Cairo, Egypt · August 5, 1942

On this date in 1942 British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill and Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, flew into Cairo. They arrived in the Egyp­tian capi­tal 44 days after the British garri­son at Tobruk in East­ern Libya had fallen to Ger­man Gen. (soon Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel of Panzer­armee Afrika, and just under a month after the British Parlia­ment had taken up a cen­sure motion against Chur­chill over his handling of the war against the Axis powers led by Ger­many’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Churchill and Brooke’s mis­sion was to iden­tify and punish a scape­goat for British mili­tary short­comings in North Africa. British Eighth Army com­mander Gen. Claude Auchin­leck and his deputy chief of staff were sacked and Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery placed in com­mand. Brooke based his choice of 54‑year-old Mont­gom­ery on his quali­ties as a supremely pro­fes­sional soldier and a hard trainer of men—soon to include the legen­dary “Desert Rats,” a nick­name the men of the Eighth Army in the West­ern Desert Cam­paign adopted. After 12 days of intense fighting in Octo­ber 1942, the Second Battle of El Ala­mein proved a deci­sive vic­tory for the reinvig­o­rated Eighth Army, allowing “Monty” to turn tables on Rommel and recap­ture Tobruk in Novem­ber and take Tri­poli in Northwestern Libya in January 1943. A squeeze play by Monty in the south and Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower in the west—Torch landings in Novem­ber 1942 in North­west Africa had put Eisen­hower and his men there—forced Rom­mel’s un­lucky replace­ment, Gen. Hans-Juergen von Arnim, standing in for the ailing Field Marshal on home leave, to surrender Axis armies in Tunisia in mid-May 1943.

Losing North Africa was a lethal blow to Mus­so­lini, whose Fascist sup­porters in Rome dumped him in July 1943. Gen. Pietro Badoglio’s new Italian govern­ment promptly placed the deposed strong­man under house arrest. The capture of eight Axis divi­sions (250,000 men and equip­ment) had left Sicily and the Ital­ian main­land with­out ade­quate defenses to pre­vent the Allies from crossing the Mediter­ranean Sea and opening a second front on the Euro­pean conti­nent. The intent of Opera­tion Husky, whose makeup con­sisted of Mont­gomery’s Eighth Army and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Seventh Army, was to reduce pres­sure on the Soviets. Since June 1941 the Red Army single-handedly man­ned the Euro­pean (Eastern) Front, bested Axis armies in the bloodiest cam­paign of the war at Stalin­grad (August 1942 to February 1943), but had not been able to relieve the killer Siege of Leningrad (September 1941 to January 1944).

Dual in the North African Desert: Rommel vs. Montgomery, 1942

Rommel in Libya, 1942Montgomery during Second Battle of El Alamein, November 1942

Left: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Com­mander of the Ger­man forces in North Africa, with his aides during the desert cam­paign, spring 1942. Since June 1941 Axis and British forces had been trading blows across unforgiving reaches of the Libyan Desert in a con­test to gain con­trol of the Eastern Medi­ter­ra­nean. Rommel and his Ital­ian allies seemed to be gaining the upper hand with the British loss of Tobruk in June 1942, which put the Ger­mans one step closer to shutting down Britain’s naval base at Alexan­dria in Egypt, gaining con­trol of the Suez Canal, and securing or destroying the Middle East’s oil fields.

Right: Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery watches British Eighth Army tanks maneu­vering during the Second Battle of El Ala­mein, Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942. Chur­chill was thrilled by the British Army’s defeat of Rom­mel, nicknamed the “Desert Fox,” famously saying, “It may almost be said, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat’.”

Churchill with his military advisers, Cairo, August 5, 1942Churchill at El Alamein front, August 1942

Left: Winston Churchill with members of his Imperial General Staff, British Em­bassy, Cairo, August 5, 1942. Directly behind him is Gen. Sir Alan Brooke and to Brooke’s right is Air Officer Arthur Tedder, RAF Middle East Com­mander who in 1944–1945 would serve as Deputy Supreme Com­mander at Supreme Head­quarters Allied Expe­di­tionary Force (SHAEF) under Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower. Chur­chill, Brooke, and mem­bers of the Imperial General Staff were fresh from a late-June meeting with Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt and his Chiefs of Staff. Taking part in the dis­cus­sions was Eisen­hower. Together the Allied leaders plotted the Anglo-Amer­ican inva­sion of North­west Africa set for Novem­ber 1942 (Opera­tion Torch), which in six months cleared Axis forces from the whole of North Africa and opened the door for the invasions of Sicily (Opera­tion Husky) and the Italian mainland (Operation Avalanche).

Right: In coat and pith helmet Churchill greets Lt. Gen. William Ramsden during a visit to the El Alamein front, August 7, 1942. Rommel’s Afrika Korps was only a few miles away. Rams­den’s XXX Corps, con­sisting prin­cipally of Aus­tra­lians, South Afri­cans, and Indians, held the north­ern line at El Alamein, a line that Rommel’s men could not break.

BBC Presentation: Rommel’s Afrika Korps vs. Montgomery’s Eighth Army, North Africa 1942