Missing: a social history of the war in North Africa

Missing: a social history of the war in North Africa


The war in North Africa is often seen as having taken place on the ‘perfect battlefield’. Space for maneuver, no civilians or settlements to get in the way. Histories of the war consequently focus on the events on this ‘perfect’ battlefield, the to-and-fro of the tanks, and the battles in the air. This means that there is a serious gap in the historiography of the campaign that tore through Libya several times between June 1940 and January 1943. This gap is less of an issue for the Tunisian campaign.

There are also other issues relating to war crimes of course, including the systemic abuse of prisoners of war, repeated bombing of military hospitals, and some at least questionable actions in the heat of battle, but these should probably be considered part of the military, rather than social history.

The Topography of War

While Libya was (and is) a relatively empty country, it wasn’t depopulated. During the war, about 800,000 people are estimated to have lived there, with about 20% or so of them Italian settlers, and the remainder Arabs from various backgrounds, as well as an African population in the south of the country. While sparse compared to the size of the country, the topography meant the population was concentrated in settlements on the coastal strip, where a living could be eked out, or in various oases along old trading routes, depending on the presence of sufficient water.

These locations were, by their nature, important militarily and became targets of enemy attacks. They sat astride desert tracks that could be used for flanking maneuvers, and/or they were important logistical or military centers in their own right, such as Benghazi or Tripoli. Major centres were bombed regularly, sometimes nightly, and in the case of Tripoli also came under fire from the sea. While the targets were military, the nature and technology of night-time bombing in the early 1940s meant that in reality the whole settlement became a target.

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La Domenica del Corriere cover 1912. Arab soldiers surrendering during the Italo-Turkish war. (Ebay)

The brutal History of Colonisation

The war was the second calamity to befall Libya in the space of just over a decade. During the 1920s into the early 1930s, the Italian armed forces waged a brutal campaign against the Senussia, a tribal insurgent movement aiming to throw off the colonial power. It was so violent that it earned its military leader, later Marshal Graziani, a convinced fascist, the nickname ‘The Butcher’.

Estimates are that as many as 10-15% of Libya’s population was killed in this campaign, the vast majority of them in Cyrenaica, where losses may have been as high as a third of the population. In the end, the Arab population was forcibly removed from their homes, and put into internment camps. The famous ‘wire’, the barbed wire fence on the Libyan/Egyptian border, still visible today, served to control the movement of these Arab insurgents across the border.

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Domenica Dell Corriere cover, 1938. Italian colonists arriving in Libya. (Ebay)

The embers of this conflict remained hot, and when they were exposed during the campaign in Libya, it reignited. Arabs took sides, formally as part of the Libyan Arab Force on the side of the Empire, or informally in the form of irregular combat activity, sniping retreating Axis formations, or informing the British army’s Long Range Desert Patrol about Axis movements and strongpoints. 

The consequences of these actions for those executing them, when they were caught, were no different in North Africa than they were in White Russia, Yugoslavia, or on Crete. Summary execution, destruction of property, brutalization of communities. This suppression was undertaken in full view and with the tacit or open agreement of the German co-belligerent forces.

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Omar Mukhtar, Leader of the Senussi uprising, executed by the Italians in 1931. (Wikipedia)

Persecution of Libyan Jews

There was also a Jewish population group in Libya, who were at first not too badly affected by the Italian colonization project, but with the increasing radicalisation and racism of Italian fascism began to suffer from the late 1930s, and from 1941 onwards also were put into internment camps, where many of them perished. The idea that the Holocaust did not extend to the ‘clean war’ of North Africa is but a myth.

The main camp was the concentration camp at Giado (modern Jadu), just south-west of Tripoli, established 7 Feb 1942[1], just after the end of the military operations of winter 1941/42. The death rate in the camp was 21%, due to malnutrition and disease. There is no evidence that any killing by guards other than by neglect took place. The camp has its own entry on the US Holocaust Museum site at this link. Little is known about what went on there however. It was liberated by Empire troops in the middle of January 1943.

In late summer 1941, an unknown number of Libyan Jews with British passports were sent to Italy, where they were held (amongst others) at the concentration camps of Villa Oliveto and Bagno a Ripoli, near Arezzo. There is a site that has some information on them at this link. After the armistice they were briefly free to go, but chose to stay in camp. Most of them were eventually deported to Germany, where they ended up in Bergen Belsen.

More background on the persecution of Jews in North Africa can be found at this link. It appears that while initially, Governor Italo Balbo aimed to protect the Jewish community, following his death and the eventual appointment of committed fascists such as Graziani and Bastico, the situation deteriorated substantially in 1941.

Civilian Casualties and the War in North Africa

More directly, the war killed civilians as well, as elsewhere. These civilian casualties in North Africa seem to have occurred due to two primary reasons, first the air campaign by both the Axis and the Empire air forces, and secondly the violent suppression of insurgency against the Axis forces and that insurgency itself, which targeted not just Axis military personnel but also civilians. Murder, rape and violence were not uncommon.

I suspect that unlike e.g. in Normandy, few civilians would have been caught in ground combat activity. There is no comprehensive study on this aspect of the war available that I am aware of, but work is being undertaken on this, e.g. by Patrick Bernhard at the University of Oslo (see e.g. here). But the absence of a comprehensive piece of work makes it possible for us to keep thinking of this war as a clean one.

Nevertheless, the bombing campaign against Axis logistics centers caused substantial civilian casualties in relation to the size of the population, and it is documented in the war diary of Italy’s Comando Supremo, where of course casualties are neatly divided between Arab and Italian (Nazionale) dead. One example with heavy casualties is of 25 October, during an attack on Misurata, where the Arab quarter is hit, with 35 killed and 47 wounded. The war diary noted they were mostly muslims, with only one Italian killed.

Further documentation can be found in German war diaries from rear area installations, such as the Naval Transport Offices in Benghazi and Tripoli, which document air attacks as they are known in these offices, including a heavy attack on Benghazi on 14 October 1941, during which the civilian supply office is hit and 28 Arabs are reported as killed.

But the war diaries also reveal outright war crimes, such as the reported execution by Italian forces of 300 Arabs for sniping on retreating Axis troops on 22 December 1941, as Benghazi is abandoned, or the summary execution of two Arabs in March 1941, accused of cutting signaling wires at Misurata. While these numbers seem small, they need to be seen in the context of a population that was merely 1/60th of the UK population on 1939. So the two raids referred to above equate to attacks killing over 3,000 civilians during the Blitz. To take an example, the infamous Coventry raid of November 1940, which coined the word ‘coventrisieren‘ in German, claimed the lives of less than 600 people.

Filling a Gap

The lack of a comprehensive social history of the war in North Africa is a major gap in the historiography of World War 2. I truly hope it will be filled soon.


[1] Another source says July 1941.