“The first general conclusion from the war in the Mediterranean during World War II is that, once more in history, the importance of the Mediterranean area for Europe’ safety was proved. Hitler with his continental way of thinking disregarded this and when he finally realized its importance it was very late. Mussolini, on the other hand, was well aware of its importance, because since launching the fascist regime he was aiming at dominating the Mediterranean basin. However, when the time came to realize his objective, his erroneous actions and his hesitation carried him away from his aim, until the time of his final destruction.
Just after the fall of France, it was the right time for the Axis to act decisively in the Mediterranean. If Tunis was then seized, the west basin of the Mediterranean would have been cut off from the east and the passage through the Sicily Straits would have become impossible for the British.
To undertake an operation against Gibraltar would have probably become impossible. Hitler however, unaware of history’s teachings, was looking towards Russia and Mussolini was not realizing how he would succeed his so dear dominion of the Mediterranean. Fighting a war parallel to Germany’s he tries to gain immediate personal benefits, without aiming more generally to a successful end of the war, in which he threw his country ill prepared. He undertakes the unsuccessful expedition against Greece and forces his ally to postpone his attack against Russia and come to his help and rescue his armies from being thrown in the sea.
While he is unable to succeed with his operations in the Mediterranean, in order to emphasize the Italian contribution to the war effort of the Axis, he sends submarines to the Atlantic, small naval units to the Black Sea, military to the Russian front, airplanes to the battle of England.
The British on the other hand had never forgotten the importance of the Mediterranean transport route of their Empire and did not hesitate to make any sacrifice in order to secure it. In their efforts they suffered important catastrophes. There came a moment when their naval forces in the Mediterranean had been reduced under any conceivable limit and the large naval base of Malta had become unusable and ready to fall. There was a general impression that before no long they would be chased away from this closed sea, where they were dominating for a century and a half. However, while the enemy did not know how to take advantage of the proper moment, Great Britain –although her position was difficult in all war fronts- did not hesitate to send naval and air reinforcements in the Mediterranean, even at the last moment.
Thus, even during the most critical periods for the British, the Axis never succeeded to secure absolute supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea, until the moment that the balance weighted down definitely in favor of their opponents.
However, in June 1941, after the battle of Crete, when the Axis was dominating almost all of Europe and Great Britain was fighting alone, if the Axis seized the Suez Canal and the Japanese did not commit the insanity of Pearl Harbor that brought the Americans at the side of the British, it is possible that they could have won the war.
The British also run the risk of being expelled from the Mediterranean in the fall of 1942, but then Great Britain was not fighting alone and it is possible that gaining supremacy in the Mediterranean was not sufficient any more to give the victory to the Axis.
In any case, during the whole period till the Italian armistice, the British policy followed a constant line to keep the Mediterranean. It was only during the final stage of the expedition in North Italy and before the landing in the South of France that it appeared hesitating. But the British could not take decide by their own, because they were fighting with the Americans and in all allied wars compromises between the allies are necessary.
The second important lesson from the last war in the Mediterranean is that the Air force has become the other necessary arm of the naval forces, without which they cannot realize their mission. The Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean was always complaining about the shortage of sufficient reconnaissance and fighter planes. The most critical for the British periods are related to the presence of strong German air forces in the Mediterranean. When they decreased, the results became immediately evident. The most important setbacks of the Italian Fleet, on the other hand, are due to the shortage of naval reconnaissance air force and air coverage. The Italians suffered losses, not only when the ships were at sea, but also when they were anchored in their bases, insufficiently protected from the air.
One third of the ships of the Italian Fleet lost until the Italian armistice and one fourth of the British ships sunk in the Mediterranean were lost following air attacks. In these are not included the number of large and small units of the opponent fleets that in many cases were disabled for a long time, because of damages caused by air attacks. The totality of the losses of the Greek surface ships is due to the German air force.
On the other hand, from a total of 1,324 merchant ships of a total displacement of about 2,100,000 tons sunk in the Mediterranean, 37% was lost from air attacks. From the 129 merchant ships under British flag of a total displacement of about 760,000 tons, 60% of the losses are due to the air force. In these numbers are not included the large number of merchant ships of the allies lost in the Mediterranean.
The evolution of the land operations in North Africa has depended on the supply capabilities of the opponents. The British, since the Italians entered the war, were supplying their forces in the Middle East by the route of the Cape of Good Hope. That route was much longer, the supplies were arriving late and required the disposal of a larger number of ships, but the supplies were arriving safely, with minimal losses.
