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World War II in Colour (2009–…): Season 1, Episode 6 - The Mediterranean and North Africa - full transcript


[theme music plays]

[background music over dialogue]

[bombs exploding]

[cannon fire]

[woman crying]

[cheering]

[narrator] As Hitler marched triumphantly

across western Europe
in the early summer of 1940,

his fellow dictator in Italy,
Benito Mussolini,

dreamt of a similar campaign
further south.

[Mussolini speaking in Italian]

[cheering]

His dream was to build
a new Roman empire

that would see Italy expand not only
along the northern Mediterranean coast,

but south through North Africa.

He would turn the Mediterranean
into Mare Nostrum, our sea.

[propellers whirling]

But it was a dream that
would turn into a disaster.

It would lead in due course
to Mussolini's death

and fatally overextend
his German ally.

[background music over dialogue]

[cheering]

At the start of the war
Italy already controlled Libya

and Abyssinia, Ethiopia today.

Mussolini calculated that if he could take
British controlled Egypt and Sudan,

he would be able to create a huge swathe
of Italian-controlled territory.

[engine sputtering]

It looked like an easy campaign.

Italy had ten times more troops
in the region than Britain.

[soldiers marching]

[airplanes roaring]

In September 1940,
Mussolini invaded Egypt

and captured the small
coastal town of Sidi Barrani.

There the Italians stopped and dug in.

Britain gathered all available
forces for a counterattack.

On December the 6th, 1940,
they moved in across the desert.

[explosions]

Just four days later,
they overran the Italian defences.

[explosions]

Nearly 40,000 Italians
were taken prisoner.

[indistinct chatter]

It was the first sign

that the Italian Army was
in poor fighting shape.

The remainder of the defeated Italians
retreated back across the Libyan border.

The British followed in hot pursuit.

In barely a month,
the Western Desert Force,

as it was called, had advanced
almost 600 miles across Libya.

It now paused and dug in at
the Libyan coastal town of El Agheila.

Almost half of Italy's Libyan empire
had been seized

and over 100,000 Italian troops
taken prisoner.

Meanwhile, to the south, British forces
invaded Italian controlled Abyssinia.

[explosions]

The fighting lasted for nearly
12 months.

The rugged terrain made
communications and transport difficult.

[background music over dialogue]

But in the end, the Italians
were forced to surrender.

[soldiers marching]

But even as Abyssinia
was being secured,

Mussolini's empire-building
was causing problems

in another part of the Mediterranean.

Nearly two years earlier
in April 1939,

as part of his plan
for a new Roman empire,

Mussolini had occupied Albania.

[cheering]

The following year he demanded
Greece become an Italian colony.

When the Greeks refused, he invaded.

[explosions]

The Greeks were outnumbered
more than two to one.

But they swiftly turned
back the Italian advance.

[explosions]

By the beginning of March 1941,

the Italians had not only
been pushed out of Greece,

but out of much of
neighbouring Albania too.

Britain's Prime Minister,
Winston Churchill,

promised help so
the Greeks could finish the job.

But Britain's forces were already
heavily committed elsewhere.

So it was that the British units
in North Africa were told

to abandon their Libyan adventure
and ship much of the force

across the Mediterranean
to Albania.

As the Italian troops
were now pushed back,

Mussolini's Balkan ambitions fell apart.

The Italians were in deep trouble.

[background music over dialogue]

It left Hitler with a problem.

Should he divert troops
from elsewhere in Europe

to support his most
important European ally

or should he abandon Mussolini
to his fate?

He decided to help.

In April 1941, over half a million
German troops swept down

into Yugoslavia and Greece.

For Germany,
it would prove to be the beginning

of a fateful entanglement
with Mussolini's political dreams.

[gun firing]

But at first, all went well.

[explosions in distance]

The Greeks, despite British help,
were unable to hold the Germans back.

And in late April, the Axis forces
captured the Greek capitol of Athens.

Some 30,000 men were evacuated
to the British controlled island of Crete.

[background music over dialogue]

Hitler decided to flush them out.

[background music over dialogue]

He had at his command
some 22,000 parachute

and glider borne troops backed up
by 150 Stuka dive bombers.

The landings began at first light
on May the 20th.

[airplanes roaring]

To begin with, they focused
on the main airfields.

[gun firing]

The Allied forces were overstretched.

There were incessant German air attacks.

