On the 26th June 1940, the last soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated from France. Two weeks earlier, Italy's Mussolini, after much prevarication, had declared war on Britain. It was a purely political decision on the part of Il Duce, who did not want the war to end, as he was convinced it was about to, with Germany controlling vast territories in Europe, leaving Italy as very much the junior partner in the Axis. Mussolini sought a Mediterranean empire to rival Hitler's gains. He had already forcibly taken control of Libya and Abyssinia, but Britain, with the might of the Royal Navy and its pivotal bases in Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus, remained the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Britain also possessed Egypt, the Suez Canal and the oil wells in the Middle East; Mussolini craved them all.

 

He first attempted to secure them through peaceful means, demanding that Britain effectively surrender all of those territories to him, together with Sudan and all French Mediterranean possessions, in return for Italian neutrality and the promise of seeking favourable peace terms with Germany. Lord Halifax, one of the chief appeasers of the recently fallen Chamberlain government, concealed the full extent of Mussolini's demands from the Cabinet, and, on the 27th and 28th May 1940, pleaded the merits of the case to them. Such an arrangement, described by cabinet minister Arthur Greenwood as "ultimate capitulation", would certainly have left Britain defenceless and broken, and so it is of little surprise that the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, rejected the idea completely. Mussolini would have to fight for the Mediterranean.

 

In the Autumn of 1940, believing that Britain was too weak to resist, 250,000 Italians landed in Libya and advanced towards Egypt, while a further 300,000 did likewise in Ethiopia. Opposing them were just 36,000 British, Indian and Australian soldiers of XIII Corps. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the British fought a series of delaying actions until the Italians, their supply lines stretched, came to a halt 60 miles inside Egypt. They then made the mistake of separating their forces into a series of isolated encampments, based so far apart that one could not support another if attacked. Confronted with this gift, the newly reinforced British took the offensive by outflanking each encampment in turn, cutting its supply lines in the process, and attacking it in the rear. In this way Italian resistance crumbled and thousands laid down their arms after the briefest of engagements. By February 1941, at little cost to themselves, the British had taken 130,000 prisoners and pushed the demoralised remnants back into Libya.

 

Those Italians advancing from Ethiopia were similarly thrown back in disarray, and with their hold on Africa in danger of collapse, the desert war should have been brought to a swift conclusion. The British, however, were compelled to halt their advance on Libya when a third of their strength was diverted to Greece to confront a German invasion. The welcome delay enabled Hitler to send two of his own divisions to Italy's aid, and with them came "the Desert Fox", Erwin Rommel. Although his Afrika Korps had no previous experience of such conditions, Rommel ordered an offensive in April, and his bold outflanking tactics successfully trapped thousands of British troops and forced the survivors to fall back into Egypt. Rommel pursued them all the way back to their starting point, but here he too was forced to halt, hampered by a cumbersome supply line and dogged Australian resistance in his rear at Tobruk.

 

The British recovered, and in November they fought the Afrika Korps and held them in stalemate until, their tanks low on petrol, the Germans were forced to retreat to Libya. Once again events elsewhere prevented the British from capitalising on their success; a significant proportion of the 8th Army was sent to the Far East to meet the Japanese threat. The Germans were reinforced and, in January 1942, they dared a premature offensive which caught the British completely unawares and, after a pause that lasted until May, eventually herded them deep inside Egypt once again. The 8th Army chose to turn and fight at a point where it was impossible for Rommel to apply his traditional outflanking tactics; a forty mile stretch of desert bordered by the Mediterranean in the north and the impassable salt marshes of the Qattara Depression in the south. The Germans made two attempts to attack them head-on, throughout July at the First Battle of el-Alamein, and for several days at the end of August at Alam al-Haifa. Both failed to break the British line.

 

By this time the British had received a new commander, General Montgomery. Painfully aware that both sides had twice been on the verge of victory and catastrophe during the past two years, Montgomery was determined that when he attacked he would not be thrown back again. Refusing to bow to political pressure for an immediate offensive following the success at Alam al-Haifa, Monty left nothing to chance and ensured that the 8th Army was fully trained for the task in hand and that they were supported by an overwhelming superiority of men and equipment. To further weaken the Axis position, the RAF and Royal Navy, operating from Malta, decimated Rommel's supply lines; only a quarter of his supply ships from Italy reached North Africa. On the 23rd October 1942, his patient build-up complete, Montgomery attacked.

 

Due to the lay of the land, hemmed in by the sea and the marshes, the Second Battle of el-Alamein was not like the previous engagements of outflanking and surrounding the enemy, it was a hard and bloody battle of attrition. Losses on both sides were heavy, but after 10 days of fighting hard for every foot of ground, the Germans began to yield, and when their line was at last broken, the Afrika Korps was driven back into Libya. Montgomery followed them cautiously, making certain that he would not be forced to retread any captured ground. In this way an end to the Axis presence in Africa was assured, and it became a certainty when, on the 8th November 1942, the 1st Allied Army, consisting of both British and American elements, landed in Morocco and Algeria. As the Germans retreated into Tunisia, the 1st Army closed on them from the west whilst the 8th Army did likewise from the east.

 

Even so, Axis resistance was not merely to be swept aside and the Tunisian Campaign endured until May 1943. The Allies were initially hampered by long and awkward supply lines, while the Germans for their part were substantially reinforced and enjoyed easier lines of communication. The Axis recognised that Tunisia was lost, but they were determined to sell it dearly. Rommel, never a man to patiently await events, surprised and inflicted a serious defeat upon the II US Corps in February before the Americans, fighting the Germans for the first time, recovered and repulsed them with the help of the 8th Army. Only days later, Rommel struck again with the first of four major offensives against the 8th Army, but all were held having achieved no tactical effect. In March, the Allies began to mount their own attacks, and in May, after both Armies had broken through the enemy lines, 250,000 German and Italian prisoners were taken. The campaign in North Africa, although it should have finished years before, ended with a great Allied, though predominantly British victory that was reminiscent of the recent triumph of the Russians at Stalingrad.