(click image to enlarge)
The fall of Beda Fomm, Libya, on 7 February 1941 marked the end of Operation Compass, the first major Allied offensive of the North African campaign. In the ten weeks of the campaign, Allied forces had decisively defeated the Italian 10th Army, advancing 800km, destroying or capturing some 400 tanks and 1290 artillery pieces and capturing approximately 130,000 Italian and Libyan POWs.
This was a crippling blow to Italian control in North Africa, at a time when the combined Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan were attempting to consolidate their position in Europe, Africa and the Far East. In Europe, the Nazis were massing troops on the Soviet border in preparation for an invasion of the Soviet Union, which occurred in June 1941 under the name Operation Barbarossa. In the Far East, the Japan had successfully invaded French Indochina, and was planning to take advantage of the war in Europe by seizing resource-rich European possessions in Southeast Asia.
Shepard depicts Adolf Hitler and a Japanese soldier, representing Nazi Germany and Japan respectively, standing tall in their respective theatres of war, while Benito Mussolini, representing Italy, is shown sinking into the mud.
(Possible that the muddiness of the ground that Hitler and Mussolini are standing on/sinking into represent the ground of the ‘Near East’ muddied by war, whilst the Japanese soldier stands on solid, unmuddied ground, perhaps representing the fact that the Far East had not yet became a major theatre of war. If this is the case, Shepard seems to be ignoring the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937, in which thousands had already died. The sinking of Mussolini, despite clinging desperately onto Hitler, seems to indicate a belief that this defeat signaled the end of Italy as a significant member of the Axis. This was a little premature, as the reinforcement of North African Italian troops by the German Afrika Korps allowed a continuation of hostilities in North Africa, until the Axis finally were defeated in May 1943.)