Military Wiki
Western Desert Force
Active World War II
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
Type Field corps
Part of Middle East Command
Engagements Western Desert Campaign
Richard O'Connor

The Western Desert Force, during World War II, was a British Commonwealth army formation stationed in Egypt.

On 17 June 1940, the headquarters of the British 6th Infantry Division was designated as the Western Desert Force.[1] The unit consisted of the 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Infantry Division. The force was commanded by Major-General Richard O'Connor.

In September 1940, at the time of the Italian invasion of Egypt, the force consisted of roughly 36,000 soldiers and about 65 tanks.[2]

From early December 1940 to February 1941, during Operation Compass, the exploits of the Western Desert Force earned a parody of Winston Churchill's famous quote, "Never has so much been owed by so many, to so few." So many Italians were captured by the Western Desert Force that Anthony Eden said, "Never has so much been surrendered by so many, to so few."[3] From 14 December, the Australian 6th Division replaced the Indian 4th Infantry Division which was redeployed to East Africa.

The Western Desert Force was retitled XIII Corps on 1 January 1941. By February 1941, the remaining Italian forces in Cyrenaica were withdrawing down the Via Balbia with the British 7th Armored Division and the Australian 6th Infantry Division close behind.[4] When Operation Compass came to an end with the surrender of the Italian Tenth Army the corps HQ was deactivared in February and its responsibilities taken over by HQ Cyrenaica, a static command, reflecting the Allied defensive posture in the Western Desert as Middle East Command became obliged to focus on the campaign in Greece.

After the Italian forces in North Africa had been reinforced with the Africa Corps during Operation Sonnenblume, Lieutenant General Philip Neame, General Officer Commanding Cyrenaica,[5] was captured during Rommel's advance and the Western Desert Force HQ was reactivated[6] on 14 April, under Major General Noel Beresford-Peirse, to take command of British Commonwealth forces in the western desert and halt the Axis advance at the Egyptian-Libyan border.

In August 1941 Archibald Wavell was replaced as C-in-C Middle East by Claude Auchinleck and the British and Commonwealth forces were reinforced to create in September 1941 the Eighth Army. During this reorganisation Western Desert Force was once again redesignated as XIII Corps in October 1941 and became part of the new army.[6]


  1. See also NZ Electronic Text Centre, Chapter Three
  2. Bauer (2000), p.93
  3. World War II Timelines: 12 February 1941
  4. Walker(2003), p. 64
  5. Military Career of Philip Neame (British) VC, CB, DSO, accessed December 2008
  6. 6.0 6.1 XIII Corps (Western Desert Force) British Military History


  • Bauer, Eddy; Young, Peter (general editor) (2000) [1979]. The History of World War II (Revised edition ed.). London, UK: Orbis Publishing. ISBN 1-85605-552-3. 
  • Walker, Ian W. (2003). Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts; Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa. Ramsbury: The Crowood Press. ISBN 1-86126-646-4. 

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