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During the Second World War, the North African Campaign took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 16 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyanmarker and Egyptianmarker deserts (Western Desert Campaign also known as the Desert War) and in Moroccomarker and Algeriamarker (Operation Torchmarker) and Tunisiamarker (Tunisia Campaign).

The campaign was fought between the Allies and Axis powers. The Allied war effort was dominated by the British Commonwealth and exiles from German–occupied Europe. The United States entered the war in 1941 and began direct military assistance in North Africa, on 11 May 1942.

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 the 1st Royal Tank Regiment) crossed the border into Libyamarker and captured the Italian Fort Capuzzomarker. This was followed by an Italian offensive into Egypt and then in December 1940 by a Commonwealth counteroffensive, Operation Compass. During Operation Compass, the Italian Tenth Army was destroyed and the German Afrika Korps, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was dispatched to North Africa, during Operation Sonnenblume, to bolster the Italian forces and prevent a complete Axis defeat.

A back-and-forth series of battles for control of Libyamarker and parts of Egyptmarker followed, climaxing in the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker when British Commonwealth forces under the command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, delivered a decisive defeat to the Axis forces and pushed the Axis forces back to Tunisiamarker. Following the Allied landings in North West Africa, Operation Torchmarker, in late 1942 under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, and after Allied battles against Vichy France forces (which subsequently joined the Allies), the combined Allied forces encircled the Axis forces in northern Tunisia and forced their surrender.

By making the Axis powers fight on a second front in North Africa, the Western Allies provided some relief to the Soviet Unionmarker fighting the Axis on the Eastern Front. Information learned from the British Ultra codebreaking operation was a major contributor to Allied success in the North African campaign.

Western Desert Campaign

The Northern African Campaign was strategically important for both the Allies and the Axis powers. The Allies used the campaign as a step towards a second front against the Axis powers in "Fortress Europe", and it helped to ease Axis pressure on the Eastern Front. The Axis powers had planned to dominate the Mediterranean through control of Gibraltarmarker and the Suez Canalmarker and planned to follow a successful campaign in North Africa with a strike north to the rich oil fields of the Middle East. This would have cut off nearby oil supplies to the Allies, and would have tremendously increased the oil supplies available for the Axis war machine.

On 13 September 1940 Italy launched the Tenth Army stationed in Libya in a 200,000 troop invasion into the British protectorate of Egypt and set up defensive forts at Sidi Barranimarker. But Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Governor-General of Libya, with little intelligence on the state of Allied forces there, chose not to continue further towards Cairomarker.

The Allied forces were outnumbered, 36,000 men compared to a total of 200,000. Nevertheless at the end of 1940 they launched a counter-attack, Operation Compass. It was more successful than expected and resulted in the destruction of most of the Italian Tenth Army, and the advance of the Allied forces to El Agheilamarker. The stunning defeat did not go unnoticed and fresh Italian troops under Uldo Capzoni together with German troops, the Deutsches Afrikakorps under Erwin Rommel were sent in to reinforce the Italian forces in western Libya. At the same time the forces who had just routed the Italians were withdrawn from the Western Desert. An Australian infantry division was sent to reinforce the Greek armies fighting the Axis invasion of Greece while the 7th Armoured Division was sent to the Nile Delta to refit. They were replaced by two inexperienced and weakened divisions.

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 which, with the exception of Tobruk, managed to press the Allies beyond Sallummarker back into Egypt, effectively putting both sides back at their approximate pre-war positions.

The Allied forces launched a small attack, Operation Brevitymarker, in an attempt to push the Axis forces back over the border, but this failed. This was followed up by a larger scale offensive, Operation Battleaxe, intended to relieve the siege at Tobruk, which also failed.

During the ensuing stalemate, the Allied forces reorganised. Archibald Wavell was succeeded as commander in chief Middle East Command by Claude Auchinleck and the Western Desert Force was reinforced with a second Corps to form the new Eighth Army, which was at this 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 and by January 1942 recaptured all of the territory recently acquired by the Germans and Italians. Once again, the front line was at El Agheila.

After receiving supplies and reinforcements from Tripolimarker, the Axis again attacked, defeating the Allies at Gazala in June and capturing Tobruk. The Axis forces drove the Eighth Army back past the border of Egypt where their advance was stopped in July only from Alexandriamarker in the First Battle of El Alameinmarker.

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 given command of the Eighth Army; however he was killed en route to taking up his command and was replaced by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery.

The Axis forces made a new attempt to break through to Cairo at the end of June at Alam Halfamarker 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 Alameinmarker 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.

Operation Torch

American troops on board a landing craft.

Operation Torch started on 8 November 1942, and finished on 11 November 1942. 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 Oranmarker and Moroccomarker. But not in Algiersmarker, 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, General Mark Clark, and 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 November and 11 with the proviso that Darlan would be head of a Free French administration.

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).

Tunisian Campaign

17 November 1942-13 May 1943.

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 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 US II Corps commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall at the Battle of the Kasserine Passmarker.

By the beginning of March the Eighth Army, advancing westwards 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 shattered the Axis defense 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.


After victory by the Allies in the North African Campaign, the stage was set for the Italian Campaign to begin. The invasion of Sicily followed two months later.

See also



  • John Keegan, Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-280666-1

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