Middle East / Mediterranean Theatre (World War 2, 20 December 1939 to 22 December 1942)

About This Campaign

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)




Battle of Matapan - 29 March 1941

The Battle of Matapan took place off the Western coast of Crete on 29th March 1941 and involved the Australian ships HMAS Perth and HMAS Stuart. Under British command, the cruisers HMAS Perth, HMS Orion, HMS Aajax, and HMS Gloucester, were ordered to a point off Gavdos Island, south of Crete to protect troop convoys bound for Greece, from attacks by the Italian Navy.

The Italian Fleet, comprising one battleship, eight cruisers, plus destroyers, was looking for the convoys also off Gavdos. The Allied ships were sailing into a potential disaster.

6am HMAS Perth and company were sighted by the Italians but at the same time the carrier HMS Formidable sighted the Italians.
7.45am HMAS Perth sighted the Italian cruisers, Bolzano, Trieste, and Trento.
8.12am the Italians opened fire. The Italian fire was very accurate and they were closing rapidly. HMS Gloucester, who had received most of the shelling, opened fire and at
8.53am HMS Orion started to make smoke to try and attract the covering battle fleet.
9am the Italians broke off the engagement so the allied cruisers turned to shadow them.
10.58am The new Italian battleship, Vittoria Veneto, appeared on the scene. The Allied ships were now caught between the battleship and three Italian cruisers. Vittorio Veneto commenced very accurate fire, firing ninety four shells. Fortunately the spread of shots was too wide, and HMAS Perth and HMS Orion were only lightly damaged. Hopelessly outgunned, the four Allied cruisers made a run for it under cover of a large smoke-screen.
They were now in a very dangerous position as the Italian battleship was driving them towards the Italian cruisers.
11.27am Fortuitously aircraft from HMS Formidable found and attacked Vittorio Veneto and she broke off the pursuit. HMAS Perth and the others now turned to follow and shadow the Vittorio Veneto. An attack by Formidable’s aircraft stopped the Italian cruiser Pola. The Italian cruisers Zara and Fiume to go to the assistance of hte Pola.
At 22.10 the radar on HMS Valiant detected the three cruisers at a range of only six miles. Illuminated by searchlights, the ships were pounded by 15” salvos from HMS Warspite and Valiant at point blank range. The Italians lost the three cruisers and the destroyers, Alfieri and Carducci plus 2400 men. HMAS Perth then returned to Piraeus and resumed patrols of the Aegean Sea.

The Battle of Matapan, was a resounding and essential Allied naval victory. Had the Italian cruisers managed to break into the sea routes between Egypt and Greece the result could have been disastrous for the Lustre Force convoys. The Italian fleet did not again factor in the campaign in Greece and Crete thereby enabling the evacuation of tens of thousands of Allied troops who would have otherwise been lost.


Battle of Cape Spada 19 July 1940

On 18 July 1940, HMAS Sydney captained by John Collins sailed from Alexandria in company with the destroyer HMS Havock bound for the Gulf of Athens. Together they had orders to support an allied flotilla consisting of HMS Hyperion, Hero, Hasty and Ilex in the Aegean Sea. They were to intercept any Italian shipping sailing east to west along the north coast of the island of Crete.

Collins, adjusted his course and speed so that he was better placed to provide support. In pre-radar days, dawn was often the most dangerous time of day and on 19 July this was to prove to be the case when at the western end of the sweep, they sighted two enemy Italian cruisers which soon opened fire. Collins, hundreds of miles closer than anyone realised, prepared his ship for action but maintained strict communications silence so as not to alert the enemy to his presence. At 08:20 the two Italian cruisers were sighted and with tension mounting, Sydney hoisted her battle ensigns and opened fire at a range of approximately ten miles. Both the enemy and the fleeing allied destroyers were taken by surprise at the sudden appearance of Sydney and before long hits were registered on one of the enemy cruisers, the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere.

By then all of the flotilla were in wireless contact with Sydney and the two groups joined forces north of Cape Spada , Crete . Sydney had scored hits on both enemy cruisers and it became apparent to Collins that they were attempting to retreat towards the Anti-Kythera Channel under cover of smoke. The enemy gunfire become sporadic at that point of the action and one of the cruisers, later identified as the Bartolomeo Colleoni, was seen to be on fire and losing headway, before coming to a complete stop.

Two of the allied destroyers, Hyperion and Ilex, were subsequently ordered to finish her off and pick up survivors. In all some 550 Italians, including her Captain, were rescued by the destroyers. During the action Sydney sustained just one hit to her forward funnel which caused only minor damage and no serious casualties.

Showing 2 of 2 stories


Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

SHIPARD, John Charles

Service number 416895
Flight Sergeant
No. 458 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 9 Apr 1916

GATWARD, Alan Arthur

Service number 272
Flying Officer
No. 3 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 21 Apr 1917


Service number 407427
Flight Lieutenant
Operational Training Units (RAF)
Royal Air Force
Born 9 Jun 1917

BACKHOUSE, Herbert Frederick

Service number 406323
Flight Sergeant
Born 25 Jan 1914

SWINBOURNE, Geoffrey Cook

Service number 432593
Flight Sergeant
1 (Middle East) Training School RAF
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 9 Aug 1924

WARE, Frank

Service number WX10711
2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 20 Apr 1908

BROWNE, Alexander Robert

Service number NX7672
2nd/1st Infantry Battalion
Australian Military Forces (Army WW2)
Born 13 Jun 1912

LESLIE, Kenneth James

Service number V335023
Flight Sergeant
No. 458 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 1 May 1922