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Mediterranean theatre in WW2

Benito Mussolini had risen to lead Italy in 1922 by promising to restore its ancient power and prestige. He planned that, while Britain concentrated on defending itself against Hitler’s attempted invasion, Italy would conquer its colonies in the Mediterranean, which Mussolini called mare nostrum ("our sea"), beginning a new Roman Empire. Thus, the war in the Mediterranean theatre took place on the deserts of North Africa, the waters of the Mediterranean and the hills of Italy, and involved both Italy and Germany.

When Germany invaded Romania in 1940 without informing Italy, Mussolini felt that Hitler was trying to keep south-eastern Europe for himself and invaded Greece on October 28, 1940, to protect Italian interests. But Italy lacked supplies and organization, and the action soon became a humiliating failure. Hitler was forced to come to the rescue with a full-scale invasion, delaying the invasion of Russia and using vital troops and supplies. From mainland Greece, Germany captured Crete with the largest airborne attack to date: more than 10,000 paratroops and 750 glider troops. A subsequent German attack on the island of Malta was not successful, however, allowing the British air bases there to continue to attack shipping and other naval activities in the Mediterranean for the remainder of the war.

Hitler also came to Italy’s aid against the British in North Africa, sending tank divisions led by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (sometimes known as the "Desert Fox") in February 1941. For two years, the adversaries fought on desert sand that shifted almost as much as the fortunes of the armies. It was especially difficult for the air forces--the heat made crews ill, sand destroyed engines, and metal became too hot to touch. The theatre was nicknamed the "Battle of Airfields" because the strength of each army was connected with its air force’s access to airfields. The air power of an advancing army diminished as it had to use an unprepared airfield while that of a retreating army increased as it fell back onto a prepared one. And when the winter rains arrived, the most forward armies lost their advantage, as unprepared airfields became mud pits.

On November 8, 1942, while the Afrika Korps was retreating westward from Egypt, the Allies invaded French West Africa in Operation TORCH.

The air forces were overtaxed because they were given too many different missions: ground support, navy support, defence of supply routes, and attacking enemy supply routes. The loss of men and equipment was high. The Luftwaffe pulled air groups out of the Russian campaign to help--a costly mistake. And the Royal Air Force had planes, but many could not fly due to maintenance problems. Its special Maintenance Group was created and assigned to maintain, repair, salvage, and store the airplanes. This allowed the RAF to keep more planes flying, and after several months, to maintain air superiority for most of the rest of the campaign.

Despite the RAF’s air superiority, Rommel and his ground troops were able to continue advancing across Africa. But the entrance of the Americans into the war started to change the equation. They began to arrive during the summer of 1942, primarily one small unit, the 57th Fighter Group flying Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, which assisted with the push into Libya. But President Franklin Roosevelt, eager to see his military fight the Germans en masse, ignored his generals’ advice and planned a massive North African invasion--Operation Torch. On November 8, 1942, U.S. troops, with some British support, landed in Morocco. Although they progressed rapidly, they were impeded by inter-Allied rivalries. During a meeting in Casablanca in January 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Roosevelt were forced to organize the Mediterranean Air Command, with RAF Air Chief Marshall Arthur W. Tedder in command. British and American officers were interleaved down the command structure, forcing international cooperation.

During the winter of 1943-1944, in a project code-named "Ultra," the Allies broke the Germans’ secret operational code. They could now detect exactly when supplies were arriving and by which route, and could attack the convoys. But they had to allow many to pass, careful that the Germans not suspect their "luck" and suspect the code was broken. Not until March 1943 were the air forces allowed to attack all convoys, closing down Axis shipping completely.

On May 13, 1943, Tunisia fell and the Allies took 250,000 prisoners, most German. And more importantly, they now controlled airfields that airplanes could use to reach Italy. Reconnaissance units began photographing Sicily to make photomaps for invasion troops. And General Jimmy Doolittle and the Strategic Air Force (SAF) started bombing. The SAF was able to inflict enough damage to reach the critical point where German losses surpassed their replacement rate. In Sicily, the Luftwaffe rapidly began to retreat. Reports claimed that German pilots were afraid to attack the massed machine guns of the tight American bomber formations. On hearing this, an incensed Hermann Goering demanded that one pilot from each group be chosen randomly and court-martialled for cowardice.

A Fleet Air Arm Martlet fighter from HMS Formidable patrols over the veteran battleship HMS Warspite off Sicily.

The invasion of Sicily began on July 9, 1943, with the 82nd Airborne’s first mission. However, a storm that night scattered many airborne units, making rallying difficult. And the next morning, the navy arrived with ships of seasick amphibious troops. The invasion was marked by friendly fire (firing on your own men), uncoordinated air support, lost troops, and miscommunications. Yet by mid-August, the island fell, and 10,000 German and Italian troops fled over the Straits of Messina, untouched.

B-24s over Ploesti, with bombs bursting on the target.

On July 19 the SAF flew the first bombing mission to Rome. The targets were two marshalling yards, and careful planning ensured that no cultural or religious sites were hit. Pamphlets were dropped ahead of time warning citizens to stay away. The raid was a success. A week later, Mussolini was overthrown and Italy’s new leaders asked the Vatican to begin inquiries regarding surrender.

Before invading mainland Italy, the SAF was sent on the deadliest mission of the war to the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, which supplied 35 percent of the oil used by Germany. To slip under the German air defences, 176 B-24s bombers flew into Romania at a low altitude, making them easy targets for anti-aircraft guns. Seventy-three airplanes were lost, and 500 airmen were killed or injured. Five Medals of Honour were awarded, the most for any single engagement during the war. But the raid had no effect. The next summer, 20 missions were flown to Ploesti until no oil refineries or anything else were left. The Allied toll for the target was high--300 bombers, 200 fighters and over 1,000 airmen were killed.

Italy's surrender was announced on September 8, 1943.

On September 8,1943, the same day that Italy’s surrender was announced, Allied troops landed in Italy at Salerno and Bari. But the Germans were still there, waiting for the troops. The air forces worked hard to provide the Allied troops with air cover, while bombing strategic sites. C-47s brought more paratroopers and P-51s helped direct naval bombardments. But the ground troops were stuck at the Gustav line, a heavily fortified and defended line across southern Italy, and a miserable stalemate lasted through the winter. To break it, a second landing was planned right above the Gustav line at Anzio on January 22, 1944. There, the Allies found Germans holding the high ground. It was decided to starve the Germans out of the hills by bombing the supply routes. By spring, the average German unit was reduced to 1,500 rounds of ammunition a day, versus the 25,000 of their U.S. counterparts. But, because they were unable to retreat after their fuel supply was cut off, all the Germans could do was stay and fight to the death.

The U.S. 15th Air Force in Italy was formed to operate strategic bombing campaigns around Europe, such as at Romanian transportation hubs, French harbours, Italian airfields and cities, and German factories. Although less celebrated than its counterparts in England, the 15th flew longer missions on average and aided in the final victory equally.

After the Allies broke through the Gustav line in May 1944, the Germans formed another defensive line along the southern edge of the Po River Valley which they called the Gothic Line. But they were feeling the effects of Operation Strangle, an attempt by the 15th to deprive the enemy of food, weapons, or anything useful. In addition to the old targets, Allied fighter-bombers now joined the action, strafing workers repairing the bombing damage. By the time the Allies fought their way to the Gothic Line in 1945, only one final assault was needed. On April 14, the combined pressure of ground and air attacks sent the Germans running, leaving their equipment behind. The Allies had defeated Italy. On May 2, Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended.