About WW2

The War in the Mediterranean, Africa, & the Middle East

W orld War II effectively stopped the world between 1939 and 1945. To this day, it remains the most geographically widespread military conflict the world has ever seen. Although the fighting reached across many parts of the globe, most countries involved shared a united effort aimed at ending the aggression of the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. Despite the fact that Germany and Japan were technically allies, however, they had vastly different motives and objectives, and their level of cooperation was primarily one of distracting the attention of each other's enemies rather than of attaining any specific common goals. Therefore, most studies of the war cover the conflicts with Germany and Japan separately, dividing treatment of the war between the European and Pacific theaters of operation.

Control of Southern Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa was important because the British Empire depended on shipping through the Suez Canal. If the canal fell into Axis hands or if the Royal Navy lost control of the Mediterranean, then transport between the United Kingdom, India, and Australia would have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, an increase of several thousand miles.

Service personnel and civilians clear bombing debris from Kingsway in Valletta in 1942.

Almost immediately after declaring war on France and the United Kingdom in June 1940, Italy initiated the siege of Malta, an island under British control located in the Mediterranean between mainland Italy and its colony in Libya. Minimal resources were initially placed by both sides though, the Italians needing to reserve their strength for other planned invasions and the British not believing they could effectively defend it. As the importance of the campaigns in North Africa increased though, so did that of Malta and the disruptions of Axis supply lines that Allied forces stationed there could provide.

Following the French surrender, the British attacked the French Navy anchored in North Africa in July 1940, out of fear that it might fall into German hands; this contributed to a souring of British-French relations for the next few years. Soon following this action was the Battle of Calabria, the first large conflict between the Allied navies and the Italian Navy (Regia Marina).

With France no longer a threat, Italy was able to relax its guard on its western possessions in Africa which bordered French territory and focus on the British Commonwealth forces in the east. In August, Italy invaded British Somaliland, located in the Horn of Africa, expelling British Commonwealth forces and creating Italian East Africa. The following month, the Italians then made a small incursion into British-protected Egypt, starting the North African campaign.

The Allies, including Free French Forces, under Charles de Gaulle, then attempted to replace Vichy control over French territories with that of the Free French. In September, 1940, they made a failed attempt to capture French West Africa, though in November, they later succeeded in French Equatorial Africa. Between these attempts, the Italians launched their own offensive from Albania and attacked Greece.

British carrier-launched aircraft over Taranto.

Starting in November of 1940, the Allies had a string of successful operations against Italian forces. On November 12, the Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history, launching a small number of obsolescent biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack struck the battle fleet of the Regia Marina at anchor in the harbour of Taranto using aerial torpedoes despite the shallow depth of the water. The devastation wrought by the British carrier-launched aircraft on the large Italian warships was the beginning of the ascendancy of naval aviation over the big guns of battleships. According to Admiral Cunningham, "Taranto, and the night of November 11–12, 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon." Then, in December, British Commonwealth forces under General Archibald Wavell, launched Operation Compass, expelling Italian forces from Egypt and pushing them all the way west across Libya. Starting in January, 1941, British Commonwealth forces began a offensive into Italian East Africa, culminating in an Italian defeat. Italy was also facing problems in the Balkans, where the Greek Army had pushed the Italians out of Greece and were now stalemated in southern Albania.

General Rommel with the 15th Panzer Division between Tobruk and Sidi Omar.

Alarmed by the Italian setbacks, Hitler authorized reinforcements, and sent German forces to Africa in February. British Commonwealth leader started redeploying their forces, sending soldiers from North Africa to Greece starting in early March; in an effort to secure their transportation lines, the Allied navies managed to engage the Regia Marina in the Battle of Cape Matapan, doing significant damage to the Italian fleet. The German forces in Africa, led by German General Erwin Rommel, however, launched an offensive against the now depleted British Commonwealth forces near the end of March. During this offense, the Allies also feared having their oil supply cut due to a coup d'état in Iraq in early April. They were further pressed when the Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia. By the middle of April, Rommel's forces had pushed British Commonwealth forces forces back into Egypt with the exception of the port of Tobruk, which he encircled and besieged. Shortly after, the British responded to the coup in Iraq by invading and occupying the country. By the end of May, German forces had conquered Yugoslavia, mainland Greece and further captured the island of Crete, forcing a withdraw of all British Commonwealth forces from the Balkans.

