*** World War II Western Desert : Italian Phase

World War II: Western Desert--Italian Phase (1940-41)

World War II Libyan nationalists
Figure 1.--Mussolini ordered a brutal passification campaign to supress Libyan resistabce (1920s). This included the use of poison gas. As a result by the time of World War II abnd the Italian deployment of a massive army in Libya, few Libyans saw any chance of ousting the Italians. As a result, the Libyans were stonished when the huge Italian army that invaded Egypt was sent reeling back into Libya after only a few months by the small British Desert Force. The press caption showing a group in Bengasi read, "Seem Pleased at British Occupation: Libyan inhabitants seem pleased as they read a proclamation notice posted by the British after their occupation of the city." The photograph was dated March 6, 1941.

Mussolini was cautious as Hitler and Stalin launched World War II (September 1939). Mussolini watched Hitler ovewhelm the armies of neigboring countries and wanted in on the spoils of war. All he had was Albania Finally seeing France defeated and thinking Britain was soon to follow, Mussoliio brought Italy into the War (June 1940). Only Britain did not capitulate as expected. And as Britain fefied Hitler, the Führer expected Mussolini to do his part in the War. There was no cordination. Hitler expected Mussolini to do as he bid him and tht to attack the British. . Hitler was anxious to knock Britain out of the War so he could focus on his major onjective--the Soviet Union. He was frustrated when Göring's Luftaffe faild to deliver his victory. And Italy had two camopaigns to wage against a very much undefeated Btitain. A land campaign in the Western Desert and a naval campsign in the Western Mediterranean. And Hitler was pressing him to vigiorously pursue both to pressure Brtain which was hanging in largely because they were receiving aid from America. Mussolini' army and naval commanders were not anxious to engage the British. And when they did the results.were not favorable. At first it seemed that the massive Italian army in Libya would easily overwhealm the British in Egyptand seize the Suez Canal. After minths of inaction giving the British time tio build up a small force, the Italians struck (September 13, 1940). Although badly outnumbered the British firce whivh would eventualy become th 8th Army stopped the large Italian force. The Italians dug into defensive poditions. They wee overwhealmed by a small British force which drove the Italians bsack into Libya. The Italian Navy performed better ghn the Army, but still suffered major reversals in encounters with the Riyal Navy. These defeats made it jnceasingly dfficult to opriotect supply convoys to Libya.

Italian Preparations

Mussolini's dream of controlling the Mediterranean ultimately focused on the eastern Meditrranean as the British and French fleet and French control of North Africa before offered little hope of moving into the western Mediteranean. After the fall of France, Vichy became a kind of German protectorate and thus precluded an Italian invasion east. The Eastern Mediterranean and the prize of Suez was a sifferent matter. Only a small British force in Egypt protected the all important Suez Canal. Thus Mussolini before the War emarked on a massive construction project, building a coastal road from the main Italian base at Tripoli east to the Egyptian frontier. Although not a factor before the War, standing between Tripoli and Italy was the tiny British island outpost of Malta. The paved coastal road from Tripoli streached over 1,000 miles through Tripolitania (western Libya) and Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). The primary purpose was military, to facilitate the movement of men and msterial east toward Egypt. British intelligence reported throughout early 1940 a steady stream of military traffic along the road. The Italians established important supply depots at Benghazi, Derna, Tobruk, Bardia, and Sollum ready to support a massive military campaign.


