North Africa, 1941–1942

Italian reverses in Tripoli led Hitler to send reinforcements in the winter of 1941–42 to his troops in North Africa. A British offensive called Operation Crusader (November 1941 to January 1942) pushed Rommel back to El Agheila in Libya, where he had begun his African offensive a year earlier.

On May 26, 1942, Rommel started a drive from Libya that brought him to El Alamein, about 105 km (65 mi) west of Alexandria, Egypt. Thanks largely to U.S. aid, including tanks and ammunition, the British were able to build up their Eighth Army under Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery. Then began a seesaw battle between Rommel and Montgomery back and forth across the Libyan Desert. In early September 1942 the confrontation came to a climax at Alam Halfa Ridge at the southern end of the British line at El Alamein. It was essential for the British to hold there, because El Alamein, at the edge of the impassable Qattara Depression, was the one position on the North African front that could not be outflanked. Plagued by minefields, a critical shortage of fuel and tanks, and British air superiority, the Desert Fox's frontal assault at Alam Halfa failed, and he withdrew his exhausted troops to Tunisia. Montgomery now began a massive buildup of his forces.

The Russian Front, 1941–1942

By the fall of 1941, following the initial shock of the German invasion, Soviet resistance had stiffened. The performance of Soviet troops improved as the country mobilized to give the armed forces its total support. In the meantime German performance declined, as supply lines lengthened and soldiers became weary from continuous fighting. Stalin, abandoning Communist rhetoric, successfully aroused nationalist sentiment against the would-be conquerors. The Germans themselves helped stir such feelings by their ruthless behavior toward civilian populations, and partisan units began to form behind the invaders' lines.

In the north the Germans reached Leningrad in early September but faced heavy resistance. Furthermore, Hitler did not receive the full cooperation from Finland that he had expected. He decided to begin a siege of Leningrad, rather than to occupy it and sap his troops' strength with costly street fighting. On the southern front the invaders captured most of the Crimea in the fall. With badly extended supply lines and facing inclement weather, they reached neither Stalingrad nor the Caucasus. They took Rostov-on-Don, on November 21. The Soviets, however, in their first successful counteroffensive, pushed back the foe within the next few days.

After indecision and quarrels with his generals, Hitler decided that it was best to concentrate on a central offensive against Moscow. Following further delay the Germans finally started moving from Smolensk, but they were plagued by autumn rains and, in late November, by snowstorms and subzero temperatures. In early December the Germans entered the suburbs of Moscow. On December 6, however, Gen. Georgy Zhukov began a Soviet counteroffensive that forced back the surprised and tired Germans. He maintained the pressure on the Germans during the winter, pushing them back to 64 km (40 mi) from Moscow.

The German threat, however, had by no means been dissipated. In 1942, Hitler decided to mount a summer offensive on the southern front, believing that he could force the Soviets to surrender by depriving them of their oil fields in the Caucasus, and also provide Germany with critical petroleum supplies. The Germans marched forward in June. In early July they took Sevastopol, completing their conquest of the Crimea. In August they moved into the Caucasus. Meanwhile, the Sixth Army, led by Gen. Friedrich Paulus, marched toward Stalingrad, which the Germans hoped to use as a post for defending the German occupation of the Caucasus.