The Capture of Kufra/Prise de Koufra (Koufra, Cufra) was part of the Allied Western Desert Campaign during World War II. Kufra is a basin and oasis group in the Kufra District of south-eastern Cyrenaica in the Libyan Desert. In 1940 it was in the colony of Libia Italiana, part of Africa Settentrionale Italiana (ASI) established in 1934. The battle from 31 January – 1 March 1941, resulted in the capture of Kufra by Free French Forces and the British Long Range Desert Group from the Italian and Libyan garrison.
Kufra, in the Libyan Desert subregion of the Sahara, was an important trade and travel centre for the nomadic desert peoples of the region, including Berbers and Senussi. The Senussi made the oasis their capital at one point in response to British, Italian, and French designs on the region. In 1931, the Kingdom of Italy captured Kufra and incorporated it into the Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana) colonization of the Maghreb. The Italian post at Kufra included the Buma airfield and radio station, used for air supply and communications with Italian East Africa and a fort at the nearby village of El Tag.
After the defeat of France in 1940, the colony of French Equatorial Africa (FEA) declared its allegiance to Free France, the exile government headed by Charles de Gaulle. Chad, the northern part of FEA, borders Libya. De Gaulle ordered the Free French in Chad to attack Italian positions in Libya. Kufra was the obvious target. The Free French commander in Chad, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Colonna d'Ornano. The troops available were 5,000 tirailleurs (riflemen) of the Senegalese Light Infantry Regiment of Chad (Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad; RTST) in 20 companies in different garrisons; also three detachments of méharistes (camel cavalry), in Borkou, Tibesti and Ennedi.
Attacking Kufra would be very difficult for this motley force. The Free French had very little motor transport and needed to cross 400 km (250 mi) of desert, much of which was sand dunes or the fine, powdery soil called fech fech. The area was considered by some to be impassable to vehicles. The French received assistance from the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a reconnaissance and raiding unit formed to operate reconnaissance patrols and intelligence missions behind the Italian lines; they were experts in desert navigation. Major Pat Clayton of LRDG was keen to join with the Free French to test the Italians. Clayton commanded G Guard (Brigade of Guard) and T Patrol (New Zealand patrols) of LRDG, a total of 76 men in 26 vehicles.
To prepare for the attack on Kufra, the LRDG and Free French first raided the Italian airfield at Murzuk, in the Territorio Sahara Libico–Fezzan region in south-western Libya. D'Ornano and ten Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five local soldiers) met Clayton′s LRDG patrols on 6 January 1941 at Kayouge. The combined force reached Murzuk on 11 January and in a daring daylight raid, surprised the sentries and devastated the base. Most of the force attacked the main fort; a troop from T Patrol under Lieutenant Ballantyne attacked the airfield, destroying three Caproni aircraft and capturing some prisoners; D'Ornano was killed in this raid along with one trooper of T Patrol. A French officer cauterized his leg wound with a cigarette, much to the admiration of the LRDG. A diversionary raid by French camel cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides. These troops were relegated to reconnaissance duties only.
Colonel Philippe Leclerc assumed command in place of d'Ornano. After the success of the Murzuk raid, Leclerc marshalled his forces to take on Kufra. The attacking column included about 400 men in 60 trucks, two Laffly S15 TOE armoured cars, four Laffly S15 all-terrain carriers and two 75 mm (2.95 in) mountain guns. Kufra was protected by two defensive lines around the El Tag fort with barbed wire, trenches, machine-guns and light anti-aircraft guns. The Regio Esercito forces in the fort were the 59th and 60th Machine-gun companies, with a total of 280 "askari" colonial infantry and an Auto-Saharan Company, the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra. The Saharan companies were a mixed force of motorized infantry with well-armed off-road vehicles (SPA AS37), which could also call on the Regia Aeronautica for support. The "Compagnia Sahariana" in Kufra was around 120-men strong (45 Italians and 75 Libyans).
Leclerc asked the LRDG to deal with the Saharan company, based in El Tag fort in Kufra oasis. The LRDG was detected by a radio intercept unit at Kufra and the Italians organized a mobile column of 40 men, one AS37 and four FIAT 634 lorries to intercept them. G Patrol had been kept in reserve. On 31 January, Major Clayton was at Bishara (130 km (81 mi) south-south-west of Kufra) with T Patrol (30 men in 11 trucks). The patrol was spotted by an Italian aeroplane in the morning. T Patrol took cover in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif, a few kilometres north. The plane directed the Saharan patrol to attack the LRDG force.
Due to superior Italian fire power—the Italian vehicles were armed with 20 mm (0.79 in) cannons—and constant air attack, T Patrol was driven off, losing four trucks and Major Clayton, who was captured with several others. Trooper Ronald Moore led other survivors to safety after a long foot march. The remaining LRDG force withdrew to Egypt for refitting, except for one vehicle of T Patrol, equipped for desert navigation. During the fight, 1st Lieutenant Caputo in command of the Saharan company was killed, as were two Libyan soldiers.
Leclerc pressed on with his attack, even though the Italians had a copy of his plan which they had captured with Major Clayton. After conducting further reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganized his forces on 16 February. He abandoned his two armoured cars and took with him the remaining serviceable artillery piece, a crucial decision. Only about 350 men reached Kufra, due to breakdowns of trucks on the march. Aware of the advancing French, the Italians organized once more a strong mobile column from the Saharan company (70 men, 10 AS37 and 5 trucks). On 17 February, Leclerc's forces met the "Sahariana" north of Kufra. Despite losing many trucks to the 20 mm guns of the Italian AS37 cars, the French drove the Saharianas off, as the Kufra garrison failed to intervene.
The French surrounded El Tag and laid siege to the fort, despite another attack by the Saharianas and harassment from the air. The 75 mm gun was placed 3,000 m (3,300 yd) from the fort, beyond range of the defenders and fired twenty shells per day at regular intervals from different places, to give the appearance of more guns. Some 81 mm (3.2 in) mortars were placed 1,500 m (1,600 yd) from the fort and bombed the Italian positions in order to add pressure on the defenders.
The fort was commanded by an inexperienced reserve captain, who lacked the will and the determination to fight. Surrender negotiations began on 28 February and on 1 March 1941, the Italian garrison of 11 officers, 18 NCOs and 273 Libyan soldiers (12, 47 and 273, according to French sources) surrendered El Tag and the Kufra oasis to the Free French. During the siege, the Italian garrison had suffered one Italian officer killed, two Libyan soldiers killed and four wounded; the French had 4 dead and 21 wounded. The Italian garrison was permitted to withdraw to the north-west and the French forces took over eight SPA AS.37 Autocarro Sahariano light trucks, six lorries, four 20 mm cannon and 53 machine-guns.
After the fall of Kufra, Leclerc and his troops swore an oath to fight until "our flag flies over the Cathedral of Strasbourg"
Swear not to lay down arms until our colors, our beautiful colors, float on the Strasbourg Cathedral.
The oath was fulfilled on 23 November 1944, when Leclerc and the French 2nd Armoured Division liberated Strasbourg.