This section covers not only operations in the Mediterranean
theater itself, but also the British campaign against the Italians in East
Africa and military activities in Iraq and
Iran, which are inseparable from operations in the Mediterranean proper. Since
naval and air warfare are considered separately (see sections 12. Developments
in Naval Warfare and 13. Developments in Air Warfare), the emphasis
is on the land campaigns --in Egypt, Libya, East Africa, French North
Africa, Crete, Syria, Italy (including Sicily), and numerous Mediterranean
The Mediterranean theater varied in importance as World
War II progressed. Before the entry of Italy in June 1940 it was inactive;
from that time onward, until the German attack on the USSR in June 1941, it
was the main operational area and the only one where there was fighting on
land. With the Anglo-American landings in French North Africa in November
1942 (Operation Torch) until August 1943, when plans for the invasion of northwestern
Europe (Operation Overlord) were approved by the Combined Chiefs of Staff,
it assumed increasing significance, but when Overlord was mounted in June
1944, the Mediterranean became a secondary theater.
Background to Conflict: 1933-1939
The six and one-half years after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the German
Reich in January 1933 were a period of mounting tension in the Mediterranean
and nearby areas as in other regions. In October 1935, Italy, correctly judging
the impotence of the League of Nations, decided to extend her already considerable
empire in Africa by invading Ethiopia, and by May 1936 she had completed the
annexation of the country.
Later that year, on August 26, Anglo-Egyptian relations
were put on a more satisfactory basis by the conclusion of a treaty, the effect
of which was that in war Egypt would be Britain's ally. The Suez Canal was
to be safeguarded by the continued presence of a British force, but to assuage
Egyptian susceptibilities the troops were to be confined to a narrow zone
along the canal itself. The British were also to enjoy certain harbor and
dock facilities and the use of railway and road communications.
The somewhat loose alliance between Germany and Italy subsequently
known as the Rome-Berlin Axis was concluded on October 25. On Jan. 2, 1937,
British and Italian relations were eased by the signing of a joint declaration
(known ironically as the Gentlemen's Agreement), the main clause of which
recognized freedom of movement for both parties in the Mediterranean. The
declaration was reaffirmed in April 1938, when the two governments also agreed
to exchange information annually concerning any major changes or proposed
changes in the strength and dispositions of their respective armed forces.
Just at this time, Britain's position in the Middle East was complicated by
unrest in its mandate of Palestine, where open rebellion had broken out. A
year later, on April 7, 1939, Italy invaded Albania, and within a short time
occupied the whole country.
Meanwhile, Hitler's various acts of aggression, culminating
in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, and his threatening attitude
toward Poland were bringing Europe to the brink of general war. Under an agreement
announced on August 25, Britain guaranteed that it would go to the assistance
of Poland in the event of German aggression. Germany invaded Poland on September
1, and two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. By September
10, the other members of the British Commonwealth of
Nations had made similar declarations.
CAMPAIGNS IN AFRICA
French and British staff conversations, which began in London
at the end of March 1939, included the broad outline of plans for conducting
joint operations in the Mediterranean. Later, in May and June, meetings between
British and French commanders in the Mediterranean and the Middle East were
held at Rabat, Aden, and Jerusalem.
With the outbreak of war between Germany and the Allies
on Sept. 3, 1939, Italy found herself in a difficult position. She had an
extensive African empire, consisting of the older colonies of Eritrea, Italian
Somaliland, and Libya and the more recently acquired Ethiopia. Even if her
Axis partner gained early successes in northern Europe, Italy's communications
with her African possessions would be cut except for the occasional ship or
aircraft which might make a hazardous journey. The British and French navies
dominated the Mediterranean with powerful fleets based on British naval bases
at Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria and on French bases at Toulon, Bizerte,
Algiers, and Oran. In Libya the Italian garrison was sandwiched between strong
French forces in French North Africa and considerable British forces in Egypt;
and Italy's other colonies were surrounded by potential enemies on all sides,
although the forces arrayed against her were not very formidable in the early
stages of the war. Under these conditions the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini,
adopted the only practical course of remaining nominally neutral while giving
all possible support to Germany.
With Italy neutral and Germany without access to the area
(except for an occasional submarine that might slip through the narrow Strait
of Gibraltar), the Mediterranean theater remained inactive for the first nine
months of the war. During this period the Allies took steps to improve their
position and perfected their plans for joint action in the event of a hostile
Italy. In June 1939, Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Archibald Wavell (later
1st Earl Wavell) was appointed commander in chief of all British land forces
in the Middle East with headquarters in Cairo. The first contingents of Australian
and New Zealand troops arrived in Egypt to reinforce his command in February
On May 10, Winston Churchill became prime minister and minister
of defense, and on the same day, Hitler's armies invaded France, Belgium,
the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. German success was spectacular. By June 22,
France had signed an armistice with Germany, and hostilities had ended; the
British Expeditionary Force had withdrawn to the United Kingdom; and the northern
half of France and all of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg became
German-occupied countries. Meanwhile, on June 10, Italy had declared war on
Great Britain and France (effective June 11). France also signed an armistice
with Italy, on June 24, and the British Commonwealth was then alone in arms
against Germany and Italy.
The effect of these events on the Mediterranean theater
was alarming from the British point of view. The authorities in French North
Africa, the other French African dependencies, and Syria decided to recognize
the new French government at Vichy under Marshal Philippe Petain and
to obey his orders. The carefully laid Anglo-French plans for joint action
had collapsed. The burden of keeping open sea communications in the Mediterranean,
defending the Suez Canal, and dealing with the Italians in East Africa now
fell entirely on the British Navy and on General Wavell's scanty forces centered
As of the beginning of June, the Commonwealth had 1 battleship,
1 six-inch cruiser, and 9 destroyers based on Gibraltar, and 4 battleships,
8 six-inch cruisers, 1 aircraft carrier, and 20 destroyers in the eastern
Mediterranean based on Egypt, while Italy had 6 battleships (2 of which did
not join the fleet until July), 7 eight-inch cruisers, 12 six-inch cruisers,
and 50 destroyers. Commonwealth land forces included 1 armored division, 1
incomplete Indian division, 1 New Zealand brigade, 1 horsed cavalry division,
part of an Australian division, 2 independent cavalry regiments, 19 British
infantry battalions, and 2 artillery regiments, totaling about 63,500 troops,
in Egypt and Palestine; and about 9,000 troops in the Sudan, 1,500 troops
in British Somaliland, and 8,500 troops in Kenya, or a total of about 19,000
in East Africa. Italy had 9 metropolitan (regular) divisions, 3 Black Shirt
divisions, and 2 Libyan native divisions, totaling about 200,000 troops, in
Libya; and about 91,000 European and 199,000 native troops, with 400 guns
and 200 light tanks, in East Africa. The Commonwealth units were generally
considerably understrength, but those of the Italians were at full strength.
British Commonwealth aircraft of all types numbered 375 (205 in Egypt and
Palestine and 170 in East Africa); Italian aircraft, 638 (313 in Libya and
325 in East Africa).
In addition to General Wavell, the principal commanders
on the British Commonwealth side were Adm. (later Admiral of the Fleet) Sir
Andrew Cunningham (later 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope) and Air Chief
Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, in charge, respectively, of naval and air operations
in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Henry
Maitland Wilson (later 1st Baron Wilson of Libya and of Stowlangtoft) was
in command of British troops in Egypt; Lt. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) Richard N.
O'Connor, of the Western Desert Force; Lt. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) William Platt,
of troops in the Sudan; and Lt. Gen. Douglas P. Dickinson, of the East African
Force, based on Kenya. General Dickinson was replaced by Lt. Gen. (later Gen.
Sir) Alan G. Cunningham, younger brother of Admiral Cunningham, on November
1. On the Italian side, Marshal Italo Balbo, who was killed in an air accident
in June, was succeeded as commander in chief in Libya by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.
The duke of Aosta served as viceroy and commander in chief in Italian East
First British Offensive in North Africa: June 1940-February 1941
The first clash between British and Italian forces
took place in the Western Desert in the early hours of June 11, before the
Italian troops concerned had been told of the declaration of war. During the
next six months the British carried out many small raids against Italian positions
in Libya. In addition, there were numerous patrol clashes in which the superiority
of the British Commonwealth troops became apparent. On July 3, the British
Navy sank or put out of action a number of units of the French Fleet at Oran
and Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent their
falling into German hands. French warships at Alexandria were immobilized
on the following day. Later, on September 23-25, British and Free French
forces failed in an attempt to land at the Vichy French port of Dakar but
succeeded in badly damaging the battleship Richelieu. Meanwhile,
between September 13 and September 18, the Italians advanced in strength approximately
60 miles into Egypt but halted at Maktila, east of Sidi Barrani. It was a
disappointment to the British that they did not advance farther, for plans
had been made to deal them a heavy blow with the 7th Armored Division as they
approached Matruh. During the advance the Italians lost more than 3,000 men;
the British, about 150.
