The North Africa Campaign in WWII

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | iHeart Radio | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Before the Allied invasions of Europe in World War II, the ground war against Germany and Italy was first fought in North Africa.

Although it doesn’t receive the attention as other parts of the Second World War get, the war in North Africa was pivotal to the ultimate resolution of the war in Europe. 

Had things gone differently, the entire course of the war would have changed.

Learn more about the North Africa Campaign, why it was fought and how it was resolved on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The discussion of the war in North Africa has to start with why there was even a conflict there in the first place. 

There are multiple points at which you can start the story, but the one I’ll use will be the conquest of Libya by Italy in 1911. 

In 1911, the Ottoman Empire still controlled Libya, like much of the Middle East and North Africa. The conflict marked Italy’s attempt to establish itself as a colonial power by seizing Libya, which was the closest point in Africa to Italy across the Mediterranean. 

Italy’s military strategy involved leveraging its naval superiority to cut off Ottoman supply lines while ground forces moved to capture key cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi.

The Italo-Turkish War demonstrated just how weak the Ottoman Empire had become by the early 20th century. The war concluded with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1912, wherein the Ottoman Empire ceded its rights over Libya to Italy.

When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, Libya was part of Italy that he took control of. 

Libya was sandwiched between French-controlled Algeria and Tunisia to the west and British-controlled Egypt to the East. 

One of Mussolini’s goals was to turn Italy into a colonial power. As most of Africa had already been divided between European powers, particularly Britain and France, Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. 

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia will be the subject of a future episode, but I mention it to show that Italy saw Africa as a venue for expansion and conquest. 

Italy, despite being aligned with Germany, did not declare war on Britain and France immediately after the Nazi invasion of Poland. It wasn’t until the German invasion of France that Italy decided to declare war. In fact, they waited several weeks after the invasion had started before their declaration of war on June 10, 1940. 

The British interest in the region was the protection of the Suez Canal, which was vital for their connection to India and Australia. Once Italy declared war, the British in Egypt went on the defensive but did engage in some small raids against Italian positions across the Egypt-Libya border. 

The British also attacked several French ports along the Mediterranean that were in the hands of the German-controlled French Vichy government. 

These were mostly minor skirmishes. The real war in North Africa began on September 13th when Italy invaded Egypt from Libya with the intent of taking the Suez Canal. 

The invasion did not go well, as would be indicative of much of the Italian effort during the war. 

The British were prepared, and the Italians never got anywhere near the canal. They only got as far as the town of Sidi Barrani, about 95 kilometers to 60 miles over the border. 

On December 10, the British launched Operation Compass. Under the command of General Richard O’Connor, a collection of Commonwealth forces called the Western Desert Force engaged in a counterattack against the Italian 10th Army in Libya. 

The operation was a smashing success. The British rolled over the Italians, capturing everything along the Libyan coast and going up to the city of El Agheila near the bottom of the Gulf of Libya. 

They captured over 130,000 Italian troops, effectively ending the Italian 10th Army by February 7, 1941. 

The advance was halted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who ordered troops to Greece to defend against the Italians who invaded in October. 

Mussolini assembled troops to reinforce the remaining Italian units. He also asked Adolf Hitler for help.

Hitler quickly created an expeditionary force to help the Italians because he didn’t want the Axis to lose their presence in Africa completely. The unit was dubbed the Afrika Corps, and its commander was General Erwin Rommel. The first units began arriving in Tripoli in February. 

The Afrika Corps was ordered by the Wehrmacht high command to help the Italians and defend what remaining ground they had in Libya. They were not to take offensive operations. Hitler initially only sent a single armored division to Africa, which left the Italians to do most of the fighting. 

This would be a common theme during the war, with Germany having to bail Italy out of almost every engagement it took part in, including eventually having to occupy all of Italy itself. On paper, Rommel was subordinate to the Italian commander, General Italo Gariboldi.

Whether Hitler knew it or not, he picked perhaps his best general to command the Afrika Corps. 

Starting on March 24, Rommel and his Afrika Corps began an advance against the British. He took the city of El Agheila, the westernmost point that the British had taken, and then began pushing them back. 

Rommel technically did not follow orders by advancing against the British; however, he had Hitler’s support. 

The British were not prepared because they had moved units to Greece and because they had received intelligence, technically correct, which ordered Rommel to stay on the defensive. 

Rommel took back almost all of the lost territory in Libya, including the major city of Benghazi.  It was during this advance that he was given the name “The Desert Fox” by the British. 

On April 10th, he laid siege to the city of Tobruk, which was near the Egyptian border. The British were dug in with 36,000 defenders. Rommel wanted the city because if he could take the port, it would shorten his supply lines. 

He requested additional support from Hitler but was denied because the Germans were deep in preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. 

The British launched Operation Battleaxe in June, which was an attempt to break the siege of Tobruk, but it failed. 

In August, Rommel was given command of the newly organized Panzer Army Africa which had Italian units officially under his command.

