Italian invasion of Egypt

Italian invasion of Egypt

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Italian Invasion of Egypt
partof=Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatre
North African Campaign, Western Desert Campaign

date=9 September - 16 September 1940
result=Inconclusive [Macksey, p. 47 Mussolini himself asked: "Forty 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 much use , indeed, more to the enemy ..." The invasion did not even meet the conditions of Mussolini's pre-invasion request: "I am only asking that you attack the British forces facing you" (found on p. 35). The Italians were never able to engage the British forces facing them and had limited contact with the light screening force withdrwing before them.]
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Free French|size=20px Free France
combatant2=flagicon|Italy|1861-state Italy
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom Richard O'Connor
flagicon|United Kingdom William Gott [Playfair, p. 205 The 7th Support Group under the command of William Gott were left on the border to delay any advance made by Italian forces]
commander2=flagicon|Italy|1861-state Rodolfo Graziani
flagicon|Italy|1861-state Mario Berti
flagicon|Italy|1861-state Pietro Maletti
strength1=1 reinforced brigade [Playfair, p. 205 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn to Matruh. The 7th Support Group took over the front line with orders to watch the Italian formations and to delay any advance made by them.] [Playfair, pp. 209-211: the invasion was resisted by elements of: 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 2nd Rifle Brigade, 3rd Coldstream Guards, 11th Hussars, one French motor marine company and guns from the Royal Horse Artillery]
strength2=Roughly 6 divisionsFact|date=July 2008 [The "Libyan Corps included the 1st Libyan Colonial Infantry Division, the 2nd Libyan Colonial Infantry Division, and the "Maletti Group" -- the other Italian units involved were the Cirene Infantry Division, the Marmarica Infantry Division, the 1st Blackshirt Infantry Division, and the 2nd Blackshirt Infantry Division (other than the 1st Blackshirt, the other three appear to have hung back)]
casualties1=40 Killed [ World War II's Opening Salvoes in North Africa ] ]
casualties2=120 Killed
410 Wounded
The Italian Invasion of Egypt was an Italian offensive action against British, Commonwealth, and Free French forces during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. By launching this offensive, Italy attempted to seize the Suez Canal by advancing across northern Egypt from Libya.


On 10 June 1940, the Kingdom of Italy declared war upon Britain and France and aligned itself with Nazi Germany. [Playfair, p. 109] In response, on 13 June, the Egyptian parliament broke off diplomatic relations with Italy but also announced that they would not enter the war unless attacked. [Playfair, p. 121] In September 1939, the Egyptian government had done the same with Germany. [Playfair, p. 54] However, while Egypt remained neutral, it had signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. This treaty allowed British military forces to occupy Egypt when and if the Suez Canal was threatened.

When Italy declared war, there were two armies stationed in Libya: The Italian Fifth Army and the Italian Tenth Army. The Fifth Army was based in Tripolitania and it faced the French forces in Tunisia. The Tenth Army was based in Cyrenaica and it faced the British forces in Egypt. Of the two, the Fifth Army was larger when war was declared and included nine divisions. The Tenth Army included five divisions. When France was defeated, divisions and materials from the Fifth Army could be dispersed to reinforce and strengthen the Tenth Army. By the time of the invasion, the Tenth Army included ten divisions and the Fifth Army included four. But the numerically larger Italian force in Cyrenaica was still hampered by lack of transport, enfeebled by the low level of training among officers, and weakened by the state of its supporting arms. The morale of the artillery and tank branches of the Italian Royal Army ("Regio Esercito") was the best of the entire force. But the guns were old and generally of light calibre. Even the shells were of poor lethality. The tanks in Libya were represented by hundreds of L3 light tanks. These two-man, machine-gun carriers were really tankettes. They had already exposed their frailty and limited usefulness before the war started. Only recently had about seventy M11 medium tanks arrived.Macksey, p. 25]

Almost from the start, things did not go well for the Italian forces in North Africa. On 12 June, sixty-three Italians were taken prisoner.

