During the Second World War, the North African Campaign took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 13 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts (Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War) and in Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch) and Tunisia (Tunisia Campaign).
The campaign was fought between the Allies and Axis powers, many of whom had colonial interests in Africa dating from the late 19th century. The Allied war effort was dominated by the British Commonwealth and exiles from German-occupied Europe. The United States entered the war in 1941 and began direct military assistance in North Africa on 11 May 1942.
Fighting in North Africa started with the Italian declaration of war on 10 June 1940. On 14 June, the British Army's 11th Hussars (assisted by elements of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 1st RTR) crossed the border from Egypt into Libya and captured the Italian Fort Capuzzo. This was followed by an Italian counteroffensive into Egypt and the capture of Sidi Barrani in September 1940 and then in December 1940 by a Commonwealth counteroffensive, Operation Compass. During Operation Compass, the Italian 10th Army was destroyed and the German Afrika Korps—commanded by Erwin Rommel—was dispatched to North Africa—during Operation Sonnenblume—to reinforce Italian forces in order to prevent a complete Axis defeat.
Matilda Mk II in North Africa campaign displaying a captured Italian flag A see-saw series of battles for control of Libya and parts of Egypt followed, reaching a climax in the Second Battle of El Alamein when British Commonwealth forces under the command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery delivered a decisive defeat to the Axis forces and pushed them back to Tunisia. After the late 1942 Allied Operation Torch landings in North-West Africa, and subsequent battles against Vichy France forces (who then changed sides), the Allies finally encircled Axis forces in northern Tunisia and forced their surrender.
Operation Torch in November 1942 was a compromise operation that met the British objective of securing victory in North Africa while allowing American armed forces the opportunity to engage in the fight against Nazi Germany on a limited scale. In addition, as Josef Stalin had long been demanding a second front be opened to engage the Wehrmacht and relieve pressure on the Soviet armies, it provided some degree of relief for the Eastern front by diverting Axis forces to the African theatre, tying them up and destroying them there.
Information gleaned via British Ultra code-breaking intelligence proved critical to Allied success in North Africa. Victory for the Allies in this campaign immediately led to the Italian Campaign, which culminated in the downfall of the fascist government in Italy and the elimination of a German ally.