In November, the British tried once again to lift the siege of Tobruk with Operation Crusader led by General Alan Cunningham. This time the British were successful and they succeeded in lifting the siege of Tobruk and forced Rommel to retreat to El Agheila in December. The furthest point of their previous advance.

It was during this period that the United States entered the war. 

Rommel was far from beaten. He regrouped in El Agheila while the British were preparing for another offensive. 

In May 1942, Rommel launched an offensive, outflanking the British defenses in a daring maneuver known as the Battle of Gazala. By June, Rommel captured Tobruk, taking 35,000 British prisoners and significant supplies, which was a severe blow to the Allies.

With the British on the ropes, Rommel pushed forward in an attempt to take Alexandria and then the Suez Canal. 

He advanced well into Egypt, and it looked like he was poised to take Alexandria. However, he was eventually stopped on July 1 outside the city of El Alamein, about 100 kilometers or 60 miles west of Alexandria, by forces led by British General Claude Auchinleck. 

On August 13, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British Eighth Army.

By the autumn of 1942, the situation both sides found themselves in had changed dramatically. The Germans were bogged down in Russia and had no extra troops or equipment to send to Africa. On the Allied side, the Americans were preparing to finally send troops across the Atlantic. 

On October 23, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot, which was a major offensive operation to push Rommel back. 

British forces led by Montgomery met Rommel again at the Second Battle of El Alamein. By November 5, the British forces had broken through the German and Italian lines. 

On November 8th, Operation Torch commenced, with American and British forces under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower landing in Morocco and Algeria. 

During the rest of 1942, the British saw continual success pushing the Germans back out of Egypt, capturing Tobruk and Benghazi, and on January 23, 1943, they pushed the Germans and Italians all the way back to Tripoli. 

Rommel, knowing that he would lose Tripoli, his main logistical port, moved his forces to Tunisia behind the Mareth Line, a defensive line originally created by the French to protect against an Italian invasion. 

On the west, the Americans initially encountered resistance from French Vichy forces. However, the French forces’ loyalties were mixed, and the commanders quickly switched sides to support the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaul. 

On February 19th, the Americans had their first major engagement of the war against the Germans at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in central Tunisia. 

Kasserine Pass was a disaster for the American II Corps. However, they learned from the defeat and adapted quickly. 

One of the changes was the appointment of General George S. Patton as the commander of the II Corps on March 6. The commander who had led the landings of American forces in Casablanca and accepted the surrender of the Vichy French forces there. 

By this time, the Germans and Italians were getting squeezed on both sides of Tunisia. 

The British attacked Tunisia from Libya and began the Battle of Mereth Lines on March 16. 

On March 23, the Americans got payback at the Battle of El Guettar under the leadership of Patton.

Three days later, the British launched Operation Supercharge II, which was a flanking maneuver that went around the German defensive position on the Mareth Line.

On April 6th, members of the US First Army linked up with the British Eighth Army south of Tunis. 

At this point, the writing was on the wall for Rommel and the Axis. They were stuck in a small pocket around the city of Tunis, and it was just a matter of time before they were overrun by the Allies. 

On April 22, the Allies launched Operation Vulcan, which was intended to be the last final push against the Germans and Italians. However, the Axis forces were dug in and put up a solid defense, using everything from anti-tank mines to Molotov cocktails. 

By April 30, the Allies realized they needed to reassess their approach and, on May 6, launched Operation Strike. 

Strike was much more successful. The British made a concentrated assault at one single point, broke through, and then rushed in forces through the opening. 

On May 7, the British took Tunis, and on the same day, the Americans took the city of Bizerte to the north. 

The remaining Axis forces were surrounded, and the last ones surrendered on May 12, 1943. The Axis had been completely removed from the African continent. 

A total of 275,000 German and Italian soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. The losses were devastating to the Germans, who were in desperate need of troops back on the European mainland. 

With complete control of North Africa, the Allies had a springboard for the July invasion of Sicily, which was followed by the September invasion of the Italian mainland. 

Along with British control of Gibraltar, Malta, and Cyprus, it ensured that the Allies would have full control of the Mediterranean and deny its use to the Axis. 

Most importantly, the North African Campaign marked the first major loss of territory by the Axis, and it was the first example of Allied military cooperation which would eventually be displayed in full with the invasion of Normandy one year later. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Krw1515 on Apple Podcasts in Australia. They write:

Love the show!

As of today, I’m writing this, having just listened to the Hollywood Sign episode. If it’s read on the show, I would like to say hello to you once I get there, as I will be a member of the completionist in the not-too-distant future.

Also, if you could, do an episode on the 1983 Americas Cup, which was won by the land down under Australia! Thanks, Gary

Thanks, KRW! First, welcome to the completionist club. You will find Tim Tams and Chicken Parma available at all our Australian competition clubs. 

As for an episode on the America’s Cup, I definitely think that might be possible later this year when the event takes place.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.