Italian Armoured Cars under fire.
In June 1940, Libyan governor General Air Marshal Balbo prepared for an attack in Egypt. After his plane was shot down on June 26, 1940, Graziani was appointed his successor. Badoglio ordered him to commence operations before July 15. Graziani did not like the idea; although he had a lot of men and guns, he lacked adequate trucks and vehicles. He did not move. Badoglio ordered him again to attack before September 10. On the twelfth, Graziani moved. He commanded three corps, a Libyan Division Group and a Motorized Group. In spite of the lack of vehicles, the minefields, and the extremely hot temperature—56 degrees Centigrade—he advanced twelve miles per day in the desert. On September 18 his vanguard reached sixty-two miles into Egyptian territory, when the need for water and gasoline dictated a halt to operations.
British general Richard O’Connor was waiting for him in Marsa Matruh, eighty miles east. He had prepared an armor counteroffensive. Graziani held his positions through December 9, when O’Connor attacked. The Italians were completely surprised. According to British historian Correlli Barnett, the Regio Esercito in general fought well, but its old light tanks could not stand up to British ones, and their hand grenades and antitank guns proved ineffective against British armored vehicles. Italian artillerymen fired all they had until they were either killed or wounded. O’Connor moved rapidly due to his superiority in vehicles and armor, and completely defeated Graziani. In a few days he advanced 620 miles, conquering half of Libya. It was the first British victory of the Second World War.
By February 1941, when Gariboldi took command, Graziani had lost 134,000 men killed, wounded, and prisoner, and 360 light and medium tanks captured or destroyed. On February 12 the German Afrika Korps arrived. General Erwin Rommel took operational command under Gariboldi’s supervision and launched an unexpected and incredibly successful offensive, but was stopped due to fuel and supply shortages. The continuation of the Libyan war depended entirely on supplying Axis forces from Italy through the Mediterranean. Poor preparation and planning and North African ports’ little capacity affected operations terribly. Italy did not seize the British base of Malta in the early days of the conflict, when the island contained few troops and merely three aircraft. The Regia Marina was in charge of maintaining communications between Libya and Italy. It had to escort convoys and contend with the Royal Navy.
The first days of the war had been not too good to the Regia Marina. Italian submarines in the Red Sea concerned the British. They feared an Italian naval blockade of the Suez Canal, in case Italians would sink a ship into the canal. The Regia Marina Red Sea Squadron was, however, light, composed of seven submarines and a few destroyers.
The strategic situation in the Mediterranean was quite different. The Regia Marina maintained the preponderance of its strength there and was very effective. But Naval headquarters in Rome was disinclined to commit its battle fleet to achieve naval superiority in the Mediterranean. Instead, it was largely employed to protect convoys and maritime supply routes. This was not a good idea. Frederick the Great once said the best strategy consisted of three principles: attack, attack, and always attack. This was precisely what was required. Admiral Luigi Rizzo, the famous Great War sinker, suggested many offensive operations, but they were not approved. Defense and, above all, ship preservation was the order of the day.
Submarines operated successfully on both sides, but the first naval engagement occurred on July 9 near Punta Stilo, off Calabrian shores, with no real result. Regia Aeronautica conducted thirty-one air attacks against British ships that day, also with no result. So, British admiral Andrew Cunningham concluded that the Italian navy was incapable of preventing the Royal Navy from entering the Mediterranean from Gibraltar. A second engagement ten days later confirmed Cunningham’s conclusion. Several months passed with no action until the night of November 11–12, when twelve Royal Navy torpedo bombers attacked the Italian naval base at Taranto and sank three battleships. Luckily the ships were not in deep water, and in a few weeks they were repaired. The Taranto raid was the first demonstration of the utility of using aircraft against ships; and the Japanese navy was said to have carefully studied it, learned the lesson, and used it when planning Pearl Harbor.
Mediterranean maritime warfare thereafter consisted of attempts to deny the enemy the ability to supply their armies in North Africa. The Royal Navy escorted convoys to Egypt and Malta. At the same time the Regia Marina had the same responsibilities to supply North Africa, passing just off Malta. Both routes crossed between Italy and Libya, and both navies tried to destroy the other and failed; and sea-lanes remained open on both sides.
