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The Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War was the initial stage of the North African Campaign during the Second World War.


From the start, the Western Desert Campaign was a continuous back-and-forth struggle. In September 1940, the first offensive was initiated by the Italian forces in Libya against Britishmarker and Commonwealth forces stationed in neutral Egypt.

Northern Africa before the start of the offensive.
The Italian offensive was quickly halted and, in December 1940, the British made a counterattack. What started as a five-day raid turned into Operation Compass, resulting in massive losses for the Italian forces.

The Italian's Axis partner, Germany, provided a contingent of ground forces (Heer) and air forces (Luftwaffe) to prevent a total collapse, quickly making Germany the dominant partner.

Axis forces would twice more launch large-scale assaults against the Allies. Each time the Axis forces pushed the Allied forces back to Egypt, but both times the Allies retaliated and regained the ground lost. On the second (and final) Axis push, the Allies were driven far into Egypt; however, the Allies recovered at El Alameinmarker and then managed to drive the Axis forces west and completely out of Libya.

The Axis forces were driven back until they reached Tunisiamarker when the "Western Desert Campaign" effectively ended and the Eighth Army and Rommel's forces became involved in the "Tunisia Campaign" which had begun in November 1942.

The Western Desert Campaign was heavily influenced by the availability of supplies and transport. The ability of the Allied forces, operating from besieged Malta to interdict Axis convoys was critical. Allied interdictions denied the German commander, Erwin Rommel, the fuel and the reinforcements he desperately needed at critical moments.

In early 1942, the United Statesmarker supplied a small US Army Air Forces bomber contingent in support of the campaign, referring to it as the Egypt-Libya Campaign.


The Britishmarker had forces in Egypt since 1884. But the forces were much reduced as a result of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed with the Kingdom of Egypt in 1936. The relatively modest British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt were there primarily to protect the Suez Canalmarker. The canal was vital to Britain's communications with her Far Eastern and Indian Oceanmarker territories.

British light tank.
Italian light tank.
However, since 1938, the British forces in Egypt had included "Mobile Force ." Commanded by Major General Percy Hobart, this was one of only two British armoured training formations. On the outbreak of war, this force was renamed "Armoured Division " and ultimately became the 7th Armoured Division. The 7th Armoured Division was later to become informally known as the "Desert Rats." The 7th Armoured Division served as the principal force defending the Egyptian border with Libyamarker at the start of the war.

In June 1939, Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland "Jumbo" Wilson arrived in Cairomarker, Egypt as General Officer Commanding (GOC) British Troops in Egypt and was placed in command of the British and Commonwealth forces defending Egypt. At the end of July lieutenant-general Archibald Wavell was appointed to the rank of local general and sent to Cairo to be General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the newly created Middle East Command with responsibility for the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre; this command had operational control of all ground forces in Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine, Transjordan, and Cyprus. However, as the war progressed its authority was extended to include British led ground forces in east and north Africa, Aden, Iraq and the shores of the Persian Gulf, and Greece. On 17 June 1940, the troops Wilson had facing Libya under Major-General Richard O'Connor and his British 6th Infantry Division headquarters were redesignated Western Desert Force. O'Connor was given the local rank of lieutenant-general in October as his command was reinforced and expanded.

Libya had been an Italian colony since the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) defeated the Ottoman Imperial Army in 1912 during the Italo-Turkish War. Bracketed by French North Africa and Egypt, the Italians prepared for conflicts on both sides.

At the outbreak of World War II, Italy had two armies in Libya: The Fifth Army and the Tenth Army. Both armies were commanded overall by the Commander-in-Chief of Italian North Africa and Governor-General of Italian Libya, the charismatic Marshal of the Air Force (Maresciallo dell'Aria) Italo Balbo. The Fifth Army in Tripolitania was commanded directly by General Italo Gariboldi. The Fifth Army had nine infantry divisions. The Tenth Army in Cyrenaica was commanded directly by General Mario Berti. The Tenth Army had five infantry divisions. In late June 1940, the principal force on the border with Egypt was the Tenth Army. In all respects the Italian land forces and air forces (Regia Aeronautica) available in Libya greatly outnumbered the British forces in Egypt. The British, however, had an advantage in better quality.

