"A very readable account of the convoy battles fought inside the Mediterranean in 1942. Drawing heavily on Italian sources, In Passage Perilous is carefully researched, objective, balanced and well written. It is likely to become the standard account of the critical phase of the Mediterranean conflict." —H. P. Willmott, author of The Last Century of Sea Power
In Passage Perilous: Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942by Vincent P. O'Hara, Ted Zuber (Illustrator)
By mid-1942 the Allies were losing the Mediterranean war: Malta was isolated and its civilian population faced starvation. In June 1942 the British Royal Navy made a stupendous effort to break the Axis stranglehold. The British dispatched armed convoys from Gibraltar and Egypt toward Malta. In a complex battle lasting more than a week, Italian and German forces
By mid-1942 the Allies were losing the Mediterranean war: Malta was isolated and its civilian population faced starvation. In June 1942 the British Royal Navy made a stupendous effort to break the Axis stranglehold. The British dispatched armed convoys from Gibraltar and Egypt toward Malta. In a complex battle lasting more than a week, Italian and German forces defeated Operation Vigorous, the larger eastern effort, and ravaged the western convoy, Operation Harpoon, in a series of air, submarine, and surface attacks culminating in the Battle of Pantelleria. Just two of seventeen merchant ships that set out for Malta reached their destination. In Passage Perilous presents a detailed description of the operations and assesses the actual impact Malta had on the fight to deny supplies to Rommel’s army in North Africa. The book’s discussion of the battle’s operational aspects highlights the complex relationships between air and naval power and the influence of geography on littoral operations.
"Vincent O’Hara has written both a definitive account and an entertaining read of the critical Malta resupply convoy battles of June 1942. Operations Harpoon and Vigorous, often merely mentioned in passing, have finally received the in-depth English language study they deserve. O'Hara has worked in all the relevant languages and has offered much new material not seen before. His account is the most comprehensive and balanced study yet of the Battle of Pantelleria--his discussion of ordnance and mine issues is new and illuminating. I really enjoy that the author has analyzed in depth the Allied and Axis battle tactics as well as the overall strategies--you don’t just get what happened, but what might have occurred and why. Bravo and well done!" —Jack Greene, co-author of The Naval War in the Mediterranean
"Early in World War II, the Mediterranean Sea saw more naval and air action than the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, much of it focused on the isolated British-held island of Malta. Neutralized but never taken, Malta faced its greatest peril in June 1942, when the Royal Navy tried and failed to relieve it from the east and west in two concurrent convoy operations, Vigorous and Harpoon. No American naval historian has written about the Mediterranean more extensively than Vincent P. O’Hara, who here combines his command of British and Italian sources with his customary penetrating analyses to bring these two little-known operations to life." —David W. McComb, Executive Director, American Naval Records Society
"In Passage Perilous is an important and highly recommended addition to the literature on World War II in the Mediterranean." —IPP Naval Maritime History
"A very readable account of the convoy battles fought inside the Mediterranean in 1942. Drawing heavily on Italian sources, In Passage Perilous is carefully researched, objective, balanced and well written. It is likely to become the standard account of the critical phase of the Mediterranean conflict." H. P. Willmott, author of The Last Century of Sea Power
"To someone well versed in naval history and the Second World War, In Passage Perilous is a valuable account of a relatively neglected portion of the war at sea.... Readers unfamiliar with the equipment or tactics of the Second World War will have a very difficult time following O’Hara’s narrative. Readers with the requisite knowledge, though, will find In Passage Perilous a very rewarding read." —H-Net Reviews
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In Passage Perilous
Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942
By Vincent P. O'Hara
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Vincent P. O'Hara
All rights reserved.
THE VITAL SEA
We must look to the Mediterranean for Action.
Winston Churchill to First Sea Lord, 12 July 1940
ON 29 JUNE 1940, as German armies gathered along the English Channel, the giant liners Aquitania, Mauretania, and Queen Mary departed the Clyde and Liverpool. These fast and valuable vessels carried eleven thousand troops bound for Egypt to bring British formations stationed there up to strength. They formed into convoy WS1 escorted by the heavy cruiser Cumberland and, for the first stage, four destroyers. The convoy arrived at Freetown, West Africa, on 8 July and Cape Town, South Africa, eight days later. From there WS1 crossed the Indian Ocean, picking up a second escort, the heavy cruiser Kent. Because the Admiralty considered the ships too valuable to expose them to Italian attack in the Red Sea, they docked at Trincomalee, Ceylon, on 29 July, and the men disembarked. The troops sailed up the Indian coast to Bombay. At Bombay they transferred to eight transports that formed a part of Convoy BN3: twenty merchant ships and eight escorts, including a light cruiser and two destroyers. BN3 departed Bombay on 10 August and arrived at Suez on 23 August.
