Mediterranean and Middle East theatre of World War II
The Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre was a major theatre of operations during the Second World War. The vast size of the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre saw interconnected naval, land, and air campaigns fought for control of the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe. The fighting in this theatre lasted from 10 June 1940, when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, until 2 May 1945 when all Axis forces in Italy surrendered. However, fighting would continue in Greece – where British troops had been dispatched to aid the Greek government – during the early stages of the Greek Civil War.
The British referred to this theatre as the Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre (so called due to the location of the fighting and the name of the headquarters that controlled the initial fighting: Middle East Command) while the Americans called the theatre of operations the Mediterranean Theatre of War. The German official history of the fighting is dubbed 'The Mediterranean, South-East Europe, and North Africa 1939–1942'. Regardless of the size of the theatre, the various campaigns were not seen as neatly separated areas of operations but part of one vast theatre of war.
Fascist Italy aimed to carve out a new Roman Empire, while British forces aimed initially to retain the status quo. Italy launched various attacks around the Mediterranean, which were largely unsuccessful. With the introduction of German forces, Yugoslavia and Greece were overrun. Allied and Axis forces engaged in back and forth fighting across North Africa, with Axis interference in the Middle East causing fighting to spread there. With confidence high from early gains, German forces planned elaborate attacks to be launched to capture the Middle East and then to possibly attack the southern border of the Soviet Union. However, following three years of fighting, Axis forces were defeated in North Africa and their interference in the Middle East was halted. Allied forces then commenced an invasion of Southern Europe, resulting in the Italians deposing Mussolini and joining the Allies. A prolonged battle for Italy took place between Allied and German forces, and as the strategic situation changed in southeast Europe, British troops returned to Greece.
The theatre of war, the longest during the Second World War,[nb 2] resulted in the destruction of the Italian Empire and altered the strategic position of Germany resulting in numerous German divisions being deployed to Africa and Italy and total losses (including those captured upon final surrender) being over half a million. Italian losses, in the theatre, amount to around to 177,000 men with a further several hundred thousand captured during the process of the various campaigns. British losses amount to over 300,000 men killed, wounded, or captured, and total American losses in the region amounted to 130,000.
- 1 Background
- 2 Initial fighting
- 3 Axis forces gain the upper hand
- 4 Fighting spreads to the Middle East
- 5 Gibraltar and Malta
- 6 Allied forces gain the upper hand
- 7 Southern Europe
- 8 Immediate post-war conflicts
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
During the late 1920s, imperial expansion became an increasingly favoured theme in Benito Mussolini's speeches. He argued that Italy needed an outlet for its "surplus population", and that it would therefore be in other countries' best interests to aid in this expansion. The aspiration of the regime was "for hegemony in the Mediterranean-Danubian-Balkan region" and the gaining of world power status by the conquest "of an empire stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz". There was imperial designs on Albania, Dalmatia, large parts of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Greece based on the precedent of previous Roman dominance in these regions. The regime also sought to establish protective patron-client relationships with Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Among Mussolini's (not-publicly proclaimed) aims were that Italy had to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean which would be able to challenge France or Britain, as well as attain access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
On 30 November 1938, Mussolini addressed the Fascist Grand Council "on the subject of what he called the immediate goals of 'Fascist dynamism'", these were Albania, Tunisia, Corsica, the Ticino canton of Switzerland, and "French territory east of the River Var (to include Nice, but not Savoy)". Italy's position in the Mediterranean became an increasing vocal concern of Mussolini between 1939 and 1940. Mussolini alleged that Italy required uncontested access to the world's oceans and shipping lanes to ensure its national sovereignty. He elaborated that Italy was a "prisoner in the Mediterranean" and had to break the chains of Britain and France's control. To do so Corsica, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, and Tunisia would need to be taken and Egypt, France, Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom would need to be faced. Through armed conquest Italy's north and east African colonies would be linked, and this 'prison' destroyed. Then, Italy would be able to march "either to the Indian Ocean through the Sudan and Abyssinia, or to the Atlantic by way of French North Africa".
