World War II in the Mediterranean

World War II was a war that raged in western, eastern, and southern Europe. Although the biggest battles took place in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean was another notable front in the war. Britain and the USA waged a war against Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the Mediterranean from 1940-1944. The Mediterranean Theater also included Greece, Malta, Egypt, and Libya where many of its battles took place. 

Italy became a close German ally after establishing the Pact of Steel in 1939. As Fascism was an ideology that originated in Italy, it made sense for the Italians to establish an alliance with Nazi Germany. Both countries had supported the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War and shared a similar ideology. 

Italy’s foreign policy objectives lied almost entirely in the Mediterranean. Mussolini planned to establish an Italian Mediterranean empire. Such an objective would inevitably bring Italy into conflict with Britain and France during the 1940s. An alliance with Germany gave the Italians a much better chance of winning a war in the Mediterranean against the British and French. 

However, Italy remained neutral for the rest of 1939 after Germany invaded Poland. The Italians were not ready for war in 1939, and, perhaps sensibly in retrospect, declined to enter the fray after Britain and France declared war on Germany. 

Italy Declares War on Britain

However, Italy’s stance changed in 1940. Germany’s invasion and subsequent defeat of France in 1940 shifted the war in favor of the Axis. The fall of France convinced Mussolini that the Axis would win the war soon. Then it was, after all, just a war primarily against Britain as the USA and USSR remained neutral. To stake a claim for the spoils of war, Italy duly declared war on the British Empire in June 1940. 

Italy’s declaration of war on Britain opened up a whole new theater of operations for the United Kingdom. Britain was reeling from the fall of France, but it could still take on the Italians in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The British held Gibraltar, Malta, and Crete, which were three crucial strategic positions for naval bases and air fields in the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean, was an especially important location from which Britain could keep Italian ships out of the Atlantic. 

The Suez Canal, in Egypt, was another crucial position in Britain’s Mediterranean empire. That canal provided an invaluable Mediterranean shortcut for supply ships from Britain’s Commonwealth allies. Furthermore, seizing the Suez Canal in Egypt could provide a platform for the Axis to capture invaluable oil supplies in the Middle East. Alexandria, in Egypt, also included a major Royal Navy naval base. Therefore, Egypt, which bordered the Italian colony of Libya, was one of the first obvious targets for Italy to attack in World War II. 

In September 1940, Italy duly invaded Egypt and advanced to Sidi Barrani. However, the British counter-attacked toward the end of 1940. That counter-attack (codenamed Operation Compass) pushed the Italians back into Libya and culminated with the collapse of the Italian Tenth Army in February 1941. During the operation, Britain captured hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers. 

captured Italian soliders after Operation Compass
captured Italian soliders after Operation Compass

Operation Compass was the first significant victory Britain’s army won in World War II. It highlighted all the weaknesses of Italy’s army and the threat Britain posed to the Axis. After that defeat, the Italians probably realized they could not beat Britain in North Africa or the wider Mediterranean on their own. 

The Attack on Taranto 

Before the war had even begun, Britain had drafted an operation for a potential attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto. The Italians had their whole navy in the Mediterranean, which considerably outnumbered the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet. To redress the naval balance in the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy planned an operation to bomb the Taranto naval base with its Fleet Air Arm. 

The Royal Navy duly carried out that operation in November 1941 with a single aircraft carrier. Swordfish torpedo bombs primarily targetted the Italian battleships at Taranto. The airstrike ravaged two of the Italian battleships and effectively sank one of them (albeit in a shallow port). All three battleships were put out of action, and the Conte di Cavour did not return to service. At a stroke, the Royal Navy had knocked out three Italian capital ships at the cost of just two aircraft! 

The Battle of Cape Matapan

The Royal Navy built on its triumph at Taranto with another significant victory in the Mediterranean naval war off the southern coast of Greece. The Italians deployed a fleet consisting of one battleship, 17 destroyers, and six heavy cruisers to attack a British convoy heading for Greece in March 1941. However, the Royal Navy were well aware of the Italian fleet action (thanks to code breakers) and duly dispatched a fleet of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, seven light cruisers, and 17 destroyers. 

Italian heavy cruiser at battle of cape matapan
Italian heavy cruiser at battle of cape matapan

In the battle that followed, the Italians got the early shots in off Gavdos. However, they did not land any notable hits on the Royal Navy’s ships. The Royal Navy responded with an aerial bombardment from its carrier that damaged the Vittorio Veneto battleship and a heavy cruiser. 

As the Italians attempted to tow a heavy cruiser back to base, the Royal Navy surface fleet ships closed with their range. Three Royal Navy battleships pounded the Italian fleet. During the bombardment, the British sank three heavy cruisers and a couple of Italian destroyers. However, the Vittorio Veneto managed to escape back to port. 

Germany Enters the Fray

The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940. However, the campaign that followed was another calamity for Italy. Italy’s offensive quickly petered out, and the Greek counter-attack pushed the Italian army back into Albania. Thereafter, the Greek forces captured towns in Albania. 

Germany could no longer ignore Italy’s setbacks in Greece and North Africa. The Nazis feared that Greece could provide a launchpad for Britain to open an expended front in the Balkans, which might threaten their oil supplies in Romania. Consequently, the Third Reich assembled an army to invade Yugoslavia and Greece during the spring of 1941. 

During a swift campaign, Germany defeated both Greece and Yugoslavia in April. After the fall of Athens, Greece duly surrendered. Britain evacuated its forces from Greece to Crete and Egypt. 

The Battle of Crete

The defeat of Greece set the stage for the Battle of Crete. Although taking Crete was not a top priority for Germany, doing so would deny Britain a base from which to bomb Romanian oil fields. Britain also needed to hold Crete to retain access to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

To take Crete, the Nazis mounted an airborne operation in May 1941. The Germans dropped paratroopers over Greece who established a foothold west of Maleme. The operation did not start especially well for the Germans as their losses mounted. However, with everything thrown into an attack at Maleme, they managed to secure an airfield there. 

After taking an airfield, the Germans seized the initiate in the Battle of Crete. The Luftwaffe flew in reinforcements to Crete that tipped the balance of the battle in Germany’s favor. In June, remaining Allied forces surrendered in Crete. 

The Siege of Malta

Germany also sent divisions to North Africa to establish the Afrika Korps in 1941. The arrival of German troops to reinforce the Italians in North Africa changed the dynamics of that campaign. Under the command of Rommel, the Afrika Korps pushed the British out of Libya and back into Egypt during 1941. During the offensive, the Halfaya Pass fell to the Axis. In 1942, Rommel scored a massive victory at the Battle of Gazala in which the Afrika Korps captured Tobruk along with millions of gallons of fuel. 

italian tanks of the Afrika Korps
italian tanks of the Afrika Korps

However, Malta remained a thorn to Rommel’s supply situation throughout the North Africa Campaign. Malta was a base from which Allied air and naval forces interdicted Axis supply lines to North Africa. To sever supplies reaching Malta, the Axis launched a big air campaign against the island. That air campaign, otherwise the Siege of Malta, sank many tons of supplies reaching Malta. 

Nevertheless, enough Allied supplies reached Malta to keep it afloat. Operation Pedestal managed to deliver invaluable supplies to Malta despite heavy losses. That operation preserved Malta as a threat to Axis supply routes to North Africa. 

An Allied ship in the operation pedestal convoy
An Allied ship in the operation pedestal convoy

The Allies Invade Italy 

Britain’s victory at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, and the arrival of U.S. reinforcements in Morocco, ensured an Allied victory in North Africa. In 1943, Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and with that a large number of Italian troops, surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia. The Axis threat to the Suez Canal, and Allied oil supplies in the Middle East, had been defeated. 

