The North African Campaign
began in June of 1940 and continued for three years, as Axis and Allied forces pushed each other back and forth across the desert. At the beginning of the war, Libya had been an Italian colony for several decades and British forces had been in neighboring Egypt since 1882. The two armies began skirmishing almost as soon as Italy declared war on the Allied Nations in 1940. Italy invaded Egypt in September of 1940, and in a December counterattack, British and Indian forces captured some 130,000 Italians. Hitler's response to this loss was to send in the newly formed "Afrika Korps" led by General Erwin Rommel. Several long, brutal pushes back and forth across Libya and Egypt reached a turning point in the Second Battle of El Alamein in late 1942, when Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army broke out and drove Axis forces all the way from Egypt to Tunisia. In November, Operation Torch brought in thousands of British and American forces. They landed across western North Africa, and joined the attack, eventually helping force the surrender of all remaining Axis troops in Tunisia in May of 1943 and ending the Campaign for North Africa.
Australian troops approach a German-held strong point under the protection of a heavy smoke screen somewhere in the Western Desert, in Northern Africa on November 27, 1942. (AP Photo)
Fighting in North Africa started with the Italian declaration of war on 10 June 1940. On 14 June, the British Army's 11th Hussars (assisted by elements of the1st Royal Tank Regiment, 1st RTR) crossed the border from Egypt into Libya and captured the Italian Fort Capuzzo. This was followed by an Italian counteroffensive into Egypt and the capture of Sidi Barrani in September 1940 and then in December 1940 by a Commonwealth counteroffensive, Operation Compass. During Operation Compass, the Italian 10th Army was destroyed and the German Afrika Korps—commanded by Erwin Rommel—was dispatched to North Africa—during Operation Sonnenblume—to reinforce Italian forces in order to prevent a complete Axis defeat.
A see-saw series of battles for control of Libya and parts of Egypt followed, reaching a climax in the Second Battle of El Alamein when British Commonwealthforces under the command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery delivered a decisive defeat to the Axis forces and pushed them back to Tunisia. After the late 1942 Allied Operation Torch landings in North-West Africa, and subsequent battles against Vichy France forces (who then changed sides), the Allies finally encircled Axis forces in northern Tunisia and forced their surrender.
In June 1941, the Axis campaign against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front provided some relief for the Allied forces fighting in North Africa by diverting men and materiel to that new front. In November 1942, Operation Torch in turn provided some relief for the Soviet forces on the Eastern front by preventing further diversion of Axis forces to that front.
Information gleaned via British Ultra code-breaking intelligence proved critical to Allied success in North Africa. Victory for the Allies in this campaign immediately led to the Italian Campaign, which culminated in the downfall of the fascist government in Italy, as well as securing the vital oilfields and Suez Canal in the wider region.
German General Erwin Rommel with the 15th Panzer Division between Tobruk and Sidi Omar. Photo taken in Libya, in 1941. (NARA)
On 10 June 1940, the Kingdom of Italy aligned itself with Nazi Germany and declared war upon France and the United Kingdom. British forces based inEgypt were ordered to undertake defensive measures, but to act as non-provocative as possible. However, on 11 June they began a series of raids against Italian positions in Libya. Following the defeat of France on 25 June, Italian forces in Tripolitania—facing French troops based in Tunisia—redeployed to Cyrenaica to reinforce the Italian 10th Army. This, coupled with the steadily degrading equipment of the British forces led General Archibald Wavell to order an end to raiding and placed the defence of the Egyptian border to a small screening force.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered that the 10th Army was to invade Egypt by 8 August. Two days later, no invasion having been launched, Mussolini ordered Marshal Graziani that the moment German forces launched Operation Sea Lion, he was to attack. On 8 September, the Italians—hampered by the lack of transport and enfeebled by the low level of training among officers and weakened by the state of its supporting arms— were ordered to invade Egypt the following day. The battle plan was to advance along the coastal road while limited armoured forces operated on the desert flank. To counter the Italian advance, Wavell ordered his screening forces to harass the advancing Italians, falling back towards Mersa Matruh, where the main British infantry force was based. Positioned on the desert flank was the 7th Armoured Division, which would strike into the flank of the Italian force.[
Australian troops string out behind tanks in a practice advance over North African sands, on January 3, 1941. The supporting infantry is spread out thinly as a precaution against air raids. (AP Photo)
By 16 September, the Italian force had advanced to Maktila, around 80 mi (130 km) west of Mersa Matruh, where they halted due to supply problems.Despite Mussolini urging for the advance to carry on, Graziani ordered his force to dig in around Sidi Barrani, and fortified camps were established in forward locations; additional troops were also positioned behind the main force. In response to the dispersed Italian camps, the British planned a limited five-day attack, Operation Compass, to strike at the fortified camps one by one. The British Commonwealth force, totalling 36,000 men, attacked the forward elements of the 10-division-strong Italian army on 9 December. Following the initial success, the forces of Operation Compass pursued the retreating Italian forces. In January, the fortified towns of Bardia and Tobruk were captured and the fleeing Italians were cut off at Beda Fomm by the 7th Armoured Division, who had crossed the western desert. At the Battle of Beda Fomm, the remnants of the Italian army surrendered. Within 10 weeks, Allied forces had reached El Agheila and destroyed the Italian Tenth Army, taking 130,000 prisoners of war.
