WW2 in Africa: The North and East African Campaigns

wwii in africa

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle.

The Second World War was a conflict that saw many fronts. Within Europe itself, Hitler’s gaze began with the west, and later turned to the east towards the soviets. However, thousands of miles away in 1940, Italy’s colonial stake in Libya and its bordering of British protectorate Egypt made for the inevitable conflict in North Africa between the axis and allies. This is a campaign that, although not very well known in the consciousness of many, saw the vital interests of both the axis and allies result in a primarily land-based war involving Italy and Germany on the one side, and the British on the other.

This is a conflict that initially swung in the favour of the Italians, but due the short-lived success of the initial Italian invasion, Britain’s counter-offensive hit the Italians hard. Though gaining ground initially, the Italians were taken aback by Britain’s offensive in December 1940, and one of this article’s main aims is to highlight the importance of supply in the North African conflict. After all, Italy’s rapid decline in the face of the December 1940 British counter-offensive was a result of an inferior supply line. However, as anyone familiar with the conflict will know, WWII in Africa did not end here.

This article will go on to look at the arrival of German’s Africa Korps to the North African conflict, bringing with it the talented General Ewin Rommel and an escalation of ferocity in the war on both sides. Most importantly, this piece looks to highlight the importance the main operations of the North African Conflict, as well as looking at the nature of the shorter, yet equally as important East-African Campaigns. The pivotal Operation Battleaxe and the decisive American-led Operation Torch of the North African campaigns are covered here, as are the operations that took place on the Northern and Southern fronts of East Africa where the Italians were the sole provocateurs on the Axis side.

Framing the African Conflict: The Significance of El Alamein and the wider African Context

The famous Battle of El Alamein in 1942, an in particular the allied victory that took place there, represented a milestone for the British in Africa,  and indeed the war in general. This was the battle that spawned one of Churchill’s more notable adages from one of his most quotable speeches, in fact: “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. The “beginning” Churchill refers to here are the years following the outbreak of war in 1939, including the disastrous defeat and evacuation at Dunkirk, after which Britain was in dire need of a demonstration of their military might. It was the North African campaign, and specifically the victory at El Alamein that was to be the victory that saw a turning of the tide for Britain, as well as the allies in general.

The victory at El Alamein was/is of such historical significance that it even spawned its own famed hero: General Bernard Montgomery. “Monty” became to El Alamein what Nelson was to Trafalgar. The battle itself was fought over 12 days and nights, with the conflict between the forces of “Monty” and talented German general Rommel (aka Desert Fox) being elevated to almost prize-fight status in the eyes and the minds of general public. By 1942, reinforcements for the British 8th army in Africa were so extensive that defeat was virtually inconceivable from an onlooker’s point of view (and with the benefit of hindsight, of course). However, British victory in Africa wasn’t a foregone conclusion by any means.

Afrca as a Changing of the Tide

It is telling to look at Churchill’s words long after the battle of El Alamein, in order to gauge the gravity of the conflict in terms of the war in general. In another of his speeches, Churchill said of the victory in the middle-east “it is evident that an event of the first magnitude has occurred which will play its part in the whole future course of the war”. Hindsight benefits us in that we can see the echoes of truth in this aphorism, capped off by Churchill’s observation: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.

Though Churchill’s rhetoric was again quite typical of his grandiose and superlative nature, these words serve as a reminder of the importance of Africa in terms of the recovery of morale following the evacuation of Dunkirk. Its importance was also strategic, of course, since Britain’s colonial interests in Africa were important not only for her supply lines, but also a representation of her global might, which in turn was linked to her very identity as a nation. The victory in Africa served many purposes historically: as a morale boost for Britain and the allies; as a tactical victory for Britain’s imperial interests in Africa; as a turning point for the entry of the United States into the war and the obvious military and tactical might that came with it, eventually allowing the allies to win the war.

A Peripheral Struggle?

However significant the battle of El Alamein was in terms of Britain’s interests in Africa, as well as in the context of World War II in general, some historians have argued that the entire African campaign represented an unnecessary diversion of resources that could have been more well-spent in Europe. From this assertion, it is then possible to view the African campaign, including victory at El Alamein, as more of a tool of propaganda than a militarily significant and necessary conflict that needed to be won.

If one views the African campaign in this way, as propaganda by military victory in the east, then Africa certainly fits in with the propaganda-esque goal of proving that Britain still had the military might and mettle necessary to potentially overcome the Nazi war machine, which in 1940 looked to be steamrolling across Europe in an unstoppable fashion.

Making sense of what was objectively (at the time, anyhow) a peripheral struggle abroad when set in the wider context of the war can only be achieved if one bears in mind one of the main motivating factors for all nations involved in the conflict: the necessary protection of colonial interests abroad. If one follows this interpretation – it would be foolish not to considering the importance of imperialism and colonialism at the time, in terms of both a nation’s identity and might on a global scale – then the African campaign (including El Alamein) can be viewed as an opportunity for Churchill to display dominance on the global battlefield that, in 1940 at least, looked to be overshadowed by the Nazi war machine.

By 1942, overall victory in World War II was still far outside the grasp of the allies, but Africa was an important factor that allowed Churchill to begin to persuade President Roosevelt of the USA to even consider American intervention. This persuasion began at a time of isolationism in America, with Roosevelt looking to secure an unprecedented third term over an electorate that favoured aloofness and isolationist policy at the time. In the context of the wider war, then, Churchill’s persuading of Roosevelt to make Africa the entry point of the USA into the war marked a significant boost for the allies. With American backing, no matter how marginal, the allied victory in Africa became somewhat of a foregone conclusion in the way that it had never before. As Jonathan Dimbleby puts it in Destiny in the Desert: “El Alamein had borne fruit. Rommel was on the run.

Dimbleby also reminds us of the importance of giving Churchill the credit for being the orchestrator of so many meetings, speeches, and events that led to eventual allied victory in Africa. Indeed, Churchill’s dedication to intervening in even the smaller military details in Africa and his sheer conviction in persuading others to his point of view certainly played a huge part in swinging the pendulum of victory in Africa towards the allied camp. Churchill’s convincing of Roosevelt to enter the conflict in the first place is in itself a factor whose significance still echoes through the corridors of history to the freedoms we enjoy in the present day.

The View from Each Nation

I’ve come to a point where it feels important to give anyone reading this a glimpse into the situation and standing of each of the belligerents (both allied and axis) of World War II before and approaching time of the African campaigns.

Britain

By 1940, Britain’s forces in Dunkirk were on the back foot and retreating, and by the 4th June the Swastika was raised high above Dunkirk. After whipping up some initially reluctant support from key members of the war cabinet (including former prime minister Neville Chamberlain), Churchill summoned General Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in the middle-east, to persuade him to act on the threat of the presence of Italy’s army on the border of Egypt.

This event can again be explained by Churchill’s mindset of securing and protecting Britain’s interests in the middle east, and therefore Africa, which was a key piece of territory in terms of strategy and in terms of resources, too. Maintaining the might of the empire was a matter of importance for Britain, and politicians who weren’t in line with this kind of thinking were indeed viewed as subversive.

On the 10th June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain, and Wavell’s western desert force in Africa began operations. By the 16th August, he was ordered by Churchill to deploy  the “largest possible army in order to combat the Italians in Africa.

Italy

Mussolini’s drive was much more hazardous than that of Churchill’s motivations for the British empire. Dimbleby writes that Mussolini was driven by a “demonic urge” to conquer the middle east. More importantly when looking at WWII in Africa, however, is the fact that Mussolini also felt that Italy possessed an innate right to be a mighty, much-feared imperial power. More importantly still, he felt that Britain, with her dominance in the Mediterranean, was actively thwarting Italy’s right to dominate the globe. After all, Mussolini referred to the Mediterranean as Italy’s lake.

Mussolini’s vision of the Italian Empire also stretched past the Mediterranean, to the middle-east. To Africa. He saw Libya as the strategic point from which Italy could potentially oust the British from the region altogether.

Mussolini’s conflict with Britain in Africa was also extremely clever in terms of overall strategy of the war, in particular his relationship with Hitler and Germany. Mussolini needed the African conflict, which he viewed as requiring only a few thousand deaths, to demonstrate Italy’s usefulness as a military ally to Germany. He thought Africa would be a short-lived encounter, easily won by his mighty nation; victory in Africa would be an important political and strategic tool.

Mussolini’s men on the ground in Africa were, however, poorly trained and even more poorly equipped, and not in a fit state to hammer out a quick conflict with the British. This difference between Mussolini’s thirst for dominance and the actual situation on the ground in Africa is displayed best by Italy’s defeat after some initial victories, whereby Rommel came to the rescue of the Italians soon after the beginning of the African conflict.

Germany

Germany’s initial plans to invade Britain (known as Operation Sea Lion) during the Battle of Britain were called off, after which an alternate plan was proposed by some of Hitler’s military advisors. This alternate plan proposed that Germany should dispatch forces in the opposite direction to Europe, to the Mediterranean.

This plan’s aim was to seize valuable territory in the middle east – which was considered to be the artery of the British Empire in terms of supply lines – to force Britain to the negotiating table. Panzer Divisions that would have been destined for Britain could now be redeployed to support the Italians in North Africa. Mussolini was an essential ally for Germany in Africa, too, as Germany’s southern lines here were vulnerable.

