HL Deb 19 December 1940 vol 118 cc179-82

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a private notice question on behalf of by noble friend Lord Addison. It is to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can make any statement with regard to the progress of operations in Northern Africa.


My Lords, until the disaster to our Allies, in the summer, the Middle East was regarded as a wide range of territory from which important offensive development might take place. The very large Armies of General Weygand in Morocco and in Syria provided pillars to our defence of both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. The right flank of the Allies was secure, resting against the military power of Turkey. Our left flank ensured the integrity of the Western Mediterranean approach and exit and increased our defensive strength at the Straits of Gibraltar. We were in a happy position, therefore, if Italy entered the war, with the opportunity of cracking the great Libyan Army of General Graziani between French and British pincers. Strategically from both the naval and military angle we were in a position of great strength.

With the collapse of France the whole position changed in a night. The great French Fleet, guardian of the Central Mediterranean, passed out of the picture and suddenly the favourable position of our Army of the Nile based on Cairo and Alexandria was changed to a position of real jeopardy. Very greatly outnumbered on the Libyan frontier we, who had relied so confidently on great French forces in co-operation, were suddenly, without warning, left in the air. Last June the Army of the Middle East was very seriously outnumbered. We in Great Britain at the same time were faced with a real menace of invasion. Whilst that danger was still at its height, and whilst we were putting every ounce of our energy into the completion of our defence measures and the training of all our forces, we nevertheless planned at once to reinforce the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East and to give him at least such forces and equipment with which he could reasonably hope to defeat an attack by the far larger forces of General Graziani. These matters cannot be arranged in a day when you have to assemble your shipping and when the scene of operations is at such an immense distance from your main base of supply, but it was done, and a month ago we were satisfied that we could defend Egypt successfully from attack.

Not only were we satisfied in this connexion, but such were the spirit and advanced state of training of the Army of the Nile that we were persuaded to a situation in which we might reverse the roles and take the offensive as opportunity offered. If prudence alone had governed the situation, we might have been content to sit tight at Mersa Matruh, and from a military standpoint I think it would be agreed such a decision could not have been criticised. The Commander-in-Chief, with the full support of his advisers in this country, decided to take the initiative. Last Monday week, in fullest co-operation with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the offensive was launched and carried out with speed and skill. By the 10th December we had captured the three strongly defended perimeter camps of Nibeiwa, Tummar and Maktila. On the 11th December Sidi Barrani fell; on the 12th our armoured division had reached Buq-Buq; on the 16th December, Sollum and Fort Capuzzo were occupied, and on the 17th our forces were on the outskirts of Bardia which had been heavily bombarded by sea and air. On the 17th December Dominion troops and a British armoured formation had cleared our left flank by capturing advanced posts on the Libyan frontier and dispersing an enemy column.

The battle still continues. Such have been the violence and the speed of these operations that it has been impossible to estimate the total tale of prisoners and equipment. We have every reason to think that the number of prisoners exceeds 30,000 and we know that vast quantities of equipment, including many guns and tanks, have fallen into our hands. A great part has been taken in these operations by our armoured forces, who, with a dash equal to any great cavalry story of the past, both at the commencement of the operations and at each phase have taken a great flank sweep round to the rear of the enemy's position. Infantry have also been well in the picture, and have assaulted positions with the bayonet and have forced a passage through the dangerous bottle-neck of the escarpment in the region of Sollum. The whole advance has covered, in this astonishingly short time, a distance of no less than 140 miles from railhead, while the armoured forces have covered a far greater mileage. Thus an initial operation in the nature of a large-scale raid against the perimeter of fortified camps has been exploited with great élan, and, true to the military traditions of the British Army our troops, having taken their intended objectives, swept forward on the heels of the retreating enemy against far more formidable obstacles.

The momentum of this attack and the seizing of opportunities by the advanced Commanders by the very measure of their success created a problem of supply and reinforcement of petrol and water which must have taxed our organisation to the utmost. A particularly pleasing feature of the operation has been the lightness of the casualties so far sustained. Those reported by 16th December amounted to only 72 killed and 738 wounded. The complete co-operation of the three Services has been a noteworthy characteristic. Naval bombardment on each of our objectives has been most effective and the Royal Air Force by the action of bomber and fighter squadrons have contributed very materially to the success of the operations. The thanks of the Army are due to our sister Services. I may, I think, claim that these operations have been conducted with rare skill and initiative and tactical ability of a high order, reflecting credit on all Commanders and with endurance, spirit and fighting qualities by all ranks and all arms, British, Dominion, Indian and also those of Free France. I am sure your Lordships congratulate Sir Archibald Wavell, his Commanders, and all ranks on the success of these initial operations against the great forces opposed to them.


My Lords, in addition to thanking my noble friend for the very interesting and satisfactory statement which he has made, I should like to have the honour, speaking for His Majesty's Opposition, of congratulating through him, as representing the Army in your Lordships' House, all those concerned in these splendid operations.


My Lords, I should like on behalf of the small group of Liberal Peers to express our great admiration of what has been achieved in Egypt and Libya and to join in the congratulations which the Government and the Opposition have extended to Sir Archibald Wavell. It is a magnificent effort, wonderfully carried out, and a great achievement of enterprise and skill. I am quite sure that the country will be delighted to hear the information which has been given to us by the noble Lord.

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