Tripoli was the the largest city and major port in the Italian colony of Libya. Tripoli's port capacity of about 80,000 tons per month. The Axis armies in the Western Desert were primarily supplied through Tripoli. The other major port was Benghazi in Cyrenaica which was Italy’s main naval base in North Africa. Much of the fighting in the Western Desert occurred in eastern Libya and western Egypt and thus Benghazi was much closer to the front line. Convoys to Benghazi were more exposed to Royal Navy interdiction. And the British actually captured Benghazi twice during tghe campaign (February and December 1941). Tripoli was the only major Libyan port continually in Italian hands during the campaign. The fact that a large part of the Italian and later German supplies were landed in Tripoli was from the beginning a serious weakness in the Axis military campaign. The British in Egypt were well supplied from convoys reaching the Suez Canal as well as oil fields in Iraq. rail links were relatively short. Supplying the Axis forces in eastern Libya and ultimately western Egypt proved to be a daunting undertaking. First. Italian convoys had to cross the Mediterannean where they were vulnerable to British submarines abnd surface units as well as air attack from both Malta and Egypt. Even after landing in Tripoli and other ports, the supplies were a long ways from the battlefield. The oil, water, and military supplies had to be trucked to the front. The major port of Tripoli. however, was more than a thousand miles from the Egyptian frontier. This meat that a very substantgial part of the gasoline landed had to be used to transport supplies to the front. And gasoline shortages would be a constant problem faced by both Italian and German commanders.

Italy Enters World War II (June 1940)

Once it was clear that the French Army was defeated, Mussolini decided to join Hitler. He declared war on France and Britain on the same day the Germans entered Paris. This was a decession that Mussolini made personally without any real study or assessment by Government ministries. He was convinced that Italy had to enter the war in order to sit at the conference table a share the spoils. Despite more than a decade of Fascist rule, and military posturing, Italy was totally unprepared for war. Italy not only did not have a well-equipped army, but the average Italian conscript had no interest in either the army or the War. The NAZI Party had succeeded in preparing Germans for war, The Fascist Party in Italy had failed in the ideological preparation of the Italian population. Even though German armies were pouring through France, Mussolini's attack in the south was unsuccessful and even driven back by the French.

Balance of Forces

At the time Italy declared war, the balance of forces was strongly in Italy's favor. The Italians had about 215,000 men in Libya. The Italians also had much larger airforces deployed in Libya. The British Western Desert Force (WDF) had about 50,000 men. Part of the British force had to be deployed for internal security, in part because of pro-German sympathies within the Egyptian Army. The Italians proceeded to strengthen their forces in Libya. The British were limited in their ability to reenorce the Egyptian garrison. The BEF while manages to escape destruction at Dunkirk had lost almost all of its heavy weapons. The 1st Canadian Division was the only fully equipped division in Britain. Braceing for Operation Sea Lion, the expected German cross-Channel invasion, there were few resources available that could be spared for Egypt. General Wavel flew to England to discuss the impending campaign with Primeminister Churchill. The two did not get on well. Churchill grilled Wavell. [Schofield, p. 150.] It was the beginning of a mutual animosity between the two men. Even so the British somehow managed to put together a convoy of 150 tanks and many guns (August 1940). Churchill writes in his memoirs, "The decesion to give the blood transfusion while we braced ourselves to meet a mortal danger was at once awful and right. No one faltered." [Churchill, p. 392.] It was among Churchill's most difficult decesions of the War. It left the British still anticipating a German invasion virtually stripped of tanks. Meanwhile the small British force in Egypt used inflatable rubber tanks and dummy guns to deceive the Italians about their weakness.

The Commonwealth

Commonwealth troops made up a substantial part of the British forces in the Western Desert, especially the Indians and Australians. New Zealand was also involved. The Indians played a critical role in the beginning phase of Western Deset Campaign. An Indian infantry brigade reached Egypt just before the outbreak of the War. Italy was no a combatant at the time and France still in the War so Egypt was not endangered. A decond brigade was sent (October 1939) and when grouped with the earlier brigade formed the 4th Indian Infantry Division. Two additional brigades and a divisional headquarters were sent (March 1940). They became the 5th Indian Infantry Division. The 6th Australian Division was formed (October-November 1939). They embarked for the Middle East as the spearhead of the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) (early-1940). The initial plan was to deploy in France, but France fell before they arrived, so they deployed in Egypt. Three more A further three AIF infantry divisions (7th Division, 8th Division and 9th Division) were raised (early 1940 as well as a corps headquarters (I Corps) and support and service units. All of these divisions and the majority of the support units were deployed overseas during 1940 and 1941. An AIF armoured division (1st Armoured Division) was also raised (early-1941 but never ldeployed oversea. These were not well trained or equipped divisions. The plan was to tarin and equip them when they arrived. The Indian Army was one of the few forxes in exostance and they were aslo deployed to the Middle East.