The Italians responded by dispatching motorised and armoured reinforcements to Africa beginning in February 1941 and continuing until early May;Operation Sonnenblume saw the German Afrika Korps—under the command of Erwin Rommel—arrive in Tripoli to reinforce their Italian allies with orders to block Allied attempts to drive the Italians out of the region. The forward Allied forces—now named XIII Corps—adopted a defensive posture and over the coming months was built up before having most of its force redeployed to Greece while the 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn to the Nile Delta. In their place inexperienced, ill-equipped, and under-strength forces were deployed.
A German Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber attacking a British supply depot near Tobruk, Libya, in October of 1941. (AP Photo)
Although Rommel had been ordered to simply hold the line, an armoured reconnaissance soon became a fully fledged offensive from El Agheila in March 1941. In March–April, the Allied forces were forced back and leading general officers captured. The Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of Tobruk, and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 mi (160 km) east to the Libyan–Egyptian border.With Tobruk under siege from the main German-Italian force, a small battlegroup continued to press eastwards. Capturing Fort Capuzzo and Bardia in passing, it then advanced into Egypt, and by the end of April had taken Sollum and the tactically important Halfaya Pass. Rommel garrisoned these positions, reinforcing the battlegroup and ordering it onto the defensive.
Tobruk's garrison—although isolated by land—continued to receive supplies and support from the Royal Navy, and Rommel was unable to take the port. This failure was significant; his front line positions at Sollum were at the end of an extended supply chain that stretched back to Tripoli and was threatened by the Tobruk garrison, and the substantial commitment required to invest Tobruk prevented him from building up his forces at Sollum, making further advances into Egypt impractical. The Allies had regained the initiative by maintaining possession of Tobruk.
The inaction of both sides would, however, not last for much longer. The Allied forces soon after launched a small attack, Operation Brevity, in an attempt to push the Axis forces back over the border. Brevity was followed up by a larger scale offensive, Operation Battleaxe, intended to relieve the siege at Tobruk; this operation also failed.
British Crusader tanks moving to forward positions in the Western Desert on 26 November 1941.
German General Erwin Rommel meeting with Italian governor of Libya, General Italo Gariboldi (behind Rommel and to his right side) and other Italian officers in Tripoli, during joint German-Italian military operations against the Allies in North Africa.
An RAF Airman places a cross, made from the wreckage of an Aircraft, over a grave on December 27, 1940, containing the bodies of five Italian Airmen shot down in the Desert Battle at Mersa Matruh on October 31, 1940. (AP Photo)
The Allied forces reorganised during the stalemate. Claude Auchinleck succeeded Archibald Wavell as commander in chief Middle East Command, and the Western Desert Force was reinforced with a second Corps to form the new Eighth Army, which was at that time made up of units from the British Army,Australian Army, the British Indian Army, the New Zealand Army and the South African Army. There was also a brigade of Free French under Marie-Pierre Koenig. The new formation launched a new offensive—Operation Crusader—in November 1941. By January 1942, joint operations had resulted in the recapture of all the territory only recently captured by the Germans and Italians. As a consequence, and once again, the front line (axis of advance) would be El Agheila.
