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A thousand years have passed away, Cast back your glances on the scene, Compare this England of to-day With England as she once has been.
Fast beat the pulse of living then: The hum of movement, throb of war The rushing mighty sound of men Reverberated loud and far.
Charles Hamilton Sorley
'If we have decided to face the risks and sacrifices of war, it is because the interests of Italy requires it of us,' Benito Mussolini announced from the balcony of the Palazzo Venzia at 1900 hours on 10 June 1940. Unfortunately, he forgot to inform his men in Italy's Libyan colony that they were now at war with the neighbouring British in Egypt. As evening approached, a line of armoured cars from 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) – famed as the 'Cherry-Pickers' for their red trousers, worn since an incident during the Peninsular War – drove towards the double strand tangle of rusty barbed wire that stretched some 400 miles along the barren Egyptian–Libyan frontier. As quietly as possible, the drivers pressed the armoured Rolls-Royce bonnets against the wire, steadily and slowly, backwards and forwards, in an obviously practised manner. Soon the wire strained and broke, and the crews – wearing rubber-soled shoes, lest the wire prove electrified – dragged it away and pulled out the fence posts to create permanent gaps. Then they drove deep into Libya to cut telephone wires and cause havoc with the border garrisons. Gingerly approaching Fort Maddalena, Troop Sergeant-Major 'Nobby' Clarke saw a solitary lorry driving towards the fort, headlights blazing, and opened fire – the first shots of the Desert War. By dawn on 12 June all the CherryPicker patrols had returned unharmed, having shot up numerous camps and lorries and captured 70 bewildered Italian prisoners.
In 1875, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had made a secret deal with Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, to buy shares in the recently opened Suez Canal. The Canal would draw Great Britain deeper and deeper into Middle East affairs. Although the Khedive was a constitutional monarch nominally the viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey, Egypt was run by a system of 'Dual Control' in which Britain and France, together with other European powers holding bonds in the Canal, controlled all financial and political levers. On 9 September 1881 there was a nationalist coup in Egypt. Although the Khedive was said to be delighted with this event, the British perceived a threat to their interests and the result was an invasion of Egypt. On 13 September 1882, with their pipers to the fore, the Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders led the assault at the Battle of Tel el Kebir. Thirty-five minutes later that very model of a modern major-general, Sir Garnet Wolseley, had won a small, neat and thoroughly professional victory.
Wolseley sent a signal: 'The war in Egypt is over; send no more men from England.' However, many more men came: a consul-general, a sirdar (commander-in-chief) to run a new Egyptian Army, and a 14,000-man British Army of Occupation to ensure the Suez Canal was secure for British trade.
During the First World War, Egypt was turned into a fortified camp when threatened by the Ottoman Turks, and later Palestine and Arabia came under British control. Although the British Protectorate of Egypt ended on 28 February 1922 and the country was declared an independent sovereign state, Britain reserved the right to control security of communications with the Empire, the protection of foreign interests and minorities in Egypt, the defence of Egypt itself, and control of Sudan. In 1936 Britain and Egypt signed a new treaty which formed the legal basis of Britain's position in Egypt throughout the Second World War, providing for a twenty-year military alliance with a peacetime British garrison of 10,000 men, British control of the Canal area, and essential facilities in time of war. Egypt was the western shield of an area vitally important to Britain, particularly since this was bounded by the Italian colony of Libya. In September 1911 Italy had gone to war with Ottoman Turkey in order to snatch this last African possession of the Ottomans, which she achieved after a difficult campaign that also led to the Italians landing on Rhodes and gaining control of the Dodecanese Islands.
For much of the early period of Mussolini's rule from 1922, relations between Britain and Italy had remained cordial. Before the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935 Mussolini generally aligned his foreign policy with that of Great Britain. Initially he disliked Adolf Hitler and despised his anti-Semitism. As Nazi Germany's aggressive intentions became apparent, Britain, France and Italy organized a conference at Stresa in April 1935 in an attempt to prevent German rearmament. There, following discussions with Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, and Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secretary, Mussolini decided that were he to invade Abyssinia there would be no British attempts to mobilize the League of Nations against him – just as the League had made no move over his bombardment of Corfu in 1923, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, or Nazi Germany's violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Beginning in October 1935, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia was brutal in the extreme. Now Britain's relations with Italy were becoming strained.
