Victory in Africa. Prime Minister Sir Winston S. Churchill among cheering British soldiers.



The Germans had set their foot on the African continent courtesy not only to the Italians. It is proper to mention that the French also helped the enemy to entrench in that part of the world. France's surrender in 1940 practically gave to the Axis powers vast areas of the French North Africa, French West Africa, and French Equatorial Africa. With time the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle, managed to subordinate most of the territories of the French possessions in the West and Equatorial Africa, but the régime in Vichy still held the French North Africa - Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Also in the French West Africa in their hands remained its biggest port Dakar in Senegal, which simultaneously was a well-armed fortress and a big navy base.

After the fall of France the British attached a big importance to the French navy. They were afraid that magnificent modern ships of their yesterday allies would be seized by the Germans. Whereas the French navy commanders saw in the Royal Navy solely a competitor in the struggle for the control over seas and oceans. That is why in June 1940 they stood aside understanding not, that this way they were helping hitlerite Germany.

At that time a strong French squadron (including three battleships and a heavy cruiser) anchored at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in Algeria. When the attempts to induce the French admirals to join the British fleet failed, the British carried out a hastily prepared operation Catapult. That operation foresaw seizing, immobilizing and, if necessary, even sinking French ships. The most important part of that operation became the attack on Mers-el-Kebir on 3 July 1940. The attack was carried out by a relatively smaller squadron based in Gibraltar, and it was preceded by ultimate proposal to join the British forces against the Axis or to evacuate French ships to French ports overseas. When that proposal was rejected with contempt, British ships shelled the port from their heavy guns. Out of four big French ships only one managed to get to Toulon. Almost 1,300 French sailors were killed. The commander-in-chief of the French navy, Admiral Jean François Darlan, ordered the rest of the fleet to attack and sink British ships. He even suggested the Italians a joint raid on Alexandria. Thus he almost caused a French-British war. Fortunately Marshal Philippe Pétain himself stopped his aspirations.

Therefore the matter of an occupation of Dakar, from where one could control communication routes in the South Atlantic, had been growing to the level of a big problem. Already on 7 July 1940 British torpedo-bombers attacked Dakar and damaged the modern battleship Richelieu anchored in its roadstead. The British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, also talked about Dakar with de Gaulle and insisted on a joint, ardent attack. He assumed that French participation in such an expedition would soften the stance of the local French governor and French commanders. This is how de Gaulle noted Churchill's words in that matter:

We must, he said to me, together gain control of Dakar. For you it is capital. For if the business goes well, it means that large French forces are brought back into the war. It is very important to us. For to be able to use Dakar as a base would make a great many things easier in the hard Battle of the Atlantic. And so, having conferred with the Admiralty and the Chiefs of Staff, I am in a position to tell you that we are ready to assist in the expedition. We mean to assign to it a considerable naval force. But we would not be able to leave this force on the coast of Africa for long. The necessity of bringing it back to help in covering England, as well as in our operations in the Mediterranean, demands that we should do things very quickly. That is why we do not agree with your proposal for landing at Konakry and proceeding slowly across the bush - which would oblige us to keep our ships in the neighbourhood for months. (...)

Then Mr. Churchill, colouring his eloquence with the most picturesque tints, set to work to paint to me the following picture: Dakar wakes up one morning, sad and uncertain. But behold, by the light of the rising sun, its inhabitants perceive the sea, to a great distance, covered with ships. An immense fleet! A hundred war or transport vessels! These approach slowly, addressing messages of friendship by radio to the town, to the navy, to the garrison. Some of them are flying the Tricolour. The others are sailing under the British, Dutch, Polish, or Belgian colours. From this Allied force breaks away an inoffensive small ship bearing the white flag of parley. It enters the port and disembarks the envoys of General de Gaulle. These are brought to the Governor. Their job is to convince him that if he lets you land the Allied fleet retires, and that nothing remains but to settle, between him and you, the terms of his cooperation. On the contrary, if he wants a fight, he has every chance to be crushed. [Gaulle ch. de (1998).]

In his truly adventurous career Sir Winston was among others also a novelist and that obviously reflected on his political eloquence. De Gaulle wrote that he had, of course, dismissed the "seductive ornaments" of the British prime-minister. Nevertheless he accepted Churchill's proposals because, and it is completely clear, he himself believed in such a colourful picture. The preparations started and on 23 November 1940 the so planned operation had commenced to de Gaulle's utmost disappointment:

As for the British, their squadron was not destined to include all the ships of which Mr. Churchill had spoken at first. It was finally composed of two old-fashioned battleships - the Barham and the Resolution - four cruisers, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, some destroyers and a tanker. In addition, three transports would bring, in case of need, two battalions of marines under the command of Brigadier Irwin, with apparatus for landing. On the other hand, a Polish brigade, which at first was to have taken part in the affair, had been dropped. It looked as if the General Staff, less convinced than the Prime Minister of the importance, or else of the chances, of the enterprise, had whittled down the resources envisaged at the start. [Gaulle ch. de (1998).]

