The Desert War – October 1940

Photo collage of images from the Greco-Italian war. All photos from public domain sources
SJCAmerican / CC BY-SA

80 years ago this month things were quiet in the actual desert. After the initial British skirmishing that was an attempt to convince the Italians we were much stronger than we really were and the Italian attack on Egypt  the Italians were figuring out how to extract themselves from the mess they had gotten themselves into, half in and half out of Egypt, while the British were preparing to strike back. Not to worry, there was plenty of related action and Il Duce decided to invade Greece from Albania which Italy had occupied since April 1939. The British decided to support the Greeks against the Italians mainly in Crete.

While the Italians were busy scratching their heads and probably other parts of their bodies, Mussolini came up with another wheeze. He decided to invade Greece, the reasoning was allegedly he thought he was being made to look a bit second-rate when compared with Johnny Come Lately Adolf (who had taken power 10 years after the Fascists did in Rome). Noting that Adolf never told him about his next move, Benito made this decision without consulting Adolf. Cue brown trousers in Berlin when they found out.

Let’s start with Mussolini’s ill-fated decision to invade Greece. As mentioned before he was starting to get an inferiority complex where Adolf was concerned so he needed something big to compete. It wasn’t going at all well in Egypt but perhaps he could make his mark in Greece. Seeing as Adolf didn’t confide in him, Benito made this decision without telling Berlin. With hindsight it is reckoned that this caused a delay to Operation Barbarossa of several weeks as the erics eventually picked up the pieces. Whether it caused a delay or not was somewhat irrelevant to the invasion of Russia. Napoleon had taken Moscow only to find it deserted and the Russians waiting until he got bored so they could re-occupy it. In 1941 the Germans got to the outskirts of Moscow but it would have been the same as 1812 had they taken it. The question is how much of Russia would an invader need to occupy before being certain of success. Not quite as far as Vladivostok but much further than Moscow is the best answer so far. The tiddlies are now kicking off about Vladivostok being theirs, their claim being that the Russians stole it back in 1850 or thereabouts.

On the 22nd Mussolini scheduled the invasion of Greece for the 28th. Now he needed a pretext. On the 27th the Italian Ambassador in Athens demanded that the Italians be allowed to occupy strategic positions in Greece. On the 28th the Greek leader Metaxas, named after the Brandy or was it the other way round, realised the Italians were going to invade and rejected the ultimatum saying “Then it is war”.  That very day 85,000 Italian troops crossed the border into Greece to compete against the 30,000 strong Greek Army. Also on the 28th Adolf flew to Florence (wearing his brown trousers) in an attempt to stop the invasion but it was too late. Instead he offered two divisions of airborne troops should Il Duce wish to invade Crete.

The following day, on the 29th the first British troops arrived at Suda Bay in Crete and a fleet of 4 battleships, 2 carriers and 19 destroyers left Alexandria. In northern Greece the Italian invasion advanced at a very slow pace. By the 31st the invasion had slowed to a stop in the Epirus mountains More British troops were landed on Lemnos and Crete in a bid to keep the Italians away from the Greek Islands. Greek destroyers also fired on the Italians in northern Greece. We will have to wait until next month to see how it pans out but it rather looks like more than enough Italian invasions seem to fizzle out.

There was a bit of activity with Malta and its convoys this month. On the 1st more British troops were added to the garrison there. On the 8th the British Mediterranean Fleet left Alexandria to support a supply convoy of four ships. The fleet consisted of 4 battleships, 2 carriers, 12 cruisers, 16 destroyers and 6 submarines. That makes 10 escorts per transport ship. It arrived in Malta on the 11th and the fleet immediately sailed back to Alexandria. After 100 miles they were spotted by an Italian civilian aircraft and Italian destroyers and torpedo boats were sent to intercept. This resulted in the Battle of Cape Passero, this being the southernmost top of Sicily.

