12. War in the Mediterranean

AFTER THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, and indeed before it was ended, Hitler turned his attention to the east, and began planning to finish off Russia. The focus of the war shifted not eastward, however, but southward. For the next nine months, and as far as Britain was concerned for the next three years, the main theater of the war was the Mediterranean.

Few questions about the conduct of the war have been argued at greater length than that of the so-called Mediterranean strategy followed by Great Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, writers have claimed that it was either basically sound or wastefully divergent. Some have said that it arose out of Churchill’s failure at the Dardanelles in 1915 and his subsequent determination to prove that he had been right in World War I by winning World War II from the south, and Churchill himself coined the infelicitous phrase “the soft underbelly of Fortress Europe.” There has been endless argument about the British preference for a peripheral strategy as opposed to the American desire to go straight to the heart. In fact, the diversion into the Mediterranean grew out of the logic of events. Whatever responsive chords fighting in the middle sea may have struck in Winston Churchill, if any one man may be said to have caused the war to center there, that man was not Churchill, it was Mussolini. Almost everything followed from Il Duce’s inability to sit quietly and mind his own business.


At the start of the war Germany had neither territories in nor access to the Mediterranean. War did not come to that sea, therefore, until Italy declared war on France and Britain in June of 1940. Then, ringed by states that were either belligerents, potential belligerents, allies or colonies of belligerents, the Mediterranean heated up very quickly. From west to east on the northern side of the sea there were Spain, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, and Turkey. On the southern side there was French North Africa, divided into the colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, then Italian Libya, and then British-held Egypt. This parceled-out arrangement continued right down the Red Sea coast to the horn of Africa, where there were Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, then Italian Eritrea and Ethiopia, then French and British Somaliland, and finally Italian Somaliland. Once Italy was in the war it was inevitable that fighting would flare over all the colonial territories.

Mussolini entered the war less because he coveted British territory than because he coveted French. From the time of Italian unification in the 1870’s there had been the hope of a trans-Mediterranean Italian empire that would stretch from the peninsula through Sicily and across the Sicilian Narrows to the north African hump of Tunisia. Italian ambitions had been forestalled by the French, who declared a protectorate over Tunisia in 1881. The territory was often referred to in France as “our largest Italian colony,” and it was this colonial frustration that made Italy join the Triple Alliance in 1882. One of Mussolini’s chief motives for declaring war on France was the hope that Italy would take over the French North African empire as her share of the victory.

Unhappily, the Italian reach exceeded Mussolini’s grasp. The Germans overran France so fast, and the Italians contributed so little, that Mussolini was able to make few claims in the armistice negotiations. He made none on French overseas territories, and French North Africa remained under the control of the Vichy government, with the exception of a few unimportant equatorial colonies that rallied to the dissident General de Gaulle. Frustrated in his westward-looking ambitions, Mussolini turned his attention from the French to the British. As an uneasy calm settled on the western territories, the war burst over the eastern Mediterranean.

The whole Allied position in the Mediterranean had been predicated on close cooperation between British and French units. In World War I the two navies had divided the sea between them, the French taking responsibility for the western end and the British the eastern end. The same sort of agreement was now invalid, and the British and Commonwealth forces were left to hold the central position of empire all by themselves. The British seaborne line ran from Gibraltar to Malta to Alexandria, squarely across the Italian line from southern Italy and Sicily to Libya. Both British and Italians had respectable fleets in the inland sea, and through 1940 and 1941 they fought a series of battles in which the British quickly achieved moral mastery, and more slowly gained physical mastery, of the seas.

The British on land were even thinner than on the water. The commander of all British land forces in the Middle East was General Sir Archibald Wavell. Under him was a motley collection of units from all over the empire, totaling about 63,000 in Egypt and Palestine, and another 19,000 in scattered garrisons throughout East Africa. They included Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians, Africans, and British. Though they were potentially magnificent fighting material, they were largely under-equipped and lacking in cohesion. As usual, it was a case of running the empire on a shoestring, and Wavell’s instructions were fundamentally: hang on with what you have, and hope nothing happens.

The Italians, however, had an itch to accomplish something. There were about 200,000 troops in Libya, commanded by Field Marshal Graziani, and there were nearly 300,000 in Ethiopia, about a third of them Italian, the rest native troops. This gave them odds of roughly fifteen to one in East Africa, and they overran British Somaliland in August with relatively little difficulty. They got really busy in the fall. In September, they advanced about sixty miles from Libya into Egypt and stopped just past Sidi Barrani. In October, other Italian forces, operating out of Albania, began the invasion of Greece. While the British prepared a military riposte, the Royal Navy struck at the Italian Navy in its base at Taranto. Launching a surprise torpedo-plane attack with the ubiquitous Swordfish, of which they lost two, the British crippled half the Italian Navy for the next six months.