On October 28, Italian troops based in Albania invaded Greece.
A fortnight later, on November 11, the British Fleet Air Arm attacked the
Italian Fleet at Taranto and, for a loss of two aircraft, put half of its
major units out of action for about six months.
In December, the Western Desert Force, consisting of the
7th Armored Division and the Indian 4th Division, began the first major British
offensive in North Africa. Operations were under the direction of General
Wavell, with General O'Connor in executive command. The offensive began on
December 9, and by December 11, Sidi Barrani had been taken with a loss to
the Italians of 38,300 prisoners. Important decisions now had to be made.
The offensive had been planned to last no more than five days and to stop
after the capture of Sidi Barrani. Its success had greatly exceeded expectations,
and General Wavell, urged by General O'Connor, agreed to the continuance of
the advance. Arrangements had been made, however, to send the Indian 4th Division
to East Africa, where it was required for offensive operations: shipping was
already standing by at Suez to carry it to Port Sudan. The Indian division
was therefore withdrawn from the Western Desert Force on December 14, and
replaced immediately by the Australian 6th Division, but the exchange caused
a delay in the resumption of the offensive.
Successes followed in quick succession. Bardia was captured
on Jan. 4, 1941 (32,000 prisoners were taken), and Tobruk on January 22 (about
25,000 prisoners). By this time the Italian Tenth Army (together with considerable
reinforcements sent from the Fifth Army in Tripolitania) had been greatly
depleted in strength, and General O'Connor decided on a bold step to complete
the destruction of the Italian forces in Cyrenaica. This plan required the
7th Armored Division to make a desert march to Bedafomm near the coast with
a view to getting behind and cutting off the remaining Italian troops, while
the Australian 6th Division was to advance on Benghazi by the coastal route.
This operation was completely successful. The 7th Armored Division reached
Mekili (El Mechili) on January 27, Msus on February 4, and the Bedafomm area
on February 5. Meanwhile, the Australian 6th Division, having captured Derna
on January 30, advanced on Benghazi, which it reached on February 6. After
some brisk fighting at Bedafomm, in which gallant efforts were made to break
through the British positions, the Italians surrendered on the morning of
February 7. There were about 25,000 prisoners, including Gen. Giuseppe Tellera,
commander of the Tenth Army, who was mortally wounded. Immediately after the
surrender a small protective group was established at El Agheila, with patrols
out for 40 miles along the coast toward Sirte.
The campaign had been a remarkable success. The 13th Corps
(as the western Desert Force was renamed on Jan. 1, 1941) had never exceeded
a strength of 31,000 men. Between Dec. 9, 1940, and Feb. 7, 1941, it had advanced
more than 500 miles and captured more than 130,000 prisoners, about 400 tanks,
nearly 850 guns, and thousands of wheeled vehicles. The 13th Corps' own losses were about 500 killed, 1,373 wounded,
and 55 missing.
With the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army and the occupation
of the whole of Cyrenaica, the British were faced with a difficult problem.
The only Italian forces left in North Africa were 5 very weak and dispirited
divisions of the Fifth Army around the port of Tripoli. General O'Connor was
confident that the 13th Corps could advance and capture Tripoli, with the
prospect of eliminating all Axis forces from North Africa, and he immediately
drew up plans for doing so. There was, however, another urgent call in a very
different direction. When the Italians began invading Greece, they had met
with some initial success, but very soon the Greeks counterattacked and drove
them back into Albania. Partly to help their ally and partly for other reasons,
the Germans decided to advance through Yugoslavia and occupy Greece. German
preparations for this move had been apparent to the British intelligence service
for some time. Hitherto the Greeks had declined British aid, but on Jan. 29,
1941, Premier Ioannes Metaxas died, and his successor, Alexandros Korizes,
intimated that he would welcome British help against what he regarded as an
imminent German threat. British resources in the Middle East were insufficient
to allow both an advance to Tripoli and aid to Greece. After numerous exchanges
of views between the British government and General Wavell and discussions
in Cairo and Athens (Athenai), which were attended by Foreign Secretary Anthony
Eden and the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Gen. (later Field Marshal)
Sir John Greer Dill, it was decided to send a force to Greece and remain on
the defensive in North Africa.
British Expedition to Greece and Crete: April-May 1941
The force sent to Greece was commanded by General
Wilson and consisted of about 24,200 British (including an armored brigade),
17,100 Australian, and 16,700 New Zealand troops. The dispatch of British
troops from Egypt began on April 5, and on the following day, German forces
invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. By April 16, British and Greek forces had been
withdrawn to a front south of Mount Olympus (Olymbos). In the face of superior
German forces and of an Italian offensive from Albania, the situation deteriorated
rapidly. The decision was made to withdraw British Commonwealth forces from
Greece, and the withdrawal was carried out between April 24 and May 1. Meanwhile,
on April 27, German troops entered Athens.
From the outset the British authorities had realized the
risks involved in the Greek venture, but the political advantages were thought
to outweigh the military hazards. Viewed in the light of later knowledge,
it seems that the chances of success were remote in the extreme. The expedition
was hurriedly planned, the headquarters was an improvised one, the troops
were not the most experienced or the best trained, and the Greeks, although
brave, were ill equipped. The expedition cost the British approximately 12,000
casualties. In contrast, the German invasion of Greece was carefully planned
and made in considerable strength, with well-equipped and well-trained troops.
The Greek expedition deprived the British of the chance of seizing Tripoli
and of expelling the Italians from North Africa.
Following the decision to evacuate British troops from the
Greek mainland, the question arose as to whether Crete should be held. Prime
Minister Churchill insisted that it must be held, and on April 30, General
Wavell flew to the island to discuss plans for its defense. Maj. Gen. (later
Lt. Gen.) Bernard Freyberg (later 1st Baron Freyberg), commander of the New
Zealand Division, was placed in command. By May 3, he had disposed his troops
as follows: the 14th Infantry Brigade at Candia (Herakleion), the Australian
19th Brigade at Rethymnon (Retimo) and Georgeopolis, a composite force of
14,800 men in the Suda Bay-Canea (Khania) area, and two brigades of New Zealanders
in the Maleme Airfield sector. In addition, Greek battalions were distributed
among the various sectors. The total strength was about 42,500 troops. Many
of them had recently been fighting on the mainland, some were comparatively
untrained administrative personnel, and there was an acute shortage of arms
and heavy equipment.
Under the direction of Gen. (later Col. Gen.) Kurt Student
and the executive command of Col. Gen. Alexander Lohr, the Germans decided
to attack and capture the island mainly with airborne troops. The aircraft
available consisted of about 500 serviceable bomber, fighter, and reconnaissance
planes, about 500 transport aircraft, and 72 gliders.
The bombing of Allied positions and installations began on May 14, and the
first airborne troops landed on May 20. The capture of Maleme Airfield on
the following day enabled the Germans to fly in reinforcements rapidly. As
the Germans built up their strength, the British position gradually deteriorated.
By May 24, General Freyberg had abandoned hope of holding Crete, and, in view
of the heavy losses being suffered by the Royal Navy, the decision to evacuate
the island was made on May 27. Severe losses were sustained in attempts to
embark troops from the northern parts of the island. The last evacuation was
made from a beach at Sphakia (Chora Sphakion) on the south coast on May 31.
Allied casualties in the campaign were about 17,500 killed, wounded, and prisoners;
German losses, just over 6,000. In addition, 9 British warships were sunk,
and 17 were damaged.
For a more detailed account of operations in Greece in 1941,
see section Balkan Campaigns.
Iraq and Syria: April-June 1941
In 1941, Italy's ally, Germany, began to interest herself in Iraq and French-held
Syria. On April 3, a pro-German politician, Rashid 'Ali al-Gailani, brought
off a successful coup d'etat in Iraq. At the same time, reports reached
General Wavell that German cadres of officers and technicians were arriving
in Syria in French aircraft.
On April 17, an Indian brigade was sent to protect the oil
pipeline running from Iraq to Haifa. British Commonwealth forces engaged the
insurgent forces in Iraq on May 2, and on May 31 occupied Baghdad. The pipeline
was secured, and the regent, Emir 'Abdallah, was reinstated.
