The Mediterranean Theater in WWII is often viewed as a waste and a distraction for the Allies. In this book Porch tries to correct this view and boost the importance of the various fronts in the overall war effort. To me, he partly succeeds in this, but then carries the argument a bit farther than it can be reasonably sustained.
In the early war, of course, the front was the only place that the British could even face the Axis. But only in Africa could the distance allow them to remain in the field at all, as the debacles of the Greek intervention and the Crete operation showed. Bouncing the Italians out of Ethiopia and wrestling with the Afrika Korps was about all they could handle. But it was vital to show the populace and (in this case) America that the British would fight on.
But even in this stage of the war, the overreaching of the strategists caused more problems than just leading to a failed campaign. The diversion of troops from North Africa to Greece also led to Rommel having an open field to begin his counteroffensive. So the political benefits were dissipated because of a lack of a clear strategy of what the goals were and what means the British had.
Another of the author’s themes is that the campaigns led to giving the Allies ‘live fire training’ and experience that would vital later on. This is true to some extent. But outside the minds of the British generals, the true benefits are a lot less clear. Certainly the 8th Army didn’t show itself to be hugely more adept even in Tunisia than the other forces that had not fought in the desert, both British and American. After Kasserine, the Americans learned rapidly. And by the time of Normandy, the units that had been fighting in the desert were no better than those that had not.
Another point is that the Allies needed something to do in 1943, as the main invasion was not ready at that date, and the Med was made to order for that. On the other hand, rather than just grab ‘low hanging fruit’ , the campaigns in Italy after Salerno were just a waste of lives and resources that could have probably been used elsewhere to better effect.
At the time, the Americans were worried that the British were trying to avoid a confrontation in France and were shoring up their empire by wanting to concentrate there. In this, they were probably partially correct. But the arguing over policy to the last minute meant that the operations they did do were less well planned and supported than they could have been. Nobody said coalition warfare was easy.
One thing I did find jarring were the sections on peripheral areas inserted into the text that continued to the end of the war. So around 1941, there is a chapter on Tito and the partisans that continues to the end of the war. Then, blink, you are back in 1941 again. There is another long section on the French that slides back to 1940 and also goes to the wars’ end. Then we are back to 1944. It’s even harder to sell the last years of the Italian campaign as important when you dropped it yourself to talk about Charles DeGaulle.
Another matter that Porch brings up that in a way counters his argument is that every town and city that the Allied took over was one that had to be governed and fed by us and not by the Axis. This puts different light on the value of advancing up Italy, because it added more civilians to the list of those that needed to be supported.
So lets rate the operations:
- North Africa (pre Rommel) – easy
- Ethiopia – not important, easy
- North Africa with Rommel – important to hold Suez, job training?
- El Alamein – not important because of Torch.
- Torch – useful to ‘do something’, job training for US
- Tunisia – capture some Germans, job training
- Sicily – useful ‘do something’, clear the shipping lanes, air bases
- Salerno – useful to knock Italy from war
- Cassino/Anzio – useless
- Anvil – extra ports for France operations.
- North Italy – useless
So in the end I remain partly unsold. I am also not in the ‘total waste’ camp either though. And the book does give a pretty in-depth look at this part of the war.