The Desert War – June 1940

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Italian Semovente 75/18 self-propelled assault gun
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-784-0208-17A / Moosmüller / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

80 years ago this month the North African Campaign, or Desert War kicked off. On one side were the Italians, desperately trying to expand their Empire in Africa, on the other were the British who were desperately trying to keep their Empire intact while facing the threat of an invasion by the Nazis.

In charge of the British was General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East. By this time the Middle East included British Somaliland, unflatteringly situated right next to Abyssinia and Eritrea, both of those having been occupied by the Italians. My favourite design is Art Deco and oddly enough, Asmara in Eritrea contains massive amounts of such buildings to this day. A legacy of the Italian occupation.

On the Italian side there was the Governor-General of Libya, Ital Balbo, a legendary inter war aviator and Marshal Rodolfo Graziani in charge of the Italian Armed Forces in Libya.

Italy declared war on the 10th June. Things had not been going well for the British, on the 2nd they had just finished extracting 300,000 or so troops from Dunkirk, minus equipment, and had just begun to evacuate their troops from Narvik after the Germans had beaten them to Norway. Norway surrendered on the 10th and the French stooped resisting the Germans on the 17th. We were on our own.

On the 11th the RAF bombed Turin and Genoa and the 11th Hussars got behind the Italian lines and started hit and run attacks. For good measure, 10 Italian bombers had a pop at Malta. Malta’s air defence was basically a few Gloster Gladiators, outclassed by the Italian planes but they put up a good show and on this day damaged one of the bombers forcing the Italians to subsequently send fighter escorts with the bombers. On the 23rd they shot down 4 and damaged another 2 Italian planes. The Gladiators were relatively slow biplanes, they were up against faster 3 motor bombers and slightly faster biplane fighters. On paper they didn’t stand much of a chance but the fighting was in the air, not on paper.

It’s quite amazing at this stage of the war that Gloster Gladiators and Fairey Swordfish figured in much of the action. We always think of Hurricanes and Spitfires but in the further reaches of the British Empire those two planes were involved in much of the action.

On the 12th an Italian submarine sank cruiser HMS Calypso. The following day HMS Odin, an RN submarine, attacked 2 Italian cruisers and sank one of them and on the 16th HMS Grampus, another RN sub, was sunk off Italy by two motor torpedo boats while laying mines off Sicily.

On the 14th, just four days after the declaration of war, the 7th Hussars along with tanks of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, And Gladiators and Blenheims of the RAF captured Fort Capuzzo just over the Libyan border while the 11th Hussars got their hands on Fort Maddalena some 60 miles to the south. They did not have enough force to hold these forts so destroyed them and raided up and down the border while settling down to besiege the desert town of Giarabuba. The Italians there held out for three months which gave Mussolini something to crow about while the Italian Army got pushed back.

These forts had been set up years before as part of the Italian pacification of Libya as part of a border wall, though it was actually barbed wire, and had been used to seal off the border with Egypt while the Senussi rebels were suppressed.

On the 24th some Fairey Swordfish were delivered to Malta as part of the build up of it defences.

After such a hectic start, it couldn’t last so settled down for a while and much of the action was at sea and throughout the month there were naval exchanges between us and the Italians. Both sides used submarines against the other and the Free French battleship Lorraine shelled Bardia, a port just over the Libyan border with Egypt.

On the 21st 5 French cruisers arrived in Casablanca from France loaded with 1,200 tons of French owned gold and on the 27th the Royal Navy was ordered to seize all French warships in British and North African ports. There was great concern in London that the Germans could get their hands on the French ships and use them against us. One wonders how many of those 1,200 tons reached their final destination.

The initial raids by the British were of not great importance militarily but had a bad effect on Italian morale which was already low. The Italians had no armoured cars or tanks whereas the British were driving up and down just inside the frontier doing just as they pleased in their armoured cars. On the 21st with Governor-General Ital Balbo close to the action, the Italians managed to capture one of the armoured cars. This was a propaganda coup and they milked it for all it was worth. The day before Badoglio, the Chief of Staff, had given authorisation for the invasion of Egypt. Balbo’s response had been to ask for more trucks and tanks.

On the 28th the Governor General of Libya, Ital Balboa, was flying into Tobruk airport when his plane was shot down by his own side and he and 8 others were killed, two of whom were a nephew and a brother-in-law. There were immediate rumours that he had been assassinated by Mussolini. Not sure there is much in that that though he was a popular man and dictators don’t like any competition. Let’s just say it was coincidence.

Balbo was a legendary aviator of the inter war years. He had twice led groups of aircraft across the Atlantic, first to Rio de Janeiro and the second time to Chicago. On his final day he flew from Derna to Tobruk, only just over 150 km. Balbo took off at about 5pm in his SM79 tri-motor bomber. The Tobruk airfield received a message that Balbo would be visiting. The command post of the naval batteries did not. At 5:10pm 9 Bristol Blenheims attacking in 3 waves bombed Tobruk airfield. The second and third waves came under anti-aircraft fire but left unscathed. Balbo arrived about 5:30pm and could see the smoke from the British raid. Balbo was arriving from the same direction and about the same height as the British bombers.

One nervous machine gunner fired off 4 or 5 rounds before realising his error and stopped. This was the trigger for all the anti-aircraft network to start off. From the land, from a cruiser, from submarines and ships everyone was firing. When Balbo’s plane crashed some of the AA crews cheered.

The following day an RAF plane dropped a wooden box with tricolour ribbons. Inside the box was this message

The British Royal Air Force expresses its sympathy in the death of General Balbo – a great leader and gallant aviator, personally known to me, whom fate has placed on the other side.

[signed] Arthur Longmore, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, British Royal Air Force, Middle East.

The death was a result of a complete cock-up and Balbo was praised to the heavens even more than would be usual in the hope that pertinent questions would not be asked. Ital’s best point is that he was almost certainly a Germanophobe, he didn’t like the erics.

And so ended the first 20 days of war against the Italians in Libya. We had attacked them on land and they were still building up to launch their own counter attack. On the 23rd the Long Range Desert Patrol was formed, this would soon become the Long Range Desert Group which evolved into the SAS.

In other news …. on the 17th the frogs did their usual and stopped fighting the erics, on the 18th came the first major Luftwaffe air raid on Britain, on the 19th Horse Racing was stopped altogether, on the 22nd the frogs signed an armistice with the erics, on the 24th they signed an armistice with the wops and on the 26th Packard got a license to build Merlin engines in the US of A.

Finally it would be wrong to forget the Salvation Army. During WW I the American Sally Ally sent the “doughnut girls” to France. These were girls who fried doughnuts in soldiers helmets for the troops and have even been mentioned as a possible start of the American love affair with donuts. The British Sally Ally sent their people to the front in the desert so that the troops could get a decent cup of tea. More than one puffin has already mentioned this and my dad always had a good word for them.

You now have to wait until July for the next Instalment.

© well_chuffed 2020

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