| In the summer 1940 deep transformations came to East
Europe. Lithuania, Lettonia and Estonia increased the number of
of the Soviet Union; towards the end of June Moldavia, since the First
World War occupied by Romania, became a Soviet republic too. Under the
German pressure, the Bucharest régime inclined more and more to the
right; but the new rulers of the country did not manage to keep
Transylvania, which was handed over by the Germans to the Hungarians,
Dobruja, taken over by the Bulgarians. In face of the complete ruin of
the state, king Charles II of Romania, famous for his love affairs, in
November abdicated the throne in favour of his son Michael, taken under
Gen. Ion Antonescu's restraint. Since then started the open
hitlerization of Romania, which joined so-called Tripartite Pact,
binding Germany, Italy and Japan.
Extremely rich resources of the
Romanian oil, since some time feeding the German war for the conquest
the world, now were transferred under the direct hitlerites'
administration. Soon Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact too, and then
began the political pressure on Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile in the Middle East was fought a campaign, the
British started in the most unfavourable circumstances but were to
finish with a considerable triumph.
On the day Italy had declared the war, 10
British forces in Egypt consisted of the 7th Armoured Division, two
(instead of three) brigades from the 4th Indian Division, a New Zealand
brigade and some artillery: altogether 36,000 men. Furthermore 9,000
British soldiers were deployed in Sudan, 5,500 in Kenya, 2,500 in Aden,
1,500 in British Somaliland, 27,000 in Palestine and about 1,000 in
The Italians had 215,000 men in Libya and Cyrenaica and
further 200,000 in Abyssinia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. They
menaced communication routes both in the Mediterranean and in the Red
Sea. They also had almost quadruple superiority in aircraft. On top of
it all, after the fall of France Syria was transforming day after day
into a hostile area, from where one might expect a strike against
Palestine. For short, the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, Gen.
Archibald Wavell, could frankly say that he had found himself in a
virtually hopeless position.
However it was not in vain that Wavell, although a
professional militaryman, was a passionate poet and even an author of a
respected poetic anthology. The tactics he
assumed and successfully applied on the Egyptian frontier gave Italian
commanders a complete daze.
The reasons of foreign policy made it impossible to
until the official declaration of war, to prepare defence positions;
matter was not to deliver a pretext to Benito Mussolini. But Mussolini
did without a pretext. And then on the border between Egypt and
Cyrenaica Wavell struck against several times stronger enemy.
Of course it was out of question to keep stuck to any
regulations so hardly laboured during the peacetime or to apply
prescriptions from basic tactics textbooks. Unit commanders had
an instruction, which stated: Make one man appear to be a dozen,
make one tank look like a squadron, make a raid look like an advance.
[Fuller J. F. C. (1993).] It
was what the historian John Frederic Charles Fuller called later
strategy of exaggeration or lethal propaganda.
The propaganda in this case actually proved to be lethal, but for the
Italians. It was an obvious bluff, but the Italian command got duped.
The British attacked literally on the very day after
declaration of war, when Italian commanders on the Egyptian frontier
not any specific orders. They would have expected rather a herd of
devils than the British, hitherto sitting as far as by Mersa Matruh, it
means about two hundred kilometres away from the border. But as early
on 11 June, the day after the declaration of the war, small units
detached from the 7th Armoured Division struck against Italian
crushed them and captured many prisoners. On 16 June the panic spread
a deep Italian rear; on the strategic motorway between Bardia and
fortress Tobruk, located on Italian territories about a hundred
kilometres from the Egyptian border, like ghosts had emerged British
armoured cars and destroyed everything whatever they could catch up.
Italian groupings were scattered, whole regiments were fleeing.
Gossips multiplied British forces. Among all that mess on 28 June the
Italian commander-in-chief, Marshal Italo Balbo, was killed during the
raid of drolly-small number of obsolete aeroplanes on Tobruk. In fact
this war, alongside hitlerite Germany, was not popular among Italian
soldiers, who did not put either enthusiasm or military spirit in it.
Whereas Italian generals turned wholesale fossilized routinists
of drive and invention. On top of it all so-called soldier luck was
The Italians had gained some seeming successes only in
secondary sectors. They seized Kassala in Sudan, a town on the border
with Italian-occupied Abyssinia, they incurred into Kenya's forests,
to hazarding themselves too far from the frontier though, and finally
they seized the whole but not too wide territory of British Somaliland.
Those were though the successes without a bigger meaning since Egypt
still the key position in the Middle East.
Wavell of course had not an easy life. Practically his
tiny forces were exposed to attacks from four corners of the world. He
could not expect reinforcements from Britain; London daily expected a
German invasion. Actually Sir Winston Spencer Churchill did not
Egypt, in witness whereof he left there the only existing at the time
British armoured division. But he could not do more. He insisted on
introduction to the fights in the desert of a South African brigade,
without a bigger success; the distant Pretoria did not understand the
danger of a fall of Egypt. In that situation Wavell, after a successful
pursuit after the Italians, flew in the late summer to London. There he
got himself in troubles, but finally had extorted fifty modern tanks,
successful in the French campaign,
twice so anti-aircraft and some
anti-tank guns. He also obtained the 9th Australian Division, which was
to become one of the most splendid allied units.
