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Chapter 5: Italian Hostility Increases (March–June 1940)

See Chronology on page 100.

ON 10th MARCH 1940 the Reich Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, arrived in Rome, apparently to inform Mussolini of Germany’s future plans. His visit was followed on the 18th by a meeting at the Brenner Pass between the two dictators themselves. The Duce seems to have been much impressed and to have come away convinced of Germany’s military supremacy, though Count Ciano assured the British Ambassador a few days later that there would be no change in Italy’s foreign policy. The reports reaching London at the time were somewhat conflicting, but the general inference was that Mussolini would not initiate any violent action unless the Germans first gained a military success. It is true that there had been some calling-up of Italian reservists; that the army in Libya was being strengthened; and that Italian propaganda was becoming increasingly anti-British in tone. As against this, the Italian people were, on the whole, opposed to war, and, although the Duce was strong enough to impose his will in the last resort, he was so well aware of his country’s weaknesses and unreadiness that he would be unlikely to bring her in deliberately—except to join the winning side.

In September 1939 the Allies had found themselves ill-prepared to undertake a war against Germany; now, seven months later, they were still dangerously short of many of their essential requirements for defence, let alone those that would be needed for major offensive operations. Yet if the Germans, with or without Russian help, were to extend the war to the Balkans, the Allies would want to move to the help of Turkey. But in the Middle East, as General Wavell had pointed out, British preparations for war were very far from complete, partly because of the delays in meeting his demands for men and material, and partly because of the ban on taking any action that might annoy the Italians. At the same time the air forces were quite inadequate to meet serious and prolonged air attacks and could not provide the normal support expected for land and sea

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operations. It was therefore clear that the Allies’ difficulties would be greatly increased by Italian intervention.

This naturally led to further consideration in London of the attitude that ought now to be adopted towards Italy. Was it wise to adhere to the policy of non-provocation? If the Duce was really awaiting a suitable moment to intervene, would it not be better to speak to him in a language easily understood by dictators, and confront him with a show of force? This might have the effect of making him hesitate, but on the other hand it might provoke him into unreasonable action, and the danger was that this might occur before we were ourselves in a satisfactory position to meet the consequences.

The deterrent steps that could be taken on land did not amount to very much, being confined to a few internal movements and activities indicating a general closing up towards the frontiers of Cyrenaica and Italian East Africa. Two or three air force squadrons could be set in motion towards Egypt and Palestine from Kenya and the Far East. By far the most effective action open to us would be to reconstitute a strong naval force in the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea. This would threaten Italy’s communications with her African empire and the Black Sea trade routes, and would help to stiffen the attitude of Egypt, Turkey, and the Levant States towards Italy. Moreover it would result in adequate naval forces being in position should Mussolini suddenly decide to take the plunge. Finally, in order to play upon his fear that the war might be carried into his own country, it should be easy to arrange for information to reach Italy that preparations were being made to bomb the industrial areas of Northern Italy from airfields in the south of France. For most of these suggested measures French acquiescence and collaboration would of course be essential.

While the question of policy was being considered by the Allied Governments, some preliminary steps were taken. On 27th March the Admiralty ordered certain depot and repair ships to sail for Alexandria and ten submarines to leave the China and East Indies Stations for the Mediterranean. Naval Commanders-in-Chief were told that it might be necessary to reassemble a large force at short notice in the Eastern Mediterranean. India was warned that she might be asked to send two bomber squadrons to the Middle East. However on 9th April the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East were informed that, although relations with Italy had become more uncertain, it was felt that no important moves by them were necessary at the moment.

On this very day the German invasion of Norway and Denmark began. The Royal Navy became at once heavily committed in northern waters and was now in no position to spare forces for the

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Mediterranean. In the circumstances it was decided to approach the French, who had strong forces already concentrated in the western basin, with a view to their assuming responsibility for the whole of the Mediterranean. With the German operations making successful progress it was inevitable that the Duce should become restive. Would he decide that this was the moment to enter the war? It seems that he was only restrained on 17th April by the emphasis laid by his military advisers, especially Marshal Badoglio, on the unpreparedness of the army and the general lack of armaments. He made a short public speech on 21st April from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia with ‘work and weapons’ as its theme, and told an assembly of Fascist officials in the course of a tirade against the blockade that Italy must be ready to take part in the events of which she was at present a spectator. Reports reaching the Allies at the time indicated that the Italians might be contemplating an attack, possibly on Greece, but much more probably on Yugoslavia. The Allied Governments were thus faced with another difficulty. They had given no guarantee to Yugoslavia, but if she were invaded and they took no action the result would probably be a collapse of all Allied political influence in south-east Europe. The Balkan States, and possibly even Turkey, might be driven to come to an understanding with Germany and Italy as quickly as they could.

On 23rd April the Allied Governments re-affirmed that it was still their policy not to provoke Italy but that they must be ready to act if she became an aggressor. They gave further consideration to the implications of Italian aggression, but on the Yugoslavian issue they decided not to commit themselves in advance. On 29th April the War Cabinet agreed to a number of precautionary measures. All British merchant ships sailing to or from the Indian Ocean, other than mail steamers, were routed round the Cape. One regular British battalion was to go from France to Gibraltar, and subject to the concurrence of the Indian Government two bomber squadrons were to be sent from India to Egypt, and one Indian battalion to Aden. The defences of Alexandria, Haifa, Malta and Gibraltar were to be manned. The 7th Armoured Division was to move unobtrusively into the Western Desert. The transfer to Kenya of two brigade groups of the Royal West African Frontier Force had already been approved, and the South African Government had agreed to send a brigade and an air contingent, but the ships for these moves were not yet available. One battalion of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment was to move from Kenya to British Somaliland.

The French were informed of these measures and were asked to take similar action. British and French naval Commanders-in-Chief were keeping in close touch with each other, but it was not

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necessary to pursue the suggestion that the French should assume naval responsibility for the whole Mediterranean, since the operations

of the past three weeks in northern waters had resulted in such serious losses to the German Fleet that it was now possible for the Royal Navy to release considerable forces for the Eastern Mediterranean.

On 3rd May the battleships Royal Sovereign and Malaya arrived from convoy duties in the Atlantic, to be followed towards the end of the month by the Ramillies and the aircraft carrier Eagle from similar duties in the Indian Ocean. On 14th May the Warspite, fresh from operations at Narvik, re-hoisted the flag of Admiral Cunningham which had been temporarily worn by the Malaya. Of the cruisers assembling in May and early June the Orion came from the American and West Indies Station, the Neptune from the South Atlantic, the Gloucester from the East Indies, H.M.A.S. Sydney from Australia, and the Liverpool from China. In addition, two anti-aircraft cruisers, destroyers, and minor war vessels came from the Home Fleet. Also under Admiral Cunningham’s command was a French squadron, consisting of the battleship Lorraine, three 8-inch cruisers, one 6-inch cruiser, three destroyers, and six submarines. In the Red Sea a naval concentration to form what was known as the Red Sea Force, consisting of four cruisers, four destroyers and four sloops, followed by the necessary auxiliaries, assembled at Aden early in May.

