North African Campaign (1940-1943)

The North African Campaign (1940-1943) produced some of the British army's most iconic moments of the Second World War, and the Allied and Axis armies repeated advance back and forward across Libya, before the Allied victories of El Alamein and Operation Torch forced the Axis forces back into an increasingly small bridgehead in Tunisia. The overall campaign falls into three sections. The Desert War or Western Desert Campaign saw the British and Germans fightin in Egypt and Libya, and lasted from late in 1940 to the start of 1943. Operation Torch was the Allied invasion of French North Africa, and only lasted for a few days in November 1942. Finally the two Allied armies came together for the Tunisian Campaign, which lasted from December 1942 until the final Axis surrender in May 1943.

1940
1941
1942
1943

1940

At the start of the Second World War North Africa was dominated by the European colonial powers. Egypt was technically independent, but was dominated by the British, who eventually built up a powerful army in the area. To the west Libya was occupied by the Italians, who remained neutral until June 1940. To their west the French were dominant, occupying Tunisia, Algeria and French Morocco. The Spanish had a smaller enclave in northern Morocco.

North African Campaign, 1940-1942
North African Campaign,
1940-1942

The situation changed as a result of the stunning German victory in the Low Countries and France in May-June 1940. Mussolini finally decided to enter the war, making Libya hostile territory (there was also a threat from Italian East Africa - Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland). The French colonies followed the Vichy government, so became semi-neutral, but with a German armistice commission present.

Italian POWs taken at Sidi Barrani, 1940
Italian POWs taken at Sidi Barrani, 1940

The Italian entry into the war made the British position in Egypt very vulnerable. The Italians massively outnumbered the British garrison of Egypt, and with German armies just across the Channel and invasion threatened, few reinforcements were likely to arrive. However the Italian commander in Libya, Marshal Graziani, did have some problems, mainly with the limited mobility of his forces. Eventually, under intense pressure from Mussolini, Graziani launched a limited invasion of Egypt in September 1940, ending up at Sidi Barrani. The Italians then settled down to built a series of fortified camps.

This gave General Wavell, the British commander-in-chief in Egypt, the chance to go onto the offensive. Some reinforcements did reach him, including fifty Matilda II infantry tanks, at the time one of the best tanks in the world, with thick armour that made them almost immune to any Italian anti-tank weapons.

The British offensive, Operation Compass, began on 7-8 December. The initial aim was to destroy the Italian camps in Egypt, and if possible take Tobruk, a key port in eastern Cyrenaica (the eastern half of Libya). This attack was an unexpectedly total success. By 11 December, General O'Conner, commander of the Western Desert Force, had captured Sidi Barrani, and with it 20,000 prisoners, 180 guns and 60 tanks. A further advance west to cut off Italian troops attempting to escape raised the total to 38,000 prisoners.

1941

The British advance continued into Libya. Their first target was the heavily defended port of Bardia, which was attacked on 3 January 1941 and surrendered two days later. The next target was Tobruk, the key port in eastern Cyrenaica, and a possible stepping stone for an attack on Benghazi, the regional capital. The Allies attacked on 21 January, and resistance was over by noon on 22 January.

The Italians now decided to abandon Benghazi, and began to move their troops south, down the eastern shores of the gulf of Sirte, before they could turn west to head for Tripolitania. The British realised that they had a chance to cut off these forces, and took the risk of sending a force across the desert in an attempt to reach the coast around Beda Fomm ahead of the Italians. The leading part of this force set off on 5 February, and reached the road south of Beda Fomm. Two days of fighting followed around Beda Fomm, before on 7 February, with their last tanks gone, the remaining Italians surrendered. Another 25,000 Italians were captured, bringing the total captured during Operation Compass up to an amazing 133,298 (including 38,000 in Egypt, 42,000 at Bardia, 25,000 at Tobruk, 25,000 around Benghazi).

The British advance now came to a halt. Wavell had to find troops for a new campaign Greece, and although General O'Conner wanted to continue the advance toward Tripoli, he had to be denied permission to make the attempt.

