History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series

Edited by Sir James Butler

The Mediterranean and Middle East: Volume I

The Early Successes against Italy (to May 1941)

By Major-General I. S. O. Playfair CB, DSO, MC, with Commander G. M. S. Stitt, RN, Brigadier C. J. C. Molony, Air Vice-Marshal S. E. Toomer CB, CBE, DFC.


Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Crown Copyright Reserved

The authors of the Military Histories have been given full access to official documents. They and the editor are alone responsible for the statements made and the views expressed.

Table of Contents

Editor’s Preface


Chapter 1: The Growing Tension in the Middle East

Italy’s East African Adventure—The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936—The Spanish Civil War and the Gentlemen’s Agreement—Italy ceases to be a reliable friend—The Fleet Base and the security of Egypt—The Anglo-Italian Agreement of 1938—Palestine and the Arab States—The results of the September 1938 crisis—Chronology: 1933–1938

Chapter 2: 1939: Plans and Preparations in Case of War

The Anglo-French Staff Conversations—Reactions to the invasion of Albania—Regional meetings between French and British Commanders—The problem of the air defence of Malta—The creation of a High Command in the Middle East—The situation in Egypt—Italian unreadiness—Chronology: March-August 1939

Chapter 3: At War with Germany: Uneasy Calm in the Mediterranean (September 1939–February 1940)

Preliminary moves and precautionary measures—Contraband control and Anglo-Italian relations—The threat from the north—The situation in Egypt—The expansion of Dominion forces—Chronology: September 1939-March 1940

Chapter 4: The Logistics Foundations (1939–1940)

The term ‘administration’—The preliminary stage of administrative development for the land and air forces (autumn 1939)—The policy decisions of January 1940—The nine-division base in Egypt and Palestine—The position of the Royal Air Force—The development of the Fleet Base

Chapter 5: Italian Hostility Increases (March–June 1940)

British reactions to the growing Italian hostility—Allied military policy for war with Italy—A comparison of forces--May 1940—Final preparations and moves—Chronology: March-June 1940

Chapter 6: Italy Declares War (June 1940)

The first operations at sea—The beginning of air operations—The Western Desert—The early patrol encounters—Malta under attack—Reactions to Italy’s entry, and the French Armistice

Chapter 7: The French Collapse

The immediate consequences—The action at Oran—Admiral Godfroy’s squadron at Alexandria—The risk taken at Oran and the reactions

Chapter 8: Encouraging Start of the Struggle at Sea

British and Italian naval policy—The first encounters at sea—The actions off Calabria and Cape Spada—Measures to strengthen Malta—The naval situation--August 1940

Chapter 9: The First Encounters on the Borders of Italian East Africa

The situation in Italian East Africa—Operations on the Sudan border—The Italian invasion of British Somaliland—The build-up of forces in Kenya—Preparations to assist the Patriot revolt in Ethiopia

Chapter 10: Anxiety over the Position in the Middle East

Attention focused on the Middle East in June and July 1940—General Wavell’s review in August—The decision to reinforce the Middle East—The plans for rearming the Royal Air Force—The Takoradi air reinforcement route—The Prime Minister’s General Directive—The passage of the naval reinforcements in August and September

Chapter 11: The Italians Make a Move into Egypt

The British preparations in Egypt—Marshal Graziani’s difficulties—The Italian advance in September 1940—Effect on the general situation—Operations to supply and reinforce Malta

Chapter 12: The Italians Carry the War into Greece

The period of strained relations—The invasion and the question of British help—The Fleet Air Arm’s action at Taranto—The possible extension of the war in the Balkans

Chapter 13: More Reinforcements for the Middle East (October–December 1940)

Further reinforcements for Malta and the Fleet—The cycle of ocean convoys—The serious weakness of the Middle East air forces

Chapter 14: The First British Offensive in the Western Desert—I

The beginning of the COMPASS plan—The period of preparation—The battle of Sidi Barrani (December 9th–11th)—Pursuit towards Bardia—The question of surprise

Chapter 15: The First British Offensive in the Western Desert—II

The preliminary attacks on Bardia—The problem of maintenance—The capture of Bardia—The capture of Tobruk—The Long Range Desert Group

Chapter 16: Supremacy at Sea

The action off Cape Spartivento—The question of landing operations—December in the Mediterranean—The situation at the end of 1940

Chapter 17: The Arrival of the Luftwaffe in January 1941

The EXCESS convoy and the first German air attacks—The escape of the Illustrious—The effect upon the strategic situation—The bombardment of Genoa (February 1941)

Chapter 18: Germany Turns to the Balkans

The Albanian front in the winter of 1940/1—The Greeks decline the offer of British troops—Policy in the light of the Greek reply—The appeal to the Turkish President—The German preparations

Chapter 19: Graziani is Swept out of Cyrenaica (January–February 1941)

The British advance into northern Cyrenaica—The battle of Beda Fomm—Review of the desert campaign—The German decision to intervene in Africa and the arrival of General Rommel

