The battle for North Africa was a struggle for control of the Suez Canal and access to oil from the Middle East and raw materials from Asia. Oil in particular had become a critical strategic commodity due to the increased mechanization of modern armies. Britain, which was the first major nation to field a completely mechanized army, was particularly dependent on the Middle Eastern oil. The Suez Canal also provided Britain with a valuable link to her overseas dominions--part of a lifeline that ran through the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the North African campaign and the naval campaign for the Mediterranean were extensions of each other in a very real sense.
The struggle for control of North Africa began as early as October 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia from its colony Italian Somaliland. That move made Egypt very wary of Italy's imperialistic aspirations. In reaction, the Egyptians granted Britain permission to station relatively large forces in their territory. Britain and France also agreed to divide the responsibility for maintaining naval control of the Mediterranean, with the main British base located at Alexandria, Egypt.
Italy was the wild card in the Mediterranean strategic equation at the outset of WWII. If the Italians remained neutral, British access to the vital sea lanes would remain almost assured. If Italy sided with Germany, the powerful Italian navy had the capability to close the Mediterranean. The navy's main base was at Taranto in southern Italy, and operations from there would be supported by Italian air force units flying from bases in Sicily and Sardinia.
Italy did remain neutral when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. When Germany invaded France in June 1940, however, Benito Mussolini could not resist the opportunity to grab his share of the spoils. On June 11, 1940, six days after the British evacuation at Dunkirk, France, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Britain and Italy were now at war in the Mediterranean.
On paper, at least, Italy enjoyed a considerable advantage over Britain in the Mediterranean theater of operations. In June 1939, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet had only 45 combat ships against the Italian navy's 183. The Italians held an especially large edge in submarines, with 108 against Cunningham's 12. The French surrender on June 25, 1940, placed the entire burden of controlling of the Mediterranean sea lanes on the Royal Navy.
Tags: Battlefields, north africa, rommel, egypt, lybia, axis, allies, hitler, churchill, tunisia, world at war, world war 2, WW2, italy, armies, tanks, divisions, Afrika Corp, Panzer, artillery, desert warfare
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