Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatres of World War II

Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatres of World War II
Mediterranean and African theatres of World War II
Part of World War II

A map showing the territories of, and held by, Allied (dark green) and Axis (orange) forces at the outbreak of hostilities in the Mediterranean. (Neutral countries are in grey, and countries that were Allies at later stages of the war are in lime green.)
Date 10 June 1940 – 1 May 1945
Location Balkans, Italy, Middle East, East Africa, North Africa, West Africa
Result Allied victory.

 United Kingdom (1939-45)
 Soviet Union (1941-45)
 United States (1942-45)
 Brazil (1942-45)
 Italy (1943-45)

Exileds and Partisans by order of entrance in war:
Poland Poland
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
 Free French
 Greece (1940-45)
Democratic Federal Yugoslavia Yugoslavia (1941-45)
Albania (1944-45)

British empire/commonwealth:
Canada Canada
 British India
Australia Australia
 New Zealand
 South Africa

Jewish partisans:
Jewish Brigade insignia.gif Jewish Brigade
Star of David.svg Special Night Squads

Axis powers:

 Italy (1940-43)
 Italian Social Republic (1943-45)
 Iraq (1941)
Iran Iran (1941)
Azerbaijan Azerbaijani Legion
Flag of Jihad.svg Chechen–Ingush rebels
Russia Russian Liberation Army
Spain Spanish Legion
Blue division.svg Blue Division
Placeholder 4-3 blue.svg Blue Legion
Hungary Hungary (1940-44)
 Croatia [1]
Slovakia Slovakia
 Bulgaria (1940-44)
 Romania (1940-44)
Albania Albania under Italy (1940-43)
Albania under Germany (1943-44)
France Vichy France (1940-42)

Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom George VI

United Kingdom Winston Churchill
United Kingdom Harold Alexander
United Kingdom Claude Auchinleck
United Kingdom Archibald Wavell
United Kingdom Henry Maitland Wilson
Soviet Union Joseph Stalin
Soviet Union Dmitri T. Kozlov
United States Dwight D. Eisenhower
Brazil Getúlio Vargas
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Pietro Badoglio
Ethiopian Empire Haile Selassie

Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš
Free French Forces Charles de Gaulle
Free French Forces Pierre Koenig
Free French Forces Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
Kingdom of Greece Alexander Papagos (POW)
Democratic Federal Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito
Enver Hoxha

Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946)Italian Social Republic Benito Mussolini  

Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Pietro Badoglio
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Ugo Cavallero  
Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
Kingdom of Iraq Rashid Ali
Iran Reza Pahlavi
Arab Revolt flag.svg Amin al-Husseini
Kingdom of Hungary (1920–1946) Miklós Horthy
Independent State of Croatia Ante Pavelić
Independent State of Croatia Dido Kvaternik
Slovakia Jozef Tiso
Kingdom of Bulgaria Boris III †
Kingdom of Bulgaria Simeon II
France François Darlan  
France Henri Dentz (POW)

The African, Mediterranean and Middle East theatres encompassed the naval, land, and air campaigns fought between the Allied and Axis forces in the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and Africa. The fighting in this theatre lasted from 10 June 1940, when Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany, until 2 May 1945 when all Axis forces in Italy surrendered at the end of World War II in Europe. Fighting would, however, continue in Greece, where British troops had been dispatched to aid government forces during the early stages of the Greek Civil War.


North Africa

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 these raids was the capture of Fort Capuzzo by elements of the British Army by 17 June.

Benito Mussolini was anxious to link Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI) with Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI). He also wanted to capture Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Arabian oilfields. Early in July, Italian forces in AOI crossed the Sudanese border and forced the small British garrison holding the railway junction at Kassala to withdraw. The Italians also seized the small British fort at Gallabat, just over the border from Metemma, some 200 miles (320 km) to the south of Kassala. Even the villages of Ghezzan, Kurmuk and Dumbode on the Blue Nile were conquered. However, lacking fuel, the Italians decided to venture no further in the Sudan and they proceeded to fortify Kassala with anti-tank defences, machine-gun posts, and strong-points. Ultimately, the Italians established a brigade-strong garrison at Kassala.

On August 8, Mussolini ordered the Italian forces in Italian North Africa to invade Egypt. On 13 September 1940, Italian forces crossed into Egypt from their base in Cyrenaica, Libya. The Italian invasion only made it as far as Sidi Barrani and accomplished little. Within the year, British and Commonwealth forces under General Archibald Wavell launched Operation Compass. By February 1941, this operation had resulted in the defeat of the Italian Tenth Army and the taking back of all of the Italian gains in Egypt and almost all of Cyrenaica. In March, the Battle of Kufra ended with the Italians losing the desert oasis of Kufra in south-eastern Libya. Kufra represented a vital link between ASI and AOI.

