When Britain first went to war in North Africa, it was not with Germany, but with Italy.
Hostilities had been initiated by Italy launching an invasion of Egypt from its colony in Libya, and though British and Commonwealth forces managed to repel the attack, they were unable to press home their advantage since a large number of troops had to be withdrawn to counter further Italian aggression in Greece and Abyssinia. Once more, the Italians were pushed back, but the tide turned against Britain when Germany intervened on behalf of its ally. Italian troops, however, continued to constitute the bulk of the Axis forces throughout the North African campaign, and of the 50 000 men who were to die on both sides, 20 000 were Italian, the largest single national contingent
Italy’s struggle for independence had given it a national government and national borders but no social solidarity, political harmony or economic strength. Colonialism offered the government a way out by inflating national pride and providing new economic opportunities. When the Fascists came to power, they exploited the colonial fervour to forge a new martial spirit. The Mediterranean was seen as an Italian lake and North Africa as Italy’s fourth shore. When Mussolini changed the name of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica to Libya, he was reviving the name Diocletian had given to this part of the Roman Empire. But his ambitions didn’t stop there. He was soon looking to extend his possessions from Eritrea into Abyssinia and uniting them with Libya by the conquest of Egypt and the Sudan.
But the Fascists never managed the transformation of its people into a single ideological force as in Germany, nor did it create the economic power to sustain the colonial enterprise, – nor was it wise to challenge the British Empire which could call upon troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and India to defend its realm. Italy was to be sorely bruised by its colonial dream.
The political annexation of Tripolitania had been easy. Italy had been given the nod by the other colonial powers and Turkey had more pressing problems in the Balkans. By 1912, Turkey had given it up, and Italy had declared it a protectorate.
Consolidating Italian power on the ground, however, did not come so cheaply. Tribal rebels massacred 500 Italian troops in Sciara Sciat near Tripoli, killing over 500. Corpses were nailed to palm trees, eyes sewn up and genitals cut off. The Italian response was severe: several thousand Arabs were massacred and thousands more sent off to penal islands. Gallows were set up in main squares, and public hangings conducted as a warning to the rebels. Italy was becoming infected by the brutalizing effect of colonialism, just as the other colonizing powers had been.
Extending Italian control to Cyrenaica then met opposition from the tribes that had been unified in the 19th Century by the Islamic reformist ideology of Mohammed Ali ibn el Senussi. During the First World War the Senussi movement was led by Sayyid Ahmed, regent for the natural heir, Sayyid Idris, and a guerilla campaign was fought against both Italy and Britain, this time fighting on the same side against Germany and the Ottoman Turks. The Senussis revolt was enough of a threat to hold down 100 000 British, Italian and French troops until the colonial powers forced the Senussis into retreat and Sayyid Ahmed was rescued in a German submarine. The leadership then passed to Sayyid Idris who was more amenable to diplomacy and agreed to a treaty in which he retained the right to administer the affairs of the oases of Cyrenaica where the Senussi tribes had become established.
The new Fascist regime of Mussolini, however, ignored the treaty and moved to take full control of its colony. In 1922, Sheikh Sidi Idris fled to Egypt and the conflict intensified under Omar Mukhtar. In 1928, the new leader of the Italian forces was Rodolfo Graziani, a Fascist of conviction who was determined to wipe out all resistance by interning the families and annihilating the men who were fighting in the desert.
In June 1930, about 100 000 women, children and the elderly were marched 1000 km across the desert to be interned in barbed wire compounds around Benghazi. Any stragglers were summarily shot. Sanitation and diet were poor. Typhus and other diseases spread. Forced labour weakened constitutions. By the time the last camps were closed in 1933, more than 40 000 had perished.
Graziani then cut off any safe haven for the rebels in Egypt by constructing a barbed wire fence, 4 m deep, along the border, a distance of 275 km south from Bardeya. He then bombed and machine gunned rebel lines, dropped mustard gas and took no prisoners. Eventually he captured the Senussi stronghold of Kufra and massacred its inhabitants. Omar Mukhtar was finally captured in 1931 and executed in front of 20 000 arabs. The rebellion had been extinguished.
Graziani liked to present himself as an Italian of the New Age, a decisive man of action who never flinched from what had to be done for the greater glory of Italy and its civilizing mission. He liked to draw a picture of Mukhtar as an ignorant fanatic, when, in fact, he was a very learned man of almost saintly austerity, who had taught in a Koranic school for many years and who had demonstrated exceptional military skills on taking over the resistance to the Italian occupation. He was aged 73 when finally captured and executed.
The establishment of Italian East Africa was just as brutal. Initial evangelisation (an attempt to bring the Ethiopian Orthodox church into the Papal fold) was followed by the establishment of trading posts on the Eritrean coast. Attempts were made to extend Italian power up into the Ethiopian highlands but these were horribly repulsed by the Ethiopian tribes. In the Battle of Dogali, 500 Italian troops were massacred by an army of 5000 tribesmen wielding swords, spears and ancient muzzle loading rifles. Only 80 wounded, left for dead, were able to escape and tell the story. In the Battle of Adowa, 17 000 Italian troops were wiped out by 70 000 Ethiopians. Over 4000 Italian soldiers died from a muster of 10 000. Of the 7000 locally recruited soldiers, 4000 were killed or wounded, those captured had their right hands and left feet amputated as a punishment for collaboration. 1 700 Italian prisoners were marched back to Addis Ababa in appalling conditions to be used as pawns in the subsequent truce negotiations.
Mussolini was determined to revenge the horror and the humiliation of the defeats and in 1935 Italy invaded the country with the largest colonial army ever to be deployed in the field, initially 10 divisions, later raised to 25, 650 000 men, 450 aircraft, including 200 bombers carrying 1000 heavy bombs filled with mustard gas and arsine. The country was devastated and the people massacred. In 1936, the Italians entered Addis Ababa. Victory had been won by alienating the entire population, a situation that was not helped by appointing Graziani, fresh from his atrocities in Libya, as Viceroy of Italian East Africa and Governor General of Addis. After a failed assassination attempt in 1937, Graziani went on a frenzy of reprisals. Thousands were summarily executed. Thousands of others imprisoned or deported. When the Coptic Christians of Debre Libanos were suspected, hundreds of monks were also executed.
In 1939, Graziani returned to Libya as Commander in Chief of the Italian North African forces. This was the man who was going to take on the British Empire.