German Infantry, Tripoli, 1941
German Infantry, Tripoli, 1941

In all probability this attack would have failed. On 12 February Rommel flew into Tripoli, at the start of the first German deployment in North African (Operation Sonnenblume). His first troops arrived on 14 February, and any British advance towards Tripoli would have had to face Rommel's Germans as well as the demoralised Italians.

Rommel wasn't a defensive commander, and was soon preparing for a counter attack (Rommel's First Offensive). On 24 March he captured El Agheila, the leading British position. He then advanced to Mersa el Brega, which fell on 31 March. Rommel then decided to turn this raid into a larger scale offensive, and the British position in Cyrenaica quickly collapsed. Benghazi fell on 4 April, and the British began a chaotic retreat towards Egypt. Rommel's only failure came at Tobruk, where his first attacks were badly planned. The siege of Tobruk (10 April-16/17 December 1941) lasted for most of the rest of the year, and significantly weakened Rommel's position on the Egyptian border. The British held on to Sidi Barrani, but apart from that and Tobruk, all of the gains of Operation Compass had been lost. 

Caves used during Siege of Tobruk, 1941
Caves used during
Siege of Tobruk, 1941

The rest of 1941 was dominated by Rommel's attempts to take Tobruk, and a series of British attempts to lift the siege. The first of these attempts was Operation Brevity (15-16 May 1941), a small scale attempt to see if the siege could be lifted without a major battle. It couldn't.

Next came Operation Battleaxe (15-17 June 1491). This time Wavell had access to the 'Tiger Cubs', a force of tanks that had been sent through the Mediterranean at some risk. The attack itself was carried out by the Western Desert Force, led by Lt General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse. The attack quickly fell apart, as Rommel's rapid reaction overwhelmed the poor Allied command structure, and poor British armoured tactics cost them a large number of tanks.

Air Marshal Tedder and General Auchinleck, Middle East War Council, 1942
Air Marshal Tedder and General Auchinleck, Middle East War Council, 1942

Battleaxe ended Wavell's time as Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East. He was replaced by General Sir Clause Auchinleck, the British commander-in-chief in India, who then began to prepare for his own offensive.

Almost inevitably this didn’t come quite quickly enough for Churchill, who was always pressing his commanders in the Middle East to move more quickly. Auchinleck was finally ready in November 1941. This time the attack was to be carried out by the Eighth Army, commanded by General Sir Alan Cunningham. Operation Crusader began on 18 November 1941, with an outflanking attack in the desert. The attack made rapid progress, and the British armour was soon close to Tobruk, but the advance then stalled, and the Germans counterattacked. Once Rommel was convinced that the British threat had been dealt with he began his famous 'dash to the wire', a dramatic attempt to get behind the Allied lines and cross the Egyptian border. This looked dramatic, but it had very little impact on the British attack. At a key moment in the battle Rommel was out of touch with his own HQ, while the Allied infantry continued to advance towards Tobruk. On the British side Cunningham was replaced as commander of the Eighth Army by General Sir Neil Ritchie, after Auchinleck decided that Cunningham had become too defensive. On the night of 26-27 November the siege of Tobruk was lifted for the first time, but Rommel counterattacked and re-imposed the blockade. By now Rommel was running out of supplies, tanks and ammunition, and on the night of 7/8 December he withdrew from Tobruk and began a retreat back towards Gazala.

Once again the British were able to advance across Cyrenaica. Rommel abandoned the Gazala position on the night of 16/17 December, and by the end of the year was back at El Agheila. The last Axis strongholds on the Egyptian frontier surrendered early in 1942 - Bardia on 2 January, Sollum on 12 January and Halfaya Pass on 17 January.

1942

In some respected 1942 was almost a rerun of 1941. On 21 January Rommel began his Second Offensive, which again began as a minor attack, in this case carried out to improve his defensive position. Once again early success convinced Rommel to expand the offensive, and once again the British were forced out of western Cyrenaica. Benghazi fell on 29 January, and the British retreated east.

Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala
Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala

This time the retreat stopped at Gazala, to the west of Tobruk. Both sides began to build up their forces, in preparation for their next offensive. This time Rommel was ready first. The battle of Gazala (26 May-14 June 1942) began with an attack around the southern flank of the Gazala Line, and an advance into the Allied rear. This almost caused a disaster for Rommel as his supplies struggled to catch up. The Bir Hakeim 'box', a defended area protected by the Free French at the southern end of the line held out, and Rommel was in a vulnerable position. Unfortunately General Ritchie failed to take advantage of this, and when he did finally counterattack it was too late. Rommel had managed to make a hole in the Allied minefields on the Gazala Line and resupplied his panzers, and the British attack was defeated. The Bir Hakeim box fell on 10 June, and on the following day Rommel launched a devastating attack east. Once again the British were forced to retreat. At first all went well, and most of the British troops reached the Egyptian border, while a garrison was left in Tobruk. However by now the defences of Tobruk had been rather weakened, and Rommel didn’t repeat his mistakes of 1941. On 20 June he attacked the south-eastern corner of the fortifications, and by the end of the day his troops were in the port. The last defenders surrendered on 21 June, and a position that had held out for most of a year had fallen in just two days.

By now Ritchie had been sacked as commander of the Eighth Army, and Auchinleck took control in person, on the grounds that the army was now fighting in Egypt, and nothing else under his command was as important. His time in command didn’t begin well - Rommel brushed aside an attempt to defend Mersa Matruh (26-28 June 1942), and the British were forced to retreat to the El Alamein position.

The El Alamein position is famous for not having an open flank in the desert, with the southern end of the line protected by the Qattara Depression, but during the first battles around El Alamein the British didn't have the strength to block the entire gap between the sea and the depression. The First Battle of El Alamein (1-27 July 1942) saw Rommel attempt to outflank the defenders of El Alamein itself by passing just to the south, but he had misjudged the British position and his attacks failed. Auchinleck conducted a masterful defensive battle, although his own counterattacks were less successful. By 27 July the fighting died away, and once again both sides began to prepare for the next round.

Air Vice-Marshal A. Coningham and Lt Gen N.M. Ritchie
Air Vice-Marshal
A. Coningham and
Lt Gen N.M. Ritchie

The failures at Gazala, Tobruk and Mersa Matruh sealed Auchinleck's fate. Churchill decided to visit the desert on his way to Moscow, and after a series of other plans were discussed ended up appointing General Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East and General Bernard Montgomery as commander of the Eighth Army. The two men made an excellent team, but they took up their posts only two weeks before Rommel's final offensive in Egypt. Montgomery had to accept the broad  outline of Auchinleck's defensive plans during the resulting battle of Alam Halfa (31 August-7 September 1942). The British held a line that ran south from El Alamein, half way across the gap to the depression, and then a second line, at 90 degrees to the first, running back from the left flank, with a gap between the two forces. Rommel attempted to outflank the British front line, but just ran into the second line. His attack quickly failed, and after only two days Rommel withdrew back towards his starting point. The remaining days of the battle were made up of a British attempt to expel Rommel from part of their original minefield. Rommel's last attack in Egypt had ended in failure.

Montgomery now prepared to go onto the offensive himself. The second battle of El Alamein (23 October-5 November 1942) made his reputation. His plan was to make his main attack towards the northern end of Rommel's line, with diversionary attacks elsewhere (Operation Lightfoot). On the first night the infantry would make two gaps in the German minefields. British armour would pass through these gaps and protect the infantry while it dealt with the remaining Axis infantry (in what Montgomery called 'crumbling' operations). The plan didn't go entirely to plan. At dawn on the first day of the battle most of the British tanks were still in the minefields, but Montgomery demonstrated his determination by insisting that the attack should continue. This led to the dogfight stage of the battle. The Eighth Army continued to attack the Axis infantry, slowly drawing most of the German armour north. This set the stage for Operation Supercharge, a major attack taking advantage of the advances so far. This began on 2 November, and on 4 November the Axis line cracked. Rommel ordered the start of the retreat, but then had to cancel it in response to orders from Hitler. The retreat was resumed on 5 November, but the delay meant that most of Rommel's less mobile units were lost. Within six days of the end of the battle the British had taken 30,000 prisoners.

