Mediterranean Theatre of World War II
The name Mediterranean Theatre of World War II encompasses naval, land and air campaigns involving Allied and Axis forces on the Mediterranean Sea and the countries which surround it, between June 10, 1940 when Fascist Italy entered the war and May 8, 1945 at the end of World War II in Europe.
- 1 Naval campaigns
- 2 Balkans and Greek islands campaign
- 3 Malta
- 4 North African campaign
- 5 Syria and Lebanon campaign
- 6 Italian campaign
- 7 Dodecanese Campaign
- 8 Invasion of southern France
- 9 Yugoslavian front
- 10 Immediate post-war conflicts
- 11 Command structures
- 12 See also
- 13 References
Unlike the Battle of the Atlantic which was a battle for strategic naval domination of the Atlantic, the Battle of the Mediterranean was predominantly a campaign to secure the Mediterranean sea for advantages in the land wars which were fought on the land which surrounds it.
The first major actions began immediately after Fascist Italy's entry into the war on June 11, 1940, including the siege of Malta. This was followed by naval engagements, including the Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on July 3, 1940 and the defeat of the Italian Regia Marina in the Battle of Taranto on November 11, 1940.
Balkans and Greek islands campaign
The Italians attacked Greece from Albania in late 1940. Not only did the Greeks stop the attack, they forced the Italians back, taking a fourth of Albania in the process. Eventually, in the spring of 1941, the Germans and its allies rushed to the aid of the Italians and intervened in the Balkans invading Yugoslavia and Greece.
The Greeks had been reluctant to allow British Commonwealth ground forces into the country, because Britain could not spare enough forces to guarantee victory. They had, however, accepted aid from the RAF in their war with the Italians in Albania. The trigger for Commonwealth forces moving to Greece in large numbers was the entry of German forces into Bulgaria, which made clear the German intent to invade Greece.
The German easily brushed aside British Commonwealth and Greek resistance on the Greek mainland. British Commonwealth forces retreated to the island of Crete, which the Germans attacked by using airborne paratroops to secure an air bridgehead on the island. They flew in more troops and were able to capture the rest of the island. With their victory in the Battle of Crete the Germans had secured their southern flank and turned their attention East.
The island of Malta, as it was close to Italy was one of the Italian military's first targets. Initially Britain had thought that Malta was indefensible and bound to be conquered, so no resources were spent on defences in spite of its strategic importance on the sea route from Europe to North Africa: the island's air defences comprised 3 obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes which became known as Faith, Hope and Charity. After the first Axis air attacks it became clear that Malta could be defended, and fighter aeroplanes were hurriedly supplied. The island was heavily bombed by the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) and subjected to a naval blockade. This forced the inhabitants of Malta into strict rationing. By the start of July, the Gladiators had been reinforced by 12 Hawker Hurricanes. The blockade grew tighter, and was soon supported by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). Allied casualties were heavy: for example, of one convoy to Malta from Britain, only two out of 115 ships survived. This happened when the Mediterranean sea was called defiantly by Mussolini "the Italian Mare Nostrum". Britain took advantage of a lull in early 1942 to fly in 61 Supermarine Spitfires, which very much improved the defensive situation, although food, ammunition, and fuel were still critically short.
Gradually, the Allies became able to send in the supplies that Malta needed, although many of the supply ships were damaged too severely to leave again. The result of the successful defence of the island ensured that the Allies had the upper hand in controlling the Mediterranean; in fact, the island served as an excellent point from which British submarines could sink Axis supply ships, leading to the fuel and supply shortages that Rommel had to cope with in North Africa.
North African campaign
The African conflict began before the war when the Italians invaded the independent country of Ethiopia. Italy also expanded the borders of its Libyan colony. When the war broke out, the Italians successfully invaded British Somalia but failed to conquest Egypt. Hitler ordered one of his generals in France, the renowned Erwin Rommel (the desert fox) to take his corps (later known as the Afrika Korp) and aid the Italians. Mussolini agreed to place the Italian troops under German command if it meant victory over the British.
