The campaign in North Africa was fought over control of the Suez Canal. Great Britain depended on the canal for access to Middle Eastern oil and raw materials from Asia. The Suez Canal and the Mediterranean also formed the primary lifeline to Britain's overseas dominions. The ground campaign in North Africa and the naval campaign for the Mediterranean, therefore, were two sides of the same strategic coin.
The fight to control North Africa began in October 1935 when Italy invaded Ethiopia (Abyssinia). Britain, meanwhile, stationed a significant military force in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. Britain and France also agreed to divide the responsibility for maintaining naval control of the Mediterranean, with the main British base in Egypt at Alexandria.
Italy was the unknown variable in the Mediterranean strategic equation. A neutral Italy would mean that British access to the vital sea-lanes would remain reasonably secure. However, operating from its main base at Taranto in southern Italy and supported by Italian air force bases on Sicily and Sardenia, the seemingly powerful Italian navy had the potential to close off the Mediterranean. When Germany invaded France in June 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini could not resist the opportunity to grab his share of the spoils. On 10 June, Italy declared war on Great Britain and France.
The British and Italian armies initially faced each other across the Libyan-Egyptian border in an area known as the Western Desert. Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani had some 250,000 ground troops in Libya, and General Sir Archibald Wavell, British commander in chief of the Middle East, had only 100,000 soldiers to defend Egypt, Sudan, and Palestine. The British army, however, was far better organized, trained, equipped, and led.
Graziani reluctantly moved into Egypt on 13 September 1940, halting at Sidi Barrani just short of the British main positions at Mersa Matruh. The Battle of Britain was then reaching its climax, and the beleaguered British were facing a possible German invasion. By October 1940, however, the threat from Operation SEA LION had eased, and the British began to reinforce Wavell. Through December, 126,000 more Commonwealth troops arrived in Egypt from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and India. On 9 December, the Western Desert Force, commanded by General Sir Richard O'Connor, attacked at Sidi Barrani.
The British drove the Italian Tenth Army from Egypt and achieved a major victory on 3 January 1941 at Bardia, just inside Libya. Driving deeper into Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), the British captured the vital port of Tobruk on 22 January. Continuing forward, O'Connor trapped the Italian Tenth Army at Beda Fomm on 7 February 1941. In just two months, two British divisions advanced 500 miles, destroyed 10 Italian divisions, and captured 130,000 prisoners. The British suffered only 555 dead and some 1,400 wounded.
Shortly after the British successes in North Africa, Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill decided on 22 February to send British troops to Greece. Most of those forces were withdrawn from Cyrenaica, leaving Wavell with only five brigades in Libya. But just a few weeks earlier, German leader Adolf Hitler had decided to reinforce the Italians in North Africa with German forces. On 8 January, the Luftwaffe's Fliegerkorps X started operating from bases in Sicily against Allied shipping headed for Benghazi in Libya. The British forward units in Libya were forced to resupply through Tobruk, more than 450 miles away. Two German divisions and two additional Italian divisions were sent to Libya from Italy. On 12 February, Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel took command of the German divisions. In short order, Rommel's force grew into the three-division-strong Deutsches Afrika Korps.
Rommel probed El Agheila on 24 March and continued driving rapidly to the east, despite Hitler's orders to maintain an overall defensive posture. The Germans surrounded Tobruk on 10 April but were unable to take the fortress by a coup de main. Rommel left a siege force of mostly Italian units and continued his drive toward the Egyptian border. But the Tobruk garrison held out for 240 days and tied down vital Axis manpower in Rommel's rear area. Rommel's main force, meanwhile, reached Sollum on the Egyptian border on 14 April, and the Germans occupied the key terrain of the Halfaya Pass.
