Operation Compass I

Stroke and Counter-Stroke

On the surface, Mussolini’s Italy was firmly in the ascendant in the Middle East by the second half of 1940. In the Horn of Africa, the conquest of British Somaliland by the Duke of Aosta’s forces presented a potential threat to British sea traffic accessing the southern end of the Suez Canal, and Italian forces also occupied key locations in northern Kenya and Sudan. To the west, the Italian forces in Libya were poised to invade Egypt; in conjunction with their incursion into Sudan this raised the prospect of a concerted attack seizing the Suez Canal and thus severing the most direct British line of communication with India, the Far East and the Antipodes. In addition, Italian air and ground forces in both locations were more numerous than their British and Commonwealth opponents, and also better equipped in many instances.

The reality was somewhat less positive, however. A combination of British naval superiority and geography meant that Italian East Africa’s isolation from reinforcement or outside assistance outweighed the threat it presented to British Imperial communications, and the same could be said of the Italian occupation of the Egyptian coastal border zone. The latter appears to have been driven less by strategic vision or desire for further colonial expansion than Mussolini’s feelings of inferiority and consequent desire to match Hitler’s achievements and keep his place as a belligerent at future peace tables. This explains his insistence that the Italian move into Egypt coincide with the German invasion of Britain, to which all other considerations were subordinate; on 10 August 1940 he explicitly made this point the paramount concern of the senior Italian commander in Libya, Maresciallo Rodolfo Graziani, in a letter that stated ‘The invasion of Great Britain has been decided on, its preparations are in the course of completion and it will take place…the day on which the first platoon of German soldiers touches British territory, you will simultaneously attack. Once again, I repeat there are no territorial objectives, it is not a question of aiming for Alexandria, nor even for Sollum. I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you. I assume full personal responsibility for this decision of mine.’

With such poor to non-existent strategic direction from the top Balbo and Graziani’s tardiness in embarking on an invasion of Egypt is arguably excusable and certainly understandable, and this also goes some way to explaining the relative incompetence and lack of push displayed by the Italian forces in British Somaliland and subsequently in Egypt. All this ought to have made the Italians relatively easy meat for a competent opponent, but the British were initially unable to capitalise upon them. The key factor was simply numbers, for the Army and RAF contingents in both locations were simply too badly outnumbered to offer more than token resistance, as the fighting in British Somaliland had clearly shown. This was a puzzling and serious omission given the importance of the region to the efficient running of British Imperial trade and communications, and it is therefore germane to establish how such a state of affairs came about before moving on to examine the British reaction to the attacks on their territory.

As we have seen, while the Italians saw their Libyan colony as an extension of their domestic territory, the British presence in Egypt was focussed primarily on safeguarding the Suez Canal as a communications link between Britain and the Empire.

Consequently, prior to the emergence of Italy as a regional threat, the principal role of the British ground and air forces stationed in Egypt and across the wider Middle East was imperial policing. Operations of this type are frequently regarded as something of a soft option, but the reality was somewhat different. Dissident tribesmen and indigenous populations were just as capable of inflicting death and injury as conventional military forces, and service in the reaches of the Empire also involved coping with extremes of geography and climate as a matter of course. Carrying out even the most basic of military operations under such conditions thus required a high level of operational competence and flexibility.

Troops operating in the Western Desert, for example, had to contend with extreme heat by day and near-freezing cold by night as a matter of course, as well as sandstorms that reduced visibility to zero and the khamsin, a hot wind blowing from the Sahara between February and June that routinely raised the temperature to in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit; according to local lore murder was justified when the khamsin blew. Even routine tasks like patrolling in the arid, largely featureless terrain required strict water discipline and navigational skills of a high order. Keeping weapons and equipment functioning amidst the ever-present sand and gritty dust required constant and diligent cleaning, and mechanisation increased the maintenance load manifold. The dust shortened the life of engines even when equipped with special filters, and the rough terrain took a similarly heavy toll on suspension components, tyres and tracks. Vehicle and aircraft maintenance was complicated yet further by the paucity of sheltered facilities; an RAF report on air operations in the Western Desert noted that it took up to twenty-four hours’ work to restore aircraft on forward bases to a flyable condition after sandstorms, with instrument intakes and constant speed propeller mechanisms being especially troublesome.

