Neha Patil (Editor)

Italian invasion of Egypt

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40 killed  120 killed410 wounded
Result  Inconclusive
Dates  9 Sep 1940 – 16 Sep 1940
Location  Egypt
Italian invasion of Egypt uploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonsthumb663

Combatants  United Kingdom, Kingdom of Italy, Free French
Similar  World War II, Operation Compass, Operation Brevity, Western Desert Campaign, North African Campaign

wwii the italian invasion of egypt 1940 every day

The Italian invasion of Egypt (Operazione E) was an Italian offensive against British, Commonwealth and Free French forces during the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) of the Second World War. The goal of the offensive was to seize the Suez Canal; to accomplish this, Italian forces from Libya would have to advance across northern Egypt to the canal. After numerous delays, the aim of the offensive was reduced to an advance into Egypt, as far as Sidi Barrani and attacks on any British forces in the area.


The 10th Army advanced about 65 miles (105 km) into Egypt but only made contact with the British screening force of the 7th Support Group (7th Armoured Division) and did not engage the main force around Mersa Matruh. On 16 September 1940, the 10th Army halted and took up defensive positions around the port of Sidi Barrani, intending to build fortified camps, while waiting for engineers to extend the Via Balbia with the Via della Vittoria, to accumulate supplies for an advance on Mersa Matruh, about 80 miles (130 km) further east, where the remainder of the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division were based.

Italian invasion of Egypt 13th September 1940 The Italian invasion of Egypt attack in the


Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, had been an Italian colony since the Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912). With Tunisia, a part of French North Africa to the west and Egypt to the east, the Italians prepared to defend both frontiers, through a North Africa Supreme Headquarters, under the command of the Governor-General of Italian Libya, Marshal of the Air Force, Italo Balbo. Supreme Headquarters had the 5th Army (General Italo Gariboldi) in the west and the 10th Army (General Mario Berti) in the east, which in mid-1940 had nine metropolitan divisions of about 13,000 men each, three Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (Blackshirt) divisions and two Italian Libyan Colonial divisions with 8,000 men each. Reservists had been recalled in 1939, along with the usual call-up of conscripts.

In 1936, General Alberto Pariani had been appointed Chief of Staff of the Italian army and begun a reorganisation of divisions to fight wars of rapid decision, according to thinking that speed, mobility and new technology could revolutionise military operations. In 1937, three-regiment (triangular) divisions began to change to two-regiment (binary divisions), as part of a ten-year plan to reorganise the standing army into 24 binary, 24 triangular, twelve mountain, three motorised and three armoured divisions. The effect of the change was to increase the administrative overhead of the army, with no corresponding increase in effectiveness; new technology, tanks, motor vehicles and wireless communications were slow to arrive and were inferior to those of potential enemies. The dilution of the officer class to find extra unit staffs, was made worse by the politicisation of the army and the addition of Blackshirt Militia. The reforms also promoted frontal assaults to the exclusion of other theories, dropping the emphasis on fast mobile warfare backed by artillery.

Morale was considered to be high and the army had recent experience of military operations. The Italian navy had prospered under the Fascist regime, which had paid for fast, well-built and well-armed ships and a large submarine fleet but the navy lacked experience and training. The air force had been ready for war in 1936 but had stagnated and was not considered by the British to be capable of maintaining a high rate of operations. The 5th Army with eight divisions was based in Tripolitania, the western half of Libya opposite Tunisia and the 10th Army with six infantry divisions, held Cyrenaica in the east. When war was declared, the 10th Army deployed the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle on the frontier from Giarabub to Sidi Omar and XXI Corps from Sidi Omar to the coast, Bardia and Tobruk. The XXII Corps moved south-west of Tobruk, to act as a counter-attack force.

