Britain Attacks in the Western Desert
A Statement to the House ofCommons
Winston S. Churchill
THE UNRELENTING STRUGGLE: War Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill, pp. 14-16.
THE collapse of France seriously endangered our position in the Mediterranean, and made the task of defending Egypt from an Italian invasion one of extreme difficulty, the more so as we were compelled to face the menace of invasion ourselves at home. However, by the time the Secretary of State for War [Mr. Eden] paid his important visit to the Middle East in October, reinforcements of men and material had reached Sir Archibald Wavell, commanding the British and Imperial Army of the Nile, sufficient not only to give a greater feeling of security, but to open the possibility of an assumption of the offensive. However, at this moment the Italian invasion of Greece made it necessary for us to send a considerable part of our Air Force from Egypt to aid the Greek Army in their heroic defence of their native land.
The part played by the Royal Air Force in the Greek victories has been most important, and we have received the warmest expressions of gratitude from the Greek King and Government for the aid we were able to give. The serious temporary diminution of our Air Force in Egypt made it necessary somewhat to delay the execution of the offensive plans which had been matured, and it was not until the beginning of this month that our Air Force in Egypt was once again in a position to afford the necessary support to a forward movement.
Accordingly, on the night of 7th December, a strong detachment from the Army of the Nile under Sir Maitland Wilson, comprising British and Imperial troops and a detachment from the Free French Forces, advanced towards the positions which the Italians had fortified since their incursion across the Egyptian frontier three months ago. It will be realized that the operation of advancing almost in a single bound across 75 miles of desert is one which is by no means free from hazard and complexity when considerable forces are employed. It was with satisfaction that His Majesty's Government learned that this long and rapid approach had been successfully accomplished.
Yesterday morning, the 9th, our Forces came into contact with the enemy at various points over a wide front, stretching from
Sidi Barrani on the coast into the desert. An attack was delivered against the positions of the Italian centre to the southward of Sidi Barrani. In the first defended area which was assaulted and overrun, 500 prisoners and some war material fell into our hands, the Italian General in Command was killed, and his second in command was captured. Later in the day, a further advance was made into a second and stronger and more important position nearer to the coast, and more prisoners and material were taken. Other British Forces also reached the coast between Sidi Barrani and Buq-Buq, making further captures of transport and prisoners. It is too soon to attempt to forecast either the scope or the result of the considerable operations which are in progress. But we can at any rate say that the preliminary phase has been successful.
The British Mediterranean Fleet and the Royal Air Force are, of course, co-operating closely with the Army. British warships have bombarded the various coastal positions involved in the fighting, including particularly Maktila and Sidi Barrani. Some details of the air action have been received. On the 8th a heavy attack was made by our bombers on the enemy aerodrome at Benghazi, where about 25 tons of bombs were dropped effectively on hangars and among aircraft. On the same night air attacks were made on the Italian advanced aerodromes in prelude to the morning's action; and throughout yesterday our bombers continuously harassed the Italian advanced aerodromes, while our fighter aircraft, in which Hurricane squadrons are conspicuous, made low-flying machine-gun attacks on enemy troops and motor transport, causing substantial loss.