Strangling the Axis – Author Q and A

Written by: Richard Hammond


We asked author Richard Hammond the questions you wanted to know about his new book Strangling the Axis! Here are his answers:

Was the @RoyalAirForce level of effort in the Mediterranean appropriate or should it have done more?

Good question! As the book demonstrates, aircraft (RAF, Fleet Air Arm and later USAAF assets) played an absolutely vital role in the attrition of Axis shipping in the Mediterranean in a variety of ways: the sinking of ships at sea, the bombing of ports of departure and arrival, aerial reconnaissance, vectoring other methods of attack (such as surface vessels and submarines) onto targets, and more. During the period of the Tunisian campaign (covered in Chapter 7), the effort by the RAF (alongside the USAAF and FAA) was huge, as was the quantity of shipping sunk and of cargoes lost at sea. During that period, then, it is fair to call the scale of effort appropriate, but that was not always the case for earlier periods over 1940-42 and to some extent over 1944 also.

The allocation and role of RAF assets was the subject of fierce debate that essentially took place at two levels. Firstly, at the global scale, decisions had to be made about prioritising the different theatres/campaigns of the war, which became an increasingly complex task as the war itself grew in scale. Whereas the Mediterranean frequently did receive influxes of aircraft over 1940-42, this was in the context of constant competition with the strategic bombing of Germany, the battle of the Atlantic, the requirements for the fight against Japan east of Suez and many more examples. At this global-level the strategic bombing campaign in particular was given precedence for heavy bombers, and requests for these in the Mediterranean theatre were repeatedly not met for this reason, hampering especially the ability to do more damage to Axis-held ports in the theatre and the shipping present in them. The precedence given to the strategic bombing campaign is perhaps hardly surprising, given the support it received from both the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Air Staff, but it came to the frustration of many in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

Secondly, once aircraft did arrive in the Mediterranean, they were the subject of fierce intra-theatre competition. In particular, arguments raged over 1941-42 between the Naval C-in-C (Andrew Cunningham) and his RAF counterpart (Arthur Tedder) over whom should have control of air assets and how much they should be dedicated to maritime tasks versus other duties. This extended to a protracted dispute over whether a Mediterranean-equivalent of RAF Costal Command should be created, ending in the compromise creation of a smaller Group-size formation. Tedder himself was not especially opposed to the use of aircraft for maritime purposes, but he was sceptical of dedicating them solely to such a role, and especially of relinquishing control of RAF assets to the Navy.

The consequence of such arguments over 1941-42 was that the RAF did not do as much as it could have regarding anti-shipping operations in the Mediterranean. Given that my argument is that attrition of Axis shipping played a central role in ultimate Allied victory in the theatre, I would therefore argue it should have done more in that period.

Was not invading Malta the biggest Axis mistake of the Mediterranean campaign? Was such an invasion ever really feasible?

Both the Allies and Axis powers made plenty of errors during the war in the Mediterranean, and it is hard to judge what was the biggest given the counterfactual nature of the question as to whether such an invasion would have worked. What is clear, though, is that Malta was an extremely important asset to the Allies in the Mediterranean throughout the war, even if it was costly to maintain, requiring great sacrifice. While the island was not the only place from which aero-naval forces operated against the Axis shipping network, the level of destruction achieved by the Allies would never have been remotely possible without Malta. It also offered numerous other advantages beyond that role, which have been well covered by historians such as Douglas Austin. Undoubtedly, the Axis failure to neutralise Malta in one way or another cost them dearly.

As to the feasibility of an invasion, it is again hard to answer a counterfactual, but it would have been immensely difficult, even in favourable circumstances for the Axis. It was certainly the subject of much Italo-German debate over 1941-42. German planning in 1941 at the behest of Admiral Raeder and General Warlimont was initially positive about the prospect of a naval invasion, although Marshal Goering poured cold water on the idea of an airborne attempt due to the Maltese terrain. Ultimately, the German decision in 1941 was to prioritise the invasion and capture of Crete over that of Malta, and once that decision was taken it was felt that a Malta operation would have to be postponed. Yet despite the initial German optimism, an assessment by the Italian Naval High Command (‘Supermarina’) around the same time concluded that they lacked the necessary resources to mount an invasion. While there was a strong German air contingent in the region, their naval resources were minimal, meaning it would be the Italians who would have to deliver the actual landings, something they felt incapable of. Supermarina’s conclusion was logical, given that the Italian Navy lacked much in the way of dedicated landing craft and appropriate amphibious assault units that would be essential for such an operation. That is before we get to the question of Malta’s defences and the possibility of the Allied air and naval units operating out of Egypt and Gibraltar harassing any such invasion attempt.

Although the first half of 1942 saw an even more aggressive aerial siege of Malta than had taken place in 1941, many of the same problems remained. The Italian Navy still lacked the right equipment and trained personnel for such an operation, had suffered significant attrition by this point and had its light forces bogged down in ever-costlier convoy escort requirements. As well as the difficulties of Maltese terrain, Germans losses in the Battle of Crete in 1941 had spooked the Axis powers somewhat over the use of airborne forces for such a major operation. Finally, Axis land forces were once again prioritised for other operations, this time in North Africa. Even with a more successful aerial-subjugation of Malta, it still had a substantial garrison and other defences, while Allied forces could still sortie from elsewhere to defend the island if needed. The defence of Malta remained a key task of the Royal Navy, in particular, throughout this period.

