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Nations at war
Greene, Jack and Alessandro Massignani. The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940-1943. Rockville Centre, NY: Sarpedon, 1998
Introduction and Acknowledgements; photos; maps; diagrams; tables; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Although their book gets off to a slow start and ends with some less than rousing conclusions, authors Greene and Massignani have produced a very useful study of the topic defined by its title. Actually, it could be subtitled "From the Italian Point of View" because, while the other combatants are not ignored, the Regia Marina and Regia Aeronautica take center stage-- exactly as the writers intend.
After setting that stage with "The Drift to War", the authors -- despite the date in the title -- commence the action with a chapter describing naval operations during the Spanish Civil War and how these operations helped shape the subsequent war in the Med. Greene and Massignani do a reasonable job (and one seldom undertaken) of integrating the "secret" campaign along the Spanish coast into the story of pre-war naval planning, the approach of war, and the expectations of Axis and Allied navies in 1939 and 1940. This chapter and the next also describe the shipbuilding programs leading up to the war, with emphasis on the Franco-Italian rivalry. The text further imparts a great deal of information on preparations by the Regia Aeronautica but less on the RAF and French Air Force.
The opening chapters are not bad but they provide a rather sluggish and uninspired beginning to a book that improves once it gets going. Although the authors soon enough come to their area of greatest strength, some of the early generalizations, "big picture" material, and efforts at broad analysis in the first chapters do not quite fall into that category. Where Greene and Massignani shine is not in original research or scholarly analysis, but rather in assembling a multitude of published materials -- many of them Italian-language publications largely unavailable in other parts of the world -- and comparing, with much footnoting, the accounts and conclusions of others.
Similarly, while their connecting narrative of the overall course of the war in the Med is passable, specific naval and air-naval battles constitute the real meat of the book. As the writers intend, some battles (as well as some other aspects of the campaign) receive short shrift ("we do place all these in the context of the overall struggle") while some battles undergo microscopic examination. These make great reading and reveal Greene and Massignani at their best. They could have reinforced this success, and made the book even better while utilizing their own strengths, by increasing the number of complementary sidebars with lists of vessels engaged, sunk, and damaged for each engagement; brief profiles of warships and aircraft; and even notes about the various commanders. Harnessed to what is already an almost pointillistic style, this kind of "info box" approach might have been very beneficial.
In any event, the overall patterns emerge clearly while studying the sequence of episodic encounters.
Naval battles such as Punta Stilo, Cape Spada, Taranto, Cape Spartivento, and Matapan receive thorough treatment in which the opposing forces are carefully measured (with much consideration given, for example, conflicting estimates of top speeds for each warship) and the blow by blow (or splash by splash) progress of operations charted. Hits and misses are recorded. Movements are diagrammed. Damages and casualties are tallied. Of this kind of meat much is offered.
The Italians were first sighted at 6.30pm 100 miles north of Tobruk by HMS Liverpool, which opened fire 3 minutes later at a range of 18,000 yards. As the Italians steamed south-west at high speed, Tovey deployed the 1st Division made up of the cruisers Orion, Neptune and HMAS Sydney on the enemy's starboard quarter, and the 2nd Division, the Liverpool and Manchester, to port. The 1st Division were older light cruisers with eight 6in guns, while the Liverpool and Manchester were larger Southampton class ships with twelve 6in guns. Although the Italian destroyers were nominally faster than the British cruisers, their age, laden condition and the sea state meant they were gradually being overhauled.
With their decks cluttered with cargo, the Italian destroyers could not fire torpedoes, but Baroni made good use of smokescreens, and they were hard to hit as the "action was a chase in rapidly failing light with the enemy against the afterglow of the sunset'. The Liverpool and Manchester concentrated their increasingly effective fire at Baroni's flagship the Espero, and by 7.20pm the range had closed to 14,000 yards. The Espero had been damaged in the chase, but not until the fifteenth salvo, and Baroni turned back to allow his other two ships to escape. With night falling and ammunition running low, Tovey broke off the pursuit, and the Sydney closed to finish off the Espero. Damage to the British ships was limited to a single hit on the LIverpool, on the armour belt 3ft above the waterline, and minor blast damage from their own guns. The Sydney picked up forty-seven survivors from the Espero. Baroni was killed and would be posthumously awarded the Medaglia d'Oro. The two other Italian destroyers reached Benghazi safely on the 29th. The principal lesson of this action for the British was that an excessive amount of ammunition had been used, nearly 5000 rounds, and this sort of action would have to be conducted more economically in future. The resulting shortage of ammunition, as well as the threat of Italian submarines, forced a delay in the sailing of the Malta convoys, and when they did finally go to sea, the battle of Punta Stilo would be the result. The Aegean convoy reached Alexandria without loss, despite coming under air attack.
Although the naval encounters of opposing surface fleets are emphasized, the bold and dramatic exploits of special units such as the two-man submarine maiali ("pigs") and X MAS (10th Light Flotilla) -- exploits the Italians executed with bravery and panache -- receive attention along with codes and intelligence; air strikes against distant targets such as Gibraltar, Palestine, the Suez Canal, and even Bahrein; and the general course of submarine operations.
Not all the text relates directly to combat actions. Because Italy did not have an independent naval air arm, cooperation between the Regia Marina and Regia Aeronautica was clumsy at best. When discussing the Italian failure to enter the war with functional air-launched torpedoes, Greene and Massignani quote a droll exchange at the highest levels of command about availability and just whose budget was going to pay for them:
Badoglio: ...we should no longer discuss if the bomb is more effective than the torpedo; these are opinions without any practical confirmation and should be examined from a more realistic point of view. We have had too long of an exchange of letters on this point.
Cavagnari: The principle is not on the table but only who pays for it. The Navy holds that this problem has been solved for three years. The Air Force must purchase them.
Badoglio: It is not useful to deal here again with the problem of aircraft torpedoes. I want to avoid discussions that would only result in the waste of words. Who pays is always the State. Therefore, we should not become rigid on this question.
Air Force representative: The question is already settled. The Air Force was unable to buy thirty torpedoes because the production plants are busy with the order going to Germany.
Cavagnari: This is not true.
Similarly, readers are treated to plenty of little-known nuggets of information such as the cutting of Malta's underwater telegraph cables at the outbreak of war. Among the most unusual gems in the book are notes about the abortive British "Free Cyrenaica" movement, the notional pro-Allied "Free Italian Army" (to be formed from Italian POWs in Africa), and the rather starry-eyed effort by the British to purchase Italian warships through a middleman in Sweden.
The authors round out the book with the invasion of Crete, Axis convoys to Africa and Allied efforts to interdict them, Allied convoys to Malta and Axis efforts to interdict them (notably Operation Pedestal), and Operation Torch. An especially useful chapter lays out Axis plans for Operation C3, the proposed invasion of Malta. The book ends with the invasion of Sicily and a few words about Operation Avalanche and the Italian armistice.
Although a little uneven in places, overall this is a very credible effort to examine the most important and interesting aspects of the air-naval campaign in the Mediterranean. Especially valuable for those devoted to the intricacies of naval engagements.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Sarpedon.
Thanks to Sarpedon for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 28 February 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone