World War II in Africa: The North African Campaign

Here is the story of the Axis and Allied struggle, which raged across the North African desert.

Jun 15, 2024By Thomas Bailey, BSc Geography

world war ii africa north african campaign

 

By 1940, Europe was embroiled in war. France’s defeat was imminent, and soon Britain would be left alone to fight against the terror of Nazi Germany. Britain’s hopeless situation worsened when, on June 10, 1940, Italy declared war. Italian and British territories in Africa would ignite into conflict, shifting the war from the European continent for the first time. The ensuing North African Campaign would have a decisive impact on the future of the Second World War.

 

Early Engagements 

A British lookout over a valley in Egypt, 1942. Source: Rare Historical Photos

 

Following Italy’s declaration of war, Britain did not stand idly, instead acting quickly to counter a potential Italian offensive. On June 14, 1940, British forces stationed in Egypt crossed into Libya and captured Fort Capuzzo. British air and naval forces also acted decisively, gaining early successes, which resulted in Britain gaining both air and sea superiority.

 

The North African Campaign soon became an important front of the war. The Axis powers knew that achieving victory in North Africa and gaining control of the Suez Canal would isolate Britain, its territories in Asia, and its vital resources. Gaining control of North Africa would also allow the Axis to penetrate further into the Middle East, affording them control of precious oil and blocking Allied supplies to the Soviet Union.

 

For Britain, the control of North Africa was of paramount importance to ensure its continued supply of resources. Following the defeat of France, Africa presented an opportunity to open a new front against the Axis. This would later prove significant in alleviating pressure on the Soviet Union.

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Despite the clear importance of the North African Campaign, Germany was hesitant to support Italy in their endeavors, as Hitler was more concerned with the conquest of Europe.

 

On September 13, 1940, Italy launched a successful offensive into Egypt, capturing the western region of the country. However, Britain responded with Operation Compass, a devastating offensive that resulted in the capture of 130,000 Italian troops and the capitulation of the Italian 10th Army.

 

Britain continued its pursuit of the remaining Italian forces and reached the Libyan city of El Agheila. Italy’s defeat seemed increasingly likely.

 

Germany Intervenes

Erwin Rommel (left) with his forces in North Africa, 1942. Source: Rare Historical Photos

 

Benito Mussolini urgently requested support from his German Allies. Hitler responded by deploying the Afrika Korps, a motorized force under the command of Erwin Rommel. While only a small force, it consisted of a Panzer division.

 

Rommel arrived in Tripoli, Libya on February 12, 1941 and quickly launched a reconnaissance mission of North Africa. German High Command had informed Rommel that they did not intend to launch a decisive military operation in North Africa. However, following successive victories at Agedabia and El Agheila, Rommel launched an offensive to capture the entire region of Cyrenaica, thereby ignoring instructions from the German High Command.

 

Australian troops in North Africa, 1941. Source: Rare Historical Photos

 

During the offensive, German forces surrounded the port city of Tobruk, which was held by Australian forces. The 9th Australian Division was heavily reinforced and repelled the German attack. Tobruk would be assaulted by German troops on numerous occasions over the next several months.

 

Rommel’s offensive into Cyrenaica was, however, a success, much to the alarm of the retreating Allied forces.

 

Britain responded in June 1941 with Operation Battleaxe in an attempt to relieve the Siege of Tobruk and recapture areas of Cyrenaica from the Germans. The operation was a failure; half of Britain’s tanks were destroyed on the first day of the operation, and their forces narrowly avoided being encircled by the Germans. In total, Britain lost over 100 tanks to Germany’s 12. Defeated, the Allies retreated back to Egypt.

 

Rommel’s Second Offensive

Italian tanks at the Battle of Gazala, 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The failure of Operation Battleaxe resulted in a lull in fighting as both sides attempted to reorganize their forces. Britain notably reorganized their forces into the formation of the British 8th Army, which incorporated troops from Britain, Australia, India, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, New Zealand, Poland, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Mauritius. A diverse, multi-national force, the 8th Army symbolizes the united struggle against Nazism.

 

In November 1941, Britain attempted another offensive, Operation Crusader. Its objective was again to relieve the ongoing Siege of Tobruk, which this time was successful. However, both sides suffered heavy losses, with the Allies losing 18,000 men and 440 tanks, and the Axis suffered 38,000 casualties and lost 360 tanks.

