21. NORTH AFRICAN CAMPAIGNS (Part 1 of 2) - 1940-1942

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JUNE 1940

Italy Declares War - Italy declares war on Britain and France on the 10th. Two weeks later France is out of the war. Still on the 10th, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa declare war on Italy.

Strategic Situation - Mediterranean Seaboard of North Africa

In the western half of the Mediterranean, Britain and France between them control Gibraltar at the narrow entrance from the Atlantic, southern France, Corsica, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Malta at the centre is a British colony.

In the eastern half, Britain maintains a hold on Egypt and the Suez Canal, Palestine and Cyprus. In the Levant, Lebanon and Syria are French.

Italy stands astride the central basin, with Italy itself, Sardinia and Sicily to the north and Libya with its provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica to the south. Albania on the Adriatic Sea and the Dodecanese Islands in the southern Aegean off Turkey are Italian.

The Neutral countries in the western Mediterranean are Spain, and in the east, Greece and Crete, Yugoslavia and Turkey.

Military and Maritime Circumstances

Even allied to France, Britain's position in the Mediterranean is not guaranteed. Gibraltar may be secure, assuming Spain's continued neutrality, but Malta is considered indefensible in the face of the Italian Air Force based in Sicily. As it happens, only the later arrival of the German Luftwaffe turns this threat into a near reality. However, Malta's well-equipped base has to be abandoned by the Mediterranean Fleet for the poorer facilities at Alexandria in Egypt.

A large Italian army in Libya (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) threatens Alexandria and the Suez Canal, against which only a relatively small British and Dominion force can be fielded. Fortunately this has been reinforced earlier in the year by Australian and New Zealand troops.

These threats to Malta and Suez depend on Italy taking and holding the initiative. She does not.

Malta becomes a thorn in the side of Axis supply routes to Libya. Over the next three years, Malta above all becomes the pivot about which the whole Mediterranean campaign revolves - both the problems of its supply and its effectiveness as an offensive base. Later Axis plans to invade the island so invaluable to the Allied cause come to nothing.

Major Naval Strengths

The Royal Navy maintains a small force of destroyers at Gibraltar, largely for Atlantic convoy work, but the Western Mediterranean is primarily the responsibility of the French Navy - although British reinforcements can soon be dispatched from the Home Fleet as shortly happens. The Eastern Mediterranean is in the hands of the Mediterranean Fleet and a small French squadron based at Alexandria. It is up to strength in major units but still weak in cruisers, destroyers and submarines when compared with the Italian Navy. This is partly offset by the presence of carrier “Eagle” to accompany battleships “Malaya”, “Ramillies”, “Royal Sovereign” and “Warspite”.

What the Mediterranean Fleet lacks in numbers is more than made up by the aggressive fighting spirit of its Commander-in-Chief, Adm Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, his officers and men, and their training.

The Italian Navy's overwhelming strength is in the Mediterranean.

Major Warship types

Western Med


Eastern Med

Eastern Med






































Defeat of France

17th - The French Government of Marshal Petain requests armistice terms from Germany and Italy

22nd - France capitulates and the Franco-German surrender document is signed. Its provisions include German occupation of the Channel and Biscay coasts and demilitarisation of the French fleet under Axis control.

24th - Later in the month Italian forces invade southern France but with little success. A Franco-Italian Armistice is signed on the 24th, and includes provision for the demilitarisation of French naval bases in the Mediterranean.

Strategic & Maritime Situation following the Fall of France

Britain's circumstances are transformed. From North Cape in Norway to the Pyrenees at the Spanish border, the coast of Europe is in German hands. In addition, the majority of French possessions on the Atlantic seaboards of Africa and the Americas are under the control of Vichy France, and thus denied to British forces. Worse still is the danger of their occupation by the Axis powers.

The naval situation is similarly transformed. Not only is the French fleet denied to the Allies, but the great fear is it will be seized by the German and Italian navies and totally alter the naval balance of power. The French Navy refuses to make for British ports and most of the modern ships sail for French North and West Africa. The uncompleted battleships “Jean Bart” and “Richelieu” reach the Atlantic ports of Casablanca in Morocco and Dakar in Senegal respectively.  


With the fall of France, Italy continues to dominate the central Mediterranean. The situation in the western basin becomes difficult. Shipping between Gibraltar and Malta can no longer look to Algeria and Tunis for protection. At the eastern end, Lebanon and Syria go over to Vichy France and in time endanger Britain's position in the Middle East.