A difficult problem now arose over the passage of convoys bound for Suez containing the second and third contingents of troops from Australia and New Zealand. The Dominion Governments were naturally extremely anxious lest hostilities with Italy should break out before their convoys had passed through the Red Sea. Their anxiety was fully shared by the Admiralty, and it was only after very careful consideration that the leading convoy was allowed to continue.

It reached Suez safely on 17th May with about 7,000 Australian troops, the second brigade group of the 6th Australian Division. The next convoy left Fremantle on 12th May, but on the 15th the Admiralty decided, in consultation with the Dominion Governments, that its passage through the Red Sea would involve an unjustifiable risk. The convoy, carrying some 15,000 Australian and New Zealand troops, the second brigade group of the New Zealand Division, and the third of the 6th Australian Division, was therefore diverted round the Cape and reached the Clyde on 16th June. The arrival of this fine body of Dominion troops just as France collapsed was a welcome occurrence as far as the defence of Great Britain was concerned, but the Governments of Australia and New Zealand viewed with some dismay the splitting of their contingents between probable battle-fields as far apart as the United Kingdom and the Middle East, not merely on account of the administrative difficulties that would arise

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but because of their very natural desire to see their contingents take the field as complete Dominion formations.

The, conference at Aleppo in March1 had made it clear to the Commanders-in-Chief that before any further discussions could usefully be held with the Turks it was necessary to receive more information about the general Allied plans in the event of war with Italy. They wanted to know, for example, what were the plans for attacking Italy; whether it was the intention of the French to invade Libya from Tunisia; at what stage would operations be undertaken to neutralize or capture the Dodecanese, particularly Rhodes; and what additional forces might they expect to receive to meet their increasing commitments. These questions were put to the Chiefs of Staff on 9th April, and as this was the day on which the invasion of Denmark and Norway began it is not surprising that no conclusive answers were forthcoming. In fact it was not until the middle of May that the Commanders-in-Chief received a directive based on the views of the British and French High Commands. One point in it was quite clear: no resources could now be spared from France or the United Kingdom.

There was agreement that at the outset of war with Italy Allied major strategy would be generally defensive, with the Objects of securing Allied territories, together with Egypt, Palestine, and Syria; of controlling the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal and the sea communications to French North Africa; and of maintaining the Red Sea route. Although defensive, this strategy would automatically cut Italy’s communications with East Africa and the outer seas and would impose economic pressure on her. The French, no longer intended to carry out a large-scale offensive from Tunisia in the early stages, and even local offensive operations would now be conditional on direct British air support, which was obviously not available.

Both High Commands recognized the strategical importance of Crete and agreed that provision should be made to deny it to the Italians. The only certain way of ensuring this would have been to send a small force to stiffen and support the Greek garrison, but this would have compromised the neutrality of Greece and might well have provoked Mussolini into declaring war. The only acceptable course was to hold a small force in readiness to sail for the island immediately it was learned that Italy had violated Greek territory or was on the point of doing so. It was agreed that this force should consist of French troops, transported from Syria in French men-of-war. Responsibility for the safe passage would rest upon Admiral

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Cunningham. Aircraft and guns for air defence would have to be provided by the British.

The defensive nature of the general strategy threw into relief the British proposals for bringing pressure to bear on Italy quickly, and it was hoped effectively, by air attacks on the concentration of war industry in the area Milan-Turin-Genoa. If carried out in sufficient strength this action might have important and far-reaching results and would probably cause the Italian High Command to bring back some of their air forces that might otherwise be employed elsewhere, and so relieve the pressure in the Mediterranean theatre. The ruthless and indiscriminate bombing in Holland by the Luftwaffe, beginning on 10th May, had caused the Allies to relax the restrictions which they had imposed on air bombardment. Accordingly all preparations were made for squadrons of the Royal Air Force, operating from airfields in the south of France, to attack this area immediately Italy entered the war. Fresh instructions were issued to Commanders-in-Chief on 4th June confining naval arid air bombardment as before to military objectives, but interpreting this term as including such targets as shipyards, oil installations, factories, and other establishments engaged in the manufacture, assembly or repair of military material. As the intentional bombing of civilian populations as such was illegal, objectives were to be identified and reasonable care was to be taken to avoid undue loss of civil life in the vicinity of the target.2

It was clear from the directive that in the Aegean area the French High Command had much more ambitious ideas than the British. They had made proposals for occupying, subject to Greek consent, Milos and possibly also Salamis, Navarino, and Argostoli, not only to prevent the Italians from getting these key points, but also as a first step in the encirclement and subsequent reduction of the Dodecanese. The French were prepared to provide the necessary troops, which they estimated at three battalions, and to transport them in French cruisers, but again expected the British to provide the air and anti-aircraft cover. The French realized that if Italy were in the war there could be no question of sending a large expeditionary force to Salonika, but they were anxious to send some-thing, and now proposed a token force of a few thousand men, mainly to demonstrate to the Greeks that the Allies were not deserting them.

They accepted the fact that such a force could not be maintained in the orthodox manner, and were quite prepared to see their troops live on the country and fight under the same conditions as the Greek army. This was an entirely different project from the proposals discussed previously, but the Chiefs of Staff thought that militarily it was equally unsound. They recognized that it

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would be mainly a French commitment, but the responsibility for transporting and landing the force in the face of an Italian air threat would fall upon the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, and the French were counting once more upon the British to contribute aircraft and anti-aircraft guns.

In view of the heavy responsibility carried by the British for the defence of Egypt, the French had agreed to provide from Syria the initial land support for Thrace, which, until control of the Aegean had been secured, would be limited by the capacity of the Anatolian railway to about one division. They were again counting on the British to provide artillery, tanks and anti-tank units. A German thrust against Thrace, coupled with Italian hostility, constituted perhaps the greatest danger to which Allied interests in the Mediterranean were likely to be exposed, but without adequate air defence it was extremely doubtful whether the Turks would be able to maintain their positions or any Allied help arrive in time to be of use The Commanders-in-Chief were accordingly urged to give special attention to the provision of air security for the Turkish front.

Finally there was the question of the Dodecanese. Under the military convention with Turkey the Allies were committed to assist with naval and air forces in the reduction of these islands. The French were anxious to do this as early as possible. The importance of having Turkey as an ally in a war with Italy needed no stressing. In particular, with Turkey on our side the Bosphorus would be open to us and closed to Italy, whose communications with the Black Sea would be cut. The French felt that the best way of making certain that the Turks would come in on our side would be to show our determination to reduce the Dodecanese at an early stage. Moreover they regarded this as an essential preliminary to any other operation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In theory there was much to be said for the various French proposals; the objection to them was that they bore little relation to actualities. The recent Norwegian campaign had shown all too clearly that operations to throw forces ashore and maintain them without adequate air defence imposed a great strain on the navy and were liable to be extremely costly. Yet the Chiefs of Staffs had no option but to warn the Commanders-in-Chief that no aircraft or anti-aircraft guns could be spared from France or the United Kingdom at this juncture. They felt, moreover, that the French proposals involved so much dispersion of the limited resources that, if they were carried out in full, the security of the whole Allied position in the Middle East would be jeopardized. The Chiefs of Staff felt that the Allied Commanders on the spot, who were now obliged to rely upon their own resources, were in the best position to judge what risks could be accepted and to assess how the available resources

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could best be used. They therefore instructed the Commanders-in-Chief to concert plans with General Weygand and report what they proposed to do. It happened that General Weygand had met the Commanders-in-Chief for discussion on 10th May on board HMS Malaya, and had been made aware of the serious shortages in aircraft, weapons, and essential equipment for the types of operation under consideration. This was the day on which Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg; on this day also Mr. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister.

