North African Campaigns of 1940–43

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

North African Campaigns of 1940–43


combat operations between the Anglo-American and Italian-German forces in North Africa during World War II.

On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Great Britain and France for the purpose of seizing French territory, establishing its domination in the Mediterranean Sea, and getting control of British and French colonies in Africa. However, Italy spent more than two months in a preparatory stage, expecting to launch its offensive toward the Suez Canal simultaneously with the landing of fascist German troops in Great Britain. When it became clear that the German landing had been postponed in definitely, the Italian Tenth Army, commanded by General I. Berti (six divisions), began an offensive on Sept. 13, 1940, from eastern Cyrenaica (Libya) against the Egyptian-based British Nile Army (commanded by General A. Wavell, two divisions and two brigades). Overall leadership of the Italian forces in Libya was exercised by Marshall R. Graziani. After taking Sidi Barrani on September 16, the Italians halted, but the British withdrew to Mersa Matruh. On Dec. 9, 1940, British forces, replenished by two divisions, including one armored tank division, passed to the offensive, took all of Cyrenaica, and in early February 1941 reached the Agheila region. Most of the Italian forces surrendered, and the remainder were not fit for combat. In mid-January, Italy called on fascist Germany for help. In February 1941 the German Africa Corps (one tank division and one light infantry division), commanded by General E. Rommel, was transferred to North Africa. Marshal Graziani, commander of Italian forces, was replaced by I. Gariboldi. With the threat of a fascist German offensive in the Balkans, the British halted their offensive on February 10 and moved their forces to Greece.

Between Mar. 31 and Apr. 15, 1941, the Italian-German forces (four divisions) again took Cyrenaica and reached the Egyptian borders. On Nov. 18, 1941, the British Eighth Army (commanded by General A. G. Cunningham, with seven divisions and five brigades, more than 900 tanks, and about 1,300 aircraft) launched an offensive against the Italian-German forces (ten divisions, with more than 500 tanks and about 500 aircraft) and again took Cyrenaica. On Jan. 21, 1942, Rommel’s forces delivered a surprise counterstrike, routed the British, and on February 7 reached the El Gazala-Bir Hackeim line.

On May 27, 1942, Rommel’s troops renewed the offensive, entered Egypt, and by late June had reached the approaches to El Alamein in the immediate vicinity of the Suez Canal and Alexandria. Rommel, however, did not have sufficient forces for a continued offensive, and there were only limited possibilities of bringing in reserves. The strategic situation for the British forces had improved by the autumn of 1942, their grouping in Egypt was reinforced, and they had superiority in the air.

On Oct. 23, 1942, the British Eighth Army, commanded by General B. L. Montgomery (11 divisions and four brigades, approximately 1,100 tanks, and up to 1,200 aircraft), went over to the offensive against the Italian-German forces (four German and eight Italian divisions, with about 500 tanks and more than 600 aircraft). In early November the British broke through the enemy defense in the El Alamein region. During the pursuit, British forces took the city of Tobruk on November 13, Agheila on November 27, and Tripoli on Jan. 23, 1943, and reached the Mareth Line west of the Tunisian-Libyan border in the first half of February.

On Nov. 8, 1942, six American divisions and one British division commanded by General D. Eisenhower undertook a landing operation in Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. On November 11, Admiral J. Darían, who was deputy head of the Vichy government and commander of the armed forces and who was in Algiers at the time, ordered the French forces to cease resistance to the Allies. By the end of November, Anglo-American forces had taken Morocco and Algeria, entered Tunisia, and approached the cities of Bizerte and Tunis.

In early December 1942, Italian-German forces in Tunisia were joined into the Fifth Panzer Army under the command of General H. J. von Arnim. In mid-February 1943 units of two German tank divisions, which had withdrawn from Libya and were under the command of Rommel, attacked the Americans and advanced 150 km to the northwest, only to withdraw to their starting positions under pressure from superior forces.

On Mar. 21, 1943, the Anglo-American forces, joined into the 18th Army Group under the command of General H. Alexander, launched an offensive against the Mareth Line from the south and in the Maknassy region from the west. They broke through the defenses of the Italian-German forces, who withdrew to the city of Tunis in early April. On May 13, 1943, the Italian-German forces that were surrounded on the Bône Peninsula (250,000 men) surrendered. The Allied victory in North Africa was a major blow to the strategic position of the fascist bloc countries in the Mediterranean theater.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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