Italian invasion of Egypt

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Italian invasion of Egypt
Part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War
WesternDesertBattle Area1941 en.svg
Western Desert 1940
Date9–16 September 1940
26°N30°E / 26°N 30°E / 26; 30 Coordinates: 26°N30°E / 26°N 30°E / 26; 30
Result Italian victory
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom
Flag of Free France (1940-1944).svg  Free French

Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg  Italy

Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Archibald Wavell
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg William Gott
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg John Campbell
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Rodolfo Graziani
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Mario Berti
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Italo Gariboldi
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Pietro Maletti
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Annibale Bergonzoli
1 reinforced brigade
205 aircraft
naval support
4 divisions
300 aircraft
Casualties and losses
40 killed
10 tanks
11 armoured cars
4 lorries
120 killed
410 wounded

The Italian invasion of Egypt (Operazione E) was an offensive in the Second World War, against British, Commonwealth and Free French forces in Egypt. The invasion by the Italian 10th Army ended border skirmishing on the frontier and began the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) proper. The goal of the Italian forces in Libya was to seize the Suez Canal by advancing along the Egyptian coast. After numerous delays, the scope of the offensive was reduced to an advance as far as Sidi Barrani, with attacks on British forces in the area.

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea lies between Great Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom's 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi) were home to an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Commonwealth of Nations Intergovernmental organisation

The Commonwealth of Nations, normally known as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 53 member states, nearly all of them former territories of the British Empire. The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations between member states.

Egypt Country spanning North Africa and Southwest Asia

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country spanning the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia by a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is a Mediterranean country bordered by the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, and Libya to the west. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.


The 10th Army advanced about 65 mi (105 km) into Egypt but made contact only with British screening forces of the 7th Support Group (7th Armoured Division) not the main force around Mersa Matruh. On 16 September 1940, the 10th Army halted and took up defensive positions around the port of Sidi Barrani, intending to build fortified camps, while waiting for engineers to build the Via della Vittoria (Victory Road) along the coast, an extension of the Libyan Via Balbia. The Italians began to accumulate supplies for an advance on Mersa Matruh, about 80 mi (130 km) further east and the base of the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division.

The 7th Support Group was a brigade size formation within the British 7th Armoured Division, active during World War II.

7th Armoured Division (United Kingdom) British Army combat formation

The 7th Armoured Division was an armoured division of the British Army that saw distinguished active service during World War II, where its exploits in the Western Desert Campaign gained it the Desert Rats nickname.

Mersa Matruh City in Matrouh, Egypt

Mersa Matruh is a port in Egypt, capital of Matrouh Governorate. It is 240 km (150 mi) west of Alexandria and 222 km (138 mi) from Sallum on the main highway from the Nile Delta to the Libyan border. Another highway leads south from the town, toward the Western Desert and Siwa Oasis and Bahariya Oasis.

On 8 December, before the 10th Army was ready to resume its advance on Mersa Matruh, the British began Operation Compass, a five-day raid against the fortified Italian camps outside Sidi Barrani. The raid succeeded and the few units of the 10th Army in Egypt that were not destroyed were forced into a hurried retreat. The British pursued the remnants of the 10th Army along the coast to Sollum, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Mechili, Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The British lost 1,900 men killed and wounded during Compass and took 133,298 Italian and Libyan prisoners, 420 tanks, over 845 guns and many aircraft.

Operation Compass military operation

Operation Compass was the first large Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) during the Second World War. British and other Commonwealth and Allied forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, from December 1940 to February 1941. The Western Desert Force with about 36,000 men, advanced from Mersa Matruh in Egypt on a five-day raid against the Italian positions of the 10th Army, which had about 150,000 men in fortified posts around Sidi Barrani in Egypt and in Cyrenaica.

Sallum Place in Matruh, Egypt

Sallum, also As Sallum or Sollum is a village in Egypt, near the Mediterranean Sea, east of the border with Libya, and around 145 km (90 mi) from Tobruk.

Bardia Town in Cyrenaica, Libya

Bardia, or El Burdi is a Mediterranean seaport in the Butnan District of eastern Libya. It is also occasionally called Bórdi Slemán.