In October he was already prepared to advance, when on
28th day of the same month Mussolini assaulted
Greece. Italian dictator
(Churchill used to call him a "sawdust Caesar" or a "frog from Pontine
Marshes") tried to compensate his inferiority complex and to balance at
least partially German successes in the Balkans, namely hitching the
Romanians and the Bulgarians to the German chariot. But his hopes for
yet another easy loot were severely disappointed. The Greeks
resisted Italian divisions tumbling through the mountains, quickly
them back beyond their frontiers, and started to liberate quickly
by step Albanian soil.
Meanwhile Wavell received from London orders to hand
over some land and air forces to support Greece's defence, and the
offensive he was preparing in the Western Desert was delayed till
December. On the Italian side Marshal Balbo was replaced by Marshal
Rodolfo Graziani, whose only, extremely doubtful, life success was a
several years' earlier command of the Somalian front during the
of Abyssinia. He had gained there an easy victory thanks to herds of
tanks and swarms of planes he used to send against the warriors armed
mostly with bows and spears, but now he had to do with an enemy of
another sort, armed with old, to be sure, but anyhow real guns and
The command over forces deployed in the Western Desert was given, by
Wavell's order, to General Richard O'Connor. He had about 30,000
men, 275 tanks and 120 pieces of artillery. He sent supplies for his
soldiers forward by a day of march, what was possible due to a wide
stripe of so-called no-man's land. Supply units experienced hours of
emotions, but the risk was worthwhile and the troops' movement
considerably sped up. O'Connor marched out on 6 December and two days
later he met the enemy.
When after the halt of the Italian army tiny British
units withdrew back to Mersa Matruh, the Italians deployed in the south
of Sidi Barrani seven entrenched camps. Between two of them British
scouts discovered a 30 kilometres' wide undefended gap. It let
troops to get to the rear of five camps, successively surprise them and
destroy. On 10 December the British had seized Sidi Barrani, and next
day they struck against Sollum. They had taken 38,000 prisoners, more
than numbered their own army, 400 pieces of artillery and 50 tanks.
After the fall of Sollum they pressed on deeply into Cyrenaica, against
Bardia and Tobruk. On 5 January Bardia had been taken by an assault.
looked more formidable, but there too all went unexpectedly well.
Tobruk is located about a hundred kilometres west of
Egyptian border; just like along the whole local seashore, the Western
Desert reaches there the very sea. Next to the small town located at
comfortable bay the Italians had built a modern fortress, airfields,
a seaport. The first line of defence, as long as 50 kilometres,
encompassed a wide area. It was stuffed with bunkers with machine-guns
and light anti-tank weapons; the gaps between defence nests, usually at
a distance no more than several hundred metres, were filled with
mine-fields and wire entanglements. Inside the line were deployed heavy
anti-tank guns and field artillery emplacements. The core of the
main defence line constituted four old Turkish forts, appropriately
modernized of course. This line encompassed the bay with the port, a
small airfield, anti-aircraft artillery emplacements, and huge storages
of ammunition and supplies of every sort, as well as cisterns of fresh
water. Between the first and second line found themselves several
the highest of them, Medawar, let to have a deep view of the desert.
Italians had been building the fortress for years, permanently
strengthening it and modernizing, spending sometimes huge money, and
that only to lose it within two days and then to fight for it for
Tobruk fell on 22 January after just two days' long
fights and O'Connor saw before him the next objective: Benghazi, the
capital of Cyrenaica. On the way he encircled and destroyed the last
bigger Italian group commanded by Gen. Annibale Bergonzoli. On 7
February, two months after the beginning of the whole operation, he
finished one of the most brilliant campaigns of the war, which emerged
from a simple diversion excursion meant for just five days. Within two
months the campaign led to annihilation of ten Italian divisions; the
British captured 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,200 pieces of
And when the rout of Italian troops in Cyrenaica was
coming to the end, another bold operation had started. Its aim was to
liberate Abyssinia. On 19 February the British commander-in-chief in
Sudan, Gen. William Platt, marched out with two divisions, swiftly
retook Kassala, and in the beginning of April he already had taken the
whole Eritrea with its main towns Asmara and Massawa. Meanwhile the
British commander in Kenya, Gen. Alan Cunningham, had been marching
since 24 January with three divisions from Nairobi. On 18 February he
crossed the Juba River, one of the most important natural obstacles he
had to overcome, and a week later he had taken Mogadiscio, the capital
Italian Somaliland. As he had obtained Wavell's consent, he marched
further to the north and on 25 March had seized Harar, one of the most
important Abyssinian cities. From there was already close to Addis
Ababa, the capital of the country. He had seized it on 4 April. Finally
in Amba Alagi he caught up Duke of Aosta, the Italian
in East Africa, and forced him into the final surrender.
About that dual campaign General Wavell wrote:
The conquest of Italian
East Africa had been accomplished in few months, from the end of
to the beginning of June. In this period a force of approximately
220,000 men had been practically destroyed with the whole of its
equipment, and an area of nearly a million square miles had been
occupied. Some of the chief features of its remarkable campaign were
storming by British and Indian troops of the formidable mountain
barriers at Karen and Amba Alagi, the boldness and skill with which the
operations from East Africa were pressed over a distance of about two
thousand miles from the base, and the very skilful guerilla fighting in
Western Abyssinia. [Fuller J. F.