Marshal Rodolfo Graziani
North Africa Before Rommel
By David H. Lippman
This pleading message from Italy's Benito Mussolini was addressed to his supreme commander in Libya, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, a firm-jawed officer with a reputation for reckless offensive spirit -- earned against rebellious Arab tribesmen.
Against the British Western Desert Force, Graziani was far less resolute this 17 July, 1940. He led the numbers game on the Libyan-Egyptian border. His army of 250,000 faced a British force of barely 30,000. Italy fielded 400 guns to the British 150, and 190 fighters to the British 48. 300 Italian tanks faced only 150 British. On paper, Britain had no chance.
But behind the numbers and glittering Fascist regalia lurked serious weaknesses that Graziani himself knew. The Italian 10th and 5th Armies in Libya marched on foot, while the British rode in trucks. Two of his six divisions were Blackshirt militia outfits, clad in fancy black uniforms but poor soldiers. His army as a whole was badly trained. Officers strutted about like gigolos, neglecting their men. Italian troops had done badly in Spain against Republicans and badly in Ethiopia against tribesmen. Also, Italian divisions had been reduced from three regiments to two, a paperwork shuffle that created more Italian divisions but weakened their strength.
Just as importantly, the Italian forces had poor equipment. Armoured cars dated back to 1909. The L3 tank only mounted two machine guns. The underpowered and thinly-armoured M11 was little better -- its 37mm gun could not traverse. The heavyweight M13 packed a 47mm gun, but crawled along at nine miles per hour. None could match the British Matilda with its 50mm armour and 40mm gun.
Italian troops were short of antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, ammunition, and radio sets. Artillery was light and ancient.
To ease his balance of payment problems, Mussolini had sold off his newest aircraft and weapons to foreign buyers like Spain and Turkey while equipping his forces with field guns from 1918. The army had borrowed trucks from private firms just to hold peacetime parades of its motorized divisions.
The Beretta pistol and machine gun were outstanding weapons, but the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, 1881 model, suffered from low bullet velocity. Breda machine guns were clumsy to operate and jammed easily. The Model 35 "Red Devil" hand grenades had a cute trick of exploding in the hands of their users.
By comparison, the British troops used the reliable .303 caliber Lee Enfield rifle, the superb Bren and Vickers machine guns, the 25lbr. field artillery piece, and the safe and deadly Mills grenade.
Italian ration packs included pasta meals that had to be cooked in boiling water, which was a scarce commodity in the North African desert, requiring even more water trucks and panniers that Mussolini simply did not have.
In the air, Graziani could sortie 84 modern bombers and 114 fighters, backed up by 113 obsolescent aircraft. The SavoiaMarchetti SM-79s looked useful. But while the Fiat CR.42 fighter was one of the most manoeuvrable biplane fighters around, it was completely outclassed by the British Hurricane.
Flying in the desert was tough enough, but while the RAF had great experience at "tropicalising" its aircraft to keep out sand particles, the Italians did not. Both sides' pilots lived in primitive bases that were dust and sand in summer and bog marsh in winter, made up of little shanties created from empty petrol cans and packing cases, suffering from water shortages and fly-infested bully beef. Aircraft often broke down after 30 hours' use. Aviation fuel vaporized in tanks, making it liable to burst in the joints and explode.
Nor would the Italian Navy help. They had no aircraft carriers, were short on fuel and manpower -- submarines were commanded by junior ensigns -- and the British had broken their codes.
But most importantly, Italy was hopelessly outclassed by her British opponents. The British army in Egypt had trained for years in the appalling desert climate. It consisted of crack regiments like the Coldstream Guards and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The British 7th Armoured Division was its model mobile force, and it was backed up by the 4th Indian Division and the 6'h Australian Division, the elite of both nation's armies.
Finally, both sides were preparing to fight a war in the most inhospitable climate imaginable, Egypt's "Western Desert." This sprawling expanse, occasionally pocked by mud huts or the odd well, was appallingly hot by day, freezing by night. The only paved road ran along the coast' and wasn't finished. Dusty trails crisscrossed the rest. Vehicles that traversed them left their tracks in these trails which are still visible to today's oil explorers.
None of this mattered to the bombastic Mussolini, who so far had thoroughly embarrassed himself in an effort to gain glory for Italy. After declaring war on France, his troops had been soundly defeated in the Alps. Another army lay isolated in Ethiopia. ll Duce needed a victory. Graziani was to provide one.
