|Second World War - Mediterranean Sea|
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The Mediterranean Sea represented the Allies' short-cut to India and Australia by way of the Suez Canal. With fierce fighting from 1940 to 1943 in North Africa along its southern shore, possession of the Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Crete and Malta was strategically vital. Planes and ships based on any of these could either menace or support North African operations and their sea supply.
The British Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham was based on Alexandria in Egypt and controlled the eastern Mediterranean; Force H under Admiral Sir James Somerville guarded the western Mediterranean and its Atlantic approaches from its base at Gibraltar. The island of Malta in mid-Mediterranean became the focal point; a great base of the Royal Navy, it offered airfields, port and harbour facilities, and vast efficient dockyards. On 11 July 1940, immediately upon declaring war on the Allies, the Italians mounted an air raid on the island. Air raids were to become a fact of life on Malta for the next two years and more. The convoys mounted to supply Malta and other points around the Mediterranean took a tremendous toll of ships and men of both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. Merchant sailors were particularly vulnerable, working as they did aboard unarmed ships, often packed with explosives or other hazardous cargoes, which were the prime targets of enemy attacks. Over 40,000 Indians volunteered to serve in the Merchant Navy during the war (See Monohor Ali (India)), while units of the Royal Indian Navy were also engaged in the Mediterranean.
By the end of 1940 Admiral Cunningham's carrier planes had sunk or damaged three Italian battleships and two cruisers in a daring raid on Taranto harbour, and Italian aircraft were harrying Allied shipping from their bases in Sicily, Sardinia and Libya. In 1941 German aircraft also began operating from Sicily. The passage of the Mediterranean became extremely dangerous, but Malta had to be supplied and defended. Convoys to the island - the 'Malta Run' - were desperate affairs for both merchant ships and their protective escorts. On 28 March 1941 there was a welcome victory for the Mediterranean Fleet at the Battle of Cape Matapan, when Cunningham's ships mauled the Italian fleet so badly in a night action that it was never a serious threat again. But other than that, 1941 in the Med was the Royal Navy's darkest hour. RN and Allied ships were bombed and torpedoed as they evacuated Allied soldiers from Greece at the end of April, and received the same treatment while evacuating the garrison of Crete a month later. In November the carrier Ark Royal was sunk; on Christmas Day the battleship Barham, with heavy loss of life. By the end of 1941 the serviceable ships of the Mediterranean Fleet had been reduced to three cruisers and a handful of destroyers. Fifteen Allied destroyers and 158 merchant ships had been sunk in the Mediterranean during the course of the year.
Royal Navy losses were even worse during 1942 - twenty-five destroyers. Seventy-three merchantmen were sunk that year, too. But Malta convoys such as 'Harpoon', 'Vigorous' and 'Pedestal', costly though they were, paid off. The island held out, and provided an invaluable base for RAF operations. And as the Germans and Italians began their final retreat from North Africa at the end of 1942 after the Battle of El Alamein, things in the Mediterranean became gradually less dangerous during 1943.