With the fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June 1940, British expectations that Italy would ally itself with Nazi Germany were realized. New theatres of operations became a definite concern for the British as territorial possessions, dominions and protectorates came under threat from a new enemy which saw British forces and territories overseas as its primary targets. The Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini, fearful that the war might end without his Fascist empire becoming a reality, hoped to occupy and annex French and British colonies and Egypt, which was a British protectorate. This would give him control of the Suez Canal and considerable influence on world trade, allowing Italy to dominate the central and eastern Mediterranean.
Their nation’s entry into the war was both surprising and unwelcome to many Italians. The most senior commanders knew just how ill-prepared the country was. The reaction of many was one of surprise and despondency – indeed, as Tenente Paolo Colacicchi of the Granatieri di Sardegna recalled:
In fact, of no enthusiasm at all. Marshal Balbo, who was the governor of Libya and one of the four Fascists – the Quadrumvirs of Italy – was apparently playing billiards when the news came through Italy had declared war and he was so angry that he picked up the billiard balls and smashed all the glasses in this billiard room. He was absolutely furious because he knew the position there and he had a lot of friends in Egypt among the British.
Italo Balbo was dead less than a month later, killed when his plane was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft fire whilst over Tobruk harbour, but Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, of the Italian Comando Supremo, continued to counsel against Mussolini’s annexationist ambitions. There was little military ardour amongst the Italian troops in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica either, as Paolo Colacicchi confirmed:
I was commanding a platoon then in a machine-gun battalion on the Tunisian front and I was told to call my men and tell them we were at war now with France (this was a few days before France gave up) and Britain. And the main reaction amongst my men was ‘What about our mail? Aren’t we going to hear from home anymore?’ Which is symptomatic, I think, of the type of man we had there. These were not all young; they were not even good troops. There were some recruits, but there were very few and they were tired and wanted to be home. They were thinking of home, they were thinking of leave and they were thinking of their fields left unattended. They certainly had no imperial or aggressive dream about them. This was one of the problems.
Despite this lack of will amongst many of his subjects, the Duce was not to be denied. In August 1940, Italian forces occupied the British protectorate known as British Somaliland, and Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, defended by a small, but relatively modern (by comparison with its opponent), Western Desert Force. This consisted of 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions with elements of 6th Division from Palestine. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, it comprised approximately 36,000 men. On 9 September 1940, Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, who had replaced Balbo as commander of Italy’s North African forces, was finally persuaded to invade Egypt with the X Armata (Italian Tenth Army) of 80,000 men. After an advance of sixty miles, the Italian force (chiefly composed of unmotorized infantry formations) stopped at Sidi Barrani and set up fortified camps. This was disappointing for O’Connor who had plans to annihilate them if they moved on Mersa Matruh.3 The Commander-in-Chief Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, resisted pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to launch an immediate counter-attack. Instead, he and O’Connor began planning an unconventional all-arms surprise attack on the Italian camps.
The plan depended on co-operation from the aircraft of Air Headquarters Western Desert and especially from Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw’s No. 202 Group. Despite his aircraft chiefly being obsolete Gloster Gladiators and increasingly obsolescent Bristol Blenheims operating with no radar and an unreliable signals network, Collishaw’s guiding principle was that obtaining and retaining air superiority were essential before any other task, even close support for troops in an advance or retreat, could be attempted with any reasonable hope of success. Nevertheless, he and O’Connor forged excellent relations. Chiefly, aircraft were to ensure that the initial advance of almost seventy miles by O’Connor’s force was not detected and reported by Italian reconnaissance planes.
Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks available to him. There was considerable experience in his command of military exercises in desert conditions, which the British had acknowledged for many years as ideal for armoured warfare. In the inter-war years several formations trained there and, in 1938, Major-General Percy Hobart had trained the ‘Mobile Division’ (7th Armoured Division’s predecessor) in modern armoured warfare theory. Although Hobart was no longer in command by late 1940, 7th Armoured’s training put it in good stead for the role envisaged by O’Connor, as O’Connor himself explained:
The ‘Infantry’ tanks from their name were there to assist the infantry’s advance and help them in every possible way and they were obviously used for that. The 7th Armoured Division with its much larger radius of action could be used in a way – especially in this fine desert country – for getting behind and cutting off troops – in fact in the way strategic cavalry used to be used.
