Libya – A Lesson From History

Originally published 27/03/2011


Muammar Q’daffy is, they say, something of a military history buff. Perhaps whilst he is holed up in whatever secret location he has chosen, he has dipped into a copy of William Beehler’s 1913 book The History of the Italian-Turkish War. If not, I would advise him to obtain a copy and read it; for it is one of the great ironies of history that the man who is currently in hiding for fear of being killed by a Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a Royal Navy submarine in the Med rules over a country that almost exactly 100 years ago witnessed a seminal moment in the history of warfare. Just 28 miles south east of Q’daffy’s compound in Tripoli lies the Tajura Oasis. It was there, on the 1st November 1911, that Lt Giulio Gavotti, flying a German-built Taube (“Dove”) monoplane of the Italian airforce, dropped three 2kg bombs onto a Turkish military encampment – the first documented occasion in history of an air raid. In Gavotti’s own words ..

“…Before long I could clearly see the dark mass of the oasis approaching fast. With one hand holding the joystick, I opened the box containing the bombs, extracted one and placed it on my lap. Changing hands on the joystick, I extracted a detonator and put it in my mouth. After I had closed the box and primed the bomb and detonator, with about one mile to go to the oasis, I was ready. I could now clearly see the Arab (sic) tents – there were two square camps, one of about 200 tents, the other of about 50. Shortly before this, I had grabbed the bomb in my right hand, tore off the security key with my teeth and threw it out from the cockpit. I followed the bomb for a few seconds before it disappeared. After a moment I saw the little tents covered by a dark cloud; I had aimed at the bigger tents and had missed, but had fortunately hit the little ones instead. I overflew the camp several times and dropped two more bombs, but could not see the effect ….”

The Italo-Turkish War, known as the Guerra di Libia (Libyan War) to the Italians and the Trablusgarp Savasi (Tripolitan War) to the Turks, broke out in 1911. Italy, although an ancient land, was in still a young country in political terms; the Italian re-unification movement Il Risorgimento (“the Resurgence”) had occurred barely fifty years earlier; this was a land long divided and controlled piecemeal by foreign powers. Northern Italy had been fought over for centuries by France and Austria. The 7th largest battle of the 19th century, Solferino, was fought there during the Italian Independence War and was witnessed by Swiss businessman Henri Dunant who was inspired to found the Red Cross. Italy in the early 20th century was a society still trying to define itself; everyone knew there was an Italy, but who were the Italians ?. Its government in that period was a constitutional monarchy under Victor Emmanuel III; power however was vested in the veteran politician Giovanni Giolitti, serving his third (out of an eventual total of five) terms of office as Prime Minister. A political liberal, his early ministries were marred by financial and political mismanagement. This resulted in his impeachment for abuse of power in 1893, following the collapse of the Vatican owned Banca Romana after it was shown to have indulged in fraudulent transactions involving an array of leftwing politicians; although the impeachment was subsequently quashed he was to spend seven years in the wilderness whilst Italy was governed by figures of the right. Foremost among them was former Garibaldian nationalist Francesco Crispi, who saw Austria-Hungary as Italy’s great enemy and the Ottoman Empire as a source of potential colonies. Rehabilitated, Giolitti returned to power in 1903, but had to live with the rapidly growing nationalist tide.

The policy of Europe towards Turkey had been set at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, called by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, to attempt a diplomatic solution to the increasing problem of declining Ottoman Turkish power. Turkey in that era comprised not just the modern-day country, but also most of the Balkans (known in those days as the “Near East”), the North African shore and virtually all of what we today call the “Middle East”, except for Persia which had maintained a precarious independence. It had occupied those regions during the heady days of late medieval period when the gunpowder – equipped armies of the earliest Ottoman emperors had swept all before them. By the mid 19th century however, political stagnation and economic decline had left Turkey weak and vulnerable in the face of the newly industrialised European powers, most especially Russia, which was desperate to obtain an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, via the Dardanelles. Moscow’s attempt to appropriate swathes of Ottoman territory had already triggered two major conflicts; the Crimean War in 1853 and the Russo-Turkish War in 1877. In the discussions that followed the Congress France and Britain agreed a carve up of the most valuable Turkish assets in North Africa, with the French taking Algeria and Tunisia and the British taking Egypt and Cyprus. Italian diplomats got wind of the plan and threatened to obstruct it unless they got something too; to mollify them, the French offered Tripolitania as part of the Italian sphere of influence. This was further cemented in 1902 by a secret treaty between France and Italy which allowed each other freedom of intervention in Morocco and Tripolitania.