By June 8, it was clear that German forces had infiltrated
into Syria in some strength, and that the Vichy commander, Gen. Fernand Dentz,
was supporting them. In the next six days, British Commonwealth forces under
General Wilson advanced into Syria and, in a sharp campaign, defeated the
Vichy forces and occupied the country.
East Africa and the Red Sea: June 1940-November 1941
Because of the negligible strength of British forces
in East Africa, the four months following Italy's declaration of war saw a
number of Italian successes. In the Sudan, Italian troops occupied the frontier
towns of Kassala and Gallabat on July 4, 1940, and in Kenya they captured
Moyale on July 15. Then, between August 5 and August 19, they occupied British
By November 1940, the British were able to adopt a more
aggressive attitude, though still on a limited scale, and by February 1941
they were in a position to mount a large-scale offensive. The situation was
also greatly improved by the growth of a considerable patriot movement in
Ethiopia, where native forces organized by Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Orde C.
Wingate and other British officers were increasing rapidly in strength and
efficiency. At the time the offensive started, the Indian 4th and 5th divisions
were stationed in the Sudan. In Kenya the units were more diversely organized
and of more varied composition. Of the 77,000 troops in the area, 27,000 were
European South Africans; 6,000, Europeans serving in East and West African
forces; 33,000, East Africans; 9,000, West Africans; and 2,000, of various
The British plan called for an advance eastward from the
Sudan through northern Ethiopia to Eritrea and the Red Sea, together with
an approximately simultaneous advance northward from Kenya through southern
Ethiopia to the capital, Addis Ababa, and also eastward from Kenya to Italian
Somaliland. The terrain in many parts of this area affords a striking contrast
to the Western Desert. Much of Ethiopia is mountainous with wide and torrential
rivers. The country favors highly trained troops, and it also gave the Ethiopian
guerrillas full scope.
The British offensive started early in February. Progress
was rapid, and the various columns inflicted heavy losses on the Italian troops
and took large numbers of prisoners. By February 25, forces from Kenya had
captured most of Italian Somaliland, including the ports of Kismayu and Mogadishu.
A force from Aden, escorted by warships, landed at Berbera on the coast of
British Somaliland (Somaliland Protectorate) on March 16. On April 6, Addis
Ababa was occupied. Meanwhile, forces from the Sudan captured Keren, Eritrea,
on March 27, and by April 4 the area between Lake Tana and Addis Ababa had
been occupied. Massawa was occupied on April 8. On May 16, after stubborn
fighting, the duke of Aosta surrendered at Amba Alagi (the formal surrender
took place on May 20). Organized resistance ended, but isolated detachments
continued to fight for some months, and it was not until November 27 that
Gondar, the last place to hold out, surrendered.
The two most important battles of the East African campaign
were those fought at Keren and Amba Alagi. The British land forces were well
supported by the air force. Typical of this assistance were the attacks made
by the South African Air Force on the airfield at Addis Ababa on April 4,
5, and 6, when about 30 Italian aircraft were destroyed.
All of the Italian forces, white and native, who had not
been killed or who had not deserted (as many of the native troops had) became
prisoners of war. Total Italian losses were estimated at 289,000. There had
at times been serious fighting, but it is true to say that, from the British
point of view, the East African campaign was a struggle against the climate
and disease rather than against the Italian enemy. Between June 1940 and May
1941, British Commonwealth troops suffered only 1,154 battle casualties but
74,550 cases of sickness or accident, of which about 10,000 were due to dysentery
and 10,000 to malaria; 744 of these died.
In East Africa as in other campaigns, Italian arms had not
prospered. The campaigns in Africa, as well as that against the Greeks in
Albania, had shown Italian troops to be poorly led and trained. They were
badly equipped, especially in tanks, and logistically ill found. In Africa
they had been completely defeated in two campaigns by British Commonwealth
forces of greatly inferior strength. Not less than 420,000 Italians (including
Italian-trained native troops) had been killed or captured, as compared with
approximately 3,100 British Commonwealth battle casualties. The Italians also
lost hundreds of tanks, guns, trucks, and aircraft and vast quantities of
other equipment and stores. The collapse in East Africa was Italy's third
serious defeat since entering the war. By early February 1941, she had been
decisively beaten in Cyrenaica. By mid-March, her last effort to defeat the
Greeks without German aid had failed. For the British the campaign in East
Africa was the last of the easy victories. Thereafter they were to meet Germans,
who were well led, well trained, and well equipped.
Arrival of the Germans in North Africa: February 1941-May 1942
After the Battle of Bedafomm in February 1941, the
bulk of the British forces in the Western Desert were withdrawn in preparation
for the expedition to Greece. The defense of Cyrenaica was then left to the
Australian 9th Division and part of the 2d Armored Division. Later the Indian
3d Motor Brigade was sent to the desert as a reinforcement. This force, which
was much less experienced than the Australian 6th Division and the 7th Armored
Division which it had replaced, was under the command of Lt. Gen. (later Sir)
Up to this time the Germans had participated in the Mediterranean
operations only in the air (since early January, the Luftwaffe had made attacks
on British warships and convoys from Italian airfields). The predicament of
the Italian forces in North Africa after their serious defeats in Cyrenaica,
however, had convinced the German High Command that a substantial force must
be sent to the assistance of their Axis partner. The decision to do so had
been made on January 11, and on February 5 the formation of the German Africa
Corps was made known to the Italians. The new corps, which was to consist
of the 5th Light Motorized Division and the 15th Panzer Division, was placed
under the command of Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel. Within three
months, German efficiency and equipment and Rommel's skill in armored warfare,
combined with the reduction in British strength, were to change the whole
position in North Africa and see the British driven back to the Egyptian frontier.
Rommel arrived in Tripoli on February 12, and at once began
organizing the defenses of the area with such Italian troops as were available
and making plans for offensive action as soon as the Africa Corps arrived.
General Wavell and his intelligence staff estimated that Rommel would not
be able to stage a major offensive before May 1. In this they were wrong.
In early March, there were a number of clashes between the opposing light
forces in the El Agheila area. Then, on March 24, Axis forces occupied El
Agheila, and on April 1 they took Mersa Brega. Thereafter their advance was
rapid. The weak British forces were outmaneuvered and thrown into confusion.
On April 3, Benghazi fell, and on April 7, Generals O'Connor and Neame were
captured by a German reconnaissance unit. Mekili was taken the next day, and
by April 11, Axis forces had reached Bardia and Sallum. In the face of this
serious threat to the Suez Canal, General Wavell had decided to hold the port
of Tobruk with the Australian 9th Division, the Australian 18th Brigade, and
some armored and other ancillary units. Their task was facilitated by the
existence of the old Italian defense works on the landward side, which were
still in fairly good condition. By April 11, Tobruk had been invested, but
the speed with which Rommel's forces pressed on past the port made it apparent
to Wavell that the Axis objective was the Suez Canal, and that it was necessary
to make a stand somewhere in the neighborhood of the Libyan-Egyptian frontier.
The reconstituted Western Desert Force, consisting of all the troops Wavell
could make available, was put under the command of Lt. Gen. Sir Noel M. de
la P. Beresford-Peirse; it comprised the Indian 4th Division, the Australian
7th Division, the incomplete 6th Division, and a mobile force equivalent to
Between April 13 and April 17 and again between April 30
and May 4, Axis troops unsuccessfully attacked Tobruk. Meanwhile, British
defenses along the Egyptian frontier had been organized, and it soon became
clear that this factor, combined with the threat to their flank from Tobruk
and logistic difficulties, had brought the Axis offensive to a halt. Between
May 15 and May 17, the British carried out a local offensive in the Halfaya-Sallum-Capuzzo
area. Although this offensive was partially successful, the Germans recaptured
Halfaya on May 27.
Meanwhile, on May 12, a sea convoy code named Tiger had
arrived in Egypt with 82 cruiser tanks, 135 infantry tanks, and 21 light tanks,
and this made it possible to start rebuilding the 7th Armored Division. By
the end of the month, the British forces had been reorganized and reequipped
sufficiently to assume the offensive, and on May 28, General Wavell issued
orders for Operation Battleaxe. The Western Desert Force was to defeat the
enemy on the frontier and occupy the Bardia-Sallum-Capuzzo-Sidi Azeiz area,
then attack the enemy around Tobruk and relieve the port, and finally move
on Derna and Mekili. The forces available were the 7th Armored Division, the
Indian 4th Division, the Indian 11th Infantry Brigade, and the 22d Guards
Brigade. Axis forces consisted of the 15th Panzer Division in the frontier
area, with three Italian infantry battalions around Capuzzo and the rest of
the weak Trento Division and Bardia.
