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The Mediterranean War – Part 2 – Malta, Italy and the British Empire

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When General Albert Kesselring took over command of the German forces in Southern Europe late 1941, his main target was to have the island base Malta put out of use to the British. During the following period, untill the start of the Battle of El Alamein in the Fall of 1942, this was always foremost in his head. He had good reasons for it.

A merchant freighter entering Grand Harbour, Malta
A merchant freighter entering Grand Harbour, Malta
From the start, Malta was only one of many pieces in an extensive net of bases and staging posts to ensure the upholding of the British Empire with its stretched-out communications and trading lines. This was primarily for the benefit of the central financial institutions in London and the supply of raw materials from the Colonies to the United Kingdom’s production facilities and consumers, and for UK-manufactured products and coal going in the opposite direction. These bases, built up through centuries, were originally established for the Royal Navy and the British merchant fleet but, as WW2 approached, they were also to be used for civilian and military air operations. It was a clever and extremely developed system.
Malta’s importance for the Empire increased significantly when the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 as this shortened the transport distances between England and her Colonies in India, Australia and the Far East. Eqypt was consequently targeted by the Empire as another necessary base. In 1882 Britain took control to “protect their investments” in connection with the building of the Canal.
In 1935, at the time of the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Empire therefore had a line of mixed civilian and military bases all the way from England to India, Australia and Hong Kong; Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, Aden, British Somalia and Singapore and India itself. On the southerly route, down the Atlantic, the British could support themselves on Ascension, Elba, Freetown, the Falklands and the colonies in South and East Africa. The British strategy, to get a foothold in these places, was not one of occupation as such, but rather a mix of protection and occupation. In principle, not unlike what we today call Mafia methods – let us do our thing and we shall protect you – it was a system of common benefits, but you need to pay for it… The British were certainly not alone in using these methods, they were just better than the other colonial powers at managing it.

I like to read books published before the war. Firstly, I find It interesting to compare information and opinions as expressed at the time, with what happened afterwards. Secondly, these opinions are not twisted or adjusted as often happens after any war. As we know, the history is written by the victors. Austen Chamberlain is known to have said: “All our major wars have been fought to deny any great military power to achieve superiority in Europe so that he cannot control the Channel and the Dutch ports”. Trevelyan put it like this: “From the time of the Tudors England has used European politics simply as a means to protect itself from invasion and to forward its own proceedings on the Continent”. They were not alone in this line of thinking.

In modern times (up till WW2) it can be seen, true to this policy, how England has been likely to support Germany when France was stronger than Germany, and the other way around. After the First world War the League of Nations was an admirable tool for such politics, if the League went against the interests of Great Britain they would just ignore it. After the First World War they cleverly had their dominions (and India) aknowleged as separate members which they could normally control and thereby steer the League’s actions. A similar move was denied the Soviets in the UN after the Second World War. As the sanction crisis in connection with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia developed, Walter Duranty wrote that “England was not as keen on a war that they were not willing to fight to avoid it”.

Italy had a much slower start as colonialists go and followed a somewhat different policy, more like that of the German. Theirs was more along the line of real colonization, in the sense that they wanted to draw farmers, investors and specialists of all kinds to their colonies to develop the infrastructure. At the beginning of the 20th century, Italy had also become dependent on the Suez Canal. They had colonies in the North-Eastern corner of Africa (the African Horn) – Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, which were interspersed between the British and French colonies. Their supply lines passed through the Canal and the Red Sea, which were controlled by the British. At the time the great colonial powers (Britain, France, Italy and Germany) were as sympathetic to each other as thieves in a market and as a reward for their taking side with the Allies during that great conflict Italy’s position in the area at the end WWI actually improved. But, their dependence on the Suez Canal only increased with time.

There were no fighter units on Malta before the war. Here is a Walrus scout seaplane.

 

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Comments

  1. Very interesting read Fredleander. I lived in Malta for several years and I heard rumors of Maltese nationalists during the war being interned or even transported to Uganda of all places. Talking to the Maltese, one gets the feeling they resented the British presence of their island, but being practical, knew what side their bread was buttered. The British gave employment and provided an income to the island, as well as allowing the Maltese to migrate abroad to the UK or its dominions. They didn’t want to be Italian, but neither did they want to be dominated by the British.

    Your article seems also a premonition to my next article, which is a review/summary of James Sadkovich’s monograph, ‘German incompetence through Italian eyes.’ Yes, Italy’s downfall, Mussolini’s biggest mistake was to ally itself to Nazi Germany. Rather than Italy being the “bad” ally of the Germans, it was really the Germans who were the bad allies to the Italians, due to their arrogance and hubris.

    Well enough said. I will post this in the coming weeks.

    Cheers!

  2. Nice article, my favorite of your posts. Thanks for the new take on the subject.

    TJ

  3. Great work! It’s nice to see some new insight into the Mediterranean war.

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