April 3, 2011
A panzer tank advances through Libya in February 1942. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Getty Images
In Libya 70 years ago this month, it had looked for several weeks as if another dictator was on his last legs. What followed was a grim warning of how quickly things can change in this vast and empty land if one side has air superiority and better tanks.
By the end of February 1941, Benito Mussolini's grip on his north African empire had been humiliatingly weakened. In only 10 weeks, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell's 30,000 British and Commonwealth troops had routed a much larger Italian army that had attempted to invade Egypt and capture the Suez canal.
Much to the joy of the local Senussi tribesmen, the pursuit of Mussolini's soldiers had continued through eastern Libya, an Italian colony since 1912. The ports of Tobruk and Benghazi had fallen, and shortly afterwards the retreating army was trapped in a pincer movement which brought the total number of prisoners taken to about 130,000.
The British were within an hour's drive of Ras Lanuf. In 1941, today's much-fought-over oil terminus, with its billowing clouds of black smoke and litter of burned-out vehicles, was just another small fishing village on the Mediterranean's southern shore. All it was famous for was the nearby Arco dei Fileni, a Fascist monument that British troops called "Marble Arch". With his artillery almost in range of it, Wavell thought he was poised for total victory and would soon be in Tripoli. Then – as it has done twice for the Libyan rebels – it all began to unravel.
At Churchill's behest, the advance was postponed. A new front beckoned. The Greeks, having given the Italians a bloody nose, now faced German invasion. Some of Wavell's victorious forces, including his best aircraft and tanks, were being sent to help them.
Unfortunately for Britain's Middle East commander, Mussolini's setback with the Greeks was not the only Roman folly that Berlin was bent on repairing. Panzer general Erwin Rommel and the nucleus of his newly formed Afrika Korps were landing in Tripoli. Nor were Rommel's assets confined to tanks: they included the Stuka dive bombers whose ability to lay on close air support for troops on the ground made them the Tornados and Rafales of their day.
Soon the military balance was utterly changed. While Italian losses in north Africa had been amply compensated for by the arrival of the Germans, Wavell's forces were sorely depleted by what would turn out to be the ill-fated Greece diversion.
Rommel's vanguard fell on this skeletal enemy at Al-Uqayla, east of Ras Lanuf. Panzers swatted aside the Territorials of the Tower Hamlets Rifles, who confronted the tanks in their open-topped Bren gun carriers. Before long the Afrika Korps were through Al-Uqayla and chasing the survivors up to Brega.
As the Allies retreated eastwards along the coast road, the Stukas began to harass their transport with impunity. In some units, the kind of panic demonstrated by the Libyan rebels set in. An Essex Yeomanry gunner recalled his battery's contempt for men abandoning a stalled truck "when a few seconds under the bonnet would have possibly kept it going".
There were some spirited rearguard actions. But as far as most of the British were concerned their precipitate withdrawal was almost as humiliating as the one they had inflicted on the Italians. It took Rommel just five weeks to recapture Benghazi and push them back to the Egyptian frontier. The only Libyan territory Wavell retained was the port of Tobruk, where a garrison of Australian, British and Polish troops held out for 224 days before they were relieved and it was the panzers' turn to be driven back to Brega.
For the next two years, the north African desert campaign would see-saw back and forth. It was not until February 1943 that Churchill, tears streaming down his cheeks, was able to salute a victory parade in Tripoli. Three months later came the final triumph when 275,000 German and Italian soldiers corralled into northern Tunisia would surrender to an Anglo-American army supported by a small French force.
Now Brega and Ajdabiya, down the road from where the Tower Hamlets Rifles once tried to hold the panzers, have been the scene of another hopeless fight. Outgunned and disorganised, the rebels have been pushed back east towards Benghazi along the same Italian-built highway that so dominated the second world war campaign. But Gaddafi is not Rommel. Nor are his troops the Afrika Korps. And the ruins of the Arco dei Fileni are covered in sand.