Chapter 6: Italy Declares War (June 1940)
AT 4.45 p.m. on 10th June the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs informed the British Ambassador in Rome that at one minute past midnight the King of Italy would consider himself to be at war with the United Kingdom. Count Ciano added that this was a declaration of war and not a pre-announcement. For some little time it had been expected almost daily, and when the Commanders-in-Chief received the news they lost no time in putting into effect their plans for striking at the enemy by sea, air, and land.
The 2nd Destroyer Flotilla had already sailed in the early hours of 10th June for an anti-submarine sweep to westward of Alexandria. Just before 10 o’clock that night HMS Decoy located a submarine to the south of Crete and attacked it, for it was presumed to be hostile because submerged.1 At one o’clock in the morning of the 11th Admiral Cunningham took his fleet to sea with the object of gauging the Italian submarine and air activity, and in the hope of encountering surface forces that he could attack. Even for this first operation he was unable to take the two Royal Sovereign class battleships on account of their lack of speed and the shortage of destroyers. His force therefore consisted of the battleships Warspite and Malaya, the aircraft carrier Eagle, five cruisers and nine destroyers. Two more cruisers from Port Said were to join the fleet at sea, and the French force of four cruisers and three destroyers was ordered to sail from Beirut, sweep into the Aegean, and then steam to Alexandria.
Sweeping to the westward the fleet remained for twelve hours off the Libyan coast, during which time one division of cruisers appeared off Benghazi and another engaged small craft off Tobruk. Off Derna an Italian cruiser escaped owing to tardy transmission of her position and poor visibility. The sweep was carried to within 120 miles of the heel of Italy but no important enemy forces were met, and the fleet returned to Alexandria on the evening of 14th June. Although no less than fifty Italian submarines had been at sea in the Mediterranean, with strong patrol lines off Alexandria and between Crete and Tobruk, the only loss sustained by the fleet was the cruiser Calypso torpedoed by a submarine. She was the fleet’s first casualty, and sank after an hour and a half with the loss of one
officer and 38 ratings. This loss was partly offset by the damaging of the old Italian cruiser San Giorgio which was set on fire in Tobruk harbour by aircraft of No. 202 Group co-operating with the British cruisers.
His first fleet operation was a disappointment to Admiral Cunningham, but it, was not without its results. The enemy’s inaction at sea suggested no great desire to seek battle, and his air reconnaissance seemed to be not fully developed. On the other hand, the operation showed clearly that the Eagle’s aircraft were insufficient for the many tasks required of them. It gave, in Admiral Cunningham’s opinion, practical proof of the impossibility of establishing effective control over the Central Mediterranean without some such fuelling base as Suda Bay.
Italian reactions were also being tested in other directions. On 14th June French cruisers from Toulon bombarded military objectives at Genoa in conjunction with attacks by No. 767 Fleet Air Arm Squadron from Hyères, while French aircraft bombed the oil tanks at Venice. On the 17th an Italian submarine was sunk by the French in the Western Mediterranean. On the 21st a force of British cruisers and a French battleship bombarded military installations at Bardia—the first of many operations of this type and one from which much useful experience was gained.
British submarines had meanwhile begun their long, arduous, often monotonous, and always hazardous vigil. Patrols off Crete had in fact been established, on the Admiralty’s instructions, since 20th May, but from 10th June all available boats from Alexandria and Malta went to sea and patrols were thereafter continuous. The initial losses were heavy; of the four boats operating from Malta three failed to return—the Grampus, Odin and Orpheus. Believing that they were lost on minefields off Italian ports, the Commander-in-Chief forbade submarines in future to cross the 200 fathom line unless pursuing an important enemy unit: in fact, all three vessels were sunk by Italian anti-submarine craft. Control of submarine operations, other than minelaying, to the west of 20° E (the longitude of Benghazi) was at this time under Rear-Admiral Ven at Bizerta. Similarly, the seven French submarines based at Beirut were under the operational control of the British Commander-in-Chief. On the first patrols no major units were encountered, but on 20th June the Parthian sank the Italian submarine Diamante off Tobruk.