Churchill pushed for an immediate counteroffensive, but Wavell wanted to gain control of the Halfaya Pass first. On 15 May, the British launched Operation BREVITY under the command of Brigadier William Gott. Rommel skillfully parried the thrust and then counterattacked. By 27 May, the Germans recaptured the Halfaya Pass, but they then began to run out of supplies and had to halt. They dug in and reinforced their positions, using the 88 mm antiaircraft guns in an antitank role. The British came to call the heavily fortified and fiercely defended pass "Hellfire Pass."
Churchill continued to pressure Wavell for action. Operation BATTLEAXE began on 15 June with a frontal attack through the Halfaya Pass toward Sollum. The German 88 mm antiaircraft guns stopped the British armor, and the Germans then counterattacked. The British lost 91 tanks, and Operation BATTLEAXE was over by 17 June. Churchill relieved Wavell four days later and replaced him the following month with General Sir Claude Auchinleck. General Sir Alan Cunningham (the brother of Admiral Andrew Cunningham) took command of the Western Desert Force, which had been redesignated the British Eighth Army.
Rommel's force in North Africa slipped to near bottom priority for logistical sustainment after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. By November 1941, Rommel had 414 tanks, 320 aircraft, and 9 divisions (three German), 4 of which were tied down in the siege of Tobruk. The British had some 700 tanks, 1,000 aircraft, and 8 (larger) divisions. Operation CRUSADER opened on 18 November with British XIII Corps advancing on the Halfaya Pass and XXX Corps attempting to sweep around Rommel's southern flank to reach Tobruk. Following a string of fierce tank battles on 22 and 23 November, Rommel drove deep into the British rear with two panzer divisions and the Ariete Armored Division in an attempt to relieve the Axis forces at Halfaya and simultaneously to cut off the Eighth Army.
As the British tank losses rose, Cunningham wanted to halt the operation. Auchinleck relieved Cunningham and replaced him with Major General Neil Ritchie. The British finally broke through to Tobruk on 29 November. Overwhelmed by attrition to his forces, Rommel began to withdraw on 7 December. The Germans retreated back across Cyrenaica, reaching El Agheila on 6 January 1942. Operation CRUSADER was a victory for the British, but they were unable to exploit it because of a lack of reinforcements.
Rommel launched his second offensive on 21 January 1942. Within days he drove the British back almost 300 miles, halting on 4 February between Gazala and Bir Hacheim. Both sides then concentrated on building up their strength for the next four months. Rommel resumed operations on 26 May with Operation VENEZIA, his attack against the Gazala Line. Both forces were roughly equal in strength, but Ritchie's armored units were widely dispersed, whereas Rommel kept his concentrated. Rommel swept his armor around the Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim on the southern end of the line and turned north, cutting across the Allied rear. A secondary attack in the north by Axis forces pinned down the Allied forces there.
By 28 May, the Axis armored units behind the Allied lines were in trouble. Rommel had lost more than one-third of his tanks, and the rest were short of fuel and ammunition. On 29 May, the Italian Trieste Division managed to clear a path through the center of the Gazala Line, and that opening became a lifeline to Rommel's panzers. On 30 May, Rommel consolidated his remaining armor in a defensive position that came to be called "the Cauldron."
On 5-6 June, Rommel successfully beat back Ritchie's series of piecemeal counterattacks against the Cauldron. On 10-11 June, the Axis finally drove the Free French from Bir Hacheim, and on 11 June, Rommel's panzers broke out of the Cauldron. The Eighth Army once more started falling back to the Egyptian border. On 15 June, German tanks reached the coast, and Rommel shifted his attention to Tobruk, which fell on 21 June. Along with the vital port, the Axis forces captured 2,000 tons of much-needed fuel and 2,000 wheeled vehicles.
The British fell back to Mersa Matruh about 100 miles inside Egypt. Rommel, now promoted to field marshal for his victory at Gazala, pursued. Auchinleck relieved Ritchie and personally assumed command of the Eighth Army. Rommel had only 60 operational tanks, but he still attacked at Mersa Matruh on 26 June and routed four British divisions in three days of fighting. The British fell back again another 120 miles to the east to the vicinity of El Alamein, less than 100 miles from Alexandria.