Fortunately the situation is also helped by the French Fleet staying neutral and out of Axis hands - that is, until its sovereignty is under attack when the French Navy fight back fiercely. The arrival of Force H at Gibraltar goes some way to offsetting the loss of French naval power in the Western Mediterranean.

JULY 1940

French Navy in North Africa

3rd - Action at Oran (Operation 'Catapult') - Adm Somerville arrives with Force H off the French Algerian base of Mers-el-Kebir near Oran. French Adm Gensoul is offered a number of choices to ensure his fleet with its four capital ships stays out of Axis hands. All are turned down and, at around 18.00, Force H opens fire on the anchored ships. "BRETAGNE" blows up and the "Dunkerque" and "Provence", together with other ships, are badly damaged. Battlecruiser "Strasbourg" and some destroyers manage to break out in spite of attacks by aircraft from "Ark Royal", and reach Toulon in the south of France.

Three days later the damaged "Dunkerque" is torpedoed at her moorings by Ark Royal's Swordfish. The tragic and unhappy episode is over as far as Oran is concerned.

4th - A more peaceful solution to the French naval presence is found at Alexandria. Adm Cunningham is able to reach agreement with Adm Godfrey on the demilitarisation of battleship "Lorraine", four cruisers and a number of smaller ships.

No action is taken against the new battleship “Jean Bart” laying at Casablanca, Morocco or the warships at Algiers.

For the Royal Navy an unhappy but in British eyes, necessary duty has been carried out against our former French allies. French anger and bitterness is understandably considerable.

5th - Obsolescent torpedo-carrying Swordfish from carrier "Eagle's" squadrons fly from land bases on successful attacks against Tobruk and area. On the 5th, aircraft of 813 Squadron sink Italian destroyer "ZEFFIRO" and a freighter at Tobruk. The success is repeated two weeks later

20th - Carrier "Eagle's" Swordfish continue their strikes against Italian targets around Tobruk. In the nearby Gulf of Bomba, 824 Squadron is responsible for sinking destroyers "NEMBO" and "OSTRO" and another freighter.


Malta - The decision is taken to reinforce Malta and carrier "Argus" flies off 12 Hurricanes from a position southwest of Sardinia. This is the first of many reinforcement and supply operations, often bitterly fought to keep Malta alive and in the fight against Axis supply routes to their armies in North Africa.

In the middle of the month, Mediterranean Fleet battleships "Warspite", "Malaya" and "Ramillies" bombard Italian positions around Bardia in Libya, just over the border from Egypt.

22nd - Land-based Swordfish from "Eagle's" 824 Squadron repeat their July success with another torpedo strike in the Gulf of Bomba near Tobruk. Just as she prepares for a human torpedo attack on Alexandria, submarine "IRIDE" and a depot ship are sunk.


Royal Navy in the Mediterranean - Reinforcements are sent to the Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria right through until the end of the year.

North Africa - From bases in Libya, Italy invades Egypt on the 13th. Sollum just over the border is occupied and Sidi Barrani reached on the 16th. There the Italian advance stops. Neither side makes a move until December.

17th - Units of the Mediterranean Fleet including battleship "Valiant" sail with "Illustrious" for a raid on Benghazi. Swordfish biplanes torpedo destroyer "BOREA"; mines laid by them off the port sink "AQUILONE". On the return to Alexandria, heavy cruiser "Kent" is detached to bombard Bardia, but is torpedoed and badly damaged by Italian aircraft.

30th - As Italian submarine "GONDAR" approaches Alexandria carrying human torpedoes for an attack on the base, she is found by a RAF Sunderland of No 230 Squadron and sunk by Australian destroyer "Stuart".


2nd - Mediterranean Fleet destroyers "Havock" and "Hasty" sink Italian submarine "BERILLO" off Sollum the border town between Libya and Egypt.


North Africa - Gen Wavell launches the first British offensive on the 9th against the Italian forces in Egypt. Sidi Barrani is captured on the 10th and by the end of the month British and Dominion troops have entered Libya for the first time. The offensive continues until February by which time El Agheila, half way across Libya and well on the way to Tripoli, has been reached. Italian losses in men and material are considerable.

Units of the Mediterranean Fleet including the small ship Inshore Squadron and the Australian Destroyer Flotilla play an important part in supporting and supplying the North African land campaign. On the 13th, cruiser "Coventry" is torpedoed by Italian submarine "Neghelli", but remains operational.

