middle seaMaking a return visit back to Meet the Author on USNI Blog is Vincent P. O’ Hara. He has authored another masterpiece in my opinion. You are in for another treat.

Could you provide a short synopsis of Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940-1945?

Struggle for the Middle Sea describes the naval war fought in the Mediterranean and Red Sea from June 1940 to May 1945 in terms of the five great navies that participated: Great Britain’s Royal Navy, Italy’s Regia Marina, France’s Marine Nationale, The United States Navy and the German Kriegsmarine. It examines the national imperatives that made the Mediterranean such a vital theater for each of these powers and it analyses their actions and performances over the entire five-year campaign. The book has an unusual depth of detail, particularly in its coverage of naval surface combat and it is filled with fresh viewpoints that are supported by extensive research in Italian and French sources. The thirteen chapters range from the pre-war situation to France’s defeat, Italy’s parallel war, convoy actions, France’s naval campaign off Syria, the period of Axis domination, the Italian armistice and Germany’s war in the Aegean, Adriatic and Ligurian Seas. Struggle for the Middle Sea ends with an analysis of the campaign and draws some unconventional conclusions.

How does Struggle for the Middle Sea fill a void in Navy historiography?

Struggle for the Middle Sea fills several voids. First, despite the importance of the Mediterranean and the fact it saw more combat than the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, remarkably little has been written about the naval struggle fought there. Most of what has been written treats the theater in segments such as the 1940-43 Anglo-Italian convoy war or the 1943-44 Allied amphibious expeditions. Struggle for the Middle Sea covers the entire theater and campaign and it does it, I believe, from a neutral viewpoint, treating all the major participants equally. Readers are surprised, for example, to learn that the French had such profound interests in the region and were fighting from the very beginning to the very end, or that the Germans deployed more than fifty destroyer-sized warships in the Mediterranean and conducted a successful littoral campaign in the face of what should have been overwhelming Allied strength.

The Mediterranean war’s historiography is also deficient in that it has been strongly influenced by received interpretations that are rooted in wartime propaganda. These are so pervasive they have entered popular culture. How does an Italian admiral see his fleet? In a glass-bottomed boat. The July 1940 Action off Calabria (the English name) is a good example of what I mean. This battle involved five battleships and nineteen cruisers and was the largest fleet action fought in European waters during the war. When I sat down to read about Calabria—every author, including luminaries like Stephen Roskill, P. K. Kemp, Martin Stephen, Nathan Miller and Julian Thompson—stated that in this action the British asserted a moral ascendancy over the Italians. They all used these words. In reading and re-reading their accounts, I couldn’t see how the facts squared with such a unanimous conclusion. Well, it turned out they were quoting Admiral Cunningham’s report to the Admiralty, made five months after the fact. His contemporary comments are much less confident. Meanwhile, the Italian admiral who was second in command wrote just after the battle, “One result that occurred . . . was that all personnel felt . . . our ability to confront and beat the enemy.” Clearly, the whole notion of moral ascendancy is an after-the-fact invention. Authors, like James Sadkovich and Jack Greene have helped clarify the record regarding the performance of Italy’s navy in WWII, but the historiography remains heavily weighted on the side of the old interpretations.

Did the research for your other two books (The German Fleet at War and The U.S. Navy Against the Axis) lay the foundation for this one?

Yes. My original concept, which dates back nearly twenty years, was to write a history of all naval battles fought by surface combatants during the Second World War. Thus, elements of all three volumes were in place when Naval Institute accepted the German Fleet at War for publication in 2003. However, while German Fleet, U.S. Navy Against the Axis and Struggle share a focus on naval surface combat, they also differ in many respects. I consider Struggle for the Middle Sea to be more integrated and readable because it has a stronger narrative than its predecessors.

For this book, what were some of your more insightful sources?

The Mediterranean campaign featured strong and colorful personalities—the British Admirals Andrew Cunningham and James Somerville and the Italian Angelo Iachino come to mind. The Cunningham and Somerville papers edited by Michael Simpson and published by the Naval Records Society are outstanding for the attitudes and actions of the British admirals. Iachino’s history, Tramonto di una grande marina was helpful. Many sources play up the impact of intelligence, but F. H. Hinsley’s British Intelligence in the Second World War put this factor into perspective. The British staff histories and battle summaries—contemporary documents intended to pass along lessons learned–along with the volumes of La Marina Italiana nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale that I consulted allowed me to include considerable detail in my battle accounts. Where they were available, action reports of individual ships or commanders were invaluable. Finally, I must mention memoirs and correspondence. These don’t always get the facts right, but they deliver the spirit. For example, an Italian sailor recalled that his ship, the torpedo boat Perseo refused to sink after being wrecked by British destroyers. Her crew, floating nearby on rafts, joked that the ship’s armor, hundreds of accumulated coats of paint, was proving sound.

What advice do you have for potential naval history authors?

Every author follows their own path, but I think it all boils down to writing (not thinking about writing) and hard work. With respect to writing naval history it’s good to finish projects once started. Write for publication and know that presentation matters. New authors break into the field every year. The best pay attention to historical method and they weigh their sources.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

After seventy years people might think that the history of the Second World War has been told, but that isn’t the case. Much like the history of the American Civil War underwent a reevaluation and a new synthesis after the intense passions provoked by the war cooled down, the historiography of the Second World War is undergoing a similar process. Struggle for the Middle Sea highlights the importance of perspective in the consideration of past events. The book has provoked controversy, especially in Great Britain and Italy, and I confess to being happy about that. It indicates that some arrows struck flesh.

Click here to read my previous interview with the author regarding The U.S. Navy against the Axis.

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Books

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