It was not until 1911 however that the Italians finally acted. Giolitti, back in power since 1903, was opposed to war, believing it to be imperialistic in intent, and for which Italy was moreover, economically unprepared. He would later argue passionately against Italy’s entry in to The Great European War in 1915, on much the same grounds. The nationalist tide was too great however, and he was bounced into action; anti-war sentiment came also from the Socialist opposition, including the young Benito Mussolini, then editor of the leftwing newspaper Avanti !. Turkey was presented with an ultimatum demanding the annexation of the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Public sentiment was whipped up by the right – wing press with exaggerated stories of attacks on Italian citizens and businesses by religious fanatics. Turkey responded by offering a deal similar to that which they offered the British over Egypt, i.e. that the territory would remain formally under the suzerainty of the Sultan but would actually be controlled by the UK. This was deemed insufficient and war was declared on 29-09-1911.

Italy, and most of Europe, expected a short decisive campaign with the poorly equipped Turkish military expected to put up little resistance. As well as aerial reconnaissance and bombing the Italians also showed innovation in deploying some of the first armoured cars in warfare, constructed at the Fiat works in Torino – then Italy’s largest industrial city. Libya had no regular Turkish army to defend it, and the few thousand troops that were there had no senior officers, who had to travel to the battlefield at their own expense. All the early Turkish resistance was by local Bedu and Tuareg tribesmen led by Turkish officers. The Italian fleet appeared before Tripoli the day before war was declared, but didn’t open fire for a further five days. After a short bombardment the small garrison fled and the city was occupied by 1,500 sailors. Further unopposed landings took place at Tobruk, Al Khums and Darnah. Only at Benghazi did they meet any serious resistance when 4,000 Italian troops ran into 450 Turkish regulars dug into the dunes overlooking the landing beach; they took a heavy toll before finally withdrawing from the city. At Tobruk in Dec 1911 a small force of 200 Turkish regulars and Arab militia took on and defeated 2,000 Italian troops, the only Turkish victory in the war. They were led by a brilliant young Turkish officer – Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk.

With the ports secure, the Italians put ashore 20,000 troops commanded by Marshal Carlo Caneva, to mop up the small Turkish force, but were almost annihilated a few months later at Sciara Sciat near Tripoli where they were surrounded by fast moving Libyan cavalry assisted by some Turkish regulars. They extricated themselves, but realised that they had hopelessly underestimated the opposition and increased the expeditionary force to 100,000. The Turks would eventually deploy 8,000 troops and 20,000 local Arab militia, led by Qur’ranic scholar Omar Mukhtar. Born in the village of East Janzour, near Tobruk, Mukhtar already had considerable military experience from his years as a Mujahideen fighting the French in Mali and Chad. He brought not only new tactics, but foreign fighters as well to swell the local Arab militia, many of them from Egypt and Palestine

At sea, the war was almost as one-sided as the air war. In January 1912, an Italian force passed through the Suez canal and at the Battle of Kunfida Bay, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, destroyed the small force of gunboats that where the Turks only presence in the Red Sea. Later, off the coast of Lebanon at the Battle of Beirut, the main Italian fleet destroyed the only remaining Turkish ships in the Med, one of them an American Civil War era Ironclad built in 1860’s, and established complete command of the sea from that point on. Thus emboldened, they went on to seize the main Turkish-held islands in the Aegean sea, beginning with Rhodes.