After receiving supplies and reinforcements from Tripoli, the Axis again attacked, defeating the Allies at theGazala in June and capturing Tobruk. The Axis forces drove the Eighth Army back over the Egyptian border, where their advance was stopped in July only 90 mi (140 km) from Alexandria in the First Battle of El Alamein.
General Claude Auchinleck, who had personally assumed command of the Eighth Army following the defeat at Gazala, was sacked following the First Battle of El Alamein and was replaced by General Harold Alexander. Lieutenant-General William Gott was initially given command of the Eighth Army. He was killeden route to take up his command and replaced by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery would ultimately take command of the Eighth for the remainder of the Desert War.
The Axis forces made a new attempt to break through to Cairo at the end of June at Alam Halfa but were pushed back. After a period of build-up and training, the Eighth launched a major offensive, decisively defeating the German-Italian army during the Second Battle of El Alamein, in late October 1942. The Eighth Army then pushed the Axis forces westward, capturing Tripoli in mid-January 1943. By February, Eighth Army was facing the German-Italian Panzer Army near the Mareth Line and came under command of General Harold Alexander's 18th Army Group for the concluding phase of the war in North Africa, the Tunisia Campaign.
American troops on board a Landing Craft Assault.
One of the Bren gun carriers used by Australian light horse troops in Northern Africa, on January 7, 1941. (AP Photo)
Operation Torch started on 8 November 1942, and finished on 11 November. In an attempt to pincer German and Italian forces, Allied forces (American and British Commonwealth), landed in Vichy-held French North Africa under the assumption that there would be little to no resistance. Nevertheless, Vichy French forces put up a strong and bloody resistance to Allied forces in Oran and Morocco, but not in Algiers, where a coup d'état by the French resistance on 8 November succeeded in neutralizing the French XIX Corps before the landing and arresting the Vichy commanders. Consequently, the landings met no practical opposition in Algiers, and the city was captured on the first day along with the entire Vichy African command. After three days of talks and threats, Generals Mark Clark and Dwight Eisenhower compelled the Vichy Admiral François Darlan (and General Alphonse Juin) to order the cessation of armed resistance in Oran and Morocco by French forces on 10–11 November with the proviso that Darlan would be head of a Free French administration. During Operation Torch, American, Vichy French and German navy vessels fought the Naval Battle of Casablanca, ending in a decisive American victory.
The Allied landings prompted the Axis occupation of Vichy France (Case Anton). In addition, the French fleet was captured at Toulon by the Italians, something which did them little good as the main portion of the fleet had been scuttled to prevent their use by the Axis. The Vichy army in North Africa joined the Allies (see Free French Forces).
Main article: Tunisia Campaign
Following the Operation Torch landings, (from early November 1942), the Germans and Italians initiated a build up of troops in Tunisia to fill the vacuum left by Vichy troops which had withdrawn. During this period of weakness, the Allies decided against a rapid advance into Tunisia while they wrestled with the Vichy authorities. Many of the Allied soldiers were tied up in garrison duties because of the uncertain status and intentions of the Vichy forces.
By mid-November, the Allies were able to advance into Tunisia but only in single division strength. By early December, the Eastern Task Force—which had been redesignated British First Army under Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson—was composed of British 78th Infantry Division, 6th Armoured Division, 1st Parachute Brigade, 6th Commando and elements of U.S. 1st Armored Division. But by this time, one German and five Italian divisions had been shipped from Europe and the remoteness of Allied airfields from the front line gave the Axis clear air superiority over the battlefield. The Allies were halted and pushed back having advanced eastwards to within 30 km (19 mi) of Tunis.
During the winter, there followed a period of stalemate during which time both sides continued to build up their forces. By the new year, the British First Army had one British, one U.S. and one French Corps (a second British Corps headquarters was activated in April). In the second half of February, in eastern Tunisia, Rommel and von Arnim had some successes against the mainly inexperienced French and U.S. Corps, most notably in routing the U.S II Corps commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass.
