The Desert War – December 1940

well_chuffed, Going Postal
May 1943, somewhere in the M.F.
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2020

At the start of the last month of 1940 the Italians had been pushed out of Greece and were now under the cosh in Albania, Il Duce’s ambitions were more than his forces could handle. If only he hadn’t declared war in June he might have survived the war if he could have avoided helping the Germans that is. This was also the month when the British started their fightback in Egypt.

Malta was still under attack, yet again, if the Axis had invaded they would probably have taken it. The RAF was putting up splendid resistance and convinced the Italians they were far stronger than they actually were. This is one of the recurring themes with the Italian military, wildly overestimating the strength of the opposing forces.

On the 3rd in Albania the Greeks moved another 15 miles forwards capturing Sarandë. Down in Crete Italian bombers launched torpedos at Suda Bay damaging the British cruiser HMS Glasgow. On the 4th the Greeks took Pogradec and Përmet where they also took 500 prisoners. On the 6th they took Santi Quaranta. On this day the Italian Chief of Staff, General Badoglio, was forced to resign due to the fiasco in Greece and Albania to be replaced by General Ugo Cavallero. Badoglio would later replace Mussolini in 1943 when the Duce was booted out. Nobody will be expecting Signor Cavallero to make much difference to the Italian performance.

On the 18th 6 Italian ships shelled Greeks forces in Albania while on the 19th British battleships bombarded Italian positions at Vlorë in Albania. On the 22nd the Greeks captured Himarë in Albania.

On the 23rd the Greeks pushed the Italian Army another 20 miles northwards.

The deception plan for North Africa was that the British were moving their troops to Greece and so would be unable to launch an attack in Egypt. Unusually this is exactly what was happening but we still managed to launch the attack and very successful it was.

Meanwhile over in Libya the British launched Operation Compass on the 8th, its objective was to kick the Italians back into Libya. The troops moved through the gap between the Italian camps in Nibelwa and Sofafi without the Italians noticing. On the 9th the first attack was by the RAF who destroyed 29 Italian aircraft on the ground and the Navy bombarded Maktila and Sidi Barrani . At dawn after an hour long artillery barrage, the Indian 11th Infantry Brigade attacked Nibelwa along with tanks from the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. This attack was spotted by Italian aircraft but by then it was too late and Nibelwa fell at 8:30 am, with 2,000 prisoners and much in the way of supplies. The Italians had been confused by artillery fire from one direction and ground attacks from several others while the RAF flew non stop overhead. The Indian 5th Infantry Brigade then advanced to the next target Tummar.

About 2pm the Indians, supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade attacked Tummar which fell by nightfall and the tanks then cut off the main road to prevent the Italians from withdrawing. On the 10th the Italians withdrew from Maktila, their most easterly conquest, and again the Indian 4th Infantry Division alongside the 7th Royal Tank Regiment overran Sidi Barrani pushing the Italian and Libyan Colonial troops into the desert.

On that first day General Wavell invited the press to his office where he asked them if they had any inkling what was happening. They had heard nothing so for once an attack had been kept secret. When told they could charge off into the desert they rushed out and jumped into their transport heading furiously for the front. It was a while before they could catch up with the troops who were advancing really quickly. They wore battledress with journalist shoulder flashes. One of the smaller Italian forts surrendered to three of them when they reached it. Imagine if that had happened to Piss Moron !

On the 11th the 7th armoured Brigade attacked Buq Buq to the east of Sidi Barrani which quickly fell. It was then a matter of rounding up the Italians who had fled into the desert. They found 38,000 prisoners, 237 guns and 73 tanks, that one forward gear had come in useful. Simultaneously the Royal Navy in the shape of battleships HMS Barham and Valiant began bombarding the Italians at Sollum, right on the Libyan border.

On the 12th the 7th Armoured Brigade moved into the desert to outflank Sollum, the last town in Egypt before the border with Libya, thereby cutting the road to Bardia while that port was yet again attacked by aircraft from HMS Illustrious. The first Italian PoWs started arriving at the British HQ in Mersa Matruh.

On the 13th the 4th Armoured Brigade moved between Halfaya and Sidi Omar in Egypt to try and cut off the road to Tobruk but the Italians did try and fight back at sea. Italian submarine Neghelli attacked cruiser HMS Coventry off Sidi Barrani blowing her bow off. Coventry made it back to Alexandria for repairs.

On the 15th the Italians were removed from Egypt and Bardia was shelled by HMS Terror’s two 15 inch guns, one shell contained over 400lbs of cordite, for five hours non-stop. On the 16th the 4th Armoured Brigade captured Sidi Omar taking 900 prisoners. On the 17th more ships joined in the shelling of Bardia sinking 3 Italian ships in the harbour. The British announced that they had taken a further 20,000 Italian prisoners including three Generals, two days later the British said they had lost 141 killed or missing and 387 wounded.

On the 20th 25 aircraft from HMS Illustrious attacked an Italian convoy off Tunisia sinking two of the three ships in the convoy. The next day convoy MG1 (these names get ever more confusing) with three merchant ships left Malta for Gibraltar. It was escorted by two battleships and 8 destroyers.

On the 22nd convoy MG1 was attacked by Italian submarine Serpente and it managed to damage HMS Hyperion. Hyperion’s crew was taken off and the ship was scuttled. On the 23rd  the Commander-in-Chief of Italian North Africa, General Graziani, replaced General Berti of the 10th Army with his Chief of Staff General Tellera after the disastrous showing of the Italian forces during Operation Compass. The Italians needed a bit more than a new man at the top. On the 28th Mussolini finally accepted the inevitable and asked for German help against the Greeks in Albania, how humiliating for Il Duce, a man totally divorced from reality or, in other words, a true politician. This is even more pertinent when you know that Benito started off as a journalist and there you have two of today’s worst influences on the world – politicians closely followed by journalists, in my book the very worst influence on the world is lefties and yes, Benito started off as a socialist, some might say he never changed. I was going to refrain from mentioning the fat Turk’s name but Alexander de Piffle is a politician, a sometime journalist and most definitely a bloody socialist; this may go some way to explaining why he is so useless without venturing into his lusts.