Italian L3/33 tankettes Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-783-0107-27, Nordafrika, italienischer Panzer L3-33.jpg
Italian L3/33 tankettes

Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, had been an Italian colony since the Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912). With Tunisia, a part of French North Africa to the west and Egypt to the east, the Italians had to defend both frontiers and established a North Africa Supreme Headquarters, under the command of the Governor-General of Italian Libya, Marshal of the Air Force, Italo Balbo. Supreme Headquarters had the 5th Army (General Italo Gariboldi) in the west and the 10th Army (General Mario Berti) in the east, which in mid-1940 had nine metropolitan divisions of about 13,000 men each, three Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (Blackshirt) divisions and two alian ItLibyan Colonial divisions with 8,000 men each. Reservists had been recalled in 1939, along with the usual call-up of conscripts. [1]

Cyrenaica Place

Cyrenaica is the eastern coastal region of Libya. Also known as Pentapolis in antiquity, it formed part of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica, later divided into Libya Pentapolis and Libya Sicca. During the Islamic period, the area came to be known as Barqa, after the city of Barca.

Libya Country in north Africa

Libya, officially the State of Libya, is a country in the Maghreb region in North Africa, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Egypt to the east, Sudan to the southeast, Chad to the south, Niger to the southwest, Algeria to the west, and Tunisia to the northwest. The sovereign state is made of three historical regions: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. With an area of almost 1.8 million square kilometres (700,000 sq mi), Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa, and is the 16th largest country in the world. Libya has the 10th-largest proven oil reserves of any country in the world. The largest city and capital, Tripoli, is located in western Libya and contains over one million of Libya's six million people. The second-largest city is Benghazi, which is located in eastern Libya.

Italo-Turkish War 1911–12 war between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy

The Italo-Turkish or Turco-Italian War was fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire from September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912. As a result of this conflict, Italy captured the Ottoman Tripolitania Vilayet (province), of which the main sub-provinces (sanjaks) were Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripoli itself. These territories together formed what became known as Italian Libya.

In 1936, General Alberto Pariani had been appointed Chief of Staff of the Italian army and begun a reorganisation of divisions to fight wars of rapid decision, according to thinking that speed, mobility and new technology could revolutionise military operations. In 1937, three-regiment (triangular) divisions began to change to two-regiment (binary divisions), as part of a ten-year plan to reorganise the standing army into 24 binary,24 triangular, twelve mountain, three motorised and three armoured divisions. [2] The effect of the change was to increase the administrative overhead of the army, with no corresponding increase in effectiveness; new technology such as tanks, motor vehicles and wireless communications were slow to arrive and were inferior to those of potential enemies. The dilution of the officer class to find extra unit staffs was made worse by the politicisation of the army and the addition of Blackshirt Militia. [3] The reforms also promoted the tactics of frontal assault to the exclusion of other theories of war, dropping the emphasis on fast mobile warfare backed by artillery. [4]

Alberto Pariani was an Italian general.

The military tactic of frontal assault is a direct, hostile movement of forces toward the front of an enemy force. By targeting the enemy's front, the attackers are subjecting themselves to the maximum defensive power of the enemy. It may be a commander's only resort when no other options are available. The risks of a frontal assault can be mitigated by the use of heavy supporting fire, diversionary attacks, or the use of cover.

Morale was considered to be high and the army had recent experience of military operations. The Italian navy had prospered under the Fascist regime, which had paid for fast, well-built and well-armed ships and a large submarine fleet but the navy lacked experience and training. The air force had been ready for war in 1936 but had stagnated and was not considered by the British to be capable of maintaining a high rate of operations. The 5th Army in Tripolitania, the western half of Libya opposite Tunisia, had eight divisions; the 10th Army with six infantry divisions garrisoned the province Cyrenaica in the east. When war was declared, the 10th Army deployed the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle on the frontier from Giarabub to Sidi Omar and XXI Corps from Sidi Omar to the coast, Bardia and Tobruk. The XXII Corps was moved south-west of Tobruk, to act as a counter-attack force. [1]

Tripolitania Place

Tripolitania is a historic region and former province of Libya.

Before war was declared, Balbo expressed his doubts to Mussolini

It is not the number of men which causes me anxiety but their weapons ... equipped with limited and very old pieces of artillery, almost lacking anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons ... it is useless to send more thousands of men if we cannot supply them with the indispensable requirements to move and fight.

