In This Article World War II in the Mediterranean and Middle East

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The East African Campaign, 1940–1941
  • Greece and Crete, 1941
  • Iraq and Syria, 1941
  • Malta and the Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943
  • The War in the Desert, 1940–1943
  • The Tunisian Campaign, 1942–1943
  • Command and Leadership
  • The Italian Campaign, 1943–1945
  • Intelligence and Deception
  • Literature

Military History World War II in the Mediterranean and Middle East
by
Niall Barr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0117

Introduction

Although often considered to be a “side show” during the Second World War, the campaign in the Mediterranean and Middle East was one of the most complex, interrelated, extensive, and certainly most enduring theatres of that conflict. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, initiated hostilities in the region in June 1940, which did not end until the final surrender of Axis forces in northern Italy on 2 April 1945. Fighting took place over an extensive area, including Italy, Greece and the Balkans, Libya and Egypt, and French North Africa as well as shorter, distinct campaigns in Syria, Iraq, and Ethiopia. As Britain’s major theatre of war from 1940 until 1943, the campaign is given considerable emphasis in British and Commonwealth histories of the war. This includes many controversies concerning Britain’s direction of the wider Dominion war effort, command controversies and changes, and later disagreements with the United States over the relative importance of the theatre. The role and importance of the Italian armed forces in the theatre has often been overshadowed by the more dramatic German interventions into a theatre that Hitler never considered more than a distraction, but, more recently, a number of histories have begun to redress that balance.

General Overviews

There have been many books published on almost every aspect of the Mediterranean war, and, with a campaign of such complexity, it can be difficult to encompass every aspect of the conflict in one volume. However, there are some useful overviews, including D’Este 1990, of which Porch 2004 is without doubt the best. This volume can provide a sure introduction to the complexities and scope of the campaign. While the Mediterranean theatre was vital to British interests, as outlined in Churchill 1948–1954 and Reynolds 2004, and indeed to Italian ambitions as described in Knox 1986, the same was not true for Germany, which is explained in Ansel 1972. Knox 2000 explores why Mussolini’s ambitions were doomed to failure while Terraine 1985 is a useful reminder of the importance of airpower to the entire campaign. Howard 1968 concisely explains why the theatre became the subject of so much controversy between the British and Americans in the later stages of the war.

  • Ansel, Walter. Hitler and the Middle Sea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although somewhat dated, Ansel’s book explains Hitler’s ambivalent relationship with the Mediterranean campaign very well. Hitler never saw the campaign as anything other than a distraction from the real war against the Soviet Union and, in so doing, missed many opportunities to achieve a more decisive result.

  • Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War. 6 vols. London: Cassell, 1948–1954.

    E-mail Citation »

    As Britain’s war leader, Churchill was intimately connected with the Mediterranean theatre. Indeed, Churchill shaped much of the course of the campaign, from Britain’s intervention in Greece in 1941 to the design of Operation Shingle in 1944, and, as such, his six-volume history remains essential reading to understand the interplay of events in the Mediterranean with the wider war.

  • D’Este, Carlo. World War II in the Mediterranean: 1942–1945. New York: Algonquin, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad but useful overview of the entire campaign.

  • Howard, Michael. The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War: The Lees-Knowles Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge 1966. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968.

    E-mail Citation »

    An elegantly argued and concise essay that explores the importance of the theatre through British eyes. Howard then outlines and analyzes the subsequent arguments with the Americans over its importance in Allied strategy.

  • Knox, MacGregor. Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important book which analyses Mussolini’s decision in going to war and the underlying reasons for the disastrous course of the war for the Italian Armed Forces during 1940.

  • Knox, MacGregor. Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940–43. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613487E-mail Citation »

    A well-balanced survey of the role of the Italian armed forces during the war and their complicated relationship with the competing demands of Italian politics.

  • Porch, Douglas. Hitler’s Mediterranean Gamble: The North African and the Mediterranean Campaigns in World War II. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best modern overall account, which covers the entire course of the war in the Mediterranean from Mussolini’s declaration of war to the final surrender of German forces in Italy in 1945. Porch argues that, although the United States did not wish to become entangled in the Mediterranean, the subsequent development of the campaign was an essential precursor for Allied victory.

  • Reynolds, David. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    If Churchill 1948–1954 remains essential reading, then Reynolds’ In Command of History forms a vital commentary and corrective on Churchill’s work.

  • Terraine, John. The Right of the Line. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    Terraine’s narrative draws heavily on the unpublished Royal Air Force draft narratives of the war. As such, it provides one of the best overall accounts of the development of Royal Air Force methods during the desert war and the important air contribution to the battles in the Mediterranean.

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