Italian Influences on British Imperial Defence & Grand Strategy, 1935-43

DR RICHARD HAMMOND

Formulating grand strategy is an extraordinarily complex issue for a state. To understand the process, you have to assess not just that state’s own interests and the variety of external factors exerting influence on them, but also their perception of these influences. This was certainly the case for Britain during the interwar period, when a cash-strapped Treasury sought to match defence spending to a forecast of likely international developments.

By the mid-1930s, Britain was looking to maintain its place within the world as a leading imperial power, which involved safeguarding a vast empire at a time of serious economic constraint. Moreover, beyond the unrest and various insurgencies taking place in their imperial possessions, powerful new threats were emerging in the form of the increasingly aggressive expansionist states of Germany and Japan. Over 1934-35, it became increasingly clear that Fascist Italy would also act on its own imperial ambitions, against the express wishes and indeed warnings, of the British and French governments. This came as rather a shock to the British establishment which, with a few exceptions, had enjoyed an amicable relationship with Italy, from supporting the creation of a unified Italian state in the 19th century to a direct military alliance during the First World War. As Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey later put it, ‘Strained relations or war with Italy were the last thing anyone expected.’

Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) in October 1935, brought Rome to the brink of war with Britain. This step-change in relations began a period of Anglo-Italian hostility that manifested as an uneasy peace until the Italian declaration of war on Britain and France in June 1940 and only ended with the armistice of September 1943. It also greatly exacerbated the British dilemma of imperial defence in the late interwar years by threating the Mediterranean, Britain’s vital maritime artery connecting the UK to the Middle and Far East. The spectre of the so-called ‘triple threat’ of Germany, Japan and Italy thus loomed large in Whitehall, from the Cabinet to the Foreign Office to the Chiefs of Staff. Their problem was not that they might suffer defeat to Italy in the event of war, indeed all senior military and political figures felt that a resounding victory would be the most likely result. It was that any losses suffered in such a contest would weaken Britain’s ability to oppose Germany and Japan, and potentially provide one or both of them an opportunity to take advantage of British distraction and weakness.

The possibility of war focused British attention sharply on the Italian armed forces. Given the central nature of the Mediterranean Sea to Italian expansionist ambitions, it was clear that any conflict between would most likely be decided at sea. The focus was thus greatest on Italy’s Navy (the Regia Marina Italiana or RMI) and Air Force (Regia Aeronautica Italiana or RAI). Perhaps unsurprisingly given Britain’s position and reputation as a leading naval power, the view that the RMI was vastly inferior to the Royal Navy was widespread. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Chatfield, felt that ‘…if Italy is mad enough to challenge us…she will be defeated’ and assured his fellow Chiefs of Staff that he was doubtful that the RMI ‘would ever really prove efficient at sea.’ The commander of the Home Fleet expected that a ‘strong beginning’ against the RMI would break the fragile morale present in a ‘Latin race’ while his counterpart in the Mediterranean, Admiral Fisher, expected to be able to ‘blow the Italians out of the water with the ordinary Mediterranean Fleet.’ Yet the RMI retained an ability to influence British strategy and the disposition of their overstretched forces.

Despite the need for continued naval presence elsewhere, concerns abounded that the RMI would still be able to inflict loss on the RN. The best way to avoid this was deemed to be maintaining an overwhelming naval superiority in the region to deter Italy from attacking, and to defeat them swiftly and with minimal cost if they did. Fisher urged the dispatch of the entire Home Fleet to Malta, while the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Robert Vansittart warned that Britain was ‘…faced with a first-class international crisis. We have got to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet.’ The Cabinet and Admiralty agreed and sent a powerful portion of the Home Fleet, although the bulk was left on readiness at Portland for dispatch if required, as there were concerns that too big a reinforcement might precipitate a conflict.

