On this day in 1940, Mussolini’s forces finally cross the Libyan border into Egypt, achieving what the Duce calls the “glory” Italy had sought for three centuries.
Italy had occupied Libya since 1912, a purely economic “expansion.” In 1935, Mussolini began sending tens of thousands of Italians to Libya, mostly farmers and other rural workers, in part to relieve overpopulation concerns. So by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, Italy had enjoyed a long-term presence in North Africa, and Mussolini began dreaming of expanding that presence—always with an eye toward the same territories the old “Roman Empire” had counted among its conquests. Chief among these was Egypt.
But sitting in Egypt were British troops, which, under a 1936 treaty, were garrisoned there to protect the Suez Canal and Royal Navy bases at Alexandria and Port Said. Hitler had offered to aid Mussolini in his invasion, to send German troops to help fend off a British counterattack. But Mussolini had been rebuffed when he had offered Italian assistance during the Battle of Britain, so he now insisted that as a matter of national pride, Italy would have to create a Mediterranean sphere of influence on its own—or risk becoming a “junior” partner of Germany’s.
As the Blitz commenced, and the land invasion of Britain by Germany was “imminent” (or so the Duce thought), Mussolini believed the British troops in Egypt were particularly vulnerable, and so announced to his generals his plans to make his move into Egypt. Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, the brutal governor of Ethiopia, another Italian colony, disagreed, believing that Italy’s Libya forces were not strong enough to wage an offensive across the desert. Graziani also reminded Mussolini that Italian claims of air superiority in the Mediterranean were nothing more than propaganda.
But Mussolini, a true dictator, ignored these protestations and ordered Graziani into Egypt—a decision that would disprove the adage that war is too important to leave to the generals.