When Italy entered World War II in June 1940, the war quickly spread to North Africa, where her colony of Libya bordered the vital British territory of Egypt. In September 1940, Italian troops began a land offensive. Their numerical supremacy won them initial success. The British counterattack, launched in December 1940 quickly flattened the Italians. As British armaments grew daily, Italian supplies dwindled. Italian forces retreated in chaos, and the human tide of surrendering soldiers delayed the Allied advance, making movement of tanks difficult. With Italian positions crumbling, Hitler, shocked by the Italian failure, dispatched the German Afrika Korps – commanded by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel ("The Desert Fox")
1. Why did the war spread to North Africa?
2. Why did Germany get involved in the North African campaign?
The ‘Desert Fox’ rapidly adapted his formations and tactics to a Desert War fought in the open, with few natural obstacles and a small civilian population. Rommel launched his first blow against the Allies in February 1941, taking the British by surprise and carrying out an audacious triple attack on the Egyptian border. The Germans captured the key port of Benghazi, moving on to besiege the other major port of Tobruk.
Churchill reshuffled the military command, placing General Montgomery at the head of the Eighth Army. The battle-hardened general, conscious that the mobile tank battle was Rommel’s forte, unleashed the Battle of El Alamein as a battle of attrition, using his huge advantages in artillery, infantry and supplies. After two weeks of intense fighting, British forces had reduced the German tank force to 35, pressuring the remnants of Axis forces into retreat.
For the Axis, the nail in the coffin came in November 1942 with Operation Torch - the American-led landings in Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. After sporadic fighting against Vichy French forces, the Allies took possession of the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. The beleaguered Axis forces were now encircled, and in May 1943, more than 230,000 troops surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia, marking the end of the campaign.
3. How did Montgomery decide to defeat Rommel at El Alamein?
4. How did the war in North Africa come to an end?
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched his armies eastward in a massive invasion of the Soviet Union: three great army groups with over three million German soldiers, 150 divisions, and three thousand tanks smashed across the frontier into Soviet territory. The invasion covered a front from the North Cape to the Black Sea, a distance of two thousand miles. By this point German combat effectiveness had reached its apex; in training, doctrine, and fighting ability, the forces invading Russia represented the finest army to fight in the twentieth century. Barbarossa was the crucial turning point in World War II, for its failure forced Nazi Germany to fight a two-front war against a coalition possessing immensely superior resources.
The Germans had serious deficiencies. They severely underestimated their opponent; their logistical preparations were grossly inadequate for the campaign; and German industrial preparations for a sustained war had yet to begin. But the greatest mistake that the Germans made was to come as conquerors, not as liberators–they were determined to enslave the Slavic (Russian) population and exterminate the Jews. Thus, from the beginning, the war in the East became an ideological struggle, waged with a ruthlessness and mercilessness.
5. Why was Operation Barbarossa a turning point in the war?
6. List the deficiencies of the Germans.
7. How was this invasion of Russia an ideological struggle?
In Barbarossa’s opening month, German armies bit deep into Soviet territory; panzer armies encircled large Soviet forces at Minsk and Smolensk, while armored spearheads reached two-thirds of the distance to Moscow and Leningrad. But already German logistics were unraveling, while a series of Soviet counterattacks stalled the advance. In September the Germans got enough supplies forward to renew their drives; the results were the encirclement battles of Kiev in September and Bryansk-Vyazma in October, each netting 600,000 prisoners.
Moscow seemingly lay open to a German advance, but at this point Russian weather intervened with heavy rains that turned the roads into mud. The frosts of November solidified the mud, so that the drive could resume. Despite the lateness of the season and the fact that further advances would leave their troops with no winter clothes or supply dumps for the winter, the generals urged Hitler to continue. The Germans struggled to the gates of Moscow where Soviet counterattacks stopped them in early December. In desperate conditions, they conducted a slow retreat as Soviet attacks threatened to envelop much of their forces. In the end the Soviets overreached, and the Germans restored a semblance of order to the front; the spring thaw in March 1942 brought operations to a halt. But Barbarossa had failed, and Nazi Germany confronted a two-front war that it could not win.
8. How was the timing of the Germans a miscalculation?