According to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the approximately 215,000 Italians in Libya faced approximately 50,000 British in Egypt. The British estimated that the Italians had six "metropolitan" infantry divisions and two "militia" infantry divisions in Tripolitania, two "metropolitan" infantry divisions and two "militia" infantry divisions in Cyrenaica, and three "frontier" divisions. To counter this force, the British had the 7th Armoured Division, two-thirds of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, one-third of the New Zealand Division, fourteen British battalions, and two regiments of Royal Artillery.


The initial "covering force" fielded by the British along the Egyptian frontier was small but effective. It included light tanks of the 7th Hussars, armoured cars of the 11th Hussars, two motor battalions of the 60th Rifles and the Rifle Brigade, and two regiments of motorized Royal Horse Artillery.

Western Desert 1940–42
On 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on the Allies, the Italian forces stationed in Libya and the British and Commonwealth forces stationed in Egypt began a series of raids on each other. Among the more notable raids was a raid by the 11th Hussars within 24 hours of Italy's declaration of war. The armoured cars crossed the border into Libya and captured Italian prisoners who apparently did not know that war had been declared. On 12 June, another sixty-three Italians were taken prisoner during a raid.

On 14 June, the 11th Hussars, the 7th Hussars, and one company of the 60th Rifles captured Fort Capuzzomarker and Fort Maddalena and another 220 prisoners were taken. On 16 June, a deep raid into Italian territory resulted in the destruction of 12 Italian tanks. In addition, a convoy was intercepted on the Tobrukmarker-Bardiamarker highway, part of the Via Balbia, and an Italian general was captured.

After 25 June, France had signed an armistice with Italy and Italian divisions and materials from the Fifth Army in Tripolitania could be dispersed to reinforce and strengthen the Tenth Army in Cyrenaica. In time, the Tenth Army had ten divisions and the Fifth Army had four. By mid-July, the Italians were able to reinforce the forces on the Egyptian frontier to a strength of two full infantry divisions and elements of two more.

On 28 June, Marshal of the Air Italo Balbo was killed in a friendly fire incident while landing at Tobrukmarker. His aircraft was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft fire soon after a British air raid. Balbo was replaced as Commander-in-Chief and as Governor-General by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.

On 5 August, a large but inconclusive action took place between Sidi Azeiz and Fort Capuzzo. Thirty Italian M11/39 medium tanks made contact with the 8th Hussars in an effort to re-establish themselves in the area. General Wavell concluded that he was in no position to deny the Italians.

Wear and tear on the armoured vehicles of the 7th Armoured Division was mounting to crisis proportions and workshops were back-logged. With an average of only one half of his tank strength available for action and realising that his one effective force was being worn out to no strategic purpose, Wavell curtailed further extensive operations and handed over the defence of the frontier to the 7th Support Group under Brigadier William Gott and the 11th Hussars under Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe. These units would provide a screen of outposts to give warning of any Italian approach.

By 13 August, in terms of performance during the initial hostilities, the balance sheet was tilted in favour of the British. They dominated both the desert and the Italians. Early set-backs had left the Italians in a demoralised state and nowhere did they feel safe. They were not safe deep within the static defences of their own territory. And, with the possible exception of a few units like the Auto-Saharan Company (La Compania Auto-Avio-Sahariana), the Italians were not safe in the open desert where they were generally out of their element. In two months of desert warfare, the Italians had lost approximately three thousand men against British losses of little more than one hundred.

