Middle East Theatre of World War II is defined largely by
reference to the British Middle East Command, which controlled
Allied forces in both
Southwest Asia and eastern North Africa.
From 1943, most of the
action and forces concerned were in the adjoining Mediterranean
was quiet for the first few months of the war, until Fascist Italy declared
war against France and Britain
on June 10, 1940. It remained a major active theatre for two
and a half years until the British Commonwealth Eighth Army crossed the border from
Libya into Tunisia.
February 1943, command of the Eighth Army passed from the Middle
East Command to the Allied Joint command for the Mediterranean,
. The Middle East Theatre remained quiet
for the remainder of the war.
The Allies initially believed that the Middle East (Southwest Asia)
could become a major operational theatre, because they thought that
the Germans might invade the area. This did not materialise, although when
Allied forces occupied much of the area, in anticipation of such an
invasion, there was fighting against Vichy
French forces in Lebanon and
Syria, and against Iraq in the
The Italian forces in North Africa greatly outnumbered the Allies.
Allied forces were able to not only defend against Italian attacks
but also to defeat the Italians and occupy their colonies in
Ethiopia and Somaliland.
By February 1941, Commonwealth forces
appeared to be on the verge of overrunning the last Italian forces
in Libya, which would have ended Axis control in all of
fighting was taking place in Libya, Axis forces were attacking
The Allied commander, General Archibald Wavell
, was ordered to STOP his
advance against Libya and sent troops to Greece. He disagreed with
this decision but followed his orders.
The Allies were unable to stop Greece falling to the Axis forces
and before they could retake the initiative in the Western Desert
the German Afrika Korps
entered the theatre. It would not be until early in 1943, after
another year and a half of hard fighting and mixed fortunes, that
the Axis forces would be finally driven out of Libya and the
theatre would again become a backwater.
Balkans and Greek islands campaign
In late 1940
, the Italians attacked Greece from
Albania in the Greco-Italian War
Not only did the Greeks stop the attack, they forced the Italians
back. Eventually, in the spring of 1941, the Germans intervened in Greece
. They also invaded Yugoslavia
The Greeks had been reluctant to allow Commonwealth ground forces
into the country, because Britain could not spare enough forces to
guarantee victory. They had, however, accepted aid from the RAF in
their war with the Italians in Albania. The trigger for
Commonwealth forces moving to Greece in large numbers was the entry
of German forces into Bulgaria, which made clear the German intent
to invade Greece.
Commonwealth forces took position on a defensive line running from
north-west to south-east across the northern part of Greece.
However, there were critical weaknesses in the defences. The Greek
forces in the area were further forward than the Commonwealth
forces, and the Greek Government ignored suggestions that they
should withdraw to a common line. The Greek forces were thus
defeated in detail. There was also a large gap between the left
flank of Commonwealth forces and the right flank of the Greek
forces in Albania. That was exploited fully by the Germans.
After being thrown off the Greek mainland, Commonwealth forces
retreated to Crete. There, the Germans again exploited weaknesses
in the defences with a bold invasion plan. In the largest and last
German airborne assault, paratroops landed at several points on the
island and the Battle of Crete
began. In all but one location, they were cut off and destroyed,
and the follow-on seaborne forces were dispersed by the Allied
navies. However, that one location was enough, and reinforcements
were flown in to the point where the Germans were strong enough to
break out and take the rest of the island.
London eventually decided the cause was hopeless, and
ordered a withdrawal from Sfakia.
the next four nights 16,000 troops were taken off Crete to Egypt. A
smaller number was withdrawn on a separate mission from Heraklion,
but these ships were attacked en-route by Luftwaffe dive bombers
and suffered serious losses. On
the remaining 5,000 defenders at
Sfakia surrendered, although many took to the hills and caused the
German occupation problems for years.
During the evacuation of Crete Admiral Andrew
was determined that the "navy must not let the army
down", when British generals stated their fears that too many ships
would be lost, Cunningham said that "It takes three years to build
a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition".
Nevertheless large numbers of Allied soldiers were taken prisoner
On 4 August 1940, Italy's forces in Italian East Africa
, AOI) invaded British Somaliland
. The Italians took the
British colony's capital city of Berbera on 19 August.
The Italians also staged very
minor attacks across the Sudanese and Kenyan borders in 1940
Italian success in East Arica was short-lived. On 19 January 1941,
British Commonwealth forces
counter-attacked from Sudan in the north
and Kenya in the
south. On May 6, the capital
city of AOI, Addis
Ababa, fell. Haile
had managed to enter the city on 5
. On 18 May, Prince
Amedeo, 3rd Duke of Aosta,
the Italian Governor-General of AOI, surrendered in Amba Alagi which all but ended hostilities.
isolated Italian units fought on. But, when the Italian forces under
General Guglielmo Nasi in Gondar surrendered
on 27 November, major Italian resistance
Middle East campaigns
In March 1942 the Indian
10th Infantry Division
was in Iraq. It had fought Iraq, and in
the invasions of Syria, Lebanon, and Persia. As its soon to be
promoted commander Major-General William Slim
could move we could fight and we had begun to build up that most
vauable of all assets a tradition of success. ... it was
stimulating to be at what we all felt was a critical spot, waiting
for the threatened German invasion of Turkey.
Although Southwest Asia
to remain a strategic backwater for the duration of World War II
, in late 1941 and early 1942 the
Allies were not certain that it would remain so. Before the turning
points of the Battle of Stalingrad (June 1942 to February, 1943) and the Second
Battle of El Alamein (October to November 1942), the fear was that the
Germans might attack the area either through Turkey, or via Cyprus
into Lebanon; or through defeating of the British 8th Army in Egypt.
anticipated attack came through Turkey or Lebanon, then not only
could the Axis Powers threaten British
controlled Egypt and the strategically important Suez Canal via an advance through Palestine and the Sinai
Peninsula, it would
also allow the Germans an alternative route to attack the Soviet
Union from Southwest Asia north through the USSR's southern
In the slightly longer term the British feared
independent regimes in the region as well as the possibility that
the German might follow in Alexander
footsteps and attack British controlled India
from Persia in the
west as Japan simultaneously attacked India from the east through
Commonwealth forces in the region
were for the most part under the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command based in Cairo.
exception was Persia which for some of the time came under the
command of the Commander-in-Chief in
As in most of the Arab world, there was no unanimity amongst the
Palestinian Arabs as to their position regarding the combatants in
WWII. Many signed up for the British army, but others saw an Axis
victory as their best hope of gaining independence for Palestine.
Some of the leadership went further, especially the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
, Haj Amin Al-Husseini
(by then expelled
from Palestine), who on November 25, 1941, formally declared
against the Allied Powers.
the war, the British forbade entry into Palestine of European Jews
escaping Nazi persecution, placing them in detention camps or
deporting them to other places such as Mauritius.
However, over 30,000 Palestinian Jews
fought for Great Britain during World War II. David Ben Gurion,
leader of the Jewish Agency, which was the mainstream Zionist
organization in Palestine, had said "We will fight the White Paper
as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White
The British considered it more important to get Arab backing, due
to their important interests in Egypt and other Arab lands. The
influx of Jewish settlers had already caused severe problems in
Palestine, and the British did not wish to further exacerbate the
situation. The British authorities were also concerned about the
possibility of German agents entering Palestine on a refugee boat.
Irgun opposed both British colonial rule and self-determination of
the majority population. They saw any restrictions on further
Jewish immigration from Europe as provocation.
Iraq had been officially granted independence by the United Kingdom
, under a number of conditions,
including the retention of British military bases. This caused
resentment within Iraq and a pro-Axis prime minister, Rashid Ali
, assumed control. In early 1941
, Ali ordered British forces to withdraw.
The Middle East Command hastily assembled a formation known as
— which included the Indian 10th Infantry Division
and the Arab Legion
— and it arrived on
were two main British military bases in Iraq, at Basra and at
Habbaniya, north east of Baghdad.
On April 30
Iraqi Army surrounded and besieged the isolated and poorly-defended
Royal Air Force
base at Habbaniya.
Although the base had no offensive aircraft, RAF personnel
converted training aircraft to carry weapons, and attacked the
Habbaniya was soon relieved by Iraqforce
which defeated the larger but poorly-trained Iraqi Army in a series
of battles, even though the Iraqis received direct aid from the
. Iraqforce pressed on
from Habbaniya to Baghdad and then to Mosul.
and his supporters fled the country and an armistice
Syria and Lebanon
A Luftwaffe aircraft was shot down over Iraq during the advance on
Baghdad. Since the nearest Axis bases were on
Rhodes, the Allies
realised that the plane had refueled in Vichy French controlled Syria or
This confirmed suspicions among the Allies
regarding the "armed neutrality" of Vichy territories.
Australian, Free French
, British and
Indian units invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine in the south
on 8 June 1941. Vigorous resistance was put up by the Vichy.
