9 August 1940: The Establishment of the Libyan Army

Shortly before World War II began, when the international situation became tense, the Libyan émegrés [al-mohajiroon] became active and began to speculate on how to take advantage of the new circumstances if Italy should become involved in a war with England. But the exiles had already been scattered and there were differences among Tripolitanians and Cyrinaicans as to whom their acknowledged leader should be.
When the war broke out in September, 1939, Tripolitanians and Cyrinaican leaders, who were genuinely willing to forget their differences, became very active and saw at once the need to co-ordinate their activities by an agreement on common leadership.
They called for a conference to discuss the opportunity offered by the war for the recovery of Libya. Meetings were held in Alexandria on October 20-23, 1939, in which, after a long discussion on how to reconsile personal differences among the Libyan leaders, it was decided to entrust their common leadership to the hands of Sayyid Idris, provided he agreed to appoint a joint committee of Cyrenaican and Tripolitanian leaders which would advise him on all future action that might be taken concerning the liberation of Libya. The joint advisory committee, however, never functioned satisfactorily, and personal differences continued to poison relations between Tripolitanian and Cyrenaican leaders.
When Italy entered the war in June, 1940, the Libyan leaders, despite their agreement at the Alexandria conference to patch up their differences, failed to agree on a policy of co-operation with Britain.
Many Tripolitanian leaders believed, in agreement with the then prevailing idea in the Arab world, that the Axis Powers would win the war and that Britain had no chance of survival. They accordingly did not want to antagonize Italy, under whose control Tripolitania lay powerless, by joining forces with the enemies.
The cyrenaican leaders, sworn enemies of Italy, had no such inhibitions and their country never reconsiled itself to Italian rule. They welcomed Italy's entry to the war and were anxious to resume their struggle against her. "This opportunity," said King Idris to the author, "was regarded as our chance to shoot the last arrow against our country's enemy. If we succeeded, the country would be recovered; if we failed, nothing would have been lost, since our country was already in the hands of the enemy."
Before Italy entered the war, the British had already given thought to the possibility of enlisting the support of exiled Arabs from Libya to orginized an Arab force. After Italy's entry into the war, General Maitland Wilson, Commander of the British forces in Egypt, formally invited Sayyid Idris to ask his followers to participate in the formation of a Sanusi force and Colonel Bromilow with organizing it. In agreement with the British, Sayyid Idris issued invitations to Cyrenaican and Tripolitanian leaders calling for a meeting to be held in Cairo on August 8, 1940, to discuss the nature of the assistance to be given them. The text of the letter follows:

" To Shaykh --------------------- :
Peace and God's mercy be upon you. We hope that you are in the best of health.
This is to inform you that the British government has decided to begin at once
to organize battalions of the Sanusi Arab tribes in order to restore to them their
liberty and emancipate their country from the hands of the Italian oppressors,
and to insure their [country's] independance.
You are requested to come to Cairo on Thursday. August 8, 1940, [to a meeting
to be held] at Nabatat Street, 6, Garden City, Cairo, in order to discuss the
assistance to be offered, and the number of men who would be willing to undertake
such an assignment. It is understood that your expenses will be paid by the British

August 3, 1940

Mohammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Sanuss
Colonel Bromilow
Assistant Military Secretary, British Troops in Egypt.",

The meeting was held on August 7, 1940, one day before the appointed time, and Sayyid Idris made an openinig statement in which he urged his countymen to take part in the military operation for the final liberation of their country. A few of the Tripolitanian émegrés attended the meeting, but Ahmed al-Swaihli and Tahir al-Murayid, two of their principal leaders, arrived too late in the final session on August 9 to hear General Maitland Wilson and refused to take part in the discussion. When the text of the resolutions was presented to them for approval, they declined to sign it and withdrew with a few others from the conference. The Tripolitanian leaders, more sophisticated than their Cyrenaican compatriots, offered as justification for their action the idea that they wanted to obtain a definite commitment from Britain for the future independance of their country before they would take part in the war on her side. The Cyrenaican émegrés and a few Tripolitanians adopted the following resolutions:
1. Full confidence is placed in the British government, which stretched forth its hands to liberate the Tripolitanian-Cyrenaican country from the oppression of Italian colonization.
2. Full confidence is placed in the Amir Sayyid Mohammad Idris Bin al-Mahdi al-Sanussi, and the Sanussi Amirate is proclaimed over the two provinces [of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica].
3. A committee shall be appointed, composed of members representing Tripolitania and Cyrenaica who will act as an Advisory Council to the Amir.
4. Participation in the war with the British Army against Italy [is decided upon] under the banner of the Sanussi Amirate.
5. A provisional Sanussi government shall be established to manage [Libyan] affairs at the present time.
6. A recruitment committee shall be appointed under the [provisional] government.
7. A request through the Amir shall be put to the British government to provide the necessary expenses for recruitment and management of the [Sanussi] administration in the form of a budget prepared in accordance with the national and traditional life of the Arabs.
8. The Amir is empowered to enter with the British government into such political, financial, and military agreements as shall ensure for [our] country its liberty and independence.
These resolutions, composed of eight articles, have been publicly read and signed, by virtue of which we entered into a covenant with God that we shall abide by them under the banner of the Amir.

