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The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Geoffrey Wawro
By Douglas Porch
FS&G, New York, 2004

Just after Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the Allied chiefs of staff met in Washington to craft a common strategy for what had quite suddenly — in American eyes — become "World War II." They resolved to "beat Germany first," while "containing the Japanese." But how exactly would the Americans and British "beat Germany"? To do so, the Americans would have to rush their military buildup and mobilization to completion, find a breach in Adolf Hitler's "Fortress Europe," and then haul whole armies and their materiel across hostile seas swarming with German U-boats.

The task was daunting, but better calculated to defeat the Axis than penny-packet efforts around the globe that American planners called "scatterization." Then Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, brought into the War Department by General George C. Marshall, expressed the essential gung-ho American spirit: "We've got to go to Europe and fight — and we've got to quit wasting resources all over the world."

The British and Americans planned for a 1943 cross-Channel liberation of France, with a possible large-scale raid in 1942. But the raid seemed suicidal, and with the Soviet Union expressing deep dissatisfaction with the pace of American and British preparations, FDR made the painful decision to strike first in North Africa, not France. He shipped the cream of the expanding U.S. Army to Morocco and Algeria to launch Operation Torch in November 1942. Eisenhower, lusting for decisive battle on the beaches of France, glumly predicted that Roosevelt's pursuit of the North African option would "go down as `the blackest day in history.' "

Had Douglas Porch been around for these strategic debates, one suspects that he would not have shared Ike's doubts. Relying on history, Porch considers North Africa — an apparently peripheral operation — to have been the "Peninsular War" of the 1939-45 conflict. Like the Peninsular War of 1808-12, this one altered the strategic landscape, narrowing Hitler's options no less than the British and Spanish had narrowed Napoleon's. Porch goes a step further, judging North Africa the "pivotal theater" in World War II. It was not the decisive theater, but the turning point, where, as Porch puts it so well, "the Anglo-American alliance was forged, fighting skills were honed, generals audited and D-Day rehearsed."

To critics of Roosevelt who argue (to this day) that a 1943 D-Day would have put the Americans in Europe a year earlier, beat the Russians to Eastern Europe and liberated the death camps before the wild slaughter of 1944, Porch answers, probably correctly, that a 1943 transatlantic invasion would have run into the teeth of the German submarine wolf packs — which had been defanged by 1944 — and would have hit far heavier German resistance on the Atlantic Wall. Still, the doubters then and now resented the deployment of American wealth and power to secure the Mediterranean, what Churchill called "the carotid artery of [the British] empire." General Marshall, who never liked Torch, called it a sop to "British prestige strategy."

And so, off the Americans and British went, wading ashore in Morocco and Algeria to fight their first battles against dyspeptic, demoralized Vichy French troops, who, in this instance, justified Montgomery's verdict that "French troops are quite useless except to guard aerodromes." Though Porch's style is less vivid than Rick Atkinson's in An Army at Dawn, he represents both the Allied and Axis halves of the campaign and does a good job melding the various battles to a running strategic analysis.

Early on we see a collision — mediated by FDR — between two theories of warfare. There was the American style, typified by Marshall and Eisenhower, of mass production and concentration: mass power against power; smash the center of gravity. And there was the more elastic, opportunistic, probing British style: skirt power and hit weakness. The British method suited an overstretched, declining world power. The American style made the most of the new superpower's raw strengths. But as the Mediterranean war dragged into 1943, it became obvious that the light probes and skirmishes constantly suggested by Churchill — in Corsica, in Rhodes, etc. — actually required the vast logistical bases and mass concentration that only the United States could provide.

The Americans and British traded taunts and insults, some quite amusing in retrospect. But the real mésalliance, as Porch makes clear, was the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis, which had glittering opportunities in 1940-41, particularly in the Mediterranean, Middle East and South Asia, but made nothing of them. The Japanese never seemed to grasp the strategic importance of the Med and Suez, and Hitler and Benito Mussolini lacked strategic wisdom. Mussolini was obsessed with Italian prestige — hence his disastrous decision to invade Greece in October 1940 — and Hitler recognized, too late, that Fascist Italy was a liability, not an asset. Before long, German resources and prestige were irrevocably committed to Mussolini's self-serving "parallel war." At the same time, clumsy Nazi efforts to appease Vichy French Premier Henri-Philippe Pétain and Spain's Francisco Franco further alienated the Italians.

Porch praises the 1942 decision to use North Africa as a necessary stop toward the ultimate goal in Europe. He finds the decision in 1943-44 to strike up the Italian Peninsula to have been "a vast strategic error." Those ghastly, tragic, bloody battles — pitilessly summarized by Joseph Stalin as "a long sabbatical" — drained away vital Anglo-American power and time. Here was the "black day" predicted by General Eisenhower, but it came at the end of the pivotal campaign, not the beginning.



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