The pursuit after El Alamein didn’t quite live up to expectations, but the British still made rapid progress. Rommel abandoned the El Agheila position after a short battle (12-18 December 1942), and didn't attempt to make another stand in Libya. A series of rearguard actions delayed the pursuit, and Montgomery paused on 29 December to prepare for a full scale assault on the Buerat line, near Tripoli. When the attack did come, Rommel retreated once again, and on 23 January 1943 the Eighth Army entered Tripoli, the British target since 1940.

By the time Tripoli fell, the Eighth Army was no longer the only Allied force in North Africa. On 8 November an Anglo-American force landing at three points across French Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch), the first major Anglo-American operation of the Second World War. In some respects the biggest problems came from French politics, with various factions competing for control. An attempt to use Admiral Darlan as the French leader in North Africa was always controversial, because of his associations with Vichy. General Giraud, his replacement, turned out to have limited support, and eventually the Allies had to accept de Gaulle.

The biggest weakness in the Allied plan was in the east, where no attempt was made to land in Tunisia. Operation Perpetual (11-12 November 1942) did see the British capture a number of ports in eastern Algeria, including Bougie and Bone, but that was it. The Tunisian Campaign (December 1942-13 May 1943) thus began an overland advance into Tunisia, through mountainous countryside. At the same time the Germans were building up a new army in northern Tunisia. Their first troops were in place close to Tunis and Bizerte on 11 November, and General Walther Nehring soon had 25,000 men and 100 tanks under his command.

In contrast the British advance was operating at the end of a difficult supply line, which could only support three small columns, all from General Anderson's British First Army. The first clash between British and German troops in Tunisia came on 16 November, on the road between Djebel Aboid and Mateur. This was the first of a series of battles in which the British got to within sixteen miles of Mateur. Eventually they were forced back into the mountains, and by the end of November the front line in the north had settled down in the area it would occupy until almost the end of the campaign. Early December even saw a short-lived German counterattack, which also saw the first clash between German and American tanks. Much to their surprise the US 1st Armored Division last 18 tanks and 41 guns in a badly handled clash, the first sign that their equipment and tactics weren't quite as impressive as they had believed.

1943

At the start of 1943 the Germans two armies in North Africa. General von Arnim commanded the 5th Panzer Army in northern Tunisia. Field Marshal Rommel commanded Panzerarmy Africa, at that point retreating through western Libya.

On the Allied side General Anderson commanded the First British Army, coming from Algeria. The French XIX Corps and US II Corps were meant to be under his command, but the French refused to accept British control and relationship with the Americans was unexpectedly difficult. Montgomery commanded the Eighth Army, coming from Libya.

On 14 January the Allied command structure was unified. Eisenhower became Supreme Command in North Africa, with General Alexander, until then the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, as his deputy. This would soon be changed to give Alexander command of a new 18th Army Group, with authority over all Allied troops in North Africa, but only after a series of setbacks.

Although the Germans had stopped the first Allied offensive in northern Tunisia, their position was still vulnerable. Von Arnim had a strong force in northern Tunisia, Rommel had a weaker force approaching southern Tunisia, but the gap between them was thinly defended. French troops occupied the passes in the Eastern Dorsal mountains, which ran south from the area of Tunis, almost parallel to the coast. If the Allies could build up their strength in this area, then it was possible that they could advance to the coast and cut the Axis bridgehead in half. To make things worse the US 2nd Corps was moving into the area south and west of the French, and had an advanced base at Gafsa, on a key road to the coast.

Von Arnim decided to launch an offensive to capture the passes in the Eastern Dorsals. The resulting Operation Eilboete (Courier) was a minor Axis victory, and by the end of January the main passes through the Eastern Dorsals were in German hands.