Italo Balbo [5]

and demanded more equipment including 1,000 trucks,100 water tankers, more medium tanks and anti-tank guns, which the Italian economy could not produce or that the army transfer them from elsewhere. In Rome the chief-of-staff, Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio, fobbed him off with promises instead, "When you have the seventy medium tanks you will dominate the situation", as Balbo prepared to invade Egypt on 15 July. [6] After Balbo was killed in an accident, Benito Mussolini replaced him with Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, with orders to attack Egypt by 8 August. Graziani replied that the 10th Army was not properly equipped and that an attack could not possibly succeed; Mussolini ordered him to attack anyway. [7]


Cruiser Tank Mk I (A9) Mk1CruiserTank.jpg

The British had based military forces in Egypt since 1882 but these were greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and Commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route, which was vital to British communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. In mid-1939, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the new Middle East Command, over the Mediterranean and Middle East theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice, French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italians on the western Libyan border forcing the garrison to divide and face both ways. [8]

In Libya, the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito Italiano) had about 215,000 men and in Egypt the British had about 36,000 troops, with another 27,500 men training in Palestine. [8] British forces included the Mobile Division (Egypt) Major-General Percy Hobart, one of two British armoured training formations, which in mid-1939 was renamed the Armoured Division (Egypt) and on 16 February 1940, it became the 7th Armoured Division. The Egyptian–Libyan border was defended by the Egyptian Frontier Force and in June 1940, the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Division (Major-General Richard O'Connor) took over command in the Western Desert, with instructions to drive back the Italians from their frontier posts and dominate the hinterland if war began. The 7th Armoured Division, less the 7th Armoured Brigade, assembled at Mersa Matruh and sent the 7th Support Group forward towards the frontier as a covering force. [9]

The RAF also moved most of its bombers closer to the frontier and Malta was reinforced to threaten the Italian supply route to Libya. The HQ of the 6th Infantry Division, which lacked complete and fully trained units, was renamed the Western Desert Force on 17 June. In Tunisia, the French had eight divisions, capable only of limited operations and in Syria were three poorly armed and trained divisions, with about 40,000 troops and border guards, on occupation duties against the civilian population. Italian land and air forces in Libya greatly outnumbered the British in Egypt but suffered from poor morale and were handicapped by some inferior equipment. In Italian East Africa were another 130,000 Italian and African troops with 400 guns,200 light tanks and 20,000 lorries; Italy declared war from 11 June 1940. [10]


The winds of the Mediterranean

The war was fought primarily in the Western Desert, which was about 390 kilometres (240 mi) long, from Mersa Matruh in Egypt, west to Gazala on the Libyan coast, along Via Balbia , the only paved road. The Sand Sea, 150 mi (240 km) inland, marked the southern limit of the desert at its widest at Giarabub and Siwa; in British parlance, Western Desert came to include eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. From the coast, extending into the hinterland lies a raised, flat plain of stony desert about 500 feet (150 m) above sea level, that runs 120–190 mi (200–300 km) in depth until the Sand Sea. [11] The region is inhabited by a small number of Bedouin nomads, scorpions, vipers and flies. [12]

Bedouin tracks linked wells and the easier traversed ground; desert navigation was by sun, star, compass and "desert sense", good perception of the environment gained by experience. When Italian troops advanced into Egypt in September 1940, the Maletti Group, lacking experience of desert conditions, got lost leaving Sidi Omar, disappeared and had to be found by aircraft. In spring and summer, days are miserably hot and nights very cold. [12] The Sirocco (Gibleh or Ghibli), a hot desert wind, blows clouds of fine sand, which reduces visibility to a few yards and coats eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment; motor vehicles and aircraft need special oil and air filters and the barren ground means that water and food as well as military stores, have to be transported from outside. [13]


10th Army

The ten divisions of the 10th Army under Berti comprised the XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII corps and the new Gruppo Divisioni Libiche (Libyan Corps). The divisions of the 10th Army were either standard Italian binary infantry divisions, Blackshirt (Camicie Nere or CCNN) infantry divisions or Italian Libyan Colonial divisions. The Libyan Corps, XXIII Corps and XXI Corps were used in the invasion. [14] The Libyan Corps had two Libyan infantry divisions and the Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti), an ad hoc unit composed of six Libyan motorised battalions under General Pietro Maletti. The Maletti Group incorporated much of the Italian armour and almost all of the Fiat M11/39 medium tanks. Maletti advanced with the army and Graziani remained at his HQ in Tobruk. [5]