Relations between the Air Ministry and War Office in the inter-war period and Second World War were frequently acrimonious at best, not least because the RAF had justified its existence after 1918 by cutting into the Army’s traditional function to create an imperial policing role for itself by ‘…substituting air power for land power in the more inaccessible corners of the British Empire.’ After contributing an eight-aircraft strong detachment codenamed Z Squadron to suppressing the ‘Mad Mullah’ in Somaliland in 1919–20, the Air Ministry was given responsibility for Iraq on 1 October 1922. However the practical limitations of Air Control, as the policy was labelled, rapidly became apparent when the RAF were obliged to form a ground support unit equipped with Rolls Royce armoured cars. In fact, Air Control had always been something of a fiction, given that there had been a substantial Army involvement alongside Z Squadron and that the then Secretary of State for War and Air, Churchill, who had played a major role in the implementation of Air Control, nonetheless considered that policing Iraq would also require at least 14,000 Army troops. Despite this, the inter-service hostility diminished with distance from London, if only for reasons of pragmatism and operational necessity; hence the comment from Sir Gifford Martel, one of the British Army’s armour pioneers, while serving in India in the 1930s: ‘the Air Force is a good show out here; I wish the Army was as progressive.’

The result was an extremely high level of co-operation between the Army and RAF at the operational level in the Empire. The evacuation of casualties by air began with Z Squadron, which deployed the world’s first custom-built air ambulance, and rapidly became a staple feature of British imperial policing operations. Over 200 men were airlifted from Kurdistan for treatment in Baghdad following a serious outbreak of dysentery in 1923, and by the mid-1930s an average of 120 patients per year were being airlifted to hospitals in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. There was also a regular medical shuttle to Port Said and Jaffa for cases requiring repatriation to Britain by sea. Aircraft were also pressed into service for more routine military transport tasks. In September 1920 two Handley Page 0/400s lifted a dismantled mountain gun complete with crew and ammunition from Heliopolis to Almaza in Egypt, and a complete company of infantry was lifted from Baghdad to Kirkuk in May 1924 in response to an outbreak of civil disorder. A similar operation from Palestine to Cyprus in October 1931 was the world’s first troop airlift over the open sea, and the following year the RAF mounted its largest airlift in the interwar period, using twenty-five Vickers Victoria aircraft to move a complete infantry battalion the 800 miles from Egypt to Iraq in the period 22–27 June 1932. By the late 1930s such large-scale operations were routine; during the Waziristan campaign a total of 5,750 troops and 400 tons of supplies were lifted in the period between November 1936 and May 1938.

However, operational co-operation and flexibility were of little use against a threat arguably more insidious than desert dust or inter-service rivalry. Government fiscal parsimony toward the British Armed Forces was and remains something of a perennial, as demonstrated by the debate about overstretch and equipment shortages in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time of writing. The root of the problem at the beginning of the Second World War dated back to the military drawdown immediately after the First World War. In August 1919, within a month of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, a Government memo declared that ‘non productive employment of manpower and expenditure, such as is involved by naval, military and air effort, must be reduced within the narrow limits consistent with national safety.’ This policy resulted in a series of military budgets that were barely sufficient to cover the Service’s existing commitments. The Army had its budget reduced every year between 1919 and 1932 despite a parallel raise in its commitments, for example, and pay cuts prompted by a £5 million cut in the Royal Navy’s budget in 1931 sparked a mutiny in the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. The situation continued until the mid-1930s, when a Government statement in Parliament admitted that the situation was ‘approaching a point when we are not possessed of the necessary means of defending ourselves against an aggressor.’ As events in 1939 and more especially 1940 were to show, subsequent measures to reverse the situation came barely in the nick of time. That was of little immediate solace to those charged with safeguarding the Empire, for Home defence requirements were the first priority and the former were thus obliged to accept whatever of modern equipment or obsolescent hand-me-downs could be spared.