With all due respect for Gen. de Gaulle it is worth to mention that he had put too much of confidence in foreign forces and resources. The expedition ended in a total confusion. The fortress, commanded by the capitulationists loyal to Pétain, answered with fire. The Richelieu was damaged again, but so were both British battleships. After two days of pointless fights the Allied expedition retreated having not achieved its objectives. To de Gaulle it was not just a military defeat; it was above all a serious political setback. The British lost their hearts for joint with the French operations of that sort, and the mess in Syria only confirmed them in such a view.

And so, when on 7 November 1942 all the Anglo-Saxon radio-stations were broadcasting all the day round the mysterious words: "Robert arriving", neither de Gaulle nor any of his soldiers and sailors knew what the meaning of those words was. And they meant that huge American forces were landing on the coasts of Morocco and Algeria. The leader of the Free French however had learnt about it from the official press releases. And it was not even Churchill, who arranged keeping that matter in secret from the most interested of the Allied leaders. It was the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dearly hated de Gaulle. Simultaneously on that occasion he wanted to eliminate French influence from certain strategically important areas of the world.

The author of the monumental work The Second World War, John Frederic Charles Fuller, wrote that

strategically, there can be little doubt that the invasion of North Africa should have preceded the Battle of el Alamein, because by direct threatening Rommel's base at Tripoli as well as his sea communications it would have compelled him to look in two directions. Also, there can be no doubt whatever that the nearer to Tripoli the Allied forces landed, the more distracting would this threat become. Both these points were considered and both had to be abandoned because of shortage of landing craft. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, which made him the actual supreme commander of the American armed forces, on the same question wrote:

It was desired to carry out the operation early in the fall, but it was necessary to delay until November in order to receive a large number of craft from the shipyards. (...)

It was urgently desired to make initial landings to the east of Algiers or Bone, Philippevile, and possibly Tunis, but the lack of shipping and of landing boats and aircraft-carriers at the time made the procedure impracticable. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

The aircraft carriers at that time were engaged in the battles in the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, the landing operation was complicated by the British protest against landing east of Algiers: the invasion fleet had to be covered by the British ships and the Imperial Staff was afraid to send them too close to Sicily and Sardinia, from where they could be easily bombed by the Italian air force.

At that time the battle of el-Alamein was won and Rommel's forces were in rout, when the crafts and vessels of the invasion fleet started disembarking troops on the western and northern coasts of Africa, near Casablanca, Algiers and Oran. Some troops made all the way from the United States; they were commanded by the energetic but controversial General George Patton. Other troops started from Great Britain in two groups: American and Anglo-American. They were under the command of an American, whose name at that time was rather unknown - General Dwight David Eisenhower.

The hitlerite command, although surprised, reacted swiftly, according to the infallible so far scenarios of the lightning war. They activated an airlift, which was bringing 1,000 soldiers a day from Italy to Tunisia. Eisenhower faced a dilemma: to conduct a gradually mounting operation, whose outcome was still uncertain, or to resort to immediate counter-actions despite of increased risk. He properly chose the latter. On 11 November, from the bridgeheads taken on the first day of the invasion near Algiers, he threw landing troops far eastward, straight to Bone and supported it with an airborne landing in the hinterland, near Souk el-Arba. On 25 November advanced units from the American 1st Army were already in Medjez el-Bab, fifty kilometres from Tunis.

Meanwhile in Algiers were boiling controversies between the Americans and the French, between the Americans and the British, and first of all among the French themselves. Each Anglo-Saxon partner simply tried to get rid of the French on its own. But it was not easy - the French ruled in those areas since long; they knew the country, people and habits, and without them the administration of the whole territory would be complicated. So there was an attempt to replace the French by other French. Roosevelt wanted to bring in place of the hated de Gaulle another French General - Henri Giraud, famous for his daredevil escape from the German captivity. When that manoeuvre failed, the Americans with behemoth awkwardness backed Admiral Darlan - a collaborationist and the Vichyite governor of North Africa, who changed his political orientation overnight. Yet that manoeuvre had also finished tragically: at the end of December Darlan was shot dead by a young fanatic linked to the rightist stream of the resistance movement.

The Germans reacted to the Allied landing in North Africa with occupation of the thereto non-occupied departments of France, which were under the Vichyite administration and had some appearance of sovereignty. During that action the sailors from the ships anchored in Toulon scuttled their ships. Without a use, without resistance, without inflicting any losses on the enemy, in a gesture of pathetic and senseless protest there perished three modern battleships, eight cruisers, seventeen destroyers, sixteen submarines and about seventy auxiliary vessels. De Gaulle resented that most pitiful and sterile suicide imaginable; [Gaulle ch. de (1998).] one can only speculate how much damage to the enemy could have caused that formidable fleet, if it had sailed in the sea.