O’Connor’s unsophisticated approach to the operation was based rather more on common sense than military theory:
It’s quite true I had read most of [Basil] Liddell Hart’s ideas in his books but at that time the ordinary officer of my ‘height’ in the army didn’t really have any great reason for adopting his point of view. We had our own regulations, our own instructions and I don’t think that I considered very greatly Liddell Hart’s any more than I considered our own Field Service Regulations. In our very small operation, I can’t think I said to myself, ‘Now, what would Liddell Hart have done?’
On 9 December 1940, after a long and difficult approach march, shielded by the light reconnaissance units of 7th Armoured and Collishaw’s aircraft, O’Connor’s infantry with Matilda heavy tanks in close co-operation attacked and routed the Italians. Within two days, 38,000 prisoners, seventy-three tanks and 237 guns had been captured.6 Soon Bardia and Tobruk had fallen. The Italian forces fell back into Libya but were harried all the way and eventually outflanked and trapped. This culminated in a further heavy Italian defeat on 5 February 1941 at Beda Fomm and the surrender of X Armata with the loss of 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,200 guns during the campaign. British losses were 1,744 killed, wounded or missing. O’Connor, having reached El Agheila, was for pushing on into Tripolitania in the hope of completely driving the Italians from Libya, despite being at the end of considerably extended and, therefore, attenuated supply lines. Wavell prevented him from doing so.
The campaign was a masterpiece of all-arms co-operation based on established principles and was possible because of the quality of the highly trained forces at O’Connor’s command. In this regard it harked back in many ways to the later battles on the Western Front in 1918. It was the high water mark of British military operations in the Western Desert for over eighteen months but, for many, it was the radix malorum of all subsequent failings in those operations. This was through the inappropriate application of its lessons, through the slavish adherence of first 7th Armoured and then other armoured formations to an erroneous tactical doctrine, and because it gave the misleading impression that all Italian formations could be easily overcome in battle.
This critique presupposes that circumstances would have allowed a different approach. They did not. Just as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the Great War had struggled to inculcate ‘the lessons of the fighting’ in its forces whilst engaged in almost continuous conflict on the Western Front, with few opportunities for meaningful tactical training schemes incorporating, for example, tanks and artillery, so circumstances dictated possibilities for the British Eighth Army (as Western Desert Force became known on expansion to a two-corps organization in September 1941). There was simply no time to review the lessons of the offensive at the level of detail required before events intervened. The strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Africa required Wavell to dispatch a large part of O’Connor’s command to Greece. The units that replaced them were newly formed and inexperienced (especially in desert warfare). There was little continuity of learning and few opportunities for training. There were also fundamental problems with the structure and organization of British formations which were not addressed and which were to present particular problems.
Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC
The British Army was heavily outnumbered by the Italians, so General Archibald Wavell formulated a plan with his senior commanders to retain the initiative by harassing the enemy using mobile all-arms flying columns. Campbell’s brilliant command of one of these columns led to them being given the generic name “Jock columns” (although it is unclear if the idea originated with Campbell or not).
British armoured divisions were too heavy on armour and too light on infantry and lacked sufficient artillery (with no self-propelled guns). In tactical terms, this encouraged them to focus on tank-versus-tank operations in which there was no co-operation with the other arms – something which O’Connor believed was a result of the influence of Liddell Hart’s theories on commanders of armoured units. As a consequence, ad hoc formations of all arms except tanks were formed. These ‘Jock Columns’ – named after their inventor Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC of 4th Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) – were typically made up of a battery of 25-pounder field guns, a motorized ‘motor’ infantry company, an armoured car troop, a troop of 2-pounder anti-tank guns and a section of 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, plus ancillary arms such as medical personnel and signallers. Until July 1942, these seemingly aggressive formations were actually responsible for dissipating the artillery strength of the British in the desert and impeded effective co-operation between the infantry and armour. This tactical schism was exploited repeatedly by the new, and extremely skilful, tactician who arrived soon after the defeat at Beda Fomm to lead their opponent’s forces.