The first two days of war had seen the loss of some 130,000 tons of Italian merchant shipping by capture, self-destruction, or internment. Enemy ships on passage, even when carrying troops or stores, were protected from attack by submarines, because these could not give the warning prescribed by international law. This provision was not observed by the Germans, and was modified by the Italians in their announcement that within a distance of 30 miles from any hostile coast they intended to sink shipping on sight. Even this did
not cover the sinking without warning on 12th June of the Norwegian tanker Orlanger 40 miles off the coast of Egypt. In retaliation Admiral Cunningham ordered all Italian tankers to be sunk on sight, but was immediately told by the Admiralty that his order was contrary to Government policy and must be cancelled. He protested repeatedly about the handicaps under which he was labouring, and gradually the restrictions were relaxed. Thus on 14th July he was authorized to attack without warning any Italian shipping within 30 miles of the Libyan coast, and on the 18th this was extended to cover Italian shipping within 30 miles of any Italian territory in the Mediterranean, and ships of any nationality within the same distance of the coast of Libya. But until as late as January 1941 it was possible for ships flying even the German flag to sail with impunity off the coasts of Italy, Sicily, or the Dodecanese.
There remained the difficult problem of interfering with Italian trade in the Aegean, especially the important tanker traffic from the Black Sea. Some measure of control by the Turks would have been a great help, but Turkey, not being a belligerent, preferred to adhere strictly to the article of the Montreux Convention by which merchant ships of any nationality, carrying any kind of cargo, enjoyed freedom of passage through the Dardanelles. From here onwards they were able to find safe passage by way of Greek territorial waters and the Corinth Canal.
In the Red Sea there were few naval forces, but the fact that this was now the main British supply route made it important that it should be secure. One ship was safely sailed under escort from Suez to Aden, and one from Aden to Suez. Though this produced no reaction by the enemy, it did not alter the fact that the eight Italian submarines and seven fleet destroyers based on Massawa could, if skilfully handled, be a serious danger to Allied shipping. On 16th June an Italian submarine sank a Norwegian tanker south of Aden. Little did she know what was to be the outcome of this act. For two days she was hunted by warships and aircraft, and was believed to have been damaged. The main forces then withdrew to other tasks, leaving the trawler Moonstone on patrol. On 19th June the submarine surfaced, intending to sink her small enemy and escape. The Moonstone, however, opened fire at once with her machine-guns, and her single gun, and although assailed by gunfire and torpedoes, obtained two hits on the conning-tower. With her captain killed the submarine surrendered. She was the Galileo Galilei, and her capture brought a valuable haul of documents, including the sailing orders of four other submarines.2 Dispositions were then
made which resulted in two of these being sunk, one as far away as the Persian Gulf. A third was wrecked near Port Sudan. Four out of eight submarines were thus accounted for, a loss which effectively discouraged the others, which were recalled in February 1941 and reached German-occupied Bordeaux the following May. The Galileo Galilei was ultimately berthed at Port Said, to serve as a generating station to charge the batteries of British submarines.
The Italian surface forces in the Red Sea also remained inert, so that the Allied convoys which had now been instituted proceeded without any interference from them. It could not be assumed that this happy state of affairs would continue, so that in fact there was no respite for the British naval forces. Convoy duty was incessant and was made particularly severe by the trying combination of Red Sea climate and active service conditions.
See Map 5.
The principal tasks for which the Royal Air Force had to be prepared were briefly: reconnaissances for all three Services, air defence, and offensive action. Particular importance was attached to the offensive action, because it was likely that the Italian air force in Libya would be appreciably reinforced. It was therefore decided to strike rapidly and as hard as possible at aircraft and airfield installations and ports. The pity was that the means available would not permit of a much stronger blow, and that the main supply port of Benghazi was out of reach of the Mark I Blenheims. The subsidiary port of Tobruk and the nearby airfields thus became the main objective area.
The decision to use No. 202 Group to command all the air forces in the Western Desert has already been referred to. The Headquarters arrived at Maaten Baggush on 10th June: just in time. The force was brought to the alert, aircraft made ready for immediate operations, and details of tasks decided. A few minutes after midnight Air Commodore Collishaw received word of the declaration of war; he was told to carry out reconnaissances as arranged and to use bomber formations to accompany them so as to attack favourable targets observed, especially concentrations of aircraft.
