Of the various design teams from the subordinate powers that were pressed into action around the globe, arguably none managed to produce a range of vessels under the treaty limits with more flair and panache than the Italians. Encouraged by the fascist dictatorship that Mussolini had erected after becoming prime minister in October 1922, the Italian Navy needed no second bidding to create something of a stir in the Mediterranean. Apart from the appearance of their ambitious 10,000-ton cruisers – TRENTO and TRIESTE – in 1927, units of the new light `condottieri’ type Giussano class (5,110 tons) were achieving sea trial speeds of roughly 40 knots by 1930 without sacrificing armaments to do so. Their new destroyers were soon going even faster, even though they were notoriously poor sea keepers and rolled viciously in bad weather. Speed was, of course, an extremely useful asset for any vessel to have at her disposal, but better protection for her crew was imperative if she was to be combative as well as swift and be able to make any lasting impression on those that she would be employed against.
Wartime shortages and the British blockade had made the situation critical in some areas even during Italy’s nine months of “non-belligerence.” In January 1940 the nation had possessed only twelve days’ worth of coking coal for blast furnaces (which suffered damage if allowed to go out), and some individual facilities had access to no more than a single day’s supply in reserve. The situation could only grow worse as the war progress, and Italy moved from being a bystander to being a participant, with the much greater consumption of strategic materials implied therein. By the summer of 1943 Germany had provided the Italians with some forty million tons of coal, one of the few areas in which their allies largely kept their economic agreements. The Germans had also supplied the Italians with 2.5 million tons of various metals during the same period, but even this was not enough to prevent key factories in Milan and Torino from reporting, in 1942, that for every five hours worked they stood another hour idle for lack of raw materials. Oil remained an even greater problem area. By a careful policy of purchasing abroad and stockpiling during the pre-war years, the Italian Navy had managed to amass some 1,800,000 tons of oil in reserve by June 1940. At a projected wartime consumption rate of 200,000 tons per month for full operations, that would be the equivalent of nine months’ supplies. The Army and the Air Force were in much worse shape, each having access to about 100,000 tons of petroleum products (including lubricants). Although the needs of these latter two services did not approach the prodigious thirst for bunker oil of the Navy’s big ships, their holdings nonetheless amounted to no more than a few months’ supplies. Essentially, the Army and Air Force had managed to stockpile just enough to survive the short war Mussolini predicted in late May 1940, and nothing more. The Army’s situation was so bad that in 1939, when the first Italian armored divisions were formed, and deployed to their defensive home stations, none of these units had access to enough fuel for more than 120 miles’ driving. As war approached the Army had undertaken plans for establishing and stocking large fuel depots in North Africa, a perhaps rather rare piece of strategic foresight which would have proved immensely helpfull to the Axis cause in that theatre had it been implemented. But in the face of the climate of scarcity described above this kind of planning represented little more than wishfull thinking, and Italian as well as German motorized units in the desert were to suffer severe fuel shortages which by the second half of 1942 came to seriously hamstring even their tactical capabilities. During the war overall Italian oil imports fell to one-fifth of the country’s normal peacetime usage! In spite of its own energetic preparations, the Navy, which had much higher consumption rates, was the service which was hit the hardest by this drought in liquid fuels. The Regia Marina, which had eaten up a good share of the pre-war military budget (each new battleship cost roughly 850 million lira, for example), was probably the best-equipped branch of the Italian armed forces. The Italian Navy had its share of serious technical shortcomings and difficulties, primarily its unpreparedness to fight an air-sea war, lacking radar, aircraft carriers, or an air force of its own. Still, the Italian battle fleet boasted some impressive ships. The two brand-new Italian battleships, the LITTORIO and the VITTORIO VENETO, were among the best in Europe when they went fully operational in August 1940. At 41,000 tons, they each mounted nine 381-mm/15-inch guns, managed a remarkable speed of 30 knots (equivalent to roughly 34.5 mph), and were very well protected, as