By the middle of May it was known that Italy had been busily preparing for war for some weeks. The navy was fully prepared; the air force was ready so far as its resources permitted; the army had been mobilized since 10th May and the troops in Libya, Albania, and the Dodecanese had all been reinforced. It was recognized that the decision rested entirely with the Duce. For a time it had been thought possible that he intended to satisfy German demands, and perhaps gain his own ends in the Mediterranean, by all means short of going to war. The Ambassador in Rome reported in April that Italy was losing strength month by month. Stocks of all raw materials were low, and few emergency war stocks were believed to exist; only in respect of petroleum was the country any better equipped for war than she had been six months earlier.3 Nevertheless, the balance of evidence pointed to the conclusion that Mussolini had made up his mind, in spite of the shortages of material in the fighting services and the economic vulnerability of his country, that Italy was to enter the war at Germany’s side. In view of the successes that the Germans were having in France, this might be very soon.

Nor could the local situation be regarded as entirely satisfactory. Throughout the countries of the Middle East doubts had arisen, and were becoming more widespread with every new German success, whether the Allies could win the war. In Persia the general feeling was that Germany was the stronger, and there was much dissatisfaction in government circles at the failure of Great Britain to fulfil her orders for armaments as promptly as had been hoped. In Iraq public opinion was noticeably turning against the British, and in such a politically unstable country there was always the danger of the establishment by coup d’état of a government hostile to the Allies’ interests. The Mufti had fled to Iraq from the Lebanon and had begun to be politically active. In Saudi Arabia there was strong sympathy with the Arab cause in Palestine and Syria, although Ibn Saud himself remained friendly. In Transjordan the Emir’s confidence

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in Great Britain never wavered. In short, while there were those who realized that an Allied victory offered the best guarantee of such independence as the Middle Eastern countries had already achieved, there was also a body of more envenomed opinion which regarded Allied influence as the main hindrance to the achievement of full independence. The undercurrent of discontent created conditions favourable to propaganda, intrigue, and misrepresentation.

The situation in Egypt was the principal cause of concern to the Commanders-in-Chief. The Egyptians viewed the possibility of becoming involved in war with apprehension which might very easily be turned into panic. Under the pressure of Axis propaganda, backed by German successes, this would in all probability take an anti-British direction. While there was no immediate cause for alarm, it had to be recognized that irresponsible politicians and excitable mobs were liable to create a dangerous situation. To protect the large European population, safeguard the Canal, and keep open the essential but very vulnerable communications within Egypt and with the Sudan and Palestine might require the use of all the available British resources, though perhaps not for long. Fortunately there seemed to be no immediate threat of land attack on Egypt or the Sudan, nor for that matter on Kenya or Aden either. There was, however, evidence that a large-scale operation was being prepared against Somaliland, and, although the French defences in this area were strong, the British were without any anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns and might be hard pressed. This estimate of Italian intentions has been shown to be substantially correct. On 31st March Mussolini told his Chiefs of Staff that if the war continued it would be impossible for Italy to stay out of it. He intended to remain on the defensive on both fronts of Libya, on the Kenya front, and in the Aegean; in East Africa there would be strictly limited offensives towards Kassala and Gedaref, and an offensive against Jibuti.

Such, then, was the general background to the conference which was to take place with the French and Turkish commanders at Beirut—the first occasion on which the British were empowered to enter into detailed discussions with the Turks on the hypothesis of a hostile Italy.4 The circumstances were not encouraging. The news from France was daily becoming worse, and on 18th May it was learned that General Weygand would not be present; he was being recalled to France to replace General Gamelin in command of the French land forces. His place was taken by General Massiet, the commander of the French mobile forces in the Levant.

If nothing very constructive emerged from the Beirut conference it did at least clear the air. General Massiet’s instructions were to insist on the necessity for a concentration of the maximum Allied air

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strength in an immediate attempt to reduce the Dodecanese Islands. He reiterated the argument that until the threat from them had been eliminated no other operations in the Eastern Mediterranean would be possible. The British Commanders-in-Chief agreed that the Staffs should examine the problem, but felt it necessary to state the British attitude in terms which allowed of no ambiguity. In a war against Italy the decisive factor would be Allied sea-power in the Mediterranean. It was therefore of primary importance to ensure the security of the naval base at Alexandria, of Egypt as the main military and air base, and of the Red Sea line of communication. This composite task would absorb the whole British effort at the outset, the Royal Air Force in particular being barely strong enough for its primary role. The British could therefore offer very little help to the French and Turks at present, but when the bases were secure they could take greater risks. Meanwhile, the Italian position in the Dodecanese would gradually deteriorate as the result of naval pressure. Marshal Chakmak, for his part, was not prepared to see the Turkish Air Force weakened by losses in operations against the. Dodecanese, since its full strength might be needed in defence of Thrace.

Discussion of ‘the worst possible case’—Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Russia all hostile—elicited a French undertaking to send one division to Thrace, although it would take more than a month to arrive; one division would assist the Turks, preferably against the Dodecanese; and one was tentatively earmarked for Salonika. No progress was made in a discussion on a possible offensive against Russia, but in the event of a Russian invasion from the Caucasus it was hoped that the British plans for the defence of the Mosul oilfields in conjunction with Iraqi forces would be of some indirect assistance to the Turks. The main point of interest of the whole conference was that the Turks showed no disappointment at the meagreness of the help which was offered to them, though they were naturally noncommittal. The line taken by the British Commanders-in-Chief was fully endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, and it is quite possible that Marshal Chakmak was favourably impressed by the candour with which the British views were stated. He realized no doubt that the Allies were fighting for their lives in Western Europe, and even if the conference did nothing else it showed clearly that the British in the Middle East were badly in need of much of the equipment which they had been supplying to the Turks.

A comparison of naval strength at the end of May shows that British and French surface forces in the whole Mediterranean were together superior to those of the Italians.5 With the two Littorios (nine

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15-inch, 31 knots), which were expected to join the fleet in about July, the Italians would have a force of six battleships, seven 8-inch and twelve 6-inch cruisers and some fifty fleet destroyers. They had no aircraft carriers, for they relied on shore-based aircraft to provide all their air support.

In the western basin, the French Mediterranean Fleet based on Toulon, Bizerta, Algiers and Oran included the two modern battle-cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg (eight 13-inch, 29½ knots), as well as two battleships, four 8-inch and six 6-inch cruisers and thirty-five fleet destroyers of a very powerful type. At Gibraltar, under the Flag Officer, North Atlantic, were one British battleship, one 6-inch cruiser and nine destroyers.

