Italian invasion of Egypt
|Italian invasion of Egypt|
|Part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War|
Mk II (A10) Cruiser Tank used by the British Armoured forces
| United Kingdom
|Commanders and leaders|
| William Gott[nb 2]
| Rodolfo Graziani
|1 reinforced brigade[nb 3]
|Roughly 4 divisions[nb 4] [nb 5]
|Casualties and losses|
|40 killed ||120 killed
410 wounded [nb 6]
The Italian invasion of Egypt was an Italian offensive action against British, Commonwealth and Free French forces during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Initially, the goal of the offensive was to seize the Suez Canal. To accomplish this, Italian forces from Libya would have to advance across northern Egypt to the canal. After numerous delays, the aim of the offensive was scaled back. Ultimately, the goal was to advance into Egypt and attack any forces confronting the advance.
While the Italian forces were able to advance about 65 mi (105 km) into Egypt during the invasion, they only made contact with the British screening forces and did not engage the main formations. The screening force consisted of one reinforced brigade of the 7th Armoured Division. The main British force was at Mersa Matruh, about 80 mi (130 km) from the farthest Italian penetration, and was composed of the remainder of the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Infantry Division. On 16 September the Italian invasion force, beset by supply problems, halted and took up defensive positions around the village of Sidi Barrani.
On 10 June 1940, the Kingdom of Italy declared war upon Britain and France and aligned itself with Nazi Germany. In response, on 13 June, the Egyptian Parliament broke off diplomatic relations with Italy but also announced that they would not enter the war unless attacked. In September 1939, the Egyptian government had done the same with Germany. However, while Egypt remained neutral, it had signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. This treaty allowed British military forces to occupy Egypt when and if the Suez Canal was threatened.
When Italy declared war, it had two armies stationed in Libya: the 5th (nine divisions) and the 10th (five divisions). The 5th Army in Tripolitania faced the French forces in Tunisia. The 10th Army in Cyrenaica faced the British forces in Egypt. When France was defeated, divisions and materials from the 5th Army were redeployed to reinforce and strengthen the 10th Army. By the time of the invasion, the 10th Army included 10 divisions and the 5th Army included four. Even with a numerically larger force in Cyrenaica, the Italians were still hampered by a lack of transport, low level of training among officers, and the weak state of its supporting arms. The morale of the artillery and tank branches of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) was the best of the entire force but the guns were old and generally of light calibre with ammunition of poor lethality. Italian armour in Libya was represented by hundreds of L3 light tanks (two-man, machine-gun tankettes). Only recently had about seventy M11 medium tanks arrived.
Almost from the start, things did not go well for the Italian forces in North Africa. On 12 June, 63 Italians were taken prisoner.
On 17 June, using the headquarters of the British 6th Infantry Division, the headquarters of Western Desert Force (WDF) was formed. Under the command of Richard O'Connor, the WDF included all troops directly facing the Italians in Cyrenaica. O'Connor—who was promoted to Lieutenant-General for this command— had some 10,000 men supported by aircraft, tanks, and guns. O'Connor's remit was to engage in aggressive patrolling along the frontier. He set out to dominate no-man's land by creating "jock columns", mobile formations based on units of 7th Armoured Division, which combined tanks, infantry and artillery. These small well-trained regular forces made the first attacks and raids on the Italian convoys and fortified positions across the border. Within a week of Italy's declaration of war, the British 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) had seized Fort Capuzzo in Libya. In an ambush east of Bardia, the British captured the 10th Army's Engineer-in-Chief, General Lastucci.
On 28 June, Marshal Italo Balbo—the Commander-in-Chief of Italian North Africa and the Governor-General of Libya—was killed by "friendly fire" while landing in Tobruk. Balbo had been seen as a man who appreciated better than his contemporaries the effect of modern technology on warfare. He also saw that Italy's one chance of success in North Africa was a quick offensive based on surprise. Yet, even before war was declared, Balbo expressed his doubts to Mussolini: "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 anti-tank 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."
Balbo demanded all sorts of materials: one thousand trucks, one hundred water tankers, and more medium tanks and anti-tank guns. This was material that would be essential to succeed in Africa, but which Italy could not spare or produce. In response to Balbo's demands came airy promises from Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the Chief-of-Staff in Rome. According to Badoglio: "When you have the seventy medium tanks you will dominate the situation." Prior to his death, Balbo was making preparations for a strike into Egypt starting on 15 July.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini replaced Balbo with Marshal Rodolfo Graziani as Commander-in-Chief and as Governor-General. Mussolini ordered Graziani to launch an attack into Egypt by 8 August. Graziani informed Mussolini that the 10th Army was not properly equipped for such an operation. Graziani further reported that an attack into Egypt could not possibly succeed. Mussolini ordered Graziani to attack anyway.
