REDUX: Place In The Sun: What If Italy Joined The Central Powers?

Chapter XII- The Desert War

Chapter XII

The Desert War

North Africa had long been subject to outside forces. Muslim belief had tied the people to the Middle East since the Seventh Century; the Ottoman sultans had combined hard power with professed spiritual authority. Yet proximity to Europe made North Africa a natural object of colonialism. France's Algerian venture had begun in 1830; Britain constructed the critical Suez Canal thirty-nine years later. This gave the European powers vested interests in the region and they acted accordingly. By 1914 North Africa was as much an extension of European power as the rest of the continent.

It was due to become a battleground.

Italy's forces in Libya were understrength and ill-prepared for war. After conquering the colony in 1912, Italy had fought an endless battle of administration. Keeping the fortified coastal cities, with home just a few days at sea away, was one thing. Maintaining overland communications and quelling insurgents was quite another. Northwestern Tripolitania was the wealthiest and most orderly; Cyrenacia and Fezzan dragged behind. Libya was included in Italy's autumn mobilisation, yet distance and priorities delayed things. Shipping supplies from Venice to Tobruk was easier than fighting for scarce rail freight or driving them down desert roads. When engines overheated or sandstorms covered roads, men and supplies travelled on camel's back as they had under the Pharoahs. Settler militias were growing, but a long way from regular combat units. (1) Bringing in reinforcements took time, and Libya was nowhere near ready come 1 October. Lieutenant General Giovanni Amegilo, governor of both Tripolitania and Cyrenacia (2), objected but vowed to place the colony "at the disposal of the Motherland". Amigelo knew too well that he could not attack either Egypt or Tunisia for a very long time. Yet he knew the endless swathes of desert (and the familiarity of the officer corps with them), the hardiness of the settler militias, and the courage of Italy's regular army. When Britain invaded, as he believed they must, Amigelo knew Libya would resist.

Britain's Force in Egypt, established in summer 1914, was headquartered in Cairo. It had distinguished itself fighting in the Siani Peninsula, keeping the Suez Canal out of enemy hands. Most of its forces remained on the peninsula, threatening to attack the Holy Land and tying down Ottoman forces. Five hundred miles of arid desert and local patrolmen separated it from the Libyan border. With his hands more than full, Major General James Maxwell couldn't strike west. Besides, Libya had nothing to offer save tying down the enemy. An exchange of telegrams with London shortly after war broke out confirmed that "(I) would be doing (my) job as long as I prevented Cairo, Alexandria, and the Pyramids from coming under Italian control", as he recalled later. The token Western Frontier Force, commanded by Major General Alexander Wallace, would hold the line.

Both sides, however, would fight a fierce war... just not against one another.

The story of the Senussi order is one of the more remarkable ones in Africa's long colonial history. They were founded by an Algerian exile distraught over France's occupation of his homeland, and their early mission was spiritual purification in perceived atonement. Many such radical movements were put down (such as the Mahdi of Sudan) or died with their founder, yet the Senussi lived on in the desert. Relations with the Ottomans in Libya remained strong as antipathy for the encroaching French and British grew. Italy's takeover of Libya in 1912 made them the prime enemy, and any power which could help evict them was a potential ally.

Italian entry into the Central Powers complicated the situation. Turkish participation in the Central Powers made the Senussi look favourably on them, and Germany had considered working with them against the British in Egypt. Yet Germany had gone to great lengths to woo Italy, and wasn't about to throw it all away for minor distractions in Africa. Just as Austria-Hungary had sacrificed pride and border adjustments, Germany was forced to shelve plans for allying with the Senussi. Ambassadors in Constantinople respectfully suggested that the Ottoman Sultan tone down his calls for a Senussi revolt but his religious charges ignored him. The Senussi saw Italy as the ultimate enemy, with France and Britain not far behind. Backing the Italians made Germany part of the problem; Turkey's quiet acceptance of the alliance diminished their stature. With their enemies fighting one another, the Senussi were left without natural allies.

They had to take the offensive.

Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi (3) declared jihad on the fourteenth of November 1915. With the Europeans "consumed by fratricide", they would be too distracted to offer protracted resistance. His people would fight the Italians and Anglo-French in equal measure, something a lesser man would've thought impossible. Yet their enemies were weak and a long way from home while the Senussi were in their native country. Most importantly, if their religion was true, their professed spiritual purity would assure victory.

