Capture of Kufra

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Battle of Kufra
Part of Operation Compass, during the Second World War
Carte Koufra.jpg
Map showing Kufra in south-east Libya
Date31 January – 1 March 1941
Coordinates: 24°11′N23°17′E / 24.183°N 23.283°E / 24.183; 23.283
Result Allied victory
Flag of Free France (1940-1944).svg Free France
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom
Flag of Italy (1861-1946).svg Italy
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Free France (1940-1944).svg Col. Philippe Leclerc Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Capt. Colonna
1 FFF Battalion (350 men)
1 LRDG (76 men)
60 trucks
2 Italian Askari Company (310 men)
1 Auto-Saharan Company (120 men)
20 trucks
4 aircraft
Casualties and losses
4 killed
21 wounded
3 killed
4 wounded
282 captured
3 aircraft destroyed

The Capture of Kufra/Prise de Koufra (Koufra, Cufra) was part of the Allied Western Desert Campaign during the Second World War. Kufra is a basin and oasis group in the Kufra District of south-eastern Cyrenaica in the Libyan Desert. In 1940, it was part of the colony of Libia Italiana, which was part of Africa Settentrionale Italiana (ASI), which was established in 1934. The battle (31 January – 1 March 1941), resulted in the capture of Kufra by Free French Forces and the British Long Range Desert Group from the Italian and Libyan garrison.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Depression (geology) landform sunken or depressed below the surrounding area

In geology, a depression is a landform sunken or depressed below the surrounding area. Depressions form by various mechanisms.

Oasis Isolated source of fresh water in a desert

In geography, an oasis is the combination of a human settlement and a cultivated area in a desert or semi-desert environment. Oases also provide habitat for animals and spontaneous plants.



Kufra, in the Libyan Desert subregion of the Sahara, was an important trade and travel centre for the nomadic desert peoples of the region, including Berbers and Senussi. The Senussi made the oasis their capital at one point in response to British, Italian, and French designs on the region. In 1931, the Kingdom of Italy captured Kufra and incorporated it into the Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana) colonization of the Maghreb. The Italian post at Kufra included the Buma airfield and radio station, used for air supply and communications with Italian East Africa and a fort at the nearby village of El Tag.

Libyan Desert North-eastern part of the Sahara comprising desert areas in Egypt, Libya and Sudan

The Libyan Desert forms the northern and eastern part of the Sahara Desert. It describes that part of the Sahara that lies within the present-day state of Libya; it also historically describes the desert to the south of Ancient Libya, a territory which lay to the east of the present-day state. The Libyan Desert is one of the driest, harshest and most remote parts of the Sahara, the world's largest hot desert. This extended desert country is barren, dry and rainless.

Sahara desert in Africa

The Sahara is a desert located on the African continent. It is the largest hot desert in the world, and the third largest desert overall after Antarctica and the Arctic. Its area of 9,200,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi) is comparable to the area of China or the United States. The name 'Sahara' is derived from a dialectal Arabic word for "desert", ṣaḥra.

Berbers Ethnic group indigenous to North Africa

Berbers, or Amazighs, are an ethnic group of several nations indigenous mostly to North Africa and some northern parts of Western Africa.


After the defeat of France in 1940, the colony of French Equatorial Africa (FEA) declared its allegiance to Free France, the exile government headed by Charles de Gaulle. Chad, the northern part of FEA, borders Libya. De Gaulle ordered the Free French in Chad to attack Italian positions in Libya. Kufra was the obvious target and the troops available to the Free French commander in Chad, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Colonna d'Ornano, were 5,000 tirailleurs (riflemen) of the Senegalese Light Infantry Regiment of Chad (Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad; RTST) in 20 companies in different garrisons and three detachments of méharistes (camel cavalry), in Borkou, Tibesti and Ennedi.

Battle of France Successful German invasion of France in 1940

The Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries during the Second World War. France had previously invaded Germany in 1939. In the six weeks from 10 May 1940, German forces defeated Allied forces by mobile operations and conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, bringing land operations on the Western Front to an end until the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 and invaded France over the Alps.

French Equatorial Africa federation of French colonial possessions in Central Africa

French Equatorial Africa, or the AEF, was the federation of French colonial possessions in Equatorial Africa, extending northwards from the Congo River into the Sahel, and comprising what are today the countries of Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, and Gabon.

Free France Government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War

Free France and its Free French Forces were the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War and its military forces, that continued to fight against the Axis powers as one of the Allies after the fall of France. Set up in London in June 1940, it organised and supported the Resistance in occupied France.