The first attack was made on the airfield at El Adem by 26 Blenheims of Nos. 45, 55 and 113 Squadrons: some success was achieved but three bombers were lost. The enemy’s aircraft were not dispersed and there was every sign of unreadiness. The attack was repeated during the day and in all 18 aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground.3 At dawn next day nine Blenheims of Nos. 45, 113 and 211 Squadrons attacked shipping at Tobruk in
conjunction with the operations of the cruisers; this was the attack which damaged the San Giorgio. Tobruk was attacked three times during the next two days and nights, with some damage to shipping and oil tanks. On 14th June Gladiators of No. 33 Squadron and Blenheims of No. 211 Squadron supported the army’s operations for the capture of Fort Capuzzo. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief would have liked nothing better than to continue on this scale, but uncertainty about his own replacements and reinforcements compelled him to husband his resources. From 17th to 21st June the comparative lull was broken by night attacks by single aircraft of No. 216 Squadron on the airfields of El Adem and Tobruk.
Throughout the month the Lysanders of No. 208 Squadron, operating from advanced air strips close to Western Desert Force headquarters, carried out regular reconnaissances of the enemy’s forward area; the more distant tasks were allotted to Blenheims of No. 13 Squadron. Cover in these various operations was provided by the Gladiators of No. 33 Squadron by offensive sweeps and close escort. On the 21st fighter cover was given to the naval forces bombarding Bardia while bombers attacked shipping in the harbour. Further attacks were made on Tobruk and, at the request of the army, on enemy troop concentrations at Bir el Gubi. In general, for the rest of the month the air offensive was directed at the Tobruk airfields, and it was during one of these attacks that Marshal Balbo, Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in Libya, arriving over Tobruk, was shot down by his own antiaircraft guns. The Marshal had enjoyed the regard of the whole air world, and his death led to one of those courteous exchanges so rare in modern war as to deserve record: Sir Arthur Longmore caused a note of respectful regret to be dropped, which was acknowledged with gratitude.
The enemy was altogether slower off the mark than the Royal Air Force and was evidently much less ready. Some attacks by formations of not more than a dozen bombers were made on targets in the forward area, but the expected heavy attacks on Alexandria did not occur. Nor until the night of 21st/22nd June were Alexandria and the aircraft depot at Aboukir raided at all, and then the bombing was inaccurate and the damage slight. Towards the end of the month the enemy made determined attacks on the advanced airfields at Sidi Barrani and Matruh. If these caused little loss, they nevertheless made two things quite clear: that the Gladiator was too slow for the effective interception of the Italian bombers, and that the primitive warning system, which was all that it had been possible to provide in the forward area, rarely gave the fighters time to get into position. Of the four Hurricanes in Egypt only one could be spared for Air
Commodore Collishaw; but this one managed to multiply itself in Italian eyes by operating from different landing grounds and by its opportune appearances in unexpected places. The similar device of using single aircraft to attack widely separated targets was often successful in causing Italian commanders to appeal for air support, which resulted in a tendency to disperse their fighter effort and in a general over-estimate of the strength of the Royal Air Force.
Meanwhile, in the East African theatre the policy was to neutralize the enemy’s air force by destroying his reserves, which he could not replace, of aircraft, spares, fuel and ammunition. Installations and the airfields flanking the Red Sea were accordingly struck as hard as possible. On 11th June No. 14 Squadron stored a notable success by destroying 780 tons of aviation fuel at Massawa, and during the next four days eight attacks were made on an airfield near Assab by Nos. 8 and 39 Squadrons, causing damage to aircraft and installations. Similar results were achieved at Diredawa, where in addition an ammunition dump was destroyed. Anti-submarine patrols by Nos. 8 and 94 Squadrons over the Red Sea contributed to the capture of the Galileo Galilei and the enemy’s other submarine losses.
Although these operations had begun with great vigour and no little success, Sir Arthur Longmore had nevertheless to weigh his forces against some unpleasant possibilities. His own reinforcements were uncertain, but the Italian air offensive from Libya must be expected to grow heavier and German air forces might arrive to add weight to it. This threatening prospect in Egypt and the Mediterranean made it all the more important that the Red Sea line of communications should be secure, particularly from air and submarine attacks. The good results of the early British attacks in East Africa suggested that a greater effort against the hostile air force in this theatre might pay a rapidly growing dividend.4 Sir Arthur Longmore decided therefore to increase the effort by sending one of his Bomber Squadrons (No. 45 Squadron) from the Western Desert to the Sudan, and to divert to Aden No. 11 (Blenheim) Squadron then on its way from India to Egypt. In Egypt more fighters were needed to meet the expected air offensive, and these he found by converting a Blenheim Bomber Squadron (No. 30) into a Fighter Squadron, thereby reducing still further the small striking force in the Western Desert. Of modern fighters there were, by the end of June, only seven Hurricanes in Egypt and five in Malta. In these circumstances it was imperative to husband resources with great care, for not only were aircraft scarce but spares of all kinds
for every type were short also; indeed, for the Hurricanes and Blenheim IVs there were none.
