Western Desert Campaign

Western Desert Campaign
Western Desert Campaign
Part of North African Campaign
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-783-0104-38, Nordafrika, italienische Panzer M13-40.jpg
Italian M13/40 tanks advancing across the desert, April 1941
Date 11 June 1940–4 February 1943
Location Western Desert, Egypt and Libya
Result Allied victory
 United Kingdom

 New Zealand
 South Africa
 Free France
Poland Poland
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia

Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Richard O'Connor  (POW)
United Kingdom Philip Neame  (POW)
United Kingdom Noel Beresford-Peirse
United Kingdom Alan Cunningham
United Kingdom Neil Ritchie
United Kingdom Claude Auchinleck
United Kingdom Bernard Montgomery
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Italo Balbo  
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Rodolfo Graziani
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Italo Gariboldi
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Ettore Bastico
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
Nazi Germany Georg Stumme  
Nazi Germany Ritter von Thoma  (POW)

The Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War, was the initial stage of the North African Campaign during the Second World War. The 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 U.S. Army Air Force supplied a small contingent of bombers in support of the campaign, referring to it as the Egypt-Libya Campaign.

From the start, the Western Desert Campaign was a continuous back-and-forth struggle. In September 1940, the first offensive, the invasion of Egypt, was initiated by the Italian forces in Libya against British and Commonwealth forces stationed in neutral Egypt. The Italian offensive was 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 Italians' Axis partner, Germany, provided a contingent of ground forces (Heer) and air forces (Luftwaffe) to prevent a total collapse, and Germany became the dominant partner.

Axis forces would twice launch more 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 Alamein and then managed to drive the Axis forces west and completely out of Libya. The Axis forces were driven back until they reached Tunisia, when the "Western Desert Campaign" effectively ended and the 8th Army and Rommel′s forces became involved in the "Tunisia Campaign" which had begun in November 1942.



Northern Africa before the start of the offensive

The British had forces in Egypt since 1882. 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 Canal. The canal was vital to Britain's communications with her Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories.

British light tank with machine-gun in rotating turret.
Turretless Italian tankette with twin machine-guns.

However, since 1938, the British forces in Egypt had included "Mobile Force (Egypt)". 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 (Egypt)" 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 Libya at the start of the war.

In June 1939, Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland "Jumbo" Wilson arrived in Cairo, 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.[1] 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 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 the Second World War, Italy had two armies in Libya: The 5th Army and the 10th. 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 5th Army in Tripolitania was commanded directly by General Italo Gariboldi. The 5th Army had nine infantry divisions. The 10th Army in Cyrenaica was commanded directly by General Mario Berti. The 10th 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, 14 British battalions, and two regiments of Royal Artillery.[2]


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.[3]

Western Desert 1940–1942

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.[3] On 12 June, another 63 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 Capuzzo 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 Tobruk-Bardia highway, part of the Via Balbia, and an Italian general was captured.[4]

After 25 June, France had signed an armistice with Italy and Italian divisions and materials from the 5th Army in Tripolitania could be dispersed to reinforce and strengthen the 10th Army in Cyrenaica. In time, the 10th Army had 10 divisions and the 5th 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.[4]

On 28 June, Marshal Balbo was killed in a friendly fire incident while landing at Tobruk. 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.

Officers of the 11th Hussars use a parasol to give shade during a halt, while out patrolling on the Libyan frontier, 26 July 1940. The vehicle is a Morris CS9 armoured car.

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.[5]

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 no where 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 3,000 men against British losses of little more than 100.[4][6][nb 1]

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.[6]

Italian offensive

Graziani′s advance and Wavell′s offensive — 13 September 1940–7 February 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 Canal and the Arabian oilfields, ordered the invasion of Egypt on 8 August. On 9 September 1940, Italian forces under the overall command of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani invaded Egypt from their base in Cyrenaica. Sollum, Halfaya Pass, and Sidi Barrani 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 80 mi (130 km) west of the British defensive positions at Mersa Matruh. 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.[8] On 19 October, Italian aircraft bombed Ma'adi, a heavily European suburb of Cairo.[9]

British offensive

A 1924 Rolls-Royce Armoured Car with modified turret, in the Bardia area of the Western Desert, 1940.

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 Tobruk, capturing 67,000 prisoners, over 500 guns, while losing 180 dead. 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 Mechili 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, 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 Agheila by 9 February 1941.

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

Rommel's first offensive

German Panzer II with 20 mm (0.79 in) gun and machine-gun in rotating turret.

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 Sonnenblume ("Sunflower"). 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 24 March. 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, then under the command of the Australian Leslie Morshead 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 from Alexandria.

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 Brevity 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 8th 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 Zealanders, a brigade of Free French under Marie-Pierre Koenig and the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade.

