Battle of the Mediterranean
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|Battle of Mediterranean|
|Part of Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre of the Second World War|
| United Kingdom
| Kingdom of Italy
Italian Social Republic
For the most part, the campaign was fought between the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina), supported by other Axis naval and air forces, and the British Royal Navy, supported by other Allied naval forces, such as Australia, Netherlands, Poland and Greece. U.S. naval and air units joined the Allied side in 1942.
Each side had three overall goals in this battle. The first was to attack the supply lines of the other side. The second was to keep open the supply lines to their own armies in North Africa. The third was to destroy the ability of the opposing navy to wage war at sea.
Main protagonists 
British Mediterranean Fleet 
The Mediterranean was a traditional focus of British maritime power. Out-numbered by the forces of Regia Marina, the British plan was to hold the three decisive strategic points of Gibraltar, Malta, and the Suez Canal. By holding these points, the Mediterranean Fleet held open vital supply routes. Malta was the lynch-pin of the whole system. It provided a needed stop for Allied convoys and a base from which to attack the Axis supply routes.
Italian Royal Fleet 
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw the control of the Mediterranean as an essential prerequisite for expanding his "New Roman Empire" into Nice, Corsica, Tunis, and the Balkans. Italian naval building accelerated during his tenure. Mussolini described the Mediterranean Sea as "Our Sea" (Mare Nostrum).
The warships of the Regia Marina (Regia Marina) had a general reputation as well-designed. Italian small attack craft lived up to expectations and were responsible for many brave and successful actions in the Mediterranean. But some Italian cruiser classes were rather deficient in armour and all Italian warships lacked radar, although the lack of radar was partly offset by the fact that Italian warships were equipped with good rangefinder and fire-control systems for daylight combat. In addition, whereas Allied commanders at sea had discretion on how to act, the actions of Italian commanders were closely and precisely governed by Italian Naval Headquarters (Supermarina).
The Regia Marina also lacked a proper fleet air arm. The aircraft carrier Aquila was never completed and most air support during the Battle of the Mediterranean was supplied by the land-based Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica). Another major handicap for the Italians was the shortage of fuel. As early as March 1941, the overall scarcity of fuel oil was critical. Coal, gasoline and lubricants were also locally hard to find. During the Italian war effort, 75% of all the fuel oil available was used by destroyers and torpedo boats in escorting missions.
However, the real problem for the Axis forces in North Africa was the limited capacity of the Libyan ports. Even under the best conditions, this limited supplies. Tripoli was the largest port in Libya and it could accommodate a maximum of five large cargo vessels or four troop transports. On a monthly basis, Tripoli had an unloading capacity of 45,000 short tons (41,000 t). Tobruk added only another 18,000 short tons (16,000 t). Bardia and other smaller ports added little more.
In general, the Axis forces in North Africa exceeded the capacity of the ports to supply them. It has been calculated that the average Axis division required 10,000 short tons (9,100 t) of supplies per month. If the Italians had a fault in respect of logistics during the Battle of the Mediterranean, it was that they failed to increase the capacity of Tripoli and the other ports before the war.
French Fleet 
In January 1937, France began a program of modernization and expansion. This soon elevated the French Fleet to fourth-largest in the world. However, the French Navy (formally the "National Navy" - Marine Nationale) was still considerably smaller than the navy of its ally, Britain.
By agreement with the British Admiralty, the strongest concentration of French vessels was in the Mediterranean. Here, the Italian Fleet posed a threat to the vitally important French sea routes from metropolitan France to North Africa and to the British sea routes between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.
Vichy French Fleet 
In 1940, after France fell to the Germans, the Marine Nationale in the Mediterranean became the navy of the Vichy French government. As the Vichy French Navy, this force was considered a potentially grave threat to the British Royal Navy. As such, it was imperative to the British that this threat be neutralised.
As the opening phase of Operation Catapult, the French squadron at Alexandria in Egypt was dealt with via negotiations. This proved possible primarily because the two commanders—Admirals René-Emile Godfroy and Andrew Cunningham—were on good personal terms. In contrast, a British ultimatum to place the bulk of the remainder of the French fleet out of German reach was refused. The fleet was located at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria and on 3 July 1940 it was largely destroyed by bombardment by the British "Force H" from Gibraltar (Admiral James Somerville). The Vichy French government broke off all ties with the British as a result of this attack and the Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l'Air de Vichy) even raided British installations at Gibraltar.