The part of the desert in which operations were to be carried on during 1940, soon to become familiar as the Western Desert, was a rough rectangle some 240 miles long and 150 miles across at the widest point. Strictly speaking the name means the Western Desert of Egypt, and therefore applies only to the tract lying east of the Libyan frontier. Popular usage soon applied the name to the desert west of the frontier as well. On the north the boundary is the coast, where Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk and Gazala became well-known names. On the west an imaginary boundary must be drawn from Gazala southward into the desert; the southern limits are marked by the oases of Jarabub and Siwa, lying on the fringe of the forbidding Sand Sea.5 North-east from Siwa runs the ragged lip of the almost impassable Qattara Depression. Along the Libyan frontier, from the coast to Jarabub, stood a triple fence of barbed wire which had been erected by the Italians as a means of controlling Bedouin migrations. Along it were scattered a number of small block houses—the sole frontier defences.
The area thus outlined consists of two layers of country: a coastal strip of varying width, and then, at an average height of more than 500 feet above, the Libyan plateau. The ascent from the coast to the plateau forms the Escarpment, a feature which was to have an important influence on operations, because from Sofafi westwards it was impassable by wheels or track vehicles save at a few points; to the eastward also it restricted movement, though to a lesser extent. While the whole region is desert, it is not the waste of sand which the name suggests. Except in the sandy coastal strip there is limestone rock lying close below the surface of clay or fine sand, often breaking through in irregular patches. Pebbles, small boulders, and low scrub are frequent, and give a distinctive blackish colour to the desert at a distant view. Water is scarce, and the wells lie mostly in the coastal belt, though here and there inland are found deep wells and those cisterns known in service Arabic as ‘birs’, which date from Roman times and are marked by mounds of excavated rubble at their mouths. Many of these inland wells and cisterns are ruined, or dry, or hold a store of water which is scanty and foul.
The climate of the desert is variable. In summer the days are very hot, but the nights usually cold; in winter it is extremely cold, and heavy rain may fall. In spring and summer a frequent hot wind
from the Sahara brings with it clouds of fine sand which fills the eyes and lungs, clogs machines, and smothers food and equipment, while reducing visibility to a matter of yards. Amongst other irritations of life are scorpions and vipers amid stones and scrub, and, wherever men collect, sudden myriads of flies.
As a theatre of operations, the main characteristic of the desert was that it produced nothing for the support of armies: every article required for life and war had to be carried there. The climate was not in itself inimical to operations or to existence, and the desert was on the whole healthy, although the conditions imposed no little bodily and mental strain on the troops.
There were no roads except that running along the coast, but there were some recognized tracks which followed the easier ground or the pattern of wells. Such were the Trigh Capuzzo from Fort Capuzzo to: El Adem and the west; the Trigh el Abd from Bir Sheferzen through Bir el Gubi to the north-west; and others less well known. Movement across the desert was possible in any direction subject to the limitations imposed by the Escarpment, the nature of the surface, and the ability of the individual to find the way. The Escarpment was an obstacle to mechanical movement north and south except where road cuttings had been made, or were later made as the campaign developed. Natural gaps did of course exist but could not be relied upon to afford passage to numbers of vehicles without improvement All over the plateau there were large areas where the surface offered no obstacles to wheels or tracks, but within this general freedom were many restrictive types of ‘going’. There were stretches of sand which would bring a vehicle to a halt while its wheels or tracks spun, becoming each instant more deeply embedded; rocky outcrops, sudden hollows, and seamy fissures which were difficult to thread; stony areas destructive to tracks and springs; and large tracts which became impassable after rain. Skilled driving could overcome these difficulties, but good navigation was necessary for keeping direction in a featureless country whose main landmarks, before artificial ones were added, were the mounds of rubble excavated from the ‘birs’. Sun, stars, and compass were the instruments essential to navigation, and the ability to use them was an indispensable attribute: but to move confidently and freely, and generally to feel at home, something more was wanted—an acuteness of perception hard to define but commonly called ‘desert sense’. And even then it was possible to become bewildered or lost.6
The desert concealed its tactical features. Observation points were few save on the Escarpment, and places of concealment were equally
scarce. But the practised eye could recognize the undulations, depressions, and other accidents of ground which afforded covered approaches or hull-down positions for tanks and cover for men and guns, though it was not possible, save in some conditions of light or weather, to be certain of escaping observation from the air.7 On the ground there might be haze, dust and tricks of light to make observation and recognition difficult. Finally, the rocky foundation of the desert often made it necessary to use power tools and explosives for the construction of satisfactory defences; but this same firm foundation made the preparation of temporary landing strips an easy matter.8
Before June 1940 the Army and Air Force had both carried out such exercises in the Western Desert as were possible in the circumstances, and much had been learnt about the movement of small mechanized forces and about the operation of aircraft from desert landing grounds. There was however a great deal still to learn about the desert and its ways before its peculiarities, especially in relation to a war of machines, could be said to be generally understood. Gradually the techniques were evolved and the methods perfected, the essential instruments being the desert-wise man and the desert-worthy vehicle.
At the outbreak of war the strength and general condition of the Italian forces in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania was known with some accuracy, but their detailed dispositions had not been discovered. In fact the enemy’s intentions and dispositions were broadly these. They expected the French to attack Tripoli from Tunisia, while the British, whose strength they over-estimated, carried out a limited offensive into Cyrenaica. The 5th Italian Army was suitably disposed to meet the French attack, and at the beginning of June the 10th Army was concentrating in Cyrenaica. It was intended that the 1st Libyan Division should defend the frontier from Jarabub to Sidi Omar, while the 21st Corps was to be responsible from there to the coast, and for the defence of Bardia and Tobruk. The 22nd Corps would be stationed south-west of Tobruk to co-operate with the 21st Corps, and to counter-attack any British advance round the formation’s southern flank. As a first stage in the concentration the Frontier Guard was reinforced by a Blackshirt brigade, divided between Bardia and Tobruk, and a smaller regular garrison was placed in Jarabub. As the 1st Libyan Division moved eastward part of the 62nd (Marmarica) Division was to be sent to Bardia to reinforce the
garrison. Marshal Balbo hoped to defeat any attempt to capture Bardia or Tobruk, which were thought to be the probable British objectives, and then, somewhat vaguely, to pass to the offensive himself.
The British assessment of the available information was that the Frontier Guard posts from Bardia to Jarabub were weak but were being reinforced, and that the 21st Corps was concentrating in the area of Bardia and Fort Capuzzo. The extent of the reinforcement and the degree of concentration achieved were not known when war broke out. To meet this situation the British Western Desert Force was ordered to dominate the frontier and to cut the enemy’s land communications with Jarabub. Objectives were to be as varied as possible in order to puzzle and harass the enemy, but men, vehicles, and materials were to be husbanded. For this task General O’Connor threw out a covering force, controlled by the 7th Armoured Division, and consisting of part of one armoured brigade and the Support Group.
By the evening of 11th June the 11th Hussars (save for a squadron at Sidi Barrani) with their Morris and elderly Rolls Royce armoured cars had reached the frontier wire on a broad front. Between thirty and forty miles to the east were the headquarters of the covering force and of the 4th Armoured Brigade, which had with it only one regiment—the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, in light and cruiser tanks. The Support Group lay to the north-east, about Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq. During the night the 11th Hussars crossed the wire, and what were the first shots of the desert war were drawn from enemy posts at Sidi Omar by patrols of A and B Squadrons. It soon became clear that the enemy had been surprised; in fact his troops on the frontier were unaware of the outbreak of war. Patrolling continued all day, and 70 prisoners were taken.
The next step was for the patrolling of the frontier to be taken over by a squadron of the 7th Hussars and a company of 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, while the 11th Hussars pushed farther afield, thus beginning a phase in which the covering force settled down to dominate the desert along and on the enemy’s side of the frontier. On 14th June the 7th Hussars captured Fort Capuzzo, and the 11th Hussars took Maddalena. Next day the 11th Hussars placed an ambush on the coast road between Bardia and Tobruk and on 16th June killed 21 of the enemy and captured 88 including General Lastucci, Engineer-in-Chief of the 10th Army.9 On the same day a squadron of the same regiment discovered an enemy force of some 17 light tanks, 4 guns and 400 infantry near Nezuet
Ghirba. This discovery was reported to 4th Armoured Brigade, who sent forward a cruiser squadron of 7th Hussars and a troop of J Battery RHA. The squadron of the 11th Hussars had meanwhile taken action to hold the enemy. When the reinforcements arrived a concerted attack was made which routed the Italian force with the loss of more than 100 killed and captured, all their guns and light tanks and several lorries. There were no British casualties.
