The North African Campaign of the Second World War began from the 10th June 1940 and continued for 2 years, 11 months and 3 days, as Axis and Allied forces pushed each other back and forth across the desert. At the beginning of the war, Libya had been an Italian colony for several decades and Benito Mussolini already had over 200,000+ men in the Italian Army based there. British forces had been in neighbouring Egypt since 1882 and had only 36,000 men guarding the Suez Canal and the Arabian oil fields. The two armies began skirmishing almost as soon as Italy declared war on the Allied Nations in 1940. Italy invaded Egypt in September 1940, and in a December counterattack, British and Indian forces captured some 130,000 Italians. Adolf Hitler was shocked by the defeats being suffered by the Italian Army in January 1941. Hitler's response to this loss was to send in the newly formed German expeditionary force the "Afrika Korps" or German Africa Corps (German: Deutsches Afrikakorps, DAK) led by General Erwin Rommel who later became known as "The Desert Fox". Several long, brutal pushes back and forth across Libya and Egypt reached a turning point in the Second Battle of El Alamein in late 1942 when Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army broke out and drove Axis forces all the way from Egypt to Tunisia.
In the Second Battle of El Alamein 50,000 Axis troops were killed or captured of the Allies’ 13,500, and Rommel’s force of tanks was virtually wiped out. There could be no doubting who had won the fight, and Churchill was so delighted that he ordered the church bells of England, silent since 1940 in case they should be needed to signal an invasion, to ring out in triumph all over Britain. As he said later:
"Before Alamein, we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."
In November, Operation Torch brought in thousands of British and American forces. The landings occurred early on 8th November 1942, in three separate locations. 102 ships, carrying 35,000 US soldiers, set off from Virginia and crossed the Atlantic to Casablanca, Morocco. 39,000 British soldiers, escorted by the Royal Navy, left the Clyde on 26th October and headed towards Oran, Algeria. Meanwhile, a third mixed task force, carrying 23,000 British soldiers and 10,000 Americans and escorted by 160 Royal Navy ships, travelled from the Clyde to Algiers, capital of Algeria. All three forces landed together on 8th November, 1942. They landed across western North Africa, and joined the attack, eventually helping force the surrender of all remaining Axis troops in Tunisia on the 13th May 1943 and ending the Campaign for North Africa.
From isolated pockets among the last to surrender came the military commanders – commanders in name only, since they no longer possessed the means to communicate with their broken troops, even to tell them to stop fighting. First to Major-General Keightley of 6th Armoured Division, who passed him to Lieutenant-General Freberg, came the commander of 90th Light Division, Freyberg’s old rival. Almost simultaneously, an officer of 4th Indian Division stumbled across General von Arnim and his staff and brought them to Major – General Tucker. Last of all, on the 13th, there came Field-Marshal Messe (promoted to the rank 24 hours before) to surrender in person, and as unconditionally as the rest, to Freyberg.
In all the Allies captured 275,000 prisoners in Tunisia, a mix of combat and non-combat troops. Hitler had refused to allow any evacuation until it was too late, and then only for specific lists of specialist troops. As a result, large numbers of support troops and specialists were captured along with the fighting troops.
The last signal from the Afrikakorps was sent by its final commander, General Cramer. 'Ammunition shot off. Arms and equipment destroyed. In accordance with orders received the Afrikakorps has fought itself into the condition where it can fight no more. The Deutsches Afrikakorps must rise again. Heia Safari!'
In contrast, Alexander sent a shorter signal to Churchill:
‘Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of North African shores.’ (Signed) H. R. Alexander.
After victory by the Allies in the North African Campaign, the stage was set for the Italian Campaign to begin. The invasion of Sicily followed two months later.
During the entire North African campaign, the Germans and Italians suffered 620,000 casualties, while the British Commonwealth lost 220,000 men. The Allied victory in North Africa destroyed or neutralized nearly 900,000 German and Italian troops, opened a second front against the Axis, permitted the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland in the summer of 1943, and removed the Axis threat to the oilfields of the Middle East and to British supply lines to Asia and Africa. It was critically important to the course of World War II.
It must be noted that the treatment of prisoners by both sides was on the whole very good, captured prisoners on both sides who required medical attention were given the best treatment as the situation permitted. Many British and Commonwealth prisoners were surprised at the fair treatment they received from the Afrika Korps when captured. The same can be said for the German prisoners.
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