In June–July 1941, a small Vichy French naval force was involved during "Operation Exporter". This was an Allied operation launched against Vichy French forces based in Lebanon and Syria. French naval vessels had to be driven off before the Litani River could be crossed.
In 1942, as part of the occupation of Vichy France during "Case Anton", the Germans intended to capture the French fleet at Toulon. This was thwarted by determined action by French commanders and the bulk of the fleet was scuttled at anchor.
The Mediterranean U-boat Campaign lasted approximately from 21 September 1941-May 1944 during World War II. The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) aimed at isolating Gibraltar, Malta, and the Suez Canal so as to break Britain's trade route. More than 60 U-boats were sent to disrupt shipping in the sea, though many were already attacked at the Strait of Gibraltar controlled by Britain (of which nine were sunk while attempting passage and ten more were damaged). The Luftwaffe played also a key role in the battle, especially during 1941. The German war strategy, however, viewed the Mediterranean as a secondary theatre of operations.
First actions 
On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. On the following day, Italian bombers attacked Malta on what was to be the first of many raids. During this time, the Marine Nationale shelled a number of targets on the northwestern coast of Italy, in particular the port of Genoa. When France surrendered on 24 June, the Axis leaders allowed the new Vichy French regime to retain its naval forces.
The first clash between the rival fleets—the Battle of Calabria—took place on 9 July, just four weeks after the start of hostilities. This was inconclusive, and was followed by a series of small surface actions during the summer, among them battle of the Espero convoy and the battle of Cape Spada. In November, the British mounted an aerial attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto harbor, crippling three capital ships and changing the balance of power in the Mediterranean.
Battle of Taranto 
To reduce the threat posed by the Italian fleet based in the port of Taranto to convoys sailing to Malta, Admiral Cunningham organised an attack code-named Operation Judgement. Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet while it was still at anchor. This was the first time in history that an attack such as this had been attempted. It was a great success and on 11 November, the Royal Navy aircraft severely damaged two Italian battleships in the Battle of Taranto and sank a third, putting half of the regia Marina's major ships out of action for several months. This attack also forced the Italian fleet to Italian ports further north so as to be out of range of carrier-based aircraft. This reduced the threat of Italian sallies to attacking Malta-bound convoys. As early as 27 November, however, the Italian fleet was able to confront the Mediterranean fleet again at the indecisive battle of Spartivento.
Battle of Cape Matapan 
The Battle of Cape Matapan was a decisive Allied victory, fought off the coast of the Peloponnese in southern Greece from 27–29 March 1941 in which British Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy forces—under the command of the British Admiral Andrew Cunningham—intercepted those of the Italian Regia Marina under Admiral Angelo Iachino.
The Allies sank the heavy cruisers Fiume, Zara and Pola and the destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Giosue Carducci, and damaged the battleship Vittorio Veneto. The British lost one torpedo plane and suffered light damage to some cruisers from Vittorio Veneto's salvoes.
The decisive factors in the Allied victory were the use of Ultra intercepts and the lack of radar on the Italian ships.
The effort to prevent German troops from reaching Crete by sea, and later the evacuation of Allied land forces after their defeat by German paratroops in the Battle of Crete during May 1941, cost the Allied navies a number of ships. Attacks by German planes, mainly Junkers Ju 87s and Ju 88s, sank eight British warships: two light cruisers (HMS Gloucester and Fiji) and six destroyers (HMS Kelly, Greyhound, Kashmir, Hereward, Imperial, and Juno). Seven other ships were damaged, including the battleships HMS Warspite and Valiant and the light cruiser Orion. Nearly 2,000 British sailors died.
It was a significant victory for the Luftwaffe, as it proved that the Royal Navy could not operate in waters where the Luftwaffe had air supremacy without suffering severe losses. In the end, however, this had little strategic meaning, since the attention of the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) was directed to Russia (Operation Barbarossa) a few weeks later, and the Mediterranean was to play a secondary role in German war planning in the following years. The action did, however, extend Axis reach into the eastern Mediterranean, and extend the threat to Allied convoys.