The Allied forces in the Eastern Mediterranean consisted of the British Mediterranean Fleet of four battleships, eight 6-inch cruisers, twenty fleet destroyers and the aircraft carrier Eagle, and a French squadron, under Vice-Admiral R. E. Godfroy, of one battleship, three 8-inch cruisers, one 6-inch cruiser and three destroyers.

With the exception of the Italian Littorio battleships and the French battlecruisers, the capital ships on both sides were vessels completed just before or at the beginning of the First World War. Of these, Admiral Cunningham’s own flagship, the Warspite, and two of the Italian battleships had been extensively modernized. Similar alterations to the other two were nearly completed. The 12 6-inch guns of all four would then out-range the 15-inch guns of every British battleship except the Warspite.

Thus, although the Italians by virtue of their central position might be able to concentrate superior force in the area of their choice, they had to be prepared for attacks from both directions at once by forces whose combined strength was superior to their own. Type for type the speed of Italian warships was higher than that of the British, and this could give the Italian Fleet an advantage in determining when and where to seek action, when to break it off, or when to avoid it altogether. They had a further advantage in possessing mg submarines in the Mediterranean against 46 French and 12 British. The influence that air power would have on these comparative strengths was still unknown and estimates were very varied. In training and morale the British were confident of their own superiority.

Admiral Cunningham had not the same advantage as the Italians of possessing additional destroyers for meeting the many commitments, apart from fleet duties, for which these craft were needed. This meant he would be unable to take his whole battlefleet to sea at the same time without temporarily stopping all other activities, but it would not prevent him from being able to operate with sufficient force to retain command of the Eastern Mediterranean so long as there was a French fleet in the western basin to co-operate with his

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own movements and deter the Italians from making a serious challenge in either area. In Tunisia the French were well placed to cut Italian communications with Libya by surface ships, aircraft and submarines; of the last, as has been seen, they possessed four-fifths of the total Allied strength in the Mediterranean.

In the Red Sea the principal danger lay in the eight. Italian submarines and seven fleet destroyers which were based at Massawa, in addition to other vessels for local defence. Properly handled they could inflict serious initial losses on Allied shipping in that area, since the Red Sea Force could only just provide essential escorts for convoys. On the other hand, Massawa would be cut off from seaborne supplies and reinforcements, so that the enemy’s naval effort in the Red Sea might be expected to grow progressively weaker.

The Italian land forces in Libya in early June were estimated, with reasonable accuracy considering the difficulty of obtaining intelligence, to be nine metropolitan (or regular) divisions, four (in reality three) Blackshirt divisions, two Libyan native divisions, and a number of Army and Corps troops, besides various other Libyan units and Frontier Guards. A metropolitan division consisted of about 13,000 men, including both conscripts and volunteers, while Blackshirt and Libyan divisions numbered about 8,000 men each. These forces, under North Africa Supreme Headquarters, were organized as the 5th Army in Tripolitania and the 10th Army in Cyrenaica. It was thought on the eve of war that the 10th Army, consisting of one metropolitan and one Blackshirt Corps, each of two divisions, and a group of two Libyan divisions, was moving up towards the Cyrenaican frontier, which was weakly held by Frontier Guards.

While these formations were thought (correctly) to be complete in men, certain deficiencies were either known or suspected. The heavier weapons, for example tanks and artillery, were in general below modern standards of efficiency, while there was a shortage of medium artillery, and a diversity of types in other natures. Rather more than half the regular troops in Libya had received a fair amount of training, offset by the lower efficiency of the remainder who were recruits. Morale was low owing to poor food and living conditions, and it seemed that only the politically enthusiastic Blackshirts were eager for war. It was known that the Italians lacked the transport to make their formations fully mobile, but stores and ammunition were considered to be enough for three months and food for ten.

As regards the Allied forces, the French had in Tunisia six divisions, a fortress division, and a light cavalry division; a force which,

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as General Noguès had predicted, would be capable only of local operations with limited objectives. In Syria there was an expeditionary

force of three divisions, inadequately armed and trained, in addition to some forty thousand troops organized for frontier duties and tribal control.

In Egypt General Wavell had some 36,000 men; they were not however organized in complete formations. Equipment was seriously short throughout, especially artillery of all natures, ammunition, fighting vehicles, and transport. The two armoured brigades of the 7th Armoured Division had each two regiments, instead of three, and these were only partly equipped.6 The 4th Indian Division also had but two brigades and part of its artillery. Of the New Zealand Division there was as yet one infantry brigade, a cavalry regiment less a squadron, a machine-gun battalion, and a field regiment of artillery. There were also fourteen battalions of British infantry and two artillery regiments. There was, in addition, the Egyptian Army, which was in some respects better equipped than many of the British units; but as Egypt had not declared war on Germany the amount of support to be counted on from the Egyptian Army was doubtful. In Palestine there were about 27,500 troops consisting of an in-complete horsed cavalry division, two cavalry regiments, two Australian brigades with two field regiments of artillery and some divisional troops, and a British infantry brigade and two other battalions. Of these troops the cavalry and the Australians were unlikely to be fully equipped and trained before the end of the year. From Palestine one brigade might have to be provided for service in Iraq, while certain other units were earmarked for internal security duties.

Over Italian East Africa as a whole it had been very difficult to. obtain accurate information about the armed forces. There were thought to be: upon the Sudan frontier eleven brigades of native troops and twelve Blackshirt battalions-or 20,000 men with 200 guns; in southern Ethiopia about 7,000 native and 1,000 white troops; in Italian Somaliland 7,000 native troops and 4,000 levies. A metropolitan division was at Addis Ababa and six native brigades at Diredawa and Harar. The estimated total was 30,000 white and 100,000 native troops, with 400 guns, 200 light tanks, and 20,000 lorries.7

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British forces in this theatre were few, scattered, and lightly equipped. In the Sudan, with a frontier against the enemy of 1,200 miles, were three British battalions and the Sudan Defence Force, which with police and sundry irregular detachments totalled about 9,000 men. In Kenya, whose frontier was 850 miles long, were two East African brigades and two light batteries, or some 8,500 men. British Somaliland had one battalion of the King’s African Rifles and the five companies of the Somaliland Camel Corps; in all 1,475 strong. Aden was garrisoned by two Indian battalions.

There is no doubt, therefore, that the Italians, both in Libya and East Africa, had the advantage over the British in numbers. But against this must be set two important factors: a generally lower morale and some weaknesses in material. The British troops were certainly few in numbers for their many possible tasks, while they were of necessity dispersed in widely separated areas, so that there was little chance of offsetting the disparity in numbers by a rapid transfer from one area to another. Yet numbers were almost the least of General Wavell’s anxieties: what he lacked was any complete formation—fully equipped and trained as such—and without this his force could not be regarded as being in a high state of preparedness for war.