The attack began on June 15 and achieved some initial success,
but on the following day progress was slow, and further advance was checked
by enemy counterattacks. By the morning of June 17, losses in tanks and the
generally unfavorable situation made it clear that the attack had failed.
The order to withdraw was given, and the British forces retired to their original
area. British casualties totaled about 960. Of 90 cruiser and about 100 infantry
tanks which began the battle, 27 cruisers and 64 infantry tanks were lost.
The air force lost 36 aircraft. The Axis forces sustained about 800 casualties,
mostly Germans. They had 12 tanks destroyed and about 50 damaged; and they
lost 10 aircraft.
The British failure in Battleaxe was attributable to the
haste with which it was mounted, the lack of opportunity to train the troops
with new equipment, and the lack of tactical training, especially in armored
units. Cooperation between air and ground forces also left much to be desired.
The Axis defenders occupied well-prepared positions and showed marked skill
in handling their antitank weapons and in staging counterattacks. It was clear
to the British that a much greater effort was required if the Axis forces
were to be eliminated from North Africa. The next six months were to be a
period of preparation by both sides. Meanwhile, on June 22, Germany attacked
the USSR, and Prime Minister Churchill at once acclaimed the Soviets as an
ally with whom his country would cooperate to the fullest extent.
On July 5, General Wavell was replaced as commander in chief
in the Middle East by Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Claude J. E. Auchinleck.
It would be hard to imagine a more difficult military task than that which
had faced General Wavell during his two years in command. With the entry into
the war of Italy and the fall of France, he
found himself with totally inadequate forces, imperfectly trained and not
fully equipped. He was outnumbered on all fronts. In less than 12 months he
had completely defeated the Italians in North Africa and East Africa, and
had killed or captured more than 400,000 of the enemy at a cost of just over
3,000 British Commonwealth casualties. These results were attained despite
distractions in Syria and Iraq. In April, on political grounds, he was compelled
to send a large force to Greece, but in spite of this contingency and the
arrival of the German Africa Corps in North Africa, he succeeded in carrying
out his main task, which was the defense of the Suez Canal. Those Allied commanders
who came to the Middle East and the Mediterranean later never experienced
the same difficulties: their resources in men and materials were incomparably
During the summer of 1941 there was little change in the
dispositions of either side. Planning for the next British offensive, known
as Operation Crusader, began in August. On September 18, the Western Desert
Force was redesignated the Eighth Army and placed under the command of General
Cunningham, who had earned such a high reputation in East Africa. Meanwhile,
in July, there were reports of German intrigues in Iran, and on August 17,
a joint Anglo-Soviet note was sent to the Iranian government. British forces
from India entered the country on August 25. There was some resistance at
first, but it ceased by August 28. At about the same time, Soviet forces entered
Iran from the north, and on September 17, British and Soviet troops occupied
Teheran, the capital. The occupation of Iran prepared the way for the development
of a supply route to the USSR. While these events had no influence on the
war in the Mediterranean, the denial to the Germans of access to that part
of the world relieved General Auchinleck of any anxiety from that quarter.
By the beginning of November, plans had been completed for
Operation Crusader. The twofold objective of the operation was the relief
of Tobruk and the occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica, to which General Auchinleck
added the rider that this must be accompanied by the destruction of the enemy's
armor. The British Eighth Army (including the Tobruk garrison) consisted of
1 armored division, 3 armored or tank brigades, and the equivalent of 6.5
infantry divisions, or about 118,000 troops. There were about 680 British
tanks, with 500 tanks in reserve or on the way to North Africa. The Axis forces
comprised 2 German and 1 Italian armored divisions and 1 German and 6 Italian
infantry divisions, or about 119,000 troops. There were about 390 German and
Italian tanks, with practically no reserves. The German-Italian numerical
inferiority in armor was in some respects compensated by the superiority of
their best tanks in performance and gun power. The real superiority of the
Axis lay, however, in antitank guns that fired a much heavier missile than
the British 2-pounders, had a much longer range, and were handled with great
The offensive began on November 18. The first attempt to
relieve Tobruk failed, and British losses in armor were heavy. On November
26, General Auchinleck relieved General Cunningham of command of the Eighth
Army on the ground that his plans for the future were not sufficiently aggressive.
Cunningham was replaced by Maj. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) Neil M. Ritchie, who
had been deputy chief of staff in the Middle East. The offensive was resumed
on December 5, and on December 10, Tobruk was relieved. The Axis forces withdrew
from El Gazala on December 16, and on December 24, British troops entered
Benghazi, having advanced about 300 miles. There the offensive ended. The
Eighth Army had attained its first objective, the relief of Tobruk. It had
also occupied Cyrenaica, although the occupation was to be a fleeting one.
It destroyed many Axis tanks, but its own losses were also very heavy. The
German Africa Corps showed remarkable powers of recovery, and on Jan. 21,
1942, Rommel resumed the offensive. By January 28, the British had withdrawn
from Benghazi to the El Gazala-Bir Hacheim line. There was then a lull in
the Western Desert until the end of May.
Since Operation Crusader began in November 1941, British
casualties had totaled about 17,700, and those of the Axis about 38,300. Tank
losses are more difficult to assess accurately.
Up to December 12, the 7th Armored Division suffered 526 battle casualties
and breakdowns in tanks, of which about 281 became battleworthy again. How
many again took part in Crusader is not known. In addition, more than 200
British infantry tanks became casualties, although many of these were eventually
recovered and used again. Axis losses in tanks were around 340, many of which
were recovered and repaired. British losses in aircraft totaled about 300;
those of the Axis, about 332. Crusader was a British victory, but the price
paid, especially in tank losses, was heavy. It was apparent that British equipment
and standards of tactical training, although more than a match for Italian
troops, were still below those of the German Africa Corps.
Meanwhile, outside the Mediterranean theater, great events
had taken place. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese delivered a crippling air assault
against the United States naval base of Pearl Harbor. This brought the United
States into the war against Germany and Italy. With Britain, the Soviet Union,
and the United States in alliance, eventual victory over Germany and Italy,
and the new Japanese enemy, seemed certain.
Naval Operations in 1941
As all British
Commonwealth personnel and supplies for the land forces in the Mediterranean
had to come by sea, except for a small proportion sent by air, it was of vital
importance to keep water communications open. This was comparatively easy
in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, through which reinforcements and supplies
from Australia, New Zealand, India, and, frequently, North America, arrived,
although there was some anxiety for this route when Japan entered the war.
The Mediterranean was, however, by far the more important area of naval warfare.
There the British and Italian navies, supported by seaborne and shore-based
aircraft, strove to safeguard their own communications and cut those of their
After the attack on Taranto by British aircraft in November
1940, the chief events of naval interest were the bombardment of Genoa (Feb.
9, 1941), the British naval success at Cape Matapan (Tainaron; March 28),
and numerous actions and convoy work connected with the British expedition
to Greece and the subsequent occupation of Crete (April-May). An Italian motorboat
attack on the harbor of Valletta, on July 25-26, was completely defeated,
but the British subsequently lost the warships Ark Royal (November
13) and Barham (November 25), and attacks by Italian "human torpedoes
on the harbor of Alexandria resulted in severe damage to the Queen
Elizabeth and the Valiant (December 19).
Throughout 1941, Malta was a target for Axis shore-based
aircraft. The many attempts to reinforce, revictual, and fly fighter aircraft
to Malta from aircraft carriers cost the British many lives, the carrier
Ark Royal and numerous other warships, and many merchant ships, valuable
cargoes, and aircraft. But Malta held out and was of inestimable value during
the Allied invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland in 1943.
British Defeats in North Africa and the Turn of the Tide: May-November
At the beginning of May 1942, the British
war cabinet was pressing for an early offensive in the Western Desert, and
General Auchinleck made the necessary plans. In this he was anticipated by
General Rommel, as on May 27, Axis forces attacked the El Gazala-Bir Hacheim
position in strength. For several days the battle hung in the balance, but
on June 5 the Axis began to get the better of the fighting, and there followed
a series of disasters for the British. By June 12, the so-called "Cauldron
Battle had been lost; the Free French troops, after heroic resistance
at Bir Hacheim, had been withdrawn; and British armor had suffered a major
defeat. The decision to withdraw from the El Gazala line was made on June
14. On June 21, the mainly South African garrison of Tobruk was forced to
surrender. Four days later, General Auchinleck assumed direct control of the
Eighth Army, which took up a defensive position running from north to south,
with its right on the sea near El Alamein and its left on the Qattara Depression.
