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Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1940-1945 (David Hobbs, Seaforth, £35, ISBN 978 1 5267 9383 6) & The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945 (David Hobbs, Seaforth, £35, ISBN 978 1 5267 9979 1)

28 Mar 23

The subject of both books immediately appealed to this reviewer, who has a keen interest in maritime airpower, and having read some of David Hobbs’ previous books, expectations were high. Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1940-1945 seeks to provide a detailed analysis of the Fleet Air Arm’s contribution to naval operations in the Mediterranean following Italy’s entry into the War in June 1940. Whilst The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945 provides a broader examination of the role of the Fleet Air Arm in the European theatre during the Second World War. David Hobbs, who will be well-known to members of The Naval Review, is eminently placed to provide such an analysis, having served in the Fleet Air Arm as both a rotary and fixed-wing pilot for 30 years and subsequently becoming the Curator of the Fleet Air Arm Museum.

Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean follows a broadly chronological approach, divided into 14 chapters, with six supporting appendices (covering topics including the aircraft, ships and armament used by the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean), with detailed notes and a bibliography. Key operations such as the Taranto Raid, Operation PEDESTAL and the Allied Landings in Sicily and the Italian mainland have dedicated chapters. Hobbs provides throughout the text, a highly detailed account of maritime air operations, from both ships and ashore, combining rich tactical detail whilst providing operational and strategic context. Moreover, Hobbs’ analysis probes the ‘what might have been’, for example, stating that “The obvious success of the attack on Taranto has masked the fact that it could, potentially, have been even more decisive if Cunningham had given it the priority it deserved. Viewed objectively eighty years after the event, it is difficult to understand why Eagle was left behind”. As Hobbs explains in his ‘Retrospection’: “It has to be said that the RN suffered not only from the lack of priority given to its air component prior to 1937 but also from the ill-considered priorities set by the new Ministry of Aircraft production [sic] during 1940 and afterwards. It was starved of new aircraft in 1941 because the MAP failed to recognise the navy’s critical need for aircraft to carry out the fleet’s wide variety of missions”. Moreover, and a point with contemporary relevance: “The fact that Formidable had to operate in mid-1941 with an air group far smaller than she was capable of embarking was a poor reflection on the Government’s priorities at a critical time”.

The themes covered in Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean are similarly developed in The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945. Again, Hobbs provides an analysis rich in tactical detail, but founded on the wider operational and strategic contexts. The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945 is divided into 10 chapters, covering the structure of the Fleet Air Arm in 1939, the initial weeks of the War, with each year of the War having a dedicated chapter. A ‘Retrospection’ concludes the book. Hobbs examines the major operations in which the Fleet Air Arm contributed, including the hunt for the Bismarck, the Channel Dash, operations against German forces in Norway, the Arctic Convoys, as well as the Battle of Britain, and Operation OVERLORD. Atlantic convoy operations are not covered as they will be the subject of a further volume. As with Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Hobbs highlights the impact of pre-war policy on the development of naval aviation, how this acted as a constraint, and despite those constraints, how admirably the Fleet Air Arm performed during the War. Hobbs states that: “It would be unfair to compare the Fleet Air Arm’s performance too closely with the American and Japanese naval air arms, neither of which had the administration of their training and aircraft procurement regimes forced on them for nearly two decades by an organisation that was not only institutionally averse to specialised naval aviation but saw no value in it”.

In this regard, when reading both books, one is struck by both the contribution the Fleet Air Arm made to the War effort, which Hobbs articulates most clearly, and what could have been. For example, Hobbs draws attention in The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945 to the Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber, which was delayed in entering service by two years due to the cancellation of the Rolls Royce Exe engine, prompting a major redesign. Hobbs provokes much thought with his comment: “Had it entered service with the Exe engine in 1941 as the Admiralty wanted, it could well have been a ‘game-changer’ and I leave to the reader’s imagination what could have been achieved by Barracuda squadrons rather than Swordfish and Albacores in strike operations from 1941 onwards”. Moreover, pre-war assumptions with regard to the nature of future joint operations were found to be flawed, as Hobbs explains: “From its inception the British Air Ministry had always claimed that the RAF could provide whatever air power was needed to support joint forces in any kind of operation.  The real experience of warfare could not have been more different and it was the RN that had to provide the air dimension, either directly with carrier-borne aircraft deployed to the point of contact with the enemy or by ferrying RAF aircraft to Norway, Malta, West Africa and the Far East”.

Both books are well-written, with only the occasional minor typo. Although Hobbs provides a highly detailed narrative, his text remains both accessible, highly engaging, and intellectually stimulating. Both books will appeal to those interested in naval aviation, the history of the Royal Navy, and the Second World War. Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean 1940-1945 provides a most useful account of the naval air contribution to the War in the Mediterranean, and would ably complement, for example, Richard Hammond’s Strangling the Axis: The Fight for Control of the Mediterranean During the Second World War (see NR Vol. 109, No. 4, pp. 556-557). Similarly, The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945 provides a valuable account of the Fleet Air Arm’s contribution to the war against Germany. Both books are highly recommended in their own right, and this reviewer would strongly suggest reading them both. Hobbs concludes The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945 with the statement that “The strategic mobility of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers and their embarked air groups are as fundamentally important to Great Britain today as they were when the events described in this book took place…”. In Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean 1940-1945 and The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe 1939-1945, David Hobbs provides a most valuable account and analysis of the contribution of carrier airpower to victory against Germany and Italy in the Second World War, and its enduring relevance and value.