The Mediterranean Air War
Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II
By Robert S. Ehlers Jr. 536 pages.
University Press of Kansas, 2015. $39.95.
Reviewed by Conrad C. Crane
Robert S. Ehlers Jr. is a rising star in the field of airpower history. His award-winning first book, Targeting the Reich: Air Intelligence and the Allied Bombing Campaigns, revealed much new information about the process that shaped and controlled the Combined Bomber Offensive, especially concerning the British role in that process. Now he has taken on another too often neglected part of the air war, the campaign in the Mediterranean. But this book is about more than just how Allied airmen perfected tactics and techniques that would bring victory in other theaters as well. Some historians have argued that the Allies won simply because of their overwhelming resources; in fact, it was the superior way they were able to employ those resources in joint and combined arms warfare that made the biggest difference. Ehlers’s book “is about the proper role of airpower within a given historical, geographical, and grand-strategic context and the ways in which it came together with ground and sea power to bring the Allies a resounding series of victories—and the Axis a series of catastrophes.”
Most of the Axis’ difficulties resulted from poor strategic choices, a primary focus for Ehlers and a fine analytical structure around which to organize each chapter. In the “Negative Alliance” between Germany and Italy, the two partners were often headed in opposite directions. A majority of the book describes battles in North Africa, as Erwin Rommel tried to achieve ever-expanding strategic goals with a force increasingly hamstrung by air strikes—strikes that destroyed too many irreplaceable vehicles even as raids from Malta decimated Rommel’s logistics flow across the Mediterranean. The Axis’ failure to take or neutralize that island bastion was one of the greatest blunders of the war.
If there is a flaw in the book, it is that Ehlers covers so much that he cannot fully develop every aspect of what he includes. He describes each major ground campaign from Italian East Africa through German surrender, including the support of Balkan partisans. His account of the strategic bombing campaign of the Fifteenth Air Force is particularly intriguing. While the Eighth Air Force—the other major air element of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe—has its own museum and will soon get an HBO miniseries, the Fifteenth has struggled to receive appropriate recognition for its key contributions to the destruction of the Luftwaffe, the Axis oil industry, and the transportation system, despite the fact that it was actually the more accurate bombing force. Based at a series of airfields around Foggia, Italy, the Fifteenth had advantages in overcoming the omnipresent problems of European weather, since aircraft approaching key targets from the south could fly between weather fronts instead having to fight through them. Perhaps this excellent book will help inspire the full coverage that the “forgotten Fifteenth” deserves.
Conrad C. Crane is the author of Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II, a revised edition of which will soon be released by the University Press of Kansas.