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Middle East 1930 - 1947

After the Great War, the United Kingdom maintained strategic interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East. The main reason for this was to provide a safe sea and air route between the U.K. and India, but control of oil supplies and national interests were also factors in this policy.

Gibraltar is a British possession in the Western Mediterranean. It had a Governor-General, army garrison and Royal Navy dockyard. Malta was a British colony in the central Mediterranean with a Governor-General, army garrison and significant Royal Navy presence.

Egypt was an interesting situation, in that the United Kingdom maintained a significant measure of control of what was, in theory, an independent country. Indeed, Egypt housed the largest British Army presence outside the United Kingdom and India. The main reason for this was the presence of the Suez Canal, the key artery that facilitated maritime access between the U.K., India, and the Far East.

Another country in which the U.K. faced policing a troubled state was Palestine. The neighbouring country of Trans-Jordan was also a British Protectorate, but was relatively stable. The problem with Palestine was (and still is) the competing demands between the Arab and Jewish populations, and their claims on the same areas of land. Palestine had become a British Protectorate after the First World War, as had Trans-Jordan; both countries being carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. An upsurge in inter-communal violence in 1936, 1937 and 1938, in part sparked by the increased immigration resulting from the developing persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazis, necessitated an enhanced military presence just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The outbreak of the Second World War, in itself, did not change the military situation significantly in the Mediterranean, but it was the decision of Italy to declare war in June 1940 that brought this part of the world into the war. In addition, the collapse of France, and the formation of Vichy France, changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean, as the U.K. had relied on French military and political support in the region. This led to the difficult decisions to bombard and sink the French fleet at their bases.

During the Second World War, most of the Mediterranean became embroiled in conflict. In 1940 the British and her Allies fought with the Italians in Libya, capturing over half the country. Then Germany became involved, leading to the campaigns in Greece and then Crete in 1941, Syria in the same year, the intense bombing of Malta, and the arrival of the Afrika Korps in Libya. Steadily the Allied forces were built up in the theatre, and even the loss of some British and Australian formations to the Far East when Japan entered the war, did not stop this trend.

By October 1942, over three years after the start of the war, the Allies had gained a degree of maritime and air superiority over the Axis forces, leading to a massive build-up of the 8 Army with men and modern materiel. The defeat of the Axis forces at the second battle of El Alamein (which was still a close run thing) was the beginning of the end of the war in this region.

The campaigns went on in Tunisia and Sicily, forcing Italy to surrender in September 1943. The Allies continued the long slog up that country, which continued until April 1945. In the Aegean sea, there was a failed attempt by the British to regain the Italian islands of Rhodes, Kos and Leros in September 1943, leading to defeat and the surrender of a couple of thousand British soldiers. The German withdrawal from Greece in late 1944 led to civil war in that country, which drew in several thousand British soldiers which remained there until 1952.

The end of the Second World War did not mean the end of conflict in the region. In 1946, Palestine erupted in civil war, which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel. In Egypt, there were uprisings that forced the British to withdraw to the Canal Zone in 1948, eventually leading to the Suez War in 1956.

Further information on each of the units and formations can be found in the sections as below:

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