However, a 'Peace Ballot' organized by the League of Nations Union on 27 June had shown that over 10 million out of 11.5 million people canvassed were in favour of League actions to prevent member states attacking one another; the British Cabinet therefore felt obliged to take action after all. Economic sanctions surprised and antagonized Mussolini, and he stopped trying to prevent Germany's rearmament. He nevertheless remained mistrustful of Hitler. But the succession of Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister in June had produced a policy of opposition to Mussolini and appeasement of Hitler – because, according to Anthony Eden, Baldwin's Foreign Secretary, an agreement with Hitler 'might have a chance of a reasonable life whereas Mussolini ... is a complete gangster'. Any chance to bring Italy on to the Allied side had been missed. British handling of the dictators bore out George Orwell's description of England as a 'rather stuffy Victorian family ... in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts'. What was to be expected of its ruling class 'was not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing'. Britain would in due course have to fight Italy for three years, when, with France on the verge of falling to Nazi Germany, and sensing the chance of rich pickings from the British Empire, Mussolini declared war.
Although Britain also appeared to be on the verge of total defeat, Mussolini could not persuade his commander in Libya, Maresciallo Rodolfo Graziani, to begin the invasion of Egypt until 13 September, by which time the British had already seized the initiative by harassing frontier posts and columns, inflicting some 3,500 casualties for the loss of only 150. The British then fell back to their defence line at Mersa Matruh, but Graziani refused to move beyond Sidi Barrani, some 60 miles inside Egypt.
For too long there has been a fatuous contempt for Italian arms in Anglophone countries, largely as a result of wartime propaganda. The truth is that Italian soldiers were tough and hardy, and on innumerable occasions they fought as bravely as any soldiers in the world. But the Italian record in adapting operational concepts to technology was almost uniformly disastrous. In both the Army and Navy, doctrine inhibited the adoption of new technology; but in the Air Force the absence of doctrine had the same effect. All three services suffered from intellectual rigidity and lack of interest in developments elsewhere, and combat came as a profound shock. Pre-war foreign commentators noted that army commanders were oblivious to the importance of training, and what training there was remained unrelated to any effective tactical system. This particularly affected junior leaders, and the deliberate stunting of the NCO cadre produced an army in which competent junior leaders were the exception. An officer corps that lacked energy and self-confidence ensured that these problems persisted throughout the war. The Italian High Command wilfully refused to make improvements, through fear of exposing shortcomings to their Germans allies and to their own public. The result was an army that rejected armour; a navy staff that already considered itself inferior to the Royal Navy before the outbreak of war and that neglected radar and coastal warfare; and an air force that favoured biplane fighters.
The Regio Esercito (Royal Italian Army) was clearly not ready to fight a modern war. A German staff officer noted, 'The command apparatus is ... pedantic and slow. The absence of sufficient communications equipment renders the link to subordinate units precarious.' But it takes more courage, not less, to enter battle with obsolescent second-rate equipment and an inept doctrine. It was the Italian soldier's misfortune to serve under a system that left him wholly unprepared. The Italians were not really interested in war, many of them having an affinity with Britain that had been strengthened in 1914–18 and that now leached away their enthusiasm, while others remembered that fighting Austria-Hungary and then Germany had led to 600,000 Italian dead during the First World War. Their militaristic image was no more than a Fascist illusion. Thanks to Fascism – which perpetuated privilege – a strong caste system dominated the rank structure of the army, preserving elitist distinctions that had largely died out elsewhere. Both the British and the Germans were aghast at the way in which Italian officers looked to their own comfort first and were out of touch with the men they were supposed to lead. Rommel would subsequently offer a plea in mitigation for the Italian soldier, who was, he said, poorly equipped and poorly led by an officer class that did not always consider it necessary to put in an appearance in battle, and that continued to enjoy meals of several courses while the troops did not even have field kitchens. He might have added that the officers' lifestyles included many other amenities, including travelling brothels.