Two British tank officers, somewhere in the North African War Zone, on January 28, 1941, grin at war cartoons in an Italian newspaper. One holds a Mascot --- a puppy found during the capture of Sidi Barrani, one of the first Italian bases to fall in the African War. (AP Photo)
By the beginning of March, the Eighth Army—advancing westward along the North African coast—had reached the Tunisian border. Rommel and von Arnim found themselves in an Allied "two army" pincer. They were outflanked, outmanned and outgunned. The British Eighth Army bypassed the Axis defence on the Mareth Line in late March and First Army in central Tunisia launched their main offensive in mid-April to squeeze the Axis forces until their resistance in Africa collapsed. The Axis forces surrendered on 13 May 1943 yielding over 275,000 prisoners of war. This huge loss of experienced troops greatly reduced the military capacity of the Axis powers, although the largest percentage of Axis troops escaped Tunisia. This defeat in Africa led to all Italian colonies in Africa being captured.
The Axis had considerable success in intelligence gathering through radio communication intercepts and monitoring unit radio traffic. The most important success came through Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Egypt. He had been tasked by General George Marshall to provide detailed reports on the military situation in Africa. Fellers talked with British military and civilian headquarters personnel, read documents and visited the battlefront. Known to the Germans as "die gute Quelle" (the good source) or more jokingly as 'the little fellow', he transmitted his reports back to Washington using the "Black Code" of the U.S. State Department. In September 1941 the Italians had stolen a code book, photographed it and returned it to the US embassy in Rome. The Italians shared parts of their intercepts with their German allies. In addition the "Chiffrierabteilung" (German military cipher branch) were soon able to break the code. Fellers' reports were excessively detailed and played a significant role in informing the Germans of allied strength and intentions.
In addition, the Afrika Korps had the intelligence services of the 621st Signals Battalion mobile monitoring element commanded by Hauptmann Alfred Seeböhm. The 621st Signals Battalion monitored radio communications among British units. Unfortunately for the Allies, the British not only failed to change their codes with any frequency, they were also prone to poor radio discipline in combat. Their officers made frequent open, uncoded transmissions to their commands, allowing the Germans to more easily identify British units and deployments. The situation changed after a counterattack during the Battle of Gazala resulted in the 621st Signals Battalion being overrun and destroyed, and a number of their documents captured, alerting British intelligence to the problem. The British responded by instituting an improved call signal procedure, introducing radiotelephonic codes, imposing rigid wireless silence on reserve formations, padding out real messages with dummy traffic, tightening up on their radio discipline in combat and creating an entire fake signals network in the southern sector.
Colossus Mark II computer at Bletchley Park.
Allied codebreakers read much enciphered German message traffic, especially that encrypted with the Enigma machine. The Allies' Ultra programme was initially of limited value, as it took too long to get the information to the commanders in the field, and at times provided information that was less than helpful. In terms of anticipating the next move the Germans would make, reliance on Ultra sometimes backfired. Part of the reason the initial German attacks in March of 1941 were so successful was that Ultra intercepts had informed Wavell that OKW had clearly directed Rommel not to take any offensive action, but to wait until he was further reinforced with the 15th Panzer Division in May. Rommel received this information, but placed more value on his own assessment of the situation. Trusting that the Germans had no intention of taking major actions, the British command did not respond until it was too late. Furthermore, Rommel did not generally provide OKW or the Italian Commando Supremo details of his planned operations, for he thought the Italians too prone to leak the information. Thus on January 21st, 1942, when Rommel struck out on his second offensive from El Agheila, Commando Supremo was just as surprised to learn of it as the British were. Ultra intercepts provided the British with such information as the name of the new German commander, his time of arrival, and the numbers and condition of the Axis forces, but they might not correctly reveal Rommel's intentions.
