20 DECEMBER 1940, Page 6



IT was impossible last week to gauge the dimensions of the attack upon the Italian advanced position in Egypt. Its immediate objective was clear enough ; but how far the development of the operations would go could only be decided by the event. The human element in the military problem remains the most important, however resolutely we tend to reduce it to mechanical formulae. The wise general realises that he is not so much faced with the task of capturing certain positions as with the more incalculable problem of defeating a particular army. It seemed impossible that Graziani would permit himself to be taken completely by surprise. It was equally difficult to imagine that his troops would not put up a stout resistance. Finally it was incredible that all his resources and devices were exposed in the window.

Wisdom, therefore, counselled a plan of great flexibility. The immediate objective was the advanced base at Sidi Barrani ; further movements depended upon the ease with which that success was gained. The exploitation had to be left to be decided by the event ; but the officers in command had to bear in mind the possibility of pushing ahead to the limit of endurance, and in effect, this meant the breaking-strain of the communications. As it turned out, the result must have exceeded the wildest dreams of the command. Within three days Sidi Barrani, with a great number of prisoners and an immense store of equipment, fell into our hands. The tank column was taken at breakfast ; and the British armoured division was off to the coast. Within a week Egypt was clear of Italian troops. The resistance at Sollum and Capuzzo was stubborn ; but it failed at length, and the advanced units of the attack were over the frontier escarpment and fighting in Libya. Graziani had lost his chance. Caution had once more betrayed its disciple and daring had another triumph to its credit.

The removal of a dangerous threat is a great relic,' The clearing of Egyptian territory is a valuable gain. But best and most important of all is the clear defeat of several Italian divisions by a force which, according to the admission of the beaten, was if anything numerically inferior to them. It is this that gives the truest measure of the success and the most solid assurance for the future. The means by which it was accomplished is now clear. The tendency is to regard with most favoured the armoured division, and of course General Creagh deserves every praise for the bold and sure handling of his unit. But it is certain that when the full details of the operation are known the decisive element in the success will be found to be, not the work of any particular arm or factor, but the admirable combination with which all the factors were made to contribute to the common victory.

This seems to be the main inference to be drawn from a series of actions which, severally, show the units that operated them almost at their best. The air-arm, for instance, was used, as far as one can see, almost perfectly. The tactical use of the aeroplane is now a reasonably well established procedure ; and it was directed to producing the maximum effect. But the strategical use has frequently seemed to bear too little relation to the decisive clash of the armies, so distant have been the objectives and so remote has been their connexion with the action they are designed to assist. On this occasion that fault was avoided ; and the influence upon the action formed an important ingredient of victory. The Navy, as usual the maid of all work, with an adaptability and efficiency possessed by no maid that ever was on sea or land, not only operated as mobile artillery with deadly effect, but also acted as additional transport, and even carried back to the main base the prisoners who must otherwise have blocked the lines of communication and so have embarrassed the advance. They have probably acted also as a supply-train for the troops who are now operating well over a hundred miles from their base.

It is the skilful co-operation of the three arms that affords the best hope for the future. If we have to take the victory. temperately it is because the total force engaged was in reality small. The resources necessary for full exploitation, if we are to act with caution, are not at the disposal of General Wavell. Gallabat has only just returned to our hands once more ; and there is ample evidence that the Sudan front is still alight. The incalculable factor is that of morale. We do not know, we have only the slightest hints, to measure the factor that must determine the extent to which the victory can be developed. It is significant that the resistance hardened so notably at Sollum and the fort—Capuzzo--which has seen more vicissitudes than any other centre in the African theatre.

At the moment of writing the Imperial troops are either containing or attacking the port of Bardia. This port lies on the western side of the bay of Sollum. If we are to advance further into Libya it would be an admirable subsidiary gate of supply. But in it, at present, there are the remnants of several divisions, including the 63rd regular division. More- over the frontier fighting has been exceptionally stubborn, especially where the .troops stood on prepared positions. But fresh forces are still arriving for the attack and we shall know better what is practicable when we see the development of the next few days. The number of Italian troops available for action on this front has been estimated at about 70,00o, with accessory troops. Every such figure must be a matter of mere conjecture ; and the smallness of this number depends upon the assumption that a considerable proportion of the units in Libya must be allocated to the Tunisian frontier. It is, per- haps, necessary for the Italians to regard that frontier with a watchful suspicion ; but if there are still over 200,000 troops still in Libya, two-thirds seems a large .proportion to disperse across the country and watch the frontier If the original force was 50,000 higher than the estimate in Cairo—and this has been frequently stated recently—the number available to oppose the advance would be increased to rzo,000 ; and, in fact, the figure has been put higher still.

It is, of course, the desire of every commander to put his enemy's army out of action. The mere clearing of the Egyptian territory and the removal of the threat to the Suez Canal are considerable gains ; but the complete and decisive defeat of the Italian army in Libya would have a tremendous effect. But it has to be realised that the task. may be beyond our resources. While Graziani stood at Sidi Barrani and Maktila, he suffered from the grave handicap of having to supply all his needs over the road from Libya. He had continued that excellent piece of engineering which had drawn a road across Libya from the Tunisian frontier ; and, to that extent he had a living artery of supply. If we intended to advance we should inherit many of his handicaps. At this moment, no doubt, General Wavell is balancing the advantages against the dis- advantages of continuing his advance. While he pursues his attacks, he is indirectly but far from insensibly assisting the Greeks, who are still pressing their advance against every difficulty of winter weather and the superior tactical ability of the Italians in the lowlands. The tank has played little part so far in the campaign ; but unless the Italians are completely demoralised—and there is nothing which would justify that conclusion as yet—they ought to play a formidable part in the plain.

A considerable factor in Wavell's victory comes, ironically enough, as a direct gift from Mussolini. By launching an insufficiently prepared attack upon Greece he presented us with the use of Crete and the Aegean bases ; these were the usurious interest on the loan of our air squadrons, and they involved a critical weakening of the supply-line from Italy to Libya. Graziani has suffered a great defeat. The Italian position has weakened remarkably. What was designed for a column in the new order has wilted like a softened candle. But it is necessary that it should form some kind of prop, and the architect must shore it up. Hitler has yet to speak.