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Western Desert Force:
Italian Libya, Part One: The Colony

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2015

Until the overthrow and brutal murder of its brutal dictator, Col. Moammar Qaddafi, Libya was known in the West mostly for its massive oil reserves. For a brief moment in 1941 and 1942, Libya held the Western world’s attention as Axis and Allied armies brawled for control of the Mediterranean Sea’s southern coast: the theme of our Western Desert Force game. But what made this desolate region a seat of war?

The Berber people appeared on the scene at least as early as 2700 B.C. It was these people, who constantly raided the Nile valley settlements, who the Egyptians labeled “Libyans.” Berber raiders even installed themselves as pharoahs during the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties.

Three Cities

Modern Libya is divided into three very different regions. Coastal Libya is split by the Gulf of Sirte into Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east. Overland communication between them was essentially impossible before the introduction of motor vehicles (this is why there is no route between them in our Soldier Emperor game), and they developed separate cultural identities. To the south lies the Fezzan, mostly desert but dotted by oases, some of them very large and productive.

Conquerors of Cyrenaica. Italian Bersaglieri in action (at least that’s what the original caption says), 1912.

Phoenicians settled in Tripolitania by 1200 B.C., and by 500 B.C. the “Three Cities” (“Tri Polis” in Greek) became an important Carthaginian vassal state, passing under Roman rule when Carthage was destroyed by Rome. Greeks settled Cyrene in 631 B.C. and soon a confederation of “Five Cities” formed, passing under Roman control in 74 B.C. Roman rule lasted for over 400 years, passing in turn to the Byzantine Empire by the 6th century AD.

In 642 an Arab army led by Amr ibn al As conquered Cyrenaica for Islam, taking Tripoli two years later. By 650 the Arabs had wiped out all the Byzantine garrisons in both provinces and subjugated the tribes of the Fezzan as well. Contrary to popular imagination, the Arab conquerors did not try to exterminate Christianity, but by the 11th century its last adherents had submitted. The struggle between Shi’a and Sunni wracked both provinces as it did the rest of the Islamic world, and after the brief ascendancy of the Fatimids in the decades just after the millennium, both Libyan provinces became solidly Sunni and remain so.

Christian rule returned briefly in 1510, when the king-emperor Charles V captured Tripoli and turned it into a powerful fortress. In 1524 the Spanish garrison handed it over to the Knights of Malta, who held it until the Turks captured it from them in 1551. Ottoman sultans thereafter claimed authority over both Tripoli and Cyrenaica, but rarely managed to enforce it and the local rulers acted autonomously. Tripoli in particular became noted as a pirate haven.

Sanusi's Influence

Turkey’s attempted revival in the late 1850s led to new attempts to assert authority in the two provinces. But the wandering holy man Mohammed bin Ali al-Sanusi had much more influence. The Sanusi Order he founded preached a return to the simple faith and moral code of early Islam. He found willing listeners in both provinces, and the Sanusi Order became the most powerful social force in both provinces. Followers had to maintain a sane and normal lifestyle: to eat and dress normally, reject stimulants and voluntary poverty, reject self-mutilation or the orgiastic dances of the Sufi, and maintain themselves through wage-earning work rather than solicitation of alms.

Italian troops pose with massacred prisoners outside Tripoli, 1911.

Italian traders began to filter into the provinces in the late 1880s, after France formally annexed neighboring Tunis in 1884. Other European powers recognized Italy’s “sphere of interest” there, though Turkey did not, and in 1911 when Italy objected to the Turkish Army’s recruitment of tribal irregular cavalry in the interior, the Turks ignored them. That provided enough excuse for war, and in October 1911, 35,000 Italian troops landed and seized the major port cities.

The Turkish garrison of 5,000 fought back as best they could, withdrawing inland to join with the Sanusi-led tribes to undertake hit-and-run raids against Italian garrisons. Inspired by Turkey’s best young officer, Mustafa Kemal, the Turks and their allies kept the Italians from making any major advances; but the crisis of the Balkan Wars forced Turkey to make peace. Italy annexed both territories, but the sultan’s diplomats finagled a clause in the peace treaty granting the Turks control over religious courts in both provinces. Since Shari’at law recognizes no distinction between religious and civil law, this in effect kept the sultan’s judges in control of civil affairs. The Turks used their judicial beachhead to keep up pressure on the Italians, encouraging both armed resistance and civil disobedience.

