The North African Campaign, spanned from June 1940 until May 1943, encapsulating a series of operations and battles that involved vast maneuvers across desert terrains by both Axis and Allied forces. This campaign was characterized by a series of strategic thrusts and counterthrusts over control of Libya and Egypt and is a testament to the tenacity and resourcefulness of the involved forces.


Initiated on September 13, 1940, with the Italian advance on British-held Egypt, the campaign swiftly escalated. The subsequent Operation Compass—a British assault that launched in December 1940—yielded key victories at the Battle of Sidi Barrani and the Battle of Bardia. Continued Allied success led to the significant capture of Tobruk, signaling the first major surrender of Italian forces.

The Western Desert Force (WDF), under the command of Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor and consisting of approximately 36,000 men, initiated a daring advance from Mersa Matruh in Egypt. This operation targeted the Italian 10th Army, which was significantly larger, numbering around 150,000 men stationed in fortified positions from Sidi Barrani in Egypt to Cyrenaica. Despite the disparity in numbers, the WDF achieved a swift and decisive victory over the Italians at their bastions and specifically at Sidi Barrani. This success was not just a tactical win but a strategic breakthrough, driving the remnants of the 10th Army out of Egypt and allowing for the capture of key ports along the Libyan coast.

The retreat of the 10th Army towards Tripolitania was marked by defeat at the Battle of Beda Fomm, with the surviving forces being pursued to El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte. Prior to this setback, in December 1940, the 10th Army had been bolstered with reinforcements, including the 1st and 2nd Libyan divisions and the 4th Blackshirt Division, stationed in fortified camps from Sidi Barrani to the Tummars and Maktila. Notably, the Maletti Group was positioned at Nibeiwa, supported by approximately 500 aircraft of the 5 Squada under General Felip Porro. A strategic RAF airstrike on December 7th annihilated 39 Italian aircraft on the ground, setting the stage for Operation Compass. This operation featured a significant engagement, the Battle of Marmarica/Battle of the Camps, which commenced with an isolation maneuver at Maktila on December 9th, followed by the overrunning of the Nibeiwa camp and successive victories at Tummar West and East.

The WDF's operations culminated in the capture of over 138,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners, along with substantial material gains, including hundreds of tanks, more than a thousand artillery pieces, and several aircraft. However, the campaign exacted a toll on the WDF, incurring approximately 1,900 casualties, equivalent to about 10 percent of the infantry. Operational limitations emerged for the WDF, primarily due to vehicle wear and the redeployment of key units in March 1941 to partake in Operation Lustre, aimed at the Battle of Greece. In response to these developments, Italy, assisted by the Deutsches Afrikakorps and the Luftwaffe, hastened reinforcements to Libya to safeguard Tripoli, marking a new phase in the North African Campaign.


Top photo: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel confers with his staff on the Libyan front, July 1942. He was fighting the British in the First Battle of El Alamein, July 1-27, 1942. Source: War History Network license.

Middle photo: Bovington, Dorset, United Kingdom. 7 JULY 2012: German Sd Kfz 141/1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf L, Panzer III, on display at the Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset. Source: War History Network license.

Bottom photo: El Alamein, Egypt. 12 MAY 2013: World War Two machinery including on the right an Italian anti aircraft and tank artillery gun located at El Alamein War Museum in northern Egypt. Source: War History Network license.



German reinforcements under Erwin Rommel, marked as the Deutsches Afrika Korps, reached Libya on February 12, 1941. Under Rommel’s audacious leadership, Operation Sonnenblume was executed. Rommel's forces sidestepped the Siege of Tobruk and pushed eastward to Egypt's frontier by April 14, 1941, showcasing a remarkable display of tactical mobility.

Throughout 1941, multiple operations unfolded, such as Operation Brevity and Unternehmen Skorpion, reflecting the see-saw nature of the campaign. By November 1941, Operation Crusader initiated a coordinated Allied offensive that succeeded in breaking the extended siege of Tobruk and pushing Axis troops back to El Agheila.

10780077064?profile=RESIZE_584xThe Siege of Tobruk, occurring between 10 April and 27 November 1941, epitomizes a significant episode in the theatre of North Africa during World War II. Elements of the Allied Army, primarily composed of the 9th Australian Division, found themselves under an arduous siege in the strategic port of Tobruk by German and Italian contingents. This siege, enduring 231 days, ensued subsequent to the Axis forces’ advance through Cyrenaica from el Agheila under Operation Sonnenblume, directly challenging the Allied forces in Libya. The Allied defeat of the Italian 10th Army during Operation Compass and subsequent entrapment of their remnants at Beda Fomm marked a temporary ascendancy. However, this equilibrium was disturbed in early 1941 as substantial portions of the Western Desert Force were redeployed.

With the arrival of German troops and Italian reinforcements in Libya, the remaining Allied force was significantly diminished, leading to a strategic retreat to the Egyptian border. Amidst this strategic backdrop, a garrison, predominantly the 9th Australian Division, held the fort at Tobruk, maintaining a defiant stance against the Axis, whilst the Western Desert Force regrouped for a counter-offensive. The siege, facilitated under the command of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, constituted a critical Axis effort to secure a supply port nearer to the Egyptian–Libyan border than Benghazi, thereby challenging the Allied supply lines and forcing a diversion of Axis troops from the frontier. Despite persistent Axis assaults, artillery and aerial bombardments, the Tobruk garrison notably repelled several Axis offensives. Allied naval interventions, notably by the British Mediterranean Fleet, played a crucial role, breaking the siege to deliver reinforcements and supplies, and evacuating the wounded and prisoners. The siege came to an end on 27 November when Tobruk was reinforced by the Eighth Army as a component of Operation Crusader, marking a pivotal moment in the North African campaign.


In January 1942, Rommel's retaliatory actions recaptured the initiative for the Axis, leading to the Battle of Gazala where the formidable 'Gazala Line' was outflanked, culminating in the capitulation of Tobruk once again in June that year. However, the First Battle of El Alamein and the subsequent Battle of Alam el Halfa checked further Axis progress.

The First Battle of El Alamein, fought between 1 and 27 July 1942, featured engagements between the Afrika Korps under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and the Allied forces, predominantly constituted by the British Empire and Commonwealth's Eighth Army led by General Claude Auchinleck. This battle was pivotal in preventing the Axis forces from making a second advancement into Egyptian territory.

The proximity of Axis positions near El Alamein to Alexandria, situated merely 66 miles away, posed a significant threat to the critical ports, cities, and base facilities of the Commonwealth forces, as well as the strategic Suez Canal. Despite the Axis's temporary territorial gains, their extended supply lines from Tripoli in Libya rendered their position at El Alamein unsustainable. This logistical disadvantage constrained both factions to stockpile resources in anticipation of further offensives, highlighting the crucial role of supply lines and geographic positioning in strategic military outcomes.

The West's increasing material support culminated in the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein, where Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery's revitalized Eighth Army mounted a successful offensive in late 1942. Marking a turning point, this operation demonstrated the effective synergy of infantry, artillery, and armor.

10589395853?profile=RESIZE_584xThe Second Battle of El Alamein, occurring near the Egyptian railway halt of the same name, was a critical confrontation following the previous engagements that had halted Axis advancements into Egypt. The transition of command within the British military saw General Claude Auchinleck being succeeded after Lieutenant-General William Gott, his initial replacement, was tragically killed en route to assume command. Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was then appointed, spearheading the Eighth Army to a pivotal offensive.

This battle marked a significant turning point in the Western Desert Campaign, effectively neutralizing the Axis threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the vital Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields. The Allied victory at El Alamein played a crucial role in boosting morale, representing the first significant triumph over the Axis powers since Operation Crusader in late 1941. The conclusion of this battle was strategically synchronized with the commencement of Operation Torch on 8 November, opening a second front in North Africa and further consolidating the Allies' position in the region.


Newly launched in 1943 was the Battle of El Agheila, followed by operations at Buerat and the capture of Tripoli, which propelled Axis forces back towards Tunisia. Allied coordination was further bolstered following the Anglo-American landings across western North Africa under Operation Torch in November 1942, which then linked up for a concerted push against the remaining Axis contingents. The culmination of these extensive campaigns led to the full withdrawal and surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia in May of 1943, effectively closing the chapter on the North African front.



Atkinson, Rick. An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

Bierman, John, and Colin Smith. The Battle of El Alamein: Turning Point, World War II. New York: Viking, 2002.

Brown, Robert J. "Churchill and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-43." International Churchill Society. Last modified May 11, 2021. https://winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/finest-hour-128/churchill-and-the-western-desert-campaign-1940-43/.

Holland, James. Together We Stand: North Africa 1942–1943: Turning the Tide in the West. London: HarperCollinsPubishers, 2006.

"How The British Secured A Victory In The Desert During The Second World War." Imperial War Museums. Accessed March 26, 2024. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-the-british-secured-a-victory-in-the-desert-during-the-second-world-war.

Moorehead, Alan. Desert War: The Classic Trilogy on the North Africa Campaign 1940-1943. London: Aurum Press, 2001.



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