The primary benefit of Ultra intercepts to the effort in North Africa was to aid in cutting the Axis supply line to Tunisia. Ultra intercepts provided valuable information about the times and routes of Axis supply shipments across the Mediterranean. This was critical in providing the British with the opportunity to intercept and destroy them. During the time when Malta was under heavy air attack the ability to act on this information was limited, but as Allied air and naval strength improved the information became instrumental to Allied success. It is estimated that between 40% to 60% of Axis supply shipping was located and destroyed due to decrypted information. Heavy losses of German Paratroopers in Crete, made possible by ULTRA warnings of the drop times and locations meant that Hitler hesitated to attack Malta, which aided in gaining control of the mediterranean, as did the defeat of the Italian Navy at the Battle of Cape Matapan. To keep the fact that German coded messages were being read, a fact critical to the overall Allied war effort, British command required a flyover mission be flown before a convoy could be attacked to give the appearence that a reconnaissance flight had discovered the target.
An Italian flying boat burning of the water off the coast of Tripoli, on August 18, 1941 after an encounter with a royal air force fighter patrol. Just above the tip of the port wing, the body of an Italian airman can be seen floating. (AP Photo) #
British sources say these are Italian soldiers, killed when shell fire from British artillery pieces caught their ammunition column Southwest of Gazala in the Libyan battles of January, 1942. (AP Photo) #
One of the many Italian prisoners of war captured in Libya, who arrived in London on January 2, 1942. This one is still wearing his Africa Corps cap. (AP Photo) #
Batteries of an advanced Italian position near Tobruk, Libya, on January 6, 1942. (AP Photo) #
British Blenheim bombers setting out on a raid in Cyrenaica, Libya, with their escorting fighters, on February 26, 1942. (AP Photo) #
A British patrol is on the lookout for enemy movements over a valley in the Western Desert, on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Libya border, in February of 1942. (AP Photo) #
"Buss" Mascot with an R.A.F. Squadron stationed in Libya, on February 15, 1942, takes a few personal liberties with the pilot of an American-Built Tomahawk plane somewhere in the Western Desert. (AP Photo) #
This hydroplane is part of the R.A.F. rescue service in the Middle East. It operates on the lakes of the Nile Delta for the assistance of pilots who may make forced landings in the water. Consisting of a cabin mounted on seaplane flats it is driven by an aircraft engine and propeller mounted in the stern and steered by an aircraft rudder. There are also rudders on each of the floats. The top speed of the craft is about fifteen knots. Photo taken on March 11, 1942. (AP Photo) #
Experienced in desert weather flying, a British pilot lands an American made Kittyhawk fighter plane of the Sharknose Squadron in a Libyan Sandstorm, on April 2, 1942. A mechanic on the wing helps to guide the pilot as he taxis through the storm. (AP Photo) #
A wounded British warrior in Libya lies on cot in a desert hospital tent, on June 18, 1942, shielded from the strong tropical sun.(AP Photo/Weston Haynes) #
Britain's General Bernard Montgomery, Commander of the Eighth Army, watches battle in Egypt's Western Desert, from the turret of an M3 Grant tank, in 1942. (AP Photo) #
Truck-mounted anti-tank guns, used as highly mobile, hard-hitting artillery units, speed over the desert and attack the enemy from all sorts of unexpected quarters. A mobile anti-tank unit of the Eighth Army in action, somewhere in the desert, Libya, on July 26, 1942. (AP Photo) #
This view of an air raid on an Axis plane base at Martuba, near Derna, in Libya on July 6, 1942 was made from one of the South African planes which took part in the raid. The four sets of white streaks in the lower half show the dust of Axis planes speeding along the ground to escape as bomb bursts appear near them and in upper center. (AP Photo) #
During his stay in the Middle East, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid a visit to the Alamein area, meeting brigade and divisional commanders, visiting a gun site, and inspecting personnel of Australian and South African divisions, on August 19, 1942 in the western desert.(AP Photo) #
A low-flying Royal Air Force plane escorts rolling trucks of a New Zealand unit on the move in Egypt on August 3, 1942. (AP Photo) #
