Book Review – Battles of the Malta Striking Forces

The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces

by Peter C. Smith and Edwin Walker

5 Stars out of 5

This is the second book I have read by Peter C. Smith, and like the first (“Hold the Narrow Sea”), it was a delight, and is highly recommended.

“The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces” deals with the history of the Malta-based surface striking forces in 1941, a time during which they proved a veritable thorn in the side of the Axis, and contributed directly to the Commonwealth victory on land in Operation Crusader, which started in November 1941. The narrative describes in detail the key actions in which the striking forces were involved, most importantly the convoy battles on 16 April 41 and 8/9 November 41 and the destruction of the light cruisers da Barbiano and di Giussano by the Royal Navy’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla. The book ends with the first battle of Sirte, and the destruction of Force K on a minefield north of Tripoli on 18/19 December 1941. It also describes the strategic situation in the Mediterranean, and how these actions were linked into events in other parts of this theatre. Appendices describe the warships used and list them, the load of the Beta convoy (better known as Duisburg convoy) which was entirely sunk on 8/9 November, signals from and to HMS Penelope sent during the fateful night of 18/19 December, and an interesting list of gunnery effects during the Duisburg convoy battle. An index is also included, which is a great help. The numerous pictures and maps selected for inclusion are not only helping understanding the events, but add life to the book as a whole.

The authors have obviously gone to great lengths to research this short but important section of Malta’s history in the Mediterranean war, looking both at unit records on the Royal Navy side, and the official history of the Italian navy. While there are minor niggles (e.g. the consistent misspelling of the Duisburg as Duisberg), and some typos and date errors, I think this book shows clearly that history books do not need to be dry, heavy tomes that can double as weights in a fitness programme or door stops. It is packed with information, yet readable. At just 120 pages in a pocket-book format, this book contains all one might want to know about the actions of Malta-based strike forces in 1941. With one clear exception however – the book does not discuss the role of ULTRA intelligence in the actions of the Royal Navy forces. But this is clearly not the fault of the authors, who researched, wrote and published in 1974 before the role of ULTRA in the Mediterranean became known. For those interested in this aspect, I can only recommend Santoni’s “Il vero Tradittore”, or as a second-best for this specific aspect, Hinsley’s official history of British intelligence, Vol. II.

A particularly welcome aspect of this book is the positive and respectful attitude the authors show towards the performance of the Regia Marina, the Royal Navy of Italy, which has been slandered far too often in the memoirs and papers particularly by German officers. The brave and determined actions of commanders and ships companies, such as Capitano di Fregata Mimbelli of the Lupo and Capitano di Fregata dell’Anno of the Antonio da Mosto, both of whom conducted hopeless defenses of their charges in the face of a vastly superior force in November and December 1941, or of the destroyer Luca Tarigo, which sank the destroyer HMS Mohawk with a torpedo fired by a junior officer while she herself was disabled and on fire, are recorded in detail, and with the respect they deserve. Reading this book it is clear that the Regia Marina was no push-over, and that the successes in the Mediterranean had to be fought for by the Royal Navy, and did not come for free.

I do not think that any serious student of the sea war in the Mediterranean can do without this book, and those looking at the land war in North Africa should also get themselves a copy. I would hope that Mr. Smith would find the time to update the book, or maybe expand it to include the role of the British submarines, and the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force units operating from Malta.

This review refers to the 1974 Ian Allan hardcover edition, published in the Sea Battles in Close-Up series as Vol. 11

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