You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

BOOKS: ‘Struggle For the Middle Sea’

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

By Vincent O'Hara
Naval Institute Press, $34.95, 360 pages, illus.

In "Struggle For the Middle Sea" (by which he means the Mediterranean), Vincent O'Hara writes, he tells us, because he wants to dispel some long-standing myths. The first is that the Italian navy was a weak and contemptible opponent. In truth, it fought well and hard for three years, kept the Axis African and Balkan armies supplied via sea transport and largely controlled the central Mediterranean. It made mistakes, of course, but in general it fulfilled its mission. The second myth is that the Germans did all the heavy lifting, propagated by the Nazis themselves, who were not shy in taking credit for the achievement of others, and some allies who could not admit Italy capable of anything.

Germany's resources and responsibilities allowed it to concentrate on offensive operations — where the headlines were — but questionable German advice, broken promises and security lapses contributed to Italian defeats at Cape Mataban and elsewhere. Mr. O'Hara writes, "The Kriegsmarine's combat performance — especially in defense of traffic — proved inferior to that of its ally."

The author also addresses the unfortunate French-British naval clashes after the fall of France. In an effort to keep the French fleet from falling into the hands of the Axis, the British asked them either to join de Gaulle's Free French movement, scuttle themselves, surrender to the British or retire to the West Indies away from the European conflict. The French admirals could accept none of these options and conflict broke out in French West Africa in which the French lost almost l,300 seamen. It was an unfortunate event for both countries and Adm. Somerville, who commanded the British forces, regretted the part he had been chosen to play.

The strength of the book, however, lies in its complete coverage of the naval battles that occurred in the Mediterranean. Each battle is accompanied by a map and a graph giving the names of participating ships and the damage, if any, each experienced. There is also a concise, factual narrative.

Each navy had its own peculiar strengths and weaknesses. The Italians had fairly modern, fast ships, and its cruisers were often heavier than the British with guns that outranged them. They suffered, however, from a leader, Benito Mussolini, who was far removed from reality and because their country did not have a sufficient industrial base to wage a modern war properly. They had no local supply of fuel oil and eventually became dependent upon the Germans for not only their oil but a host of other items. Their liaison with their air force and later with the Luftwaffe was faulty, and promised air support often failed to appear.

The British had a splendid, centuries-old naval tradition and some very old ships along with a few new ones to support it. The battleship Ramillies had trouble getting up to 21 knots and as a result, when engaged, usually missed most of the action. Torpedo bombers from British carriers, called Swordfish, were biplanes reminiscent of the Spads and Fokkers of World War I and purred along at 90 knots, about one-fourth the speed of a Messerschmitt. Marksmanship was erratic. On June 28, 1940, when several British cruisers caught up with a flotilla of Italian destroyers, they expended almost 5,000 six-inch shells and achieved the sinking of only one destroyer, the Espero. Things changed when, four months later, the British light cruiser Aurora sank three French destroyers with deadly accuracy.

The author enumerates 55 surface actions involving major ships between the Axis and Allied navies. None approached the epic proportions of the sea battles in the Pacific, but men died and ships were sunk. If neither side could achieve decisive mastery, it was because both were aware of their acute vulnerability from the air. The British suffered grievously during the evacuations from Greece and Crete because of the complete mastery of the air by the Luftwaffe. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean and closer to RAF bases, the Italians were, with good reason, apprehensive of air attack. It was only during the final phases of the Mediterranean campaign when American air entered the picture and the RAF was heavily reinforced did control pass irrevocably to the allies.

The author points out that Alexandria, the main British naval base in the Mediterranean, lay at the end of a 12,000-mile supply trail and required extraordinary efforts to keep it productive. He implies that ships were diverted from higher-priority areas, such as the home fleet and Singapore, to maintain focus on the Mediterranean, which, he reasons, was a mistake.

These ideas are never completely spelled out, so it is difficult to discuss them properly. But it has to be said that Singapore was conquered from the land and not the sea, so it hardly mattered how many ships were there or not there. And without adequate air cover, fleet reinforcement might well have suffered the same fate as the Prince of Wales and Repulse. True, the home fleet was short of vessels, but it was the admirals sitting at the home fleet who helped make the decision as to how the British navy should be proportioned and used.

The American Army suffered a debacle at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia but recovered, corrected the command problems that caused the debacle and went on to drive the Germans out of the country. It was better for the Army, and for the world, that the command problems were rectified before the Normandy landings and did not occur there.

Perhaps this reviewer is reading too much into what are, after all, only side comments. In essence, Mr. O'Hara has given us a straightforward account of the naval war in the Mediterranean and proved his point that the Italian navy functioned in a professional and courageous manner. It is a welcome and clarifying addition to the existing literature on the Mediterranean campaign.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer.