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Military Ally or Liability, The Egyptian Army 1936-1942

by Steve Rothwell

This article was first published in Army Quarterly & Defence Journal, Vol 128, No 2, April 1998

In the run-up to World War II, the British defence of Egypt relied in part on the Egyptian Army. British domination of Egypt began in 1882 when troops arrived to suppress a rebellion threatening Britain’s strategic route to India, the Suez Canal. The rebellion was put down, British control established and the Egyptian Army reformed under British command. An Egyptian Army in occupation of the Sudan was defeated by the Mahdi in 1883 but the country was re-conquered by Anglo-Egyptian forces in the campaign of 1896-1898. During World War I, Egypt was made a British Protectorate but in the face of growing and violent nationalism, independence of a kind was granted in 1922, with Britain retaining the right to intervene in Egyptian affairs if her interests were threatened. Although the Egyptian Army was transferred to the Egyptian government, Britain remained in control through the British Inspector-General.


In the 1930s Egypt’s western neighbour, Italian-controlled Libya, posed a significant threat. Fears increased following the Italian conquest of Abyssinia and on 14 November 1936, the Egyptian government ratified a 20 year Anglo-Egyptian treaty of "Alliance and Friendship". The treaty gave the British the right to defend the Suez Canal while seemingly ending their occupation of Egypt, the defence of which would be an Egyptian responsibility. Initially the British relied upon the Egyptian Army to contribute to the country’s defence but following the outbreak of war, what little trust the British had in the Egyptians began to evaporate. Between 1936 and 1942, the status of the Egyptian Army was to change from military ally to military liability.

The overriding British concern was to protect the Suez Canal and the 1936 treaty defined limited areas for the deployment of British troops on and around the Canal. Among the constraints were British financial stringency and the Egyptian desire for self-determination. The British did operate in the frontier areas but took great care not to provoke the Italians. British ground reconnaissance of the frontier was possible only if civilian clothes were worn and the RAF, given free rein over the rest of Egypt, was to fly no nearer than 10km.

Pre-War Expansion


In 1935 there had been around 12,290 officers and men in the Egyptian Army and 1,200 Royal Guards. The Guards, a mix of cavalry, infantry and motorcycles, provided a bodyguard for the King and security for the Royal palaces. The Royal Egyptian Air Force had recently formed, consisting of 15 officers, 200 men and 27 Gloster Gladiator biplanes provided by the British. The 1936 treaty gave the Egyptians the right to deploy troops in the Sudan. It also did away with the position of inspector-general but provided for a British Military Mission to train and equip the Egyptians along British lines. The Mission, which arrived in January 1937 under Major-General J. Marshall Cornwall and later Major-General G.N. Macready, effectively asserted control over the Egyptian armed forces.

Expansion of the Army began and by 1937 it was made up of: a GHQ Staff; the Cairo District Command; 11 infantry battalions organised into three brigades; two cavalry squadrons; four mule batteries; one garrison artillery company; one motor MG battery; an engineer company; various departments, ancillary services and training schools. Sometime during 1938 or 1939, a light tank unit was formed. By the summer of 1939, training was progressing well and Egyptian officers and men were motivated to learn. The Army was equipped along British lines and by 1940 was in many respects better and more plentifully equipped than some British units. At this time the Army numbered around 30,000 officers and men, The Air Force, supported by British technical staff, grew to four or five squadrons by May 1940, equipped with British Lysander, Gladiator and Audax aircraft.

Following long established practice, men were conscripted into the Army on an irregular basis from the ‘fellahin’ or peasants and the option to buy one’s way out of service led to units being manned by the poorest members of society. Between 1936 and the outbreak of the Second World War enlisted men, mostly Nubians, served for five years. Although service was compulsory for all 19-27 year olds, few were conscripted because of the small size of the army and continuing ‘exemption’ practices. From 1936, enrolment into the Egyptian Military Academy was made easier and more attractive to the middle classes. Despite some success however, military service was looked down upon by all but the sons of the most wealthy and distinguished families. For them a military career was both socially acceptable and desirable as a means of career advancement. Today, retired officers look back upon the Army of the 30s and 40s with fond memories and are respected for having served. The social and economic gulf between the men and their officers resulted in mutual lack of respect and poor military efficiency.

British Preparations for War

Never pro-British at the best of times, the Egyptians were further disenchanted by British slowness to reinforce the country as the war clouds gathered. In August 1939, Egypt had agreed to participate in its own defence: providing patrols along the western frontier; defending the desert south-west of Cairo; protecting the railway between Alexandria and Mersa Matruh; providing units to help defend Alexandria (including coastal artillery) and to protect against sabotage. Although distrustful of Egyptian commitment and capability, the British had little option but to take advantage of the additional manpower on offer. With their Egyptian bases at least notionally protected, the British were able to concentrate on mobile operations in the desert.

