The Titanic Back And Forth Struggle To Take North Africa.

by Daniel Russ on November 20, 2014


General Erwin Rommel


Field Marshall Erwin Rommel



The Desert War began in June 1940 with France on the verge of defeat. Mussolini decided he would attack the Vichy colonies in southern France while they were down. However the colonial troops of the Vichy French defeated the Italians handily, sending Hitlers’ advisors into a tizzy. Seeking fame and desperate for a win he headed in another direction, and Mussolini attacked the British in Egypt to the east. He took another massive loss. Under the directions of Major General Richard O’ Connor, 30,000 British troops trounced the 300,000 Italian troops and took over 130,000 Italian prisoners. Mussolini was simply trying to connect his Italian holdings in Lybia with the Italian East African protectorate that was under the purview of Italian precepts before Mussolini. This was known at the time as Abyssinia, and today it is Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. The Italian Army’s efforts were unavailing. To do this Egypt would be the key to building essentially a new empire. But by the end of the month, Britain controlled all of Egypt and most of Eastern Lybia. This was a terrible humiliation for Mussolini and in February 1941, Hitler dispatched Erwin Rommel to take command and turn things around. Rommel did indeed turn things around forthwith. Rommel pushed all the way to Tripoli and by the end of 1941 had Britain 8th army under siege at Tobruk.


From February 1941 to June 1941, Afrika Korps under Rommel forced the Allies back all the way to Egypt, and threatened them with extinction. Archibald Auchinlech, the British general in command of the 8th Army at the time was making a fairly good show of British power, but the blooded Germans armed with their lethal 88 mm PAK guns were making short work of British armor. Auchinlech established a line that stretched from El- Alamein to the Qatara Depression southwards. This area was inhospitable to armored vehicles and so would prevent the Germans from flanking Montgomery. By October of 1941, under the command of  “Monty”, the British gained the upper hand.


General George S. Patton

George S. Patton 


My what a difference a month makes. When the British and the United States decided to invade North Africa, a confluence of auspicious events turned the tide for the Allies within four weeks time. On November 7th, 1942 Operation Torch was launched, a massive three pronged Allied invasion of North Africa. It was the first time the soldiers of the United Kingdom and the United States would fight shoulder to shoulder in World War II. Beginning in October 23rd 1942, the 8th Army attacked Rommel. The fighting raged for months. Then on December 4th, Bernard Montgomery was able to turn the flank of the Afrika Corps and forced the Germans under Rommel to retreat from El Alamein. El Alamein turned out to be the first major land victory of the Allies over the Nazis. The Nazis retreated in good order and were able to inflict large losses on the Brits in counter attacks, but for now, the Allies had won a fight. Rommel was at home with Jaundice at the time, but a win is a win.


The logic of the invasion was dictated by circumstances. Stalin was begging the Allies to open a new front in the West to ameliorate the pressure on the Soviet Union by forcing the Germans to stage some of their troops westward. Morocco was under the control of the Vichy French government, a rump state set up outside the direct influence of the Nazis who occupied central France, including Paris. West of Morocco was Algeria, also under the purview of the Vichy French. Tunisia, the peninsula  in the center of North Africa was under German and Italian control. Libya to the east was also colony under Italy. Egypt at the time was neutral politically but occupied by 30,000 British soldiers.


If the Allies invaded Morocco at Casablanca, and Algeria at Algiers and Oran, suddenly they could cut the North Africa Theater off from the Nazis. The French had no fleet left since the British bombed it at Mers-el-Kebir in June 1940, hoping to keep it out of German hands. So it would be somewhat difficult for Vichy French troops to resist the sea invasion without a fleet but they could still make life hell for Allied troops after they invade. The French Air Force still existed and while its planes were antiques compared to the F4F Wildcats and SBD Dive-bombers, the French LeO 451 bombers were still dangerous and made a fairly good showing. All told, some Australian, British and American pilots were shot down and some taken prisoner by the Vichy French forces. Not to worry, soon Vichy commander Henri Giraud would switch sides and have to be occupied once again by Germans.


Panzer Mk 6 Tiger I

 Tiger Tank


So the American 2nd Corps under Patton, invaded Casablanca and the Brits invaded Algeria. Now we were going to fight on the ground, for real, not just from carriers and island bases. The 107,000 troops in Torch in the west would attack the Nazis under Rommel and Von Armin in Tunisia. British forces already in Egypt to the east would be the crucible against which the Nazis would be hammered. From the east, Montgomery and his British 8th Army would attack westward. Soon the Allies would see a tidal change in the beginning of 1943 when Rommel was on the run about to be cornered in Tunisia and over 100,000 other Allied troops were rolling up the Italians.


It was in North Africa that the Germans and Italians and British first saw the M4 Sherman tank. Ultimately almost 50,000 of these US main battle tanks were produced. The vast majority of them were completed by the end of World War II. Each Sherman was built by an amalgam of heavy US industries, American Locomotive Company, Detroit Tank Works, Federal Machine and Welder, Ford Motor Company, and Pullman-Standard Car Company to mention a few. It was in the North African theater of battle that the M4 would be king, and it was essentially the last theater of battle where it was the best tank on the field.