This was not initially seen as a matter for concern because Italy was not considered a threat to British interests in the Middle East, and this remained the case even when Mussolini embarked on an extensive re-armament programme in 1933 and invaded Abyssinia two years later. Although the British Mediterranean Fleet was substantially reinforced in September 1935 in anticipation of enforcing League of Nations sanctions against Italy for her aggression, Italian vessels carrying supplies and munitions for their forces in Abyssinia were still permitted to transit the Suez Canal, in line with the 1888 Treaty of Constantinople that guaranteed access to the Canal for all and prohibited warlike activity within three miles of the Canal’s entry points. Indeed, the possibility of conflict with Egypt itself was a more pressing concern, as relations had been ambiguous between the abolition of the British Protectorate over Egypt in 1922 and the signature of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in August 1936. The Treaty bound the British to withdraw from Cairo within four years, to restrict its military presence in the country to the area immediately adjacent to the Suez Canal and the RAF airfield at Abu Sueir, seventy miles from Cairo, and to train and equip the Egyptian Army and Air Force. In return the Egyptian government was to improve and/or increase road and rail links, permit British military training in designated areas and provide unlimited access to all Egyptian facilities in time of war. In return the British sponsored Egypt’s election as an independent member of the League of Nations in May 1937.

In the meantime relations with Italy had deteriorated, and the British initially tried to address the situation with diplomacy, leading to the Anglo-Italian Joint Declaration signed in Rome on 2 January 1937. Popularly dubbed the ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, the Treaty debarred both parties from interfering with the sovereignty of states in the Mediterranean area and guaranteed mutual free movement in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the Declaration quickly failed to live up to expectations, and the British government was obliged to extend its policy of military renovation to the Middle East from July 1937, beginning with a modernisation programme for port defences in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Limited measures to counter possible Italian attacks were also authorised, with the caveat that they should be discrete and unprovocative.

British concerns initially centred on naval matters, and specifically secure basing for the Mediterranean Fleet. Traditionally this had been provided from Gibraltar and Malta, but the former was too distant from the likely seat of future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Malta was too close to the Italian mainland. Alexandria was selected as the best option in April 1937, not least because it had undergone modernisation during the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935, and permission was obtained from the Egyptian government to extend docking and repair facilities. The situation was more serious with regard to air and land defence, for most of the army units were based away from the Libyan border and were significantly under their official War Establishment strength, while there were no RAF fighters or army anti-aircraft units based in Egypt at all. Nonetheless, the British were able to mount some semblance of defence during the Sudeten Crisis in September 1938 with the army occupying defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, two thirds of the way between Alexandria and the Libyan border, and the RAF deploying to forward airfields in support. By that time some of the more glaring deficiencies had been addressed, at least to an extent. An anti-aircraft brigade equipped with twenty-four 3-inch guns and the same number of searchlights had been despatched from Britain in December 1937 along with a battalion of light tanks. This was followed by a twenty-one strong squadron of Gloster Gladiators and twelve Bristol Blenheims in February 1938. More reinforcements followed. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Egypt in July 1939, followed by a New Zealand brigade in February 1940, and the Indian presence was expanded to form the 4th Indian Division by the arrival of a second brigade eight months later.

By the outbreak of war with Italy in June 1940 the British were thus in a better, if not comfortable position to defend Egypt. At the top, the clumsy and arguably unworkable triumvirate system created in June 1939, which relied on the local Commander in Chiefs of the three Services to co-operate voluntarily whilst beholden to their individual Chiefs of Staff and Ministries in Whitehall, had been modified with the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief Middle East on 15 February 1940. The officer selected to fill the new post was Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had been commanding the army’s Middle East Command from July 1939. Wavell was a highly experienced and competent soldier who had seen service in the Boer War, India and as an observer with the Russian Army before 1914; during the First World War he served initially in a Staff position, was wounded and lost an eye at Ypres in 1915, was seconded to the Russian Army in Turkey as a liaison officer the following year, and ended the war on General Allenby’s staff in Palestine. The RAF contribution to defending the Libyan frontier was No. 202 Group, commanded by then Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw DSO and Bar, DSC, DFC. A Canadian by birth and also a First World War veteran, Collishaw had begun his career flying fighters with the Royal Naval Air Service and was the third highest scoring British ace at the end conflict, with sixty victories. No. 202 Group consisted of six squadrons, the Gladiator equipped No.33 Squadron, Nos. 45, 53, 113 and 211 Squadrons equipped with Blenheims, and No. 208 Army Co-Operation Squadron equipped with Westland Lysanders. The army contingent in Egypt numbered 36,000 men, but not all were organised into complete formations, and the formations that did exist were understrength in addition to overall shortages of artillery, transport and ammunition. The Western Desert Force tasked with defending the border with Libya was commanded by Major-General Richard O’Connor, who arrived from Palestine to take over on 8 June 1940. O’Connor’s Force consisted of the understrength 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions; the former lacked two of its constituent armoured regiments and the latter a complete infantry brigade, although this was offset to some extent by the presence of the 6th Infantry and 22nd Guards Brigades.

