Ambitions of Fascist Italy in Europe in 1936.
During the late 1920s, Benito Mussolini claimed that Italy needed an outlet for its "surplus population" and that it would be in other countries' best interests to aid in this expansion. The regime wanted "hegemony in the Mediterranean–Danubian–Balkan region" and the gaining of world power by the conquest "of an empire stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz". The Fascists had designs on Albania, Dalmatia, large parts of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Greece and harked back to the Roman empire. The regime also sought to establish protectorates with Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Covert motives were for Italy to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean, capable of challenging France or Britain and gaining access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
On 30 November 1938, Mussolini addressed the Fascist Grand Council on the goal of capturing Albania, Tunisia, Corsica, the Ticino canton of Switzerland and "French territory east of the River Var (to include Nice, but not Savoy)". Mussolini alleged that Italy required uncontested access to the oceans and shipping lanes to ensure its national sovereignty. Italy was a "prisoner in the Mediterranean" and had to break the chains of British and French control. Corsica, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Malta, Suez and Tunisia would need to be taken and Egypt, France, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom had to be challenged. Through armed conquest, the north and east African colonies would be linked and this 'prison' destroyed. Italy would be able to march "either to the Indian Ocean through the Sudan and Abyssinia, or to the Atlantic by way of French North Africa". On 2 October 1935, the Second Italo–Ethiopian War began when Italian forces invaded Abyssinia.
Mussolini lauded the conquest as a new source of raw materials and location for emigration and speculated that a native army could be raised there to "help conquer the Sudan. "Almost as soon as the Abyssinian campaign ended, Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War" began. On 7 April 1939, Mussolini began the Italian invasion of Albania and within two days had occupied the country. In May 1939, Italy formally allied to Nazi Germany in the Pact of Steel. Italian foreign policy went through two stages during the Fascist regime. Until 1934–35, Mussolini followed a "modest ... and responsible" course and following that date there was "ceaseless activity and aggression". "Prior to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini had made military agreements with the French and formed a coalition with the British and French to prevent German aggression in Europe." The Ethiopian War "exposed vulnerabilities and created opportunities that Mussolini seized to realise his imperial vision"
At the Nyon Conference of 1937, Italy and the United Kingdom "disclaimed any desire to modify or see modified the national sovereignty of any country in the Mediterranean area, and agreed to discourage any activities liable to impair mutual relations." Italian diplomatic and military moves did not reflect this agreement. In the aftermath of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, British and Italian forces in North Africa were reinforced. Due to various Italian moves, in July 1937, the British decided "that Italy could not now be regarded as a reliable friend" and preparations began to bring "the defences of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea ports up-to-date". In 1938, a weak armoured division was established in Egypt and further army and air force reinforcements were dispatched from Britain.
With rising tension in Europe, in June 1939, the United Kingdom established Middle East Command (MEC) in Cairo to provide centralised command for British army units in the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre. All three branches of the British military were made equally responsible for the defence of the area. The authority of MEC included Aden, British Somaliland, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Greece, Libya, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Tanganyika, Transjordan, Uganda and the shores of the Persian Gulf. If necessary, command would be exerted as far away as the Caucasus and the Indian Ocean. The purpose of the command was to be "the western bastion of defence of India", keep British supply lines open to India and the Far East, and keep the Middle Eastern oilfields out of Axis hands.
Upon the establishment of MEC, it was ordered to co-ordinate with the French military in the Middle East and Africa as well as liaise with the Turkish General Staff and possibly the Greek General Staff. On 19 October 1939, the Treaty of Mutual Assistance was signed between the United Kingdom, France and Turkey and British military forces were authorised to begin discussions with the Turkish general staff; a further conference was held during March 1940. Within a week of the Italian occupation of Albania, France and the United Kingdom "announced they had promised to give all the help in their power if Greek and Romanian independence were threatened and if the Greek Government or Romanian Government considered it vital to resist."
British forces in the Middle East were ordered to avoid provocation. Following the defeat of Poland, the threat of an Axis attack from the Balkans against British positions in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region increased. In late 1939, with the assumption that Britain would soon be at war with Italy, planning began for attacks to capture Bardia and Jaghbub (Giarabub) in Libya and arrangements began in Egypt, to accommodate a much larger force. Preparations to reinforce the Iraqi army were made and Palestinian security forces were to be reduced to the minimum. British forces in East Africa were to study operations to destroy the Italian forces and support local risings, all in support of the main Allied offensive, which was planned to be launched from French Somaliland. Troops in Sudan were also asked to consider launching operations against Kufra in southern Libya.