A Journey Down the Nile
Britain's Forgotten Triumph
Before Montgomery and El Alamein, the British crushed the Italians in North Africa, but time was against them.
"I need a few thousand dead!"
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini exclaims this to his army chief, after jealously watching Hitler’s string of conquests in the summer of 1940. Now he wants to bring his own dream of empire into reality.
The Duce’s eyes turn to North Africa, where the British, distracted by the coming Battle of Britain, is perilously stretched thin. There the colony of Egypt guards the Suez Canal and is the gateway to the priceless oil fields of the Middle East.
Mussolini sends his "best" general, Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, to the Italian colony of Libya to prepare his army for this new enterprise. Graziani is nicknamed "The Butcher" for his behavior toward poorly armed tribesman. The Duce orders him to "attack the British forces opposing you".
Italy’s military power is sapped, however, from numerous adventures in Ethiopia, Spain, and Albania. Its glory days are past.
The great invasion takes place on September 13, 1940, with many fanfares and little fighting. The objective is a small village called Sidi Barrani, 60 miles inside Egypt, which they easily capture, the British army having withdrawn according to plan.
There they sit and build defenses and frolic in the African sun. Mussolini tells the world of his glorious victory. Meanwhile the British are making plans.
The English in North Africa have two secret weapons on their side: the Matilda tank and General Richard O’Connor. The Matilda is a powerful beast of 30 tons, with a 2 pounder gun and nearly impenetrable armor. Though she is slow, she outclasses any tank the Italians have.
Less well known is the bird-like commander of the Western Desert Force General O’Connor. Formerly military governor of Jerusalem, he has been sent by Middle East commander General Archibald Wavell to defend Egypt against the Italian invaders. On O’Connor’s mind is an offensive.
His plan is to attack an unfortified gap in the enemy lines called Nibeiwa. If successful, he will encircle General Graziani and fall on his rear. To achieve this, O’Connor has at his disposal Two crack divisions, 4th Indian and 7th Armored, as well as the 7th Royal Tank Regiment with 48 Matildas.
On the other hand Graziani has a force of 5 divisions with 80,000 men at the front. Yet still he sits and waits.
The British are planning a two-day raid, halting west of Sidi Baranni. Perhaps this is their one shortcoming: their luck will outrun their expectations.
O’Connor launches the attack on the morning of December 9, 1940. All night the Italians have been distracted by the RAF’s merciless bombing.
Graziani and his troops are at breakfast when the sound of bagpipes is heard. Then a wave of Scottish Highlanders descend upon them, followed by the Matildas, crushing all who resist.
Within three hours the fighting is over. Over 2000 Italians are captured and the British feel invincible. The order is given to continue forward.
In two days they retake Sidi Barani. By December 12, they have captured over 39,000 enemy troops. So great is the astonishment of the Italians troops, they often surrender without a fight.
The lines of Mussolini’s conquered legions choke the unpaved desert highways with dust. The amazed British are unsure of what to make of it all. Fifty years later the coalition forces of Desert Storm would face a similar dilemma, gazing upon thousands of Iraqi prisoners.
Back in Cairo, General Wavell is shocked at O’Connor’s success. He tells a visiting admiral, "You know, I never thought it would go like this."
In London, Churchill is ecstatic. He promises Wavell anything needed to keep the momentum going Already, though, supplies intended for Africa are being diverted to Greece, who are now also fighting the Italians. Then the 4th division is called away to aid the Ethiopians.
As O’Connor reaches Bardia, he is faced with tired men, worn out tanks and 18 miles of defenses. With him, however, is the 6th Australian division, part of the fame Anzac force, sent to replace the Indians. The Aussies are spoiling for a fight.
Throughout the night the Italians are subjected to a barrage by air, land, and sea. Wellington bombers rain tons of ordinances on enemy pillboxes and machine gun nests, while Royal Navy battleships pound them mercilessly from the sea.
By January 4, the helpless Italians surrender in droves. O’Connor bags another 40, 000 prisoners.
Onward the British press, some riding in captured enemy vehicles emblazoned with signs like Next Stop: Tobruk. Time is against O’Connor. Orders come from Churchill: after the capture of Tobruk, first priority will be given to Greece.
Tobruk has thirty miles of defenses, and the Australians will breach them in a day. The town falls on January 21, 1941.
The Italians are running for their lives. Having destroyed 8 enemy divisions already, O’Connor wants to bag the rest. He orders the 7th Armored commander "You are going to cut the coast road south of Benghazi and you are going now, repeat now!"
The weary British tankers head across the desert wastes in a desperate attempt to catch the fleeing enemy. On February 5 they reach a small native village called Beda Fomm, just south of Benghazi. Thirty minutes later the dust clouds of the retreating Italian army loom before them. The trap has sprung!
For two days Graziani’s forces will attempt to break through to freedom, but the British are unmovable. Finally on the 7th, the white flag is raised. Marshal Graziani abandons his army and escapes to Tripoli.
General O’Connor has pulled off one of the most one-sided victories in English history. But his troops are tired, and tanks are in desperate need of repair. He sends back to General Wavell in Cairo for resources to continue on to Tripoli, but Wavell has already replaced his desert maps with those of Greece.
About the time of Beda Fomm, word reaches Mussolini from Hitler of the immediate dispatch of two German divisions to prop up Duce’s faltering African empire. In command is a little known General Erwin Rommel.
On April 6, O’Connor is captured by the Germans while trying to prevent the route of his once victorious troops. It would be two years before another British leader would come close to his genius, the often maligned, but certainly triumphant Bernard Montgomery.
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