This is the first of six volumes which are to cover the campaign in the Mediterranean and Middle East from 1939 to 1945, so that on the average each volume will deal with one crowded year of war by sea, land, and air. The account is a joint one, which is particularly appropriate to this theatre because the activities of the three Services were closely interlocked from the first.
‘The War in the Mediterranean and Middle East’ includes the struggle for control of the communications in the Mediterranean and Red Seas; the ebb and flow of the enemy’s attempts to invade Egypt; the campaigns in Greece, Crete, Iraq, and Syria; the destruction of Italy’s East African Empire; the defeat of the German and Italian forces in North Africa; the capture of Sicily; the campaign on the mainland of Italy; and the operations in the Aegean, the Adriatic, and the Balkans. Every variety of ground was fought over from desert to mountain, in conditions ranging from extreme heat to bitter cold, and with every discomfort from sandstorms to snow. The forces of every Dominion and almost every colony in the Commonwealth took part at one time or another, as well as contingents from ten of the other Allied nations.
The term ‘Middle East’ is not used in its geographical sense of a region lying between the Near East and India, but as meaning the area included in the army and air commands. These areas were not identical, nor did they remain constant, but expanded and contracted with the progress of the war. In November 1942, a separate (Allied) high command created for the landings in French North Africa comes upon the scene, and thereafter has a large share in the ‘Mediterranean and Middle East’ story. Prior to that date the title applies to that part of the war which took place mainly within the areas of responsibility of the naval Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Station, and the army and air Commanders-in-Chief, Middle East. This is the first example of a campaign directed by three Commanders-in-Chief jointly responsible for carrying out the policy of His Majesty’s Government.
The writing of a joint story means that to the usual difficulty of selection from a mass of detailed information is added the problem of maintaining a just and reasonable balance—a problem which obviously cannot be solved by any rule of thumb. We have tried to relate it to our broad task of telling the story generally at the level of the High Command, and we have therefore included many
matters which, though small in themselves, affected the views of the Commanders-in-Chief; or which serve to illustrate the process of translating into action the decisions they took. In general we have steered a middle course between two extreme opinions: namely, that on the one hand all space not devoted to fighting is wasted, and on the other that military history would be quite interesting were it not for the battles. More positively, we have tried, whenever possible, to give ‘the reason why’, rather than simply what happened.
The vast size of the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre makes a number of changes of scene unavoidable. In order to present the course of events as coherently as possible we have dwelt on each ‘front’ for as long as we could without interfering too much with the general chronology, but it must be remembered that the whole theatre did not appear to the Commanders-in-Chief as a number of neatly separated areas of operations; in spite of the distances it was all one.
It may seem a long time before the first shot is fired. (Indeed, we felt that some readers might, like the Gryphon, want the adventures first.) But it seemed only right to give a broad indication of how the strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Middle East had developed, for without this a reader could not help being puzzled by much that happened. It must be remembered that, apart from the unending struggle at sea, the scene of decisive operations in autumn 1939 was Poland; in early 1940 it was Norway; then France; then came the Battle of Britain, which might have been a prelude to invasion. All this time the stage in the Middle East was being set with whatever players and properties could be spared.
We make no apology for referring so often to administrative matters. It is now widely understood that administration is not the drab servant of the art of war, unworthy of mention in the same breath as a battle, but that it is rather of war’s very essence. Armies and air forces can operate only with what the lines of communication succeed in delivering. The influence of equipment, also, can hardly be too strongly emphasized. The arrival of a new weapon or a new piece of mechanism could have tremendous consequences: examples in the present volume are the Hurricane fighter, the Matilda tank, and the introduction of radar on land, at sea and in the air. During the war the development of equipment received a great stimulus; brains and money were applied to it to an extent unheard of in peace. As a result, the equipment of the Services was being improved all the time. So also was the enemy’s, and it is impossible to understand the course of events without taking into account the state that both had reached. The material factors therefore require frequent mention because they were constantly changing.
The human factor is of course no less important, for the usefulness of guns, ships, aircraft and all the other aids to success in battle lay in the hands of the men and women who served and tended them. We have found it impossible to be consistent in singling out individuals and units for mention by name. The principal reason is that, quite apart from the difficulty of choosing equivalent standards between the Services, the scale of events on one front was often quite different from that on another, and it varied greatly from time to time on the same front. It is not that the action of a small unit was any less meritorious if the unit happened to form part of a large force than if it was acting more on its own; but in a broad and general account it is obvious that the sense justifies the mention of names in some cases to an extent which is impossible in others. Where we have thought it right to particularize it has not been because of any hard and fast rules but because we felt that the story required it. There are, of course, regimental, squadron, divisional and other Service histories in which units and names are given in great detail.
No attempt has been made to give a complete list of the forces in the theatre; for one thing it was constantly changing and for another it was so big. At the beginning of 1941, for example, there were over 1,000 Army units alone, apart from the 400 or so which formed part of the Divisions. A list of the Commanders and Staff Officers who held high appointments during the period covered by this volume is given in Appendix 9.