14th - Also operating in support of the land campaign, destroyers "Hereward" and "Hyperion" sink Italian submarine "NAIADE" off Bardia, Libya just over the Egyptian border.

Mediterranean Theatre after Seven Months - Mussolini's claimed domination of the Mediterranean has not been apparent. In spite of the loss of French naval power, Force H and the Mediterranean Fleet have more than held the Italian Navy in check. Malta has been supplied and reinforced, and the British offensive in North Africa is underway. Elsewhere, the Greeks are driving the Italians back into Albania and away to the south the Italian East African Empire is about to be wound up.

However, it is now only a matter of months and even weeks before the Luftwaffe appears in Sicily, Gen Rommel in North Africa and the German Army in Greece, followed by Paratroops in Crete

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Malta Convoy "Excess" - All merchantmen reach their destinations safely, but at a cost of a cruiser and destroyer sunk, and the loss of carrier "Illustrious'" vital air power.

North Africa - As the British advance into Libya continues, Bardia is taken on the 5th. Australian troops capture Tobruk on the 22nd and Derna, further west by the end of the month.

The Royal Navy's Inshore Squadron plays an important part in the campaign - bombarding shore targets, carrying fuel, water and supplies, and evacuating wounded and prisoners of war.

Air War - Hurricane fighters, transported to Takoradi in West Africa, start to arrive in Egypt after flying across the continent.


North Africa - British armoured forces cross the Libyan desert to a point south of Benghazi and cut off the retreating Italians. The resulting Battle of Beda Fomm starting on the 5th inflicts heavy losses. Australian troops capture the major port of Benghazi at the same time, and by the 9th El Agheila is reached. There the advance stops. Large numbers of British and Dominion troops are now withdrawn for transfer to Greece, just as the first units of the Afrika Korps under Gen Rommel arrive in Tripoli.

24th - Destroyer "DAINTY" escorting supplies to Tobruk with the Inshore Squadron, is sunk off the port by German Ju87 Stukas.

25th - On patrol off the east coast of Tunisia, submarine "Upright" torpedoes and sinks Italian cruiser "ARMANDO DIAZ" covering a North African convoy from Naples to Tripoli.

MARCH 1941

North Africa - In command of German and Italian troops, Gen Rommel starts his first offensive with the capture of El Agheila on the 24th. Within three weeks the British and Dominion forces are back in Sollum on the Egyptian side of the border.

Malta - Late in the month a small Malta convoy sails from the east covered by the Mediterranean Fleet. These are the first supplies to arrive since the January 'Excess' operation. In the intervening two months Malta has been heavily attacked by the Axis air forces hoping to neutralise the island as a base for air and sea attacks against the supply routes to Libya.

31st - Cruiser "BONAVENTURE" with a Mediterranean Fleet cruiser force escorting a convoy from Greece to Egypt, is torpedoed and sunk to the southeast of Crete by Italian submarine Ambra

APRIL 1941

North Africa - Germans enter Benghazi on the 4th and by mid-month have surrounded Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border. Attacks on the British and Australian troops defending Tobruk are unsuccessful, and an eight-month siege begins. This takes place as the Germans invade Yugoslavia and Greece, and a pro-German coup in Iraq threatens Allied oil supplies.

Action of Sfax, Tunisia - Capt P. J. Mack with destroyers "Janus", "Jervis", "Mohawk" and "Nubian" sailing from Malta intercepts on the 16th a German Afrika Korps convoy of five transports escorted by three Italian destroyers off Kerkennah Islands, east of Tunisia. All Axis ships are sunk including the destroyers "BALENO" (foundered next day), "LAMPO" (later salvaged) and "TARIGO". In the fighting "MOHAWK" is torpedoed by "Tarigo" and has to be scuttled.

MAY 1941

Late April/early May - Two submarines operating out of Malta against Axis shipping are lost, possibly due to mines - "USK" in the Strait of Sicily area and "UNDAUNTED" off Tripoli. "Usk" may have been sunk by Italian destroyers west of Sicily while attacking a convoy.

Royal Navy Mediterranean Operations - (1) Five fast transports sail from Gibraltar with tanks and supplies urgently needed for the Army of the Nile (Operation 'Tiger'). Four arrive safely. (2) On passage they are accompanied by battleship "Oueen Elizabeth" and two cruisers sailing to join the Mediterranean Fleet.(3) Other units of the Mediterranean Fleet shell Benghazi, Libya on the night of the 7th/8th. (4) After covering the 'Tiger' convoy, "Ark Royal" joined by carrier "Furious" flies off more Hurricanes to Malta on the 21st.

