While the Pacific ocean was on the other side of the world, far closer to home for the British was the Mediterranean, where there were also many problems.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 88 - The British Empire Pt. 3 - Mare Nostrum. This week a big thank you goes out to Rafael for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member. Members get ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special member only episodes released roughly once a month, you can head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Due to the fact that it spanned the globe, there were many different areas of the British Empire that had to be defended during a conflict, especially one that involved multiple different nations. There was the Far Eastern areas in the Pacific and Indian Ocean which we touched on last episode, there were the areas around the home islands in Europe, and then in between there was the Mediterranean which we will focus on today. The Mediterranean was a critical area when it came to the defense of the empire, but when it came down to specifically how it should be defended, and how to secure the necessary funds to do so, things got a bit more tricky. During this episode we are going to focus on two specific topics around the British efforts in the Mediterranean, Malta and Egypt. Entering into the interwar period Malta was the traditional base of the Royal Navy, but then before the Second World War it would be downgraded in response to all of the new threats that it faced. While it was recognized that the increasing striking power of aircraft meant that the Royal Navy could not keep its primary base at Malta, it was a political necessity that it continued to be defended. The question became how to secure rearmament funds for the defense of Malta when there were a whole list of other efforts that also had to be funded. One of those efforts was the defense of Egypt. Egypt was and would remain a critical imperial outpost in the Eastern Mediterranean, but the relationship between London and Cairo had changed in the years after the First World War when some level of local autonomy was given to Egypt and its government. Egyptian political concerns aside, Egypt and the Suez Canal would always be seen as a critical link in the British Empire. There was of course one problem, the growing antagonism of Italy, which demanded a response, and such responses meant more money and more resources had to be sent to Egypt.
Before we get to Egypt, we need to talk about Malta. The island of Malta was an important base for the Royal Navy, and it was the primary base for the fleet in the theater, which meant that its defense was important to the continued operation of the Royal Navy. But there was a problem after the first world war, how to defend it. The will was there, but the resources were a bit more challenging. After the Washington naval Treaty had been signed the total number of combat vessels in the Royal Navy was drastically reduced, and there was little ability to meaningfully expand the fleet in the years that followed. There were also severe monetary constraints placed on all branches of the British military, with the 10 year rule used for planning, which stipulated that the British military should be planning and budgeting like it would not be required to enter a major conflict for the following 10 years. This monetary crunch meant that the Navy was resistant to using its own resources to increase the defenses on Malta, and os the primary contribution would have to be made by the Army. The RAF would also plan to base several squadrons of aircraft on the island. However, financial constraints also prevented these contributions from being made during the 1920s, which in the end would prove to not be a major problem because there would not be a war during those 1920s. On the island itself, as with so many other areas of British imperial control around the world, the 1920s were a period of political reform. There had been growing calls for greater political autonomy to be given to the Maltese people and their elected government, and in 1921 this would result in the creation of a new constitution. Under this new document several areas of control were given to the local government, although certain topics were reserved for the Governor who was in the service of the Empire, the most important of these, at least to our podcast, was the area of defense. This new arrangement started to cause problems just years after it was finalized, problems rooted in many causes. Three of the most important were the political conflicts between the largest political party, the Constitutional Party, and the Catholic church; The influence of the Italian government on the Nationalist party, which the British were very concerns about; and the economic problems experienced on the islands as thousands of jobs were lost due to the reduction in British military spending on the island after the First World War. Entire industries had been built up around servicing the needs of the Royal Navy on Malta, especially around the dockyards and the repair and refit of ships, and these sectors were decimated by naval budget cuts that saw these activities drastically reduced in scope. The economic problems then caused British concern that the island would enter into a period of great societal unrest, which would be very bad for British interests, with the worldwide economic downturn after 1929 just heightening this concerns. This resulted in a solution being found in 1930, and the Constitution, not even a decade old, was suspended. This suspension continued for 2 years, while a Royal Commission met to discuss reforms that could be made. One of these would be a drastic reduction in the use of the Italian language in the government, courts, and schools, with it being replaced by both Maltese and English. After this and other changes were made another round of elections were held in 1932, and in that election the Nationalist Party would gain the most support. The Nationalist party was the one that had strong ties to Italy, and one of the changes it made was to reverse the language restrictions, with Italian brought back into the schools. There would also be other topics where the new government would be at odds with London, and in London after some consideration a solution was once again found, in November 1933 the Constitution was suspended yet again.
