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Posted on May 3, 2021 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

“Taranto And Naval Air Warfare in The Mediterranean, 1940-1945”. Book Review.

“Taranto And Naval Air Warfare in The Mediterranean, 1940-1945”. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Taranto And Naval Air Warfare in The Mediterranean, 1940-1945. 2021.  Author: David Hobbs. Seaforth Publishing. 440 pages. ISBN: 978-1-5267-9383-6

Years ago, a professor encouraged us to attend as many seminars as possible. His reasoning was that while some seminars might be tedious and most would not be useful, occasionally, you’d encounter a seminar that was a valuable gem. This memory came to mind while reading David Hobb’s recent book Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in The Mediterranean 1940-1945.

The book is a chronological history of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean theater. In many ways Taranto is a sequel David Hobbs’ earlier books The Dawn of Carrier Strike. Taranto is an engaging story of the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm that conveys how, to paraphrase Churchill, so many owed so much to so few. But in this case the “so few” are the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm serving in the Mediterranean theater. By focusing on the Fleet Air Arm, David Hobbs provides a narrative of the war in the Mediterranean that encompasses events from the fall of France culminating with the oft-neglected campaign in the Aegean Sea. The narrative is a comprehensive view of the Mediterranean theater with chapters devoted to the Western Desert, Greece, Sicily, Italy, Malta, and of course, the titular subject – the airstrike on Taranto.

Taranto is an accessible text for the lay reader. David Hobbs demonstrates his skill as author crafting an engaging and immersive narrative. Hobbs’ past career in Royal Navy aviation is put to good use. He has the impressive ability to ingest after action reports and first-person accounts to synthesize the elements into a clear, structured narrative that conveys how the events happened. That narrative both conveys the historical events while simultaneously placing those events within the larger contexts of both the course of the Second World War as well as the tactical and operational lessons to be learned from the participants.

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The text is well supported by maps that help the reader understand the space within which the operations and activities took place. The diagram of the attack on Taranto is most welcome in placing the paths of the individual aircraft into context of their flight paths through the harbor.

Enhancing the narrative are the photographs. The book is lavishly illustrated with images specific to the events. Many photos are from the author’s own collection and provide rarely seen glimpses into Fleet Air Arm operations. It’s an excellent mix of sailors and airmen, combined with the ships and aircraft they manned.

Each chapter functions as an almost self-contained study and includes both an assessment of the state of the Fleet Air Arm at the start of events and concludes with a recap of the activities and an assessment of the successes, failures and lessons learned. It’s an excellent reference for the reader looking for an accessible narrative on naval air operations within the context of the air war in the Mediterranean or the larger events of the overall war.

An element of the narrative I found educational are the details regarding the use of naval aircraft operating from land bases. This dispelled a perception that naval carrier aircraft mostly operated from a flight deck. It was illuminating to see the breadth of operations undertaking by the Fleet Air Arm that required operating from airfields ashore and engaging in a diverse range of missions ranging from anti-submarine warfare through ground support and interdiction strikes.

The importance of the island of Malta during the war is well illustrated with particular emphasis on the role aviation­—and the Fleet Air Arm in particular—played in defending the island from attack while simultaneously interdicting Axis supply lines to North Africa. The critical role of the various convoys supporting Malta are detailed, with a separate chapter devoted to the events of the key “Pedestal” convoy.

Taranto is much more than an operational history of the Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean. David Hobbs also explores the operational and administrative difficulties the Fleet Air Arm faced while fighting in the Mediterranean. Though often called obsolete, aircraft like the Fulmar, Skua and Swordfish continued on in service due to difficulties in procuring suitable replacements.

Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber (image by Tony Hisgett)

Aside from the types of aircraft, Hobbs’ explores how the composition of the carrier air group evolved in response to the “iron triangle” of enemy air attacks, operational objectives and technical limitations of the carriers themselves. The challenges of the small air groups used by early carriers and the balance between fighters and strike aircraft make apparent the skill and bravery of the pilots and sailors in the early years in the Mediterranean. The use of escort carriers by the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea was informative. Though these small carriers are often associated with the Pacific theater or Battle for the Atlantic, Taranto details the important role these escort carriers played in the Mediterranean theater.

Aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish from 820 NAS (Image: United Kingdom Government)

Aside from the technical aircraft issues, Taranto also explores what Hobbs’ suggests was the more important issue – the evolution in aircraft carrier battlespace management, that is: detection, fighter direction and airstrike management. This is a story of how technological advancement was paired with evolutions in management and leadership. Having solid weapons is important, but Taranto shows the importance of knowing how to have your aircrew and sailors best utilize those weapon systems for maximum effect.

The book does not ignore the role geography played on influencing combat operations. The various straits and shallows are described showing how their location and features influenced operations. The narrative shows how the time of year with its impact on sunrise and sunset are taken into account as is the impact of weather and climate. An insightful comment was the role of haze during the Salerno landings. While negligible at sea level, pilots found the haze severely impacting visibility at altitude, to the point that locating their own carriers, much less enemy aircraft, challenged the pilots abilities.

The book maintains a tight narrative focus on the Fleet Air Arm. The result is a rich, detailed picture of Royal Navy air operations in the Mediterranean during World War Two. The downside is that with the lens focused on the Royal Navy, at times the narrative details of the Italian and German attackers can be a bit murky. In a way the narrative captures a sense of the uncertainty faced by the Royal Navy. It’s an effective approach, but if the reader is expecting as detailed a view of the Axis, you may be disappointed with the coverage.

Taranto is a solid book. David Hobbs’ writing style pulls you into events and propels you through the story. The book is a narrative history with a unique point of view. It’s is an impressive work of scholarship both in terms of citations as well as illustrations. Taranto is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to both serious students of naval history and the causal reader looking to increase their knowledge of the period. An outstanding work, Taranto will be a welcome addition to your library.

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