This was a fairly respectable force, but not in comparison with the Italian 10° Armata facing them across the border in Libya. However, there was more to the matter than bald numbers, and the British possessed a qualitative advantage that to an extent offset Italian numerical superiority. There were two aspects to this advantage. The first went back to 1935, when elements of the Cairo Cavalry Brigade were formed into a Mobile Force and began training for mechanised desert operations. This was a new concept and thus very much a matter of trial and error. At the beginning it took a squadron from the 11th Hussars three days to reach the oasis at Baharia, 200 miles south of their base at Cairo, thanks to navigation difficulties, vehicle suspension failures, flat tyres and bogging in soft sand, and it took a further two days of intensive maintenance before the return trip could begin. Within ten months the same unit was capable of sallying forth south across the coastal plain from Mersa Matruh to the Siwa Oasis on the rugged plateau that separated the plain from the Great Sand Sea and back in the same time, a round trip of almost 400 miles as the crow flies. The experience garnered in the process was converted into a formalised training programme for all British mechanised units in Egypt that taught the importance of vehicle loading, field maintenance and repair, desert driving techniques, how to use the terrain for movement and concealment, and navigation by the sun and stars as well as with the magnetic compass. The end result was a number of units capable of operating in the harsh conditions of the Western Desert as a matter of routine. The second aspect was turning these trained units into a cohesive mechanised force, and that was down to the involvement of Major-General Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart DSO MC.

Hobart was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1904 and after service on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia during the First World War, transferred to the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. A disciple of Colonel J.F.C. Fuller and an armoured theorist in his own right, he was promoted to command the 2nd Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in 1928. In 1933 he became Inspector Royal Tank Corps, and after promotion to Brigadier the following year formed and commanded the 1st Tank Brigade, the first armoured formation of that size in the British Army. A single-minded and difficult character, Hobart made more than his fair share of enemies in the army establishment, but avoided being edged out of the army like his fellow armour pioneers Fuller and Liddell Hart and was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office in 1937, on the understanding that he would be given a command more in line with his expertise in the event of war. That circumstance came with the Munich Crisis, and Hobart was despatched to form an armoured division in Egypt on 25 September 1938. His appointment was not universally popular as his difficult reputation appears to have preceded him; the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, greeted him with the immortal words ‘I don’t know what you’ve come here for, and I don’t want you anyway.’

Despite this inauspicious start, Hobart set to work reorganising and expanding the Mobile Force into the Mobile Division at his base at Mersa Matruh. The new formation consisted of three parts. The Light Armoured Brigade was created by the simple expedient of renaming the Cairo Cavalry Brigade, which was made up of the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars equipped with a variety of Light Tanks, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars making do with 15 cwt Ford trucks in lieu of tanks, and the 11th Hussars mounted in Rolls Royce Armoured Cars. The Heavy Armoured Brigade consisted of the 1st and 6th Battalions, Royal Tank Corps, the former equipped with Light Tanks and the latter with a mixture of Light and Medium. The third part, dubbed the Pivot Group, was intended to provide the armoured striking force with infantry and artillery support. It consisted of 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), and the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) equipped with 3.7-inch howitzers. Hobart also managed to form a divisional HQ with personnel located through his parallel responsibility for Garrison Troops in Cairo, including increments from the Royal Corps of Signals and a complete company from the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). The latter proved invaluable in locating supplies of ammunition and spare parts, and more modern replacement equipment slowly became available over the winter of 1938–39; this permitted the 6th Royal Tank Regiment to replace some of its venerable Mk. II Medium Tanks for more modern A9 Cruisers, and the 3rd RHA to re-equip with 25-Pounder guns. In parallel with all this Hobart instructed and drilled his command until its disparate components were capable of operating smoothly together in offensive and defensive manoeuvres. By the end of 1939 Hobart had largely achieved his mission, as is clear from Major-General O’Connor’s comment that the Mobile Division was the best trained division he had ever seen.

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