 

Despite the defeat, Rommel regathered his strength and launched a second offensive. British commanders underestimated Rommel’s capabilities, and at the Battle of Gazala, Axis forces broke through the Allied lines and advanced towards Tobruk. On June 20, 1942, Rommel attacked Tobruk. The defending troops surrendered the next day, and 33,000 men were taken prisoner. Losing Tobruk was a devastating blow for the Allies.

 

Following the fall of Tobruk, Allied forces retreated to Egypt, with Rommel in pursuit. However, at the First Battle of El Alamein, Allied forces repelled the Axis advance. Rommel realized that his supply lines could not facilitate further offensive operations, and Axis forces would never advance further than El Alamein.

 

Rommel’s second offensive was a numerical victory for the Axis, who lost 40,000 men to the Allies 75,000. However, the Allies’ staunch defense at El Alamein significantly weakened Rommel’s forces, thus creating an opportunity for an Allied victory in North Africa.

 

The El Alamein Campaign

Bernard Montgomery overseeing battle from the turret of a tank, 1942. Source: Rare Historical Photos

 

Rommel’s second offensive and the fall of Tobruk had a devastating impact on Allied morale. Winston Churchill was facing a vote of no confidence by his government, and Allied soldiers were becoming disillusioned with British command. Churchill knew that victory in North Africa was paramount. He met with a US delegation in London who agreed to an Allied invasion of Northwest Africa, known as Operation Torch. However, for Operation Torch to be successful, the Axis had to first be defeated in the Western desert.

 

Bernard Montgomery was given command of the British 8th Army and declared that Egypt would be defended at El Alamein and that there would be no further retreats. Montgomery reorganized the Allied forces and worked tirelessly to improve morale by personally visiting and speaking to as many units as possible. The British lines of defense at El Alamein were also reinforced with US Sherman tanks as well as troops from India and South Africa. By October 1942, the British 8th Army consisted of 195,000 men, 1,030 tanks, 900 artillery guns, and 530 combat aircraft, a much greater force than the Axis.

 

The Second Battle of El Alamein began on October 23, 1942. After days of brutal fighting, the Axis forces had suffered devastating attrition. The Afrika Korps had just 35 tanks remaining and were running dangerously short on supplies. On November 2, Rommel ordered a withdrawal. However, the following day, he received a message from Hitler, directly ordering him to continue fighting to victory or death.

 

Fighting would continue for two more days until Rommel finally ordered a retreat of his remaining men. The Allied forces would pursue the remnants of the Axis all the way to Tunisia.

 

Operation Torch & The Tunisian Campaign

Allied fleet being escorted to Casablanca during Operation Torch, 1942. Source: Rare Historical Photos

 

The defeat of the Axis forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein allowed the Allied invasion of North Africa by American and British forces. Operation Torch was overseen by future US President General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 

At the time, Operation Torch was the most complex amphibious landing in history. Three independent fleets had to traverse the contested Atlantic Ocean and disembark their troops at three landing sites at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. Around 670 vessels transported 107,000 troops to their destination.

 

The landing at Casablanca was met with fierce resistance, but after three days of fighting, General George S. Patton and his 39,000 men forced the defenders to surrender.

 

Axis forces in Algeria were surrounded by the landing forces of Operation Torch to their west and the advancing British 8th Army to their east. The Axis did achieve a significant victory against the Allies at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, inflicting 10,000 casualties upon the superior Allied force. However, the Axis troops were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. Britain captured Tunis on May 7, 1943. The remaining Axis forces surrendered on May 13.

 

The Allies had successfully secured the entirety of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, thus securing North Africa under Allied control. The North African Campaign was over, an exceptional victory for the Allies.

 

A Logistical War

Italian naval convoy heading for North Africa, 1941. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The fighting of the North African Campaign occurred upon the region’s coastal desert plains, thus presenting unique logistical challenges for both sides. Due to the terrain, warfare was mobile and mechanized, with tanks and armored vehicles being used extensively.

 

The nature of the fighting required a constant supply of fuel, ammunition, and water. Furthermore, the abundant use of tanks needed sufficient maintenance support. The inhospitable nature of the environment meant that engines and guns needed constant repairs or replacements.

