Mussolini thought he had a powerful army. The British delivered his first wake up call.

by Daniel Russ on December 8, 2012

 

 

 

Benito Mussolini

The Treaty of Lussaune was the opening play in the Italian annexation of Libya into their empire. It was signed in 1912 and despite the inchoate rage from the Arab population, the Italian liberation of Lybia from the Ottoman empire was complete. It was not until 1914 that the rest of the moribund teratoid empire collapsed completely. It should be stated that while the replevin of Lybia was probably illegal from the viewpoint of International law, the entire event was a testimony to the impotence of the League of Nations. The Italians also did make significant improvements to the lifestyles of North African Arabs. For one thing, the Italians built irrigation fields and reclaimed farming and livestock land that had succumbed to the ineluctable desert centuries earlier. The Italians also built roads and phones and oil lines in Lybia as well. By the mid 1930s, parts of Lybia were more European than Arab, or at least they looked as if. Mussolini had transferred as many as 100,000 Italians to Lybia to live there and act as cultural influencers. By 1935, one could find a spectacular plate of pasta almost anywhere in Tripoli.

 

A certain arrogance builds around an army that wins all the time. The Italians had built a modern army in the early 20th century. They had a huge Mediterranean fleet, modern tanks, infantry, all well equipped, and the Italians had a big air force replete with ground attack planes, fighters and heavy bombers even troop movers. So the Italian army that was stationed in Lybia before World War II easily outmatched whatever martial technology the indigenous Lybian resistance could muster. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s also sent the Italian commanders flush with wins against an army that could be described as barely wielding World War I technology and no real organization of training. To the Italian Fascists, this was a wonderful image, a modern militarized Rome, redolent of the empire of old, now resurgent. The new Roman Empire was leading the Arabs of North Africa out of the medieval era and into modernity. In fact the Romans employed quite a few Lybian auxiliaries in the fight against the Allies. Up to 10,000 Lybians fought side by side with the Italians in World War II.

 

When it came time to take up arms against the Nazis in North Africa, the first point of attack was Lybia. Hitler envisioned a fascist ally in Italy that would secure the Mediterranean Sea from the Allies. But the fact is, the Italian army of Mussolini’s time never defeated a modern army. They prevailed against ignorant, unorganized, swarms of badly armed Arab clansmen.

 

Mussolini had previously invaded Albania, the Balkan country east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. When Italy declared that Greece was a client state, the Greek Army, a slightly better that World War I Army counter attacked, they drove the Italians back to Rome. Totally outnumbered, the Greeks won on the battlefield against the Italians.

 

Field Marshall Archibald Percival Wavell led the combined British and Australian and New Zealand forces in North Africa. Beginning in June 1940, Wavell staged a series of offensives against Italian positions that had been entrenched for decades, It didn’t take but a few months before Wavell had driven most of the Italians out of their forward redoubts. By February 1941, some 130,00 Italians had surrendered to the British. Wavell was poised to overrun all the Axis troops in North Africa. This, despite the fact that the British were quite outnumbered by Italians and Lybian auxiliaries.

 

Unfortunately two game changers arrived. One was an unfortunate decision to take Wavell’s troops and equipment offline for repairs, and to redeploy British troops to to Sicily. The other was the appearance of Erwin Rommel, who led a series of counteroffensives that sent the British reeling back to Tobruk.

 

Hitler saw Mussolini as a chance to create internal lines of communications in the Mediterranean theater. That was one of the goals of holding North Africa. Another goal of holding North Africa was to drive the British out of Egypt and use the oil resources there to fuel the Third Reich. Eventually Hitler stopped pouring resources into the North African theater and he allowed the Afrika Korps to wilt. At the end of the day this was not giving up on Rommel. Far from it, Rommel was Hitler’s ideal Nazi general, handsome, successful, and devoted (or so Hitler thought).

 

Hitler did give up on Mussolini.

