Dudley Pope, 1954. Flag 4. Chatham Publishing.
Flag 4 is a history of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. MTBs, MLs, HDMLs and Dog Boats played an important role in the control of the sea as the land war in North Africa swung backwards and forwards, and their role remained vital as the Allied armies moved north through Italy, securing the seas on both sides of the country and supporting operations in France and Yugoslavia.
Within Second World War naval history, Flag 4 is often regarded as a classic and essential reading in the history of small boat operations. This has something to do with Flag 4 being published in 1954; it was, and remained for some time afterwards, the only published overall story of Coastal Forces operations in the Mediterranean (not including the handful of memoirs that, quite naturally, focus more on the operations that affected the authors).
In his book, Dudley Pope quickly and briefly sets the scene and the importance of the Med to military strategy and the Second World War, before doing the same for Coastal Forces and the main craft that would feature in the story. There is, perhaps, an ominous sign here in that, whilst Vosper MTBs and Dog Boats receive some attention, MLs and HDMLs get only a brief mention.
After this, Pope heads into the story, starting (after a brief look at the preceding year) in 1942. From there the narrative follows a chronological course, save where the operations split across different geographic areas for long periods, thus necessitating that the story of each area is told separately. In its role as a history of Coastal Forces it succeeds, describing a variety of minor and major events that capture the nature of the war that was being fought in the theatre.
The commencement of the story in 1942 is disappointing as it relegates the story of the 1st MTB Flotilla, and their recall to Britain in late 1939 to two sentences. Likewise the story of the 10th MTB Flotilla in 1941 is barely mentioned. Pope has a very factual approach to writing and quite often this does result in the story becoming a series of facts and less like an engaging story. Some accounts of various actions are a touch confusing; information is not always presently chronologically and the action often lacks a clear overall perspective.
Flag 4 is almost entirely written from the British point of view. Of course, this is a book about Allied Coastal Forces, but role of the enemy is important to that story. When an MTB patrol (with a full back-story provided) meets an enemy convoy, the reason for that convoy being there; the strategy that the Germans were pursuing, is rarely mentioned. The book therefore becomes a series of operations described from the Coastal Forces’ viewpoint, where the German vessels become bit players. When German records have been consulted (and they have, showing that there was sufficient access to them), they are often tagged onto the end of an action’s account, rather than being used to flesh out the story.
This isn’t to say that Flag 4 is a bad book, but it is dated. A newcomer to Coastal Forces wishing to learn about the theatre might do better to get a copy of Leonard Reynolds’ and H. F. Cooper’s Mediterranean MTBs at War.
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