*Includes accounts of the fighting
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
The fighting in North Africa during World War II is commonly overlooked, aside from the famous battle at El Alamein that pitted the British under General Bernard Montgomery against the legendary "Desert Fox," Erwin Rommel. But while the Second Battle of El Alamein would be the pivotal action in North Africa, the conflict in North Africa began all the way back in the summer of 1940 when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared Italy's entrance into the war. From his perspective, the fact that the British and French had their hands full with the Germans created an opportunity for Italy to enlarge its colonial holdings in Africa by seizing portions of the British Empire. However, British troops in the colony of Egypt responded to Italy's declaration of war by driving through the Egyptian-Ethiopian border and attacking Italian troops stationed in the Italian colony of Ethiopia. By September 13, 1940, Italian commanders in Ethiopia were finally ready to put Mussolini's plan into action and attack British colonial holdings, but British troops had already attacked a series of Italian frontier posts and had inflicted 3,500 casualties among Italy's North African troops.
Dealing with the Italians was one thing, but the British faced an entirely different monster in North Africa when Erwin Rommel, a German general who had gained much fame for his role in the invasions of Poland and France, was sent to North Africa in February 1941. For the next two years, the Allies would face off against the legendary Desert Fox and his Afrika Korps. As a specific unit, the Afrika Korps represented only a small part of the German forces deployed in the North African theater, but the term "Afrika Korps" has since come to imply all forces under Rommel's command, and the Afrika Korps is now associated with all German war efforts in North Africa.
Rommel's directives from the German headquarters were to maneuver in a way that would allow him to hide the fact that his ultimate goal was the capture of Cairo and the Suez Canal. The ultimate plan was that Rommel would not reveal the Germans' true intentions in North Africa until after the Germans had made headway in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
With the Axis forces trying to push through Egypt towards the Suez Canal and the British Mandate of Palestine, American forces landed to their west in North Africa, which ultimately compelled Rommel to try to break through before the Allies could build up and overwhelm them with superior numbers. Given that the combined Allied forces under Montgomery already had an advantage in manpower, Montgomery also wanted to be aggressive, and the fighting would start in late October 1942 with an Allied attack.
The Second Battle of El Alamein was a turning point in the campaign. While the scale of the battle paled in comparison to the battles of the Eastern Front, where the majority of German troops were concentrated, it still marked an important victory in World War II, especially from the British perspective. The British, who had suffered through three years of war in which they seemed to teeter on the brink of defeat, were able to hang their hats on the victory, reviving the nation's morale and reaffirming its military might. Over the next few weeks, the Allies made steady progress and forced Rommel to conduct a fighting retreat to safety until his army linked up with another Axis army in Tunisia, but the fighting at the end of 1942 inevitably compelled all Axis forces to quit the theater, the first time since the beginning of the war that Africa was safe for the Allies.
The Afrika Korps: The History of Nazi Germany's Expeditionary Force in North Africa during World War II chronicles one of World War II's most famous fighting units.