Six Victories. North Africa, Malta and the Mediterranean Convoy War November 1941 – March 1942. By Vincent P O’Hara. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2019.
Reviewed by David Hobbs
Vincent O’Hara is an independent historian based in California who has specialised in the study of naval warfare in the Mediterranean and written several critically well-acclaimed books on the subject. This book focuses on the successes achieved by the Italian Navy during the autumn and winter of 1941-42 which reversed the previous dominance of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet in which the successful actions of several Australian warships, including the cruisers Sydney and Perth, achieved fame.
The Axis campaign on land in North Africa was totally dependent on the ability of the Italians to fight convoys through the Central Mediterranean to provide logistic support for it and the British ability to prevent the enemy from doing so. Whilst the British fought some critical supplies through the Mediterranean, most were shipped around the Cape to Egypt but there was an imperative need to sustain Malta as a base for striking forces intended to interdict the Italian convoys. This period was known to the Italians as the Battle of the Convoys. The British were aided by Ultra intelligence and, by October 1941, the striking forces in Malta included surface warships, submarines and aircraft, the latter including Fleet Air Arm Swordfish armed with torpedoes as well as RAF bombers. While these forces dominated the Central Mediterranean less than 30% of the Axis logistic supplies shipped out of Italian ports arrived in North Africa. Thus, shortages of ammunition and fuel compelled the Afrika Korps to retreat 400 miles to the west while Malta and the British 8th Army, made up with forces from throughout the Commonwealth, continued to receive logistic re-supply successfully. The six victories that form the title of this book changed that situation dramatically and led to a period of Axis logistic dominance which allowed the Afrika Korps to advance into Egypt and only ended with the Battle of El Alamein in 1942.
O’Hara’s work is the result of considerable new research in both the UK and Italy and he explains in detail how the Axis came to isolate Malta and dominate the Central Mediterranean. Interestingly, he reveals that the potential advantages of Ultra information were often offset by the Italian ability to read British codes and how attempts to conceal the source of this information could lead to imperfectly executed strike operations. The loss of the cruiser Neptune and the destroyer Kandahar from the Malta striking force and damage to the cruisers Aurora and Penelope in an Italian minefield on 19 December 1941 as they crossed the 100-fathom line trying to intercept an Italian convoy is described in detail. So too is the heavy damage caused to the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant by Italian frogmen in Alexandria harbour on the same day. Within hours the balance of power in the Mediterranean had changed and the Italian fleet was in a dominant position; Axis convoys could be despatched to supply the Afrika Korps.
O’Hara’s book differs from earlier English-language histories of this period, however, in describing the Second Battle of Sirte in March 1942 as a ‘triumph of Axis sea power’. I do not entirely agree with this view although I do accept that he makes several valid points. His maps are similar to those used by S W C Pack in his 1975 book on the Second Battle of Sirte which described the same action as a ‘triumph of British sea power’. It is surely at least arguable that Vian’s cruisers succeeded in fighting the greater part of the convoy they were escorting through to Malta against a superior Italian force that included a capital ship. Surely, he therefore achieved his aim which must make the use of the word ‘triumph’ questionable and in failing to destroy the convoy the Italian force did not wholly achieve its own aim. Failure to unload the ships that arrived in Malta in a timely manner was a shortcoming of the island’s administration, not a direct result of the action in the Gulf of Sirte although, of course, Axis bombers were a significant factor in the delay. You will have to read the book yourself and decide whether Sirte can be considered a triumph by either side or, perhaps an indecisive encounter in which neither side achieved everything it wanted to.
There is one thing I dislike about this book and that is the jacket image which may, of course, have been selected by the publisher rather than the author. It reproduces a painting by Rudolf Claudus which is described as depicting the attack by Italian frogmen on the British fleet at Alexandria on 19 December 1941. The original hangs in the Accademia Navale in Livorno. The battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant are painted as they appeared when they were completed in 1915/16 with open bridge works and not as they appeared in 1941 after modernisation with conspicuous block bridge superstructures and totally different masts and silhouettes. Further, Map 6.3 on page 122 shows the 2 ships moored with their bows away from the south-eastern harbour wall and a small jetty astern of Queen Elizabeth, aligned with its centreline. The painting shows both ships moored with their bows towards this harbour wall and a jetty which is offset from the ships’ centreline. If this is the same jetty, this viewpoint should show the ships facing the other way with the explosion on the far side of the nearest ship. The north-western harbour wall was nearly a mile away, too far to have been used as the artist’s viewing point. This may seem a trivial point to some but if the artist’s intention was to pay tribute to a courageous act by the attacking Italian frogmen, surely it would have been better to get the details right. The author’s description of the attack is presumably correct in every detail and, therefore, at variance with the painting.
This criticism aside, I recommend this book as adding a valuable perspective on naval operations in the Second World War and for giving the Italian Navy the credit it is due for a series of well-executed operations that deserve to be more widely understood.