David Greentree: British Submarine vs. Italian Torpedo Boat (Osprey Duel 74)

David Greentree: British Submarine vs. Italian Torpedo Boat (Osprey Duel 74)

Four Stars out of Five – Buy

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Torpdiniera Sagittario – a Spica-class, Perseo-sub class torpedo boat equipped with German ASDIC from early 1942. On 8 February 1942 she detected and rammed HM/Sub Proteus, which did however come off the better (see this link). Sagittario  survived the war and continued to serve until 1964 in the Italian navy. (Wikipedia)

Overall

I have to come clean here – there is no way I would not rate a book where my blog is the first item in the bibliography a buy. 🙂 So go out and buy it. I got it in a Kindle sale, and am happy I did.

Considerations

The book covers the period of the Italo-British war from June 1940 to the Italian armistice in September 1943, with a short post-script covering the continued service of the Italian torpedo boats under the Kriegsmarine flag from 1943 to 1945. 

The clear focus of the book is on the engagements between Italian escort torpedo boats and British submarines. The Italian navy, the Regia Marina, is usually dismissed due to the prevalence of a narrative driven by the Royal Navy memoirs which considered them shy adversaries. Anyone who has looked at the performance of the Italian escorts on the North Africa route knows that this is at best a caricature, and at worst an insult, both to the Italian sailors and to the British sailors in submarines and some surface vessels who fell victim to them. 

The author has gone through a range of secondary sources and relies to a large extent on the official Italian history, which is a great service to those who do not speak Italian and/or would struggle to access this rare and expensive work.

The book is well rounded, and provides a very decent overview of tactics, technology, weaponry, and engagement detail for both sides, given its compact size. I consider it an important reference work and very helpful for anyone researching the naval war in the Mediterranean, which was for the most part a convoy war, the few major fleet actions notwithstanding.

Room for Improvement

Some interesting actions are left off, probably because they did not fit the torpedo boat/submarine engagement, but which are clearly relevant, such as the sinking of Destroyer da Mosto, which had a German ASDIC crew on board (see this older post). My guess is that this is because the other relied on secondary sources, rather than the German original sources in NARA, some of which I have.

So yes, this is not the definitive history of fighting the Royal Navy subs in the Mediterranean, but it is definitely a work that whoever is going to write that history cannot ignore.

Production 

The Kindle version is well produced and very readable. There are a few action diagrams which are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow the sequence of engagements. The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented, many from private collections.

There is a bibliography that is helpful in guiding further research, and more than I would expect in an Osprey work, since these are not normally considered academic works.

Notes

The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Hms p38 submarine

HMS P.38, sunk with all hands by Torpediniera Circe with the use of German ASDIC on 23 February 1942. The detailed report by Commander Palmas of Circe can be found in this older post. Lest we forget. (Wikipedia)

 

 

Book Review – To the Last Round

To the Last Round is an oral history of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars (107 Royal Horse Artillery) by the Imperial War Museum’s oral historian, Peter Hart. Like his other books this is very readable, and very strongly focused on giving a voice to the men who served in the regiment during the war.

The book starts with the beginning of the war, and takes the reader through to the 6 June 1942, when the regiment was overrun by German tanks at the ‘Cauldron’.

The book is primarily based on the interviews with the men, which are well woven into a relatively sparse narrative about the campaign. The focus is always on the personal experience. While there are some errors in the overall narrative (such as ascribing the first name ‘Clive’ to General Claude Auchinleck), these do not detract from reading.

Where the book stands out is in the insight it gives the reader about the conditions in occupied Tobruk, from the boredom of being in a fortress under siege, to the terror of constant bombardment. There are a number of photos, with most of them portray photos of the men who were in the regiment.

The book ends on the Gazala battles, where many men of the regiment died firing their guns to the last moment, in a heroic but pointless last stand.

I can not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to know what the war in the desert was like for the men who fought it.

 There are two interesting stories connected to Ray Ellis, who was with the regiment at Tobruk, and during its last battle at this and this link.

The Mediterranean Fleet – Greece to Tripoli

This is another of the official books published by the Ministry of Information, this time in 1944. The same caveats apply as in “The Tiger Kills”, but so do the same reasons for recommending it. There are very good accounts of naval operations off Crete during the evacuation, of the Tobruk Run, the effort to keep the garrison of besieged Tobruk supplied in 1941, and of the Malta convoys.

Recommended reading.

Book Review – Levine

The War Against Rommel’s Supply Lines

Alan J. Levine

Four Stars out of Five

This is a very good book providing an in-depth analysis into the battle raging against the umbilical cord tying the Axis forces in North Africa to their base in Italy. In my opinion, no student of the war in the Mediterranean will be able to ignore it.

The book covers the whole of the supply struggle waged in the Mediterranean, but focuses on the period following the Alamein battles and the invasion of North Africa by US and British forces, when it became imperative for Allied planners to prevent a permanent lodging of Axis forces in Tunisia, to the surrender of Axis forces in May 1943. Five out of six chapters are devoted to this effort, while the first chapter provides a concise, yet highly informative and well-researched summary of what went on during 1940-42.

