The North African campaign is one of the truly iconic phases of the Second World War. With seemingly endless vistas of sand, an open environment that favored mobile warfare, a reputation for gentlemanly conflict and one of the most popular enemy generals in modern history, North Africa has won a special place in the history of World War II.
North Africa was originally a contest between Italy and Great Britain over their respective holdings in that region. Italy controlled Libya and Ethiopia; between them, Great Britain had guaranteed interests in Egypt, especially concerning the Suez Canal. Mussolini dreamed of controlling the entire Mediterranean, and so he mounted an invasion of Egypt in 1940. The effort miscarried, and the beginning of 1941 witnessed not only British ascendancy, but also near collapse on the part of the Italian Army.
It was at this point that Germany came to the aid of Italy, providing support both in southeastern Europe and in North Africa. Specifically, Hitler deployed two Panzer divisions under the command of Erwin Rommel to assist the Italians in North Africa. This force, known as the Afrika Korps, was intended to provide support only, but it boasted several advantages: more powerful tanks, superior mobility due to better integration between armor and infantry, and a more energetic commander. Rommel saw that he could achieve great gains by exceeding his mandate.
Tobruk: Rommel went onto the offensive on March 31, taking the British by surprise. In a matter of days, Rommel’s forces managed to recapture most of eastern Libya. The 9th Australian Division turned to the port of Tobruk as an alternative to further retreat. Tobruk had been fortified by the Italians before the British captured it, and many of the structures were still usable. The Australians occupied them, and Tobruk was again a fortress.
It was a fortress that Rommel could not ignore. If he were to drive on past Tobruk, its garrison could advance and attack him from behind; a full assault, however, would be costly. Rommel attempted two attacks in late April and early May, gaining a small amount of ground in the fortified zone, but fell far short of his objective. The alternative was to place Tobruk under siege until he had accumulated enough force to mount a renewed attack.
In the meantime, however, the British were able to keep their forces in supply by sea, and so the siege wore on through the summer and deep into the fall. As it happened, the British were ready to act before the Germans, and Operation Crusader began on November 17. The fighting was intense, but the Germans gained the advantage, and on the 23rd they defeated the British at Sidi Rezegh. Rommel considered exploiting this victory by pressing on for the Egyptian border, but in reality his victory had not been so decisive. The British remained in some force around Tobruk, and while Rommel drove on to the southeast, they were able to reinforce their hold on Tobruk itself.
The strategic realities of Tobruk reasserted themselves. It was too strong to be captured, and too much of a threat to be bypassed. British strength around Tobruk was greater than before, and they were able to push Rommel back. For the moment, Rommel lost everything he had gained since March; in 1942, however, relief in Axis supply made reconquest possible, and on June 20 he captured Tobruk.
El Alamein: Three battles were fought at El Alamein in western Egypt between June and November of 1942, but it is the third that proved the decisive moment. After capturing Tobruk, Rommel pressed on into Egypt, where his forces met the British at El Alamein and found a stalemate.
By this point, the British had an overwhelming advantage in men and equipment. Furthermore, Rommel had taken ill, and before before traveling to Austria for convalescence, he ordered his forces to prepare a purely defensive position, complete with extensive minefields.
Meanwhile, the new commander of the British 8th Army, Bernard Montgomery, assembled his forces precisely to crush any defensive measures that the Axis forces might have assumed. His attack, codenamed Lightfoot, opened on October 23 with a massed artillery barrage reminiscent of a World War I trench assault. Like the fighting in that earlier war, El Alamein was frankly a battle of attrition, and under the circumstances the British could afford such a strategy. The British managed to dig two pathways through the minefields, and sent in tanks to draw out the Axis tanks in response. In this way they whittled down an already inferior number of tanks; Rommel, who had returned on October 25, ordered a retreat on November 4.
Rommel had managed to extricate some of his men, so as to fight another day, but Montgomery had accomplished his goal: the bulk of Rommel’s armor had been lost, and it would be a long time before Rommel could prepare another offensive again. Instead, the Allies were ready to open up another front in North Africa.
Torch: On November 8, British and American forces opened up a second front in North Africa with three amphibious landings in French-controlled Morocco and Algeria. In part, this was done to trap Axis forces in a vise, but the effort also had a diplomatic character. For one thing, it marked a new level of Anglo-American cooperation, with operations being conducted under a single command structure. For another, it was an invasion of French territory, and while the Allies were prepared to fight for the landings, there was the hope that the French would choose not to resist and allow the Allies to pass through their territory to fight the Germans and Italians. Since Vichy France maintained diplomatic relations with the United States, an effort was made to emphasize the American presence.
Initially, the French fought back as the landings progressed; in some places, they fought very hard. Moreover, mistakes were made in the operation, and Allied planners learned a good deal about such landings that would serve them later in Italy and France. Still, the Allies quickly made a deal with Admiral Darlan, and then the Allies could begin a drive on Tunisia. Eventually, these forces were to meet Montgomery’s 8th Army, and squeeze the last Axis forces in the process.
It was not to be resolved so quickly, however. By the 11th, Axis forces were being reinforced from Sicily through Tunis, Bizerte and Gabes, and the fight would go on.
Kasserine Pass: In February, 1943, the Germans sought to prevent their enemies from joining forces by striking hard into the Tunisian front. Rommel and the commander of the new German army sent through Tunis, Juergen von Arnim, arranged joint action aimed at the Kasserine Pass, which was being manned by the American II Corps. When the two forces converged, the American defenders had little chance to mount a meaningful defense, due both to numbers and to the lack of experience of the troops.
Casualties were high, and the American troops were compelled to retreat, but little else was accomplished. Rommel and Arnim had reached the limit of their ability to work together, and Rommel had to accept that there would be no follow-up to this breakthrough. Instead, he had to be satisfied with a tactical victory and retreat to safety. As the Germans withdrew, the Americans returned to Kasserine, bloodied but wiser.
Fighting in North Africa had largely been decided. In March, Rommel attempted one last offensive against Montgomery, failed, and concluded that the cause was lost. He returned to Germany, while Axis forces in Africa remained behind in stubborn defense until May 12.
The North African campaign was never as glamorous as its popular image may suggest, but if nothing else, the relative lack of a civilian population to suffer during the course of the campaign made it seem cleaner. Much of the fighting was in desert conditions, with casualties limited to the soldiers involved. Furthermore, General Rommel assumed a larger-than-life persona among his enemies even more so than in his own army, and this made the tale of eventual Allied victory all the more compelling. Tobruk, El Alamein, Torch and Kasserine Pass remain among the best-known battles of the Second World War.
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