16 Apr 20
Posted by: Richard Channon

Vincent O’Hara has written extensively, and as an American historian, in a reasonably detached way about the maritime war in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, and in this book he narrows his focus to four tumultuous months in which command of its Ionian crossroads passed from the Allies (principally Britain) to the Axis (Italy and Germany).

He starts with an overall view of the situation in 1940 and 1941 before passing to a chapter on communications, intelligence and logistics, factors which had a strong influence on the actions of both sides. Interestingly, he concludes that despite Ultra, Britain arguably lost the signals intelligence war between January 1941 and May 1942, at least partly because senior officers were unconvinced of the usefulness of Ultra information. On logistics, he points out that the rate of Axis shipments into North Africa was limited by the capacity of the ports at Tripoli and Benghazi, while their very limited supply of oil fuel led to many constraints on the Italian fleet.

Passing on to the three British victories, he opens with that of Force K (based in Malta), whose greatest success was the destruction of the Beta convoy of eight merchant ships on 9th November 1941, and then moves on to the CRUSADER offensive by sea and land, whereby Britain was able effectively to blockade Libya. The sinking of two Italian cruisers off Cape Bon on 13th December marked the nadir of Axis fortunes, but the First Battle of Sirte on the 17th, effectively the first of three Italian victories as their convoy succeeded in getting through, marks the start of a phenomenal recovery reinforced by the sinking of HM Ships Neptune and Kandahar off Tripoli on the 18th, and consummated on the 19th by the astonishing success of the ‘maiale/chariot’ attack on Alexandria which put two battleships out of action – arguably the most significant feat of arms of the entire war at sea.

By now Malta was the focus of both sides’ efforts – the British to maintain a major strategic asset, the Axis to lance that boil. British efforts to drive through a four-ship convoy (MW10) from Alexandria led to the Second Battle of Sirte, in such foul weather that the Italians lost two destroyers to the conditions. However, though British propagandists (led by Churchill) claimed victory, it was in fact a defeat, in that of the 30,000 tons of cargo destined to sustain the island a mere 5,000 were unloaded safely: the travails endured to achieve even that are given full treatment.

Whilst a detailed narrative of the various actions, supported by some useful detailed maps and track-charts, occupies a considerable proportion of the book, O’Hara uses statistical analysis, frequently displayed in tabular form, to tell the underlying truth. He has delved deeply into the primary sources of, principally the British and Italians, which has enabled him to tabulate ships sunk and damaged on both sides, cargoes shipped and landed, all vessels involved in the various convoys, and so forth. It is a densely detailed account but has plenty of points of interest – for example, Admiral Iachino during Second Sirte had a signals intelligence team on board Littorio which was passing him British tactical messages within minutes of transmission. This, and other examples, leads to the thought that perhaps Ultra’s success has blinded us to the achievements of Axis codebreakers, and that a history comparing the services of the warring nations’ cryptanalysis organisations is now due. However that may be, this book offers an informative new slant on operations in the Med. during that critical period, and is recommended.