Throughout the rest of August and the early days of September, an uneasy calm settled upon the desert. The calm was broken only by sharp contact between patrols and sporadic air fighting as both sides sought knowledge of the other side's intention. While a formidable spy network in Egypt kept the Italians informed, the British chose other ways to obtain information on the Italians. The Long Range Desert Group was formed under Major Ralph A. Bagnold and soon Italian movements far behind the lines were being reported by sky-wave radio links.

Italian offensive

Graziani's advance and Wavell's offensive — September 13, 1940 - February 7, 1941
Benito Mussolini, anxious to link Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana) with Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) and hoping to capture the Suez Canalmarker and the Arabian oilfields, ordered the invasion of Egypt on August 8.On 9 September 1940, Italian forces under the overall command of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani invaded Egypt from their base in Cyrenaica. Sollum, Halfaya Passmarker, and Sidi Barranimarker were taken by the invading Italians. But, on 16 September, Graziani halted the advance. He cited supply problems. Despite Mussolini urging Graziani to continue, the Italians dug in around Sidi Barrani and established several fortified camps (represented on the adjacent map as small red circles).

Graziani stopped eighty miles west of the British defensive positions at Mersa Matruhmarker. He planned to return to the offensive after his troops had been resupplied. With Mussolini urging Graziani on, an Italian advance to Mersa Matruh was scheduled to start mid-December.

Egypt broke off relations with Germany and Italy. On 19 October, Italian aircraft bombed Ma'adimarker, a heavily European suburb of Cairomarker.

British offensive

On 9 December 1940, the Western Desert Force (including portions of the Indian 4th Division and the British 7th Armoured Division) launched Operation Compass, the British counterattack. The Italians were caught completely off-guard. By 10 December, the British and Indian forces had taken more than 20,000 Italian prisoners. The following day, the British and Indian forces attacked Sollum. They were supported by ships of the Mediterranean Fleet. Sidi Barrani fell on the same day.

To O'Connor's shock, Wavell then replaced the experienced 4th Indian (who were immediately rushed to Port Sudan - see East African Campaign) with the newly arrived Australian 6th Division. The Australians then pressed on to capture Bardia and Tobrukmarker, with little or no opposition. In early February, the Italians were in headlong retreat along the coast, pursued by the Australians.

O'Connor ordered the 7th Armoured to advance overland through Mechilimarker to Beda Fomm and cut off the Italian line of retreat. Major General Michael O'Moore Creagh sent Combe Force, an ad hoc flying column, racing ahead of his tanks. Combe Force reached Beda Fomm just ahead of the Italians, and established a roadblock. After a hard and narrowly won battle on 6 February fight, the Italians surrendered 25,000 men, 200 artillery guns, 100 tanks and 1,500 vehicles.

This swift campaign by the British captured 130,000 Italians at a cost of 2,000 casualties. All through this operation, the Italians believed they were heavily outnumbered, when the reverse was the case. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, paraphrasing Churchill, quipped "Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few." The remaining Italian forces retreated to El Agheilamarker by 9 February 1941.

During the course of this battle, the Western Desert Force was renamed as XIII Corps.

Rommel's first offensive

German light tank.
In early 1941, after the decisive British and Commonwealth victory in Cyrenaica, the military position was soon reversed. Wavell ordered a significant portion of O'Connor's XIII Corps to support Greece as part of Operation Lustre. While Wavell was reducing his forces in North Africa, German dictator Adolf Hitler responded to the Italian disaster by ordering Operation Sunflower (Unternehmen Sonnenblume). This was the deployment of the newly formed German "Afrika Korps" (Deutsches Afrikakorps) as reinforcements to the Italians to prevent total collapse. The German corps included fresh troops with better equipment and a charismatic commander, General Erwin Rommel.

