campaigns in North Africa

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North Africa Campaign (1942–1943).Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa by American and British forces in November 1942, was the first major joint Allied offensive operation in World War II. It was the largest amphibious military operation undertaken until then. More than 500 American and British warships, troop transports, supply vessels, and landing craft took part. Over 100,000 troops, mostly Americans, sailed from the United States and Britain to Morocco and Algeria in the opening phase of the invasion.

The decision to invade North Africa ran counter to the U.S. War Department's desire to invade German‐occupied France across the English Channel in 1943. The Soviet Union also wanted the West to open a second front. The British feared that a cross‐Channel invasion would be premature and would lead to a slaughter on the beaches of France, while Allied control of the North African coast, the ultimate objective of Operation Torch, would expose what Winston Churchill called the “soft underbelly” of occupied Europe. Facing pressure from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a bold, uncostly military move in the European area before November congressional elections, and British objections to an early cross‐Channel operation, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall reluctantly agreed to the invasion of Vichy French–held North Africa.

Marshall picked U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to be supreme commander, and British Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham was chosen to be naval commander. They assembled forces, supplies, and naval and maritime support. Eisenhower also sent Gen. Mark Clark on a secret submarine mission to negotiate with local Vichy forces not to oppose the landings. Beginning on 8 November, four days after the British stopped German general Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in Egypt, the Anglo‐American landings commenced with commando port assaults and nighttime beach landings. The Allies aided Free French rebels and overwhelmed Vichy French resistance, which was relatively light. The Vichy military commander, Adm. François Darlan, visiting Algiers, was captured and persuaded on 11 November to order a cease‐fire. U.S. forces sustained 1,400 casualties, 526 of which were fatalities. As a result of the invasion, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to occupy Vichy France and rushed troops to Tunisia before the Americans could conquer it. On 14 February 1943, the U.S. II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, was surprised in the Kasserine Pass by a German counterattack and temporarily thrown back. Fredendall was replaced by Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley, and they resumed the offensive. The U.S. First Army and Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery's British Eighth Army contained the Germans in Tunisia in April, and 250,000 German and Italian troops surrendered on 13 May 1943, marking the end of the North Africa Campaign. The U.S. casualities amounted to about 18,500.
[See also World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


George F. Howe , Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West, 1957.
Carlo D'Este , World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942–1945, 1990.

Norman Gelb

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campaigns in North Africa, series of military contests for control of North Africa during World War II. The desert war started in 1940 and for more than two years thereafter seesawed between NE Libya and NW Egypt. The almost uniformly level terrain along the coast allowed tanks and aircraft to play dominant roles. Temporary success was always won by the side that first was able to build up air and armored strength, but for a long time neither side could achieve decisive victory.

The Italian Campaign

Italy's entrance into World War II (June 10, 1940) made N Africa an active theater in which control of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea was contested. Fighting began with the rapid Italian occupation of British Somaliland in Aug., 1940. The first of what was to be three Axis drives into Egypt was launched (Sept. 12, 1940) from Libya by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani's Italian forces. By Sept. 17 the Italian drive reached Sidi Barani (c.60 mi/97 km inside Egypt) and then stalled. On Dec. 9, 1940, the British under Gen. Archibald P. Wavell began a surprise counterattack with numerically inferior forces and chased Graziani c.500 mi (805 km) along the coast of Cyrenaica to El Agheila (Feb. 8, 1941).

Rommel's Offensives

The collapse of the Italian army forced Germany to reinforce its ally with the Afrika Korps under Gen. Erwin Rommel. The British had cut their strength in Africa to send troops to Greece, and in April Rommel was able to drive them back to the border of Egypt. The Australian garrison at Tobruk in Libya managed to hold out. Gen. Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell. With the new British 8th Army, he attacked and pushed Rommel back to El Agheila (Jan., 1942). A German counterattack forced the British to abandon Benghazi. Auchinleck set up a defense line N of Bir Hacheim at El Gazala, c.100 mi (160 km) within Libya. Rommel moved against this line on May 26, 1942. At Knightsbridge (June 13), the British lost 230 out of 300 tanks. Auchinleck retreated c.250 mi (400 km) into Egypt where he dug in along a 35-mi (56-km) line from El Alamein on the coast to the Qattara Depression (an impassable badland), only c.70 mi (112 km) from Alexandria. This time, Tobruk fell on June 21. Both sides now raced to build up strength. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander replaced Auchinleck, and Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery took direct command of the 8th Army. Rommel's attempt to break through failed.

Allied Counterattacks

On Oct. 23, 1942, the greatly reinforced British forces launched their own offensive (for an account of the fighting, see Alamein). To save his forces Rommel began one of the longest sustained retreats in history. Frustrating British attempts to engage him, he abandoned Tripoli, which fell to the British on Jan. 23, 1943. Rommel ended his retreat only when he took up a defensive position along the Mareth Line in S Tunisia.

Meanwhile, American and British forces landed (night of Nov. 7–8, 1942) at Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca, thus occupying the territory to the west of Rommel. Under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied forces pushed toward Tunisia. The Germans, however, rushed reinforcements from Italy. Axis forces in Tunisia now faced the British 8th Army in the south, Eisenhower's force on the west, and the Free French in the southwest; but the hilly terrain favored the defense. German counterattacks in Tunisia pushed west through Faid Pass (Feb. 14, 1943) and Kasserine Pass (a week later), from which they were dislodged only after heavy fighting. In the south the Allies forced Rommel from the Mareth Line and moved up the coast to take Sousse in April.

At the beginning of May, the Axis defense crumbled, and on May 7, 1943, the Americans took Bizerta and the British took Tunis. About a quarter of a million Axis soldiers capitulated on May 12. In E Africa the fighting had earlier resulted in complete British victory; by 1942, Italian and British Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were reconquered.


See J. Strawson, Battle for North Africa (1969) and R. Atkinson, An Army at Dawn (2002).

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NORTH AFRICAN CAMPAIGN. After two years of desert skirmishes among the British, Italians, and Germans, the North African campaign opened on 8 November 1942, when Anglo-American forces under U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in French Morocco and Algeria near Casablanca and met bitter French resistance. An armistice brought the fighting to an end on 11 November, and the French forces soon joined the Allies.

Allied units under British Gen. Kenneth Anderson tried to take Bizerte and Tunis quickly, but Italian and German troops held firm. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Italo-German army, defeated at El Alamein, Egypt, in October, retreated across Libya and at the end of the year took defensive positions around Mareth, Tunisia, to halt the pursuing British under Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery. Bad weather brought operations to a close. While the seasoned Axis forces built up strength, the Allies suffered from an inadequate supply line, faulty command arrangements, and American battle inexperience and overconfidence.

In February 1943 the Axis forces, in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, drove the Americans and French back about fifty miles in southern Tunisia. Allied confidence was restored with the arrival of new field commanders, British Gen. Harold Alexander and American Gen. George S. Patton Jr. In March 1943, the Allies attacked and pushed Rommel's army into northern Tunisia. Bizerte and Tunis fell on 7 May, Arnim surrendered, and the last organized Axis resistance in North Africa ended on 13 May, with more than 250,000 prisoners taken. With North Africa secure, the stage was set for operations in Europe.


Blumenson, Martin. Kasserine Pass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

Howe, George F. Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1991.

Moorehead, Alan. The March to Tunis. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Strawson, John. The Battle for North Africa. New York: Scribner, 1969.

MartinBlumenson/a. r.

See alsoKasserine Pass, Battle of ; World War II .