Auchinleck was determined to hold near El Alamein. Although under constant pressure from Rommel's forces, Auchinleck improvised a fluid defensive line anchored on Ruweisat Ridge a few miles south of the El Alamein perimeter. Rommel attacked on 1 July, intending to sweep around El Alamein, but Auchinleck skillfully battled Rommel to a standstill over the course of three weeks of fighting. Auchinleck then launched a major counterattack on 21-22 July but made no progress. Exhausted, both sides paused to regroup.
Despite the fact the British had finally halted Rommel's advance, Churchill relieved Auchinleck in early August and replaced him with General Sir Harold Alexander as commander in chief of the Middle East. Sir William Gott was promoted to general and placed in command of the Eighth Army. On 7 August, while flying to Cairo to take up his appointment, Gott was killed when a German fighter attacked his airplane. Churchill then selected Lieutenant General Bernard L. Montgomery to succeeded Gott in command of the Eighth Army.
On 31 August 1942, Rommel launched what he believed would be the final attack to carry the Axis forces to the Nile. Montgomery, however, had made extensive preparations around El Alamein, based on a plan developed by Auchinleck. Montgomery also had the advantage of knowing Rommel's plan through ULTRA intercepts. Rommel intended to sweep around to the south of Ruweisat Ridge and cut off El Alamein from the rear. However, the British had laid extensive minefields and had heavily fortified Alam Halfa Ridge behind and southeast of El Alamein. Rommel's attack ran short of fuel and stalled by 3 September. Montgomery counterattacked immediately but halted as soon as the Axis forces were pushed back to their starting positions. Taken together, the battles of Ruweisat Ridge and Alam Halfa were the real operational turning point of the war in North Africa.
Montgomery used the time after Alam Halfa to plan carefully a set-piece counterattack from El Alamein. Rommel, meanwhile, returned to Germany on sick leave. When Montgomery finally launched the attack, the British had an overall force superiority ratio of three to one. Rommel immediately returned from Germany when the battle of El Alamein started on 23 October 1942. The Allies tried for five days to break through the Axis positions and took 10,000 casualties in the process. On 31 October, Montgomery renewed the attack with strong support from the Royal Air Force. Critically short of fuel and ammunition, Rommel was forced to disengage on 3 November. The following day, the 1,400-mile Axis withdrawal to Tunisia began.
For the next three months, Montgomery followed rather than aggressively pursued Rommel and the Axis forces across the northern coast of Africa. Rommel reached the Tunisian border at the end of January 1943. By the time he got there, however, another Allied force was waiting for him.
On 8 November 1942, four days after Rommel began his long withdrawal, the British and Americans initiated Operation TORCH, the invasion of Northwest Africa. U.S. Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower had overall command. In a coordinated series of landings, the Western Task Force under Major General George S. Patton Jr. landed on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca; the Center Task Force under Major General Lloyd Fredendall landed just inside the Mediterranean around Oran; and the Eastern Task Force under Major General Charles Ryder landed near Algiers. Although all the landing sites were in Vichy French territory, the ultimate objectives of the operation were the Tunisian city of Tunis and the port and airfield complex at Bizerte.
The Germans reacted by sending troops from Sicily to Tunisia on 9 November. From the moment the Allies landed, the campaign in Northwest Africa and the race for Tunis were a logistical battle. The side that could mass forces more quickly would win. For the Germans, control of the Tunis complex was critical to prevent Rommel from being trapped between Montgomery in the east and the newly formed British First Army in the west. On 28 November, the Allies reached Tebourba, only 12 miles from Tunis, but an Axis counterattack drove them back 20 miles in seven days. In January 1943, the winter rains and resulting mud brought mechanized operations to a halt in northern Tunisia. The Axis side had temporarily won the race.