On 2 October 1935, Italian forces invaded Abyssinia. Historian P.M.H. Bell comments that the campaign "was in many ways a nineteenth-century colonial campaign waged out of due time", the main objective being "political" and to demonstrate Italian power. Mussolini lauded the conquest as a new source of raw materials and new location for emigration, and speculated that a native army could be raised there to "help conquer the Sudan. "Almost as soon as the Abyssinian campaign ended, Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War" began. Antony Beevor comments that the intervention in Spain was to gain an ally in Francisco Franco's regime, thus further securing Italian control of the Mediterranean. On 7 April 1939, Italian troops landed in Albania and within two days had occupied the country. In May 1939, Italy formally allied herself with Nazi Germany.
Historian P.M.H. Bell comments that Italian foreign policy, under Mussolini, went through two stages. The first, up until 1934–35, was "modest ... and responsible" and following that date there was "ceaseless activity and aggression" Brian Sullivan notes that "prior to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini had made military agreements with the French and formed a collation with the British and French to prevent German aggression in Europe." The Ethiopian War "exposed vulnerabilities and created opportunities that [Mussolini] seized to realize his imperial vision"
In 1937, the Nyon Conference was held. Both Italy and the United Kingdom "disclaimed any desire to modify or see modified the national sovereignty of any country in the Mediterranean area, and agreed to discourage any activities liable to impair mutual relations." Italian diplomatic and military moves did not reflect this agreement. In the aftermath of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, both British and Italian forces in North Africa were reinforced. Due to various Italian moves, in July 1937 the British decided "that Italy could not now be regarded as a reliable friend" and in consequence preparations began to bring "the defences of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea ports up-to-date". In 1938, a weakened armoured division was established in Egypt and further army and air force reinforcements were dispatched.
With rising tension in Europe, in June 1939, the United Kingdom established Middle East Command in Cairo to provide a centralized command to the various British army units within the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre. However, all three branches of the British military were made equally responsible for the defence of this area. The authority of this army command would stretch to include Aden, British Somaliland, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Greece, Libya, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Tanganyika, Transjordan, Uganda and the shores of the Persian Gulf. If necessary, command would be exerted as far away as the Caucasus and the Indian Ocean. The overall purpose of the command was to be "the western bastion of defence of India", keep British supply lines open to India and the Far East, and keep the Middle Eastern oilfields out of Axis hands. Major-General I.S.O. Playfair comments that "in spite of the distances" the campaigns that were fought did not appear as "neatly separated areas of operations" they were "all one".
Upon establishment of this command, it was ordered to co-ordinate with the French military in the Middle East and Africa as well as liaise with the Turkish General Staff and possibly, at a later date, the Greek General Staff. On 19 October 1939, the Treaty of Mutual Assistance was signed between the United Kingdom, France and Turkey; Following the signing of this treaty, all branches of the British military were authorized to begin discussions with the Turkish general staff, and a further conference was held during March 1940. Within a week of the Italian occupation of Albania, both France and the United Kingdom "announced they had promised to give all the help in their power if Greek and Rumanian independence were threatened and if the Greek or Rumanian Government considered it vital to resist."
Initially, British forces in the Middle East were ordered to maintain the status quo, and all moves should be non-provocative. Following the defeat of Poland, the threat of an Axis attack from the Balkans against British positions in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region became a serious possibility. In late 1939, with the assumption that the United Kingdom would soon be at war with Italy, planning began for attacks to capture Bardia and Jaghbub, both inside Libya. In addition preparation began, within Egypt, to be able receive reinforcements. Preparations to reinforce the Iraqi Army were made, and the Palestinian security forces were to be dwindled down to the minimum requirements. Likewise, British forces in East Africa were tasked with reviewing operations for the purpose of destroying and dispersing Italian forces and support local risings, all in support of the main Allied offensive, which was planned to be launched from French Somaliland. Troops in Sudan, were also asked to consider launching operations against Kufra in southern Libya.