That was on November 11. A month later the British jumped off on an offensive in the Western Desert, as the Cyrenaican hump of Libya and Egypt was called. This was slated as a local offensive to recapture Sidi Barrani. The town was retaken in two days, along with 38,000 Italians. The British then decided to continue. Within a week, the Italians were back on the frontier. Still the British kept on; in early January, they took Bardia, then Tobruk. Wavell’s desert general, Richard O’Connor, next sent his armor into the unknown desert to cut the Italians’ retreat. Finally, in February, surrounded at Beda Fomm, the dazed Italians surrendered. In eight weeks they had lost 130,000 men, nearly a thousand guns, almost 500 tanks, and immense amounts of trucks, stores, and ammunition. British losses were fewer than 2,000 men, and Libya lay defenseless before them. Wavell sent out troops as far as El Agheila, and asked permission to go all the way to Tripoli; he believed he could wrap up the whole North African campaign in a couple of weeks. He was probably right.

Unhappily, he did not get the chance to prove it. Instead of being allowed to press on, he was told to set up a defensive position and a holding force at Benghazi while most of his troops went off to help bail out the Greeks. He left an armored brigade and an infantry division in Cyrenaica, which he assessed as sufficient to hold the Italians. It would not, in the event, hold the Germans. The Greek diversion would cost Great Britain, and eventually the United States, many months of fighting and many hard knocks.

Though it does not look it on the map, the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic unity, and events in one country influence those in another. The unity is created by the sea, and whoever dominates the waters of the Mediterranean is in a fair way to being master of the adjoining lands. To master the waters meant to master the air over them too, but that problem came later.

In early 1941, it was the Royal Navy who ruled the eastern Mediterranean. In actions off Calabria, at Cape Spartivento, and in the Fleet Air Arm attack at Taranto, they had sent the Italians running. They had constantly fought convoys through to Malta in the face of air and surface attacks by the enemy, and the Mediterranean Fleet enjoyed a comfortable feeling of superiority over the Italian Navy. It was not that the Italians were no good; their training state was high, and their ships were in many cases better than the British. Their problem was the unwillingness of their high command to risk its vessels; ships tend to be expensive prestige items, and navies trying to establish a naval tradition are often reluctant to risk the material, not realizing that the tradition depends less upon the possession of the ships than upon the way they are used—and even the way they are lost. The Italian Navy saved its ships, and lost its soul.

The definitive proof of this came in March of 1941 when a British force, after an all-day chase, sank three Italian cruisers and two destroyers off Cape Matapan in southern Greece. The Royal Navy lost one airplane. The victory came when it was badly needed, for things elsewhere in the theater were not going well at all.

In the fall of 1940, the attention of the Axis leaders focused in the Balkans. As Hitler’s roving eye lit there, so did that of the local dictators. The desirable prize was Rumania, with its wheat and its oil fields, and in September, as the Italians were crossing the Egyptian frontier, Hungary, Russia, and Bulgaria all demanded and took parcels of Rumanian real estate. The next month the Germans arrived and took over the remainder; officially Rumania joined the Axis powers, but in fact she became a German dependency.

None of this pleased Mussolini. Thwarted in the west, he now saw himself upstaged in the east as well. He therefore decided to expand from his Albanian holdings, and he demanded concessions, including air bases, from the Greeks. The Greeks and the Italians had hated each other with Mediterranean intensity for centuries, and the Greek government summarily refused Mussolini’s bid. Late in October, the Italian forces attacked out of Albania, and drove across the frontier into Greece in four columns.

The Greeks fought; moreover, they won. And on top of that, they invited the British to send in R. A. F. units to help them win. Hitler had hoped to gain by diplomacy a secure southern flank for operations against Russia; now, in early November, he had a half-baked little war down there, and as a result of it, he had British bombers on Greek soil, within range of his newly acquired oil fields of Rumania. He was not pleased.

Through the winter of 1940-41, the Greeks slowly pushed the Italians back through the mountains of the Greco-Albanian frontier. The Germans watched with increasing interest, and finally took a hand. In March, they got Bulgaria to join them in the Axis; they put pressure on Yugoslavia to come in too, and they also became more active in the North African theater. They sent Luftwaffe units to Sicily, and they dispatched General Erwin Rommel and the first units of the German Africa Corps to Tripoli.

