Well, with the memory of our recent air campaign fresh in everybody’s mind, it will certainly come as no surprise to anybody that we have been inside Libya’s airspace. But our involvement with Libya goes back a long way before that.
Tripoli was one of the North African bases of what we then called the Barbary Corsairs, so that being the case, armed Brits have visited it on a number of occasions over the centuries.
Admiral Robert Blake, with an English fleet, dropped in on Tripoli in 1655 and helped arrange the release of some English prisoners.
Later in the seventeenth century, with a treaty under threat, English ships blockaded Tripoli. Then on 14 January 1676, in a daring raid, Lieutenant Cloudesley Shovell led a boat attack into Tripoli harbour and burned four ships here, with no English losses recorded. This was followed up by Sir John Narborough destroying four more of the Dey of Tripoli’s ships in the open sea, and eventually the Dey got the message and signed a peace treaty in March 1676.
In 1816, Lord Exmouth turned up with a British fleet to emphasise that we would not tolerate attacks on our ships.
Our main military incursions into Libya took place in the Second World War. By this stage Italy controlled Libya. On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on us. The 11th Hussars were ordered into action and by 14 June British forces had invaded Libya and captured Fort Capuzzo. They also captured Generale di Corpo Lastrucci, who was the Italian tenth Army’s engineer-in-chief, plus his staff car, his staff officer, two lady friends and important maps.
In September 1940, with the Battle of Britain still raging and us fearing imminent invasion from the German armies gathered just across the Channel, Mussolini decided he would take advantage of the situation to invade Egypt. This proved to be a spectacular miscalculation, one of many in Benito’s life.
The Italian forces advanced from Libya into Egypt and stopped at Sidi Barrani to establish defensive positions as a base for a further advance. They made the mistake of arranging their positions at such long distances from each other that it was difficult for their fortified camps to give each other assistance.
In December, we hit back with Operation Compass, which was supposed to be a limited five-day attack against the Italian positions. However, unexpected success and the crumbling of the Italian defences meant that the limited attack became a full-scale counter-offensive.
By 15 December we were back inside Libya and Fort Capuzzo was once again in our hands. Tobruk fell on 22 January 1941. Meanwhile, in the south of Libya, the Long Range Desert Group operating with Free French Forces from Chad attacked the Italian garrison at Murzuq. On 9 February 1941, our forces, having overrun Cyrenaica, reached El Agheila and Churchill ordered the advance to be stopped so that troops could be sent to defend Greece. By this stage, the Italian Tenth Army had ceased to exist and about 130,000 prisoners of war had been taken.
This is where Rommel appears on the scene, having been sent with the Afrika Korps to bolster the Italians. In March he attacked at El Agheila and drove our forces back across the Egyptian border and by mid-April the front line was as far back as Sallum (though we still held Tobruk in Libya, now besieged). In June 1941 we struck back with Operation Battleaxe, but this turned into a costly failure, although we took Fort Capuzzo in Libya. Yet again. Before being forced to withdraw from it. Yet again.
After this, Wavell was replaced by Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command and our forces were reorganised and given the famous name, the Eighth Army. In November 1941, we launched Operation Crusader. Despite successes for both sides, Rommel was forced to withdraw and in early December he ordered his troops back to the Gazala line, and eventually they withdrew as far as El Agheila again. Tobruk was relieved. Mightily relieved.
But it wasn’t to last. Rommel was resupplied and pushed the Allied forces back to Gazala. In the Battle of Gazala in May and June 1942, the Eighth Army was forced to withdraw and Tobruk fell. Rommel pursued them into Egypt, but his heavy losses of tanks at the Battle of Gazala meant he was unable to secure a decisive victory and his advance was stopped at the First Battle of El Alamein in July. This is the point at which Montgomery comes into the fighting.
In October 1942, Montgomery and the Eighth Army went onto the offensive, and at the Second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October and beginning of November 1942, Rommel’s forces suffered a stunning defeat. Yet again they were forced back to El Agheila in Libya. But there was to be no recovery for them this time.
In December, Montgomery forced Rommel back from El Agheila. The Eighth Army reached Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, on 25 December (he had been born there just a few months previously in June 1942). Eventually, Tripoli fell to the Eighth Army on 23 January. Shortly after that the front line moved out of Libya and into Tunisia.
From 1943 to 1951, we controlled Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, while the French were in control of Fezzan in the south. Then in 1951 Libya became independent under King Idris. In 1969, Gaddafi staged a successful coup against King Idris. In 2011, British planes played a huge role in the events that led to the end of Gaddafi’s regime and his death.