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.
In Washington, D.C., on September 13, 1914, the former British diplomat Sir Roger Casement secretly meets with Franz von Papen, the German military attaché, to seek Germany’s support in the effort to win independence from British rule for Ireland.
Born in Dublin in 1864, Casement earned international acclaim for his work as a British consul in Mozambique, Angola, the Congo and Brazil. He was rewarded with a knighthood in 1911. That same year, he retired from diplomatic service, citing ill health. Returning to Dublin, Casement helped found the Irish National Volunteers in 1913 and his trip to the United States in the summer of 1914 was aimed at garnering support for the nascent organization.
In his meeting with Papen—who in 1932 would briefly serve as chancellor of Germany before becoming vice chancellor under Adolf Hitler the following year—Casement suggested that an Irish Brigade be formed to fight alongside the Germans against Britain and the other Allies in World War I. Casement continued his campaign for German support with a trip to Germany soon after; by the time he left, he had persuaded the German government to issue a declaration stating that “Should the fortunes of this great war, that was not of Germany’s seeking, ever bring in its course German troops to the shores of Ireland, they would land there, not as an army of invaders to pillage and destroy, but as the forces of a government that is inspired by good-will towards a country and a people for whom Germany desires only national prosperity and national freedom.”
Casement failed to secure Germany’s direct support, however, in the form of sending troops to Ireland. He also failed to recruit any German military officers to assist in the planned Easter Rising, scheduled to take place on April 24, 1916. He consequently aimed to discourage his fellow organizers from going ahead with the uprising, on the grounds that they were not sufficiently prepared. On his return to Ireland from Berlin, however, Casement was arrested by the British and tried in London for treason. The Easter Rising went ahead without him, and was easily crushed by police and government forces. Casement was executed by hanging on August 3, 1916; his body was returned to Ireland years later, where he was given a state funeral and remembered as a hero of Irish nationalism.
On this day in 1942, a German U-boat sinks a British troop ship, the Laconia, killing more than 1,400 men. The commander of the German sub, Capt. Werner Hartenstein, realizing that Italians POWs were among the passengers, strove to aid in their rescue.
The Laconia, a former Cunard White Star ship put to use to transport troops, including prisoners of war, was in the South Atlantic bound for England when it encountered U-156, a German sub. The sub attacked, sinking the troop ship and imperiling the lives of more than 2,200 passengers. But as Hartenstein, the sub commander, was to learn from survivors he began taking onboard, among those passengers were 1,500 Italians POWs. Realizing that he had just endangered the lives of so many of his fellow Axis members, he put out a call to an Italian submarine and two other German U-boats in the area to help rescue the survivors.
In the meantime, one French and two British warships sped to the scene to aid in the rescue. The German subs immediately informed the Allied ships that they had surfaced for humanitarian reasons. The Allies assumed it was a trap. Suddenly, an American B-24 bomber, the Liberator, flying from its South Atlantic base on Ascension Island, saw the German sub and bombed it—despite the fact that Hartenstein had draped a Red Cross flag prominently on the hull of the surfaced sub. The U-156, damaged by the air attack, immediately submerged. Admiral Karl Donitz, supreme commander of the German U-boat forces, had been monitoring the rescue efforts. He ordered that “all attempts to rescue the crews of sunken ships…cease forthwith.” Consequently, more than 1,400 of the Laconia’s passengers, which included Polish guards and British crewmen, drowned.
On this day in 1918, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under the command of General John J. Pershing launches its first major offensive operation as an independent army during World War I.
After lending much-needed support to the exhausted French forces at Belleau Wood in June 1918 and in the Second Battle of the Marne in July, Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch decided that the 1st Army of the AEF should establish its headquarters in the Saint-Mihiel sector and prepare a front facing the Saint-Mihiel salient, a triangular wedge of land between Verdun and Nancy, in northeastern France, that had been occupied by the Germans since the fall of 1914. By heavily fortifying the area, the Germans had effectively blocked all rail transport between Paris and the Eastern Front. In mid-August, the AEF was given the task of leading an attack on the salient; it would be its first independent operation of the war.
The attack began on September 12, 1918, with the advance of Allied tanks across the trenches at Saint-Mihiel, followed closely by the AEF’s infantry troops. Foul weather plagued the offensive as much as the enemy troops, as the trenches filled with water and the fields turned to mud, bogging down many of the tanks. Despite the conditions, the attack proved successful—in part because the German command made the decision to abandon the salient—and greatly lifted the morale and confidence of Pershing’s young army. By September 16, 1918, Saint-Mihiel and the surrounding area were free of German occupation. The American forces immediately shifted further south, to a new offensive near the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River, where they combined with British and French forces to further hammer the Germans, as the Allies moved ever closer to victory in World War I.