence overcame the French influence in Egypt, at that time - just like Libya - a part of the Turkish Empire. In 1914, as Turkey sided with the Central Powers, Great Britain announced annexation of Egypt and the British protectorate, while the British forces, stationed in the zone of the Suez Canal, repelled the Turkish army trying to recover the Turkish control over that strategically important communication route. The necessity to reckon with the Arab national aspirations, awakened during the First World War caused that Egypt, as the first country, which emerged from the partitions of the Ottoman Empire, was pronounced independent, but its independence was limited by the British military and economical presence, which effectively meant political domination.

In the south and south-east - through Sudan - Egypt bordered with the French Somaliland and the Italian East Africa composed of Eritrea, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the Italian Somaliland with the capital in Mogadishu. Morocco, Algeria and Libya were bordering in the south with the French territories of the West and Equatorial Africa.

All that area for at least one and a half of a century had been the arena of rivalry among the colonial powers. Its strategic importance i case of a European or world conflict was beyond overestimation. All its deficiency in natural riches - the Libyan oil was not discovered yet at that time - it blocked, at least theoretically, sea and land communications to the Indies, Malaya and the British "white" dominions: Australia and New Zealand. The same was the case of the routes to the Black Sea and adjacent waters, where focused interests of Russia and Great Britain. After the First World War the role of the oil fields of Iraq and Iran, exploited by the British oil companies, augmented the importance of the region. And therefore, the importance of the north and east Africa gained the strategic importance, as they secured the British access to the oil-rich Middle East.

The Royal Navy guarded the British oily interests in the global scale; the Royal Air Force augmented it in the 20th century. Efficient transportation of the supplies and troops from the dominions and colonies was secured through the chain of the military bases stretching from Gibraltar and Malta, to Cyprus, Suez and Aden, to the Indies and Singapore, and farther to Hongkong, Australia and Pacific islands. After colonial disputes with France were settled - the factor that helped to win the First World War in 1914-1918 - and until the mid-1930s nothing menaced functions of that "imperial route". Establishment, after 1920, of the British control over Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq, and the French control over Syria and Lebanon seemed to crown the construction of the system of imperial security and its communication routes.

However, two emerging powers - Japan and Italy - challenged that system. In 1920s and 1930s those countries transformed from the allies of Paris and London to their bitter enemies, and main rivals for control over overseas territories.

As Japan went on the road to domination in the Far East and the Pacific Ocean, since 1931 she conducted the war in China, gradually bringing menace to the interests of the other powers. That meant Hongkong in the first place, as well as the French possessions in Indochina. This way, at the end of the 1930s, the eastern sector of the "imperial route" ceased to be secure.

Still greater threat to the security of the "imperial route" were initiatives of Benito Mussolini in Africa. In 1935 Italy launched the conquest of Abyssinia from its colonies in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. Next year, when the Italian aggression came to the successful occupation of Abyssinia, Great Britain faced a very serious threat to its position in the very sensitive sector of the sea route to the Indies. Once the Abyssinian Empire became a part of the "revived" Roman Empire, a solid block of Italian colonies emerged in the "African Horn". With that possession Mussolini, in case on an Anglo-Italian conflict, was able to close the southern inlet of the Red Sea to the Royal Navy.

To make the picture complete, Italian air and naval bases in Libya, southern Italy and the Dodecanese added sinister reality of cutting of the communication route very vital to the British interests. At the same time the armed forces of Italy were engaged alongside the fascist forces in the Spanish civil war (1936-1939), close to Gibraltar, and even established their bases on the Balearic Islands. In view of the vigorous development of the Italian navy and air force, the Mediterranean Sea to the British could turn into a no means obstacle instead of the main communication line. British bases, guarding that line, could be menaced themselves.

Apart from the growing military power, the Italian fascism could wield a very dangerous political weapon: an intensive political propaganda among the Arab tribes subjected in different forms to the French and British colonial control. Independently from the fascist ideology, anti-British moods, growing in the Arab societies ever since the First World War, were a factor that could not be ignored.