On 4 February Rommel suggested that the two Axis armies could combine in an attack on the US 2nd Corps. His army was entering the Mareth Line, a series of pre-war French defences, and he knew that Montgomery would wait to build up his strength before attacking this position. The plan was accepted, although von Arnim always preferred an attack in the north. The first part of the plan, von Arnim's attack towards Sidi Bou Zid, began on 14 February 1943 (Operation Frühlingswind). The US 1st Armored Division suffered a worrying defeat at Sidi Bou Zid, and were pushed back towards Kasserine, at the southern end of the Kasserine Pass, a key route through the Western Dorsals. Rommel's attack began two days later, on 16 February 1943 (Operation Morgenluft). The Americans abandoned Gafsa without a fight, but were then forced out of their supply base at Feriana. On 18 February Rommel's and von Arnim's men met at Kasserine.

That evening Rommel suggested continuing the attack, heading for the US base at Tebessa. He was given permission to launch an attack towards Le Kef, a less ambitious target, and was also given command of all of the forces involved. At the same time his old Panzerarmy Africa became the First Italian Army, under General Messe.

The attack into the Kasserine Pass began on 19 February. Rommel broke though the pass on 20 February, but after that was unable to take any of his objectives. On 22 February Rommel called off the attack, and returned most of his troops to the Mareth Line.

The battle of the Kasserine Pass was very sobering for the Americans. Until then they had believed they had the best trained and best equipped army in the world, but their first major battle against experienced German troops quickly disproved this. US armoured tactics had been developed after examining the German offensive of 1940, and hadn't kept up with chances since. Their tanks were not meant to be used against other tanks, but instead were weapons of exploitation. Enemy tanks were to be destroyed by special tank destroyer units, but early in 1943 they were armed with 75mm guns carried on half tracks (the M3 75mm Gun Motor Carriage), very vulnerable against German armour. Their concentrated tank attacks had suffered heavy losses when they ran into German anti-tank guns or German tanks, and they soon discovered that they didn't get to decide if their tanks faced German armour. General Fredenhall, the commander of II Corps, was replaced by General Patton, while Alexander took command of the 18th Army Group in the middle of the battle. The most important outcome of the battle was that the US army realised that it needed to improve quickly. II Corps would soon turn into a formidable fighting unit, but it would take the Germans some time to realise this, and they underestimated American troops for some time.

In the aftermath of the battle Rommel was made commander of a new Army Group Africa, but his authority was limited. Von Arnim and Kesselring came up with a plan for an attack in the north (Operation Ochenskopf, 26 February-19 March 1943), which was designed to push the British further back from Tunis and Bizerte. The Germans made some progress near the north coast, but elsewhere the offensive was repulsed and the Germans lost irreplaceable tanks.

The final Axis offensive in North Africa came at Medenine (6 March 1943). Rommel wanted to launch a pre-emptive attack on Montgomery's Eighth Army, but his plans were delayed by Operation Ochenskopf. By the time he was able to order the attack, Montgomery was ready for him, having received Ultra intercepts detailing General Messe's plan. Montgomery had full three divisions in his front line, and they repulsed the attack by four under-strength Axis formations with some ease. After the failure of this attack Rommel left Africa for the last time, and von Arnim took over as commander of Army Group Africa.

British Troops in Anti-Tank Ditch on Mareth Line
British Troops in Anti-Tank Ditch on Mareth Line

In the second half of March the Eighth Army and US II Corps carried out a series of semi-related attacks. On 16 March Patton began Operation Wop, a series of diversionary attacks around Gafsa intended to draw Axis troops away from Mareth. Montgomery began his attack on the Mareth Line on 20 March, with an attempt to break into the main Axis defensive positions. At the same time the New Zealand division was sent on an outflanking movement to try and get behind the Axis lines. The frontal assault achieved some initial successes, but then bogged down, and Messe was able to counterattack. By the night of 22-23 March the British were forced to call off this attack.

On 23 March 10 Panzer attacked the US positions south-east of Gafsa, and for the first time in Tunisia suffered a costly defeat, mainly at the hands of US tank destroyers and artillery. This was a great morale boost for the Americans, and proved that they were quickly learning from their earlier mistakes.

