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How The Royal Navy Helped Win A War In The Desert

Following Italy's entry into the Second World War on 10 June 1940, and France's surrender on 22 June, British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria in Egypt was outnumbered and surrounded by a largely hostile shore. Admiral Sir James Somerville’s ‘Force H’ was sent to Gibraltar to cover the western Mediterranean, filling the vacuum left by the French after their surrender.

The British then began denying the Axis powers – Germany, Italy and their allies – access to the Mediterranean, disrupting the flow of vital supplies to German and Italian forces fighting in North Africa.

On 21 November 1940, Cunningham's torpedo bombers sank three Italian battleships at Taranto and on the night of 27-28 March 1941 he defeated the Italian fleet at Cape Matapan. The Italian cruiser Pola was crippled and later sunk, along with the cruisers Zara and Fiume and two destroyers. Three thousand Italian sailors were killed. Afterwards, the Italian fleet was generally ordered to avoid battle.

German aircraft were sent to support the Italians and crippled Cunningham's fleet around the island of Crete in May. Luftwaffe air attacks targeted Royal Navy ships evacuating British and Commonwealth troops and naval losses were so severe that on 30 May the evacuation had to be abandoned. Five thousand men were left behind.

Warships and strike aircraft based on Malta were the key to disrupting Axis supplies. Malta's submarines sank 300,000 tons of Axis shipping between July and September 1941, a situation described by the German naval liaison staff in Rome as ‘catastrophic’. They destroyed 63 per cent of all Axis cargoes bound for North Africa in November 1941, after most German aircraft had already left for Russia. This halted General (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel’s land operations in the theatre. 

The Luftwaffe returned in 1942, and raided Malta almost every day between 1 January and 24 July, neutralising the warships and aircraft. Supplies flowed again, allowing Rommel to advance to El Alamein. During March and April, 6,728 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta, killing 1,493 of its citizens and wounding 3,764 more.

On 15 April 1942, King George VI wrote to the Governor of Malta to tell him of his decision to award the George Cross to the island and its people, ‘To bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’ The siege was lifted in August 1942, when the Royal Navy fought through the ‘Pedestal’ convoy. Allied control of the Mediterranean became complete, helping to bring about the final Axis collapse.

Despite supply lines of just a few hundred miles across the Mediterranean, Axis forces in North Africa were plagued by shortages compared to the British, whose supplies often travelled 14,000 miles (22,530 km) around Africa. This was the Royal Navy's contribution to the ‘Desert Victory’.