On 13th May 1940 Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore assumed command of the. Royal Air Force in the Mediterranean and Middle East in place of Sir William Mitchell.8 All Royal Air Force units stationed or operating in Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine and Transjordan, East Africa, Aden and Somaliland, Iraq and adjacent territories, Cyprus, Turkey, the Balkans, Malta, the Red Sea and Persian Gulf came under his command. His directive defined the primary role of these forces as the defence of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the maintenance of communications through the Red Sea. He was responsible, ‘in conjunction with the Commanders-in-Chief Mediterranean, East Indies, and Middle East, as appropriate, for the preparation of plans for the employment of air units within his Command.9

He was to be responsible for the general administrative control of his Command so far as operational requirements dictated, but the Air Officers Commanding Aden, Iraq, and Mediterranean (Malta) were to exercise local administrative control under the Air Ministry.

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This arrangement was made to avoid overloading the staff of Air Headquarters with local administrative detail, but it soon proved to be unworkable, and it was not long before the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was given a free hand to assume whatever degree of administrative control of his subordinate commands he deemed necessary.

On reviewing the state of his forces, Sir Arthur found the situation far from reassuring. He had no modern fighters or long-range bombers. He was short of aircraft spares and other equipment. The strength of his squadrons in Egypt and Palestine amounted only, to 96 bombers and bomber transports (mainly Blenheim Mark I and Bombay); 75 fighters (Gladiator)—including a fighter squadron of the Royal Egyptian Air Force—24 army co-operation aircraft (Lysander) and 10 flying-boats (Sunderland): a total of 205 aircraft. If Italy should enter the war there would be little prospect of receiving any reinforcements or replacements for some time to come. Any strengthening of the air forces in Egypt or East Africa would depend upon such reshuffling within the Command as circumstances would permit. Resources would have to be strictly conserved from the outset, for with this meagre force the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief would have to neutralize the enemy air forces in Cyrenaica and the Dodecanese; attack lines of supply and ports within range; provide support for naval and land operations; and give fighter protection to such important targets as the Fleet Base at Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, and the Suez Canal. Furthermore, he knew that in certain circumstances he might be pressed to send squadrons to the aid of the Turks in Thrace. On the other hand, the French had in North Africa about 65 fighters and 85 bombers—the latter in the course of being replaced by American Douglas and Glenn Martin aircraft—and it was hoped that their activities would be co-ordinated with those of the Royal Air Force in neutralizing the Italian Air Force in Libya. In Syria the French had a weak force of some 95 aircraft (13 bombers, 26 fighters, and 56 of other types).

Towards the end of May it was estimated that the strength of the Italian Air Force in Libya, exclusive of reserves was approximately 84 modern bombers (S.79, S.81) and 56 of Colonial types (Ghibli); 144 fighters of which about half were C.R.32 or C.R.42; and 57 other aircraft of various types. Of these approximately half the bombers and fighters, it was believed, were based in Cyrenaica. It was estimated that a further 84 aircraft (36 bombers, 12 fighters, and 36 other aircraft) were stationed in the Dodecanese: a total of 425 aircraft in Libya and the Dodecanese. The true figures for the Italian strength, when war broke out, were 140 bombers, 101 fighters, and 72 other types—a total of 313 aircraft disposed in Libya and the Dodecanese. It was thought at the time that the balance of forces as between Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the Dodecanese could be

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altered by switching squadrons from one to the other, and that a still greater advantage lay in the ability to reinforce any of these theatres from the Metropolitan Air Force. The Allies could do nothing to interfere with the flow of such reinforcements except in so far as the French in Tunisia might be able to attack any airfields in Sicily and Pantelleria used by the Italians as staging posts.

In East Africa it was believed that, exclusive of reserves, the Italians had 36 modern bombers and 114 of Colonial types; 45 modern fighters; and 18 others : a total of 213 aircraft. In fact, they had 325 aircraft of which 142 were in reserve. Bomber reinforcements could be flown in from Italy via Libya, but the numbers would be governed by the ability to maintain and operate them. So long as the blockade by land and sea was complete, the stocks of fuel, bombs, ammunition, and aircraft spares, already believed to be below requirements, could not be replenished.

At Aden the Royal Air Force had one bomber squadron armed partly with Blenheim Mark Is and Vincents; one Blenheim Mark I squadron recently arrived from India at reduced establishment; a fighter squadron (Gladiator) at half strength; and one flight of a land-based G.R. squadron (Blenheim IV). In the Sudan there were three bomber squadrons (Wellesley) and one fighter flight (Gladiator). Until the end of May, British air units in Kenya consisted only of a Rhodesian squadron armed with obsolete aircraft and three flights of the Kenya Auxiliary Air Force: By the end of May, units of the South African Air Force had begun to arrive with a mixed collection of obsolete aircraft amounting to the equivalent of two bomber squadrons and one fighter squadron. The latter was immediately brought to Egypt, and rearmed and trained on Gladiators. Excluding the aircraft of the Rhodesian squadron and the Kenya Auxiliary flights, there were by the outbreak of war some 85 Wellesleys and Blenheims, 9 Vincents, 24 Hartbeests, 15 Junkers 86, and 30 Gladiators and Furies in Aden, Kenya and the Sudan.

The Italian fighter (C.R.42) had a slightly better performance than the Gladiator. Their bomber (S.79) could carry a heavier bomb load than the Blenheim Mark I and had an advantage in range that would enable it to operate from airfields in Cyrenaica out of the Blenheims’ reach. As against this, the Italian maintenance organization was not considered to be very efficient; the average proportion of serviceable aircraft in Libya was estimated to be about 70%, and in East Africa it was put as low as 30%. About one-third of the Italian pilots were thought to be up to Royal Air Force standard, and some had had recent experience of active service in Spain.10

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Thus on the one hand the Italian air forces were numerically superior to those of the British opposed to them, and were in general better armed, in addition to which they were capable of being appreciably reinforced—except in East Africa. On the other hand the Italians were short of aircraft spares, equipment, and reserves of fuel, while their maintenance organization was poor. Air Chief Marshal Longmore felt confident that what he lacked in quantity would be largely offset by the high morale and better training and experience of his air and ground crews. He came to the conclusion that the Italians’ effective fighting strength might deteriorate rapidly in the face of a determined air offensive.

By the end of May all three services were at the alert and ready for war to break out at any moment. The Libyan frontier was being patrolled by squadrons of the Egyptian Frontier Force. The 7th Armoured Division (less the 7th Armoured Brigade) had assembled in the neighbourhood of Matruh, with the Support Group of two regiments of Royal Horse Artillery and two motor battalions disposed as a covering force between the main body and the frontier. Lines-of-communication troops had been reinforced. On 1st June the 14th Infantry Brigade from Palestine reached Egypt, where its presence would do something to stiffen Egyptian morale, and where it would be available for internal security duties if needed.

Although no major changes had been made in the general plans for war outlined in Chapter 3, General Wavell intended to launch immediate attacks to clear the enemy from the frontier posts and to dominate the country as far west as possible. On 8th June Major-General R. N. O’Connor, with the headquarters of the 6th Division, arrived from Palestine to assume command of all troops in the Western Desert, thus relieving General Wilson of responsibility for the direct control of operations which had been his in addition to the command of all troops in Egypt. On 17th June HQ 6th Division was re-designated HQ Western Desert Force.