On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on France and the United Kingdom. The following day the British Commonwealth declared war on Italy. The fleets of Italy, France, and the United Kingdom entered the Mediterranean initiating the Battle of the Mediterranean. The siege of Malta soon began, first coming under Italian air attack on 11 June. Likewise, in the Western Desert, hostilities began in earnest. Royal Air Force aircraft attacked Italian positions inside Libya On 11 June, the Western Desert Campaign began, as the British Army launched minor raids and conducted patrols along the Libyan-Egyptian border. The most notable achievement came on 17 June, when the Italian Fort Capuzzo was captured. On 20 June, Italian forces invaded southern France, just prior to the conclusion of the larger Battle of France. During June, Italian attacks were mounted in East Africa, although ground combat did not start until July.
On 22 June, France signed an armistice with Germany. Two days later, on 24 June, France signed an armistice with Italy. The armistice granted Italy a 50 kilometres (31 miles) demilitarized zone inside France (as well as similar zones where Italian and French colonies met). Following the armistice, Italian forces occupied 832 km2 (321 sq mi) area of France, which included 28,500 people and the town of Menton. As a result of the French surrender, the British Royal Navy attacked the French navy at Mers-el-Kebir on 3 July 1940 after it refused to sail to Britain or the French West Indies and demobilise, as part of a larger plan to stop the French fleet from falling into German or Italian hands.
When Italy entered the war, there was no plans for an invasion of Egypt while France was still able to resist. When France surrendered, Mussolini gave instructions for his generals to prepare an offensive. On 10 August, he instructed his forces to be prepared to attack in conjunction with the German invasion of the United Kingdom. While his generals did not believe they were prepared, they were ordered to push forward without any solid objectives. On 9 September, Italian aircraft start preparation bombardments for the upcoming invasion of Egypt. Four days later, Italian infantry attacked. Italian troops advanced as far as Sidi Barrani before digging in, 80 mi (130 km) west of the main British position at Mersa Matruh. In East Africa, after some initial offensive actions, Italian forces from Ethiopia invaded British Somaliland in August and annexed the colony. After crossing the Albanian border, Italian forces and invaded Greece on 28 October. The Greek military were able to repulse the Italian attack, and commenced a counter-offensive on 14 November which pushed Italian forces back into Albania.
During late 1940, the British struck back. The Royal Navy inflicted a major setback upon the Italian Royal Navy during the Battle of Taranto on the night of 12/13 November. After assembling enough forces the British launched a counterattack upon the Italians in Egypt. Operation Compass drove the Italians out of Egypt and resulted in the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army in February 1941. Following this success, British forces adopted a defensive position in North Africa and redeployed most troops to Greece, leaving a weakened force garrisoning the gains made from Operation Compass. In March, the Battle of Kufra ended with the Italians losing the desert oasis of Kufra – a vital link between Italian east and north Africa – in south-eastern Libya.
Axis forces gain the upper hand
In North Africa, the Italians responded to the defeat of their Tenth Army by dispatching armour and motorized divisions. Germany dispatched the Afrika Korps to bolster the Italians with a mission to block further Allied attempts to drive the Italians out of the region. However, its commanding officer – Erwin Rommel – seized on the weakness of his opponents and, without waiting for his forces to fully assemble, rapidly went on the offensive. In March–April 1941, he destroyed the British forces facing him and forced the British and Commonwealth forces into retreat. The Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of Tobruk, and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 mi (160 km) east to Sollum on the Libyan–Egyptian border. With Tobruk under siege from the main German-Italian force, a small German force continued to press eastward retaking all territory lost to Operation Compass, and advanced into Egypt. By the end of April, Sollum had fallen, and the important Halfaya Pass captured.