Overall then, I would suggest while technically possible, a successful invasion was never really that feasible. The prospect was always extremely difficult for the intractable factors mentioned above, to which I would also add two more important things relating to co-operation. First, co-operation between the Italian Navy and Italian Air Force was very poor –worse even than the disputes and rivalry between the RAF and Royal Navy. They had fought bitterly against each other for resources and prestige over the inter-war years and had occupied their separate domains with little crossover in terms of say joint exercises for amphibious operations. Subsequently, there had been little development of maritime air power, despite the Italy state’s reliance on the sea. They finally agreed a basic procedural and doctrinal framework for co-operation only in autumn 1941, something which MacGregor Knox has referred to as being akin to a ‘treaty between warring states’. This was hardly a good starting point for launching such a complex and risky operation, even if they were to attempt it in 1940, before the strengthening of Malta’s defences. This option was something that Italian naval planners ruled out as unrealistic in June 1940 in any case.

Second, Italo-German co-operation at both the strategic and operational levels was very poor, and increasingly became a one-way German>Italian directive relationship over time. Given that Germany provided the most effective air assets in the theatre (from December 1940 onward), while Italy provided the naval assets and the land component was likely to be mixed, clear co-operation and co-ordination of planning staffs would be essential. That was something that simply did not take place with regards to Malta, and there was little in the way of in-depth joint discussion of the issue. This lack of joint planning was one of the reasons why German planning staffs were far more positive about an invasion in 1941 than their Italian counterparts – they weren’t fully aware of the scale of problems faced by the Italian Navy.

You discussed the Axis manpower situation in Tunisia but did not discuss it in great detail when it came to shipping. Did many Axis reinforcements make it to North Africa in early 1943 only to be trapped?

In the earlier stages of the war in the Mediterranean, most Axis personnel were transported to North Africa by sea, whether in warships, merchant ships or large passenger liners. However, as the losses of Axis vessels began to mount significantly in 1941, this sometimes came with large losses of Axis personnel at sea. Most (in)famous were the incidents where passenger liners carrying Axis troops were sunk, such as the Conte Rosso, Neptunia and Oceania in 1941 (all by the same British submarine, and the latter two in the same attack!), and the Victoria (by the Fleet Air Arm) in January 1942. Such losses caused a rethink as to how to transport personnel to North Africa from early 1942 onward. Liners were mostly abandoned and instead aircraft and fast warships such as destroyers were increasingly used. By the time of the Tunisian campaign the use of aircraft for the transport of personnel had increased even further compared to other methods, as the much shorter distances involved were much more conducive. Add to this the ongoing attrition to Axis shipping, meaning they needed to devote all the shipping space that they could to tanks, vehicles, artillery, fuel, supplies and so forth, as opposed to personnel.

So, while large quantities of manpower were indeed transported to Tunisia over the course of the campaign there, the majority came by aerial routes. In fact, the first volume of the Italian official naval histories (La Marina Italiana nella seconda guerra mondiale) records only 72,246 personnel being successfully landed by sea in Tunisia between November 1942 and May 1943. The rest went by air, although this in itself was very hazardous, and losses to Allied aircraft became increasingly frequent as the campaign went on, and as Axis aerial defences were ground down.

Given his logistical problems, how did Rommel acquire so many land mines on the eve of the Battle of Alamein? Some sources quote 500,000 mines. Were they shipped over by the Italians? Were some captured from the British when he overran Tobruk?

This is difficult to answer exactly, but I would suggest that it was a mixture of factors. While finding precise breakdowns for what was transported in each journey by each ship is rarely possible (statistical breakdowns tend to be in the form of broad categories such as ‘munitions’), sources sometimes offer evidence as to mines being shipped. Similarly, it is logical to assume that mines formed some of the stocks that were captured by the Axis forces in their victories prior to El Alamein, like the Gazala Line battles and especially the capture of Tobruk. Again, though, finding out just how many mines were captured is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible. For example, in his excellent book Pendulum of War, Niall Barr has offered a breakdown of how much of Eighth Army’s ammunition was destroyed, lost or captured between 27 May and 1 July, but there is no figure specifically for mines.

Why did you choose to say so little on the Anglo-American and Axis land-based radar networks? I’ve radar coverage maps that make them seem central to both side’s efforts to protect their sea communications and attack the enemy sea communications.

The extensive primary and secondary source material that I have consulted while researching and writing this book has repeatedly reinforced to me what the key factors enabling the Allies to attack Axis sea communications were. When it comes to locating Axis ships at sea these are intelligence (from all sources), aerial reconnaissance, location equipment on the form of attack itself (eg RDF on ships, ASV for aircraft), and vectoring technologies such as ‘Rooster’ that allowed strike aircraft to ‘home in’ on signals sent by searching aircraft.

Finally, it is worth noting that the maps you provide cover the routes in the western Mediterranean basin and are from April 1943, near the culmination of the Tunisian campaign. While there were a few attacks on Axis shipping elsewhere, such as in the Aegean, during this period, the vast majority were unsurprisingly on the Tunisian routes. There were only two major Tunisian ports capable of handling significant quantities of large vessels (Tunis and Bizerte) plus a handful of smaller ports. This meant there were only a few routes that Axis shipping could realistically take. Simultaneously, mining of the Sicilian channel reduced variation in routes even further, while their increasing air superiority and coverage of the sea routes from air bases in Algeria and Malta made reconnaissance relatively easy. Put simply, land-based radar wasn’t central to the interdiction of Axis shipping at that point. Nor were the Axis powers able to leverage it effectively to protect their shipping, and Table 7.1 in Chapter 7 demonstrates just how extensive their shipping losses were during the Tunisian campaign.

Strangling the Axis by Richard Hammond
Strangling the Axis by Richard Hammond

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About the Author: Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond is a Lecturer at Brunel University and is Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He is the recipient of the Society for Military History's Moncado Prize and the Corbett Prize in Modern Naval History (Proxime Accessit)....

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