mediterranean snapdragon

Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatres of World War II

The African, Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre of World War II encompasses naval, land and air campaigns between Allied and Axis forces on the Mediterranean Sea and the countries which surround it. The fighting in this theatre lasted from June 10, 1940, when Fascist Italy entered World War Two on the side of Germany, and May 1, 1945 when all Axis forces in Italy surrendered at the end of World War II in Europe. Fighting would however still continue in Greece where British troops had been dispatched to aid Government forces during the Greek Civil War.

North African campaign

On 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on the Allies, the campaign began when Italian and Commonwealth forces began a series of raids on each other. Among the more notable achievements of this were the capture of Fort Capuzzo.

Benito Mussolini, anxious to link Libya with Italian East Africa and to capture the Suez Canal and the Arabian oilfields, ordered the invasion of Egypt on August 8. On 13 September, 1940, Italian forces invaded Egypt from their base in Cyrenaica, Libya. This invasion was repulsed later in the year during Operation Compass.

Initially the Commonwealth forces, under General Archibald Wavell, fought a successful campaign in the desert west of Egypt. While the fighting was taking place in Libya, Axis forces attacked Greece. General Wavell was ordered to halt his advance against the Italian Army in Libya and send troops to Greece. He disagreed with this decision but followed his orders.

The Allies were unable to stop Greece falling to the Axis forces and before they could retake the initiative in the western desert the German Afrika Korps led by Erwin Rommel had entered the theatre. It would not be until early in 1943, after another year and a half of hard fighting and mixed fortunes, that the Axis forces would be finally driven out of Libya and into Tunisia by the British Eighth Army under the command of General Bernard Montgomery, after their decisive victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein.

By that time, the United States ground forces had entered the war and the theatre, beginning with Allied amphibious landings in northwest Africa, on November 8, 1942, codenamed Operation Torch, under the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Though Rommel was now pincered between American and Commonwealth forces during the Tunisia Campaign, he did manage to stall the allies with a series of defensive operations, most notably with the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, but he was flanked, outmanned and outgunned. After shattering the Axis defence on the Mareth Line, the allies managed to squeeze Axis forces until resistance in Africa ended on May 13 1943 with the surrender of nearly 240,000 prisoners of war.

West Africa

During late 1940 Allied forces, mostly made up of British and Free French forces, attacked Vichy French forces in the French overseas territories in West Africa.

The allied force failed at Dakar. Vichy France retained control of French West Africa until November 1942. At Gabon the allied forces succesfully captured Gabon and took control of French Equatorial Africa.

East African campaign

The East African Campaign refers to the battles fought in East Africa during World War II. The battles of this campaign were fought between the forces of the British Empire, the British Commonwealth of Nations, and several allies on one side and the forces of the Italian Empire on the other. This campaign was one of the African Campaigns of World War II.

Naval campaigns

Unlike the Battle of the Atlantic which was a battle for strategic naval domination of the Atlantic Ocean, the Battle of the Mediterranean was predominantly a campaign to secure the Mediterranean Sea for advantages in the land wars which were fought on the land which surrounds it.

The first major actions began immediately after Fascist Italy's entry into the war on June 11, 1940, including the siege of Malta. This was followed by naval engagements, including the Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on July 3, 1940 and the defeat of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) in the Battle of Taranto on November 11, 1940.

Balkans campaign

The Italians attacked Greece from Albania in late 1940. Not only did the Greeks stop the attack, they forced the Italians back, taking a fourth of Albania in the process. Eventually, in the spring of 1941, the Germans and its allies rushed to the aid of the Italians and intervened in the Balkans invading Yugoslavia and Greece.

The Greeks had been reluctant to allow British Commonwealth ground forces into the country, because Britain could not spare enough forces to guarantee victory. They had, however, accepted aid from the RAF in their war with the Italians in Albania. The trigger for Commonwealth forces moving to Greece in large numbers was the entry of German forces into Bulgaria, which made clear the German intent to invade Greece.

The German easily brushed aside British Commonwealth and Greek resistance on the Greek mainland. British Commonwealth forces retreated to the island of Crete, which the Germans attacked by using airborne paratroops to secure an air bridgehead on the island. They flew in more troops and were able to capture the rest of the island. With their victory in the Battle of Crete the Germans had secured their southern flank and turned their attention East.