While all of these political events were occurring, the defense of the island was still a topics of great discussion. This was also a period when the best way to defend an island like Malta was not exactly clear, due to the rising power of airpower. Traditionally such islands, or coastal cities like Singapore, would be defended by coastal batteries which would be used to directly attack enemy ships that came within range. However, with aircraft becoming more capable every year, there were many within the airpower community that believed that everything that coastal guns could do aircraft could in fact to better, cheaper, and with more versatility. The Committee of Imperial Defense was not convinced by these arguments and in the early 1930s the investments that would be made in Malta were focused around increasing the firing angles of existing shore batteries, which would extend their range, and then adding more anti-aircraft guns. Air attack was a series concern during the 1920s, due to Malta’s close proximity to Italian air bases on Sicily, some of which were just 60 miles away. The Italians could focus the entire strength of the Regia Aeronautica on the island if they were so inclined. To meet such a threat were only the planes that were on Malta, which would always be a relatively small number in the early 1930s due to the very finite space and facilities that were available. This made fixed air defenses very important, to try and prevent the Italians from attacking at all. Unfortunately none of the new changes would be completed, because in 1933 the funds that were supposed to pay for them were instead shifted to Singapore, which would not be the first or the last time that funds that were available would ping-pong between various defense improvement efforts. The reason for this shift was a re-evaluation of the threats faced by the Empire, with Japan simply taking priority over Italy which was still, in 1933, working closing with British interests in Europe and beyond. This evaluation of the threats posed by the various other nations around the world might have been sound when thinking very short term, but it meant that in 1935 when the Abyssinian Crisis occurred, the defenses of Malta left a lot to be desired.
The Abyssinian Crisis brought Britain closer to war with another nation that it had been since the end of the First World War, and if a war kicked off between Britain and Italy in the Mediterranean, Malta would be the epicenter of the early fighting. The Italian military had spent some time considering how they would launch and attack on Malta, with plans being developed and updated during the summer of 1935. The Italian Air Force believed that it was capable of dropping 100 tons of bombs on Malta every single day, but the Italian Navy was a bit less enthusiastic about attacking the island, believing that while the island was used as the Royal Navy’s base in peacetime, there were other options for the British fleet in time of war. Admiral Cavagnari was concerned that if the Italians devoted time and resources to Malta, the British would just move the fleet to Gibraltar and Alexandria, both of which would be far more difficult to neutralize. Cavagnari believed that instead, the Italians should simply just threaten Malta to try and tie down British resources while actually focusing their efforts elsewhere. In London the Joint Planning Committee of the Chiefs of Staff would have conversations about what could be done in the short term to bolster the island’s defenses. One quick improvement was the move of 16 anti-aircraft guns to the island as quickly as possible, and then committing to bringing in more manpower to bring the defenses up to full strength. Two battalions of infantry could also be dispatched. When these options were put before the Cabinet, it devolved into a discussion of how many resources should be put on Malta. Eventually a request would be sent to the Defense Policy and Requirements Committee, asking them to ‘consider with the Chiefs of Staff whether it was worth while to increase the armament of an island so exposed as is Malta to attack from Italy’. This kicked off a bit of a back and forth as the Chiefs of Staff wanted clarification on ‘whether it is the intention of His Majesty’s Government that Malta should be defended.’ While the government would answer back with unhelpful responses like “All plans…should be made on the assumption that it is the policy of His Majesty’s Government in no circumstances to abandon Malta without every effort to defend it, unless they are advised by the Chiefs of Staff that our general objects in the war would be frustrated by defending that base.” The eventual decision was that yes, Malta would certainly be defended, and some resources should be sent to the island, including those extra anti-aircraft guns and the men to man them. But there were still concerns from the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, now that the threat was very real, about how many additional resources should be sent. On the part of the Royal Air Force, their plan for a war with Italy had involved early strikes on Italian air fields. This would, theoretically, reduce the power of the Italian forces which would cut down on their ability to attack Malta, making it easier for the aircraft on the island to defend against those attacks. There was just one problem, these attacks could only be launched from French Air fields, because those were the only air fields close enough to Italy. France was refusing to allow these attacks to be launched against Italy, unless Italy first directly attacked France which seems very unlikely. This made any kind of preemptive strike impossible, meaning the full weight of the Italian Air Force would be available for any operations the Italians wanted to launch.