The First World War brought Italy and Turkey back into conflict, and the Turks quickly increased their aid to the Sanusi. Raiders struck throughout the provinces, but things fell apart when the Sanusi followed their Turkish advisors on an ill-considered invasion of Egypt in 1916. The Sanusi leadership fled, leaving the order in the hands of the young Muhammed Idris al-Sanusi, who negotiated a truce with the British and Italians that left him in control of Cyrenaica’s interior.

After the war, the Italian government attempted to placate the Arabs of Cyrenaica while subjugating those of Tripolitania. When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, he wholeheartedly endorsed the military solution. Once the Treaty of Lausanne formally conceded Italian rule in Libya, Mussolini began to pour in troops, aircraft and weapons.

The Lion of the Desert takes ship for Mecca, sometime in the 1920s.

The Lion of the Desert

A brutal war raged in Cyrenaica. Idris had fled to Egypt, and the tribal sheik Umar al Mukhtar, the “Lion of the Desert,” conducted the resistance. As a boy of 16, Umar al-Mukhtar had killed a feared lion with a shotgun, and became a legendary Sanusi commander in the 1911-1912 war. “I will not leave my country until I meet my God,” he told Italian officials offering luxurious exile. “Death is my companion, and I await it with every breath.”

The Italians could not track down his small bands of horsemen despite overwhelming numbers, and under Gen. Rudolfo Graziani the fascists resorted to fearsome terror tactics. Italian troops — which included large numbers of Eritrean askaris, volunteers from East Africa with few of the moral qualms exhibited by Italian draftees — rounded up women and children and forced them into squalid camps. They slaughtered herds of cattle and camels, destroyed wells, and built a massive fence along 200 miles of the Egyptian border.

Aircraft and armored cars constantly patrolled the frontier, shooting up columns of supplies and reinforcements trying to make their way in from Egypt, or of refugees trying to escape the hellish conditions of Mussolini’s first war. Aircraft sprayed mustard gas on any Bedouins spotted in Cyrenaica, regardless of age, gender or armament. In the al-Barayka concentration camp alone, 30,000 of 80,000 inmates died between 1930 and 1932. Italian officials seized small children, whether orphans or not, to be raised in military institutions and ultimately inducted into the Italian colonial forces.

But the resistance continued, though it dwindled. Not until 1931 did Umar al Mukhtar’s last base of operations, Kufrah Oasis, fall to a determined attack by tanks and Eritrean infantry, supported by heavy air strikes. The old guerilla was placed before a military tribunal, where his Italian military lawyer, Artillery Capt. Roberto Lontano, put on a spirited defense pointing out that he had never accepted Italian rule, owed allegiance to the Sultan and had to be treated as a prisoner of war. Mussolini would have none of it, and ordered him hung in Suluk on 16 September 1931 before 20,000 Libyans forcibly assembled for the spectacle. Without their leader, the resistance collapsed, and in 1934 Mussolini made Libya an Italian colony of four provinces.

A lion in chains. Graziani poses with his captive.

Fascist Modernization

Fascist policy seized on places like Libya to show off the political movement’s modernizing force, and state investment poured into the backward colony. Roads, railroads, water projects and many other improvements sprang up within a few years. These were not intended for the benefit of Libya’s Arab-Berber population, but rather for the waves of Italian colonists expected to settle on “Italy’s Fourth Shore” during the coming decades.

The first mass group arrived in October 1938, 20,000 drawn from the ranks of Italy’s urban unemployed. Within a year, 110,000 Italian civilians had settled in Libya and been assigned the best agricultural land. Though often portrayed as endless desert, Libya does possess some well-watered regions particularly in Cyrenaica where there are heavy forests in the Djebel region, and the Italians foresaw olive oil becoming a major export. Mussolini believed that by 1960 a half-million Italians would live there and Islam would lose its cultural hold and become purely a religious choice of the people he called “Muslim Italians.” Though they lost their prime lands, for the first time Libya’s local population received modern medical care and the state undertook to replace at its own cost the hundreds of thousands of animals it had slaughtered during the Sanusi War.

The Second World War ended Mussolini’s dreams. Libya came under British military administration and then passed to the United Nations. The Soviet Union demanded trusteeship of Tripolitania, and after much diplomatic wrangling Libya was declared an independent state in December 1951, with Idris as its king. Ninety percent of the population was illiterate, and an economic survey undertaken by the United Nations to aid the new government listed “battlefield scrap steel” as the country’s only natural resource. By the end of the decade that assessment would change, but that’s another story.

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