Corpo di Spedizione Italiano and Units after 1943

Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia)

As Europe’s first fascist dictator, it was inevitable that Mussolini would commit troops to the “anti-Bolshevik crusade”. However, up to June 1941, World War II had gone badly for Il Duce. He had nothing to show in comparison with Hitler’s territorial gains. In May 1940, Mussolini’s frustration was further heightened when the German armies drove the British forces off the continent and brought France to her knees. It now seemed certain that Germany would win the war. Desperate to share in the spoils of war, Mussolini announced on 10 June 1940 to an enormous crowd gathered in the Piazza Venezia that Italy was at war with Britain and France. Unfortunately, Il Duce was caught in what his Foreign Minister Ciano ironically called “an outbreak of peace” which left Mussolini in a state of limbo. His ego and thirst for power drove him subsequently to invade the Balkans. The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940, only to be militarily humiliated by the Greeks. However, fascist honour was restored by the German Blitzkrieg in the Balkans in April 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia were quickly conquered, and a British expeditionary force was expelled from the mainland. It found refuge on Crete, which was then taken by a German airborne assault in May. This was followed by Turkey signing a formal treaty with Berlin that granted the Germans passage through the Dardanelles.

These factors convinced Mussolini of the Führer’s invincibility and that the impending German attack on the Soviet Union would be an unqualified success. He was convinced he would gain the prestige that he longed for, and Italy would share in the spoils of war. He thus joined the war against Russia and committed a force of 60,000 men to the struggle, known as the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia). This force comprised three divisions: Pasubio and Torino, which were 1938-type binary divisions (two infantry regiments and an artillery regiment each plus support services), and the 3rd Mobile Division Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta. The latter had two mounted cavalry regiments, a Bersaglieri cycle regiment, a light tank group with obsolete L-3s, an artillery regiment and service units. Later, he sent the 63rd Assault Legion Tagliamento to represent his fascist Blackshirts.

The CSI on the Eastern Front

In July 1941, the supposedly motorized CSI followed the German Army through the Ukraine, mainly on foot. Morale was high at the prospect of an easy campaign, and the Germans were impressed with their Italian allies. Unfortunately, this initial euphoria soon disappeared. Inadequate leadership, armour and transport, plus shortages of artillery and anti-tank weapons, revealed the corps to be ill-equipped for the fighting it was to encounter. Undeterred, in March 1942, Mussolini sent II Corps comprising the Sforzesca, Ravenna and Cosseria Infantry Divisions, together with the élite Alpine Corps comprising the Vicenza Infantry and Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions. Further Blackshirt units were also sent, formed into the 3 Gennaio and 23 Marzo Groups to reinforce the CSI, now designated XXXV Corps. This force of 227,000 men became the Italian Eighth Army. In August 1942, it was guarding the Don Front north of Stalingrad with German liaison officers and formations attached to ensure its reliability. Although a Russian attack had been expected, the Italians were unable to resist the massive armoured thrust that was hurled against them on 11 December 1942. II and XXXV Corps crumbled almost immediately, leaving the Alpine Corps stranded and resulting in a huge gap in the Don defences. The lack of anti-tank guns and medium tanks was keenly felt in this rout. The Italians were left to fend for themselves during their retreat, in which they were harassed continually by the Red Army. In January 1943, the survivors regrouped in the Ukraine but the Italian Eighth Army had ceased to exist. The disillusioned Germans sent the survivors back to Italy.

The Fall of Mussolini

Once in Italy, the survivors bitterly blamed both Mussolini and Hitler for the suffering they had endured. This, in part, influenced the events that were to follow in Italy when, on 25 July 1943, Mussolini was voted out of office by his own Fascist Grand Council and subsequently placed under arrest. On 8 September, Italy officially quit the war. After the fall of the fascist regime, the liberated areas of the country turned to the Allies. On 12 September, Mussolini was rescued from captivity on Gran Sasso by a German commando unit under the leadership of Otto Skorzeny and then evacuated to Germany. Later, in the town of Salo on the shores of Lake Garda, Il Duce set up a puppet fascist state, the so-called Italian Social Republic or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Republic of Salo. The official foundation of the armed forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) was on 28 October 1943.

A virtual civil war had broken out in Italy after Mussolini’s deposition and Italy’s exit from the Axis camp. Some of the Italian forces actively resisted the Germans and were defeated and made prisoner; others deserted to swell the ranks of the resistance; and a few remained loyal to fascism. The Germans were anxious to utilize the pro-fascist elements in the struggle against the now greatly augmented resistance. Above all, they were determined to keep open the vital lines of communication between Austria and northern Italy. Mussolini’s republic cannot be considered anything but a puppet state of the greater German Reich. Four infantry divisions were formed and trained in Germany: the Italia, Littorio, San Marco and Monterosa Divisions. These and other units were under German control. For example, a unit that was formed in France after the fall of Mussolini from two battalions of the Blackshirt militia wore Italian Army uniforms with the Wehrmacht eagle and swastika above the left breast pocket and as a cap badge. It returned to Italy in October 1943 to fight the partisans and later the Allies at Anzio. It was granted the title, 1st Battaglione 9 Settembre, by Mussolini in August 1944. In October 1944, it was attached to the German Brandenburg Division and, as part of this unit, fought against the Red Army on the Eastern Front from October 1944 to January 1945, when it was brought back to Italy to take part once again in anti-partisan fighting.

The Germans also raised a unit composed of Bersaglieri personnel. Before the RSI was proclaimed, this formation was called the Voluntary Battalion of the Waffen-SS. It should not be confused with the 29th Grenadier Division of the Italian SS, which appeared later and was formed by more than 15,000 Italian recruits who joined the Waffen-SS.

From September 1943 to the end of February 1944, a separate SS battalion was being formed at the SS Heidelager Training Centre at Debica, Poland. Major Fortunato, a former Bersaglieri officer who had served in Russia, was tasked in the selection of new recruits loyal to the Germans. Most of the volunteers came from the Italian 31st Tank Battalion of the Lombardia Division and the élite alpine Julia Division.

The formation, which had 20 officers and 571 men, was referred to as the SS Battalion Debica. For the most part, these troops were considered as Waffen-SS men; and by early March 1944, the men of the SS Battalion Debica had been kitted out in German paratrooper uniforms.

On 21 March 1944, the SS Battalion Debica was deployed to carry out anti-partisan operations around the Pellice Valley, southwest of Turin. On 12 April, the SS Battalion Debica was incorporated into SS Battle Group Diebitsch. However, it was not deployed to the Anzio frontlines. During April and May, the battalion fought around Nocera Umbra, Assisi and San Severino Marche against Italian partisans, suffering 50 casualties. New volunteers were able to keep the battalion’s strength at 500 men and 20 officers.

In early June 1944, SS Battalion Debica, now subordinated to the German I Parachute Corps, was in action to the north of Rome along the Tyrrhenian coast. It suffered heavy losses while fighting American tank units in this area and against partisans behind the German lines. The 200 or so survivors were then dispersed among small battle groups. On 16 June, the SS Battalion Debica was ordered to Florence to help guard the defensive positions of the Gothic Line under Army Group von Zangen. Because the battalion was understrength, it was sent to Pinerolo for refitting. By August, the battalion was back to full strength and ordered to take part in Operation Nightingale against partisan strongpoints in the Chisone and Susa Valleys. On 7 September the SS Battalion Debica became part of the new Waffen Grenadier Brigade der SS (Italian nr. 1), being converted into the new 59th Waffen-SS Reconnaissance Battalion.

Fourteen captured Italian Carro Armato P 40 tanks were supplied to the newly formed division, 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger, in July 1944, but they proved unreliable.

The 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger was a mixed German Volksdeutsche and pro-fascist Italian formation. To combat Tito’s partisans in the Carso and Julian Alps, the SS Karstwehr Company had been formed in the summer of 1942, initially to combat partisans in the Karst alpine regions bordering Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Out of this special anti-partisan mountain combat company grew a division (after Mussolini’s removal made Himmler decide that the Karstwehr Battalion should be strengthened with locally recruited Volksdeutsche from the South Tyrol, and subsequently by Italian fascist “loyalists”). A divisional headquarters was set up in the town of Moggio in the province of Udine. The division consisted of two mountain infantry regiments and one mountain artillery regiment. Apart from one brief encounter with the British in the latter stages of the war, all the actions fought by this unit were against the partisans. General Paul Hausser, a Waffen-SS corps commander, referred to the non-German part of the division as, “a mixture of Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians”. The division began to fall apart in the closing weeks of the war, with only the German component fighting on to the end. The remnants surrendered to the British 6th Armoured Division in Austria at the beginning of May 1945.


