Small wonder

Eagles over North Africa and the Mediterranean 1940 – 1943

by Jeffrey L. Ethell

Eagles Over North Africa & the Mediterranean, 1940-43To 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.

Messerchmitt Me.110Ds over Tripoli
A typically great shot of two II/ZG 26 Me.110Ds over Tripoli Harbour, having just escorted resupply Ju.52s across the Med from Sicily. (Peter Petrick)

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.

Messerschmitt Me.323 Gigant
Speaking of logistics, a spread dedicated to the mighty Me.323 Gigant highlights the enormous capacity of this six-engined, 55 metre span behemoth – as well as its vulnerability to Allied fighters.

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.

Me.109E of Lt. Werner Schror
This striking Me.109 shot is also a great example of the detail carried through the 60 pages of photos and their captions. The full caption reads: “Leutnant Werner Schrör, a four kill-pilot) as his rudder indicates with I/JG 27, flies his Me 109E-4 near the North African coast in April 1941, just after the Gruppe had arrived from the Balkans. The white fuselage band indicated an aircraft of the Mediterranean theatre. There were great things ahead for Schrör, who had been with I Gruppe since the Battle of Britain in August 1940. After Marseille’s death, he became the leading Jagdflieger in North Africa with sixty-one kills, and he finished the war with 11 victories to his credit. (W. Sturm via Herrmann & Kraemer.)” Phew! Any questions?

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.

Junkers Ju.87 Stukas over Yugoslavia
While the colour photos are striking, inevitably most are in black and white – like this example showing a gang of 3 SG Stukas over the Yugoslavian mountains in 1941.

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

Pen & Sword logoI 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.

10 thoughts on “Small wonder

  1. I seriously miss Jeff Ethell as an author. His loss was further compounded by the loss of both Robert F. Dorr and Bill Gunston in more recent years.

    What authors do we still have with us that are of that calibre?

  2. I think you did a great job on the review. It’s wasn’t propaganda but you weren’t bashing it either. I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

  3. I was surprised to see Jeffrey Ethell misidentify the Messerchmitt Bf-109 as the Me-109. By the 1970s, it was widely known among aviation buffs, GIs returning from Europe had called the famous German fighter incorrectly. Aviation authors should have known the correct nomenclature and the story behind the misidentification.

    1. Ethell dedicates a sizeable paragraph to this topic, as a note to his text. It begins: “For years controversy has raged regarding what prefix should be used…”
      Well, that says it all!
      He goes on to explain that he follows a convention established by Dr Winfried Heinemann of the Militargeschichtliches Forschungsamt (Military Research Office), Potsdam, based on the fact that Willy Messerschmitt joined Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG in 1927 and increased his shareholding through the 30s until he assumed ownership and the name was changed to Messerschmitt AG in September 1938.
      The rule which follows is that aircraft designed before 09/38 are designated ‘Bf’ and those designed after are ‘Me’.
      So we have Bf108 (all marks), Bf109A through D, and Bf110A and B. But the 109E and beyond, and 110 C through G, are all prefixed Me, as are all marks of the Me163, Me210, Me262, Me323, Me410.
      I’m no expert but this system makes sense, and seems more accurate than a simple blanket rule. What do you think?

      1. Thank you for your information on the nomenclature of the “109”. In the future I will have to be more careful to note the model of the “109” I am viewing.

        Regards,

        Steve

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