Thursday, April 21, 2011

Operation Compass: Think today's war in Libya is a mess? In 1940's Libya, the Italian North African Campaign was a total disaster.

    Paying attention to the Libyan mess over the last few months got me thinking of a far 'better war' that once played out on that highway the Italians built between Tripoli and Benghazi back when Libya was an Italian colony in the early 20th century. Of course back in 1912, after snatching the territory from the fading Ottomans, the Italians were a bit too late to the colonial table as far as the European habit of carving up pieces of Africa for fun and profit went. But turn of the century Italians had this hard on for their own ancient history and the memory of Rome, a time when Italy was 'somebody' on the world stage and not just a bunch of recently unified city states, freshly unfragmented and beat up on by foreigners for 1500 years.

    Let's face it, modern Italians don't do imperialism very well.

   That gene went recessive on the peninsula's chromosome somewhere in the 2000 years it took to get from Caesar to Mussolini. By the time Mussolini took charge in 1921 and adopted good old Fascismo, a philosophy he based on an ancient bundle of Roman sticks which symbolized authority, it was an idea in political science whose time seemed to have come tailor made for the 20th century. Hell, today's corporate oligarchical sci fi novel that we're all living in is just the latest version with 'bread and circuses' swapped out for 'McDonalds and advertising' to keep the plebs in check. For Italians in the 1920s under Mussolini, Libya became Italy's "Fourth Shore" and the 'New America' with 110,000 Italians emigrating there and making up 12% of the population by 1939.

   That highway between Tripoli and Benghazi that we've all been watching Gadaffi's tanks burning on and which connects strategic oil towns like Brega and Ras Lanuf was built as part of Mussolini's public works program in '20s and '30s Libya. Of course this didn't go down so well with the natives, especially the nomadic Bedouin tribes who preferred camel power. So the Italians did what all the Euro colonial powers have done when faced with native opposition in Africa; they wiped out half the Bedouin population either through direct action like hanging or starvation in camps. Of course, this was a time before the term 'concentration' became fashionable when describing 'camps'. The British under Kitchener had done the same to the Boers in South Africa at the turn of the century and nobody had seemed to give a shit. Except, ironically, the Germans.

   When the shooting started in 1939, Mussolini saw his chance to expand that 'Fourth Shore' of his into British held Egypt. Egypt has always been a sweet prize for foreign powers going back to Roman times. The Caesars used Egypt as a kind of ancient Wal Mart for growing grain on the cheap which they dished out to the plebs back home to keep the mob pacified. Napoleon wanted to use it as a base of operations to steam roll through the Levant until Nelson destroyed his fleet off the coast at Aboukir Bay. When the canal was completed in the 19th century Egypt suddenly became the 'Highway to India' and vital to British interests. Even to just last February, the West was paying 2 billion a year to their pet Egyptian dictator Mubarak just to keep Suez open and not mess with Israel. That's 2000 years of strategic Egyptian history not including the 3000 years before that of Pharaohs and pyramids. It's the sort of time span that makes you feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

   And let's face it, we are.

   Mussolini wanted to launch his offensive from Libya in August 1940 under the idea that the British would be tied down defending against Operation Sealion, the German invasion of England that never happened. Right from the start the Italians royally fucked things up. Remember that missing Italian imperialist gene I mentioned earlier? Add to that the gene for being good at warfare. I mean, apart from a Venetian coalition that defeated the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571, the Italians hadn't done anything to write home about warfare wise since Marcus Aurelius mopped up the German tribes in the second century AD.

   Mussolini sent his friend and heir apparent Italo Balbo to Libya to do the job. He was a hardcore Blackshirt and the former governor of Libya who, among other things, had built up the Italian air force from scratch in the 1920s and '30s and made transatlantic flights that gained him hero status among Italians but  didn't make the news in Anglo countries because everyone was crying over Lindbergh and his kidnapped baby. Balbo had even dined with Roosevelt and portrayed fascism as cool at a time when the New Deal was struggling to offset the Depression. Balbo was seen as the man who could pull off the attack, though he himself  had doubts about the whole enterprise. He noted that the Italian forces in Libya were heavy on infantry but lacked modern armor (the Italians fielded shitty L3/35 tanks which were basically two man machine gun carriers with paper thin armor), had obsolete artillery with shells that sometimes exploded and sometimes didn't, dodgy anti tank guns good against everything except armored plate and, worst of all, they suffered from a shortage of transport for all that infantry. Still, thanks to Balbo, the Italians had significant air power on hand (300 aircraft of various types including 4 bomber wings) and if anyone could pull off this attack, it was going to be Balbo.

The Italian L3/35 tankette. More suitable for duty as farm machinery?