Attacking Kufra would be very difficult for this motley force. The Free French had very little motor transport and needed to cross 400 km (250 mi) of desert, much of which was sand dunes or the fine, powdery soil called fech fech . The area was considered by some[ who? ] to be impassable to vehicles. The French received assistance from the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a reconnaissance and raiding unit formed to operate reconnaissance patrols and intelligence missions behind the Italian lines; they were experts in desert navigation. Major Pat Clayton of LRDG was keen to join with the Free French to test the Italians. Clayton commanded G Guard (Brigade of Guard) and T Patrol (New Zealand patrols) of LRDG, a total of 76 men in 26 vehicles.

Fech fech is a very fine powder caused by the erosion of clay-limestone terrain and it is most commonly found in deserts. It consists of a surface horizon of pulverized soil with low particle cohesion protected under a thin crust. It is not determinable from the surface and can therefore pose a significant transportation hazard acting as a surprise "trap" as the ground collapses beneath a vehicle miring it in a quicksand-like substance.

Long Range Desert Group

The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was a reconnaissance and raiding unit of the British Army during the Second World War.

Major is a military rank of commissioned officer status, with corresponding ranks existing in many military forces throughout the world.

To prepare for the attack on Kufra, the LRDG and Free French first raided the Italian airfield at Murzuk, in the Territorio Sahara Libico Fezzan region in south-western Libya. D'Ornano and ten Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five local soldiers) met Clayton′s LRDG patrols on 6 January 1941 at Kayouge. [lower-alpha 1] The combined force reached Murzuk on 11 January and in a daring daylight raid, surprised the sentries and devastated the base. Most of the force attacked the main fort; a troop from T Patrol under Lieutenant Ballantyne attacked the airfield, destroying three Caproni aircraft and capturing some prisoners; D'Ornano was killed in this raid along with one trooper of T Patrol. [1] A French officer cauterized his leg wound with a cigarette, much to the admiration of the LRDG. A diversionary raid by French camel cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides. These troops were relegated to reconnaissance duties only.

Murzuk Town in Fezzan, Libya

Murzuk or Murzuq is an oasis town and the capital of the Murzuq District in the Fezzan region of southwest Libya. It lies on the northern edge of the Murzuq Desert, an extremely arid region of ergs or great sand dunes which is part of the greater Sahara Desert.

Fezzan Place

Fezzan is the southwestern region of modern Libya. It is largely desert, but broken by mountains, uplands, and dry river valleys (wadis) in the north, where oases enable ancient towns and villages to survive deep in the otherwise inhospitable Sahara Desert. The term originally applied to the land beyond the coastal strip of Africa proconsularis, including the Nafusa and extending west of modern Libya over Ouargla and Illizi. As these Berber areas came to be associated with the regions of Tripoli, Cirta or Algiers, the name was increasingly applied to the arid areas south of Tripolitania. Fezzan is Libya’s poorest region.

Caproni Defunct Italian aircraft manufacturer

Caproni was an Italian aircraft manufacturer founded in 1908 by Giovanni Battista "Gianni" Caproni. It was initially named, from 1911, Società de Agostini e Caproni, then Società Caproni e Comitti. Caproni made the first aircraft of Italian construction in 1911. The manufacturing facilities were based in Taliedo, a peripheral district of Milan, close to Linate Airport, and for the Caproni Vizzola division, in Vizzola Ticino, close to Milan–Malpensa Airport.


Colonel Philippe Leclerc assumed command in place of d'Ornano. After the success of the Murzuk raid, Leclerc marshalled his forces to take on Kufra. The attacking column included about 400 men in 60 trucks, two Laffly S15 TOE armoured cars, four Laffly S15 all-terrain carriers and two 75 mm (2.95 in) mountain guns. Kufra was protected by two defensive lines around the El Tag fort with barbed wire, trenches, machine-guns and light anti-aircraft guns. The Regio Esercito forces in the fort were the 59th and 60th Machine-gun companies, with a total of 280 "askari" colonial infantry and an Auto-Saharan Company, the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra. The Saharan companies were a mixed force of motorized infantry with well-armed off-road vehicles (SPA AS37), which could also call on the Regia Aeronautica for support. The "Compagnia Sahariana" in Kufra was around 120-men strong (45 Italians and 75 Libyans). [2]

Colonel is a senior military officer rank below the brigadier and general officer ranks. However, in some small military forces, such as those of Monaco or the Vatican, colonel is the highest rank. It is also used in some police forces and paramilitary organizations.

Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque Marshal of France

Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque was a French general during the Second World War. He became Marshal of France posthumously in 1952, and is known in France simply as le maréchal Leclerc or just Leclerc.

Laffly S15 French World War II familty of all-terrain military vehicles

The Laffly S15 was a family of all-terrain military vehicles from French manufacturer Laffly that shared the same six-wheel drive chassis. They were used by French forces during World War II.

Leclerc asked the LRDG to deal with the Saharan company, based in El Tag fort in Kufra oasis. The LRDG was detected by a radio intercept unit at Kufra and the Italians organized a mobile column of 40 men, one AS37 and four FIAT 634 lorries to intercept them. G Patrol had been kept in reserve. On 31 January, Major Clayton was at Bishara (130 km (81 mi) south-south-west of Kufra) with T Patrol (30 men in 11 trucks). The patrol was spotted by an Italian aeroplane in the morning. T Patrol took cover in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif, a few kilometres north. The plane directed the Saharan patrol to attack the LRDG force.

Due to superior Italian fire power—the Italian vehicles were armed with 20 mm (0.79 in) cannons—and constant air attack, T Patrol was driven off, losing four trucks and Major Clayton, who was captured with several others. [3] Trooper Ronald Moore led other survivors to safety after a long foot march. The remaining LRDG force withdrew to Egypt for refitting, except for one vehicle of T Patrol, equipped for desert navigation. During the fight, 1st Lieutenant Caputo in command of the Saharan company was killed, as were two Libyan soldiers. [4]

Leclerc pressed on with his attack, even though the Italians had captured a copy of his plans with Major Clayton. After conducting further reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganized his forces on 16 February. He abandoned his two armoured cars and took with him the remaining serviceable artillery piece, a crucial decision. Only about 350 men reached Kufra, due to breakdowns of trucks on the march. Aware of the advancing French, the Italians organized once more a strong mobile column from the Saharan company (70 men, 10 AS37 and 5 trucks). [5] On 17 February, Leclerc's forces met the "Sahariana" north of Kufra. Despite losing many trucks to the 20 mm guns of the Italian AS37 cars, the French drove the Saharianas off, as the Kufra garrison failed to intervene.

The French surrounded El Tag and laid siege to the fort, despite another attack by the Saharianas and harassment from the air. The 75 mm gun was placed 3,000 m (3,300 yd) from the fort, beyond range of the defenders and fired twenty shells per day at regular intervals from different places, to give the appearance of more guns. [6] Some 81 mm (3.2 in) mortars were placed 1,500 m (1,600 yd) from the fort and bombed the Italian positions in order to add pressure on the defenders. [7]

Italian surrender

The fort was commanded by an inexperienced reserve captain, who lacked the will and the determination to fight. [5] Surrender negotiations began on 28 February and on 1 March 1941, the Italian garrison of 11 officers, 18 NCOs and 273 Libyan soldiers (12, 47 and 273, according to French sources) surrendered El Tag and the Kufra oasis to the Free French. During the siege, the Italian garrison had suffered one Italian officer killed, two Libyan soldiers killed and four wounded; the French had 4 dead and 21 wounded. The Italian garrison was permitted to withdraw to the north-west and the French forces took over eight SPA AS.37 Autocarro Sahariano light trucks, six lorries, four 20 mm cannon and 53 machine-guns. [7]

Orders of battle

Oath of Kufra

Oath of Kufra, 2 March 1941 Serment de Koufra 2 mars 1941.JPG
Oath of Kufra, 2 March 1941

After the fall of Kufra, Leclerc and his troops swore an oath to fight until "our flag flies over the Cathedral of Strasbourg"

Swear not to lay down arms until our colors, our beautiful colors, float on the Strasbourg Cathedral.

Leclerc [8]

The oath was fulfilled on 23 November 1944, when Leclerc and the French 2nd Armoured Division liberated Strasbourg. [9]

See also


  1. There is no inhabited place named Kayouge in southern Libya or northern Chad. The meeting point must have been the Kayouge Enneri Wadi, that is quite close to the town of Zouar in north-western Chad at 20°4'60" N and 16°45'0" E in DMS (Degrees Minutes Seconds) or 20.0833 and 16.75 (in decimal degrees)


  1. Mortimer 2010, p. 44.
  2. Molinari 2007, pp. 27–29.
  3. Leclerc 1948, p. 100.
  4. Molinari 2007, p. 52.
  5. 1 2 Molinari 2007, p. 57.
  6. Leclerc 1948, p. 111.
  7. 1 2 Martel 1994, p. 108.
  8. Jennings 2015, p. 120.
  9. herodote 2011.

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Further reading