If the Royal Navy had damaged the Regia Marina in battles such as Capo Matapan, off Greek shores, the Regia Marina responded with equal effectiveness raiding British ports. The X MAS Flotilla grouped all the Italian special forces. They raided Malta, Suda, Gibraltar and, above all, Alexandria, where in December 1941 six men sank two battleships and a tanker on the same night. If Italo-German operations in North Africa depended mostly on supply and supply depended on shuttling cargo, whose trips depended on the ability of the Regia Marina to keep routes open, then it succeeded in its objectives.
The Regia Aeronautica did not adequately support the Regia Marina. Their aircraft were ineffective against the Royal Air Force. Malta was normally bombed, but according to the old air doctrine “Direttive per l’impiego dell’Armata aerea” (Directive for the Employment of the Air Force), Italian aircraft did not conduct massive bombing raids. Results were clearly poor, and continued in this manner until the German X Fliegerkorps was deployed in Sicily. But by the time German aircraft arrived, it was too late to seize Malta. The feasibility of a landing was studied. Operation C 3—a landing in Malta—foresaw sea and air operations using paratroopers. By the time the new paratroopers of Division “Folgore” were ready, the desperate need for men in the Sahara led Italian headquarters to deploy them in that theater as an infantry division.
The war in North Africa continued in a peculiar way. The desert theater provided no opportunity to arrange a terrain-supported defense. In case of defeat, the loser could only retreat quickly along hundreds and hundreds of miles of coastal road, or through the desert. That’s why in 1941, Rommel’s offensive easily reached the Egyptian desert on April 15. Two months later the British Eighth Army attacked around Halfaya Pass. In a few hours Eighth Army lost 99 of its 104 tanks. Rommel did not exploit his success, because of a lack of supplies. In fact, because of Royal Navy activity, that month he received from Italy only 8,000 metric tons, as opposed to the 60,000 he needed. In November 1941 his Italian-German Army had only 438 tanks and 490 planes compared to 724 British tanks and 1,311 aircraft. On November 18, 1941, Gen. Alan Cunningham, a brother of the admiral, launched his “Crusader” offensive. He wanted to reinforce Tobruk, a strategic Libyan coastal town seized by the British in 1940; and Rommel had been unable to recapture it. Cunningham had 118,000 men. Rommel had 100,000. The British 22nd Tank Brigade achieved initial success against the Germans at Sidi Rezegh, but when it encountered the Italian Ariete Tank Division near Bir el Gobi, it lost 52 tanks in a few minutes and stopped. On November 22, Rommel’s tanks joined the Ariete and took Sidi Rezegh. The next morning Cunningham was informed he had lost 18,000 men. His tanks numbered only 257, and only 30 were still combat-ready. British general Sir Claude Auchinleck took personal command of forces. He reinforced British troops and immediately counterattacked. Rommel retreated to El Agheila, in Tripolitania, Western Libya. On January 6, 1942, he halted, resupplied, and sixteen days later, on January 22, the Italo-German units attacked.
Within a few days the British army was completely beaten. They lost 370 tanks and the whole of Cyrenaica–eastern Libya. The British now lacked supplies because of temporary Italian naval superiority due to the Alexandria raid. Moreover, Rommel received two complete convoys. On May 26, 1942, his 90,000 Italians and Germans, with 560 tanks and 704 planes, began their last offensive. British general Neil Ritchie now commanded the Eighth Army. On May 26 he had 100,000 men, 849 tanks, and 320 aircraft. He was utterly defeated. On June 19, Tobruk was surrounded. Two days later, after a hard shelling, South African general Klopper surrendered with 33,000 British, Indian, and South African troops to General Navarrini, commanding the Italian XXI Corps. Ritchie had lost some 45,000 men and 400 guns. He had only 100 tanks remaining.
On that same June 21, 1942, Rommel engaged and defeated Ritchie once more around Marsa Matruh. The British escaped to the east and halted in Egypt. They chose a vertical defensive line from Mediterranean to the El Qattara depression. Australian and Indian reinforcements arrived in time to reinforce the line. In fact, on July 1, the Axis vanguard reached “Heaven’s doors,” a place whose Arabic name was going to remain in history: El Alamein. By this time the Italo-German vanguard had only 4,400 men, with 41 tanks and 71 guns. They attacked and were repulsed. On July 7, Rommel had no more than 5,000 men in front of the British army. Ten days later, when the whole ACIT—Armata Corazzata Italo-Tedesca (Italian- German Armored Army)—was on line, his four tank divisions totaled exactly 58 tanks. Alexandria and the delta of the Nile were only sixty-eight miles away.