[airplanes buzzing]

[explosion]

[machine gunfire]

The Germans soon captured the airfields
and began to fly in reinforcements.

The allies were pushed back
across the island.

[explosions]

Two weeks later, it was all over.

Fifteen thousand allied troops
had to be evacuated.

A further 18,000 were taken prisoner.

The Axis powers now controlled
much of the Mediterranean

and the critical supply routes
to North Africa.

It looked as though Hitler's decision
to support Mussolini had paid off.

He was poised to drive Britain
out of the entire region.

In February 1941,
a junior German general arrived

at the Libyan port of Tripoli.

Erwin Rommel was one of
the rising stars of the German Army

and had been chosen by Hitler
as the man to rescue his Italian ally

and retake North Africa
for the Axis powers.

The first units of his Afrika Korps
were soon landing.

Some 16,000 men and over 100 tanks
had been diverted

from the European front.

The Axis forces rapidly outnumbered
the British troops,

depleted by the war
in Greece and Crete.

Rommel advanced towards the British
positions at El Agheila and attacked.

[explosions]

As the British fell back,
Rommel pursued them.

In a matter of weeks the Allied soldiers
had been pushed all the way back

to the Egyptian border.

But in the retreat a division

of Australian troops had been
cut off by the Germans

in the Libyan port of Tobruk.

The British Commander,
Sir Archibald Wavell,

now launched two successive
attempts to relieve them.

[explosions]

Both were fought off by Rommel's
now well-encamped troops.

[explosions]

The Germans massively
out gunned the British.

Their 88 millimetre anti-aircraft guns,

when used against tanks,
far outranged the British.

Moreover, Rommel took advantage
of the wide open landscape

to drive his tanks around
the British forces,

outflanking them time and time again.

It would become his trademark tactic.

The British press half grudgingly,
half admiringly,

nicknamed Rommel the Desert Fox.

For Wavell, it was too much.

Now exhausted, he was replaced
by General Claude Auchinleck.

Auchinleck came
under immediate pressure

to try and again to relieve
the allied troops in Tobruk.

[background music over dialogue]

But he refused until
his forces had been reinforced.

[background music over dialogue]

Then on November the 18th, 1941,
he launched a major assault.

[explosions]

[explosions]

Operation Crusader, as it was called,
started with a lengthy armoured dogfight.

[explosions]

Again, the British tanks
suffered heavy casualties.

But the infantry slowly moved forward.

Finally, after a month
of confused fighting,

Rommel retreated.

Tobruk had been relieved.

The Axis units fell back
along the coast all the way

to their starting point at El Agheila.

Auchinleck's military command
now assumed Rommel was a spent force,

at least for the time being.

Its units were dispersed
to bases along the coast

for a badly needed refit.

It was a mistake.

Two months later in January 1942,

Rommel's Afrika Korps
was back on the attack.

[explosions]

It quickly brushed aside the forward units
of a now unprepared British Army.

[cheering]

The chase along the coast of Africa
began all over again.

[indistinct chatter]

The allies fell back towards a new
defensive line just west of Tobruk.

Here a series of defensive positions,

known as the Gazala Line,
were constructed.

[explosions]

Rommel attacked it
at the end of May 1942.

[explosions]

[explosions]

Once again, he swung his armour
around the British forces

in a great outflanking movement

and came in behind
the British positions.

But this time the British
were prepared for it

and tried, in turn,
to outflank Rommel.

[explosions]

[explosions]

The fighting lasted for three weeks,

as each side tried to
outmanoeuvre the other.

Eventually,
the British were forced to retreat.

Three days later the Germans
overran the Allied positions.

[indistinct chatter]

Rommel pressed home his advantage.

[explosions]

The British withdrawal threatened
to become a rout.

Finally, Auchinleck
turned to face his enemy

at the Egyptian village of El Alamein.

His southern flank rested
on the Qattara Depression,

an area impassable to tanks.

[background music over dialogue]

On July the 1st, 1942,

Rommel attacked again.

[explosions]

But this time the British defences held.

[explosions]

[explosions]

Rommel, with his supply line stretched

and now seriously short of fuel
was forced to give up.

[explosions]

Now Auchinleck attempted
a counterattack.

For the rest of July the two sides pushed
at each other like exhausted boxers.

[explosions]

Churchill was furious at the lack
of British progress and now visited Egypt.

[cheering]

It was time for yet another
change of leadership.