Two attempts were carried out to transport German troops by sea in caïques, but both of them were aborted by the Royal Navy intervention. The tiny Italian naval escorts, however, managed to save most of the vessels. Eventually, the Italians landed a force of their own near Sitia on 28 May, when the Allied withdrawal was already ongoing.
During the evacuation, Cunningham was determined that the "Navy must not let the Army down". When army generals stated their fears that he would lose too many ships, Cunningham said that "It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition". Despite advance warning through Ultra intercepts, the Battle of Crete resulted in a decisive defeat for the Allies, The invasion took a fearful toll of the German paratroops, who were dropped without their major weapons, which were dropped separately in containers. So heavy were the losses that General Kurt Student, who commanded the German invasion, would later say;
"Crete was the grave of the German parachutists.", referring to the German decision not to use parachutists in any future invasion attempts.
Malta's position between Sicily and North Africa was perfect to interdict Axis supply convoys destined for North Africa. It could thus influence the campaign in North Africa and support Allied actions against Italy. The Axis recognised this and made great efforts to neutralise it as a British base, either by air attacks or by starving it of its own supplies.
For a time during the Siege of Malta, it looked as if Malta would be starved into submission by the use of Axis aircraft and warships based in Sicily, Sardinia, Crete and North Africa. A number of Allied convoys were decimated. The turning point in the siege came in August 1942, when the British sent a very heavily defended convoy codenamed Pedestal. Malta's air defence was repeatedly reinforced by Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters flown off to the island by HMS Furious and other Allied aircraft carriers. The situation eased as Axis forces were forced away from their North African bases and eventually Malta could be resupplied and become an offensive base again.
The British re-established a credible air garrison and offensive naval base on the island. With the aid of Ultra, Malta's garrison was able to disrupt Axis supplies to North Africa immediately before the Second Battle of El Alamein. For the fortitude and courage of the Maltese during the siege, Malta was awarded the George Cross.
Later actions 
Following the battle of Crete in the summer of 1941, the Royal Navy regained its ascendancy in the central Mediterranean in a series of successful convoy attacks, (Duisburg convoy, Cap Bon) until the events surrounding the First Battle of Sirte and the Raid on Alexandria in December swung the balance of power in the Axis favor.
The Regia Marina's most successful attack was when divers attached limpet mines on the hulls of British battleships during the Raid on Alexandria (19 December 1941). HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant were sunk in berth, but later raised and returned to active service.
A series of hard fought convoy battles (Second Battle of Sirte in March, Operations Harpoon and Vigorous in June, and Operation Pedestal in August) ensured Malta's survival, until the Allies regained the advantage in November 1942.
In September 1943, with the Italian collapse and the surrender of Italian fleet, naval actions in Mediterranean became restricted to actions against U-boats and by small craft in the Adriatic and Aegean seas.
Italian armistice 
On 25 July 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism ousted Mussolini. A new Italian government, led by King Victor Emmanuel III and Marshal Pietro Badoglio, immediately began secret negotiations with the Allies to end the fighting and to come over to the Allied side. On 3 September, a secret armistice was signed with the Allies at Fairfield Camp in Sicily. The armistice was announced on 8 September.
After the armistice, the Italian Navy was split in two. In southern Italy, the "Co-Belligerent Navy of the South" (Marina Cobelligerante del Sud) fought on for the King and Badoglio. In the north, a much smaller portion of the Regia Marina joined the Republican National Navy (Marina Nazionale Repubblicana) of Mussolini's new Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI) and fought on for the Germans.
- 28 June, Battle of the Espero Convoy. Italian convoy attacked, destroyer Espero sunk, other two destroyers outran the British fleet and reached Benghazi. Conversely, two British convoys from Malta were delayed as result of the battle.
- 9 July, Battle of Calabria. Encounter between fleet forces escorting large convoys. Inconclusive results.
- 19 July, Battle of Cape Spada. Cruiser action, Bartolomeo Colleoni sunk by HMAS Sydney.
- 12 October, Battle of Cape Passero. One destroyer and two Italian torpedo boats sunk, cruiser HMS Ajax seriously damaged.
- 11 November, Battle of Taranto. Aerial attack on Italian fleet in harbor, three battleships sunk in shallow waters, one of them disabled for the rest of the war.
