Fuehrer HQ on the Obersalzberg, Germany January 19, 1941

On this date in 1941 Adolf Hitler and Italian leader Benito Mussolini began two days of crisis talks at the Berg­hof, Hitler’s pala­tial Alpine resi­dence whose enor­mous sliding win­dow afforded magni­fi­cent views of near­by Berchtes­gaden and, in the dis­tance, Salz­burg, Austria. High on the agenda was the failure of Mus­so­lini’s army to liqui­date Greece in two weeks, as the strong­man had boasted to Hitler on Octo­ber 18, 1940, the day the Ital­ian in­va­sion of Greece began.

In North Africa the Ital­ian Tenth Army in East­ern Libya (Cyre­nai­ca) ceased to exist after being mauled by Gen. Archi­bald Wavell’s Brit­ish Eighth Army in Oper­a­tion Com­pass (Decem­ber 1940 to Febru­ary 1941). Wavell’s army had killed 3,000 Ital­ian soldiers, taken 115,000 pri­soners, and de­stroyed 400 tanks, nearly 1,300 artil­lery pieces, and almost as many air­craft while suffering few losses of its own. Hitler was con­vinced that the Ital­ian armed forces could neither be trusted nor even know how to use the wea­pons they possessed to reverse their sorry per­for­mance.

So it was that Hitler, over­riding his own high com­mand, autho­rized a “blocking force” of sev­eral German motor­ized and ar­mored divi­sions to Italy’s Libyan colony, including the nu­cleus of the famous Deutsches Afrika­korps. Led by 49-year-old Gen. Erwin Rommel, who had been the HQ com­mander in Poland and a bril­liant tank com­mander in the Nazi inva­sion of France in 1940, the first of these units arrived between mid-Febru­ary and mid-March 1941. Addi­tional units arrived in late April and into May.

Fate smiled on Rom­mel as the Brit­ish drained men and equip­ment from Egypt to inter­vene in a losing cam­paign to save Greece from Mus­so­lini’s and Hitler’s clutches. The im­bal­ance of forces in North Africa soon had a dis­as­trous out­come for Brit­ish for­tunes there, while it turned Rom­mel into the “Desert Fox,” securing him and the Afrika Korps a legen­dary place in mili­tary his­tory.

The Afrika Korps battled the British back and forth across the dry, hot sands of the West­ern Desert—at places like El Agheila, Gazala, Tobruk, and El Ala­mein—for much of the next two years. Neither the Germans nor the Ital­ians would be finished off until mid-May 1943, when bedraggled rem­nants of their armies in Tunisia sur­rendered to the Allies, whose pre­sence had been strength­ened by the Anglo-Amer­ican Torch landings in North­west Africa in Novem­ber 1942. More than 250,000 German and Ital­ian prisoners were taken, which ended the Axis presence in North Africa.

Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Western Egypt, 1941–1942, Site of Seesaw Engagements Between Axis and Allied Armies

Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Western Egypt, 1941–1942

Above: Map of Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya, and Western Egypt, 1941–1942.

Italian-held Tobruk besieged by Operation Compass forcesBritish Vickers Mk VIB light tanks on patrol, August 2, 1940

Left: Approximately 25,000 Italian defended the important harbor town of Tobruk in Cyre­naica. After a twelve-day period building up forces around Tobruk and softening up Italian defenses with heavy artil­lery bom­bardment, Aus­tralian, British, and Free French units took the town one day after launching an attack on Janu­ary 21, 1941. The Tobruk prize yielded over 25,000 pri­soners, 236 field and medium guns, 62 tank­ettes (small mili­tary tanks), 23 M11/39 medium tanks, and more than 200 other vehicles.

Right: British Vickers Mark VIB light tanks on desert patrol, August 2, 1940. First produced in 1936 for the dual roles of recon­nais­sance and colonial war­fare, the lightly armored Mk VI possessed a crew of three—commander/­radio operator, gunner, and driver. Its main arma­ment was a .50‑in Vickers machine gun. In a Decem­ber 12, 1940, attack, the low-clearance light tanks got bogged down in salt pans and were severely mauled by the Italians.

Captured Italian L3 cc and L3/35 tankettes, Libya 1942Operation Compass: Italian soldiers march into Allied captivity, January 6, 1941

Left: Like the lightly armored Vickers Mark VI tank, Italy’s Fiat L3 tankettes were machine gun-armed. First built in 1933, L3s and their midget vari­ants carried a two-man crew (driver and gunner) and were mainly used for light infantry support and recon­nais­sance. Relatively inex­pen­sive to build, 300 Italian tankettes saw ser­vice against Haile Selassie’s mostly untrained and poorly equipped soldiers in Ethi­o­pia (1935–1936), where they fared poorly, and in Spain, France, the Balkans, Libya, and Italian East Africa. In this photo a captured L3 cc on the left and an L3/35 on the right are shown here on the harbor road over­looking Bardia, Libya. At the start of World War II the majority of Italy’s armored vehicles was com­posed of tankettes, which Italian soldiers derisively called “sardine cans” and “vanity cases.” The British Army in North Africa roundly dis­abused Mus­so­lini of his delusion that his tankette units represented a genuine force of armored might.

Right: Operation Compass was a complete success. Allied forces advanced 500 miles/­805 km from inside Egypt to Central Libya, suffering just over 1,700 casu­al­ties and capturing 130,000 Ital­ian pri­soners, including 22 gene­rals. In this photo from Janu­ary 6, 1941, a column of Italian pri­soners cap­tured during the assault on Bardia, Libya, is marched to a British Army base for even­tual trans­port to prison camps in England, North America, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Axis and Allied Forces Battle for Control of North Africa, 1940–1943