At the same time that war was going on in the European and Pacific theaters, conflict also escalated in North Africa, primarily as a result of Italy’s aggression in the region in 1940 and 1941. One of the primary flash points in North Africa was the key port of Tobruk, Libya, which changed hands between the Germans and the British several times and was the site of several major battles.
Originally in Italy’s sphere of influence, Tobruk fell to the British on January 12, 1941, building upon the initiative they had seized after Italy’s defeat in Egypt the previous year. More than a year later, in June 1942, Tobruk fell to the Germans after a long and intensive siege by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s tank forces. Then, in November 1942, Tobruk fell once more to the British and remained under their control for the rest of the war.
Perhaps the most decisive battle in North Africa was the Battle of El-Alamein, from October 23 to November 3, 1942, in which a powerful British offensive defeated German forces overwhelmingly. The British outnumbered the Germans two to one, and Rommel, who had by this time earned the nickname “Desert Fox” for his brilliant surprise attacks, was away on sick leave when the battle began. As the battle started, Rommel’s substitute died of a heart attack, and by the time Rommel arrived, the situation was hopeless.
Within days of the British victory at El-Alamein, the Allies launched Operation Torch, the code name for their invasion of North Africa. On November 8, 1942, British and American forces carried out an amphibious landing on the coast of French North Africa (present-day Morocco). The invasion involved more than 100,000 men and over 600 ships, placing it among the largest such invasions in history. Operation Torch was highly successful and enabled the Allies to take more than 1,000 miles of North African coastline.
With Operation Torch completed and many Allied troops on the ground in Africa, the Allies energetically pursued the Axis forces that had begun retreating into Tunisia. The desert terrain in Tunisia was ideal for a defending force, and it was here that Rommel planned to make a stand against the Allies. The Allies did not begin their offensive into Tunisia until November 25, 1942, however, and the delay of several weeks gave Germany and Italy time to airlift more troops and equipment to the region. Thus, by the time U.S. and British forces began their attacks, the Axis forces substantially outnumbered them.
The Allies faced a difficult challenge in Tunisia, and their progress was very slow. Rommel’s forces fought with tenacity in one battle after another as the fighting continued well into the spring of 1943. Nonetheless, the Allies did consistently gain ground on the Axis forces. On May 7, the Allies took Tunis and soon took the remaining Axis forces in Africa—more than 200,000 in all—prisoner. With that, the war in North Africa was over.