Western Desert Force:
The Initial Campaign, Part One

By David Lippman
March 2016

“It is not a question of aiming for Alexandria or even Sollum,” the message read. “I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you.”

This pleading message from Italy’s Benito Mussolini was addressed to his supreme commander in Libya, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, a firm-jawed officer with a reputation for reckless offensive spirit, but one earned against rebellious Arab tribesmen.

Against the British Western Desert Force, Graziani was far less resolute this July 17th, 1940. He led the numbers game on the Libyan-Egyptian border . . . an army of 250,000 facing a British force of barely 30,000. Italy fielded 400 guns to the British 150, 190 fighters to the British 48, 300 Italian tanks to 150 British. On paper, Britain had no chance.

This Italian fighter plane will see no more action.

But behind the numbers and glittering Fascist regalia lurked serious weaknesses that Graziani himself knew. The Italian 10th and 5th Armies in Libya marched on foot, while the British rode in trucks. Two of Graziani’s six divisions were Blackshirt militia outfits, clad in fancy black uniforms, but poor soldiers. His army as a whole was ill-trained. Officers strutted about like gigolos, neglecting their men. Italian troops had done badly in Spain against Republicans and in Ethiopia against tribesmen.

Italian divisions had been reduced from three regiments to two, a paperwork shuffle that created more divisions overall but weakened their combat strength and required the Italian army to field more headquarters units.

Just as importantly, the Italian forces were poorly equipped. Armored cars dated back to 1909. The L3 tank only mounted two forward-firing machine guns, which could not match the British Matilda with its 80 mm armor and 40 mm gun. The underpowered and thinly-armored M11 was little better...its 37 mm gun could not traverse. The heavyweight M13 packed a 47mm gun, but crawled at nine miles per hour.

Italian troops were short of antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, ammunition, and radio sets. Artillery was light and ancient. To ease his balance of payment problems, Mussolini had sold off his newest aircraft and weapons to foreign buyers like Spain and Turkey while equipping his forces with field guns from 1918. The army had to borrow trucks from private firms just to hold parades of its motorized divisions in peacetime.

Italy’s Beretta pistol and machine gun were outstanding weapons, but the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, 1881 model, suffered from low bullet velocity. Breda machine guns were clumsy to operate and jammed easily. The Model 35 “Red Devil” hand grenades had a cute trick of exploding in the hands of their users.

By comparison, the British troops used the reliable .303 caliber Lee Enfield rifle, the superb Bren and Vickers machine guns, the 25-pounder field artillery piece, and the safe and deadly Mills grenade.

Italian ration packs included pasta meals that had to be cooked in boiling water, which was a scarce commodity in the North African desert, requiring even more water trucks and panniers that Mussolini simply did not have. But the Italian command did offer its troops a mobile brothel, which followed the advance.

In the air, Graziani could sortie 84 modern bombers and 114 fighters, backed up by 113 obsolescent aircraft. The Savoia-Marchetti SM-79s looked useful. But while the Fiat CR 42 fighter was one of the most maneuverable biplane fighters around, it was completely outclassed by the British Hurricane.

Flying in the desert was tough enough . . . the RAF had great experience at “tropicalising” its aircraft to keep out sand particles, but the Italians did not. Both sides’ pilots lived in primitive bases that were dust and sand in summer, bog marsh in winter, made up of little shanties created from empty jerricans and packing cases, suffering from water shortages and fly-infested bully beef. Aircraft often broke down after 30 hours’ use. Aviation fuel vaporized in tanks, making it liable to burst in the joints and explode.

Nor could the Italian Navy help. They had no aircraft carriers, were short on fuel and manpower — submarines were commanded by junior ensigns — and the British had broken their codes.

But most importantly, Italy was hopelessly outclassed by her British opponents. The British army in Egypt had trained for years in the appalling desert climate. It consisted of crack regiments like the Coldstream Guards and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The British 7th Armoured Division was its model mobile force, and it was backed up by the 4th Indian Division and the 6th Australian Division, the elite of both nations’ armies.

Finally, both sides were preparing to fight a war in the most inhospitable climate imaginable, Egypt and Libya’s “Western Desert.” This sprawling sand sea, occasionally pocked by mud huts or the odd well, was appallingly hot by day, freezing by night. The only paved road ran along the coast, and wasn’t finished. Dusty trails crisscrossed the rest. Vehicles that traversed them left tracks in the hard sand that are still visible to today’s oil explorers.

None of this mattered to the bombastic Mussolini, who so far had thoroughly embarrassed himself in an effort to gain glory for Italy. After declaring war on France on Jun 10, 1940, his troops had been soundly defeated in the Alps. Now his forces were collapsing in Ethiopia. Il Duce needed a victory. Graziani was to provide one.