Auchinleck was replaced
by not one but two generals.

General Harold Alexander as
Commander in Chief, Near East,

[background music over dialogue]

and General Bernard Montgomery
as commander of 8th Army.

The British and Axis forces
had fought each other to a standstill.

[background music over dialogue]

There was no clear winner.

And the fate of North Africa
still hung in the balance.

[background music over dialogue]

Everything would now depend

on whether the British could throttle
the Axis supply routes

across the Mediterranean.

For the first months of World War II

the allies had enjoyed
unchallenged control

of the Mediterranean Sea.

Britain's own supplies

from the Middle East passed
through it undisturbed.

And communications with the empire
in India and the Far East were secured.

Italy's entry into the war
changed all that.

Its naval fleet was
modern and well equipped.

The Italians now concentrated their fire

on the strategically crucial
British controlled island of Malta.

The island was
an important refuelling base

for British submarines and aircraft
in the eastern Mediterranean.

It had become the centre
for Royal Navy attacks

on Italian and German supply convoys
to North Africa.

In summer 1940, Italy bombed it.

[explosions]

It was the beginning of a two-year assault
which would inflict terrible suffering

on the island's population.

[airplanes roaring]

Yet for all Malta's
strategic significance,

Britain was caught on the hop.

[airplanes buzzing]

[explosions]

There were no fighter aircraft
on the island to beat off the attacks.

[explosion]

Then almost by accident
four gladiator fighter biplanes

were found in crates on the island.

They were hastily assembled.

The aircraft put up a fierce resistance.

[machine gunfire]

For three weeks the fate of Malta
remained uncertain.

[airplanes roaring]

Then finally, British fighter
reinforcements arrived.

And the Italian bombers
were temporarily beaten off.

[airplane buzzing]

[indistinct chatter]

But it was now obvious to the British that
they had to do something if they were

to keep a toehold in the region.

That winter Britain launched
what it hoped would be a knockout blow

against the Italian Navy.

[airplane buzzing]

On the evening of November the 11th,

twenty-one Swordfish torpedo bombers
lifted off an aircraft carrier.

They swept in on the Italian fleet,

anchored in its base at Taranto.

[airplanes buzzing]

The Italians hadn't expected it.

[explosion]

Three of Italy's six
battleships were crippled.

Four months later, Britain struck again.

The Italian fleet was again caught
off guard off the coast of Greece.

[explosions]

[explosions]

A fourth Italian battleship was damaged.

Mussolini's challenge to
the British Navy was finished.

It was a turning point for Hitler too.

[background music over dialogue]

It was now clear that Italy
could no longer be depended

on to maintain control
of the Mediterranean.

It meant his supply lines to North Africa
were at risk of being cut off.

Germany decided to take a direct hand.

[airplanes roaring]

In early 1941,
the Luftwaffe bombed Malta.

[sirens blaring]

[airplanes roaring]

[explosion]

The island took another severe battery.

[airplane roaring]

The attacks continued month after month.

[explosions]

Yet the British garrison hung on.

During an interlude
in the German bombardment

in autumn 1941, it even
managed to step up its attacks

on the Axis supply
convoys to North Africa.

[machine gunfire]

[airplane roaring]

Then the Luftwaffe resumed the assault.

But despite the battering,
the people of Malta held on.

[indistinct chatter]

The following spring in April 1942,
they received a unique honour

for the heroism they had shown
on the four months

of devastating Axis bombardment.

The island was awarded
the George Cross,

Britain's highest award
for civilian courage.

[indistinct chatter]

[airplane roaring]

But by the summer of 1942,

Malta was running short of
supplies and ammunition.

In mid-June the British Navy sent convoys
from Gibraltar and Egypt to relieve it.

But the Germans were waiting.

[airplane roaring]

[explosions]

Just two of the 17 ships got through.

The situation on the island
was getting desperate.

It was time for some decisive action.

In August, Britain launched
Operation Pedestal,

the biggest convoy ever sent to Malta.

Fourteen merchant ships
entered the Mediterranean

through the Straits of Gibraltar.

They were accompanied
by a large naval escort.

[airplanes buzzing]

Almost immediately they
ran into German opposition.

[explosion]

For three days there was
a ferocious sea battle as Axis submarines

and aircraft attempted to stop
and sink the convoy.

