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The North Africa Campaign Under General Archibald Wavell

MG Singh- early retired Air warrior who is PG in management and law.



The North African campaign was a see-saw battle between the Axis powers initially represented by Italy and the Allies represented by the British. Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy and ushered in a Fascist regime. Initially, Mussolini had the support of the Italian people as order emerged out of chaos. He had however not understood the psyche of the people who were not interested in grandiose conquests. On the other hand, the Fascist dictator dreamed of the glory of Imperial Rome. He wished to restore the old glory of Imperial Rome and made plans to establish a similar empire. In the olden days, the Roman Empire had made the Mediterranean Sea into a lake around which imperial Rome was the ruler.

He started by launching the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The British and French were alarmed but they were more alarmed by the rearmament of Germany. The two colonial powers tried to appease Italy. They proposed a secret agreement where they agreed to cede a large part of Ethiopian territory to Italy, in exchange for a truce. The result was the Hoare-Laval pact. It was put together by British foreign secretary Sir Samuel Hoare and French premier Pierre Laval. The idea was to form a tri-party alliance against Germany.

Benito Mussolini was enamored of German military might and he disregarded the British- French proposal and sided with Germany. This led to the declaration of the Rome- Berlin axis on 25 October 1936. Initially, Italy did not support the German invasion because it was tied up in the Ethiopian campaign and also for the support it had given to General Franco in Spain. It entered the war just four days before the German army entered Paris when Benito Mussolini declared war on France. This had a dire effect as the shipping lines in the Mediterranean Sea came under threat.

Looking for glory like Hitler the Fascist leader now turned his attention to North Africa. At stake was the Anglo- French-controlled Suez canal and oil reserves of the region. To achieve this objective he called the Libyan Italian head Marshal Rodolfo Graziani to Italy. Graziani was a long time supporter of Fascists and remained loyal to Mussolini till the very end. He later became the defence minister of Mussolini's second government and in 1950 was sentenced to 19 years in prison but released the same year. Plans were now formulated for an invasion of Egypt and the capture of the Suez Canal. The Italian dictator wanted to show to the world that he was not even one step behind Hitler. The dye was cast for the first N. African campaign.


The Italian Offensive

At the outbreak of the war in North Africa, the Italians had greater strength than the British. Marshall Graziani was appointed the supreme commander of the Italian North African army. He could muster a strength of almost 500,000 soldiers.

The British were alive to the danger and created a Middle Eastern Command. General Archibald Wavell was appointed the supreme commander. At the beginning of the campaign, the British command had barely 50,000 troops. General Wavell was an old-time British officer who had seen action in South Africa and India.

The British were hemmed in from two sides. The southern front the Italians had close to 200,000 troops in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Graziani had about 300,000 troops in Libya and with these overwhelming numbers, the Italian Army and the fascist dictator were confident of success.

The British at that time had just 36,000 troops. These consisted of British, Australian, and Indian divisions. These were all the troops that were available to General Wavell to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal. Both the forces at that time were separated by the western desert.

The British had troops at Mersa Matruh. This is a small town and capital of Matruh on the Mediterranean Sea. It is about 120 miles inside the frontier and about 200 miles west of the river Nile.

Wavel decided to go on the offensive. He began by using his incomplete armored division which was directed to carry out a series of raids to harass the Italian forward posts. Graziani despite urgings from Mussolini waited till he built up his strength. On September 13, 1940, six Italian divisions began to slowly move forward towards Egypt. The Italian offensive had begun.

The Italian Army advanced about 50 miles towards Mersa Metruz. It was a slow and cautious advance. It is not understood why the Italian army with its preponderance in numbers did not press the issue at that time. The Italian Army now set up some fortified camps at Siddi Barrani. This was a negative step as the camps were set up too far apart and there was a problem of communication and supplies. Graziani showed a complete lack of initiative as weeks passed and the Italian army did not move forward.

Precious time was lost by the Italians and in the meantime, 3 Armoured regiments were rushed from England to bolster the British force. The timidity of the Italians is not understood because in case, Graziani had attacked with full force he might well have reached the Suez Canal.

