In 1940, Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini wanted to expand his African Empire. His forces in Ethiopia attacked neighbouring British possessions, but in 1941 were expelled and defeated.
Incursions from Libya into Egypt also met defeat. The British forced the Italians into headlong retreat.
In February 1941, Hitler sent the Afrika Korps, commanded by General Rommel, to bolster his ally. The German counter-offensive pushed the British back to the Egyptian frontier.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of the German forces in North Africa, with his aides during the desert campaign.
The see-saw struggle in the Western Desert continued for the next 18 months. British forces, under a succession of commanders, were continually out-fought by Rommel. The vital port of Tobruk was besieged twice.
The turning point came at El Alamein in October 1942, when General Montgomery inflicted a decisive defeat on the Axis forces.
Sherman tanks during the Battle of El Alamein
Sherman tanks of the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers, 1st Armoured Division, during the Battle of El Alamein, 5 November 1942.
Operation 'Supercharge', which began on 2 November, was the final phase of General Montgomery's great battle at El Alamein. After a costly two-day slogging match to penetrate the German defence lines and minefields, the British tanks finally broke through. Rommel ordered a withdrawal, and his broken formations streamed back westwards.
In November, Anglo-American divisions landed in French Algeria and Morocco. Rommel retreated into Tunisia. The Germans, trapped between two Allied armies, surrendered in May 1943.