At 02:00 on the 12th 3 Italian torpedo boats found the fleet and attacked the cruiser HMS Ajax, 2 of the three were sunk. At 02:15 Ajax’s radar found two Italian destroyers and opened fire on them. One was damaged and the other was disabled, unable to move. It however returned fire and hit the Ajax and disabled its radar. Ajax got away under her own power, the disabled torpedo boat, Artigliere (Gunner in Italian), was towed away by destroyer Camicia Nera (Black Shirt in Italian) . Later on the 12th HMS Eagle was damaged by near misses from bombs dropped by the ubiquitous SM-79 bombers.

At dawn on the 13th a British flying boat discovered the Black Shirt towing the Gooner. Aircraft from HMS Illustrious forced the Black Shirt to drop the tow line and the sitting duck Gooner was given the coup de grâce by no less than two cruisers and four destroyers. We did at least drop life rafts for the Italian survivors.

On the 14th HMS Illustrious went off and attacked the island of Leros and just before 7pm yet another SM-79 attacked the fleet 50 miles south of Crete badly damaging cruiser HMS Liverpool which had to be towed back to Alexandria.

On the 6th Italian submarine Tricheco sank another Italian submarine Gemma 5 miles south of Karpathos, one of many blue on blue incidents of the war.

On the 18th British flying boats found Italian submarine Durbo 120 miles east of Gibraltar off the island of Alboran. Two destroyers were guided in to attack the Durbo with depth charges forcing her to the surface where she was scuttled but not before British sailors managed to capture some of its paperwork. This gave the dispositions of other Italian submarines and the chase was on. 3 more destroyers found Italian submarine Lafole off Melilla in Morocco. HMS Hotspur rammed the sub, only 9 of the sub’s crew survived and Hotspur was herself the worse for wear after this.

On the 21st came more frogmen high jinks. The Scirè left La Spezia for Gibraltar with three manned torpedoes aboard. On the 29th she launched the three torpedoes into Gibraltar Harbour. The operation was a failure, one of the torpedoes broke down and the crews of the other two had breathing difficulties. They were close to success but it would come later.

On the 25th there was another bombardment from the sea of the Italian Army at Sidi Barrani.

On the 30th after extra planes had been delivered to Malta Wing Commander O’Sullivan was ordered to form a fighter squadron at the civilian airfield of Ta’Quali, thereafter known as RAF Takali.

In other news …. on the 4th Adolf met Benito at the Brenner Pass of bristling with bayonets fame, Il Duce was happy to learn that the Führer had given up on invading Britain, on the 9th, despite already being PM, Churchill became the leader of the Conservative Party taking over from Neville Chamberlain, on the 10th/11th/13th more RAF attacks on the Tirpitz with no hits again, on the 23rd Hitler met Franco in Hendaye on the Spanish border for 12 hours in a failed attempt to convince Spain to join the axis, Franco refused and Hitler afterwards said he would rather have teeth pulled than meet him again, on the 25th more attacks from Italian bombers on Harwich and Felixstowe  and on the 31st the Air Ministry declared the official end of the Battle of Britain although German bombing continued with perhaps the German people referring to Herr Goering as Herr Meyer again (he hadn’t offered to eat his hat if the British bombed Berlin).

Goering’s objective with the Luftwaffe had been to destroy the RAF, this would enable either peace negotiations to begin or an invasion if they didn’t or were unsuccessful. Hitler needed to launch the invasion by mid August and one of the pre requisites was the destruction of the RAF though the Royal Navy would still have had a say in things. Goering’s utter failure in this meant that not only was there no invasion, there were no talks either. The Germans completely underestimated aircraft production in the UK and were puzzled many times when there was no reduction in fighter numbers sent to intercept their bombing missions. The old Teutonic logic at work again had determined we only had a couple of fighters left, their logic is only infallible to a certain point.

It’s all go now, next month has more of the same, the quiet days are over.

© well_chuffed 2020

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