Berti preferred an advance along the coast road by the infantry divisions XXI Corps, because the metropolitan infantry divisions of the corps had scant desert experience. They would be flanked to the south by the much more experienced Libyan divisions and the Maletti Group. The ground forces were supported by the 5° Squadra of the Regia Aeronautica , with 300 aircraft of various types. [5] The command had four bomber wings, a fighter wing, three fighter groups, two reconnaissance groups, and two squadrons of colonial reconnaissance aircraft, with Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers, Breda Ba.65 ground attack aircraft, Fiat CR.42 fighters and IMAM Ro.37, Caproni Ca.309 and Caproni Ca.310bis reconnaissance aircraft. [15] The 5° Squadra was organised to follow and support the army in the field as a self-contained unit. Berti could expect little support from the Italian Regia Marina , because ten submarines had been lost since Italy declared war, the fleet was too important to risk and was short of fuel. [5]

Italian plans

Three times, deadlines were set for an Italian invasion and cancelled; the first plan was intended to coincide with an expected German invasion of England due on 15 July 1940. Balbo took all the trucks from the 5th Army and the Fiat M11/39 medium tanks being delivered from Italy, to reinforce the 10th Army for a crossing of the frontier wire and an occupation of Sollum as soon as war was declared. After a British counter-attack was repulsed and the Italian armies were replenished, the advance would continue. Although this plan was based on a realistic appreciation of what the Italian armies in Libya could achieve, it fell through when the invasion of England was cancelled. [16] [lower-alpha 1] The second plan, for 22 August, was for a limited advance to Sollum and Shawni el Aujerin to the east, with three columns moving on three lines of advance. Once Sollum was secure, an advance to Sidi Barrani would be contemplated, an example of the advance-in-mass used on the northern front of the Ethiopian War. The Italian non-motorized infantry divisions were to use the only road but the summer heat in August, which would have affected them most, led to another postponement. [17]

Italian pilots of the Regia Aeronautica studying a map in Egypt (September 1940). Egypt Sept 1940.jpg
Italian pilots of the Regia Aeronautica studying a map in Egypt (September 1940).

The third plan was for an invasion on 9 September, with Sidi Barrani as the objective, which Graziani disclosed to his staff six days before Mussolini ordered the invasion. The non-motorised, metropolitan divisions would advance along the coast and attack through Halfaya Pass, to occupy Sollum and continue to Sidi Barrani. A southern column of the Libyan divisions and the Maletti Group was to advance along the Dayr al Hamra, to Bir ar Rabiyah and the Bir Enba track, to outflank the British on the escarpment. The Maletti Group was to drive south and east through the desert but the Italian staff failed to provide proper maps and navigation equipment; when moving to its assembly and jumping-off points, the group got lost and XXIII Corps Headquarters had to send aircraft to help lead the group into position, the Libyan divisions arriving late at the rendezvous near Fort Capuzzo. [18]

The deployment failure added to doubts about the lack of lorries and transport aircraft and British domination of the terrain, which led to another change of plan. The fourth plan was set for 13 September, with Sidi Barrani and the area to the south as the objective. The 10th Army, with five divisions and the tanks, would advance in mass down the coast road, occupy Sollum and advance to Sidi Barrani, through Buq Buq. Having reached Sidi Barrani, the army was to consolidate and bring up supplies, destroy a British counter-attack and resume the advance to Matruh. The non-motorized infantry divisions were to use the coast road, because they would be ineffective anywhere else. A similar operation had been conducted on the northern front in Ethiopia but went against theory, for which there were ample forces to execute. Graziani believed the only way to defeat the British was by mass, having overestimated their strength. [19]

Western Desert Force

British Light Tanks MK VIB of 7th Armoured Division on patrol in the desert, 2 August 1940. The British Army in North Africa 1940 E443.2.jpg
British Light Tanks MK VIB of 7th Armoured Division on patrol in the desert, 2 August 1940.

Wavell had about 36,000 troops in Egypt, including support and administration units. All the formations were incomplete and short of equipment and artillery. The 2nd New Zealand Division (Major-General Bernard Freyberg) had one infantry brigade, an understrength cavalry regiment, a machine gun battalion and a field artillery regiment, the 4th Indian Infantry Division (Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse) had two infantry brigades and part of its artillery establishment, the 7th Armoured Division (Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh) had two armoured brigades composed of two regiments instead of the normal three and fourteen non-brigaded battalions of British infantry. Wavell was to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal against an estimated 250,000 Italian troops based in Libya and about 250,000 more in Italian East Africa. [20]

