Eagles over North Africa and the Mediterranean 1940 – 1943
by Jeffrey L. Ethell
To be completely honest, I’d sort of forgotten that this review copy of Eagles was on it’s way to me. So it’s arrival was a rather pleasant surprise. In fact, it was an extremely pleasant surprise: This book, part of the Luftwaffe At War series (see below), is an absolute gem.
The layout follows the standard format for the series – there is a short history of the theatre in question, followed by a substantial collection of photos.
That sounds a lot simpler than it actually is.
A masterful summary
The late Jeffrey Ethell’s superb text is a masterful summary of the whole Italian / British & Commonwealth / German / American conflict. In just a couple of thousand words, he guides us through each major stage of the fighting, managing to recount tactical events and reflect on their strategic implications. Even North Africa and the Mediterranean’s connections to the wider war – well certainly the European and Russian theatres – are explained.
North Africa played a particularly pivotal role in World War Two. The formative battles were fought during the brief stalemate between the Battle of Britain ending and Operation Barbarossa beginning. Mussolini’s bombastic declaration of war on Britain was soon called to account by a series of massive defeats in North Africa. This forced Hitler to commit troops and badly needed Luftwaffe resources to protect his southern flank when he attacked Russia.
Repeatedly losing air superiority
Ethell shows how Hitler’s Luftwaffe, while it seemed mighty, really only had the resources to commit itself to a single major conflict at a time.
This follows the proven German strategy of schwerpunkt – focusing decisive force at critical points – that had been used successfully from Richthofen’s Jagdgeschwader 1 in the First World War, to blitzkrieg in the Low Countries, France and Russia.
But in a protracted battle against several enemies with almost limitless logistical depth, across a vast theatre of operations, that strategy would see the Luftwaffe repeatedly losing air superiority just when and where it was needed most.
As Malta reached the verge of starvation in March 1941, for example, the fighters and bombers were called away to conquer the Balkans; and when Rommel really needed command of the air in Tunisia, the best fighters were held back to defend his supply airlift from Sicily.
Universally rare images
In all, Ethell’s synopsis is incredibly complete for its brevity. It doesn’t feel like anything was missed out – even if there isn’t the granular level of detail that a blow-by-blow history might provide. And that doesn’t matter anyway, because the balance of the book comprises some sixty pages of carefully selected photos.
These are almost universally rare images, sourced from private collections, and chosen to show the full diversity of Axis air operations throughout the Mediterranean conflict. Just about every aircraft type is shown, including six-engined Me.323 Gigants; DFS 230A gliders; Me.210s, a Fw.200C Condor; Fiesler HS126 and 156 Storch liaison planes; Italian Reggia Aeronautica Macchis and Savoias; Royal Rumanian Me.109Es; as well as the more common Luftwaffe battle order of Me.109s, Fw.190s, Me.110s, Ju.87s, Ju.88s, and so on.
These photos are all accompanied by comprehensive captions, impressively researched. So the day-to-day detail comes through in the date, location, aircraft type, squadron info and, frequently, pilot record given with each image.
In this way, the main text simply sets the scene and the photos tell the story. It’s a neat trick that paints (if you’ll excuse the inappropriate metaphor) a very detailed picture of the Axis air war.
The book’s real value
Eagles over North Africa and the Mediterranean 1940 – 1943 almost looks like another reference book for modellers, but it clearly isn’t. There are no colour profiles of individual planes, for one thing.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of information for model-makers, but the book’s real value is in its highly informative visual record of the Luftwaffe’s campaign across this important theatre.
While it was never his promised ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, Churchill was eminently correct when he declared that victory in Africa was “…the end of the beginning”.
If you’re looking for a small book about a big air war, this is a great choice.
Other books in the Luftwaffe At War series are:
Air War Over The Atlantic, Manfred Griehl
Fighters Over Russia, Manfred Griehl
Focke Wulf 190, Morten Jessen
German Bombers Over England, 1940 – 44, Manfred Griehl
German Bombers Over Russia, Manfred Griehl
German Elite Pathfinders, Manfred Griehl
The Luftwaffe Over Finland, Kari Stenman and Kalevi Keskinen
Stukas Over The Mediterranean, 1940 – 45, Peter C. Smith
Stukas Over The Steppe, Peter C. Smith
Stuka Spearhead, Peter C. Smith
About this review
I wrote this review at the invitation of the publisher, Pen & Sword Aviation. Pen & Sword were kind enough to provide a review copy of the book, but no money has changed hands and the views I’ve expressed are entirely my own.