On 17 June a new HQ that of Western Desert Force, was formed under Richard O'Connor to command all troops directly facing the Italians in Cyrenaica. O'Connor, who was promoted lieutenant-general for this command,Mead (2007), p. 331] had some 10,000 men under command supported by aircraft, tanks, and guns. O'Connor's remit was to engage in aggressive patrolling along the frontier and he set out to dominate no-man's land by putting by creating Jock columns, mobile formations based on units of 7th Armoured Division, which combined tank, infantry and artillery. It was these small, but well trained, regular forces that made the first attacks and raids on the Italian convoys and fortified positions across the border.Macksey, p. 26] Within a week of Italy's declaration of war, the British 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) had seized Fort Capuzzo in Libya. In an ambush east of Bardia, the British captured the Tenth Army's Engineer-in-Chief, General Lastucci.

On 28 June, Marshal Italo Balbo, the Governor-General of Libya, was killed by "friendly fire" while landing in Tobruk. Balbo had been seen as a man who appreciated better than his contemporaries the effect of modern technologies on warfare. He saw that Italy's one strategic chance was a quick offensive based on surprise. Yet, even before war was declared, Balbo expressed his doubts to Mussolini: "It is not the number of men which causes me anxiety but their weapons ... equipped with limited and very old pieces of artillery, almost lacking anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons ... it is useless to send more thousands of men if we cannot supply them with the indispensable requirements to move and fight."Macksey, p. 38] Balbo demanded all sorts of materials: One-thousand trucks, one-hundred water tankers, and more medium tanks and anti-tank guns. This was material that Italy could not spare or even produce. In response to Balbo's demands came airy promises from Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the Chief-of-Staff in Rome. According to Badoglio: "When you have the seventy medium tanks you will dominate the situation." Prior to his death, Balbo was making preparations for a strike into Egypt starting on 15 July. Macksey, p. 28]

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered Balbo's replacement as Governor-General, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, to launch an attack into Egypt by 8 August. It was one of many deadlines Graziani was to miss. Macksey, p. 35] Graziani had been the commander of the Tenth Army and he complained to Mussolini that his army was not properly equipped for such an operation. Graziani further complained that an attack into Egypt could not possibly succeed. Mussolini ordered Graziani to attack anyway.

The battlefield

In contemplating the Italian invasion of Egypt, the British had worked on the assumption that the Italians would advance promptly down the Mediterranian coastal road some one-hundred-and-forty miles to seize the railhead and base at Mersa Matruh. The desert was ideal for unhindered maneuver by mechanized forces in this area. The escarpment ran parallel to the coast some ten miles inland to the south. The area in between the escarpment and the coast gave wide scope for a diversified approach along numerous axes of advance.Macksey, p. 9]

However, the escarpment and the coast converged at one point near the small port of Sollum. Here, amid a profusion of rocks, a natural obstacle proscribed mobility.

In the undeveloped and waterless land that the Italian invaders would cross, the radius of action of a force operating any distance from the coast depended on two factors. It depended largely on how much mechanical transport was at the disposal of the force. It also depended on the volume of supplies that the force could carry. Food, petrol, and spare parts were important. But primary among the supplies was the amount of water a force could carry for itself.

The opposing sides

At the time, British General Archibald Wavell's Middle East Command included some 36,000 troops (including support and administration units) based within Egypt. [Playfair, p. 93, At the outbreak of hostilities General Wavell had 36,000 men under his command based within Egypt, however he had no complete formations and forces were short of equipment and artillery: one brigade of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division, two infantry brigades of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, the understrength 7th Armoured Division, a weakend cavalry regiment, a machine gun battalion and fourteen battalions of British infantry] With these troops, he was to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal against an estimated 250,000 hostile Italian troops based in Libya and an estimated 250,000 troops based in Italian East Africa.

The ten divisions of the Tenth Army, now under General Mario Berti, were organized into five army corps: XX Corps, XXI Corps, XXII Corps, XXIII Corps, and the newly created "Group of Libyan Divisions" ("Gruppo Divisioni Libiche") or, more simply, the "Libyan Corps." The divisions of the Tenth Army were either standard Italian "binary" infantry divisions, Blackshirt ("Camicie Nere", or CCNN) infantry divisions, or colonial Libyan infantry divisions. The elements of the Tenth Army that advanced into Egypt were the Libyan Corps, the XXIII and the XXI Corps. [Hunt (1990), p. 51]

The Libyan Corps consisted of two Libyan infantry divisions and the "Maletti Group" ("Raggruppamento Maletti"). The latter was an "ad hoc" unit composed of six Libyan battalions transported in trucks and was commanded by General Pietro Maletti. This "mechanized" group included much of the armor available to the Italians and all of the M11/39 medium tanks. While Maletti advanced with his troops, Graziani commanded the overall Italian invasion with the rest of his staff located many miles away in Tobruk.

