*** war and social upheaval: World War II African campaigns

World War II African Campaigns

World War II African campaigns
Figure 1.--Mussolini declared war in Britain (June 194) and sent a large army from Libya into Egypt to seize the all important Suez Canal (September 1940). Egypt went from a backwater far removed from the War, to Britain's only active front. British had only a small force in Egypt to protect the Canal, They rapidlt organized the Western Desert Force. And as Hitler was preparing an invasion, was unable to strongly reinforce the Egyptian garrison, but did manage to send forces and supplies despite the desperate situation. he BEF had escaped at Dunkirk, but had lost almost all its equipment. Fortunately for the British, Empire reinforcements arroved from the Dominions (especially Australia) and India. Here boys in Bankstown, a Sydney, suburb cheer own their army headed for Egypt. The Australian Army woukd be still fighting it out with the Italans and Germans when the Japanese launched the Pacific War and thus Australia largely undefended. It would be up to the battered U.S. Pacific Fleet to turn the Japanese back.

Fighting in Africa was primarily in North Africa and commonly considered as an off-shoot of the European theater. The principal World War II campaign fought in Africa was the fighting in the Western Desert launched by the Italians with an invasion of British occupied Egypt (October 1940). The Germans joinedcthe campaign (March (1941). The campaign was finally won by the British at El Alemaine (October 1942) after which the fighting shifted to the Vichy colonies with an Anglo-American invasion--Operation Totch (November 1942). Hitler prolonged the campaign by rushing reinfotcements to Tunisia, but the Allies finally completed the campaign by taking Tunis and Bizerte and large numbers of Axis prisioners (May 1943). While this was the principal campaign, there were a number of smaller operations. The British and Free French failed to take Dakar from Vichy (1941). The British took Italian East Africa (1942). German and Japanese submarines were able to resupply in Vichy controlled Mozambique. Gradually the Free French were able to seize control of the Vichy-controlled collonies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Western Desert (1940-42)

Once it was clear that the French Army was defeated, Mussolini decided to join Hitler and declared war on France and Britain. Even though German armies were pouring through France, Mussolini's attack in the south was unsuccessful. Mussolini also invaded Egypt from Libya, hoping to seize the Suez Canal (September 13, 1940). Although badly outnumbered the British 8th Army not only stopped the Italians but counter attacked (December 9, 1940). The British move toward Benghazi with a series of victories. The Italians are near collapse. Hitler in order to prevent the fall of Libya orders a small armoured force to Libya to support the Italians. The force under Erwin Rommel begins to arrive March 22, 1941. Rommel and his Africa Korps stop the British and even though he has only a small force launches a counter-attack (March 30, 1941). Rommel drives the British back into Egypt. Here Rommel's inovatic tactics and the superority of the German Panzers were critical. ANZAC resistance at Tobruck helps to stop Rommel. A British counter offensive drive Rommel and the Italians back into Libya (November 18, 1941). It is at this time that Churchill honors a pledge to assist Greece weakens the 8th Army. Rommel strikes and again drives into Egypt (January 21, 1942). This time Rommel takes Tobruk (June 21, 1942). He moves toward Suez, but is stopped after a ferocious battle at El Alemain (July 2, 1942). A standoff occurs as the two armies prepare for a show down. Churchill gives Montgomery command of the 8th Army (August 13, 1942). This is the highwater of the German war effort. Rommel is only a few miles from Suez and Von Paulitz's 6th Army is investing Stalingrad. Here America's entry into the War begins to swing the ballance. American industry provided Montgomery, with supplies and equipment in massive quantities. The Germans bogged down in the Soviet Union can not devote the men are material needed by Rommel. The British defeat of the Italian Navy in the Mediterrean means that much of the supplies sent to Rommel are sunk. The British are assisted in this effort by Ultra.