British Harassing Attacks (June-August 1940)

The Italian declaration of war was not unexpected by the British. Only the date was unknown. A small mechanized force was formed an had standing orders to engage isolated Italian frontier outposts when Italy declared war. The Italians suffered 3,500 casualties, a number of tanks destoyed, and a convoy intercepted. The military impact overall was small, but the attacks appeared to unnerved the Italians, including the Italian commander Marshal Graziani.

Italy Invades Egypt (September 1940)

Once it was clear that the French Army was defeated, Mussolini decided to join Hitler and declared war on France and Britain. Even though German armies were pouring through France, Mussolini's attack in the south was unsuccessful. The aborted invasion of France (June 1940) achieved Mussolini nothing. Hitler was not prepared to grant benefits to Italy for invading a country that the Wehrmacht had defeated. As Italy had colonies to the west and south of British occupied Egypt, the obvious next step was to seize Egypt and Suez. Hitler stopped by the Channel was trying to knock Britain out of the War with the Luftwaffe and U-boats. He pressured Mussolini to attack the British. At the time, Suez was protected by only a small British combat force, about 30,000 men--the Western Desert Force. Mussolini ordered an invasion of Egypt from Libya, seizing the Suez Canal (September 13, 1940). Marshal Graziani despite massive supperority in virtually every field was uncertain about the campaign. A few days before the invasion requested a postonement. Mussolini replied that the invasion would proceed or he would be summarily replaced. Count Ciano writes in his memoirs, "Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders." [Ciano] The huge Italian army moved into Egypt (September 13). At first it seemed that the massive Italian army in Libya would easily overwealm the small British force. But instead of advancing on Suez, the massive Italian army stopped only a fewvmiles across the border and set up defensive positions after encountering mimimal British resistance. The British withdrew in good order. The Italians fortified perimiter camps around Sidi Barani, still 300 miles short of Cairo and the Canal. The Germans had offered to assist the Italians, including providing tanks. Mussolini rejected the offere as unecessary even though Italian tanks were mostly small and lightly armored.

Nationalist Response

Nationalist forces were divided on how they should react. Most were awed by Italian military power. Mussolini had condycted a brutal passification campaign agajnst poorly armed Libyan nationalists (1920s). The Italiand even used poison gas as they would do again in Ethiopia. The nationalists had no desire to take the Italian Army on again. Most had no idea about the capability of the British, but some saw the War as ab opportunity to obtain foreign aid for an independence struggle. Some (the Cyrenaicans and Idris) supported the British. Others (the Tripolitanians) were more hesitant, fearing that the Axis might win the War. Formal meetings in Cairo with Idris and some of the nationalists resulted in an agreement (August 1940). The nationalists would support the British and the British would support a move toward independence after the War .

British Offensive (December 1940)

The British Western Desert Force launched a surprise counter attack (December 9, 1940). General O'Conner's small force had supplies for only a 4 day action. He noticed that the Italian perimiter were spaced so far apart that they could not support each other. O'Conner attacked from the rear cutting the Italians off from supplies. The Italians quickly surrendered in large numbers. The British took to calling them 'the gentlemem' because they did not seem to interested in fighting. About 200,000 Italians were taken prisioner. Many seemed quite happy to surender. O'Conner because of the huge supply of Italian vehicles and supplies was able to turn a 4-day attack into a major offensive. The British took Benghazi and El Agheila in a series of quick victories. It was a disaster for the huge Italian army deployed against the British. The British seized the whole of Cyrenaica and a massive number of Italian prisioners (early February 1941). The Italians were near collapse and Tripoli seemed within reach. It was clear that only German intervention would prevent the Axis loss of Libya.


Ciano, Galeazzo. Hugh Gibson, ed. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City Publishing: New York, 1946), 582p.


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Created: 11:26 AM 8/14/2018
Last updated: 11:26 AM 8/14/2018