In June 8, British Commonwealth and Free French forces invaded Vichy controlled Syria and Lebanon due to the Vichy allowance of Axis forces to pass through the area and utilize military bases. A week later, Wavell launched Operation Battleaxe, which was intended to be a major offensive in the Western Desert, but resulted in the loss of nearly half of the British Commonwealth tanks in the region. Frustrated by the lack of success, Churchill had Wavell replaced with Claude Auchinleck in early July. In late August, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the British and the Soviets launched a joint invasion of Iran to secure its oilfields and the Persian Corridor supply route for Soviet use.

British Infantry, Bardia, North Africa.

There was then a lull in activity. The Soviet-German war had significantly reduced the importance of the Mediterranean theatre to the Germans and the British Commonwealth armies were re-grouping. On November 18, the Allies launched Operation Crusader, an offensive in the Western Desert which pushed Rommel back to his original starting point at El Agheila in Libya. The British suffered a significant blow in the sea though, losing several ships shortly after the First Battle of Sirte.

With the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, the British Commonwealth forces were again forced to withdraw units in North Africa, transferring some to Burma. Once again Rommel took advantage of the situation, and on January 21, launched an offensive which pushed the British Commonwealth forces back to Gazala, just west of Tobruk. There was another lull in activity as both sides built up their forces. In May, after the Japanese Indian Ocean raid, British Commonwealth forces invaded Vichy controlled Madagascar to prevent the Imperial Japanese Navy from using as launch point for further such attacks. Rommel then launched his own attack in late May, overrunning the British position in the Western Desert and chasing them well into Egypt, being halted at El Alamein. Shortly after, the Royal Navy suffered significant damage getting much needed supplies to Malta.

Like Wavell before him, Auchinleck's perceived failures led to his replacement by Churchill, this time by Harold Alexander with Bernard Montgomery taking over Allied land forces in Egypt.

In late October, after building up his forces, Montgomery launched his offensive, pushing the Axis forces back and pursuing them across the desert. In November, Allied forces landed in Vichy-controlled Northwest Africa with minimal resistance; in retaliation, the Germans seized the remainder of mainland France, though they failed to capture the remainder of the French Navy. Soon, Rommel's forces were pincered in Tunisia and by May of 1943, were forced to evacuate Africa entirely.

51st (Highland) Division Troops unloading stores from tank landing craft on the first day of the Sicily invasion, 10 July 1943.

In July, the Italian Campaign began with the Allied invasion of Sicily. The continued series of Italian defeats led to Mussolini being dismissed by the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III and subsequently arrested. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, then began negotiating surrender with the Allies. On September 3 the Allies invaded Italy itself and the Italians signed an armistice. This was made public on September 8, the same day the Allies launched a subsequent invasion of the Italian held Dodecanese islands. Germany had been planning for such an event though, and executed Operation Achse, the seizure of northern and central Italy. A few days later, Mussolini was rescued by German special forces and before the end of September created the Italian Social Republic, a German client state.

From October until mid-1944, the Allies fought through a series of defensive lines and fortifications designed to slow down their progress. On April 25, a little over a year and half after its creation, the Italian Social Republic was overthrown by Italian partisans; Mussolini, his mistress and several of his ministers were captured by the partisans while attempting to flee and executed. Shortly after, one of strongest of the German defensive lines, the Winter Line, was breached nearly simultaneously in May at Monte Cassino by British-led forces and at Anzio by the Americans; though the Allies could have encircled and potentially destroyed the bulk of German forces in Italy, the American forces instead moved towards Rome, capturing the city on June 4.

In August, Allied forces in Italy were divided, with a significant portion sent to southern France to assist in the liberation of Western Europe while the remainder pressed north to engage the remaining German forces, notably at the Gothic Line. Fighting in Italy would continue until early May, 1945, only a few days prior to the general German surrender.


SparkNotes Editors. (2005). SparkNote on World War II (1939–1945).
Retrieved February 9, 2010, from http://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/ww2/

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Retrieved March 4, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II