Graziani's answer was to order General Berti's 10th Army, consisting of three corps, to be ready to attack on 27 August. Graziani proposed to send the ill-trained 21st Corps on the northern coast road to Sollum, across the border, while the Libyan Corps and motorized Maletti Group of seven tank battalions would attack on the south side of the escarpment that ran parallel to the sea. The offensive would be backed by 300 aircraft of the 5th Squadron.
Graziani sent these plans to Commando Supremo in Rome, and Mussolini was pleased. However, the Marshal was not actually intending to launch this impressive-sounding attack...it was merely a paper exercise to soothe Il Duce. Graziani lacked transport for the southern swing.
But as soon as Graziani sent his plea for a postponement, Mussolini ordered his vacillating marshal to attack on 9 September or be sacked. Mussolini's son-in-law and Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano, wrote, "Never has a military operation been undertaken so much against the will of the commanders."
Faced with dismissal, Graziani shuffled his plans. The southern swing was abandoned, the Libyan Corps moved near the coast, and the 23rd Corps under General Annibale "Electric Whiskers" Bergonzoli, ordered into the primary attack. The 62nd Marmarican and 63rd Cyrene Divisions, joined by the 1st and 2nd Blackshirt Divisions, would lead the assault.
From the start, the Italian offensive was a bungle. Vehicles' engines overheated. Maletti Group got lost. Radio Rome announced the impending offensive to the world and British intelligence. When Graziani's men finally moved on 10 September, the British 11th Hussars, screening the Italian move, had a good laugh watching Maletti Group try to figure out its location from compasses, speedometers, and maps.
The entire 1st Libyan Division -- including a regiment of paratroopers who gloried in the title, but had never dreamed to jump out of an aircraft -- attacked Sollum, held by a single platoon of Coldstream Guards. The British laid mines and withdrew, fuming the Italian drive into a laborious task of mine-clearing.
The British were led by two brilliant men, Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O'Connor, who commanded the Western Desert Force, and Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, supreme commander of Egypt. O'Connor, Anglo-Irish, was a former infantryman who saw the value in tanks and mobility. Wavell, laconic in speech but gifted with the pen, possessed a fluid understanding of desert warfare.
O'Connor, unsmiling, dour, and shabbily dressed, detested publicity of any sort, and was quiet and modest. He was also one of the great commanders of his time.
O'Connor's plan to face Graziani was simple...delaying actions and withdrawals, to drag the Italians beyond their supply line. Then he would counterattack.
Wavell thought the same. The day after Graziani moved, Wavell ordered O'Connor to prepare plans for a drive on Tobruk. Yet Wavell himself was under siege. The Middle Eastern theatre involved highly complex political relations with Arab leaders, a source of endless headaches. Wavell also had responsibility for East Africa, where Mussolini's troops were threatening the Sudan. Palestine had to be policed. Vichy French Syria had to be watched. Wavell's relations with Prime Minister Winston Churchill were cool, and England, bracing for invasion, had little with which to reinforce Wavell.
However, when Wavell promised London unspecified offensive action, the War Office sent him 154 tanks, which brought Wavell up to parity with the Italians, along with 48 anti-tank guns, 48 25-lbr. (86mm) field guns, and 500 Bren guns.
It took Graziani's men four days to reach Sidi Barrani, where they stopped, having outrun their supplies, exhausted their infantry, and worn down their vehicles. Graziani needed to extend the metalled road and water pipeline to his frontline units.
Italian casualties were 120 dead and 410 wounded. The British had lost only 40 men. Radio Rome broadcast that "all is quiet and the trams are again running in the town of Sidi Barrani," which was in fact only a collection of mud huts.
Graziani's men began digging in, creating a little string of fortified camps, none of them within range to support each other. Graziani further scattered his tanks among the camps, thus denying himself a mobile reserve.
That was as far as Graziani was prepared to advance. He fired off telegrams to Rome demanding more trucks to haul his supplies. When those were turned down, he sought more trucks than in the whole Italian inventory -- he demanded 600 mules.
On 26 October, Mussolini retorted, "40 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 use, indeed, more to the enemy...it is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue in command."
Graziani wired back to say he would resume the offensive on 15 December.