So, in 1940, both sides of the looming conflict had established in the northern and north-eastern Africa strong positions, although their strength was measured in different categories. The British maintained a system of the bases guarding their communications to the Indies and the oil-rich Middle East; that also controlled bigger territories than the Italians did. Whereas the Italians could menace vulnerable points of those stretched communications, and disrupt them to the point that the British would not be able to use them. Which of the sides would use its trump cards better. It depended on the military potentials of Italy and Great Britain, as well as the state of the readiness of their plans in case of war.

In Africa the war started on 10 June 1940, when Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. As France capitulated already on 22 - 24 June, only Britain continued the war from then on. Nevertheless, all the levels of the British command were extraordinarily optimistic about the course of the war. Thus Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the commander-in-chief of the British naval forces in the Mediterranean, remembered how Vice-Admiral John Tovey one day greeted him with smile and cheer: Now I know we shall win the war, Sir. We have no more Allies. [Heckstall-Smith A. (2005)] Practically that meant that the armed forces of France, except from a handful of the French patriots rallied around General Charles de Gaulle, ceased to support the British war effort, and their bases in Syria, Lebanon, and North Africa became inaccessible.

Therefore, the theatre of the military operations shrank to the north-eastern "horn" of Africa, and the Suez Canal, the key point of the sea communications in that region, became the focal point of those operations. What happened in the Italian East Africa was of secondary importance. Colonial divisions decided that the areas in the west to the Nile Delta became the scene where unfolded the major operations of the war in Africa. That scene was called the Western Desert, the name originally applied to the region between the Nile Delta and the Libyan border, but later extended farther westward. The limits of so outlined Western Desert were: from the north - the Mediterranean Sea along the coasts from Mersa Matruh in Egypt, to Sidi Barrani, to Bardia, Tobruk and Ain el-Ghazala in Libya; in the west - the line running from Ain el-Gazala southward to the oases Jarabub (Jaghbub) and Siwa on the edge of the quicksands of the Libyan Desert. The Qattara Depression closes that area from south-east. The Italians reinforced those natural frontiers with triple line of barbed-wire entanglements, running along the Egyptian border from Jarabub to the sea. They also took under control the movements of the Arab nomads.

The whole area of the Western Desert is divided in two zones: the coastal strip and the Libyan Plateau (Gilf Kebir), located in the hinterland and elevated 15m over the sea level. Only around Sollum the plateau almost reaches the sea, whereas in the west and in the east to that town it is located 30km away from the coast. Its almost vertical slopes make it impassable to the mechanical vehicles, except from two artificial passages that the Italians made to lay strategic roads leading into the Cyrenaica. One of them, in the west of Sollum, led to the Italian fort Capuzzo, and the other one, across the Halfaya pass into the desert.

Only few roads adequate for the modern warfare criss-crossed that frontier. On the British side the coastal road ended at Sidi Barrani, and on the Italian side its equivalent - Via Balbia - ran as far as to Bardia. The railway from Alexandria ended in Mersa Matruh, which is farther to the east than Sidi Barrani. The lack of good roads in that region did not mean, though, that mechanical vehicles were useless, since the surface of the desert in most of the area, apart from the quicksands in the south, is solid and stony. However, few oases with water-wells and easiness to get lost in the terrain without landmarks often meant a certain death from exhaustion and dehydration. That is why it was advisable to stick to the roads or traditional caravan routes established on the solid ground and leading from one oasis to another.

On both sides of the border end-points of the communication routes were heavily fortified. Since 1939 the British had build a sophisticated system of fortifications around the railway station and military installations in Mersa Matruh, while Bardia and Tobruk were surrounded with defence lines based on heavily fortified forts designed to resist even a long siége.

So, both sides understood properly the importance of the Western Desert as the area, which on one hand protected vital economical centres and communication routes (Cyrenaica and Tobruk vs. Alexandria and the Suez Canal), and on the other hand could became the initial position to a major offensive against those very centres.