Quote of the Day
Exit strategy is a false god. I have never known of a war in which other people had exit strategies. You don’t exit a war – you either win, lose, or have a ceasefire.
— Thomas Ricks. I have listened to numerous discussions on the importance of having an exit strategy. While the US had experienced multiple wars in the last few decades, we never did seem to come up with an exit strategy for any of them. Maybe Ricks is correct …
Most of my naval history reading has been about the Pacific War. This means I have not read much about the Battle of the Mediterranean. I recently heard a historian (Drach) say that the UK lost 135 major warships in the Mediterranean Theater during WW2. I must admit that I was surprised at the high losses and decided to investigate further. This theater saw numerous major battles (examples like Taranto, Cape Matapan) and some real technology innovations (example in Figure 1).
I decided to do a bit of research and see if I could find out more about the 135 warships. Fortunately, Naval-History.net provides a page that is an OCRed and uncorrected excerpt from British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1935-45, published by HMSO (Her Majesty’s Stationary Office) in 1947. Unfortunately, like all converted WW2 records, there are numerous typographic issues that had to be corrected.
I did find that 135 Royal Navy warships were lost during the Battle of the Mediterranean. This was a tough campaign. For comparison, the UK lost 45 submarines in the Med (see Figure 3), which is not much less than the 52 submarines the US lost during the entire Pacific War,
Naval-History.net provided an excellent web scaping example. The entire effort was implemented using Rstudio and Rmarkdown. For those who like to follow along, the software is available on Github and the Rmarkdown output can be viewed here.
Warship Types Counted
The original loss record contains large warships, auxiliaries, landing craft, torpedo boats, and support craft – 460+ if you include all the landing craft. I decided to limit my counting to the following ship types:
- Aircraft Carrier
- Destroyer (both standard and escorts)
One clearly could argue for other ships to be included, like minesweepers and minelayers. But I had to draw the line somewhere and this was where I drew it.
The definition of a warship is only one of the many problems with determining ship loss totals. Here are a few of the other problems associated with coming up ship loss estimates:
- Ships can be so damaged as to be unrepairable. Are they a loss?
For example, the US records list 52 submarines as lost during WW2. However, 2 submarines were so heavily damaged that they were not able to continue service. Because of these two damaged beyond repair submarines, Wikipedia list 54 submarines as lost by the US (see Note at bottom of the table).
- Ships can be refloated and repaired. How should these be tallied?
The Italian Navy in particular was able to refloat and repair their losses.
- Some ships are lost for causes other than battle, like grounding.
Because of these issues, it is common to find differences in lists of WW2 ship losses.
Fortunately, I was able to immediately confirm what Drachinifel said in the video (Figure 3). The UK lost 135 warships of the types I listed during the Battle of the Mediterranean.
Figure 3 contains an excellent briefing on the Italian Navy and Mediterranean Theater.
|Figure 3: Military History Not Visualized interview with Drachinifel. He mentions the 135 ships lost total several times during this interview.|
The analysis details are rather complex and are well covered in my Rmarkdown document, which you can see in my Github repo. I will only cover results in this post.
Figure 4 shows a screenshot from my Rmarkdown worksheet of the ship losses by ship type. Destroyers and submarines clearly bore the brunt of the losses.
Chart of Losses By Year and Type
Figure 5 shows that the conflict was very intense during 1942. I should note that Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943. Even so, the Germans remained active in the Mediterranean into 1945, though with greatly diminished capabilities.
This was an interesting exercise and I am going to be spending some time reading about the Battle of the Mediterranean over the next few weeks. I have been impressed with the performance of both the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina.
A number of iconic photographs came out of the Battle of the Mediterranean. For example, the explosion of the battleship HMS Barham (Figure 6) after being torpedoed by a U-boat. She was lost off the coast of Egypt and her wreck has not been found.