In the Balkans, the Yugoslav government did not wish to become involved. Its military forces were weak and ill equipped. Under German pressure it caved in, however, and on March 25 agreed to join the Axis and permit transit rights to German troops. The next day there was a military coup d’état, the Prince Regent, Paul, was forced into exile, and the new Yugoslav government decided to sit pat. Hitler blew up, and ordered the Wehrmacht to make immediate plans for the overrunning of Yugoslavia.

The British sent a military mission, and the Greeks proposed that they and Yugoslavia form a common front that would have protected all of Greece but abandoned about two-thirds of Yugoslavia; that had little appeal. The Yugoslavs also applied to Russia for help, but the Russians with problems of their own were unwilling to become embroiled. There remained little for the Yugoslavs to do but sit and wait, and that was what they did.

The German staff planners turned in their usual virtuoso performance. They were in the midst of preparing their Russian operation. Now a rapid shuffle of units and tasks took place, and within ten days, they were set up and ready.

On April 6, the attack opened with the usual Luftwaffe strikes. Bombing Belgrade, the Germans killed about 17,000 civilians and completely disrupted the communications of the Yugoslav Army. German units broke across the frontier on the same day, and within another day or so were in the open. The Yugoslav units that were fully mobilized and equipped fought fiercely but they were few and far between. In many areas, units made up of ethnic minorities, mostly Croats, deserted or mutinied and a rival Croat government set up in Zagreb welcomed the Germans as liberators. The Germans occupied Belgrade on the 12th, and an armistice was signed on the 17th.

Again it looked very impressive. The Germans had about 500 casualties; they captured 330,000 Yugoslavs. They roared on toward Greece without even stopping to clear up their back areas. But many Yugoslavs slipped into the hills and mountains. The national tradition was not for conventional fighting as practiced in western Europe; it was for guerrilla warfare and killing in the dark of the moon.

While the Germans were preparing their move on Yugoslavia, and supplying troops to their new ally Bulgaria, the British were moving ground troops into Greece. Up to this point the Greek government, with an army of half a million men doing well against the Italians, had been reluctant to have British Army units, for fear of unduly antagonizing Hitler. But now they had little choice. The northern Greek frontier was long and thinly fortified. It ran along Albania, where things were proceeding satisfactorily; Yugoslavia, with whom the Greeks were on friendly terms; and Bulgaria, a country which the Greeks hated above all others. The Greeks had fortified the Bulgarian frontier with a belt called the Metaxas Line, and they were not disposed to give this up without a fight. But they were wide open to an attack coming down the Vardar River Valley from Yugoslavia toward Salonika.

The British recognized this, and their commander, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, took his troops north and put together a position known as the Aliakmon Line. This covered the Vardar Valley to his front, but left his flank wide open still to an attack from Yugoslavia through the Monastir Gap. There was little Wilson could do about this, except tell himself that the Germans would be slowed by the Yugoslavs, and when necessary, he would have time to fall back and cover the gap.

That was precisely what did not happen. The Germans operating out of Bulgaria hit the Greeks at the same time they hit the Yugoslavs, and within three days, by April 9, the Metaxas Line was swamped, Salonika was taken, and the German armor was pouring through the Mon astir Gap. The British were pushed off the Aliakmon Line before they ever got dug in; it was the Dyle in Belgium all over again.

Wilson then withdrew to Mount Olympus, but got pushed off that as well. The Germans had air supremacy, and their armor moved through territory supposed to be unsuitable for tank operations. The British had few anti-aircraft guns, and their tank commanders were reduced to parking the tanks on as steep hills as they could manage, hoping in that way to elevate their guns enough to get a shot at German aircraft; the method served more as a vent for frustration than any practical purpose.

As the British columns were harried southward, the Greeks on the Albanian front got cut off. Reluctant to give up the few tangible gains they had so far made, they hung on too long and suddenly found their retreat cut. The western Greek armies surrendered on April 23.

By then the British were back across the Plain of Thessaly and almost to Athens. The Greek commander, General Papagos, told them they had better get out or be forced to surrender, and Wilson’s weary army, its air component outnumbered ten to one, hurried down into Peloponnesus; the Germans dropped paratroops at the isthmus of Corinth, but they cut off only some stragglers.

As usual, it became the navy’s task to rescue the overextended army. Under heavy air attack, the destroyers and cruisers raced into the little southern Greek ports, loaded up, and raced out again. By the end of the month there were no British troops left at large in Greece. The campaign cost them about 12,000 men and substantial amounts of equipment, almost all the casualties coming during the evacuation when ships were sunk and machine-gunned unremittingly by the Luftwaffe.