On the 29th and 30th British aircraft bombed Bardia and airfields at Tobruk, Derna (Balbo had taken off from here on his final flight) and Benina while further back in Egypt the Australian 6th Division practised attacks on defensive positions similar to those at Bardia. Also on the 30th anti-submarine trawler HMS Bandolero collided with Australian destroyer HMAS Waterhen off Sollum as a result of which Bandolero sank but luckily with no casualties.

Towards the end of December there are references to Italian sailing boats and schooners being captured, just as we thought all ships in WW2 would have engines. On the 26th HMAS Waterhen stopped the Italian schooner Tireremo Diritto between Bardia and Tobruk, removed the crew and sank her. On the 30th HMAS Voyager captured the Zingarella which was transporting British prisoners from Bardia to Tobruk. The Zingarella would be pressed into service in the Royal Navy where she was used as a stores carrier. On the 31st Italian schooners Tiberio and Maria Giovanni  were stopped between Bardia and Tobruk and made to sail to Sollum in Egypt. So not only did the Italians use sailing ships but we used at least one captured one as well.

And in other news …. on the 5th the second Tornado aircraft took to the air, it had engine problems with its Rolls Royce Vulture power plant so was cancelled but was further developed into the Typhoon using Napier Sabre engines, a similar fate befell a version of the Vickers Warwick and it ended up with Pratt & Whitney engines, on the 13th Adolf issued another Führer Directive to prepare for Operation Marita, the invasion of Greece. Führer Directives are vaguely reminiscent of another, more recent, European organisation that is very taken with issuing Directives, it must be a German thing.

December was not a good month to be an Italian. At year’s end they had had a small success in British Somaliland but the invasion of Egypt had stalled badly after a week or so and had now been pushed back into Libya and even worse had befallen them in Greece where they had not only failed in their invasion but had been pushed way back into Albania. Italy’s military prowess did not match Mussolini’s dreams. Although he was the first fascist dictator of the 20th Century, he was a bit of a poundshop Hitler if you want my two cents worth.

Down in Abyssinia the then Major Orde Wingate who many will know as the leader of the Chindits in Burma was leading a band of irregulars in Abyssinia with the intention of restoring Haile Selassie to the throne of Ethiopia. Orde had already made a bit of a name for himself in Palestine having set up the Special Night Squads who basically went round at night attacking any Arabs who were up to no good. Wingate was a zealot, everything was black and white, no grey areas at all. How he survived is a mystery because he upset so many of his superiors. He was a fanatical Zionist and very much pro Haile Selassie. More on Orde’s exploits next month. His job was to attack the Italians from unexpected areas while two other attacks started in more orthodox fashion. Remember there were 340,000 Italian troops in Italian East Africa though a quarter of a million of them were Africans serving the Italians.

Wingate’s objective was to take the Emperor to Addis Ababa to reclaim his throne. With a couple of thousand Sudan Defence Force and Ethiopian Patriots he would take on a good 30,000 Italian forces, many of whom were natives. That he succeeded is a tribute to his determination and despite rubbing most of his officers up the wrong way he was harder on himself than he was on them. His initial problem was transport. The terrain was too difficult for vehicles and the Italians had rounded up all the mules so he decided to import camels and use them. They bought over 20,000 camels who were not best pleased at being in Ethiopia and deprived of their favourite food. They died in their hundreds but the plan eventually worked.

“The Lion of Judah” was one of Haile Selassie’s claimed titles, he claimed descent from the one night of passion between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Wingate had been brought up by Plymouth Brethren parents; though probably not a member himself (occasionally somewhat puffinesque as regards alcohol intake for one example), he was very religious. His love of Zionism may have been via his religious beliefs and his championing of Selassie would have been influenced by the claim to be descended from Solomon. The irregular forces were named Gideon Force; the Zionism was strong in Orde.

On the 18th Colonel Dudley Clarke arrived in Cairo to co-ordinate all deception operations. He still had to wait a while before more camouflage artists, or camofleurs, arrived. Deception was often disguising things like tanks and artillery from aerial reconnaissance. Dudley expanded on this with his “notional” forces who were used to discourage the enemy from various actions and sometimes to encourage him to attack the wrong place. Operation Compass went so well the deceptions were more incidental than decisive. Were the Italians that bad ? They were mostly conscripts and unlike the Germans, were not very interested in the war. Their function had been little more than colonial police for many years. As will be seen later, although the Italians did not impress, there were some good units and Rommel was the main culprit when it came to attaching blame especially when he could deflect from his own occasional failures.

One of the surprises to the British troops when they overran Italian positions and captured their supplies was the high quality of the food. They fair gorged themselves on the available goodies and were amazed to find that each Italian soldier had his own little coffee pot. When they later on in 1943 bumped into the Americans they would be even more amazed. I remember my father telling me he was gobsmacked when he found out that American tanks had freezers for ice cream in them. This has been an elusive snippet to confirm but why would he make that up.

Readers may have noticed that an awful lot of town names in Albania contain the ë character, it’s technical name is e-diaeresis and it turns out this is the most common letter in the Albanian language. Having looked in Wikipedia at the “mid central vowel” article it has to be said that OT’s Monday Morning Maffs is easier.

© well_chuffed 2020

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