The supply route of the Axis on the other hand was necessarily the Mediterranean and stopping the enemy from using it was then main mission of the British Fleet of the Mediterranean. For the success of that mission, as it was proved by the evolution of the operations, the naval and air base of Malta had a great importance. The enemy had realized that from the first day of the war and was bombing hard the island with his air force. However, he committed the great mistake of not making a last effort to get rid of this danger to his transports by seizing the island the period when this operation was easy.
The British, on the other hand, were unready when they entered the war and had also completely neglected the air defense of Malta. Until June 1941, the fighters in operation on the island were no more than 30, reinforced to more than 80 after July, but with the losses caused by the enemy air force they had been reduced to 20 in March 1942. It was only after June 1942 that reinforcements were exceeding losses.
Except during a period in 1942, Malta during the whole war period was used as a submarine base. The stay at the base of surface ships depended however on the intensity of the enemy air bombings. It is very characteristic that the percentage of the losses of the Axis transports to Libya was a function of the available air and naval attack forces in Malta. During 1941 and 1942, the maximum of losses that reached 62% was registered in November 1941, when there were available in Malta 4 cruisers, 4 destroyers, 14 submarines and 62 bombers. On the other hand, in April 1942, when there were only 4 submarines and 5 bombers, the percentage of enemy transport losses decreased to just 1%.
Equally characteristic is the impact of the sea transport losses of the Axis on the land operations. In the beginning of 1941 the British were advancing in Libya and reached El-Agheila. In the meantime however, with the arrival in Sicily of the German Air force, their attack forces in Malta were reduced and the Axis transported more supplies in Libya. The British Army having detached forces in Greece was forced to retreat close to the Egyptian borders.
Following the destructions that suffered the British Fleet of the Mediterranean during the evacuation of Greece and the battle of Crete, its fighting force had been reduced to a minimum. With the exception of few Greek ships that were saved, it disposed as war ships without damages only 2 battleships, 2 cruisers and 12 destroyers. In October 1941 however, the British Fleet received important reinforcements, the naval and air forces of Malta increased and correspondingly increased the losses of the enemy transports. Thus, the British succeeded to launch a new attack in Libya and reach again El-Agheila. When the German air force that had been sent to the Russian front in June 1941 returned to the Mediterranean, the Axis losses were reduced to a minimum.
The result was that from the beginning of 1942 the British Army was forced to retreat again to Tobruk initially, then to El-Alamein in June 1942.
The change of luck in the war in North Africa and the retrogressive movement of the opponent armies were to continue for one more time, the last.
The British succeeded with very important sacrifices not only to supply Malta, but also to reinforce their forces; the effect on the enemy transports was immediate. Rommel was receiving less and less supplies. He failed to pursue his victorious advance towards the Suez Canal, while the British Army on the other hand, having in the meantime been well supplied and reinforced, launched the final attack in the end of October 1942 and stopped retreating.
It was one of the more characteristic examples of the effect of a naval force to land operations. In addition, the contribution of the artillery of the allied ships was of no lesser importance, especially during the last phase of the war when, in some cases, it even saved the situation.
During the last world war, as in the previous one, the importance of the submarine weapon was well proved in the Mediterranean. 25% of the Italian merchant fleet and 12 of the war ship losses is attributed to the allied submarines, not counting the ships that were damaged by submarine attacks. The corresponding number of losses due to surface ships attacks is only 4% for merchant ships and 19% for war ships. Considerable successes had also the Axis submarines in the Mediterranean, some of them quite impressive, as the sinking of a British battleship and of 2 aircraft carriers.
To both sides the shortage of a sufficient number of escorts became evident. In spite of the experience from previous wars, as a rule, no provision is made in peace time to dispose a sufficient number of ships of that type. Although countries disposing a very large industrial base can during the war period complete the necessary number of escorts and even replace losses, the same is not true with those that lag in industrial capabilities.
It has also, again, been proved that any combatant naval unit, no matter how small or old, can be useful to the war effort.
A wide range of action was possible for the torpedo boats, especially in the Straits and near the shores, as long as there were large enough and had good naval characteristics that would allow them to operate under adverse weather conditions. During the war period, in many cases that they could have executed important missions, they didn’t succeed their mission because of the sea situation.
Very extended minefields had been laid by both sides, especially by the Italians in the Sicily Straits, and there were several losses due to mines. 7% of the losses of the Italian Fleet and 6% of their merchant ships are due to them.”