*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- theaters frica Asian War


World War II African Theater: The Western Desert

Afrika Korps
Figure 1.--Race was central to the German war plan as conceived by Hitler. Both he and Stalin desired to remake the ethnic map of Europe. Hitler's focus was primarily on the Jews and the Slavs in the east. Goebbels propaganda machine also focused on the Jews, but not the Slavs. Instead considerable venom was directed at black Africans. While the countries of North Africa are dominated by the Arabs. The NAZI racial view of the Arabs is not entirely clear. There were also Africans in both Egypt and Libya. Here Afrika Korps men are intrigued by a liitle African boy. Very few blacks lived in Germany and thus they were a bit of a novelty.

The most important African campaign was fought by the British/Commonwealth forces in the Western Desert. The name derived from the fact that from the British perspective it was the desert campsign fought from their bases in the desert west of Egypt and Suez. It was the Axis attempt to take Egyot and Suez from Libya and the British attempt to wrestle Libya from Egypt. The campaign in the Western Desert was strategically about Suez and the oil resources of Iraq and Iran. But tactically they were cruccial. The Wehrmacht was the only force that had sucessfully adopted Blitkrieg as a tactical doctrine. It was in the Western Desert that the British learned to sucessfully fight the Germans. They were well supplied in abundance by the Americans and oil was available in whatever quantities needed from Iraq. Rommel and the Afrika Korps in contrast were a relatively small German force on the perifery of Axis Europe and were starved for men, equipment, and supplies because of the priorities of the eastern Front and British attacks on Italin supply convoys. Malta played a key role in the interdiction effort. The sharp Mediterranean naval battles were primarily to dtermine the ability of the Italian Navy to protect the supply convoys. Unlike the French Army which had no time to learn (1940), the British had 2 years to learn and Rommel mproved to be a superb if punishing task master. The Americans had the benefit of the British experience and prioved after Kasereine to be very fast learners. Without the experience of North Africa, the Anglo-American campaign in Northern Europe beginning with D-Day would have been conducted by much less capable Allied armies. Axis losses in North Africa also helped to weaken both the Italians and Germans. North Africa was not the only military campaigns in Africa. The issue in the Western Desert was decided at El Alemain (October 1942).

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.


Malta was the cornerstone of the British campaign in the Western Desert. British possession of Malta and the invaluable naval and air bases there played a major role in interdicting Italian and Germany supply convoys to Libya. And it was supply shortages that played a key role in defeating Rommel and the Afrika Korps. Malta became the most bombed place on earth. German and Italian air forced relentlessly pounded the island. The island somehow managed to with tand the fiercest air assault of the War. The Italians began bombing Malta in 1940. The Luftwaffe joined in the campaign (January 1941) even before Rommel arrived in North Africa. Malta by March 1942 was enduring an average of 10 air raid alerts daily and there had been 117 straight days of bombing. The bombing was devestating. It also prevented supplies, food, and fuel from reaching the island. At one point Malta was near to capitulation, left virtual no fuel, food, or fighters. It was a convoy with an American carrier that finally succeeded in getting needed supplies through. Civilians suffered terribly. They had to move underground to survive. Newsreels in Britain and America showed school children moving rapidly into undergrond bunkers when the air raids sireens sounded. The population was near starvation at one point. The Axis did not, however, launch a parachute assault on the island. They had the capability as shown in Crete. Senior Axis commanders advised just sych an action. After the German terrible losses suffed by the German parachute units on Crete, however, Hitler demured, After the War, historians have taken to summrizing the assul on Cretr as "the wrong island". The Axis seige was not fully lifted until July 1943 after the Axis surrender in Tunis and the invasion of Sicily. [Holland] Operaions from Malta also played an important role in interducting Axis supply lines to Tunis, fforcing the surrender there. Some orphaned children were sent to Australia.

Mediterranean Naval Campaign

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, immediately challenge the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean . The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sicily, and Italy posed a formidable challenge. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterrean (Suez and Gibraltar). In between and in many ways the key to the Mediterranean was the small British bastion at Malta. When the Italians faltered, they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Aftrika Corps. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bare against the Axis. The Mediterranean can not be viewed as entirely a naval war. The relatively small size of the Mediterranean meant that air power in particular could be borought to bear against naval forces and ground fotces seized naval bases as well as knocking two major powers (France and Italy) out of the War

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.


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Created: 7:06 AM 12/2/2011
Last updated: 7:08 AM 7/4/2022