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North African Campaign
Part of Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre of World War II
A British Crusader tank passes a burning German Pzkw Mk IV tank during Operation Crusader. 27 November 1941
Date10 June 1940 – 13 May 1943
(2 years, 11 months and 3 days)
LocationLibya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco


 British Empire

  •  United Kingdom
  •  British Raj

 New Zealand
South Africa South Africa
 United States (1942–43)
 Free French Forces

  • France French Algeria (1942–1943)
  •  Tunisia (under French protectorate) (1942–1943)
  •  Morocco (under French protectorate) (1942–1943)

Poland Poland
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia

 Kingdom of Greece

 Kingdom of Italy

  • Kingdom of Italy Italian Libya

 Nazi Germany
France Vichy France (1940–1942)

  • France French Algeria
  •  Tunisia (under French protectorate)
  •  Morocco (under French protectorate)
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Harold Alexander
United Kingdom Claude Auchinleck
United States Dwight Eisenhower
United Kingdom Archibald Wavell

Kingdom of Italy Rodolfo Graziani
Kingdom of Italy Italo Gariboldi
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
Nazi Germany Hans-Jürgen von Arnim Surrendered
Kingdom of Italy Ugo Cavallero
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Kingdom of Italy Giovanni Messe Surrendered

France François Darlan
Casualties and losses

United Kingdom The British Commonwealth:
circa 220,000 dead, wounded, missing and captured[1] including 35,478 confirmed dead[2]

Free French Forces Free French:
20,000 killed, wounded and missing[citation needed]

United States United States:
2,715 killed
8,978 wounded
6,528 missing[3][4]

  • Allied material losses:
    2,000 tanks destroyed
    1,400 aircraft destroyed

Kingdom of Italy Italy:
22,341 dead and missing [5]
340,000 captured[nb 1]

Nazi Germany Germany:
18,594 dead[7]
3,400 missing[7]
130,000 captured[7]

France Vichy France:
1,346 dead[citation needed][nb 2]
1,997 wounded[citation needed][nb 2]

  • Axis material losses:
    8000 Aircraft destroyed[8]
    6,200 guns, 2,500 tanks,70,000 vehicles destroyed or captured[8]

During the Second World War, the North African Campaign took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 13 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts (Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War) and in Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch) and Tunisia (Tunisia Campaign).

The campaign was fought between the Allies and Axis powers, many of whom had colonial interests in Africa dating from the late 19th century. The Allied war effort was dominated by the British Commonwealth and exiles from German-occupied Europe. The United States entered the war in 1941 and began direct military assistance in North Africa on 11 May 1942.

Fighting in North Africa started with the Italian declaration of war on 10 June 1940. On 14 June, the British Army's 11th Hussars (assisted by elements of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 1st RTR) crossed the border from Egypt into Libya and captured the Italian Fort Capuzzo. This was followed by an Italian counteroffensive into Egypt and the capture of Sidi Barrani in September 1940 and then in December 1940 by a Commonwealth counteroffensive, Operation Compass. During Operation Compass, the Italian 10th Army was destroyed and the German Afrika Korps—commanded by Erwin Rommel—was dispatched to North Africa—during Operation Sonnenblume—to reinforce Italian forces in order to prevent a complete Axis defeat.

Matilda Mk II in North Africa campaign displaying a captured Italian flag

A see-saw series of battles for control of Libya and parts of Egypt followed, reaching a climax in the Second Battle of El Alamein when British Commonwealth forces under the command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery delivered a decisive defeat to the Axis forces and pushed them back to Tunisia. After the late 1942 Allied Operation Torch landings in North-West Africa, and subsequent battles against Vichy France forces (who then changed sides), the Allies finally encircled Axis forces in northern Tunisia and forced their surrender.

Operation Torch in November 1942 was a compromise operation that met the British objective of securing victory in North Africa while allowing American armed forces the opportunity to engage in the fight against Nazi Germany on a limited scale.[9] In addition, as Josef Stalin had long been demanding a second front be opened to engage the Wehrmacht and relieve pressure on the Soviet armies, it provided some degree of relief for the Eastern front by diverting Axis forces to the African theatre, tying them up and destroying them there.