Waiting for better weather in the spring, the Allies continued to build up their forces. Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson's British First Army was organized into three corps - the British V Corps, the U.S. II Corps, and the French XIX Corps. The Axis forces in northern Tunisia now consisted of Colonel General Jurgen von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army. Once Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika crossed into southern Tunisia, it occupied positions in the old French fortifications of the Mareth Line. Rommel's 10 divisions were well below half strength, with a total of only 78,000 troops and 129 tanks. Before he had to face Montgomery, rapidly closing from the rear, Rommel intended to eliminate the threat of the British First Army to his north. On 14 February, the Germans launched the first leg of a two-pronged offensive, with von Arnim's forces attacking through the Faid Pass for Sidi Bou Zid. The following day, Rommel in the south attacked toward Gafsa. The bulk of Rommel's forces, however, remained along the Mareth Line. By 18 February, the Kasserine Pass was in Axis hands, and the U.S. Army had suffered its first major defeat at the hands of the Germans. Rommel tried to advance north through the Kasserine Pass on 19 February, but he did not get the support he expected from von Arnim. Hampered by a divided German command structure and the rapidly massing Allied reinforcements, the attack stalled.
The Allies recaptured Kasserine Pass on 25 February. Rommel returned to the Mareth Line and prepared to face Montgomery. When the Eighth Army reached Tunisia, the Allies reorganized their command structure along the lines agreed to at the Casablanca Conference. General Eisenhower became the Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean west of Tripoli. Alexander became Eisenhower's deputy and simultaneously commander of the 18th Army Group, which controlled the First and Eighth Armies, and the now separate U.S. II Corps commanded by Patton. On 24 February, the Axis powers also realigned their command structure, with Rommel becoming the commander of Armeegruppe Afrika, which included the Afrika Korps, von Arnim's Fifth Panzer Army, and the Italian First Army under General Giovanni Messe. For the first time, the Axis powers had a unified command structure in Africa.
Montgomery's units crossed into Tunisia on 4 February, reaching Medenine on 16 February. Hoping to catch the British off balance, Rommel on 6 March attacked south from the Mareth Line. Warned by ULTRA, Montgomery was ready. Immediately following the failure of the Medenine attack, Rommel returned to Germany on sick leave. Von Arnim assumed overall Axis command, and Messe took command in south Tunisia. On 20 March, Montgomery attempted a night penetration of the center of Mareth Line. That attack failed, and on 23 March he shifted the weight of his main attack around the southwestern flank of the line through the Matmata Hills. By 26 March, the British broke through the Tebaga gap, forcing the Italian First Army and the remainder of the Afrika Korps back to the north. Under continuous pressure from the Eighth Army on one side and U.S. II Corps on the other, the Axis forces withdrew north to Enfidaville.
On 7 April 1942, the Allied First and Eighth Armies linked up, squeezing the Axis forces into a tight pocket. On the east coast, the Eighth Army took Gabes on 6 April; Sfax on 10 April; Sousse on 12 April; and Enfidaville on 21 April. In the north, the U.S. II Corps, now under Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, took Mateur on 3 May and Bizerte on 7 May. Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division also captured Tunis on 7 May. The remaining Axis forces in Tunisia were caught in two pockets, one between Bizerte and Tunis and the other on isolated Cape Bon.
Von Arnim surrendered his forces on 12 May, and Meese surrendered his on 13 May. The Royal Navy, waiting in strength offshore, made sure that few Germans or Italians escaped to Sicily by sea. Axis losses in Tunisia alone totaled 40,000 dead or wounded, 240,000 prisoners, 250 tanks, 2,330 aircraft, and 232 vessels. British and American casualties were 33,000 and 18,558, respectively. For the entire North African Campaign, the British suffered 220,000 casualties. Total Axis losses came to 620,000, which included the loss of three field armies. The losses were large for what amounted to a secondary theater for both sides.
David T. Zabecki
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