Barbara Brooks Tomblin. With Utmost Spirit: Allied Naval Operations in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. xiv + 578 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-2338-7.
Reviewed by Paul Halpern (Emeritus, Department of History, Florida State University)
Published on H-War (November, 2005)
There is a tendency for histories of the Second World War to focus on the early period of the war with respect to the Mediterranean. These were the dramatic years, with the British fighting alone and control of the sea in doubt, a time perhaps best remembered for the desperate efforts to run convoys to the beleaguered island of Malta. However, by the end of the 1942, with the success of the Anglo-American landings in North Africa, the situation was transformed. The Axis armies in North Africa were doomed and control of the Mediterranean no longer seemed in doubt. The focus in many general histories then seems to shift to preparations for the cross-channel attack. According to the conventional narrative, the 1943 landings in Sicily and Italy were merely the preliminaries to the big landing in Normandy in June 1944. Thereafter, the story naturally turns to the Pacific. The fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of D-Day received much attention. The anniversaries of the other amphibious operations in the Mediterranean received little notice.
Tomblin's objective is to restore these Mediterranean operations to their proper place as important stepping stones along the Allied road to victory and equally important lessons in conducting amphibious operations. The bulk of the book focuses on five major amphibious operations: Operation "Torch" (the landings in North Africa); Operation "Husky" (the landings in Sicily); Operation "Avalanche" (the landings at Salerno in southern Italy); Operation "Shingle" (the landings at Anzio); and Operation "Dragoon" (the landings in Provence). Tomblin also intends to supplement top-down views of war (the purely strategic and diplomatic aspects) by going down to the operational and even personal levels to show how war was experienced by those involved.
The book is clearly a labor of love, on which the author has been working for more than thirty years, mostly at the National Archives or the Naval Historical Center in Washington. This work is reinforced by interviews, oral histories collected by the U.S. Naval Institute, and correspondence with over 130 veterans. At least thirty-nine or forty of the latter can clearly be identified as British. The bibliography of books and articles--virtually all in English-- is more than eight pages and the footnotes, a respectable fifty-three pages.
The result of all this work is an extremely detailed account with a mass of names. For example, the name of an unfortunate seaman, killed aboard an LCI, is carefully cited and dutifully recorded in the index. The eyewitness descriptions can be vivid, and the accounts frequently make for exciting reading. They make it clear that for those involved, operations like "Shingle" or "Avalanche" were as harrowing as anything encountered in the Pacific. Occasionally a worm's eye view of history can result in a disjointed account. This is true at times but on the whole the author does a decent job of putting events in context and showing the larger picture, with views from both above and below. However, the well-known problems with eyewitness accounts--such as memories fading over time, or the individual concerned not knowing the whole picture--result in some errors that the author should have caught. For example, there is an account of fighting against the Vichy French cruiser Gloire off Casablanca (p. 36), but at the time the Gloire was over 1,000 miles away at Dakar. The correct facts regarding the encounter off Casablanca are given in other works cited by the author; the discrepancy thus should have been noted.
Tomblin seems uncomfortable with matters involving the French and uses none of the works that have appeared in France in recent years. One result of this unfamiliarity with French affairs is a ludicrous statement about "Admiral Giraud" issuing an ultimatum to the French at Bizerte not to resist the Germans when they poured into Tunisia to forestall the Allies (p. 98). To compound matters, the reference is included in the index entry for General Henri Giraud. The ultimatum in question was really delivered by the German General Alfred Gause, and the reference is taken from a dated history of French naval affairs upon which the author heavily relies in lieu of more recent works.
There are also places where the writing is unclear. What on earth is meant by the account of an Allied assault force headed for Oran stumbling across a brightly lit Vichy French coastal convoy "under specific orders from, of all people" (p. 68) the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief Admiral Cunningham? At the very least, further explanation is called for. There is also a statement about a convoy racing on "with" the valuable cargo of one of its ships that had been torpedoed and that sank while under tow (p. 148). Could the author have meant "without?" The names of French and Italian ships are sometimes garbled, resulting in ships that appear in none of the naval lists. Ships are also sometimes given the wrong class designation. This is a thick book based on a plethora of detail, and consequently there are many opportunities for the author to go astray. In fairness to her, however, given the size of the book and the level of detail, the number of glaring errors seems small.
While supposedly about Allied operations, the book is centered on America; the references to British actions are more apt to be based on printed works than archival sources. This reflects the far greater number of American correspondents listed in the bibliography. It is disturbing that in working thirty years on the subject of "Allied" naval operations, the author, as far as can be discerned from the notes, never set foot in a British archive. She includes citations from many British reports of proceedings that are housed in the American archives, but her reliance on these raises the question of what information the Americans did not receive, and omits the revealing personal letters or comments on Admiralty dockets that are sometimes included with the originals. There are also important British manuscript collections that have not been consulted. To mention just a few: the Andrew Cunningham papers at the British library; the Algernon Willis papers at Churchill College; and the extensive manuscript collections from veterans of the Royal Navy of various ranks at the Imperial War Museum. French sources, both official and private, are also now available at the Service Historique de la Marine at Vincennes. French voices are largely missing from the author's account, although the transformation of the French Navy from a hostile force to an effective ally--duly noted in her account of "Operation Dragoon"--is one of the more interesting aspects of the war in the Mediterranean.
This exclusive reliance on American archives may also account for Tomblin's neglect of operations in the Adriatic. They are introduced fairly late in the book for September 1944, largely because the author seems to have received some correspondence on the subject. But what of the preceding year? The same relative neglect applies to the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. The impression given is that if the Americans were not involved, the events merit scant coverage.
The eight maps included here are neatly and professionally drawn, but a work on this scale required more to adequately support the text. In the case of those that are provided, there does not seem to have been very good coordination between the author (or editors) and the cartographers. The maps show places never mentioned in the text, while far too many places actually cited by the author do not appear.
In summary, the book is not all that it could have been, despite its sometimes overwhelming detail. Nevertheless, it offers many strong points and remains well worth reading. It is based on extensive research. Logistical details are well covered. Proper attention is given to the crucial but often overlooked work of minesweeping; training before the operations is covered; and recent work on the role of intelligence is included. The summary chapter on the lessons learned from each operation and how they were applied to successive landings is very good. The press has also produced an attractive book at a reasonable price by today's standards. Most importantly, the author is to be congratulated on reviving interest in aspects of the naval war that have tended to be overshadowed.
. Paul Auphan and Jacques Mordal, The French Navy in World War II (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1959), pp. 268-269.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Paul Halpern. Review of Tomblin, Barbara Brooks, With Utmost Spirit: Allied Naval Operations in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.