Italian Marble Arch in Libya

The Marble Arch, also Arch of the Philaeni (Italian: Arco dei Fileni), was a monument erected on the Via Balbia, the coastal road in Libya between the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica which celebrated the early Italian colonization of Libya. During WWII, the Arch became a navigational landmark and both the Axis and Allied forces had fought around it.


The Italo-Turkish or Turco-Italian War was fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire from 29 September 1911 to 18 October 1912. As a result of this conflict, Italy captured the Ottoman Tripolitania Vilayet (province), of which the main sub-provinces (sanjaks) were Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripoli itself. These territories became the Italian colonies Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

On 31 October 1922, Benito Mussolini was appointed prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III, becoming the youngest person to hold the office up to that time. After removing all political opposition using his secret police and outlawing labor strikes, Mussolini and his followers consolidated power through a series of laws that transformed the nation into a one-party dictatorship. Mussolini’s foreign policy was aimed to expand the sphere of influence of Italian fascism. In 1923, he began the “Pacification of Libya” campaign or the second Italo-Senussi War.

In 1923, indigenous rebels associated with the Senussi Order organized the Libyan resistance movement against the Italian settlements in Libya, mainly in Cyrenaica. Italian military forces composed mainly of colonial troops from Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia supported by light tanks and the Italian Air force fought the rebellion forces until 1932, when the principal Senussi leader, Omar al-Mukhtar, was captured and executed. The fighting took place in all three of Libya’s provinces (Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica), but was most intense and prolonged in the mountainous Jebel Akhdar region of Cyrenaica. The nine year campaign led to the mass deaths of the indigenous people of Cyrenaica, totalling one quarter of the region’s population. Italian war crimes included the use of chemical weapons and the execution of surrendering combatants while the Senussis were accused of torture and mutilation of captured Italians and refusal to take prisoners. In 1934. all three of Libya’s provinces were unified as Italian Libya by the Italian Governor-General, Maresciallo dell’Aria (Marshal of the Air Force), Italo Balbo, with Tripoli as the capital.

The Marble Arch was designed by Italian architect Florestano Di Fausto (16 July 1890 – 11 January 1965) in response to a request from Governor-General Italo Balbo. It was unveiled on 16 March 1937 in a lavish night ceremony attended by Benito Mussolini.

The Arch of the Philaeni in March 1937.

Film: Mussolini’s Pride – Tripoli

The Marble Arch was located some 30 km (19 mi) west of the possible borders between Carthage and Cyrene, the locality called in Antiquity Altars of the Philaeni (Latin: Arae Philaenorum) which was located approximately halfway between Ra’s Lanuf and El Agheila (Today Al Uqaylah).

Latitude: 30.517 – Longitude: 18.567

The arch was 31 meters (101 feet 8 inches) high, with an opening 15.75 meters (51 feet 8 inches) high and 6.5 meters (21 feet 4 inches) wide, and was built with travertine stone (Rome’s typical building material).

The Marble Arch in 1939. Note there is an armoured car parked to the right of the Arch.

On the arch’s frontispiece was carved a Latin inscription taken from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare. It read:

ALME SOL POSSIS
NIHIL VRBE ROMA
VISERE MAIVS

It roughly translates to: “Oh kind sun, may you never look upon a city greater than Rome.”

Below the Latin inscription is a hollow bronze statue of one of the Philaeni brothers. The name Philaeni means: lovers of praise. The Sultan area is a strategic location linking all the three provinces of Libya at the shortest distance from the heart of the Sahara. In ancient times, it was the border area between the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The Carthaginians were mainly in the western part of Libya and the Greeks were in the eastern part of the country (Cyrenaica) and after a short period of time a border dispute erupted between the two. The Philaeni were two Carthaginian brothers who gave their lives to settle the border issue between the two powers.

The border wars lasted for many years without either side becoming the victor. The two colonies finally decided to settle the dispute and draw an official border between the two states. They agreed to send runners from their capitals (Carthage and Cyrene) at a fixed starting time, and make their meeting point as the official border between the two territories.

The Carthaginian runners, the two Philaeni brothers were better than their Greek counterparts and advanced much further into Cyrenaica (somewhere near Ras Lanuf) than the Greek counter parts did into Tripolitania. Accusations of cheating were exchanged and it came close to the continuation of the prior war. Instead of returning home defeated, the Greeks gave the Carthaginians a choice: either the two brothers accept being buried alive at the spot where they claim they reached as the boundary between the two countries, or allow the Greeks to advance into the Carthaginian territory as far as they desired. The Philaeni brothers honourably gave up their lives for their country and accepted to be buried alive on the sacred spot. On the Marble Arch, one Philaeni brother statue faced towards Cyrene (east) while the other faced towards Carthage (west).

This is another photo of the arch’s frontispiece and shows better details of the bronze statue. Note the two soldiers standing on top of the arch. Apparently, the arch was hollow with stairs and/or ladders which allowed access to an observation platform on top of the arch.

The photos above and below are my close ups of IWM (ME(RAF) 7245)

The soldiers and the truck in this photo shows the massive scale of the arch.