During the remainder of the month vigorous patrolling spread over an area which extended in the north to the coast road between Bardia and Tobruk, in the west to Bir el Gubi, and in the south to Jarabub. These operations did not indeed prevent the enemy continuing to concentrate between Bardia and Tobruk and further to the westward, nor yet from recapturing Fort Capuzzo, but in these opening weeks the units of the covering force acquired invaluable experience. Their exploits had been largely successful, and the results went far beyond the immediate gains. For it had been, clearly demonstrated that British troops could learn to use, and not to fear, the desert; with the desert for an ally there were great opportunities for enterprise and initiative. The enemy had not shown that he realized this; he seemed reluctant to venture far from his roads and tracks. Here was an advantage to be pressed.
Malta received the first of its many air attacks towards 5 o’clock in the morning of 11th June, when ten Italian aircraft bombed the dockyard and Hal Far airfield. Of the 112 heavy and 60 light antiaircraft guns approved by the Committee of Imperial Defence a year before, only 34 heavy and 8 light were present; the 24 searchlights had all arrived.10 There was only one radar set, which could not be expected to be permanently in action. It is true that there were the three Gladiators, but what were they, however gallantly flown, against the relays of Italian aircraft that were expected to appear?
The second attack—this time by 25 aircraft—followed late in the afternoon. In the remaining days of June there were 36 attacks, by day and night, of varying intensity, the heaviest being made by 60 bombers, escorted by fighters. The early targets were clearly meant to be the dockyard and airfields, but the bombs usually fell over a large area. The damage was not so great as had been feared, although it was bad enough. Hits occurred on the naval establishment at Fort St. Angelo, on various workshops and dockyard installations, on the naval hospital, and on a submarine in dry dock, while on 21st June the floating dock, already damaged on three occasions, received a direct hit and sank. This was enough to make Admiral Cunningham abandon Malta as a submarine base for the time being.
The situation would have been immeasurably worse had not the morale of the civilian population proved equal to the strain. At the outset a general exodus took place from the Three Cities area, which added a food-distribution problem to the many difficulties facing the civil authorities. But under the inspiring leadership of Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, the. Governor and Commander-in-Chief, confidence was soon restored and with it grew a determination to overcome hardship and a strong will to resist. As a result of the impetus given to the ARP arrangements by these early attacks the organization was in a much better condition when the time came for it to be severely tested by the Luftwaffe seven months later. Seventy civilians were killed in June.
It stood to reason that civilian morale could not be expected to remain high unless the people could see that the air defence was being strengthened and that steps were being taking to ensure the provision of at least the bare essentials of life, for this small island could never support its population of 270,000. It was obviously necessary to achieve a proper balance between civil and military supplies of all kinds, and the first step was the creation of an authority for the Co-ordination of Supplies—COSUP—responsible for preparing the island’s consolidated demands. A complementary body was later established in Egypt, known as the Malta Shipping Committee, whose duty it was to arrange for the loading of convoys bound for Malta.
The most urgent requirement was of course to increase the number of fighter aircraft, but Malta was not the only place where they were wanted and during the month only a modest reinforcement was received. On 4th June six Hurricanes flew from England for Egypt, via France, Tunis, and Malta. The Governor, supported by the naval and air Commanders-in-Chief, urged that these should be allowed to remain at Malta. The answer was that the Fleet base at Alexandria must have priority; one Hurricane, however, delayed in Tunis for repairs, did remain in Malta. On 18th June the Air Ministry despatched a further twelve, of which Malta was authorized to keep six. Owing to bad weather and other mishaps only the latter number arrived at Malta, and two of them were ordered on to Egypt. The outcome was that in the last week of June Malta had four serviceable Hurricanes besides two of the three original Gladiators, fast wearing out. There was one other reinforcement. On 21st June twelve Swordfish of No. 767 Fleet Air Arm Squadron were transferred at the instigation of Admiral Cunningham from Hyères to Malta, where they came under the operational control of the A.O.C. for the purpose of attacking Italian shipping.