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Victories under Wavell

Despite the reinforcements, the British numerical disadvantage had not improved. Despite this Wavell decided to go on the offensive. He instructed Major General Richard O' Connor, to move forward and attack. Facing OÇonnor was over 80,000 Italian troops. The British force consisted of 30,000 men but they had 275 tanks. This contrasted sharply with the Italians who had only 120. The British also had 50 heavily armed Matilda tanks which were difficult to disable.

O'Connor had another advantage. He had the support of the Long Range Desert Group, a lightly armed reconnaissance unit that operated behind enemy lines. The attack commenced on the night of 7 December 1940. The British force exploited a gap between the Italian chain of camps. British, Australian, and Indian troops put in a great show and by December 9 the Italian garrisons at Nibeiwa, Tummar West, and Tummar East were overrun and thousands of Italian soldiers were taken as POWs. The British army suffered only light casualties pointing to the fact that the Italian Army had no will to fight.

Wavell ordered the 7th armored division to move further west and cut off the retreat of the Italian troops. Known as the 'desert rats' they put in a tremendous show. Simultaneously the 4th division of the Indian army moved against the Italians at Sidi Barrani.

Along with the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, the 11th infantry brigade of the 4th Indian Infantry Division destroyed the Italian Maletti group at the Nabywa Camp. The Malfatti Group was the mechanized division of the Royal Italian army. The division earned the name Red Eagles and its first commander was Maj Gen Gerald Scarlett. The division basically consisted of Sikh and Gurkha soldiers.

The Italian army suffered a rout and within three days of fighting Wavell's forces had captured 40,000 POWs and 400 guns. The demoralized Italian force took refuge in the coastal fortress of Bardia. The seventh armored division surrounded the fortress. The sixth Australian division now arrived to reinforce the Indian 4th division. Wavell decided to launch an attack on Bardia.

On 3 January 1941, the attack on the fortress commenced with 22 Matilda tanks. The ferociousness of the attack surprised the Italians who caved in quickly. 46,000 Italians were taken POW along with 462 guns and 129 tanks. It was a comprehensive victory.

The British force now moved towards Tobruk. The city was attacked on January 21 and fell the next day, yielding 30,000 prisoners, 236 artillery pieces, and 37 tanks. British now moved to capture Benghazi.

The demoralized Italians in Benghazi decided to abandon the fortress. OÇonner used the seventh armored Regiment to try and cut off the Italian retreat. By February 6 the British had engaged the main Italian force which was defended by tanks. A tank battle commenced but the British lost only three tanks and the Italians force was completely destroyed. It is on record that the British force of 3000 took more than 20,000 Italians as POW and hundreds of guns and tanks were captured. The rout of the Italian army was complete. It had been destroyed by the British force under General Wavell.Graziani was removed from command.



The British Army had the road clear to Tripoli but Winston Churchill in a capricious decision decided to halt the advance on Tripoli to counter the Germans in Greece and part of Wavell's force was transferred there.

Adolf Hitler had been following the campaign with great interest and he was greatly disturbed by the poor show put in by the Italians. Benito Mussolini cut a sorry figure before Hitler and he requested help. On six February 1941, Hitler appointed General Erwin Rommel as commander of German troops in North Africa and he was flown to Tripoli. Advance elements of the Wehrmacht now christened as the 'Africa Korps' began to land in North Africa. The Germans now built up their strength and on 2 April 1941, Rommel launched his attack.

Wavell's forces had already been depleted and he was greatly handicapped. Even 4division had been moved out to Iraq on orders of Churchill. In May 1941, Rommel along with two fresh Italian divisions and German Panzers was able to capture Tobruk. This was a great disappointment to Churchill and he lost confidence in general Wavell.

Wavell made an attempt to relieve Tobruk in June 41 but the attack petered out and Churchill was exasperated. He removed General Wavell as commander and replaced him with General Auchinleck, who was the C-in-C of the Indian Army. Wavell was transferred as in C-in -C of the Indian Army.

General Auchinleck was now made the commander-in-chief and he faced Rommel but he also failed and just before El Alamein, Churchill sacked Auchinleck and sent him back to India, and command was given to General Montgomery.

