Operation Capture of Kufra

The 'Capture of Kufra' was the Allied seizure within the 'Campaign for the Western Desert' of the Kufra group of oases in the Kufra district of south-eastern Cyrenaica in the Libyan desert (31 January/1 March 1941).

In 1940, the Kufra oasis area was part of the Italian colony of Libia Italiana, which was part of Africa Settentrionale Italiana, itself established in 1934.

With some early assistance from the British Long Range Desert Group, Kufra was besieged by Free French forces, which forced the surrender of the Italian and Libyan garrison.

Kufra was an important trade and travel centre for the nomadic desert peoples of the region, including Berbers and Senussi. The Senussi made the oasis their capital at one point against British, Italian and French designs on the region. In 1931, Italy captured Kufra and incorporated it into the Africa Settentrionale Italiana colonisation of the Maghreb. The Italian post at Kufra included the Buma airfield and radio station, used for air supply and communications with Africa Orientale Italiana and a fort at the nearby village of El Tag.

After the French and British defeat of 1940 in the 'Battle of France', the colony of Afrique-Équatoriale Française (French Equatorial Africa) declared its allegiance to Free France, the government-in-exile led by Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle. Chad, the northern part of Afrique-Équatoriale Française, borders south-eastern Libya, and de Gaulle ordered the Free French forces in Chad to attack Italian positions in Libya. Kufra was the obvious target and the troops available to the Free French commander in Chad, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Colonna d’Ornano, were 5,000 tirailleurs (riflemen) of the Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad (Senegalese Light Infantry Regiment of Chad) in 20 companies garrisoning various places and three detachments of méhariste camel cavalry in Borkou, Tibesti and Ennedi.

Attacking Kufra would be very difficult for these unbalanced and lightly armed troops. The Free French had very little motor transport and needed to cross some 250 miles (400 km) of desert, much of which was sand dune or fech fech fine and powdery soil which was thought impassable to motor vehicles. However, the Free French received British assistance from the Long Range Desert Group, a reconnaissance and raiding unit which had been established to operate behind the Italian lines and become adept in the difficulties of desert navigation. Major Pat Clayton of the Long Range Desert Group was keen to join the Free French to test the Italians. Clayton commanded G Patrol (Brigade of Guards) and T Patrol (New Zealand), together comprising 76 men in 26 vehicles.

The Long Range Desert Group and the Free French first raided the Italian airfield at Murzuk, in the Territorio Sahara Libico-Fezzan region in south-western Libya. d’Ornano and 10 Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five local soldiers) met Long Range Desert Patrol units on 6 January 1941 at Kayouge, which was in all probability the Kayouge Enneri Wadi close to the town of Zouar in north-western Chad. The combined force reached Murzuk on 11 January and in a bold stroke, surprised the sentries and devastated the base. Most of the force attacked the main fort, while Lieutenant Ballantyne’s troop of T Patrol attacked the airfield, destroying three Caproni aircraft and taking some prisoners. d’Ornano was killed in the raid, together with one trooper of T Patrol. A diversionary raid by Free French camel cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides and these troops were relegated to reconnaissance.

Colonel Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque assumed command in place of d’Ornano. After the success of the Murzuk raid, Leclerc marshalled his forces to tackle Kufra. The attacking column included about 400 men in 60 trucks, two Laffly S15TOE (théâtre d’opérations extérieures) scout cars, four Laffly S15R cross-country personnel carriers and two 75-mm (2.95-in) mountain guns. Kufra was protected by two defensive lines around the El Tag fort with barbed wire, trenches, machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns. The Regio Esercito garrison comprised the 117-man 59a and 60a Compagnie mitraglieri each with 13 6.5-mm (0.26-in) Schwarzlose or Fiat machine guns, 280 askari (local infantry) of the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra and one Compagnia Auto-Avio-Sahariana known as the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra. The Saharan companies were a mixed force of motorised infantry with well-armed SPA AS37 cross-country vehicles, and could also call on the Regia Aeronautica for support. The Compagnia Sahariana di Kufra had about 120 men (45 Italians and 75 Libyans). There was also a Sezione aeroplani with four officers, four non-commissioned officers, 32 Italian enlisted men and four aircraft.

Leclerc asked the Long Range Desert Group to deal with the Saharan company, based in El Tag fort in the Kufra oasis. The Long Range Desert Group was detected by a radio intercept unit at Kufra and the Italians organised a mobile column of 40 men, one AS37 and four FIAT 634 trucks to intercept them. G Patrol had been kept in reserve. On 31 January, Clayton was at Bishara, some 80 miles (130 km) to the south-south-west of Kufra, with T Patrol (30 men in 11 trucks). The patrol was spotted by an Italian aeroplane in the morning. T Patrol took cover in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif, a few miles to the north. The aeroplane directed the Saharan patrol into an attack on the Long Range Desert Group’s force and, as a result of the greater fire-power of the Italian vehicles, armed with 20-mm cannon, and constant air attack, T Patrol was driven off, losing four trucks and Major Clayton, who was captured together with several others. Trooper Ronald Moore led other survivors to safety after a long foot march. The remaining Long Range Desert Group pulled back into Egypt for refitting, except for one vehicle of T Patrol, equipped for desert navigation. During the fight, 1st Lieutenant Caputo, in command of the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra, was killed, as were two Libyan soldiers.

Leclerc pressed on with his attack, even though the Italians had captured a copy of his plans from Clayton. After additional reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganised his forces on 16 February. He abandoned his two armoured cars and took with him the remaining serviceable piece of artillery. Only about 350 men reached Kufra, as a result of the breakdown of several trucks on the march. Aware of the French approach, the Italians organised another strong mobile column from the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra (70 men, 10 AS37 vehicles and five trucks). On 17 February, Leclerc’s forces met the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra to the north of Kufra. Despite losing many trucks to the 20-mm cannon of the Italian AS37 cars, the French drove off the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra as the Kufra garrison failed to intervene. The French surrounded El Tag and laid siege to the fort, despite another attack by the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra and harassment from the air. The 75-mm (2.95-in) gun was sited 3,280 yards (3000 m) from the fort, beyond range of the defenders' weapons, and fired 20 rounds per day at regular intervals from different places to give the appearance of more guns. Some 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars were placed 1,640 yards (1500 m) from the fort and bombed the Italian positions to increase the pressure on the defenders.

The fort was commanded by Capitano Colonna, an inexperienced reserve captain, who lacked the will and the determination to fight. Surrender negotiations began on 28 February and on 1 March 1941, the Italian garrison of 11 officers, 18 non-commissioned officers and 273 Libyan soldiers (12, 47 and 273, according to French sources) surrendered El Tag and the Kufra oasis to the Free French. During the siege, the Italian garrison had suffered one Italian officer killed, two Libyan soldiers killed and four wounded; the French had suffered four fatal casualties and 21 wounded. The Italian garrison was permitted to withdraw to the north-west and the French forces took eight SPA AS37 Autocarro Sahariano light trucks, six trucks, four 20-mm cannon and 53 machine guns.

After the fall of Kufra, Leclerc and his troops swore an oath to fight until 'our flag flies over the Cathedral of Strasbourg', and this oath was fulfilled on 23 November 1944, when Leclerc and the 2ème Division blindée liberated Strasbourg.