Information gleaned via British Ultra code-breaking intelligence proved critical to Allied success in North Africa. Victory for the Allies in this campaign immediately led to the Italian Campaign, which culminated in the downfall of the fascist government in Italy and the elimination of a German ally.

Western Desert Campaign

On 10 May 1940, the Wehrmacht had started the Westfeldzug. One month later, it was plain to see that France would have to surrender within two weeks (it was euphemistically called Armistice at Compiègne and took place on 22 June 1940). On 10 June 1940, the Kingdom of Italy aligned itself with Nazi Germany and declared war upon France and the United Kingdom.[10] British forces based in Egypt were ordered to undertake defensive measures, but to act as non-provocative as possible.[11] However, on 11 June they began a series of raids against Italian positions in Libya.[12] Following the defeat of France on 25 June, Italian forces in Tripolitania—facing French troops based in Tunisia—redeployed to Cyrenaica to reinforce the Italian 10th Army.[13] This, coupled with the steadily degrading equipment of the British forces led General Archibald Wavell to order an end to raiding and placed the defence of the Egyptian border to a small screening force.[14]

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered that the 10th Army was to invade Egypt by 8 August. Two days later, no invasion having been launched, Mussolini ordered Marshal Graziani that the moment German forces launched Operation Sea Lion, he was to attack.[15] On 8 September, the Italians—hampered by the lack of transport and enfeebled by the low level of training among officers and weakened by the state of its supporting arms—[13] were ordered to invade Egypt the following day. The battle plan was to advance along the coastal road while limited armoured forces operated on the desert flank.[16] To counter the Italian advance, Wavell ordered his screening forces to harass the advancing Italians, falling back towards Mersa Matruh, where the main British infantry force was based. Positioned on the desert flank was the 7th Armoured Division, which would strike into the flank of the Italian force.[17][18]

By 16 September, the Italian force had advanced to Maktila, around 80 mi (130 km) west of Mersa Matruh, where they halted due to supply problems.[19] Despite Mussolini urging for the advance to carry on, Graziani ordered his force to dig in around Sidi Barrani, and fortified camps were established in forward locations; additional troops were also positioned behind the main force.[20] In response to the dispersed Italian camps, the British planned a limited five-day attack, Operation Compass, to strike at the fortified camps one by one.[21][22] The British Commonwealth force, totalling 36,000 men,[23] attacked the forward elements of the 10-division-strong Italian army on 9 December.[24] Following the initial success, the forces of Operation Compass[25] pursued the retreating Italian forces.[26] In January, the small port at Bardia was taken,[27] soon followed by the seizure of the fortified port of Tobruk.[28] Some 40,000 Italians were captured in and around the two ports, with the remainder of the Tenth Army retreating along the coast road back to El Agheila. O'Conner sent the 7th Armoured Division across the desert, with a small reconnaissance group reaching Beda Fomm some ninety minutes before the Italians, cutting off their retreat. Though desperate attempts were made to overcome the British forces at the Battle of Beda Fomm, the Italians were unable to break through and the remnains of the retreating army surrendered. Within 10 weeks, Allied forces had reached El Agheila and destroyed the Italian Tenth Army, taking 130,000 prisoners of war.[29][30][31]

Italian Fiat M13/40 tanks in the North African Campaign in 1941.

The Italians responded by dispatching motorised and armoured reinforcements to Africa[32] beginning in February 1941 and continuing until early May; Operation Sonnenblume saw the German Afrika Korps—under the command of Erwin Rommel—arrive in Tripoli to reinforce their Italian allies with orders to block Allied attempts to drive the Italians out of the region.[33][34] The forward Allied forces—now named XIII Corps—adopted a defensive posture and over the coming months was built up before having most of its force redeployed to Greece while the 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn to the Nile Delta.[35][36][37] In their place inexperienced, ill-equipped, and under-strength forces were deployed.[38]

