WHY DID WE FIGHT IN NORTH AFRICA?
The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini thought he could build an empire equal to the Roman Empire by joining in Hitler’s world’s rampage by attacking British forces in Egypt from the adjacent Italian province of Libya.
On the 10th June 1940 Mussolini declared war on Britain. In September 1940 General Graziani slowly advanced towards the British forces that were protecting the Suez Canal and Egypt but halted around the Libyan/Egyptian border. Operation Compass, a British Commonwealth offensive, started in December 1940. With just 30,000 men under Wavell’s command he successfully pushed the 150,000 Italians far back into Libya. In February 1941 Hitler, seeing the Italians’ defeat as a threat to his own success, appointed Erwin Rommel to rescue Graziani and the German Afrika Korps were formed. Hitler’s plan was to conquer the oil fields in Caucasus area and the Middle East and connect his armies, fighting eastwards in North Africa and south from Russia, with the Japanese forces fighting to the west from Burma. The 8th Army in Egypt was a problem.
Rommel was experienced in tank warfare and he was very effective in the desert using a hard hitting Blitzkrieg style of attacking at great speed, his skill and cunning earned him the name of ‘The Desert Fox’ by the Allies. He quickly pushed the Allies back to the Libyan/Egyptian border, with the exclusion of the Libyan port of Tobruk which was held the Allied forces despite them being left stranded behind the Axis front line.
The Allies held Tobruk for over 9 months under constant siege.
The ‘Desert Rat’ term was never more appropriate as the men were ‘dug in’ to defensive positions and holes in the ground, just like the Jerboa that is indigenous to the area. The name was originally used by the 7th Armoured Division, although it was later used as a term for the whole of the 8th Army fighting in North Africa.
The Axis forces were the German Afrika Korps allied with the Italian army, however the Italian army had
inferior tanks and equipment. The majority of the troops also lacked the discipline, commitment and
training of the superior German Afrika Korps.
Auchinleck replaced Wavell as commander and there was a push and shove several times across Libya and Egypt. The problem for the attacking army was that the further they advanced the further their supply line were stretched.
Any prolonged attack was weakened by the sheer distance supplies needed to be transported across the desert.
By July 1942 the Allies had been pushed far into Egypt to a defensive position at El Alamein. It was highly defensible being an area only 23 miles wide, bordered by the Mediterranean sea in the north and an impassable geographical feature, called the Qattara Depression, in the south. Rommel stopped Here to regroup as his troops were exhausted and supply lines stretched. The Allies also took time to regroup and Winston Churchill appointed Bernard Montgomery as new commander of the 8th Army. In October 1942, during twelve days of battle, the Allies broke through the Axis front lines using tactics that Rommel had used against them many times. The Axis forces were completely routed and in full retreat. From here the Axis forces in North Africa
were pushed west, until their final surrender in Tunisia in May 1943.
The Allied soldiers would say 'We fought Rommel' and not 'We fought with Monty',
such was their respect for Rommel.
The Battle of El Alamein was the first major Allied offensive victory in the war.
Churchill was elated and victoriously stated,
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
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