Before war was declared, Balbo expressed his doubts to Mussolini,

Italian invasion of Egypt Italian invasion of Egypt Wikipedia

It is not the number of men which causes me anxiety but their weapons ... equipped with limited and very old pieces of artillery, almost lacking anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons ... it is useless to send more thousands of men if we cannot supply them with the indispensable requirements to move and fight.

and demanded more equipment including 1,000 trucks, 100 water tankers, more medium tanks and anti-tank guns, which the Italian war economy could not produce or the army transfer from elsewhere. Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio, by then the Chief-of-Staff in Rome, made promises instead, "When you have the seventy medium tanks you will dominate the situation", as Balbo prepared to invade Egypt on 15 July. After Balbo was killed, Benito Mussolini replaced him with Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, with orders to attack Egypt by 8 August. Graziani replied that the 10th Army was not properly equipped and that an attack could not possibly succeed; Mussolini ordered Graziani to attack anyway.


The British had based forces in Egypt since 1882 but these were greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and Commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route. The canal was vital to British communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. In mid-1939, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the new Middle East Command, over the Mediterranean and Middle East theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice, the French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5th Army on the western Libyan border.

In Libya, the Royal Army had about 215,000 men and in Egypt the British had about 36,000 troops, with another 27,500 men training in Palestine. British forces included the Mobile Division (Egypt) (Major-General Percy Hobart), one of two British armoured training formations, which in mid-1939 was renamed Armoured Division (Egypt) (on 16 February 1940, it became the 7th Armoured Division). The Egypt–Libya border was defended by the Egyptian Frontier Force and in June 1940, the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Division (Major-General Richard O'Connor) took over command in the Western Desert, with instructions to drive back the Italians from their frontier posts and dominate the hinterland if war began. The 7th Armoured Division, less the 7th Armoured Brigade, assembled at Mersa Matruh and sent the 7th Support Group forward towards the frontier as a covering force.

The RAF also moved most of its bombers closer to the frontier and Malta was reinforced to threaten the Italian supply route to Libya. The HQ of the 6th Infantry Division, which lacked complete and fully trained units, was renamed the Western Desert Force on 17 June. In Tunisia, the French had eight divisions, capable only of limited operations and in Syria were three poorly armed and trained divisions, with about 40,000 troops and border guards, on occupation duties against the civilian population. Italian land and air forces in Libya, greatly outnumbered the British in Egypt but suffered from poor morale and were handicapped by some inferior equipment. In Italian East Africa were another 130,000 Italian and African troops with 400 guns, 200 light tanks and 20,000 lorries; Italy declared war from 11 June 1940.


The war was fought primarily in the Western Desert, which was about 390 kilometres (240 mi) wide, from Mersa Matruh in Egypt to Gazala on the Libyan coast, along Via Balbia, the only paved road. The Sand Sea 150 miles (240 km) inland marked the southern limit of the desert at its widest at Giarabub and Siwa; in British parlance, Western Desert came to include eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. From the coast, extending inland lies a raised, flat plain of stony desert about 500 feet (150 m) above sea level, that runs 120–190 miles (200–300 km) in depth until the Sand Sea. Scorpions, vipers and flies populate the region, which is inhabited by a small number of Bedouin nomads.

Bedouin tracks linked wells and the easier traversed ground; navigation was by sun, star, compass and "desert sense", good perception of the environment gained by experience. When Italian troops advanced into Egypt in September 1940, the Maletti Group got lost leaving Sidi Omar, disappeared and had to be found by aircraft. In spring and summer, days are miserably hot and nights very cold. The Sirocco (Gibleh or Ghibli), a hot desert wind, blows clouds of fine sand, which reduces visibility to a few yards and coats eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment; motor vehicles and aircraft need special oil and air filters and the barren ground means that water and food as well as military stores, have to be transported from outside.

10th Army

The ten divisions of the 10th Army under Berti were in the XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII corps and the new Gruppo Divisioni Libiche (Libyan Corps). The divisions of the 10th Army were either standard Italian binary infantry divisions, Blackshirt (Camicie Nere or CCNN) infantry divisions or Italian Libyan Colonial Divisions. The Libyan Corps, XXIII Corps and XXI Corps were used in the invasion. The Libyan Corps had two Libyan infantry divisions and the Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti), an ad hoc unit composed of six Libyan motorised battalions under General Pietro Maletti. The Maletti Group incorporated much of the armour available to the Italians and almost all of the Fiat M11/39 medium tanks. Maletti advanced with the army and Graziani remained at his HQ in Tobruk.

