North African Campaign: 1940-1942

The British campaign in North Africa in 1940-1942 against the Italians and ultimately the German Afrika Korps, became crucial as a prelude to the eventual "second front" in the European Theater of World War II. If North Africa had been lost, D-Day would have been delayed at least and Germany could have focused on defeating the Soviet Union, with disasterous consequences for the Allies.

Tank from Rommel's Afrika Korps mired in a desert flash flood, North Africa, 1942
Tank from Rommel's Afrika Korps mired in a desert flash flood, North Africa, 1942.

Today in WW II: 19 Jan 1942 Japanese troops seize control of North Borneo.   

Italy and the British in North Africa

North African Campaign Regional Map, 1940-1942
North African Campaign Regional Map, 1940-1942.

At midnight on 10 June 1940, in a blatant attempt to capitalize on German successes, Italy declared war on both England and France. On 13 September 1940, Italian Marshall Rodolfo Graziani began an eastward advance from Libya into Egypt with five divisions headed for the British controlled Suez Canal, but was halted at Mersa Matruh by British defenses, 300 miles west of the canal.

In Greece, the British repulsed Italian attacks and occupied airfields there and in Crete. These moves put British planes within striking distance of Germany's oil sources in Ploesti, Romania, reason enough for Hitler to launch an operation against Greece in April 1941. The British were forced to retreat to the island of Crete where they were attacked and defeated by German forces in June 1941.

In North Africa, the Italians did poorly against the British. A British counter-offensive on 9 December 1940 pushed the Italians back more than 500 miles to El Agheila, half way to Tripoli, as British troops moved westward along the North African coast. On 22 January 1941, they captured the port of Tobruk in Libya from the Italians.

Outline of the British-German Campaign in North Africa

  • 12 February 1941: Rommel arrives in theater.
  • 14 February 1941: Leading elements of Afrika Korps land at Tripoli.
  • 24 March-19 April 1941: First German offensive to recapture Cyrenaica.
  • May-June 1941: Front stabilized; British launch Battleaxe counteroffensive.
  • July-November 1941: Siege of Tobruk; German preparations for offensives.
  • 18 November 1941-6 January 1942: British conduct Crusader counteroffensive; siege of Tobruk raised.
  • 7 December 1941: Line stabilized at El Agheila.
  • 21 January-12 June 1942: Rommel's second offensive; Gazala battles.
  • 21 June 1942: Tobruk falls to Germans.
  • June-July 1942: Rommel's pursuit to El Alamein.
  • 30 August-1 September 1942: Final German offensive at Alam El Halfa.
  • 23 October-5 November 1942: British counter-attack at El Alamein.
  • 8 November 1942: U.S. Operation Torch landings.
  • 18 January-22 February 1943: German counter-attacks in northwest Tunisia, including Kasserine Pass.
  • 13 May 1943: Last remaining elements of Afrika Korps surrender.

Germany Turns the Tide in North Africa

To bolster the faltering Italians, Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel (The Desert Fox, Der Wustenfuchs in German) with the Afrika Korps, consisting of two armored divisions. On 14 February 1941, Rommel and the 5th Leichte (Panzer) Division arrived in Tripoli and were joined in early May by the 15th Panzer Division. Although originally intended to be only a small blocking force, by 15 April Rommel and his German-Italian army had pushed the British eastward back to the Egyptian border. He simultaneously assaulted Tobruk, still held by the British, but Tobruk did not fall.

The failure to capture Tobruk was followed by a series of sharp battles (Operation Crusader) in November 1941 that resulted in the Afrika Korps being forced back to its starting point at El Agheila. Rommel's difficulties in the desert had more to do with the ability of the Allies to disrupt his supplies than any failure of Rommel as a commander. Eventually the Afrika Korps returned to the offensive, driving the British back to the Gazala line, just in front of Tobruk, 26-27 May 1942. Rommel then returned to Tobruk and took the port on 21 June 1942, capturing 35,000 British troops. The British retreated to the strategic bottleneck El Alamein (150 miles west of Cairo) and for most of July 1942 the First Battle of El Alamein took place there. In the end, the battle was a stalemate, but stopped Rommel's advance.

British Regain the Initiative in North Africa

The British lost to Rommel until General Bernard Law Montgomery took command of the Eighth army in North Africa. "Monty" threw out all existing plans and began work on a massive counteroffensive. Using Ultra -- the British decryption of German messages sent using Enigma -- and good reconnaissance allowed Montgomery to anticipate Rommel's intentions and use innovative measures to defeat him. That, plus continuing success in interdicting German supplies intended for the Africa Korps gave the British the levers needed to turn the tide.

At the end of August 1942 Montgomery defeated Rommel's attack at Alam el Halfa, but did not follow up, preferring to continue to build his forces. Then, on 23 October 1942, at the Second Battle of El Alamein, 900 British guns bombarded the Germans with the largest barrage since World War I, followed by a surprise infantry attack that drove through the German lines. Timing was bad for the Germans: Rommel had been ordered home for medical treatment, and his replacement, General Georg von Stumme, died of a heart attack on the battlefield. Rommel returned, but it was too late. Montgomery launched an attack on 1 November 1942 at Kidney Ridge, and by 2 November the Eighth Army had Rommel effectively beaten. They broke the German line and proceeded to chase the remains of Rommel's force to Sollum on the Egypt-Libya border.

On 8 November 1942 Operation Torch landed U.S. and British forces in western North Africa at Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca, creating a two front war for Rommel. On 12 November, the British Army recaptured Tobruk. The El Alamein battle had cost the Afrika Korps 50,000 casualties, half its strength, and the loss of 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. Montgomery's Eighth Army suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 tanks damaged. With the Torch landings and the victory at El Alamein, the war had decisively turned to favor the Allies.

Recommended Books about the North African Campaign: 1940-1942

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