By mid 1912, both sides were weary of the conflict which had, especially for the Italians, taken far longer and cost far more than they had ever imagined. Peace feelers were put out by both sides, but the issue was decided for them in the autumn of 1912 when Slav nationalists in Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro took advantage of Turkey’s weakness to declare war and initiate the First Balkan War to wrest control of the last remaining Balkan enclaves of Ottoman rule. By the Treaty of Lausanne (1912) Italy gained Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, but was forced to return the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. Thus did a minor and little written about conflict in the early 20th century set in chain the sequence of events that would culminate in the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serb nationalist in the former Ottoman city of Sarajevo in 1914 that ignited the Great European War. It also created the (Italian administered) territory on the north African shore that would one day become the modern state of Libya. Curiously to the 21st century mind, no Libyan was consulted at any point during that process.


In 2011, Libya again finds itself a pawn in the hands of others; but since this is the 21st century one of those “others” is the country’s erstwhile leader Muammar Q’daffy. Like France or India, Libya is a state created from the boundaries of a former colonial administration and lumped together a variety of cultural and ethnic traditions that had never previously been used to thinking of themselves as a unified group. Independence, when it came, was a leap in the dark for the young state. But before Independance came, there were the years of the Italian administration prior to the second world war. Omar Mukhtar continued his resistance to the Italians, conducting a guerrilla campaign against them for decades afterwards. His power base was in the Green Mountains, and in the remote oasis town of Al-Jaghbub (Giarabub in Italian), close to the Egyptian border. This was the home base of the Senussi Order, a religious – political movement founded in Mecca in 1837 by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, the Grand Senussi. The Senussis were instrumental in organising resistance first to French, and later Italian control in the Sahara. When Al-Jaghbub fell to the Italians in 1926, it was Omar Mukhtar who re – organised the Sennusite forces and continued the fight against the Italians.

By the 1930’s Italy was no longer governed by men like Giolitti; instead the former editor of Avanti ! (“Forward !”) had completed his transition from Socialism to National Socialism. By combining the elements of Nationalism, Militarism and Socialism he created Fascism – rarely seen in the modern world, although the Ba’thist Socialism of Syria, and of Iraq before the American attack, certainly come close. Mussolini took a much harder line against Mukhtar’s insurgency, and in 1930 dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani to deal with him. Graziani first organised mass deportations of Arabs from towns in the interior of Cyrenaica and held them in a series of concentration camps along the coast where many died or were executed; having emptied the countryside of sympathisers he then ringed the area with troops, constructed a barbed wire fence along the border with Egypt and eventually ran Omar to ground and captured him. He was hanged in public on 11-09-1931, his last words were said to be “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” (“To God we belong and to Him we shall return.”).

In 1940, the Second world war was in its early stages in Europe and was essentially Fascist Germany and Italy against the decadent liberal democracies, France and Britain. Graziani was in command of the 150,000 men, 600 tanks and 1,200 aircraft of the Italian 10th Army, tasked by Mussolini to seize the Suez Canal, then held by the British. He moved his huge force into Egypt but then halted and established a chain of fortified camps. The British forces were commanded by General Richard O’Connor and comprised the British 7th Armoured Brigade and the Indian 4th Infantry Division, barely 38,000 men with 250 tanks and about 150 aircraft. Like Grant at Fort Donaldson in 1862 or Moltke at Sedan in 1870, O’Connor realised that by bold and rapid manoeuvre he could isolate the forts and cut off their supplies – turning a fortress into a prison. He staged a series of lightning strikes around the open flanks of the Italian camps and captured most of their occupants. Dashing on into Libya, O’Connor captured a string of towns familiar to a modern audience, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Beda Fomm, Ajdahbia and finally halted at El-Agehiela (Al-Uqayla, 25 miles west of Brega). By the time he stopped O’Connor had taken 110,000 prisoners, destroyed 400 tanks and destroyed or captured 1,000 aircraft, effectively ending Italian control of Cyrenaica. Although a rout for the 10th Army, one small Italian unit held out until March 1941, a month after O’Connor reached Al-Uqayla. Col. Salvatore Castagna and his small force of Italian regulars and Libyan militia held the town of Al-Jaghbub, home of the Senussi Order, against a much bigger British force – the only Italian success of the campaign. Graziani resigned after the catastrophe and took no further part in the war. Due to the deal reached with the Allies when Italy surrendered, no senior Italians stood trial for war crimes and Graziani was never charged either for his actions in Libya or for his maltreatment of Ethiopian POW’s in the Abyssinian invasion.

