Western Desert Campaign (Desert War)

This is a battle lasting for nearly three years during World War 2. The main battlefields of the battle were in the deserts of the eastern Libyan and the western Egypt. This is also the origin of the name of the campaign. The battle began with Italians attacks against Egypt and ended with the British occupation of the entire Italian Libya and advancing Tunisia. After several years of hard fighting, the Allies finally won the victory of the battle.
During the Battle of France in June 1940, under Germany’s powerful offensive, the Allies’ front in Western Europe collapsed and more than three million of the Allies were annihilated. After entering the final stage of the battle, Italy declared war on Britain and France and wished to make use of Germany’s success to expand their territory. Italy’s main objectives were the British and French colonies in Africa. France withdrew from the war and reached a ceasefire agreement with Germany. The agreement ensured the French colonies in Africa, making Italy unable to take the opportunity to capture the French territory in North Africa. Italy’s main goal at this time could only be occupying Egypt under the British control and connecting its East Africa and North Africa territories together. At this point, the Italian Army deployed more than 500,000 people in these two regions while the British had only tens of thousands of people. Mussolini wanted to quickly seize Egypt and completed his operational objectives.
On June 11, 1940, the war in North Africa formally broke out. Since the Italian Army was not well prepared before, therefore did not immediately attack Egypt. The worse was that the airplane of the supreme commander of the North African region Italo Balbo was shot down by anti-aircraft fire of the Italian forces themselves on June 28 in Tobruk. Balbo was also killed. After that, the Italian Army until September barely got ready to attack Egypt. Italian 10th Army with over 100,000 troops invaded the territory of Egypt in September. But only after one week, the Italian Army stopped the advance, during which there was no large-scale battle, because the Italian troops had not yet arrived at the British main line of defense. Since then, the Italian Army established defense line in the territory of Egypt to consolidate their supply lines in order to prepare for a new offensive. But before the Italian Army launched a new offensive, the British on December 9 launched a counter attack, which was codenamed Operation Compass. The British troops in a short time broke out the Italian Army’s defensive positions. Within the next three months, the Italian army was defeated again. The British counterattack ultimately annihilated the Italian 10th Army. The Italian Army had 115,000 people captured and in addition lost more than 400 tanks, more than 1,200 pieces of artillery, and more than 1,200 aircrafts. The whole front crumbled. This is the biggest victory achieved by the Allies since in 1939 World War 2 broke out. The main reason for the British winning was that the British were well equipped and trained, they were able to defeat the opponent several times than themselves.
Italy’s failure made the Germans have to send reinforcements to North Africa. Meanwhile, in Greece, Italian offensive operations also needed to be supported by Germany. Transport and supply capacities limited the size of the German reinforcements. The German reinforcements led by Rommel consisted of only a few divisions. But at this time the British troops in North Africa were not sufficient as well and a part of the troops were dispersed for reinforcements to Greece. The British reinforcements to Greece relieved stresses of the Italian Army in North Africa, and therefore provided time for the German reinforcements. In March 1941, some Germans units arrived. Rommel did not wait for complete arrival of the reinforcements and began to launch a counter-offensive. His sudden attack made British troops off guard. The British 2nd Armored Division defending the eastern Libya was annihilated. Meanwhile, the German offensive operations succeeded in Greece. The British reinforcements to Greece suffered heavy losses and the remaining forces withdrew to North Africa. Rommel led the Axis forces to recover the eastern Libya in April and quickly attacked again into the territory of Egypt. But the important port of Tobruk in eastern Libya was still under the British control.
The front of the two sides went back to the Egyptian border area. At this time, Germany in June 1941 launched a full-scale attack against the Soviet Union and thus most of the troops had been put in Operation Barbarossa and was unable to provide more support to Rommel’s forces. On contrast, the British Army was fully operational in the Middle East and Africa regions. Since then, the British won in the East Africa, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other places. These victories made the British focus on wrestling with the Axis forces in North Africa. The British forces launched several offensives, hoping to break through the Axis defenses and to lift the siege of Tobruk. But these actions were not successful. After the failure of Operation Battleaxe, the supreme commander of the British forces in the Middle East Archibald Wavell was replaced by Claude Auchinleck.
After taking the office, Auchinleck in November 1941 launched Operation Crusader after several months of preparations, which eventually repelled the Axis forces and lifted the siege of Tobruk. In this battle, the British troops had tanks twice as many as the opponent, but still barely won after almost losing all the tanks and had no ability to initiate further pursuit. After retreating, the Axis forces complemented weapons and supplies and then launched small-scale counterattack and stabilized the front in the vicinity of Gazala. After several months of peaceful situation, Rommel launched in May 1942 Battle of Gazala. In the battle, Rommel used his superior ability of command to defeat the British forces in eastern Libya. The British eventually lost more than 50,000 people, including 35,000 captured in Tobruk. The Axis lost only thousands. The victory is also the biggest achieved by the Axis powers in the entire North African campaign in a few years’ time. It is worthy to notice that both the staff and the number of tanks of Rommel’s forces were less than those of the opponent. In this battle, the British lost nearly a thousand of tanks. Since then, the Axis forces followed the victory and attacked Egypt, therefore the First Battle of El Alamein broke out. The British troops mobilized a large number of reserved troops into the battle while the Axis forces did not have any reserved forces and still employed weary troops to continue to battle with. Eventually, the two sides entered into a stalemate at El Alamein. The Axis lost the only opportunity to completely defeat the British in North Africa. The reason that the Axis failed to successively win was because the supply line was too long and the Axis had no reinforcements. At that time, the Germans were fully engaged on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Stalingrad and, of course, were unable to support the war in North Africa. After that, Auchinleck because of his poor command, was relieved of command and Harold Alexander replaced him as the supreme commander of the Middle East and Montgomery took the office of the commander of the British 8th Army commander.
At this point, the United States had entered the war and thus more goods were shipped to Egypt. The strength gap between the two sides was growing. Rommel launched the Battle of Alam el Halfa at the end of August 1942 and hoped to defeat the other side before it became too strong. But the British cautiously fought under the command of Montgomery. They not only withstood offensives of the other side, but also reduced losses. Afterwards, the Axis forces had to shift into full defense. After more than one month of preparation, Montgomery on October 23 launched the Second Battle of El Alamein with overwhelming powerful troops. During the battle lasting for more than a half month, the Allies achieved a complete victory. The Axis forces because of lack of fuel, tank and even food and water and resulted in a comprehensive defeat. After understanding the inevitable failure, Rommel led the troops to retreat quickly to avoid the situation in 1941 that the Italian Army retreated too slowly and were consequently annihilated. The British troops, in the process of pursuit, attempted to surround and annihilate the main forces of the Axis powers in the Battle of El Agheila but failed. The Axis forces eventually retreated to Tunisia to create a new line of defense. Meanwhile, the U.S. and British forces landed in the western North Africa. The local Vichy French troops joined the Allies after a short resistance. Two huge forces attacked the Axis forces in Tunisia from two directions of east and west. Till this point, the entire Western Desert Campaign ended. The Allies held Egypt and obtained full control of Libya.
Western Desert Campaign is the most important ground combat of the British after its defeat in Western Europe and also a battle in which the British forces made full use of its advantages. Within a few years in which the whole campaign was conducted, the British, with its powerful naval strength, greatly limited the opponent’s reinforcements and logistics while ensured the smooth flow of their own troops’ supply lines, making a decisive contribution to the victory in the battle. After the battle ended, the U.S. and British troops in North Africa met and began to prepare for counterattack the European continent.

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