The Mediterranean Sea became an important theater during World War II. With Axis operations in North Africa, taking control of the Mediterranean was vital for Allied operations in North Africa and southern Europe. The Royal Navy had a long and established history in the Mediterranean, with the foundation of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1690.
The British established a foothold in the Mediterranean following the capture of Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession. While the British had maintained a naval presence in the region prior to the capture of Gibraltar, the establishment of a naval base there allowed the British greater influence in the Mediterranean. In 1800 the British took control of Malta, after the Knights of Malta relinquished rule over the island with the Treaty of Amiens. With the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt, the British turned Malta into the main base for naval operations in the Mediterranean.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the Mediterranean Fleet became the largest squadron in the Royal Navy, with 10 first-class battleships and a sizeable number of smaller warships. During World War I, the Mediterranean Fleet would support Allied operations against the Central Powers in the Middle East. World War II saw the Mediterranean Fleet face off against Axis shipping routes and the Italian Navy. The Mediterranean Fleet was instrumental in the air raid of the Italian Fleet at Taranto, and the evacuation of Allied forces from Crete following the German airborne invasion.
The British maintained the Mediterranean Fleet following World War II. In 1956, vessels and aircraft from the fleet were involved in the Suez Crisis. With growing responsibilities in the North Atlantic to counter the Soviet threat, Britain began to draw down the Mediterranean Fleet. After 277 years of service in the Mediterranean, the remaining vessels were transferred to the newly established Western Fleet, ending the United Kingdoms continued presence in the region.
Look for more information regarding Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet in World War II in the future World at War issue #46 with the article “Chasing Shadows: A reassessment of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea 1940-1943” and join the conversation on Facebook!