North Africa, campaigns in

North Africa, campaigns in

North Africa, campaigns in, series of military contests for control of North Africa during World War II. The desert war started in 1940 and for more than two years thereafter seesawed between NE Libya and NW Egypt. The almost uniformly level terrain along the coast allowed tanks and aircraft to play dominant roles. Temporary success was always won by the side that first was able to build up air and armored strength, but for a long time neither side could achieve decisive victory.

The Italian Campaign

Italy's entrance into World War II (June 10, 1940) made N Africa an active theater in which control of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea was contested. Fighting began with the rapid Italian occupation of British Somaliland in Aug., 1940. The first of what was to be three Axis drives into Egypt was launched (Sept. 12, 1940) from Libya by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani's Italian forces. By Sept. 17 the Italian drive reached Sidi Barani (c.60 mi/97 km inside Egypt) and then stalled. On Dec. 9, 1940, the British under Gen. Archibald P. Wavell began a surprise counterattack with numerically inferior forces and chased Graziani c.500 mi (805 km) along the coast of Cyrenaica to El Agheila (Feb. 8, 1941).

Rommel's Offensives

The collapse of the Italian army forced Germany to reinforce its ally with the Afrika Korps under Gen. Erwin Rommel. The British had cut their strength in Africa to send troops to Greece, and in April Rommel was able to drive them back to the border of Egypt. The Australian garrison at Tobruk in Libya managed to hold out. Gen. Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell. With the new British 8th Army, he attacked and pushed Rommel back to El Agheila (Jan., 1942). A German counterattack forced the British to abandon Benghazi. Auchinleck set up a defense line N of Bir Hacheim at El Gazala, c.100 mi (160 km) within Libya. Rommel moved against this line on May 26, 1942. At Knightsbridge (June 13), the British lost 230 out of 300 tanks. Auchinleck retreated c.250 mi (400 km) into Egypt where he dug in along a 35-mi (56-km) line from El Alamein on the coast to the Qattara Depression (an impassable badland), only c.70 mi (112 km) from Alexandria. This time, Tobruk fell on June 21. Both sides now raced to build up strength. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander replaced Auchinleck, and Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery took direct command of the 8th Army. Rommel's attempt to break through failed.

Allied Counterattacks

On Oct. 23, 1942, the greatly reinforced British forces launched their own offensive (for an account of the fighting, see Alamein). To save his forces Rommel began one of the longest sustained retreats in history. Frustrating British attempts to engage him, he abandoned Tripoli, which fell to the British on Jan. 23, 1943. Rommel ended his retreat only when he took up a defensive position along the Mareth Line in S Tunisia.

Meanwhile, American and British forces landed (night of Nov. 7–8, 1942) at Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca, thus occupying the territory to the west of Rommel. Under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied forces pushed toward Tunisia. The Germans, however, rushed reinforcements from Italy. Axis forces in Tunisia now faced the British 8th Army in the south, Eisenhower's force on the west, and the Free French in the southwest; but the hilly terrain favored the defense. German counterattacks in Tunisia pushed west through Faid Pass (Feb. 14, 1943) and Kasserine Pass (a week later), from which they were dislodged only after heavy fighting. In the south the Allies forced Rommel from the Mareth Line and moved up the coast to take Sousse in April.

At the beginning of May, the Axis defense crumbled, and on May 7, 1943, the Americans took Bizerta and the British took Tunis. About a quarter of a million Axis soldiers capitulated on May 12. In E Africa the fighting had earlier resulted in complete British victory; by 1942, Italian and British Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were reconquered.


See J. Strawson, Battle for North Africa (1969) and R. Atkinson, An Army at Dawn (2002).

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