The 7th Support Group, with three motorised infantry battalions, artillery, engineers and machine-gunners, was to harass the Italians and to fight delaying actions between the border and Matruh if attacked but to retain the capacity to engage the main Italian force. [21] At Matruh an infantry force would await the Italian attack, while from the escarpment on the desert flank, the bulk of the 7th Armoured Division would be ready to counter-attack. The covering force was to exaggerate its size and the 7th Support Group was to use its mobility to cover the desert flank, while along the coast road, the 3rd Coldstream Guards, a company of the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) and a company of Free French Motor Marines, with supporting artillery and machine-gunners, would fall back in stages, demolishing the road as they retired. [22] [23] At the end of May 1940, the Royal Air Force in the Middle East had 205 aircraft, including 96 obsolete Bristol Bombay and Blenheim medium bombers, 75 obsolete Gloster Gladiator fighters and 34 other types. In July, four Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived but only one could be spared for the Western Desert Force. By the end of July, the Mediterranean Fleet had won control of the Eastern Mediterranean and were able to bombard Italian coastal positions and transport supplies along the coast to Matruh and beyond. [24]

Border skirmishes

Officers of the 11th Hussars use a parasol to give shade during a halt, while out patrolling on the Libyan frontier, 26 July 1940. The vehicle is a Morris CS9 armoured car. IWM-E-380-Morris-CS9-libyan-frontier-19400626.jpg
Officers of the 11th Hussars use a parasol to give shade during a halt, while out patrolling on the Libyan frontier, 26 July 1940. The vehicle is a Morris CS9 armoured car.

On 17 June, using the headquarters of the British 6th Infantry Division, the headquarters of the WDF (Lieutenant-General O'Connor) was formed to control all troops facing the Italians in Cyrenaica, a force of about 10,000 men, with aircraft, tanks and guns. O'Connor was to organise aggressive patrolling along the frontier and set out to dominate no-man's land by creating "jock columns", mobile combined-arms formations based on units of 7th Armoured Division. [25] These small, well-trained, regular forces made the first attacks on Italian convoys and fortified positions across the border. [26] British patrols closed up to the frontier wire on 11 June, with orders to dominate the area, harass the garrisons of the frontier forts and set ambushes along the Via Balbia and inland tracks. [27]

Some Italian troops were unaware that war had been declared and seventy were captured on the track to Sidi Omar. [27] Patrols ranged north to the coast road between Bardia and Tobruk, west to Bir el Gubi and south to Giarabub. Within a week, the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) had seized Fort Capuzzo and at an ambush east of Bardia, captured the 10th Army Engineer-in-Chief, Brigadier General Romolo La Strucci. Italian reinforcements arrived at the frontier, began to conduct reconnaissance patrols, improved the frontier defences and recaptured Fort Capuzzo. On 13 August, the British raids were stopped to conserve the serviceability of vehicles; the 7th Support Group took over to observe the wire for 97 kilometres (60 mi) from Sollum to Fort Maddalena, ready to fight delaying actions if the Italians invaded Egypt. [28]

Operazione E

9–10 September

XXIII Corps (General Annibale Bergonzoli) was to lead the 10th Army attack into Egypt to Sidi Barrani along the coast road with non-motorised and motorised formations. The corps had been given more lorries; the 62nd Infantry Division Marmarica and 63rd Infantry Division Cirene were part-motorised, the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo was motorised, as were the Maletti Group and the 1st Raggruppamento Carri. The part-motorised infantry divisions would move by shuttling forward and the non-motorized infantry would have to march the 60 mi (97 km) to Sidi Barrani. [29] . Bergonzoli wanted the 1st Raggruppamento Carri as an advanced guard, two motorised infantry divisions in line and one motorised division in reserve. The two Libyan non-motorised infantry divisions would have to move on foot, with the Maletti Group bringing up the rear. [29] The 1st Raggruppamento Carri was held back in reserve, except for the LXII Light Tank Battalion, which was attached to the 63rd Division Marmarica and the LXIII Light Tank Battalion assigned to the 62nd Division Cirene. The 2nd Raggruppamento Carri stayed at Bardia except for the IX Light Tank Battalion attached to the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori. The II Medium Tank Battalion was with the Maletti Group, which had three fully motorised Libyan infantry battalions. [30]