At the end of August 1939, British and Egyptian units began moving into position, with the Egyptians deploying according to the agreement. Foremost in these moves was the Sudanese-manned Frontier Force of five squadrons mounted on Ford pick-ups. Two squadrons took up places at Siwa and others at Sollum. The frontier was then almost entirely in Egyptian hands, in accordance with the treaty and the British strategy not to provoke the Italians. The southern desert flank was covered by the ‘South Western Force’ of Egyptian light tanks (six Mk VIB), motorised units and No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Egyptian Air Force (Lysanders). Commanded by Prince Duad and first stationed at Al Bahariya oasis, this force later moved to Cairo and then Kassaba. Although British plans continued to include the use of Egyptian units, there was no guarantee that the Egyptians would actually fight. Egypt would commit to defence only, having refused to declare war unless her territory was attacked. Such was British distrust that they did not permit the raising of a National Guard.

The Outbreak of War

When the war began, relations with the Axis were severed but Egypt remained neutral (not declaring war on the Axis until February 1945). Italy declared war on Britain, but not Egypt, on 10 June 1940. Still, the mobile units continued to patrol the frontier. The Frontier Force squadrons at Siwa were reinforced by four old British Vickers Medium Mk IIA tanks, with crews trained by the Royal Tank Regiment, and a flight of REAF Lysanders. In August 1940, 2nd Lieutenant Pat Clayton led the first mission of the unit that was to become the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), from Siwa across the sand sea into Libya. The patrol was supported by seven Sudanese-manned Frontier Force trucks carrying petrol, under the command of an Egyptian Mulazim Awal (lieutenant). Although under orders not to, the Egyptian trucks travelled across the frontier, possibly becoming the only Egyptian Army troops to operate in Italian territory during the war.

As late as the summer of 1940, Egyptian forces were still being included in British plans for the defence of Egypt. By then the motorised elements had become known as the Egyptian Mobile Force and it was envisaged that these units, 'if in the desert and operating', would be attached to British formations rather than fight under Egyptian command. For instance, in the event of an attack across the frontier, a light detachment of 7 Armoured Division would be supported by the Egyptian Light Car Regiment and an Egyptian 3.7inch howitzer battery. Other Egyptian units would also have fought under British command as Egyptian brigades were essentially administrative formations and brigade headquarters were incapable of any command function in the event of war. Frequent changes of leadership could only have made matters worse as between August 1939 and October 1942 there were five Egyptian chiefs of staff.

The British relied heavily on the Egyptian army for antiaircraft defence and by mid-1939 most of the AA defences of the Delta and the Suez Canal were Egyptian-manned. Only 22 guns and 24 searchlights in Alexandria and 16 guns in Cairo were manned by British troops. It was planned that these and further reinforcements should be taken over by the Egyptians but the Royal Navy did not agree and the plan was dropped. The Egyptian AA crews were thought unreliable and during the summer of 1940 those in Alexandria were supplemented by a party of specially trained cavalrymen from the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry. New Zealanders and other Yeomanry formed similar units and an Australian field regiment began training with AA guns. After the first Italian air raids however, the Egyptian AA gunners proved to be their army’s most effective soldiers and during the subsequent campaign were to shoot-down a number of Axis aircraft. They could even beat their British counterparts in competition though one Egyptian commander, a good Muslim, was bemused by the prize - a crate of whisky. Egyptian gunners also manned coastal artillery in Alexandria.

Withdrawal of the Egyptian Army


The Italian invasion of Egypt began on 13 September 1940 and Egyptian troops along the frontier were soon withdrawn as a result of political moves intended to placate the Egyptian government and British doubts as to their reliability. Interestingly this move was missed by Italian intelligence who in November reported that the British were making use of large numbers of Egyptian troops.

One of the myths of Nasser’s Egypt is that the withdrawal caused such deep resentment amongst Egyptian officers that they considered overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy and government. The truth would appear to be somewhat different, the whole force was happy to get away from the dangers and privations of the desert. The Head of the Cairo Branch of the British Secret Service, Major A.W. Sansom, wrote scathingly that, ‘The officers ... spent most of their time with their wives in the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, and were full of resentment against their hard life in the desert. The troops, who lived on an appalling diet of dried beans and lentil soup with an occasional bit of meat, regarded the officers with envious hatred and were ready to fire the first shots in their backs. As the officers were well aware of this there was a tradition of leading from behind. Officers and men alike panicked in air-raids, and it was a standing joke among British troops, that the Egyptian encampments moved farther from the coast road after each heavy raid.’

There was no doubt that the Egyptians, understandably, had little sympathy for the British or their war. Of the three battalions remaining in the Matruh area, Sansom observed that their morale was low and unlikely to rise unless the British were defeated. ‘If Matruh is attacked, they will not resist, but will probably help the attackers. Our position would be stronger without them even if no replacements are available.’ The Egyptian point of view is best summarised by former Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi who after the invasion had begun said, ‘The Italian offensive is not an aggression against Egypt, but against another belligerent on the territory of a third and occupied power.’

Not surprisingly then, Egyptian contributions to the British counteroffensive, Operation Compass were limited. In November and December 1940, some Egyptian motor transport companies were used briefly to move supplies as part of the build up for the operation. The Frontier Force guarded the line of communications as the British chased the Italians into Libya and patrolled in the regions of Aswan and Wadi Halfa. The AA gunners gave good service but the majority of soldiers continued to serve on guard and logistical tasks. The air force undertook weather patrols and transport duties.