In the Balkans, 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 Royal Air Force in their war with the Italians in Albania. However, as it became likely Germany would attack Greece, four British divisions were switched from North Africa to reinforce Greek Army. The advanced guards of these troops began arriving in March 1941, triggering the entry of German forces into Bulgaria, which made clear the German intent to invade Greece.
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: Independent State of Croatia and Nedić's Serbia. A complex 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.
Beginning on 6 April, in the ensuing invasion of Greece the Germans had been temporarily held at the border by the Greek defenders, yet after moving through southeastern Yugoslavia they had been able to turn the Allied flank, cutting off Greek units in the east of the country. Greek forces in central Macedonia were subsequently isolated from the British Commonwealth forces moving up in an attempt stabilise the front, with the Germans then falling on the rear of the main Greek army facing the Italians in Macedonia. The Greeks were subsequently forced to capitulate, ending resistance on the mainland by the end of the month. Forced to abandon most of its equipment, British Commonwealth force then retreated to the island of Crete. From 20 May the Germans attacked the island by using paratroops to secure an air bridgehead despite suffering heavy casualties. They then flew in more troops and were able to capture the rest of the island by 1 June. With their victory in the Battle of Crete the Germans had secured their southern flank and turned their attention towards the Soviet Union.
In East Africa, the British launched a counter-attack against the Italians from Kenya in February 1941. Landings were subsequently conducted in British Somaliland and Eritrea, while an expedition from the Sudan moved on Addis Ababa. The Italian Viceroy was forced to surrender by 18 May which effectively ended the campaign, allowing the Empire of Ethiopia to be re-established under Haile Selassie. A number of Italian garrisons continued to hold out, but the last of these, at Gondar, surrendered in November.
Fighting spreads to the Middle East
When Italy entered the war the Iraqi government did not break off diplomatic relations, as they had done with Germany. Thus the Italian Legation in Baghdad became the chief centre for Axis propaganda and for fomenting anti-British feeling. In this they were aided by Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti had fled from Palestine shortly before the outbreak of war and later received asylum in Baghdad. In January 1941, there was a political crisis within Iraq and the threat of civil war was looming. Rashid Ali resigned as Prime Minister of Iraq and was replaced by Taha al-Hashimi. On 31 March, the Regent of Iraq, Prince 'Abd al-Ilah, learnt of a plot to arrest him and he fled Baghdad for RAF Habbaniya. From Habbaniya he was flown to Basra and given refuge on the gunboat HMS Cockchafer.
On 1 April, Rashid Ali, along with four top level Army and Air Force officers; known as the "Golden Square," seized power via a coup d'état and Rashid Ali proclaimed himself Chief of the "National Defence Government." The Golden Square deposed Prime Minister Taha al-Hashimi and Rashid Ali once again became Prime Minister of Iraq. Rashid Ali did not move to overthrow the monarchy and named a new Regent to King Faisal II, Sherif Sharaf. The leaders of the "National Defence Government" proceeded to arrest many pro-British citizens and politicians. However, a good number of those sought managed to escape by various means through Amman in Transjordan. The immediate plans of Iraq's new leaders were to refuse further concessions to the United Kingdom, to retain diplomatic links with Fascist Italy, and to expel most prominent pro-British politicians from the country. The plotters of the coup considered the United Kingdom to be weak and believed that its government would negotiate with their new government regardless of its legality. On 17 April, Rashid Ali, on behalf of the "National Defence Government," asked Germany for military assistance in the event of war with the British. Ultimately, Rashid Ali attempted to restrict British rights guaranteed under Article 5 of the 1930 treaty when he insisted that newly arrived British troops be quickly transported through Iraq and to Palestine.
