Divide and Rule: The Mediterranean in the Second World War

On the eve of the Second World War, the navies of Italy, France and Britain plotted for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Their actions resulted in the fracturing of the sea’s age-old unity, with consequences that persist to this day. Simon Ball explains how the ‘Middle Sea’ became the Middle East.

In the spring of 1939 the great Mediterranean navies had a burst of enthusiasm for war. The Royal Navy fantasised about giving the despised Italians a good drubbing. The Italian Regia Marina plotted to humble the British. The French Marine demanded war too. This enthusiasm was not sustained once the consequences had been thought through. In the end the three naval powers chose not to fight one another. Instead they began to doubt the very concept of the Mediterranean itself, the belief that the sea is a unified area rather than disparate bits of Europe, North Africa and western Asia.

Each of these great powers had a different vision of the Mediterranean. The British described the sea as an artery. Armies and navies passed through it to the east; raw materials, tin, rubber, tea and, above all, oil, made their way west.

The Italian Luigi Federzoni, in his influential article ‘Hegemony in the Mediiterranean’, published in Foreign Affairs in 1935, lamented the fact that the Italian empire, emasculated by ‘morbid parliamentarianism’, had not hitherto posed ‘an immediate menace to the great imperial artery from Gibraltar to Port Said’. For the Italians too, the Mediterranean comprised a whole. To them, however, the proper orientation of the sea was not west to east but north to south. Now that Fascism had ‘incalculably strengthened Italy’s spiritual, political and military efficiency’, Britain would discover that Italian possession of the north-south ‘trans-Mediterranean lines Sicily-Tripoli and Dodecanese-Tobruk’ endangered its own Mediterranean artery.

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