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After the invasion of Ethiopia by Italian troops in October , the British and French proposed a secret agreement that would have ceded the bulk of Ethiopian territory to Italy in exchange for a truce. The Hoare-Laval Pact was crafted in the hopes of preserving the Stresa Front , an April alliance that had pledged Britain , France , and Italy to jointly oppose German rearmament and expansion. In fact, just the opposite happened: fascist Italy turned its back to the democratic West and took to the road of alliance with Nazi Germany.

On October 25, , the Rome-Berlin Axis was proclaimed, but Italy, its strength depleted by the Ethiopian campaign and by its support for Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War , was in no condition to support Germany during the first nine months of World War II. It was not until June 10, —just four days before the Germans entered Paris—that Italy declared war on Britain and France.

When Benito Mussolini took Italy into the war, the Italian forces in North and East Africa were overwhelmingly superior in numbers to the scanty British forces opposing them.

Commanding the British was Gen. Archibald Wavell , who had been appointed to the newly created post of commander in chief for the Middle East in July , when the first steps were taken to strengthen the forces guarding the Suez Canal.

Barely 50, British troops faced a total of , Italian and Italian colonial troops. On the southerly fronts, the Italian forces in Eritrea and Ethiopia mustered more than , men. The Western Desert , inside the Egyptian frontier, separated the two sides on that front. Instead of remaining passive, Wavell used part of his one incomplete armoured division as an offensive covering force, keeping up a continual series of raids over the frontier to harass the Italian posts.

It was not until September 13, , that the Italians, after massing more than six divisions, began a cautious move forward into the Western Desert. Weeks then passed without any attempt to move on. Meanwhile, further reinforcements reached Wavell, including three armoured regiments rushed from England.

Though still at a significant numerical disadvantage, Wavell chose to seize the initiative with an operation that was planned not as a sustained offensive but rather as a large-scale raid. The strike force, under Maj. On December 9 the Italian garrisons at Nibeiwa, Tummar West, and Tummar East were taken, and thousands of prisoners were captured, whereas the attackers suffered very light casualties.

The reserve brigade of the 7th Armoured Division was then brought up for a further enveloping attack to the west: it reached the coast beyond Buqbuq, intercepting a large column of retreating Italians. Over three days, the British had captured nearly 40, prisoners and guns. The Italian defense quickly collapsed, and by the third day the whole garrison had surrendered, with 45, prisoners, artillery pieces, and tanks falling into British hands.

The 7th Armoured Division then drove westward to isolate Tobruk until the Australians could mount an assault on that coastal fortress. Tobruk was attacked on January 21 and fell next day, yielding 30, prisoners, artillery pieces, and 37 tanks. All that remained to complete the conquest of Cyrenaica was the capture of Benghazi , but on February 3, , air reconnaissance revealed that the Italians were preparing to abandon the city.

After capturing the surprised advance units of the Italian column, the British engaged the main Italian force on February 6.

Although the Italians boasted cruiser tanks and the British could field fewer than one-third of that number, British tank commanders utilized the terrain far more skillfully. When night fell, 60 of the Italian tanks had been crippled, and the remaining 40 were found abandoned the following day; only 3 of the British tanks had been knocked out. The Italian infantry and other troops surrendered in crowds when their protecting armour was destroyed.

The British force of 3, men took 20, prisoners along with artillery pieces and tanks. Thus, the opportunity for a speedy resolution in the North African theatre was lost. The depleted British force would soon find itself facing one of the most-heralded commanders in the entire war. It would consist of two under-strength divisions, the 5th Light and the 15th Panzer, but the transportation of the first unit could not be completed until mid-April, and the second would not be in place until the end of May.

When the British did not continue their advance, Rommel, having arrived early in Tripolitania , attempted an offensive with what forces he had. Disregarding orders to hold his position until the end of May, Rommel resumed his advance on April 2 with 50 tanks, followed up more slowly by two new Italian divisions.

British forces hastily fell back in confusion and on April 3 evacuated Benghazi. By April 11 the British had been swept out of Cyrenaica and over the Egyptian frontier.

By the time Rommel had reached the eastern frontier of Cyrenaica, however, he had overstretched his supply lines and was compelled to halt. After a tentative effort to relieve Tobruk in mid-May , Wavell made a greater one in mid-June, with fresh reinforcements. Rommel countered the offensive with a well-gauged armoured thrust against its flank.

The former commander in chief in India, Gen. North Africa campaigns. Article Media. Info Print Print. Table Of Contents. Submit Feedback. Thank you for your feedback. Written By: Basil Liddell Hart. Britannica Quiz. History Buff Quiz. Get exclusive access to content from our First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today. Load Next Page. More About.


North Africa campaigns

However, this latest volume in the popular Warriors series from Concord goes a long way to remedying the situation. Written by an Italian author, Claudio Antonucci, this book is filled with useful information about Italy's war in North Africa. Not only are Italian forces covered, but German subjects also receive good exposure too, adding to the value of this book. This volume is unique - it makes a departure from the usual format of Warriors books in that it features a much larger number of color plates.


World War II: The North African Campaign

Second World War. After a grim struggle that rolled back and forth across the North African desert for nearly three years, this campaign resulted in the first major Allied victory of the Second World War Control of the eastern Mediterranean was seen as vital to Britain's interests. A large garrison of British and Commonwealth troops was based in Egypt. After a limited advance the Italians halted and set up a series of fortified camps around Sidi Barrani. Wavell's offensive ended at El Agheila on 7 February with the destruction of nine Italian divisions and the capture of , men.

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