North African Campaign

North African Campaign
North African Campaign
Part of Mediterranean, Middle East and African Theatre of the Second World War
A British Crusader tank passes a burning German Pzkw Mk IV tank during Operation Crusader. 27 November 1941
Date 10 June 1940–13 May 1943
Location Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco
Result Allied victory; Axis forces in North Africa retreat to Italy
 United Kingdom

South Africa South Africa
 New Zealand
 United States (1942-43)
 Free French
Poland Poland
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Greece Greece

Italy Italy

France Vichy France

Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Harold Alexander
United Kingdom Claude Auchinleck
United Kingdom Bernard Montgomery
United States Dwight Eisenhower
United Kingdom Archibald Wavell
Italy Pietro Badoglio
Nazi Germany Hans-Jürgen von Arnim Surrendered
Italy Rodolfo Graziani
Italy Ugo Cavallero
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Italy Giovanni Messe Surrendered
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
France François Darlan  
Casualties and losses
~238,558 dead and wounded[nb 1] 620,000[1]–950,000 dead and wounded[4][nb 2]
8,000 aircraft destroyed[4]
6,200 guns, 2,500 tanks, and 70,000 trucks destroyed or captured[4]

During the Second World War, the North African Campaign took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 13 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts (Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War) and in Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch) and Tunisia (Tunisia Campaign).

The campaign was fought between the Allies and Axis powers, many of whom had interests in Africa dating from the period of colonialism and the Scramble for Africa. The Allied war effort was dominated by the British Commonwealth and exiles from German-occupied Europe. The U.S. 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, 1st RTR) crossed the border into Libya and captured the Italian Fort Capuzzo. This was followed by an Italian offensive 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 Commonwealth forces 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.

The Axis, by fighting against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, provided relief for the British and later American forces fighting in North Africa. Information gleaned via British Ultra code-breaking intelligence proved critical to Allied success in North Africa.


Western Desert Campaign

On 10 June 1940, the Kingdom of Italy aligned itself with Nazi Germany and declared war upon France and the United Kingdom.[8] British forces based in Egypt were ordered to undertake defensive measures, but to act as non-provocative as possible.[9] However, on 11 June they began a series of raids against Italian positions in Libya.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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—[11] 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.[14] 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.[15][16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19][20] The British Commonwealth force, totalling 36,000 men,[21] attacked the forward elements of the 10-division-strong Italian army on 9 December.[22] Following the initial success, the forces of Operation Compass[23] pursued the retreating Italian forces.[24] In January, the fortified towns of Bardia[25] and Tobruk[citation needed] 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.[26][27][28]

The Italians responded by dispatching motorised and armoured reinforcements to Africa[29] beginning in February 1941 and continuing until early May; Operation Sonnenblume saw the German Afrika Korps—under the command of Erwin Rommel—arrived in Tripoli to reinforce their Italian allies with orders to block Allied attempts to drive the Italians out of the region.[30][31] 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.[32][33][34] In their place inexperienced, ill-equipped, and under-strength forces were deployed.[35]

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.[30][31] In March–April, the Allied forces were forced back[36] and leading general officers captured. The Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of Tobruk,[37] and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 mi (160 km) east to the Libyan–Egyptian border.[38] 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.[39][40]

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,[41] and the substantial commitment required to invest Tobruk prevented him from building up his forces at Sollum, making further advances into Egypt impractical.[42][43] The Allies had regained the initiative by maintaining possession of Tobruk,.[43]

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.

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 the Gazala 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 killed en 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[citation needed] 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.

Operation Torch

American troops on board a landing craft.

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).[44]

Tunisian 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.

German Tiger I of the 501st heavy tank battalion in Tunisia.

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.

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.


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.


Death and Missing: German: 18.600 / 3.400 Italian: 13.700 British: 35.500 United States: 16.500

See also



  1. ^ American losses ammounted to 18,558 in the Tunisian campaign, while British Commonwealth losses totalled around 220,000 for the entire North African campaign. No figure is provided for French or other allied losses.[1] The British official campaign historian and historian Rick Atkinson give a slightly lower figure for American losses, they suggest a total of 18,221 men: 2,715 killed, 8,978 wounded, and 6,528 missing.[2][3]
  2. ^ The Feldgrau website claims that 12,808 Germans were killed during the campaign, a further 90,052 missing, but provides no figures on the number wounded.[5] Historian John Keegan notes that 238,000 were captured.[6] A 1957 Italian study states that 22,341 Italians were killed or listed as missing during the campaign.[7]


  1. ^ a b Zabecki, North Africa
  2. ^ Playfair, p. 460
  3. ^ Atkinson, p. 536
  4. ^ a b c Barclay, Mediterranean Operations
  5. ^ Feldgrau website. "Feldgrau Statistics and Numbers". 
  6. ^ Keegan 2001, p. 638
  7. ^ Roma:Instituto Centrale Statistica' Morti E Dispersi Per Cause Belliche Negli Anni 1940-45 Rome 1957
  8. ^ Playfair, p. 109
  9. ^ Playfair, p. 41
  10. ^ Churchill, p. 371
  11. ^ a b Macksey, p. 25
  12. ^ Macksey, p.38
  13. ^ Macksey, p. 35
  14. ^ Macksey, p. 38
  15. ^ Macksey, p. 40
  16. ^ Playfair (2004), pp.209–210
  17. ^ Macksey, p. 47
  18. ^ Macksey, p. 68
  19. ^ Wavell London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3261. 25 June 1946.
  20. ^ Playfair pp. 260–261, 264
  21. ^ Bauer (2000), p.95
  22. ^ Playfair p. 267
  23. ^ Mead331
  24. ^ Playfair p 271
  25. ^ Playfair, pp. 286-287
  26. ^ Playfair, p. 358
  27. ^ "Fall of Bengasi". Time Magazine (17 February 1941). 17 February 1941.,9171,851005,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  28. ^ Wavell in London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37628. p. 3268. 25 June 1946.
  29. ^ Bauer, p.121
  30. ^ a b Jentz, p. 82
  31. ^ a b Rommel, p. 109
  32. ^ Playfair (1954), p. 289
  33. ^ Playfair (1956), p. 2
  34. ^ Jentz, p. 85
  35. ^ Playfair (1956), pp. 2–5
  36. ^ Playfair (1956), pp. 19–40
  37. ^ Latimer, pp. 43–45
  38. ^ Playfair (1956), pp. 33–35
  39. ^ Playfair (1956), p. 160
  40. ^ Jentz, pp. 128–129, 131
  41. ^ Latimer, pp. 48–64
  42. ^ Playfair (1956), p. 41
  43. ^ a b Jentz, p. 128
  44. ^ See Operation Torch#Resistance and coup


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