The Desert War

Libya Table of Contents

North Africa was a major theater of operations in World War II, and the war shifted three times across the face of Cyrenaica, a region described by one German general as a "tactician's paradise and a quartermaster's hell" because there were no natural defense positions between Al Agheila and Al Alamein to obstruct the tanks that fought fluid battles in the desert like warships at sea, and there was only one major highway on the coast along which to supply the quick-moving armies. The Italians invaded Egypt in September 1940, but the drive stalled at Sidi Barrani for want of logistical support. British Empire forces of the Army of the Nile, under General Archibald Wavell, counterattacked sharply in December, advancing as far as Tobruk by the end of the month. In February 1941, the Italian Tenth Army surrendered, netting Wavell 150,000 prisoners and leaving all of Cyrenaica in British hands. At no time during the campaign did Wavell have more than two full divisions at his disposal against as many as ten Italian divisions.

In March and April, Axis forces, stiffened by the arrival of the German Afrika Korps commanded by Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, launched an offensive into Cyrenaica that cut off British troops at Tobruk. The battle seesawed back and forth in the desert as Rommel attempted to stabilize his lines along the Egyptian frontier before dealing with Tobruk in his rear, but in November British Eighth Army commander General Claude Auchinleck caught him off balance with a thrust into Cyrenaica that succeeded in relieving Tobruk, where the garrison had held out for seven months behind its defense perimeter. Auchinleck's offensive failed in its second objective--cutting off Rommel from his line of retreat.

Rommel pulled back in good order to Al Agheila, where his troops refitted for a new offensive in January 1942 that was intended to take the Axis forces to the Suez Canal. Rommel's initial attack was devastating in its boldness and swiftness. Cyrenaica had been retaken by June; Tobruk fell in a day. Rommel drove into Egypt, but his offensive was halted at Al Alamein, 100 kilometers from Alexandria. The opposing armies settled down into a stalemate in the desert as British naval and air power interdicted German convoys and road transport, gradually starving Rommel of supplies and reinforcements.

Late in October the Eighth Army, under the command of General Bernard Montgomery, broke through the Axis lines at Al Alamein in a massive offensive that sent German and Italian forces into a headlong retreat. The liberation of Cyrenaica was completed for the second time in November. Tripoli fell to the British in January 1943, and by mid-February the last Axis troops had been driven from Libya.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress