World War II Island Territories: The Mediterranean


Figure 1.--German and italiam bombers pounded Malta remorslessly. This photograph was taken August 8, 1942 on Malta at the climax of the epic struggle for the island. The press caption read, "Carrying on with the courage typical of the island, this youngresidentof Malta makes himself comfotrtable as possible as he reclines in a steamer chair beside the ruins of his home. Malta, British outpost in the Mediterranean has been considered themost heavily bomb area in the world, and thewhole island has been decorated by KingbGeorge Vforvthevcourage of its inhabitants. The casual image belies the fact that the British had virtually run out of food and supplies and were preparing to surrenedr to the Germans. Only the arrival of a battered American tanker kept afloatr by two Brirish destroyers on August 15 saved the island.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was so anxious to gain the spoils available in the wake of German victgories that he ignored the obvious--Italy as a peninsula, unlike Germany, was vulnerable to Britain's greastest weapon--the Royal Navy. And Primeminister Churchill after the fall of France rejected advise to withdraw from the Mediterranean. It ws ine of his most important military decesions. The Mediterranean was the scene of some of the most ferce surface combat of the War until the omset of the Pacific War. The shallow depths and water clarity mean that it was a dangerous place for submarines, although both German U-boats and British submarines were deployed there. Yhe Italians deployed midget submarines. The British deployed carriers, althogh with the exception of the attack on Toranto (1940), the British kept most of their small carrier force in the Atlantic, in part because obsolete aircraft could not compete with the Luftwaffe. The Medittrranean was the most direct sea route to India, but it was effectively closed by the Italian fleet and German and Italian airbases. Control of the Mediterranean became important as the rote over which the Italian Army and the Afrika Korps had to be supplied in North Africa. North Africa except for Egypt and the Suez Canal were of marginal importance. Much more important was that it was in North Africa that Rommel essentially taught the British and Americans how to fight the Wehrmacht. The Germans expended valuable airborn troops to take Crete, but because of the casualties suffered, Hitler hesitated to commit them to the more important island of Malta. Axis bases in Sardinia ans Sicily were used to batter Malta and later support operations in Tunisia. Malta was essehtially in the British effort to inderdict the Afrika Korps' supplies. Insted Hitler ordered that Malta be bombed into submission. Cyprus proved to be just outside the German grasp, protected by the Royal Navy which defeated the Italian fleet in a series of desperate sea engagements. These battles made the Torch landings possible (November 1942). Allied victory in North Africa was followed by the invasion of Sicily (July 1943) which help to knock Italy out of the War.

Adriatic Islands

The Adriatic waa an area of combat in World War I. The Allies dominsted the Mediterranean, but their control of the Adriatic was less complete. Allied naval power allowed the Serbian Army to escape anialation by seeking refuge on Corfu. The Central Powers domination of the Balkans (1915) except Greece meant that the Adriatic was a front line area betwwen the Central Powers and the Allies after the Italians entered the War. Allied navalm power, however boittled up nthe Austro-Hungarian Navy in Trieste. Some German U-boats operated in the Adriatic. The situation was reversed in World War II. After the Germamn invasion of the Balkans (April 1941), the Adriatic became essentially an Axis lake. The Greeks put up a fight on Corfu, but were overwealmed by the Italians. Axis aiur bases un Italy and the Balkans as well as the Italian Navy gave the Axis complete control of the Adriatic. High school students staged a rare protest in Axis-occpied Europe (November 1941). Some Corfiots escaped to Epirus in mainland Greece and fought with the partisans. After the Italian surrender (September 1943), the Germans bombed Corfu and seized the island, in part becaust of a pro-Axis Fascist mayor. The Germans rounded up most of the Jews and transported them to Auschwitz (June 1944). The British 40th Royal Marine Commando liberated Corfu (October 1944). After the War, the British returned Corfu to the Greeks. The Yugoslav partisans took over Vis after the Italian surrender. The British helped set up a small air strip. The Germans planned an amphibious invasion, but never executed it. After the War, Tito established a notorious cincentration camp on the island--Goli Otok.