Italian-controlled seashores

As a consequence of Axis campaigns, Italy occupied, or was granted control of the following Mediterranean shores 1941/1942/1943:


The island of Malta, as it was close to Italy was one of the Italian military's first targets. Initially Britain had thought that Malta was indefensible and bound to be conquered, so no resources were spent on defences in spite of its strategic importance on the sea route from Europe to North Africa: the island's air defences comprised 3 obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes which became known as Faith, Hope and Charity. After the first Axis air attacks it became clear that Malta could be defended, and fighter aeroplanes were hurriedly supplied. The island was heavily bombed by the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) and subjected to a naval blockade. This forced the inhabitants of Malta into strict rationing. By the start of July, the Gladiators had been reinforced by 12 Hawker Hurricanes. The blockade grew tighter, and was soon supported by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). Allied casualties were heavy: for example, of one convoy to Malta from Britain, only two out of 115 ships survived. This happened when the Mediterranean sea was called defiantly by Mussolini "the Italian Mare Nostrum". Britain took advantage of a lull in early 1942 to fly in 61 Supermarine Spitfires, which very much improved the defensive situation, although food, ammunition, and fuel were still critically short.

Gradually, the Allies became able to send in the supplies that Malta needed, although many of the supply ships were damaged too severely to leave again. The result of the successful defence of the island ensured that the Allies had the upper hand in controlling the Mediterranean; in fact, the island served as an excellent point from which British submarines could sink Axis supply ships, leading to the fuel and supply shortages that Rommel had to cope with in North Africa.

Middle East

On 18 April 1941, British and Commonwealth forces launched the Anglo-Iraqi War after an Iraqi coup d'état installed pro-Axis Prime Minister Rashid Ali in power. The Allied forces advanced into Iraq and ultimately captured Basra, Habbaniyah, Fallujah, and Baghdad. By 31 May, Rashid Ali and his followers were forced to flee to Iran and the monarchy of Faisal II, the King of Iraq, and a pro-British government were restored.

In May 1941, a German Air Force (Luftwaffe) aircraft was shot down over Iraq by friendly fire. Since the nearest Axis air base was on the island of Rhodes, it was surmised that the German aircraft had refuelled in the Vichy French-controlled Mandate of Syria or Mandate of Lebanon. This event reinforced longstanding belief among the Allies that the "armed neutrality" of Vichy territories was a facade concealing the use of the Levant by Axis forces.

On 8 June, British, Australian, Free French, Indian, and other Commonwealth units invaded Syria and Lebanon from British Mandate of Palestine and from Iraq to remove the Vichy regime. Vigorous resistance was put up by the Vichy in Syria and Lebanon. However, the Allies weight of numbers eventually told, and when this was combined with an advance on Damascus, the Vichy French surrendered.

On 25 August, British, Commonwealth, and Soviet forces invaded Iran. The purpose of the invasion was to secure Iranian oil fields and ensure supply lines for the armed forces of the Soviet Union fighting against the Axis forces on the Eastern Front.

Dodecanese Campaign

The brief campaign in the Italian-held Dodecanese Islands resulted as both Germany and the Allies scrambled to occupy them after the surrender of Italy in early September 1943. The main island of Rhodes was swiftly secured by German forces, but British garrisons were established on most islands by mid-September. German air superiority, tactical prowess, and the absence of Allied reinforcements doomed the Allied effort, however. German forces, including paratroopers and Brandenburger commandos, launched a counteroffensive, capturing the island of Kos within 2 days in early October. A massive 50-day-long aerial campaign was launched against the island of Leros defended by italian troops commanded by admiral, Mascherpa, who resisted to german air offensive still before the landig of british support troops, which was invaded by the germans who landed by sea and air on November 12 and surrendered four days later. The remaining British garrisons were then evacuated to the Middle East.

Battle of Madagascar

The Battle of Madagascar was the Allied campaign to capture Vichy French-controlled island of Madagascar during World War II. Fighting began on 5 May 1942. Fighting did not cease until 6 November.

Italian campaign

Following the Allied victory in North Africa an Allied invasion (codenamed Operation Husky) of Sicily began on July 10 1943 with both amphibious and airborne landings. The Germans were unable to prevent the Allied capture of the island, but succeeded in evacuating most of their troops to the mainland, the last leaving on August 17 1943.

The Allied invasion of Italy started when British Commonwealth forces landed in the 'toe' of Italy on September 3 1943 in Operation Baytown. The Italian government surrendered on 8 September, but the German forces prepared to defend without their assistance. On 9 September American forces landed at Salerno in Operation Avalanche and additional British forces at Taranto in Operation Slapstick. While the rough terrain prevented fast movement and proved ideal for defence, the Allies continued to push the Germans northwards through the rest of the year.

The German prepared defensive line called the Winter Line (parts of which were called the Gustav Line) proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting the advance. A amphibious assault at Anzio behind the line were intended to break it, but did not have the desired effect. The line was eventually broken by frontal assault at Monte Cassino in the Spring of 1944, and Rome was captured in June.

