The Washington Post
The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War IIby Douglas Porch
The Mediterranean theater in World War II has long been overlooked by those who believe it was little more than a string of small-scale battles -- sideshows that were of minor importance in a war whose outcome was decided in the clashes of mammoth tank armies in northern Europe. But in this groundbreaking new book, one of our finest military historians argues that the Mediterranean was, in fact, World War II's pivotal theater. In The Path to Victory, Porch examines the Mediterranean as an integrated arena, one in which events in Syria and Suez influenced the survival of Gibraltar. Churchill's controversial decision in 1940 to contest the Axis in the Mediterranean, followed by Roosevelt's insistence two years later that his service chiefs undergo a Mediterranean initiation, laid the foundation for Allied victory in Europe. Although conventional wisdom argues that Hitler could not have won World War II in the Mediterranean, Porch believes that the Allies might well have lost had they not elected to fight there. Decisions made in this theater matured the Western Alliance, seriously damaged and dispersed the formidable Axis military machine, and forged the combined Anglo-American effort that was to be unstoppable when transferred to Northern Europe in June 1944.
The Middle Sea constituted a strategic piece of a global war: it was a passage that linked far-flung theaters; protected scarce Allied shipping; became an essential conduit for lend-lease aid to the USSR; offered France a testing ground for its rehabilitation as a military power; and provided an entry point into southern Germany for two Allied armies. Without a Mediterranean alternative, the Western Allies would probably have committed to a premature cross-Channel invasion in 1943 that might well have cost them the war. Brilliantly argued, and with vivid portraits of Churchill, Montgomery, FDR, Rommel, and Mussolini, this original, accessible, and compelling account of a little-known theater emphasizes the importance of the Mediterranean in the ultimate Allied victory in Europe during World War II.
The Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in WW II by Douglas Porch. Copyright © 2004 by Douglas Porch. To be published in May, 2004 by Farrar Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved.
This book counts several points of origin. The first is a lifelong fascination for the Mediterranean that springs from its rich history, the mosaic of peoples who live along its coasts, and the stunning beauty of its land and seascapes. A second motivating factor has been my students at the Naval Postgraduate School, many of whom serve with the U.S. Mediterranean fleet and in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia or Kosovo, or who are natives of Mediterranean nations. They challenge one to understand the importance of the Mediterranean as a maritime highway, a geographic link between and among continents and oceans.
The "Joint and Combined" emphasis of U.S. military education encourages the study and practice of the interaction between air, sea, and land power in a multifaceted operational environment. While the combination of these three forms of warfare are conditions for victory in all theaters, their efficient interaction was especially vital in the Mediterranean theater in World War II. This requires that one consider the Mediterranean theater as a geographic and strategic whole, rather than as a sequence of discrete campaigns. The Mediterranean was more than the sum of its parts. Those who fought there had to engage over the sweep of a theater that offers a particularly complex series of operational as well as strategic challenges. The extreme variations in geography, not to mention forms of warfare, especially from 1943 when Italy signed anarmistice and insurgency warfare kicked in on the northern shore of the Mediterranean, put pressure on generals and admirals constantly to reconfigure and adapt their armies, navies, and air forces to new conditions. As in the Pacific, victory or defeat in World War II Mediterranean campaigns came down to who fought more efficiently in a three-dimensional setting. But the land component in the Mediterranean was far larger than in the island-hopping Pacific campaigns. A military force that mastered one or even two forms of warfare, but was deficient in a third, found itself at a severe disadvantage. Initially the Axis united German proficiency in land and air warfare with Italian sea power to command the "central position" in the Mediterranean. This allowed Rommel to run circles around the British in the Western Desert. But Axis air and naval power proved to be wasting assets. And while the Wehrmacht remained formidable right up to the last days of the war, years of Mediterranean fighting had shorn it of offensive capability, reducing it to desperate defensive campaigns in the mountains of Italy and the forests of the Balkans.
Finally, victory was determined not only by how one fought, but where one fought. War is never conducted in a political vacuum, but is, as Clausewitz reminds us, "politics by other means." In the politically complex, even volatile Mediterranean world, this famous dictum could almost be stood on its head. German and "Anglo-Saxon" generals particularly detested fighting in the Mediterranean, where every strategic decision, every coalition, every invasion proposal was prickly with political consequence. The British commander in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, resisted fighting in politically fractured Greece, Syria, and Iraq. French and Italian politics meant sleepless nights for Allied commanders right up to war' end. Meanwhile, it could be said that the Axis failed to exploit its political opportunities in the Arab world and seriously mismanaged the political dimensions of its occupation of the Balkan Peninsula and Greece, with significant military consequences.
This book, therefore, is a work of synthesis, one that attempts to meld the histories of the individual campaigns in North Africa, Greece and Crete, the Horn of Africa, Syria and Iraq, Tunisia, and Sicily and Italy, and the histories of the air and sea wars and the insurgencies fought out on, above, and around the seas. But this work aspires to be more than a litany of battles. I have examined the interrelationship of these campaigns in the context of a Mediterranean theater and a Mediterranean strategy to better assess the importance of the Mediterranean in its relationship to the larger war. Historians have not, on the whole, been kind to the Allied Mediterranean effort. From its inception, the Mediterranean was an "encounter" theater, a place where Italian and British interests intersected. Churchill opted to fight there to protect the corridor to the British empire, to demonstrate that London meant to fight to the knife against the Axis, to emphasize his distance from Chamberlain's failed appeasement policies, to attract U.S. support, and possibly to redeem a Mediterranean strategy that had foundered at Gallipoli in World War I. As a consequence, Hitler was forced to intervene to rescue Mussolini. American strategy was grafted onto the original British investment at Roosevelt's insistence, over the protests of his secretary of war and his chief of staff, who argued that intervention in the Mediterranean attacked no German center of gravity, and therefore constituted a wasteful diversion of American assets for the benefit of the "British empire machine."