From the Royal Navy, the decision was around where to base the fleet. Malta was the primary base of the fleet in the Mediterranean, and it had the best harbor facilities, but there had already been concerns about the vulnerability of the fleet when it was actually in Malta, the concern was 100% based on the threat of Italian Air Attack. Admiral Fisher, commander of the Mediterranean fleet was confident in his ability to deal with the Italian Navy, specially if reinforcements were sent from the Home Fleet, but in the evaluations of Admiral Chatfield, the First Sea Lord, the risk of Italian Air Attacks was simply too great. Therefore the decision would be made to move the fleet out of Malta and instead base it in Alexandria for the duration of the Abyssinian Crisis. All that was left in Malta was a much smaller force of destroyers and submarines that could serve some purpose in helping to defend the island as well as a small strike force to be used in offensive operations. Moving the fleet to Alexandria served to good purposes, it moved it out of danger of Italian air strikes, and it also boosted the defenses of the Suez Canal and Egypt due to the fleet’s proximity. The downside of Alexandria was that it was technically an Egyptian possession, and the Fleet’s presence there might be compromised by Egyptian political developments. Another option would be investigated both during the Abyssinian crisis and afterward, Cyprus. The navy liked Cyprus, and the port of Famagusta, but the problem was one of money. The facilities at Famagusta would require major upgrades if it was to be used as a primary fleet base along with major investments in airfield infrastructure, and the reality was that the money for these improvements simply did not exist. When the Abyssinian Crisis was over and the immediate threat of war with Italy had ended, the Fleet would then move back to Malta, but there was still the recognition that the defenses of Malta would either have to be greatly increased or Alexandria would have to be improved to allow for the Fleet to be based there in time of war. The path that was chosen was for Alexandria to be improved, and the new floating dock would be towed to Alexandria in 1939 to bolster its fleet basing capabilities. Even with the fleet already planning to leave the island in time of war, the question about what to do with Malta still remained. The Royal Navy still preferred that Malta be greatly strengthened due to it having the best port facilities and the advantage of a central position, but in further conversations among the Chiefs of Staff, concerns were raised that would prevent such investments in the island. When considering future conflicts it was not even just the threat of Italian attacks, but also the position that Malta might play in multi-enemy war scenarios. In a war with not just Italy but also Germany, the Mediterranean was destined to be a clearly secondary theater, and if that war expanded to also include Japan it might turn into a tertiary theater. In those scenarios it was even more likely that Malta would be neutralized and then captured by Italy.
With the recognition that Malta would not be the primary base of the Royal Navy during wartime, the status of Malta was shifted and downgraded, and instead of it being seen as a critical piece of imperial security it moved into the “nice to have” category. This did not mean that all efforts to defend the island were abandoned, it simply meant that they were given a different priority. Improvements continued, and two airfields would be added after the Abyssinian crisis to bring the total number up to 3. This represented an important change in how Malta was viewed, changing from being primarily a base for the Royal Navy with some additional air support to being primarily a Royal Air Force base, with some additional naval presence. Such a shift was fully supported by the Governor of Malta, who strongly advocated for Malta to be used as a basing point for a large number of aircraft with the reasoning that they could provide offensive striking power against Italy, something that not other force would provide. He also held the opinion that the island could be defended against any attack, which was not necessarily as influential as the push for a larger air presence. The problems in making further improvements in the islands remained rooted in monetary policy, and in early 1937 Malta would be ranked 8th on the list of imperial possessions that would receive additional anti-aircraft guns. Whether or not to send more of these guns to Malta would be a constant point of conversation in the year before Italy entered the war. Plans would shift so many times as decisions were made to send more anti-aircraft guns, then the international political or military situation would shift a bit, and then they would be diverted elsewhere. There were similar problems when it came to trying to provide Malta with its full complement of fighter aircraft and when upgrading those aircraft to the latest types. When the war did start, Italy choosing to remain neutral for most of the first year of the conflict was critical, because it gave some breathing room and allowed the defenses on the island to be greatly increased by the time that war was declared.