GREAT BRITAIN'S STRATEGIC GOALS
Great Britain committed these troops to a journey of nearly two months at a time when England faced a German invasion. The voyage was so long because Italy had declared war against Great Britain on 10 June 1940. This declaration severed the sea-route from Gibraltar to Suez. The official British history of the war at sea summarized the impact. "The distance round the Cape from the Clyde to Suez ... is 12,860 [statute] miles. For a convoy to reach the Middle East theater and return to Britain by this route necessitated a journey some 20,000 miles longer than the round voyage using the Mediterranean." Not only were the time and the distance inflated but the convoys required escorts and special shipping such as liners and fast cargo vessels. "If one convoy of about twenty-five ships sailed each month, the new requirement meant that about 150 of our best merchant ships were kept permanently on this service." Adding 8,700 nautical miles (thirty days at twelve knots) to each voyage to Suez was hardly the only problem: the one-way journey to India went from 6,200 to 10,600 miles, and the nearest Australian port became 1,500 miles farther away. Ships carrying troops and supplies to Suez generally had to detour to find cargos for the return trip, further reducing their efficiency and adding to the strain on shipping.
Great Britain faced hard choices after France's unexpected collapse. The first was whether to continue fighting or accept a German-dominated Europe. The new government led by Winston S. Churchill mustered popular support, overcame dissent from within its own ranks, and resolved to fight. This decision had global ramifications because, as in 1778 and 1803, the conflict pitted a world empire against a continental coalition. The British Empire's power resided in a resource-rich network spread throughout Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Empire of India, and the colonies and mandates of Africa, South East Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East. Possession of strategic points such as Suez, Gibraltar, Cape Town, Aden, and Singapore allowed Great Britain to control the world's oceanic trade and choke an enemy nation's maritime traffic.
Merchant shipping unified Britain's empire. Sea power kept the ships sailing or, in the case of enemies, confined them to port. The Broadway of the empire's pre-war sea-lanes was the Mediterranean—a vital shortcut to the lands east of Suez. Italy's entry into the war, however, immediately transformed the Mediterranean from a thoroughfare into a dead end.
Malta had been the Royal Navy's main Mediterranean base since 1800; it lay astride Italy's sea-route to Tripoli, Libya's capital and major port. However, the neglect of Malta's defenses in the decades leading up to war and the proximity of Italian air power—the potency of which the Royal Air Force greatly exaggerated "in the hope that, by so doing, a greater share of the service budget would be committed to the air force"—caused the fleet to abandon the island by April 1939 for the much less suitable and logistically undeveloped Egyptian harbor of Alexandria.
By the summer of 1940 Malta was an isolated outpost in the midst of a hostile sea. Indeed, the Admiralty even recommended withdrawing the Mediterranean Fleet from Alexandria because "our Atlantic trade must be the first consideration." The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General John Dill, recognizing that the Far East was of much greater economic value to Great Britain than the Middle East, recommended reinforcing the Far East first against potential Japanese aggression. The other members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee likewise questioned the wisdom of centering Great Britain's war effort on the Middle East. However, keeping a weather eye on a more hopeful future, Churchill and the War Cabinet decided to contest the Mediterranean and reinforce Malta.
A War Cabinet assessment of September 1940 gave the reasons. "Malta should be held. If it could be made secure enough for use as a fleet base we should derive the great advantage of being able to hold the Italians in check with one fleet instead of the two now required (one at each end of the Mediterranean). We should also be able to interrupt Italian communications with Libya much more effectively. From it we could ultimately strike at Italy ..." The War Cabinet's September assessment summarized: "The elimination of Italy and the consequent removal of the threat to our control of the Eastern Mediterranean would be a strategic success of the first importance. Italy's power of resistance is much less than that of Germany and direct attacks on Italy and her possessions in Africa may be the first important step we can take toward the downfall of Germany." Moreover, in the Mediterranean Britain could concentrate its best weapon, the Royal Navy, against its weaker foe: "we should undermine Italian resistance by continued offensive operations with our naval forces." Finally an important if unstated reason was that the Mediterranean was the only place where Britain could realistically assume the offensive. As one historian expressed it, "Churchill owed a perverse debt of gratitude to Mussolini. If Italy had remained neutral ... how else might the British Army have occupied itself after its expulsion from France?" These were the military reasons for the decisions emanating from London in the summer of 1940.