Fiats and Gladiators I

From the outset, and unlike the Greek Army, the Royal Hellenic Air Force was heavily outgunned and outclassed, and would become more so as the conflict progressed. At the outbreak of war the Regia Aeronautica outnumbered the RHAF’s front-line strength by three to one. The Italian air force at the time was one of the best-trained in Europe. Italy’s aerospace industry, coddled by the Mussolini administration, was turning out redoubtable aircraft such as the Fiat G50bis Freccia (Arrow) monoplane fighter, the Macchi C200 Saetta (Lightning) fighter, the CantZ 1007bis bomber and the trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 and SM81 bombers. Many Italian combat pilots had honed their air-fighting skills in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s Italy had experienced a surge of interest in air sports and aviation in general, encouraged by Mussolini’s own attainments as an aviator. It was part of the Duce’s broader drive to re-mould the Italian people into a warlike nation like the Romans of old.

The Regia Aeronautica had been an independent service since 1923. It was lucky to have contained pioneering thinkers such as Major Giulio Douhet, who worked out the strategic bombing doctrines that would find their full fruition later in the war. Marshal Italo Balbo refined Douhet’s ideas to come up with the idea of a massed bomber force that could penetrate enemy territory like a mailed fist. Balbo became hugely popular in Italy thanks to his flying-boat team’s highly-publicized international flights, including a tour of America. Well might Mussolini boast to his fascist party cadres on 18 November:

The Italian air force is always at the peak of its task. It has dominated and continues to dominate the skies. Its bombers can reach the most distant of objectives, its fighters are making life difficult for the fighters of the enemy. Its men are truly men of our time: their characteristic is a calm intrepidity.

Mussolini had some cause to boast. In terms of numbers, aircrew and firepower the Regia Aeronautica looked good and was good. But what he didn’t mention was that the senior air force command was ill-equipped to aggressively command such a force. The air force Chief, General Pricolo, was allowed nothing like free rein for his task. Worse, he wasn’t even told of the plan to invade Greece until the critical high-level meeting of 15 October, which he hadn’t even been invited to attend! One might justifiably wonder what had happened to the innovative strategic ideas of Douhet and Balbo. The only possible answer is that the attack on Greece was simply not conceived in air terms. Visconti Prasca’s visions were of an exclusively army triumph; there was also a lingering contempt for Greece and Balkan nations generally as not having air forces worthy of the name, and hence not requiring specific air planning to any major degree. Pricolo fretted at this, but seems not to have had the strength of character to do anything about it – he, too, just wanted to keep his job.

As the Greek air force was thought to be a flimsy adversary, the Regia Aeronautica employed obsolescent biplane fighters in the first phase of the Greece operation. About half of the available fighter force consisted of Fiat CR42 Falco (Falcon) biplanes and older Fiat CR32s, the latter already at the end of their career. The CR42 was about a match for the Greeks’ PZL24 and Gladiator. Eighty examples of a newer all-metal monoplane fighter, the Fiat G50bis, were available, plus twelve of the even better Macchi MC200. The Italian bomber force included the menacing-looking three-engined Cant Z1007bis Alcione (Halcyon), an aircraft that could take a lot of punishment and was highly manoeuvrable. Fifty examples of the Cant Z506B Airone (Heron), a seaplane version of the Cant Z1007, were also in service. Also lined up on Albanian airfields were squadrons of Savoia-Marchetti SM81 Pipistrello (Bat) bombers. The SM81 was in the process of being superseded by the sleeker and more durable trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero (Hawk). Eighteen Fiat BR20M Cicogna (Stork) twin-engined bombers were also operational. The Regia Aeronautica’s planes were organized into squadriglie of nine aircraft each, which was slightly smaller than an RAF squadron or Greek mira. Three squadriglie made up a gruppo (somewhere between a squadron and a wing), and two gruppi made up a stormo, or wing.

The Royal Hellenic Air Force had been an independent arm for eleven years, producing its first crop of nine graduating aircrew officers in 1931. Through the politically turbulent 1930s the fledgling air force had experienced its ups and downs. Both the army and navy looked down on the upstart service as little more than a flying club for well-to-do young men. The RHAF College, known as the Icarus School, had narrowly escaped being closed down in 1932. The air force’s survival was assured only in 1934 with the creation of the General Air Staff. Still, even in 1940, Greek air operations were under the full control of the army, in the person of Major General Petros Ekonomakos.

On 28 October the RHAF could field four air observation and army cooperation mirai, three of naval cooperation aircraft, four of fighters and three of medium bombers, totalling some 160 planes, though perhaps two-thirds were serviceable. The main fighter was the Polish-built PZL24, a rugged machine but rapidly being outclassed in Europe. Before the war Greece had managed to buy a dozen modern Bristol Blenheim IV bombers and another dozen single-engined Fairey Battles from Britain, and a similar number of Potez 63 bombers from France. The naval cooperation mirai had the advantage of modern British Avro Anson patrol bombers. When war broke out Greece had ordered 107 additional modern aircraft such as the redoubtable Supermarine Spitfire, the American Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Martin Maryland bomber. It never got to receive them.

The immediate operational need of the RHAF was to repel the waves of Italian bombers while employing the army observation squadrons to keep track of the invading Italian land forces. The fighters had an unequal fight on their hands from the start. The first real aerial encounter of the war took place on 30 October, when a few Henschel Hs126 observation aircraft took off to locate Italian troop formations and had the worst of an encounter with five Fiat CR42s. One Henschel went down, killing its observer, Pilot Officer Evangelos Giannaris, the first Greek airman to die in the campaign. Another Henschel went down that same morning, killing its two-man crew, while Italian bombers hammered the port of Patras.

The Greek aircrews learned how to fight the hard way. ‘We didn’t know how to fly then,’ said Flying Officer George Doukas of 24 Pursuit Mira later. ‘We couldn’t even shoot. We knew nothing of firing distances or angles of attack. We went to war … as if we were on parade. We were blown out of the sky.’ Greek pilots had very little, if any, training in evasive manoeuvres. To compound the problem for the Greeks, the Italian bombers would come in at high altitude – at least 20,000ft – which was at the limit of the PZLs’ and Gladiators’ operational ceiling. It was a rare sortie that didn’t see some Greek airborne casualty.

Units of the crack 53 Land Fighter Stormo (Wing) had arrived at bases in Albania on 1 November – 150 Gruppo (Group), comprising 363, 364 and 365 Squadriglie. Their pilots were a bit disappointed in having been given the Fiat C42s to fly, especially as the stormo had specifically trained for the new Macchi MC200 fighters, and were naturally quite proud of the fact. But the Macchis were kept safe at Turin while the older biplanes were fed into the war against Greece. While 365 Squadriglia was transferred to 160 Gruppo Autonomo at Tirana, 364 was stationed at Vlore and 365 at Gjirokaster, sometimes interchangeably.

As the Siena, Ferrara and Centauro Divisions were advancing on Kalpaki, Metaxas himself telephoned the RHAF’s bomber chief, Group Captain Stephanos Philippas, at his headquarters at Larissa. An enemy column was rolling towards Doliana, Metaxas barked, and had to be stopped that very night ‘even if no-one comes back’. Philippas detailed a flight of 31 Bombing Mira to do the job. The 31 Mira CO, Flight Lieutenant George Karnavias, gulped. None of his crews had ever flown a night operation before. But orders were orders. As night fell, three of his pilots climbed into their twin-engined Potez 63s and headed off into the mountain blackness. One of them was Flight Lieutenant Lambros Kouziyannis, wounded in the head on the previous day’s mission. He jumped out of his hospital bed to join the operation, ignoring the protests of his CO.

The pilots’ only guide on the way, apart from their glowing instruments, was the dim candlelight from the clifftop Meteora monasteries to starboard. The crews had to shield their eyes from the bombers’ white-hot exhaust shooting from the engine housings. The lights of an Italian column approaching Kalpaki became visible as the Potez 63s roared over Ioannina and its shimmering lake. Kouziyannis, his head bandaged, bombed the column, defying a hail of flak on the dive. On his way back he got lost and found himself over blacked-out Athens rather than his base at Larissa. His bomber ran out of fuel over the city, but managed to glide the few miles to the base at Tatoi. He had just cleared the airfield fence and was breathing a prayer of thanks when he collided with a parked trainer in the darkness. The concussion crippled Kouziyannis for the rest of his life.

