Inspired by the question about the Strait of Gibraltar, I wondered how Germany was able to get troops to North Africa, given the naval power of Britain? Based upon this question, I would doubt that they went through Turkey. The Wikipedia article was interesting, but did not mention how and where German forces arrived. Were they able to use ports in Italian controlled Libya? Even still, why didn't Britain, simply sink the German vessels? If Italy controlled the Mediterranean, how was Britain able land troops?

What navy controlled the Mediterranean during the North African Campaign?

  • 1
    Interesting question - thanks! Just a quick knee-jerk comment... air power played a key role in the North African Campaign and control of the Mediterranean , not just naval surface power.
    – Kerry L
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 19:17
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    Recommended reading : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Mediterranean . Question should be closed, because very little prior research was done.
    – rs.29
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 19:37
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    @rs.29 Tom did show some research by reviewing the North Africa Campaign Wiki, he just missed the boat (sorry) a bit by failing to search further for Mediterranean topics. The See Also section of the North African Campaign wiki could be improved with a link to the Battle of Mediterranean article you pointed out. But to your point, yes - simple search to find that, so VtC.
    – Kerry L
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 19:48

4 Answers 4


The British Navy by-and-large had control of the Mediterranean. However, there were some caveats.

  • The successful German invasions of Greece and Crete showed that land-based command of the air trumped ship-based command of the seas. This meant the British could not safely enforce a naval blockade within easy reach of significant land-based airfields.
  • With apologies to Douglass Adams, the ocean is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to the ocean. Couple this with a less than limitless supply of ships, and its just not possible to make any blockade airtight.

What that in mind, it was quite possible for the Axis to keep a limited amount of troops supplied in North Africa by running the blockade with individual ships, and accepting the occasional loss. This was typically done as near as I can tell between Italian and Libyan ports (particularly Tobruk and Benghazi), with the main hazard being the need to skirt Malta and avoid British patrols.

Of course the more troops sent to North Africa, and the more offensive operations they engaged in, the more supplies would have to be run across, and the greater chance of the British being able to find and destroy most of them. So there would logically be a point of diminishing returns. Rommel was constantly running himself into supply problems, and there is a debate to this day about weather he would have been better off with a more defensive approach that didn't strain his supply chain so heavily.

  • Tripoli was, and remains, a much more substantial port than either Benghazi or Tobruk.It was also much less vulnerable to Allied air power, as only perpetually undersupplied Malta could interdict supplies to and from it. "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, ...." Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 21:47
  • The British were far less dominant in the Central Med, particularly after the Luftwaffe started patrolling it. Operation Pedestal is a dramatic example. It was a late 1942 attempt to resupply Malta. The obsolete carrier Eagle flew off aircraft, and was sunk by a submarine. The convoy took serious losses, and the vital tanker arrived in Malta lashed to a destroyer. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 22:44
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    "The successful German invasions of Greece and Crete showed that land-based command of the air trumped ship-based command of the seas." See also Guadalcanal, where the IJN largely controlled the waters around the island at night, and the US largely controlled the waters by day, due to the presence of land based airpower at Henderson Field.
    – Davidw
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 1:13
  • @T.E.D I downvoted the answer since it conveys two false impressions: first, the British did not control the Mediterrean by far. They did not control it in 1940, gain some controls by winning surface battles against Italian, but were still spoiled by Germand and Italian air power. Second, in Mediterranean sea the problem was not about the number of boats vs square miles of ocean (actually, sea), but a problem of putting them in Malta with enough supplies and with the threat of air attacks from mainland Italia. That is why British battleships were never based in Malta Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:51
  • @totalMongot - I think my first bullet there is saying pretty much exactly the same thing as your first point. I'm sorry if you don't find that clear. I'll think about what can be done, if anything, to clarify. The second...that's IMHO a side issue. Churchill's letters at the time made pefectly clear he at least felt that way. He was talking about preventing large invasions vs. small raids across the English Channel, not the Mediterranean, but if the problems of scale exist in the former, its far greater in the latter.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 18:16

Distance & Air Cover

To add some detail to T.E.D.'s answer, have a look at this (modern) map of the area.

enter image description here

The Allies landed at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers on 8 November. At the same time the British were finishing the 2nd Battle of El-Alamein and just beginning their drive west.

The Italian Navy was not doing well against the British alone. The arrival of the American fleet and aircraft decidedly tipped the balance of power in the Mediterranean in favor of the Allies. The US brought 3 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, 5 light cruisers, USS Ranger, and swarms of destroyers and escort carriers to the landings alone. A few weeks later the French Fleet at Toulon is scuttled removing the potential of being seized by Germany.

Air power was a different matter. The British were still thousands of miles away in Egypt. There's 700 km between Oran and Tunis outside the combat radius of many Allied fighter aircraft in 1942. It would take some time for the Americans to build up air bases in their newly liberated (...ish) territory.

