The Desert War – September 1940

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Hurricane IID 6 Sqn RAF over Western Desert 1942
Royal Air Force official photographer / Public domain

80 years ago this month things started hotting up. The Italians invaded Egypt and there was a fair bit of action at sea.

On the 5th 6 Blenheims and 6 Hurricanes arrived in crates at Takoradi in the Gold Coast. These aircraft would be assembled and flown to RAF Abu Sueir in Egypt. The following day 30 Hurricanes were flown from HMS Argus to Takoradi for onward supply to Egypt. This avoided running the gauntlet of attacks the Gibraltar to Malta convoys suffered and the 70 day in total journey around Africa to reach Egypt via the Red Sea.

On the 9th the Italians started their invasion of Egypt, the target being the Suez Canal. Their Tenth Army began to move forwards with hundreds of light tanks with machine guns and 70 M11 medium tanks. King Faroukh of Egypt quickly allowed a virtual occupation by British troops and Alexandria became the home of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

The British fell back in an orderly fashion laying minefields as they retreated. This further disrupted the Italians who were already suffering from overheating vehicles. On the 10th they crossed the border into Egypt and on the 13th they retook Fort Capuzzo which had been abandoned. By the 16th the Italians had reached Sidi Barrani, about 65 miles east of the original Italian lines and this was about as far as they would get. El Alamein was between Sidi Barrani and Cairo.

As the Italians advanced to Maktila about 10 milles east of Sidi Barrani Marshal Graziani stopped the invasion due to supply problems. He had requested but not received trucks from Rome and decided to ask for 600 mules so he could move supplies. The butcher’s bill for this battle was surprisingly light. About 40 Italians killed and 120 British. After a week of fighting and advancing the Italians had come to a halt and progressed no further. It would be December before any further movement happened but plenty was happening elsewhere.

This was an astoundingly silly move by Mussolini. This was the only “Italians on their own attack” in North Africa since they occupied Libya as they renamed it and it just fizzled out in what was basically the middle of nowhere. The next stage would be the counter attack that almost drove the Italians out of Libya until Churchill succumbed to his “soft underbelly of Europe” fetish and stopped the advance and moved the best units to Greece to counter the Italians and Germans there. Both sides had strategy problems. Benito had an excuse, he was a journalist by profession and a socialist to boot. He should never have been in control of military matters, in the same way that that Piss Moron should never have been in charge of forcing the lockdown. Churchill had been in the Army and seen active service though he too had started earning a living by wielding a pen. Had Mussolini not declared war in June he might have survived into the sixties or seventies like Franco, a foolish, foolish man.

On the 17th Swordfish from HMS Illustrious attacked Benghazi sinking 3 ships and damaging a destroyer. Two British destroyers bombarded Italian positions at Sidi Barani and a gunboat attacked the coastal highway near Sollum on the Libyan border. On the 24th 4 more destroyers bombarded Sidi Barrani. On the 28th Italian ship Famiglia was sunk by a British Submarine 10 miles off Libya between Benghazi and Tobruk.

On the 24th submarines Scirè and Gondar left la Spezia carrying 4 manned torpedoes each. 3 for action and one as a backup. Scirè was heading to Gibraltar and Gondar was heading to Alexandria via Tobruk. They were to attack the British fleets at both ports the night of 28th / 29th. By the time they arrived on the 28th reconnaissance showed that both fleets had already left so they were recalled. The following day both fleets returned to port, likely to be the result of a Bletchley Park decode. Scirè returned unscathed but Gondar was intercepted outside Alexandria by multiple warships and a Sunderland flying boat. She was sunk and many of the crew were lost. The Captain’s big worry was that the British would discover the large metal tubes installed on the deck to carry the manned torpedoes but it looks like they got away with it.

In other news …. on the 2nd FDR approved the destroyers for bases deal with the UK, on the same day the Bletchley Park boffins broke the Brown cipher thus providing useful information about Luftwaffe targets, on the 4th Group Captain Grice at Biggin Hill blew up his own hangars to prevent further German attacks for which he was later censured, on the 6th there were successful tests of the Plastic Armour invented by lawyer Edward Terrell, it was made of mastic asphalt and hard granite on a steel plate and would soon be used on bridge and gun positions on ships as a defence against bullets, on the 9th Adolf decided to postpone the invasion of Britain, on the 19th it was announced that there were 51,261 registered conchies, on the 23rd Bantam delivered a prototype vehicle known as the Pilot or Blitz Buggy and this eventually became the Jeep (Bantam was the resurrection of the bankrupt American Austin), on the 25th the British Government met with another defeat when it finally decided to allow people to use the tube stations as air raid shelters and on the 25th Admiral Erich Raeder had a meeting with Adolf to discuss plans to seize Gibraltar, the Canary Islands and the Suez Canal.

The second attempt by Italy to use manned torpedoes against us was unsuccessful, the first had been the test by the submarine Iride in August, that had been discovered and sunk, their time would come. Hitler was looking at ways of keeping the British out of the Mediterranean hence all these madcap plans to attack all over the place. The German Navy must have decided the Italian Navy was no match for the Royal Navy. The September attack by the Italians on Egypt was the only time in the Desert War where they took on the British Empire forces on their own. The next time they would be “accompanied” by the Africa Korps with their much better equipment, morale, discipline and leadership.

© well_chuffed 2020