M4 Shermans Firefly With Distinctly Larger 75mm Gun

 M4 Sherman Firefly With Distinctly More Robust 76.2 mm Gun


The advantages of the M4 Sherman were first of all quantity. The US produced so many of them so fast and moved them into combat theater that this workhorse gave heavy firepower to many Allied units that were sorely missing it. It went anywhere, through high water, hills, mud, and snow. Sherman units undulated through the ruble strewn high in contested urban environments. It’s 75mm gun was big enough to stop most Panzer tanks from the Mark IV on down to smaller tanks and assault guns. It was perfect for infantry support against gun emplacements, fortified buildings and open field infantry. The 75mm gun was badly outmatched by Panzer Mark V Panthers and the battlefield dreadnought Panzer Mark VI Tiger 1s. Its maneuverability gave it access through forests and hedgerows and suburbs and winding rolling hills and roadways that adumbrated European landscapes. But trading with heavy German tanks, the M4 did about as well as the Atlanta Falcons: showed promise, always showed up to fight, but lost a lot.


The 2.5 inch to 3-inch armor on the Sherman made it easy prey for the high velocity German 76mm guns and the deadly 88mm PAK guns in the western theater. The Shermans were so poorly armored that the British tankers, who lend leased 12,000 of them, called them Ronsons. A Ronson is Butane lighter and the reference was how fast they turned into a flame in battle, burning effulgent on battlefields throughout Western Europe.


Two improvements late in the war augmented the Sherman’s lethal power. One was a better HVAP high velocity armor piercing shell for the upgunned 76mm main cannon. This gun at point blank range could stop most German tanks. The British, however, had a gun called the 17 pounder. This was an extremely powerful anti tank gun that could stop even a Tiger 1. A Tiger had 110mm of armor and the 17 pounder could penetrate 130mm or armor at battlefield ranges. The British called these up gunned tanks Sherman Fireflies. They were deadly, although they came late in the war. Some 2000 of these Fireflies made it to the Normandy landings and they so rattled the Germans there that German tank crews were ordered to attack Fireflies first.


The British had a heavy main battle tank called the Mark IV Churchill. It had a respectable 75mm gun on it, and it go anywhere. But the Churchill was slow and heavy. It had armor as heavy as a Tiger One but the armor wasn’t sloped so it performed more poorly than the Tiger counterpart.


In the armor arena, North Africa saw the introduction of the Bazooka, a stove-pipe shaped rocket launcher that fired a 60mm anti tank round a little further than the length of a football field. Like all weapons the Bazooka went through many iterations and over time improved armor penetration capability. Oddly it backfired. The Germans captured many of them that were Lend Leased to the Russians and made their own version, the Panzer Schreck. The Panzer Schreck was much superior to the bazooka. Ultimately the bazooka was not a game changer in WWII. Today, hand held anti tank munitions are indeed a game changer.


The Hurricane IID fighter-bomber was one of the best combat aircraft produced in World War II. Almost 15,000 of these single seat fighters were produced in variants that included fighter-interceptor, fighter-bomber, ground support aircraft and fighter maritime patrol aircraft. The anti tank versions seen in North Africa had two deadly 40mm cannons that gave the Hurricane IID the moniker “Tin Opener”. This plane was largely responsible for the destruction of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain despite the debut of new sporty Spitfire.


The North African war was a back and forth see saw of territory taken and then lost and then taken again. It was also the first truly difficult terrain the Allied would have to right in. The North African desert was one day hot and dry and the next day wet and clogged with impassable mud. December 1, 1942, the march to Tunisia was begun in earnest and in combat order. The main Allied advance eventually stalled and the tough Nazis now provisioned with Tiger Tanks were holding steady. The Allied 1st Army faced 47,000 soldiers of the 5th Panzer Army, and 18,000 Italian troops were in Tunis and were being reinforced weekly.


It took two months for the Allies to take Tunis, and it helped that the Vichy French leader Henri Giraud turned tail and switched sides and aided the Allies. But from March to May 1943, the Germans were eventually cut off from reinforcements and resupply. In May the Axis forces surrendered and opened the way to invade Sicily.








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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis October 11, 2017 at 2:07 am

“The British had a heavy main battle tank called the Mark IV Churchill.”. By design, and as used tacticaly, the Churchill was an Infantry Support tank. It was never meant to go up against other tanks.
And the idea of something called the Main Battle Tank did not exist in either US or British thinking at that time, so the use of the term is misleading here. Only after the war (in the 1950’s) did the concept of an MBT emerge.
” It had armor as heavy as a Tiger One but the armor wasn’t sloped so it performed more poorly than the Tiger counterpart.” As you can see from the picture with this article, most of the armour of the Tiger I was also not sloped! So no, it was not the position of the armour, as much as the quality of the steel that was the difference.

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