As a footnote, the British then decided that even if they could not hold Greece, they could hold the island of Crete. Hitler was not too interested in it, but Hermann Goering convinced him that if Crete were taken, Luftwaffe units could break the Royal Navy’s hold on the eastern Mediterranean. Hitler agreed, and the Germans decided to take Crete from the air, the first major independent airborne operation in history. The British left a scratch garrison of about 28,000 men, supported by 14,000 Greeks, under General Bernard Freyberg, the famous commander of the New Zealand Division. Unhappily, the troops were the usual mixed remnants of the earlier disaster on the mainland, and they lacked proper equipment and material.

The Germans opened their attacks on May 20 with paratroops and gliders on the main airfields. The British were ready for them, however, and for thirty-six hours it looked as if they might hold on. Vicious fighting swept back and forth across the key positions, and the Germans were in serious trouble. On the second afternoon they resorted to desperate measures and landed troops by transport on the Maleme airfield in the middle of fighting. It was costly, in both men and aircraft, but it turned the tide, and by nightfall the Germans had an airfield. The Royal Navy broke up attempts to bring troops over from the mainland on captured Greek shipping, but the Germans steadily reinforced by air, and on the 28th, Freyberg decided to evacuate. His haggard soldiers made their way through the mountains to ports on the south coast of the island, and again the navy came in under heavy air attack to pull them off. About 12,000 soldiers were left behind, but 18,000 were rescued. Against the heavy losses Admiral Cunningham reminded his staff that it took three years to build a new ship, three hundred to build a new tradition. It cost the navy heavy damage to two battleships, a carrier, six cruisers, and seven destroyers, and three more cruisers and six destroyers were sunk. Greece was lost, and both the British Army and the Royal Navy so weakened that their hold on the entire Middle East became tenuous indeed.

The decision that Greece had to be helped, and Crete held, was a political one, and the British paid a heavy price for it. Its wisdom has been hotly argued. In the end, Greece was not materially helped, and there are those who claim she would have been better off—or at least no worse off—without the British intervention. In the long run, the Greek campaign showed little more than that the British were willing to come to the aid of an ally; in that it may have demonstrated only the difference between Chamberlain and Churchill. In the end, not only was Greece lost, so was the chance of wrapping up the North African campaign relatively quickly.

In support of the intervention, some have argued that the campaign set back the German timetable for Russia. It is maintained that the Germans had planned to invade Russia by May 15, that because of Greece they had to postpone it until June 21, and that that five weeks at the end of the season allowed Russia to make it through to winter. This would be a satisfying justification for the tragedy of Greece if it were correct; unfortunately, it is not. The May 15 date for the German invasion of Russia was not the planned beginning of the campaign, but rather the operational readiness date. The Germans wanted to be ready by then, and to invade any time after that. To the extent that they were diverted at all from their timetable by the Balkan affair, it was the takeover of Yugoslavia rather than beating the Greeks that cost them time. Further, the real crux of the matter was not what happened in the Balkans, but what happened to the weather in central Europe. Spring was very late in 1941, and the ground was not sufficiently hard for the passage of armor until the third week in June. If anything caused a delay in the German invasion—and thereby saved Russia—it was not Greek or British or even Yugoslav courage, it was Polish mud.

As their campaign in the Balkans reached its sad conclusion, the British were also busy tidying up other areas of the Middle East. Indian, South African, and local troops had finally pulled themselves together sufficiently to take the offensive against the numerically superior but isolated Italian forces in East Africa. It took them about three months of occasionally heavy fighting, and a great deal of chasing around the desolate mountainous country, to run the Italians to earth. Many of the Italian native forces deserted, and by late May East Africa was secure. The Italians lost or surrendered nearly 300,000 troops; British casualties were about 1,200 in battle and 75,000 to local diseases, chiefly dysentery and malaria. Perhaps the prevalence of disease explains why Mussolini’s troops were not that eager to fight for Mussolini’s empire.

There was also the Levant. In April, a pro-German politician named Rashid Ali staged a coup d’état in Iraq. With their oil supply threatened, the British scraped up a few troops, moved in and took over. They then learned that the Germans were being supported by Vichy-French Syria, so in June they invaded that too. They sent along Free French units that had been contributed to the Middle East command by General de Gaulle, in the hope that Frenchmen would not fire on each other. The hope proved tragically wrong, and there were several bitter little fights before the Vichy troops finally capitulated.