Attempts by Rommel to break through this position between July 1 and July
5 failed, and on July 10, General Auchinleck started a series of counterattacks
with limited objectives that lasted until July 26. By this time both sides
were exhausted, the British through a series of defeats and heavy losses,
and the Axis mainly because of logistic difficulties but also because of considerable
casualties. Once again German armor had demonstrated its superiority in material
qualities, training, and tactical handling. It was, however, the last Axis
success in Africa.
Between August 4 and August 10, Prime Minister Churchill
visited Cairo and held a series of meetings, in which he was joined by Field
Marshal Jan Christian Smuts, prime minister of South Africa; Gen. (later Field
Marshal) Sir Alan F. Brooke (later 1st Viscount Alanbrooke), chief of the
Imperial General Staff; and General Wavell, who was now commander in chief
in India. As a result, major changes were made. On August 13, Lt. Gen. (later
Field Marshal) Bernard Law Montgomery (later 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein),
assumed command of the Eighth Army, and two days later Gen. (later Field Marshal)
Sir Harold Alexander (later 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis) succeeded General Auchinleck as commander in chief in the Middle East.
A number of lesser appointments also changed hands about this time.
The directive given by Churchill to General Alexander stated
that his main duty was to destroy as early as possible the German-Italian
army commanded by the recently promoted Field Marshal Rommel. Immediately
after General Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army, he began the task
of reorganizing and redisposing his troops. He also made known that there
would be no further retreat, and that, if attacked, the army would fight where
it stood, on what was known as the Alam el Halfa position. The British had
not long to wait, for by August 25 it was apparent that Rommel was about to
assume the offensive. Available to him for this operation were 4 German and
6 Italian divisions, of which 2 German and 2 Italian divisions were armored.
To meet this force, Montgomery had 7 divisions, of which 2 were armored.
The attack began against the southern flank of the Alam
el Halfa position in the early hours of August 31. Fighting continued throughout
that day and the next, but the British held fast. By the evening of September
2 the Axis armor was short of fuel, and, with little prospects of success,
Rommel began to withdraw his forces. He was in full retreat by the following
day. The retreating Axis columns were heavily attacked from the air, but Montgomery
did not press the pursuit with his ground troops. For this he was criticized
in some quarters, but he suspected a trap to lure his armor onto the powerful
and numerous Axis antitank guns and was doubtful if his troops were yet a
match for the Germans in fluid operations. By September 7, the battle was
After Alam el Halfa, Churchill pressed strongly for an early
offensive, but Montgomery was adamant that this would be unwise. He informed
the prime minister that an early offensive would fail, but that he guaranteed
the success of one late in October. Meanwhile, the greatest energy was displayed
throughout the Eighth Army to accustom the troops to new equipment (which
was now being delivered in increasing quantities), to reorganize the forces,
and above all to improve the standard of tactical training. By October 20,
all was ready for the Battle of El Alamein. Montgomery disposed of the equivalent
of 11 divisions (3 armored), organized in three corps. To meet this force
Rommel had 13 divisions, 4 of which were German. Of his 4 armored divisions,
2 were German and 2 Italian. The British attack opened on the night of Oct.
23-24 with a massive artillery bombardment. Bitter fighting continued
for several days, during which both sides lost heavily and fortunes fluctuated.
After a short pause to regroup, Montgomery renewed the
attack on November 2. By November 5, the battle had turned in favor of the
British, and Rommel began to withdraw, pursued by the British 30th Corps (the
1st and 7th armored divisions and the New Zealand 2d Division).
Anglo-American Invasion of French North Africa: November 1942-May
The Battle of El Alamein was not only
the beginning of a series of unbroken victories; it was also the start of
a new phase in North Africa. Henceforth the campaign in the Mediterranean
was to be a joint Anglo-American undertaking. For some months the American
and British staffs had been working on a plan for the occupation of French
North Africa, with a view to the elimination of all Axis forces from Africa
and as a preliminary to the invasion of Italy. At the end of August 1942,
an Allied headquarters had been established in London for Operation Torch,
the code name for the enterprise. The overall command of sea, land, and air
forces was vested in the American Lt. Gen. (later General of the Army) Dwight
D. Eisenhower. The land forces consisted of the British First Army under Lt.
Gen. (later Gen.) Sir Kenneth K. N. Anderson and the United States 2d Corps
under Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Lloyd R. Fredendall. Initially these formations
were very weak, the First Army being little more than a weak corps, but as
the campaign proceeded they greatly increased in strength.
The first landings took place on November 8, and by the
morning of November 11, Algiers (Alger), Oran, and Casablanca were in Allied
hands. The French troops, acting under orders from the Vichy government, offered
some resistance, but nowhere was this wholehearted, and in many places it
was merely token. On November 11, all hostilities between the Allies and the
French in Algeria and Morocco ceased, and on the following day, Adm. Jean
Francois Darlan, now recognized as the French high commissioner in
North Africa, handed over the French territories to the Allies and appealed
to the French Fleet at Toulon to cross over to North Africa. Events moved
quickly. By the end of November, the Germans had occupied the whole of France,
and most of the French warships at Toulon had been scuttled by their crews.
Meanwhile, the Axis forces in Tunisia were being heavily reinforced by air
and through the ports of Bizerte and Tunis.
On December 11, the Allied advance in Tunisia was halted
by Axis counterattacks in the area of Medjez-el-Bab. Then, on December 24, the already difficult political situation between
the Allies and the French authorities was complicated by the assassination
of Admiral Darlan. By this time the Allies were supported by numerous French
troops under Gen. Henri Giraud; these, although at first inadequately armed,
greatly improved in quality toward the latter stages of the campaign.
During January 1943, both sides confined themselves to local
operations and attempted to build up sufficient strength for a decisive offensive.
Then, on February 14, Axis forces launched a powerful attack against the United
States 2d Corps, which, heavily outnumbered, was driven back about 50 miles
between Faid Pass in the north and Gafsa in the south. Kasserine and Sbeitla
were captured, and the enemy, advancing up the Kasserine Pass, threatened
the important centers of Tebessa and Thala. This advance was serious, for
it endangered some of the Allied forward airfields. By February 23, the advance
of the Axis forces had been halted, however, and between February 26 and March
3 they were driven back to approximately their original positions. It had
been a difficult period for the Allies, but General Eisenhower had demonstrated
that he was a field commander of the first order.
Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army, after its victory at
El Alamein, had made rapid progress. Tobruk was captured on Nov. 13, 1942;
Benghazi, on November 20; Tripoli on Jan. 23, 1943; Mareth, on March 20; and
Gabes, on March 29. On April 6, Wadi Akarit was attacked, and on the
following day troops of the Eighth Army made contact with the Allies advancing
in Tunisia. In mid-February, General Alexander had flown from Egypt to join
General Eisenhower as his deputy. In that capacity he was charged with coordinating
the action of the First and Eighth armies and of all Allied ground troops
operating in North Africa--American, British, and French. Mid-April saw
an extensive regrouping of Allied forces, including the transfer of several
of the Eighth Army's best troops to the First Army, as it was considered that
better and quicker results would be achieved if the final blow was struck
in the north rather than in the south, where the country was more difficult
and unsuitable for armor.
On May 1, the 120-mile Allied front ran roughly from Enfidaville
northwestward to Pont-du-Fahs and then northward to the coast about 18 miles
west of Bizerte. The British Eighth Army was on the right, French units on
the right center, the British First Army on the left center, and the United
States 2d Corps on the left in the coastal strip. The main attack, by the
First Army and the 2d Corps, began on May 4, the British drive being directed
on Tunis and the American drive on Bizerte. The assaulting troops were supported
by a powerful force of aircraft, and the attack was preceded by a heavy artillery
bombardment. Although the Axis troops fought with great determination, by
May 6 the defense had cracked, and on the following day American and British
troops entered Bizerte and Tunis, respectively. Confused fighting occurred
from May 7 to May 12, but the British succeeded in clearing the Cape Bon Peninsula,
where it had been thought that the Axis troops might make a last stand.
On May 13, all Axis forces laid down their arms in surrender.
About 240,000 prisoners were taken, including 125,000 Germans. Col. Gen. Dietloff
Jurgen von Arnim, the German commander in Tunis, was among those captured.
Field Marshal Rommel escaped.
With the surrender of Axis forces in Tunis, no Germans or
Italians remained in arms in Africa. From the time that Italy entered the
war in June 1940, the number of Axis soldiers killed or captured in Africa
totaled about 950,000. Approximately 2,400,000 gross tons of Axis shipping
were sunk, and 8,000 aircraft were destroyed. In addition, 6,200 guns, 2,500
tanks, and 70,000 trucks were captured or destroyed. Allied shipping losses
and British losses in army equipment in 1942 were also heavy and serious.
