Campaign in North Africa, 1940-43

The Middle East was of minimal importance in World War II. It vast oil wealth was largely undiscovered. However the Germans lead a major campaign in Egypt and North Africa. They had hoped to occupy Alexandria and Cairo before mounting an attack on Saudi Arabia to capture the Persian Gulf oil fields. Anxious to rid themselves of their British and French oppressors, resistance movements in the Middle East turned to Germany for support.

But still things did happen. On pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “ The palace was seized, the British-backed regent fled, and shopkeepers tore pro-British posters out of their windows. As foreigners held their breath, hoping for diplomatic intercession, Stark—never one to resist danger—took a quick recreational jaunt to Tehran, returning barely in time to pass the fearful month of May, 1941, among the captives in the British Embassy, waiting to see which side’s reinforcements would come through. It turned out that Baghdad’s Nazi contingent had known no more than anyone else about German military plans. Hitler, preparing to send huge numbers of troops to the Soviet Union, could spare only two squadrons of planes for Iraq, and these were unable to stop a makeshift British battalion sent from Palestine—it included buses from the streets of Haifa—as it made its way across the desert to Baghdad. By the end of the month, the government had changed hands again. The Embassy gates were thrown open on June 1st. More than ever convinced of the importance of getting people to talk—a matter of saving not one but two civilizations—Stark celebrated the release by buying three new hats on her way back to work. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.”]

Between September 1940 and May 1943 the Allies battled the German-Italian Axis in North Africa. The Early battles took place between Italy and Britain in the Italian colony of Libya. After the Italian army was defeated by the British, the famed Nazi general Erwin Rommel and his famed “Afrika Korps” moved in and the Germans entered Egypt in an effort to capture the Suez Canal and Middle Eastern Oil.

The Allies entered North Africa in Algeria in Morocco. Much of the fighting took place in Libya and Egypt. The sew-saw battles finally ended with the Germans, short on supplies as a result of the offensive in Russia, being driven out of Egypt and ultimately North Africa.

In 1940, the Italian army was outfoxed in Libya by the British who used inflatable tanks and artillery to defeat the Italians by making them think that the British army was much larger and more powerful than it really was. In a week’s worth of fighting at Nibeiwa in December 1940, the British captured 30,000 prisoners, took 400 square miles of territory and recaptured Sidi Barrani.

Hitler sent forces to Greece and North Africa after Mussolini's adventures there began to collapse. In December 1941 British troops seized Benghazi, a Libyan city under Italian control. Altogether 130,000 Italians were taken prisoner.

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

Rommel and Montgomery in North Africa


The conflict in North Africa was characterized by the battle of wills between Rommel and British general Sir Bernard Montgomery. Both generals stayed close to the coast. Monty slowly and carefully tracked down Rommel with the British 7th armored division, the famed "Desert Rats".

Rommel took command of the of the Afrika Corps on February 1, 1941. By May he had reclaimed gains the British had made against the Italians. Rommel's tactical brilliance earned him the nickname the Desert Fox. The Nazi practiced for fighting in North Africa in Poland.

One of Montgomery's aides, J.R, Henderson, wrote, "Monty's habits in the desert and there after were simple and regular. He would be called by soldier servant, Corporal English, at 6:30 every morning with a cup of tea and would not come out of his caravan till 8 to go across to the mess tent for breakfast. You could set your watch by his regular visit to the W.C. He would retire to bed at 9:30 in the evening no matter who was visiting the headquarters. Even when George VI came he would say: 'If you will excuse men, Sir, we have the battle to win and I must go to bed.'"

Some of the most famous battles between Rommel's “Afrika Corps” and Montgomery's Desert Rats where fought in Qattara Depression in Egypt, 50 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Mines still liter the area and visitors are warned not to venture off of the established tracks.

Battle of Al Alamein

After Rommel arrived in North Africa his “Afrika Korps” recovered Italian Cyrnaica but lacked enough manpower to crush besieged Tobruk; then they lost Cyrenaica. After receiving reinforcements and supplies, the “Africa Korps” overran the British army and pushed across Egypt to El Alamein. At that point only a shattered British army stood between Cairo and the Suez Canal.


The Germans tried to fool the British with dummy aircraft. After the British determined they were fake by examining their shadows they dispatched a single plane to drop wooden bombs on the planes.

In January, 1942 the British Eighth Army completed a successful campaigning against Rommel's Panzer divisions in Libya with 38,000 Italian and German casualties.

On October 23, Montgomery broke Rommel's line at El Alemain, a small railroad junction 70 miles west of Alexandria, by using an elaborate hoax to outfox Rommel. Within a week, Rommel had only 90 tanks but Hitler forbade him from retreating. He launched one last attack on November 4th and then was forced to retreat across Libya and into Tunisia.

Rommel was unable to respond and counterattack because he didn't have enough valuable supplies and manpower, which were being consumed by Germans on the eastern front in Russia, or lost to Allied planes. After learning on November 20 that 45 of 50 of the planes bringing him supplies were shot down he went for a walk in the desert with one of his battalion commanders. "Supplies will not be forthcoming," Rommel said. "Hitler's headquarters has already written off this theater of war. All he requires now is that 'the German soldier stands or dies.'...the war is lost."

The Battle of El Alamein was one of the turning points of the war because not only did Montgomery keep Rommel from reaching the Suez Canal, he led an offensive that drove the German forces into the American army led by Patton and Eisenhower.