Berti preferred an advance along the coast road by the infantry of the XXI Corps, because the metropolitan infantry divisions of XXI Corps had scant desert experience. They would be flanked to the south by the much more experienced Libyan divisions and the motorised Maletti Group. The ground forces were supported by the Squadra of the Regia Aeronautica, with 300 aircraft of various types. The command had four bomber wings, a fighter wing, three fighter groups, two reconnaissance groups, and two squadrons of colonial reconnaissance aircraft, with Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers, Breda Ba.65 ground attack aircraft, Fiat CR.42 fighters and IMAM Ro.37, Caproni Ca.309 and Caproni Ca.310bis reconnaissance aircraft. The Squadra was organised to follow and support the army in the field as a self-contained unit. Berti could expect little support from the Italian Regia Marina, because ten submarines had been lost since Italy declared war, the fleet was too important to risk and was short of fuel.

Italian plans

Three dates were set for an Italian invasion and cancelled, the first invasion plan was to coincide with a German invasion of England due on 15 July 1940. In this plan, Balbo required all the trucks from the 5th Army and the Fiat M11/39 medium tanks, which were just arriving, to reinforce the 10th Army for a crossing of the frontier wire to occupy Sollum immediately after the declaration of war. When the British counter-attacked and the Italian armies were replenished, the advance would continue but the plan fell through when the invasion of England was cancelled, despite its realism in the conditions of July 1940. The second plan, for 22 August, was for a limited advance to Sollum and Shawni el Aujerin to the east, with three columns moving on three lines of advance. Once Sollum was secure, an advance to Sidi Barrani would be contemplated, an example of the advance-in-mass used on the northern front of the Ethiopian War. The Italian non-motorized infantry divisions were to use the only road network but the summer heat in August, which would have affected them most, led to another postponement.

The third plan was for an invasion on 9 September, with Sidi Barrani as the objective, which Graziani disclosed to his staff six days before the day Mussolini had ordered the invasion. The metropolitan non-motorised divisions, would advance along the coast and attack through Halfaya Pass, to occupy Sollum and continue to Sidi Barrani. A southern column of the Libyan divisions and the Maletti Group, were to advance along the Dayr al Hamra, to Bir ar Rabiyah and Bir Enba track, to outflank the British on the escarpment. The Maletti Group was to drive south and east through the desert but the Italian staff failed to provide proper maps and navigation equipment; when moving to its assembly and jumping-off points, the group got lost and XXIII Corps Headquarters had to send aircraft to help lead the group into position, the Libyan divisions arriving late at the rendezvous near Fort Capuzzo.

The deployment failure added to doubts about the lack of lorries and transport aircraft and British domination of the terrain, which led to another change of plan. The fourth plan was for 13 September, with Sidi Barrani and the area to the south as the objective. The 10th Army, with five divisions and the tanks, would advance in mass down the coast road, occupy Sollum and advance to Sidi Barrani, through Buq Buq. Having reached Sidi Barrani, the army was to consolidate and bring up supplies, destroy a British counter-attack and resume the advance to Matruh. The Italian non-motorized infantry divisions were to use the coast road, because these divisions would be ineffective anywhere else. A similar operation had been conducted on the northern front in Ethiopia but went against theory, for which there were ample forces to execute. Graziani believed the only way to defeat the British was by mass, having overestimated their strength.

Western Desert Force

Wavell had about 36,000 troops in Egypt, including support and administration units. All the formations were incomplete and short of equipment and artillery. The 2nd New Zealand Division (Major-General Bernard Freyberg) had one infantry brigade, an understrength cavalry regiment, a machine gun battalion and a field artillery regiment, the 4th Indian Infantry Division (Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse) had two infantry brigades and part of its artillery establishment, the 7th Armoured Division (Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh) had two armoured brigades composed of two regiments instead of the normal three and fourteen non-brigaded battalions of British infantry. Wavell was to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal against an estimated 250,000 Italian troops based in Libya and about 250,000 more in Italian East Africa.

