Mediterranean Naval Battles that Changed the World

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

This unique volume is a compilation focusing on seven major naval engagements from ancient times to the modern era that illustrates the significance of controlling the Mediterranean Sea. The author, Quentin Russell, earned a doctorate in 19th Century Anglo-Greek relations from Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-authored Ali Pasha: Lion of Janina – The Remarkable Life of the Balkan Napoleon (Barnsley, South Yorkshire and Havertown, PA: Pen & Sword Military, 2017) with Eugenia Russell. In addition, he writes and produces for theater and television.

The book begins with an introduction, “Control of the Sea” (pp. 1-15), followed by seven chapters. The first chapter is devoted to the “Development of Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean” (pp. 17-42) while the other six focus on the titular battles (the final chapter concerns two related engagements). Seven specially drafted maps (two without distance scales) are clustered at the front of the book, and there is a bibliography with sixty entries, grouped into 13 general sources and separate book references for each of the engagements, plus a useful index.

Russell’s introductory history lesson reviews Bonaparte’s and Mahan’s observations about the vulnerability of maritime states, and briefly documents coastal civilizations including Phoenician, Greek, Lydian, and Egyptian, as well as the expansive Persian Empire under Darius. The Roman Republic’s conflicts versus the Etruscans and then the Phoenicians culminating in mare nostrum, are assessed, followed by Hannibal and the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) and the Republic of Venice versus Croatian pirates. The author also considers French rivalries with Genoa and Spain (the latter controlled Naples and Sicily), Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, and the protracted wars between Britain and France. Britain’s acquisition of Gibraltar from Spain, the Imperial Russian and Ottoman contest over the Crimea and Black Sea, and the Russian Baltic fleet’s defeat of the Ottomans at the battle of Chessue near Chios in 1783 are also discussed. He comments on the fracturing of the Balkans and destruction of the Ottoman navy at Navarino in 1827, and the ascendency of the British Navy in the Mediterranean with the Anglo-French Suez Canal in 1869, and Cyprus coming under British protection through the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Italy’s seizure of Libya, the British failures at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles from 1915 to 1916, Fascist Italy’s seizure of northern Africa, and the collapse of the British and French empires are also recounted. Notably, he shows how the Greeks took advantage of disunity among their enemies to become successful and that Malta became the key to Mediterranean power.

Russell writes that “a striking feature of the history of naval warfare is that most of the battles were fought close to land, often near a harbour or place of shelter” (p. 17). The objective of early naval warfare was to transport cargo and troops and disable or sink enemy ships. Galleys, he notes, were of various sizes based upon number of banks of oars. In the Mediterranean, the Corinthians developed triremes and trading centers, and the Phoenicians devised wooden rams encased in bronze. The early developments in naval warfare Russell discusses also include siege tactics, Greek fire, naval artillery, explosive shells, fleet formations, hybrid vessels (oars and sails), fireships, permanent professional fleets, dockyards, and naval stations. More recent developments were the screw propeller, ironclads, iron ships, dreadnoughts, torpedoes, mines, depth charges, the submarine, the convoy system, naval aircraft, and aerial reconnaissance.

With this body of information and definitions, the author details his chosen battles. In the main, his chapters inform the reader about his sources (secondary rather than primary literature), dates and background about the conflict, numbers and types of vessels engaged, stages of battle, and the results. As we move forward in time, the chapters are longer and more detailed. I have summarized highlights from each chapter below.

At the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC the Persians under Xerxes and his allies fought the Athenian fleet under Themistocles in the Greek islands. Various numbers are given by the sources: the Persians seem to have had 1,207 triremes and 120,000-300,000 men, losing some 300 vessels (variously 310 or 380) as they were defeated by the Athenian fleet of 147+ triremes, with 200 reserve ships, and 40,000 men with 40 vessels lost. As an aside, readers of this review may be interested to know that there is an exhibition entitled “Glorious Victories: Between Myth and History” running through October 2021 at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, as part of the celebrations of the 2,500-year anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae and the Naval Battle of Salamis.

At the Battle of Actium in 31 BC a Roman fleet of 400 ships, 16,000 men, and 3,000 archers under Augustus Caesar fought Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s 170 ships with 90-100 lost. This battle taking place off the western coast of Greece marked the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome.