During the time leading up to the coup d’etat, Rashid Ali’s supporters had been informed that Germany was willing to recognise the independence of Iraq from the British Empire. There had also been discussions on war material being sent to support the Iraqis and other Arab factions in fighting the British. On 3 May, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop persuaded German dictator Adolf Hitler to secretly return Dr. Fritz Grobba to Iraq to head up a diplomatic mission to channel support to the Rashid Ali regime. The British quickly learned of the German arrangements through intercepted Italian diplomatic transmissions. On 6 May, in accordance with the Paris Protocols, Germany concluded a deal with the Vichy French government to release war materials, including aircraft, from sealed stockpiles in Syria and transport them to the Iraqis. The French also agreed to allow passage of other weapons and material as well as loaning several airbases in northern Syria, to Germany, for the transport of German aircraft to Iraq. Between 9 May and the end of the month, about one-hundred German and about twenty Italian aircraft landed on Syrian airfields.
On 30 April the Iraqi Army surrounded and besieged the isolated and poorly defended Royal Air Force base at Habbaniya. Although the base had no offensive aircraft, RAF personnel converted training aircraft to carry weapons, and a reinforcing battalion of infantry had been flown in. German and Italian air craft supported the Iraqi army, however British reinforcements were dispatched to Iraq from Transjordan and India. The larger but poorly trained Iraqi force was defeated and Baghdad and Mosul captured. Ali and his supporters fled the country and an armistice was signed, restoring the monarchy of Faisal II, the King of Iraq, and a pro-British government. The defeat of the Iraqi rebels saw the defeat of the German-Italian attempt to entrench an Axis state in Iraq and also resulted in the deterioration of relations between the UK and Vichy France, culminating in the Syria-Lebanon Campaign.
In Operation Exporter, Australian, Free French, British and Indian units invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine in the south on 8 June 1941. Vigorous resistance was put up by the Vichy French. However, the Allies' better training and equipment, as well as the weight of numbers eventually told against the Axis. Further attacks were launched at the end of June and early July from Iraq into northern and central Syria by troops from Iraqforce. By 8 July the whole of northeast Syria had been captured and elements of Iraqforce advancing up the river Euphrates were threatening Aleppo and as a consequence the rear of the Vichy French forces defending Beirut from the advance from the south. Negotiations for an armistice were started on 11 July and surrender terms signed on 14 July.
The Soviet Union desperately needed supplies for its war against Germany. Supplies were being sent round the North Cape convoy route to Murmansk and Archangel, but the capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy action. Supplies were also sent from America to Vladivostok in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more capacity was needed, the obvious answer was to go through Iran. The Shah of Iran was deemed as pro-German and he would not allow this free access. Consequently British and Soviet forces invaded and in August 1941 occupied Iran in Operation Countenance. The Shah was deposed and his son put on the throne. The Iranian oil fields were secured and the line of supply to Russia established.
Gibraltar and Malta
Gibraltar was a British fortress since the early 18th century and played a vital role in British military strategy. In addition to its commanding position, Gibraltar provided a strongly defended harbour from which ships could operate in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Force H, under the command of Vice-Admiral James Somerville was based in Gibraltar and had the task of maintaining naval superiority and providing a strong escort for convoys to and from the besieged island of Malta.
The island of Malta, as it was close to Italy, was one of the first targets of the Italian military. Initially, many Britons thought that Malta was indefensible and bound to be conquered. As a result, little to no resources were allocated to defences in spite of its strategic importance on the sea route from Europe to North Africa: the island's air defences comprised an estimated six obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes. 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 resulting in heavy Allied casualties. During this period, the Mussolini defiantly called the Mediterranean Sea "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.
Allied forces gain the upper hand
During 1941, the British launched several offensives to push back the Axis forces in North Africa. The first, Operation Battleaxe, was a failure. The second, much larger offensive, Operation Crusader was launched at the end of the year. Over December 1941 into early 1942, Allied forces pushed the Italian-German forces back through Libya to roughly the limit of the previous Operation Compass advance. Taking advantage of the Allied position, German forces struck back and pushed the Allied to Gazala – west of Tobruk. As both sides prepared for future offensives, the Axis forces struck first and inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Allied forces during the Battle of Gazala. The routed Allied forced retreated to Egypt where they commenced to make a stand at El Alamein.
