TIME LIFE Eliot Elisofon

LIFE in WWII: Rare and Classic Photos From North Africa, 1943

  • Ben Cosgrove

Seventy years after the end of World War II's bleak and largely forgotten North African Campaign, LIFE.com presents a series of photos made in Tunisia by photographer Eliot Elisofon in 1943.

So many World War II battlefields have been immortalized in histories, memoirs, novels and films that the names alone can conjure stark and stirring images for even the most casual history buff.

Saipan. Stalingrad. Bastogne. Normandy. Okinawa. Leyte Gulf. The details of each and every battle might be hazy for most of us — but if pressed, we could at least locate the site of the combat in the Pacific or European theater of war.

But how many of us recognize names like Sidi Bou Zid? El Guettar? Seden? Wadi Akarit? To a lesser or greater degree, these and other battles with now long-forgotten names also helped to determine the course and the outcome of the Second World War. That they were fought not in Europe or on one of the Marshall or Mariana islands in the Pacific, but instead in the deserts and towns of North Africa, might come as something of a shock to people who never knew in the first place that Allied and Axis troops fought — and fought for years — in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and other countries along the northern rim of the African continent.

Here, 70 years after the fighting ended in the bleak and largely forgotten North African Campaign, LIFE.com presents a series of photos — many of which never ran in LIFE magazine — made in Tunisia by photographer Eliot Elisofon in 1943, as the campaign was nearing its end. The number of dead, wounded and missing in North Africa didn’t come close to the millions lost in Europe and the Pacific during the war — but neither side got off easy. Close to 100,000 troops were killed, the grim total split almost evenly between the Allies (British, American and Free French, for the most part) and Axis powers (Italian, German and Vichy French). Among the Allies, the British were the hardest hit, with more than 200,000 men killed, wounded, captured or missing.

In May 1943, LIFE noted to its readers:

The Allies’ final push caught the Germans completely off base. Thousands of German officers and soldiers were obliviously promenading the streets of Tunis when four British armored cars rolled into the city on May 7. When LIFE’s correspondent Will Lang entered Tunis’ Majestic Hotel to register for a room, German officers were still drinking at the bar.

Allied pressure never relaxed. Audacious columns streamed to the coast from all directions, cutting the enemy into hundreds of hopeless, helpless units. The disintegration was complete. German motorized elements simply decorated their vehicles with white flags and drove into the Allied lines. Gasped one British general: “These last three days have been fantastic, unbelievable. The Germans may have witnessed scenes of wholesale surrender like this, but we never have.”

After North Africa, Allied eyes in the Western hemisphere were trained on Europe: by July 1943 American, British and Canadian troops had landed in Sicily and had begun the long, brutal push toward Mussolini’s Rome, Nazi-held Paris and ultimately, two years later, Berlin.