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(Part 1 : From 1912 to June 1940)

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Preface

Well, I recently read "Panzer Battles" , a book written by Maj.gen.F.W.von Mellentin on the basis of his experiences during World War II, when he took part in some of the greatest campaigns in North Africa, Russia, and the West (for over a year he served on the personal staff of Field Marshal Rommel) . The book as a whole is really excellent and should be a "must" for every enthusiast of the armored warfare. I was, however, specially touched by the last paragraph of von Mellenthin's  Preface : "I have endeavored to give an objective account of the campaigns in which I took part. . . . . With the material now available it should be possible to attempt a serious assessment of the military events of 1939-45. I feel confident that soldiers of all nations are now anxious to establish the facts about World War II, and to avoid conclusions based on individual prejudice or patriotic sentiment. This I have attempted to do."


I believe that these words should have been read hundreds of times by certain authors I know... Anyway, having  found too many histories written with pens refilled with anti-Italian bigotism, chauvinism, and lack of objectiveness , "I have endeavored to give an objective ccount..." of the 1,067 days during which the Italians, first alone and later as co-belligerents of the Germans, contended to the Allies the burning sands of North Africa.

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Introduction to Libya

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(celebrating postcard issued in 1912)

The Italians occupied Libya in 1912, at the end of the war conducted against the Turkish Empire. From an administrative standpoint, Libya was divided in four provinces (Tripoli, Misratah, Benghazi, and Darnah) and one military territory which covered the entire southern part (predesertical and desertical territory) of the colony. In 1939 the four provinces became an integral part of the Italian Reign.

During the some 30 years of colonization, great efforts were made for improving agriculture and sheep-farming, as well as commercial and industrial activities. I'm not pretending that this was made because the Italians were benevolent to the local population (the wind of colonialism blew all over Europe). The impulse to colonialization was mainly given to offer chances of economic improvement to rural masses of peasants and farm-hands coming from the underdeveloped Italian countries and villages.

I am glad to say that, despite the chronic Italian disorganization and a number of material inefficiencies, the country which was called the Italy's "Fourth Shore" developed fairly well.

The Libyans, the Italians, and the other minor communities (Hebrews, Indians, etc.) fully integrated, the economy, as well as the living standards, reached satisfactory levels, the society was stable and not affected at all by any kind of tension (e.g.: criminality was almost not existing) .
In one word, had the Fascist regime been other than what it was, life could have been quite easy on the sunny "Fourth Shore".

But Fascism was Fascism and therefore the events changed dramatically...


The Libyan Environment

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(Northern part of Libya, cut from a map courtesy of University of Texas)

    From a geographical standpoint, Libya is made up of four main regions. Along the coast, from West to East, there are Tripolitania, Sirtic, and Cyrenaica. South of these three territories (more or less at the latitude of Waddan) there is the desert region called Fezzan.
     Physical layout is similar both in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica : a belt of plain terrain (sand or small pebbles), starting from the sea shore, deep from few dozens to hundreds of kilometers; south of this belt there are chains of mountains (gebel) deep from 80 to 100 kilometers. Further south the desert begins.
    Sirtic is somehow different, in that mountains are missing. Starting from the sea side is a continuum of dunes and "steppa", becoming more and more arid while moving towards Fezzan area.
    The sole zones where agriculture activities could have been implemented in those years, were certain oases located along the northern belt (Zuwarah, Tripoli, Misratah, Surt, Darnah).

    Broadly speaking, Libya was one of the most demanding places for moving armies and for fighting. In particular, it was going to become a real nightmare for soldiers not properly equipped, lacking of adequate supplies (e.g.: water resources are almost not existing), and compelled to move by walking, due to insufficient motorized resources...


War drums begin to rumble...

"War, war..." a word quite often used in the bombastic slogans of the Italian fascist propaganda. Despite this, however, Italian armed forces were still equipped and trained as they were during WWI and no serious actions had been taken to reinforce the defenses of territories which, like Libya, were likely to become, soon or later, actual battlefields. The Italian ground forces deployed in Libya as at June 1939 consisted of :

 The four divisions totalled approximately 44,000 Italian soldiers

When the Germans invaded Poland, on Sept.1, 1939, the Italian General Staff was seriously scared by the possibility of a too early involvement in a war for which we were (as usual) absolutely not ready! A crash plan was then implemented to improve the quantity of the units to be made available on the "Fourth Shore".
Between the end of 1939 and the first months of 1940, tens of thousands of soldiers were moved from Italy to Libya.