Fighting During the Battle of Al Alamein

British infantry at El Alamein in 1942

Describing the fight on November 4th, General Bayerlein reported: "The remnants of the German Afrika Corps, together with the Light Division, held a thin front line on either side of the wide sand dune called Tel el Mampsra: though only some twelve feet high, this dune was a commanding feature...It was eight o'clock before the British attacked, after approximately one hour's artillery preparation. Their main effort was directed against Tel el Mampsra. By committing all its forces the Afrika Corps was able to hold attacks by two hundred British tanks. [Source: “Fatal Decisions” edited by W. Richardson and S. Freidin, Michale Joseph, 1956]

"At eleven o'clock Lieutenant Hartdgen appeared at my command post and said, 'General von Thoma has sent me back, with the radio transmitter. He doesn't need it anymore. All our tanks, anti-tank guns and ack-ack have been destroyed on Tel Mampsra. I don't know what has happened to the general.'"

Bayelrein drove an armored car to Tel el Mampsra. "It was a place of death, of burning tanks and smashed flak guns, without a living soul. But then, about two hundred yards away from the sandhole in which I was lying, I saw a man standing erect beside a burning tank, apparently impervious to the intense fire which criss-crossed about him. It was General von Thoma."

About an hour later von Thoma was captured by a force of about 200 British Sherman tanks. Von Thoma later had dinner with Montgomery in his tent. When Churchill heard about this, he said, "Poor von Thoma...I, too, have dined with Montgomery."

Americans Enter the War in North Africa

Patton and Eisenhower in Tunisia in 1943

U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower rose to prominence in November 1942 when he took over as commander of the Allied forces in the North African desert. The Battle at Kassrine Pass in Tunisia in February 1943 was his first real battle.

Eisenhower’s first major assignment in World War II was overseeing the arrival of the first Nazi-fighting American troops into the Europe theater. On November 7-8, 1942 some 400,000 American troops went ashore in Morocco and Algeria and met up with Montgomery's Eighth Army in Tunis and eventually helped them drove the Italians and Germans from North Africa. A secret agreement between Allied leaders and Vichy French forces, who promised not to give the Germans much support in North Africa, allowed Allied forces to enter Algeria and Morocco relatively unmolested.

General George S. Patton Jr. was active in North Africa. One of the most talked about and written about personalities in World War II, h3 was immortalized in the 1970 Hollywood movie which won an Oscar for George C. Scott and established many misconceptions about the famous general. The main military advisor for the movie was Gen. Omar Bradley, a man notorious for his hatred of Patton.

After Pearl Harbor, Patton rose from captain to general in a few months and when he entered the European theater of war he was 57, one of the oldest commanders in the Army. In North Africa and Sicily, Patton quickly established himself as "Old Blood and Guts," "the fastest-moving, hardest-hitting" commander in the Allied forces. By the time the Normandy campaign began he was the general feared most by Hitler.

Battle of Kasserine Pass

The Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia began on February 14, 1943, when Rommel used surprise to his advantage to lead an outnumbered Africa Korps to attack the inexperienced and ill-prepared American army in central Tunisia.

Kasserine Pass

The Americans retreated 50 miles and formed a line at Kasserine Pass, where odd units and stragglers attempted to form a united force while German infantry climbed the mountains as their tanks moved forward. The stragglers were able to stop the advance of the Germans and prevent a breakout which might have caused the Americans to retreat from the North Africa.

After getting a handle on the situation the Americans were able to use superior firepower to win the battle. In one of the more unusual engagements in North Africa, a flying V-formation of armored jeeps raced across the desert at 60 mph and attacked a convoy of German trucks carrying fuel to gas-guzzling Mark IV tanks. Within five minutes the convoy was ablaze and jeeps dashed back to the safety of their bases.

The Germans surrendered in May, 1943. Around 32,000 German and Italian soldiers were killed in fighting in Tunisia. The American causalities included 3,314 killed, 3,102 missing and 10,151 wounded or inured. A total of 2,841 U.S. soldiers are buried at the cemetery on Carthage. In addition, 3,724 names are engraved on the “Wall of the Missing” in the cemetery.

North African Blood, Guts and Racism

Describing himself as Meego, Robert Henriques, an assistant to Patton, described a gruesome scene he came across in a cowshed hit by a shell: "From inside there came an appalling odor and a terrible sound: a sound at the very top of, and almost beyond, the sonic scale; a sound that was prolonged shrieking but with no vice to it." [Source: “A Biography of Myself” by Robert Henriques, Secker & Warburg, 1969]

“Forcing himself to look inside, Meego saw the derives of a milking-stool, a milk pail, a cow and a deep black Senegalese soldier n French uniform. Meego was instantly sick. Then, forcing himself to advance through the slime of blood and milk with which the floor was awash, he had to observe that neither the cow nor the man were dead but only horribly broken. Both of their bellied had been blasted open, and their innards were intermingled. This was the cause of the stench. The sound that Meego heard was issuing from the man's tattered mouth, but the man was quite unconscious.

Surrender request by Rommel to the German command

Later when he couldn't stand the sound anymore he shot the man in the head, thinking he didn't have a chance anyway. Later he described the incident to an American doctor. The doctor told the man "probably could" could have been saved. "With these sulphur drugs. These days we'd have stuffed the guts back with suphanamide and stitched 'em upa nd he'd have been all right." After seeing Henrique's distress, the doctor said, "Don't worry, son! What's one n**^^er the less?'"

Germany Surrenders in North Africa

In early April 1943, the “Afrika Corps” was trapped between British and American forces in Tunisia without air support. and Rommel sent a message to Germany with a Dunkirk-like plan for the evacuation of Afrika Corps across the Mediterranean Sea.

On May 9th, 1943, 238,000 German and Italian soldiers surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia. Many of the German prisoners of war were taken to the United States and the Allies prepared to invade of Italy via Sicily.

More than 80,000 soldiers on both sides were killed in North Africa. Many of them are buried in the war cemeteries in the desert outside of Egyptian, Algerian and Tunisian towns.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ' "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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