both ships demonstrated by surviving hits of all kinds– torpedoes, shells, bombs, even rocket-propelled glider bombs– during the war. They were also among the best-engineered battleships in the world at the time of their introduction, and proved fairly efficient for their size. The Italians also had four small battleships (CAVOUR, CESARE, DORIA, and DUILIO), which dated back to the First World War, but had all since been modernized and up-gunned. (The improvements involved removing one 305-mm/12-inch gun turret, boring out the ten remaining guns to 320-mm/12.6-inch calibre, and modifying the remaining turrets to permit the guns a greater elevation. The ships also received new engines, giving a top speed of 28 knots, and additional protection below the waterline, the latter upgrade however proving insufficient, as single torpedo hits sank the DUILIO and the CAVOUR at Taranto). The Regia Marina could in addition deploy seven modern heavy cruisers, all armed with eight 203-mm/8-inch guns, four of which (TRIESTE, TRENTO, BOLZANO, GORIZIA) were very fast (35 knots or more) but lightly armored for their size, and the other three (ZARA, POLA, FIUME) of normal speed (32 knots) but somewhat better protected. The Italian Navy had sizeable fleets of light cruisers (many of them remarkable for their high speed), destroyers, smaller destroyer escorts, and submarines, with a fair percentage of modern designs in all these categories. But as the war progressed, lack of fuel began to drastically curtail the Navy’s very ability to operate. As mentioned, the Italian naval command estimated wartime needs at about 200,000 tons of oil per month. This meant a nine-month supply at the start of hostilities. However, when war was declared the Navy was immediately forced to turn over 300,000 tons from its own stocks for Air Force and civilian usage. With France tottering and the British ground forces already fled from the continent, Mussolini was at this stage gambling on a short war. When the conflict dragged on much longer than the Duce had confidently predicted, the Regia Marina was forced to scale back its actual consumption to 90,000 tons per month, then to 60,000 tons. This was reaching an absolute base level, however, since the crucial convoys to North Africa, which the Italian Navy made its top operational priority throughout the war, in themselves required about 175,000 tons of fuel every three months, if they were to be properly escorted. Vigorous British opposition made the provision of such escorts imperative, but if the Italians were to continue putting their full efforts into the convoy activities on the level demanded, there would be virtually no fuel left for anything else. And, indeed, by the second half of 1942 even submarine sorties were curtailed by fuel shortages, so that only a small percentage of the boats in operational condition were able to actually deploy on war patrols (for instance, of 55 boats theoretically available to attack Allied shipping to French North Africa after the “Torch” landings in November 1942, less than a dozen subs were actually used for these missions due to lack of fuel). The crisis became so acute for the surface vessels that as early as spring 1942 the Italians had to resort to pumping fuel out of their battleships and cruisers, leaving the big ships immobilized in port, in order to keep the vital escorts running. Likewise, in 1943 Italian mine-laying efforts also came to a virtual halt, as even these small vessels were emptied of their fuel to permit continued operations by the escort craft. The severe shortages had, of course, all kinds of operational ramifications, none of them good from the Italian point of view. After June 1942, when the mere fact of their sortie forced a British convoy to Malta to turn back, the battleships were essentially confined to port due to lack of fuel– they would not come out again until Italy surrendered, and they dashed to Malta to give themselves up. Training throughout the fleet suffered as well, and in fact had been cut back due to fuel shortages even in the pre-war years. Practically all of the oil the Italians received during the war came from Romania, either directly in the Italian purchase of the scanty amounts still up for sale outside of the German-Romanian trade agreement, or indirectly through the Germans. In Axis joint planning, their German allies undertook to fulfill the Italian Navy’s needs (at the Merano naval conference and thereafter), but the Germans proved woefully unable to keep their promises in this matter. By the spring of 1943, by which time the Regia Marina’s own stocks had long been completely exhausted, the Italian Navy in one month received from its allies only 24,000 tons. The “paralysis” of the Italian fleet many non-Italian authors complain about was obviously at least as much a matter of material than of psychology.