Although full mobilization had been declared in Italy on 10 May and Italian forces overseas were reinforced, there was a severe shortage of technical skills and experienced leaders. For all Mussolini's talk of '8 million bayonets', never more than 3 million men were mobilized, and most formations were heavily under strength both at home and overseas. Equipment was universally poor – from small arms with a wide variety of calibres, and grenades which posed little threat beyond a few feet, to First World War artillery. Nevertheless, Italian gunners often operated their pieces to the bitter end. More serious in a desert war was the chronic shortage of motor transport; what there was was of poor quality and largely unequal to the terrain. Apart from the useless L3 tankette – known as the 'Sardine Tin Scout' – the Italians lacked an effective medium tank. The M13/40 was only a marginal improvement on the M11/39, but Italian industry placidly continued to produce it. While German and British tanks would be uprated with better armour and armament, the Italians produced the M14/41: it took a year to develop, had some 5 millimetres more armour than the M13/40, a few more miles per hour road speed, and a fuelling range stepped up by about 12 miles. It was little wonder that the British and Germans nicknamed the Italian tanks 'steel coffins'. Also, the Italians had nothing like enough anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. So, although the Italians' 208,000 men in Libya – organized in two armies: Fifth and Tenth – vastly outnumbered the British in Egypt, and despite the 2,000 or so aircraft of the land-based Regia Aeronautica and the powerful and modern ships of the Regia Marina, Italy could enter the war with little confidence.
In August 1939, General Sir Archibald Wavell was appointed to the newly created military post of Commander-in-Chief Middle East. The outbreak of war in September saw a substantial increase in the responsibilities of the Middle East commanders, particularly Wavell and his Royal Air Force counterpart, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) Middle East. Together with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Station, they were now responsible for an area measuring some 2,000 by 1,800 miles, encompassing nine countries in three continents, and their commitments would grow further during the next year. Longmore's Middle East Air Forces had just 32 squadrons in the entire theatre, and in Egypt and Palestine there were 50,000 British troops in total, already tasked since Easter 1936 with suppressing an Arab rebellion in Palestine, where Britain ran a protectorate under a League of Nations mandate. Thus there were not 'two kings in Israel' at the time but three – an arrangement of which American observers were highly critical. However, as the later AOC-in-C Middle East Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder subsequently said, 'the respective commanders are normally reasonable men who have the same purpose at heart'. Besides, the Axis command would also rely on a large measure of co-operation, which was usually much less forthcoming.
Some of the blame for British military defeats in the period 1940–42 must be laid at the doors of politicians between the wars, who approved spending programmes that favoured the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to the exclusion of the Army. Other aspects of the Army's failure were systemic military ones. It is wrong, however, to assume that the Army had learned nothing from the First World War: in fact it made strenuous efforts to develop a doctrine appropriate to a modern mechanized battle fought against a major continental opponent. This entailed generating firepower in order to neutralize enemy defences and bring about battlefield mobility, seeking to avoid the stalemate and high casualties of the trenches. Unfortunately, the development of such a doctrine was at cross-purposes with the continuing requirement to garrison an empire, for much of the British Army's equipment at the start of the war was designed for ease of transport rather than firepower. Critics of the regimental system have overstated the extent to which it led to an insularity and parochialism that inhibited all-arms co-operation. What inhibited this most of all was a lack of a uniform doctrine and the opportunity to practise it: when the opportunity was available, cooperation was generally good.
Unfortunately, class prejudice did persist among British troops: members of rifle regiments tended to talk only to other 'Greenjackets', and Guardsmen and cavalry maintained their traditional aloofness. Lieutenant-Colonel E. O. Burne expressed violent opposition to plans to reform the practice of the cavalry seeking out and recruiting the smartest young officers, which he justified by arguing that the Englishman was the inventor of the club 'and naturally he likes to belong to the best club. A good regiment is regarded as a good club by both officers and men, and round it are built up innumerable welfare associations and social societies. The argument that popular regiments get a monopoly of the best class of officer is but a point in favour of the old system.' He continued, 'Under the new system [which aimed for a more balanced allocation of officers] the R[oyal] A[rmoured] C[orps] will not get good officers at all. The powerful trade unions [sic] of the Guards Brigade and Rifle Regiments will see to that.' As for the infantry of the line, clearly they would have to take their chances.
Within the cavalry and infantry, the public-school 'amateur' ethos still held sway and sporting prowess was seen as more important than technical ability. British regular soldiers during the 1930s signed on for a minimum of seven years, but many stayed longer. The life was spartan, with a marked dedication to sport – due as much to a lack of equipment for meaningful training as to anything else. At least one regular battalion was still using flags to represent anti-tank guns on exercise in 1939. But the toughness of life in places such as the North-West Frontier of India served the Army well in due course. The lack of professionalism is illustrated by the discouragement of 'shop' talk in the officers' mess; where topics considered more appropriate were 'fuss and feathers', Royal Birthday Parades and other ceremonial. Nevertheless, one lesson all officers learned was that Britain did not possess an unlimited supply of soldiers: the health and well-being of the men was committed to them as a solemn responsibility. This was in marked contrast to Italian practice.