What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

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What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Wargames » 05 Aug 2018 20:30

At the time the Italians stopped at Sidi Baranni on September 16, 1940 the British had not yet received Matilda 2 tanks. The British clearly intended to defend Mersa Matruh some 80 miles away. The Italian 10th Army made about 12 miles a day or was about seven days away. IMO, 10th Army could have taken Mersa Matruh. The next fall back position for the British would likely have been El Alamein and, after that, Alexandria. If the Italians could take Alexandria before the Matilda's arrive, the war would end.

What are the odds?

I see four possible problems but they may be overstated. They are:

1) Italy planned to build a water pipeline to support the attack on Mersa Matruh which would not have been completed until December, 1940. If the pipeline is actually necessary then the attack is impossible. Yet I notice the British did not need a water pipeline to support "Operation Compass" and neither did Rommel when he entered Egypt in June, 1942.
2) The British Navy could bombard the Italians along the coastal road. However, the British had this capability throughout the war and with little effect.
3) British aircraft could attack the same road (Via Balbia) but the planes in British possession then do not seem well suited for the role (or even later). In addition, both #2 and #3 can be avoided by moving trucks at night and camouflaging them by day.
4) The British 7th Support Group would have been a huge threat to the Italians rear. The Italians have only the Malleti Group to counter.

What would be the estimated date the British could have had their Matilda's operational? That would seem to be the date the Italians must win by or face certain failure.

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Kingfish » 05 Aug 2018 21:27

Wargames wrote:
05 Aug 2018 20:30
The Italian 10th Army made about 12 miles a day or was about seven days away. IMO, 10th Army could have taken Mersa Matruh.
Reaching Mersa Matruh and taking it are two entirely different things.

Bear in mind the vast majority of the Italian 10th army was composed of marching infantry of dubious quality. They also had no practical experience in overcoming a defender in prepared positions. These two factors alone would virtually guarantee a slow buildup of forces and supplies prior to any attempt at capturing MM. By then the British would have reinforced their own defense and most likely gone on the offensive. The Italian rout would have occurred as historical only now they would be deeper into Egypt, which means even fewer troops making it back to defend Bardia, Tobruk or Derna.

The next fall back position for the British would likely have been El Alamein and, after that, Alexandria. If the Italians could take Alexandria before the Matilda's arrive, the war would end.
The war would have ended? Based on what reasoning?
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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by magicdragon » 05 Aug 2018 21:59

Bear in mind the vast majority of the Italian 10th army was composed of marching infantry of dubious quality. They also had no practical experience in overcoming a defender in prepared positions. These two factors alone would virtually guarantee a slow buildup of forces and supplies prior to any attempt at capturing MM I agree, I once read US Military research study which suggested is they had stripped all the transports from all the divisions their troops in North Africa there was was enough to motorise 1.5 divisions Italian divisions- this does not give a quantitative let alone qualitative edge to the Italian attack?

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Wargames » 06 Aug 2018 07:37

Kingfish wrote:
05 Aug 2018 21:27
Reaching Mersa Matruh and taking it are two entirely different things.

Bear in mind the vast majority of the Italian 10th army was composed of marching infantry of dubious quality. They also had no practical experience in overcoming a defender in prepared positions. These two factors alone would virtually guarantee a slow buildup of forces and supplies prior to any attempt at capturing MM. By then the British would have reinforced their own defense and most likely gone on the offensive. The Italian rout would have occurred as historical only now they would be deeper into Egypt, which means even fewer troops making it back to defend Bardia, Tobruk or Derna.
In June, 1942, two Italian divisions with pretty much the same arms as the divisions of 10th Army had in 1940, attacked Mersa Matruh defended by 10th Indian Division. In just over 48 hours 10th Indian had to fight its way out with 6,000 troops inside MM surrendering. They never saw a German. Mersa Matruh lacks adjacent defensive positions to prevent its being surrounded. Indeed, the British placed the 50th Division east of Mersa Matruh for the sole purpose of preventing its being surrounded. If the British defended Mersa Matruh in 1940 the same as they did in 1942 then the odds favor Italian victory.