Rommel's first offensive – March 24, 1941 - June 15, 1941
When Rommel arrived in North Africa, his orders were to assume a defensive posture and hold the front line. Finding that the British defences were thin, he quickly defeated the Allied forces at El Agheila on March 24. He then launched an offensive which, by 15 April, had pushed the British back to the border at Sollum, recapturing all of Libya except for Tobruk which was encircled and besieged. During this drive, the new field commander for HQ Cyrenaica Command (the new designation of XIII Corps), Lieutenant General Philip Neame, and O'Connor himself, who had been recalled to assist, were captured as was Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry, commander of the newly arrived British 2nd Armoured Division. With Neame and O'Connor gone, British and Commonwealth forces were once more brought under the reactivated Western Desert Force HQ. In command was Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, who had returned to Cairo from commanding the Indian 4th Infantry Division in the East African Campaign.

Rommel's first offensive was generally successful and his forces destroyed the 2nd Armoured Division. Several attempts to seize the isolated positions at Tobruk failed and the front lines stabilised at the Egyptian border.

The siege of Tobruk

The Carpathian Brigade arrives in Tobruk.
The German and Italian siege of the British and Commonwealth forces in Tobruk was a lengthy confrontation and continued for 240 days.

The Western Desert Force launched Operation Brevitymarker in May 1941. This was an inconclusive attempt to secure more ground to launch the main effort to relieve Tobruk. Operation Battleaxe was launched in June. After the failure of Battleaxe, Wavell was replaced by Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief Middle East and the British forces were reinforced with XXX Corps.

The overall Allied field command now became British Eighth Army, formed from units from many countries, including 9th Division and 18th brigade from the Australian Army and the Indian Army, but also including divisions of South Africans, New Zealandersmarker, a brigade of Free French under Marie-Pierre Koenig and the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade.

Operation Crusader

Auchinleck's offensive – November 18, 1941 - December 31, 1941.
Eighth Army, under the command of Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham, launched Operation Crusader on 18 November 1941. Although the Africa Korps achieved several tactical successes (which caused a disagreement between the British army commanders and led to Auchinleck replacing Cunningham with Major-General Neil Ritchie), it was in the end forced to retreat and all the territory gained by Rommel in March and April was recaptured, with the exception of garrisons at Bardia and Sollum. Most significantly the Axis siege of Tobruk was relieved. The front line was again set at El Agheila.

Rommel's second offensive

Rommel's second offensive – January 21, 1942 - July 7, 1942
After the Empire of Japanmarker attacked Pearl Harbormarker on 7 December 1941, the Australian forces were withdrawn from the Western Desert to the Pacific theater, while the 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn and 7th Armored Brigade was transferred to Burmamarker.

The relatively inexperienced British 1st Armoured Division, which formed the principal defence around El Agheila, were spread out rather than concentrating its armour, as more experienced units had learned from earlier campaigns. Rommel's Afrika Korps attacked on the January 21 scattering the British 1st Armoured Division's units. The 2nd Armoured Brigade was also committed piecemeal and easily defeated by Rommel's more concentrated forces. Both units were forced back across the Cyrenaica line into eastern Libya, along with the 201st Guards Motor Brigade, in the process giving up both Msus and Benghazi to the German forces.

From February to May 1942, the front line settled down at the Gazala line, just west of Tobruk, with both armies preparing an offensive.

Rommel managed to get his offensive off first in June 1942. After a lengthy armoured battle, known as "the Cauldron", he defeated the Allies in the Battle of Gazala and captured Tobrukmarker. Auchinleck fired Ritchie and took personal command of Eighth Army, halting Rommel at the Alamein Line only seventy miles from Alexandria in the First Battle of El Alameinmarker.

Montgomery's Allied offensive

Montgomery's Allied offense – November 1942 - February 1943

Churchill had, despite the circumstances, become disenchanted with Auchinleck. He was replaced by General Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command and Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, who became Commander of the Eighth Army. In this way, the new army commander was free of responsibilities stretching from Cyprus to the Sudan and eastwards to Syria. Alexander was also an effective buffer against political interventions from London.

