Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2020-081
9 Sept. 2020
Review by Ralph M. Hitchens, Poolesville, MD
Six Victories: North Africa, Malta, and the Mediterranean Convoy War, November 1941–March 1942
By Vincent P. O'Hara
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2019. Pp. ix, 322. ISBN 978–1–68247–460–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 20th Century, World War II, Mediterranean Theater Print Version

North Africa was like an island. [It] produced nothing for the support of armies: every article required for life and war had to be carried there.   — I.S.O. Playfair

Vincent O'Hara, a prolific independent scholar of naval warfare,[1] ventures deep into the (sea)weeds in his detailed new account of a critical period of the Second World War in the Mediterranean theater. From the outset, he expects readers to set aside their preconceptions about the Italian armed forces—universally regarded in popular memory as the "weak sister" in the Axis troika. As in his earlier work, he is determined to give the Italian Navy its due. To be sure, it was never a match for the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet, but that was owing to a lack of resources. For a time, nonetheless, in a few key engagements, the "Regia Marina" rose to the challenge and accomplished its primary mission: getting convoys across the dangerous waters of the central Mediterranean to supply Gen. Erwin Rommel's German-Italian Panzerarmee.


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Military success, the author reminds us, while "often measured in terms of big events" also reflects the "cumulative impact of little deeds." Hence, his narrative "may seem full of detail, but detail is the essence of the matter" (2). The resulting dense chronological account asks much of the reader, but O'Hara tells a compelling story. Chapters 1–2 survey the central Mediterranean theater and the variables affecting both sides' communications, intelligence, and logistics. Chapters 3–10 take us from Force K's arrival at Malta (Oct. 1941) through a series of convoy battles fought during that fall. The British gained and held the upper hand for a time, interdicting most of the supply tonnage dispatched from Italy to Libya's two major ports. The final two chapters (11–12) wrap up this dramatic phase of the Mediterranean naval war with an account of the intense Italian and German aerial campaign that neutralized Malta and destroyed a British convoy attempting to replenish the island's dwindling stocks of petroleum, oil, lubricants (POL), and other essential supplies.

Analysis of the events of a few key months in the war in the central Mediterranean makes clear how Benito Mussolini's vainglorious ambition outran the material capabilities of the Italian state and armed forces. The Regia Marina possessed some highly capable warships, but was plagued by fuel shortages (see chap. 2, passim) that prevented high-tempo training and thwarted operational templates for surface engagements by day or night. The better trained Royal Navy almost invariably had the upper hand against the Regia Marina. Almost.

The first of two defining events in the land war in the Western Desert campaign was the British offensive Operation Crusader, which relieved Tobruk and forced Rommel's resource-starved Panzerarmee out of eastern Libya. The Axis supply shortages that forced this retreat were imposed by the Royal Navy's decisive (if short-lived) success in the central Mediterranean, including the permanent basing of a small cruiser-destroyer force at Malta. In stationing "Force K" at Malta, the Royal Navy accepted a serious risk, for the island was dangerously close to Axis airfields on Sicily. Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself had to overrule the opposition of the First Sea Lord. The Royal Navy's first three victories ensured that the British 8th Army would ultimately drive Rommel's undersupplied forces into a long Axis retreat and temporarily put one of Libya's two major ports—Benghazi—into Allied hands.

In the first three of O'Hara's "Six Victories," Force K justified Churchill's gamble with a tactical success and ensured further Royal Navy victories in the Mediterranean, as well as effective (if costly) air interdiction by Desert Air Force and RAF aircraft based on Malta. The logistical impact on the Axis forces was immediate and dire. Force K's destruction of the Beta convoy in early November was a triumph of Royal Navy tactical doctrine in a classic night engagement; the British sank all seven transports in a convoy including two heavy cruisers. The subsequent battle of Cape Bon saw four British destroyers sink two Italian light cruisers laden with POL, dispatched at high speed in hopes of resupplying Axis forces in Libya. The final blow came in December, when two British submarines sank two transports and damaged one of the Regia Marina's most modern battleships. Two large convoys escorted by most of the Italian battle fleet had to reverse course and return to Italy. Thus, during November and early December 1941, the British interdicted most of the Italian resupply convoys en route to North Africa. Rommel's logistical situation became untenable, triggering a retreat deep into western Libya. The only bright spots for the Axis came when German U-boats sank the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham in mid-November.