Shortly after taking over command, Air Marshal Longmore decided to concentrate his entire bomber force—less one squadron retained in reserve—in the Western Desert, placing the whole of the air forces there under the command of Air Commodore Collishaw. As it was important that the Italian air force should be hit hard as soon as possible after the declaration of war, Collishaw was given authority to begin operations without waiting for further orders directly he was satisfied that a state of war existed.

In the Sudan and Kenya it was not possible to cover the long and vulnerable frontiers with the few troops available. Small mobile forces were therefore placed at the principal frontier posts to delay

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any enemy advance, a policy which was considered preferable to abandoning them without action. By the middle of May British Somaliland had been reinforced by one battalion of the King’s African Rifles, which was moved up to defend an important defile on the Italian approach road to Berbera. The British force in Somaliland was placed under the orders of General Legentilhomme who had permission to withdraw the force towards Jibuti if the situation made this necessary.

The exposed position of Malta made it very likely that the Italians would attempt its early capture. During May the garrison was reinforced by a British battalion from Gibraltar, making five British battalions in all, in addition to The King’s Own Malta Regiment. But against the air attacks which were expected on a large scale the island was quite inadequately defended. Owing to the calls for defence of vital areas elsewhere it had not been possible to provide any of the four fighter squadrons approved for the air defence of the island.11 Nor had any of the additional anti-aircraft guns arrived. Malta was of supreme importance to Admiral Cunningham as a base from which to operate against the Italian lines of communication to Libya, and the fact that the island was so weakly defended against air attack caused him the greatest concern, which he constantly represented to Whitehall. Chance came to the rescue where foresight had failed. Four packing cases consigned to the carrier Glorious—by now in home waters—were found to contain four Sea Gladiators. The Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore F. H. M. Maynard, obtained permission to erect them and form them into a local fighter defence unit flown by pilots from his headquarters staff and from flying-boat units. One unfortunately crashed soon afterwards, but the other three—‘Faith’, ‘Hope’, and ‘Charity’—survived to demonstrate Malta’s determination to overcome difficulties and show fight. If the idea was impudent it was also inspiring, with the added attraction of being, like so many British achievements, entirely impromptu.

On 27th May the Admiralty approved Admiral Cunningham’s definition of his initial object, which was to secure control of sea communications in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean and to cut off the enemy’s supplies to the Dodecanese Islands. In the Prime Minister’s view this was not a sufficiently aggressive object; the fleet ought to sally forth to ensure an early collision with the Italian forces, whose fighting quality could thus be judged. No one was more eager for this than Admiral Cunningham himself, whose intentions were anything but defensive. Naval action against the Italian communications with the Dodecanese would not only encourage the Turks, but might well have the effect of drawing

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Italian heavy units eastwards. There were, however, certain factors that the Commander-in-Chief could not ignore. He felt that his long-range air reconnaissance was quite inadequate. He was short of light forces and could spare none to work from Malta. He had already reported his intention of carrying out an extensive sweep into the Central Mediterranean, but in this he would be seriously handicapped by the lack of adequate means of reconnaissance and of retaining contact with the enemy when located—disadvantages from which the enemy did not suffer. He was therefore unlikely to gain contact with much more than Italian aircraft and submarines. He felt it necessary to get the measure of these before attempting prolonged operations in the Central Mediterranean, but if Malta were attacked from the sea he intended to move with the whole fleet to its relief. There was also the need to hold ships in instant readiness to carry troops to Crete in order to gain the use of Suda Bay, a base farther to the west where his fleet could refuel and replenish ammunition. If adequate air reconnaissance could eventually be established from Tunisia or Malta he hoped to keep a force of cruisers and destroyers operating almost permanently in the central area to prey on the traffic to Libya.

The Chiefs of Staff agreed with these views. They had already told the Commanders-in-Chief that there was little hope of adding to their resources, as was anyhow evident from the disasters taking place in France. The outcome was the despatch of a telegram on 4th June to each Commander-in-Chief reminding him that, although the Mediterranean forces had at first to be strategically on the defensive, it was important, in view of the serious situation in the west, that local offensive action should be taken against the Italians whenever possible.

In a last attempt to avoid provocation the Admiralty gave orders, received on 23rd May, that no Italian ship in the Mediterranean was to be stopped or diverted by any contraband control. But as May drew to a close Italy’s hostile intentions were no longer in doubt. On 1st June orders were issued for Italian cargoes to be seized in the event of war and, on 4th June, for Italian shipping in colonial ports to be delayed on devious pretexts. Precautions were intensified against possible sabotage in the Suez Canal. Two days later Italy announced that all waters within 12 miles of her coasts were dangerous to navigation.

Events were now moving rapidly to the climax. At 4 a.m. on 10th June the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, with two flying-boats from No. 201 Group, left Alexandria for an anti-submarine sweep westwards. The Mediterranean Fleet was at two hours’ notice; merchant ships were ordered to keep more than three miles from the coasts of Malta, Cyprus, and Palestine between sunset and sunrise; the lights

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of the Suez Canal, were extinguished and navigation during darkness was suspended. In the Western Desert No. 202 Group and the Western Desert Force were preparing to get their blows in first.

Chronology: March-June 1940

12th March Russo-Finnish war ends
18th March Hitler and Mussolini meet at the Brenner
9th April Germany invades Denmark and Norway
15th April First British forces land in Norway
10th May Germany invades Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg
10th May Mr. Churchill becomes Prime Minister and Minister of Defence
14th May Commanders-in-Chief in Middle East receive policy for war with Italy
15th May Dutch resistance ends German troops enter France
27th May Belgian resistance ends
28th May British forces begin evacuation from Dunkirk
8th June Withdrawal of French and British forces from North Norway completed
10th June Italy declares war on Great Britain and France as from 11th June: Canada declares war on Italy
11th June Australia, New Zealand and South Africa declare war on Italy

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The Organization of the three Services in 1940, with particular reference to the Mediterranean and Middle East


The word FLEET is a loose term, officially defined as meaning a number of vessels working in company. When reference is made to a specific Fleet, such as the Mediterranean Fleet, it includes all H.M. Ships and Vessels operating in that area—known as the STATION—under the command of the Commander-in-Chief.

Ships and Vessels of His Majesty’s Fleets are organized in SQUADRONS for cruisers and above, or FLOTILLAS for destroyers and below. Unlike the First World War, when the Grand Fleet was composed of numerous Battle Squadrons, there was normally only one Battle Squadron with each of the main fleets during the Second World War. Squadrons and Flotillas, if numbers of ships permit, are further sub-divided into two DIVISIONS and four SUB-DIVISIONS. The term BATTLEFLEET includes not only the Battle Squadron but also those ships screening it and manoeuvring with it.

Squadrons of Battleships, Aircraft Carriers, and Cruisers consisted of two or more ships, each squadron being under the command of a Flag Officer, e.g. 1st Battle Squadron, 3rd Aircraft Carrier Squadron, 7th Cruiser Squadron. In the Mediterranean there was usually only one Aircraft Carrier, which normally operated with the Battleships at sea; it was regarded as forming part of the Battle Squadron for manoeuvring purposes. The Carrier(s), together with the Fleet Air Arm in general, came under the administrative command of the Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers.