On 9 September, the activity of the Regia Aeronautica increased and bombers from 55 Squadron, 113 Squadron and 211 Squadron RAF retaliated with attacks on airfields, transport, supply dumps and a raid on Tobruk by 21 aircraft. Later in the day, 27 Italian fighters made a sweep over Buq Buq and the RAF flew more sorties against Italian airfields. British air reconnaissance revealed much ground movement at Bardia, Sidi Azeiz, Gabr Saleh and towards Sidi Omar from the west, which was interpreted as the beginning of the Italian invasion. The forward move of the 10th Army showed the limitations of Italian mobility and navigation, when the Maletti Group got lost moving up to Sidi Omar, on the frontier wire. On 10 September, the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars spotted the Maletti Group and heavy mist shielded the British as they shadowed the slow Italian assembly. As the mist cleared, the hussars were attacked by Italian aircraft, tanks and artillery. [5]

13–14 September

The Italian invasion of Egypt, 1940 AfricaMap1.jpg
The Italian invasion of Egypt, 1940

On 13 September, the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo re-took Fort Capuzzo and a bombardment fell on Musaid, just over the Egyptian side of the border, which was then occupied. Artillery-fire and bombing began on Sollum airfield and barracks (which were empty), which raised a dust cloud. When the dust cleared the Italian army could be seen drawn up, ready to advance against the British covering force of the 3rd Coldstream Guards, some field artillery, an extra infantry battalion and a machine-gun company. The Italians advanced along the coast with two divisions leading, behind a screen of motorcyclists, tanks, motorised infantry and artillery. [30] The Italian formation made an easy target for artillery and aircraft but the 1st Libyan Division Sibille soon occupied Sollum barracks and began to move down the escarpment to the port. On the inland plateau, an Italian advance towards Halfaya Pass was opposed by a covering force of a 3rd Coldstream company, a Northumberland Fusilier platoon and some artillery, which began to withdraw in the afternoon, as more Italian infantry and tanks arrived. [23]

During the evening, two columns of the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori, the 63rd Infantry Division Cirene and the Maletti group from Musaid and the 62nd Infantry Division Marmarica from Sidi Omar, converged on the pass. [23] Next day, the Italian units on the escarpment began to descend through the pass, towards the Italian force advancing along the road from Sollum. An 11th Hussar squadron, the 2nd Rifle Brigade and cruiser tanks of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1st RTR) harassed the Italian force on the escarpment. Just after noon, the British troops on the coast retreated to Buq Buq and met reinforcements from the 11th Hussars and a company of motorised French Marines, which was enough to maintain contact with the Italians. The British withdrew to Alam Hamid on 15 September and Alam el Dab on 16 September, trying to inflict maximum losses without being pinned down and destroying the coast road as they went, damage which was made worse by the amount of Italian traffic. [31]

16 September

The uncommitted part of the 1st Raggruppamento Carri, followed the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle and the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori towards Bir Thidan el Khadim. At Alam el Dab near Sidi Barrani, about fifty Italian tanks, motorised infantry and artillery tried an outflanking move, which forced the Coldstream Guards to retreat. [32] The armoured group was engaged by British field artillery and made no further move but by dark the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo had occupied Sidi Barrani. Above the escarpment, the British covering forces fell back parallel to those on the coast road and the threat from the desert flank did not materialise. British aircraft flew many reconnaissance and bombing sorties and 5° Squadra made sweeps with up to 100 fighters and bombers on forward British airfields and defensive positions. [33] The British anticipated that the Italian advance would stop at Sidi Barrani and Sofafi and began to observe the positions with the 11th Hussars, as the 7th Support Group withdrew to rest and the 7th Armoured Division prepared to confront an advance on Matruh. Italian radio broadcasts about the invasion suggested that the advance would continue from Sidi Barrani but it soon appeared that the Italians were digging-in on an arc to the south and south-west at Maktila, Tummar (east), Tummar (west), Nibeiwa and on top of the escarpment at Sofafi as divisions further back occupied Buq Buq, Sidi Omar and Halfaya Pass. [34] [33]



The new Fiat M13/40 tanks began to arrive in October 1940 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-783-0104-38, Nordafrika, italienische Panzer M13-40.jpg
The new Fiat M13/40 tanks began to arrive in October 1940

