The Capture of Kufra (Prise de Koufra, Italian: Cufra) was part of the Allied Western Desert Campaign during the Second World War. Kufra is a basin and oasis group in the Kufra District of south-eastern Cyrenaica in the Libyan Desert. In 1940, it was part of the colony of Italian Libya Libia Italiana, which was part of Africa Settentrionale Italiana (ASI), which was established in 1934. With some early assistance from the British Long Range Desert Group, Kufra was captured by Free French Forces when the Italian and Libyan garrison surrendered after a siege from 31 January to 1 March 1941.
Kufra, in the Libyan Desert subregion of the Sahara, 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, the Kingdom of Italy captured Kufra and incorporated it into the Italian North Africa (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 Italian East Africa and a fort at the nearby village of El Tag.
After the Allied defeat of 1940 in the Battle of France, the colony of French Equatorial Africa (FEA) declared its allegiance to Free France, the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle. Chad, the northern part of FEA, borders Libya. De Gaulle ordered the Free French 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 Senegalese Light Infantry Regiment of Chad (Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad (RTST) in twenty companies garrisoning various places and three detachments of méhariste (camel cavalry), in Borkou, Tibesti and Ennedi.
Attacking Kufra would be very difficult for this motley force. The Free French had very little motor transport and needed to cross 400 km (249 mi) of desert, much of which was sand dune or the fine, powdery soil called fech fech which was thought impassable to motor vehicles. The French received assistance from the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a reconnaissance and raiding unit formed to operate behind the Italian lines, who had become expert in desert navigation. Major Pat Clayton of the LRDG was keen to join with the Free French to test the Italians. Clayton commanded G Guard (Brigade of Guards) and T Patrol (New Zealand) of the LRDG, 76 men in 26 vehicles.
The LRDG and Free French first raided the Italian airfield at Murzuk, in the Territorio Sahara Libico–Fezzan region in south-western Libya. D'Ornano and ten Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five local soldiers) met Clayton's LRDG patrols on 6 January 1941 at Kayouge.[a] The combined force reached Murzuk on 11 January and in a daring daylight raid, surprised the sentries and devastated the base. Most of the force attacked the main fort; a troop from T Patrol under Lieutenant Ballantyne attacked the airfield, destroying three Caproni aircraft and capturing some prisoners; D'Ornano was killed in this raid along with one trooper of T Patrol. A French officer cauterised his leg wound with a cigarette, much to the admiration of the LRDG. A diversionary raid by French camel cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides. These troops were relegated to reconnaissance duties only.
Colonel Philippe Leclerc assumed command in place of d'Ornano. After the success of the Murzuk raid, Leclerc marshalled his forces to take on Kufra. The attacking column included about 400 men in sixty trucks, two Laffly S15 (théâtre d'opérations extérieures TOE) 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 Royal Italian Army (Regio Esercito) garrison comprised the 59th and 60th Machine-gun companies, with 280 askari (local infantry) and an Auto-Saharan Company, the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra. The Saharan companies were a mixed force of motorised infantry with well-armed cross-country vehicles (SPA AS37), which could also call on the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) for support. The Compagnia Sahariana in Kufra was around 120-men strong (45 Italians and 75 Libyans).
Leclerc asked the LRDG to deal with the Saharan company, based in El Tag fort in the Kufra oasis. The LRDG was detected by a radio intercept unit at Kufra and the Italians organised a mobile column of forty men, one AS37 and four FIAT 634 lorries to intercept them. G Patrol had been kept in reserve. On 31 January, Major Clayton was at Bishara (130 km (81 mi) 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 kilometres north. The plane directed the Saharan patrol to attack the LRDG force. Due to the fire-power of the Italian vehicles were armed with 20 mm (0.79 in) cannon and constant air attack, T Patrol was driven off, losing four trucks and Major Clayton, who was captured with several others. Trooper Ronald Moore led other survivors to safety after a long foot march. The remaining LRDG force withdrew to 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, 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 Major Clayton. After conducting further reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganised his forces on 16 February. He abandoned his two armoured cars and took with him the remaining serviceable artillery piece. Only about 350 men reached Kufra, due to breakdowns of trucks on the march. Aware of the French approach, the Italians organised another strong mobile column from the Saharan company (seventy men, ten AS37 and five trucks). On 17 February, Leclerc's forces met the Compagnia Sahariana north of Kufra. Despite losing many trucks to the 20 mm guns of the Italian AS37 cars, the French drove off the Compagnia Sahariana 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 and harassment from the air. The 75 mm gun was placed 3,000 m (3 km; 2 mi) from the fort, beyond range of the defenders and fired twenty shells per day at regular intervals from different places to give the appearance of more guns. Some 81 mm (3.2 in) mortars were placed 1,500 m (1,640 yd) from the fort and bombed the Italian positions to increase the pressure on the defenders.
The fort was commanded by 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 NCOs 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 suffered four fatal casualties and 21 wounded. The Italian garrison was permitted to withdraw to the north-west and the French forces took over eight SPA AS.37 Autocarro Sahariano light trucks, six lorries, 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"
Swear not to lay down arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, fly over Strasbourg Cathedral.— Leclerc
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