As the Italians continued to bomb Thessaloniki and other cities, killing scores of civilians, Greek bombers sometimes gave as good as they got. Early in November 31 Bombing Mira took off from Athens to bomb the Italian base at Korce. A formation of Blenheims under Flying Officer Constantine Margaritis pounded the base, killing nineteen airmen who had gathered in the ops room for a briefing, and wounding twenty-five others. Two Italian fighters were damaged on the ground. The Fairey Battles of 33 Mira were equally audacious, sneaking into Albanian airspace and shooting up Italian columns. Those planes, though, were primitive. The pilot of a Battle could communicate with his gunner/observer in the back only through a speaking tube – engine noise permitting, of course. Maps were scarce; the only available map of southern Albania had to be rotated among several crews.

The Fiats of 365 Squadriglia continued tangling with the inexperienced Greek airmen, to the latters’ cost. On 4 November Second Lieutenant Lorenzo Clerici and Sergeant Pasquale Facchini pumped streams of bullets into a couple of Breguet XIXs of 2 Air Observation Mira that were strafing the troops of the Julia Division, sending one of them spinning down in flames.

Greece’s three bombing mirai, 31, 32 and 33, were only gradually introduced to the principles of tactical air warfare. Their task at the outbreak of war was to act as long-range artillery in support of ground operations, a task made easier as the RAF gradually took over the strategic bombing of enemy targets in Albania. These missions took a steady toll of aircrews. One of the Blenheim IVs of 32 Mira was downed over Gjirokaster on 11 November. The Blenheim IV was one of the few modern bombers in the RHAF’s armoury and the loss of even one was significant at a time when the Regia Aeronuatica, in response to the Italian setbacks in the ground war, poured some 250 more fighters into its Albanian bases. Metaxas confessed to having nightmares about the erosion of the air force’s firepower.

The main reason why the Greeks had to advance quickly on the eastern part of the front to capture Korce was that it was a base from which Greece’s cities were being regularly bombed. The Blenheims of 32 Mira and Battles of 33 Mira were sent to soften up Korce on 14 November, in advance of the Greek III Corps thrust, destroying fifteen enemy aircraft on the ground in two waves, for the loss of one more 32 Mira Blenheim – probably to one of Italy’s more renowned airmen, Second Lieutenant Maurizio di Robilant of 363 Squadriglia. Flight Lieutenant Panayotis Orphanidis was returning to Larissa from the Korce raid when he found a Fiat CR42 stuck on his Blenheim’s tail, firing intermittently and weaving to get a better shot. The Blenheim was the faster plane, but it couldn’t quite shake off the pursuer. More than 160 bullets smashed into the bomber’s fuselage and wings, holing the fuel and oil tanks, which luckily were nearly empty, and wounding the gunner. Orphanidis knew that the Italian would have his best chance as the bomber slowed down to make the turn to land at Larissa. So instead of making the turn he continued on and across the eastern Greek coast, setting a course for Sedes base at Thessaloniki. Somewhere over the water the Fiat, apparently low on fuel, gave up the chase.

As Orphanidis and his friends were trying to flatten the Korce base, six of the smaller and more agile Battles of 33 Mira swept at low level from Corfu and snaked between the mountain ranges to stage an audacious raid on the Gjirokaster base. Despite the flaming wall of flak they had to penetrate, not one Battle was hit (though 363 Squadriglia reported a damaged ‘probable’). Typical of the effect on the RHAF’s morale was a letter by Pilot Officer Yannis Kipouros to his mother after the operation: ‘I know that one day I might plunge to earth defending my beautiful country,’ he wrote. ‘What are the Italians defending? … The joy I feel when completing a mission is indescribable.’ Kipouros (who was to disappear without a trace on a mission in a few weeks’ time) was venting a more general optimism among the Greeks, as mid-November was seeing the tide turn on the ground, with the Julia Division knocked out and the rest of the Italian army stalled before Kalpaki.

The RHAF’s army cooperation and observation mirai were active in their obsolescent but hardy Henschel Hs126 monoplanes, strafing and harassing Italian columns inside Albanian territory. A large Italian bomber force struck at the advanced Greek base at Florina, the headquarters of 31 Mira, but without hitting a single aircraft or major installation. The 31 Mira CO, Squadron Leader Grigorios Theodoropoulos, wondered whether the enemy were ‘just unlucky, or inexperienced and hasty’.

While the Greek drive on Korce was getting up steam, the Fairey Battles of 31 Mira were ordered to hit the Italian forces on Mount Morova and Mount Ivan, the high points defending the southern approaches to the town. The raid was not unopposed. Performing prodigies of flying in this sector was di Robilant of 363 Squadriglia who scored a devastating hit on Flying Officer George Hinaris’ plane, killing his gunner/observer and forcing him to bale out, his flying suit on fire. Hinaris was saved by falling into a stream, though he was badly burned. In the same action Di Robilant accounted for Flight Lieutenant Dimitris Pitsikas’ Battle, which managed to limp to a landing at Ioannina, though by that time Warrant Officer Aristophanes Pappas, the gunner/observer, was dead in the back seat. While that was going on, three Potez 63s of 31 Mira attacked enemy artillery positions in the Devoli River valley. Vladousis’ plane was hit by his own side’s anti-aircraft guns. His gunner/observer already dead, Vladousis jumped from the stricken plane into a maelstrom of fire from the wheeling Fiats and the Greeks on the ground. To identify himself to the latter, he took a letter from his mother from his pocket and as he floated to earth he waved it like a white flag, yelling, ‘I’m Greek, you fellows!’ at the top of his voice.

Once down, he was saved from toppling over a cliff by a sergeant whom he recognized as an old school friend. As Vladousis was chatting with the local sector colonel, the captain of the offending anti-aircraft battery burst in with profuse and embarrassed apologies. The officer, it seemed, had no idea that the RHAF had twin-engined bombers such as the Potez 63 in the air – all he knew about, apparently, were the antique Breguet XIXs. Anything more modern than that, it was assumed, had to be Italian. Relaxing, Vladousis took off his flying overall and in that way he told the army something more about the indomitable spirit of the air force, for underneath it he was wearing his full dress uniform. To the thunderstruck colonel Vladousis quipped, ‘Since we never know if we’re going to come back, we might as well dress properly.’ Just as many airmen carried (and still carry) personal talismans as psychological defence mechanisms against worrying too much about death, the dress uniform was almost Spartan in its significance. It was like Leonidas’ Spartans combing their hair before the fatal encounter at Thermopylai. So Vladousis, if he was going to meet death, was determined to do it with dignity.

Two days before the fall of Korce 32 Mira was sent to bomb the base at Gjirokaster. Pilot Officer Alexander Malakis, perhaps because of a navigation error, bombed nearby Permet by mistake. The attack flattened an Italian military hospital, killing at least fifty patients. Next door to the hospital an ammunition dump exploded and burned for three days. While Malakis and his crew were decorated for the raid, Rome howled about a gross violation of the Geneva Convention. What actually happened is disputed to this day. Malakis claimed to have bombed by mistake, as Permet resembled Gjirokaster. The Greeks, moreover, asserted that the ammunition dump – ostensibly the real target – had been deliberately placed next to the hospital to deter attacks. This ‘explanation’, however, implies that Permet could have been the legitimate target after all. And certainly there was no lack of Greeks in uniform whose memories of Italian aggression were quite fresh and thus not overly scrupulous about what they hit.

The suddenness of the Greek advance on Korce caught the Regia Aero-nautica by surprise. Hours before the base’s capture, a SM79 bomber collided with three Fiats while trying to take off. It was abandoned to the Greeks who repainted it with blue and white roundels and added it to their bomber force. The Battles of 33 Mira were sent to harass the retreating Italian column but came under attack by a swarm of Fiats which forced the Greeks to break off the operation. One Battle was seriously damaged and its gunner/observer wounded.

The undoubted heroics displayed by the outgunned RHAF drew the admiration of Metaxas, but he fretted that the loss rate could not be sustained for very long. Even with the help of the RAF from the early days of November, and even when the ground campaign began turning in the Greeks’ favour in the middle of the month, the air war was giving Metaxas serious jitters. Grateful as he was for what British aerial help could be spared from the Middle East theatre, he could only gloomily observe his own airmen and planes dwindling mercilessly.

More British aerial help arrived on 18 November in the form of 80 Squadron, equipped with Gloster Gladiator IIs. Led by Squadron Leader William Hickey, the fighters touched down at Eleusis along with a lumbering Bristol Bombay transport carrying ground crews and spares. From that day the boys in RAF blue were given hero status by the grateful Athenians. Understandably, the crews that first night took full advantage of the adulation in the form of endless free drinks and meals, but Hickey himself wasn’t free to join in the fun, having to receive his orders from the Greek High Command. These were for 80 Squadron’s B Flight under the South African-born Flight Lieutenant Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle to fly on to Trikala in central Greece the next morning, refuel, and carry out the RAF’s first fighter patrol in Greek skies.

