North Africa, campaigns in

North Africa, campaigns in

North Africa, campaigns in, series of military contests for control of North Africa during World War II. The desert war started in 1940 and for more than two years thereafter seesawed between NE Libya and NW Egypt. The almost uniformly level terrain along the coast allowed tanks and aircraft to play dominant roles. Temporary success was always won by the side that first was able to build up air and armored strength, but for a long time neither side could achieve decisive victory.

The Italian Campaign

Italy's entrance into World War II (June 10, 1940) made N Africa an active theater in which control of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea was contested. Fighting began with the rapid Italian occupation of British Somaliland in Aug., 1940. The first of what was to be three Axis drives into Egypt was launched (Sept. 12, 1940) from Libya by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani's Italian forces. By Sept. 17 the Italian drive reached Sidi Barani (c.60 mi/97 km inside Egypt) and then stalled. On Dec. 9, 1940, the British under Gen. Archibald P. Wavell began a surprise counterattack with numerically inferior forces and chased Graziani c.500 mi (805 km) along the coast of Cyrenaica to El Agheila (Feb. 8, 1941).

Rommel's Offensives

The collapse of the Italian army forced Germany to reinforce its ally with the Afrika Korps under Gen. Erwin Rommel. The British had cut their strength in Africa to send troops to Greece, and in April Rommel was able to drive them back to the border of Egypt. The Australian garrison at Tobruk in Libya managed to hold out. Gen. Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell. With the new British 8th Army, he attacked and pushed Rommel back to El Agheila (Jan., 1942). A German counterattack forced the British to abandon Benghazi. Auchinleck set up a defense line N of Bir Hacheim at El Gazala, c.100 mi (160 km) within Libya. Rommel moved against this line on May 26, 1942. At Knightsbridge (June 13), the British lost 230 out of 300 tanks. Auchinleck retreated c.250 mi (400 km) into Egypt where he dug in along a 35-mi (56-km) line from El Alamein on the coast to the Qattara Depression (an impassable badland), only c.70 mi (112 km) from Alexandria. This time, Tobruk fell on June 21. Both sides now raced to build up strength. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander replaced Auchinleck, and Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery took direct command of the 8th Army. Rommel's attempt to break through failed.

Allied Counterattacks

On Oct. 23, 1942, the greatly reinforced British forces launched their own offensive (for an account of the fighting, see Alamein). To save his forces Rommel began one of the longest sustained retreats in history. Frustrating British attempts to engage him, he abandoned Tripoli, which fell to the British on Jan. 23, 1943. Rommel ended his retreat only when he took up a defensive position along the Mareth Line in S Tunisia.

Meanwhile, American and British forces landed (night of Nov. 7-8, 1942) at Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca, thus occupying the territory to the west of Rommel. Under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied forces pushed toward Tunisia. The Germans, however, rushed reinforcements from Italy. Axis forces in Tunisia now faced the British 8th Army in the south, Eisenhower's force on the west, and the Free French in the southwest; but the hilly terrain favored the defense. German counterattacks in Tunisia pushed west through Faid Pass (Feb. 14, 1943) and Kasserine Pass (a week later), from which they were dislodged only after heavy fighting. In the south the Allies forced Rommel from the Mareth Line and moved up the coast to take Sousse in April.

At the beginning of May, the Axis defense crumbled, and on May 7, 1943, the Americans took Bizerta and the British took Tunis. About a quarter of a million Axis soldiers capitulated on May 12. In E Africa the fighting had earlier resulted in complete British victory; by 1942, Italian and British Somaliland, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were reconquered.


See J. Strawson, Battle for North Africa (1969) and R. Atkinson, An Army at Dawn (2002).

Carthage and the Berbers

Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 900 BC and established Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) around 800 BC. By the sixth century BC, a Phoenician presence existed at Tipasa (east of Cherchell in Algeria). From their principal center of power at Carthage, the Carthaginians expanded and established small settlements (called emporia in Greek) along the North African coast; these settlements eventually served as market towns as well as anchorages. Hippo Regius (modern Annaba) and Rusicade (modern Skikda) are among the towns of Carthaginian origin on the coast of present-day Algeria.