 

In fact, the Italians had that formidable lethal navy and just did not know how to use it. The British sank three massive Italian battleships parked in Tunisian ports with 21 1930s era Fairy Swordfish biplane torpedo aircraft. Then the British heavy cruisers cornered the Italian fleet in port in Greece and essentially ended the Italian hopes of controlling sea lanes. Instead of trying to take oil from Egypt, Hitler gambled and thought to take oil from the Caucasus Mountains. That way he would do it himself, and would not have to rely on the less motivated troops of shaky allied troops. On June 22nd 1941, he invaded Russia.

 

The rest you know.

 

 

Field Marshall Archibald Percival Wavell

 

 

Sources: BBC, Wiki, Discovery Channel, History of World War II, by Winston Churchill

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis September 21, 2017 at 9:15 am

Please watch your geography. The Greeks did drive the Italians back, but not to Rome, because for that you have to cross a sea, namely the Adriatic. And the Greeks did not have the Navy for that. They also were not outnumbered by the Italians on the battlefield (or not by much anyway), as the Italians, who did have a larger army, could only field a small portion of that in Albania and Greece.
Also, when the Greeks were giving the Italians a bloody nose, the big bad uncle of Mussolini interveined, namely Hitler, who ordered that Yugoslavia, and Greece should be conquered by the Germans, to get the Italians out of the bind that they put themselves in. Which prompted Churchil to order Wavell to commit all of his best and most expierenced troops from Lybia to Greece, and later to Crete (not Sicily, that would take another two years), which gave Rommel the opportunity to shine.
I doubt Hitler wanted the oil inEgypt, as there was not much of that then (or even now). He probably wanted the control of the Suez Canal, and the oil in Persia, and a linkup with his armies in Georgia (not the one in the US ;))
One of the reasons the Italians did not use their battlefleet more, was that they did not have a lot of fuel oil, for the big guns, so operations were curtailed to just (almost) save bets anyway. And the Italian battleships were sunk, or beached, in Tarento, which is in the heel of the Italian boot, and not in Tunisia, which was Vichy French at that time.
Both the Destroyers, and light cruisers, of the Italian Navy were quite active during the war. They were called upon to escort the convoys from Italy to Lybia, and there were some hotly contested fleet actiosn there, with the Italians often giving as good as they got. However, most times the British managed to sunk one or two merchantmen anyway, so eventually the tonnage that reached Lybia grew less and less.
Hitler never saw North Africa as a major theater. Otherwise he would have put more than three to five divisions there. And he was already commited to Barbarossa, as that was a far more massive undertaking.

Daniel Russ September 21, 2017 at 9:23 am

Mr. Kollman, while I really do appreciate your unrestrained vigor in fact checking, here you are contradicting some academic sources. Hitler did want the oil in Egypt and he felt it would be easy to take and fuel his ambitions. He decided to kill two birds with one stone and abandoned the North African theater to invade Russia and take the oil from the Caucasus.

Many of the Greeks that were fighting the Italians were already in the theater of battle and did not have to cross the Adriatic.

Anyway, thanks for Reading.

Louis September 21, 2017 at 10:01 am

This might be a matter of opinion about the oil. However, as the whole Afrika Korps was never more than 75000 men, and Barbarossa was more than 3.5 million Germans and 1 million axis allies, I do not subscribe to your opinion that he just abandoned Rommel, to go to Russia. Most sources agree that Hilter was already planning Barbarossa in the autumn of 1940, long before the whole Italian-Greek, and Italian-British thing.
Also I think I say the same as you about the Greeks being already in theater. What I meant to say, and what I now feel has not come across, is that I believe you stated that the Greeks chased the Italians all the way back to Rome, and I pointed out that that would be impossible, as both the fleeing Italians, and the pursueing Greeks, would have to cross the Adriatic.
Also its Kolkman, and not Kollman. But thanks for writing this blog, as I do think it provides a lot of unknown, and un- or under-appreciated historical knowledge, and presents it both succinctly and entertaining. Do keep up the good work sir.

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