- Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940-1945
Vincent P. O'Hara, the author of several works on naval warfare during World War II, has written a compelling and exhaustive account of naval encounters in the Mediterranean and Red Seas between 1940 and 1945. For the lay reader, naval combat during the Second World War is usually identified with the great naval battles in the Pacific, such as those of Coral Sea, Midway, and Leyte Gulf, not to mention the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Also familiar to the general public is the protracted Battle of the Atlantic. Operations in the Mediterranean are either unknown or ignored. Yet in O'Hara's work, we discover that "more surface actions were fought in the Mediterranean by more participants than anywhere else in the war."
O'Hara underscores the importance of the struggle for the Middle Sea (or Mediterranean), for "it was World War II's longest air-land-sea campaign; it was a war of attrition in which the Axis confounded London's early quest for a decisive result and then slowly ground the British down until the Americans entered the theater in force—two and a half years after the campaign began. The Axis together and then Germany with her minor allies delayed the Allies on their road to victory for another two and a half years. By May 1945 Germany had lost Berlin but still maintained a tiny, defiant naval presence on the Middle Sea."
O'Hara seeks to correct several myths and misconceptions about four of the world's six great navies' performance in the Mediterranean, namely, that (1) Italy's military [End Page 121] was incompetent, or its corollary, that Germany did all the real fighting; (2) the naval war ended with the Italian armistice; (3) the Mediterranean was the last great campaign fought and was won exclusively by imperial British arms; and (4) the motivation and participation of the French navy is misunderstood, as it is so often dismissed as treasonous.
From the outset, O'Hara appears to be on a mission to vindicate the Italian navy, which since 1945 has often been ridiculed or ignored by military historians. Even reputable US naval historians such as Samuel E. Morison and Lisle A. Rose have prolonged the stereotype of the incompetence of Italian seamen. Morison wrote in Operations in North African Wars, (1984) that "the Dago Navy [referring to the Italian mariners] had long been regarded by British tars as a huge joke."1 Rose, in his Power at Sea (2007), wrote, "Mussolini's lazy sailors disdained to prepare for serious warfare. . . . [T]he result was an utter lack of toughness and team spirit—of any degree of real professionalism—that would lead to frequent panic in battle."2
O'Hara is determined to dispel these highly prejudiced judgments. As he writes in his introduction, "The Italian navy fought hard; it often fought very well; and it accomplished its major objectives. It kept Italy's African and Balkan armies supplied for three years and largely controlled the central Mediterranean." O'Hara reiterates the judgment of another American military historian, James Sadkovich, who wrote in 1994 in The Italian Navy in World War II, "It is time to discard the notion that the RMI [Royal Italian Navy] was paralyzed by an incompetent command and undermined by a flawed Italian national character, because it is clear that compromised codes, a lack of fuel oil, and low industrial capacity were instrumental to Italy's defeat."3 O'Hara points out that not only did the Regia Marina survive until May 1943, but it managed for the most part to accomplish its missions. "It closed the direct passage through the Mediterranean to all but eight freighters, forcing Great Britain to build and supply an army in Egypt the hard way, around the Cape of Good Hope, rather than through the...