World War 1 dramatically shifted the balance of power in the Mediterranean – the Ottoman Empire collapsed not long after the war ended, with the Middle East being carved up by the Entente. Austro-Hungary was all but gone, with the various ethnicities of their empire getting their own nation, such as Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later known as Yugoslavia. The French, Italian and British empires would fight for the scraps left over from the war, with Egypt being de facto controlled by the British Empire and Libya under the administrative control of Italy.
After the war, the liberal Italian government was overthrown and replaced with Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascism, which among other things pursued an aggressive, imperialistic foreign policy: key to Italian aims was to make the Mediterranean ‘Our Lake’ again, a reference to Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean in the Classical Period. Once again, Italy found an ally in Nazi Germany as the French and British didn’t want to deal with another powerful empire that could invade their colonies in Africa. Through the Anti-Comintern Pact, the Pact of Steel and eventually the Tripartite Pact, Italy became a member of the Axis Powers.
By the beginning of the Second World War, Italy had territories in Ethiopia, Somalialand, Albania, Libya, Tunisia and the western half of Egypt. Nevertheless, Italy sat out the first few months of the war, only entering after the Invasion of France by Germany. The French defenders were underequipped and suffering from low morale as the German Blitzkrieg tore through the bulk of the French Army, yet they managed to hold the line against an attempted invasion of southern France until the ceasefire and surrender. While this achieved Mussolini’s aims of appearing to ‘help’ Germany conquer France and thus receive some spoils, it showed that Italy’s armed forces wasn’t prepared to deal with the Allied Forces.
In Africa, Italian forces attempted to invade British colonies, taking British Somalialand but failing to knock out the British forces stationed there. After regrouping and reinforcing in Aden, the British counterattacked alongside two Indian armies from the Sudan and a Commonwealth force from Kenya. The Italians were quickly overwhelmed and bottled up in Gondar, a town in northern Ethiopia after a series of devastating defeats from the British and Commonwealth forces. Italian East Africa was now in the hands of the British, who returned Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian throne after being exiled by the Italians 5 years before.
The Italians fared even worse in Northern Africa. After an inconclusive invasion of British Egypt, British forces, outnumbered in men and material, began a raiding operation that quickly spiralled into the destruction of the Italian forces holding the territory captured since the attempted invasion. Retreating through Egypt and past Cyrenaica (Western Libya), the British made the most of their initially small-scale raid mission. Italy’s ambitions of a vast colonial empire in Africa were dashed.
Meanwhile in Europe, Italy declared war on Greece in October 1940. Once again, Italy went into this war overconfident, viewing the Greek armed forces with contempt. Attempting to invade from Albania, Italian forces made some progress before being halted by stiff Greek resistance. Less than a month after the beginning of the Italian offensive, Greek forces began a counteroffensive, pushing into Italian-occupied Albania and recapturing all territory lost during the Italian offensive.
Sensing another military disaster for Italy, the other Axis powers, mainly Germany and Bulgaria, decided to intervene in April 1941. With most of the Greek army in Albania fighting the Italians, another invasion force streamed over the Bulgarian border. German forces raced to the Greek capital, bypassing the main Greek forces and encountering British forces transferred from Africa.
Holding off the German forces just long enough to allow for an evacuation of Greece, the country was occupied by Axis forces less than a month after the German/Bulgarian intervention. Italy would become increasingly reliant on Germany from this point on, assisting the Germans in their invasion of the Soviet Union while Germany became the British Commonwealth’s main threat in North Africa.
Italy’s fortunes at sea fared much better. The Regia Marina was built during the interwar period to take on the French navy due to the two countries jostling over African colonies, but with the fall of France in 1940, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet became the main threat to Italy’s naval might. Italian warships were well-designed but lacked technological and administrative advancements that the Royal Navy adopted earnestly, like Radar, the construction of Aircraft Carriers and the adoption of a Fleet Air Arm.
The Royal Navy needed to keep supply routes through the Mediterranean open, harass Axis shipments and keep Malta, a major Royal Navy and RAF base of operations, safe from invasion, siege and starvation. Alongside the huge battles between the Japanese and American navies in the Pacific, the fighting between the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina would define the conflict in the Mediterranean. tourism. If you’re looking for a yacht charter based in St Tropez with access to ports around the western Mediterranean and the Caribbean, You Charter Direct provides several cruising locations in the Mediterranean so you can see some of the history of the Mediterranean for yourself.