As Carthaginian power grew, its impact on the indigenous population increased dramatically. Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also resulted in the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and in the extraction of tribute from others. By the early fourth century BC, Berbers formed one of the largest element, with Gauls, of the Carthaginian army. In the Revolt of the Mercenaries, Berber soldiers participated from 241 to 238 BC after being unpaid following the defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War. Berbers succeeded in obtaining control of much of Carthage's North African territory, and they minted coins bearing the name Libyan, used in Greek to describe natives of North Africa. The Carthaginian state declined because of successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars; in 146 BC the city of Carthage was destroyed. As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the second century BC, several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. Two of them were established in Numidia, behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. West of Numidia lay Mauretania, which extended across the Moulouya River in Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of Berber civilization, unequaled until the coming of the Almohads and Almoravids more than a millennium later, was reached during the reign of Masinissa in the second century BC. After Masinissa's death in 148 BC, the Berber kingdoms were divided and reunited several times. Masinissa's line survived until AD 24, when the remaining Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire.

Roman North Africa

Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of the Berber society. Nomad t tribes were forced to settle or move from traditional rangelands. Sedentary tribes lost their autonomy and connection with the land. Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The Roman emperor Trajan established a frontier in the south by encircling the Aurès and Nemencha mountains and building a line of forts from Vescera (modern Biskra) to Ad Majores (Hennchir Besseriani, southeast of Biskra). The defensive line extended at least as far as Castellum Dimmidi (modern Messaad, southwest of Biskra), Roman Algeria's southernmost fort. Romans settled and developed the area around Sitifis (modern Sétif) in the second century, but farther west the influence of Rome did not extend beyond the coast and principal military roads until much later.

The Roman military presence of North Africa was relatively small, consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in Numidia and the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the second century AD, these garrisons were manned mostly by local inhabitants.

Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in part with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the Roman emperors Claudius, Nerva, and Trajan. In Algeria such settlements included Tipasa, Cuicul or Curculum (modern Djemila, northeast of Sétif), Thamugadi (modern Timgad, southeast of Sétif), and Sitifis (modern Setif). The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture. Called the "granary of the empire," North Africa was one of the largest exporters of grain in the empire, which was exported to the provinces which did not produce cereals, like Italy and Greece. Other crops included fruit, figs, grapes, and beans. By the second century AD, olive oil rivaled cereals as an export item.

The beginnings of the decline of the Roman Empire were less serious in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings, however. In AD 238, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor's fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the Mauretanian mountains followed from 253 to 288. The towns also suffered economic difficulties, and building activity almost ceased.

The towns of Roman North Africa had a substantial Jewish population. Some Jews had been deported from Judea or Palestine in the first and second centuries AD for rebelling against Roman rule; others had come earlier with Punic settlers. In addition, a number of Berber tribes had converted to Judaism.

Christianity arrived in the second century and soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. More than eighty bishops, some from distant frontier regions of Numidia, attended the Council of Carthage in 256. By the end of the fourth century, the settled areas had become Christianized, and some Berber tribes had converted en masse.

A division in the church that came to be known as the Donatist controversy began in 313 among Christians in North Africa. The Donatists stressed the holiness of the church and refused to accept the authority to administer the sacraments of those who had surrendered the scriptures when they were forbidden under the Emperor Diocletian. The Donatists also opposed the involvement of Emperor Constantine in church affairs in contrast to the majority of Christians who welcomed official imperial recognition.

The occasionally violent controversy has been characterized as a struggle between opponents and supporters of the Roman system. The most articulate North African critic of the Donatist position, which came to be called a heresy, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine maintained that the unworthiness of a minister did not affect the validity of the sacraments because their true minister was Christ. In his sermons and books Augustine, who is considered a leading exponent of Christian truths, evolved a theory of the right of orthodox Christian rulers to use force against schismatics and heretics. Although the dispute was resolved by a decision of an imperial commission in Carthage in 411, Donatist communities continued to exist as late as the sixth century.

Vandals and Byzantines

The decline in trade weakened Roman control. Independent kingdoms emerged in mountainous and desert areas, towns were overrun, and Berbers, who had previously been pushed to the edges of the Roman Empire, returned.

Belisarius, general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I based in Constantinople, landed in North Africa in 533 with 16,000 men and within a year destroyed the Vandal kingdom. Local opposition delayed full Byzantine control of the region for twelve years, however, and when imperial control came, it was but a shadow of the control exercised by Rome. Although an impressive series of fortifications were built, Byzantine rule was compromised by official corruption, incompetence, military weakness, and lack of concern in Constantinople for African affairs. As a result, many rural areas reverted to Berber rule.

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