Montgomery won a comprehensive defensive victory at the Battle of Alam el Halfamarker in August 1942 and then built up the Allied forces before returning to the offensive in the Second Battle of El Alameinmarker in October-November. It's notable that he had resources far in excess in quantity and quality to those of his predecessors. Second Alamein proved a decisive victory. In spite of a brilliant rearguard action by Rommel, the Allies retook Egypt and then advanced across Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, capturing Tripolimarker in February 1943 and entering Tunisia in March.

An attempt to encircle the Axis forces at Marsa Matruhmarker was frustrated by rain and they escaped by 7 November. The coast road had been cut, but the Halfaya Passmarker was easily captured and Egypt was cleared. Tobruk was retaken on 13 November, again Rommel's forces escaped the trap, and Benghazi on 20 November. These two port towns were essential to the resupply of the campaign and an opportunity to outflank Rommel at Agedabiamarker was cautiously declined, in case of counter-attack.

The Germans and Italians retired to a prepared defence line at El Agheilamarker. Axis supplies and reinforcements were now directed into Tunisia at Rommel's expense: he was left with no capacity to counter-attack and was critically short of petrol. Hitler ordered that the El Agheila line should be held at all costs, whereas Rommel's view was for a fighting retreat to Tunisia and a strong defensive position at the Gabèsmarker Gap. Permission was granted for a withdrawal to Buerat, east of Sirtemarker. An attempt to outflank El Agheila between 14 December and 16 December once again failed to encircle the enemy - Rommel had exercised his authority to withdraw and his line of retreat was adequately defended.

At this stage, the front was over from the nearest usable port at Tobruk and the difficulties of supply now hampered Montgomery's ability to deploy his full strength. Allied pressure continued as the Axis forces reached Buerat. This line was not strongly defended, however, and the pursuit continued. Tripolimarker was captured on 23 January 1943. The port was brought into use and, by mid-February 1943, nearly 3,000 tons of stores were landed daily.

Rommel's retreat continued, despite Italian dissent. On 4 February, Allied units entered Tunisia. Soon after, Rommel was recalled to Germany, on health grounds.

Montgomery has been criticised for his perceived failure to trap the Axis armies, bring them to a decisive battle and destroy them in Libya. His tactics have been seen as too cautious and too slow. The counter arguments point out the defensive skills of German forces generally and the Afrika Korps in particular, and Montgomery's need not to relapse into the "see-saw" warfare of previous north African campaigns. Warfare in the desert has been described as a "quarter-master's nightmare", given the conditions of desert warfare and the difficulties of supply. Montgomery is renowned for fighting "balanced campaigns" and husbanding his resources: no attack until his troops were prepared and properly supplied. 8th Army morale greatly improved under his command.


With the Axis forces driven out of Libya, they would soon find themselves trapped, in the Tunisia Campaign, between the recently landed Anglo-American forces of the British First Army to the west and the Eighth Army pursuing from the east.

See also


  1. Playfair, p. 32.
  2. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 370
  3. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 371
  4. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 372
  5. Macksey, p.38
  6. Macksey, p.33
  7. Playfair
  8. MacGregor, p. 229
  9. "British 7th Armoured, List of Battles, 1942"

  1. Playfair, p. 32.
  2. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 370
  3. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 371
  4. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 372
  5. Macksey, p.38
  6. Macksey, p.33
  7. Playfair
  8. MacGregor, p. 229
  9. "British 7th Armoured, List of Battles, 1942"


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External links

Further reading

  • Glassop, Lawson (1944). We Were the Rats. Sydney: Angus & Roberston. Republished by Penguin, 1992; ISBN 0-140-14924-4.
  • Wilmot, Chester (1944). Tobruk 1941. Sydney: Halstead Press. Republished by Penguin, 1993; ISBN 9780670071203.
  • Beaumont, Joan (1996). Australia's War, 1939-45. Melbourne: Allen & Unwin; ISBN 1-864-48039-4.

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