Libya became a British Protectorate for a short while after the war and transitioned to full independence in 1951, the result of a UN Security Council resolution in 1949; Libya was the first country in the world to be established by direction of the UN. Initially a constitutional monarchy under Idris as-Senussi, grandson of the Grand Senussi of Al-Jaghbub. Oil was discovered in 1959 and commercial exports began in 1963. As with so many other states in Africa and beyond, the discovery of oil and the tsunami of western petro-dollars that followed soon after destabilised the fragile new state and led inevitably to a coup-d’état, in this case by Q’daffy in 1969. From the beginning his skill at knitting together the various ethnic and religious groups in Libya was undone by his bizarre and eccentric views on the government and on the outside world. On coming to power he abolished all existing laws and put in place a one party state “execution is the fate of anyone who forms a political party” he said in 1972. With a mixture of Sharia law and state socialism he nationalised all the main industries and imposed income caps on all citizens; an extensive secret police network existed to gather information on citizens in a manner similar to North Korea or Iraq before the invasion, together with brutal repression of any opposition. What he had created was, in effect, Libyan Fascism – where Graziani failed, Q’daffy succeeded. Yet it was his actions towards foreign governments that would eventually make him enough enemies that when the Arab Spring came to Libya, that there were few who would be willing to help; Lockerbie was only the most the visible example of a leader who was like a bull in a diplomatic china shop for more than four decades. Some in the Arab world saw through him very early on, in 1971 Gaafar Nimiery, then President of Sudan observed “he has a split personality, both parts evil”.

Only Russia and China demurred in the security council vote, eventually abstaining; yet the UN, and US, were in fact bounced into action by Sarkozy and Cameron who were minded to go it alone. Had the UN not backed action, what little authority it still had would have faded away. Just as with Saddam Hussein in 2003, the west judged him simply too dangerous to have at large when they were already deep into a war with Al Qaeda. In the case of Q’daffy, for the heady first few days when it looked like the rebels would stroll into Tripoli, the western powers had all declared the for rebels, formally or informally. Their die was cast at that moment, they could not now allow him to stay in power, even if the country were partitioned. A rogue state that has previously launched terrorist attacks against the US, the UK and many others, on the borders of southern Europe is simply too dangerous to contemplate. Whatever UN resolution 1973 says, the west will have to see through the overthrow of Q’daffy in any event.

If the events of the past week are anything to go by, a military defeat of Q’daffy seems inevitable, although what is likely to come in his wake is anyone’s guess right now. A long drawn out war is in no – one’s interest, least of all Libyans. Future governments can be devised, but first we have to escape from the current arrangement. Q’daffy was derisive of British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s suggestion in the first few days that he might like to pack his bags for Venezuela, but it would be have better for all concerned, including Q’daffy himself, if he had taken Hague’s advice. There is still time for him to step down, but not much time, because with the war going the way it is right now if he isn’t killed by a British Tomahawk (made in America) with the words “Lockerbie” stencilled on the side, then it may be his own side who dispose of him. But he is the past, the future belongs to Libyans. The UN created Libya in the first place, and it can do so again. The 1911 intervention by Italy in Libya triggered a far greater conflagration, but does history always have to be that way ? Cannot revolutions sometimes be harbingers of positive change ? Can a successful transition of Libya into a peaceful and productive state become a template for others in that troubled region ?

The TV news coverage of Libya has thrown up some excellent reporting and analysis. Lisa Holland’s powerful reporting on Sky News and the overall coverage from the English language version of Al Jazeera has been of a high quality. But for me the definitive image of the affair came from BBC news; in the early days many foreign contractors had been stranded in the desert, terrified of the moment that either bandits, or worse, Q’daffy’s men turned up. One told of the moment that he finally knew he was safe – when he reached his destination on the coast he saw a huge sign put there to greet him and his colleagues – “Welcome to Free Benghazi !”

Copyright ©Savereo John 2011