STRUGGLE FOR THE MIDDLE SEA: THE GREAT NAVIES AT WAR IN THE MEDITERRANEAN THEATER, 1940-1945
Vincent P. O'Hara
Naval Institute Press, 2009
Hardcover, Tables, Illustrations, Charts, Abbreviations, Maps, Photographs, 352 Pages, $34.95
The four-year naval battle for the Mediterranean began with Italy's entry into the war as a German ally on 10 June 1940. The resulting campaign was one wholly concerned with the application of sea power to support operations ashore. The naval operations in the Mediterranean ran the gamut from sea denial to sea control to power projection. It was very much a war of swinging fortunes and fluctuating momentum, but throughout it all, control of the sea determined success, while loss of control led to failure. The Axis failure in this campaign ultimately drove Field Marshal Erwin Rommel out of Africa and Italy out of the war. Allied success brought the first Allied troops back into Western Europe. Theoretically, Italy gained naval superiority in the Mediterranean when the French surrendered to the Germans in June, 1940. Italy had the second largest submarine fleet in the world (more than 100 boats), as well as four modernized battleships, two new ones, and a third in construction. More importantly, the Italian Navy had the potential support of one of the world's reputedly strongest air forces. Italy's ships were fast and powerfully armed. Perhaps more importantly, Italy's strategic location dominating the sea lanes of the central Mediterranean gave it a potential choke hold on Allied maritime commerce. Only the British base on Malta, located mid-way between Sicily and Italy's African possession of Libya, occupied a similar position vis-a-vis Italy's sea lanes. The first three years of the campaign, in fact, revolved around Britain's effort to retain that island. It was from Malta that the bulk of Britain's sea denial operations were launched against Italy's sea lanes. Given the small size and aged units of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Malta's defense and Britain's hold on the Mediterranean initially appeared tenuous indeed. Fortunately for the British, events proved otherwise. Controlling the Mediterranean was critical to the British Empire, for it was through the Mediterranean that oil and other vital materials flowed from its eastern possessions to Britain. It also was the most efficient route for shipping supplies and material for the defense of those possessions. Traveling around Africa tripled the transit time, effectively quintupling the amount of shipping required to achieve the same tonnage. Britain didn't have any merchant shipping to waste. The Mediterranean had to be held at all costs. Although outnumbered and encumbered with much slower units, the British Royal Navy enjoyed several advantages over its Italian opponents. It had a more aggressive and professional leadership. Italy's admirals adhered to the "fleet-in-being" strategy, where preservation of units took precedence over all other considerations. The British Royal Navy's sailors also were superior in technical ability to those of the Italian Navy, which relied on conscripts to man its ships. The Italians also suffered from flawed tactics, equipment, and doctrine. Doctrinally, they had no procedures for joint air-navy operations, no specific antisubmarine doctrine, and no air defense tactics. Each ship's captain was supposed to use his own initiative. Sonar wasn't introduced until late 1942. More significantly, the Italians didn't train or prepare for night combat. Their surface ships had no radar or nightfighting equipment. Italian surface and antiaircraft gunnery was poor throughout the war. They had no aircraft carriers and commissioned none during the war. Their submarines lacked night periscopes and weren't trained in conducting either day or night surface attacks. Italian conning towers and silhouettes were too large. Submarine fire control equipment was nonexistent, and the captains computed their own firing solutions. Italian submarines were large, unwieldy, and slow to dive. Finally, the Italian Navy suffered from fuel shortages throughout the war. Available fuel dictated the size and duration of every naval operation. The Mediterranean Campaign cost the Axis 2.1 million tons of shipping and the Allies 1.7 million tons. The campaign was one of rapidly shifting momentum. Like the cavalry battles of ald, the introduction of fresh forces often altered the balance and tide of battle. With that shift went the fortunes of war on both land and sea. For the Axis, it was their lack of initiative and daring that caused them to squander their opportunities. The victory in Crete wasn't exploited by further landings. More importantly, Malta was never taken. It was that failure that ultimately cost them the campaign and possibly the war. For the Allies, primarily the British, it was a brilliantly fought campaign in which few opportunities were missed and many were created by sheer initiative and determination. The risks were great and the potential payoff unknown. For Great Britain, success in the Mediterranean offered the opportunity for eventual victory, while defeat there meant the possible loss of the war. Only the Atlantic Campaign had a greater importance. That they won is a testament to the fighting spirit and skills of the Allies' navies. This superbly researched book gives a complete account of the war in the Mediterranean on, above, and beneath the sea. It not only provides a detailed and fascinating narrative of the entire naval war, but also sets the individual actions fully in their strategic context for both the Axis and the Allies. With its detailed background information and fascinating narrative, this book is essential reading for all those interested in one of the major naval theaters of the Second World War.
Lt. Colonel Robert A. Lynn, Florida Guard