USA

Initially, events in Africa failed to even touch upon the concerns of the USA. The opinion polls carried out during Roosevelt’s campaign for his third term as president indicated the US public favoured staying out of the European war. USA’s isolationist policy presented a real challenge for Churchill, who knew the USA was a vital ally, crucial for eventual allied victory over the axis powers. It was therefore crucial to persuade Roosevelt that the Nazis posed a real and imminent threat to the USA.

It was only after France fell to Germany that that Roosevelt could even begin to persuade Congress to rethink its isolationist ideals. After much persuasion, Roosevelt pledged fifty naval destroyers to Britain, convincing congress that the guarantees pertaining to Britain’s colonies were a huge gain in return for ships that were not very useful to the USA in the first place. At any other time, this deal would have been humiliating for Churchill, but given the situation, Churchill viewed this as an important step in bringing the United States closer to the allies, with a foot in the door that eventually led to her stepping into the conflict with her impressive military powers. Within 2 years of 1940, Roosevelt was sending troops to North Africa, initiating the US’s first involvement in the war.

The Soviet Union

Stalin also wanted to remain aloof from the Germany vs Britain conflict, but for different reasons to Roosevelt. He was more concerned with matters at home, and managing his cynical relationship with Hitler. Stalin’s main aim was to attempt to placate and humour Hitler’s turning to Russia for his plans for Lebensraum (stated in Mein Kampf) and his plans to eradicate Bolshevism. Russia’s interest in Africa was the Dardanelles, a passage allowing for Soviet shipping  and also a strategic choke point that Stalin knew would be a target of Hitler’s advances. However, in 1940, war in Africa still wasn’t a huge concern for The Soviet Union.

The Course of Battle in Africa

The Initial Italian Push

At the outset of the conflict in North Africa, it was Italy that appeared to have the superiority, at least on paper, anyhow. In comparison with British forces, Italy should have been dominant. As of 1939, it had 183 combat ships compared to Britain’s 45. Italy’s 108 submarines also out-numbered those of Britain – Admiral Cunningham, after all, had just 12 submarines at the time. In terms of air forces, the RAF fared a little better than Britain’s navy, though Britain’s 205 aircraft were still outnumbered by Italy’s 300+. As for land forces, Italy had 250,000 troops in Libya, compared to Britain’s 150,000 on the ground. However, Britain’s ground troops were superior in terms of training, equipment, organisation, and perhaps most importantly, leadership.

On 13th September 1940, Graziani entered into Egypt. The initial thrust was timed rather well, considering that Britain was still concerned with events at home; the Battle of Britain raged on, meaning she was in no position to properly counter Italy’s initial attack. As the situation eased off at home in Britain, however, Wavell was permitted reinforcements, including 120,000 commonwealth troops, allowing for a more effective British response to Italy on the ground. November 11th saw a successful surprise attack by the British on Taranto, causing heavy damage. On Dec 9th, Britain’s Western Desert Force attacked Italy at Sidi Barrani. By Jan 3rd 1941, Britain had successfully forced the Italians out of Egypt.

German Pushback and Major Military Operations

The months following Britain’s victory over Italian forces in Africa and the middle-east saw Hitler’s heavy reinforcing of the Italian troops on the ground, however. These reinforcements, including troops led by General Rommel’s tactical cunning, dealt some serious damage to the allied forces in the months following Italy’s exit from Egypt. By April 3rd, such damage was felt by the British: they had been forced out of Benghazi.

Following these events, a number of military operations were put into effect by the Allies. Initial lack of success was damaging of course, but the latter operations led to increased success, the introduction of the USA into the conflict, and the inevitable victory that followed.

Operation Brevity

This operation involved an attempt by the British to secure the Halfaya Pass. British movements were anticipated by Rommel, however, leading to the Germans re-capturing the pass and the failure of the British Operation.

Operation Battleaxe

Launched on 15th of June by Wavell, Battleaxe was launched and initially looked hopeful. However, Rommel’s tactical use of anti-aircraft guns against British tanks led to British suffering heavy losses. At this time, Germany’s main focus was Operation Barbarossa in Russia, and this lack of focus allowed the British to reinforce their numbers of tanks, aircraft, and divisions. This was followed by Operation Crusader on Nov 18th, with allied success established by January 1942.

El Alamein

Rightly viewed as a pivotal battle in Africa, this battle saw fierce opening throes with heavy pushes on both sides. Furthering my point in the opening paragraphs about this being a war of supply, Rommel’s forces were looking dangerously depleted of them in the latter weeks of this battle, leading to a retreat to Tunisia on November 4th, a journey of well over 1000 miles for the deflated axis forces to travel.

Operation Torch

This operation is probably more widely known as the allied landings in North West Africa. This operation marked the entry of the United States into the conflict, and the resulting increase in resources and numbers on the ground, at sea, and in the air resulted in a major turning of the tides. Operation Torch led to the eventual surrender of the Axis powers in Tunisia in 1943.