The 10th Army advanced about 12 mi (19 km) a day to enable the non-motorised units to keep up and at Sidi Barrani, built fortified camps. No bold mechanised strokes or flanking movements had been made by the armoured units, XXIII Corps had guarded the infantry instead and the 10th Army suffered fewer than 550 casualties. The Raggruppamento Maletti, 1st Raggruppamento Carri and the 1st Blackshirt Division 23rd Marzo had failed to operate according to Italian armoured warfare theory. Lack of preparation, training and organisation had led to blunders in assembling and directing the Raggruppamento Maletti and overcaution with the other tank battalions of 1st Raggruppamento Carri. The rushed motorisation of the 1st Blackshirt Division 23rd Marzo, which had not been trained as a motorised division, disorganised the relationship between drivers and infantry. [32]

The advance reached Sidi Barrani with modest losses but failed to do much damage to the British. [32] On 21 September, there were sixty-eight Fiat M.11/39 tanks left of the seventy-two sent to Libya. The 1st Medium Tank Battalion had nine serviceable and twenty-three unserviceable tanks and the 2nd Medium Tank Battalion had twenty-eight operational and eight non-operational tanks. Italian medium tank strength was expected to increase when deliveries of the new Fiat M13/40, which had a powerful Cannone da 47/32 M35 47 mm gun, began. The II Medium Tank Battalion with thirty-seven M13/40 tanks arrived in Libya in early October, followed by the V Medium Tank Battalion with forty-six M13/40 tanks on 12 December. In mid-November the Italians had 417 medium and light tanks in Libya and Egypt. [35]

Wavell wrote,

The greatest possible credit is due to Brigadier William Gott, MC, commanding the Support Group, and to Lieutenant-Colonel John Campbell, MC, commanding the Artillery, for the cool and efficient way in which this withdrawal was carried out, also to the troops for their endurance and tactical skill.

Wavell [36]

Repair works began on the coast road, renamed Via della Vittoria from Bardia and construction of a water pipe begun, which were not expected to be ready before mid-December, after which the advance would be resumed as far as Matruh. [33]

Mussolini wrote on 26 October,

Forty days after the capture of Sidi Barrani I ask myself the question, to whom has this long halt been any use—to us or to the enemy? I do not hesitate to answer, it has been of much use, indeed, more to the enemy…. It is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue to command.

Mussolini [37]

and two days later, on 28 October, the Italians invaded Greece, beginning the Greco-Italian War. Graziani was allowed to continue planning at a leisurely pace and an Italian advance to Matruh was scheduled for mid-December. [37]


In 1971, Kenneth Macksey wrote that the 10th Army suffered 530 casualties,120 killed and 410 wounded against a British loss of "but forty men...and little equipment". [38] In 1993, Harold Raugh wrote of about 2,000 Italian casualties against less than fifty British. [39] In 1995, the writers of Germany and the Second World War noted that equipment losses for both sides had not been accurately tabulated. [40] In 1997, Giorgio Bocca wrote that the Western Desert Force suffered casualties of forty men killed, ten tanks, eleven armoured cars and four lorries destroyed. [41] In his 1999 MA thesis, Howard Christie wrote that from 9 to 16 September, the 10th Army suffered 120 men killed and 410 wounded. Several tanks and lorries broke down and six aircraft were lost, two to accidents. [32]

Subsequent operations

On 17 September, the Mediterranean Fleet began to harass Italian communications and Benghazi harbour was mined. A destroyer and two merchant ships were sunk by torpedo and a destroyer hit a mine at Benghazi and sank. RAF Blenheims destroyed three aircraft on the ground at Benina. The road on the escarpment near Sollum was bombarded by a navy gunboat and targets near Sidi Barrani by two destroyers, from which fires and explosions were seen. Captured Italians spoke of damage, casualties and a loss of morale. An attempt to bombard Bardia by a cruiser and destroyers was thwarted by Italian torpedo bombers, which hit the stern of the cruiser and put it out of action. Bombardments continued during the lull, which led to camps and depots being moved inland. Small British columns on land were set up to work with armoured car patrols, moving close to the Italian camps, gleaning information and dominating the vicinity. [42]

Operation Compass

On 8 December the British launched Operation Compass, a five-day raid against the fortified Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside Sidi Barrani. General Berti was on sick leave and Gariboldi had temporarily taken his place. The raid succeeded and the few units of the 10th Army in Egypt that were not destroyed were forced to withdraw. By 11 December, the British began a counter-offensive and the rest of the 10th Army was swiftly defeated. The British prolonged the operation to pursue the remnants of the 10th Army to Sollum, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Mechili, Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The British lost 1,900 men killed and wounded, about ten per cent of their infantry, in capturing 133,298 Italian and Libyan prisoners, 420 tanks and over 845 guns and aircraft. The British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to broken-down and worn out vehicles and the diversion of the best-equipped units to the Greek Campaign. [43]