When the Italians joined the war on the side of the Axis on 10 June. 65 Although four of its six battleships were not immediately operational, the Regia Marina Italiana (Royal Italian Navy) still had seven heavy cruisers, fourteen light cruisers, sixty-one destroyers, 144 torpedo boats and 117 submarines at its disposal from the outset. As such, its deployment in the Mediterranean and the Aegean was bound to complicate the Allied war effort in these seas and through its active presence in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean potentially compromise the safe operation of the Suez Canal as well. Dudley Pound and his trusted VCNS Tom Phillips certainly believed that with the French Navy apparently out of the equation, the Italians could make things very uncomfortable for the British in the Mediterranean. While they were in favour of withdrawing the fleet from Alexandria, neither Churchill nor his combative C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, would hear of it. Churchill’s fervent support for an active presence in the Mediterranean was crucial in convincing the COS to endorse the decision to retain the Alexandria base for the time being. This left Cunningham with a fleet that was certainly capable of holding its own in the Eastern Mediterranean, but whose scattered units looked acutely vulnerable at both Malta and Gibraltar without substantial French support and with the Spanish dictator General Franco weighing up the option of abandoning neutrality in favour of joining the Axis Powers as Hitler and Mussolini fervently wished he would.
It was with unalloyed relief that both Cunningham and Somerville put their recent confrontations with the French behind them and sought to take the fight to their real enemy – the Italians – in the Mediterranean during the next few weeks. An initial 105-minute engagement between the two fleets took place off the southeast coast of Calabria during the afternoon of 9 July. Although indecisive, the Battle of Punta Stilo demonstrated that Admiral Inigo Campioni’s capital ships were fast and were well supported by light forces that had `outnumbered, outgunned and outranged’ Cunningham’s own cruisers. When the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Italians in all types of aircraft was also factored in, Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet looked decidedly shorthanded and desperately in need of a modern carrier if it was do something more than merely hold its own in these waters. Churchill wanted much more than a mere stalemate in the Mediterranean and was prepared to support the call for reinforcements to be sent to Alexandria so that the fight could be taken to the Regia Marina. His enthusiasm for doing so was heightened by the action off Cape Spada (Crete) on 19 July and in the Gulf of Bumbah (off Tobruk) on the following day when a mixture of Allied warships and carrier aircraft got much the better of the Italians. What these three encounters in July revealed was an underlying inconsistency in the performance levels of the Italian Navy. While it could be good on occasion, it could also be demonstrably lame on others. It was a mercurial condition that afflicted the other services too, and left both friends and enemies alike wondering just what to expect from the Italians in the war.
Although it was tempting for those in Whitehall to dismiss the bombastic Mussolini as a preposterous poseur and his military as more of a liability than an asset to the Axis cause, the fact was that both were still perfectly capable of complicating the strategic picture for the British and they demonstrated this art to perfection by invading British Somaliland at the beginning of August. Once again the British were forced to retreat and conduct the latest of their series of evacuations – a small scale affair from Berbera to Aden – within a few days. Success in one theatre was quickly followed by failure in another. Throughout the war Italian combined arms operations routinely promised more than they actually delivered. Too often the degree of liaison between the services or the level of competence of any one of them left much to be desired. Above all, however, the failure of the Italian military to make the most of its geographical position was to be a recurring and galling theme for the fascist leadership. An early example of what was to come was shown in late August when an important Allied reinforcement convoy (Operation Hats) sailed through the heart of the Mediterranean to join Cunningham’s Fleet at Alexandria defying and evading aerial reconnaissance, submarine patrols and an Italian Fleet bristling with five battleships, thirteen cruisers and thirty-nine destroyers that had been deployed to detect and destroy it.
New major ships delivered to the Italian Navy during the war. The chief of these were the last eight big destroyers (1,820 tons) of the SOLDATO class (the first batch of eleven had entered service just prior to the war), and the three fast but very small cruisers of the “Roman Generals” class (because that’s what they were named after). None of these ships was available before 1942, and the Italians didn’t have much luck with the cruisers. The first one to come into service, the ATTILIO REGOLO, had only been operational for two months when it had its bow blown off by a British submarine’s torpedo while returning from a minelaying mission in November 1942, putting it out of action for six months. The TRAIANO had not even gone fully operational before it was sunk in its Sicilian harbor by a British underwater assault team using methods deliberately copied from the Italian special shipping attack units, this in January 1943. The SCIPIONE, while passing through the straits of Messina to take up a new assignment as a minelayer in the Ionian Sea in July 1943, was attacked in these narrow waters by four small British motor torpedo boats. But this time the Italians got the upper hand, and the SCIPIONE, with some very accurate shooting, sank two of its assailants and set another one on fire.
