North Africa was a primary front for Britain and Italy from 1940 up until 1943. For the Germans, it became a secondary front. Nevertheless, the strategic value of the Suez Canal was without question, so Nazi soldiers remained in North Africa until 1943. Among the more notable battles of the North Africa Campaign was the Battle of Gazala, which was a high point of the campaign for the Axis troops.

The war in the deserts of North Africa began after Italy advanced its troops into Egypt. Aiming to expand their empire in the Mediterranean and North Africa, the Italians embarked upon a war that would, in fact, ensure the collapse of the Italian Empire. They may have possessed one of Europe’s largest navies, but the Italian army did not compare favorably to other armies involved in North Africa.

Britain’s Operation Compass would highlight this. Despite having a numerically larger army, the Italians soon retreated from Egypt. Britain’s army advanced swiftly further into Libya, and hundreds of thousands of Italian troops surrendered. Elsewhere, the Italian army also began to retreat from Greece.

Italy also had defeats at sea. The Battle of Taranto was a naval battle in which the British bombed the Italian naval base of Taranto with one of their aircraft carriers. Three Italian battleships were hit during the raid, and effectively put out of action for a number of months. As such, the Royal Navy had also gained a notable advantage in the Mediterranean.

The Italians therefore called for further German military support in North Africa. The Reich sent further reinforcements to combine with Italian armies in North Africa. This army of German and Italian troops was the Afrika Korps headed by Rommel.

Once the Afrika Korps was ready for action, 1941 was a different story for the Axis. During this year they pushed the British out of Libya and back into Egypt. Such advances left Britain’s position in Africa in increasing doubt, although the British troops held out during the siege of Tobruk.

Elsewhere, at Crete the Germans were also victorious. At the Battle of Crete Germany landed thousands of paratroopers on Crete. After taking the airfield, the Luftwaffe gained increasing air superiority and could provide further supplies and reinforcements for German troops on the ground. As such, despite heavy losses the Germans took Crete which provided a useful base in the Mediterranean for further naval and airborne operations.

In 1942, the desert war continued. However, Rommel could no longer count on a huge amount of supplies and reinforcements, which were now required in Eastern Europe. The British could expect further reinforcements from their American allies later in the campaign. The Axis had to win the campaign sooner rather than later, so ‘fortess Tobruk’ became the next target for further advances.

As such, in 1942 Rommel and the Afrika Korps began to draft plans to take Tobruk in the month of May. To do so, they had to penetrate the Gazala Line where Britain had stationed the  8th Army. Britain had set up large minefields and keeps for its troops along this line.

On May 26 the Battle of Gazala began. With their Panzer divisions the Germans overran British positions behind the Gazala Line. However, the Nazi advance also stretched its supply lines until Rommel discovered his supply convoys.[1]

To further secure its supply lines, the Axis targeted the 150th Brigade Box at Got-le-Ualeb. The defeat of the 150th Brigade was one of the key points in the battle that ensured a steadier stream of supplies for the Afrika Korps. Now victory seemed within Rommel's grasp, but the 8th Army was still not entirely defeated.

In June, the 8th Army began to launch their own strikes along Rommel's lines. However, despite the thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks in support, the counter-attacks were ineffective with heavy losses. German 88s picked off the British tanks, which reduced the infantry's armored cover.

As such, the British began to fall back and set up a perimeter around Tobruk. By June 20 the Afrika Korps reached the perimeter, which quickly crumbled. XXI Panzers rolled into Tobruk, which had effectively fallen to the Germans in one day. On the 21st the British surrendered to the Axis in Tobruk.

Their victory at Tobruk during the Battle of Gazala had once again demonstrated how effective the Afrika Korps was. In Tobruk the Germans and Italians found thousands of tons of petrol and other supplies to maintain their advance in North Africa. Now the Suez Canal seemed within reach for the Axis. However, the British army was still not defeated in North Africa, and before the end of the year, would win two more vital victories at El Alamein to stall the Afrika Korp's advance.