The next eighteen months saw brutal desert war barely connected to the European fighting. Senussi cavalry cut across both Libya and Egypt, attacking towns and outposts on either side of the border with equal impunity. As their ancestors had raided Byzantine forts centuries ago, the Senussi would attack oasis towns or border posts, kill the white men, and make off with their loot. Word quickly spread that Muslim bystanders had no need to fear, and local reactions ranged from concern for one's safety to active encouragement. Many allied with the Senussi out of fear, yet others shared their deep religious convictions. When attacked, the Senussi melted into the desert, scarcely damaged. Guns had replaced swords, but the tactics hadn't changed since the first jihad twelve hundred years ago.

Britain and Italy both initially suspected the other of setting the Senussi against them, but soon realised how little this had to do with the European War. In many places, alliances of convenience superseded the state of war. Italian soldiers saw the British as cowardly misers without respect for foreign honour; Britain saw the Italians as backstabbers. Yet all were Christian white men who believed in certain rules of war. Their war was between governments- Sonnino versus Asquith, Vittorio Emmanuel versus George V. Both followed international law and knew once the shooting stopped, both sides knew they'd have to live with each other. The war with the Senussi was something else. It was a fight against fanatics who wanted to destroy them and their religion and who would show no quarter. Unofficial ceasefires and working agreements overcame the state of war. Officers on the ground shed no tears when the Senussi destroyed an enemy camp, but they would often shelter the survivors who fled into the desert, sometimes even shipping them back to their own side. Aerial reports of Senussi movements sometimes found their way into enemy hands. All this violated doctrine and orders from higher-ups, and many were court-martialed during and after the war for fraternising with the enemy. Yet junior officers understood which enemy mattered more, and that neither European state could dislodge the other. Britain's Commission Report on the North African War (1920) tacitly acknowledged as much. While Luigi Cadorna reportedly quipped that "any man sharing a cigarette with the inglesi just because both are white should be left in the sun!", neither he nor the senior officers in Tripoli could mount a witch-hunt. The Anglo-Italian ceasefire left the frontlines in approximately the same place as October 1915. Libya's border with Egypt was subsequently codified, largely in Britain's favour. (4)

The war in Libya outlasted the fighting in Europe by several months. Britain sought to carry on the war in the peripheries after the collapse of France; Italy had no choice but to keep defending their last colony. The first draft of the Treaty of Valencia proposed a formal anti-Senussi alliance, but it was stricken. Demobilisation slowed the fight, yet by spring 1917 the Senussi were in retreat. Rapprochement lay far in the future yet, both recognised their common interest here. Letting the Senussi conquer Tripoli would only encourage them to invade Egypt. The Senussi were also moving in a new direction. Idrīs al-Sanūsī (5) assumed de facto command in early 1917 over his ailing cousin, signing cease-fires with both Italy and Britain within months.

North Africa played little strategic role in the war, yet its political importance is often understated. British inability to march on Libya left it the sole Central Powers colony to survive the war. This contrasted favourably with how Germany's empire had seemingly crumbled- a rare bright spot for disaffected Italians. The fact that the Senussi had laid down their arms willingly rather than being conquered kept them politically and militarily relevant after the war. Despite being enemies, Britain and Italy had affirmed their commitment to the colonial order. Memories of tacit cooperation for the greater good became a nucleus for reconciliation.

Yet before any of this could come, there was a war in Europe to be won.

  1. Tripolitania eventually became a settler colony- and without WWII, this development will probably continue here- but three years after conquest is a bit soon.
  2. This man-- not a lot of info, alas.
  3. Ahmed Sharaf as-Senussi
  4. With Tarzibu and Al-Jawf as part of Egypt.
  5. Idrīs al-Sanūsī, king of Libya in OTL.
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yeah sure at this point make him like the cambogian prime minister and his full onorific title: Samdach Akkak Moha Sena Padey Dekjo Hun Sen -> Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander
Where does the full name derive from? Sounds more Middle Eastern or Indian than Polish.
As an aside, I forgot to hit 'save work' before letting someone borrow my computer... so I have to rewrite part of the Naval War chapter before I can post it. (Unlucky #13?)
Should be done at some point today.

pls don't ban me

Monthly Donor
Where does the full name derive from? Sounds more Middle Eastern or Indian than Polish.
Dunno, not an expert on Cambogian history except the common Pol Pot stuff. I heard it on the grand Tour episode were they talked about how it's legally imposed to say always the full name of the prime minister and his wife ( something like Most Intellignet and Gracious woman bla bla)
to lazy to remember it. XD
Where does the full name derive from? Sounds more Middle Eastern or Indian than Polish.
As an aside, I forgot to hit 'save work' before letting someone borrow my computer... so I have to rewrite part of the Naval War chapter before I can post it. (Unlucky #13?)
Should be done at some point today.
HAHAHAHAHAHHA unlucky for real
Chapter XIII- War On The Waves