Following the First Battle of El Alamein, which had stalled the Axis advance into Egypt, British forces went onto the offensive in October. The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign and turned the tide in the North African Campaign. It ended the Axis threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal, and of gaining access to the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields via North Africa. As the Eighth Army pushed west across the desert, capturing Libya, German forces occupied southern France and landed in Tunisia. On 8 November, Allied forces launched Operation Torch landing in various places across French North Africa. In December 1942, after a 101-day British blockade, French Somaliland fell to the Allies.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the United States of America joined the war. It was not until 8 November 1942 when American forces entered combat in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The American Official campaign historian George Howe comments that the arrival of American forces "transformed the Mediterranean from a British to an Allied theatre of war" and "succeeding operations in the Mediterranean area proved far more extensive than intended. One undertaking was to lead to the next". The series of books detailing the American war effort in this theatre is dubbed 'The Mediterranean Theatre of Operations' and Howe also uses the term 'The Mediterranean Theatre of War'. While the American effort is provided a different name, Howe notes how American forces were entering into a theatre of war that had already been waging since 1940.[nb 3]
All allied forces were now placed under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander AFHQ Mediterranean, which at the present was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although the Italian and German forces, no longer led by an ailing Rommel but by Italian general Giovanni Messe, were now pincered between the Allied armies during the Tunisia Campaign, they did manage to stall the Allies with a series of defensive operations, most notably with the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, but they were out-flanked, out-manned and out-gunned. Messe achieved a defensive victory at the Mareth Line. But his continuous tactical delay of the Allied offensive could not prevent the inevitable defeat of the Axis in North Africa. After shattering the Axis defence on the Mareth Line, the Allies squeezed Axis forces into a pocket around Tunis and resistance in Africa ended on 13 May 1943 with the surrender of nearly 240,000 prisoners of war.[nb 4]
Following the Allied victory in North Africa an Allied invasion (codenamed Operation Husky) of Sicily began on 10 July 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 and equipment to the mainland prior to the Allies entering Messina on 17 August. San Marino supported the Axis Powers by sending 1,500 troops to defend Sicily. Meanwhile, on 25 July the Italian government deposed Mussolini, who was subsequently arrested. The new government announced that it would continue the war, but secretly commenced negotiations with the Allies.
The Allied invasion of Italy started when British Commonwealth forces landed in the 'toe' of Italy on 3 September 1943 in Operation Baytown. The Italian government signed the surrender the same day, believing they would be given time to make preparations against the anticipated German intervention. However, the Allies subsequently announced the armistice just five days later on 8 September, and German forces subsequently implemented plans to occupy and defend Italian peninsula without their assistance. On 9 September American forces landed at Salerno in Operation Avalanche and additional British forces at Taranto in Operation Slapstick. German forces which had escaped from Sicily were concentrated against Avalanche, while additional forces were brought in to occupy Rome and deal with the Italian Army in central and northern Italy.
The Germans were unable to prevent the Italian fleet sailing to Malta, although the battleship Roma was sunk by the Luftwaffe on 9 September. In the occupied areas of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, German forces rapidly disarmed and captured Italian troops, putting down any resistance they offered in Yugoslavia, Southern France and Greece. Meanwhile, on 16 September, a German airborne force led by Otto Skorzeny rescued Mussolini from the mountain resort in the Gran Sasso where he was being held. A puppet government headed by Mussolini was subsequently set up in northern Italy as the successor state to the former fascist government.
As the campaign in Italy continued 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. An amphibious assault at Anzio behind the line was 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, the landings in Normandy and 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.
From 1944 to the end of war the Italian Front was made up of a multi-national Allied force, this force consisted of Americans (including segregated African and Japanese-Americans), Brazilians, British, Canadians, Czechs, French, Greeks, anti-fascist Italians, New Zealanders, Poles, South Africans and Rhodesians as well as members of the British and French empires (including Algerians, Gurkhas, Indians, Moroccans and multi-ethnic forces from the British Mandate in Palestine.