The Italians knew, from WWI, how to overcome a defender in prepared positions and had the artillery to bombard Mersa Matruh, which was not well suited for bombardment (too much in too small a space.). And, even walking, they'll still get there in seven days.

I might also disagree that the Italians were of "dubious quality". If you mean their equipment was of dubious quality then - Yes - I agree. However that equipment was sufficient to take Mersa Matruh. If you mean the Italians were cowards looking for an opportunity to surrender - No - I disagree.

However, I do concede Italian thinking "would virtually guarantee a slow buildup of forces and supplies prior to any attempt at capturing MM." This is exactly what happened. They had no plans to attack MM until January or February, 1941. So my "What if" scenario is "What if they didn't?"

Your suggestion that the British could turn it into an offensive is possible. The existence of the fully motorized 7th Support Group of three battalions could reverse the battle by appearing in the Italians rear. The Italians did have the motorized Malleti Group and 70 medium tanks to counter, tanks that could likely handle 7th's. But this goes back to the "dubious" argument.


The next fall back position for the British would likely have been El Alamein and, after that, Alexandria. If the Italians could take Alexandria before the Matilda's arrive, the war would end.
The war would have ended? Based on what reasoning?
I'm of the opinion that the loss of Egypt would end the Mediterranean war.

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Wargames » 06 Aug 2018 08:16

magicdragon wrote:
05 Aug 2018 21:59
[ I agree, I once read US Military research study which suggested is they had stripped all the transports from all the divisions their troops in North Africa there was was enough to motorise 1.5 divisions Italian divisions- this does not give a quantitative let alone qualitative edge to the Italian attack?
The Italian 10th Army did, indeed, strip the 5th Army of all its motorized transport for 10th Army's invasion and this was sufficient to motorize one infantry division. However, that was not how it was first used. It was initially used to motorize the Malletti Group. It was composed of two tank battalions (The two battalions had an establishment of 600 men, 72 × tanks, 56 × vehicles, 37 × motorcycles and 76 × trailers) and had a motorized attachment of seven Libyan infantry battalions, a company of M11/39 tanks, a company of L3/33 tankettes, and motorized artillery. This was then reduced to one tank battalion and three motorized infantry battalions in order to provide transport to motorize the 1st Blackshirt Division (23rd Marzo) which, while called a "division", was hardly one.

In the end this allocation of trucks achieved virtually nothing. The advance moved at the speed of the foot soldiers. Except for the Malletti Group they might just as well not been added. This was the result of the lack of training provided the motorized troops as well as the fact that the motorized troops to the south of the Via Balbia road found the going so rough that they made no faster progress than foot soldiers on the main road. At one point the Malletti Group in the south got lost and it was necessary to send search planes to find it.

Had the 5th Army not been stripped of its transports, the 10th Army still would have arrived at Sidi Baranni on September 16 and perhaps earlier.

However my point is that an attack on Mersa Matruh does not represent mobilized warfare. It is a fixed objective which could be surrounded (rather like Tobruk or, more accurately, Dunkerque).

Thanks all for the replies.

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by magicdragon » 06 Aug 2018 21:42

I might also disagree that the Italians were of "dubious quality".
I would not use the term dubious quality but I would suggest that using Libyan troops and Blackshirt militia as the vanguard of invasion makes no sense (there were better quality troops in Italy and Albania who should have been deployed after war broke out) - especially when working with Italian armoured units which were recently formed and were the general staff had failed to develop a doctrine for their deployment . I have a lot of respect for the Italian soldiers but their commanders should have formed a de-facto mobile div built around a small number of turreted light tanks and souped up Maletti group in the late 1930s- they did not for many reasons cost, lack of strategic need, the debilitating effect of the wars in Spain and Abyssinia etc

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Andy H » 06 Aug 2018 22:48

Wargames wrote:
06 Aug 2018 07:37
I'm of the opinion that the loss of Egypt would end the Mediterranean war.
Hi Wargames

Mmm, I'd think that would be a stretch as the British Empire still had forces and infrastructure along the Levant, in southern Egypt down into Sudan and then into East Africa. The vital strategic role of the Iranian & Iraqi oilfields etc would have required a British response, which would have come sooner rather than later.