Pattle and his flight, plus his CO Hickey, landed at Trikala to find the crews of the RHAF’s 21 Pursuit Mira ‘enjoying a meal of bread and cheese and olives … washed down with a very strong-smelling but sweet-tasting wine,’ which they shared with the Britons. Thus fortified, three of 21 Mira’s PZL24s led Hickey and nine of 80 Squadron’s Gladiators on their first familiarity flight over the northwest Greek mountains. By the time the formation reached the Italian base at Korce the PZLs had to turn back because of a lack of fuel, leaving B Flight to see what it could pick off.

The eagle-eyed Pattle, leading the flight’s second section, was the first to see four Fiat CR42s of 150 Gruppo climbing to intercept them and signalled to Hickey. As both pilots went into an attacking dive, the Fiats scattered. Pattle got onto the tail of one of them and coolly blasted it at 100yds – the first of the redoubtable South African’s many kills in the Greek and Albanian theatres of the war. Over Korce airfield Pattle expertly evaded an attack by a 154 Gruppo Fiat G50 monoplane fighter, of the kind that was now being fed into the campaign in increasing numbers, and a few minutes later downed another CR42. At that point low air pressure knocked out the Gladiator’s guns, so he had to fly wildly around the sky getting out of the way of aggressive Italians until the gun pressure could build up again, but by that time his fuel was low and at tree-top height weaved his way through the mountains to Trikala, where 80 Squadron was feted as having accounted for nine Italian fighters and a couple more probables. As a reward, the pilots were put up at Trikala’s best hotel.

Fiats and Gladiators II

After that triumphant RAF debut, the weather stepped in. Constant rain for forty-eight hours, and low-lying dense cloud for another forty-eight, held up all operations. Nonetheless, on 25 November Pattle took up half a dozen Gladiators to patrol the Korce area, but couldn’t entice any of the enemy to tangle with him. The next day B Flight of 80 Squadron was ordered to move to Ioannina, where conditions were drier and the battlefront nearer. In a clear but freezing sky Pattle’s section spotted three SM79 bombers escorted by twelve CR42s well inside Greek airspace. As the section under Flight Lieutenant Edward ‘Tap’ Jones dived on the bombers, Pattle led his own six planes against the Fiats, which tried to fight back, but abandoned the encounter after Pattle had sent two of them spinning into the ground on fire.

It was during these first encounters that Captain Nicola Magaldi, the CO of 364 Squadriglia who had fired the shots that killed Sergeant Merifield in his Blenheim, was jumped by nine of Hickey’s Gladiators and killed in his turn (perhaps by Pattle himself), to be awarded a posthumous gold medal for valour. The following day ten Fiat CR42s of 364 and 365 Squadriglie found themselves entangled with more Gladiators just south of the Albanian border. One Fiat and one Gladiator collided in the melee, killing both pilots. (The RAF victim was probably 80 Squadron’s Flying Officer Bill Sykes, the first British fighter pilot to die in the Greek campaign.) Captain Giorgio Graffer, the commander of 365 Squadriglia, was killed (posthumous gold medal award) – the second 150 Gruppo squadron commander to be killed in as many days. Two Fiats and one Gladiator were lost, with two more Fiats and three more Gladiators damaged.

Two days before the fall of Korce the Greek General Staff met to discuss air strategy. Present were Metaxas, Papagos, RHAF Operations Chief Group Captain Stergios Tilios and Group Captain Arthur Willetts on behalf of the RAF. The meeting came not a moment too soon, as by now it had become clear that the Greeks and British had worrisomely differing concepts of what the term ‘air strategy’ meant. To the Greek military, as in all second-string European countries which had not had combat experience in the 1930s, an air force was little more than a set of artillery pieces with wings, to send over a trajectory beyond the visibility of land guns and drop high explosive on the enemy. True, any officer could perceive the distinction between a bomber and a fighter operation, but it was seen in simplistic terms as offence (bomber) and defence (fighter). More sophisticated missions for fighters such as escorting bomber formations had not yet been thought of. Though Metaxas can take credit for perceiving the importance of an air force in the first place, Greece could boast no Douhet or Balbo in the theoretical sphere.

Willetts may or may not have been aware that Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, the RAF commander in the Middle East, had sent D’Albiac detailed instructions on how to maintain the relationship with the Greeks. They read, in part:

You will have the status of an independent air force command, but, although not under the control of the Greek General Staff, the conduct of operations of the RAF should, as far as practicable … conform as closely as possible to the Greek plan for the defence of the country.

This was a diplomatic way of trying to bridge the differences, but in case the Greeks didn’t get the message, Longmore was coldly specific:

You are not to allow bombers to be used for artillery or to participate in actual land operations unless the military situation becomes so critical as to justify the temporary diversion of our bombers from strategic bombing to support of the Greek land forces … The possibility of a sudden and complete collapse of Greece must not be lost sight of.

In plain words, helping the Greeks was all very well and noble, but if it meant frittering away men and aircraft on a cause that may well be doomed, then that help would be of little use. Britain of course, had to consider the wider war theatre. In practical terms, that meant that the Greek request for RAF Hurricane fighters, for example, had to be refused. The old stringy Gladiators had to suffice for the present. Besides, the Wellingtons and Blenheim Is of 70 Squadron were deemed quite good enough to hammer the Italians in Albania.

As a ranking RAF officer in Greece, Willetts must have been aware of these directives. Morale was high at the meeting, as Korce was about to fall any day. But a curtain of tension fell when Papagos duly called for British air support to hit the retreating Italian ground troops. As Prince Peter recalled later, at that point Metaxas turned to Willetts with the observation that he knew there was going to be an Italian air attack that day. Papagos, overhearing the aside, gently reprimanded his own prime minister in Greek that he had just spilled a secret to the British. For a commander-in-chief, and in the face of an iron leader such as Metaxas, this was skating dangerously close to insubordination. It can only be explained by Papagos’ panic that the RAF might balk at being a Greek flying artillery arm and insist on operating as it saw fit.

Willetts, though not understanding Greek, guessed what the muttering was about. Such was the passion of the Greek vengeance against the Italian aggressors that Papagos wanted RAF planes not only to bomb the Italians out of their positions, but also to mercilessly strafe them as they retreated. This didn’t sound right to Willetts, who, encouraged by Metaxas’ observation, said on the record that the RAF would be better employed in fighting off the expected Italian air raids. After a lunch break Papagos reiterated his demand as if nothing had happened. This time D’Albiac was present. After sitting through a turgid speech by Papagos detailing the string of Greek victories on the Albanian front D’Albiac reluctantly agreed to send bombers to hasten the Italian withdrawal somewhat, but he drew the line at machine-gunning the fleeing enemy.

Papagos alternated between impatience to keep up the pressure on the Italian army and worry that his logistics setup lagged behind developments on the front line. Still, Gambier-Parry was quite unprepared for what he heard on his next visit to Papagos. If the British were to send troops to help Greece, the Greek C-in-C said casually, ‘they would be welcome’. British airmen now were not enough; grounds troops would be useful, too. Gambier-Parry replied that he would officially forward the request to the proper quarters. There was also the foreign press corps in Athens, demanding loudly that they be allowed at the front, and Metaxas still had not made up his mind about whether he wanted them there. To the Greeks, if not to some of the British, this was still not a ‘journalistic war’.

As Greek forces closed on Korce D’Albiac mostly cooperated with the Greek air demands. He was loth to run counter to the prevailing spirit of optimism and didn’t want to be the fly in the ointment of victory. On 21 November Papagos presented a ‘shopping list’ to D’Albiac: the RAF was asked to bomb not only the Albanian port of Durres but also Bari, Brindisi and Ancona on the Italian mainland, and, while we’re at it, why not Rome itself? The urgency was that an Italian army corps was reported about to disembark in Albania and had to be stopped. D’Albiac agreed, ordering a bombing raid on Durres for that evening and targeting Bari and Brindisi the following night, ‘weather permitting’. Rome was, delicately, not mentioned again.

The weather refused to cooperate for the planned raid on Durres, but on 22 November few cared to quibble about it, for the capital was consumed with the happy news of the fall of Korce. Yet one of those few was Papagos, who complained to D’Albiac. The air commodore promised to bomb Durres that same evening, with some of the twenty-five Blenheim bombers of 211 Squadron scheduled to arrive from the Middle East that afternoon. Later that day Willetts told Papagos that three 211 Squadron bombers would be heading for Durres that night.

‘Papagos jumped from his chair,’ Prince Peter recorded. ‘What?’ he cried. ‘Just three?’ Willetts apologized for not having any more for that night, but pledged a bigger force for the following night. Willetts also politely refused to agree to a request by the Greek C-in-C that the RAF bomb the roads south of Gjirokaster, on the grounds that it would be a ‘tactical’ rather than a strategic strike and thus outside the British remit. The group captain could stand firm against the weight of Greek brass because that same day Air Chief Marshal Longmore had arrived in Athens to see for himself what was being done with his precious planes and crews.