German General Erwin Rommel meeting with Italian governor of Libya, General Italo Gariboldi (behind Rommel and to his right side) and other Italian officers in Tripoli, during joint German-Italian military operations against the Allies in North Africa

British Crusader tanks moving to forward positions in the Western Desert on 26 November 1941

Although Rommel had been ordered to simply hold the line, an armoured reconnaissance soon became a fully fledged offensive from El Agheila in March 1941.[33][34] In March–April, the Allied forces were forced back[39] and leading general officers captured. The Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of Tobruk,[40] and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 mi (160 km) east to the Libyan–Egyptian border.[41] With Tobruk under siege from the main German-Italian force, a small battlegroup continued to press eastwards. Capturing Fort Capuzzo and Bardia in passing, it then advanced into Egypt, and by the end of April had taken Sollum and the tactically important Halfaya Pass. Rommel garrisoned these positions, reinforcing the battlegroup and ordering it onto the defensive.[42][43]

Tobruk's garrison—although isolated by land—continued to receive supplies and support from the Royal Navy, and Rommel was unable to take the port. This failure was significant; his front line positions at Sollum were at the end of an extended supply chain that stretched back to Tripoli and was threatened by the Tobruk garrison,[44] and the substantial commitment required to invest Tobruk prevented him from building up his forces at Sollum, making further advances into Egypt impractical.[45][46] The Allies had regained the initiative by maintaining possession of Tobruk.[46]

The inaction of both sides would, however, not last for much longer. The Allied forces soon after launched a small attack, Operation Brevity, in an attempt to push the Axis forces back over the border. Brevity was followed up by a larger scale offensive, Operation Battleaxe, intended to relieve the siege at Tobruk; this operation also failed.

The Allied forces reorganised during the stalemate. Claude Auchinleck succeeded Archibald Wavell as commander in chief Middle East Command, and the Western Desert Force was reinforced with a second Corps to form the new Eighth Army, which was at that time made up of units from the British Army, Australian Army, the British Indian Army, the Sudan Defence Force, the New Zealand Army and the South African Army. There was also a brigade of Free French under Marie-Pierre Koenig. The new formation launched a new offensive—Operation Crusader—in November 1941. By January 1942, joint operations had resulted in the recapture of all the territory only recently captured by the Germans and Italians. As a consequence, and once again, the front line (axis of advance) would be El Agheila.

After receiving supplies and reinforcements from Tripoli, the Axis again attacked, defeating the Allies at the Gazala in June and capturing Tobruk. The Axis forces drove the Eighth Army back over the Egyptian border, where their advance was stopped in July only 90 mi (140 km) from Alexandria in the First Battle of El Alamein.

General Claude Auchinleck, who had personally assumed command of the Eighth Army following the defeat at Gazala, was sacked following the First Battle of El Alamein and was replaced by General Harold Alexander. Lieutenant-General William Gott was initially given command of the Eighth Army. He was killed en route to take up his command and replaced by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery would ultimately take command of the Eighth for the remainder of the Desert War.

The Axis forces made a new attempt to break through to Cairo[citation needed] at the end of June at Alam Halfa but were pushed back. After a period of build-up and training, the Eighth launched a major offensive, decisively defeating the German-Italian army during the Second Battle of El Alamein, in late October 1942. The Eighth Army then pushed the Axis forces westward, capturing Tripoli in mid-January 1943. By February, Eighth Army was facing the German-Italian Panzer Army near the Mareth Line and came under command of General Harold Alexander's 18th Army Group for the concluding phase of the war in North Africa, the Tunisia Campaign.

American troops on board a Landing Craft Assault.

Operation Torch

Operation Torch started on 8 November 1942, and finished on 11 November. In an attempt to pincer German and Italian forces, Allied forces (American and British Commonwealth), landed in Vichy-held French North Africa under the assumption that there would be little to no resistance. Nevertheless, Vichy French forces put up a strong and bloody resistance to Allied forces in Oran and Morocco, but not in Algiers, where a coup d'état by the French resistance on 8 November succeeded in neutralizing the French XIX Corps before the landing and arresting the Vichy commanders. Consequently, the landings met no practical opposition in Algiers, and the city was captured on the first day along with the entire Vichy African command. After three days of talks and threats, Generals Mark Clark and Dwight Eisenhower compelled the Vichy Admiral François Darlan (and General Alphonse Juin) to order the cessation of armed resistance in Oran and Morocco by French forces on 10–11 November with the proviso that Darlan would be head of a Free French administration. During Operation Torch, American, Vichy French and German navy vessels fought the Naval Battle of Casablanca, ending in a decisive American victory.