Dakar--French West Africa (September 1940)

The Franco-German Armistice (June 1940) left the French Empire in Vichy hands and colonial officials regonized the Vichy Goivernment, although there was strong resentment with what the Germans had done. Charles DeGualle from Britain wanted to use the British Royal Navy to help him seize control of the colonies for his still nacent Free French movement. Senegal ws the miost important part of Frech West Afrfica and Dakar, the capital, a port of some importance. The Allies first move was on Senegal and Gabon in French Equatorial Africa. Allied forces engaged Vichy forces in both colonies (late-1940). Although shocked by the fall of France and with string anti-German sentiment, French setiment in Dakar swung against the British when the Royal Navy moved against the French fleet (July 1940). This operation included the battleship Richelieu in the port of Dakar. General de Gaulle suggested an overland campaign to take Dakar, first landing at Conakry, French Guinea (August 1940). At the time, the Free French was still very new and there was considerable sympathy for Marshal P�tain and Vichy. DeGualle believed that he could build popular support for the Free French during the drive on Dakar. The British anxious for a quick victory wanted to move directly on Dakar. A naval task force was dispatched to seize the port. The Allies attempted to convince the Vichy authorities to allow them to enter the port. When this failed, the attempted an armed seizure--the Battle of Dakar (Septemner 23-25). The Allies failed to take Dakar and withdrew. Dakar would remain in Vichy hands until the Torch landings in North africa (November 1942).

Gabon--French Equatorial Africa (November 1940)

Three French light cruisers (Georges Leygues, Gloire, and Montcalm were intercepted by Allied ships en route to Libreville. The intercepting Allied ships included the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia oygunned the French light cruisers which were forced to withdraw. The Battle of Gabon resulted in the Free French seizing control of Libreville (November 8-12). It was the first Free French victory of the War.

East Africa (1941)

On paper it looked like the Italians also had a large force in Ethiopia. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The British put together a small force of South African and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups. The British launched a southern and northern offensive. The southern offensive involved moving north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East Africa had no way to obtain supplies and refinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The failure of the Italian offensive in the Western Desert left Italian East Africa cut off. The major British offensive was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa, which was designed to cut the rail line between Addis Ababa and French Djibouti which at the times was in Vichy hands. The British were incontrol of Italian Somaliland (March 3). A scond prong of British troops from Sudan drove into Eritrea which cut the Italians off from the Red Sea. The northern campaign climaxed with the Battle of Keren and the defeat of Italian troops in Eritrea (March 27). The Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. Haile Selassie triumphantly reentered Addis Ababa (May 5). Isolanted Italian forces continued to resist. The final Italian forces surredered at Gonder (January 1942). Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II.

Madagascar (May-November 1942)

Diego Suarez on the norther tip of Madagascar has a large bay and fine harbour and as a result was some geopolitical importance. After the the fall of France (June 1940), Governor General Armand L�on Annet was steadfastly loyal to Vichy. Without France assisting Britain, the Axis closed the Mediterranean to British shipping. This meant that the British army in the Egypt and the Western Desert had to be supplied by comvoys around the Cape of Good Hope abnd up the eastern coast of Africa. Possession of Madagagascar and especially Diego Suarez could block Allied cargos. This possibility was not lost on Axis naval planners. The Japanese seizure of Malaya and Singapore made Indian Ocean operations possible. The Japanese were interested in the Indian Ocean and conducted a carrier raid into the eastern Indian Ocean even before forcing the anerican carriers to battle (March 1942). A small submarine dorce was disoatched into the Indian Ocean (May 1942). The American carrier victory at Midway meant that the Japanese would be unable to commit significant naval forces to the Indian Ocean, especially surface forces. British naval planners began to discuss the need to take Madagascar (November 1941). General DeGualle pressed Churchill for a joint operation to seize Madagascar from Vihy control (December 1942). Churchill declined citing the lack of available resources. He saw the need, however, to seize Diego Suuarez which the Japanese could use not only to stop convoys to the 8th Any in the Western Desert, but also to Cylon and India. Prepatations for the operation began in South Africa (March 1942). The seizure of Madagascar ws coide naned (Operation Ironckad). It was a British operation. For reasons we do not fully undestand, Churchill did not want the Free French involved. The British landed near Diego Suarez (May 5). The landing force was composed of British infantry, marines, and comandos. Much of the defending Vichy force was Makagassy. There was some force fighting. Diego Suarez was in Britidh hands (May 7). Most of the intense fighting took place in the fight for Diego Suarez. Japanese submarines damaged HMS Ramilles an aging bsttleship. Governor Annet withdrew to the south and operations continued at a low level until he surrendered (November 6), 2 days before the Torch landings in North Africa. .