Longmore hit the Greeks like a cold shower. His first meeting with King George went rather badly. With Prince Peter present, the king fulsomely praised Britain’s air help to the Greeks and, perhaps unwisely, mentioned a need for more. The crusty air chief marshal, unimpressed by the crowned head before him, replied gruffly that the king was wrong in automatically counting on the RAF’s help as his (Longmore’s) overwhelming priority was to keep Britain’s air force fighting in the Middle East. In Longmore’s narrowly functional view the Greek sideshow was nowhere near the RAF’s prime concern and the Greeks had to be constantly reminded of that. Essentially, Britain was doing Greece a favour having little to do with Britain’s prime strategic tasks, and losing young men to boot. The king came away from the meeting grumbling about Longmore as ‘a very unpleasant man’.

If the Greek king came off the worse from the encounter with Longmore, Papagos could expect no different. But at least Papagos, an able officer, put up some sort of spirited response. After being lectured by Longmore about the secondary nature of the Greek front to Britain’s strategic concerns, Papagos replied that he saw strategy on a wider scale; in a unified war effort, he opined, every theatre of war was related to every other. For example, he said, an effective strategic bombing of Albania would help reduce the Italian pressure in North Africa. This argument of the interconnectibility of war fronts appeared to make some impression on the parade-ground Longmore, who softened even more after encountering the same reasoned arguments from Metaxas himself.

[Longmore] replied that he agreed, and that despite the dearth of means which he had at his disposal he promised to do what he could. He said he would see to it that more British-built and American-built aircraft became available. Metaxas’ eyes lit up behind his glasses as he saw he had scored a success with the air chief marshal, and he assured him that with the help of the RAF and Royal Navy … Greece would stand up to Hitler if the situation warranted.

Yet the elements are deaf to the concerns of soldiers, and once more bad weather saved Durres from a British bombing. D’Albiac, to placate a touchy Papagos, agreed to bomb Tepelene, Gjirokaster and Pogradec, then still in Italian hands. In support, the RHAF’s Gladiators of 21 Mira would be stationed at northern Greek airfields in preparation for deployment at the captured base at Korce. But Papagos continued to fret about Durres, where Italian reinforcements were, perhaps at that moment, coming off the troopships. Gambier-Parry, to lighten the atmosphere, brought in a spurious message to the king from Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, to the effect that the Italian military leadership was supposedly on the verge of revolting against the fascist party.

As the meeting progressed, news arrived that the RAF had bombed columns of enemy vehicles at Vlore. Orders went out that forward airfields be activated, in particular one located at the bottom of a gorge-like valley at Paramythia, a few miles south of the Albanian border. Paramythia field nestled alongside the bed of the Acheron River, which the ancient Greeks believed to be the entrance to Hades. The landscape is certainly portentous. Great crags soar thousands of feet on either side. The pilot of anything as large as a twin-engined bomber had to be careful to negotiate landings and climb-outs, which of course could not be done in foggy weather or at night. After take-off a Blenheim or a Wellington pilot needed to make a series of tight climbing circles before clearing the peaks. The first British airmen to use Paramythia were the pilots of 815 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, whose ancient-looking but agile Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bomber biplanes could negotiate the approaches with rather more ease. The British quickly dubbed Paramythia ‘Fairy Tale Valley’, inspired both by the unearthly beauty of the place and the Greek word paramythia, which actually means fairy tales.

The great merit of Fairy Tale Valley was that the Italian air force didn’t know about it. The strip was devilishly hard to find by visual aerial reconnaissance alone. The naval pilots were under strict orders to use Paramythia as a facility for over-water operations against the Italian fleet only. The Swordfish could slip in and out from the coast undetected, but 815 NAS was strictly prohibited from tangling with the Regia Aeronautica over Albania or Greece. If the Italians saw Swordfish in the air they would realize that the Fleet Air Arm was using a base in Epiros, and Fairy Tale Valley would be blown.

At the daily air strategy meetings Papagos suggested that the RAF’s Gladiators move up to the base at Ioannina, as their present base at Trikala in central Greece was often under cloud and a target of Italian bombers. Group Captain Tilios, the Senior Greek Air Commander, said he suspected that security leaks had resulted in the Italians bombing the airfields at Kozani and Florina. D’Albiac and Willetts nodded in agreement. The incident with Reuters and the capture of the Greek amphibious commando team in Albania was having its repercussions in Athens, and the Greek security services were paranoid. Gambier-Parry, the British Military Mission head, was on the point of being replaced as lacking experience in the security sphere. The RAF, on the contrary, was becoming increasingly indispensable to the Greek air war despite Air Chief Marshal Longmore’s inhibitions.

It was fortunate that Hickey and Pattle and the rest of 80 Squadron were giving excellent accounts of themselves over the front, not only giving the RHAF priceless tips on air combat but also raising Britain’s military profile in Greece. By early December the squadron at Ioannina had been joined by more Gladiators from 112 Squadron. There were regular patrols over Gjirokaster in southern Albania, which was now in Greek hands and hence a key Italian bombing target. Pattle, meanwhile, had developed an innovative technique for dealing with the SM79 in particular. Stalking the three-engined bomber from the rear, he would deliver a carefully-timed burst of fire – lasting half a second, no more – into the plane’s fuel tank situated between the fuselage and the port engine. For the next ten seconds he would stay on the bomber’s tail while its fuel sprayed out. At the right moment Pattle would fire a second burst into the fuel cloud, and the SM79 would blow up. It wasn’t long before all his squadron mates had learned the trick.

For the RHAF, though, the attrition through December was becoming serious. By now it was easy for the Regia Aeronautica’s bombers to brush by whatever defences the RHAF could put up. Malakis and his crew, the ones who had pulverized the Italian military hospital at Permet, were lost eleven days later. What remained of 1 Army Cooperation (Observation) Mira was blasted on the ground at Kozani and Florina thanks to a daring raid by 364 Squadriglia led by Captain Edoardo Molinari, an Italian ace, and followed by a formation of SM81s. A similar fate befell 2 and 4 Army Cooperation (Observation) Mirai at Florina, which had to be abandoned. The Italians raided Corfu virtually unopposed, killing at least two hundred civilians.

Reinforcements from the RAF’s 112 Squadron gave the Greek fliers a bit of a reprieve, and an opportunity to retire a few of the more battered PZLs. Pattle was always on hand to give the inspiring example, ranging far and wide out of Ioannina with his spectacular air fighting skills. On 3 December he added to his roster of kills by downing two slow-moving Meridionali Ro37 observation planes – soft targets, but kills nonetheless. The PZLs continued their robust works against the Fiat CR42s, but these latter were now being rapidly superseded in the Albanian theatre by the G50 and the even more redoubtable Macchi MC200 Saetta. Greece’s own pot-holed airfields were almost as hazardous as the enemy, writing off about one plane per week. Moreover, with the Italian army retreating farther into Albania and flying weather worsening, the RHAF’s remaining warplanes and crews were hard-pressed to maintain their range and operational endurance.

The RAF’s bombers continued to meet stiff opposition over Vlore, with the Blenheims of 211 Squadron coming under nightly attack from all three squadriglie of 150 Gruppo. One of 211 Squadron’s skippers, Flight Lieutenant George Doudney, got off very lightly indeed when a bullet penetrated his flying helmet but not the contents. The Gladiators of 80 Squadron gave as good as they got, but more often than not 150 Gruppo’s Fiats clawed their quota of RAF bombers regardless. Two of 84 Squadron’s Blenheims were shot down by 365 Squadriglia on 7 December, only one crewmember surviving. A 211 Squadron Blenheim was sent plunging in to the sea off Sarande on 18 December, killing the crew. Four days later Major Oscar Molinari of 160 Gruppo disposed of two Gladiators.

Shortly before Christmas the temperature plummetted so low at Ptolemais airfield that the oil froze in the engines of the PZLs of 22 and 23 Mirai. To forestall the oil lines rupturing, engineers tried to warm them over bonfires, but to no avail. Thanks to an old delouser obtained by a resourceful engineer officer, the engines were steamed into operation, but even then the snow on the runway was too deep for the fighters to take off. As squadriglie of Italian CantZ1007s and SM79s droned overhead on their way to bomb Thessaloniki, the RHAF’s Fighter Chief, Wing Commander Emmanuel Kelaidis, ordered that the PZLs be dismantled and sent overland to the milder conditions of Sedes, about 150 miles to the east. In a remarkable feat of determination that entered Greek air force annals as the ‘Engineers’ Epic’, ground crews forced their ice-numbed fingers into action to unscrew the wings from twenty-two PZLs. The semi-dismantled planes were then towed 26km in a blinding blizzard through wolf-infested hills to the nearest railway station for loading on flatbeds to Thessaloniki and Sedes. There were three such laborious processions. Within days the planes had been reassembled to fight again.