   Everything about this plan was awesome up until the moment when Balbo tried to hook up with his own forces in Tobruk. This was the moment when some dumb fuck trigger happy Italian AA gunner shot down Balbo's plane while it was trying to land at the Italian airfield in Tobruk. Seriously. Balbo hadn't even arrived in theater and he was already KIA at the hands of the mighty Italian military. Scratch the whole plan right there and chalk up a kill for the Italians, right? A raving Mussolini quickly put a new guy in charge, Rodolfo Graziani, and ordered him to launch his attack against the British in Egypt immediately. Graziani had similar doubts about how an infantry heavy but largely unmechanized force such as the one the Italians were fielding could pull off this attack even if against the numerically inferior British, who fielded only 36,000 troops against a theoretical force of 250,000 Italians. The British game plan of course was to defend the canal at all costs. That sea route was as vital to the British then as it is to the US today though for different reasons. Instead of salt tax cash and tea profits, today it's oil flow and US Navy rapid access to the Persian Gulf.

   Though well supplied thanks to Royal Navy control of the Eastern Mediterranean, the British only fielded the 4th Indian Infantry Division and the understrength 7th Armored Division (the famed Desert Rats) to hold the canal and fortified the bulk of these forces at the town of Mersa Matruh; a town just west of the canal and through which any Italian canal grab must pass. The British planned to use light mobile screening forces to harass the Italian advance and seem numerically superior by dredging up sand, firing the odd bit of arty here and there and making lots of noise, hopefully causing the inexperienced Italians to panic a bit.

   The Italians began the attack in early September with an air campaign after Mussolini threatened Graziani with demotion if he didn't get the ball rolling. Anxious to show Hitler that the Italian military wasn't as shitty as everyone suspected and flush with amazement at the Wehrmacht's humiliation of the French, Mussolini needed a win. Both sides dropped some bombs with obsolete bombers protected by obsolete fighters; the Italians hoping to soften up the main choke points on the coastal route into Egypt while the British used a bunch of Blenheim bombers to mess with the Italian staging area at Tobruk.

   The Italian plan was to advance along the coast with their main infantry force and use their two Libyan divisions, good native desert fighters but mainly infantry and using camel power (kind of like the Islamic rebel Shabab in Libya right now only with camels instead of Toyota pickup trucks) as screeners. Further south, the bulk of the Italian tanks and mechanized infantry (meaning they had a bunch of dodgy Italian trucks) had been rolled into the "Maletti Group" which planned to swing around in a pincer attack from the south if the infantry in the north got bogged down by opposition. The British defensive plan was pretty similar with light screening brigades in the north messing with the Italian infantry advance and elements of the 7th armored in the south waiting to pincer around from the south if the opportunity presented itself.

   The Italian ground assault on Egypt began on the 9th of September 1940.

   Right from the start, the Italians made a complete and utter balls of it. I mean, quite apart from von Moltke's old military maxim of no plan surviving contact with the enemy, the Italians didn't even get that far. No, the night before the ground assault some dumb fuck Italian radio operator broadcast the whole plan for all the world to hear over the wireless uncoded. The British, who knew the attack was coming anyway got a heads up on where to place their harassing force and laughed their asses off. Next up, the "Maletti Group" which contained the bulk of the Italian "armor" got lost in the Libyan desert before it even reached the Egyptian border and fell behind the main force. Because of this and other fuck ups, it took another four days for the Italian invasion of Egypt to actually reach Egypt.  

   Once "in country", the Italians made slow progress. Slowed by embarrassingly small amounts of British forces, the Italians were liable to stop, unmount their artillery and shell a ridge where some guy with binoculars thought he saw some British guy acting suspiciously like an enemy soldier. Wasting ammo, moving painfully slow and always attempting overzealous 'pincer movements' with their tankettes, the Italians failed to successfully engage the British screening forces who invariably retreated laughing their asses off and dropping mines as they went.

   The Italians managed to capture a few inconsequential British airfields and advance 65 miles into Egypt before the invasion ground to a halt. Graziani cited supply problems and the fact that most of his divisions were on foot in full kit in the middle of a boiling desert. Mussolini went apeshit. There was nothing left now but to dig in and pretend that that 65 miles of barren desert was all the Italians really wanted in the first place while letting the answering machine deal with Hitler. The Italians created a bunch of fortified strong points beyond the town of Sidi Barrani and awaited reinforcements, resupply and an authority figure with a clue what to do next. None of which were forthcoming. The Italian positions proved weak. They were too dispersed to provide mutual support and do much of anything except act as big fat targets for the inevitable British counter attack.

