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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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Friday 20 March 2020

Mediterranean Strategy in WW2

The Mediterranean strategy during WW2 has been the subject of some controversy, both during and after the war. In this concise book, Sir Michael Howard takes us through the various stages and analyses the differences between British support for striking the 'soft underbelly' of Europe as against the American preference for decisive action in North-West Europe.

Sir Michael sadly passed away last November, arguably the greatest military historian of his generation. This book shows why he was so respected.

The tabs give away how useful I found this book.
The book is based on a series of lectures he gave in 1966. He also had some practical experience of this theatre of war, having landed at Salerno as an infantry platoon commander in September 1943.

The controversy between the different strategies was stoked by Sir Arthur Bryant's volumes on the war, which drew from Lord Alanbrooke's papers. Subsequent evidence played down the differences and by 1963 the American scholar Richard Leighton concluded: "We now know .... that responsible British leaders never advocated an Allied invasion of the Balkan peninsula and that the Balkans versus Western Europe controversy referred to by many post-war writers is a myth."

A 'myth' might be somewhat overdoing it. As Howard shows, from 1940 to at least early 1944, Churchill and a number of British commanders did favour a more aggressive strategy in the Meditteranean. The Washington conference in December 1941, which set the allied strategy, included a reference to a tightening of the ring around Germany including the possibility of using Turkey to access the Balkans.

In 1943, British planners were reluctant to withdraw divisions from the Meditteranean for use in North-West Europe and made the case for exploiting an invasion of Italy into the Balkans through a Dalmatian bridgehead. There were active discussions with Turkey, although their prevarication indicated that this may not be fruitful. Churchill, as late as July 1943 was making the case for the Mediterranean to take precedence over Overlord.

In a practical sense, real and deception operations did draw many more German divisions into the Mediterranean, as Hitler was more concerned about losing the Balkan mineral resources than Italy. By the end of 1943, there were 25 divisions in Italy and a further 20 in the Balkans.

Despite Alan Brooke's diary notes, Howard argues that the Americans had at no point insisted on abandoning the Mediterranean, they simply favoured the agreed plan of focusing on North-West Europe. Even General Alexander commanding British troops in Italy pointed to the difficulties of attacking Germany from the south. Howard argues that the rivers and mountain passes, including the so-called Ljubljana Gap, were formidable obstacles, which would be defended by the Germans all the way.

It is undeniable that there were differences in approach between the allies on this issue. The Americans struggled at times to hold the British to the agreed strategy, while British caution about a precipitate attack over the channel was well-founded. Howard concludes that an effective case has still to be made out that there could have been any more rapid or economical way of winning the war.


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