Liberating Libya

Rupert Wieloch

The author of a new history of Libya introduces Britain's relationship with the North African country.
Muammar Gadhafi
Home » Articles » Liberating Libya

Writing history in a post-feminist era, when readers are especially alert to issues of social and racial justice, requires a sensitive approach to modern opinions. Authors today have to accept that many influential academics are highly critical of government authority and that public organisations are responding to the so-called “culture wars” by revising attitudes to the past. For example, the National Trust has produced a Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust and has invited “teams of children into its properties to lecture staff volunteers about the horrors of colonialism”. It is therefore more vital than ever that archives are scrutinised through a watertight lens and the deeds and letters of ordinary men and women are considered equally with the affairs of high-ranking officers.

Fortunately, the Anglo-Libyan relationship falls into a unique category because it was founded on humanitarian interest, not imperial expansion. It began after the Restoration when white slavery was rife in North Africa. The Tripoli trade continued through the Napoleonic era, when the United States of America fulfilled its first overseas military intervention, and did not end until long after the abolitionist movement was established in London.

For unknown reasons, historians have only addressed the subject of British diplomacy and war in Libya in a piecemeal fashion. The help provided during the 19th century to resist French colonialism is largely forgotten. The Western Desert Campaign against Rommel is described in most histories with scant reference to the campaign that covered much of the same ground 25 years earlier. Significant interventions, such as during the Italo-Ottoman War, when British and Irish journalists reported breaches of the Hague Conventions and changed international opinion about the Italian invasion, have been neglected. Liberating Libya aims to fill the gap in knowledge, by tracing the hidden links that connect Britain’s long friendship that twice liberated Libya from repressive regimes.

For those who are unaware of the significance of the Victoria Cross, a word of explanation is necessary. The VC is the only Commonwealth gallantry medal that can be awarded posthumously and is so rare that recipients either have to be killed in action or have a probability of certain death. For example, only two were awarded during the Falklands conflict—both were posthumous. Of the nine awarded in Libya, five were posthumous and the others were all cases were the individual was either very seriously wounded or lucky to be alive. The historical significance of this is in the way armies create fighting spirit to overcome overwhelming odds. Since the world is still divided between democracies and totalitarian states, the significance remains relevant today. The political considerations increase the interest in these awards as readers will discover in the stories of Hugh Souter and Geoffrey Keyes. It is also worth highlighting the geographical dimension; the VCs in Libya were spread among Australia, South Africa, Scotland, Ireland and England at the same time as Indian and New Zealand soldiers received the highest gallantry awards in Abyssinia and Crete.

Turning to the main theme of Liberating Libya, it is important to recognise that the benign Anglo-Libyan relationship was built as much on science and exploration as shared security interests. In the 19th century, the astounding ancient sites in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania captivated proponents of the new discipline of archaeology, while the daunting expanse of the Sahara challenged young geographers (10 French and Royal Geographical Society gold medals have been awarded for Libyan exploration). This sympathetic relationship was tested to exhaustion during World War I, but through the friendships developed by officers such as Leo Royle and Milo Talbot, Britain established the foundations of a long collaboration with the Arab population in Libya.

However, in World War II, the Desert Rats were poorly informed about previous British involvement in Libya. Myles Hildyard, who fought with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry throughout their campaign in North Africa, wrote to his brother Toby on 16 February 1943: “I don’t really know who there was in Libya for the Italians to pacify. We have been a long way and you could count the Arabs we have seen on two hands. I believe in the last war we had a large force tied down in Libya, defending Egypt from 30,000 Sanussi, but after the war (and one action when the Duke of Westminster charged some Arabs in armoured cars) it was discovered that the Sanussi was a myth.”

Apart from the lack of knowledge about the rich Anglo-Libyan history, this letter demonstrates a deeper problem concerning the part played by Libyans in the war effort. Of course, many Tripolitanians were in the pay of the Italian army, but in Cyrenaica, the majority the population supported the Allies and where they could, helped Special Forces to raid Rommel’s supply lines. Perhaps more importantly, many Libyans living in the rugged mountains and harsh desert assisted thousands of disorientated soldiers as they attempted to re-join their units after the rapid armoured advances left them behind enemy lines. By offering bread, water and eggs from their own meagre supplies and helping with directions and alerts about enemy locations, they made a significant contribution to the victory, which is acknowledged in Part 3 of Liberating Libya.

This is not the only example of collective amnesia revealed in Liberating Libya. In 1967, the American consul in Benghazi, John Kormann, was forced to barricade himself with his staff of nine in the consulate and began to destroy secret US documents. After a 10-hour siege, he was rescued by British soldiers who also collected his anxious family from their diplomatic quarters. This pivotal month, which proved to be a watershed in the relationship between Libya and the West, was subsequently obscured by tumultuous events, including the coup that brought Muammar Gadhafi to power. It is especially sad that the 1967 lessons were neglected because they might have prevented the death in Benghazi of Kormann’s successor, Christopher Stevens, 45 years later. The murder of the US ambassador on 11 September 2012 has proved most costly to Libya’s transition to a stable country. A peaceful outcome remains elusive, but by learning the lessons of the past, we can avoid previous mistakes and identify what works well, which in the case of Libya, is an integrated diplomatic-military-economic solution. Unfortunately, the UN Mission, which has been responsible for reconstruction since November 2012, has failed repeatedly in the second of these fundamental levers of national power.

In a similar way, memories of the 9,336 casualties buried in Libya are fading and the story of Britain’s post-war assistance is at risk of being submerged by a media narrative of a failed state that is “a crucible of terror” and a source for illegal migration. Liberating Libya aims to redress the balance and provide a firm foundation for anyone interested in this poorly understood country. It does not shy away from the difficult moments such as the post-war anti-Jewish riots and modern terrorism, which continues to be seen in tragic events such as the Manchester Arena bombing. However, as the 80th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk, the 70th anniversary of independence and the 10th anniversary of Gadhafi’s death approach in 2021, the time seems right for a new perspective on Britain’s involvement in Libya, which twice freed the country from brutal tyrannies.

Rupert Wieloch is the author of Liberating Libyawhich is out now and published by Casemate.