While Malta experienced many changes in how important it was felt in the overall defense of the British Empire, it would be hard to find individuals who would argue that Egypt was not of critical importance. As a memorandum by the Royal Navy would start in 1920: ‘The vital importance of the Suez Canal to the sea communications of the British empire is an axiom, its peculiar danger lies in the fact that it is the narrowest and most easily-blocked portion of our only short route to the East.’ Even with the importance of Egypt and the Suez Canal, the British were forced to allow for major political changes to be made in Egypt after the First World War. There had been growing discontent with British occupation since it started in 1882, discontent that exploded after the First World War. This resulted in an agreement that allowed for much greater local political autonomy, although it reserved British military basing rights and control over foreign affairs. These reforms would in no way be the end of political adjustments within Egypt during the interwar period, but they provided a start, and in 1924 the Wafd party, which was strongly anti-British, would win the general election in a landslide. Political differences aside, the importance of Egypt remained, as Austen Chamberlain would write in 1929: ‘The relationship between Egypt and ourselves has not been a matter of choice but the result of the geographical position occupied by Egypt as one of the high roads and arteries of imperial communications. It is to that fact that the intervention in Egypt originated. It is to that fact that the occupation of Egypt by British forces is due, and it is, first and foremost, to protect those interests that British forces have continued in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere, as our guarantee for the security of those vital interests.’ An important event for Anglo-Egyptian relations would be the Abyssinian Crisis. Much like the threat that Italian aggression posed to British control of Malta, there were concerns among the British and the Egyptians around what Italian control of Ethiopia would mean for the future of Egypt. This very real threat to Egypt caused a shift in relations, with the Egyptian government welcoming a more formal agreement with London that removed some of the ambiguity and antagonism that remained between the two sides during much of the interwar period. Along with this agreement would come a slow and steady build-up of additional British troops that were based in Egypt to defend both the nation and the canal. This was also matched by an increasing number of Italian troops in North Africa, and these Italian troops in Libya would be a continued concern. There would be discussions and even agreements signed between Britain and Italy during 1938 to try and reduce the number of Italian troops in the area, but most of those would end up being empty promises. Instead more Italian forces would be brought into Libya during and after the Munich Crisis.
Now when you dig into both sides of the military equation, the Italians in Libya and the British in Egypt what you find is basically universal weakness. On the British side the Mobile Division, which was the primary strike force of the garrison and was crucial to any offensive operation was in a state of equipment chaos. Because it had been built up slowly and during peacetime it had a hopeless amalgam of vehicles, with some regiments having nothing more than some trucks with machine guns mounted on them, instead of the tanks that they were supposed to have. There was also a general misunderstanding about what fighting a war in the desert would look like, and how it would be different than most of the training that had been done for the British Army, and especially the armored units, back in Britain. On the Italian side, the situation was if anything even worse because they were the ones that would be launching an offensive to start off the war. There were a whole host of problems with such an operation that made it unlikely to succeed. Supplies in Libya were too low, and there was a drastic shortage of vehicles of every kind due to how many armored vehicles had been sent to Spain over the previous years. There was also some disagreement among Italian military leaders, with some believing that an attack could be successful, but others were quite certain that it would end in a quick and costly failure. The British generally agreed with the latter, and what the British did know of Italian plans caused them to believe that such an attack would be easily repulsed by British defenses. When the French weighed in, they generally believed that most British planning around Egypt relied far too much on the Italians failing to properly prepare, instead of basing the defense on the enemy being competent. The defensive plans that were drawn up to meet the Italian advance, was to let the Italians gain some territory before turning around for a counterattack once they had extended their supply lines. This basic outline would remain in place after the invasion of Poland, with the only adjustments being additional preparations. Rail lines were extended into the western areas of Egypt, water pipelines were constructed, and other infrastructure improvements were made, all of which were essential to any future military actions. The beginning of the war in Europe also meant that additional troops were brought in, and before the invasion of Poland troops would begin arriving from Australia and New Zealand. Altogether British defenses would be in a much better state when Italy entered the war than they had been in September 1939, setting the stage for the North African theater which would occupy so many Imperial resources during the next several years of the conflict. Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next episode in which we look at the economic side of British rearmament.