Within the next forty-eight hours the outcome of the war in Libya will be decided and written off as history. But right now administration officials in both London and Washington are viewing the situation with mingled optimism and alarm. Ever since the British blitz started a week ago the pace has been fast and the stakes high. In spite of the rapid advances made by the British victory is by no means assured. Although the British had the advantage of a surprise attack, many competent authorities fear that the military hand of General Auchinleck may have been prematurely forced by insistent political pressure at home that Britain take the initiative. They point to the ever increasing, almost fanatical desire of the British working people to aid their newly found Russian allies. Recent history shows how popular pressure may override military sagacity. Contrary rumors and the lack of complete information make the crystal ball anything but clear. All that is known is the height of the stakes.
Victory in Africa is imperative for the British. From a psychological aspect defeat would be ruinous. Britain has picked the field of battle and seized the initiative. For the first time since the war began she has gone into battle with equipment equal if not superior to that of the Germans. To lose under these conditions would be a severe setback to the psychological cause of the Allies. But a defeat in Libya would be equally disastrous for strategic reasons. This is a key step in the Battle of the Mediterranean. With the army of the Nile defeated Egypt would soon be lost. Turkey would find the Germans knocking at her back door and, in the absence of the British, would have to kowtow to their proposals. The loss of Turkey would force the British to choose the more direct overland road to Russia in order to establish a common front. This might well be impossible.
Equally important is the Libyan campaign from the Axis viewpoint, although Berlin has so far refused to admit that it is anything more than a local scrap. The Italians, however, have been much franker about the matter in confessing that the future of Italy depends upon the outcome in Africa. Strategically based planes could destroy Italian cities by night bombing expeditions and with the aid of the British navy they can send the Italian fleet off to Davy Jones private pool. But if the Germans refuse to admit the seriousness of the stakes in Africa their recent actions of forcing Petain to dismiss Weygand and their efforts to obtain control of the French fleet prove that they are quite aware of the importance of this blitzkrieg in the Battle of the Mediterranean. Yet, while it is possible for them to fly men and light supplies into Africa, it is impossible for them to increase their supply of heavy tanks there because the British control the sea lanes. The battle will be decided by the existing supplies of tanks.
What is going on in Libya is of the utmost importance to the strategy of the whole British and German war effort. But because a tank engagement on open desert sands resembles a naval engagement, a quick outcome is expected. The battle will be won when one side has destroyed the mechanical equipment of the enemy. Although reports favor the British, we can not be too sure that their war effort is not premature. Should they lose they will have lost a psychological gain as well as military position. But if they win they will be in a strong position to go into the winter and make effective their cooperation with the Colossus of the East.