As long as the narrow Straits of Sicily are guarded by Axis forces on both sides, the Mediterranean is closed to Allied convoys and invasion of Europe is impossible from the south.

If it’s hard to figure out why a little place called Tunisia is holding up Allied invasion plans of Europe, a look at the map should put you straight. That 300-mile battlefront is one of the most vital fronts of the whole war. With the Germans in Tunisia, the Mediterranean is of small use to the Allies; with the Mediterranean closed to the Allied convoys, invasion of Europe from the south is impossible.

German-held Tunisia cuts the Mediterranean right in two. Germany commands the North African side of the narrow Straits of Sicily; Italy commands the opposite side from strongly fortified Sicily. The distance is only 90 miles from the mainland to the island base.

The Allies fight in North Africa to clear this bottleneck; and that is why Tunisia is the key to the invasion of Europe. Allied shipping lines get into the Mediterranean on either end, but they can’t get through.

The direct routes to North Africa are bad enough. From New York to Gibraltar, U.S. ships have to travel 3,685 miles. From Gibraltar, it is still 297 miles to Oran by coastal road, 494 miles to Algiers. From Algiers, it is more than 400 miles over the most difficult terrain to Gen. Eisenhower’s troops. Distance from New York to Algiers, by sea, is 3,820 miles.

It is more than 3,600 miles from New York to Dakar, from where supplies must be shipped across Africa by plane, truck and railroad.

wwii mediterranean battles

wwii mediterranean battles

The maps, above, show how the closing of the Mediterranean affects U.S. shipping lines, with Italy and Germany dominating the vital Straits of Sicily.

But supplies to our Allies on the eastern side of the Mediterranean bottleneck, and to our soldiers stationed in Iran and Iraq must travel a much more circuitous route. It is 12,000 miles by way of the Cape of Good Hope to Alexandria;  it is approximately the same distance to Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf. With the Mediterranean open, this distance would be only 5,000 miles and the Allies could save from 10 to 20 valuable days getting supplies and equipment where it is needed.

Turkey’s present position would be greatly strengthened by the opening of the Mediterranean. Turkey’s President Inonu said, “We will do everything possible not to become involved in this war, but we know now that it is not within our power to remain out.”

With the Mediterranean open, the way would be clear to clean out the Axis troops in Crete and the Aegean Islands, thus supporting Turkey on her European front and opening the possibilities of a Balkan front into Europe.

Meanwhile, Rommel’s retreat in central Tunisia turned into a near rout, and Gen. von Arnim made thrusts in the north against the British positions at Medjez-el-Bab, Beja and the Djebel Aboid Pass. His obvious attempt was to pin the British First Army down so that it could not move south against Rommel’s badly beaten troops.

The Germans suffered heavy casualties, and made very slight gains. But they were accomplishing their purpose, which is to delay the Allied invasion of Europe until Hitler can dig himself in more securely.

Kasserine was retaken by the Allies and it was expected that the enemy would be forced to give up Feriana and Sbeitla.

Highly significant was the fact that light patrols of Gen. Montgomery’s Eighth Army swept around the Mareth Line to points where they were only 40 miles from Kasserine. The Eighth Army proper is still separated from central Tunisia, however, by the great salt marshes and the Mareth Line.

Wilhemshaven, the vital submarine base in Germany, was pounded furiously from the air by Allied planes, and Cologne was quivering under its 113th devastating raid. Lorient and St. Nazaire, U-boat bases on the coast of France, were reported to be out of commission.

For More Reading on the Mediterranean Campaigns Check Out:

Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily, 1943

The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau

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