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World War II Europe: Fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy

The Fighting Moves South


World War II Europe: Fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy

General Bernard Montgomery in North Africa, 1942

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
Previous: The Eastern Front | World War II 101 | Next: The Battle for Western Europe

The War Moves to the Mediterranean

In June 1940, as fighting was winding down in France, the pace of operations quickened in the Mediterranean. The area was vital for Britain, which needed to maintain access to the Suez Canal in order to remain in close contact with the rest of its empire. Following Italy's declaration of war on Britain and France, Italian troops quickly seized British Somaliland in the Horn of Africa and laid siege to the island of Malta. They also began a series of probing attacks from Libya into British-held Egypt.

That fall, British forces went on the offensive against the Italians. On November 12, aircraft flying from HMS Illustrious struck the Italian naval base at Taranto, sinking a battleship and damaging two others. During the attack, the British only lost two aircraft. In North Africa, General Archibald Wavell launched a major attack in December, Operation Compass, which drove the Italians out of Egypt and captured over 100,000 prisoners. The following month, Wavell dispatched troops south and cleared the Italians from the Horn of Africa.

Germany Joins the Fight

Concerned by Italian leader Benito Mussolini's lack of progress in Africa and the Balkans, Adolf Hitler authorized German troops to enter the region to assist their ally in February 1941. Despite a naval victory over the Italians at the Battle of Cape Matapan (March 27-29, 1941), the British position in the region was weakening. With British troops sent north from Africa to aid Greece, Wavell was unable to stop a new German offensive in North Africa and was driven back out of Libya by General Erwin Rommel. By the end of May, both Greece and Crete had also fallen to German forces.

British Pushes in North Africa

On June 15, Wavell sought to regain the momentum in North Africa and launched Operation Battleaxe. Designed to push the German Afrika Korps out of Eastern Cyrenaica and relieve the besieged British troops at Tobruk, the operation was a total failure as Wavell's attacks were broken on the German defenses. Angered by Wavell's lack of success, Prime Minister Winston Churchill removed him and assigned General Claude Auchinleck to command the region. In late November, Auchinleck commenced Operation Crusader which was able to break Rommel's lines and pushed the Germans back to El Agheila, allowing Tobruk to be relieved.

The Battle of the Atlantic: Early Years

As in World War I, Germany initiated a maritime war against Britain using U-boats (submarines) shortly after hostilities began in 1939. Following the sinking of the liner Athenia on September 3, 1939, the Royal Navy implemented a convoy system for merchant shipping. The situation worsened in mid-1940, with the surrender of France. Operating from the French coast, U-boats were able cruise further into the Atlantic, while the Royal Navy was stretched thin due to defending its home waters while also fighting in the Mediterranean. Operating in groups, known as "wolf packs," U-boats began to inflict heavy casualties on British convoys.

To ease the strain on the Royal Navy, Winston Churchill concluded the Destroyers for Bases Agreement with US President Franklin Roosevelt in September 1940. In exchange for fifty old destroyers, Churchill provided the US with ninety-nine year leases on military bases in British territories. This arrangement was further supplemented by the Lend-Lease Program the following March. Under Lend-Lease, the US provided vast amounts of military equipment and supplies to the Allies. In May 1941, British fortunes brightened with the capture of a German Enigma encoding machine. This permitted the British to break the German naval codes which allowed them to steer convoys around the wolf packs. Later that month, the Royal Navy scored a victory when it sank the German battleship Bismarck after a prolonged chase.

The United States Joins the Fight

The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Nazi Germany followed suit and declared war on the United States. In late, December, US and British leaders met in Washington, DC, at the Arcadia Conference, to discuss the overall strategy for defeating the Axis. It was agreed that the Allies' initial focus would be the defeat of Germany as the Nazis presented the greatest threat to Britain and the Soviet Union. While Allied forces were engaged in Europe, a holding action would be conducted against the Japanese.

The Battle of the Atlantic: Later Years

With the US entry into the war, the German U-boats were afforded a wealth of new targets. During the first half of 1942, as the Americans slowly adopted anti-submarine precautions and convoys, the German skippers enjoyed a "happy time" which saw them sink 609 merchant ships at a cost of only 22 U-boats. Over the next year and half, both sides developed new technologies in attempts to gain an edge over their adversary. The tide began to turn in the Allies' favor in the spring of 1943, with the high point coming that May. Known as "Black May" by the Germans, the month saw the Allies sink 25% of the U-boat fleet, while suffering much reduced merchant shipping losses. Using improved anti-submarine tactics and weapons, along with long-range aircraft and mass-produced Liberty cargo ships, the Allies were able win the Battle of the Atlantic and ensure that men and supplies continued to reach Britain.

Previous: The Eastern Front | World War II 101 | Next: The Battle for Western Europe
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