These additional aircraft, welcome though they were, did not by any means solve all Air Commodore Maynard’s problems; in fact
they increased them, for not only was his air defence organization entirely improvised but his small peace time establishment of officers and men was quite insufficient for undertaking so many new activities. Nor had he any reserves to call upon. It was indeed fortunate, and very surprising, that the attacks had not been heavier and the damage greater. Italian civil aircraft had been flying over and landing regularly on Malta right up to the outbreak of war and there had of course been consular officials on the island. In one way or another the Italian Air Staff should have been well informed about the island’s weaknesses. If they were, they did not admit it: on the contrary, they described the defences as formidable and paid an unconscious compliment to the pilots of the three Gladiators by crediting the island with twenty-five fighters on the outbreak of war.
In Egypt the King and Aly Maher Pasha had been showing themselves to be increasingly opposed to the interests of the Allies. It had been strongly put to the Prime Minister that, if Italy should declare war upon the Allies, Egypt should declare war upon Italy. In the event this was not done. On 12th June the Prime Minister declared in Parliament that Egypt would not join in hostilities unless Italian troops invaded Egyptian territory, or unless Egyptian towns or military objectives were attacked by Italian aircraft. Diplomatic relations with Italy had, however, been broken off. The announcement received the almost unanimous approval of the Egyptian Parliament. From the British point of view, too, there was much to be said for this attitude which seemed likely to ensure that Egyptian defence forces, especially anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, would come into action if their collaboration were required. And if Egypt was to be drawn into the war it was perhaps better that it should be as the result of Italian attack than of Allied pressure. The position was therefore accepted for the time being, but, as the days passed and the Italian Minister did not leave, and the Italian suspects were not interned, and Allied interests continued to be obstructed, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the King and the Prime Minister were leaning towards a policy of re-insurance with Italy. Their reasoning no doubt was that if France collapsed the position of Great Britain in the Mediterranean would become untenable and the predominant Mediterranean Power would then be Italy. The situation became so intolerable that the War Cabinet approved of strong pressure being applied to King Farouk. As a result, My Maher Pasha resigned office on 23rd June. Four days later the King appointed Hassan Sabry Pasha, a man personally favourable to British interests but politically too weak to promote them. The King had yielded, it is true, but his policy had not changed. Nevertheless
it was thought better to accept the position than to bring about an even worse crisis at this juncture.
The Beirut conference had shown Turkey how little she could expect from the Allies in the way of military assistance; since then her supplies of war materials had fallen below expectations and there had been the resounding German success in France. One of the Allies seemed unlikely to be able to fulfil her obligations under the Treaty, but by Article 7 the provisions remained binding on Turkey as bilateral obligations. In these circumstances it is hardly to be wondered at that Turkey chose to invoke the protocol by which she was absolved from any action that might involve her in armed conflict with the Soviet Union. In other words she remained non-belligerent though benevolent.
Iraq’s reaction was to do nothing. The Palestine question was still a cause of anti-British agitation, aggravated by the presence in Baghdad of the Mufti, under lax restraint. Feeling against the British was running high, particularly among the younger army officers. The attitude of the Iraqi Government had seemed to be one of impotence or possibly of connivance, though towards the end of May they had shown signs of greater resolution. There was ample evidence of the mingled fear and admiration that Germany’s successes had instilled; there was a suspicion of the existence of a ‘fifth column’ organization; and there was doubt of the loyalty of the Iraqi Army in an emergency.
Such, then, was the attitude of the three countries with whom Great Britain had worked so hard to negotiate treaties of alliance or mutual assistance, a policy which was to be amply justified although the results had so far not been spectacular. As for the attempts to solidify opposition to the Axis in the Balkans, there seemed to be no longer any prospect of success in this direction. The Commanders-in-Chief might well feel that much of their labours of the past year had been in vain, but worse was in store for them. On 14th June they were warned that France might seek a separate peace. Three days later they learned that she had asked for an armistice. His Majesty’s Government, they were told, were determined to continue the war until victory was won.
