This Day In History: The British Defeat The Italians In North Africa (1940)

On this day, in 1940  the British army achieved a great victory over the Italians. In the Egyptian desert, two British divisions were able to defeat seven Italian divisions in North Africa. The  British divisions were composed of British and British Empire troops, mainly from the Indian subcontinent. Italy had declared war on Britain the previous June. Mussolini was determined to take advantage of the defeat of France and Britain in order to create a vast Empire. The Italian dictator was eager to expand his territories in Africa. He ordered a large Italian force under the command of General Rodolfo Graziani  to invade Egypt. The Italians were to invade from Libya, from Egypt, which they had seized from the Turks in the 1910s. The Italian army was approximately eight times the size of the British army. The British were under the command of General Archibald Wavell. The main role of the British army in Egypt was to support the pro-British government and to protect the Suez Canal. The canal was essential for the British Empire.  A great desert separated the Italian army from their objectives which were Cairo and the Suez Canal. If the Italians had seized the canal they would have dealt a devastating blow to the British Empire.  The British had been able to reinforce their forces in Egypt with soldiers from India. The Italians had taken too much time to invade Egypt and if they had moved earlier to could have seized the country and the Suez Canal. The British secret service had cracked the code of the Italian High Command and they knew the Italian invasion plans. This allowed them to take the initiative. Wavell decided to strike first and he launched an offensive against the Italians as they were preparing to invade Egypt.

Mussolini in June 1940

On December the 7th advance units of the British army crossed the Libyan border. They were able to find routes through the extensive Italian minefields. On this day, Major General Richard O Connor launched an attack from western Egypt and they attacked the Italians. The Italians had a much larger force, about 85,000, while the British had a force in the region of 31,000. The British used their tanks very effectively and they had more tanks than the Italians. O Connor used the tanks to punch a hole in the Italian defensive line. The British 7th Division was able to secure the key coastal road in eastern Libya and this effectively cut off many Italian units from retreating. Their only other option they had other than trying to cross a vast desert was to surrender. In less than a week, some 35,000 Italian soldiers surrendered to the British. The British victory delighted Churchill and it was a much-needed morale booster. The defeat of the Italians was not the last and after a series of defeats, Hitler sent German divisions to save the Italians from total annihilation in North Africa. The German Afrika Korps was commanded by General Erwin Rommel.