Royal Navy versus Kriegsmarine, Marine nationale and Regia Marina 1940 II

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On the evening of November 11, 1940, 21 obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplanes, took off from the HMS Illustrious, steaming in the Mediterranean Sea. They proceeded at slow speed to Taranto, Italy, the home port for the Regia Marina. The fleet only had a small percentage of their anti-torpedo netting deployed, the harbour was deemed too shallow to launch aircraft torpedoes! By the time the biplanes left on the morning of the 12th, three battleships were either sank, or had to run aground to prevent them from sinking. The Italians suffered 59 killed and 600 wounded, the British lost two biplanes, and 2 men killed and 2 taken prisoner. In one night, Italy had lost half their Battleship fleet. Most in the west paid little attention, but, Japanese Lt. Cdr. Takeshi Naito, the assistant naval attaché to Berlin, immediately went to Taranto to assess the damage. He then met with Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, The mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbour!

Fortunately for the British, all was not gloom and despair. If any further evidence was required that Roosevelt’s administration in Washington had abandoned any pretence at neutrality and actively embraced a very partial non-belligerency in favour of the British Commonwealth, it was provided by the signing of an Executive Order on 2 September that exchanged fifty over-age destroyers for the long-term lease by the US Navy of several bases in the Caribbean, along with others in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Newfoundland. Although the American destroyers were awkward and uncomfortable to operate, rolled up to 70° in swells, were slow and prone to malfunctioning, their transfer was still more than just a symbolic gesture. Once in working order, some of them would help to supplement the Royal Navy’s hard-pressed destroyer strength and were slated for use on the vital convoy escort routes in the North Atlantic. Their defects were such, however, that the Americans were seen by the British as getting by far the better part of the deal since the bases that the US inherited in this exchange could at least be made operational with the minimum of delay. That could not be said of these old, poorly designed and constructed `four stackers’. Most needed several months of intense work to become fully serviceable. Some never made it.

Although the Allies had accepted the principle of convoy from the outset of this war – unlike their reluctance to embrace it in the early stages of the Great War – one sensed that their politicians (even those with some experience of naval business who should have known better) still regarded them as being inherently vulnerable and hostages to fortune. In some sense, of course, they were, but until aerial surveillance, information gathering and code breaking vastly improved, the fact was that many convoys (even the slowest moving ones) still often managed to escape detection from a variety of hostile craft – aircraft, surface ships and submarines – deployed against them. This was understandable in the vastness of the oceans since without some indication as to the routing of these ships and much more plentiful resources devoted to the task, the enemy was often casting around searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. What was far more surprising and frustrating for the pursuers, however, was that even in relatively confined waters convoys often got through and not just because they were protected by their destroyer screens and other escorts. Both sides of this coin were seen in September. Early in the month the Italians somehow managed to miss a convoy on its way from Aden to Suez even though a combination of destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats were arrayed against it, and they drew another blank when looking for a convoy of twenty-three ships in the Red Sea on 19-21 September. On both occasions the convoy had been spotted from the air and directions had been given to the search and destroy vessels. For their part the British could hardly gloat about the incompetence of the Italians when the Vichy regime was able to run 540 convoys (containing 1,750 ships) through the Straits of Gibraltar in both directions over the course of the next twenty-six months.

Churchill’s anguish about the failure to cut off these or any other enemy ships from entering or exiting the western end of the Mediterranean at will was to become a marked feature of this period. His ire was particularly roused by the high speed passage of three light cruisers and three large destroyers through the Straits of Gibraltar on 11 September en-route for Libreville in Gabon – a French West African colony that had already gone over to Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. Apart from eluding what was left of Force H at Gibraltar and then again at Casablanca, the Vichy ships swept imperiously into Dakar on 15 September undetected by John Cunningham’s 1st Cruiser Squadron and the carrier, Ark Royal, who were out looking for them. Furious that these warships had not been intercepted, both Churchill and Pound cast around for a scapegoat and found one in Admiral Sir Dudley North, the Flag Officer on the North Atlantic station, based in Gibraltar. Accused of lacking initiative in an emergency, North was harshly relieved of his command. As Barnett suggests, however, the blame for this combined failure could just as easily have been laid at the Admiralty’s door or that of 10 Downing Street.

Churchill’s temper was sorely tested by another fiasco off Dakar (Operation Menace) later in the same month. An ill-judged encounter that had been planned on the mistaken assumption that the authorities in Dakar would renounce the Vichy regime in order to enthusiastically welcome de Gaulle and his Free French forces, Menace went badly awry almost from the beginning. Having already had the light cruiser Fiji torpedoed before the troop convoy had even cleared the Hebrides, a large force of Allied warships and three Free French sloops arrived off Dakar on 23 September to discover that neither the port nor the warships assembled within it were interested in embracing the Free French cause. 91 Menace proved to be a grossly misnamed operation. It was finally called off on 25 September when the battleship Resolution was put out of action for a year after sustaining massive torpedo damage from the sole remaining Vichy submarine (Bévéziers) operating in Senegalese waters. Although the Vichy naval authorities had lost two of its own submarines and a large destroyer in foiling this attack on its territory, the British had suffered proportionately more. Apart from the damage done to the Resolution, the other battleship Barham had also been hit, though not seriously, a cruiser and two destroyers had been damaged, and nineteen aircraft from Ark Royal had been destroyed.

If the news was depressing at sea for the Allies, there was some relief as the war in the air at least showed distinct signs of promise. Hitler and the German High Command (OKW) had made a number of critical strategic mistakes in prosecuting the Battle of Britain. These shortcomings had allowed the RAF a breathing space that it had used profitably to check the massive assault by Göring’s Luftwaffe and deny it the opportunity of achieving aerial superiority over the Channel. Aware that he could not afford to risk launching Fall Seelöwe (Case Sea Lion) without establishing this requisite aerial dominance, Hitler reached an initial decision on 17 September to postpone, but not cancel, the cross- Channel invasion. In the end, however, it was merely a semantic difference, as this postponement became nothing less than a preliminary cancellation of the entire operation. Thereafter while the huge invasion fleet the Germans had assembled in an arc of ports from Le Havre to Antwerp languished for months on end, the Luftwaffe continued to wage an all-out bombing offensive against the major British cities and ports in a bid to destroy their infrastructure and civilian morale. Despite the material damage caused by the `Blitz’, the prevention of the invasion was yet another compelling defensive effort in what was already proving to be a war in which heroic defiance had been turned into notable psychological successes. Churchill had been right in August to extol the virtues of the RAF and to describe the performance of its aircrews as representing a signal epoch in the history of the British people.

Even so, there was no time for the British to bask in their success on this front because the daily bulletins from the North Atlantic suggested that the German war on trade was being won convincingly by Dönitz and his U-boat fleet. In addition to the carnage they wreaked on merchant shipping sailing alone, their use of well-coordinated wolf-pack tactics (Rudeltaktik) threatened to decimate even the most heavily-defended convoys as SC. 7 and HX. 79 both found to their cost on 17-20 October. Losing 70% of the ships from the former and 24.5% of the latter was sobering news for the Admiralty and made it imperative for the Allies to find some way of evading these marauding groups of U-boats in future.

Further proof that the Axis Powers were prepared to widen the war even more came with the signing of the Tripartite Pact linking them with Japan in late September and reports of a meeting held between Hitler and the Spanish Caudillo Francisco Franco at Hendaye in the Pyrenees on 23 October. Mussolini had struck both before and after these diplomatic initiatives had been arranged. His reckless enthusiasm for the Axis war effort had been shown firstly in a cross-border attack launched by his 10th Army on Egypt in mid-September and then by an invasion of Greece from across the Albanian border in late October. While his military forces didn’t cover themselves in glory in either of these two new theatres, the Regia Marina – now boasting six battleships – was not doing much more than engaging in mining operations, escorting convoys and skirmishing unsuccessfully with Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. Worse was to follow for Il Duce and his fleet before November was out. During the night of 11-12 November, two waves of Swordfish aircraft from the carrier Illustrious had the temerity to attack the Italian Fleet as it lay at anchor in harbour at Taranto, crippling three of its battleships while slightly damaging a heavy cruiser and a destroyer into the bargain. Everyone on the British side was delighted with the results of Operation Judgment, since it appeared to have eased the Allied naval position in the Central Mediterranean, by reducing the risks to their convoy traffic and boosting morale in their own ranks, while complicating the Italian strategic situation and deflating the enemy. Cunningham summed up the cost-benefit analysis of the entire operation perfectly by stating: `As an example of “economy of force” it is probably unsurpassed.’ He was not prone to exaggeration and his enthusiasm for taking the fight to the Italians was infectious.

Somerville needed little encouragement in this respect and the next chance to do battle with Admiral Inigo Campioni, the Italian Fleet Commander, fell to him off the southern tip of Sardinia (Cape Teulada) on 27 November. Unlike Judgment, the engagement (Operation Collar) was a limited and inconclusive affair and was broken off by Campioni before the battle fleets had a chance of getting to grips with one another. Campioni’s tactical withdrawal in the face of what he thought was a superior force was the last straw for an enraged Mussolini who linked his caution with pusillanimity (a quaintly Churchillian interpretation of the word) and looked for a dramatic change of fortune for the Regia Marina in the weeks to come. It was hoped in Italian circles that this would result from a fundamental reorganisation of both the naval establishment, with Admiral Arturo Riccardi replacing Admiral Domenico Cavagnari as undersecretary of state and head of the Supermarina and the fleet itself, with Admiral Angelo Iachino becoming fleet commander at the expense of Campioni. If December was anything to go by, however, it looked like a case of wishful thinking since Cunningham’s aircraft attacked Italian airfields on Rhodes, his battleships bombarded the Albanian port of Valona and Allied convoys continued to bring in supplies and reinforcements for Malta.

Although the year ended on an indisputably upbeat note for the Allied naval forces in the Mediterranean, the same could not be said of their fortunes elsewhere. Apart from the killing sprees of the U-boats in the North and Central Atlantic from which there appeared to be no early respite, and the existence of disguised armed raiders who preyed on unsuspecting merchant vessels around the globe, the likelihood was that heavier units of the German surface fleet would be sent out on raids to disrupt convoys, savage vessels sailing alone and tie up large concentrations of Allied warships that would be drafted in to try to hunt them down. Some evidence of this trend was already unmistakable in the activities of Admiral Scheer off Newfoundland in the early part of November and in the South Atlantic a month later and in the less successful sortie undertaken by Admiral Hipper in the North Atlantic in December. More worrying still was the plan made by those ubiquitous sisters Gneisenau and Scharnhorst to break out into the North Atlantic at the end of the year – an attempt foiled by storm damage in the North Sea rather than by constructive action from the British. Solutions for these very real problems were not easy to come by. When added to the German penchant for aerial mining and bombing of British ports and estuaries, the members of the Commonwealth were confronted with some very stiff challenges as they said goodbye to the old year and ushered in 1941.