The Support Group, with three motorised infantry battalions, artillery, engineers and machine-gunners, was to harass the Italians and to fight delaying actions between the border and Matruh if attacked but to retain the capacity to engage the main Italian force. At Matruh an infantry force would await the Italian attack, while from the escarpment on the desert flank, the bulk of the 7th Armoured Division would be ready to counter-attack. The covering force was to exaggerate its size and the Support Group was to use its mobility to cover the desert flank, while along the coast road, the 3rd Coldstream Guards, a company of the 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) and a company of Free French Motor Marines, with supporting artillery and machine-gunners, would fall back in stages, demolishing the road as they retired. At the end of May 1940, the Royal Air Force in the Middle East had 205 aircraft, including 96 obsolete Bristol Bombay and Blenheim medium bombers and 75 obsolete Gloster Gladiator fighters and 34 other types. In July, four Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived but only one could be spared for the Western Desert Force. By the end of July, the Mediterranean Fleet had won control of the Eastern Mediterranean and were able to bombard Italian coastal positions and transport supplies along the coast to Matruh and beyond.

Border skirmishes

On 17 June, using the headquarters of the British 6th Infantry Division, the headquarters of the WDF (Lieutenant-General O'Connor) was formed to control all troops facing the Italians in Cyrenaica, about 10,000 men, with aircraft, tanks and guns. O'Connor was to organise aggressive patrolling along the frontier and set out to dominate no-man's land by creating "jock columns", mobile formations based on units of 7th Armoured Division, which combined tanks, infantry and artillery. These small well-trained regular forces made the first attacks on Italian convoys and fortified positions across the border.

British patrols closed up to the frontier wire on 11 June, to dominate the area, harass the garrisons of the frontier forts and set ambushes along the Via Balbia and inland tracks. Some Italian troops were unaware that war had been declared and seventy were captured on the track to Sidi Omar. British patrols ranged north to the coast road, between Bardia and Tobruk, west to Bir el Gubi and south to Giarabub. Within a week, the British 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) had seized Fort Capuzzo and at an ambush east of Bardia, captured the 10th Army Engineer-in-Chief, General Lastucci. Italian reinforcements arrived at the frontier, began to conduct reconnaissance patrols, improved the frontier defences and recaptured Fort Capuzzo. On 13 August, the British raids were stopped to conserve the serviceability of vehicles and the Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division took over, to observe the wire for 97 kilometres (60 mi) from Sollum to Fort Maddalena, ready to implement the plan to fight delaying actions if the Italians invaded Egypt.

9–10 September

XXIII Corps (General Annibale Bergonzoli) was to lead the 10th Army attack into Egypt to Sidi Barrani along the coast road with non-motorised and motorised formations. The corps had been given enough trucks to partly motorise three infantry divisions but could only fully motorise one division. Bergonzoli wanted the 1st Raggruppamento Carri as advanced guard, two motorised infantry divisions in line and one motorised division in reserve. The two Libyan non-motorised infantry divisions were to move on foot, with the Maletti Group bringing up the rear. The 1st Raggruppamento Carri was held back in reserve, except for the LXII Light Tank Battalion, which was attached to the 63rd Division Marmarica and the LXIII Light Tank Battalion assigned to 62nd Division Cirene. The 2nd Raggruppamento Carri stayed at Bardia except for the IX Light Tank Battalion with the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori. The II Medium Tank Battalion was with the Maletti Group, which had three fully motorised Libyan infantry battalions.

