The Italian invasion of Egypt in WWII lasted from September 13 to September 16, 1940, and was a strategic military operation against the British army for the purpose of invading and seizing Egypt during the North African campaign.
The Italian troops in Egypt progressed about 50 miles and after four days stopped the offensive near Sidi Barrani. The British troops yielded to their numbers and did not give serious resistance and retreated to the city of Mersa Matruh. Between the belligerents, a “no man’s zone” was formed 130 km wide.
Egypt was formally considered an independent state in 1922, but the functions of the king, parliament, and military were controlled. Egypt was completely subordinate to Britain. In 1936, a British-Egyptian agreement was signed, under which British troops had the right to occupy the territory of Egypt in the event of a threat to the Suez Canal. After June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and joined the Axis countries. On June 13, the Egyptian parliament broke off diplomatic relations with Italy, and declared it would remain neutral, until Italian troops invaded the Egyptian territory.
Italy had two armies in Libya at the beginning of the war: the 5th, located in Tripolitania on the border with French North Africa, and the 10th, stationed on the border with Egypt. After the capitulation of France, part of the forces of the Fifth Army was transferred to the junction with the 10th. By September 1940, the 10th Italian Army included 10 divisions and the 5th Army four divisions. However, the Italian troops that prepared for the offensive had insufficient armament and transportation.
On September 7, Mussolini signed an order demanding that R. Graziani go on the offensive in two days, regardless of whether the German troops would land in the UK or not (in the original version of the plan, it was intended to launch an offensive on the same day, with disembarkation of the German army). On June 17, all the British troops stationed in Egypt were united in the Nile army under the command of Richard O’Connor. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, the British troops began to carry out provocations on the border; but until September, everything was limited to small border clashes.
As early as September 9, the Italian Air Force was active. On that day, bombers accompanied by fighters attacked the British airfields in Sidi Barrani, Maaten Bagos, and Mersa Matruh. In response, the British launched air strikes against airfields, supply points and concentrations of Italian troops.
The Italian Offensive
According to the original plan, the Italian troops were to advance in two directions: the 23rd Corps was to advance on the coastal strip along the road, while the Libyan Corps with the mechanized group of Maletti moved southwards through the desert. The 21st Corps was in reserve and was located in the area of Tobruk. The 5th Air Squadron’s task was to cover its’ troops in the areas of concentration, destroy command posts, supply points and enemy airfields in the first stage. In the second stage, the Air Force was to attack the enemy’s defending forces directly and defend their own. However, Graziani did not receive the necessary number of vehicles for two Libyan divisions, without which the interaction with the mechanized group of Maletti lost all viability. The plan was changed urgently. The group of Maletti was to carry out the flanking maneuver independently, and both Libyan divisions advanced in the first echelon in the coastal strip. In the second stage, the 1st division of blackshirts moved into the breakthrough, with a sufficient number of vehicles.
On September 11th, the group of Maletti was lost in the desert on the way to Sidi-Omar’s initial positions. This event, together with intelligence reports on the presence of large British armored forces south of the coastal strip, forced Graziani to once again change the offensive plan. The flank maneuver was abolished altogether, and the group of Maletti was transferred under the leadership of the commander of the 10th Army for closer interaction with troops advancing in the coastal strip.
On the night of September 12-13, a large number of special bombs were dropped by the Italian aircraft, which acted as mines, with which the soldiers of the 11th Hussar Regiment had a problem early in the morning. The same morning, Italian artillery bombarded the Musaida area and the airfield and the empty barracks of Es Sallum. After the artillery barrage, the troops of the 10th Army launched an offensive and crossed the Egyptian border. According to English descriptions, this offensive by the Italians was more like the passage of troops in a parade than a military operation. Parts of the 1st Libyan Division soon occupied Es-Sallum.
The small British forces holding back the Italians, who were advancing towards the passage of Khalfan, were forced to retreat to the east under the pressure of tanks and artillery. Towards evening, two large columns of Italian troops joined the passage of Khalfan.
In the afternoon of September 14, British troops in the coastal area retreated to pre-prepared positions east of Buk-Buk, where the next day they were reinforced. The Italian units reached the British position by the middle of the day on September 15, where they were fired on by horse artillery. Due to a shortage of ammunition, the British were forced to retreat, and by the end of the day, the Italians occupied Buk-Buk. On the morning of September 16, the British guards occupied positions at Alam-Hamid. In the afternoon, because of tank fire, they were forced to withdraw to Alam al-Dab. The column of the advancing Italian tanks and trucks turned north towards the plateau. Under the threat of encirclement, the British left Sidi-Barrani and took up positions at Maarten-Mohammed. On this, having walked in general about 50 miles, the offensive of the Italian troops stalled.
Despite their considerable advantage in numbers, the Italians were not able to achieve serious success during the operation. The Italian offensive was stopped for many reasons. The British settled on pre-prepared positions near the city of Mersa Matruh. The indecisiveness of the Italian command gave time for the British to muster their forces for a counter-offensive.