Despite such manifestations of an indomitable Greek air spirit, it was the RAF that now was bearing the brunt of the war in the air. Longmore’s initial fears of Britain’s becoming over-involved in the Greek effort had been overtaken by the pressure of events. The Italian aircrews were well aware of the shift in power. The Greek fliers had been brave enough, but the RAF’s fighter boys showed their experience. The Gladiators of Hickey and Pattle regularly engaged the Italians in what they ruefully termed a carosello infernale, an infernal carousel. On 20 December a formation of six SM79s was broken up before it could bomb an advancing Greek column. Over Gjirokaster on 23 December the dogfights resumed. Hickey and Pattle dived into 364 Squadriglia escorting a formation of SM79 and Breda Br20 bombers and scored a couple of kills in quick succession. The escorting CR42s, however, managed to stay out of range of the Gladiators’ guns, forcing Pattle and his wingmen to try some dangerous manoeuvres in a sky filled with flaming tracer. But Hickey that day ran out of luck. Either Captain Luigi Corsini or Sergeant Major Virgilio Pongiluppi fired the fatal burst into Hickey’s Gladiator, though the 80 Squadron CO might well have survived had he not been machine-gunned to death as he drifted down. In a few weeks he would have returned to his wife and children in Australia. Two other Gladiator pilots were wounded, and five of 80 Squadron’s aircraft seriously damaged.

The Blenheim bombers of 211 Squadron continued their attacks on enemy targets over Christmas, to be met by 150 Gruppo’s fighters. On Boxing Day 364 Squadriglia eliminated a Blenheim that was bombing the Vlore-Himare road, while on New Year’s Eve di Robilant and Sergeant Enrico Micheli downed a Blenheim flown by Sergeant S. Bennett, killing its crew.

While the bulk of the RHAF was deployed over the Albanian front and over Greece’s vulnerable towns, its naval cooperation arm was quietly keeping the Aegean Sea lanes free of enemy submarines. The air force had three maritime mirai, 11, 12 and 13, the last-named equipped with modern Avro Anson patrol aircraft. The sinking of the Elli in August, in fact, was the last successful instance of enemy submarine action in the Aegean Sea until the German conquest in spring 1941. The Ansons and the ageing Fairey III seaplanes protected many a shipload of Greek troops as they were transported to the front from Crete and the islands. Some managed to drop a few bombs on Italian naval installations in Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands.

Meanwhile, D’Albiac – perhaps with one eye on the publicity it could entail – decided to send a few RAF planes to drop packets of toys and sweets for the children of Corfu on Christmas morning. Hardly had the presents been dropped than the Regia Aeronautica bombed the port of Corfu, killing eighteen people having their Christmas dinner. D’Albiac, incensed, gathered together what crews he could from 211 Squadron and sent them off from Tatoi to plaster Vlore that night. The Blenheims were lucky enough to encounter two Italian warships just entering the port and raked their decks with machine gun fire, veering away before the Italian flak crews realized what was happening. The Italian Christmas Day raid on Corfu left a bitter taste in Greek mouths. ‘The bastards!’ Metaxas scrawled in his diary that night.

The end of December saw more losses in 31 Mira, whose Blenheim IVs were being decimated. The fighter squadrons weren’t in much better shape, as bad weather over Albania often prevented them from shooting up the retreating Italian columns. In a little over two months of war, thirty-one RHAF aircrew officers had been killed and seven wounded, plus four NCOs killed and five wounded. Just twenty-eight fighters remained in battleworthy condition, mostly PZLs and Gladiators, while the number of front-line bombers was down to seven. Regardless of the successes of the Greek army in Albania, the air force was on the ropes. The RAF, by default, was about to assume most of the responsibility for the air defence of Greece. For the Greek leadership this was not as welcome a prospect as one might think. For, in Metaxas’ mind at least, it could not help but bring closer the day that Hitler would see Britain becoming more heavily involved on Greece’s side and decide to make his own ‘big brother’ move and intervene on Mussolini’s behalf. If that happened, he knew the game was up. As long as his army was pushing back the Italians in Albania, Metaxas could gamble that the war would end in some kind of armistice line and Greece could get its breath back for a widening world conflict whose outcome at that stage could not be known.

Enter Rommel…

Those who fought in the Western Desert and those who reported the fighting there devoted a good deal of effort to describing the setting. They noted the daytime heat and the nighttime cold, the swarming flies and the gritty, blowing sand, the spectacular sunsets and the star-filled night skies. As they groped for a proper descriptive image, the one they most often hit upon was to compare the desert to the ocean.

Often, nothing but the unbroken line of the horizon could be seen in any direction. Vehicles moved freely across this expanse like ships at sea. Men did not just drive in the desert, they navigated, getting where they wanted to go by using speedometer, map, and compass. The few landmarks were usually man-made: a heap of rocks or empty gasoline cans, a stone cistern for catching rainwater, a whitewashed Moslem mosque, a long procession of telephone poles. The only paved road was the coast road. Inland, vehicles followed rough, dusty tracks that avoided the worst of the rocky outcroppings and patches of soft sand.

From the shore of the Mediterranean, the Libyan Desert, or the Western Desert, as it was called in those days, climbs upward in a haphazard series of steps, or escarpments. In most places, these escarpments are too steep for trucks and even for tanks, so the few natural gaps, or passes, became important military objectives. The surface of the desert is largely underlaid with limestone; tracked vehicles, at least, could drive almost anywhere on it. Only well inland does the true desert of drifting sand dunes begin. Narrow, stony ravines, called wadies, look from the air like jagged cracks. Here and there lie large dish-like depressions known as deirs. Inland from the sea, rain falls only two or three times a year – and in some places, only once in two or three years.

A German general aptly described North Africa as a “tactician’s paradise and a quartermaster’s hell.” The long, narrow desert battlefield stretched over 1,400 miles from Tripoli on the west, the Axis’ major port, to Alexandria on the east, the Allies’ chief base. The Germans and the Italians on the one hand and the British on the other were willing to spend their blood and treasure to win this desolate strip of land simply because neither side could afford to let the other have it. For the British, the Western Desert was the buffer that protected the Suez Canal and the Middle Eastern oil fields, both of which the Axis powers wanted. In addition, whoever controlled the North African airfields was well ahead in the race to control the strategically vital Mediterranean.

As Marshal Graziani had ruefully noted, desert war imposed its own special rules. Rule number one was that armies brought with them everything they needed. There was no way to live off the country. As a result, the two most precious liquids were gasoline and water. For the British soldier, remarked a war correspondent, “The great problem in the mornings was to decide whether to make tea with the shaving water or to shave in the tea.” What was left of a man’s daily water ration (seldom more than a gallon) after drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing his clothes had to go into the radiator of his vehicle.

The second rule was the importance of complete mobility. In the desert, infantrymen did not march; they rode in trucks. The queen of battle was the tank. Closely related to mobility was rule number three: the need for speed. A fast-moving, quick-off-the-mark army, as General O’Connor’s Western Desert Force had proved, possessed an enormous edge, and a quick-thinking, energetic general could dominate an opponent who paused to gather up all the loose ends.

The final rule of desert warfare dealt with the nature of the battlefield itself. There were no industrial centers to capture, no captive populations to rule, no political considerations to clutter up tactics. It was a purely military struggle on an empty stage, and it was entirely possible to honor whatever “rules of the game” might still exist in a total war.

To meet the pressing needs in Greece and East Africa, General Wavell had left the Western Desert Force gravely weakened. “Next month or two will be anxious,” he cabled Prime Minister Churchill in March 1941, but he estimated that the enemy in Libya would not be strong enough to risk an attack before May. This, in fact, was precisely the timetable given in Hitler’s orders to General Rommel. The turn of events was to surprise Hitler as much as Wavell.

Erwin Rommel was a forty-nine-year-old professional soldier whose reckless bravery during World War I had brought him two wounds and the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military decoration. Outspoken and blunt, Rommel lacked the arrogant polish of the Prussian aristocracy that supplied the German Army with so many of its officers. In the 1930s, a book he wrote stressing boldness in infantry tactics caught Adolf Hitler’s eye. In 1940, during the Battle of France, he led a panzer division with dash and brilliance. Hitler concluded that here was the man to come to the aid of Mussolini. The moment Rommel set foot in North Africa, the situation began to happen.