Operation Crusader

Auchinleck′s offensive – 18 November–31 December 1941.

The 8th 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 – 21 January-7 July 1942
Advance of the Afrika Korps′' 39th battalion tank hunters.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Australian forces were withdrawn from the Western Desert to the Pacific theater, while the 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn[citation needed] and 7th Armoured Brigade was transferred to Burma.

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 21 January 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.[10]

From February-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 Tobruk. Auchinleck fired Ritchie and took personal command of 8th Army, halting Rommel at the Alamein Line only seventy miles from Alexandria in the First Battle of El Alamein.

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 8th Army. In this way, the new army commander was free of responsibilities stretching from Cyprus to the Sudan and eastward 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 Halfa in August 1942 and then built up the Allied forces before returning to the offensive in the Second Battle of El Alamein in October–November. It is notable that he had resources far in excess in quantity and quality to those of his predecessors[dubious ]. 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 Tripoli in February 1943 and entering Tunisia in March.

An attempt to encircle the Axis forces at Marsa Matruh was frustrated by rain and they escaped by 7 November. The coast road had been cut, but the Halfaya Pass 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 Agedabia was cautiously declined, in case of counter-attack.

The Germans and Italians retired to a prepared defence line at El Agheila. 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 Gabès Gap. Permission was granted for a withdrawal to Buerat, 50 mi (80 km) east of Sirte. An attempt to outflank El Agheila between 14 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.

Bernard Montgomery

At this stage, the front was over 400 mi (640 km) 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. Tripoli was captured on 23 January 1943. The port was brought into use and, by mid-February 1943, nearly 3,000 short tons (2,700 t) 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. The 8th Army′s 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 1st Army to the west and the 8th Army pursuing from the east.

See also



  1. ^ Both Macksey and Churchill agree that these numbers include activities from 10 June 1940 to some time in August. However, according to General Wavell, the number of casualties shown here include casualties for the Italian invasion of Egypt too and are for the period of time from June 10 to mid-September.[7]


  1. ^ Playfair, p. 32.
  2. ^ Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 370
  3. ^ a b Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 371
  4. ^ a b c Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 372
  5. ^ Macksey, p.38
  6. ^ a b Macksey, p.33
  7. ^ Wavell, p. 3002
  8. ^ Playfair
  9. ^ MacGregor, p. 229
  10. ^ "British 7th Armoured, List of Battles, 1942"


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Further reading

  • Glassop, Lawson (1944). We Were the Rats. Sydney: Angus & Roberston. Republished by Penguin, 1992; ISBN 0-14-014924-4.
  • Wilmot, Chester (1944). Tobruk 1941. Sydney: Halstead Press. Republished by Penguin, 1993; ISBN 978-0-670-07120-3.
  • Beaumont, Joan (1996). Australia's War, 1939–1945. Melbourne: Allen & Unwin; ISBN 1-86448-039-4.

External links

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  • desert — desert1 desertic /di zerr tik/, adj. desertlike, adj. /dez euhrt/, n. 1. a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all: The Sahara is a vast sandy desert. 2. any area …   Universalium

  • Desert Rat Scrap Book — The Desert Rat Scrap Book (or DRSB) was a (roughly) quarterly, southwestern humor publication based in Thousand Palms, California. DRSB was published in editions of 10,000 to 20,000 copies, whenever its creator, Harry Oliver had sufficient… …   Wikipedia

  • Western Australia — Western Australian. a state in W Australia. 1,273,624; 975,920 sq. mi. (2,527,635 sq. km). Cap.: Perth. * * * State (pop., 2001: 1,906,114), western Australia. Covering 976,790 sq mi (2,529,880 sq km), it constitutes one third of the continent s… …   Universalium

  • Desert Training Center — Part of United States Army Southern Californina/Western Arizona …   Wikipedia

  • Desert rat — or desert rat or its plural may refer to: The Desert Rats, nickname for the British 7th Armoured Division The Desert Rats, 1953 war film starring Richard Burton Desert rat, old name for the Sumal Desert rat, old common name for the gerbil group… …   Wikipedia

  • western Africa, history of — Introduction       history of the region from the 11th century to the present.       A reasonable body of sources for the writing of western African history begins to be available about AD 1000. Three centuries earlier, the Arabs (Arab) had… …   Universalium

  • Campaign history of the Roman military — This article is part of the series on: Military of ancient Rome (portal) 753 BC – AD 476 Structural history Roman army (unit types and ranks …   Wikipedia

  • Western Sahara — a region in NW Africa on the Atlantic coast, bounded by Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania: a former Spanish province comprising Río de Oro and Saguia el Hamra 1884 1976; divided between Morocco and Mauritania 1976; claimed entirely by Morocco 1979 …   Universalium