General Berti would have liked to have played the standard desert gambit -- an advance along the coast road using the predominantly infantry force of the XXI Corps. The metropolitan infantry divisions of XXI Corps had scant desert experience. They would be flanked to the south by the much more experienced Libyan divisions and the motorized Maletti Group. Berti's ground forces would be supported by the Libya Air Command of the Italian Royal Air Force ("Regia Aeronautica") with three-hundred aircraft of various types. The command had four bomber wings, a fighter wing, three other fighter groups, two reconnaissance groups, and two squadrons of colonial reconnaissance aircraft. [Mollo, p. 92] The Italian aircraft included Savoia-Marchetti SM-79 bombers, Breda Ba-65 ground attack planes, CR-42 fighters, IMAM Ro 37bis reconnaissance planes, Caproni Ca-309 reconnaissance planes, and Caproni Ca-310bis reconnaissance planes. The command was organized to follow and support the army in the field as a self-contained unit. Unlike the air force, Berti could expect little support from the Italian Royal Navy ("Regia Marina"). Ten submarines had already been lost since Italy declared war and the fleet was too important to risk at this juncture. In addition, the Italian navy was already suffering from a serious shortage of fuel.

Facing the Italian invasion, the Western Desert Force by now comprised the under-strength 4th Indian Infantry Division commanded by Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse and the under-strength 7th Armoured Division (the "Desert Rats") commanded by Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh. However, it was the 7th Armoured Division's Support Group under the command of Brigadier William Gott that would provide much of the "light covering forces" that actually met the Italians at the border.Macksey, p. 40]

The British plan of defense was simple: O'Connor planned to retire behind light covering forces to Mersa Mutrah. There he would await the Italian attack with a strong infantry force while, from the escarpment deep on the desert flank, the bulk of the 7th Armoured Division would be ready to counterattack. The object of the covering force was to seem larger than it was. The Support Group would cover the desert flank while the 3rd Coldstream Guards and some Free French Motor Marines stayed closer to the coast.

At the end of May 1940, the British Royal Air Force in the Middle East possessed a strength of two-hundred-and-five aircraft. This included ninety-six obsolete Bombay bombers and Blenheim medium bombers. It also included seventy-five obsolete Gladiator fighters and thirty-four other types. In July, four Hurricane fighters arrived. But, of these, only one could be spared for the Western Desert.

By the end of July, the British Royal Navy had won mastery over the Eastern Mediterranean. So complete was British control, they were able to bombard Italian coastal positions and to transport an almost uninterrupted flow of supplies along the coast to Mersa Matruh and beyond.Macksey, p. 29]

The Invasion

On 10 August 1940, an impatient Mussolini sent a strict instruction to Marshal Graziani: :"The invasion of Great Britain has been decided, its preparation. Concerning the date, it could be within a week or a month, but the day on which the first German platoon touches British territory you will attack. Once again I repeat that there are no territorial objectives. It is not a question of aiming for Alexandria nor even Sollum. I am only asking that you attack the British forces facing you."

In response to Mussolini, Graziani issued an order to General Berti, commander of the Tenth Army. Berti was to be ready to move 27 August. But neither Graziani, Berti, or a single general in North Africa believed in the feasibility of an offensive for the simple reason that the promise of ample supplies and transport remained unfulfilled. Marshal Badoglio, Mussolini's the Chief-of-Staff in Rome, had made the promise and he had not fulfilled it.

On 8 September, threatened with dismissal, Graziani agreed to start the advance into Egypt on the following day. The plan of advance was modified to work around the shortage of transport. A flank move through the desert was cancelled and the 1st Libyan Division and the 2nd Libyan Division were brought closer to the coast road to act as a spearhead for the infantry divisions of XXIII Corps. The "Maletti Group" would operate as a flank guard. In essence, Berti was to use his artillery and tanks as escorts to his infantry as his force advanced through hostile territory.

On 9 September, aircraft of the Italian Royal Air Force ("Regia Aeronautica") started the battle against aircraft of the British Royal Air Force. Fiats fought Gladiators in the skies over eastern Libya and western Egypt. Bombers from both sides struck on both sides. The British bombed Tobruk and other staging areas in the Italian rear. The Italians attempted to soften up the invasion rout.

