by Ewan Lawson
The campaigns in the Western Desert in the Second World War are well known with locations like Sollum and Bir El Hakim having secured their place in history. What is less well known is that this area had previously been fought over some 25 years before during the Great War. Part of the effort by Germany and Turkey to raise Islamic communities against the Entente powers, it was ultimately unsuccessful and demonstrated the sort of imaginative approach coupled with the importance of logistics that were to become features of the later campaign.
From the signing of its secret treaty with the Sublime Porte, the German government had encouraged the Ottomans to, in the words of the Kaiser, ‘inflame the whole Mohammedan world’. At the heart of this so called Jihad strategy announced in November 1914 was a desire to distract France and Britain with uprisings in their colonial territories which could also have the effect of decreasing the number of troops available to fight on the Western front. In Egypt, there was also a belief that it could lead to the cutting of the Suez Canal, critical to Britain’s support from its Asian and Australasian territories. However, many of those Islamic communities approached by missions from Istanbul, initially at least attempted to play a long game and to see where the war was heading before they committed. The Senussi of Cyrenaica were no different in this.
The Senussi were a religious order dating from the beginning of the 19th century formed to reform and purify the faith. Under their leader the Grand Senussi Sayed Ahmed they had been fighting the Italians since 1911 as they had attempted to occupy Cyrenaica. The Senussi had assumed the leadership of the tribes in the region in this campaign and whilst Sayed was an effective leader, his forces were poorly equipped and he himself was in an insecure position as he was only a nephew of his predecessor.
After a failed attempt to influence Sayed Ahmed by a German delegation in 1914, the Ottomans dispatched Nuri Bey, the half-brother of Enver Pasha, to encourage the Senussi to attack British Egypt. Through the summer of 1915, training and augmentation by the Ottomans increased the confidence of the Senussi at the same time as reverses at Gallipoli began to undermine their perceptions of British strength. However, even as late as September of that year despite a series of incidents in the vicinity of Sollum, the senior British officer who was engaged with the Senussi, a Lt Col Snow of the Egyptian Coastguard, was confident that hostilities could be avoided. Actions by German submarines off of the coast were to change that.
In November 1915, German U-boats sank two British merchant ships and handed over their crews to the Senussi who could not be persuaded even with an offer of money to return them. U-boats then attacked Egyptian Coastguard vessels in Sollum Bay, sinking one and damaging another after which the Senussi began to attack and occupy outposts around Sollum and barracks in the town itself. Particularly disturbing for the British was that a number of Egyptian troops switched sides and defected to the Senussi.
The British command recognised the danger of Senussi success for internal security in Egypt but also that Sollum was in an exposed position and there was a need to avoid an early reverse. Thus the decision was made to withdraw to Mersa Matruh some 120 miles to the East in order to concentrate forces and build up the logistic stocks needed for a campaign. The terrain along the coast was semi-desert with reasonable access to water. Inland, the terrain was harder going desert but with a number of oases, some of considerable size and supporting significant populations. On the 20 November 1915, the order was issued to establish the Western Frontier Force (WFF) under Major General Wallace at Mersa Matruh comprising of composite infantry and yeomanry brigades, as well as Australian, Indian and New Zealand troops and detachments of the Bikanir Camel Corps. By early December, this force had grown to 1400 strong and now included artillery as well as aircraft of the RFC. Wallace decided that he needed to inflict an early defeat on the Senussi in order to undermine their confidence and prestige, and so, on 11 December, sent a small expedition along the coast towards a Senussi concentration at Wadi Senab. A series of engagements followed over the next couple of days with infantry and cavalry supported by armoured cars and aircraft inflicting tactical defeats on the Senussi before the force returned to Matruh.
Having cleared a force of some 5000 Senussi with artillery and machine-guns occupying a ridge 6 miles south-west of Matruh with a dawn attack supported by naval gunfire from HMS Clematis, Wallace determined on a plan to retake Sollum. A seaborne assault on the port simultaneous with an advance on Sidi Barrani was considered unfeasible due to the easily defended position at Sollum and so it was determined instead to drive through Barrani first. The WFF had been reinforced with troops returning from Gallipoli and a large number of camels although HQ in Cairo had deliberately spread disinformation about a British withdrawal in order to fix the Senussi. At the end of February 1916, the force advanced towards Barrani attacking an entrenched enemy force to the south east of the town. Infantry advanced supported by cavalry and armoured cars and after a fierce battle the Sennusi broke and fled. Ottoman General Jaffar Pasha was captured and as in part he had been a steadying influence on the Senussi, they never again stood and awaited a British attack. Sollum was then recaptured in mid March with the Duke of Westminster and force of armoured cars pursuing the retreating enemy and eventually recovering the sailors who had been captured by German U-boats the previous year. This marked the end of the campaign on the coastal plain.
The Senussi had for some time also had a presence in the large oases of the Western desert and Siwa in particular had long been a centre of their influence. From Siwa it was possible to threaten the Nile valley through two routes; a northern through Bahariya and a southern through Dhakla and Kharga. Initially, the British adopted a defensive strategy with a combination of forts and observation from the air. However, once the campaign on the coast had been completed successfully the Senussi seemed to lose any aggression and indeed evacuated Kharga in April 1916. The British-led forces had by then established the Imperial Camel Corps from elements of the Australian divisions and the Light Horse, along with New Zealanders and British Yeomanry and Territorial infantry. The Corps, supported by armoured car patrols and air power were now responsible for securing Egypt from threats from the west as the British moved to entirely remove the Senussi challenge. A railway that had previously run to Kharga was pushed further towards Dhakla and in October 1916, near simultaneous attacks were made on both Dhakla and Bahariya using a combination of the Corps and armoured car patrols to maximise speed and mobility. Both fell with few casualties and although the bulk of the Senussi forces along with Sayed Ahmed fled to Siwa oasis, a number were captured and permanent garrisons were established.
The series of defeats suffered by the Senussi had fatally undermined confidence in Sayed Ahmed and the British began negotiations with his nephew Sayed Idris who was his rival for the leadership and who had consistently spoken against the conflict. The British, supported latterly by the Italians, attempted to capture Sayed Ahmed at Siwa oasis in January 1917. Sayed Ahmed withdrew and despite a rapid mobile operation by a mixed force of armoured cars and the Camel Corps, he managed to escape with a small number of troops to Jaghub. With British prestige in the Western Desert at an all-time high, Sayed Idris took the opportunity to accept their conditions for a peace agreement having been recognised as Grand Sheikh and Emir of Cyrenaica and Tripoli. He also reached an understanding with the Italians which lasted until 1923. Sayed Ahmed was finally smuggled out of North Africa by an Austrian submarine to Constantinople where he became a propaganda figure in the Turkish governments’ pan-Islamic movement.
This relatively unknown campaign against a relatively well-equipped and, initially at least, motivated enemy, demonstrated how technology in the form of armoured cars and aircraft, could bring a decisive edge. This lesson was to be well learned not least by Churchill who was to make it the basis for imperial policing in the Middle East in the inter-war years. It is also highlighted how it is essential to understand the nature of the logistics challenge and to be prepared where possible to give ground to allow time to build up forces to ensure later success, lessons that would characterise successes in the region in the next war.
About the author: Ewan Lawson is the Senior Research Fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute and a former RAF officer. During his career, he worked closely with the Defence Studies Department on his research interests. He is now a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies where he is researching the development of international regimes to deal with sexual violence in conflict. (www.unwcc.org)
Image: Western Desert Theatre of Operations Against the Senussi with thanks to http://www.1914-1918.net