The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 has been likened to a naval Crusade. After Cyprus was lost to the Turks, the Holy League sent its combined fleet of 189 galleys and 28 other ships hailing from Venice, Spain, Genoa, Malta, and Austria under Don Juan of Austria to fight the Ottoman fleet of 280 warships under Mehmet Bey in the Gulf of Patras, resulting in a decisive loss for the latter with approximately 100 ships destroyed, 137 ships captured, 40,000 people dead, and 3,500 prisoners liberated.

The Battle of the Nile took place at Aboukir Bay in 1798. A British fleet under Lord Nelson with 14 ships of the line and one brig sailed into the Mediterranean searching for a French fleet of 18 ships under Vice Admiral d’Aigaliers sent to Egypt by Napoleon on a military and scientific expedition. Nelson sailed to Toulon, then Sicily, Malta, and finally Alexandria in his quest. His brilliant tactics resulted in the capture of six French ships and the destruction of seven more, in addition to taking some 3,000 prisoners. Nelson lost no ships but suffered 895 casualties. This action thwarted French plans to take Egypt and strengthened British influence in the eastern Mediterranean.

At the Battle of Navarino in 1827 a combined fleet of 12 British, five French, and four Russian warships under Vice Admiral Codrington encountered Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt’s Turkish, Egyptian, and Tunisian fleet of 54 warships and approximately 350 troop transports off the southwestern coast of Greece. The Turks were attempting to forcibly suppress a bid for Greek independence with 14,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 500 artillerymen but in the aftermath of the Battle of Navarino, in which 60 Ottoman warships were destroyed, 6,000 men were killed, and another 4,000 were wounded the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople led to the founding of the Kingdom of Greece in 1832.

Russell’s final chapter documents two closely related battles during World War II: the Battle of Cape Matapan and the Battle for Malta, 1940-1942. At the beginning of World War II, the Italian Regia Marina had the largest number of submarines in the Mediterranean, and a fleet of capital ships at Taranto in southwestern Italy. The French Marine Nacional had the most capital ships in the Mediterranean, stationed at Toulon, and in North (Oran) and West Africa (Dakar). The Royal Navy’s Force H was based at Gibraltar under Admiral Somerville, while the British convoys assembled at Gibraltar served to protect Greece and Crete in addition to voyaging to Egypt and the Middle East. In order to challenge the British Army in North Africa, the Afrika Corps landed in Tripoli where they were maintained by Axis convoys. The British attempted to interdict Italian convoys sailing from their homeland to Italian North Africa, while the Luftwaffe flew out of Sicily to attack British convoys.

Russell reviews several British efforts, such as Operation Judgement, devised to reduce the threat the Italian fleet based at Taranto posed toward supply lines to Malta. On November 11, 1940, the British attacked the Italian fleet at anchor with Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Two Italian battleships suffered major damage and another was sunk, leaving half of the Regia Marina‘s major ships temporarily out of action. The attack also forced the Italian fleet to relocate to Italian ports further north. The Taranto engagement became a “classic” in naval warfare because it was the first time an attack such as this had been attempted, and it was studied by Japanese naval officers in preparation for their later attack on Pearl Harbor, a shallow anchorage similar to Taranto. The second conflict Russell selected is the Battle of Cape Matapan, fought off the coast of the Greek Peloponnese from March 7 to 29, 1941. The Royal Navy under Admiral Cunningham, augmented by Australian naval forces, intercepted the Regia Marina under Admiral Iachino and emerged victorious, sinking three heavy cruisers and two destroyers, and damaging a battleship. Torpedo bombers were a significant factor but the British also had radar that the Italian ships lacked plus Ultra intercepts. Hence Malta could be reinforced and would remain British. These actions would pave the way for Operation Torch. 

This book is well-written and designed for the general reader. Russell has chosen excellent examples of decisive naval engagements and employed appropriate sources in his narratives. The newly drawn maps are especially well-illustrated and detail the various actions; there are maps for all of the battles except Taranto. Nonetheless, this is a most enjoyable book.


Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D., is a USNI Golden Life Member.

Mediterranean Naval Battles that Changed the World (Quentin Russel, Pen & Sword Maritime, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2021).

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