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Battle of Cape Matapan, East Africa and Greece

Battle of Cape Matapan

The British halted near El Agheila to send troops and supplies to a new area of conflict - Greece. The Royal Navy attacked the Italian fleet at the battle of Cape Matapan on 28 March 1941, sinking three heavy cruisers. 

East Africa

In February 1941 the British forced Italian troops out of British Somalia, Italian Somalia and Ethiopia. The Germans dispatched air and ground troops to the Mediterranean, and under Rommel, the Africa Corps was to fight for the Libyan and Egyptian coast with the British 8th Army. 

Under Rommel, German units started landing in Tripoltania in February 1941. On 31 March he attacked the depleted British and Imperial forces at Mersa Brega, and on 7 April parts of Rommel's force reached the coast road at Derna. Meanwhile, the 9th Australian Division moved into Tobruk and, reinforced from Egypt, prepared for a siege. On 13 April Rommel attacked the Tobruk perimeter but his advance was short of supplies and stalled along the Egyptian border.


Greece was attacked by Italy with no success, and was then rapidly overrun by German forces. The British Expeditionary Force was forced out by German forces and had to leave all its equipment behind. By April 1941 the British were back on the Egyptian border, but in May Crete fell to a German airborne assault.

In May 1941 a Royal Navy convoy reached Alexandria. This 'Tiger' convoy carried reinforcements for the desert campaign, including 220 tanks. Now recovered, the British mounted a small offensive called 'Battleaxe'. It was a costly failure and was called off after two days. 

The Germans controlled the dominant airfields, and with the losses of Cyrenaicia and Crete, the balance of power shifted in the Mediterranean. However, Malta held out as a base for Allied forces to attack the Axis forces' sea communications with North Africa. 

Operation Crusader

The need to capture the Cyrenaician airfields to provide air cover and relieve the besieged garrison of Tobruk forced the British to attack again in November 1941 - Operation Crusader.

After 18 days of heavy and confused fighting between Tobruk and the Egyptian border, both sides were exhausted. The British, however, unlike Rommel, were receiving replacements and reinforcements, and on 6 December the Axis forces started to withdraw to the west to occupy a defensive line at Gazala. The combined German and Italian force at Gazala pulled back and at the start of January the Germans were back at El Agheila.