The advance of the Italian Royal Army ("Regio Esercito") on the ground proved to be a struggle. One division got lost and many engines over-heated. On the opening day of the offensive, the Italians dropped paratroopers into Sollum.Fact|date=July 2008 The British, being greatly outnumbered, left mines and retreated.

Unfortunately, the "Maletti Group" had become lost moving up to its pre-battle staging position at Sidi Omar inside Libya near the border with Egypt. As a result, the Italian invasion on the ground got off to a slow start. The Italians themselves -- by intercepted radio broadcasts -- provided this information to the rest of the world. It was not until 10 September that the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars spotted the "Maletti Group" making its way through the desert. A heavy mist shielded the British and allowed them to shadow the slow Italian build-up. As the mist cleared, the 11th Hussars became the target of hostile Italian aircraft from above and of sorties by tanks and guns on the ground.

By 13 September, the 1st "23 March" Blackshirt Division re-took Fort Capuzzo in Libya. The Italians then crossed the border between Libya and Egypt. [Gilbert, p. 125]

On the same day, a single platoon of the 3rd Coldstream Guards at Sollum found themselves to be the solitary object of the entire 1st Libyan Division. Before them in the open plain, the Libyans were drawn up in ranks of guns, tanks, and transport vehicles. A hurricane bombardment was unleashed on the British outposts on the plateau. But, by the time of the bombardment, the occupants of the outposts had already withdrawn down Halfaya Pass. The roar of the guns did, however, hearten the Italian soldiers who had already come under harrying fire from the light British force that seemed to be invisible and just over the horizon.

Slowly the mass of four Italian divisions marched through the pass themselves with little incident. The Italians suffered some losses from the mines left behind as the British withdrew. Rarely was an enemy soldier seen or taken. Broken and abandoned British vehicles bore silent witness to the British having been there.

On 16 September, the 3rd Coldstream Guards were almost cut off when a large group of Italian tanks moved inland from the coastal road in the region of Alam el Dab. But a radio call to the 11th Hussars summoned timely assistance and kept the trap from closing. By the end of the same day, most of the covering forces had successfully withdrawn to the vicinity of Mersa Matruh. By this time, the Italian advance had progressed about as far as it was going to go and the 1st Blackshirt Division had taken Sidi Barrani.

The Italians advanced to Maktila, ten miles beyond Sidi Barrani, and Graziani halted citing supply problems. Graziani laid out his troubles to Mussolini and Badoglio as thick as he dared. In doing so, he declared that the approach march to Mersa Matruh would take six days since his forces would all be on foot. Among other things, the list of items he required now included something new: six-hundred mules. It seems he had given up hope of receiving more transport vehicles.Macksey, p. 47]

During the advance, the Italians captured a number of British airfields. [Titterton, p. xx]

Despite Mussolini urging him to continue the advance, Graziani dug in at Sidi Barrani. He established fortified camps at Maktila, Tummar, Nibeiwa, and Sofafi. To his rear, he positioned Italian divisions at Buq Buq, Sidi Omar, and Halfaya Pass. [Macksey, p. 68] Graziani was now about convert|80|mi|km west of the main British defensive positions at Mersa Matruh.


In the end, the Italian invasion of Egypt never got to the main British defensive positions. There never was a follow-up advance to Mersa Matruh. This invasion fell very far short of its ultimate goal, the Suez Canal.

Concerning the Italian invasion of Egypt, Mussolini asked the following on 26 October::Forty 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 much use , indeed, more to the enemy ... It is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue to command.

Two days later, on 28 October, the Italian Army invaded Greece and the focus was off both Egypt and Graziani. He was allowed to continue his planning at a leisurely pace. An Italian advance to Mersa Mutrah was scheduled to start on 15 December ... or maybe 18 December. But soon Graziani and the Italians were to lose control of the pace of events in Egypt.

On 8 December 1940, the British launched a raid against the fortified Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside of Sidi Barrani. The raid was a complete success and the few units of the Tenth Army in Egypt that were not destroyed were forced to withdraw. By 11 December, the British raid became a full scale counterattack called Operation Compass. The Italians were forced back again and again and further and further into Libya. Before what started as a raid was over, the whole of the Tenth Army was destroyed.

See also

* North African Campaign timeline
* List of World War II Battles




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