After the failure of the frontal assault at Mareth, Montgomery decided to reinforce the New Zealanders and outflank the main defensive lines. The second part of the battle, Operation Supercharge II, began late on 26 March, and almost immediately broke through the Axis lines in the Tebaga Gap. However by now Messe had realised that the Mareth Line was lost, and his men were already in full retreat. A largely German blocking force held up Montgomery's men at El Hamma, and most of Messe's army managed to escape. Even so six Axis divisions were no long effective combat units.

On 27 March the US 34th Division attempted to push through the Fondouk Pass, in an attempt to reach the coast in the rear of any retreating forces coming from Mareth, but the pass was too strongly defended.

On 28-29 March the US 9th Infantry Division began a new offensive from El Guettar, the scene of the earlier battle with 10 Panzer. On this occasions the Italians held their ground, and the American advance got caught up in the hills on either side of the road from El Guettar to Gabes.

Messe retreated to the Wadi Akarit position, also known as the Gabes Gap, another strong defensive position just to the north of Gabes. By now his army lacked the strength to stop the Eighth Army, and Montgomery forced them to abandon this position in two days (Battle of Gabes/ Wadi Akarit, 6-7 April 1943)

On 8 April a mixed Allied force attempted to break through the Fondouk Pass, but the Germans managed to hold on until early on 10 April. As a result Messe's men were able to get to Enfidaville, on the southern side of von Arnim's bridgehead in the north. The failure at Fondouk caused a great deal of bad blood between the Americans and British, and in the final attacks on Tunis the US II Corps was moved to the northern flank of the Allied line, partly so it didn’t have to operate under British control (but also to make sure it wasn't squeezed out of the later stages of the campaign as the front line shrank).

The stage was now set for the final battles of the campaign. The Axis bridgehead now ran from Enfidaville on the coast south of Tunis, through fairly mountainous countryside, to a position on the north coast about twenty miles to the west of Bizerte. Alexander planned to attack all around the perimeter. The Eighth Army was to conduct limited operations at Enfidaville (although Montgomery soon turned this into a four division attack). This would be followed by a series of attacks by the US II Corps, British French Army and French XIX Corps (Operation Vulcan, 22-28 April 1943).

Montgomery's attack made very little progress. The battle of Enfidaville (19-21 April 1943) saw the Eighth Army run into unexpectedly heavy resistance on their main line of attack in the hills west of Enfidaville, and after two days Montgomery ended the attack. Operation Vulcan began on 22 April, and again Axis resistance was determined. Even so the British were able to retake Longstop Hill, and an advance on their sector forced von Arnim to form all of his remaining armour into a single force to stop them from cutting off the Afrika Korps and 1st Italian Army on his left flank. In the north the US II Corps began to make progress at the start of May, and 6 May they had advanced half way from their start line to Bizerte.

As Operation Vulcan began to loss steam, Alexander planned a new offensive. The 4th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigades were moved from the Eighth Army to the First Army, to reinforce a massive attack in the Allied centre. II Corps would cover the flanks of this attack. Once Tunis had fallen, the First Army would turn right to cut off Cape Bon, and the combined armies would then take Bizerte.

Operation Strike (5-13 May 1943) was a total success. By 7 May the leading British troops were in Tunis and the Americans had taken Bizerte. The British then turned right, and over the next few days made sure that the Axis troops couldn't make a stand in the Cape Bon peninsula. Von Arnim surrendered on 12 May and Messe on 13 May, ending the North African campaign.

The allies captured 275,000 prisoners in Tunisia, far more men than were actually in the Axis fighting formation. Hitler had refused to allow any evacuations from Tunisia until it was too late, and so all of the support staff, rear area staff and technical staff were captured along with the fighting men, and virtually the entire command structure.

Alexander's signal to Churchill after the Axis surrender has become famous - 'Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian Campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores'.

Allied attention quickly turned to the next operation, the Invasion of Sicily, which began only two months later, in many ways just as impressive an achievement as the final victory in Tunisia.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 March 2017), North African Campaign (1940-1943) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/campaign_north_african.html

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