In contemplating the Italian invasion of Egypt, the British had worked on the assumption that the Italians would advance promptly down the Mediterranean coastal road some 140 mi (230 km) to seize the rail head and base at Mersa Matruh. The desert was ideal for unhindered maneuver by mechanized forces in this area. The escarpment ran parallel to the coast some 10 mi (16 km) inland to the south. The area in between the escarpment and the coast gave wide scope for a diversified approach along numerous axes of advance.
In the undeveloped and waterless land that the Italian invaders would cross, the radius of action of a force operating any distance from the coast depended on two factors. The first was how much mechanical transport the force had at its disposal. The second was the volume of supplies that the force could carry. Food, petrol, and spare parts were important, but water was primary among all supplies.
The opposing forces
At the time, British General Archibald Wavell's Middle East Command included some 36,000 troops (including support and administration units) based within Egypt.[nb 7] With these troops, he was to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal against an estimated 250,000 hostile Italian troops based in Libya and an estimated 250,000 troops based in Italian East Africa.
The 10 divisions of the 10th Army under General Mario Berti were organized into five army corps: XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII and the newly created "Group of Libyan Divisions" (Gruppo Divisioni Libiche) or, more simply, the "Libyan Corps". The divisions of the 10th Army were either standard Italian "binary" infantry divisions, Blackshirt (Camicie Nere, or CCNN) infantry divisions, or colonial Libyan infantry divisions. The elements of the 10th Army that advanced into Egypt were the Libyan Corps, the XXIII and the XXI Corps.
The Libyan Corps consisted of two Libyan infantry divisions and the "Maletti Group" (Raggruppamento Maletti). The latter was an ad hoc unit composed of six Libyan battalions transported in trucks and was commanded by General Pietro Maletti. This "mechanised" group included much of the armour available to the Italians and almost all of the M11/39 medium tanks. While Maletti advanced with his troops, Graziani commanded the overall Italian invasion with the rest of his staff located many miles away in Tobruk.
General Berti would liked to have played the standard desert gambit—an advance along the coast road using the predominantly infantry force of the XXI Corps. The metropolitan infantry divisions of XXI Corps had scant desert experience. They would be flanked to the south by the much more experienced Libyan divisions and the motorised Maletti Group. Berti's ground forces would be supported by the Libya Air Command of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) with 300 aircraft of various types. The command had four bomber wings, a fighter wing, three other fighter groups, two reconnaissance groups, and two squadrons of colonial reconnaissance aircraft. The Italian aircraft included Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers, Breda Ba.65 ground attack aircraft, Fiat CR.42 fighters, and IMAM Ro.37, Caproni Ca.309 and Caproni Ca.310bis reconnaissance planes. The command was organised to follow and support the army in the field as a self-contained unit. Unlike the air force, Berti could expect little support from the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina). Ten submarines had already been lost since Italy declared war, the fleet was too important to risk at this juncture. In addition, the Italian navy was already suffering from a serious shortage of fuel.
British and commonwealth
Facing the Italian invasion was the Western Desert Force. By this time, the WDF comprised the under-strength 4th Indian Infantry Division commanded by Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse and the equally under-strength 7th Armoured Division (the "Desert Rats") commanded by Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh. In anticipation of an Italian thrust toward Mersa Matruh, the British had by mid-August withdrawn the bulk of their armoured units to concentrate near Mersa Matruh, leaving the 7th Armoured Division's Support Group— under the command of Brigadier William Gott—to take over the front. The Support Group—which had three motorised infantry battalions with supporting artillery and detachments of engineers and machine-gunners—was ordered to harass the enemy and if attacked, to impose delay without getting seriously involved. In this way, few losses would be incurred defending the ground between the border and Mersa Matruh and the capacity to defeat a determined thrust would be maintained at Matruh.
The British plan of defence was therefore simple: "light covering forces" comprising mostly the Support Group, but including the 11th Hussars (the division's reconnaissance regiment), while creating as much inconvenience to the enemy as possible, would fall back in successive stages before the Italian advance on Mersa Matruh. There, a strong infantry force would await the Italian attack, while from the escarpment on the desert flank, the bulk of the 7th Armoured Division would be ready to counterattack. The object of the covering force was to seem larger than its actual size. Most of the Support Group would use its mobility to cover the desert flank, while closer to the coast would be a force comprising the 3rd battalion Coldstream Guards reinforced by a company of the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps and a company of Free French Motor Marines together with supporting artillery and machine-gunners.
At the end of May 1940, the British Royal Air Force in the Middle East possessed a strength of 205 aircraft. This included 96 obsolete Bristol Bombay and Blenheim medium bombers. It also included 75 obsolete Gloster Gladiator fighters and 34 other types. In July, four Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived. Of these, only one could be spared for the Western Desert.
