A bit more information on the 8th army in Northern Africa

For those who would like a bit more information about the 8th army ‘desert rats’…

Key points 

  • The Eighth Army was formed from the Western Desert Force in September 1941 and put under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham. It got its number from the fact that the French had fielded seven armies previously in the same war
  • It was a British formation, always commanded by British officers, however its personnel came from throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth; complemented by units composed of exiles from Nazi-occupied Europe. Subordinate units came from Australia, British India, Canada, Free French Forces, Greece, New Zealand, Poland, Rhodesia, South Africa and the United Kingdom
  • By the time the army was fighting the Second Battle of El Alamein it had reached a size of over 220,000 men in 10 divisions and several independent brigades
  • The eight army was weakened when war broke with Japan on 8th December 1941 and some of their troops were sent to the far east
  • After much advancing, retreating and almost continuous battle, on August 30th Rommel attacked the 8th army, and at the ensuing battle of Alam Halfa the enemy attackwas completely broken and they had retreated by September 7. The successful outcome of this battle is regarded in many quarters as being the turning point of the war.

Other interesting facts

  • There are few photographs of active duty because troops on active service were not permitted cameras for personal use.
  • Early in the war, German tanks were far superior to British tanks

Infantry advance during the Battle of El Alamein


Eighth Army first went into action as an Army as part of Operation Crusader, the Allied operation to relieve the besieged city of Tobruk, on 17 November 1941, when it crossed the Egyptian frontier into Libya to attack Erwin Rommel‘s Panzer Army Africa.

On 26 November the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, replaced Cunningham with Major-General Neil Ritchie, following disagreements between Auchinleck and Cunningham. Despite achieving a number of tactical successes, Rommel was forced to concede Tobruk and was pushed back to El Agheila by the end of 1941. In February 1942 Rommel had regrouped his forces sufficiently to push the over-extended Eighth Army back to the Gazala line, just west of Tobruk. Both sides commenced a period of building their strength to launch new offensives but it was Rommel who took the initiative first, forcing Eighth Army from the Gazala position.

Ritchie proved unable to halt Rommel and was replaced when Auchinleck himself took direct command of the army. The Panzer Army Afrika were eventually stopped by Auchinleck at the First battle of El Alamein. Auchinleck, wishing to pause and regroup Eighth Army which had expended a lot of its strength in halting Rommel, came under intense political pressure from Winston Churchill to strike back immediately. However, he proved unable to build on his success at Alamein and was replaced as Commander-in-Chief Middle-East in August 1942 by General Alexander and as Eighth Army commander by Lieutenant-General William Gott. Gott was killed in an air crash on his way to take up his command and so Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed in his place. Alexander and Montgomery were able to resist the pressure from Churchill, building the army’s strength and adding a pursuit formation, X Corps, to the Army’s XIII Corps and XXX Corps.

At the beginning of November 1942 the Eighth Army defeated Rommel in the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein, pursuing the defeated Axis army across Libya and reaching the Mareth defensive line on the Tunisian border in February 1943 where it came under the control of 18th Army Group. Eighth Army outflanked the Mareth defenses in March 1943 and after further fighting alongside British First Army, the other 18th Army Group component which had been campaigning in Tunisia since November 1942, the Axis forces in North Africa surrendered in May 1943.

8th Army: Key dates and deeds in North Africa


  • The Eighth Army was formed in September, 1941, and placed under the command of Lt-Gen Sir Allan Cunningham.
  • It first went into action as an Army on November 17, 1941, when it crossed the frontier of Cyrenaica to meet the thrust of Rommel’s Africa Korps.
  • The resultant battle of Sidi Rezegh was the key battle of this campaign, and was a pitched battle between armour.
  • British tanks at this time were greatly inferior to the German tanks, but although our losses were heavy, the German armour was almost wiped out. The battle lasted from November 19 to December 1.
  • The garrison in Tobruk was broke out on November 21 and met the Army’s drive up the desert.
  • The relief of Tobruk was completed by December 10, after an eight months’ siege. On November 26, 1941, Lieut.-Gen. N. M. Ritchie took over command of the Eighth Army from General Cunningham.
  • The enemy retired and made a stand at Gazala. The Eighth Army attacked on December 13,and had broken through by the night of December 16-17. Benghazi fell. The enemy made a stand at Agheila.
  • War with Japan had broken out on December 8, and the Eighth Army began to send troops to the Far East.
  • The Bengali attacked our weakened forces on January 21, 1942, drove us out of Bengazi and back to Gazala.
  • He attacked again on May 27, and by June 2 it looked as if we would win. There had been a steady drain of our armour, however and the tide turned. The Eighth Army withdrew from its forward positions on June 14.
  • On June 20 Tobruk was captured by the enemy.
  • On June 25 General Sir Claude Auchinleck, then C-in-C Middle East took over Command of the Eight Army at Bagush, and controlled the retreat to El Alamein. The Eighth Army took up positions on July 1.
  • On July 4 the Eighth Army attacked, and by July 11 and captured the Tel El Eisa salient, essential springboard for the subsequent attack by General Montgomery.
  • On August 15, 1942, General Alexander took over the Middle East Command and Lt-Gen. B. L. Montgomery became the Eighth Army Commander.
  • On August 30 Rommel attacked, and at the ensuing battle of Alam Halfa the enemy attack was completely broken. The enemy had retreated by September 7.
  • The successful outcome of this battle is regarded in many quarters as being the turning point of the war.
  • Our own carefully prepared offensive was launched on October 23, 1942. After continuous desperate fighting Rommel’s troops fled on November 4. The Eighth Army’s pursuit was hampered by heavy rain.
  • On November 8, British and American troops landed in North Africa.
  • By November 25, Eighth Army troops were at Agheila, from which the enemy began to withdraw on December12, employing delaying tactics.
  • Tripoli was captured on January 23, 1943 and the Eighth Army moved up to the Mareth Line.
  • On February 20 the Eight Army came under the command of the 18th Army Group, commanded by General Alexander, who had relinquished C-in-C Middle East.
  • On March 6, the enemy attacked from his Mareth positions, but this was broken by artillery.
  • The frontal attack on the Mareth Line by the Eighth Army on March 20 was held up at Wadi Zigzaou, but the left hook to El Hamma forced the enemy out of the Mareth positions, and we entered Gabeson March 29.
  • The enemy’s next stand was a Wadi Akarit, which we attacked on April 6. The Atari was leaving by April 7, and the Eighth Army got into the Kairouan plain of Tunisia.
  • The Enfidaville Line commanded by the Takrouna mountain feature was the enemy’s next stand, and this was attacked by the Eight Army on April 19. At this time the Eighth was keeping the Akron busily engaged while the First Army prepared to break through to Tunis.
  • On May 12 the enemy began to surrender to the First and Eighth Armies in large numbers. The German 90th Light Division – old enemies of the Eighth – surrendered in its entirety.
  • The Army was now strung across North Africa, from Cairo to Algiers, but with the North African campaign at an end, the Eight Army began immediately to plan its part in the invasion of Sicily.
  • The operation was mounted from all parts of North African coast.
  • On July 10, 1943 – now under command of 15th Army Group commanded by Gen’l. Alexander – the Eighth Army landed troops on Sicily, and immediately captured Syracuse.