Chapter XIII

War On The Waves

Prince Luigi Amedeo was a man of action. A cousin of the King, he had been born in Madrid during his father's brief tenure as King of Spain, but revolution had destroyed his chances of inheriting the throne. Luigi Amedeo had thrown himself into adventure- mountaineering in Alaska and Africa, Arctic exploring, and fighting natives in Eritrea (he had wept on hearing news of its surrender). He joined the Regia Marina, where his royal blood made him an instant vice-admiral. Regrettably, he saw no action in the Turkish war, and had spent the years since longing to make up for it. (1)

Amedeo saw the outbreak of war as an opportunity. Glory awaited not just for Italy but for him personally- which was more important? Neutrality was thus a disappointment. Like most of his countrymen, growing offence at Britain's actions balanced out an innate dislike of Austria. Yet Amedeo knew victory would further sacro egoisimo, and allying with either Austria or Britain was a distasteful but necessary first step. He knew, too, that his deep patriotism and devotion to the Regia Marina meant he'd do his duty no matter what.

Despite not being in government, Vice-Admiral Amedeo knew almost instantly when the decision for war was made. On the tenth of September 1915, he recieved command of the Taranto Fleet, with orders to have it ready for combat operations as soon as possible. His previous role as Inspector of Torpedo Craft- unglamorous though it was- had prepared him well for the task. In 1911, he'd ensured Italy's torpedo craft were ready for combat with the Turks, and that their officers were up to standard. Now he did the same thing on a larger scale.

Readying a peacetime formation for war is never easy. Officers have to transition from bureaucrats to leaders. Men have to double their training and steel themselves for danger. Equipment shortages and inefficiencies can no longer be excused. Such problems are all the greater aboard ships, where a single mechanical or navigational error can doom hundreds. Amedeo quickly became aware of the deficiencies in the fleet. Though the seventh-largest in the world, much of the Regia Marina was ageing. Many battleships and cruisers were too slow for modern engagements. Damage-control and signalling procedures were particularly rusty, while many ships hadn't left port in years. (2) Amedeo pondered if he'd need armoured tugboats to drag his battleships while fighting the French.

Reinforcements streamed in from the Adriatic, chiefly coast-defence vessels and minelayers. At the same time, Amedeo had to sacrifice some of his precious ships for the defence of Sicily and Sardinia. He understood the need without liking it. Such deployments made it obvious which side Italy would join; the only question was when the war would start. Rumours swirled about the base, yet the men had little time to worry as Amedeo drilled them around the clock. His superiors in Rome dreaded a pre-emptive Anglo-French strike, but he wasn't concerned. If the Entente wanted to charge into his home port, past his mines, into a defensively positioned fleet, they were welcome to try.

Amedeo eagerly awaited the word... but was disappointed when it came.

Italy's General Staff (3) hadn't consulted him on strategy. Prewar plans were automatically implemented as war neared, with only minimal review. These took caution to an extreme, reflecting paranoia of the Royal Navy. Strategic defence was the order of the day. To the General Staff, Italy's western coastline was a 4,600-mile long target for the Entente. The enemy could steam up to any of Italy's greatest cities and turn them to rubble in hours. Only a fleet in being, supplemented by mines and constant patrols, could keep them at bay. A hypothetical Austro-Italian joint fleet was abandoned after neither could agree on an acceptable commanding officer. Rather, the bulk of the Italian Navy moved to Naples, where it could best protect the western coast. Caligari, Catania, and Genoa housed smaller squadrons. The movement was complete by the twenty-ninth, when the telegram came. Combat operations would commence in twenty-four hours, and Amedeo was to expect a French sortie at any time.

Everything disappointed Amedeo. He had imagined war as an adventure on the high seas, a chance to sail into Nice or Malta and show the world what Italy could do. Yet his predecessors had let the fleet decay, his sailors lacked training and experience, and his superiors were paranoid. So he sat in Naples, ceding the western Mediterranean and the initiative to the French, and pondered what might have been.

He was soon to realise just how important his position was.

Britain's weapon of choice was blockade. Just as they had with Napoleon, Britain closed off Germany's trade links with the outside world. Germany had free rein of the Baltic and could venture into the North Sea, but its markets in the Americas and Africa were gone. This cost the UK fairly little and weakened Germany's economy. As relations with Italy soured throughout the summer, British and French admirals had revised existing war plans in light of a year's fighting. One of their first additions was a plan to subject Italy to the same treatment. It soon became obvious that this would be far easier than with Germany, for one reason: Britain controlled the exits to the Mediterranean Sea. With Gibraltar and Suez denied them, Italian global shipping would wilt. An Admiralty memorandum predicted an Italian economic collapse within a year; French projections were similar. The less Britain needed to blockade Italy, the more it could keep in the North Sea.

