Denied access to Continental Europe by France's collapse in 1940, Britain and eventually the United States had to concentrate their efforts in the Mediterranean. In the long run this strategic reality allowed the Anglo-American powers to build up their capabilities, numbers and battlefield knowledge to the point where they could confront the Wehrmacht more equally. The British recognized the advantages of a Mediterranean strategy; the Americans had to be dragged into committing themselves to that theater. Air power played a number of important roles in the Mediterranean. It proved particularly useful in the defense of Malta and in reaching out from that island to attack Rommel's supply lines to Libya. When RAF capabilities provided a modicum of protection to Malta, Allied air and sea power devastated Axis convoys. When, however, the Luftwaffe turned the tables on the British, as with the arrival of Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 in November 1941, Rommel's supplies arrived with few losses. Thus, the air situation on Malta had a direct and palpable influence on the course of ground operations in Libya and Egypt.
In the desert the RAF was under the command of one of the most innovative and imaginative commanders of the Second World War, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. He proved an apt student of the actual conditions of war. The RAF in the Middle East gave priority to tasks which the air staff had regarded with disdain throughout the interwar period: first, it would gain air superiority; second, it would attack Axis supply lines; and third, it would support the army in its ground battles with the Afrikakorps. Deployment of British air power to the Mediterranean involved a great logistic system that flew aircraft across the great expanses of central Africa and then up the Nile valley.
Under Tedder's leadership the RAF proved an innovative and effective instrument of military power in the Mediterranean theater. But no matter how effective it was, air power could not make up for the severe deficiencies in British Army doctrine, training and intellectual preparation. The results showed all too clearly in the Gazala battles of May and June 1942; air power alone could not override the British Army's incompetence and the German army's battle effectiveness. Moreover, in spring 1942 the Luftwaffe had sufficient resources in theater to contest with the RAF directly over the battlefield. Nevertheless, claims on both sides were at times dubious.
The appearance of Bernard Law Montgomery, one of the nastiest but most effective generals of the war, ushered in a new era in RAF-army co-operation. Montgomery understood the value of co-operation with the RAF, and Tedder fully supported his subordinates in developing it. By collocating his headquarters with Montgomery's, Air Vice Marshal Arthur Alan Conningham, commander of RAF ground support forces in the theater, provided the desert army with unheard-of responsiveness. But Tedder also understood the need for a wider air campaign to drive the Luftwaffe from the skies and to prevent the arrival of the supplies on which the Afrikakorps depended.
It was air power in its widest applications that helped the Eighth Army overcome the Afrikakorps's battle effectiveness at EI Alamein in late October 1942. Even before the battle, the RAF had severely damaged Rommel's supply lines across the Mediterranean and disrupted movement between ports in Libya and the front line. Equally important, RAF fighters established air superiority, so that the air commanders could concentrate the RAF on impeding the movement of Rommel's forces and on support of the ground battle. Montgomery's victory was quite different from early British victories in the desert. In a sustained battle of attrition in which air power provided direct support as well as interdiction strikes for Commonwealth troops, Montgomery's Eighth Army broke the Afrikakorps, first by denying it mobility and then by fighting the battle on British terms. EI Alamein heralded the bold stroke of Anglo-American sea power, Operation Torch, against French North Africa - a strike which occurred on the far side of the African continent from Egypt.
Hitler replied to Torch by flying paratroopers over to seize Tunisia and then following up with major reinforcements - far larger forces than those he had denied Rommel in summer 1942. Rommel's retreat across Libya was sufficiently skilled to get his forces to Tunisia and to launch a surprise attack in January 1943 on the exposed and ill-trained American forces at the Kasserine Pass before the British caught up from the east. Moreover, the Luftwaffe gave Allied air forces in Algeria serious trouble, while the arrangements between air and ground in Algeria were considerably behind the procedures that the desert air force and army had already worked out.
In fact, the reinforcing Axis forces in Tunisia were in an impossible strategic position. Once Allied air forces had sorted themselves out, they imposed a stranglehold on Axis supply lines. Ultra decrypts provided detailed intelligence of the movement of those supplies by sea and air; by the end of March, Allied air attacks had closed down the movement of shipborne supplies. The Luftwaffe then made a desperate attempt in April and early May to supply hard-pressed Axis troops by an aerial bridge, but this was no more successful than the Stalingrad effort. The results were even more devastating, as Allied fighter forces, alerted by decrypts, consistently intercepted and decimated transport formations. But Axis leadership in the theater, did not do much to help; Johannes Steinhoff, the great German ace, traveling through Italy in early 1943 on his way to take up command in Tunisia, was astonished by the luxury and comfort of Kesselring's staff. The great man himself, according to Steinhoff's memoirs, was completely out of touch with combat conditions and was sickenly optimistic. Ultra decrypts indicated that Kesselring was pressing his fighter pilots throughout the battle to act with the fanaticism of the Japanese. Not surprisingly, the Luftwaffe suffered casualties that it could not afford.
German troubles in the theater were, however, only beginning. With the collapse of the Tunisian pocket, Allied air forces turned their attention to destroying German and Italian air power throughout Sicily and southern Italy in preparation for Operation Husky - the code name for the invasion of Sicily. By now Allied aircraft based in North Africa were attacking industrial targets in northern Italy. The response of US air commanders in the Mediterranean to actual combat conditions indicates that they were better able to adapt in that theater than was the case in England. As early as May 1943, Major-General James Doolittle, commander of the Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean, was warning General Hap Arnold, commander of the US Army Air Force, that large formations of heavy bombers would not survive against strong Luftwaffe opposition unless accompanied by long-range escort fighters.
The preparation for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and that of Italy in September 1943 precipitated the last great air battles in the Mediterranean. By now, the Luftwaffe was unable to stand up to Allied numbers. In his depressing memoirs covering the fighting over Sicily, Steinhoff records the terrible pressure on German fighter squadrons, where the new pilots died almost immediately, while the experienced simply lasted a bit longer. For a loss of over 1,000 aircraft in July and August, the Luftwaffe achieved little but to deplete further its own force structure and make it less able to withstand the swelling pressure of the Combined Bomber Offensive.