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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 15 November 2022

Blue Water War

This is Brian Walter's study of the maritime war in the Mediterranean 1940-45. While the land campaigns and the broader naval struggle are there for context, the focus is a detailed look at all the naval actions in the Mediterranean during WW2.

The early naval battles, such as Cape Matapan and Taranto, are well-known and extensively written about. However, what attracted me to this book was the coverage of the more minor actions, particularly those in the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic and the end of WW2.

We should not forget that the Italians seriously outnumbered the Royal Navy after France surrendered. Italian warships were at least equivalent to their British counterparts in terms of basic design and construction. However, the British had the technological edge with radar, Asdic (sonar) and range-finding. They also suffered fuel shortages and a weak industrial base throughout the war. I am not entirely convinced about the author's argument over the lack of a seafaring tradition. States like Genoa and Venice dominated the Mediterranean long before the Royal Navy existed. The Royal Navy has much to be proud of in WW2, but this author does, on occasion, rather overdo it. O'Hara is more balanced.

The sizeable Italian submarine fleet certainly underperformed during the war. Some were diverted to the Atlantic War, and others had to be adapted as cargo vessels due to the shortage of merchant ships and Allied interdiction. 

The Mediterranean is not well suited for submarine warfare, and even the U-Boats performed less well. It was the Luftwaffe, particularly dive-bombers, that most threatened Allied navies. 80 Allied and neutral merchant ships worth 397,710 tons were sunk in the last seven months of 1943. Of these, aircraft accounted for the majority, with 41 ships worth 225,448 tons sunk by this means.

A running theme throughout the book was the Allied dispute over the Mediterranean strategy. This has been well-covered by Howard and others, but the Mediterranean remained a vital route to the Middle east and the far east for naval planners. The British estimated this route would free up some 2,000,000 tons of cargo space or the equivalent of about 225 merchant ships. 

Allied navies didn't just escort convoys and sink their Axis counterparts. They also provided fire support to landings, expending 23,000 shells of 4" or greater. This was particularly important in the later campaigns after the collapse of Italy. The Germans used many smaller ships but were rarely able to challenge landings from the sea. Instead, the book details many small-scale actions in which the Allies interdicted german convoys supplying bases in the Aegean and Adriatic. Plenty here for wargames playing Warlord's Cruel Seas

The final campaigns, including Operation Outing, gradually encouraged the Germans to abandon Greece, allowing the British to land quickly and install their own choice of government. The author omits that this was aided by the percentages agreement with Stalin. Of the 52 German merchant ships assembled to conduct evacuation operations in the Aegean, 29 were sunk outright (worth 19,434 tons). The Germans also lost seven torpedo boats, three U-boats, three minelayers, a large hospital ship and scores of auxiliaries and minor vessels. The Germans also abandoned 22,400 army and 4,095 naval personnel on Crete, Rhodes and some other Aegean islands, and 12,000 Fascist Italians were also left behind.

The author has four conclusions. 'First, the Allies were victorious in this endeavour. Second, the fighting was both materially and strategically consequential in advancing the overall Allied cause. Third, this was predominantly a British-run theatre in which the British Commonwealth was the ascendant power within the overall Allied effort in terms of leadership, forces employed and results attained. And fourth, sea power, and particularly British sea power, played an essential role in facilitating this victory.'

The Mediterranean strategy certainly played an essential role in defeating the Axis, even later in the war when it became a secondary theatre. However, that's not the same as saying Churchill was right in favouring it over NW Europe. There is a level of detail in this book which naval warfare buffs will enjoy, although the general reader might feel it is overdone. Nevertheless, I found it very useful and will keep it handy for reference purposes.

Convoy action using Cruel Seas rules


  1. Thanks for the review - you’ve provided a nice summary (for a theatre about which I personally only have a very high level of understanding). It’s not a book I would buy, but does sound like it would be a useful addition to someone’s historical/military library if it is “what floats your boat” - pun intended 😉😂

    1. Oh, very droll! I suspect naval buffs would say 'ships' though!

    2. “Ships” indeed. Perhaps I should’ve thought a bit longer for a more appropriate pun… 😉