Thereafter, the Allies decided to invade Italy. By doing so, the Britain and the USA could open a second front in Europe sooner rather than later and defeat Italy to win the war in the Mediterranean. Even though re-establishing a front in France remained a top priority, the Allies still needed to win the Battle of the Atlantic to do so. 

To invade mainland Italy, the Allies needed Sicily as a staging base for the rest of Italian Campaign.   Operation Husky was the first stage of the campaign in which the Allies invaded Sicily. That operation began in July 1943. During that month, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops landed along the southern and eastern coastlines of Sicily in one of the biggest amphibious operations of the war. 

operation husky map
operation husky map

Hundreds of thousands of Italian troops, reinforced by a couple of German divisions, defended Sicily. However, the Allies quickly secured Syracuse on day one of the operation. Thereafter, Palermo and Catania fell to Allied soldiers. In August, about 117,000 Axis troops retreated from Sicily; but the Allies still captured approximately 140,000 Italian and German soldiers during the operation. 

The fall of Sicily was the final straw for Italy. The Grand Council delivered a vote of no confidence in Mussolini during July 1943. Thereafter, the Italian king replaced Il Duce with General Pietro Badoglio, who became prime minister. 

Thereafter, General Pietro opened peace talks with the Allies. He established an unconditional armistice with the Allies in September 1943. That armistice effectively amounted to a surrender. Eisenhower proclaimed, “All Italians who now act to help eject the German aggressor from Italian soil will have the assistance and support of the United Nations.”

Battle of Monte Cassino

The war against Fascist Italy was largely over after the September armistice. However, the war in the Mediterranean against the Germans was not finished. The Nazis were incensed with the Italian armistice, and swiftly rescued Mussolini from prison just days after. Soon after, the Axis established the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. 

Allied flags placed atop captured Monte Cassinno

The Allies invaded mainland Italy at the beginning of September 1943. Britain and the USA wanted to establish airfields in Italy from which to bomb Germany. In response to the Allied landings, Germany deployed fresh divisions to Italy. The Allies encountered stiff German resistance upon landing at Salerno. Nevertheless, Commonwealth and U.S. troops still established a foothold in Italy. 

However, the campaign in Italy ground to a standstill around the Apennine Mountains at Monte Cassino. It was there that German forces, under Kesselring’s command, established the Gustav Line. The Battle of Monte Cassino dragged on for months in 1944 until the Allied forces managed to break through the Gustav Line. 

After the fall of Monte Cassino, the Allies proceeded to capture Rome. However, in doing so, they let a sizeable contingent of the German Tenth Army escape during the retreat from Monte Cassino. The escape of the Tenth Army left northern Italy under Germany occupation until 1945. 

Nevertheless, the Allies had largely fulfilled their primary objectives in the Mediterranean after the fall of Rome. 

World War II in the Mediterranean had been disastrous for Italy. Although Italy’s military and civilian losses were comparatively light in comparison to Germany and Japan, postwar treaties dissolved the Italian Empire. Establishing an expanded Italian colonial empire in the Mediterranean and North Africa was a pipe dream. Italy had no realistic chance of winning a war in the Mediterranean against Britain and France without firm German military support. 

The Mediterranean Theater turned out to be a waste of time for Germany. The Italians dragged Germany into a Mediterranean war that was of relatively little interest to the Nazis. The Battle of Greece delayed Germany’s campaign in Eastern Europe, which proved costly when Wehrmacht tanks froze to a standstill at the outskirts of Moscow. The campaigns in North Africa and mainland Italy consumed German divisions, planes, oil and other supplies that would have been invaluable in Eastern Europe. 

For the Allies, the defeat of Italy in the Mediterranean was the first step to victory. Britain had secured its Mediterranean supply routes and the Axis threat to Allied oil supplies in the Middle East was eliminated. After Italy’s demise, it was clear that the Axis was starting to crumble. However, World War II was far from over.