   That attack, Operation Compass, came on the night of December 7th 1940, exactly a year before Pearl. It was led by Major General Richard O' Connor, maybe my favourite British general of the entire war. This guy was a total bad ass. Born in India, and son of a major in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he'd seen action in World War I at Arras and Bullecourt and fought with the Italians at the River Piave in November 1917. Serving with the Italians sure gave him a certain edge when it came to knowing how the Italians fought. Or didn't fight for that matter. He come out of that war medal heavy including a DSO but then peace came and like all badass soldiers in 1918, he had to make up the inter war years doing office work and teaching at military academies while waiting for the unfinished business of the Great War to boot back up again. Assigned to Egypt as commander of the 7th Division in 1939, he was given command of the Western Desert Force in November 1940 by General Wavell and tasked with pushing the Italians out of the 65 miles of Egypt which they held on a broad but scattered front.

General Richard Nugent O' Connor KT, GCB, DSO & Bar, MC, ADC. And badass.

   The British were interested in a limited counter attack, one that probed the Italians without risking too much. Holding the canal was sacrosanct. Wavell, commander of British forces in the Middle East, gave O'Connor about 30,000 men, 275 tanks (including the newer British Matilda IIs which were probably the best British made and designed tanks of the war) and around 100 artillery pieces including some of the new at the time '25 pounders' that were to serve the British well into the 1960s. There was also a contingent of Royal Navy gunboats off the coast which were to provide valuable indirect fire on the Italian strong points once the ball got rolling.

  O'Connor began the attack with a diversionary artillery barrage at '0 five hundred' on the Nibeiwa camp where the "mechanized" Maletti Group were holed up. They'd dug in at a fortified position using their armor as basically static pillboxes. (Never a good use of armor). O'Connor's forces exploited a hole in the Maletti defense ring and came barging through at dawn with 48 Matilda IIs and totally wasted the whole division, even killing Maletti himself in the fray. The Italians were screwed and began retreating en masse into Libya. The British pursued as the retreating Italians, bunched onto the coast road from Sidi Barrani made easy targets for the RN gunboats. The "Battle of the Camps" was a total victory for the British who killed or captured 38,000 Italians in five days for the loss of 133 men.

  O'Connor wanted to continue his attack into Libya at least as far as Benghazi. Wavell however withdrew the Indian 4th Infantry Division to take part in an offensive against the Italians in Ethiopia and replaced them with a green Australian Division who were missing their tanks. O'Connor, after a brief pause for Christmas pressed on anyway. The Italians were now holed up in the port of Bardia, licking their wounds and fighting amongst themselves. The port had good natural defenses including an 18 mile anti-tank ditch and concrete pill boxes. Mussolini sent a message to the 40,000 men holed up there and let them know of his confidence that they would "defend Bardia to the last man". Obviously, the troops had other ideas because on January 3rd 1941, O'Connor's sappers blew the pillboxes and filled in a section of the anti-tank ditch allowing 23 Matildas to break into the fortress, capture the whole deal and take 8000 prisoners. Tobruk and Derna fell next and pretty soon the whole Italian colony of Libya looked like it was going down to O'Connors thirty thousand men.

   By February 1941, the Allied forces had captured 130,000 Libyan and Italian prisoners for the loss of 500 men. Probably the most badass campaign of WWII that nobody ever talks about. That's probably because it was merely the prelude to the main act which was the arrival of Rommel and the Afrika Korps; in to bail out an Italian clusterfuck and not the first time in the war. Months later, Barbarossa had to be postponed six weeks so the Germans could rescue the Italians yet again; this time from the a bunch of barefoot Greeks in the mountains after Mussolini's abortive attack on Greece.

    Still, the Axis threat to Suez wouldn't be over until Tripoli fell. O'Connor wanted to continue the attack but Churchill ordered a halt. O'Connor was given a knighthood and posted back in Cairo. By mid February, Rommel and the Afrika Korps had arrived in theater and the real war was about to begin. O'Connor himself was captured by the Germans in April and spent the next two and a half years as a POW at a castle in Italy. He escaped in true badass fashion and went on to command the VIII Corps at Normandy and Market Garden.

   What careers there were for military men in centuries past! Now there are just a bunch of shitty asymmetrical proxy wars and nothing for a real general to sink his teeth into. I suppose that's the way it has to be in a post nuclear world. It's all subtle geopolitics with quiet moves on the grand chessboard with small oil grabs here and there these days. Today, global corporations link the big countries in ways that make wars between nation states unprofitable. Far better to feed the plebs bullshit adverts on TV to make them buy stuff they don't need with money they don't have. It's far easier to keep the cash rolling in that way.

   It is certainly a safer game.

   Weimar Republics and economic crashes have a time worn habit of  just delivering new Hitlers.

   My fear today is that I remain unconvinced humanity is beyond such games.