Although the vast majority of battles in World War II occurred in Europe, Africa also experienced several major military operations on its soil. During Hitler’s quest for resources especially oil, German forces invaded a number of countries in Africa.
Nazi Germany successfully invaded and conquered parts of North Africa, including areas in Egypt and Morocco. Many European countries possessed colonies in Africa, creating an opportunity for the Nazis to assault their Allied supply chains.
Italy occupied Libya, and the British controlled Egypt – in 1940, the former invaded Egypt. British and Indian forces united and launched a successful counterattack, capturing 130,000 Italian soldiers. Hitler responded by constructing the “Africa Korps,” led by Erwin Rommel, to drive another attempt to conquer Egypt. Nearly two years later, in the Second Battle of El Alamein, British forces pushed the Axis Powers from Egypt to Tunisia.
Britain and Russia were attempting to convince the other Allied Powers to commit a heavy troop presence to the African front in order to push out Axis forces and to use Africa as an entry point to mainland Europe. Winston Churchill believed winning control of Africa would create a strategic advantage.
The Allied Forces ultimately decided to focus on Germany first, believing that defeating the Nazis would result in the collapse of Italy. Afterward, the Allied Powers could direct the rest of their efforts towards defeating Japan. However, by eliminating the Germans and Italians from North Africa, the Allies were able to establish a base of operations from which to control the Mediterranean Sea and impede any further advances by the Axis powers.
American military strategists were initially reluctant to direct forces to North Africa. Instead, they staunchly advocated for invading Japan, which was the party responsible for the United States entering World War II. When Theodore Roosevelt voiced his support of Churchill’s plan, the Allies carefully formulated a three-pronged assault directed at capturing full control of ports and airports in Morocco and Algeria simultaneously. Dwight Eisenhower was chosen to head the operation.
The French had a strong presence in Morocco, already having 60,000 soldiers on the ground. The Allied forces had to combat French forces in North Africa, a fact that is often omitted from the histories of WWII. The Americans organized infantry, naval, and paratrooper regiments with Casablanca, Algiers, and Oran as their targets. In all, the United States contributed 35,000 soldiers to what would be called Operation Torch. The Allied forces successfully drove out the Axis forces in November 1942, and on May 13, 1943, German forces officially surrendered in Tunisia, resulting in the capture of 250,000 soldiers.
The Axis defeat resulted in French forces complying with the Allied powers and ceasing any resistance efforts. The French-North African government was formed and assisted in the fight against Germany, Italy, and Japan. France’s role in Operation Torch violated the Second Armistice at Compiegne (agreed to on June 22, 1940), in which the Germans agreed to not occupy southern France if the French agreed to not mobilize their colonies in North Africa.
Hitler responded by invading Southern France but failed to successfully capture any French naval ships at the port of Toulon. France officially joined the Allied Forces, and Operation Torch succeeded in opening a second front, allowing Allied Forces to push through “the soft underbelly of Europe,” using North Africa as a gateway to mainland Europe.
Operation Torch was also the first time American forces witnessed the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, which existed in parts of North Africa in French colonies. The campaign cemented an important alliance between Britain, the United States, and France. It also prevented expansion of supporters for the Axis powers and mobilization of troops from African nations against Allied forces.