Book Review: A History of the Mediterranean Air War, 1940-45, Volume Five, From the Fall of Rome to the End of the War, 1944-1945,


by Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello

London, Grub Street / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2021. Pp. 525. Illus., maps, tables, appendix. $75.00. ISBN: 1911621971

The Culmination of the Air War in the Mediterranean

This is the fifth volume of a planned six-volume history of air operations in the Mediterranean theatre of the Second World War, seeking to identify all – or as close to all as possible – of the combat losses and victory claims (but not missions or sorties) on a day-by-day basis. While this volume does not come with references or a bibliography, it obviously represents a thorough research effort in surviving archival sources by the lead author, Christopher Shores and a multi-national team. Shores pioneered this genre – close-focus operational aviation history – in the 1960s with the publication of the original Fighters over the Desert. This volume also covers the 1943 campaign in the Aegean but omits missions outside the theatre as part of the Allied strategic air offensive (e.g., the Fifteenth Air Force and 205 Group RAF) and special operations (e.g., the air resupply from Italy for the Warsaw uprising), to be covered in the upcoming volume six.

Most of this book is organized in chronological order, with daily entries. While not a single narrative – difficult to achieve when covering individual aircraft on all sides and their loss -- there are many narratives embedded here. There are many stories of interest, including accounts excerpted from combat reports or providing details on aircrew lost on a specific day.

This volume, like the others comprising this work, reflects the scope of a remarkable research effort and provides valuable detail that the reader is not going to find between two covers elsewhere. To provide context, the chronological entries are supplemented by subject-focused details on events, such as the creation of the Balkan Air Force or development of air-ground cooperation. These are supplemented with orders of battle of air units (but not radars or flak) provided at intervals.

Given the prodigious research and coverage of the subject matter, it is hard to criticize the authors’ choices as to what was emphasized. While a sizable book – 526 pages of which 75 are a detailed index – it is obvious that the authors had to squeeze their material down. Production standards are high, with glossy paper enabling clear reproduction of the illustrations, including over 300 black and white photographs, many previously unpublished.

While this may be the best and most detailed treatment of its subject matter – the Internet-dominated future is unlikely to hold many more six-volume histories – the authors’ approach presents a valuable yet skewed view, even if not of the subject matter described in the title, then of air combat operations in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations in 1943-45. Why skewed? The authors’ prodigious research efforts could only retrieve what was recorded in the available sources. The emphasis on a comprehensive treatment of combat losses and victory claims results in less space for the non-kinetic elements of airpower including airlift, casualty evacuation, special operations, reconnaissance and observation except when aircraft are lost carrying them out. Allied airpower devoted a large percentage of its efforts to such missions. To give but one example, the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force flew some 11,000 combat and 9,000 transport sorties (including supporting partisans in Italy and Yugoslavia); transport operations effectively constituted almost half their air war effort.

The numbers of aircraft lost and claimed are easier to extract from the archives and, often, make interesting historical writing, especially when dealing with air-to-air combat. They do not, by themselves, provide a comprehensive picture of airpower. In the period covered by this volume, air-to-air combat became less and less frequent as the Germans and their remaining allies ran out of fuel and pulled the Luftwaffe back to defend the Reich. Air combat became increasingly air-to-ground. Allied airpower, with the benefit of increased skill, numbers and capabilities, was opposed primarily not by air arms like themselves but rather massive flak defenses. Flak gunners -- and the skilled logisticians that resupplied the frontline troops despite Allied air superiority -- enabled bitter resistance until the final weeks of the war. It was these enemies, rather than Luftwaffe pilots, who limited what Allied airpower could accomplish in-theatre in 1943-45. The Mediterranean air war, which started with a few elegant biplanes dueling over the Libyan desert in 1940, finished as an exemplar of late industrial-era mass firepower delivered from the air, demonstrating its strengths and limitations that would be seen again over Korea and Southeast Asia in following decades.

This books’ approach also leads, in places, to less attention being given to the larger picture rather than recording daily events. For example, the RAF’s operations opposing the Communist insurrection in Greece – which set the stage for that country’s bloody civil war -- represented a major commitment. It was an important example for the use of airpower in a low intensity conflict, something else that would be repeated in decades to come. Here, it is only episodically treated in the daily entries. While there is a short appendix on Allied night fighter operations, the increasingly capable infrastructure of signals intercept, communications, radars, and fighter direction capability that enabled Allied airpower does not get sustained coverage.

These limitations are inherent in what the authors set out to do and reflect the size and scope of the volumes rather than research shortfalls. It would be unfair to criticize the authors for making the hard editorial decisions, but readers need to be aware that they always have to be made. There are few six-volume histories of any part of the Second World War – they gave Winston Churchill the Nobel Prize for literature for writing one – but even such remarkable achievements are defined by what the authors decide to omit as well as how they present what they decide to include. That there were limits to what could be included does not reduce the value of what has been included.


Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, Modern South Korean Air Power, Dirty Eddie's War, Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942, and The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean.



Note: A History of the Mediterranean Air War, 1940-45, Volume Five is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David C. Isby   

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