The focus chapters deal with the planning of the invasion of French North Africa, and in particular the role and establishment of 12th Air Force. The author describes well the troubles this formation went through when it was first established, and the very difficult command arrangements at the start of the campaign in Tunisia. The following chapters discuss the invasion, the attack against the build-up of Axis forces in Tunisia, which is rightly described in a very critical manner, the re-organisation of the forces engaged in the logistical battle from January 1943 onwards, and their contribution to the eventual victory. The book gives time to both US and British forces engaged in the battle, and is quite (and justly) complimentary to the Italian effort in keeping the Axis forces in Tunisia supplied.

The author manages well to weave a narrative integrating theatre strategy and individual actions, although at times the information packed into single sentences or paragraphs can become overwhelming. I am also not convinced about the need for as much detail as is sometimes provided and editing could maybe have parsed the text a bit more of unnecessary detail.

The book is very well-researched, going through archival material such as unit records of air formations engaged in the battle, or patrol reports of submarines, and it makes very good use of official histories, of both sides. This is a particularly outstanding feature of the book – where possible, the author made the effort of trying to verify claims made by Allied forces against air and sea targets, by checking the Axis records. While this is no doubt a thankless task, and often a wild goose chase, it is one that cannot be lauded enough. The author has also gone to good length in providing a background on the technical capabilities of the Allied weapons available for the task, highlighting the planes and submarines in particular.

The book sports an index, an extensive literature list, and a good set of endnotes – in other words, it is a serious research work. What is missing is a list of maps, although since there are only two, so maybe that was not considered necessary. Which leads me to: sufficient in number and detail maps are missing, so I recommend having an Atlas of WW2 handy while reading it, unless you have a North Africa map in your head. The selection of pictures is appropriate to the topic, and the quality is acceptable, especially considering the price. What I really would have liked to see are diagrams of air-sea attack formations. These are described verbally, but a picture would help very much in understanding the roles of the various planes engaging shipping targets. But that is really the only major gripe I can think of.

Thanks go to Stackpole for not only publishing a book that is clearly dealing with a somewhat esoteric topic (why bother with logistics – when you could have the umpteenth 750-page colour book about Waffen SS-Tigers?), but making the effort to create a very attractive presentation, and pricing it very reasonably. Highly recommended.

Book Review – Afrika Korps Tome 1 – 1941

Afrika Korps Tome 1 – 1941
by Cédric Mas

 Batailles & Blindés Hors Série No. 6

Four Stars out of Five
While not technically a book, this special issue of the French magazine Batailles & Blindés, written by fellow forum member 13eme DBLE, alias Cédric Mas, certainly contains all that would make for a very good book, plus some added goodies for modelers that are only available in magazines. While I can find some things to criticise, overall I think that anyone who speaks French and is interested in the war in Africa should get this, if they can (it is almost sold out), or at the very least Volume II, and hopefully Vol. III in the future. You’ll regret not following my advice.
The book (for want of a better term) is about 130 pages, in A4 format. The format has been put to good use, since it contains a vast number of pictures from Cédric’s personal collection, a number of very well drawn maps, and (modelers behold), detailed plan drawings of seven vehicles that served with the Commonwealth and Axis armies in North Africa, as well as a good number of beautifully executed colour drawings of vehicles and guns of both sides.
The text is a straightforward, well-researched narrative that follows the development of the battles in the desert in a lot of detail. It is obvious that Cédric has done his research, and then some. While I would certainly not always agree with him on his assessment of particular actions, overall I cannot but tip my hat to him, and even where I disagree with him, the issues are not always clear-cut. If you speak French and want a readable and accessible history of the actions in the desert, you need to look no further than this. The text is well written and marvelously supported by the large number of rare photographs that Cédric has made available for the book, all of which have been treated with care to make for good quality prints. What is nice is that Cédric is at the end of each of the three chapters addressing the key questions one may ask about a particular event or battle described in them, in the form of a set of questions and answers which address these issues. Cédric has clearly thought them through, and the analysis he provides in his answers helps to round off the narrative. It is also nice to see the Italians getting a very fair treatment in the text. A pleasant change from the usual Italian bashing.
So why only four stars? Well, first of all it is in French… Okay, I am joking, that is not the issue. There are serious problems with the editing, in particular Commonwealth unit names are in some cases consistently wrong (e.g. “11th Hussards”, instead of “11th Hussars”). This may seem a minor niggle, but it starts to grate after repeated reading, also because it is such an easy mistake to avoid. Unfortunately also, the book lacks a literature list, something I would be very keen on reading, and an index. All of these things together would normally suffice to bring a book down to three stars in my view, but this would be unjustifiably harsh on the excellent research that Cédric has presented us with. So the missing star to five should be seen as an encouragement to add those missing items in the next volume, while the added star from three is a recognition of his achievement in research and presentation.
A must-read, in my view. Hopefully somebody will be able to translate it into English one day.

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