Casualties in personnel, however, were only a fraction of those suffered by
the Axis. Apart from the heavy Axis losses, the latter stages of the campaign
in North Africa brought the Allies many advantages. Very soon the victory
was to result in Italy's defection from the Axis partnership, and it paved
the way for the reentry of the Allies to the European mainland. Moreover,
the Tunisian campaign showed that American and British sailors, soldiers,
and airmen could fight efficiently as one team, under one commander, against
the common enemy.
CAMPAIGNS IN ITALY
Conquest of Sicily: June-August 1943
Some weeks before the end of hostilities in North Africa detailed planning
had begun for the capture of Sicily, to be followed by the invasion of the
Italian mainland. On June 11, 1943, the island of Pantelleria, with its Italian
garrison of 15,000 men, surrendered to the Allies, and the smaller islands
of Lampedusa and Linosa surrendered on June 12 and 13, respectively.
The Allied forces in the Mediterranean were ready for the
invasion of Sicily by early July. Under the supreme command of General Eisenhower,
the land forces consisted of the Fifteenth Army Group under the direction
of General Alexander, comprising the United States Seventh Army, commanded
by Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) George S. Patton, Jr., and the British Eighth Army
under General Montgomery. Axis forces in Sicily numbered about 75,000 Germans
and 275,000 Italians. The German forces included the 15th Panzer Division
with about 60 tanks and the Hermann Goering Division with about 100 tanks.
The Italians had four divisions and 100 light tanks.
The Allied troops taking part in the assault came from widespread
areas: the American 1st and 3d divisions and the British 51st (Highland) Division
from North African ports; the American 45th Division, from the United States;
the Canadian 1st Division, from the United Kingdom; and the British 5th and
50th divisions and the 231st Infantry Brigade, from the Middle East. The Allied
invasion fleet, comprising 3,000 ships and craft carrying about 140,000 men
and covered by powerful naval and air forces, was approaching Sicily on the
afternoon of July 9, when a severe storm blew up that threatened the landings
with disaster. On the next morning, however, the assault took place as planned,
the British Eighth Army landing in the southeastern corner of the island,
and the United States Seventh Army on the south coast. The assault by sea
was preceded by American airborne landings near Gela and by British landings
near Syracuse (Siracusa). The first Allied airborne operations on a big scale,
they were only partially successful because of the stormy weather. Many men
and gliders landed at some distance from their targets, some of them falling
in the sea. But the assault as a whole was successful, and Syracuse was captured
By July 22, British Commonwealth forces had advanced northward
to the foothills of Mount Etna, while American troops had overrun the western
part of the island, capturing Agrigento and Palermo. Only the northeast held
out. By August 15, Randazzo and Taormina had been captured, and by August
17 all Axis resistance in Sicily had ceased. Allied casualties included 6,896
Americans and 12,843 British. Axis killed, wounded, and prisoners numbered
about 164,000, of whom approximately 32,000 were Germans. The Allies captured
or destroyed about 1,500 aircraft, 78 armored fighting vehicles, 287 guns,
and 3,500 motor vehicles.
While the fighting in Sicily was in progress, important
political developments had been taking place. On July 25, Mussolini was forced
to resign, and Marshal Pietro Badoglio became premier of Italy, while King
Victor Emmanuel III assumed command of the Italian armed forces. These events
were followed by secret feelers, put out by the Allies through neutral diplomatic
circles, to induce Italy to cease hostilities and if possible declare war
on Germany. On September 3, a military armistice between the Allies and the
Italian government was signed secretly at Syracuse. It was announced publicly
by General Eisenhower on September 8.
Invasion of the Italian Mainland: September-October 1943
Immediately after the fighting in Sicily ended,
planning began for the invasion of the Italian mainland. The general plan
called for the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery to cross the Strait
of Messina from Sicily onto the toe of Italy and advance northward as quickly
as possible. About a week later the American Fifth Army under Lt. Gen. (later
Gen.) Mark W. Clark was to land in strength on the west coast at Salerno,
30 miles southeast of Naples (Napoli) and 180 miles north of Montgomery's
landing place, with the objects of joining its forces with the Eighth Army,
cutting off substantial German forces in southern Italy, and capturing the
port of Naples at an early date.
Events moved quickly. On September 3, the Eighth Army, with
massive sea and air support, crossed the Strait of Messina at Reggio di Calabria
and advanced rapidly northward against light opposition. Eisenhower's announcement
five days later of the capitulation of Italy regularized the withdrawal of
the country from the war (which for all practical purposes had already taken
place), but it did not as yet bring Italy into the conflict as a cobelligerent
against Germany. The port and naval base of Taranto was occupied by British
airborne forces on September 9. Two days later, the main part of the Italian
Navy steamed into Valletta under escort, and Admiral Cunningham was able to
signal the British Admiralty: "Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that
the Italian battle fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress
of Malta. During their voyage to Malta the Italian warships were heavily
attacked by German aircraft. The flagship Roma was hit, caught fire,
and blew up. Most of her crew, including the commander in chief, were lost.
The Fifth Army began landing at Salerno on September 9.
For some days the Allied intelligence staff had known that Germans had replaced
Italian troops in the Salerno area. There was some opposition on the beaches,
but on the whole the landings went smoothly and without very heavy fighting.
Although the Germans made furious counterattacks on the beachhead on September
13, the crisis was over by September 16, and on that day troops of the Fifth
and Eight armies linked forces. Troops of the Fifth Army occupied Naples on
October 1, by which time the British 1st Airborne Division, which had landed
at Taranto on September 9, had captured the important airfield at Foggia.
By October 12, the Allies had established a reasonably solid
front across the Italian Peninsula, from Foggia on the Adriatic coast to just
north of Naples on the west coast--a distance of about 120 miles. The
Eighth Army was on the right, and the Fifth Army on the left. Success had
been swift: within six weeks the Allies had captured and occupied a substantial
part of Italy. There were, however, many hard battles still to be fought.
Meanwhile, on September 19, the Italian island of Sardinia had fallen to the
Allies, and on October 4 the French island of Corsica was taken.
policy, agreed to by the Allies for conducting the war, was that the main
effort should be directed first to the defeat of Germany, after which all
available forces would be concentrated against Japan. There was, however,
some difference of opinion between the American and British governments and
their military advisers as to the best strategy for northwestern and southern
Europe. The British at first favored exploiting the Mediterranean theater
on the grounds that the Allies were already established there, that no further
assault landings would be necessary, and that an attack on Germany through
Italy and the Balkans would prevent the spread of communism in central Europe.
The Americans held that a cross-Channel attack based on the United Kingdom
was the easiest way of getting quickly to the heart of Germany and greatly
simplified the logistic problem. They pointed out that while British Commonwealth
forces received many of their reinforcements and much of their equipment and
supplies through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the route from North America
to the Mediterranean was longer, more dangerous, and logistically less convenient
than that to the United Kingdom and the mainland of northwestern Europe. The
American staff also drew attention to the formidable mountain ranges, very
suitable for defense, which would have to be
negotiated in an advance on Germany from southern Europe.
By the late summer of 1943 the American view had prevailed.
Planning for Operation Overlord was in progress, and in consequence the Mediterranean
theater tended to decrease in importance, although it was still to play a
major part in Allied strategy. As soon as the Sicilian campaign was over,
the Allies began to transfer 7 divisions (4 Americans and 3 British) from
the Mediterranean to Britain in preparation for Overlord, which it was expected
would take place in the late spring of 1944.
Following the conquest of Sicily and the surrender of Italy
in September 1943, another important strategic matter arose. This was the
question of occupying some of the islands of the Dodecanese, off the coast
of Turkey, which were mostly garrisoned by Italians. General Eisenhower was
opposed to diverting troops from Italy for this purpose, but the Middle East
command under General Wilson sent detachments, carried and escorted by British
warships, to Leros and some smaller islands. While the Italian garrisons were
friendly, they were not prepared to fight Germans in defense of the islands.
Against heavy German threats the British garrisons were withdrawn by mid-November,
and the Germans reoccupied the islands. British naval losses in these abortive
operations comprised 6 destroyers and 2 submarines sunk by mines or German
aircraft, and 4 cruisers and 4 destroyers damaged.
Operations on the Italian Mainland: October 1943-August 1944
On Oct. 13, 1943, Italy declared war on Germany,
and thereafter Italian partisan forces played an increasing role in the war against their former Axis partner. By early November, the
Allied land forces in Italy consisted of the American 3d, 34th, and 45th Infantry,
82d Airborne, and 1st Armored divisions and the British 46th, 56th Infantry,
and 7th Armored divisions, of the Fifth Army; and the 5th, 78th, 1st Canadian,
8th Indian, 2d New Zealand, and 1st Airborne divisions, of the Eighth Army.