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.

Maximum area of Italian control in the Mediterranean theatre in summer/fall 1942. The area controlled by Italian forces is outlined in green. The area controlled by British forces is outlined in red.

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 north-west Africa, on November 8, 1942, codenamed Operation Torch, under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander AFHQ Mediterranean.

Though 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 flanked, outmanned and outgunned. 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 managed to squeeze Axis forces until resistance in Africa ended on May 13, 1943 with the surrender of nearly 240,000 prisoners of war.[2]

West Africa

During late 1940, Allied forces consisting primarily of British and Free French forces attacked Vichy France 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 successfully captured Gabon and took control of French Equatorial Africa.

East Africa

The East African Campaign refers to the battles fought in East Africa from June 1940 between the forces of the British Empire, the British Commonwealth of Nations, several British allies, and Ethiopian patriots on one side and the forces of the Italian Empire on the other. The Italian forces in Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI) were isolated and re-supply was impossible. After some initial offensive actions and the successful invasion of British Somaliland, the Italians were forced onto the defensive. The British launched an offensive early in 1941 and had forced the surrender of the Italian Viceroy by 18 May which effectively ended the campaign allowing the Empire of Ethiopia to be re-established. A number of Italian garrisons continued to hold out but the last of these, at Gondar, surrendered in November.

The Battle of Madagascar was the Allied campaign to capture Vichy French-controlled Madagascar. The campaign began on 5 May 1942, and fighting did not cease until 6 November.

In December 1942, after a 101-day British blockade, French Somaliland fell to the Allies.


Iraq had been officially granted independence by the United Kingdom in 1932, under a number of conditions, including the retention of British military bases. This caused resentment within Iraq and a pro-Axis prime minister, Rashid Ali, assumed control.

India Command sent a divisional sized force which started to arrive in Basra on April 18.

There were two main British military bases in Iraq, at Basra and at Habbaniya, north east of Baghdad. On April 30 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. Middle East Command also later sent a relieving force from Trans-Jordan. By the time its forward elements reached Habbaniya the larger but poorly-trained Iraqi force had already been defeated even though the Iraqis received direct aid from the German Air Force Luftwaffe. The combined force pressed on to capture Baghdad and then Mosul. 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.

Syria and Lebanon

A German Air Force (Luftwaffe) aircraft was shot down over Iraq during the advance on Baghdad. Since the nearest Axis bases were on Rhodes, the Allies surmised that the plane had refueled in Vichy French controlled Syria or Lebanon. This confirmed suspicions among the Allies regarding the "armed neutrality" of Vichy territories.

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. 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 north east 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 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.

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 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.


The Balkans Campaign was the Axis Powers' invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia during World War II. It began with Italy's invasion of Greece on 28 October 1940 and ended with the capture of Crete by German and Italian forces on 1 June 1941.


In late 1940, the Italians attacked Greece from Albania during the Greco-Italian War. 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 their 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 Germans 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.


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.

Italian-controlled seashores

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

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 British thought that Malta was indefensible and bound to be conquered. As a result, little to 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 an estimated 6 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 (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.

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 the German air offensive before the landing 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.

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. San Marino supported the Axis Powers by sending 1,500 troops to defend Sicily.

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.

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 as well as members of the British and French empires (including Algerians, Gurkhas, Indians, Morrocans and multi ethnic forces from the British Mandate in Palestine.[4][5]

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 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, on May 1, 1945, the troops of Yugoslav 4th Army together with the Slovene 9th Corpus NLA[disambiguation needed ] 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

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 had advanced from El Alamein in Egypt through Libya and was moving to the Tunisian border to join 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 1945. Its last relocation was to Leghorn (Livorno), Italy between April 1945 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.


See also


  1. ^ Beevor, Stalingrad. Penguin 2001 ISBN 0-14-100131-3 p183
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Ready, J.Lee, "Forgotten Allies: The European Theatre, Volume I
  5. ^ Ready, J.Lee, "Forgotten Allies: The Military Contribution of the Colonies, Exiled Governments and Lesser Powers to the Allied Victory in World War II"


  • 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)
  • Ready, J. Lee (1985). Forgotten Allies: The European Theatre, Volume I. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0899501291. 
  • 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. ISBN 978-0899501178. 

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