The consequence of this Allied stumble into a poorly thought-out and "opportunistic" Mediterranean strategy was a dreadful slogging match in a theater in which the British and subsequently the Americans were outgeneraled and outfought around the shores of a sea of trifling strategic importance. British historian John Ellis complained that "the Mediterranean is consistently over-emphasized in most English studies of the war . . . the whole campaign barely merits an extended footnote." While the Mediterranean did constitute a strategic diversion, "the overall impression, indeed, is of a remarkable lack of direction in Mediterranean planning, with key decisions taken off the cuff, simply because no one, least of all on the American side, could think of anything better to do."1 Corelli Barnett called the Allied Mediterranean strategy a "cul-de-sac . . . mere byplay in the conclusion of a war that had been won in mass battles on the Eastern and Western Fronts."2 The Allies paid a heavy price for their opportunism because, by September 1943, their Mediterranean commitments had been funneled into the blind alley of the Italian Peninsula. This led to the foreseeable consequence, once preparations for the invasion of Northwestern Europe got under way, of the two regions' being treated as rival, rather than complementary, theaters. David Kennedy has called the Italian campaign "a slogan not a strategy," and condemned that battleground as "a grinding war of attrition whose costs were justified by no defensible military or political purpose."3 Others, while offering a more balanced assessment of the Italian campaign, nevertheless consider the Mediterranean portion of Allied grand strategy to have been a "failure" because, much as in World War I, the Mediterranean competed with, rather than complemented, the main Western Front.4 British historian John Keegan compares Italy to Wellington's campaign against Napoleonic forces in Spain, one in which the soldiers' "sense of purpose and stoutness of heart" are all the more to be admired "because of the campaign's marginality." "Their war was not a crusade," he writes, "but, in almost every respect, an old-fashioned one of strategic diversion on the maritime flank of a continental enemy, the 'Peninsular War' of 1939-45."5
This work argues that while the Mediterranean was not the decisive theater of the war, it was the pivotal theater, a requirement for Allied success. None of the Mediterranean theater's staunchest advocates at the time—Churchill, Harold Alexander, nor Mark Clark—ever argued that the Mediterranean should or could replace the Eastern Front or Northwestern Europe in importance. However, they did believe that the Mediterranean was a vital prelude to the invasion of Northwestern Europe, and that it played a significant role in the defeat of the Axis. This book seeks to explain how significant that contribution actually was to Allied victory. In the process, it assesses the relationship of the peripheral Mediterranean theater with the main Eastern and Western Fronts. My argument is that it was impossible for the Western Allies to transition successfully from Dunkirk to Operation Overlord without passing through the Mediterranean. That theater was critical in forging the Anglo-American alliance, in permitting Allied armies to acquire fighting skills, audition leaders and staffs, and evolve the technical, operational, tactical, and intelligence systems required to invade Normandy successfully in June 1944. Overlord was rehearsed in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. By 6 June 1944, the Mediterranean had worn down and ultimately dismembered the Axis. The "Peninsular War of 1939-45" became Hitler's hematoma, much as its "old-fashioned" 1808-14 counterpart had created an ulcer for Napoleon over a century earlier. It bought time for Roosevelt to build up American forces so that he could impose Washington's primacy in the Western Alliance, and therefore to shape postwar Europe according to U.S., rather than British or European, priorities.
To factor the Mediterranean out of World War II is to imagine a disaster of epic proportions, and a military outcome in the European theater far different from an unconditional surrender of Germany. Some who fault the Mediterranean strategy, like American historian Robert Love, blame it for delaying the invasion of Northwestern Europe, which, had it been carried out in 1943, would have brought an earlier end to the Reich and preempted Stalin's land grab in Eastern Europe. Love blames a combination of Churchill's imperial ambitions and Roosevelt's "vacillation" for "a wasteful, peripheral strategy in the Mediterranean" that allowed the Russians to overrun Eastern Europe and gave the Germans a bonus two years to strengthen their Atlantic defenses.6 At best, Italy was a pis aller, a series of "hesitant and flawed" operations that gave Hitler the leisure to organize his criminal war against European civilians.7 The sad truth is that Sledgehammer/Roundup, the planned invasion of northern France in 1942 or 1943, would certainly have collapsed in bloody disaster against a strongly entrenched German army, backed by a powerful Luftwaffe, with German wolf packs prowling among the Allied fleet supporting the invasion. Defeat would have throttled the Western Alliance, as U.S. strategy would have veered toward the Pacific. The political fortunes of Churchill and Roosevelt, not to mention Charles de Gaulle, perhaps even the stability of British and American democracy, would have been compromised. Hitler would have solidified his hold on the Continent, resistance movements would have become demoralized, and Stalin might have sought to cut the best deal he could with the invader. Postwar Europe, including its Mediterranean frontier, would certainly have been a far different place. Therefore, my argument is that the Mediterranean was vital to Allied success precisely because it forced the postponement of a premature invasion of Northern Europe.
Meet the Author
Douglas Porch is a military historian and the author of The Conquest of Morocco and The Conquest of the Sahara (FSG, 2005). He is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
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