There were also compelling political reasons for Great Britain to retain a Mediterranean presence. Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, was reflecting common opinion when he observed on 18 June that "Egypt would be untenable soon after the Fleet's departure, Malta, Cyprus and Palestine could no longer be held, the Moslems would regard it as surrender, prospects of Turkey's loyalty would be discounted and even the Italians would be stirred to activity." The Soviets and Americans would certainly have regarded such a withdrawal as a sign of weakness. Furthermore, behind its decision to hold Malta and transfer units of the Home Fleet to form Force H at a time when Great Britain seemed threatened by invasion, the government was confident that the United States would eventually enter the war—secret staff talks between the U.S. and Royal navies were already under way—and it believed that Stalin would distance himself from Hitler, "whose enormous increase of power entailed incalculable risks for the Soviet Union."
War has many consequences, and national leaders sometimes disregard inconvenient ones, especially in the name of politics. Mussolini, with the enthusiastic support of Italy's economic elite, was certainly guilty of this when he elected to enter the war long before his military was ready. Churchill and the War Cabinet likewise failed to fully consider the long-term economic consequences of their strategic and political choices.
The hard truth was that London did not command the shipping required to simultaneously undertake a North African offensive and maintain its economy. According to one scholar, "Britain lacked enough merchant shipping capacity to import the quantities of vital foodstuffs and raw materials required to meet domestic needs, fulfill imperial obligations and sustain offensive warfare at the tail end of a ten thousand mile line of supply. Britain built too few ships, sent them on too lengthy voyages, protected them poorly and unloaded them slowly." In summarizing the impact of a Middle Eastern offensive, another history noted that "the effort to sustain armies in Egypt, Libya, east Africa, and elsewhere in the Near and Middle East, and to maintain naval and air power in the Mediterranean was absorbing, or was soon to absorb, half of Britain's war production, transported at enormous cost over the long route around the Cape of Good Hope."
These assertions raise the question of whether by concentrating its war effort on critical objectives, like maintaining imports and securing the North Atlantic, Great Britain could have won a less costly victory. The answer is almost certainly yes, but given the political imperatives that existed in the summer of 1940, such a strategy was unthinkable to Churchill, who believed that "there must be action, even if not always useful; there must be successes, even if overstated or imagined; there must be glory, even if undeserved." The British government had to fight somewhere, and in the summer of 1940 the Mediterranean was the only choice.
ITALY'S STRATEGIC GOALS
In 1939 Mussolini did not answer the declarations of war made by the western democracies in support of Poland with his own declaration in support of Germany because Italy was unprepared to fight. In January 1940 he spoke of intervening alongside Germany in the second half of 1941. This timetable accelerated as Germany triumphed in Scandinavia, but it was Germany's crushing victory over France that tolled the hour. On 25 May Lord Halifax, the United Kingdom's foreign secretary, met with the Italian ambassador in London to discuss what concessions would be required to maintain Italian neutrality. This initiative confirmed Mussolini's conviction that the British were all but defeated and that the moment to jump in had arrived although his armed forces remained woefully unprepared. When Belgium capitulated on 27 May Italy's foreign minister, and Mussolini's son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, terminated the talks, telling Britain's Italian ambassador that "we are on the brink of war."
Italy declared war for several reasons. The country was resource poor, and, like Great Britain, its economy depended upon imports: 86 percent of Italy's pre-war imports, including nearly all of its coal, arrived by sea, and 75 percent of that total passed Gibraltar or Suez. The British blockades imposed in 1914–15, September 1918, September 1939, and again in March 1940, when London restricted Italian shipments of German coal (via the Netherlands), knowing full well the disastrous consequences this would have on Italy's economy, had cemented the general conviction that, as the Duce expressed it to the president of the United States in May 1940, Italy was a "prisoner in the Mediterranean" and required free access to the Atlantic which it did not have "under the guns of Gibraltar."
Mussolini's personal, political, and ideological ambitions required war. He shared power with the king. Victory would give him the prestige to eliminate the monarchy and marginalize the church. He had ideological reasons. Ciano wrote, "it is humiliating to remain with our hands folded while others write history.... To make a people great it is necessary to send them to battle even if you have to kick them in the pants." Finally, Mussolini's government had predatory ambitions. These included the annexation of Tunisia, Corsica, Nice, Malta, and portions of Dalmatia. In Mussolini's eyes this constituted the return to Italy of national territory. Rome also sought economic and political domination of the Balkans, an expanded role in the Middle East, and control of Egypt. In short, it sought Mediterranean supremacy.
