Chapter XVI: Fortune Favours The Brave.
In the main history has not been kind to the the Italian high command's actions during the Abyssinian War, the principal allegation almost always being that their operations were hastily planned and rushed into execution. While this is undoubtedly true such accusations are somewhat unfair as they fail to take into account the pressure's the Italian Army was under.
The Italian's problems stem from the sheer unexpectedness of the conflict and the priority that had been given to the East Africa theatre. The failure of the initial offensives against Abyssinia had enraged Il Duce and forced the Italian Army and Airforce to commit an overwhelming and disproportionate force in order to get a quick victory and redeem themselves. This had involved stripping troops from not only the mainland but also from North Africa, leaving the forces that remained considerably under strength. For the Italian commander on the ground, Italo Balbo, this put him in an impossible position, instead of the reinforcements Italian pre-war plans called for he had a weaker land force with most of the Regia Aeronautica either protecting the Italian mainland or in East Africa.
Air Marshall Italo Balbo. Governor of Italian Libya, pioneering aviator, fashion icon and supreme commander of all Italian forces in North Africa.
All of these problems were magnified by Italian naval weakness and the failure of the raid on Suez. While the Suez Canal remained in British hands it would be impossible to redeploy forces from the Abyssinian front to the North African theatre. Indeed it is doubtful any such troop convoy would survive the journey given the struggle the Regia Marina was having running supply convoys to the Tobruk and Tripoli.
At this point the success of the Royal Navy in controlling the Mediterranean has to be mentioned; the pattern of dominance was set from the beginning of the conflict and was in no serious danger of being threatened at any point during the war. In the early stages this enviable position was the work of two men, both called Cunningham. While the headline grabbing success of Admiral Alan Cunningham at the First Battle of Taranto has been covered, the less glamorous work of Admiral John Cunningham with Force H is equally worthy of mention.
While the labours of Force H would never attract the attention that a grand set piece battle commanded, its work would prove to be decisive in the land campaign. Operating off the coast of Tobruk the heavy cruisers of the force decimated many an Italian convoy with the flagship, HMS Devonshire
, in particular making a name for herself and adding to the already formidable reputation of her Captain, Augustus Agar VC. The redoubtable Captain Agar had served all over the Empire with distinction, but it was for his heroics in the Baltic fighting the Bolsheviks that he was most well known. A favourite of the First Sea Lord he had been hand picked to command Devonshire
and made sure she was the first into any conflict. The devastatingly accurate fire from her 8" guns destroyed transports and escorts with equal ease and earned Devonshire
and her Captain the respect, and fear, of the Italian merchant marine.
Captain Augustus Agar VC, one of the Royal Navy's finest captains during the Abyssinian War.
Suitably informed it should now be obvious that the Italian high command had no choice but to go on an offensive as soon as they could. They did not have the luxury of time to plan and prepare, the longer they waited the lower their supply stocks became and the stronger the British forces became as reinforcements arrived.
The Italian plan, such as it was, directed three full Italian Army corps, the I, XI, and XIII as well as the Africa SETT garrison across the border. These forces advanced on a broad front that stretched from the coast to the edges of the great sand sea in the south and initially encountered very limited resistance. This news was greeted with great relief by Balbo and his staff, this seemed to reinforce their hope that it would take weeks, perhaps months for the British to ship reinforcements over from India. While such a belief was mistaken it should not be taken as a failing of the Italian command, but as an understandable assumption. His only term of reference, his naval advisers, had assured him it would take at least that long to conduct such an operation. Unfortunately for Balbo the Royal Navy was not the Regia Marina and had managed the feat in a fraction of that time. It would however fall to the men of the 18a 'Messina' and 31a 'Calabria' division to make that discovery for the Italian high command.
The situation in North Africa prior to the Battle of Sollum.
Up next: The Battle of Sollum.