Italy Invades Egypt

Italy’s African empire nearly disappeared in 1940. Poor preparation, bad morale, and obsolete weapons spelled disaster for the Desert War, which began when Italy invaded Egypt. This disaster was only averted by the British decision to transfer troops from North Africa to Greece and the subsequent timely arrival of the German Afrika Korps, which allowed the Axis to preserve its presence in North Africa through 1943.

Summary of Event

General Archibald Wavell, commander in chief for British imperial and Commonwealth forces in the Middle East, faced a daunting task in the summer of 1940. Italy declared war on France and England on June 10, and Wavell had only sixty-threee thousand men to protect Egypt, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq. There were an additional ten thousand troops in the Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland. Some of these troops were needed for internal security roles, which made the odds even worse for a successful showdown with the Italians. [kw]Italy Invades Egypt (Sept. 13, 1940)
[kw]Invades Egypt, Italy (Sept. 13, 1940)
[kw]Egypt, Italy Invades (Sept. 13, 1940)
Italy;invasion of Egypt
Egypt;invasion by Italy
Desert War (1940)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Desert War
[g]Africa;Sept. 13, 1940: Italy Invades Egypt[10320]
[g]Egypt;Sept. 13, 1940: Italy Invades Egypt[10320]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 13, 1940: Italy Invades Egypt[10320]
[c]World War II;Sept. 13, 1940: Italy Invades Egypt[10320]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Sept. 13, 1940: Italy Invades Egypt[10320]
Graziani, Rodolfo
Wavell, Archibald
O’Connor, Richard
Mussolini, Benito
[p]Mussolini, Benito;Italian invasion of Egypt
Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;Italian invasion of Egypt

Under the dynamic Air Marshal Italo Balbo, Italy maintained 250,000 men in Libya. A separate command in Italian East Africa contained 300,000 troops. Like the forces of the United Kingdom, some of the Italian troops were needed to maintain internal security, especially in East Africa, where Ethiopian guerillas known as the Patriots maintained an armed resistance to Italian authority. Still, Italian forces in the region greatly outnumbered their British counterparts. This was also true in the air, where Italy could deploy 500 aircraft vs. 370 for Great Britain. On water, the odds also favored Italy, although only by a small margin. These numbers were formidable, and considering that England faced a possible invasion by the German Wehrmacht, reinforcements for Africa and the Middle East were unlikely. Italy’s bombastic dictator, Benito Mussolini, recognized this, and he ordered his proconsuls to advance on all fronts. This aggressive strategy paid its first dividend in August, 1940, when Italian forces overran British Somaliland.

Friction, poor planning, and failed leadership intervened, however, to end any possibility of an Italian “blitzkrieg” in North Africa. First, Balbo died in a friendly fire incident on June 28. This slowed Italian plans to invade Egypt until he was replaced by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, whose experience was mainly in counterinsurgency warfare. Finally, on September 13, Italian units crossed the Libyan-Egyptian frontier, initiating phase one of World War II’s famous Desert War. Graziani directed the Tenth Army, a force of six infantry divisions. Although unfamiliar with the fine points of armored and mechanized warfare, he was worried his desert flank allowed the British armored divisions numerous opportunities to attack. Graziani also had a very long supply line stretching back to Tripoli, nearly twelve hundred miles west of the Egyptian frontier.

The marshal had good reasons to worry. Although Italy had more troops, these soldiers were poorly prepared for modern warfare. From small arms to heavy artillery, most Italian weapons were obsolete, underpowered, or unreliable. For instance, the tiny M-13 tankette was so poorly protected, it could be destroyed even by British antitank rifles, which were ineffective against German armor. In contrast, the formidable “Matilda” tank employed by some British units was nearly impervious to any Italian weapon. These handicaps ended Italian thrusts into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Kenya, and Egypt. In the latter, Graziani started a march toward Alexandria, but halted after crossing only sixty miles. At this point, arguing “one can not break a steel door with fingernails,” he ordered his troops to dig in and await a British counterattack. Graziani deployed soldiers in six fortified outposts, but poor staff work created gaps that a daring enemy might slip through to hit these positions from the flank or the rear.

General Richard O’Connor was just the man to take advantage of this flaw. Commander of the British Western Desert Force, he was directed by Wavell to disrupt the Italian forces, exploiting any possibility to drive them out of Egypt. Next, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered on a gutsy plan that sent additional tanks, including the deadly Matildas, to Egypt, rather than keep them for home defense. Churchill knew that if the Royal Air Force was defeated by the German Luftwaffe, England would stand no chance against a German infantry invasion, so the tanks would do more good elsewhere. This decision allowed O’Connor to direct a mechanized force of tanks and truck-mounted infantry, providing his Western Desert Force with a massive advantage in mobility.