The Allied landings prompted the Axis occupation of Vichy France (Case Anton). In addition, the French fleet was captured at Toulon by the Italians, something which did them little good as the main portion of the fleet had been scuttled to prevent their use by the Axis. The Vichy army in North Africa joined the Allies (see Free French Forces).[47]

Tunisian Campaign

Following the Operation Torch landings, (from early November 1942), the Germans and Italians initiated a build up of troops in Tunisia to fill the vacuum left by Vichy troops which had withdrawn. During this period of weakness, the Allies decided against a rapid advance into Tunisia while they wrestled with the Vichy authorities. Many of the Allied soldiers were tied up in garrison duties because of the uncertain status and intentions of the Vichy forces.

German Tiger I of the 501st heavy tank battalion captured by the Americans in Tunisia

By mid-November, the Allies were able to advance into Tunisia but only in single division strength. By early December, the Eastern Task Force—which had been redesignated British First Army under Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson—was composed of British 78th Infantry Division, 6th Armoured Division, 1st Parachute Brigade, 6th Commando and elements of U.S. 1st Armored Division. But by this time, one German and five Italian divisions had been shipped from Europe and the remoteness of Allied airfields from the front line gave the Axis clear air superiority over the battlefield. The Allies were halted and pushed back having advanced eastwards to within 30 km (19 mi) of Tunis.

During the winter, there followed a period of stalemate during which time both sides continued to build up their forces. By the new year, the British First Army had one British, one U.S. and one French Corps (a second British Corps headquarters was activated in April). In the second half of February, in eastern Tunisia, Rommel and von Arnim had some successes against the mainly inexperienced French and U.S. Corps, most notably in routing the U.S II Corps commanded by Major-General Lloyd Fredendall at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass.

By the beginning of March, the Eighth Army—advancing westward along the North African coast—had reached the Tunisian border. Rommel and von Arnim found themselves in an Allied "two army" pincer. They were outflanked, outmanned and outgunned. The British Eighth Army bypassed the Axis defence on the Mareth Line in late March and First Army in central Tunisia launched their main offensive in mid-April to squeeze the Axis forces until their resistance in Africa collapsed. The Axis forces surrendered on 13 May 1943 yielding over 275,000 prisoners of war. This huge loss of experienced troops greatly reduced the military capacity of the Axis powers, although the largest percentage of Axis troops escaped Tunisia. This defeat in Africa led to all Italian colonies in Africa being captured.



Signals reception unit in the desert

The Axis had considerable success in intelligence gathering through radio communication intercepts and monitoring unit radio traffic. The most important success came through Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Egypt. He had been tasked by General George Marshall to provide detailed reports on the military situation in Africa.[48] Fellers talked with British military and civilian headquarters personnel, read documents and visited the battlefront. Known to the Germans as "die gute Quelle" (the good source) or more jokingly as 'the little fellow', he transmitted his reports back to Washington using the "Black Code" of the U.S. State Department. In September 1941 the Italians had stolen a code book, photographed it and returned it to the US embassy in Rome.[49] The Italians shared parts of their intercepts with their German allies. In addition the "Chiffrierabteilung" (German military cipher branch) were soon able to break the code. Fellers' reports were excessively detailed and played a significant role in informing the Germans of allied strength and intentions.

