Mussolini had opportunistically joined the war as soon as he saw that that Hitler was poised to defeat France. He had high hopes that he might expand his African ‘Empire’ by seizing British territory. On paper his armies were well placed to succeed, especially while Britain was distracted by the threat of invasion at home.
In practice the Italian army was much less enthusiastic than their national leader, especially after they managed to shoot down their commander in chief. Their capacity for battle was demonstrated in the way that they attacked on the first day.
The British General, Lord Wavell’s forces in Egypt were massively outnumbered by the Italians, whose invasion of Egypt had long been expected. The British strategy was to keep the bulk of their forces in reserve, leaving only a small screening force on the border itself.
Lieutenant Rea Leakey was commanding a tank with 1 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), based in the western desert of Egypt – facing the Italian Army in Libya. When the attack came, on the 13th September, Leakey was part of this small force, which was deployed to present what resistance it could whilst minimising casualties – the orders were to ‘make a fighting withdrawal, but under no circumstances are tanks to be lost in battle’:
The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.
The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’
We had a battery of 25-pounder guns supporting us, and they started dropping their shells into this vast target moving towards us. When our tanks were spotted, the column of vehicles heading for us halted, and in no time they had unloaded guns and the battle was on.
We were now given the order to form ‘battle line’ and race towards the enemy at full speed with all guns blazing. It was certainly an exhilarating ride. We must have frightened the enemy even if we failed to kill them, but when we were some 400 yards from them, the order came to turn tail and get out of the cauldron. Our Commanding Officer obeyed orders – no tanks were to be lost. And indeed on that charge we were lucky, even though most of the tanks had been hit and a number had to be backloaded for major repairs.
Credit must be given to our experienced drivers like Doyle. If they missed their gear-change on the turn, the tank would present an easy target to the anti-tank gunners.
And so throughout that day we moved slowly back towards Mersa Matruh, fighting these inconclusive actions but certainly taking a toll of the enemy. When darkness fell we moved a few miles back into the desert, knowing full well that the Italians were as tired as we were, and equally as hungry. It had been a tiring day and we had been bombed and shelled almost continuously from dawn to dusk.