 

As a result, the North African campaign became increasingly a war of logistics than a war of the battlefield. Both sides required extensive, complex supply lines to keep their fronts well-supported.

 

The Axis forces enjoyed a relatively short supply route across the Mediterranean from Italy. Most of the supplies came in from the port of Tripoli. However, Tripoli’s port was only equipped to handle 45,000 tons of cargo per month. During the campaign, the Axis required 70,000 tons of supplies per month. As a result, supply issues continually hindered Axis operations. Furthermore, once supplies arrived in North Africa, they had to be transported across vast distances. For example, supplies from Tripoli had to be transported 1,200 miles by truck to reach the front at El Alamein.

 

On the other hand, the Allies had well-established supply lines thanks to Britain’s extensive network of bases across the region. Britain had supplies coming in from Egypt, Somaliland, Iraq, and Palestine. They also received significant aid from the United States.

 

The logistical constraints of the war ultimately contributed to the Axis defeat. Rommel lacked the logistical support necessary to continue his operations and attempt further offensives into Egypt.

 

Treatment of Local Populations

A German Jewish prisoner at the Im Fout labor camp, Morocco, 1941-42. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sami Dorra

 

Like the rest of the world, the people of North Africa were not spared from the discrimination and hatred dealt by the Second World War, though it is often forgotten by many.

 

During the war, the North African states of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were controlled by Vichy France, the authoritarian government installed by Nazi Germany. Before the fall of France, the region had become home to a significant Jewish population who had arrived as refugees from Europe. Vichy France imposed numerous anti-Semitic and racist policies upon its people. Jews were stripped of their citizenship, and their property was seized.

 

Over 70 internment camps were constructed in the Sahara Desert that kept thousands of Jews prisoner. In Algeria alone, approximately 3,000 Jews were interned at camps alongside other political prisoners and prisoners of war. Memoirs from former prisoners recall the brutal treatment they endured. Prisoners were beaten and incarcerated in appalling conditions and frequently died from disease and malnutrition.

 

Similarly, Mussolini implemented racist policies in Italian Libya. The local Black populations were segregated. Local Jews were also deported to labor camps. It is estimated that hundreds died from starvation and disease. Some Libyan Jews were also deported to concentration camps in Europe.

 

During the German occupation of Tunisia, it is estimated that 5,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in over 20 labor camps established by Nazi Germany.

 

Despite North Africa’s liberation by the Allies during Operation Torch, a number of former Vichy administration members continued to effectively run the countries. As a result, anti-Semitic laws were not repealed until March 1943.

 

Importance of the North African Campaign

Allied forces boarding ships in Tunisia in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, 1943. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command

 

The defeat of the Axis powers in North Africa opened the door to the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. This contributed to the downfall of Benito Mussolini and later the invasion of mainland Italy in 1943, which resulted in Italy’s formal surrender, thus defeating Germany’s primary ally on the European continent.

 

Arguably, the North African Campaign and, notably, the amphibious landings during Operation Torch provided important tactical and logistical insights that informed the Normandy landings of D-Day in June 1944.

 

The victory in North Africa was a significant morale boost for the Allies as, for the first time, they successfully defeated Germany on the ground. Furthermore, Operation Torch was also the first time US forces engaged directly against Germany. US engagement in the Western theater against Nazi Germany would prove paramount to the outcome of the war. The invasion also succeeded in uniting the Allied forces with the remaining French forces still stationed in French West Africa, a considerable boost for the Allies.

 

Historians estimate that approximately 900,000 German and Italian men lost their lives in North Africa. Not only was this a substantial loss of life, but it was also a significant blow to the Axis war effort. Up until this point, Axis morale had been consistently high following their victory over France in 1940.

 

Defeat in North Africa by 1943, alongside the Battle of Stalingrad (also in 1943), cast significant doubts over the effectiveness of the Nazi war machine. The contribution of the North African Campaign to the overall result of the Second World War is highly debated due to the much larger, consequential theatres of war on Europe’s Western and Eastern fronts. However, if the Axis had been victorious in North Africa, the course of the war would likely have been very different.

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By Thomas BaileyBSc GeographyThomas is currently studying for an MA in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth, England, and holds a BSc in Geography from Bangor University. He is passionate about African history and politics, having written his master’s dissertation on the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.