World War II in Africa
World War II on the great continent of Africa was a sweeping affair. It ran from the Northern Territories of Kenya to the Tunisian peninsular and involved some of the greatest land battles of human history.
When war in Europe broke out in September 1939, Adolf Hitler had no interest in Africa at all. His ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, had that covered. The Italians controlled Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia, and bearing in mind how weak the British were, struggling to survive the Battle of Britain, there seemed no reason why the Italians should not march into Egypt and lift the Suez Canal out of British hands. They could have, and they really should have.
The first shots fired were in Somalia. Somalia was divided into British and Italian spheres, and in August 1940, the Italians launched an invasion of British Somalia, a territory congruent more or less with modern Somaliland. This was achieved reasonably easily, after which Mussolini looked south, picturing all of British Africa in Italian hands. He also pictured Egypt in Italian hands, and so for the time being, the Italians in Somalia adopted a defensive position. In September 1940, as the opening act of the Western Desert Campaign, the Italians dropped the drawbridge on Italian Libya, and swarmed into Egypt.
It is generally understood that the Italians should, without difficulty, have taken Egypt. However, a few miles into Egypt, they dug in and waited. Mussolini was beside himself, but his general on the ground, Rodolfo Graziani, simply would not advance.
This gave the British a chance to regroup, and in December 1940, they launched Operation Compass, which routed a vastly superior Italian force, and drove them back deep into Libya. Some 135,000 Italian prisoners of war were taken, and astronomical amounts of fuel and equipment.
Adolf Hitler, when he heard the news, was abruptly made aware that the Italians, for all of their weight and bravado, were not capable of dealing with North Africa unassisted. German troops were diverted from the Eastern Front to fortify the Italians in Libya, introducing the great name of General Erwin Rommel onto the battlefield.
Things began to turn around immediately. As the Italians were steadily being pushed out of Ethiopia and Somalia, in another abject military performance, Rommel launched a counter-offensive in North Africa. At the end of long supply lines, the British advance was rolled back into Egypt. Thus began the see-saw struggle of Axis and Allied forces battling in long-range engagements along the North African coast.
The change came with Operation Torch, the US entry into the War, which began in November 1942. In March 1943, the Axis alliance in Africa surrendered. The reason was a combination of German reverses on the Eastern Front, and the overwhelming balance of power offered by the United States. Italian military prowess was roundly disproved, and in May 1941, after a racing retreat across Ethiopia, the Italians were defeated and King Haile Selassie returned to power.
The War, of course, then shifted to Europe.