On 1 May, 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 2 May.
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 two 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 the German air offensive before the landing of British support troops, which was invaded by the Germans who landed by sea and air on 12 November and surrendered four days later. The remaining British garrisons were then evacuated to the Middle East.
Invasion of southern France
On 15 August 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 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.
Immediate post-war conflicts
At the end of World War II in Europe, on 1 May 1945, troops of the 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.
- North African Campaign timeline
- List of World War II Battles
- Mediterranean U-boat Campaign (World War II)
- Military history of Gibraltar during World War II
- 8 June – 14 July 1941 (Syria–Lebanon Campaign), and 8–11 November 1942 (operation Torch and Case Anton). Vichy officially pursued a policy of armed neutrality and conducted military actions against armed incursions from Axis and Allied belligerents. The cease fire and pledging of allegiance of the Vichy troops in French North Africa to the Allies during Torch convinced the Axis that Vichy could not be trusted to continue this policy, so they invaded and occupied the French rump state.
- While the fighting around the Mediterranean formed the longest fought over theatre of war during the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic was longer being fought from 1939 to 1945 and formed the war's longest continuous military campaign.
- Howe makes the following comments on the continuation of the theatre from being a British theatre of war to an Allied theatre of war. "After liberating French North Africa and clearing the enemy from the Italian colonies, the Allies sought to bring the entire French empire effectively into the war against the Axis powers. They reopened the Mediterranean route to the Middle East. They went on from Africa to liberate Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. They caused Mussolini to topple from power, and they brought his successors to surrender. They drew more and more German military resources into a stubborn defence of the Italian peninsula, and helped the Yugoslavs to pin down within their spirited country thousands of Axis troops. Eventually, the Allies delivered a solid blow from southern France against the German forces which were opposing the Allied drive from the beaches of Normandy! They made Marseilles available for Allied use and they occupied northern Italy and Greece." Howe further notes that "Hitler had always accepted the principle that the Mediterranean was an area of paramount Italian interest just as, farther north, German interests were exclusive." He then proceeds to briefly describe the campaigns already fought by the British, Italians, and Germans, with the exception of the fighting in Iran.
- See: Tunisia Campaign info. box for more details on the number of Axis prisoners taken, the competing claims and the ones named as the most accurate.
- Playfair (1956), p. xxv
- Blair 1996, p xiii
- Woodman 2004, p 1
- Smith, p. 170
- Martel, p. 184, 198
- Bideleux and Jeffries, p. 467
- Bell, p. 72
- Salerno, pp. 105–106
- Bell, pp. 72–73
- Mallet, p. 9
- Playfair (1954), p. 21
- Bell, p. 70
- Beevor (2006). pp. 135–6.
- Playfair (1954), p. 24
- Weinberg, p. 73
- Bell, p. 76
- Martel, pp. 178, 198
- Playfair (1954), p. 7
- Playfair (1954), p. 8
- Fraser, pp. 18–19
- Playfair (1954), p. 12
- Playfair (1954), pp. 31–32, 459
- Playfair (1954), p. 33
- Playfair (1954), pp. 31, 457
- Bilgin, p.74
- Fraser, p. 114
- Playfair (1954), p. xxii
- Playfair (1954), p. 458
- Playfair (1954), p. 51
- Playfair, p. 53
- Playfair (1954), pp. 24–25
- Playfair (1954), p. 41
- Playfair, pp. 48–49
- Playfair (1954), p. 54
- Playfair (1954) p. 53
- Playfair (1954), p. 100
- Playfair (1954), p. 109
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- Weinberg, p. 217.
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- Fage, Crowder & Oliver, p. 461.
- Playfair (1956), p. 177
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- Playfair (1956), p. 178
- Lyman, p. 12
- Lyman, p. 13
- Lyman, p. 16
- Lyman, p. 31
- Lyman, p. 63
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