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North Africa

Before Alamein we never had a victory - after Alamein we never had a defeat.

Winston Churchill

When Italy entered World War II in June 1940, the war quickly spread to North Africa, where her colony of Libya bordered the vital British protectorate of Egypt. On 7 September 1940, Marshall Graziani's troops began a land offensive. Their numerical supremacy won them initial success. They captured the port of Sidi el-Barrini and established a chain of fortified camps. The British counterattack, launched in December 1940 and led by General Wavell, quickly flattened the Italians. As British armaments grew daily, Italian supplies dwindled. Italian forces retreated in chaos, and the human tide of surrendering soldiers impeded the Allied advance, making movement of tanks difficult. With Italian positions crumbling, Hitler, shocked by the Italian failure, dispatched the German Afrika Korps – commanded by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel.

The 'Desert Fox' rapidly adapted his formations and tactics to a Desert War fought in the open, with few natural obstacles and a small civilian population. Rommel launched his first blow against the Allies in February 1941, taking the British by surprise and carrying out an audacious triple attack on the Sollum-Halfaya line on the Egyptian border. The Germans captured the key port of Benghazi, moving on to besiege the other major port of Cyrenaica, Tobruk.

In June 1941, Operation Battleaxe, the British attempt to liberate Tobruk, was stopped in its tracks by well-prepared defences. In November, with General Auchinleck having replaced Wavell, the Allies launched Operation Crusader, catching Rommel's forces by surprise. Although German 88mm guns wreaked havoc among the British ranks, Axis forces – under the pressure of huge losses and dwindling supplies – were forced to retreat to El Agheila - their starting-point in March. At the end of 1941, Tobruk was liberated and Benghazi returned to British hands.

Supplies were a crucial element of the war in North Africa. While the British received material from depots in nearby Alexandria, German supplies had to arrive from Tripoli. Furthermore the island of Malta, Britain's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier', allowed attacks to be made on Axis convoys crossing the Mediterranean. At the beginning of 1942, British supply lines were now overextended, and Rommel counter attacked, forcing the British to retreat to the defensive positions known as the Gazala Line. The Battle of Gazala - one of the fiercest of the Desert War – resulted in the retreat of Auchinleck's men to Alam Halfa. Tobruk, cut-off once again, this time fell rapidly to Axis forces.

A disconsolate Churchill reshuffled the military command, placing Montgomery at the head of the Eighth Army. The battle-hardened general, conscious that the mobile tank battle was Rommel's forte, unleashed the Battle of El Alamein as a battle of attrition, using his huge advantages in artillery, infantry and supplies. After two weeks of intense fighting, Commonwealth forces had reduced the German tank force to 35, pressuring the remnants of Axis forces into retreat.

For the Axis, the nail in the coffin came in November 1942 with Operation Torch - the American-led landings in Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. After sporadic fighting against Vichy French forces, the Allies took possession of the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. The beleaguered Axis forces were now encircled, and in May 1943, more than 230,000 troops surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia, marking the end of the campaign.

Did you know?

Rommel's Afrika Korps arrived in Egypt with grey-green tanks unsuited to desert conditions. The 'Desert Fox' adapted to the new situation by sticking sand to them and making camouflage nets out of the spiky desert undergrowth