On 9 September, the activity of the Regia Aeronautica increased and bombers from 55 Squadron, 113 Squadron and 211 Squadron RAF retaliated with attacks on airfields, transport, supply dumps and a raid on Tobruk by 21 aircraft. Later in the day, 27 Italian fighters made a sweep over Buq Buq and the RAF flew more sorties against Italian airfields. British air reconnaissance revealed much ground movement at Bardia, Sidi Azeiz, Gabr Saleh and towards Sidi Omar from the west, which was interpreted as the beginning of the Italian invasion. The forward move of the 10th Army showed the limitations of Italian mobility and navigation, when the Maletti Group got lost moving up to Sidi Omar, on the Frontier wire. On 10 September, the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars spotted the Maletti Group and heavy mist shielded the British as they shadowed the slow Italian build-up. As the mist cleared, the hussars were attacked by Italian aircraft, tanks and artillery.

13–14 September

On 13 September, the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo re-took Fort Capuzzo and a bombardment fell on Musaid, just over the Egyptian side of the border, which was then occupied. Artillery-fire and bombing began on Sollum airfield and barracks (which were empty), which raised a dust cloud. When the dust cleared the Italian army could be seen drawn up, ready to advance against the British covering force of 3rd Coldstream Guards, some field artillery, an extra infantry battalion and a machine-gun company. The Italians advanced along the coast with two divisions leading, behind a screen of motorcyclists, tanks, motorised infantry and artillery. The Italian formation made an easy target for artillery and aircraft but the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle soon occupied Sollum barracks and began to move down the escarpment to the port. On the inland plateau, an Italian advance towards Halfaya Pass was opposed by a covering force of a 3rd Coldstream company, a Northumberland Fusilier platoon and some artillery, which began to withdraw in the afternoon, as more Italian infantry and tanks arrived.

During the evening, two columns of the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori, the 63rd Infantry Division Cirene and the Maletti group from Musaid and the 62nd Infantry Division Marmarica from Sidi Omar, converged on the pass. Next day the Italian units on the escarpment began to descend through the pass, towards the Italian force advancing along the road from Sollum. An 11th Hussar squadron, the 2nd Rifle Brigade and cruiser tanks of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1st RTR) harassed the Italian force on the escarpment. Just after noon, the British troops on the coast retreated to Buq Buq and met reinforcements from the 11th Hussars and a company of motorised French Marines, which was enough to maintain contact with the Italians. The British withdrew to Alam Hamid on 15 September and Alam el Dab on 16 September, trying to inflict maximum losses without being pinned down and destroying the coast road as they went, damage which was made worse by the amount of traffic.

16 September

The uncommitted part of the 1st Raggruppamento Carri, followed the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle and the 2nd Libyan Division Pescatori towards Bir Thidan el Khadim. At Alam el Dab near Sidi Barrani, about fifty Italian tanks, motorised infantry and artillery tried an outflanking move, which forced the Coldstream Guards to retreat. The armoured group was engaged by British field artillery and made no further move but by dark the 1st Blackshirt Division 23 Marzo had occupied Sidi Barrani. Above the escarpment, the British covering forces fell back parallel to those on the coast road and the threat from the desert flank did not materialise. British aircraft flew many reconnaissance and bombing sorties and Squadra made sweeps with up to 100 fighters and bomber sorties on forward British airfields and defensive positions. The British anticipated that the Italian advance would stop at Sidi Barrani and Sofafi and began to observe the positions with the 11th Hussars, as the Support Group withdrew to rest and the 7th Armoured Division prepared to confront an advance on Matruh. Italian radio broadcasts about the invasion, suggested that the advance would continue from Sidi Barrani but it soon appeared that the Italians were digging-in on an arc to the south and south-west at Maktila, Tummar (east), Tummar (west), Nibeiwa and on top of the escarpment at Sofafi as divisions further back, occupied Buq Buq, Sidi Omar and Halfaya Pass.


The 10th Army had advanced about 12 miles (19 km) a day, to enable the non-motorised units to keep up and once at Sidi Barrani, the 10th Army began to build a chain of fortified camps. No bold mechanised strokes or flanking movements had been made by the armoured units, which were the best in the army and XXIII Corps, which instead had guarded an infantry force moving up the coast road at marching pace. During the advance, the 10th Army had fewer than 550 casualties. The three mobile elements of the 10th Army, Raggruppamento Maletti, 1st Raggruppamento Carri and the 1st Blackshirt Division 23rd Marzo had failed to operate according to Italian armoured warfare theory. This was due to the lack of preparation, training and organisation in the Italian army, which led to the blunders in assembling and directing the Raggruppamento Maletti and overcaution with the other tank battalions of 1st Raggruppamento Carri.

