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Struggle for the Middle Sea Review

Updated on March 22, 2020

The Mediterranean was one of the great naval theaters of the Second World War, pitting the Italians assisted by the Germans against the United Kingdom, with intermittent appearances by the French navy and later participation by the United States. Despite this, it often gets reduced to trite cliches about the inferiority, cowardice, and incompetence of the Italians, who are perceived as being no match for the Royal Navy and who were effortlessly defeated every time they engaged. The story was actually much more complex, as laid out by The Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, written by Vincent P. O'Hara. This book goes into detailed coverage of essentially every naval engagement which happened in the Mediterranean in the years of 1940-1945 between the British and Italians, as well as between the British and the French and the German involvement later in the war, Unlike most books it continues past the 1943 date when the Italians capitulated, and furthermore covers the relationship with Vichy France and the Red Sea.


The book uses a relatively simple chronological format, which stars with an introduction which lays out some of the problems associated with other books covering the war such as their dismissal of the Italians and lack of coverage of many elements on the geographic extremities, such as the French involvement in the war, as well as halting at 1943, and the importance of the Mediterranean theater. This continues on with the first chapter covering the eve of the war and plans and strategies, as well as some of the very basic statuses of the navies in the Mediterranean, used by the French, Italians, and British. It then begins chapters on combat operations, with each one listing the ships used by the involved sides, casualties, losses, starting with the first engagements between the French and the Italians and then the British attack on the French at Mers-el-Kebir and its result. After this the war between the British and the Italians and what both sides hoped to achieve is plunged into, each chapter generally starting with a strategic overview and then the battles. This generally continues without much alteration until chapter 9, which goes more into depth about the tonnage losses and discussing reasons for the British, Italian, and German performance. as well as providing the book's photo collection. It also mentions a number of battles.

Cape Sparda, the first fleet action between the Italians and the British in the Mediterranean
Cape Sparda, the first fleet action between the Italians and the British in the Mediterranean

Chapter 10 resumes the previous standard chapter arrangement, continuing with the American entrance into the war in full strength and the Italian armistice, the German reaction, and then the war the Germans waged - particularly in the Dodecanese campaign as well as what ships the Germans seized from the Italians. A number of convoy battles and raids are covered. The conclusion summarizes the various navies' performance and what the strategic impact of the Mediterranean war was.

The sinking of the battleship Roma, one of the most dramatic moments of the battles surrounding the Italian armistice.
The sinking of the battleship Roma, one of the most dramatic moments of the battles surrounding the Italian armistice.


It is refreshing to have a book about the Mediterranean which is more than just lauding the British and their victories over the Italian navy. Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean, is a much more holistic book which also examines the role of the French naval forces in the Mediterranean and continues up until 1945 Unlike the stereotypical pop culture history it treats the Italians with respect, and critically analyzes British perceptions of the theater, such as the claim made by the British after the battle of Calabria, where they declared that they had won "moral ascendancy" over the Italians. It is pointed out by the book that this claim was made and only could be accepted in light of the later British victory at Taranto, and that the battle really showed nothing of the kind.

The battles of the war are covered quite well, with plentiful detail, and it does this not just for the regular battles between the Italians and the British, but also for less well known actions such as the Franco-British naval engagements off of the coast of Syria, including some of the political aspects of the French response. And its statistical analysis of the war and its continuation of the war past the Italian surrender makes it a good look at the general war.

The problem however, is that the book is certainly detailed about individual actions, but it could have been so much more illustrative and educational about the Mediterranean as a whole. Constantly it focuses on individual tactical operations, but rarely upon the bigger picture. It covers this from time to time, but more focus on the strategy, objectives, and factors behind battles would have been illuminating, instead of repeatedly focusing to too great of an extent upon solely the battles.

This is particularly the case in the lead-up to the war, where there is very little, almost nothing at all actually, which is said about the state of the various navies, their doctrines, training, quality, and organization. The book does mention some of their war plans and objectives, but this it: the book's look at these navies as a whole is terribly lacking and it could have done far more. While some aspects of the relative capabilities of the navies are revealed over the course of the book, and explained - such as the torpedo doctrine of the Royal Navy vs. the Italian navy as well as some elements of night fighting, technology, and the defensive strategic doctrine of the Italian navy, as a whole the coverage of the navies themselves is sparse at best.And some of the notable problems, such as the lack of coordination between the Italians and Germans, are never much covered.

Overall the book simply gets.... tiring at times. Reading another statistic about just how much ammunition was expended by the British and the Italians in a battle quickly can become boring for the average reader. For a dedicated naval enthusiast, the book is probably a great resource, but the single-minded focus on most battles is unnecessary for most people.

This is a good book for those who are intensely interested in the tactical operations, and it does provide some general overview of the conflict, but it could have been much better with a greater overall strategic view, insight into the composition and technical aspects of the various navies, and doctrine and equipment. It is too narrow and not holistic enough for most purposes.

3 stars for Struggle for the Middle Sea

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas


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