North Africa was a pivotal battleground in the early years of World War II. While British forces had been pushed out of mainland Europe following the German conquest of France and the Low Countries, in North Africa they were able to maintain firm control. While the Battle of Britain raged over the United Kingdom, the Italians launched a crucial attack against British forces in Egypt. Italy joined the war in support of the Axis in June 1940, launching attacks along France’s southern border while the German’s overwhelmed the French defenses in the north. The decision to invade Egypt was supported by the Axis desire to control the Suez Canal. The vital shipping lane was necessary for the transportation of troops and equipment from the East-West, and seizing the canal would ensure the British could not supplement their forces with troops from India.
British forces in Egypt were a conglomerate of Commonwealth troops, British regulars, and Free-French forces. The Italians, staged in Libya, assembled four divisions on the border of Libya and Egypt. On 9 September 1940 the Italian invasion commenced, with a headlong charge into British defenses. The British had only a brigade-sized force on the border when the attack started, but were able to hold the Italian offensive back while more British/Commonwealth/Free-French forces were pushed forward to plug the gap. The initial engagement was inconclusive for the Italians, suffering higher casualties than their British counterparts, despite greatly outnumbering them. The Italians were able to break through eventually British lines and seize the coastal city of Sidi Barrani. While the Italians had been able to gain some ground on the Egyptian front, they were soon pushed back across their border in Libya following the Allied offensive of Operation Compass.
The Allied offensive of Operation Compass overwhelmed the Italian defenses and was able to seize much of the territory in eastern Libya. The offensive was slowed following the German invasion of Greece, in which British and Commonwealth forces were pulled from the offensive in North Africa to stall the German onslaught in Greece. The tables turned dramatically for the Allies when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was deployed to lead the German Afrika Korps in North Africa. With German support, the Axis forces were able to push back against the Allied gains in Libya and drove deep into Egypt before finally being stopped at the Battle of El Alamein. The defeat of the Afrika Korps at El Alamein reinvigorated the Allied forces in North Africa and soon the Allies were once again driving deep into Libya and Italian held territory. The Allied invasion of Operation Torch enveloped Axis troops in North Africa, and by the early spring of 1944 the Axis had been driven entirely out and the Allies were pushing north against the Italian homeland.