Q&A: Why didn’t Britain attempt to hinder Italy’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia by preventing the Italian fleet from using the Suez Canal?
Answered by Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin at War.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems quite sensible to suggest that the British could have hindered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia by blocking a passage through the Suez Canal. The Italians were, after all, entirely dependent on the canal for access to east Africa and the Royal Navy was more than able to undertake such an operation.
However, from the perspective of 1935, there were a number of factors that conspired to stay Britain’s hand. Firstly, and most importantly, Britain was extremely wary of alienating Mussolini, who was still seen as an important counterweight to the greater threat posed by Hitler’s Germany, and indeed had only recently been brought into the ‘Stresa Front’ with Britain and France, which sought to contain Hitler.
Moreover, the public mood in Britain was still largely pacifist in 1935. The principle of collective security had not yet been shown to have failed, and consequently there was a widespread desire to defer to the League of Nations in dealing with Mussolini’s aggression. Sanctions did, of course, follow, but these were largely ineffectual.
There was also the issue of logistics. Given that Italy had two other colonies in east Africa – Eritrea and Somaliland – and that much of the build up of troops and materiel began well before the invasion itself, it would have been very difficult for the British to second-guess Italian intentions, let alone act in such a precipitate and aggressive manner.
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The Italian invasion of Abyssinia would carry profound strategic consequences: undermining the ideals of collective security and ultimately propelling Mussolini into an ever-closer relationship with Hitler. Yet, Britain had little desire to hinder Italy’s actions by closing the Suez Canal. In the face of the more serious and immediate threat posed by Hitler, few were willing to alienate Mussolini by frustrating his ambitions in far-off east Africa.