This is an interesting approach to British naval history, looking at the centuries of English and later British involvement in the Mediterranean. After a brief introduction looking at the few medieval incursions (mostly involved crusaders on hired ships), the main story starts in the late Sixteenth Century. There were two aspects to the British arrival in these seas. First the commercial requirements of the new Levant Company, which was given a monopoly of trade with the Ottoman Empire, and whose trading ships were also fairly powerful warships (unavoidable for anyone trying to trade in dangerous waters). Second was the long Anglo-Spanish War, most famous for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but that also saw a series of generally unsuccessful British attacks on the Spanish coast.
I was surprised by how intermittent the British naval presence in the Mediterranean was for most of this period. Powerful fleets entered the Mediterranean to try and deal with the Barbary Corsairs, or when they were needed to counter the Spanish or French (and later the Russians). It was only after the Napoleonic Wars and the gaining of the key naval base at Malta that a powerful Mediterranean Fleet became a standard feature of the Royal Navy. In some cases the bulk of the fleet was needed in home waters, or there was no direct threat in the Mediterranean. The only really famous British naval victory inside the Mediterranean before the Second World War was Nelson’s victory at the battle of the Nile! There were of course plenty of less familiar battles and operations within the sea, but the more famous battles took place outside the Straits of Gibraltar.
Grainger is very good on the limits of naval power. All of Britain’s naval victories in and around the Mediterranean were unable to stop the French from dominating mainland Italy for most of the Napoleonic Wars. The fleet could protect Sicily and support the odd sortie onto the mainland, but none of them led to anything permanent. The Navy’s most important victories were essentially defensive, preventing the enemy of the day from threatening Britain. The Navy was also unable to defend Minorca, which held by the British for much of the Eighteenth Century, but was lost twice, and eventually returned to Spain as part of the Peace of Amiens.
I don’t entirely agree with the author’s interpretation of some of the clashes between the Royal Navy and the Italians during the Second World War. While it is true that there were occasions when the Navy was more concerned about completing an escort mission than forcing a clash with the Italian fleet, this wasn’t always the case, and the exaggeration weakens the overall case. One example is the battle of Cape Matapan, described as being ‘between British Battleships and Italian Cruisers’. While it is true that the main British success did indeed come against three Italian heavy cruisers, it occurred while the fleet was attempting to catch the battleship Vittorio Veneto. However this is only a minor quibble, and doesn’t detract from the overall value of the book.
This is an excellent study of one of those key areas where Britain attempted to take advantage of her naval power, not always successfully.
1 - The Levant Company and the Assaults on Cadiz, c. 1550-c.1600
2 - Corsairs and Civil War, 1660-1690
3 - Tangier and Corsairs, 1660-1690
4 - French Wars I, 1688-1713
5 - Conflicts with Spain, 1713-1744
6 - French Wars II, 1744-1763
7 - Two Sieges: Minorca and Gibraltar, 1763-1783
8 - French Wars III, 1783-1815
9 - Dominance, 1815-1856
10 - Ottoman Problems, 1856-1905
11 - Great War, 1905-1923
12 - Retrenchment and a Greater War, 1923-1945
13 - Supersession, from 1945
Author: John D. Grainger