Some in the Army appear to have been more concerned with politics. Among these were the young Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al Sadat, both of lower middle class background and graduates of the Military Academy, later to become famous as Egyptian leaders. During the war, Nasser and others formed a secret revolutionary society, the Free Officers. The society plotted to overthrow the British dominated Egyptian monarchy and to seize power from the small land-owning class which effectively ruled Egypt. For these officers an Axis invasion was seen as an opportunity for liberation and Sadat was twice imprisoned for contacts with the Germans. Military interference in government became a feature of Egyptian political and military life, diminishing only after the debacle of 1967.

There were however more significant threats to British domination. The Egyptian political scene was a hotbed of plotting and counter-plotting involving a number of players. First of these was the Monarchy, seen by many Egyptians as having caved in to the British in 1936. Second was the Egyptian parliament, dominated by the land-owning class keen to protect its own interests. These were threatened by nationalist anti-British factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd party. Of these, the Wafd commanded most popular support Finally there were the British, who would tolerate any machinations which fell short of threatening the security of their Middle East base.

By early 1942, Egyptian ‘support’ for the status quo was wavering, spurred by King Farouk, who was widely believed to be pro-Italian. The Prime Minister, Sirry Pasha, had been loyal to the treaty but was now undermined by a weakened government, lack of popular support and student street demonstrations. The King nurtured a grudge over having not been consulted over the suspension of diplomatic relations with Vichy France and was suspected of prompting the demonstrations. He asked Sirry Pasha to resign, which the PM duly did on 2 February 1942.

The British must have astounded the King by then proposing that of all people, only Nahas Pasha, leader of the anti-British Wafd, could command the popular support necessary for national stability. The King was not impressed and when he failed to comply with an ultimatum, the British acted. Troops from a mixed brigade of British, New Zealand and South African units, in Cairo to ‘maintain order’, surrounded the palace on the evening of 4 February. Then a motorised column was ordered to the palace to force the issue and drove into the palace courtyard. It was soon followed by the British Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, who after 15 minutes returned and invited Nahas Pasha to form a government. After protesting his refusal to accept the Anglo-Egyptian treaty and British interference in the internal affairs of an ally, sentiments which the British endorsed, Nahas Pasha accepted the invitation. This amazing state of affairs was quickly endorsed by elections which the opposition conveniently boycotted.

It would appear that the British had struck a deal with Nahas Pasha for the duration of hostilities and they were little troubled by Egyptian politics until the war’s end. The Egyptian military response to these actions seems to have been confined to the presenting of arms by the Royal Guards as the British drove through the palace gates. The failure of the Egyptian Army to intervene, perhaps justified given British strength, may have been contrived by its leaders and Egyptian politicians.

The End of the Beginning

It was well that the British had secured the situation, for the war in the desert soon took a significant turn for the worse. In June 1942, the battle of Gazala ended with an Axis victory, Tobruk fell and British and Commonwealth troops began a headlong retreat out of Libya into Egypt. For a time it appeared that the Axis advance would not be stopped but the storm was weathered and both sides, exhausted by their exertions, eventually faced each other across the Alamein line. The Battle of El Alamein in October and November 1942 was won by the British and the war moved away from Egypt, never to return.

For the British, El Alamein was the ‘end of the beginning’ but this brought little change to the status of the Egyptian Army. The army grew in size to around 100,000 soldiers. Some Egyptians flew on patrol in British planes with British crews and an Egyptian naval service was formed with a few-British supplied patrol boats. The British continued to supply the Egyptians throughout and after the war, in addition to the patrol boats were some 40 aircraft, 38 scout cars and 298 Bren guns. There was however, to be no combat role for the Egyptians. For the remainder of the war, the Egyptian Army was relegated to internal security duties. In 1936 the Egyptian Army had been seen as important for the defence of British interests but peacetime expediency was abandoned in the face of wartime reality when it was recognised that the Egyptians had neither the will nor the capability to undertake a serious military role.




I would like to thank Thomas Scheben of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for making available the results of his research in Egypt and for advising on the manuscript. Thanks are also due to Mr Christopher Hunt at the IWM.


‘Introduction to Western Desert Campaigns; Orbat:- 1939 and 1940’, document reference RH.4 7 AD, held in The Tank Museum library

List, D. ‘Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert’, After the Battle (No 98), London (1997)

Long, G. To Benghazi, Australian War Memorial, Canberra (1952)

Maughan, B. Tobruk and El Alamein, Australian War Memorial, Canberra (1966)

Metz, H.C. (ed) Egypt, a country study, US Library of Congress, Washington DC (1990)

Platt, J.R.I The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, 1907-1967, Garnstone Press, London (1972)

Playfair, I.S.O. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vols I-IV, HMSO (various)

Roubicek, M. Early Modern Arab Armies, Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem

Sansom, A.W. I Spied Spies, London (1965)

06 November 2007


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