Initially the Commonwealth forces, under General Archibald Wavell, fought a successful campaign in the desert west of Egypt. While the fighting was taking place in Libya, Axis forces were attacking Greece. General Wavell was ordered to halt his advance against the Italian Army in Libya and send troops to Greece. He disagreed with this decision but followed his orders.
The Allies were unable to stop Greece falling to the Axis forces and before they could retake the initiative in the western desert the German Afrika Korps led by Erwin Rommel had entered the theatre. It would not be until early in 1943, after another year and a half of hard fighting and mixed fortunes, that the Axis forces would be finally driven out of Libya and into Tunisia by the British Eighth Army under the command of General Bernard Montgomery, after their decisive victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein.
By that time, the United States ground forces had entered the war and the theatre, beginning with Allied amphibious landings in northwest Africa, on November 8, 1942, codenamed Operation Torch, under the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the American contribution increased and need to co-ordinate the Eastern and Western Allied thrusts into Tunisia, the Eighth Army was moved from the British Middle East Command to the Joint Allied Force Headquarters command of Eisenhower where it would remain for the rest of the war.
Though Rommel was now pincered between American and Commonwealth forces, he did manage to stall the allies with a series of defensive operations, most notably with the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, but he was flanked, outmanned and outgunned. After shattering the Axis defense on the Mareth Line, the allies managed to squeeze Axis forces until resistance in Africa ended on May 13 1943 with the surrender of over 275,000 prisoners of war.
Syria and Lebanon campaign
In 1941, a German Air Force (Luftwaffe) aircraft was shot down over Iraq during the advance on Baghdad in the Anglo-Iraqi War. Since the nearest Axis air base was on the island of Rhodes, it was surmised that the plane had refueled in Vichy French-controlled Syria or Lebanon. This event reinforced longstanding belief among the Allies that the "armed neutrality" of Vichy territories was a facade concealing their use by Axis forces.
Australian, Free French, and Indian units invaded Syria and Lebanon from British Mandate of Palestine and Iraq, to remove their Vichy regimes. Vigorous resistance was put up by the Vichy in Lebanon. However, the Allies weight of numbers eventually told, and when this combined with an advance on Damascus, the French surrendered.
Following the Allied victory in North Africa an Allied invasion (codenamed Operation Husky) of Sicily began on July 10 1943 with both amphibious and airborne landings. The Germans were unable to prevent the Allied capture of the island, but succeeded in evacuating most of their troops to the mainland, the last leaving on August 17 1943.
The Allied invasion of Italy started when British Commonwealth forces landed in the 'toe' of Italy on September 3 1943 in Operation Baytown. The Italian government surrendered on 8 September, but the German forces prepared to defend without their assistance. On 9 September American forces landed at Salerno in Operation Avalanche and additional British forces at Taranto in Operation Slapstick. While the rough terrain prevented fast movement and proved ideal for defense, the Allies continued to push the Germans northwards through the rest of the year.
The German prepared defensive line called the Winter Line (parts of which were called the Gustav Line) proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting the advance. A amphibious assault at Anzio behind the line were intended to break it, but did not have the desired effect. The line was eventually broken by frontal assault at Monte Cassino in the Spring of 1944, and Rome was captured in June.
Following the fall of Rome and the landings in Normandy and Soviet advances on the Eastern Front the Italian campaign became of secondary importance to both sides. The Gothic Line north of Rome, was not broken until the Spring of 1945.
During 1945, as more and more German forces were diverted to the Eastern Front and north west Europe, the Allies gained ground in the south, eventually penetrating the borders of the Third Reich, in Austria.
On May 1, SS General Karl Wolff, after prolonged and unauthorised negotiations with the Allies, and the Commander-in-Chief of the German 10th Army, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, ordered German armed forces in Italy to cease hostilities and signed a surrender document which stipulated that all German forces in Italy were to surrender unconditionally to the Allies on May 2.