Aegean Islands/Dodecanese

Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire (1820s). The Ottomans retained possession of the Dodecanese/Aegean Islands. (Dodecanese means twelve, referring to the larger islands.) The Dodecanese islands population was primarily Greek-speaking, with a small Turkish-speaking minority, and very smaller Ladino-speaking Jewish minority. Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire with the primary objective of seizing Italy (1912). The largely Greek islanders took the opportunity to declare independence--the Federation of the Dodecanese Islands. Italy seized the islands and suppressed the ethnic Greek government. Italy was especially interested in the fortress of Rhodes which because of its location could desrupt Ottoman resupply of its forces in Libya. Italy seized all the Dodecanese except for Kastelorizo which was subsequently temporarily occupied by France. The First Treaty of Lausanne ending the Italian Turlish War allowed the Italians to continue their occupation to ensure the Ottoman Empire lived up to its commiments. Italy declared war on the Ottomans during World War I (1915) and the Italians regarisoned the islands. The Allies used the islabnds as naval bases during the War. They were especially important during the Gallipoli Campaign (1915). . During the war, some of the smaller islands were occupied by the French and British, with Rhodes continuing as Italian-occupied. After the War, the Tittoni-Venizelos agreement (1919) divided the Islands between Greece and Italy. Greece was to get the smaller islands while Italy retained Rhodes. Italy and Greece were to obtain areas of western Anatolia. (Italy was to receive southwest Anatolia and Antalya.) The Turkish victory in the Greek-Turkish War made that arrangement moot (1920-21). As part of the Treaty of Lausanne ending World War I between the Allies andcTurkey, the Dodecanese were annexed by Italy, and named the Possedimenti Italiani dell'Egeo. Mussolini after seizing power began an Italianization program aa paet of his desire to carve out an Italian Empire in the Mediterranean. He sought to make Rhodes an important regionsl transportation hub that could promote Italian culture in the area, including the Levant. Only a few Italian immigrated to the islands. The Italians rebuilt the Palace of the Grand Master (Knights of St. John) in the city of Rhodes (1930s). The Palace had been badly dagaged when the Ottomans seized the island (16th century). The Italian program did help modernize the islands which had very limited infrastructure. Italian Govenor Cesare Maria De Vecchi (1936-40) promoted the use of Italian which was made the official language. He was largely unsuccessful at promoting Italian emigration to the islands. Fascist Italy invaded Greece (October 1940), but needed German help to defeat the Greeks (April 1941). Italy used the islands as a naval staging area during the invasuion of Creete (May 1941). When the Italians surrendered (September 1943), the Dodecanese became a battleground between the Germans and British supported by the Italians. The principal battle occured at Leros. This is one of many examples of Hitler using commiting German resources in periferal campaigns. General Eisenhower refused to support the British in the Dodecanese, considered it a diversion of resources for a low-priority objective. The British fully committed to the Italian campaign without American support were unable to prevail as the Germans had Luftwaffe units which took a toll on Royal Navy ships. The Germans thus gained contro of the islands. During the German occupation, they deported virtually the entire Jewish population of 6,000 people to the death camps. About 1,200 managed to escape to Turkey. The Germans finally withdrew from Greece and the Balkans (October 1944), but continued to occupy the Dodecanese. After the German surrender (May 1945), the British occupied the islands, but allowed the local population to set up civil administrations. The Italian Peace Treaty turned the islands, including Rhodes, over to Greece (1947). Turkey objected to this transfer.

Balearic Islands

The Baleraic Islands including Mallorca and Ibiza were seized by Franco's forces at the onset of the Civil War. This provided the Italian fleet a base it could use to support the Nationalists. Republican forces staged an ambitious amphibious landing (August 16, 1936). The Republican landing force heavily outnumbered the Nationalists and drove 12 kilometres inland, the Nationalist had air support provided by the Italians. ThecRepublicahnswere forced to fall back. The Republiccansx evacuated the island (September 12). The ebgagenent has been called the Battle of Majorca. The island was used as a Nationalist naval and air base forthe remainder of the Civil War. The islands did not play a role in World War II as Spain remained neutral.