Chapter 20: The Greeks Accept the British Offer

Middle East policy again reviewed in February 1941—The Eden Mission in the Middle East—The talks with the Greeks—The visit to Ankara—The changed situation—Review of events that led to the British decision

Chapter 21: The Italians Lose the Initiative in East Africa

Outline of British policy during the campaign—The Sudan front—The Sandford Mission and the Patriot movement

Chapter 22: The Advance to Addis Ababa through Somalia and Gojjam

The preliminaries in Kenya—The capture of Kismayu and Mogadishu—The drive to Addis Ababa from the south—Review of the southern campaign—The activities of Gideon Force

Chapter 23: Victory on the Northern Front in East Africa

Review of the Italian position in East Africa—The battle of Keren—The advance to Asmara and Massawa—The Duke of Aosta’s final stand at Amba Alagi—Review of the whole East African campaign

Chronology of Main Events from June 1940

Appendix 1: Army Council Instructions to the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief in the Middle East; 24th July 1939

Appendix 2: Directive to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East; 11th June 1940

Appendix 3: Admiral Darlan’s signal of 24th June 1940

Appendix 4: Directive to the Air Officer Commanding British Air Forces in Greece; 5th November 1940

Appendix 5: Message from the British Prime Minister to the President of the Turkish Republic; 31st January 1941

Appendix 6: Declaration handed by the Greek President of the Council to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at Tatoi; 22nd February 1941

Appendix 7: Agreement signed at Athens on 4th March 1941 by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army

Appendix 8: Some particulars of British and enemy aircraft

Appendix 9: Principal Commanders and Staff Officers in the Mediterranean and Middle East

Appendix 10: Operational Code Names



Most of the photographs are Crown Copyright and are reproduced by courtesy of the Imperial War Museum and the Ministries concerned. Nos. 4 and 7 are from paintings by Rowland Langmaid; Nos. 1, 39, 42 and 43 we taken by Lt.-Col. J. E. B. Barton, and No. 34 by W. P. Thesiger. These are reproduced with their kind permission.

The three Commanders-in-Chief—Egypt: entrance to the Tura caves—British Somaliland: the Tug Argan Gap—Takoradi: landing a Hurricane fighter—HMS Illustrious before the attack on Taranto—Sollum: a British gun in action—A patrol of Gladiators over the desert—Ships repelling low-level air attack—An operation in a hospital tent—A Hurricane over the desert near Matruh—Dust!—A desert airfield—The desert is not always dry—Buq Buq: a burnt out British tank—Sollum harbour—Sollum from the Halfaya road—The river gunboat Aphis—Bardia harbour—Bardia—Tobruk—The San Giorgio on fire in Tobruk harbour—Damage to the wharves at Tobruk—A Patrol of the Long Range Desert Group—What the air sees in the desert—The cruisers Berwick, Newcastle and Southampton—Bombs dropping round the Ark Royal—A Walrus amphibian—Bomba seaplane base—Benghazi harbour—Yonte: pontoon bridge over the river Juba—Kismayu: unloading stores—Bridge over the river Awash—An aircraft dropping a message near Addis Ababa—The Emperor Haile Selassie returns—Mount Belaya: the Emperor’s first stronghold—The camel train to Gojjam—The Ethiopian escarpment—Ras Hailu’s army at Debra Markos—Mai Edega: bombing of the Caproni workshops—Panorama of the Keren position—A Wellesley on its way to Keren—Keren: the road block in the gorge—Amba Alagi: view from Elephant Hill—Amba Alagi: view from the south

Maps and Diagrams

1. The Mediterranean and Middle East theatre of war

2. The Mediterranean Sea

3. Turkey in Asia

4. The Egypt—Palestine base

5. The Western Desert of Egypt, 1940

6. Oran, 3rd July 1940

7. Mers-el-Kebir harbour, 3rd July 1940

8. Action off Calabria, 9th July 1940

9. Action off Cape Spada, 19th July 1940

10. Italian East Africa and surrounding countries

11. The Battle of Tug Argan, August 1940

12. The West Africa (Takoradi) Air Reinforcement route

13. Greece and the Aegean

14. Taranto, 11th November 1940

15. The Battle of Sidi Barrani, December 1940

16. The capture of Bardia, January 1941

17. The advance of 13th Corps, December 1940–February 1941

18. The capture of Tobruk, January 1941

19. The Libyan desert

20. Action off Cape Spartivento, 27th November 1940

21. The passage of convoy EXCESS through the Sicilian Narrows, 10th January 1941

22. The bombardment of Genoa, 9th February 1941

23. The Balkans, February 1941

24. Interception of the retreating enemy at Beda Fomm, February 1941

25. The development of the East African campaign

26. Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea

27. Southern Ethiopia, January–February 1941

28. The crossing of the river Juba, February 1941

29. The battlefield of Keren

30. The Battle of Amba Alagi