By the end of July, the British Royal Navy had won mastery over the Eastern Mediterranean. So complete was British control, they were able to bombard Italian coastal positions and to transport an almost uninterrupted flow of supplies along the coast to Mersa Matruh and beyond.
After 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on the Allies, the Italian forces in Libya and the British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt launched a series of raids on each other.
On 10 August 1940, an impatient Mussolini sent a strict instruction to Marshal Graziani:
The invasion of Great Britain has been decided, its preparation. Concerning the date, it could be within a week or a month, but the day on which the first German platoon touches British territory you will attack. Once again I repeat that there are no territorial objectives. It is not a question of aiming for Alexandria nor even Sollum. I am only asking that you attack the British forces facing you.
In response to Mussolini, Graziani ordered General Berti—commander of the 10th Army—to be ready to move by 27 August. But neither Graziani, Berti, or any other general in North Africa believed an offensive was feasible. Marshal Badoglio—Mussolini's Chief-of-Staff in Rome—had promised ample supplies and transport, but they had not been delivered.
On 8 September (after being threatened with dismissal), Graziani agreed to advance into Egypt the following day.
The advancing Italian force included five infantry divisions and the "Maletti Group" (Raggruppamento Maletti). The advance included most of the available Libyan units. The regular Libyan cavalry (Savari) formed part of the "Royal Corps of Libyan Colonial Troops" (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali della Libia) which was also known as the "Group of Libyan Divisions" (Gruppo Divisioni Libiche) or, more simply, the "Libyan Corps". This included desert and camel troops, infantry battalions, artillery and irregular cavalry ("Spahis").
The plan of advance was modified to work around the shortage of transport. A flank move through the desert was canceled and the 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions were brought closer to the coast road to act as a spearhead for the infantry divisions of XXIII Corps. The "Maletti Group" would operate as a flank guard. In essence, Berti was to use his artillery and tanks as escorts to his infantry as his force advanced through hostile territory.
On 9 September 1940, aircraft of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) started the air war against aircraft of the British Royal Air Force. CR.42s fought Gladiators in the skies over eastern Libya and western Egypt. Bombers from both sides struck enemy positions. The British bombed Tobruk and other staging areas in the Italian rear. The Italians attempted to soften up the invasion route.
The advance of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) on the ground proved to be a struggle. One division got lost and many engines over-heated. The British, being greatly outnumbered, left mines and retreated.
However, the "Maletti Group" had become lost moving up to its pre-battle staging position at Sidi Omar inside Libya near the border with Egypt. As a result, the Italian invasion on the ground got off to a slow start. The Italians themselves—by intercepted radio broadcasts—provided this information to the rest of the world. It was not until 10 September that the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars spotted the "Maletti Group" making its way through the desert. A heavy mist shielded the British and allowed them to shadow the slow Italian build-up. As the mist cleared, the 11th Hussars became the target of Italian aircraft from above and sorties by tanks and guns on the ground.
By 13 September, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division re-took Fort Capuzzo in Libya. The Italians then crossed the border between Libya and Egypt. Four days after it began, the "invasion of Egypt" reached Egypt.
On the same day, a single platoon of the 3rd Coldstream Guards at Sollum found themselves to be the solitary object of attention of the entire 1st Libyan Division. Before them in the open plain, the Libyans were drawn up in ranks of guns, tanks and transport vehicles. A bombardment of hurricane-like force was unleashed on the British outposts on the plateau. But, by the time the barrage commenced, the occupants of the outposts had already withdrawn down the Halfaya Pass. The roar of the guns did, however, hearten the Italian soldiers who had already come under harrying fire from the light British force that seemed to be invisible and just over the horizon.
Slowly, the mass of four Italian divisions marched through the pass with little incident. The Italians suffered some losses from the mines left behind as the British withdrew. Rarely was an enemy soldier seen or taken. Broken and abandoned British vehicles bore silent witness to them having been there.
On 16 September, the 3rd Coldstream Guards were almost cut off when a large group of Italian tanks moved inland from the coastal road in the region of Alam el Dab. A timely radio call to the 11th Hussars summoned assistance and kept the trap from closing. By the end of the same day, most of the covering forces had successfully withdrawn to the vicinity of Mersa Matruh. By this time, the Italian advance had progressed about as far as it was going to go, the 1st Blackshirt Division had taken Sidi Barrani.
The Italians advanced to Maktila, 10 mi (16 km) beyond Sidi Barrani; at that point, Graziani halted, citing supply problems. He laid out his troubles to Mussolini and Badoglio as thick as he dared. In doing so, he declared that the approach march to Mersa Matruh would take six days since his forces would all be on foot. Among other things, the list of items he required now included something new: 600 mules. It seems he had given up hope of receiving more transport vehicles.
