The war in Africa was to play a key role in the overall success of the Allies in World War Two. Within the Africa scenario, In the initial stages of World War Two, the Allies did not do well. The Battle of Britain gave British people hope after the despair of Dunkirk, but the first real ‘taste’ of success was to come in Africa with Montgomery’s victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
The British Army was in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. The use of this canal allowed a vast amount of time to be cut for journeys taken from Europe to the Far East. If Britain controlled the Suez then Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers could not use it.
Also if the Allies could build up bases in North Africa there was always the potential to launch an attack on what Churchill called the “soft underbelly of Europe” – Italy or Yugoslavia. Hitler also feared this.
By 1941, the Italian army had been all but beaten and Hitler had to send German troops to North Africa to clear out Allied troops. The German force was lead by Erwin Rommel – one of the finest generals of the war.
In March 1941, Rommel attacked the Allies in Libya. By May 1941, they had been pushed back into Egypt and only Tobruk held out against the “Desert Fox”.
In June 1941, General Wavell started “Operation Battleaxe” to help Tobruk. It failed as the Allied force was simply too small to defeat the Afrika Korps. Churchill sacked Wavell and replaced him with General Claude Auchinleck. He planned an attack on Rommel for November 1941 with the same aspiration of helping Tobruk. The attack succeeded and Rommel was forced into a retreat.
By January 1942, Rommel had re-organised his forces and hit back – with success. He was stopped when he reached Gazala. Rommel’s skill was fighting with the bare minimum. Germany at this time had soldiers on three fronts – France, Russia and North Africa. The German army was spread over a vast area and 2\3rds of the army was based in Russia with a proportionate amount of equipment including vital oil supplies.
In May 1942, Rommel began a new attack. He was later to comment that although the British forces had more weaponry than him, they used such equipment in a poor way – “bit by bit”
In June 1942, Tobruk fell. 35,000 Allied troops were taken prisoner. This was more men than Rommel had at his disposal.
Auchinleck retreated to El Alamein and in July 1942 the first battle took place. Rommel’s attack faltered only because he ran out of supplies especially fuel. German supply routes were being hindered by newly formed special forces units – the SAS and Long Range Desert Group. Both these forces did great damage to Rommel’s supply lines and played a major part in halting Rommel’s advance. Despite success, Auchinleck was sacked and replaced by 2 generals. General Alexander was put in overall command and Bernard Montgomery was put in charge of the Eighth Army (the Desert Rats). `Monty` took time to consolidate his forces and by October 1942 he had 230,000 men and 1400 tanks whereas Rommel had 80,000 men and 500 tanks.
|“The battle which is about to begin will be one of the most important battles in history. It will be the turning point of the war.” Montgomery
The Battle of El Alamein started on October 23rd 1942 with a massive bombardment of German lines by 800 big guns. This was followed by bombing by planes before the tanks were sent into battle. Rommel was forced to retreat under this devastating assault and started to do so on November 3rd 1942. This time he was not given the time to re-group his force as the Allies did not give him the time to do so. Equally as important was the Americans landing in Algeria which meant that Rommel was trapped between the British forces and the advancing American forces. Rommel wanted to evacuate troops before the inevitable happened but Hitler expressly forbade it. Rommel was flown out of North Africa but 130,000 Germans surrendered and by May 1943 the war in North Africa was over.
Why was it so important?
The Africa Korps contained some of Hitler’s finest soldiers and a vast amount of first class equipment was lost by the Germans including the newly designed battle tanks.
Also this victory did expose the south of Italy to invasion and the Allies duly invaded Sicily which would be used as a springboard for an invasion of mainland Italy and from there parts of Germany in the south could be bombed to bring more devastation to Hitler’s Germany. The victory at El Alamein also showed that Hitler’s army was not invincible.