The fighting in North Africa during World War II is commonly overlooked, aside from the famous battle at El Alamein that pitted the British under General Bernard Montgomery against the legendary ‘Desert Fox’, Erwin Rommel. But while the Second Battle of El Alamein would be the pivotal action in North Africa, the conflict in North Africa began all the way back in the summer of 1940 when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared Italy’s entrance into the war. From his perspective, the fact that the British and French had their hands full with the Germans created an opportunity for Italy to enlarge its colonial holdings in Africa by seizing portions of the British Empire.
However, British troops in the colony of Egypt responded to Italy’s declaration of war by driving through the Egyptian-Ethiopian border and attacking Italian troops stationed in the Italian colony of Ethiopia. By September 13, 1940, Italian commanders in Ethiopia were finally ready to put Mussolini’s plan into action and attack British colonial holdings, but British troops had already attacked a series of Italian frontier posts and had inflicted 3,500 casualties among Italy’s North African troops.
Despite Italy’s advantages, in December 1940, Operation Compass was launched under the overall command of British General Archibald Percival Wavell. In a mobile campaign, the Italian 10th Army was swiftly routed and pitched into retreat. A headlong pursuit followed, spearheaded by the 7th Armoured Division, who would become known as the legendary Desert Rats, and supported by a variety of British and Commonwealth troops. It was during this advance that the important port of Tobruk was taken, mainly by Australians troops, and held for 241 days, despite the ebb and flow of Allied military fortunes.