Corsica

Corscica was an Italian island until Frabce seized it before the Revolution. Therecwas a long history ofresistance tobthe French and central government. Corsica remained a part of Vichy France after the armistace with the Germans (June 1940). Italian Dictator mounted a propaganda campaign to acquire Corsica. Hitler did not, however, afgree to this. Mussolini did dispstch 90,000 Italian troops to occupy Corscica. Vichy was in no position to resist. The Mouvement Unis de la Résistance organized in the island, but was loyal to the Free French, not Vichy. The Résistance/Maquis was supported by the OSS which dropped weapons. The rugged teraine helped the guerilla fighters hold out. The tangled foliage covering Corsica's mountainous countryside was called maquis. This came to be name given to the French resistance movement -- the Maquis. There were no major agains vthe Italians who mounted no major effort to dislodge the Resistance forces in the rugged countryside. Allied inteligence operations convinced the Germans that the Allies were goingvto invade Sardinia. Thus the Germans reinforced the Italian army on Sardinia (July 1943). The Germans used the replacements meant for the Africa Division which surrendred in Tunisia. The Division was reconstituted the 90th Panzergrenadier, about 40,000 men. The invasion of couse came, but the Allies invaded Sicily. After the Italians surrendered, the Maquis rose up against the Germans (September 9). The Free French rapidly pieced together a commando force to support the Resistance fighters--Operation Vésuve. They landed (September 14, 1943). About 6,000 men of the Free French I Corps landed on Corsica. The small French force managed to bring around many of the Italian occupation troops to the Allied side. The German treatment of the Italians on the mainland was undoutedly a factor. Their major goal was to prevent the withdrawal of the German forces on Sardinia through Corsica. The Sturmbrigade Reichsführer-SS a force of about 30,000 men was dispatched to Corsica as part of the occupation of Italy (September 1943). OKW had also sent General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin to rescue the 90th Panzergrenadier, which while stranded on Sardinia. Von Senger's efforts were part of Plan Achse, the German operation to occupy its former Italian ally. In his case, however, his orders were to get out of Sardinia and Corsica and back to Italy. Von Senger crossed to Corsica from Sardinia with the 90th Panzergrenadier. The channel between Sardinia ad Corsica is very narrow. The Germans fought their way north to Bastia. They French were a relatively small, lighly equipped force and the Italians unwilling to heavily engage the Germans. From Bastia the distance to the mainland was much shorter and could be covered by Luftwaffe bases in southern France and northern Italy. The Germans embarked from Bastia for the mainland. The last German troops departed (October 5). Von Senger thus got the 90th Panzergrenadier and the Sturmbrigade Reichsführer-SS back to the mainlsnd. Both were employed in the Italian campaign and largely decinated in the fighting. OKW decided not to try and hold Corsica and thus with the German withdrawl, Corscica was in Allied hands. Corsica became the first French metropolitan department liberated from the Germans. The Allies converted Corscica into a potent air base, Groups of the American 57th Bomb Wing were stationed along the eastern coast from Bastia south to Solenzara. Corsica was only a little more than 100 miles from the French coast. Thus it became the primary base for launching Operation Dragoon--the invasion of southern France (August 1944).

