Middle East / Mediterranean Theatre 1939-42
This campaign involved the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions of the Second AIF, the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force.
Fig 1. Map of the Mediterranean Theatre - www.naval-history.net
Australia Goes to War
Five destroyers of the Royal Australian Navy were the first Australian forces to arrive in the Mediterranean in December 1939, in what was to become the first major theatre of operations for Australian forces in World War II, under overall British Command. These ships later derisively labelled "The Scrap Iron Flotilla' by the Nazi propagandists, a title they bore with the characteristic ironic / laconic pride of their Australian crew, they were reinforced with major fleet units including HMAS Sydney and Perth and rendered stalwart service throughout the campaign.
Cape Matapan (/explore/campaigns/133) was arguably the most important Naval Action of the campaign.
RAAF units arrived in August 1940, based around No. 3 Squadron (/explore/units/709) equipped with Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters. Unlike the other Australian forces committed to this theatre of war, No. 3 Squadron remained in the Mediterranean for most of the rest of the war, initially as part of the Desert Air Force and later through the Italian campaign. It was equipped successively with P40 Kittyhawk fighters in which most of its operations were carried out, and finally North American P51 Mustangs. RAAF personnel also populated most RAF squadrons as part of the legion of 'odd-bod' Dominion aircrew spawned by the Empire Air Training Scheme.
At the start of 1940, the Army was mobilising but far from ready. Neglected in the 1920s and 30s, the Full Time Army was just 1500 men at the outbreak of war. A large militia force, with a derisive tag of their own , the "chockos", existed but they were poorly equipped and their training had not kept pace with the new tactical developments used to such devastating effect by the Germans in their subjugation of Western Europe in early 1940.
Drawing on legacy structures of its famous precursor, the AIF of WW1, but hampered by a prohibition on service overseas of the Militia, the Government quickly legislated to raise a Force for overseas service; the Second AIF. Three divisions, the 6th, 7th and later the 9th were earmarked and were duly despatched for service in the Middle East / Mediterranean. A re-structure took place as some units were initially sent to the UK to help stem the possibility of a Nazi invasion.
By the second half of 1940 the AIF began arriving in Egypt, just as their fathers had, 25 years previously. The 6th Division was the first to consolidate and took part in the early actions. In fact some men were returning for a second appearance! Army commitments in this theatre are dealt with in greater detail in specific campaign pages on this site and include the following:
Libya North Africa (/explore/campaigns/107) - (6th Division)
Greece - Operation Lustre (/explore/campaigns/10) (6th Division)
Crete - Operation Mercury (/explore/campaigns/134) (6th Division)
Syria - Operation Exporter (/explore/campaigns/16) (7th Division)
Siege of Tobruk (/explore/campaigns/85) - (9th Division)
El Alamein (/explore/campaigns/53) (9th Division)