Order of battle

The Italian 5th and 10th armies 10 June 1940, 10th Army 13 September, the Western Desert Force 10 June and 9 December. [lower-alpha 2]

Supreme Commander Italian Forces in North Africa: Air Marshal Italo Balbo

10 June 1940
5th Army, Western Frontier (Tunisia, General Italo Gariboldi) [45]

10th Army, Eastern Frontier, (Libya, General Mario Berti [on leave in Italy] Gariboldi deputising)

5th Squadra, Regia Aeronautica

(On 10 June 1940, there were 363 Italian aircraft in North Africa of which, 306 were operational, 57 were trainers and 179 were unserviceable.)

At Sidi Barrani with operations on the Libyan–Egyptian Border

Other Commonwealth Forces in Egypt

13 September 1940

Comando Carri Armati della Libia

Western Desert Force Commander-in-Chief, Middle East: General Sir Archibald Wavell Commander Western Desert Force: Lieutenant-General R. N. O'Connor

11 December 1940)

See also


  1. The Italians considered forming a mechanised force to invade Egypt, followed by garrison troops to maintain the lines of communication. Two divisions and a brigade of Libyan troops could be fully motorised and join the tank and motorised artillery, which would have created an all-arms force but Graziani rejected the suggestion since the rest of the army would lose its supply transport. The Comando carri della Libia (Armoured Command Libya), three or four artillery regiments and a motorised infantry division could have been formed according to the new mechanised warfare theory but Graziani favoured strength in numbers. [17]
  2. Details taken from Christie (1999) unless specified. [44]
  3. The Western Desert Force consisted of about 31,000 soldiers,120 guns,275 tanks and sixty armoured cars. The Italian 10th Army in Egypt consisted of 80,000 troops,250 guns and 125 tanks. The 4th Indian Division was exchanged with the 6th Australian Division for the pursuit after the first part of Operation Compass. [47]


  1. 1 2 Playfair 1954, pp. 38–39, 92.
  2. Maiolo 2010, p. 197.
  3. Macksey 1971, p. 24.
  4. Jowett 2000, pp. 4–5.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Macksey 1971, p. 38.
  6. Macksey 1971, p. 28.
  7. Playfair 1954, p. 207.
  8. 1 2 Playfair 1954, pp. 19, 93.
  9. Playfair 1954, pp. 32, 93, 97–98, 375.
  10. Playfair 1954, pp. 32, 93, 97, 100, 375.
  11. Luck 1989, p. 92.
  12. 1 2 Playfair 1954, pp. 115–116.
  13. Lewin 1998, p. 149.
  14. Hunt 1990, p. 51.
  15. Mollo 1981, p. 92.
  16. Christie 1999, pp. 51–52.
  17. 1 2 Christie 1999, p. 52.
  18. Christie 1999, pp. 52–53.
  19. Christie 1999, pp. 53–54.
  20. Playfair 1954, pp. 92–93.
  21. Playfair 1954, p. 205.
  22. Macksey 1971, p. 40.
  23. 1 2 3 Playfair 1954, pp. 209–210.
  24. Macksey 1971, pp. 28–29.
  25. Mead 2007, p. 331.
  26. Macksey 1971, p. 26.
  27. 1 2 Pitt 1980, p. 32.
  28. Playfair 1954, pp. 119, 205.
  29. 1 2 Christie 1999, p. 54.
  30. 1 2 Christie 1999, pp. 54–55.
  31. Playfair 1954, pp. 210, 211.
  32. 1 2 3 4 Christie 1999, p. 55.
  33. 1 2 3 Playfair 1954, p. 211.
  34. Macksey 1971, pp. 47, 68.
  35. Christie 1999, p. 56.
  36. Wavell 1946, p. 3,001.
  37. 1 2 Macksey 1971, p. 47.
  38. Macksey 1971, p. 41.
  39. Raugh 1993, p. 85.
  40. Schreiber 2015, p. 276.
  41. Bocca 1997, p. 16.
  42. Playfair 1954, pp. 211–212.
  43. Playfair 1954, pp. 211, 257–294, 351–366.
  44. Christie 1999, pp. 65, 68–79, 82, 104.
  45. Greene 1990, p. 17.
  46. Playfair 1954, p. 265, 271.
  47. Christie 1999, p. 86.

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Further reading