The Desert War – July 1940

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Italian L3/33 tankettes
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-783-0107-27 / Dorsen / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Now we reach the 80th anniversary of July 1940 in the Desert War. Slim pickings in Libya and Egypt this month, both sides were gearing up for battle but the Navies were kept on their toes. To make up for this things were kicking off in East Africa. These days you might be considered insane fighting over that shithole and its inhabitants but these were the days of Empire and it was all about land. On the 1st day of the month the erics occupied Jersey and the Channel Islands, Adolf was very proud of that and Pétain moved his government from Bordeaux to the town that gave its name to his government, Vichy. All on our own, things looked grimmer by the day. Churchill had only been Prime Minister since May 10th and he must have been wondering what he had got himself into. As we all know, he stayed and inspired the country to keep fighting and not give up.

After the death of Ital Balbo, Rodolfo Graziani aka the Butcher for the methods he used to suppress the natives, the Chief of Staff in Libya, was appointed the new Governor General of Libya where he remained until March 1941 until his resignation when the Germans arrived and reversed what had been a rout of the Italians. In 1943 he re-emerged as Minister of Defence in the Italian Social Republic, Mussolini’s puppet government that followed German orders.

In July there was sporadic skirmishing behind the Italian lines but neither side was in a position to launch an offensive. Graziani had been ordered by Mussolini to attack on the 8th of August but he managed to delay another month pleading lack of equipment. Admiral Darlan, commander of the French Navy had promised his ships would remain under French control but the risk was too great and Churchill gave the order to attack. The French may still nurse a grievance about the attack. In retaliation the French bombed Gibraltar on the 5th, ineffectively, and also on the 18th.

On the 3rd the Royal Navy attacked the French fleet at Mars el Kebir in Algeria killing 1,300 French servicemen, the British lost the two crew members of a Blackburn Skua, sank a battleship and damaged five others. This was to ensure they did not fall into German hands. Following this action, Darlan ordered the French fleet to attack the Royal Navy whenever possible. Pétain and his Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin over-ruled the order the next day.

On the 4th July 2,500 Italian troops with tanks attacked the forts at Kassala and Gallabat in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. There were 1,300 British and Colonial troops defending Kassala and they were easily defeated. This was a prelude to the invasion of British Somaliland.

On the same day Italian bombers again raided Malta, on the 5th Swordfish attacked Italian ships in Tobruk and on the 6th the Royal Navy shelled Bardia near the Egyptian border in Libya.

On the 9th July Sea Gladiators from HMS Eagle took off from land at Sidi Barrani and attacked Tobruk sinking two ships and damaging three others. The same day they flew reconnaissance during the battle of Calabria and on the 10th attacked Augusta in Sicily sinking another ship. On the 13th under heavy attack by Axis aircraft they shot down three Italian bombers and six days later they shot down yet another bomber.

Also on the 9th an Italian convoy bound for Benghazi crossed paths with a British convoy bound for Malta. The battle was inconclusive but HMS Warspite hit the battleship Giulio Cesare at a range of 15 miles making this one of the longest naval gun hits of the war.

On the 14th the Italians attacked Kenya from Italian Somaliland and captured some territory but details are sparse.

On the 16th Italian bombers attacked Haifa harbour in the British Mandate of Palestine and both British and Australian ships bombarded Bardia close to the Libya/Egypt border, that town gets some punishment during this campaign.

On the 25th women and children were evacuated from Gibraltar.

There were ongoing attempts by German agents in Spain and Portugal to convince the Duke of Windsor he should not go to the Bahamas, the Duke of course did what he usually did and dithered. The Germans were still expecting to invade the UK and install the Duke on the throne.

On the 29th yet again Sea Gladiators from HMS Eagle downed an Italian bomber and yet again it was an SM-79 tri-motor, the same type Balbo was flying when he was shot down by his own side in June.

The desert was proving a difficult terrain to fight in. Tank tracks had a shorter life, spare parts ran out and only about half the tank strength was operational at any time. The Italians had over 200,000 troops in Libya and 130,000 in Italian East Africa, the British had about 36,000 in Egypt. Both sides were waiting for fresh supplies of armour and trucks.

In other news … on the 1st milk was fixed at 4d a pint (1p now = 2.4 old pence (d) for the whippersnappers), on the 8th the tea ration was set at 2oz per person per week, on the 13th the new British Parachute Force started training at Ringway, on the 15th the rector of Old Bolingbroke in Lincolnshire was jailed for 4 weeks for ringing his church bells, the ringing of church bells had just been banned unless used as a warning, on the 16th Vichy France, slavishly kow-towing to the Hun, revoked the citizenship of naturalised Jews, on the 19th workers were no longer allowed to strike and the first cavity magnetron was delivered to radar research, on the 20th the sale of new cars was banned, on the 23rd the Local Defence Volunteers were renamed the Home Guard, on the 30th the erics created a special economic board to oversee the planned looting of British industry upon conquest and on the 31st in Berchtesgaden Germany’s military leaders were told of Hitler’s plan to attack the Soviet Union in May 1941 – Operation Barbarossa was not exactly a spur of the moment thing.

In those days there was no metric anything in the UK. We had pounds (lb) and ounces (oz), pints and gallons, pounds shillings and pence (£sd), inches, feet, yards and miles along with a host of other obscure measures. I loved £sd, it confused foreigners no end and felt like real money. Who else remembers two shillings being called a florin.

I am reluctant to mention it but August was also a bit thin on action however there was by then a bit going on in East Africa. You have to wait until September before it gets going for real in North Africa.

© well_chuffed 2020

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