THE PATH TO VICTORY

The Mediterranean Theater in World War II

By Douglas Porch. Farrar Straus Giroux. 796 pp. $35

Americans commonly link the defeat of Nazi Germany with the dynamic campaigns of 1944-45 across Northern Europe. Of course, the West also had an important southern theater of operations -- the Mediterranean -- where the Allies battled fascist Italy as well as Germany beginning in 1940. But the vast sweep of historical scholarship focusing on D-Day and its aftermath has often subjected the Mediterranean to neglect -- and sometimes even dismissal as a costly sideshow.

Despite the celebrated victories that Montgomery and Patton achieved in the region in 1942-43, critics of the Allied effort in the Mediterranean have minimized the overall campaign as little more than discrete, small-scale battles far afield from the mighty, decisive clashes in Northern Europe. Such critics single out the 1943-45 campaigns in Sicily and the Italian peninsula, where they claim the Allies employed a flawed strategy in pursuit of ill-conceived goals in an area of only limited military importance.

Now, in a major work of synthesis and interpretation, drawing on recent work by others such as Rick Atkinson and Carlo D'Este, military historian Douglas Porch contests or modifies many of those views. Following the lead of the great Annales historian Fernand Braudel, Porch argues that the Mediterranean was in fact an "extended" region of significant global influence. So Porch provides a supple and absorbing analytical account of the fighting and the politics in North Africa, Italy, Greece and southern France, on the islands of Crete, Malta and Sicily, and as far as Yugoslavia, East Africa, Syria and Iraq.

Acknowledging that Eastern and Northwestern Europe were the decisive fronts, Porch claims that the Mediterranean nevertheless played a crucial supporting role. It was "a pivotal theater for the Allies, one that made the difference between victory and defeat." Without the Mediterranean alternative, the Western Allies might have tried a cross-Channel invasion of German-occupied France in 1942 or 1943. Porch declares that such a premature attack would have failed, consequently fragmenting the Western Alliance and diverting U.S. priorities and strategy away from Europe to the Pacific.

The Mediterranean campaigns against smaller Axis forces were crucial, Porch contends, because they forged a working Anglo-American alliance and allowed these Allied armies to acquire fighting skills, to identify able leaders and staff and to develop the technical, operational, tactical and intelligence systems that would allow the allies to successfully carry off the Normandy invasion in 1944. The Mediterranean was also a critical testing ground of personnel as well as fighting systems: When the Northwest Europe front opened up, the ablest Allied commanders in the Mediterranean left to fight the main German forces.

Porch describes the colorful mosaic of common soldiers who made up the Allied forces in the Mediterranean: Americans, Britons and their imperial forces (including Canadians, Anzacs, South Africans and Indians), as well as a Polish Army Corps and a French Expeditionary Corps. The last included de Gaulle's Free French forces and the more numerous former Vichy officers. The French colonial force was largely made up of Muslim troops of the old Armee Afrique, who fought alongside the Allies beginning in 1943. Porch, who specializes in French military history, is especially adept at untangling France's effort to rehabilitate itself as a military power and all the various agendas and intricate rivalries, tensions and intrigues that accompanied it.

Unlike many traditional accounts, Porch's narrative goes far beyond the armies and the ground war. He provides detailed descriptions of naval warfare and logistical support strategies, while also underlining the importance of air power in the region. He gives clear breakdowns of Anglo-American Ultra intelligence operations, as well as other critical work in signals and intelligence. Porch examines the various Resistance movements across the West's southern theater, and he briefly treats the stumbling occupation policies of the Allies in North Africa, Italy and the Middle East.

Vivid biographical sketches of leading commanders punctuate Porch's battle chronologies, and, as is the case in the main military narrative, he supplies judgments of his various dramatis personae that are forceful and sharply etched. He pointedly dissents, for example, from German Gen. Erwin Rommel's reputation as the "Desert Fox." Porch gives due credit to the flamboyant American Gen. George Patton's flair for operational experimentation and relentless ability to win battles -- but he also notes that these virtues came close to being offset by Patton's emotional instability and "straight-backed histrionic militarism." Porch is more sympathetic than many American historians toward British Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery. Porch acknowledges Monty's tactless conceit and risk aversion but credits him with careful planning and the morale building of his hodge-podge Commonwealth army. In contrast, Porch sees few redeeming qualities in Gen. Mark Clark, the American Fifth Army commander in Italy, whom Porch depicts as close-minded, arrogant, merciless and obsessed with capturing picture-worthy objectives to advance his career.

As for Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Porch recognizes his diplomatic skills and growth during the war but finds the Supreme Allied Commander often indecisive and lacking in imagination. After the failure of Operation Garden's attempted thrust into the Ruhr in September 1944, he writes, "Eisenhower ran out of ideas, merely pushing forward on a broad front in the attempt to wrest territory from the Germans, rather than destroy enemy forces or concentrate on vulnerable points."

The Path to Victory is an indispensable single-volume guide to the war in the extended Mediterranean. No other treatment of the subject approaches Porch's narrative and thematic sweep, his eye for telling detail and his forcefully expressed judgments. Porch may not persuade everyone of all of his contentions, but he has given us a monumental work and a major contribution to our understanding of World War II. *

John Whiteclay Chambers II teaches history at Rutgers University and is editor-in-chief of "The Oxford Companion to American Military History."

American Sherman tanks enter Palermo on July 22, 1943.