Battle of the Mediterranean

Battle of the Mediterranean

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Mediterranean

caption=Mediterranean Sea
partof=World War II
date= 10 June 19402 May 1945
place=Mediterranean Sea
result=Allied victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Australia Australia
flagicon|United States|1912 United States
flagicon|Netherlands Netherlands
flagicon|Kingdom of Yugoslavia Yugoslavia
combatant2=flagicon|Italy|1861-state Italy
flagicon|Nazi Germany|naval Germany
flagicon|Croatia|1941 Croatia
flagicon|France Vichy France

For the most part, the Battle of the Mediterranean was waged between the forces of the Italian Royal Navy ("Regia Marina") and the forces of the British Royal Navy during World War II. The Italians were supported by other Axis naval forces. The British were supported by other Allied naval forces.

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.

Outside of the Pacific, the Mediterranean saw the largest conventional naval warfare during the war. In particular, Allied forces struggled to supply and retain the key naval and air base of Malta.

The British Mediterranean Fleet

The Mediterranean was a traditional focus of British maritime power. The Mediterranean Fleet was Britain's instrument of this maritime power. Out-numbered by the forces of Italian Royal Navy, the British plan was to hold the three decisive strategic points of Gibraltar, Malta, and the Suez Canal. By holding these points, the British 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. [Mollo, p.128]

The Italian Royal Fleet

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw the control of the Mediterranean as an essential prerequisite for exanding 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"). [Mollo, p.94]

The warships of the Italian Royal Navy ("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. 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 Italian Navy also lacked a proper fleet air arm. The Italian 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"). [Mollo, p.94]

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 tons. Tobruk added only another 18,000 tons. Bardia and other smaller ports added little more. [Walker, p.58]

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 tons 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. [Walker, p.58]

The 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. [Mollo, p.55]

Italy's declaration of war

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 French Navy shelled some towns on the coast of Italy. When France surrendered on 24 June, the Axis leaders permitted the new Vichy French regime to retain its naval forces.

The Vichy French Fleet

After France fell to the Germans in 1940, the French Navy in the Mediterranean was considered a potentially grave threat to the British Royal Navy, so it was imperative for them that this threat was 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, Admiral René-Emile Godfroy and Admiral Andrew Cunningham, were on good personal terms. British terms -- an ultimatum -- to place the bulk of the French Fleet, at Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa, out of German reach were refused. So the fleet was largely destroyed by bombardment on 3 July 1940 by the British "Force H" from Gibraltar (Admiral James Somerville). The Vichy French government broke off all ties with the British as a result. See Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.

As part of the occupation of Vichy France in 1942 (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.

Battle of Taranto

"Main article: 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 November 11 1940, the Royal Navy crippled or destroyed three Italian battleships in the Battle of Taranto. This decisive Allied victory forced the Italian fleet to Italian ports further north so as to be out of range of attack by carrier-based aircraft. This reduced the threat of Italian sallies to attacking Malta bound convoys.

The Battle of Matapan

"Main article: 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 March 27 to March 29, 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 ships.

Decisive factors were the use of Ultra intercepts and the lack of radar on the Italian ships.


"Main article: Battle of Crete"

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 Ju-87 and Ju-88, destroyed several British warships: two cruisers (HMS "Gloucester, Fiji") and six destroyers ("Kelly, Greyhound, Kashmir, Hereward, Imperial, Juno"). Seven other ships were damaged, including the battleships HMS "Warspite" and "Valiant" and the cruiser HMS "Orion". Close to two thousand British sailors died.

It was a significant victory for the German Air Force ("Luftwaffe"), as it proved that the Royal Navy could not be expected to operate in waters where the Germans 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 Royal Navy would never face such a strong air threat again. It did, however, extend Axis reach into the eastern Mediterranean, and extend the threat to Allied convoys.

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". The Battle of Crete, although a defeat, took a fearful toll of Hitler's elite paratroops. 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."


"Main articles: Siege of Malta (1940) & Malta Convoys"

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 Hurricane and 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.

Other actions

There were a series of surface actions (eg, Battle of Punta Stilo, Battle of Cape Spada, Battle of Cape Spartivento, Battle of Cape Bon) between Allied navies and the Regia Marina, during which the British, able to replace losses with warships redeployed from other theatres, gained the upper hand.

The Italian Navy's most successful attack was when divers planted mines on British battleships in Alexandria harbour (19 December 1941). HMS "Queen Elizabeth" and "Valiant" were sunk but later raised and returned to active service.

Italian armistice

On 25 July 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism ousted Mussolini. A new Italian government, led by King Victor Emmanuel III and General Pietro Badoglio, took over in Italy. The new Italian government 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 Italian Navy 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.

Major Axis and Allied amphibious operations

The following are the major amphibious operations staged during the Battle of the Mediterranean:
* 20 May 1941, start of the Battle of Crete, the Axis invasion of Crete.
* 8 November 1942, start of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria.
* 9 July 1943, start of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.
* 3 September 1943, start of the Allied invasion of Italy.
* 8 September 1943, start of the Dodecanese Campaign, the failed Allied attempt to invade the Dodecanese Islands.
* 9 September 1943, start of the Allied Salerno landings in Italy.
* 22 January 1944, start of Operation Shingle, the Allied landings at Anzio in Italy.
* 15 August 1944, start of Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France.

ee also

* 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
* Force H
* Force K



*cite book| last = Mollo| first = Andrew| title = The Armed Forces of World War II| publisher =Crown| date = 1981| location = New York: ISBN 0-517-54479-4
*cite book|first=Ian W. | last=Walker| title=Iron hulls, iron hearts : Mussolini's elite armoured divisions in North Africa| publisher=Crowood| date=2003| location=Marlborough| | isbn=9781861266460

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