Such dominance would have benefited Italy—it would have secured the nation's long and vulnerable coastline from attack—but British possession of Gibraltar (or the Canary Islands, if need be) and Aden would still have denied Rome freedom of the seas. A final German victory might have better solved the problem of oceanic access with little effort on Italy's part, but the political consequences of being beholden to Germany in such a case were unpalatable to those segments of Italian society that deeply distrusted German intentions, which included King Victor Emmanuel, the economic elite, many in the government, and most Italians.
Originally, judging that "in the likely event [of] war the colony would be isolated from the madrepatria" and that it would face hostile armies on both frontiers, the Italian high command intended its Libyan forces to be self-sufficient for twelve months of defensive warfare. Told it would not need to convoy supplies to Africa, the Regia Marina prepared to face the offensive forays of the French and British fleets. However, the elimination of France transformed the situation, and Mussolini decided to launch an offensive from Libya as soon as possible. This decision presented the Regia Marina with the task of escorting the convoys required to support an army offensive in that inhospitable region, and it elevated Malta from being a minor irritant to an important objective because of the island's location astride the route between Italy and Tripoli.
GERMANY'S STRATEGIC GOALS
In September 1939 Hitler believed that the Mediterranean had limited relevance to his nation's aspirations, and he did not press for an Italian declaration of war. After overthrowing France's defenses, Berlin did not even desire Italian participation. Nonetheless, Mussolini's agenda was not Hitler's, and by July 1940 victory in the west, along with Italy's entry into the conflict, presented German planners with a quandary. What next? Bringing Britain to the peace table was the preferred solution, but Force H's attack against the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir confirmed that Churchill's war party was firmly in control, and the new prime minister scorned the poisoned olive branch Hitler proffered in his Reichstag speech of 19 July.
This left Hitler facing a two-front war come mid-1941 when the invasion of the Soviet Union was scheduled to commence. He was skeptical of Italy's ability to support an army in Africa. Thus, leaving open the future need for some type of Mediterranean operation, the Wehrmacht concentrated on expanding its forces for the eastern campaign and threatening Britain with invasion.
The Kriegsmarine had a clearer view than did the Führer of how an assertive Mediterranean policy could advance German interests. On 6 September 1940 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder argued that the capture of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal would improve Berlin's position in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Middle East and guarantee "unlimited sources for raw materials." Germany would also gain strategically vital bases, particularly Gibraltar, which would aid in the Atlantic campaign. Hitler agreed in principle, but he always believed (correctly) that the war would be won or lost on the steppes and forests of Russia. Thus, "Hitler's programmatic policy in the east" dominated planning, and his failure to enlist the active participation of Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco and France's Marshal Philippe Pétain in October 1940 ensured that Admiral Raeder's Mediterranean ambitions remained unrealized.
During the last six months of 1940, when the Reich's opportunities seemed unlimited, Germany allowed Mussolini's parallel war to determine its future Mediterranean policy. When Italian misadventures in the Balkans and North Africa threatened the security of Romania's Ploesti oil fields and the southern flank of the forthcoming Russian offensive, Germany acted to protect these vulnerable points. Thereafter, until November 1942 and the unexpected Allied invasion of Algeria and Morocco, the Reich was content to let Britain pour its energies into a remote region far from areas it considered important while supporting its Italian ally with minor forces.
SPAIN, CHOKE POINTS, AND THE IMPACT OF SEA POWER
Spain provided an example of how Great Britain applied sea power. Spain was a second-rank Mediterranean power, but it held the key to control of the Western Mediterranean. Spanish belligerence would render Gibraltar untenable, give Italy an Atlantic gateway, and furnish Germany with bases and a bridgehead in North Africa. Germany and Italy had rendered great assistance to Franco in Spain's recent civil war, and the Axis powers believed they could count on Spanish participation when the time was right. With the defeat of France and the creation of a Mediterranean theater of war, the time was right.
Excerpted from In Passage Perilous by Vincent P. O'Hara. Copyright © 2013 Vincent P. O'Hara. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Vincent P. O’Hara is a naval historian and the author of five books including Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater 1940-1945 (2009). He serves on the editorial review board of Global War Studies and is a Collaboratori for Storia MILITARE magazine. Mr. O'Hara contributed introductions to two volumes of Samuel E. Morison's History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, which has been recently republished by the Naval Institute; he is an assistant editor of World War II at Sea: An Encyclopedia; and a regular contributor to publications such as the respected British annual Warship. O'Hara holds a history degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and resides in southern California.
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