The brief campaign in the Italian-held Dodecanese Islands resulted as both Germany and the Allies scrambled to occupy them after the surrender of Italy in early September 1943. The main island of Rhodes was swiftly secured by German forces, but British garrisons were established on most islands by mid-September. German air superiority, tactical prowess, and the absence of Allied reinforcements doomed the Allied effort, however. German forces, including paratroopers and Brandenburger commandos, launched a counteroffensive, capturing the island of Kos within 2 days in early October. A massive 50-day-long aerial campaign was launched against the island of Leros, which was invaded by sea and air on November 12 and surrendered four days later. The remaining British garrisons were then evacuated to the Middle East.
Invasion of southern France
On August 15 1944, in an effort to aid their operations in Normandy, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon — the invasion of Southern France between Toulon and Cannes. The invasion was carried out by the American 6th Army Group commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers. The Allies rapidly broke out of their beachheads and fanned out north and east to join up with the American 12th Army Group which was breaking out of the Normandy beachhead. In early September supreme command of the 6th Army Group moved from AFHQ to SHAEF and the 6th Army Group moved out of the Mediterranean Theatre and into the European Theatre fighting as one of three Allied army groups on the Western Front
In April 1941 Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Bulgarians made quick work of the royal Yugoslav army. They captured the country in 11 days and partitioned it among themselves and newly formed client states of Independent State of Croatia and Nedić's Serbia. A guerilla uprising of communist-led Partisans, commanded by Josip Broz Tito, soon broke out. A more ambivalent, predominantly Serb paramilitary movement of royalist Chetniks both fought the occupying forces and collaborated with them against the communists. The Partisans eventually gained recognition from the Allies as the sole resistance movement. With help from both the Soviets and the Western Allies, they turned into a formidable fighting force and successfully liberated the country.
Immediate post-war conflicts
At the end of World War II, on May 1 1945, the troops of Yugoslav 4th Army together with the Slovenian 9th Corpus NLA occupied the town of Trieste. The German Army surrendered to the Allied forces which entered the town the following day. The Yugoslavs had to leave the town some days after.
Allied forces which had been sent to Greece in October 1944 after the German withdrawal became embroiled in conflict with the leftist EAM-ELAS Resistance movement, resulting in clashes in Athens during December of that year, a conflict which set the stage for the Greek Civil War.
Middle East Command
- main article Middle East Command
Allied Forces Headquarters
- main article Allied Forces Headquarters
Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) was created on September 12, 1942 to launch a combined U.S.-British operation against the northern and northwestern coast of Africa. It planned and directed ground, air, and naval operations, and military government activities in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. In February 1943 the authority of AFHQ was extended to include the British 8th Army, commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, which was moving into position for the start of the Tunisia Campaign.
Initially AFHQ was located in London from September until November 1942. It relocated to Algiers in November 1942 and remained there until July 1944. From Algiers it moved to Caserta in Italy until April 1944. Its last relocation was to Leghorn (Livorno), Italy between April 1944 and April 1947.
The initial Supreme Commander Allied (Expeditionary) Force was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Shortly after the establishment of the headquarters, "expeditionary" was deleted from its title for reasons of operational security. Eisenhower then returned to the United Kingdom to assume command of the forces assembling for Operation Overlord. He was succeeded by Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. Wilson's title became Supreme Commander, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. Wilson was in command for just under a year, until he was sent to Washington in December 1944 to replace Field Marshal Sir John Dill of the British Joint Staff Mission who had died suddenly. Wilson was succeeded by Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander who was Supreme Commander and commander of AFHQ until the end of the war. AFHQ was abolished, effective September 17, 1947, by General Order 24, AFHQ, September 16, 1947.
- main article Army Group E
- Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) which was United States military's designation for the theatre for both operational and administrative purposes.
- Military history of Gibraltar during World War II
- Douglas Porch, 2004, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (ISBN 0-37420-518-3)
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