Mussolini probably had envisioned himself as a 20th century Philaeni brother. The marble relief on the inside of the arch shows Mussolini standing on the left side of the panel (second from left) and is being saluted by one of his soldiers (second from right).

This is a closer view of the marble relief inside the arch. Note the panel above the relief has some illegible text.

An Italian Lancia 3RO NM 6.5 ton 4×2 heavy truck towing a medium tank transport trailer passes through the Marble Arch.

The tanks being transported are Carro Armato M13/40s armed with 47mm cannone da 47/32 AT gun.

The Italian army group in North Africa was routed by the British Commonwealth Western Desert Force in Operation Compass (9 December 1940 to 9 February 1941 under British General Wavell. The British pursued remnants of the Italian Army along the coast to Sollum and across the border to Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Mechili, Beda Fomm and El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. The German Armed Forces High Command sent a “blocking force” commanded by Erwin Rommel to Libya to support the retreating Italian army. The German blocking force was originally based only on Panzer Regiment 5, which was put together from the second regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division. These elements were organized into the 5th Light Division when they arrived in North Africa from 10 February to 12 March 1941. On 2 March 1941, the first 88mm AA/AT guns arrived which provided much needed firepower. In late April and into May, the 5th Light Division was joined by elements of 15th Panzer Division forming the Afrika Korps. In late summer, the 90th Light Infantry Division was formed and joined the Africa Korps. On 15 August 1941, the 5th Light Division was re-designated the 21st Panzer Division.

Pz.Kpfw. IIs and Pz.Kpfw. IIIs of the 5th Light Division pass through the Marble Arch as they move up to reinforce the Italians in the western desert. The Pz.Kpfw. III still carries the unit formation sign of the 3rd Panzer Division on its front armour plate just to the right of the hull MG. Also note the extra Jerry cans on the turret roof. – Bild 101I-782-0009-01A – 21 March 1941

3rd Panzer Division

This is probably the rear view of the same column of Pz.Kpfw. IIs and Pz.Kpfw. IIIs passing through the Marble Arch.

A Pz.Kpfw. III is being transported on a Sd.A.h. 116 flat bed trailer. To the right, the towing vehicle is most likely a Sd.Kfz. 9 half track also known as the “Famo”.

Trucks following a Sd.Kfz. 9 towing a Sd.A.h. 116 trailer are passing through the Marble Arch. To the left on the side of the road is a drainage culvert. In the foreground are a couple of German communication trucks parked along the side of the road. The rear truck has a tall antenna raised.

German trucks passing through the Marble Arch. The truck is towing a 20mm Flak gun and probably belonged to a a maintenance company. The pennant behind the soldier standing on the side of the road on the left indicates the division headquarters.

Passing this Wehrmacht Volkswagen Kübelwagen Type 82 is an Italian Bersaglieri Motorcyclist riding either a Moto Guzzi 500 TriAlce or Benelli 500 M36 Mototriciclo. The Bersaglieri were easily recognized by their distinctive helmets which were adorned with black capercaillie feathers, a practice that is still upheld today.

Long Range Desert Group (LRDG)

The Marble Arch was the location of the longest running and probaby the most important road watch established by the LRDG. From March 1942 to 21 July 1942, the LRDG ran a continuous road watch five miles (8 km) east of the arch. Each patrol lasted for eleven days during which road watches were conducted by two man teams each watching the road for a 24 hour period. During the day, the men hid under a shelter half camouflaged with shrubs which provided cover from the hot sun and concealed the men. The sand did not support tent pegs so heavy rocks were used to secure tie-down lines. One man watched the easterly traffic while the other watched the westerly traffic. At night, the men were able to move about a bit. Typically, the men would take alternate shifts, one man watched while the other slept. Enemy traffic was usually the busiest in the morning and evening. Whenever possible, the men reported every detail down to vehicle markings, number of troops, type of equipment and any activities or events. Every night during the patrol, a report was sent back to the LRDG HQ.

LRDG 30cwt Chevy patrol trucks passing through the arch.

By the end of November 1942, the Axis was dug in at Aghelia and rebuilding their shattered forces. From Sicily, transports and supply ships tried to break through the Allied naval blockade, and the roads from Tripoli were crowded with supply columns. Also the Anglo-American offensive in Tunisia was putting pressure around Tunis, and Rommel’s demands to the German High Command for more men and equipment were not fulfilled. On December 12, the British 8th Army, who had been secretly massing for the assault, resumed their offensive. Heavy bombing and shelling forced the Axis to abandon their strong position at Mersa Brega, and shortly afterwards they withdrew from El Agheila . Once again, the Africa Korps retreated along the coastal road, closely pursued by units of the British 8th Army, while the Allied air forces strafed and dive bombed the retreating columns.

Between Wadi Matratin and the Marble Arch, there was confusing and swirling fighting on December 16-17, when forward elements of the British 8th Army emerged from the desert, struck suddenly northwards to the sea and cut the fleeing Axis forces in two. A massive enemy force was cut off, and although some German panzers and infantry were able to break out to the west, most of the trapped units were captured or wiped out. On December 17, the New Zealand Division secured the Marble Arch.