There was one aspect of naval warfare in which the Italians were indubitably the world leaders in 1940-43, not only in theory and practice, but also in the development of the relevant technology. That was in special attack methods, particularly geared toward destruction of enemy ships in their harbors via penetration by small undersea or surface units. The Italians lumped these methods under the title “mezzi navali d’assalto” or “naval assault craft.” The Italians had indeed pioneered the modern applications of this field during the First World War, when they produced some remarkably sophisticated devices (including one which crawled like a tank over the ocean floor) and had scored a stunning success with the sinking of the Austrian battleship VIRIBUS UNITIS. In 1940 these special assault methods were divided into four categories. The first of the “mezzi navali d’assalto” were the “explosive motorboats” (“motoscafi esplosivi”). These were exactly what the name implied, small, fast boats (of very shallow draft to aid in negotiating potentially blocked harbor entrances), filled with explosives, which were to be rammed into enemy ships. Unlike the later Japanese “kaiten,” this was not intended as a suicide mission. The operator of the boat, once zeroing in on his target, locked the steering mechanism, and then, at about 100-200 yards away, rolled off a special platform built on to the back of the boat for this purpose, and swam like hell in the opposite direction (exceptional swimming ability was one of the prerequisites for inclusion in the elite force formed to employ these various attack methods). Although five of these craft were later sent to the Black Sea, their most memorable employment was in a raid on Suda Bay, the main British naval base on Crete, in March 1941. Six boats, deployed from the destroyers CRISPI and SELLA, managed to enter the harbor, and these sank a tanker and a freighter, as well as damaging the heavy cruiser YORK so badly that the ship had to be beached, and although later used as a sort of semi-floating headquarters (thus leading to later claims by German Stuka pilots that they had “sunk” the cruiser) it never sailed again.
The most dangerous, and most successful, of the Italian special attack craft were the “piloted torpedoes” (“siluri pilotati”). Also known as SLC’s (for “Siluro a Lenta Corsa” or “Slow-running Torpedo”), these were small underwater vehicles, which looked very much like a torpedo, on which the two crewmen sat, straddling the craft as if on horseback and breathing with “scuba” type oxygen tanks. A small electric motor drove the device at a top speed of 4.5 knots, although the normal operating speed was half that, and the “torpedo” could dive to about 100 feet (30 meters). The craft could travel under its own power for up to 15 miles, though more often 10-12 miles under actual operating conditions (at top speed, however, the battery ran out after about four miles). The “piloted torpedo” had a detachable, 661-lb (300 kg) magnetic warhead (early in the program lighter warheads were used, but the 300 kg was both the most common and the most effective), fitted with a time fuze, which was attached to the underside of the target vessel. The Italian specialists who operated them called them “maiali” (“pigs”), because when attacking a ship they looked like piglets suckling at a sow’s belly. A number of Italian subs were specially fitted to transport and launch the “siluri pilotati.” Seven Italian submarines were converted for various special attack operations at one time or another, but of these only four (originally the IRIDE, GONDAR, and SCIRE, later the AMBRA as a replacement after the first two of these were sunk) were actually employed on “live” missions with this equipment. The conversion for all four of these boats involved the installation of three watertight containers on the sub’s deck, each holding a single “piloted torpedo,” which could then be prepared for action while dry and launched by the submarine while submerged.