In such circumstances the RMI, while widely considered inferior to the Royal Navy, was able to exert an influence on British considerations of imperial defence. The greatest Italian threat, however, was considered to come from the RAI. A dearth of reliable intelligence had led the British to accept, rather uncritically, grossly overestimated views of the RAIs technical capability, along with boasting by senior fascists of extremely strong will and spirit amongst aircrews. The ambassador in Rome even gave some credence to the rumour of a crack RAI ‘suicide squadron’ of up to 200 volunteers, who were ready to make kamikaze-style attacks on the navy and perhaps even London! Concerns over the RAI led the British to withdraw the Mediterranean Fleet from its primary base at Malta back to Alexandria, meaning the RAI had exercised influence that was well beyond its actually rather meagre capabilities. Although viewed as much less of a threat, the RMI also continued to do so, however. By late September, as Anglo-Italian tensions neared their peak, further British warships (including two battleships) were transferred to Gibraltar. The Royal Navy thus dwarfed the RMI in the Mediterranean in terms of capital ships – 5:2 in battleships and 2:0 in battlecruisers. Even as the possibility of hostilities receded, this huge commitment was only reduced slowly, due to concerns of wider implications of warships losses to the RMI. This view was held not only by relevant naval commanders, but across Whitehall. As Vansittart aptly summarized; ‘…we must never forget surely that we now have no naval margin at all, and the loss of one or two ships even would be a very serious matter for us.’ Or in the words of a report by the Committee for Imperial Defence, ‘If the fleet is involved in active operations…it must be expected that losses will ensue…There is bound to be a danger, therefore, that the results of a war with Italy would be to leave the British fleet temporarily weakened to such an extent as to be able to fulfil its worldwide responsibilities.’

While war with Italy did not come in 1935, both the RMI and RAI had exercised influence on Britain from within their context as a regional threat that could destabilise the broader commitment of imperial defence. This trend was to continue during the late 1930s, as Fascist Italy flexed its muscles from Spain to Albania and the British strove to avoid conflict. Views of RMI capability remained generally unchanged, with the new head of the Mediterranean Fleet, Dudley Pound, labelling them ‘second rate’, and the British naval attaché in Rome describing a fleet of moderate technical quality, but crewed by ‘fair weather sailors’. Yet that same year, Pound still recommended that in the event of war, the Mediterranean Fleet should have at the outset three battleships, a carrier, four heavy and four light cruisers in order to deal with an estimated two Italian battleships, four heavy and eight light cruisers. For all the perceived inferiority, the RMI was still exerting influence and tying down large quantities of precious resources. For its part, the RAI’s influence, while still greater than the RMI at that stage, was on the wane. The previous hype and occasionally outlandish claims had been replaced by reports that spoke of an air force with a small number of highly trained pilots and an ‘unpretentious majority’ of more moderate skill and was ‘…in no position to enter a war of the first magnitude’.

British views of the RAI quickly dropped dramatically after the first experiences of war in 1940, yet those of the RMI remained remarkably consistent. Indeed, for the 75th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s famous strike on the Italian Navy at Taranto in 1940, I wrote a post on this blog arguing that while it should be seen as a very important event, the continued existence of the RMI meant it still tied down precious British resources and exercised some influence on strategic and especially operational decision making right through to early 1943. In fact, as I argue in a newly published article, the RMI presented an enduring influence on British considerations throughout the 1935-43 period. Throughout this period, British responses to the Italian threat must be seen through prism of the wider, global concerns of imperial defence and grand strategy. While it was consistently (and rightly) viewed as being militarily vastly inferior to the Royal Navy, it was felt that it retained the ability to do sufficient damage to weaken British naval power to present opportunities to the other Axis powers. In this sense, it could even collapse Britain’s precarious global position by acting as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. This view widely pervaded all the relevant Whitehall departments, and they were forced to reluctantly respond to the Italian influence, either diplomatically or militarily.

For those without subscription access, a limited number of copies of the article mentioned above can be accessed for free at this link.

Image: the battleship VITTORIO VENETO (right), with the battleship LITTORIO (centre) and the destroyer GRECALE (second from left), makes for Alexandria, photographed from on board HMS KING GEORGE V when she and other British warships escorted the Italian surrender fleet from Malta to Alexandria. A small group of sailors are stood at the edge of HMS KING GEORGE V watching the surrendered Italian vessels, via the Imperial War Museum.

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