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Intervista a Vincent O'Hara

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Grazie alla cortesia dello storico statunitense Vincent O'Hara (https://www.vohara.com/), ben noto anche in Europa per i suoi studi sugli aspetti navali della Seconda guerra mondiale, abbiamo potuto fargli una breve intervista per fare il punto sulle sue ricerche e, parallelamente, sull'evoluzione dell'atteggiamento degli studiosi anglosassoni in merito a quelle vicende.

 

 

 

Vincent P. O’Hara is an independent scholar and the author, co-author or editor of
thirteen works, most recently Torch, Clash of Fleets and Six Victories. He holds a
history degree from the University of California, Berkley, and lives in Chula Vista,
California. He was the Naval Institute Press Author of the Year in 2015 and
represented the United States in the 75th Anniversary conference regarding Operation
Torch, sponsored by the Institut National d’Etudes de Stratégie Globale in Algiers,
Algeria.

 

Are there any Second World war scholars who have been an importance on you
as a naval historian?


Samuel E Morison and his History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II was a
strong early influence. I still admire his writing and his ability to communicate the
details of naval operations clearly and with passion.
I admire the word of Richard Frank, author of Guadalcanal, and more recently,
Tower of Skulls. He has an excellent eye for detail, is a clear communicator, and his
training as lawyer gives his work a certain kind of precision not usually found in
more academic studies.

I value Mark Pettie’s work on the Japanese, Stephen McLaughlin on the Russians,
John Jordan on the French. There are many people writing good naval history about
the Second World War. I think better access to sources of information and better
cooperation between historians of different nations--both formally and informally in
venues such as Internet forums, has advanced the study of naval history in general.

 

Can you explain your interest in the war in the Mediterranean between 1940
and 1945?


An early attraction was the fact that relatively little was available on the subject of the
Mediterranean war to a young historian working in California in the 1970s. There
were brief synopses in general works and more extensive treatments in British works
written by authors like Stephen Roskill, P.K. Kemp, Donald McIntyre, or Andrew
Cunningham. Reading these I received the general impression that the Italians were
thoroughly intimidated by the British and badly defeated every time they dared to
leave port. This made me wonder why the war in North Africa lasted as long as it did.
Trying to find the answer to that question encouraged to better understand events in
the Mediterranean between 1940-45.
An early project of mine, maybe thirty years ago, was working on a description of the
Battle of Calabria (Punta Stilo). Nearly every source I had available at the time
concluded that the battle established British “morale ascendency” over the Italians. I

was puzzled that so many authors reached not only the same conclusion but used the
exact same words to express their conclusion. I was more puzzled because I had no
idea what morale ascendency meant, how it could be measured, and how so many
historians could come to such an identical conclusion when writing about a battle that
seemed inconclusive to me according to what they were writing. This was the first
time I appreciated the extent and power of the standard British narrative of the
Mediterranean war.

 

How has the English-language view of the Regia Marina’s role in the Second
World War evolved and do you think your work has played a role in this
evolution?


There have been works available in English that have offered a more nuanced picture
of the Mediterranean naval war starting with the translation of The Struggle for the
Mediterranean 1939-1945 by the French admiral Raymond de Belot in 1951 and
Naval Institute’s translation and publication of Marc’ Bragadin’s The Italian Navy in
World War II in 1957. However, these books had little influence and were drowned
out by the mass of histories and memoirs produced in the United Kingdom during the
1950s and onward which were unanimous in advancing the narrative I summarized in
my response to the first question.
James Sadkovich in his 1994 work The Italian Navy in World War II was the first
historian writing in English to offer an unapologetic, even confrontational, revision to
this narrative. Another important work in this regard was The Naval War in the
Mediterranean 1940-1943 by Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani. What these
works had in common was that the authors were not British and they both used Italian
sources. Thus, the point of view was not so Anglo-centric.
My work has built upon these beginnings and with each book I publish I find that I
am subjected to fewer charges of “pro-Italian bias.” I think that the historiography
has reached the point where most (but not all) English-language historians writing
today accept that the traditional British narrative of the Mediterranean war was
heavily influenced by wartime propaganda, perhaps even by anti-Italian prejudice, an
influence that is easy to document in the British Navy of decades past. Nonetheless,
the old school still has power. For a recent work that emphatically rejects any
revision to the traditional narrative, see British Cruisers Warfare by Alan Raven.
My approach has always been to look at facts in their context and to draw my
conclusions from those facts. I have never been interested in proving this theory or
that. I certainly do not consider my work to be pro- or anti- anything. I am only
interested in what happened and why it happened that way.

 

What do you believe are some under-examined aspects of the British Royal Navy
and Regia Marina’s participation in World War II?

 

The understanding of what part intelligence played in the campaign is still evolving.
Six Victories had the benefit of using the complete set of British ULTRA decryptions
and many Italian decryptions and so made the role of intelligence one of its primary
areas of inquiry.
More work on the evolution of the Regia Marina’s responses to British technological
advantages would be helpful, particularly in their conduct of the traffic war, naval
aviation, and electronics.
I personally have many questions about Italian naval policy during the Parallel War
period that I would like to further examine. The entire Parallel War period lacks a fair
English language account
I also believe that more detail on German - Italian naval cooperation would be
helpful. This strikes me as another area that is driven by an outdated narrative based
on excessive regard for German methods. I would welcome a study that separates
German methods of naval and air/sea warfare from German material resources and
takes a more nuanced view of Germany’s contributions to the Mediterranean naval
war, both positive and negative.

 

What are some of the narratives about the Mediterranean war that seem
particularly persistent and what questions would you like to address in future
work?


Some what I wrote above also applies to this question. In my dreams I would like to
write a six volume history of Italy and Mediterranean naval war. Six Victories could
serve as volume three and In Passage Perilous as volume four.
There is a persistent disregard for Italian naval policy and how it supported Italian
war goals. The question of Italian naval strategy, right or wrong, is often considered
in terms of what British or German historians think that strategy should have been
rather than what it actually was.
A reassessment of Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s actions in the Mediterranean--a
better balancing of the victories he won against the defeats he suffered--would be a
fruitful topic to study.

Just like the British quickly established a narrative about what occurred during the

Mediterranean naval war, so to have Italian historians established competing narratives

of their own centered around various beliefs and agendas. I think much could be revealed

by an impartial assessment of these narratives because I suspect that, like the standard

British narrative, they serve to disguise rather than reveal.

 

What about your most recent books? And what about your future programs?

 

I have been pleased by the reviews of Six Victories. I expected my reassessment of
the Second Battle of Sirte would have provoked howls and gnashing of teeth because
the belief that this battle was a brilliant British victory is an article of faith in the
traditional propaganda-driven narrative. In fact, my interpretation has been accepted
by every reviewer (to date), American, British, Australian, Canadian, and Chinese.
My next work will involve the use of technology at sea by examining six core naval
capabilities in terms of their development and use. For example, torpedoes were not
an important naval technology until they were paired with the proper platform,
submarines, and unleashed against the best target, merchantmen. Or why was
German use of electromagnetic technology over two world wars so poor when
compared to their opponents. This book will be a co-authored work and while it will
not have a focus on the Mediterranean, it will attempt to consider Italy’s use of naval
technology in a comparative fashion.

 

What’s your opinion about USA and Italy relationship?


The United States has a large Italian population and vigorous Italian cultural
influences, especially in the Northeast and West Coast. I think that in general the
United States is sympathetic to Italy and Italian culture. I cannot speak to how
Italians perceive the United States, but I have found the people of Italy, in my
dealings with them, to be fair minded, honest, and respectful.

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