In addition, the Afrika Korps had the intelligence services of the 621st Signals Battalion mobile monitoring element commanded by Hauptmann Alfred Seeböhm. The 621st Signals Battalion monitored radio communications among British units.[48] Unfortunately for the Allies, the British not only failed to change their codes with any frequency, they were also prone to poor radio discipline in combat. Their officers made frequent open, uncoded transmissions to their commands, allowing the Germans to more easily identify British units and deployments.[48] The situation changed after a counterattack during the Battle of Gazala resulted in the 621st Signals Battalion being overrun and destroyed, and a number of their documents captured, alerting British intelligence to the problem.[50] The British responded by instituting an improved call signal procedure, introducing radiotelephonic codes, imposing rigid wireless silence on reserve formations, padding out real messages with dummy traffic, tightening up on their radio discipline in combat and creating an entire fake signals network in the southern sector.[50]


Colossus Mark II computer at Bletchley Park

Allied codebreakers read much enciphered German message traffic, especially that encrypted with the Enigma machine. The Allies' Ultra programme was initially of limited value, as it took too long to get the information to the commanders in the field, and at times provided information that was less than helpful.[51] In terms of anticipating the next move the Germans would make, reliance on Ultra sometimes backfired. Part of the reason the initial German attacks in March 1941 were so successful was that Ultra intercepts had informed Wavell that OKW had clearly directed Rommel not to take any offensive action, but to wait until he was further reinforced with the 15th Panzer Division in May.[52] Rommel received this information, but placed more value on his own assessment of the situation. Trusting that the Germans had no intention of taking major actions, the British command did not respond until it was too late.[53] Furthermore, Rommel did not generally provide OKW or the Italian Comando Supremo details of his planned operations, for he thought the Italians too prone to leak the information. Thus on January 21, 1942, when Rommel struck out on his second offensive from El Agheila, Commando Supremo was just as surprised to learn of it as the British were.[54] Ultra intercepts provided the British with such information as the name of the new German commander, his time of arrival, and the numbers and condition of the Axis forces, but they might not correctly reveal Rommel's intentions. The primary benefit of Ultra intercepts to the effort in North Africa was to aid in cutting the Axis supply line to Tunisia. Ultra intercepts provided valuable information about the times and routes of Axis supply shipments across the Mediterranean. This was critical in providing the British with the opportunity to intercept and destroy them. During the time when Malta was under heavy air attack, the ability to act on this information was limited, but as Allied air and naval strength improved, the information became instrumental to Allied success. It is estimated that between 40% to 60% of Axis supply shipping was located and destroyed due to decrypted information.[55][56] Heavy losses of German paratroopers in Crete, made possible by ULTRA warnings of the drop times and locations, meant that Hitler hesitated to attack Malta,[57] which aided the British in gaining control of the Mediterranean, as did the defeat of the Italian Navy at the Battle of Cape Matapan.[58] To conceal the fact that German coded messages were being read, a fact critical to the overall Allied war effort, British command required a flyover mission be flown before a convoy could be attacked in order to give the appearance that a reconnaissance flight had discovered the target.


After victory by the Allies in the North African Campaign, the stage was set for the Italian Campaign to begin. The invasion of Sicily followed two months later.

See also



  1. Historian Giorgio Rochat wrote:

    Sono circa 400.000 i prigionieri fatti dagli inglesi in Etiopia e in Africa settentrionale, 125.000 presi dagli americani in Tunisia e in Sicilia, 40.000 lasciati ai francesi in Tunisia (There were about 400,000 prisoners made by the British in North Africa and in Ethiopia, 125,000 taken by the Americans in Tunisia and Sicily, 40,000 by the French in Tunisia)[6]

    Taking into consideration that Italian prisoners taken in East Africa were about 100,000 and that prisoners taken by the Americans were mainly in Sicily, we arrive at the approximate figure of 340 to 350 thousand.[citation needed]
  2. 2.0 2.1 During Operation Torch only (8–16 November 1942)


