NORTH AFRICA AND
The enemy never quite knew where the
Allied landings in North Africa, Sicily
and Italy would take place. It is true
that our plans for these operations had
been based on the information from
ULTRA as to where there would be least
opposition, but if for a moment one
reverses the roles of ULTRA there would
have been little chance of our
amphibious invasions in the
Mediterranean or in Normandy
achieving the successes they did. It is, I
think, true to say that on these counts
ULTRA was the vital factor, i.
The middle phase of the war against the Axis powers was fought in the Mediterranean — in North Africa, Malta, Sicily, Italy, Greece and the Balkans. In this theatre of conflict, as in the others, the information provided by Bletchley was crucial in bringing victory. The Allies faced two highly gifted opponents, Rommel in North Africa and Kesselring in Italy, either of whom could have defeated them, and the edge given by access to the German commanders’ thoughts enabled the Anglo-American commanders to exploit their own strengths and their enemies’ weaknesses.
The Mediterranean might seem an unlikely or even unnecessary place in which to conduct a war between Germany and the Allies, but certain factors gave this region strategic importance. First, Germany’s co-belligerent, Italy, was a dominant power in the region. The Italians boastfully called the Mediterranean ‘Mare Nostra’ - ‘our sea’ — and had colonized several parts of it: Libya, Tripoli and the Dodecanese. Other Italian territories — Somaliland and recently conquered Ethiopia — posed a threat to East Africa and the Persian Gulf. Britain too had possessions, or mandated territories, in the area: Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Palestine and Egypt.
Second, the Mediterranean was the key to the Suez Canal, and the canal was the key to India and the Far East. Even more importantly, the oil fields of Iraq were vital to Britain’s war effort. Mussolini wanted a share in the glory that he expected the war would bring, and it could be assumed that he would attempt to seize British territory if opportunity offered. In any case he decided to conquer his neighbours and attacked Albania, forcing its king into exile. He found himself opposed by tough Greek armies and became bogged down in the mountainous terrain through the winter of 1940–41. Italian efforts were proving inadequate, and Mussolini (who had acted without Hitler’s support) was saved from disaster and humiliation only by the arrival of German armies to assist him. They went on to invade Greece itself. Britain assisted by defeating the Italian navy at Taranto in November and by sending its own troops to the aid of the Greeks. The Balkans became the scene of some of the war’s most bitter fighting.
The defeat of France had led to the creation of the collaborationist Vichy Government, and French colonies in North Africa (Algeria and Morocco) became enemy territory. When Vichy refused to hand over to Britain its Mediterranean fleet, which was in port at Mers-el-Kebir, the ships were shelled and sunk by the Royal Navy on Churchill’s orders, to prevent their use by the Axis.
With Western Europe in a state of impasse, the Mediterranean was thus growing into a major theatre of conflict and a natural arena for the contest between the Axis and the British Commonwealth — for troops from India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa fought alongside the British. The region’s importance