In June 1940, as fighting was winding down in France, the pace of operations quickened in the Mediterranean. The area was vital for Britain, which needed to maintain access to the Suez Canal in order to remain in close contact with the rest of its empire. Following Italy"s declaration of war on Britain and France, Italian troops quickly seized British Somaliland in the Horn of Africa and laid siege to the island of Malta.
They also began a series of probing attacks from Libya into British-held Egypt.
That fall, British forces went on the offensive against the Italians. On November 12, aircraft flying from HMS Illustrious struck the Italian naval base at Taranto, sinking a battleship and damaging two others. During the attack, the British only lost two aircraft. In North Africa, General Archibald Wavell launched a major attack in December, Operation Compass, which drove the Italians out of Egypt and captured over 100,000 prisoners. The following month, Wavell dispatched troops south and cleared the Italians from the Horn of Africa.
Concerned by Italian leader Benito Mussolini"s lack of progress in Africa and the Balkans, Adolf Hitler authorized German troops to enter the region to assist their ally in February 1941. Despite a naval victory over the Italians at the Battle of Cape Matapan (March 27-29, 1941), the British position in the region was weakening.
With British troops sent north from Africa to aid Greece, Wavell was unable to stop a new German offensive in North Africa and was driven back out of Libya by General Erwin Rommel. By the end of May, both Greece and Crete had also fallen to German forces.
On June 15, Wavell sought to regain the momentum in North Africa and launched Operation Battleaxe.
Designed to push the German Afrika Korps out of Eastern Cyrenaica and relieve the besieged British troops at Tobruk, the operation was a total failure as Wavell"s attacks were broken on the German defenses. Angered by Wavell"s lack of success, Prime Minister Winston Churchill removed him and assigned General