Eighty years ago, the early doubters of Mussolini's attack on Greece are the ones to pay the penalty for its failure as trouble brews for him in the desert


The continuing success of the Greek advance into Albania provoked a brief fit of nerves in Italy’s leadership. Mussolini himself contemplated seeking a truce but he was deterred by the more committed political Fascists, who spotted an opportunity to turn the military disaster of the Greek campaign to their advantage and to purge the armed forces of what they saw as disloyal conservatives. Italy’s professional military leaders paid the price for their lack of zeal; some had even showed reservations about the invasion of Greece. The army chief of staff, Badoglio the conqueror of Ethiopia, was sacked; he had hoped that the Italian incursion would be limited to the seizure of the Greek port of Epirus and pessimistic on the full invasion on which Mussolini insisted. Roberto Farinacci, one of the most strident voices of the movement, had assailed Badoglio’s performance in his newspaper, Il Regime Fascista.  General de Vecchi, Governor of the Dodecanese, and one of the founders of the Fascist State and Admiral Cavagnari, Chief of the Naval Staff, rapidly followed him out of the door.

Things were just about to get worse for the Italians. After careful preparation, the British army in Egypt under the overall command of General Archibald Wavell launched a major offensive against the Italian army which had made a shallow advance into Egypt a few weeks before and then stopped. Despite the continuing  threat of invasion tanks had been sent from Britain to give punch to the operation. The attackers had one armoured division, the 7th, an infantry division and infantry brigade. They were severely outnumbered by General Berti’s 80,000 strong Tenth Army, part of over 200,000 Italian troops in the sector. The attack went in at Sidi Barrani and soon drove the invaders back in near-complete flight.

The principle of conscription was extended to coal miners in Britain, previously a wholly exempt (“reserved”) occupation. It is hard to imagine such a measure having been accepted had Labour not been in coalition but the detail showed it was essentially a token measure. Only miners under 30 years of age were liable and they could appeal against call-up. In fact, service in the armed forces was for many a pleasant alternative to the pits. Working conditions underground were as unpleasant and dangerous as ever. The industry would soon be facing shortage of labour.

The House of Commons Committee of Privileges found that the detention without trial under the infamous Regulation 18B of Captain Ramsay - the only MP held under 18B - was not a breach of privilege. The question was essentially one of principle; there was little prospect that Parliament would set Ramsay free. By any standards Ramsay deserved to be interned; he was a violent anti-Semite and had founded the Right Club, as an anti-war and pro-Nazi organization; he had been implicated in the treasonous leakage of confidential cables between Roosevelt and Churchill from the American embassy. Remarkably enough the debate on the announcement was rancorous, considering the widespread popular support for 18B. This showed the strength - in the House of Commons at least - of unease at the curtailment of normal democratic process under drastic wartime rules and an impregnable parliamentary majority for the coalition.  The most prominent dissident from the decision was the extreme left-wing ILP MP James Maxton, who feared that such a ruling left too much power in the hands of the government of the day.  Conservative MP, Sir Irving Albers, complained that the measure deprived Captain Ramsay’s constituents of proper representation. In fact Ramsay was still able to ask parliamentary questions from Brixton Scrubs prison.