Graziani’s answer was to order General Berti’s 10th Army, consisting of three corps, to be ready to attack on Aug. 27th. Graziani proposed to send the ill-trained 21st Corps on the northern coast road to Sollum, across the border, while the Libyan Corps and motorized Maletti Group of seven tank battalions would attack on the south side of the escarpment that ran parallel to the sea. The offensive would be backed by 300 aircraft of the 5th Squadra.

Graziani sent these plans to Commando Supremo in Rome, and Mussolini was pleased. However, the Marshal was not actually intending to launch this impressive-sounding attack; it was merely a paper exercise to soothe Il Duce. Graziani lacked motorized transport for the southern swing.

But as soon as Graziani sent his plea for a postponement, Mussolini ordered his vacillating marshal to attack on Sept. 9th or be sacked. Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano, wrote, “Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders.”

Faced with dismissal, Graziani shuffled his plans. The southern swing was abandoned, the Libyan Corps moved near the coast, and the 23rd Corps under General Annibale “Electric Whiskers” Bergonzoli (that's him on the left), ordered into the primary attack. The 62nd Marmarican and 63rd Cyrene Divisions, joined by the 1st and 2nd Blackshirt Divisions, would lead the assault.

From the start, the Italian offensive was a bungle. Vehicles’ engines overheated. The Maletti Group got lost. Radio Rome announced the impending offensive to the world and British intelligence. When Graziani’s men finally moved on Sept. 10th, their artillery fired a massive bombardment on positions the British had already abandoned. The British 11th Hussars, screening the Italian move, had a good laugh watching Maletti Group’s men try to figure out its location from compasses, speedometers, and maps.

The entire 1st Libyan Division — including a regiment of paratroopers who gloried in the title, but had never learned to jump out of an aircraft — attacked Sollum, held by a single platoon of Coldstream Guards. The British laid mines and withdrew, turning the Italian advance into a laborious task of mine-clearing.

The British were led by two brilliant men: Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor, who commanded the Western Desert Force, and Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, supreme commander of the Middle Eastern theater. O’Connor, Anglo-Irish, unsmiling, bird-like, dour, introspective, and shabbily dressed, detested publicity of any sort and was quiet and modest. A former infantryman who saw the value in tanks and mobility, he was one of the great commanders of his time. Wavell, laconic in speech but gifted with the pen, possessed a fluid understanding of desert warfare.

O’Connor’s plan to face Graziani was simple: delaying actions and withdrawals, to drag the Italians beyond their supply line. Then he would counterattack.

Wavell thought the same. The day after Graziani first moved, Wavell ordered O’Connor to prepare plans for a drive on Tobruk. Yet Wavell himself was under siege. He was responsible for parts of two continents, nine countries, an area 1,700 miles by 2,000 miles. The Middle Eastern theater involved highly complex political relations with Arab leaders, a source of endless headaches. Wavell also had responsibility for East Africa, where Mussolini’s troops were threatening the Sudan. Palestine had to be policed. Vichy French Syria had to be watched. Wavell’s relations with Prime Minister Winston Churchill were cool, and England, bracing for invasion, had little with which to reinforce Wavell.

However, when Wavell promised London unspecified offensive action, the War Office sent him 154 tanks, which brought Wavell up to parity with the Italians, along with 48 anti-tank guns, 48 25-pounder (86 mm) field guns, and 500 Bren machine-guns.

It took Graziani’s men four days to reach Sidi Barrani, where they stopped, having outrun their supplies, exhausted their infantry, and worn down their vehicles. Graziani needed to extend the metalled road and water pipeline from Tobruk to his frontline units.

Italian casualties were 120 dead and 410 wounded. The British had lost only 40 men. Radio Rome broadcast that “all is quiet and the trams are again running in the town of Sidi Barrani,” which was in fact a collection of 12 mud huts, a mosque, a police station, and two brothels.

Graziani’s men began digging in, creating a little string of fortified camps, none of them within suitable range to support each other. The camps were formidable affairs, a mile square, surrounded by stone walls. Inside each camp, the Italians built messes, sleeping quarters, and hospitals, along with minefields, artillery emplacements, and machine-gun nests. All the defenses faced east. Graziani further scattered his tanks among the camps, thus denying himself a mobile reserve. But Graziani’s engineers started building a marble monument to commemorate his 60-mile drive.

Sidi Barrani was as far as Graziani was prepared to advance. He fired off telegrams to Rome demanding more trucks to haul his supplies. When those were turned down — he sought more trucks than the total Italian inventory — he demanded 600 mules.

On Oct. 26th, Mussolini retorted, “40 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 use, indeed, more to the enemy . . . it is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue in command.”

Graziani wired back to say he would resume the offensive on Dec. 15th.

Now events accelerated. On Oct. 28th, Mussolini invaded Greece, hoping as ever for a quick victory. Instead his legions were defeated in the Albanian mountains. But Britain was now obligated to support its new ally. On Nov. 11th, Fleet Air Arm Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked Taranto, sinking an Italian battleship and damaging two more. The Regia Marina fled to western Italy, taking it out of the North African game. Wavell could now look to the offensive.

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.