  1. Zabecki, North Africa
  2. Carell, p. 597
  3. Playfair, Volume IV, p. 460. United States losses from 12 November 1942
  4. Atkinson, p. 536
  5. Roma: Instituto Centrale Statistica' Morti E Dispersi Per Cause Belliche Negli Anni 1940–45 Roma 1957
  6. Rochat, Giorgio. Le guerre italiane 1935–1943. Dall'impero d'Etiopia alla disfatta [The Italian Wars 1935–1943. From the Ethiopian Empire until defeat]. Einaudi. p. 446. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Carell, p. 596
  8. 8.0 8.1 Barclay, Mediterranean Operations
  9. Wilmott, H.P. p.
  10. Playfair, p. 109
  11. Playfair, p. 41
  12. Churchill, p. 371
  13. 13.0 13.1 Macksey, p. 25
  14. Macksey, p.38
  15. Macksey, p. 35
  16. Macksey, p. 38
  17. Macksey, p. 40
  18. Playfair (2004), pp.209–210
  19. Macksey, p. 47
  20. Macksey, p. 68
  21. Wavell "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  22. Playfair pp. 260–261, 264
  23. Bauer (2000), p.95
  24. Playfair p. 267
  25. Mead, p. 331
  26. Playfair p 271
  27. Playfair, pp. 286–287
  28. Dunn, Jimmy. "World War II's Opening Salvoes in North Africa". Tour Egypt. 
  29. Playfair, p. 358
  30. "Fall of Bengasi". 17 February 1941.,9171,851005,00.html. Retrieved 17 December 2007. 
  31. Wavell in "No. 37628". 25 June 1946. 
  32. Bauer, p.121
  33. 33.0 33.1 Jentz, p. 82
  34. 34.0 34.1 Rommel, p. 109
  35. Playfair (1954), p. 289
  36. Playfair (1956), p. 2
  37. Jentz, p. 85
  38. Playfair (1956), pp. 2–5
  39. Playfair (1956), pp. 19–40
  40. Latimer, pp. 43–45
  41. Playfair (1956), pp. 33–35
  42. Playfair (1956), p. 160
  43. Jentz, pp. 128–129, 131
  44. Latimer, pp. 48–64
  45. Playfair (1956), p. 41
  46. 46.0 46.1 Jentz, p. 128
  47. See Operation Torch#Resistance and coup
  48. 48.0 48.1 48.2 Wil Deac (June 12, 2006). "Intercepted Communications for Field Marshall Erwin Rommel". World War II Magazine. 
  49. Lewin 251
  50. 50.0 50.1 Lewin p. 252
  51. "Intelligence in North Africa" Quote:Protection of the top secret Ultra source meant that the distribution of Ultra was extremely slow and by the time it had reached the relevant commander it was often out of date and therefore at best useless and at worst dangerously mis-leading.
  52. Verlauf März 1941. In: Der Feldzug in Afrika 1941–1943 ( Abgerufen am 24. November 2009. Quote: Schuld an dieser Einschätzung sind die Enigma Berichte, aus denen Wavell ersehen kann, dass Rommel lediglich den Auftrag hat, die Syrte-Front zu stabilisieren, und dass sein wichtigster Verband, die 15. Panzerdivision, noch nicht in Afrika eingetroffen ist. Translated: The responsibility for this assessment are the Enigma reports, which can be seen from Wavell that Rommel only has a mandate to stabilize the Sirte front, and that his most important unit, the 15th Panzer Division, has not yet arrived in Africa.
  53. Lewin p. 33 Quote: On 30 March Wavell signalled, 'I do not believe he can make any big effort for another month.'
  54. Lewin pp. 99-101 Quote from Rommel's diary: I had maintained secrecy over the Panzer Group's forthcoming attack eastwards from Mersa el Brega and informed neither the Italian nor the German High Command. We knew from experience that Italian Headquarters cannot keep things to themselves and that everything they wireless to Rome gets round to British ears. However, I had arranged with the Quartermaster for the Panzer Group's order to be posted in every Cantoniera in Tripolitinia on 21 January...
  55. Kingsly, Sir Harry "The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War"
  56. Hinsley, Francis Harry (1993), British intelligence in the Second World War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-44304-3
  57. "Intelligence in North Africa"
  58. Hinsley, F.H.; Stripp, Alan, eds. (1993), Codebreakers: The inside story of Bletchley Park (OU Press paperback ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-280132-6 P 3


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