Following the fall of Rome and the landings in Normandy beyond the Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, the Italian campaign became of secondary importance to both sides. The Gothic Line north of Rome, was not broken until the Spring of 1945.

At the end of 1944, the Italian Front resembled the multi-national force make up of the French Front in 1918. The Allied force there were constitute by: Americans (including segregated African- and Japanese-Americans), British, French, members of the British Commonwealth and French and British colonies (New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Gurkhas, Black Africans, Morrocans, Algerians, Jews and Arabs from the British Mandate in Palestine, South Africans), as well as Brazilians, Poles, Greeks, Czechs and anti-fascist Italians who made one of their main contributions to the Allied war effort.

During 1945, as more and more German forces were diverted to the Eastern Front and north west Europe, the Allies gained ground in the south, eventually penetrating the borders of the Third Reich, in Austria.

On May 1, SS General Karl Wolff, after prolonged and unauthorised negotiations with the Allies, and the Commander-in-Chief of the German 10th Army, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, ordered German armed forces in Italy to cease hostilities and signed a surrender document which stipulated that all German forces in Italy were to surrender unconditionally to the Allies on May 2.

Invasion of southern France

On August 15 1944, in an effort to aid their operations in Normandy, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon — the invasion of Southern France between Toulon and Cannes. The invasion was carried out by the American 6th Army Group commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers. The Allies rapidly broke out of their beachheads and fanned out north and east to join up with the American 12th Army Group which was breaking out of the Normandy beachhead. In early September supreme command of the 6th Army Group moved from AFHQ to SHAEF and the 6th Army Group moved out of the Mediterranean Theatre and into the European Theatre fighting as one of three Allied army groups on the Western Front

Yugoslavian front

In April 1941 Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Bulgarians made quick work of the royal Yugoslav army. They captured the country in 11 days and partitioned it among themselves and newly formed client states of Independent State of Croatia and Nedić's Serbia. A guerilla uprising of communist-led Partisans, commanded by Josip Broz Tito, soon broke out. A more ambivalent, predominantly Serb paramilitary movement of royalist Chetniks both fought the occupying forces and collaborated with them against the communists. The Partisans eventually gained recognition from the Allies as the sole resistance movement. With help from both the Soviets and the Western Allies, they turned into a formidable fighting force and successfully liberated the country.

Immediate post-war conflicts


At the end of World War II, on May 1 1945, the troops of Yugoslav 4th Army together with the Slovene 9th Corpus NLA occupied the town of Trieste. The German Army surrendered to the Allied forces which entered the town the following day. The Yugoslavs had to leave the town some days after.


Allied forces which had been sent to Greece in October 1944 after the German withdrawal became embroiled in conflict with the leftist EAM-ELAS Resistance movement, resulting in clashes in Athens during December of that year, a conflict which set the stage for the Greek Civil War.

Command structures


Middle East Command

main article Middle East Command

Allied Forces Headquarters

main article Allied Forces Headquarters

Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) was created on September 12, 1942 to launch a combined U.S.-British operation against the northern and northwestern coast of Africa. It planned and directed ground, air, and naval operations, and military government activities in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. In February 1943 the authority of AFHQ was extended to include the British 8th Army, commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, which was moving into position for the start of the Tunisia Campaign.

Initially AFHQ was located in London from September until November 1942. It relocated to Algiers in November 1942 and remained there until July 1944. From Algiers it moved to Caserta in Italy until April 1944. Its last relocation was to Leghorn (Livorno), Italy between April 1944 and April 1947.

The initial Supreme Commander Allied (Expeditionary) Force was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Shortly after the establishment of the headquarters, "expeditionary" was deleted from its title for reasons of operational security. Eisenhower then returned to the United Kingdom to assume command of the forces assembling for Operation Overlord. He was succeeded by Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. Wilson's title became Supreme Commander, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. Wilson was in command for just under a year, until he was sent to Washington in December 1944 to replace Field Marshal Sir John Dill of the British Joint Staff Mission who had died suddenly. Wilson was succeeded by Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander who was Supreme Commander and commander of AFHQ until the end of the war. AFHQ was abolished, effective September 17, 1947, by General Order 24, AFHQ, September 16, 1947.

British Mediterranean Naval Command

British Naval Command was split into two. There was an HQ in Gibraltar and Alexandria in Egypt.


main article Army Group E

See also


  • Ready, J.Lee (1985). Forgotten Allies: The European Theatre, Volume I. McFarland & Company.
  • Ready, J.Lee (1985). Forgotten Allies: The Military Contribution of the Colonies, Exiled Governments and Lesser Powers to the Allied Victory in World War II. McFarland & Company.



  • Douglas Porch, 2004, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (ISBN 0-37420-518-3)

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