This book was written on information specially made available from restricted archives, being one of a series of studies by carefully selected historians. As a result, it contains information that had not been made public before and still provides the most complete analysis and accounts of naval activities during WWII. This book is Volume 2 by the late Brooks Richards and covers clandestine sea operations in the Mediterranean Theatre from 1940-1944. Although the book is a very valuable information source for the most serious of readers, it is not a dry account. It provides excitement and intrigue in a very readable style that concludes with all of the tables that should be included into a source work. There is illustration, confined to a B&W plate section and a few maps in the body of the book, but the illustration fully supports the unique content.
NAME: Secret Flotillas, Clandestine Sea Operations in the Western Mediterranean, North African & the Adriatic, 1940-1944, Volume 2
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Brooks Richards
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Naval warfare, World War Two, WWII, Second World War, Mediterranean Theatre, small boats, coastal forces, covert operations, interdiction, MGB, MTB, MFV, Malta, Italy, Greece, North Africa, Moskito Boats, Torpedo Boats, coastal trading vessels, S-boots, MAS boats
DESCRIPTION: This book was written on information specially made available from restricted archives, being one of a series of studies by carefully selected historians. As a result, it contains information that had not been made public before and still provides the most complete analysis and accounts of naval activities during WWII. This book is Volume 2 by the late Brooks Richards and covers clandestine sea operations in the Mediterranean Theatre from 1940-1944. Although the book is a very valuable information source for the most serious of readers, it is not a dry account. It provides excitement and intrigue in a very readable style that concludes with all of the tables that should be included into a source work. There is illustration, confined to a B&W plate section and a few maps in the body of the book, but the illustration fully supports the unique content.
When war broke out in 1939, the German Navy was still in the midst of a building program that was intended to complete in 1944, that year being the date selected by Hitler provisionally for attacking France and Britain, before continuing to attack Canada and the USA. That program included a fully featured surface fleet and a large submarine fleet. Coastal forces were intended to be adequate for operations from Jutland to the Spanish border, and to support the German invasion of Britain. The Italian Navy was well-equipped with battleships and cruisers, having also a proportional fleet of submarines, coastal fast patrol boats and specialist teams of divers with manned torpedoes.
Against the Germans and Italians, the British and French naval forces were primarily dominated by large capital ships including large battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Submarine forces were proportionately smaller and coastal vessels had been neglected. As a result, the British and French were well equipped for full fleet actions where the big gun battleship and the aircraft carrier would be the primary weapons systems, but were not well-equipped with coastal forces and convoy escorts that were to become vital from the first days of the war.
In Britain, Vosper had built MTB 102 as a privately funded prototype. It was purchased from Vosper to develop tactics and technology, becoming the fastest vessel in the Royal Navy. A measure of the lack of forward thinking was demonstrated by the fact that MTB 102 was equipped with Italian engines and a single torpedo tube firing through a bow cap, with a single reload being carried on deck behind the bridge. From that late start, the design and building programme very rapidly expanded and produced a huge fleet of torpedo and gun boats that could be used for offensive actions, including the landing and evacuation of agents and commandoes from the enemy coast. Some of these vessels were true multi-role warships, such as the Fairmile B, and included minesweeping and convoy escort within their roles. The majority of this armada was fitted with petrol engines, in many cases, aircraft engines which had completed their working life in Hurricane and Spitfire fighters and been converted for marine use. Very few types were equipped with marine diesel engines. Although some types, again such as the Fairmile B, used a round bilge hull form, most boats had planning hulls and were designed for speeds above 30 knots. The same hulls might be constructed with a main armament of torpedoes or guns, but designs, such as the Fairmile D, were equipped with a very heavy gun, torpedo and depth charge armament, radar and sonar detection equipment and paravanes for minesweeping but still exceeded 30 knots.
Very rapidly in the opening months of war, the Royal Navy commandeered a variety of small craft, particularly various types of motor fishing vessel. These augmented the newly built fast coastal craft coming off slipways around Britain. Mostly these craft were built in smaller ship and yacht building yards, some of them well inland along the major rivers of the British Isles. Several designs were pre-fabricated with components made in blacksmith’s shops, furniture factories, and small engineering works, being collected together and issued to the boat yards as kits.
As the German armies advanced rapidly and controlled the European coastline from Norway’s North Cape south to the border with semi-neutral, but pro-German, Spain, resistance was rapidly confined to the British Isles. In the Mediterranean, Britain was left with three strong holds that could provide harbours for warships. Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria in Egypt were isolated and required major efforts to force convoys through between them. North Africa became dependent on these convoys. As British forces rapidly advanced westward against the Italians, supply lines became over extended and the Royal Navy was unable to force supplies through to suitable ports. The British forces were then pushed back and the North African Campaigns became a succession of advances and retreats, British naval and air forces based on Malta coming out to interdict the Axis supply lines from Italy to North Africa and Axis air and naval forces coming out to attack convoys from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria.
There was a level of stalemate in what was the only theatre where British land forces were still in contact with Axis land forces. Success in this theatre was vital to British morale and provided the point from which a fight back could take place. As British forces were deployed to Greece and Crete, they met overwhelming Axis force and were beaten back to Alexandria. Those forces in Egypt then also became even more vital in blocking the Axis advance to India which would have cut off the Suez Canal lifeline to Empire. The stakes could not have been higher for both sides. It is not too strong a claim to make that the Battle of Britain, in halting the intended German invasion of Britain and the performance of British forces in the Mediterranean broke the Axis expansion. The forces in the Mediterranean then provided the means to achieve the first land victory over Axis forces, that was to make practical an invasion of Italy, taking that country out of the Axis, and then the Normandy landings that were to allow Allied forces to invade the German homeland and force an end to the war. The role of Allied naval forces in maintaining the flow of trans Atlantic convoys and the Allied round-the-clock bombing of Germany were essential to victory but only possible because the Mediterranean Theatre was held and then turned to victory. In turn it contributed to the defeat of Japan by allowing Allied convoys to run through the Mediterranean to Australia and for troops and aircraft to be allocated from Europe to the Pacific.
To turn potential defeat into victory depended heavily on British forces in the Mediterranean and in particular to the small vessels engaged on clandestine operations. The Royal Navy had three victories with capital ships. The French Navy in North Africa was crippled to prevent it falling under German control, the Italian Fleet was turned back from its intended attack on the British Fleet based in Alexandria, and the brilliant attack by the Fleet Air Arm on the Italian fleet in its home port, were important in giving the Royal Navy supremacy for limited periods, but it was the clandestine fleet that was to achieve successes far beyond its size and the capability of its vessels. After the surrender of Italy, the fleet was to benefit from Italian coastal craft operating as allies, particularly in the Adriatic.
Although the author did not begin writing the book until the 1990s, he had the great advantage of SOE service in the area during WWII. This personal direct involvement in the story may account for the lively and authoritative style, where a personal perspective must have been of enormous assistance in working through the restricted files that he was given access to. The resulting history is outstanding and a classic that will be of great value as long as readers have an interest in the many subjects that combine into the story.