About this time plans were made to transfer the French Corps under Gen. (later
Marshal) Alphonse Pierre Juin from North Africa to Italy. Later the troops
in Italy were to be joined by the Polish Corps under Gen. Wladyslaw
Anders and by other American, British, and Canadian formations.
The winter of 1943-1944 was a period of hard fighting
which brought the Allies up to the German Gustav Line. The Fifth Army crossed
the Volturno River on October 13. On November 8, General Alexander issued
a directive for offensives by the Fifth and Eighth armies. The Eighth Army
began its offensive on the Sangro River on November 20, and the Fifth Army
attacked in the Liri Valley on December 1. In both cases the advance was limited,
as neither army was strong enough to exploit its success.
In January 1944, there were important changes in command.
General Eisenhower left the Mediterranean theater to direct Overlord and become
supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in northwestern Europe.
He was succeeded as supreme commander in the central Mediterranean by General
Wilson. General Alexander remained as commander in chief in Italy. General
Montgomery, who returned to the United Kingdom to command the Twenty-first
Army Group, was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Sir Oliver Leese in command of the Eighth
As early as October 1943, plans for an amphibious Allied
landing near Anzio had been considered. As finally approved, the landing was
to be made by the United States 6th Corps under Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, comprising
1 United States infantry division, a United States armored element, a battalion
of Rangers, a parachute regimental combat team, and 1 British infantry division,
a British armored element, and 2 Commando units. The object of the landing
was to cut the communications of the German 14th Corps, assist the main Allied
armies to advance to the north, and capture Rome (Roma). The landing took
place on Jan. 22, 1944. The leading troops advanced about 10 miles but were
then halted by stubborn resistance. The German commander, Field Marshal Albert
Kesselring, concentrated 10 German divisions against the 4 which, with further
reinforcements, the Allies had established on the beachhead. While the Anzio
beachhead held firm, little progress was made by the Allies on any front,
and it was nearly five months before Rome was captured.
At the end of March 1944, the Allied position facing the
Gustav Line extended for 100 miles westward across Italy, from the Sangro
River to Cassino and thence to the Tyrrhenian Sea near the mouth of the Garigliano
(lower Liri) River. The Anzio beachhead was firmly held. The key position
in the Gustav Line was Monte Cassino with its famous Benedictine abbey on
the summit. This position was attacked first by the United States 2d Corps
(the 34th and 36th divisions) in January; then by the New Zealand 2d Corps
(the New Zealand 2d, Indian 4th, and British 78th divisions and a combat group
of the United States 1st Armored Division) in February; and for a third time,
again by the New Zealand 2d and Indian 4th divisions, in March. All three
attacks failed despite the fact that the last two were preceded by massive
bombardments by heavy bomber aircraft as well as by artillery. The Allies
spent the month of April and first half of May regrouping and planning for
a further assault on the Gustav Line at Cassino, preparatory to an advance
on Rome. By this time the strategy in the Mediterranean had definitely become
subordinate to northwestern Europe, where the cross-Channel assault was planned
for early June. General Alexander defined the task of the forces in Italy
as follows: "To force the enemy to commit a maximum number of divisions
in Italy at the time the Cross-Channel invasion is launched.
The fourth and last assault on the Cassino position was
carried out by the Polish Corps, with the British 2d Corps on its left ready
to advance up Highway 6 in the Liri Valley and open the road to Rome. Farther
to the left the Fifth Army (which included the French Corps) was to advance
on Rome, using Highway 7 as its main axis. The offensive was supported by
1,000 guns with the Eighth Army and 600 with the Fifth Army and by more than
3,000 aircraft. The battle began on May 11, but it was not until the morning
of May 18 that the Poles were able to occupy the abbey of Monte Cassino. The
whole Allied battlefront westward from Cassino then surged forward, and events
moved rapidly. On May 23, the Allied forces in the Anzio beachhead took the
offensive and joined the troops of the Fifth Army advancing from the south.
By this time the Germans had decided to give up the Gustav Line, and their
next position, the Hitler Line, was already pierced. On June 4, American troops
of the Fifth Army entered Rome, which the Germans had declared to be an open
city. The bridges were left intact, and the city was saved many of the ravages
of 20th century warfare. Two days later, on June 6, the forces in Italy learned
of the successful Allied landings on the Normandy coast.
After the capture of Rome the Allies pressed northward on
what was in reality two fronts divided by the Apennines and with only slight
ground contact over the mountain barrier. One portion of the Eighth Army was
to the east of the Apennines; the Fifth Army and the rest of the Eighth Army,
to the west. The full exploitation of success was prevented by the withdrawal
of more troops from Italy to help the Allies in northwestern Europe by means
of landings in southern France. Pescara on the Adriatic was captured on June
11, Arezzo on July 16, Ancona on July 18, Leghorn (Livorno) on July 19, and
Florence (Firenze) on August 11. The Allies now faced the German Gothic Line,
which ran from the Adriatic to the north of Ancona, north of Arezzo and Florence,
to the west coast north of Leghorn, or about 150 miles.
Allied Landings in Southern France: August-September 1944.--
At the Teheran Conference (Nov. 28-Dec. 1,
1943) it had been agreed that the landings in northwestern Europe would be
followed by further landings in the south of France. After the fall of Rome
preparations began to implement this decision at the expense of General Alexander's
forces in Italy. It was now proposed to withdraw 7 good divisions from the
Fifth Army: 3 American (the 3d, 36th, and 45th) and 4 French. Known at first
as Anvil, the operation was later code named Dragoon. Planning and execution were entrusted to the headquarters of the United States
Seventh Army under Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Alexander M. Patch. The troops
consisted of the United States 6th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. (later Lt.
Gen.) Lucian K. Truscott and composed of 3 United States divisions; and the
French 2d Corps, composed of divisions formerly in Italy, under Gen. Jean
de Lattre de Tassigny.
Early on the morning of Aug. 15, 1944, a special service
force of American and Canadian units seized the offshore islands of Levant
and Port-Cros, while French Commando troops landed on the French Riviera mainland
immediately to the north. Farther inland and 22 miles west of Cannes, the
1st Airborne Task Force, consisting of American and British airborne units,
was dropped. These preliminary operations were quickly followed by seaborne
landings of major formations of the Seventh Army between Nice and Toulon.
German resistance was not sustained, but it was tenacious in places, especially
at Toulon and Marseille. By August 27, the French had captured Toulon, and
on the following day, Marseille. After liberating southern France the Allied
force moved via the Rhone and Doubs valleys to the Belfort gap. It then joined
with the Allied armies in northwestern Europe, came under General Eisenhower's
command, and ceased to be within the Mediterranean theater of operations.
For a more detailed account of operations in southern France
in 1944, see section 5. Recovery of France and Advance into Germany.
Campaign in Italy: August 1944-May 1945
Despite the weakening of his forces, General Alexander made early plans for
an assault on the Gothic Line. This involved the transfer of troops from the
western or left flank to the right flank in preparation for an attack on the
enemy's left. The offensive was opened by the Eighth Army on Aug. 25, 1944,
and by August 31 the German front had been pierced on a line 20 miles long
to a depth of 4 miles. On the left the Fifth Army, which included some British
Commonwealth formations, also attacked vigorously, and by September 13 had
broken the enemy front north of Florence. Rimini fell to the Allies on September
21, and by September 28 the Gothic Line had been forced. This phase of the
Italian campaign was an exceptionally fine operation by the Allies, carried
out despite dwindling numbers in difficult mountain country well suited to
defense. The price, however, was a heavy one--approximately 50,000 casualties.
When the offensive was halted at the end of September, the line ran across
Italy from east to west for about 150 miles, from north of Rimini to north
of Florence and Pisa.
There followed a lull of about six weeks, but elsewhere
in the Mediterranean theater an important development took place. In the late
summer of 1944 it became apparent that the Germans were preparing to withdraw
from Greece. The country was in ruins, however, and clearly the first requirement
was an Allied force to maintain law and order, prevent the country from falling
under Communist domination, carry out relief work, and generally reestablish
stable conditions. Operation Manna, the code name for the relief force, was
ready by mid-September, its commander being the British Lt. Gen. (later Sir)
Ronald M. Scobie. Except for some Greek units, which had been operating under
Allied command in Italy, the force was mostly British, including initially
the 2d Parachute Brigade, 23d Armored Brigade (in an infantry role), and administrative
units. The land forces were to be supported by the 15th Cruiser Squadron,
United States transport aircraft, and four British and three Greek air squadrons.
