Strength and organization of British and Empire Armies in the Mediterranean Theater when Italy declared war in 1940.
The Mediterranean theater was an area of prime importance to Britain. She had many interests there and the Suez canal was the most important artery of the Empire. In August 1939 the land forces in Egypt under Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson consisted in the main of an armored division (7th) still in the process of formation, three British infantry brigades, plus a little artillery and engineer units.
Additional forces scattered through the Middle East Theater comprised the Headquarters of the 7th and 8th Infantry Divisions and three infantry brigades in Palestine; two British infantry battalions in the Sudan; lightly equipped locally raised forces in Iraq, Uganda, Kenya and British Somaliland, and small British garrisons in Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus and Aden. The first reinforcement from India, the 11th Indian Brigade Group, had also recently arrived.
The desert was to be a theater of war in which an army’s success depended primarily upon the quality and quantity of its armored forces. The British had begun to prepare in earnest in 1938 with the formation of the Matruh Mobile Force from the units of the Cairo Cavalry Brigade. By October 1939 the force had been transformed into a Mobile Division by its commander Major-General P. C. S. Hobart, and the light Mark III, VIA, and VIB tanks and 3.7 inch mountain howitzers were being replaced by A9 cruiser tanks and 25 pounder howitzers.
The division’s order of battle was:
Light Armored Brigade: 7th, 8th, and 11th Hussars;
Heavy Armored Brigade: I st and 6th Royal Tank Regiments;
plus units of the Royal Horse Artillery and infantry in what was known as Pivot Group.
In April 1940 the armored formations were reorganized into two homogeneous brigades, the Light Armored Brigade becoming the 7th Armored Brigade and the Heavy Brigade becoming the 4th Armored Brigade. The resulting formation was renamed the 7th Armored Division and it took over control in May of all troops in the Western Desert until the establishment of Headquarters Western Desert Force on 17 June 1940.
In Egypt General Wavell could call on a force of approximately 36,000 men including Indian and New Zealand units, while in Palestine there were 27,500 troops including a horse cavalry division. In essence the fighting troops under Western Desert Force consisted of an armored division with only two armored regiments in each brigade, and a British infantry brigade. All units were short of equipment, transport, and artillery, and the 7th Armored had only 65 cruiser tanks against a requirement of 220.
Despite these deficiencies, however, Western Desert Force soon established its superiority over the Italians during operations on the Egyptian-Libyan frontier.
Total British and Empire divisions in Egypt: 3 (7th Armored, 4th Indian infantry, New Zealand Infantry division).
Palestine: 27,500 (3 infantry brigades = approx. 1 division, 1 horse cavalry division).
Sudan: 9,000 (later 5th Indian division).
Kenya: 8,500 (from August 1940 three divisions: 1st South African division, Native 11th and 12th African divisions).
British Somaliland: 1,500.
Basic British and Empire Army units in August 1940:
|Organization||Infantry Division (motorized)||Armored Division|
|Total units||c. 29-33||3|
|Infantry brigades||3 with 2,340 men and 99 officers each||2 battalions with 1,560 men and 66 officers together|
|Artillery||72 (36 x 18 pounders, 36 x 4.5inch Howitzers or 18/25 pounders or 25 pounders)||c. 48 (25 pounders)|
|Anti-tank guns||75 (2 pounders or 25mm)||c. 48 (2 pounders)|
|Tanks||28 light tanks, 44 Universal Bren carriers||220 cruiser tanks|
British Fleet in the Western Mediterranean
Following the Italian declaration of war attempts were made to reinforce the British Fleet in the Mediterranean and in June 1940 Force ‘H’ was formed, based at Gibraltar and comprising the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, two battleships and a few cruisers and destroyers.
References and literature
The Armed Forces of World War II (Andrew Mollo)
World War II – A Statistical Survey (John Ellis)
The Desert War (Andrew Kershaw, Ian Close)
Flotten des 2. Weltkrieges (Antony Preston)