Hitler had promised Mussolini an “Afrika Korps” of two German divisions, one armored and one of motorized infantry. When the 5th Light Motorized Division – a self-contained force of infantry, armor, artillery, and antitank and antiaircraft guns – arrived at Tripoli in February 1941, Rommel ordered the ships unloaded through the night, ignoring the danger of the RAF bombing the lighted docks. He put his engineers to building dummy wooden tanks atop little Volkswagen staff cars to make the British think he was stronger than he was, and he hurried his advance units to El Agheila, the westernmost British outpost in Libya, to test the enemy’s strength.

The army that faced Rommel was not the same fast-moving, quick-thinking force that had chased Marshal Graziani out of Egypt. The Desert Rats of the 7th Armored Division, back in Egypt for rest and refitting, had been replaced by the newly arrived 2nd Armored Division, green and at half strength. The 6th Australian Infantry, victors at Bardia and Tobruk and Benghazi, was relieved by another Australian division, untrained and poorly equipped. Replacing O’Connor in command was Lieutenant General Philip Neame, a newcomer to the desert.

On March 24, 1941, the German advance guard drove the British out of El Agheila. A week later, Rommel launched a second attack. Sensing the weakness before him, he disregarded his orders. “It was a chance I could not resist,” he wrote. By April 2, Neame’s defenses were splintered. Orders went out to abandon Benghazi if necessary. Wavell commanded General O’Connor to fly at once to Cyrenaica to try to restore a defensive front.

There was little O’Connor could do, for Western Desert Force was rapidly falling apart. Communications broke down, orders were bungled, and troops went astray. An enormous supply dump containing most of the 2nd Armored’s gas was set afire by its guards when they thought the enemy was approaching; the “enemy” turned out to be a British patrol.

As O’Connor had done earlier in the year, Rommel took the desert shortcut across the base of the Cyrenaican “bulge.” He pushed his men relentlessly, flying from one column to another in his tiny Storch plane. When told that the vehicles needed servicing and repairs, he ordered his officers not to bother with such “trifles.” The 5th Light Division’s commander asked for a four-day halt to bring up ammunition and gasoline; Rommel had him empty all his trucks – leaving the division stranded immobile in the desert for twenty-four hours – and send them back to depots to bring up the needed supplies. An Italian general complained that he was being ordered into impassable terrain; Rommel drove ahead a dozen miles by himself to prove the path was clear.

Late on April 3, Rommel paused long enough to write his wife: “We’ve been attacking since the 31st with dazzling success. There’ll be consternation amongst our masters in Tripoli and Rome and perhaps in Berlin, too. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favorable. . . . You will understand that I can’t sleep for happiness.” By April 6, most of the Cyrenaican bulge was in Axis hands. Benghazi had fallen, and the spread fingers of Rommel’s columns were reaching for Mechili, where the exhausted British were regrouping.

That night, a British staff car drove headlong into a German scouting force on one of the desert tracks north of Mechili. There was a brief exchange of gunfire, killing the British driver and a German motorcyclist. The staff car was surrounded, and the occupants were ordered to surrender. Out stepped generals Neame and O’Connor and Brigadier John Combe, whose Combeforce had slammed the door on the retreating Italians barely two months before. (So seriously did Wavell feel O’Connor’s loss that he tried – unsuccessfully – to exchange him for any six captured Italian generals that Mussolini’s high command cared to choose.)

The next day Mechili capitulated. The British streamed eastward. Most of the Australian infantry reached safety in the defenses of Tobruk, but the 2nd Armored Division was shattered; it never again appeared on the battle roles of the British Army. Seeking a quick victory, Rommel threw his troops at Tobruk. But his planning was too hurried and his men too exhausted, and the assault was repulsed. German armored forces bypassed the fortress and seized Bardia and Sallum, key points along the coastal escarpment. Cyrenaica had been regained, and once more the Axis were at the gates of Egypt.

April 1941 was a month of severe trial for Great Britain. Only the campaign against the Italians in East Africa went well. Officials in London sugar-coated the defeat in the Western Desert with such phrases as “a withdrawal to a battleground of our own choosing” and “part of a plan for an elastic defence,” but few Britons were fooled. On April 6, Hitler attacked Yugoslavia, whose capital, Belgrade, fell within a week. Greece, too, was invaded. The forces sent there at such cost by Wavell could not stem the Nazi tide, and by the end of the month, they had to be evacuated. The British island of Malta, key to control of the Mediterranean, was savagely pounded by the Luftwaffe. Oil-rich Iraq, east of Suez, was torn by an anti-British revolt, and there were signs that a similar uprising was brewing in Syria. In a grim mood, Churchill wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “In this war, every post is a winning-post, and how many more are we going to lose?”

As usual, Churchill met trouble by bounding into action. Axis submarines, warships, and planes were so thick in the Mediterranean that British ships carrying supplies to the Middle East took the slow, 14,000-mile route around Africa and through the Red Sea to Egypt. Now, overriding the objections of his military advisers, Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to force a passage through the Mediterranean with a convoy of merchant ships carrying tanks to General Wavell.

The codename for his bold plan was Operation Tiger.

It would have comforted the prime minister to know that just then all was not serene in the Axis camp. Rommel was determined to press into Egypt and beyond as soon as he was re-supplied and the Tobruk thorn was removed from his flank. But his unexpected victories had embarrassed the German high command because it had not intended North Africa to be a major theater of war. General Franz Halder, chief of the German General Staff, complained in his diary that Rommel did not even submit proper reports; instead, “All day long he rushes about between his widely scattered units.” Something must be done to “head off this soldier gone stark mad,” Halder thought, or he would embroil Germany in a campaign beyond her resources.

Shrugging off his first repulse at Tobruk, Rommel searched for a soft spot in its defenses. Tobruk was important because of its harbor, the only one of any size between Alexandria and Benghazi. The desert around the small, whitewashed town was flat as a plate; the verdict of one observer was that it “must have been difficult to defend even in the days of bows and arrows.” Yet, before the war, the Italians had lavished tons of concrete and steel on its defenses.

A double row of strong points and trenches formed a semicircle thirty miles around the harbor. The British strengthened this line with barbed wire, tank traps, minefields, and a heavy concentration of artillery. The garrison, made up mostly of Australian infantry supported by a few tanks, was led by General Leslie Morshead. He and his Aussies were very determined. “There is to be no surrender and no retreat,” Morshead told his officers.

Rommel ordered three major assaults against the Australians, using a variety of tactics. But his forces were too weak, and the opposition too unwavering, to achieve a breakthrough. By May, he had to content himself with tightening the ring around the fortress while he waited impatiently for reinforcements.

The siege of Tobruk was to drag on for eight months, until the winter of 1941. It was a boring, bloody, dangerous stalemate for the men on both sides. They “went to ground” during the day, suffering the stifling heat and the swarming insects to avoid snipers’ bullets. Bombing and artillery fire took a steady toll. The desolate landscape, wrote a British war correspondent, was “littered with broken transport, burned-out tanks, and spent ammunition, as though some junk merchant had set up business on the surface of the moon.” Morshead’s garrison could be supplied only by ship and only at night, and British naval losses were heavy. But neither side would loosen its grip. To the British Commonwealth, Tobruk came to stand for stubborn courage in the face of adversity. To Rommel, Tobruk was a symbol of frustration. He vowed that the fortress would be his.

For General Wavell, events were rapidly reaching a climax. He moved his available forces across the vast chessboard of the Middle East – to put down revolts in Iraq and Syria, to gain final victory over the Italians in East Africa, to probe Rommel’s outposts on the Egyptian frontier, to counter (unsuccessfully) a massive assault on the island of Crete by German paratroopers. All the while a blizzard of telegrams from Churchill crying for action descended on Wavell’s Cairo headquarters.

On May 12, 1941, the Tiger convoy anchored at Alexandria, having lost only one ship in the Mediterranean passage and bringing Wavell 238 tanks. Churchill, who had risked so much to get these reinforcements to the Middle East, waited anxiously for his Tiger Cubs, as he called them, to go into action. Wavell replied that Operation Battleaxe was scheduled for June 15. He intended to use the new tanks to break Rommel’s shield at Sallum and Bardia and then advance seventy miles westward to lift the siege of Tobruk. The Desert Rats of the 7th Armored Division would spearhead the attack.

Battleaxe called for the 4th Indian Division, supported by infantry tanks, to capture Halfaya Pass, an important gap in the coastal escarpment near Sallum. The British armor would meanwhile swing around to the left beyond the Axis positions guarding Sallum and Bardia. Here, on the desert flank, Wavell saw the decisive tank battle taking place.

