Following the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain, the Western Desert Campaign in North Africa became the primary focus of British military operations during the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1942, British Commonwealth forces fought a back and forth campaign with Italian and German troops across Italian Libya. Under the command of General der Panzertruppe Erwin Rommel, the Italian-German force gained the upper hand during the Battle of Gazala and inflicted a major defeat upon the British Eighth Army. The battle resulted in the fall of the port of Tobruk, a calamity second only to the fall of Singapore in February 1942. The Eighth Army retreated from its gains in Libya over the Frontier Wire into Egypt, where several battles were fought that culminated in the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October – 11 November).
On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan entered the war by attacking the British colony of Malaya and the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, bringing the Americans into the European conflict. The United States military favoured Operation Sledgehammer, a cross-channel invasion of German-occupied France. Such a move was opposed by the British, who acknowledged the military weakness of the Allies to undertake such an endeavour, especially as the British Army would have to provide the main force for such an operation. In July 1942, the Anglo-Americans met in London and agreed that Operation Roundup, Sledgehammer's successor, would be postponed and joint operations would begin in North Africa.
During 1941, planning took place for a proposed British landing in French North Africa. This operation, codenamed Gymnast, aimed to support a successful Operation Crusader offensive in Cyrenacia by drawing off Axis reinforcements, then in conjunction with the Eighth Army would defeat the Axis forces in North Africa. Following the American entry into the war, the United States Army developed the British plan into "Super Gymnast". This plan assumed that the Vichy French garrison would invite the Allied force to land and then rejoin the Allies. The combined force would then defeat the Axis forces in North Africa, but lack of shipping, setbacks for the Eighth Army, and a lack of co-operation from the French in North Africa, led to planning being suspended on 12 March. During the Anglo-American meeting in London, in July 1942, Operation Gymnast was revived. The revised plan, known as Operation Torch, sought to clear Africa of Axis forces and release Allied shipping, relieve pressure on the Soviet Union, and allow American ground forces to engage the Germans.
On 25 May 1942, the 78th Infantry Division was formed in Scotland specifically as an assault formation for Operation Torch. It was placed under the command of Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh, and was composed of the 1st Infantry Brigade (Guards), the 11th Infantry Brigade, and the 36th Infantry Brigade. At its formation, the war establishment (the on-paper strength) of an infantry division was 17,298 men. The divisional insignia, representing a battle axe as used by a crusader, was selected by Evelegh. A variant of the insignia featured the battle axe on a circular background. All versions displayed the blade facing to the left. The insignia gave rise to the formation's nickname: Battleaxe Division. Mike Chappell comments that the insignia "was proudly worn on just about all forms of dress" and to the exclusion of other insignia such as "regimental titles, [and] arm-of-service strips".
The brigades selected for the division were all veterans of the fighting in France, and had taken part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Each had also been, since 1941, trained in amphibious warfare in anticipation of such an operation. During August, the formation held the only divisional exercise it conducted before it left the United Kingdom. This exercise, Operation Dryshod, intended to simulate an amphibious landing. However, due to a lack of available shipping, the exercise was largely academic. Henry Swanston Eeles comments "fields were selected which represented ships ... after moving over a road" the infantry ""landed" on the beaches on the other side of it." On 16 October, the division embarked for North Africa. En route, the division conducted extensive drills in embarking in landing craft in preparation for impending assault.
The plan for Torch called for American landings on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and near Algiers and Oran along Algeria's coastline. The British role in the initial landings called for an assault by elements of the 78th Infantry Division (9,000 men of the 11th and 36th Brigade Groups), near Algiers, alongside Commandos and the U.S. 39th and U.S. 168th Regimental Combat Team (RCT). The assault called for the 11th Brigade Group to land to the west of Algiers and secure a beachhead, before advancing south to capture the Blida airfield and then push east to secure Bir Touta, southwest of Algiers, to control the road network. The 36th Brigade Group was to wait off shore as in reserve. To cover the eastern flank of the landing, the 39th RCT was to land and advance south, while the 168th RCT was tasked with the capture of the city itself. Resistance by the French army and air force was expected to be slight, although the same could not be said of the Vichy navy. Once Algiers was secured, the Anglo-American force would come under the command of the British First Army and was tasked with rapidly moving eastwards to enter French Tunisia.
After sunset on 7 November, the invasion fleet moved into position. At 11:50, 45 landing craft took the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment and the 5th (Huntingdonshire) Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment towards the Algerian coastline. The first wave landed at 01:00, 8 November. No opposition was met by the 11th Brigade Group, who completed their landings by noon. Resistance was mixed at the other Anglo-American landing sites around Algiers. While this fighting took place, American Major General Charles W. Ryder entered the city and opened negotiations with General Alphonse Juin (Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in North Africa), who had been granted permission to do so by Admiral of the fleet François Darlan (Commander-in-Chief of the French Armed Forces). A ceasefire was agreed to, and Algiers was occupied at 19:00. Darlan issued a general ceasefire, across Morocco and Algeria, on 10 November ending all fighting.
Operation Torch had achieved complete surprise, and was a success. While some Allied commanders, such as Admiral Andrew Cunningham, believed that landings should have been conducted along the Tunisian coastline such a move had been ruled out during the planning of the operation due to the threat of Axis aircraft, submarines, and a shortage of Allied shipping. On 9 November, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson landed in Algiers and activated the First Army. On 11 November, having sailed down the coast, the 36th Brigade Group landed in Algeria and captured Bougie. In response to the Allied landings, Axis troops and aircraft were flown into Tunisia where they met no opposition from local Vichy French forces. On 14 November, Anderson ordered the 78th Infantry Division to move east - along with other American and British forces within the First Army - to seize Bizerta and Tunis; aiming to achieve this goal before the end of the month, initiating the Run for Tunis.
Thereafter the division had a prominent role in the Tunisia Campaign, gaining a formidable reputation. In early 1943 the 1st Guards Brigade was exchanged for the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade of the 6th Armoured Division, and was to remain with this composition for the rest of the war.
After fighting almost nonstop for the last six months, the 78th Infantry Division then fought through the Allied invasion of Sicily, and then fought in the Italian Campaign. Units also saw action in Greece, Palestine, and Egypt. Notable engagements in Africa included the Battle of Longstop Hill, in Sicily the Battle of Centuripe and in Italy the assaults on the Viktor Line (Battle of Termoli), the Moro River Campaign, the Barbara Line and the Winter Line as well as the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Trasimene Line, the Gothic Line and Battle of the Argenta Gap, part of the Spring 1945 offensive in Italy. The 78th Division ended the war in Austria.
The 78th Division gained notoriety when on rest in Egypt, in mid-1944, by starting the Cairo riots. Some divisional signs are known to have included 'Cairo' as a mock battle honour.
The Battleaxe Division was also considered to be one of the best divisions of the British Army during the Second World War, due to its high morale and excellent leadership, and the best mountain warfare division in the British Eighth Army. This view was shared by many senior commanders, such as Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Allfrey, commander of V Corps, who claimed the 78th Division was the "finest fighting division of any that I had the privilege to have in 'V' Corps."
Three members of the 78th Battleaxe Division were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. They were:Major Wallace Le Patourel of the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, December 1942.
Major John Anderson of the 8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, April 1943.
Fusilier Frank Jefferson of the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, May 1944.