The area surrounding the Marble Arch was ideal for a forward landing ground since it had a ready made control tower. The whole 239 RAF fighter wing complete with necessary maintenance staff, equipment and supplies was airlifted to the landing ground to support the British 8th Army’s advance units in Libya. During the morning of December 18, while transport aircraft flew 79 sorties transporting 160 tons of personnel and equipment. The 239 RAF Wing’s four squadrons of Kittyhawks arrived at the Marble Arch and by 1330 hours flew their first fighter-bomber sorties in support of the New Zealand Division. The wing consisted of the 3 (RAAF), 112, 250 and 450 (RAAF) Squadrons flying Kittyhawk Is (P-40D).

Kittyhawk pilots of 239 RAF Wing report to their Commanding Officer’s tent near the Marble Arch. Note the RAF vehicles parked along the edge of the landing ground.

IWM CM 4231

A Humber Mk II armoured car leads RAF lorries through the Marble Arch. Note the two soldiers standing on top of the arch.

IWM CM 4232

British trucks pass through the Marble Arch on 26 December 1942.

This is my close up of IWM E 20579

Messerschmitt Bf 109 F-4/Trop of II.4.JG 27 (W6 + -) WrkN13010 was captured by the 7 Squadron SAAF and it was repainted in RAF markings with serial number HK849. No. 3 Squadron RAAF used it as a squadron hack at the Marble Arch landing ground. The RAF defines hacks as aircraft that were used for run-of-the-mill tasks, including delivering to, or collecting from, other airfields personnel, spare parts, equipment, or documents; activities that would not be considered worthy of the tactical, strategic, or larger transport aircraft types. The aircraft were used as long as they were able to fly then they were usually abandoned or destroyed.

Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark IIIs (P-40Ks) of No. 260 RAF Squadron RAF lined up at the Marble Arch landing ground. ‘ Kittyhawk FR350 ‘HS – B’ was flown by Flight Lieutenant James Francis “Eddie” Edwards RCAF who was the most successful Kittyhawk pilot in the Western Desert with 12 confirmed and 8 probable kills.

This my close up of IWM ME(RAF) 7299

Film: Kittyhawks fly over African desert (1943)

This view of the Allied landing ground was taken from the top of the arch. The disturbed area in the foreground was approximately where the German communication trucks were parked. The same drainage culvert which passes under the road can be seen.

Photo: Ian Sturgeon (SAAF 40 Squadron)

This is a straight head on view of the arch.

This photo appeared in YANK Magazine, volume 1, issue #37, 27 February 1943. Note just in front of the truck, someone had scratched on the arch some graffiti which appears to be “XMAS 1942.”

Film: MARBLE ARCH AND CHRISTMAS IN DESERT

Film: General Montgomery’s preparation of assault on Wadi (1943)


DESTRUCTION OF THE ARCH

On 1 September 1969, a bloodless coup successfully overthrew the monarchical government of Libya. A 12 member central committee of revolution officers proclaimed themselves the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the government of the new Libyan Arab Republic. Lieutenant Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi became the RCC chairman, and therefore the head of state, and appointed himself to the rank of colonel becoming the commander-in-chief of the Libyan armed forces.

Representatives of the main powers (France, UK, US, and the USSR) were called to meet with the RCC representatives. The UK and the US quickly extended diplomatic recognition, hoping to secure their military bases in Libya and fearing further instability. Hoping to ingratiate themselves with Gaddafi, in 1970 the US informed him of at least one planned counter-coup. Such attempts to form a working relationship with the RCC failed. Gaddafi was determined to reassert national sovereignty and expunged what he described as foreign colonial and imperialist influences. His administration insisted that the US and the UK remove their military bases from Libya, with Gaddafi proclaiming that “the armed forces which rose to express the people’s revolution will not tolerate living in their shacks while the bases of imperialism exist in Libyan territory.” The British left Libya in March and the Americans left in June 1970.

In October 1970, to reduce Italian influence in Libya, all Italian-owned assets were expropriated, and the 12,000 strong Italian community was expelled from Libya along with the smaller community of Libyan Jews. The day, 7 October 1970 became a national holiday known as “Vengeance Day”. Gaddafi considered the Marble Arch a symbol of the Italian domination in Libya and for the separation between two parts of Libya, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Gaddafi then ordered the “Arch of Fileni” to be completey demolished using dynamite. Another possible reason for its destruction could be Gaddafi’s hatred towards the Italians. Gaddafi’s paternal grandfather, Abdessalam Bouminyar, was killed by the Italians during the Italian invasion of 1911. Gaddafi was born in 1942 near Qasr Abu Hadi, a rural area outside the town of Sirte (west of Ra’s Lanuf) during the North African campaign when Sirte served as an administrative centre under Italian rule.

The two bronze statues of the Philaeni brothers and parts of the marble reliefs are now located in a small museum in Medinat Sultan, around 31 miles (50 km) from Sirte.

Photo: Marco Prins


No model kits currently exist of the Marble Arch and it appears there are no scale drawings available. The only option would be to scratch build it. A couple of modelers had scratch built it in 1/35 scale and they can be found on the internet.

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