Crete

Crete is the large Greek island south of the mainland. A glance st the map shows the stratehic importance of Crete. Air bases at Maleme and Heraklion and a naval base at Suda Bay are important to controling the Eastern Mediterranean. The British after Mussolini attacked invaded Greece, occupied Greece (November 1940). This drew the attention of OKW to Crete because in brought the critical Ploesti oil fields within in range of British bombers. Fortunately for the Royal Navy, many of the key Mediterranean battles with the Italian Navy were fought before the Germans seized Crete. Greek, British and Commonwealth forces withdrawing from Greece after the stunning German campaign in the Balkans, attempted a stand on Crete. There they were reinforced by fresh New Zealand, British, and Australian forces. Hitler ordered an airborn invasion of Crete. General Kurt Student's parachutists attacked (May 20). The ensuing battle linvolved 10-days of intense fighting. The German assault was daring, but very costly. In the period before Barabrossa, the Germans were still accustomed to largely light casualties. The Crete invasion nearly failed but the British after heavy fighting had to abandon Crete as well. The Allies retreated across the mountains to Hora Sfakion and other southern areas where they were evacuated to Egypt by the Royal Navy (May 30). The invasion of Crete had two consequences. The Germans suffered such heavy losses that Hitler would never again allow a parachute assault. (Many military historians see the operation as aimed at the wrong island. Malta would have been a more strategically important prize.) The cost of taking Crete was a factor in Hitler hesitating vto launch am assauly of Malta. The Allies were so impressed with the German paratroopers that they formed their own parachute units that would play important roles, most prominatey to support the D-Day invasion. The Germans occupied the Island for 4 years. Luftwaffe seaplanes operated from Suda Bay. The primary Axis concern at the time was esorting supply convoys to the Afrika Korps. The Resistance with British support organized even as the British were withdrawing. As in the rest of occupied Europe, German reprisals were brutal. The mountains and caves offered hiding places. The nonks in their monasteries protected the resistance fighters at enormous risk. The Resistance movement abduction the German commander, General Kreipe (1944). . The Germans withdrew from Crete with virtually no casualties as part of their withdrawl from the Balkans (October 1944).

Cyprus

Britain declares Cyprus a Crown colony (1925). The British held Cyprus throughout World War II. Cyprus located at some distance from the Balkans and south of neutral Turkey proved to be just beyond the range of German attack. Crete very close to the Pelopenese was a difficult, codtly undertaking for the Germans. Cyprus was too far for the Germans, especially when the Italian fleet failed in a series cof sea battkes with the Royal Navy. The Germans did mount some limited air raids. Cypriot opinions varied about the British. Even so Cypriots stongly supported the British and Allies when war broke out. Support only increased after the Italians (October 1940) and then the Germans (April 1941) invaded Greece. Cypriot volunteers served in various branches of the British forces. There was no Conscription, but 6,000 Cypriot volunteers fought with the British during the Greek campaign (April 1941). Over all during the War, 30,000-35,000 Cypriots served with the British. Cyorus was primarily important as a supply and training base as well as a naval station for the hard-pressed Royal Navy. There were also important air bases. The Indian 4th Infantry Division formed part of the British garrison.of India Cypriot women sknitted sweaters and gloves for the troops in Epirus. Future Cypriot President, Glafkos Clerides, served in the RAF and was shot down and captured by the Germans. Primeminister Winston Churchill visited the island and praised the Cypriot people for their efforts in the War (1943). Royal Navy victories over the Italian Fleet meant that the Axis which focused on the invasion of the Soviet Union would not take Cyprus. Many Cypriots expected Britain to grant independence as many colonies achieved indepedndence after the War. The British Government saw Cyprus as a vital strategic position.

Ionian Islands

The Ionian Islands are a group of islands off the southrern coast of Greece. They are traditionally called the Heptanese ("the Seven Islands") in Greece, but the Ionians also include many smaller islands. Six of the Ionian Islands (Corfu, Paxos, Leucas, Ithaca, Cephalonia, and Zakynthos ) are located off the western coast of Greece. The seventh (Cerigo, is off the southern coast of the Peloponnese. Corfu to the north played an important role in World War I when the French seized it to provide a refuge for the retreating Serbian army. At the time, Greece had not yet entered the War. The Ionians played only a minor role in World War II. After the defeat if the Greek Army in the Axis Balkan Campaign (April 1944), the Italians occupied the Islands (except Kythera). The Italian occupation was relatively benign, but they did attempt to Italianize the population of Corfu. After the Italian surrender to the Allies and switched sides (September 1943), the Germans seized the Islands. The Italian garrisons of the largest islands (Corfu, Leucas, Cephalonia, and Zante) were all quickly overwhelmed by the Germans with little resistance. The Italians only resisted strongly On Cephalonia, finally running out of ammunition. More than a thousand Italians were killed. Many were shot by the Germans after they surrendered. The Germans rounded up and deported the centuries-old Jewish community to the death camps. The largest was on Corfu. The people of Zakynthos mansged to hide their Jews. After the Germans began withdrawing from the Balkans, the EAM/ELAS resistance movement seized control. The Ionians were a center of left-wing sentiment. British trrops arrived (October 1944).