The text of the resolutions, formally communicated to General Wilson, established the basis of subsequent collaboration between Libyans and Britain. It was endorsed by Libyan émegrés in Syriam Sudan and Tunisia, who offered to co-operate with their compatriots in Egypt. A recruitment bureau was set up under Col Bromilow. Five batalions were organized, designed for guerrilla warfare in al-Jabal al-Akhdar [green mountain] as soon as circumstances would permit. The Libyan Arab force [originally Sanussi force,] which was organized later as a regular army , took part in the Western Desert Camaign. The Libyans in Tunisia and Sudan were instructed to collaborate with the French authorities, although the scope of their activities was much more limited. Some Libyans, who had been forced to fight on the side of the Italians, surrendered at the battle of Sidi Barrani and joined the British forces.
Finding that the initiative had been taken solely by Cyrenaican leaders, the Tripolitanian émegrés were divided into two camps on the matter. One group, consisting mainly from eastern tripolitania, supported Sayyid Idris and joined the Sanussi force. The other, under the leadership of al-Murayid and al-Swaihli, acknowledged neither Sanussi leadership for the whole of Libya nor co-operated in the formation of an army under the aegis of Idris. As a result, they formed the Tripolitanian Committee and asked permission from the British authorities to form a separate Tripolitanian army. The Tripolitanian leaders reproached Sayyid Idris for misleading his countrymen into fighting with Britain before obtaining a definite pledge of independence, for his alleged failure to consult the Joint Advisory Committee prior to his decision to collaborate with the British, and for applying the term Sanussi to all those who desired to collaborate without prior agreement by them.
On the basis of the power given him at the Cairo conference (August 9, 1940) Sayyid Idris wrote to Colonel Bromilow on August 27, 1940, proposing that:
1. Great Britain grant Libyans internal independence of their country.
2. Libya have its own government headed by a Muslim Amir acceptable to the British government.
3. Great Britain hold the protectrate over Libya and direct the organization of its financial and military affairs until it reached a higher social, cultural and civil level. But no definite assurance concerning the future of Libya was given by the British government.
In answer to a question raised in the British House of Commons on January 8, 1942, Anthony Eden made the following statement:
The Sayyid Idris al-Sanussi made contact with the British authorities in Egypt within a month of the collapse of France, at a time when the military situation in Africa was most unfavorable to us. A Sanussi force was subsequently raised from those of his followers who had escaped from Italian opression at various times during the past twenty years. The force performed considerable ancillary duties during the successful fighting in the Western Desert in the Winter of 1940-41, and is again playing a useful part in the capaign now in progress. I take this opportunity to express the warm appreciation of His Majesty's government for the contributions which Sayyid Idris al-Sanussi and his followers have made and are making to the British war effort. We welcome their association with His Majesty's forces in the task of defeating the common enemies. His Majesty's government is determined that at the end of the war the Sanussi in Cyrenaica will in no circumstances again fall under Italian domination.
The Eden statement making no definite promise that Cyrenaica would become independent after the war, was disappointing to Sayyid Idris and some of his followers and was sharply criticized by Tripolitanian leaders. Idris sent a note (February 23, 1942) to the British Minister of State demanding that Britain:
1. Declare the complete independance of Libya in its internal affairs and recognise a Muslim ruler as its head of Government;
2. Guarantee Libya against foreign attack;
3. Conclude a treaty with Libya, the terms of which would be agreed upon; 4. Appoint a joint Anglo-Libyan Committee to lay the foundation of a Libyan regime. These specific proposals demanding immediate action were unacceptable to the British at a time when the Axis forces had not yet been driven out of North Africa. It was explained to Sayyid Idris that no promises could be given before the end of the war, although he was assured that his country would be given its independance after the war.
On June 20, 1942, Axis forces lead by Field Marshal Rommel attacked Tobruq and its garrison surrendered. On June 24, 1942 Rommel crossed the Libyan-Egyptian border only to be defeated by General Montgomery in al-Alamain. After General Montgomery's victory in al-Alamain, Rommels forces were in full retreat. The recovery of Cyrenaica by the British forces was not a very difficult task. Montgomery's forces at al-Alamain began their counterattack on October 23, 1942. By the end of October the destruction of Rommel's forces was almost complete, and the pursuit of the Axis forces has already begun. On November 11, 1942, the English Army entered Cyrenaica. Tubruk was recaptured on November 13, Darna on November 15, and Benghazi on November 20. Rommel received orders to hold al-Aqaila to the last man, but on December 13, he began to retreat again. At al-Bwairat, Rommel stayed from December 26, 1942, to January 14, 1943, and from here he retired slowly under cover of a strong rearguard. Misrata was occupied on January 18, 1943, and Tripoli, in spite of attempts to defend it, fell on January 23. A fortnight later the last of the Axis forces were evacuated and the liberation of Libya was complete. Libya became under the Allies administration until her independance on 24 December 1951.
Source: "Modern Libya: A Study in Political Development" by: Majid Khadduri - 1963.
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