However, the Allies' better training and equipment, as well as the
weight of numbers eventually told against the Axis. Further attacks were
launched at the end of June and early July from Iraq into
northern and central Syria by troops from Iraqforce. By 8 July the whole
of north east Syria had been captured and elements of Iraqforce
advancing up the river Euphrates were threatening Aleppo and as a
consequence the rear of the Vichy forces defending Beirut from the
advance from the south.
Negotiations for an armistice were
started on 11 July
and surrender terms
signed on 14 July
The final major military operation in the war in the Middle East
campaign took place shortly thereafter. The Soviet Union desperately needed supplies for its war against
Germany. Supplies were being sent round the North Cape convoy route to Murmansk and Archangel, but the
capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy
action. Supplies were also sent from American to
Vladivostok in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more
capacity was needed, the obvious answer was to go through Iran.
of Iran was deemed as pro-German; he would
not allow this free access. Consequently British and Soviet forces
invaded and occupied Iran. The Shah was deposed and his son put on
Western Desert Campaign
fall of France and before United States land forces entered the war
Torch, the north African campaign in the Sahara desert
and Mediterranean coastal plains of Libya and western Egypt was the
major land front between Western Allied and Axis
In September 1940, Italian forces stationed in Libya crossed the
border and launched an invasion into Egypt
. After advancing to
Barrani they set up defensive positions in order to regroup
and resupply before continuing.
In December, the outnumbered Allied forces launched Operation Compass
which was initially to
be a five-day raid against the Italian defensive positions in
Egypt. Ultimately the raid turned into a full-scale
counter-offensive against Italian forces in Egypt and Libya.
operation was more successful than planned and resulted in the
capture of the Libyan province of Cyrenaica and the advance of the Allied forces as
far as El
Over 100,000 Italian prisoners were
The defeat of Italian forces did not go unnoticed and soon the
German Africa Corps (Deutsches
), commanded by Erwin
, was sent in to reinforce the Italians. Although ordered
to simply hold the line, Rommel launched an offensive from El
Agheila in March 1941 which, with the exception of Tobruk
, managed to press the Allies beyond
on the Egyptian border, effectively
putting both sides back at their approximate pre-war
During the following stalemate, the Allied forces were reinforced
and reorganised as the Eighth Army
. In addition to
British formations, the army was made up of divisions from the
armies of several countries: the Australian Army
, the Indian Army
, the South African Army
, and the New Zealand Army
. There was also a brigade
of Free French
under Marie-Pierre Koenig
. In November 1941
the new formation launched a new offensive, Operation Crusader
, and recaptured almost
all of the territory recently acquired by Rommel and lifting the
Siege of Tobruk
. Once again, the
was at El Agheila.
receiving supplies from Tripoli, Rommel was able to push the Allies back to Gazala,
west of Tobruk.
After a period when both sides were
rebuilding their strength, the Axis forces defeated the Allies in
May 1942 at the Battle of Gazala
capturing Tobruk, and drove them back to past the border of Egypt.
Egypt, the Axis forces were halted in July at the First Battle
of El Alamein.
At this point General Harold
took over as commander-in-Chief Middle East Command
took over the Eighth Army under him. After victory in the
defensive battle of Alam Halfa in late August and early September, the Eighth Army
went on the offensive in October 1942 and decisively defeated the
Axis at the Second El Alamein.
The Axis forces were pursued through Libya
and the capital Tripoli was captured by Eighth Army in January
advance of the Eighth Army into eastern Tunisia in early
1943, 18th Army Group was formed to
control Eighth Army and First Army which was attacking
Tunisia from the west after the successful Allied Operation
Torch in November 1942.
Strategic command of
Eighth Army thus passed from C-in-C Middle East Command
to Dwight Eisenhower
, the Joint Allied
Commander of AFHQ
, under which 18th Army Group
British Middle East Command was based in Cairo with
responsibility for Commonwealth operations in the Middle East and North
Africa, and also those in East
Africa, Persia, and the
Balkans, including Greece.
August 1942 forces in Persia and Iran (known as Paiforce
) were detached and brought under the
separate, newly formed Persia and Iraq Command under General Sir
Henry Maitland Wilson
post having been turned down by Auchinleck, the outgoing Middle
East Command C-in-C).
- Chronology of World War II Diplomacy 1939 - 1945 Italy
did not declare war on all the Allied nations. For example after
Italy's declaration of war on France and Britain on June 10, the
next day France declares war on Italy and Great Britain, Australia,
Canada, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa state that they
are at war with Italy.
- , p. 591