Yet the French still demanded British reinforcements. La Marine Nationale now had to face the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navies, while the U-boat threat could only grow. Fear of what could happen kept the admirals awake at night. U-boats operating out of Sicily could wreck shipping in the western Mediterranean, an Austro-Italian fleet could flatten Nice or Marseilles, or land on Corsica. They were transferring everything they could from Brest and Bordeaux but remained uneasy.

Britain, however, saw little need to reinforce the Mediterranean. Even destroying the Regia Marina in pitched battle would bring them no nearer victory. Gallipoli had taught the Entente that large-scale amphibious operations were unfeasible, so there would be no landing in Sicily or the Balkans. Blockading individual Italian cities was pointless if closing Gibraltar and Suez could achieve the same effect. Keeping the Gibraltar-Malta-Cairo supply line open was sufficient, and the principal threat was U-boats, not surface ships. Proposals to recall HMS Indomitable and Indefatigable were shelved; the French had more than enough capital ships. Instead, Britain recalled destroyers from deployments around the globe. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand provided ships, as did Japan. (4) These were concentrated around Malta and in the western Mediterranean; prime targets for U-boat attack. An immense mine-laying campaign accompanied this, designed both to protect Entente possessions (Malta, Gibraltar, Corsica, and the French coast), and to cripple Austro-Italian naval movements. Defensive mining was fairly easy (even if the odd fisherman did suffer an untimely death), but operations in enemy waters proved challenging. The Tyrrhenian and southern Adriatic were unsafe for slow minesweepers, who had to operate under guard from heavier vessels. By the end of 1915, however, the waters around Italy's "toe" and "boot" were some of the most heavily mined on earth. Fishermen dared not venture out unless surrounded by minesweepers, creating fish shortages in Italy and the Dual Monarchy.

For the Kaiserliche Marine, Italy's entry was a God-send. Admiral Hugo von Pohl conferred with his Italian opposite numbers in late September; he privately described the country as "an indestructible submarine base". Though trans-Alpine rail was in high demand, a number of U-boats travelled from Kiel to Naples throughout the autumn. The existing U-boat facilities in Trieste and Zadar were closed, though Austria-Hungary's few submarines continued to use them. Von Pohl's chief of staff Wilhelm Michaelis (5) became commander-in-chief of a joint fleet with an Italian subordinate commander. Italy's submarine fleet and doctrine were unimpressive, and German command would hopefully enhance efficiency. Operations began in earnest in January 1916, concentrated south of the Balearic Islands. Neutral- read American- shipping was less common in the Mediterranean than the Atlantic, so the rules of the sea were soon abandoned. Only Spain was seriously affected, and its wishes counted for little in Berlin. German and Italian submarines struck without warning, leaving survivors to fend for themselves. Attempted submarine attacks on the Strait of Gibraltar ended with the U-boats striking mines, yet the risk to Entente shipping remained serious. Both the Gibraltar-Malta-Cairo line and French communications with Africa remained perilous for the rest of the war. Britain would fight the Central Powers to a standstill in the Western Mediterranean, neither side scoring a decisive advantage. As Germany's noose on the Home Islands tightened, however, Britain left its forces there to fend for themselves, and the Central Powers gradually developed an edge. The last kill of the Mediterranean war- the Canadian torpedo boat HMCS Tuna- went below the waves three hours before the Anglo-German ceasefire.

If Britain was content to keep the enemy at bay, France wanted to take the fight to them.

With the Regia Marina only a few miles from their coast, it was natural for France to see them as the greater threat. Even if they groused about "l'apathie anglais" behind closed doors, the French admirals admitted Britain was keeping the Western Mediterranean open for them and securing their coasts. Gradually, French paranoia dimmed. An amphibious attack could still come anywhere, but it would have to fight past mines, their fleet, and fortifications. It was time to think about attacking, throwing the Italians on the backfoot. Vice-Admiral Paul Choceprat proposed a strike into the Tyrrhenian to draw out Italy's fleet. Superior technology and training would make the resultant battle a French victory. The Supreme Naval Council assented, granting Chocerat command of the fleet. He vowed "to return with all the glory of Napoleon, or not at all!"

Anchors were raised on the third of December.

