The Mediterranean Campaign was the war at sea that involved the Allied and Axis navies in the Mediterranean before the defeat of Italy in 1943. The two primary navies of this campaign were Britain’s Royal Navy and the Italian Regia Marina. However, the German and American navies also provided additional naval support to their allies.

June to November 11, 1940

The Mediterranean Campaign began in June as the first naval action emerged during this month. However, in July Britain was preoccupied with taking out French warships that Vichy France might have handed over to the Axis. As such, the Royal Navy destroyed French battleships and other warships.

Naval skirmishes in this period largely involved convoys and their escort groups. However, on November 11 a devastating British aircraft sortie with Swordfish torpedo bombers puts three Italian battleships out of action at the Battle of Taranto. After the battle, the Italians had to withdraw much of their fleet to ports out of range of British aircraft carriers.

March 29, 1941

One of the largest battles in the Mediterranean emerged off the coast of Cape Matapan. It was here that the Italian and British fleets met after the British moved to defend their troop convoys from the Italian warships. During the Battle of Cape Matapan, the British sank three Italian cruisers and a couple of destroyers. It was a decisive victory for the Royal Navy, and one which went some way to winning them the Battle of the Mediterranean.

Battle of Cape MatapanCredit: The image is licensed under public domain.

May 1941

The Battle of Crete was a battle in the Mediterranean in 1941. Crete was an ideal base for naval and airborne operations, and so it became a target for the German army in 1941. The battle involved thousands of German and British and Commonwealth troops, and thanks to their paratroopers Crete fell to Germany.[1]

The battle began on May 20. The German army dropped thousands of paratroopers from the skies that landed at Máleme, Rétimo, Heráklion and Canea. However, during the landings the Germans lost lots of soldiers, but nonetheless they had landed as planned at Canea and Máleme.

The Germans sent all their remaining paratroopers to Maleme. Maleme had a vital airstrip which if taken could provide the Germans with a notable advantage. By May 21 the Nazis had taken the airfield at Maleme. With Maleme airfield the Germans could now land planes at Crete providing further reinforcements and supplies.

The loss of the Maleme airfield was a blow to the British, and from May 22 to 24 U.K. and Commonwealth troops attempted to retake the airfield. However, they lacked air support and this ensured that the Germans could still fly in reinforcements and supplies to their armies on the ground. As further German reinforcements arrived in Maleme the 5th Brigade withdrew.

With the airfield held the Germans had a degree of air superiority at Crete. As such, they began to advance and strike at British lines. By the 25th the Germans had broken through and Galatas fell after the New Zealanders troops stationed there were defeated.

By May 26 the Nazis had seemingly won the Battle of Crete. British and Commonwealth troops were fragmenting across Crete as the Germans steadily advanced. With the Luftwaffe dominant in the air they could not expect to receive further re-enforcements.

With the battle lost the withdrawal of remaining British and Commonwealth troops began on the 27th. From May 27, and the last remaining days of the month, Britain evacuated thousands of troops from Crete. However, the Royal Navy could not evacuate all the soldiers and some were also left to surrender.

The loss of Crete was a notable defeat for Britain that undermined their operations in the Mediterranean. However, the Germans had also lost thousands of paratroopers during the battle, which was more the Wehrmacht forecasted before the battle. Nonetheless, the Nazis had still reached their objectives and gained more air and naval bases in the Mediterranean. At the very least, their victory at Crete had assured the RAF could not bomb the Reich's oil supplies in Romania.

November 13 to December 13, 1941

During these months there were further set backs for the Royal Navy. Among them was the loss of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier in November. On December 19 Italian manned torpedoes also sank two British battleships in the port of Alexandria. Such set backs left the Battle of the Mediterranean in the balance.

March to October 1942

Axis aircraft bombed Malta during the months of ’42. During this period, Allied convoys came under fire from Italian warships and Luftwaffe aircraft en route to Malta. In October Luftwaffe bombing raids over Malta would be suspended.

July ’43

In July ’43, the Allies and the Italians began armistice talks. This after the Allies had landed at and occupied Sicily during Operation Husky. With the Allied victory in North Africa, and the defeat of fascist Italy, the Battle of the Mediterranean was effectively over as the Italian fleet surrendered to the Royal Navy in September.

However, despite the defeat of Italy the Italian Campaign would last until 1945 as Germany sent in reinforcements. Only the German U-boats and Luftwaffe aircraft remained in the Mediterranean, which could still sink Allied convoys.