It was one of the most unusual victories in the history of the British Army.
In two months between 7 December 1940 and 7 February 1941, General Richard O’Connor’s Western Desert Force of 30,000 men advanced 500 miles into Libya and captured 130,000 Italians, shattering Mussolini’s dream of a North African empire.
What combination of factors led to the victory in the Desert of 1941?
1. Intelligence. The RAF rapidly established air supremacy in the Western Desert and was able to supply detailed intelligence about Italian dispositions. It was the RAF that revealed the planned Italian evacuation of Cyrenaica. Active Army scouting was also important. It was this that revealed the gap in the line of forts south of Sidi Barrani. In both cases, this vital intelligence became the basis of spectacularly successful armoured offensives.
2. Conception. Wavell was an intelligent and open-minded commander-in-chief, and O’Connor was a highly active, enterprising, and aggressive battlefield commander. They were the first British commanders to apply successfully modern armoured tactics of breakthrough and rapid exploitation.
3. Equipment. The British armoured attacks were led by Matilda infantry tanks. These were more or less impervious to Italian anti-tank guns and superior in both armour and firepower to the Italian tanks. The Australian divisional commander at the Battle of Bardia said that each Matilda tank was worth an entire battalion of infantry. (See WMD.)
4. Morale. Graziani and other senior Italian commanders in Libya were lethargic and incompetent. Some of the officers, notably the committed Fascists, were unwarrantably arrogant, while many of the rest were disillusioned. ‘There are many like me who got nothing out of Fascism,’ said one after capture, ‘but we don’t dislike it enough to rebel against it. Even if we hated it, what could we do about it?’ The morale of the Italian rank-and-file – workers and peasants many of whom had never supported Mussolini – was even lower. ‘All round us now,’ reported Alan Moorehead of the fall of Bardia, ‘Italians were coming out of caves and houses to surrender. Prisoners swarmed in every direction … All they wanted was food, shelter from fighting, and a guarantee of life.’
Read the full Desert Triumph feature in the February issue of Military Times