Dubbed Operation Compass, the British attack began on December 9. Hitting the Nibeiwa fortified camp at daybreak, O’Connor’s men produced a textbook example for the combined arms attack: Artillery, armor, and infantry attacked in perfect order, overwhelming the surprised defenders. Although the Italians fought for several hours, Nibeiwa demonstrated the great advantage the British gained from their Matilda tanks. Attacked with grenades, antitank guns, and even medium artillery, the tank’s armor was thick enough to stop all but the most lucky of shots. A captured Italian officer described rampaging Matildas, shells bouncing off their armor plates with impunity, as “the nearest thing to hell I ever saw.” This happened in nearly every battle of Operation Compass, and the seeming invincibility of the British tanks was a tremendous blow to Italian morale.

Nibeiwa opened up the Italian front, and as Graziani’s troops were on foot, many could not escape. By January 1, 1941, he lost 30,000 men and vast quantities of equipment, while British losses totaled just 810 killed or wounded. Four days later, the fortress of Bardia fell, netting an additional 38,000 Italian prisoners, plus supplies of food, ammunition, fuel, and, most important, trucks. The latter were quickly employed to replace British losses from desert wear and tear. Bardia’s capture caused Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, to quip, “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”

On January 6, the Australian Sixth Infantry Division laid siege to Tobruk. A major fortress and key port for eastern Libya, Tobruk was defended by 32,000 men, 220 guns, and 70 tanks. The Australians, who had just captured Bardia, conducted skillful assaults that overwhelmed one position after another. Resistance ended on January 22, with another 27,000 men lost by the Italian army. Australian casualties totaled 500.

With the fall of Tobruk, Wavell faced difficult choices. Italian forces had invaded Greece on October 28, 1940, but quickly bogged down in difficult mountain terrain. Greek counterattacks pushed the invaders back into Albania, which induced German support for their Axis partner. Churchill saw this as a golden opportunity to widen the war and ordered Wavell to form an expeditionary force to aid the Greeks. Simultaneously, Wavell was conducting an offensive into Italian East Africa, which began on January 19, 1941. This was a three-pronged attack, featuring Allied columns advancing into Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Combined with the attrition to men and machines from the Western Desert Force—due mainly to poor roads and the harsh desert climate—Wavell had very few troops capable of offensive action. It was therefore unclear what he could do about the Italian army retreating into western Libya.

O’Connor convinced his superior that it was still possible to destroy this force. Sending what little armor and mechanized troops were still functional, he managed to outflank the Italians again at Beda Fom. Despite hard fighting between February 6 and 9, 1941, this battle marked the end of the Tenth Army. Italian losses included 150,000 men killed, wounded, or captured; while British forces suffered 2,000 casualties.

Beda Fom demonstrated beyond a doubt that successful desert warfare required tanks and motorized vehicles. It also destroyed most of the Italian garrison holding Libya. O’Connor was poised to eliminate the remnants and end Italy’s presence in North Africa. Churchill intervened, however, ordering more British forces dispatched to Greece in March, 1941. Doing so gave the Italians breathing space and allowed General Erwin Rommel to organize his newly arrived Afrika Korps. As a result, the Desert War continued for two more years.


Italy’s 1940-1941 debacles greatly influenced the course of World War II. First, they revealed grave flaws in the Italian armed forces, flaws that could not easily be fixed. Despite Fascist boasts to the contrary, Italy’s economy could not gear up quickly to produce improved weapons. Thus Italian soldiers employed out-of-date tanks, such as the lightly armored yet slow M-13, or underpowered 47mm antitank guns, the shells of which bounced off most Allied tanks made in 1941-1943. Italy’s insufficient armaments guaranteed more humiliating defeats by a British opposing force with weapons systems even better than those of 1940. Nor was a technology gap the only problem—the Italian Army also failed to recover from its North African disaster because the officer corps was riddled with incompetence. It never produced leaders who could inspire their men to pick up their obsolete weapons and fight in their despite.

Second, Italy’s loss of East Africa and western Libya significantly enhanced Great Britain’s geopolitical position in North Africa. The British conquest of Eritrea and Somalia ended any Italian threat to the Red Sea—the back door to the Suez Canal. Liberating Ethiopia not only played well—as the first occupied nation freed from Axis tyranny—but also secured another back door into Egypt. Also, the string of Italian defeats, especially those in Libya, destroyed Italy’s home front morale and began the process that culminated in the overthrow of Mussolini in 1943. Finally, Italy’s 1940 debacles forced German intervention into the Balkans and North Africa. U.S. general George C. Marshall claimed this was “one of the principal factors in Germany’s defeat.” Italy;invasion of Egypt
Egypt;invasion by Italy
Desert War (1940)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Desert War

Further Reading

  • Latimer, Jon. Operation Compass, 1940: Wavell’s Whirlwind Offensive. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Excellent, brief account based mainly on British sources.
  • Moorehead, Alan. Desert War. 1941. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Very good presentation from the Commonwealth perspective.
  • Pitt, Barrie. The Crucible of War: Western Desert. 1940. Reprint. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980. Good overview that examines both Libyan and Ethiopian campaigns of 1940 and 1941.
  • Walker, Ian J. Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini’s Elite Armored Divisions in North Africa. Marlborough, Wiltshire, England: Crowood Press, 2003. Important English-language effort to explain the many problems facing the 1940 Italian army.

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