[explosion]

[airplane buzzing]

[machine guns]

[explosions]

Finally, on the fourth day,

five of the British merchant ships
made it into port.

[crowd cheering]

They brought with them
just enough supplies

to keep the island going.

Malta had been rescued.

It meant the allies could continue

to harass the Axis supply lines
to North Africa.

[machine gunfire]

It was a strategic advantage
that would prove crucial

to future events in the region.

[explosions]

In North Africa,
Churchill's orders to his new team,

Generals Alexander and Montgomery,
were simple.

Destroy the army commanded
by Field Marshall Rommel.

[background music over dialogue]

Almost immediately they were informed

by the team that had broken
Germany's enigma code

that Rommel was
preparing to attack them.

[background music over dialogue]

Montgomery assumed the Desert Fox
would try another of his outflanking moves

and fortified the ridge of Alam Halfa,
just to the southeast of El Alamein.

It was, he hoped, the rock on which
the Axis forces would be broken.

[explosions]

When it came,
the fighting lasted for three days.

[airplanes roaring]

[explosions]

This time Allied ground forces
were helped by air power.

[explosions]

The RAF played havoc
with the advancing German tanks.

Rommel was forced to give up.

And short of fuel again,
he pulled back.

It was now Rommel's turn to dig in.

He chose a line between the impassable

sand sea of the Qattara Depression

and the Mediterranean coast.

Great belts of minefields
were covered by artillery.

Rommel's Panzer divisions were
held back as a mobile reserve

to destroy any Allied breakthroughs.

Montgomery was well aware
it was a formidable barrier.

He also knew it was
impossible to outflank it.

His only option is to punch his way
directly through the middle

of the Axis defences.

He was helped by
a flood of new equipment

from the United States,

which included the new
American Lee and Sherman tanks

with 75 millimetre guns.

At last, the Allies had a weapon
which could match the Germans.

[indistinct chatter]

Finally, on the evening
of October the 23rd, 1942,

the British opened up an artillery
bombardment on Rommel's positions.

[explosions]

The Battle of El Alamein had begun.

[explosions]

Under cover of the bombardment,

Allied engineers moved
forward to clear paths

through the Axis minefields.

[explosions]

[explosions and gunfire]

The British, Australian, New Zealand,
and South African divisions fought

to drive a hole through
Rommel's defences.

[explosions]

Rommel's artillery took a terrible toll.

Casualties mounted on both sides.

The Axis forces were harried
by Allied air power.

[explosions]

Finally, after ten days of fighting,
the Allied forces broke through.

The following day Rommel retreated.

It was Germany's first major defeat
at the hands of the western allies.

Churchill was triumphant.

[Churchill] No, this is not the end.

This is not even the beginning of the end.

Though what it is perhaps
the end of the beginning.

[narrator] For two and a half months
Montgomery chased Rommel west

along the North African coast
towards Tunisia.

[explosions]

Meanwhile, an Anglo American force
had landed a thousand miles to his rear

in French North Africa,
Morocco and Algeria today.

[machine gunfire]

[water splashing]

It was code named Operation Torch.

The Allied 1st Army was soon moving
eastwards towards Tunisia.

Rommel was in danger of
being attacked from behind.

[airplanes roaring]

Over the next few days the Germans flew
in tens of thousands of troops from Europe

to save Rommel and shore up
the German position in North Africa.

Finally, in late February 1943,
Rommel, reinforced,

set up a new defensive line
a hundred miles inside Tunisia

and turned to attack
Montgomery's advancing forces.

[roaring]

But Montgomery had been forewarned
by the enigma code breakers.

And his troops were waiting as
the German tanks rolled forward.

[explosions]

British artillery broke up the assault
and the Panzers were quickly halted.

It was Rommel's last battle
in North Africa.

He now returned to Germany

to beg Hitler to abandon
the North African campaign.

But Hitler refused.

It was a misjudgement.

As Montgomery's 8th Army now
pushed up from the south,

the Anglo American 1st Army
squeezed in from the west.

On May the 7th, US forces took
the port of Bizerta.

The British 7th Armour Division,
the famous Desert Rats, drove into Tunis.

[cheering]

The Allies pincer closed,
and the Axis troops were trapped.

Five days later, a quarter of a million
German and Italian soldiers surrendered.

It was more than twice the number
that had surrendered

at Stalingrad four months earlier.

For Germany, it was
another momentous disaster.