North Africa - A British offensive starts from the Sollum area on the 15th in an attempt to relieve Tobruk (Operation 'Brevity'). Two weeks later both sides are back to their original positions. The first of many supply trips to besieged Tobruk are made by Australian destroyers "Voyager" and "Waterhen" and other ships of the Inshore Squadron.

25th - Sloop "GRIMSBY" and the supply ship she is escorting on the Tobruk run are sunk by bombers northeast of the port.

Royal Navy Submarine Operations - "Upholder" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn) attacks a strongly escorted North African troop convoy off the coast of Sicily on the 24th May and sinks 18,000-ton liner "Conte Rosso".

JUNE 1941

Malta - With German forces now in Greece and Crete the problems of supplying Malta are even greater. Nevertheless the men and material are fought through for the defence of Malta and its use as an offensive base.

North Africa - Another unsuccessful British offensive to relieve Tobruk starts from Sollum on the 15th (Operation 'Battleaxe'). Within two days the operation is called off. A heavy price has to be paid for the supply of besieged Tobruk by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy ships involved. All trips take place under continual threat of German and Italian aircraft attack.

24th - Sloop "AUCKLAND" is lost off Tobruk

30th - Australian destroyer "WATERHEN" is bombed and sunk off Bardia.

27th - Submarine "Triumph" on patrol off the Egyptian coast sinks the Italian submarine "SALPA".

JULY 1941

11th - On the Tobruk Run, destroyer "DEFENDER" is bombed by German or Italian aircraft and goes down off Sidi Barrani.

20th - Two more British submarines fall victim to Italian anti-submarine forces during North Africa convoy attacks in July - the first is "UNION" to torpedo boat "Circe" off Pantelleria.

Malta Convoy, Operation 'Substance' - Six transports reach Malta safely at a cost of cruiser "Manchester" hit and destroyer "FEARLESS" sunk by aircraft torpedoes.

30th - The second Royal Navy submarine loss to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks is "CACHALOT" while on passage from Malta to Alexandria, rammed by torpedo boat "Papa".


18th - Submarine "P-32" is lost on mines off Tripoli as she attempts to attack a convoy entering the port. "P.33" is also lost around the same time in this area, possibly on mines.

27th - Covering the transport of troops into and out of besieged Tobruk, cruiser “Phoebe” is hit by an aircraft torpedo.

North Africa, East Africa & Near East - With the exception of small parts of Ethiopia, the whole of the Middle East with its vital oilfields and pipelines together with East Africa are now under Allied control. The battle for North Africa has nearly another two years to run.


10th Submarine Flotilla - is formed at Malta with the smaller 'U' class boats which are more suited to Mediterranean conditions. On the 18th, "Upholder" sinks the 19,500-ton troop transports "Neptunia" and "Oceania". Between June and the end of September, submarines sink a total of 49 ships of 150,000 tons. Added to the losses inflicted by the RAF this represents a high proportion of Axis shipping bound for Libya.

Malta Convoy: Operation 'Halberd' - Eight transports reach Malta. The cost includes damage to battleship "Nelson" by an Italian aircraft torpedo and one merchantman lost to air attack.

By now in 1941, three major convoys have reached Malta. Nearly 40 merchantmen have got through with only one sunk. The cost to the Royal Navy has been one cruiser and a destroyer sunk, and a battleship, carrier and two cruisers damaged.


Malta - Force K is formed at Malta as a Strike Force to add to the offensive against Axis North African shipping by submarines and aircraft. Under the command of Capt W. G. Agnew are cruisers "Aurora" and "Penelope", destroyers "Lance" and "Lively".

25th - Over a period of 10 days, cruiser-minelayers "Abdiel" and "Latona" transport troops and supplies to besieged Tobruk and carry out Australian units. On the last mission "LATONA" is bombed and sunk north of Bardia by Ju87s Stuka divebombers.


Action off Cape Spartivento, Southwest Italy - RAF reports of an Italian convoy in the Ionian Sea making for North Africa leads to Force K sailing from Malta. The convoy consists of seven transports escorted by six destroyers, with a distant cruiser covering force. Early in the morning of the 9th, every one of the transports and destroyer "FULMINE" are sent to the bottom. Later, while rescuing survivors, destroyer "LIBECCIO" is sunk by submarine "Upholder".