Through the middle of December the Regia Marina fought the traffic war under conditions that favored the British. The Axis powers did not realize the extent to which their radio communications were being compromised. This gave British air and submarine forces a better chance of engaging targets under favorable conditions in the wide waters of the central Mediterranean. The Regia Marina's lack of appropriate doctrine and training, not to mention radar, had made its surface units virtually helpless against inferior British forces in night actions, as demonstrated by the Beta Convoy and Cape Bon actions. The Italian navy had not lost its taste for fighting the enemy, but it had lost its taste for fighting at a disadvantage. (99–100)

Apart from the loss of the Ark Royal and Barham, the Royal Navy encountered no other failures as both its surface vessels and submarines were gaining the upper hand. For example, in late October 1941, Force K tried to intercept an Axis convoy whose itinerary had been comprehensively reported by Ultra, but could not locate the enemy: "even with the best intelligence, success was never certain" (39). An Italian admiral who wrote the history of the "convoy war" asserted that, considering the whole history of the campaign (June 1940–Nov. 1942), "the Italians could not have landed much more in Libya than they did, even if there had been no British interference" (33). O'Hara cites convoy statistics that bear this out.

The author's next defining event of the land campaign in North Africa is Rommel's early-1942 counteroffensive that drove the British and Commonwealth forces all the way back to the "Gazala line" west of Tobruk. It featured three stunning Axis naval successes within thirty-six hours, along with the sustained aerial suppression campaign that neutralized Malta. This phase of the central Mediterranean campaign opened with the First Battle of Sirte (mid-Dec. 1941). An exceptionally strong Regia Marina escort force—four battleships, five cruisers, and twelve destroyers—skillfully frustrated a British attack by cruisers and destroyers trying to intercept two small convoys bound for Tripoli. Many historians portray this battle as a British triumph against heavy odds with negligible losses, but the Italians and their German allies regarded it as a victory of sorts, effectively reopening the dangerous supply route to North Africa. The British also lost a cruiser and a destroyer when Force K sailed into a minefield off Libya. The most notable of the three Italian successes, however, involved an attack by frogmen carrying demolition charges into the heavily guarded British fleet base in Alexandria; two Royal Navy battleships were put out of action for several months.[2] This was one of the most daring special operations missions of the whole war.

O'Hara's narrative culminates in the Second Battle of Sirte (Mar. 1942), where the Italian battle fleet engaged a force of British cruisers and destroyers screening a large Malta convoy during a tumultuous storm. The convoy had to disperse and navigate independently to Malta, while most of the British warships turned back toward Alexandria. Fatally delayed, the convoy was hit hard by German and Italian airstrikes outside Malta's Grand Harbor—three of four transports sank and barely a sixth of the cargo was discharged. Although disappointed with the outcome of the battle, the Italian Navy had at a stroke effectively regained control of the central Mediterranean, ending the resupply crisis and setting the stage for Rommel's greatest victory at the Battle of Gazala (26 May–21 June 1942).

These central Mediterranean campaigns exemplify all five dimensions of modern naval warfare: surface, undersea, air-to-sea, special operations, and—a notable feature of this book—intelligence, which is deeply woven into O'Hara's narrative. Ultra communications intercepts played a significant role in the Mediterranean, as in other theaters, but the Royal Navy's experience demonstrates that "Ultra was seldom precise enough to guarantee contact with enemy targets." In the author's judgment, Ultra was just "one facet of a wide-ranging top-secret intelligence war waged by both sides …. [T]he fact that Ultra was kept secret for thirty years after the end of the war has magnified its apparent significance" (30).

But the Italians and Germans were able to decrypt high-level Allied naval codes, and "routine radio traffic was an open book" (30). British interrogators learned in 1944 that their naval tactical codes were easily decrypted,[3] while their air tactical codes, even though reciphering tables were changed every day, were "quite simple and sighting reports from British aircraft could always be completely deciphered at once, and were retransmitted within a few minutes to units sighted" (30–31). Such "immediate and practical information" (31) was of immense value to the Italians in their efforts to push resupply convoys through the central Mediterranean "and often diminished the value of Ultra intelligence" (31).

In Six Victories, Vincent O'Hara has made a most welcome and timely contribution to the history of the Second World War, which is being rewritten at the operational/tactical level in recent years.

[1] His dozen or so books include Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Inst Pr, 2009), and On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War (id., 2010).

[2] HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth suffered heavy flooding in their engineering spaces and sank to the shallow harbor floor. Since much of their hulls remained above water, Axis air reconnaissance had trouble assessing the damage. The Italians were uncertain about the success of the mission, and their German allies were long convinced that it had failed.

[3] At the Second Battle of Sirte, Vice-Admiral Angelo Iachino, commanding the Italian fleet aboard the battleship Littorio, received decrypted British naval signals within three minutes of their transmission (211).

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