During the advance, the Italians captured a number of British airfields.
Despite Mussolini urging him to continue the advance, Graziani dug in at Sidi Barrani. In addition, he established nine fortified camps at Maktila, Tummar (2), Nibeiwa and on top of the escarpment at Sofafi (4). To his rear, he positioned Italian divisions at Buq Buq, Sidi Omar, and the Halfaya Pass. Graziani was now about 80 mi (130 km) west of the main British defensive positions at Mersa Matruh.
In the end, the Italian invasion of Egypt did not get to the main British defensive positions. There never was a follow-up advance to Mersa Matruh. This invasion fell very far short of its original goal, the Suez Canal.
Concerning the British forces, General Wavell wrote:
The greatest possible credit is due to Brigadier W. H. E. Gott, MC, commanding the Support Group, and to Lieutenant-Colonel J. C. Campbell, MC, commanding the Artillery, for the cool and efficient way in which this withdrawal was carried out, also to the troops for their endurance and tactical skill.
Concerning the Italian invasion of Egypt, Mussolini asked the following on 26 October:
Forty days after the capture of Sidi Barrani I ask myself the question, to whom has this long halt been any use—to us or to the enemy? I do not hesitate to answer, it has been of much use, indeed, more to the enemy... It is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue to command.
Two days later, on 28 October, the Italian Army invaded Greece and the focus was off both Egypt and Graziani. He was allowed to continue his planning at a leisurely pace. An Italian advance to Mersa Matruh was scheduled to start on 15 December... or maybe 18 December. But soon Graziani and the Italians were to lose control of the pace of events in Egypt.
On 8 December 1940, the British launched a limited scale raid - under the name Operation Compass - against the fortified Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside Sidi Barrani. General Berti was on sick leave and General Italo Gariboldi had temporarily taken his place. The British raid was a complete success and the few units of the Tenth Army in Egypt that were not destroyed were forced to withdraw. By 11 December, the British were able to develop their successes into a full scale counterattack. The Italians were forced back again and again and further and further into Libya. Before what started as a raid was over, the whole of the Tenth Army had been destroyed.
- Mussolini himself asked: "Forty days after the capture of Sidi Barrani I ask myself the question, to whom has this long halt been any use -- to us or to the enemy? I do not hesitate to answer, it has been of much use , indeed, more to the enemy ..." The invasion did not even meet the conditions of Mussolini's pre-invasion request: "I am only asking that you attack the British forces facing you". The Italians were never able to engage the British forces facing them and had only limited contact with the light screening force withdrawing before them.
- The 7th Support Group under the command of William Gott were left on the border to delay any advance made by Italian forces.
- 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn to Matruh. The 7th Support Group took over the front line with orders to watch the Italian formations and to delay any advance made by them. The invasion was resisted by elements of: 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 2nd Rifle Brigade, 3rd Coldstream Guards, 11th Hussars, one French motor marine company and guns from the Royal Horse Artillery. According to Churchill, the British "cover force" included three battalions of infantry, one battalion of tanks, three [artillery] batteries, and two squadrons of armoured cars.
- The "Libyan Corps" included the 1st and 2nd Colonial Infantry Divisions, and the "Maletti Group" (an ad hoc motorised unit); the other Italian units involved were the 63 Infantry Division Cirene, the 62 Infantry Division Marmarica, the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo, 2 Blackshirt Division 28 Ottobre. The invasion commenced with four divisions and one armoured group crossing the border; 1st Libyan, 2nd Libyan, 1st Blackshirt, Cirene and the Maletti motorised group. The 1st Blackshirt occupied Sidi Barrani itself and the Cirene dug in 20 miles west of Nibeiwa, with the Maletti group also located nearby Nibeiwa. The remainder appear to have hung back.
- According to Churchill, the attacking Italians included six infantry divisions and eight battalions of tanks.
- Churchill indicates the Italians suffered ten times the 40 British casualties ... and also lost one-hundred-and-fifty trucks
- At the outbreak of hostilities, however he had no complete formations and was also short of equipment and artillery: his forces consisted of the part-formed 2nd New Zealand Division (one infantry brigade, a weakened cavalry regiment, a machine gun battalion and a field artillery regiment), the understrength 4th Indian Infantry Division (with two infantry brigades and part of its artillery establishment), the 7th Armoured Division (its two armoured brigades composed of two regiments instead of the normal establishment of three) and fourteen unbrigaded battalions of British infantry.
- Macksey, p. 35
- Macksey, p. 47
- Playfair, p. 205
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