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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