The attitude of the French authorities in North Africa, Syria, and Somaliland to the collapse in Metropolitan France varied from time to time and place to place. On 17th June General Noguès rejected a suggestion that he should break with the Bordeaux Government, and for a few days his official attitude was reserved. He disapproved of making public announcements of future intentions while there remained a French Government which had not laid down its arms. A factor which added to the uncertainty was that, although the armistice with Germany was signed on 22nd June, it was not to take effect until the armistice with Italy, requested by the French Government
on June 10th, should be signed also. There were indications however that Noguès might be privately resolved to fight on, to which colour was lent by Admiral Darlan’s orders of 17th June for operations in North Africa to continue, and by a message sent by Noguès to Mittelhauser on 22nd June in the same sense.11 The morale of the French forces and population also appeared to be unshaken. But by 23rd June doubts had begun to appear, and there was a tendency in military circles to regard resistance as conditional upon some form of assistance from Britain. On June 24th the armistice with Italy was signed; on the same day General Noguès again rejected a suggestion of a break with Bordeaux, and that evening he proclaimed ‘The armistice is signed’, and declared that for the moment the integrity and defence of North Africa seemed assured. He recommended calmness, unity, discipline, and confidence in the future of France as the policy to be followed.
In Syria reactions were sharper. General Mittelhauser and the High Commissioner, although deeply affected by the collapse of 17th June and left without precise information or instructions, expressed their determination to fight on. This resolution was supported in all quarters. General Mittelhauser was convinced that the Mediterranean basin must, and could, be defended by Anglo-French forces, and General Wavell and Air Chief Marshal Longmore, visiting him on 20th June, found him ready to discuss ways and means. He was eager to launch an air attack upon Rhodes, for which he asked some assistance, and in return expressed his readiness to provide a division for the defence of the Suez Canal, and later two bomber squadrons and some fighters to add to the air defence of Egypt. He suggested that a joint Anglo-French planning staff should be set up. ‘Morale in Syria is good’, wrote General Wavell, ‘and there is no intention of abandoning the struggle’.
Certain anxieties, however, underlay this determination. There was a keen desire to know the attitude of General Noguès, about which the information was scanty though reassuring, and coupled with this was the wish for a French Government to be set up in Algiers. In spite of this uncertainty General Mittelhauser, after consultation with the High Commissioner, broadcast on 23rd June his decision to fight on. He admitted in confidence that he expected to be chastised for this declaration, and the strain upon him was evidently great.
In French Somaliland the resolute General Legentilhomme, who was now in command of both French and British forces, declared at once that he would continue to fight. And when the Governor said that if he received instructions to surrender Jibuti he would obey, the General said that he would use force to prevent him. This was
uncompromising enough, but Legentilhomme also expressed a wish to see formed somewhere a fresh French Government. Characteristically he desired this not so much to provide a legal basis for his own actions as to stiffen the wills of civilian administrators.
On 18th June the Chiefs of Staff felt bound to consider whether, with France dropping out of the war, the British Mediterranean Fleet ought not to be withdrawn altogether: for one thing it did not lie between the Italian Fleet and the vital Atlantic trade routes. But the effects of withdrawal would have been so serious that it was decided not to force this grave issue until the fate of the French Navy had been settled, and the question was submerged in the clash of events. On the 10th Admiral Cunningham was able to report that Admiral Godfroy’s squadron was full of fight, and was about to take part in a sweep by the fleet into the Central Mediterranean planned to begin on the 22nd. The fleet had just begun to leave harbour when this operation was cancelled on the Admiralty’s order—a vivid reminder of the general uncertainty about the French Navy. Godfroy was still without official notice of the armistice terms, but his attitude was unchanged; in Syria too, the naval morale was high. But on the 24th Godfroy received an order from his Admiralty to cease hostilities and proceed to French ports upon the armistice being ratified. Admiral Cunningham thereupon made it clear that he would not allow the French ships to leave Alexandria in any circumstances. Thus began a state of tension, but more than a week was to pass before the crisis was reached.
During these bitter days the French were not without British encouragement and support. It had not been possible to supply North Africa with arms and equipment nor to land there a small force to stimulate resistance, as had been advocated by the Governor of Gibraltar, but on a higher plane there had been the British Government’s offer of union and common citizenship. In Syria, at any rate, this proposal was well received, but the Council of Ministers in France did not accept it. Further strenuous efforts, as will shortly be described, were to be made to arouse or foster the will to resist of Frenchmen overseas. It is difficult for anyone but a Frenchman to realize the intensity of the doubts and fears with which they were beset at this time, or the severity of the conflict in which their honour and their loyalties were so deeply involved. To side openly with the British must have been a difficult decision to take; but the consideration that probably weighed least with those who took it was the fact that they laid themselves open by the terms of the armistice to be treated, if captured, as francs-tireurs.12 Great as was the strain on individuals, that on the leaders was greater still, and their decisions were anxiously awaited.