The 8th Army veterans www.eavm.co.uk

  • A cross section of all the individual forces who served in the Middle East, i.e. First Army, Eighth Army, Desert Air Force, Mediterranean Fleet and British Divisions which were with the American 5th Army in Italy.
  • The Eighth Army was a British & Commonwealth Force, formed in North Africa during 1942, where it fought and defeated the Afrika Korps.  After the campaign in North Africa, the Eighth Army became heavily committed in the invasions of Sicily and Italy.  Units were also withdrawn to take part in the D-Day invasion and campaigns throughout Northern Europe.
  • After the war, veterans from the Eighth Army organized Annual Reunions at the Royal Albert Hall.  Then, in the late 1970s, the Eighth Army Veterans Association was formed.  At the height of its membership, there were over 35 branches, with a particular strength in the North West.  Reunions were held at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.
  • Eventually, in 2002 the National Association disbanded.  However, the Manchester Branch decided to continue, under the title of Eighth Army Veterans, City of Manchester.  It has an active membership, who hold regular meetings and events.  Its newsletter, “The Manchester Veteran”, is still distributed to 300 ex-servicemen and women, or their dependents, and is a lively forum for the community it represents.
  • Some biographical accounts of members of the Eight Army veterans http://www.eavm.co.uk/PenPortraits.html

The Libyan Desert: By Fred Heald http://www.eavm.co.uk/Articles/Libyan%20Desert.htm

Its very difficult to explain unless you have been there. I was a gunfitter, responsible for four 3.7 Anti-Aircraft guns. I remember on one occasion one of our fitters changed a gun barrel in the daytime, unfortunately leaving the new one along side. It expanded in the sun and it was hours later before it cooled off sufficiently to allow it to be fitted.

The winds were a problem, blowing red hot sand just like rough sandpaper, tearing at any exposed skin on our bodies, sometimes coming at you in a spiral thirty feet high, taking everything before it. Metal parts could burn our hands, the skin behind our knees would crack and sand would get in causing nasty desert sores.

A shortage of water left lips and throat dry and coated with fine sand. There was no water to spare to wash our clothes, instead we used petrol, (more plentiful than water) which cleaned them and they dried quickly, but you had to be careful with matches.

We had a shower unit call one day. They pitched a tent and inside were pipes with about six or eight shower heads. Water was heated by a generator. A few  drops of water came out of the shower heads which was welcome. However, the tent, with flaps at each end, had been pitched the wrong way round. One flap let the wind in, then out by the end flap. Consequently we ended up with wet sand and goose pimples on our naked bodies. Still it was worth it and welcome – the water not the sand.

I was in Haifa during a heat wave when some of the natives died of sunstroke as the temperature climbed to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and we were working at the docks waterproofing our guns for the invasion of Kos. We slept in the open at Nathan Camp and had to drink a pint of salt water every morning. An officer watched us drink it down yet only a few minutes later I sweated it out. Water ran off my face like a tap which had been left on. I was lucky for I only suffered a bout of sandfly fever and a touch of foot rot causing lots of blisters.

The shortage of water was the most serious and a drop of tea left in a mug was used for shaving. Many of the wells had been salted and destroyed by the Germans. We were issued with one bottle of beer a week – if we were lucky.

Flies, flies and more flies, scorpions, mosquitoes, sand crabs were everywhere. Flies on our food, in our eyes, sand on our food, red hot days and bitter cold nights. The only thing to look forward to was leave in Alex or Cairo with hot baths, clean sheets, ice-cold beer, open-air cinemas, hangovers and naughty ladies, the Top Hat in Bier Street, even Sister Street.

A few days of heaven, then back to Hell.


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