World War II in Africa
The European theatre of World War II (see World War II in Europe) included a major campaign in North Africa and there was also fighting in several other parts of the continent. Combat between the Axis and the Allies began in 1940, and the Axis were expelled from the continent in 1943.
|Theatres of World War II:|
Europe • Africa • China • Pacific
By the 1930s, most of Africa was divided between the European powers, as colonies and protectorates. See British Empire, French Colonial Empire and Portuguese Empire for the largest players. Italy, Belgium and Spain were also involved, and earlier on Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and the United States had been.
The Italians came late to the "scramble for Africa" in which the European powers divided up the continent, but they did manage to grab Libya in 1911. Ethiopia, which had famously resisted colonial forces, became part of the Italian Empire in 1936. Fascist Italy had an ambition to restore the Roman Empire encircling the Mediterranean Sea.
With the fall of France in June 1940, the French colonies in Africa formally became part of Vichy France, a puppet state of Germany whose capital was Vichy. They never officially joined the Axis, but they did co-operate extensively with Germany. One consequence of this was a British attack on the French naval base at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, sinking French ships to prevent them falling into German hands.
The film Casablanca takes place in Vichy Africa in this period, specifically in Casablanca, Morocco. Much of the plot revolves around refugees from various parts of Nazi-controlled Europe, en route to neutral Portugal and the United States,
- The Free French. When France surrendered and the Vichy government was set up, General De Gaulle set up a government in exile, based in London. In Europe, they did propaganda broadcasts and helped run the French Resistance. In Africa they actively opposed various pro-Vichy colonial regimes; by the end of 1942, none of those regimes still held power anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Gabon Campaign. By the end of August 1940, the Free French held Cameroon and most of French Equatorial Africa, today's Chad, Central African Republic, and Republic of the Congo. Then they took Gabon, the last part of French Equatorial Africa under Vichy control; the capital Libreville fell in early November and the last Vichy forces surrendered a few days later.
- French West Africa (today's Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger) remained loyal to Vichy until that regime fell in 1942.
- Battle of Dakar. This was an unsuccessful attempt in September 1940 by the Allies to capture the strategic port of Dakar in what is now Senegal, then part of French West Africa. It was mainly a naval battle, Royal Navy versus Vichy ships and shore batteries.
- Madagascar Campaign. In 1942, British forces took Madagascar from the Vichy French and put the Free French in charge instead. Much of the fighting was done by the King's African Rifles, a regiment of native troops (askaris) from various British colonies in eastern Africa.
In mid-1940, Mussolini's Fascist Italy joined the war on the German side and there were soon a series of engagements between Italian forces based in their colony of Libya and Commonwealth forces based in Egypt. Toward the end of 1940 the Germans joined in, creating the Afrika Corps under General Erwin Rommel. Rommel was one of the best German generals of this war, in particular a fine tank tactician. He was sometimes called "the desert fox".
The Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal were important for Allied shipping, sometimes called "the lifeline of the empire". One of the main Axis objectives in North Africa was to gain control of the Suez Canal, mainly to prevent the Allies from using it, but also to use it themselves for transportation between Europe and the Pacific theatre. This never happened and the Yanagi missions, where submarines made shipments between Germany and Japan, had to use the much longer Cape Route. The Germans also desired to capture the oil fields of the Middle East.
In North Africa the British fought alongside Commonwealth allies. The largest contingent were ANZACs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), some of whom were withdrawn when they were needed nearer home for the Pacific War. There were also many Canadians and some from other countries.
In November 1942, the Allies launched Operation Torch, invading Morocco and Algeria with mainly American troops; the main targets were Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. This was far the largest amphibious assault in history up to that time, and some lessons learned here were applied in the invasion of Normandy later. From then on, Rommel's Afrika Corps was in deep trouble; Commonwealth forces were already advancing on the east, but now there were also Americans attacking on the west.
South Africa was a self-governing dominion of the British Empire (albeit under white minority rule) since 1931, and supported Britain during the war, though the country also had a strong pro-German movement. This was largely divided along ethnic lines, with most Anglo-South Africans supporting Britain, and most Afrikaners wanting to stay out of the war. See 20th-century South Africa.
South African troops and askaris (native troops with mainly British officers) from Britain's East African colonies did most of the fighting in East Africa. They first prevented Italian expansion south from Ethiopia into the British colony of Kenya and then, working with local patriots, ended Italian rule in Ethiopia. They also took Madagascar from the Vichy French.
While the African independence movements already had some support in the 1930s, they were accelerated by the war and its outcome. Many African soldiers fought for Free France and Britain. The Allies' policy from the 1941 Atlantic charter to the foundation of the United Nations, was that colonies should be liberated over time. By 1965, 20 years after the war, most of Africa was independent.
- 1 Casablanca (Morocco). Controlled by Vichy France until liberated by the Americans after the Operation Torch landings in late 1942.
- 2 Oran (Algeria). Algeria's second city, and a stronghold of Vichy France. The Allies landed here in November 1942.
- 3 Malta. This archipelago was a British colony before the war and a British base during it, used to attack shipments of supplies going from Italy to Tripoli. The Axis bombed it heavily.
- 4 Tripoli (Libya). This is Libya's largest city, was the capital under the Italians and remains so today. Rommel's headquarters was there for much of the war, and the port was vital for supplying Axis forces.
- 5 Tobruk (Libya). A natural harbour, which became a stronghold held in turn by the Italians, the British and the Germans, until finally recaptured by the British.
- 6 El Alamein (Egypt). Two large battles were fought around this town, only 100 km (60-odd miles) from Alexandria, in 1942. The Allies stopped the German advance into Egypt here in June. Then in October they attacked the German forces near the town and, after almost three weeks of fierce fighting, drove them back. This battle is regarded as one of the turning points of the war, the beginning of the British advance westward.
- 7 El Guettar (Tunisia). The Americans fought a series of engagements against German and Italian forces here in late March and early April 1943. Once they broke through, they were able to join up with the British who were advancing from the east. The battle was the main subject of the classic film Patton with George C. Scott in the title role.
Once the Allies were able to join up after El Guettar, it was all over for the Axis in Africa. Within a few weeks many of their troops were evacuated and the rest surrendered.