France's Mediterranean fleet was impressive. Gallipoli had given its men valuable experience; its officers had proven their adaptability and competence, and the men knew their duties. Despite design flaws, the four Courbet-class battleships- Courbet, France, Jean Bart, and Paris- were modern and strong, as were the six Danton-class. Cruisers and destroyers were plentiful. Though the Italians had a slight numerical advantage, the Entente had other resources in the Mediterranean to replace losses. If this battle went well, only the decrepit Habsburg dreadnoughts would be left. What Choceprat lacked in combat experience, he made up for in confidence.

The Mediterranean Fleet descended on Caligari in the small hours of 4 December. A small squadron had protected the Sardinian capital since war began, but had faced nothing worse than a few submarines. Against ten battleships, they were helpless. To his credit, the Italian commander resisted valiantly. He knew what the French aimed to do to Caligari, and that he was powerless to stop it, but couldn't run up the white flag. He couldn't trade so many innocents for himself. Instead, he went down with his cruiser after fifteen minutes. After two destroyers slipped below the waterline, the last ships scuttled; the luckless survivors spent the rest of the war in a Corsican POW camp.

Choceprat's fleet closed in on Cagliari. Twelve-inch guns, four on each Courbet-class, did most of the heavy work despite a slow rate of fire (loading such big shells wasn't easy). (6) In a hurry to get them launched, the designers had overlooked faults in the elevation system: consequently the twelve-inchers could only reach a 12-degree angle. This forced them to draw closer to Cagliari than Choceprat would've liked; he rightly feared Italian harbour defences. The handful of coastal guns lacked the range and power to kill, and quickly succumbed to the 12-inchers, but mines were the real threat. Choceprat had failed to bring along minesweepers, forcing him to put destroyers in the lead. Voltigeur struck a mine at 0513 which blew off her bow and set her ablaze. She began taking on water and soon capsized, fortunately quenching the flames before they could reach the boiler or ammunition. Half her crew escaped. From the bridge of Courbet, Choceprat called a halt. He would have preferred to fire from even closer range but couldn't risk losing another ship. His fleet formed an arc around Cagliari; destroyers and cruisers in the front, battleships in the rear.

Cagliari took a beating. Having been awoken by the sounds of battle, the people panicked. Some took shelter in basements or buildings they deemed sturdy. Others tried to flee, clogging up the roads outside the city. Since the civilian docks were adjacent to the naval base, they took as much damage. Small fishing-boats were smashed; jetties and seaside shops set ablaze. Seagulls flapped away in blind panic, their nests suddenly smashed. At 0531, Choceprat ordered his 12-inchers, with their longer range, to fire deeper into the city while the lesser guns mopped up the harbour. Heavy shells flew into the centre of town, bursting in squares and above homes. Brick and limestone proved defenceless against metal. Statues were shattered, body parts flying in all directions. Fountains burst, causing floods and leaving them useless for the fire department. The town hall's ceiling was knocked in; a falling beam killed the Mayor at his desk. Women and children ran from their ruined homes weeping, bandages dangling from fresh wounds. Men frantically searched the rubble, hoping against hope. Old men knew their time had come. It was slaughter without purpose, punishing the innocent Cagliarians for nothing.

Across the Tyrhennian in Naples, Vice-Admiral Amedeo received a frantic wireless message. His hour had come.

  1. An interesting man overall.
  2. The Benedetto Brin explosion is butterflied because it was the work of Austrian agents, but something analogous will happen.
  3. Did Italy have something akin to Britain's Admiralty or was it all under the General Staff?
  4. All OTL, just more so.
  5. Wilhelm Michaelis
  6. The Courbets and their primary armament.
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The enterity of the french screen force is blocked by the battleships, this gonna be fun. If this entire debacle that's about to happen doesn't make the britsh send some capital units from the north to med I don't know what would.
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The Italians have the scouting advantage with British battlecruisers unavailable. The Pisa and San Giorgio classes are better than anything the French have besides maybe the Edgar Quinets and they also have three 27-knot scout cruisers.

If they can get the drop on the French that would give them the best odds.
and they also have three 27-knot scout cruisers.
Are these scout cruisers armed with torpedoes? Because from the description the french BBs are really exposed to a torpedoe attack, they could rush in, fire at a stantionary target and rush out before the french light units can move out from behind the BBs.
Are these scout cruisers armed with torpedoes? Because from the description the french BBs are really exposed to a torpedoe attack, they could rush in, fire at a stantionary target and rush out before the french light units can move out from behind the BBs.
Six between the three of them. The heavy lifting will have to be done by the destroyers.

Italy should have some MAS boats on hand, they’d be ideal for this situation.