The following day, the British
regional commander in chief,

General Harold Alexander,
signalled Winston Churchill,

"Sir, it is my duty to report that
all enemy resistance has ceased.

We are the masters of
the North African shores."

Mussolini's gamble in North Africa had
taken a terrible toll on German resources.

[explosions]

It was about to have even
more serious consequences

for both him and Germany.

[background music over dialogue]

In January 1943, at a conference
in the Moroccan city of Casablanca,

Churchill and Roosevelt
agreed to open a new front

on German dominated Europe.

[background music over dialogue]

The obvious target was Italy seriously
weakened by its North African failures.

The only question was

where should the invasion begin?

Should the route go
via Sardinia or Sicily?

The Allied high command
chose the Sicilian route.

But to throw the Germans off the scent,
they organised a deception plan.

[background music over dialogue]

Operation Mincemeat was launched.

A corpse was dropped off the shores
of Spain carrying false papers.

When it was washed ashore
in May 1943

and the papers passed
to the Germans,

they revealed that the Allies
would pretend to attack Sicily

but that their real target was Sardinia.

[background music over dialogue]

Enigma code breakers soon confirmed
the Germans had fallen for it.

[Morse code beeping]

Six weeks later, the British 8th Army
under Montgomery landed

in the southeast corner of Sicily.

The Italian coastal troops
presented few problems.

Further west, the US 7th Army
landed in the Gulf of Gela.

[explosions]

The Italian resistance
was again overwhelmed.

[explosions]

[machine gunfire]

For the Italian people the invasion
of Sicily was the final humiliation.

[cheering]

Mussolini was overthrown
in a popular uprising.

[cheering]

The new government now opened secret
talks with the Allies for an armistice.

[horns beeping]

For Hitler, it was another nightmare.

He was now forced to pour in
yet more scarce resources

to protect his southern flank.

He told his commanders
that even if Italy surrendered,

they should fight on.

Within five weeks the Germans
had been pushed out of Sicily.

The Allies now crossed to the main land
and pushed up through the country.

US troops moved up the west side.

British troops moved up the east.

[explosions]

The Germans fought back savagely
all the way.

[explosions]

Even so, Naples fell to the Allies
on October the 1st, 1943.

But then their progress was slowed

by autumn rains and skilful
German rear guard attacks.

[machine gunfire]

It was not until the end of November

that Allied forces finally
reached the Gustav Line,

the first of a series of German
defensive positions cutting across Italy.

British troops managed to break through
at the eastern end of the line,

but winter was setting in.

And bad weather forced them to halt.

Nevertheless, in the west,

US forces attempted to outflank
the German defences by taking to the sea.

[explosions]

They landed on January the 22nd, 1944,

sixty miles to the north
of the point of Anzio.

[explosions]

But here, amidst fierce fighting,

they were pinned down and
nearly driven back into the sea.

The Americans remained trapped
at Anzio

for the rest of the winter
and into the spring.

Meanwhile, in the centre of Italy,
the key to breaking the Gustav Line

was the towering Monte Cassino
mountain complex.

[explosions]

As spring came, there was
a series of attempts to capture it.

[machine gunfire]

[explosions]

[gunfire]

Each assault failed.

[machine gunfire]

[airplanes roaring]

In desperation, the Allies bombed
a historic monastery on the summit.

[explosions]

But the Germans hung on.

[machine gunfire]

[explosions]

[machine gunfire]

Finally, in late spring 1944,

as the weather improved, the Allied forces
broke through the German lines.

Simultaneously,
the Americans broke out of Anzio.

The Allied forces now moved
swiftly north to Rome.

[cheering]

The Italian capitol was liberated
on June the 4th, 1944.

[cheering]

For Hitler, it was another blow.

He was now hanging on to Italy
by his fingernails.

The Allies continued to push north.

[explosions]

[roaring]

The German defenders finally fell back

to the formidable Gothic Line,
just north of Florence.

Here bad weather again brought
the Allied advance to a halt.

It wouldn't be until the spring of 1945
that the campaign could resume

and Italy was finally won.

[cheering]

By then the Italians had had enough
of Mussolini.

He was captured by Italian partisan forces
and shot.

His corpse was hung
by its heels in Milan.

Mussolini's war had been a catastrophe
for himself and his country.

It had also left the German southern flank
dangerously exposed.

The German Army was now
overcommitted,

short of troops,
and retreating on all fronts.