Near Tobruk, Libya, North Africa May 26, 1942

The yearlong Western Desert Campaign (Desert War) in the wasteland of Western Egypt and East­ern Libya had reached a stale­mate in May 1942, with both Allied and Axis sides licking their wounds. The fighting started four days after Benito Mus­so­lini’s Italy declared war on Great Britain and France in June 1940. Egyptian-based Brit­ish forces crossed into Libya, where the Ita­lians had been a presence since 1911–1912, and captured a fort just over the border. This was followed by the Italian Tenth Army pene­trating 60 miles into Egypt and capturing a Bedouin camp that September.

Operation Com­pass (Decem­ber 9, 1940, to Feb­ru­ary 9, 1941), a British Common­wealth counter­offen­sive, put an end to the adven­turous Tenth Army. Mus­so­lini’s Axis part­ner, Adolf Hitler, dis­patched the German Afrika Korps under Lt. Gen. Erwin Rom­mel to Libya to prevent a com­plete Ital­ian melt­down. In short order the Desert War moved from being a cockpit conflict into a major theater.

On this date, May 26, 1942, “The Desert Fox,” Rommel’s nick­name in the British news media, led his Afrika Korps in assaulting the Allies’ Gazala Line east of Tobruk in East­ern Libya (see map below). One month later, on June 20–21, 1942, the stra­tegic deep-water port town of Tobruk was Rom­mel’s, along with 33,000 Brit­ish and Common­wealth pri­soners and a field marshal’s baton from a grate­ful Hitler. With Tobruk in German hands, Egypt and the Suez Canal—Brit­ain’s watery link to India and its South­east Asian colo­nies of Burma, Malaya, and Singapore—appeared up for grabs, and pas­sage to the Middle Eastern oil fields—vital to both sides—appeared open, too.

Tobruk was the British Eight Army’s worst defeat and night­mare. Not long after­wards, British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery to head the Eighth Army. The leader­ship change, Rom­mel’s tem­porary sick leave home, and the addi­tion of more Allied men and equip­ment (Mont­gomery would have 40 per­cent more men and nearly twice as many tanks [1,114 tanks] as had the Ger­mans and Ital­ians) even­tually led to a crushing Axis defeat at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 4, 1942), and it marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign. Axis casual­ties of 37,000 amounted to over 30 per­cent of their total force. By com­par­i­son Allied casual­ties of 13,500 were a remark­ably small pro­por­tion of their total force. On Novem­ber 10, 1942, Churc­hill famously summed up the Axis defeat at El Ala­mein and its im­port on Allied for­tunes with the words, “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In Germany, an embar­rassed Joseph Goeb­bels, Nazi propa­ganda minister, scrambled to empty movie houses of his film The Victory in Africa.

The Western Desert Campaign, June 1940–February 1943

Western Desert Campaign: Eastern Libya and Western Egypt, 1941

Above: Map of Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya) and Western Egypt, 1941. The Western Desert Cam­paign, also known as the Desert War, took place in this harsh desert area lightly popu­lated with noma­dic herds­men except along the coast, where there were sev­eral forti­fied settle­ments, one being Tobruk with its deep, natural, and pro­tected harbor (center in map). The see­saw struggle lasted from June 1940 until early February 1943, though Axis forces had shifted into permanent retreat in mid-November 1942.

Western Desert Campaign: Italian POWs moving to British internment camp, January 6, 1941Western Desert Campaign: Afrika Korps Panzer Mk IIIs move to repel British, March 1941

Left: A column of Italian prisoners captured during Oper­ation Com­pass (Decem­ber 9, 1940, to Febru­ary 9, 1941) march to a British army base. In two months of com­bat the British Eighth Army cap­tured nearly the whole of the Ital­ian Tenth Army, taking 130,000 pri­soners and almost 400 tanks. When Erwin Rom­mel arrived in Libya at the head of the Ger­man Afrika Korps in February 1941, the Italians had just 7,000 soldiers in Eastern Libya.

Right: A column of Panzer Mk IIIs of the Ger­man Afrika Korps moves up a desert road, March 21, 1941. On March 24 Rom­mel launched a limited offensive. By early April, after much of the Brit­ish Army in North Africa had left to sup­port Greece against Mus­s­olini’s inva­sion of that coun­try, Rom­mel retook Ben­ghazi, capi­tal of Cyre­naica (East­ern Libya), and pressed on toward Egypt, having secured all of Libya with the excep­tion of the stra­te­gically impor­tant port of Tobruk by April 15, 1941. Tobruk remained besieged from land, sea, and air until December 1941.

Western Desert Campaign: Rommel in command vehicle, June 1942Western Desert Campaign: Afrika Korps entering Tobruk, June 1942

Left: Rommel’s second offensive in Eastern Libya against Brit­ish and Common­wealth troops, nick­named “The Desert Rats,” took place in May and June 1942. Here Rom­mel can be seen on the left with his chief of staff, Gen. Fritz Bayer­lein (par­tially hidden), as the two men sur­vey the land­scape from Rom­mel’s com­mand halftrack, which he had named “Greif” (Griffin). Both adver­sa­rial armies used the 240‑mile‑wide West­ern Desert of Western Egypt and Eastern Libya as a testing ground in terms of organ­ization, equipment, and methods of waging war.

Right: On June 21, 1942, battered Tobruk fell to Rom­mel (per­haps seen here entering Tobruk in “Greif”). Tobruk remained in Axis hands until Novem­ber 11, 1942, when Mont­gomery’s Eighth Army retook it after the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942). El Ala­mein revived the morale of the Brit­ish, being the first major offen­sive against the Ger­mans since the start of the Euro­pean war in 1939 in which the West had achieved a deci­sive victory. Tobruk remained in Allied hands there­after. In May 1943 the rem­nants of the Axis forces sur­ren­dered to the Allies from their enclave in Tunisia.

Timeline: Why the African Campaign Was Essential to Winning World War II

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