Malta

Malta was the cornerstone of the British campaign in the Western Desert. British possession of Malta and the invaluable naval and air bases there played a major role in interdicting Italian and Germany supply convoys to Libya. And it was supply shortages that played a key role in defeating Rommel and the Afrika Korps. Malta became the most bombed place on earth. German and Italian air forced relentlessly pounded the island. The island somehow managed to with tand the fiercest air assault of the War. The Italians began bombing Malta in 1940. The Luftwaffe joined in the campaign (January 1941) even before Rommel arrived in North Africa. Malta by March 1942 was enduring an average of 10 air raid alerts daily and there had been 117 straight days of bombing. The bombing was devestating. It also prevented supplies, food, and fuel from reaching the island. At one point Malta was near to capitulation, left virtual no fuel, food, or fighters. It was a convoy with an American carrier that finally succeeded in getting needed supplies through. Civilians suffered teribly. They had to move underground. Newsreels in Britain and America showed school children moving rapidly into undergrond bunkers when the air raids sireens sounded. The population was near starvation at one point. The Axis did not, however, launch a parachute assault on the island. They had the capability as shown in Crete. Senior Axis commanders advised just sych an action. After the German terrible losses suffed by the German parachute units on Crete, however, Hitler demured, After the War, historians have taken to summrizing the assul on Cretr as "the wrong island". The Axis seige was not fully lifted until July 1943 after the Axis surrender in Tunis and the invasion of Sicily. [Holland] Operaions from Malta also played an important role in interducting Axis supply lines to Tunis, fforcing the surrender there. Some orphaned children were sent to Australia. Martinique

Sardinia

German and Italian bases in Sardinia were used to block Allied efforts to supply Malta. After Torch (November 1942), the Germans and Italians bases were used to support the Axis operations in Tunisia. American B-24 Liberators bombers sunk the Italian heavy cruiser Trieste at La Maddalena (April 1943). After the Axis surrender in Tunisia (May 1943), the Allies sought to confuse the German commanders as to their next move in the Meditwrranran through Operation Mincemeat. The Allies chose Sicily, but attempted to convince the Germans that they were targetting Sardinia and Greece. Hitler himself ordered that "measures regarding Sardinia and the Peloponnese take precedence over everything else" (May 12). Allied inteligence operations convinced the Germans that the Allies were goingvto invade Sardinia. Thus the Germans reinforced the Italian army on Sardinia (July 1943). The Germans used the replacements meant for the Africa Division which surrendred in Tunisia. The Division was reconstituted the 90th Panzergrenadier, about 40,000 men. The invasion of course came, but the Allies invaded Sicily. The unit could have made a difference had it been deployed on Sicily. The Germans after the Italian surrender decided to withdraw from Sardinia (September 19, 1943). OKW sent General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin to rescue the 90th Panzergrenadier, which while stranded on Sardinia was a potent force. Von Senger's efforts were part of Plan Achse, the German operation to occupy its former Italian ally. He decided to evacuate through nearby Corsica. Any attemopt to cross to the Italian mainland would have exposed him to Allied air and naval attack. Reaching Corsica involved only a short crossing, but there the Germans faced French and Italian forces.

Sicily

Some battles occur by accidenys of history such as Waterloo or Gettysbrg. Others are no accident and preordained by geography. Sicily has been fought over from time immemorial. There was a reason for that. Sicily placed in the middle of the Mediterranean was critical for any country trying to dominate the Mediterranean. Major battles of the Phelopenisan War were fought here rather than the Phelopenese itself. It was here the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage began. Sicily was sed by the Italians and Germans in their attempt to dominate the Mediterranean and seized Malta. After the Axis surrendered in Tunisia the Allies decided to invade Sicily. It was an obvious choice, but the Allies managed to confuse the Germans. Sicily would make possible the invasion of Italy because air bases in Sicily could provide air support over invasion beaches in southern Italy.







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Created: 5:13 AM 7/24/2010
Last updated: 8:39 PM 10/9/2010