Second World War - North Africa
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On 13 September 1940 the Italians, who had 200,000 troops in their colonial possession of Libya, invaded Egypt and took up fortified positions at Sidi Barrani, about 300 miles west of Alexandria. Opposing them were 36,000 Egypt-based troops of General Sir Archibald Wavell's Middle East Command. Wavell was defending the great naval base of Alexandria and the vital transport conduit of the Suez Canal - glittering prizes which the Italians, and later the Germans, would do their utmost to get their hands on. However, the Italians were not quite as determined as their Axis allies would prove to be. By December 1940 Wavell's first thrust had pushed them back out of Egypt.

Early 1941 saw the Allies advance deep into Libya, capturing the ports of Bardia and Tobruk. By February the Italians had lost 9 divisions (including around 130,000 prisoners), 400 tanks and 1300 guns. Allied killed and wounded numbered below 2,000. All looked rosy for the Allies. But on 12 February General Erwin Rommel arrived in Tripoli (western Libya), and the game changed. Wavell had to relinquish four divisions to be sent to Greece against the forthcoming German invasion, and Rommel took advantage of the Allies' weakened state to start an immense eastward drive in March 1941 that took his Afrika Korps all the way to Egypt. The port of Tobruk, cut off by the German advance, lay besieged from April until December, but held out heroically. Indian, Australian and British soldiers all shared the hardships of being a 'Desert Rat' in Tobruk.

In November 1941 General Sir Claude Auchinleck (who had replaced Wavell) commanded the Allies' 8th Army on its second push westward, relieving Tobruk and chasing the Afrika Korps back into western Libya again. But he couldn't keep Rommel, the celebrated 'Desert Fox', down for long. Back he came on 21 January 1942 on his second - and, as it turned out, final - advance. First the combined Axis forces, German and Italian, pushed the 8th Army back beyond Benghazi in eastern Libya; then from 28 May they commenced the second phase. On that day the Indian 3rd Brigade was overrun by the Italians. Tobruk and its 33,000 defenders were captured on 21 June, and the Axis forces pushed on until they were within 60 miles of Alexandria.
Indian soldiers holding a Nazi flag after Libyan Omar was taken by Indian troops
Indian soldiers holding a Nazi flag after Libyan Omar was taken by Indian troops
© Imperial War Museum

At this crucial point the terrier-like, utterly optimistic and determined General Bernard Montgomery was appointed to replace Auchinleck. Monty gingered everybody up. He repulsed Rommel’s final attack in September, and on 23 October 1942 began his own around the Alam Halfa Ridge between El Alamein on the Egyptian coast and the great Qattara Depression. It took eleven days of hard pounding, but eventually the 8th Army broke decisively through (See Nila Kantan (India)). Hitler ordered Rommel to stand firm at all costs; but after another two days of heavy losses the Desert Fox ordered a withdrawal on 4 November. In the Battle of El Alamein the Axis forces had lost 59,000 killed, wounded or captured, and 500 tanks; Allied casualties were 13,000, along with 432 tanks.

With Montgomery chasing, the Afrika Korps began the long retreat back through Libya. Only four days after the German withdrawal came news that US and British troops had landed in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and were advancing to trap the Axis armies.

On 14 February 1943 Rommel made a final thrust westward against US II Corps, but the Americans held him off. The Desert Fox left Africa in March, a sick man. In April the remaining Axis forces became trapped by the Allies in Tunisia. During this battle two Indian battalions, a battalion of Gurkhas and two British battalions became involved in a bloody cut-throat night fight with Italian forces – literally a war to the knife. On 7 May Tunis fell, and within a week General von Arnim, the overall Commander of Axis troops, had surrendered.

In the whole North African campaign the Indians lost 22,000; by this stage in the war around 80,000 Indians had been taken prisoner-of-war. Men from Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and East Africa served as Pioneers throughout these desert campaigns. The Basuto Pioneers suffered a catastrophe when their troopship Erinpura was torpedoed on 1 May 1943 en route from Alexandria to Malta; 618 men lost their lives.
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