El Alemein (October 1942)

British and Italin/Germany armies launched offensives which swung back and forth between Egypt and Libya. It looked like Rommel's Africa Corps might reach Suez in 1942, but the British stopped him at El Alamein. Here the two armies prepared for a massive battle. The Afrika Korps supply lines crossed the Mediterranan where with the help of Ultra, the British destroyed large quantities of supplies. The British in turn had longer supply lines, but their new American allies delivered vast quantities of weapons and supplies. This enabled Montgomery's 8th Army to smash the Afrika Korps (October 1942). While this made headlines, the more decisive action occurred to the west in French North Africa. Amercan and British landings in North Africa known as Operation Torch sealed the fate of the Axis desert campaign. Even if Rommel had broken through to Suez, he would have been forced to turn west to deal with the Allied landings in French North Africa.

Operation Torch (November 1942)

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that the Allies needed to open a Second Front to take pressure off the hard-pressed Red Army reeling under the German summer offensive driving toward Stalingrad and the oil-rich Caucauses (July 1942). Joseph Stalin demanded an invasion of Europe. Wisely Roosevelt and Churchill targetted French North Africa. American General George Marshall, in many ways the architect of the American victory, was opposed to Totch, considering it a diversion. Roosevelt insisted. While Montgomery's victory at El Alemain often receives more attentiin, it was the Torch landings that were the decisive action. The Amercan and British landings in North Africa sealed the fate of the Axis desert campaign. Even if Rommel had broken through to Suez, he would have been forced to turn west to deal with the Allied landings in French North Africa. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Allied commander to oversee the Torch Landings. The Allies driving east from their Moroccan and Algerian beachheads linked up with the Brish advancing west (November 1942). Although Hitler rushed reinforcements to Tunisia, the end result was the first major defeat of a German Army by the Western Allies.

Tunisia (May 1943)

With the Mareth Line broken the Afrika Korps was forced to fall back to central Tunisia. This allowed the 1st and 8th Armies to link up (April 8). The Germans fell back on Tunis and Bizerte through which a trickle of supplies were still arriving. They establish a defensive perimter around the two ports. Here Von Arnim still had a powerful force and Von Armim and most German units were still determined to resist. The Italians were less willing. The Allied blockade becomes increasingly effective, essentially cutting off the Axis forces. The strong point defending the pocket in the north is Hil 609 which had stopped the initial Allied drive. It is surrounded abnd taken by the 34th American Division (May 1). This was a National Guard Division that had been hammered by the Germans earlier in its baptism of fore. And like a lot of American units had learned a great deal about fighting the Germans. Effective Axis resistance collapses (May 6) and the Americans and British take Tunis. Isolated German resistance continues, but they are surrounded and running out of amunition. Von Armim surrenders (May 12). Some 250,000 Axis soldiers surrender. This is the largest surrender of Axis soldiers until the end of the War.

Libyan Air Bases

The United States after the Torch landings rushed to open air bases in Libya. After Tunisia fell, the war shifted north to Italy beginning with the Sicily landings (July 1943) followed by the Italian armistice and landings in southern Italy (September 1943). Until the landings in Italy and the taking of airports there, howver, the United States Air Force used bases in Libya to attack Axis tatgets in the Balkans and Italy. By far the most important target was the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. Ploesti was Germany's only important source of natural petroleum. The rest of the German protelum was produced by synthetic fuel plants in the Reich. Given the importance of Romanian oil, Ploesti was one of the most heavily defended targets in Europe. Taking Libya brought Ploesti in range of Allied air craft for the first time. The first American raid proved a disater with heavy losses of planes and air crews. The Americans would be back and after taking outhern Italy, the campaign was continued from much closer Italian bases.


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Created: June 25, 2000
Last updated: 6:19 AM 1/2/2014