The Desert War – an Introduction

well_chuffed, Going Postal
British Light Tanks Mk VI cross the desert, 1940
No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit / Public domain

Something inspired me to do a series of articles on the North African Campaign or Desert War as it it is also known. A quick look at the timeline and it seemed to be oh so easy, one article describing each of the months it ran for would produce something over 30 articles. Some months would be patchier than others. Of course it turns out that it is far more complex and some of the neighbouring theatres will appear in the course of the unravel.

It all started 80 years ago in June 1940 and continued until May 1943. Never having been in a war but having heard it is periods of boredom followed by frantic, shorter periods of mayhem, I was expecting some quieter periods but sometimes, especially at the beginning, it seems that nothing much happens for months, Nevertheless, let’s see how it pans out.

A few days before it started the evacuation at Dunkirk had just finished after the almost inexplicable decision by the Germans not to finish off the BEF. Shortly after it started, the Battle of Britain began when we saw off the Luftwaffe in just over 3 months.

My dad was was at RAF Manston and Kenley in the Battle of Britain and in this campaign in the desert, he buried too many mates to be happy about it and a group of the survivors stayed in contact for the rest of their lives. His brother was also there in the Army but was taken prisoner by the Italians in 1940 and spent 3 years as a guest of the Italians before being moved to a German PoW camp where it seems the treatment was a lot better. I don’t think he ever really recovered from whatever the eyeties did to him. My abiding memory of him was the nicotine stain on his lower lip where he always seemed to have an untipped cigarette burning away to the last millimetre. In spite of this he lived to see his 90th birthday. There is a lingering suspicion more smoke went in his eyes than his lungs, he spent more time blinking than Ed Balls.

Libya had been held by the Italians since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 when the Ottomans were expelled. It consisted of the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. In 1934 they were renamed Libya, the Roman name for Africa. Over 150,000 Italians settled in Libya, they made up 20% of the population. The Governor at the time was Ital Balbo,  a quite remarkable man and legendary aviator who wanted to give all Libyans Italian citizenship. He was killed in June 1940 when his plane went to land at Tobruk shortly after a British air raid. His own, presumably very nervous, anti aircraft gunners shot down his plane and all in it perished.

In a small refutation of the abusive term fascist for anyone the left considers racist it should be remembered that the original fascists were the Italian Party headed by Mussolini. Il Duce himself, in power since 1922, was not particularly anti-semitic and only eventually started on the Jews at the behest of Adolf in 1943 after he had been rescued by the Germans. There is a story that Ital Balbo not only refused to give the fascist salute, unlike Paolo di Canio, but even invited the mayor of Podesta, Renzo Ravenna a Jew, to a meal at a famous restaurant in Ferrara where the Führer himself had eaten. Anyone anti-semitic should more correctly be labelled a socialist (see Labour) whether of the National variety or not though it gets more confusing when you can point out that Mussolini was also a socialist, or at least started out as one.

The Italians called the Mediterranean Sea Mare Nostrum, our sea, and referred to Libya as the fourth shore. If you draw a U shape around Italy you get three of the shores, Libya was a non-contiguous fourth.

Generally what we remember is the to and fro across North Africa as the Desert Rats tussled with the Africa Korps under Rommel culminating in the second battle of El Alamein where the Germans finally got pushed back. Naturally enough there were lots of other things going on.

We should not forget that it was the Italians in Libya to start with, their campaign resulted in Mussolini flying a white horse to Libya which he intended to ride into Cairo in triumph, and the Germans shoring up his forces with the Africa Korps. The white horse would have been a bit of a PR masterpiece but he forgot that they needed to win before that could happen.

Italy declared war on the UK and France on June 10 1940 though it must be mentioned that both countries had been trying to keep the Italians out of the conflict by offering territorial concessions in Africa in exchange for neutrality. With hindsight that would have been the better option for Mussolini.

Of course we all know that the eyeties began it all by attacking us or did they. On the 11th June British Forces started a series of raids against the Italians in Libya from their bases in Egypt. After the fall of France those Italian forces who had been confronting the French in Tunisia, now controlled by Vichy France, could be released and moved to reinforce the Libya Egypt border. General Wavell decided that was getting a bit risky and stopped the raids. It wasn’t until September that the Italians made their move and so the Desert War kicked off in earnest.

The British Army went through an array of Generals until finally giving control to Montgomery who famously gave us our first real land victory against the until then invincible Germans. Monty though was most cautious, he only launched his attacks when he had an overwhelming superiority in men and equipment, a luxury not afforded to all commanders, oh and he also had a deception plan pretending to have a large force in the south of Egypt. This force was just an illusion but looked real from the air. Shades of D Day there.

There will also be mentions for the campaign concerning Malta, our disastrous involvement in Greece and some of the East African stories. Malta was equally important to both sides. It was in the middle of the supply routes for the British and Italians who were soon accompanied by the Afrika Korps.

It was during this part of the war that we are introduced to the Italian frogmen on their manned torpedoes. Six frogmen disabled two battleships and damaged a destroyer and a tanker in Alexandria harbour. While the general reputation of the Italian Armed Forces was not always optimal, some of the Italians were exceptional, and their frogmen were the best in the world in fact, we learned from them.

Why did this campaign begin, well Britain and Italy were at war from June 10th. Egypt guarded the Suez Canal and further on, the oil in Iran. Britain, still alone at this stage of the war, could not afford to lose either the canal or the oil and the Italians had their eyes on at least Egypt.

While this will not be a really detailed resumé of what happened, hopefully it may clear up a few hazy memories for some puffins. You will also find some snippets that are little to do with North Africa but might be classed as quirky. The Italians in Albania and Greece figures during the early part and it is mentioned but not in any great depth except where it had an influence on events in the desert.

While checking these events out attacks on the Tirpitz were mentioned often during 1940 which brings me to a small story somewhat unrelated to the war. In the mid eighties I was working in the UK for Siemens who had sold a computer system to News International, then purveyors of the News of the Screws amongst others. My job was to get a mainframe installed for the newspapers. This was a machine and operating system that was not normally available in the UK. They sent a German guy over to do the installation and maintenance of said machine. Simultaneously a typesetting system was being installed by some Americans. One of the Noo Yoik ladies doing the training for this was rather taken by the German hardware engineer, dare I say somewhat more than taken, smitten would be more accurate. Anyway, among my crew she was thereafter known as the Tirpitz. I am sure you are all familiar with the answer to the question “Why is the camel known as the ship of the desert” and this is related to her nickname. That’s enough smut for now.

In those days the terminals were “dumb” as opposed to the all singing and dancing PCs we use now. The computer press had gotten hold of a story that there were some difficulties training the sports reporters to use the typesetting system to enter their stories; they were reputed to be even more dumb than the terminals. They duly published it. As the legendary Kelvin McKenzie was strolling past our office one day this was pointed out to him by one of the higher level managers who found it rather amusing. Kelvin reacted in the way he knows best, snarled and told the manager to fuck off. Kelvin was obviously a puffin before his time.

Hopefully I have not bitten off more than I can chew.

© well_chuffed 2020

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