The general relationship between the army and air forces in the Western Desert remained relatively constant between 1939–43. The only air assets not under the direct control of the RAF were the Army Cooperation squadrons that provided corps headquarters with tactical reconnaissance and during operations could be sub-allotted under leading divisions.
While Army Cooperation squadrons “…act[ed] in close cooperation with corps H.Q. and [were] under army control” the commanding officer of the Advanced Wing advised the army commander on their employment. 33 The rest of the RAF operated independently. Yet in practice, both services had to cooperate closely, and operations by one often were planned to improve the position of the other. The course of land fighting often turned on air support, and success on the ground determined the placing of forward air bases.
Prior to the entry of Italy into the war, No.208 (Army Cooperation) and No.33 (Fighter) Squadrons were detailed to provide close support to the army. These aircraft initially were intended to be operationally controlled by 253 Wing, but just before Italy’s entry into the war it was disbanded and its equipment and personnel absorbed by 202 Group. Operational control of close support aircraft, exerted by “a small Air Liaison Section consisting of 1 Group Captain and 1 Squadron Leader” at headquarters Western Desert Force, was the first instance of a joint army/RAF headquarters. This method of control could not have withstood serious strain, but proved successful because of the limited operational front and “the absence of any administrative responsibility connected with the units.” This section commanded other bomber and fighter squadrons which were detailed for close support as required.
The general organization within the RAF in the Mediterranean area also changed early in the war. In the operational plans produced by HQ RAF Middle East in 1939, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Middle East was to determine the strength allotted to each role of the RAF. In practice, because of the huge area of responsibility of RAF Middle East, “the actual operations and choice of targets [was] to be the responsibility of A.O.C. Egypt Group” (later No.202 Group). Similarly, the ancestor of the Western Desert Air Force, Air Headquarters Cyrenaica, was formed at Barce on 25 February 1941, renamed 204 Group on 12 April 1941, and on 9th October 1941 finally became Air Headquarters, Western Desert.
Opposing the RAF was the Regia Aeronautica, which had a considerable advantage in overall numbers, but failed to use them effectively. The figures for its numbers vary greatly, but the most accurate assessment shows that the Italians had 313 aircraft, of which roughly half were serviceable at any time, with another 1000 aircraft in Italy that could have been called upon to support operations, but were not. Against this, the RAF in the Middle East had 205 serviceable aircraft in June 1940.
When the Italians advanced on 13 September 1940, the British army offered little resistance, instead retreating to the prepared defences at Mersa Matruh. This location was chosen largely because it was the terminating point of the railroad, allowing the easy delivery of supplies. However, the defence was not intended to be a passive one. On 21 September General Wavell issued orders “for a counter-stroke to be prepared against the enemy, so soon as he became engaged with the defences of Matruh.”Reflecting typical RAF views, air support during the retreat to Matruh consisted largely of reconnaissance, “but also called for the bombing in conjunction with attacks by ground troops of enemy strong points threatening a safe withdrawal of British forces from the frontier.”
The Italian army, however, did not attack Matruh. Rather, it dug in near Sidi Barrani, eighty miles to the west, and showed no interest in further advance. Despite his serious numerical disadvantage, Wavell began to “consider the possibility of an early offensive action” to exploit the faulty defensive arrangements of the Italian army. Its defences consisted of a series of camps between Maktila and Sofafi, which were not mutually supporting and lacked depth.
In conjunction with Wilson and O’Connor, Wavell planned an early offensive code-named operation ‘Compass’. The plan called for the Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division to prevent the enemy forces in the camps around Sofafi from intervening in the battle, while the remainder of 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division passed through a gap between the Nibeiwa and Sofafi camps, cutting the Italian defences in two. A brigade “of the 4th Indian Division with the 7th battalion R.T.R. [Royal Tank Regiment] was then to attack Nibeiwa camp from the west, while the Armoured Division covered the attack and prevented any intervention from the enemy to the north.” After Nibeiwa camp was captured, the Tummar group of camps would be attacked from the west, again supported by armour.
The qualitative difference between forces, combined with the high degree of motorization of the British army, let the British run the operations according to plan. All objectives were taken quickly with little loss. Despite a fragile C3I structure, the British forces could complete the ‘OODA’ loop far faster than their Italian opponents. This success led to and was extended by the decision to press on Sidi Barrani. The 7th Armoured Division was employed to prevent the escape of forces at Sidi Barrani, which the 4th Indian Division attacked. The situation “at nightfall on 10 December was that Sidi Barrani had been captured and the 2nd Libyan and 4th Blackshirt Divisions destroyed.” The remaining enemy forces quickly withdrew to Bardia, but the initial campaigns had seen the destruction of five divisions, with 38,000 prisoners, over 400 guns and 50 tanks. British casualties were only 133 killed, 367 wounded and eight missing.