As with the reality of the NA campaigns, the winning side was always stretching its logistical tail, whilst the losers was contracting. In the case of Italy and the British Empire the disparity always put the Italians at a huge disadvantage, with which they didn't have the means to mitigate, unlike the British/Allies did in NA. Just to give an idea, between Aug-Dec'40 some 126,000 Allied troops arrived in theatre, though not all were 'fighting' personnel.

Also would Italy's continued advance have scuppered the already woeful preparations for the invasion of Italy in August'40?

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Andy H

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Kingfish » 07 Aug 2018 00:25

Wargames wrote:
06 Aug 2018 07:37
In June, 1942, two Italian divisions with pretty much the same arms as the divisions of 10th Army had in 1940, attacked Mersa Matruh defended by 10th Indian Division. In just over 48 hours 10th Indian had to fight its way out with 6,000 troops inside MM surrendering. They never saw a German. Mersa Matruh lacks adjacent defensive positions to prevent its being surrounded. Indeed, the British placed the 50th Division east of Mersa Matruh for the sole purpose of preventing its being surrounded. If the British defended Mersa Matruh in 1940 the same as they did in 1942 then the odds favor Italian victory.
You are comparing apples to oranges. The reason MM fell in '42 was because Rommel got in behind the British, forcing Auckinleck to order a retreat that quickly became a confused mess. This is something the WDF, with its superior mobility, would not have to contend with. In fact, it would be the Italians who would need to worry about the open desert flank.
The Italians knew, from WWI, how to overcome a defender in prepared positions and had the artillery to bombard Mersa Matruh, which was not well suited for bombardment (too much in too small a space.).
Certainly they had plenty of experience - in the Italian alps. They had none in open country against an opponent far more mobile than they were.
I might also disagree that the Italians were of "dubious quality". If you mean their equipment was of dubious quality then - Yes - I agree. However that equipment was sufficient to take Mersa Matruh. If you mean the Italians were cowards looking for an opportunity to surrender - No - I disagree.
Cowards is not a term I would use, but it only took the WDF three days to drive the 10th army out of Egypt in a rout that would eventually continue on to Beda Fomm. Draw your own conclusion.
I'm of the opinion that the loss of Egypt would end the Mediterranean war.
But Alexandria is not Egypt. There is still the Delta, the Levant, the Arabian peninsula, etc.
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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Wargames » 02 Sep 2018 19:53

Continued research by me shows the Italian Tenth Army probably would not have reached Alexandria prior to 7th Armour having 75 Cruiser tanks and 50 Matilda 2's, the latter guaranteeing Italian defeat. It seems the only way to get Tenth to Egypt is with an earlier invasion date, something Tenth Army heavily resisted. Anyone think Tenth could have invaded earlier?

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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Kingfish » 03 Sep 2018 18:53

Wargames wrote:
02 Sep 2018 19:53
Anyone think Tenth could have invaded earlier?
Not with both France and Britain still in the fight. Mussolini wisely waited until the French collapse was imminent before joining the party. Anything earlier would have run the risk of getting caught in a Mediterranean war with both powers, something clearly beyond Italy's limited military capacity. The French Med fleet alone would have made supplying an Italian army in North Africa a very expensive affair.
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Re: What if Italy attacked Mersa Matruh in Egypt in 1940?

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 04 Sep 2018 02:31

It looks like a conflation of the details of tank design with the capability of armies and logistics services, has occurred here.

Anyone have the numbers for Italian supply delivery to the 10th Army in those months?

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