As at June 10, 1940 the order of battle of the Italian armies consisted of :

General Headquarters : Marshal Balbo (Supreme Commander), gen. Tellera (Chief of Staff), gen. D'Aponte (logistics)

Tripolitania : 5th Army (gen. Gariboldi) consisting of the X, XX, and XXIII Army Corps.
     -  X Army Corps (gen. Barbieri) : divisions "Sabratah" (gen. Della Bona), "Bologna" (gen. Lerici), "Savona" (gen.               Maggiani)
     -
XX Army Corps (   ) : divisions "Pavia" (gen. Zaglio), "Brescia" (gen. Cremascoli), "Sirte" (gen. della Mura)
     - XXIII Army Corps (gen. Bergonzoli) : M.V.S.N.
(National Militia) divisions "23 Marzo" (cons.gen. Antonelli), "28              Ottobre" (cons. gen. Argentino)

Cyrenaica : 10th Army (gen. Berti) : consisting of the XXI, and XXII Army Corps.
     - XXI Army Corps (gen. Dalmazzo) : divisions "Marmarica" (gen. Tracchia), "Cirene" (gen. Spatocco), "1.a Libica" (gen.              Sibille), "2.a Libica" (gen. Pescatori)
     - XXII Army Corps (gen. Pitassi Mannella ): divisions "Catanzaro" (gen. Spinelli), "3 Gennaio" (gen. Marzari)

Saharian Territories : (gen. Gallina) : in total consisted of some three regiments equivalent, mainly Libyans, one third of which armed with 65/17 guns and 20mm MGs.


At the war outbreak the Italian troopers were actually much more than the British (average 5 : 1 ratio). The real problem was, however, the quality of the respective armament , quality and quantity of supplies, and logistic organization (had one had it!).

In terms of armored vehicles, the Italians deployed 339 L3 light tanks, 8 (eight!) Fiat 3000, and 7 (seven!) armored cars. The British opposed 134 Light Mk VI tanks, 114 A10 (Mk II) heavy cruiser tanks, and 38 armored cars (very good ones, mainly Lanchester and Morris).

Artilleries were both insufficient and inefficient ! A large share of FA guns, as well as anti aircraft guns and MG, had been produced between the end of  last century and the end of WWI.
Anti aircraft guns and MG were so short in fire range that British bombers could not be reached if flying above 12,000 feet.  Antitank guns (47 mm), capable of getting rid of the light MkVI,  proved however to be inadequate in piercing the thick armor of heavy cruise and infantry tanks.

Infantry divisions were "potentially" motorized...had the Italians had enough trucks and lorries ! Unfortunately we had, in total, only 3.787 vehicles against an average requirement of at least 3.700 fully efficient trucks (after a few days of combat the number of available vehicles dropped down dramatically).


Despite this situation, well known by the top ranks of the Fascist Party and of the Armed Forces, Mussolini made this statement during a meeting held on May 29, 1940 with Gen. Badoglio (Chief of General Staff), Adm. Cavagnari (Royal Navy Chief of Staff), Gen. Pricolo (Royal Air Force Chief of Staff), and Gen. Graziani (Royal Army Chief of Staff) :

"I have called you this morning to inform you of the following. In my memorandum of March 31 last I explained, with a logic that His Majesty the King found to be "geometrical" (sic!) :
- that we cannot avoid the war
- that we cannot make it with the Allies
- that we cannot make it other than with the Germans.
There was the matter of the date, the key problem to be solved according to the war pace. This date had been stated, at an early stage, sometime during the spring of 1941.
After the easy conquest of Norway and the domination of Denmark, I had already shortened the period to September 1940. Now, after the conquest of the Netherlands, the surrender of Belgium, the invasion of France, as well as having considered the overall situation, I have further reduced the time gap and I do consider as good to enter war, every date after June 5 next."

From reading the excerpt of this meeting two things clearly derive :

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blue.gif (334 bytes) Desert Battles - Part 2 (from June 1940 to February 1941)
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February 22, 1999
Last update : February 22, 1999

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