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British/Commonwealth Cruiser Vs Italian Cruiser: The Mediterranean 1940-1943 (Angus Konstam, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 9781472849687, £14.99)

31 Mar 23

This latest addition to Osprey’s series of wartime comparators is a lovely read, packed with facts, design detail and warfighting context. Using a well-considered layout and thread, Konstam starts his description by outlining the evolution of heavy and light cruisers of both the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina. The constraints of the Washington Naval Treaty feature repeatedly as naval architects resolved design decisions either to remain within the spirit and letter of the 1922 agreement (the UK) or to circumvent some of the constraints (Italy).  That these constraints applied mainly to ‘heavy’ cruisers (i.e. those armed with eight-inch or 20.3cm guns) allows wider fleet tactical considerations (armour, vs speed, vs armament) to be exposed through the design factor analysis affecting the more lightly armed and less constrained six-inch (15.2cm) cruisers.

Konstam’s summation of this opening section is a rather eloquent précis of the construction outcomes, which moulded the two flotillas that would later face each other in mortal maritime combat: “In terms of heavy cruisers, the British vessels were designed as ocean cruisers, where good endurance and seakeeping qualities were major design considerations … the Italian emphasis was on speed rather than protection … [and] both countries produced vessels with broadly similar offensive capabilities.” However, this Italian emphasis on speed had required a significant compromise regarding resilience (they had more and heavier machinery, and thus lighter physical built-in protection, fewer watertight sub-divisions, and less mechanical redundancy), which meant that the Royal Navy’s cruisers were more able to absorb damage in action.

Setting the scene for his chapters on cruisers in Mediterranean combat, the design compromises also reflected their envisaged employment. Both nations’ cruisers were designed as scouts for their battle fleets. But the Italians had focussed their designs to foil the French, whilst operating under the protection of their Mediterranean coastal air forces and torpedo boats.  In contrast, the British had consciously wanted their cruisers to be capable of sustained independent action such as when also conducting trade protection. This meant that by the time they came together after the attrition of various supporting forces, “The cruisers of the Regia Marina can be likened to sleek, fast thoroughbreds, but forced to run a race for which they were not ideally suited”.

The Battle of Cape Matapan on 28 March 1941 was the premier victory of the Royal Navy against the Italian cruiser force mustered at the time.  Other cruiser actions in the central Mediterranean were generally more evenly balanced, with the Italians having the benefit of mass, proximity to their bases, and air cover, versus the British advantages of radar and more accurate fall of shot. This duly allows Konstam to draw out some further comparative nuances of warship design, such as the narrower distance between the muzzles of the Italian cruisers’ guns causing mutual deflection of their shells when fired as a broadside, compared to some clever design adjustments in British weapons to ensure such azimuth errors were minimised in battle. True ingenuity that eventually contributed to strategic combat success.

Overall, this is a really interesting volume that skilfully uses the history, tactics and features of two nominally similar genre of ships to highlight and then examine a range of evolutionary and combat details. This reviewer found it a very engaging read and one which is heartily recommend to anyone interested how the scouting and escort forces of World War II developed into one mainstay of maritime combat.