The very next day the Germans start air lifting troops into Vichy controlled Tunis with a rapidity that took the Allies by surprise. Tunis is just 200 km from Axis-controlled Sicily. This means Axis convoys and airlifts could have air cover and for a while they had greater numbers of aircraft. The area was also heavily mined. Any Allied air or sea attack would be taking a great risk.

The Allies had tried to prevent the Axis build up with substantial air and sea forces but Tunis and Bizerta were only 190 km (120 mi) from the ports and airfields of western Sicily, 290 km (180 mi) from Palermo and 480 km (300 mi) from Naples, making it very difficult to intercept Axis transports which had the benefit of substantial air cover. From mid-November 1942 to January 1943, 243,000 men and 856,000 long tons (870,000 t) of supplies and equipment arrived in Tunisia by sea and air.

This map also shows the importance of Malta astride the shipping lanes between Italy and North Africa, and why it was so difficult to resupply. By the time of Operation Torch supplies were getting through, and raids from Malta began to cut into Axis shipping to North Africa.

But the weight of Allied numbers finally fell. In April 1943 they began Operation Flax to cut the air supply lines between Tunis and Sicily. They made sweeps attacking air convoys, their staging areas, and air bases whittling down the Italian merchant navy, German transport aircraft, and their escorts.

In May 1943 Operation Retribution ("retribution" for Royal Navy losses at Crete), the Allied naval blockade of Tunis with the order to "Sink, burn and destroy. Let nothing pass". There was no serious naval opposition and Tunis fell shortly after bagging some 230,000 POWs.

See Also

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    Yep, thanks. I’ve been looking forward to an answer that addressed the air factor.
    – Kerry L
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 20:21

Since you did not give a specific timeframe, I will answer for the all timeframe during which the battle for North Africa was active. So I will answer between the end of 1940 and the start of 1943.

Forces in 1940: The Germans have no forces at all in the Mediterranean Sea, since the Free Zone of France controls the coast. Italians have a good position, central in the Mediterranean, both in North in Italy and in South in Lybia. One speech of Mussolini states its will to conquer a new "Roman Empire" with a new Mare Nostrum.

Second, Greece was the target of Mussolini. In this action, the British loans a few air forces to the Greeks, which successfully repelled the offensive on the ground. Some air and naval battles occured along the East Meditteranean, mostly meetings where the Royal Navy had the upper hand with its better tactical coordination and its aircraft carriers.


  • Coordination: The Royal Navy was more effective in leaving its officers to their own ideas, and thus the light forces did a good scouting prior to battles. During confrontation, they were more mobile compared to the simple Italian tactics: a group of cruisers in front to find the force of the ennemies, a group of cruisers and battleships to wait for the bait to work, and fire on the approaching ennemy forces
  • Aircraft carriers: they were able to scout and to damage the heavy cruisers and battleships of the Italian Navy
  • Night fight: some British had the upper hand at night with the help of a radar able to detect ships and give its location with enough precision so that fire by torpedoes or guns could be aimed

The battle of the Matapan Cap is an example of such a fight.

-> Control of sea: Mostly British

In early 1941, the British were in a good position:

  • The Compass operation had capture East of Lybia
  • Greece stood against Italian attack
  • Air forces in the Middle East and Africa were upgrading their capabilities as long as fighters were delivered bu industry and left unused by the end of the Battle of Britain
  • The risk of French Vichy fleet came to and end with the battle of Mers El Kebir

Malta was partially reinforced by naval and air forces, and thus the island was able to cut the supplies of Italian forces in Africa.

-> Control of sea: British

But a few problems will arose and soon change the balance of forces:

  • First, the Italians were a problem in East Africa and the British used aviation against them
  • Second the Vichy forces in Syria were the same problem and the British needed a lot of air and naval forces against them
  • Prior to that fight, Rachid Ali, ministry of Irak, lead a riot that the British had to repel with ground and air forces
  • Finally, the German forces came into the fight against Greece and thus the British send ground and few air forces there

The Germans also sent forces in Sicily, aiming to bomb Malta: the air attacks were efficient against British air and naval forces on the island, and soon Axis convoys were able to send the Italian and German forces, with Erwin Rommel, in Libya.

Greece was progressively lost and in the meantime, Rommel made the conquest of East Lybia until he is stopped at Tobruk. This leads to new installation of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, who both started to attack British naval convoys over the sea (they tried to supply Malta and Tobruk, under siege).

In Greece and later in Creta, the Royal Navy looses important ships while trying to defend the island. Vichy forces are destroyed in Syria, but they were also able to inflict air and naval losses (not speaking of the fight on ground).

So the British are loosing good airbases in Creta and East Lybia and they had lost a lot of ships.

-> Control of sea: Axis in center of Mediterranean sea

During the spring of 1941, the Germans are progressively involving in the theater and multiple fights occur. In summer 1941, the involvement made its effect: Malta is under important pressure of the Axis forces. Multiple air battles occured over the island, but still, with the action of the K force and air attacks, the Axis loose a lotof its supplies between Italy and Lybia.

In the contrary, British are getting supplies by the Atlantic and the Indian ocean, but tactically fail to free Tokrouk with ground attacks. The Axis effort on the sea and the air is increasing. Italians are getting back some units, repaire after the battle of 1940 and the Tarente air raid. Notably the German Kriegsmarine sends U Bootes in the Mediterranean Sea.

From Summer to December 1941, the Allied situation is falling: the Japanese threat, the needs of warships for the Arctic convoys and the Atlantic is bleeding the resources of the Royal Navy. The losses are becoming higher and higher during convoys under air attacks, but also the battleship Barham and the carrier Ark Royal are sunk by German submarines. The K force, operatinf from Malta gets great successes but is decimated in a minefield.

But somehow, the British managed to win on the ground during operation Crusader. December 7th 1941, the Axis retreats from the siege of Tobrouk, but Japan enters the war.

-> Control of the sea: British pass convoys through, and inflict losses from Malta, but the Axis have more freedom of action in the central part. In the air, the Axis is able to massively bomb Malta.

So in the winter and spring of 1942, the Axis is getting the advantage. But still, tactically, the British are getting their head out of the water and they are able to pass convoys despite the combination of naval and air interceptions.

Why is that?

  • The German and Italian commanders are not well coordinated
  • British naval forces become better in countering the heavy bombing and torpedo aviation (like the Ju 88 and the Sm 79)
  • In Malta, Spitfire reinforcements are a good counterpart to the Luftwaffe, which single-engine fighters have not enough loiter time above Malta

-> Control of the sea: still Axis, and British have a harder time to pass convoys

The situation finally turns in favour of the Axis. With multiple bombings, Malta lost its harassment capability in the winter-summer 1942. The 2nd battle of Syrte shows still a tactical difficulty to coordinate, but a capability to harass Malta so high that even if British naval forces avoid Italian cruisers + battleship Littorio to reach the four-merchant convoy, the Axis aviation is able to destroy them in the neighbourhood of La Valette Harbour.

Rommel, well reinforced, is able to fight with success the Allies at Gazala, and he rechas El Alamein. The stall there is giving a chance to the Allies: It is time for Pedestal. This major convoy, the greater ever seen in the Mediterranean Sea, despite heavy losses caused by German and Italian aviation, submarines, minefileds and torpedo boats, passes to Malta with a few merchants. Enough to supply the island. Then carriers send aircrafts to Malta, and with a good coordination, the fighters are able to land, supply and get back in the air before the air raid called by Italian recon airplanes come in. They inflict losses tothe Luftwaffe.

From that time, the capacities of Malta will still increase.

-> Control of the sea: British again

Of course, Torch and the Second battle of El Alamein put the Allies in a better position. But Torch leads also the Germans to invade Tunisia, and their convoys will travel at a greater range from Malta. With little success at the Mareth line and Kasserine, the Axis is able to make the fight continue until 1943. But still, fighters based in Malta inflicts heavy losses to the six engines flying boats. Afrika Korps surrenders.

-> Control of the Mediterranean Sea: definitely Allies

  • Nice. Maybe yo can add en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raid_on_Alexandria_(1941)
    – Santiago
    Commented Jun 17, 2019 at 13:43
  • Thank you. Yes, the raid on Alexandria was in fact at a time where the British were having trouble on sea and in the air, while they were winning the operation "Crusader". It put out of service two battleships, a major dead end for the possibility of the Royal Navy along the loss of the Barham Commented Jun 17, 2019 at 17:19

In theory, the Italian navy controlled the Mediterranean. That's because it had the largest permanent navy in that sea, of six battleships, and eight cruisers.

There were several reasons why that theoretical control was tenuous at best. The first was that the Italian navy "punched below its weight."

The second was that the British had bases at Gibraltar in the west, and Alexandria (Egypt) in the east. The British had a larger navy overall. So the Mediterranean balance of power depended largely on the comings and goings of the British fleets at these bases.

The final change of control came with operation Torch, when the American navy came in, and the French navy was scuttled at Toulon. With the French out of the picture, and the Americans in, naval control in the Mediterranean passed to Allied hands permanently in November 1942.

  • Also, the Mediterranean is not that wide, and air power played a very important role in controlling the sea. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 0:01
  • The Italians were short a few aircraft carriers to contest the Mediterranean. Mussolini had this crazy belief that Italy itself was an unsinkable carrier. That was a stupid idea given the limited range of WWII fighters and torpedo bombers... Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 22:35
  • @Tom Au You're missing the point of the battles that the British won over Italian fleet: those battles reduce the power of Italian "big ships", and triggered the irruption of German air power in Mediterranean Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:52

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