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The British Defence of Egypt, 1935-40: Conflict and Crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, by Steve Morewood

London / New York: Routledge, 2014. Pp. xviii, 276. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $188.00. ISBN: 0714649430.

British Mediterranean Strategy Without Hindsight

In this revealing study originally published in hardback in 2004, Dr. Morewood (Birmingham) takes a look at the defense of the most critical node in the British Empire during “the era of appeasement.” He offers a nuanced look at British decision making in the face of aggressive actions by Fascist Italy, based not on hindsight, but on the perception of Italian military power at the time. Morewood reminds us that the image of Italian military power as hollow and hapless is ex post facto; during the 1930s Italy certainly seemed like a “peer competitor.” So Britain acted with appropriate caution, given the known limitations of its own military forces. 

Morewood takes us through phases of the development of British strategy and policy in the period. He begins with an overview of the years between the Great War and the early 1930s, the Abyssinian crisis, which looms large in the book, Anglo-Egyptian relations, Munich, the onset of war with Germany in 1939, the importance of the Mediterranean to the defense of Britain’s Far Eastern interests, and the final slide toward Italian entry into the conflict.

Although from our perspective events seem clear, at the time there were complex issues of global strategy and policy that were less clear. Mussolini had forced Hitler to stand down in the Austrian crisis of 1934, and might do so again, and there was the fear that destabilizing Fascism in Italy might only lead to a Communist regime. There were also questions about colonialism and race, after all, standing up for Abyssinia against Fascist aggression could send the wrong message to Britain’s own colonial subjects. And war with Italy would threaten the empire’s lifeline to the East, which might encourage Japan, already on the warpath in China, to further aggression. 

Finally, and often overlooked, was that there was the need to gain time to rebuild British military power, which had declined markedly by the mid-1930s due to parsimony and the many years of apparent peace that followed the Great War. So unlike most writers on the “era of appeasement” Morewood is much less critical of the “appeasers.”  

The British Defence of Egypt, a volume in the Routledge Cass series “Military History and Policy,”is an important read for anyone interested in the origins of World War II.

Note: The British Defence of Egypt is also available in paperback, $48.95, ISBN 978-0-415-64624-6, and as an e-Book.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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