The rushed motorisation of the 1st Blackshirt Division 23rd Marzo, disorganised the relationship between drivers and infantry, since the division had not been trained as a motorised division. The advance reached Sidi Barrani with modest losses but failed to do much damage to the British. On 21 September, there were 68 × Fiat M.11/39 tanks left of the 72 sent to Libya. The 1st Medium Tank Battalion had 9 serviceable and 23 unserviceable tanks and the 2nd Medium Tank Battalion had 28 serviceable and eight unserviceable tanks. Italian medium tank strength was expected to increase when deliveries of the new Fiat M13/40 began. The M13/40 tank had a powerful Cannone da 47/32 M35 47 mm gun. The II Medium Tank Battalion with 37 × M13/40 tanks arrived in Libya in early October, followed by the V Medium Tank Battalion with 46 × M13/40 tanks on 12 December. In mid-November the Italians had 417 medium and light tanks in Libya and Egypt.

Wavell wrote,

The greatest possible credit is due to Brigadier W. H. E. Gott, MC, commanding the Support Group, and to Lieutenant-Colonel J. C. Campbell, MC, commanding the Artillery, for the cool and efficient way in which this withdrawal was carried out, also to the troops for their endurance and tactical skill.

Repair works began on the coast road, renamed Via della Vittoria from Bardia and a water pipe, which were not expected to be ready before mid-December, after which a resumed advance would go no further than Matruh.

Mussolini wrote on 26 October,

Forty days after the capture of Sidi Barrani I ask myself the question, to whom has this long halt been any use—to us or to the enemy? I do not hesitate to answer, it has been of much use, indeed, more to the enemy ... It is time to ask whether you feel you wish to continue to command.

and two days later, on 28 October, the Italians invaded Greece, beginning the Greco-Italian War. Graziani was allowed to continue planning at a leisurely pace and an Italian advance to Matruh was scheduled for mid-December.


From 9–16 September, the 10th Army had casualties of 120 men killed and 410 wounded. Several tanks and lorries broke down and six aircraft were lost, two to accidents.

Subsequent operations

On 17 September, the Mediterranean Fleet began to harass Italian communications and Benghazi harbour was mined. A destroyer and two merchant ships were sunk by torpedo, and a destroyer hit a mine at Benghazi and sank. RAF Blenheims destroyed three aircraft on the ground at Benina. The road on the escarpment was bombarded near Sollum by a navy gunboat and targets near Sidi Barrani by two destroyers, from which fires and explosions were seen. Captured Italians spoke of damage, casualties, and a loss of morale. An attempt to bombard Bardia by a cruiser and destroyers was thwarted by an attack by Italian torpedo bombers, which hit the stern of the cruiser and put it out of action. Bombardments continued during the lull, which led to camps and depots being moved inland. Small British columns on land were set up to work with armoured car patrols, moving close to the Italian camps, gleaning information, and dominating the vicinity.

Operation Compass

On 8 December the British launched Operation Compass, a five-day raid against the fortified Italian camps set up in a defensive line outside Sidi Barrani. General Berti was on sick leave and Gariboldi had temporarily taken his place. The raid succeeded and the few units of the 10th Army in Egypt that were not destroyed were forced to withdraw. By 11 December, the British began a counter-offensive and the rest of the 10th Army was swiftly defeated. The British prolonged the operation to pursue the remnants of the 10th Army to Sollum, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Mechili, Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The British lost 1,900 men killed and wounded, about ten percent of their infantry and took 133,298 Italian and Libyan prisoners, 420 tanks and over 845 guns and aircraft. The British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to broken-down and worn out vehicles and the diversion of the best-equipped units to the Greek Campaign.


Italian invasion of Egypt Wikipedia