On this day, German General Erwin Rommel arrives in Tripoli, Libya, with the newly formed Afrika Korps, to reinforce the beleaguered Italians’ position.
In January 1941, Adolf Hitler established the Afrika Korps for the explicit purpose of helping his Italian Axis partner maintain territorial gains in North Africa. “[F]or strategic, political, and psychological reasons, Germany must assist Italy in Africa,” the Fuhrer declared. The British had been delivering devastating blows to the Italians; in three months they pushed the Italians out of Egypt while wounding or killing 20,000 Italian soldiers and taking another 130,000 prisoner.
Having commanded a panzer division in Germany’s successful French and Low Countries’ campaigns, General Rommel was dispatched to Libya along with the new Afrika Korps to take control of the deteriorating situation. Until that time, Italian General Ettore Bastico was the overall commander of the Axis forces in North Africa—which included a German panzer division and the Italian armored division. Rommel was meant to command only his Afrika Korps and an Italian corps in Libya, but he wound up running the entire North African campaign.
The German soldiers of the Afrika Korps found adapting to the desert climate initially difficult; Rommel found commanding his Italian troops, who had been used to an Italian commander, difficult as well. When Hitler, preoccupied with his plans for his Soviet invasion, finally gave the go-ahead for an offensive against British positions in Egypt, Rommel’s forces were stopped dead in their tracks and then forced to retreat. In the famous battle of El Alamein, the British Eighth Army—beginning in October 23, 1942—surprised the German commander with its brute resolve, and pushed him and his Afrika Korps back across and out of North Africa. (Ironically, the Arabs celebrated Rommel, called “the Desert Fox,” as a liberator from British imperialism.) Retreat followed retreat, and Rommel finally withdrew from North Africa entirely and returned to Europe in March of 1943, leaving the Afrika Korps in other hands.