At the end of 1941, Hitler had transferred forces from the eastern front to reinforce Erwin Rommel’s troops in Africa. On November 18, 1941, General Claude Auchinleck (commander of the British army in North Africa) launched Operation Crusader in an effort to succeed where his predecessor had failed in dislodging Rommel from Tobruk and, ultimately, Libya.
It took three weeks, but the British forced Rommel to withdraw to El Agheila, the place where he had started his advance eight months before. Rommel counterattacked on January 21, 1942, and quickly took Benghazi and much of the territory he’d lost, but the advance stalled, and an uneasy lull prevailed until May. The two-month battle had already cost 38,000 German and Italian lives, and 18,000 British lives.
In late May, Rommel again attacked and gained the advantage, pushing the British back near Alamein and retaking Tobruk. In less than a month of fighting, and with his forces outnumbered nearly two to one, he captured 30,000 men and tons of valuable equipment, gasoline, and food. Winston Churchill considered the defeat a disgrace.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned of the disaster while he was in Washington lobbying President Franklin Roosevelt to take part in an operation in North Africa. The British preference was to build on the limited success they’d had in the Mediterranean to pressure Hitler from the south, but some of the president’s advisers, particularly his chief of staff George Marshall, wanted to invade France, which Churchill argued would be impossible in 1942.
The debate continued in London between Churchill and Marshall. Ultimately, the British desire for an African campaign won the day, and plans were made for “Operation Torch.” Churchill had also accomplished one other important goal in his initial meeting with the president: The United States promised to ship new Sherman tanks to the British troops in Egypt.
While the Allies planned their operation, Rommel began his own, a drive to seize Egypt. With Crete as a base of supplies, the Afrika Korps rolled across the desert and into Egypt, just 60 miles from the key port city of Alexandria.
Auchinleck managed to stop Rommel at El Alamein, but he was already preparing options for an evacuation should the Germans reach the Suez Canal. Auchinleck was then replaced as Middle East commander in chief by General Harold Alexander, who had overseen the evacuation from Dunkirk. The principal army command was handed over to General Bernard Law “Monty” Montgomery.
Rommel, recently appointed field marshal by Hitler, made one last effort to push through the British defense on August 30. Unbeknownst to him, however, British intelligence knew he was coming, and information about his supply ships allowed the Royal Navy to sink three fuel ships. The shortage of fuel, combined with Montgomery’s staunch defense, stopped the Afrika Korps. The British continued to hold the line against Rommel’s repeated thrusts until September 3, when he was forced to withdraw. He would never reach Alexandria or the Suez Canal.
Montgomery was not finished with Rommel. On October 23, 1942, he went on the offensive to chase Rommel out of Africa, starting with an attack on El Alamein. Rommel was in Germany at that moment on sick leave. His replacement, General Georg Stumme, died of a heart attack, however, and the Desert Fox, as Rommel was called, returned to the battlefield on the 25th.
The British force consisted of 150,000 men, including New Zealanders, South Africans, and Australians, and was supported by 700 aircraft and 1,000 tanks. In the seesaw battle that followed, both sides suffered heavy losses, but the British emerged victorious, forcing Rommel into what would be a 2,000-mile retreat on November 5. The British would continue their march across North Africa, reaching Tripoli by the end of January 1943. By that time, the Italians’ African empire was gone.
|American soldiers land near Algiers. The soldier at the dune line is carrying a flag because it was hoped the French would be less likely to fire on Americans.|
Three days after Rommel withdrew, Operation Torch began on November 8, 1943, with the landing of 107,000 Allied troops on the beaches of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, the largest amphibious invasion force in history. The Americans were now in the fight for Europe.
In preparation for the operation, U.S. officials requested that the Algerian resistance attack strategic locations in Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. The underground failed in Oran and Casablanca, but seized part of Algiers and neutralized the French XIX Army Corps the day Torch began.
When the British convinced the United States to launch Operation Torch, their expectation was that the operation would not meet too much resistance. They hoped to quickly overrun the troops in North Africa and set the stage for the planned cross-Channel invasion. All went according to plan in Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria, which were captured in only three days, but Allied troops became seriously bogged down in Tunisia, where Vichy loyalists opened the Tunisian ports and airfields to the Axis, which poured in reinforcements to stop the Allied advance.
Over the next few months, roughly 30,000 Italians and 150,000 Germans, along with huge quantities of material and aircraft, were deployed in Tunisia. The British, American, and Free-French troops did capture half the country, but they could not reach the capital of Tunis. Part of the problem for the Allies was the fact that more North Africans remained loyal to Vichy than they expected.
A major consequence of the failure to quickly overrun Tunisia was to force the postponement of the cross-Channel attack. Military planners concluded it would be impossible to mount an operation before 1944 and that 1943 would have to be devoted to a Mediterranean campaign.
The good news was that the Americans were getting their baptism by fire, learning as they went how to fight the Germans. In the shorter run, the benefit was that the Allies forced Hitler to siphon off troops and aircraft he desperately needed on the eastern front and thereby helped Stalin.
Source: Mitchell Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II, (3rd Edition), Alpha Books, 2010.