On 23 January 1943 the British forces that continued the pursuit after Rommel from el-Alamein entered Tripolis. The Libyan capital welcomed them to the torrential rains. On the other side the Americans were also marching in the rain typical for that part of the world and the time of the year. It became obvious, that an immediate taking of Tunis was impossible. In those conditions it was easier to the Germans to supply their troops by air from Italy, than to the Allies by roads from Algiers. Their supply routes stretched over 450km, and were running across the beds of seasonal rivers and the desert turned into mud. Meanwhile Ernst Rommel withdrew his forces from Libya to the Mareth Line - the system of fortifications the French had built to defend the eastern border of Tunisia from the Italians. The area of the fascist domination, which barely two months before stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Alexandria, had shrunk dramatically. In fact the Germans and Italians held only a part of Tunisia. Rommel's troops on the Mareth Line were well-entrenched, but the American forces coming from the west were already reaching Gafsa and the Gulf of Gabes, and menaced to cut off Rommel's troops retreating from the east from the Germano-Italian troops occupying Tunisia under the command of General Jürgen von Arnim. So Rommel made a remarkable manoeuvre: with a part of his forces he turned against the Americans, blasted through the Kasserine pass and took Tebessa. This way he disrupted the communication between the two parallel American divisions. Yet on 23 February Rommel's counter-attack was halted and he had to withdraw. And on 6 March he suffered another defeat when the counter-attack of the other part of his forces, driven against the British 8th Army, was literally rolled over in the approaches to the Mareth Line near Medenine.

So, remarkable manoeuvres did not help much to Rommel, but he could feel safe behind the Mareth Line, whose left flank reached the sea and the right flank was built in the Matamata Hills, inaccessible to the armour; the only accessible pass, Foum Tatathouine, was strongly fortified. Since 23 February 1943 Rommel could officially call himself a commander-in-chief, as he was formally made the commander of the Army Group Africa. It consisted of von Arnim's 5th Armoured Army and the Italian 1st Armoured Army (Gen. Giovanni Messe). He did not enjoy his new post too long. Recalled by Berlin, he flew away on 9 March having left the command to von Arnim. Apparently Adolf Hitler realised that the Axis forces in Africa were doomed and he decided at least to save this worthy commander. And so he had saved, at least partly, Rommel's legend by extricating him from the inevitable defeat.

The commander of the British 8th Army, General Bernard Law Montgomery, did not plan to bump his head against the Mareth Line built along a natural, 15m-deep tectonic ditch. On 20 March he launched an operation genuine in its design. The XXX Corps with a part of its forces attacked the line from the front and bound its defences in fights; simultaneously the New Zealand 2nd Division supported by a tank brigade moved into Foum Tatathouine, where during a 250km-long march they met French troops arriving from the Lake Chad, outflanked the Mareth Line and struck against its rears. This manoeuvre was covered by the air forces, which were literally hunting any noteworthy object.

With the British troops in its rears the Mareth Line became useless and von Arnim decided to pull his whipped troops out to the new defence position along the seasonal river Wadi Akarit to rebuild the defences. However they were overran as early as on 6 April, and the next day the 8th Army, marching from the east, and the American 1st Army, marching from the west, joined hands near Gafsa. On 19 April Montgomery ordered to attack Enfidaville, where Messe tried to build another defence line, and on 3 May American tanks took Mateur. On 6 May started the general attack of the Allied forces on the last Axis bridgehead in Tunisia. They were under the command of Gen. Harold Alexander recalled from Burma. On 7 May Bizerta was taken, and on 8 May the British 6th Armoured Division was thrown to the last assault. Its commander, Gen. Alan Morehead, wrote of it:

They broke clean through to Hammamet inside the next ten hours. They roared past German airfields, workshops, petrol and ammunition dumps and gun positions. They did not stop to take prisoners - things had gone far beyond that. If a comet had rushed down that road it could hardly have made a greater impression. The Germans were now entirely dazed. Wherever they looked British tanks seemed to be hurtling past. (...)

The German generals gave up giving orders since they were completely out of touch with the people to whom they could give orders, who were diminishing every hour. (...)

In a contagion of doubt and fear the German army turned tail and made up the Cape Bon roads looking for boats. When on the beaches it became apparent to them at last that there were no boats - nor any aircraft either - the army became a rabble. [Morehead A. (1943).]

The Germans, and the more so the Italians, could not afford their own version of Dunkirk to save at least a part of their troops. The end came on 12 May 1943. On that day 250,000 German and Italian soldiers marched into captivity.