- 27 November, Battle of Cape Spartivento. Inconclusive fleet action.
- 6–11 January, Operation Excess. British convoy to Malta. Italian torpedo boat Vega sunk, British destroyer HMS Gallant permanently disabled after hitting a mine.
- 26 March, Action of Suda Bay. British cruiser HMS York sunk by explosive motor boats launched from Italian destroyers.
- 27–29 March, Battle of Cape Matapan. Fleet action. After an inconclusive engagement near the island of Gavdos, the regia Marina lost three cruisers and two destroyers during the night.
- 16 April, Battle of the Tarigo Convoy. Italian convoy attacked and destroyed. Two Italian destroyers lost along with the British HMS Mohawk.
- 20 May–1 June, Battle of Crete. Series of actions supporting army in Crete, nine British warships sunk by Axis air attacks.
- July, Operation Substance. British convoy to Malta. British destroyer HMS Fearless lost to air attack.
- September, Operation Halberd. British convoy to Malta. The transport ship Imperial Star was sunk by an Italian aerial torpedo.
- 8 November, Battle of the Duisburg Convoy. Axis convoy destroyed. Italian destroyer Fulmine also lost.
- 13 December, Battle of Cape Bon. Italian convoy attacked, Italian light cruisers Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto da Giussano sunk.
- 17 December, First Battle of Sirte. Indecisive clash between the escorting forces of two convoys.
- 19 December, Raid on Alexandria. Manned torpedoes attack British fleet, two battleships sunk in harbour, raised and repaired several months later.
- 22 March, Second Battle of Sirte. British convoy and escort attacked by the Italian fleet, managed to slip away, but all its four cargo ships are sunk during subsequent Axis air strikes.
- 15 June, Operation Harpoon. British convoy resupplying Malta attacked by Italian cruisers and aircraft, four merchants and destroyers HMS Bedouin and ORP Kujawiak sunk.
- 15 June, Operation Vigorous. British convoy attacked, drove back by the Italian fleet.
- 15 August, Operation Pedestal. British convoy resupplying Malta attacked, nine merchantmen sunk by Axis E-boats, aircraft and submarines but vital supplies including oil are delivered
- November, Operation Stone Age. British convoy reaches Malta undisturbed.
- 2 December, Battle of Skerki Bank. Italian convoy attacked and destroyed.
- 11 December, Raid on Algiers. Manned torpedoes attack Allied shipping, two steamers sunk.
- 16 April, Battle of the Cigno Convoy. Failed British attack by two destroyers on Italian transport, Italian escprt Cigno sunk, British destroyer Pakenham scuttled.
Major Axis and Allied amphibious operations 
- 25 February, Operation Abstention, Allied assault and occupation of Kastelorizo thwarted by Italian forces.
- 20 May, start of the Battle of Crete, the Axis invasion of Crete.
- 14 September, Operation Agreement, Allied assault on Tobruk repulsed by Axis forces.
- 8 November, start of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria.
- 9 July, start of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.
- 3 September, Operation Avalanche, start of the Allied invasion of Italy.
- 8 September, start of the Dodecanese Campaign, the failed Allied attempt to invade the Dodecanese Islands.
- 9 September, start of the Allied Salerno landings in Italy.
- 22 January, start of Operation Shingle, the Allied landings at Anzio in Italy.
- 5 August, start of Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France.
See also 
- Force H
- Force K
- Mediterranean U-boat Campaign (World War II)
- Military history of Italy during World War II
- Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II
- Mollo, p.128
- Mollo, p.94
- Blitzer, p. 151
- Sadkovich, pp. 286-287
- Walker, p.58
- Mollo, p.55
- Sadkovich, p. 77
- Blitzer, Wolf; Garibaldi, Luciano (2001). Century of War. Friedman/Fairfax Publishers. New York. ISBN 1-58663-342-2
- Mollo, Andrew (1981). The Armed Forces of World War II. New York: Crown. ISBN 0-517-54478-4.
- Sadkovich, James (1994). The Italian Navy in World War II. Greenwood Press, Westport. ISBN 0-313-28797-X
- Walker, Ian W. (2003). Iron hulls, iron hearts: Mussolini's elite armoured divisions in North Africa. Marlborough: Crowood. ISBN 978-1-86126-646-0.