The aim of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet during the early part of the war was to maintain the Battle Squadron at a strength of four Battleships (two Divisions) under the administrative command of a Rear- or Vice-Admiral, who also assumed operational command when the Commander-in-Chief was not afloat. The strength of Cruiser Squadrons varied from two to six cruisers. These squadrons, as far as possible, were composed of ships of the same class, as cruisers varied in size from the 4,200-ton 25-year old ‘C’ class cruisers carrying 6-inch guns to the 10,000-ton County class carrying 8-inch guns. Some of the ‘C’ class had all their 6-inch guns replaced by modern anti-aircraft weapons.

A Flotilla of destroyers consisted of not more than eight boats—as far as possible of the same class—together with a Flotilla Leader,

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which is a larger type of destroyer to accommodate the Captain (D) and his staff. Very often, owing to casualties and defects, a flotilla consisted of only three or four boats, in which case it was sometimes commanded by a Commander (D). Whereas Divisions of Battleships and Cruisers were numbered as integral parts of the Squadron to which they belonged, e.g. 2nd Division of 1st Battle Squadron, Destroyer Divisions were not.

All the Destroyer Flotillas belonging to a Fleet came under the administrative and operational command of a Rear-Admiral (D) who generally flew his flag in a small cruiser. As explained in the text, the Mediterranean cruisers and destroyers, in the autumn of 1940, for a time all came under the operational control of a Vice-Admiral who was known as the Vice-Admiral Light Forces (V.A.L.F.). This was a purely local arrangement. Minesweeping Flotillas were organized on similar lines to Destroyer Flotillas, but were administered by the local Admiral of the port from which they were operating, e.g. the Fortress Commander, Alexandria, or the Vice-Admiral, Malta.

Any number of Submarines formed a Flotilla for administrative purposes, but as the boats operated independently they were not organized into Divisions like destroyers. Flotillas were normally administered and operated by a Captain (S) who commanded the depot ship or shore establishment which happened to be their operational base.

Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm were organized on similar lines to those in the Royal Air Force, but they were smaller. Twelve aircraft (without reserves, which could not be carried) were the normal complement of a Squadron, which was divided into flights and sub-flights. In earlier and smaller Carriers the strength of a squadron of the Fleet Air Arm was governed by the capacity of the Carrier. The Eagle, for example, could only carry eighteen aircraft, which were divided into two Squadrons of nine each. Conditions under which squadrons were disembarked naturally varied with circumstances. When, for instance, the Carrier was present—e.g. at Alexandria, with the Squadrons disembarked at Dekheila—only the minimum number of maintenance ratings were landed with the aircraft, while the workshops and headquarters staff remained on board. The type of aircraft embarked in Carriers varied according to the tasks and the aircraft available; it is mentioned, where appropriate, in the text. An old Carrier like the Eagle had no stowage for fighters; if embarked, they had to be kept ranged on deck.

The distance a ship of a given design can steam depends not only upon how much fuel she can carry but on the speed, the weather, and the cleanliness of the ship’s bottom. The old battleship Royal Sovereign had an endurance of about 2,500 miles at 20 knots in calm weather. This meant that ships of this class, if taking part in operations

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in the Central Mediterranean, had to refuel at Malta, since it was desirable to keep a wide margin of fuel in hand for eventualities. The modernized Warspite, on the other hand, had almost twice the fuel endurance of the Royal Sovereign. Although on some occasions destroyers were fuelled from battleships at sea in the Mediterranean, the danger from air and submarine attack made the operation very risky, apart from which it was generally impossible to provide special escort for oilers to meet the Fleet at sea. Operational endurance depended also on the supply of ammunition, particularly antiaircraft. As described in the text, there was more than one occasion on which operations had to be abandoned or modified owing to the anti-aircraft ammunition having been expended. The ammunitioning of ships at sea in the Mediterranean, as developed later in the Pacific, was obviously impracticable. An advanced base for fuel and ammunition, nearer to the main operational area, would have naturally increased the ability of ships to remain operating in that area.

The Supply Services in the Navy, unlike those in the Army and the Royal Air Force, were largely run by civilians. Thus, the Naval Store, Armament, and Victualling Officers, besides various dockyard officers associated with the supply and refitting of ships, were not subject to the Naval Discipline Act although the Commander-in-Chief naturally controlled the movements of Store Ships once they were on his Station.


The organization of the British Army for a major war was centred round the DIVISION, in which the basic arm was the infantry. There was also the CAVALRY DIVISION and the ARMOURED DIVISION, in which the basic arms were the cavalry and the tank arm respectively. All three types were represented in the Middle East.

The division

The division was the smallest formation to contain, as an integral part, a proportion of arms other than infantry.

The unit of infantry was the BATTALION. An INFANTRY BRIGADE was a permanent grouping of three battalions, together with a headquarters through which the Brigadier exercised control.

The division, commanded by a Major-General, consisted of a headquarters, three infantry brigades, and certain units of other arms collectively known as the DIVISIONAL TROOPS: e.g. three field regiments and an anti-tank regiment of artillery; three field companies and a field park company of engineers; divisional signals, and so on.

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Occasionally a portion of the divisional troops would be attached temporarily to an infantry brigade for some special purpose; this improvised formation was known as a BRIGADE GROUP.

Non-divisional units

Many types of fighting units existed (mostly on paper) which did not form part of a division; such as medium, heavy, and anti-aircraft artillery, machine-gun battalions, and various engineer, signal, and infantry tank units. These NON-DIVISIONAL UNITS were intended for allotment to formations as the situation might demand. Thus, if two or more divisions were grouped for purposes of command into a CORPS, a proportion of non-divisional units would become the CORPS TROOPS. Similarly, if two or more corps were grouped as an ARMY, there would be an appropriate allotment of ARMY TROOPS. It will be seen, therefore, that an increase in the total strength of a force implied a decrease in the proportion of infantry to the whole. As the war progressed it became increasingly necessary to apply the bulk of the corps troops, and even army troops, to support first one and then another of the divisions. The first corps formed in the Middle East was the 13th, which grew out of the Western Desert Force, in January 1941. The first army was the 8th, formed in September 1941.

Many other types of non-divisional units were required for administrative and maintenance purposes, principally at the base and on the lines of communication. In the Middle East their activities covered a very wide range, since the more undeveloped the country the more varied the work to be done. The need for units of this type is referred to on pages 61, 66.

Cavalry division

A horsed cavalry division arrived in Palestine in the spring of 1940. Most of its divisional troops were taken from it for service in Egypt during 1940. Two of its three cavalry brigades went to form the 10th Armoured Division in 1941.

Armoured formations

The tank was a British invention of the First World War, but the urge for economy in the inter-war years resulted in the British losing their lead. Very few tanks were built, and work on design and research was severely restricted. The result was that in 1939 the armoured arm was in a very backward state. The latest tanks naturally went to France.

