CONFRONTING ITALY: MEDITERRANEAN SURFACE ACTIONS IN 1940. EXPLODING THE MYTH OF MUSSOLINI’S ‘MARE NOSTRUM’

Reviewed by: KEVIN ROWLANDS

Britannia Royal Naval College and the University of Plymouth Press are to be commended for producing a fine series of naval histories, not only for use by officer cadets at Dartmouth, but by others as well, from armchair admiral to seagoing practitioner.  This particular volume focuses on three hotly contested battles which took place in the Mediterranean in 1940 under the watchful eyes of Admirals Cunningham and Somerville, battles which deserve attention for their pivotal role in the Second World War.

The foreword to the book is by Admiral Sir Jock Slater, a more recent former First Sea Lord and himself a great-nephew of ‘ABC’ Cunningham.  To have a living history, a personal connection with momentous events and people, is a joy and Slater’s words set the reader well for the tales that follow.  One can picture him writing his foreword, glancing from time to time at the small wooden plaque on his desk, the same plaque that graced the desk of Cunningham in HMS Warspite.  The introduction, provided by Michael Pearce, is a longer but very readable section which sets the context for the war in the Mediterranean, including Mussolini’s desire for Italian prestige and status.  Unlike the early months of the war against Germany in 1939, once Italy declared hostilities against Britain and France on 10 June 1940, there was no ‘phony war’.  Within the month the fleets clashed at Calabria, then again ten days later at Cape Spada, Crete, and then once more a few months later at Cape Spartivento, Sardinia.

These were critical surface actions, the latter taking place just after the famous Fleet Air Arm attack on Taranto, and together they proved that the Royal Navy was a match for the Regia Marina in its own sea.  Importantly, the battles also gave vital insights into modern war at sea and opened Cunningham’s eyes to what he must do, and what he must have in his inventory, if the Mediterranean was to continue to be a manoeuvre space for Allied ships.  Calabria, for instance, showed the need for speed and longer range gunnery; Cape Sparda, with HMAS Sydney demonstrating the offensive spirit of  the Royal Australian Navy, showed the benefit of holding to a clearly articulated aim and objectives; Cape Spartivento, with an aircraft carrier part of the orbat, showed the challenges of higher tactical command at sea and the importance of trust in subordinates to get on with their mission.  Lessons are important, and they must be learned as well as identified.

Confronting Italy gives a good tactical summary and analysis of each of the three surface battles, drawing on contemporary records and on the notes of the commanders themselves.  The Annexes are also invaluable factual sources and, if used well, could be excellent teaching aids.  For instance, the Annex laying out Somerville’s own reasons for abandoning the chase at Spartivento (Churchill thought that Somerville lacked ‘spirit’), with his analysis of the pros and cons of chasing the enemy would make for a good starting point in a syndicate room debate on the battle.

All in all, Confronting Italy is a welcome addition to the Britannia Naval Histories series and they are all slim, easily digested, and clearly laid out summaries of pivotal moments in the war at sea. Recommended.