A third class of the “naval assault craft” were the midget submarines (“sommergibili tascabili”). The RMI experimented with both a two-man and a four-man version (the two-man called the CA, the four-man the CB). The CA was slow in reaching operational service, but twelve of the four-man type, the CB, were eventually built before the surrender to the Allies. At 36 tons, these little craft had a top speed of 7.5 knots surfaced or seven knots submerged. They could achieve a range of up to 1,400 miles on the surface (at three knots), but only about 50 miles submerged. Armament consisted of two external 17.7-inch torpedo tubes, mounted in much the same fashion as on the MAS torpedo boats, and in fact the CB, with its rather high foredeck and low, streamlined bridge, when surfaced bore an uncanny resemblance to the MAS. Six of the midget subs were sent to operate against the Soviets in the Black Sea in May 1942, and they had some success there. In June 1942 the CB-3 sank the Russian STALIN-class submarine S-32, and a few days later the CB-2 sank the smaller Shchuka-type sub Shch-306. One CB-type midget was lost during operations (to air attack while in port), the survivors eventually given to the Royal Romanian Navy. The Germans praised the dedication to duty demonstrated by the crews of these little boats on extensive patrols blockading the Soviets in Sebastopol during the Axis conquest of the Crimea. The final special attack tactic worked out by the Italians was the use of what were called “Gamma men.” These were not machines, but humans– strong, trained ocean swimmers, wearing flipper fins on their feet and towing small magnetic mines attached to their belts. They were usually carried to the scene of their assaults in submarines (some being deposited behind enemy lines in Tunisia by this method of insertion as late as the opening weeks of 1943, although in this case without much result).
However, there was at least one notable incident, Franco Maugheri and the SIS (naval intelligence), involving a bit more cloak-and-dagger stuff. In July 1943, an experienced Italian “frogman” named Luigi Ferraro, helped by SIS agents who accompanied him on the mission, made his way in disguise to Alexandria, his suitcases full of magnetic mines and diving gear. By staying on the move, he managed to remain undetected by the authorities long enough to mine (after long swims from remote beaches to the anchorages) two ships at Alexandria, and two more at Mersina in Syria. Three of the four vessels were sunk, the British saving the fourth when they discovered the mine attached to its hull before it exploded. Ferraro also managed to make his getaway. It is worth noting that Italian intelligence had a pretty fair network of agents and informants in Egypt, who in particular kept them regularly informed of shipping movements at Alexandria and Aboukir (although one of their greatest successes, the sinking of the two battleships at Alexandria, remained unknown to them for several weeks, as all of the crews of the “piloted torpedoes” involved were captured, and the ships settled on the bottom at their shallow berths still looked like they were afloat at first glance in aerial reconnaissance photos).
The Italians formed a special unit to employ the “mezzi navali d’assalto,” which was given the cover name 10th MAS Flotilla (“decima mas” to the Italians). The unit did have a few MAS boats assigned to it, both to legitimize the cover story and also to assist in operations (for example, the attempt on Malta of July 1941, of which more later). It also included the specially-modified submarines described above, and had other larger naval units attached as necessary (for example, the two destroyers used in the Suda Bay operation and the fast transport DIANA for the Malta attempt). The original commander of the 10th MAS was Commander Giorgini.
The Italian Navy did indeed fight the powerful British Royal Navy for 39 months in the Mediterranean– and fought to something like a draw, with wild swings of momentum and dominance, from the summer of 1940 until the fall of 1942, when the balance swung to the British for the last time. And it did so with minimal German assistance, at least in the surface war (German submarines achieved a few spectacular successes when they first appeared in late 1941, but proved a minor factor in the long run– the most palpable German contribution to the Mediterranean sea war was arguably in the air). Likewise, the Italian merchant fleet provided the bulk of the transport that kept the North African theatre operational for almost three years (with almost entirely Italian escorts), in a grueling convoy war that consumed considerable resources on both sides. But the reach of the Regia Marina ranged much further than the Med, Aegean, etc. Italian submarines operated in both North and South Atlantic, in the Caribbean, off the coasts of the United States and Brazil. They cruised on missions to the Indian Ocean and back, and in fact often enjoyed their best success in these various waters more remote from Europe proper (for example, during the “happy time” for German U-boats off the US coasts in early 1942, five Italian subs also operating in American waters between them sank 14 ships totalling 88,000 tons, a fairly merry outing as well. The most successful Italian submarine of the war, in terms of tonnage sunk, the LEONARDO DA VINCI, sank six ships totalling 58,000 tons on a single cruise into the Indian Ocean and back, accounting for roughly half its total in the war). The Italians were also the first navy in the world to operate submarines in the Red Sea. Italian subs and blockade runners (and the colonial sloop ERITREA) sailed into the Far East, some of them all the way to Japan and let’s not forget that small detachment of Italian marines stationed in China between the wars.