British tanks in the Middle East were of three types:

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(a) light tanks, for reconnaissance work; fast, lightly armoured, and armed with machine-guns.

(b) medium or cruiser tanks; more heavily armoured, capable of a fair speed, armed with a gun and machine-guns.

(c) ‘I’ tanks; still more heavily armoured, but slower; intended for working with infantry; armed with a gun and machine-guns.

An armoured division was intended to consist of two armoured brigades, each of three regiments (or battalions) of medium and light tanks; a SUPPORT GROUP of two motor-borne infantry battalions and field and anti-tank regiments of artillery; and certain divisional troops. In the Middle East the one embryo armoured division—the 7th—could only be very gradually provided with up-to-date replacements for its existing vehicles. The growth of this division is referred to on pages 19, 68, 93, 186, 188, 200.

An ‘I’ tank battalion was a non-divisional unit, allotted according to circumstances. The despatch of the first Matilda ‘I’ tanks to the Middle East is referred to on page 190.

It must be stressed that the value of an armoured formation could not be judged merely by comparing the numbers of tanks with those of the enemy. Apart from morale and training, it depended upon mechanical reliability, armour, relative speed, efficiency of intercommunication, and—above all—fire power.

Dominion forces

The Dominions had decided to organize any forces they might raise on the same lines as the British, with only minor differences; and to equip and train them similarly.

The Indian Army

The Indian Army requires special mention. It was a standing regular army of long-service volunteers, organized and trained on the same lines as the British Army. Units were habitually up to strength and a large part of the army had seen active service in small expeditions. Most of the regimental officers were British, and the formation commanders and staff officers were appointed from either the British or the Indian service. A number of British regular units also served in India in peace time, and it had long been the custom for an infantry brigade to consist of one British battalion and two Indian battalions.

Reference has been made on page 38 to the readiness of the Indian Government to send its troops overseas if they could be supplied with the modern weapons and equipment appropriate to the conditions, their own scale being quite unsuitable against a first class Power.

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The proportion of artillery to infantry was comparatively low; it was mostly British, but armed with obsolescent guns. There were no anti-aircraft guns, few anti-tank weapons, and there was a lack of modern light machine-guns, mortars, and carriers. A start had been made with mechanization, but most of the cavalry was still horsed, and animals provided the greater part of the army’s transport.


Even without comparing particulars of weapons—which is of course a matter of fundamental importance—it will be seen that the counting of heads in any theatre of war can by itself give only a very rough and possibly quite erroneous picture of the fighting power of a force. But in order to give some idea of the size of some of the principal British-type units and formations the following extracts are given from authorized establishments for men and guns. The actual strengths in the Middle East in 1940 were often well below these figures. Details of transport and other weapons and equipment are omitted.

Unit or formation Officers and men Field guns Anti-tank guns
Infantry battalion 780
Infantry brigade 2,525 9
Field regiment, R.A. 583 24
Anti-tank regiment, R.A. 543 48
Divisional engineers 916
Divisional signals 491
Divisional R.A.S.C 1,124
Infantry division 13,659 72 75
Cavalry division 11,220 48
Armoured regiment or battalion 580
Armoured brigade 1,896
Support Group 2,864 24 56
Armoured division 9,634 24 56

The establishment of tanks in an armoured regiment or battalion was 52.

As a rough guide, the terms SQUADRON, BATTERY, or COMPANY may be taken as denoting a unit or sub-unit of between 100 and 300 strong. For example: a rifle company of an infantry battalion had 127 officers and men; a squadron of an armoured regiment, 170; a field company of engineers, 242; a divisional petrol company, 255; a battery of field artillery, 267.

For explanation of the term DIVISIONAL SLICE, see page 64n.

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The Mediterranean and Middle East Command of the Royal Air Force was organized into a number of smaller Commands, (see pages 31, 94), GROUPS, STATIONS, and WINGS. Under these formations were the fighting units—the SQUADRONS; the maintenance units responsible for the maintenance and supply of all equipment; signal and radar units; the training units for both air and ground crews; hospitals; and special units such as armoured car, and balloon barrage squadrons.

Command was normally exercised by Air Headquarters through the medium of a Group or, if there was no Group, direct through the Station or the Wing. The number of Stations and Wings and the types of units under command of a Group varied according to circumstances and the tactical requirements, but as a general rule Groups were composed of units of the same type.

When a number of units were together they were described as a Station and came under the control of the Station Commander. On the other hand when squadrons operated together as a mobile formation they were known as a Wing.

Squadrons were armed with fighter, bomber, reconnaissance, or transport types of aircraft and, broadly speaking, their functions came within these main classifications. But as the war progressed they were to be given many different roles, which necessitated modifications to aircraft, armament, and equipment, and special training for aircrews.

Squadrons were sub-divided into two, or in certain cases three, flying FLIGHTS and a headquarters flight. The headquarters flight was composed of engine and aircraft repair sections, and signals, armament, photographic, transport and administrative sections. But when two or three fighter or bomber squadrons were controlled by a Station or Wing Headquarters the sections of the head-quarters flight would be established as part of the formation headquarters, in order to economize manpower and material. This was generally satisfactory for squadrons based in the United Kingdom, but was not flexible enough for moving warfare, as in the Western Desert.

The first line strength of a squadron consisted of a number of initial equipment (I.E.) aircraft. An immediate reserve (I.R.) of up to 50 per cent of the I.E. was usually—but not always—held by each squadron. Further reserves were kept at air stores parks and maintenance units. The following are examples of the established strengths of squadrons in the Middle East soon after the fall of France:–

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Role of Squadron Type of aircraft I.E. I.R. Approximate strength, Officers and Airmen
Fighter Gladiator or Hurricane 16 8 250
Bomber Blenheim 16 8 400
Bomber Wellington 16 8 490
General Reconnaissance, Flying-Boat Sunderland 6 2 250
Army Co-operation Lysander 12 6 290

With a few exceptions all the airmen of a squadron or a technical unit were tradesmen. For example, in a Wellington bomber squadron there were electricians, fitters, instrument makers, wireless and electrical mechanics, fabric and metal workers, photographers and armourers and so on. To reach the required standard of skill in the majority of these trades much training and experience were needed, so that the expansion of the Air Force was not only a matter of numbers of aircraft and airmen and of flying training.

When war broke out with Italy the squadrons in the Middle East were, for the most part, armed with obsolescent aircraft. Particulars of the performance of these and of the enemy’s aircraft, their armament and functions, are given at Appendix 8. It should be borne in mind that both sides were constantly introducing new types or improving existing ones.

The numbers of squadrons or of aircraft at any time do not, therefore, give a true picture of the offensive or defensive power of an Air Force. The value of a serviceable aircraft depends upon the morale and skill of the aircrew, but an aircraft which cannot be flown is of no fighting value at all. Much depends, therefore, upon the ground crews and upon the repair and salvage organizations, in keeping the number of serviceable aircraft as high as possible. In 1940, and indeed in 1941, the Repair and Salvage Organization of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East had many short-comings; even so it proved to be much better than that of the Italians.