North Africa -  A major British offensive (Operation 'Crusader') starts on the 18th, again from the Sollum area and by January has reached El Agheila. Axis forces around Sollum and Bardia are by-passed in the drive on Tobruk. The first link-up with the besieged garrison is made by New Zealand troops on the 27th.

27th - Australian sloop "PARRAMATTA" escorting an ammunition ship on the Tobruk Run is sunk by "U-559" off the port. Since the siege started destroyers and other warships have been carrying in men and supplies almost nightly. As it comes to an end the cost can be counted - 25 warships of all sizes and five merchantmen lost.

25th - Force K hunts for Italian convoys to North Africa supported by the Mediterranean Fleet with battleships "Barham", "Queen Elizabeth" and "Valiant". In the afternoon north of Sidi Barrani, "BARHAM" is hit by three torpedoes from "U-331" and as she slowly turns over and capsizes, splits apart in an almighty explosion.

Just before this tragedy, Force K has sunk two more Axis supply ships west of Crete. At this stage 60 percent of Axis North African supplies are being lost to attacks by British aircraft, submarines and warships.


North Africa - As fighting continues around Tobruk, Gen Rommel decides to pull back to Gazala. Besieged Tobruk is completely relieved on the 10th December. Under pressure, the German Afrika Korps withdraws to El Agheila and on the 25th, British forces enter Benghazi.  

1st - Malta-based Force K searching for Axis shipping encounters Italian destroyer “DA MOSTA” north of Tripoli. She is sunk by cruisers “Aurora” and “Penelope” and destroyer “Lively”. Force K has now been reinforced by cruisers “Ajax” and “Neptune” (soon lost) and two more destroyers.

Action off Cape Bon, Tunisia - Destroyers “Legion”, “Maori”, “Sikh” and Dutch “lsaac Sweers” under the command of Cdr G. H. Stokes sail from Gibraltar to join the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. Off Cape Bon, Tunisia they site two Italian 6in cruisers, “DA BARBIANO” and “DI GIUSSANO” returning from an aborted mission to carry a deck cargo of petrol to Tripoli. In a short night action on the 13th, and without being seen, the destroyers quickly sink both cruisers with gunfire and torpedoes. Italian loss of life is heavy.

First Battle of Sirte and Related Actions - Italian convoy operations to Libya lead to major Royal Navy losses over just a few days. A first Axis convoy bound for Benghazi sets out on the 13th, covered by an Italian battlefleet. On receiving the news, Rear-Adm Vian leaves Alexandria with a cruiser force to join up with Force K from Malta. On the evening of the 14th, submarine “Urge” torpedoes and damages battleship “Vittorio Veneto” off the Sicilian Strait of Messina and the Italians cancel that operation. The cruiser forces return to their bases but as they do, Adm Vian's “GALATEA” is hit by three torpedoes from “U-557” and goes down off Alexandria that night.

Adm Vian goes out again late on the 15th to escort fast supply ship “Breconshire” from Alexandria to Malta. On the 17th they meet Force K off the Gulf of Sirte, and shortly encounter Italian battleships covering a second convoy, this time to Tripoli. The two cruiser forces attack and the Italians withdraw in what becomes known as the First Battle of Sirte.

“Breconshire” reaches Malta on the 18th and Force K leaves harbour to search for the second convoy still making for Tripoli. Early on the 19th off Tripoli, the British force runs into an Italian minefield. Cruiser “NEPTUNE” hits three or four mines and sinks with only one man surviving. “Aurora” is badly damaged and “Penelope” slightly. Trying to assist “Neptune”, destroyer “KANDAHAR” is mined and has to be scuttled the following day. Out of a three cruiser and four destroyer force, only three destroyers escape damage.

19th - That morning as Force K struggles to survive, three Italian human torpedoes launched from submarine “Scire” (Cdr Borghese) penetrate Alexandria harbour. Their charges badly damage battleships “Queen Elizabeth” with Adm Cunningham on board and “Valiant”. They both settle to the bottom and the Mediterranean Fleet battle squadron ceases to exist. News of the sinking is kept from the Italians.

23rd - A sizeable number of German U-boats are now operating off the coasts of Egypt and Libya and attacking convoys with losses to both sides. On the 23rd, escorting destroyers “Hasty” and “Hotspur” sink “U-79” off Tobruk on the Libyan coast.  

24th - The day after the sinking of “U-79” but further east off the Egyptian port of Mersa Matruh, corvette “SALVIA” is lost to “U-568”.

28th - Four days later, destroyer “Kipling” sinks “U-75” in the same area