Italy and the MediterraneanOctober 5, 2010 0 Comments
An Italian supply convoy in Libya. The desert provided the opportunity for rapid advances, but inevitably these would outrun supplies, forcing them to a halt. This was the main reason why the pendulum of fortune swung so dramatically backwards and forwards during the campaign in Egypt and Libya.
Mussolini's overall strategy up until he brought Italy into the war in June 1940 remains a matter of debate among historians. During the 1930s he flirted with the western democracies almost as much as he did with Hitler. His presence at Munich during the Czech crisis and the part he played in those last days of August 1939 cast him in the role of international mediator. Then again, his prevarications during the first nine months of the war indicate that perhaps he just wanted to be on the winning side. Yet, given the similarities between Fascism and National Socialism, and Mussolini's strategic ambitions for Italy, it was probably inevitable that he would in time honour the Pact of Steel.
Mussolini's grand design was twofold. He wanted to create a major colonial empire in north-east Africa. He had made a significant start to this with his subjugation of Abyssinia, but to consolidate the empire he needed to weld Libya physically to Abyssinia and Eritrea, as well as take over the whole of the Horn of Africa. Standing in his way were Egypt, Sudan and British Somaliland, all firmly under the British umbrella. Britain also blocked him in the Mediterranean, which he regarded as Mare Nostrum, her mighty Mediterranean Fleet a formidable competitor to the Italian navy.
In June 1940 it seemed, on paper at least, that Mussolini had a relatively straightforward task. Britain herself was now on her own and under imminent threat of invasion. She could hardly be in a position, therefore, to reinforce the Mediterranean theatre. The British Mediterranean fleet had its main base at Malta, which was within easy air-striking distance from Sicily. Force it to withdraw and the Royal Navy would be confined to the periphery, being reduced to operating from Gibraltar or Alexandria, while Italy controlled the central Mediterranean.
On land the picture looked even brighter for Italy. The British Commander-in-Chief Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, had 63,000 troops in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. These had not only to defend these territories against external threat, which now included Vichy French Syria, but also to police them. Indeed, in Palestine the Arabs had resorted to violence in their protest at the influx of Jewish refugees and the situation had only been brought under control on the very eve of war after a three-year counter-insurgency campaign. In contrast, in Libya alone there were 250,000 Italian and indigenous troops. To the south, Italy could field a further 300,000 troops in the Horn of Africa, while the British garrisons in Sudan, British Somaliland and northern Kenya numbered a mere 10,000. In the air, the situation was the same. The Italians had nearly 500 aircraft based in Africa, with a further 1,200 which could be deployed from Italy. The RAF, on the other hand, had a total of a mere 370 in Egypt, Palestine and East Africa, and almost all of these were obsolete types.
Yet, unlike Hitler's strike against Poland, Mussolini launched no immediate blitzkrieg. Instead, the opening of the war in the Mediterranean was marked by a few scattered air attacks by both sides. He did, however, have plans to invade Egypt from Libya, but these were temporarily frustrated by the death of his supremo in Libya, the internationally renowned aviator Italo Balbo, who was shot down by his own anti-aircraft guns during a tour of inspection. This lack of positive activity did, however, encourage the British screening forces in Egypt to maintain a policy of aggressive patrolling, which included the capture of two Italian frontier forts. In retaliation, the Italians took frontier posts in southern Sudan, but did not penetrate further, while at sea the two navies had their first major clash on 9 Jul~ After its flagship was hit, the Italian navy remained in port for the next few weeks.
In August the pace began to quicken. The Italians quickly overran British Somaliland, threatening the entrance to the Red Sea. At the same time the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie organized a revolt within Abyssinia. Churchill, too, made a crucial decision. He had already agreed to the reinforcement of the Mediterranean Fleet and now ordered 150 precious tanks to be sent from Britain to Egypt via South Africa so as not to risk their loss in the Mediterranean. They had, however, not arrived when the long-awaited Italian invasion of Egypt began on 13 September.
The British plan was to withdraw from contact and not to offer battle until the Italian advance reached Mersa Matruh, where defences had been prepared. The reason for this, and one that would dominate thinking during the desert campaign, was that east of here there would always be an open southern flank, which could be easily turned. At Mersa Matruh, however, any defensive position could always be anchored on the impassable Qattara Depression to the south. Yet, to the surprise of the British, the Italian advance was hesitant from the outset and came to a halt after just three days. Now, sixty miles into Egypt, the Italians constructed a series of fortified camps, while they brought up more supplies.
A few days later the tank reinforcements from Britain finally arrived and Wavell ordered a counter-attack to be planned. The Italian commander, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, realizing that the British now had superior tank strength, both in numbers and quality, decided not to risk a further advance, in spite of Mussolini's urgings, and remained in his fortified camps.