A careful comparison of British records with those of the German and Italian Air Forces has shown that claims for the aircraft destroyed in air combat were usually over-estimated by both sides, especially when large numbers of aircraft were engaged. Air combats took place at high speeds, usually at high altitudes and often above clouds, which made the ultimate fate of an opponent difficult, if not impossible, to determine. When formations of aircraft were engaged it was quite possible for more than one pilot or air gunner to fire at, and claim, the same aircraft. Great care was taken at the time to eliminate errors of this sort, but inaccuracies still remain. In this book the method adopted has been to assess the enemy’s losses at the end of an operation, or phase of an operation, by using his own official records—which are, of course, not necessarily the same as his published figures. When it has not been possible to do this or when, for any special reason, inaccurate or suspect figures are quoted, attention is drawn to the fact in the text.
The methods of assessing the results of our own air attacks improved greatly as the war went on. During the period of this volume the assessment depended mainly on the reports of the aircrews and on the limited number of photographs they were able to take. From high or medium altitudes, particularly at night, or when flashing
low over the target, the aircrews could at best gain only a general idea of the damage done to such targets as buildings and their contents, ships and harbours, aircraft on the ground, and motor transport. Only the enemy knew what the real damage was. The immense amount of research involved in trying to trace the results of hundreds of small attacks—even if the records exist—has not seemed to us worth-while. Each attack was usually made on a small scale, and it was only the cumulative effect of many which brought about the results desired. In general, therefore, we have not attempted in this volume to give the damage caused by individual raids; as with the air combat losses the method we have adopted has been to assess achievements at the end of an operation or phase of an operation.
Our principal sources of information have been: Chiefs of Staff’s and other Government records; diaries of ships, units, formations and staffs; current orders, appreciations and reports; intelligence summaries; official despatches; captured documents; records of meetings; and files of correspondence and signals between the Commanders-in-Chief, their subordinates, and their Ministries. We have based every statement of fact upon the best evidence we have been able to obtain. All official documents are not, however, equally reliable; for instance, a particular report may have been made in all good faith but in ignorance of certain important facts. In examining matters of this sort we have been helped by the many individuals specially qualified to comment, at home and in the other nations of the Commonwealth, who have been good enough to read our drafts. This has been of great value to us not only by setting us right over occasional matters of detail, but by helping to recapture the atmosphere of the time, which in turn has often led to an understanding of what was otherwise obscure. We wish to express our gratitude to all who have helped us in this way.
The Editor has expressed the debt we all owe to the Service Historical Branches, to the Mapping Section, and to the Librarians and Keepers of the various records in the Cabinet Office and Ministries and the Imperial War Museum. We wish to add our thanks to those who have helped us particularly with the present volume: Commanders G. A. Titterton and M. G. Saunders, both of the Admiralty Historical Section; Brigadier W. P. Pessell, Lieutenant-Colonel G. R. Johnston and Lieutenant-Colonel J. E. B. Barton of the Cabinet Office Historical Section; Squadron Leader L. A. Jackets, Mr. F. L. Roberts and Miss H. Raven of the Air Historical Branch. Much of the work on German and Italian documents has been done by Mrs. J. M. Hamilton, and general research work has been done, at one time or another, by Miss R. P. G. Gee, Mrs. G. F. Oakley, Miss Jean Burt and Miss Anthea Vincent. Miss Sheila
Kinnear has typed all the drafts. To all these and to Mr. A. J. Charge, Keeper of Photographs, Imperial War Museum, we are most grateful.
Commander G. M. S. Stitt, RN, died before work on the present volume was finished. His place has been taken by Captain F. C. Flynn, RN.
Fighting in the Mediterranean and Middle East began in June 1940 when Italy decided to enter the war. It went on for five years—which was longer than in any other theatre. It was of course here that Italy was defeated, and for nearly two years this was the only theatre with a land front on which British and German troops were in contact. So it was mainly here that the techniques of land warfare were kept constantly up-to-date, the intimate tactical co-operation of land and air forces evolved and perfected, and the conduct of large and intricate landing operations put to the practical test. Thus the Mediterranean and Middle East was the workshop in which the weapon of invasion was forged and the trial ground on which it was proved; it was here that the highest commanders learned their business of handling it.
But it was a long time before forces and equipment were available on such a scale as this, and the story is one of humble beginnings, for, as is usual in the opening stages of their wars, the British had to be adept in the art of doing without. Inevitably there were set-backs, failures, and disappointments, making heavy demands on the moral no less than on the physical courage of leaders and led. But from the outset there were successes too. The early encounters may seem insignificant if measured only by the numbers engaged, but they show what resolute and confident commanders and men can do. And had the Eastern Mediterranean arena not been successfully held during the lean years (in which case, for want of bases, no British fleet or air forces could have even disputed the control of the Mediterranean sea communications) the task of the Allies in gaining a foothold in Europe would have been rendered immensely more difficult; indeed, it might well have proved to be beyond their powers.
I. S. O. P., F. C. F., C. J. C. M., S. E. T.
In 1884 Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, was elected to the French Academy. In the course of a speech of welcome Ernest Renan said: ‘Hitherto the Bosphorus has provided the world with embarrassment enough; now you have created a second, and more serious, source of anxiety. For this defile not only connects two inland seas, but it acts as a channel of communication to the oceans of the world. So great is its importance that in a maritime war everyone will strive hard to occupy it. You have thus marked the site of a future great battlefield’.