None of these small successes was much to lay against the losses of men, equipment, and prestige in Greece. Even worse, that loss soon had to be coupled with a disaster in the Western Desert.

Erwin Rommel has become something of a cult figure among World War II buffs. Whether he deserves to be is a matter of some disagreement, but the status of hero was accorded him by the British fairly early in the war. Much of this arose from the conditions of the war in the African desert. In peculiar ways it was a “pure” war, with both sides facing exactly the same problems of supply and local conditions, and with no civilians around to clutter up the battlefield. The armies went back and forth, back and forth, repetitiously over the same country, until it became familiar, and for all its harshness, almost friendly. It was a private war, fought, though that now seems either absurd or hopelessly romantic, without rancor, and both sides behaved with occasional touches of chivalry that at a later stage of the war would seem unthinkable. When they are not actively killing each other, soldiers have to live like other people, and it was not uncommon for patrols to share each others’ waterholes and even gas or rations once in a while.

The desert war was in many senses a naval war, and that accounts in good measure for its repetitive quality. Equally hostile to both sides, the terrain provided nothing. Everything to sustain life and war had to be brought in from the outside world and then had to be carried forward to the fighting front. The crucial aspect of the campaign was logistics. How far forward could you place your main supply points, and how much of your matériel would you have to devote to supply and sustenance? The main Axis supply port was Tripoli, but they could possibly leapfrog forward to the ports of Benghazi or even Tobruk. To go any farther would bring them under the British air control reaching out from Alexandria, so as they approached the Egyptian frontier their supply line necessarily got longer and in itself consumed more material. The main British port was Alexandria, but they could conceivably jump forward to Tobruk or even Benghazi. To go any farther than that put them under the Axis air umbrella, so as they got out past Benghazi to the Gulf of Sirte and El Agheila, their logistics problem too became insurmountable. The reasonable area for the fighting thus fell in Cyrenaica, roughly between El Agheila at the bottom of the Gulf of Sirte and Sidi Barrani, just past the Egyptian frontier. Depending upon whose supplies were coming in more frequently, the war swung back and forth across Cyrenaica like a pendulum.

When Wavell had been ordered to break off his operations in the Western Desert and go to the aid of Greece, he left only a small force out in Cyrenaica. In March of 1941, Luftwaffe units operating out of Sicily neutralized the port of Benghazi. Meanwhile, Hitler had offered Mussolini two divisions for Africa, commanded by Rommel, who had won laurels in France. Rommel arrived in March with orders to stand strictly on the defensive, and not make trouble for his superiors. Late in the month he launched a heavy raid against the advanced British post at El Agheila; the British fell back. Always one to exploit success, Rommel pushed on. The British fell back again. Early in April he captured Benghazi, and kept on going. Most of the British armored brigade was wiped out, and General O’Connor was captured. By the second week in April, Rommel was all the way to the frontier, regaining everything the Italians had lost the winter before. The British in Egypt, with most of their combat troops in Greece, were thoroughly scared by this turn of events; ironically, so was the German high command, which was distressed to find its field commander so cavalierly disobeying his orders.

The British had managed to build up a perimeter around the Libyan port of Tobruk, and Rommel attacked that on April 10, but was repulsed; gradually strengthened, Tobruk withstood an eight months’ siege and became a perpetual thorn in the Axis’ side. Meanwhile, Wavell was pressed by Churchill to regain the lost ground. In June, the British launched an ill-prepared counteroffensive that broke down with heavy losses. The Germans brought their big anti-tank guns right up alongside their tanks and knocked out the British armor piecemeal. Wavell, forced into the attack by Churchill before he was ready, was relieved of command and sent off to India, replaced by General Sir Claude Auchinleck.

“The Auk,” as he was fondly known to those who served under him, was now given the supplies and reinforcements that Wavell had lacked. Rommel, on the other hand, was starved as the Germans put everything they had into the attempt to finish off Russia before the winter. Late in November the British attacked. They managed to surprise the Germans and Italians, but Rommel got his reserves up quickly and there was hard fighting for two weeks, with small armored columns blundering into each other, before the Germans broke. The chase then went streaming away to the west. Early in December, the long siege of Tobruk was lifted, and by the end of the year, the Axis were all the way back at El Agheila again. It was practically the only bright spot in the whole world that New Year’s Eve. The Germans were deep in Russia, and the Japanese running rampant in Southeast Asia. Rommel immediately began preparing his reply; soon the disasters would be universal.

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