On September 26, a conference took place at Allied headquarters
at Caserta, Italy, which was attended by representatives of Premier George
Papandreou's Greek government in exile and leaders of the two principal Greek
partisan groups, the National Liberation Front (EAM) and the Greek People's
Army of Liberation (ELAS). The latter both agreed to operate under General
Scobie's orders. On October 3, British Commando and airborne troops landed
in southern Greece and on the next day occupied Patras (Patrai). Additional
airborne forces landed at Megara Airfield, outside Athens, on October 13,
and on the following day moved into the capital on the heels of the retreating
Germans. Naval forces immediately entered Piraeus (Peiraieus), bringing General
Scobie and the rest of his force, followed two days later by the Greek government.
By November 8, the last formed bodies of German troops had
left Greece, but their departure did not bring peace. The rival partisan groups--the
left-wing EAM and ELAS and the anti-Communist EDES (National Greek Democratic
League)--were openly hostile to the Greek government, and in addition
quarreled and fought among themselves. The partisans' promise to take orders
from General Scobie was soon broken. Toward the end of November, Scobie's
command was reinforced by the Indian 4th Division. The last days of November
and early December saw a bid by ELAS to take over Athens, and clashes between
British troops and ELAS occurred in the city on December 5. In the face of
increasing partisan opposition some of the smaller British detachments had
to be withdrawn, a few suffering casualties in the process.
With the situation worsening, the Greek government and the
Allies turned to Archbishop Damaskinos as the leading figure in Greece and
the man with the greatest influence over all parties. As a result of a meeting
held on December 26-27, attended by the archbishop, Prime Minister Churchill,
and other political and military leaders, King George II of Greece postponed
his return to the country, the archbishop became regent, and Papandreou was
replaced as premier by Gen. Nicholas Plastiras. In the meantime, General Scobie
had been further reinforced by the British 4th Division, which was intercepted
in mid-December, while on route from Italy to Egypt. Its arrival turned the
scale, and by Jan. 5, 1945, Athens and Piraeus had been cleared of dissentient
On February 12, representatives of the Greek government
and the Central Committee of EAM-ELAS signed at Varkiza an agreement, the
terms of which included the disarming and demobilization of all revolutionary
forces (who were to release their hostages), a general amnesty, and the formation
of a national army. Following the Varkiza agreement, British forces had little
difficulty in occupying all of Greece. The worst was over, and the troubles
of the Greeks gave way to more urgent matters.
Meanwhile, in Italy on Nov. 3, 1944, Lt. Gen. (later Gen.)
Sir Richard L. McCreery succeeded General Leese in command of the Eighth Army.
During the late fall and winter the battlefront remained generally inactive,
but the Allies made some progress on their right along the Adriatic coast. Forli was captured on November 10, and Ravenna
on December 5. Operations were greatly hampered by unusually heavy rainfall
during the last three months of the year. On the night of October 1, for example,
approximately 8.5 inches of rain fell in the Po Valley in 10 hours, reducing
the countryside to a quagmire.
On December 12, General Wilson left the Mediterranean theater
to become head of the British Combined Services Mission in Washington. His
place as supreme Allied commander in the Mediterranean was taken by the recently
promoted Field Marshal Alexander. General Clark became commander of the Allied
armies in Italy, which now reverted to the title of Fifteenth Army Group,
and General Truscott took command of the Fifth Army. Between Dec. 28, 1944,
and Jan. 2, 1945, the Germans made a powerful counterattack against the Allied
left in the Serchio Valley north of Pisa. It fell mainly on the Indian 8th
Division, which stood firm and repulsed the attack with heavy losses to the
In mid-March, Allied intelligence staffs estimated that
about a third of the German strength in the west was employed in Italy, and
this was judged to be an important factor in the success of Overlord. Special
measures were taken to make this known to the Allied troops in Italy, and
it proved a useful antidote to the disappointment caused by the earlier withdrawal
of troops, which had prevented the Allies from completing the conquest of
northern Italy. By the early spring, Italian troops were playing a considerable
role in operations against their former German partners. Their activities
were mostly of the guerrilla type, but they also had some field units in action.
On April 9, German strength in Italy was the equivalent
of 26 divisions, including 1 panzer and 1 light (motorized) division. On this
day the Eighth Army on the right launched a major offensive, supported by
heavy air and artillery bombardments, and crossed the Senio River. On the
Allied left the Fifth Army also carried out a heavy attack, capturing Massa
and crossing the Frigido River. On April 16, Field Marshal Alexander and General
Clark made it known that the hour for the final battle for Italy had arrived.
On the Adriatic side the offensive of the Eighth Army had been designed in
the initial stages to give an opportunity to exploit success, either through
the Argenta gap near the coast or farther west through Bologna. Argenta was
the choice; on April 17 the gap was secured, and the town itself was entered
the next day. Meanwhile, the Fifth Army offensive, which had begun on April
14, met with stubborn resistance in the mountains, but once the battlefront
reached open country the German withdrawal became a rout.
On both fronts the retreating enemy was pursued by Allied
armor and pounded by Allied aircraft. The object of the Germans was to get
as many troops and as much equipment as possible north of the Po River. Bologna
fell to the Fifth Army on April 21, and on April 23 leading armored elements
of the Fifth and Eighth armies met south of the Po in the Ferrara-Finale nell'
Emilia area, where they created havoc among German troops and transport crowding
the roads to reach the river bridges. By that evening the Fifth and Eighth
armies had reached the Po on a wide front. Ferrara, Bondeno, and Modena (all
south of the Po) fell on April 24, and by the evening of April 25 approximately
30,000 German prisoners were in Allied hands, and a substantial part of the
German armor, artillery, and transport had been destroyed or captured. Such
was the measure of the defeat of the Germans south of the Po that they were
unable to offer any serious resistance on this formidable river line, which
the Allies crossed without serious opposition.
Operations now entered the area of Napoleon's Italian campaigns,
and familiar names appeared on the air and in written messages. On April 26,
Mantua (Mantova) and Verona fell, and the Adige River was crossed. At this
stage it was revealed that the area west of the Como-Milan (Milano)-Genoa
(Genova) line was virtually under the control of Italian resistance troops,
who had been organized by Allied liaison officers and equipped from Allied
sources. Genoa was occupied by the Fifth Army on April 27. On the following
day, Mussolini was murdered by partisans. By this time the Fifteenth Army
Group was firmly established across the Adige, and on April 29 it began advancing
northward from the river. On the same day the Fifth Army entered Milan, and
the Eighth entered Padua (Padova). On April 30, the official communique
stated: "Troops of the Fifteenth Army Group have so smashed German Armies
in Italy that they have been eliminated as a military force. About 120,000
Germans had been taken prisoner since the offensive started.
On the last day of April, purely military operations began
to give way to other considerations. It was important that northeastern Italy
should be occupied as quickly as possible by American and British troops.
Large numbers of German soldiers, many of them detached from their units and
not under regular discipline, were roaming the countryside. Many thousands
of Italian partisans were to be found, not all of them under proper control.
A dispute between Yugoslav partisans and Italians over the possession of Trieste
seemed likely to cause a clash, and for many reasons it was desirable that
Austria should be occupied as soon as possible. Although the fighting was
nearly over, there was much to be done to preserve law and order and bring
about a semblance of control.
Allied troops entered Savona and Turin (Torino) on May 1.
On the following day, May 2, 1945, at 12 noon, hostilities in Italy came to
an end as the result of an instrument of unconditional surrender signed at
Caserta on April 29 by representatives of Col. Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel,
commander in chief of the German Southwest Army Group. Nearly 1,000,000 Germans
then laid down their arms. Thus ended operations in the Mediterranean theater
of war, which had begun on land on the Egyptian-Libyan frontier early on June
11, 1940, a few hours after Italy entered the war.
The purpose of the Allied campaign in Italy was to contain
as many Axis troops as possible in order to ease the burden on other fronts.
The extent to which this objective was accomplished can be judged by the following
comparison of German and Allied strengths at various times (Italian units,
which at different times formed part of the forces of both sides, are not
Mid-October 1943 19 divisions 15 divisions
Spring 1944(1) 23 divisions 27 divisions
Summer 1944 25 divisions 20 divisions
Mid-March 1954 24 divisions 17 divisions
9 independent brigades
(1) For a brief period only.
Allied casualties in Sicily and Italy totaled 320,955, while those
of the Axis (excluding those involved in the final surrender) numbered 658,339.
If to the latter figure are added the Axis casualties in North and East Africa,
the total is approximately 1,610,000 killed, wounded, and prisoners.
C. N. Barclay
Brigadier, British Army (Retired)
Editor, "The Army Quarterly and Defence Journal."
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