A British unit in a U.S. built M3 Stuart "Honey" tank patrols at speed in Egypt's Western Desert near Mount Himeimat, Egypt, in September of 1942. (AP Photo) #
A wounded German officer, found in the Egyptian desert during the first two days of a British offensive, is guarded by a sentry while awaiting backup, on November 13, 1942. (AP Photo) #
Some of the 97 German prisoners captured by the British forces in Egypt in a raid on Tel El Eisa, Egypt, on September 1, 1942. (AP Photo) #
An Allied convoy, escorted by sea and air, plowed through the seas toward French North African possessions near Casablanca, French Morocco, in November of 1942, part of Operation Torch, the large British-American invasion of French North Africa. (AP Photo) #
U.S. landing barges speed shoreward off Fedala, French Morocco during landing operations in early November, 1942. Fedala is about 15 miles north of Casablanca, French Moroccan city. (AP Photo) #
Allied troops land and follow the spider webs of footprints left by first parties near Casablanca, French Morocco, in November of 1942.(AP Photo) #
Under the watchful eyes of U.S. troops bearing bayonets, members of the Italo-German armistice commission in Morocco are rounded up to be taken to Fedala, north of Casablanca, on November 18, 1942. Commission members were surprised in American landing move. (AP Photo) #
French troops on their way to the fighting lines in Tunisia shake hands with American soldiers at the rail station in Oran, Algeria, North Africa, on December 2, 1942. (AP Photo) #
A U.S. army soldier with a sub-machine gun and another in a jeep guard the looming S. S. Partos which was damaged and had capsized against the dock when the Allies landed at the North African port, in 1942. (AP Photo) #
This German had sought cover in a bomb shelter, attempting to escape an Allied attack in the Libyan desert, on December 1, 1942. He did not make it. (AP Photo) #
A U.S. Navy dive-bomber uses a road as a runway near Safi, French Morocco, on December 11, 1942, but hits a soft shoulder in the takeoff.(AP Photo) #
B-17 bombers, of the U.S. Army's Twelfth Air force, dropped fragmentation bombs on the important El Aouina airdrome at Tunis, Tunisia, and covered the airdrome and field completely. On the field below enemy planes can be seen burning, on February 14, 1943. (AP Photo) #
A United States soldier advances cautiously at left with a sub-machine gun to cover any attempt of the German tank crew from escaping their fiery prison inside their tank following a duel with U.S. and British anti-tank units in Medjez al Bab area, Tunisia, on January 12, 1943.(AP Photo) #
German prisoners captured during an Allied raid on German-Italian position in Sened, Tunisia on February 27, 1943. The hatless soldier stated that he was only twenty years old. (AP Photo) #
Two thousand Italian prisoners march back through Eighth Army lines, led by a Bren gun carrier, in the Tunisian desert, in March 1943. The prisoners were taken outside El-Hamma after their German counterparts pulled out of the town. (AP Photo) #
This pattern of anti-aircraft fire provides a protective screen over Algiers at night. The photo, recording several moments of gunfire, shows a defense thrown up during an axis raid upon Algiers in North Africa on April 13, 1943. (AP Photo) #
Italian gunners man their light field piece in a field of Tunisian cactus, on March 31, 1943. (AP Photo) #
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, right, commander-in-chief in North Africa, jokes with four American soldiers during a recent inspection of the Tunisian battlefront, on March 18, 1943. (AP Photo) #
A German soldier lies sprawled against a mortar after a bayonet attack in Tunis, Tunisia, on May 17, 1943. (AP Photo) #
Wildly enthusiastic citizens of Tunis greet the victorious allied troops who occupied the city. A British tankman gets a personal welcome from a Tunis resident in Tunisia, on May 19, 1943. (AP Photo) #
After the surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia in May of 1943, Allied forces took more than 275,000 prisoners of war. Shown here is one roundup of thousands of German and Italian soldiers in Tunisia seen in an Army Air Forces aerial shot, on June 11, 1943. (AP Photo) #
Actress-comedian Martha Raye entertains servicemen of the U.S. Army 12th Air Force on a makeshift stage on the edge of the Sahara Desert in North Africa in 1943. (AP Photo) #
After the defeat of Axis forces in Northern Africa, Allied troops prepared to use the territory to launch attacks on Italy and other parts of southern Europe. Here, a U.S. Air Transport Command plane, loaded with war supplies, flies over the pyramids at Giza, near Cairo, Egypt, in 1943. (AP Photo/U.S. Army)