Last word

In hindsight, one can see that Field Marshal Wavell was given very little leeway and had very little support groups. Too much was expected from him. Yet he gave a commendable performance but now nobody much remembers what he did against the Italians and all credit goes to General Bernard Montgomery who was, to say the least, plain lucky. Wavell had bad luck dodging him all along because as Cin C Eastern command he lost Singapore and Burma against a rampaging Imperial army. Lord Mountbatten was brought in as Cin C Eastern command and Wavell was shunted out as Viceroy of India from where he retired. History must however give general Wavell his due.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 14, 2020:

Yes, gen Gott was shot down by a German fighter over Egypt.

tom on October 14, 2020:

auchinleck was replaced by lt gen ws gott but killed as he was shot down by germans,new replacement was montygomery

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 14, 2020:

Yes, Tom, I did not wish to touch on this aspect of General Wavell but he had some curious likes. He surrounded himself with various homosexuals, including Cecil Beaton, Noël Coward, and Chips Channon. But on the positive side is that the day he took over he decided to tackle the Bengal famine and sent the army to help out.

tom on October 13, 2020:

wavell was gay,he ended bengal famine by sending army units,his secret letters to jiinah supports pakistan

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 11, 2020:

Yes, Rommel captured thousands in the North African campaign and Bose was able to brainwash quite a few.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 11, 2020:

There were many who did not join the INA including General Harbaksh Singh but many joined. For a person to join the INA or the Indian Legion it meant breaking the oath to the king and many were not happy to do it.

tom on October 03, 2020:

yes low quality italian toops

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

The Germans expanded their force in North Africa but the bulk remained the Italians who were very poor fighters.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

Tom, yes it did a good job but the opposition was not much.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

I wonder why Rommel did not stay back in Africa and organise a defence instead of just escaping to Italy and back to Hitler.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

This remains a blot on the carrier of Rommel. I am convinced he was a greatly inflated General.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

Thanks for the information

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

I have seen the movie lion in the desert Bedouin hero Omar Mukhtar is played by Anthony Quinn.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

The fourth division has an important place in the military history of India but again we trace our route to the British Indian Army only.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 03, 2020:

Pamela, thanks for commenting

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 02, 2020:

I can understand the value of the Suez canal and the oil reserves but most of this information is new to me. I just don't remember some of my history, so your articles are good for my education. :)

tom on October 02, 2020:

7th armored division fought in kuwait 1991

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 02, 2020:

Yes, Tom, its a surprise that Graziani never made a forceful initial thrust to capture Mersa Matruh

tom on October 02, 2020:

after rommel left ,three lakh axis troops beame pows ,yugoslavian partisans tieduo 30 divisions ,three lakh german troops in 1940-45 sat out the war in norway,if these were used in north africa ,germany could have won the war by blocking suez canal,logstics prority was given to russian front.gibraltar and malta should have been captured ,differences between kesselring and romell

tom on October 02, 2020:

1940-1943 north african campaign ,surrender in bizerta tunisia 1943

tom on October 02, 2020:

rommel had intially 90th light infantry divsion and one panzer division,later it became panzer group afrika and armee group afrika

tom on October 02, 2020:

mersa matruh port town in egypt

tom on October 02, 2020:

graiani and duke of aosta were incompetent foolls,oliver reed played graziani in movie lion of the desert ,italia n fiat tanks and fiat aircraft inferior,

tom on October 02, 2020:

official history of divison -the red eagles a history of fouth infantry division of india by late major kc praval.richard o connor was taken pow,rommel captured tobruk,for this he got field marshal baton,wavell died in 1950,his son was killedby mau mau in kenya

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 02, 2020:

Tom, 4 Div has a glorious history, especially in WWII. In 1962 this famous division was shattered by Gen Kaul. He got admitted to the hospital when the fighting had intensified.

tom on October 01, 2020:

red eagles destoyed in 1962 war due to major gen as pathania ,but won asal utaar under gurubaksh singh mvc,1963 re raised as fourth mountain division,1971 eastern front.1962 red eagles had two poor gocs-niranjan prasad ex sqn ldr iaf and pathania,as pathania mcand mvc later director ncc,incompetent bm kaul,indian divisons fourth and fifth -the ball of fire did well,but no credit given,italian warmovies -three movies on el alamein,wavell died in 1950 ,intellectual ,poet ,his anthology other mans flowers,soldier viceroy quit india,introvert,o connor later became pow,auchinleck later cinc india ,only joint supreme commandr of india and pakistan

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