On the appointed morning, eighteen Matildas waddled toward Halfaya Pass, followed by Indian infantrymen in trucks. Before the tanks were close enough to fire effectively, they were hit by a hail of armor-piercing shells. Eleven of the twelve leading Matildas stopped dead, some in flames, others with gun turrets blown completely off their hulls. Four others behind them withdrew, blundered into a mine field, and had tracks blown off. Later the same day, far out on the desert flank, a column of British cruiser tanks met the same devastating fire from a German strong point.

Thus were British armored forces introduced to the German eighty-eight-millimeter gun, one of the best artillery pieces of World War II. A dual-purpose antiaircraft and antitank gun, the long-barreled eighty-eight was accurate and fast firing, and its twenty-one-pound shell had tremendous hitting power; at a range of well over a mile, it could kill even the most heavily armored tank with a single shot. Rommel had only a dozen of these guns, but the five at Halfaya Pass had been dug into stony clefts so that the barrels were at ground level. In the shimmering desert haze and with their flash-less charges, they were all but invisible.

On the second day of Battleaxe, Rommel threw in the tanks of the 5th Light Division and the newly arrived 15th Panzer Division, the second of the two divisions Hitler had promised Mussolini. While neither side could claim a clear-cut advantage, Rommel was gaining the upper hand. Most of his outposts, including Halfaya Pass (by now, and ever after, known to the British as Hellfire Pass), had held firm. The 5th Light was on the flank of the Desert Rats, and the German armor was better concentrated. Most important, Rommel had found British field commanders cautious and unimaginative, and he was ready to seize the initiative. He would “deal the enemy an unexpected blow in his most sensitive spot” by a flank attack at first light on June 17 before the British could launch any attack of their own.

Rommel stayed a step ahead of his enemy. By four in the afternoon of June 17, his panzer columns hooked in toward Halfaya Pass while the British rushed eastward to escape encirclement. The British lost twenty-seven cruiser tanks and sixty-four Matildas – almost half their armored force. The Afrika Korps won the battlefield as well as the battle and recovered and repaired its damaged tanks; in all, Rommel lost only a dozen tanks.

The British concluded from the failure of Battleaxe that their tanks were outgunned by those of the enemy, which was not true. This error grew out of misunderstanding what had killed so many of their cruisers and Matildas. They believed German tanks were responsible, when in most cases, the actual killers were antitank guns, particularly the eighty-eight. The failure to appreciate the full value of antitank guns, or how Rommel was using them, was to haunt the British in the months to come.

When the Battleaxe reports reached England, Winston Churchill was at Chartwell, his country home, where he was awaiting the outcome. There he received news of the defeat. “A most bitter blow,” he wrote, “I wandered about the valley disconsolately for some hours.” Beyond the fact that his beloved Tiger Cubs had been so roughly handled was the grimmer realization that, for the first time, the desert army had struck a full-strength blow, only to be repulsed.

The Middle East needed new blood, Churchill thought. He had lost confidence in General Wavell. On June 21, he cabled Wavell that “the victories which are associated with your name will be famous in the story of the British Army,” but that “the public interest will best be served” by a change in leadership. The new Middle East commander was to be General Sir Claude Auchinleck. Wavell would take Auchinleck’s place as head of British Commonwealth forces in India.

Wavell received the news from an aide early the next morning in his Cairo home as he was shaving. He showed no emotion as he listened to the orders, remarked quietly “the Prime Minister’s quite right – this job needs a new eye and a new hand,” and went on shaving. He took his usual morning ride and swim and set about getting affairs in order for his successor.

For nearly two years, in victory and defeat, Archibald Wavell had kept the Middle East in the Allied column. Certainly no other British soldier in World War II shouldered so many burdens. He built the foundations for victories that other men would win. When the change of command was made public, correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote: “There went out of Cairo and the Middle East that afternoon one of the great men of the war.”


‘stupor mundi’

A certain stability, or at least consistency, returned to Italy in the middle of the tenth century when Otto, the Saxon King of Germany, claimed the throne of Italy through his wife Adelaide (the daughter, widow and jilter of three previous kings of Italy) and made himself King of the Lombards. Following Charlemagne’s example, he travelled to Rome in 962 and had the pope crown him emperor, thus inaugurating three centuries of rule over Italy by three dynasties of German emperors – Saxon, Salian and Swabian (usually known as Hohenstaufen) – with brief interludes supplied by members of the Welf and Supplinburger families. The gallery consisted of one Lothair, two Fredericks, three Conrads, four Ottos and seven Henrys.

The rulers styled themselves rex romanorum et semper augustus (‘king of the Romans and ever emperor’), and the coronations that their realms required indicate both the complexity of their roles and the difficulty in fulfilling separate duties as kings of Germany, kings of Italy and Holy Roman emperors. After being elected by the German princes, they were crowned kings of Germany at Charlemagne’s beloved Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and became then also known as kings of the Romans. Later they crossed the Alps to receive the iron crown of the Lombards at Pavia, Monza or Milan. The last stage of the process was the journey to Rome, where they were crowned emperors by the pope.

The German Empire stretched from the Baltic and the North Sea to the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian. Such a distance, with a lot of mountains in between, forced emperors to spend long periods on the road. An emperor might be in Italy, quarrelling with the pope over ecclesiastical appointments, when an outbreak of civil war in Germany made him hurry northwards; after settling that crisis, he might have to scuttle back across the Alps to confront the rebellious cities of Lombardy or go even further south to deal with a military threat from Byzantium or the Norman kingdom of Sicily. Even so, emperors managed to find time for outside interests such as campaigning in Poland and participating in four of the Crusades. A predictable consequence of such frenetic activity was the neglect of Italy.

The emperors had their judicial and fiscal institutions in Italy; they also had their supporters among the magnates and bishops, whom they relied on for the administration of the cities. Yet the absence of their overlord enfeebled the institutions and the bishops and encouraged magnates to do what they liked to do anyway: plot and switch allegiances. Such a structure was ill-equipped to administer the new Italy of the eleventh century, in which agricultural wealth, the expansion of trade and a rise in population were transforming societies and economies. The growth and prosperity of the cities gave their citizens the desire and self-confidence to run the affairs of their own communes.* Unwilling to accept that they should remain loyal to an absentee foreigner with doubtful rights of sovereignty, they were soon electing their own leaders, running their own courts and raising their own militias. The emperors, distracted by incessant wars in Germany, made concessions that left the communes virtually autonomous. By the late eleventh century their rule over the Lombard and Tuscan cities had become almost nominal.

Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard), the Duke of Swabia who became emperor in 1155, was determined to reverse the drift. A relentless warrior, with grandiose notions of his rights and his dignity, he later became renowned as a symbol of Teutonic unity, a hero to German romantics and an inspiration for Adolf Hitler, who code-named his invasion of Russia ‘Operation Barbarossa’. He regarded the Ottos as successors to the Caesars and himself as successor to the Ottos. As he claimed his position to be equivalent to that of Augustus, he considered the kings of France and England to be inferior rulers. As for Italy, he was intent on reclaiming the so-called ‘regalian rights’ which lawyers in Bologna conveniently assured him he possessed. These included the rights to appoint officials in the cities, to receive taxes on fish and salt and to collect money from tolls and customs. He wanted the cash and was determined to get it; he also enjoyed the prestige acquired from the submission of others.

The defiance of Milan, the largest Italian city, inspired Barbarossa to invade Italy, which he did half a dozen times. His pretext – and perhaps it was a little more than a pretext – was that he was coming to the rescue of those pro-imperial towns, such as Como and Lodi, which earlier in the century had been devastated by the Milanese. He captured Milan in 1162 and destroyed it. He also obliterated the town of earlier in the century had been devastated by the Milanese. He captured Milan in 1162 and destroyed it. He also obliterated the town of Crema, one of its allies, after besieging it with exceptional brutality: hostages from Crema were tied to the front of his siege towers so that the defendants could not avoid hitting their relatives and fellow citizens with arrows.

Barbarossa’s actions led to the foundation of the Lombard League, formed by sixteen cities in 1167 to defend themselves against his imperial armies. An early confrontation was avoided, however, when more urgent matters forced the emperor to return to Germany, and he did not come back at the head of a new army for several years. Despite the defection of a couple of cities, the League won a great victory against him in 1176 at Legnano near Milan, its infantry forcing Barbarossa’s German cavalry from the field. It was a historic moment for the peninsula, perhaps the most united moment between the death of Theodoric and the creation of modern Italy. When patriots of the nineteenth century scoured their history for heroic events to depict, Legnano was a popular choice for literature and painting; it also inspired one of Verdi’s least memorable operas, La battaglia di Legnano, in which the chorus opens the evening with the words

Long live Italy! A holy pact

binds all her sons together.

At last it has made of so many

a single people of heroes!

Unfurl the banners in the field,

unconquered Lombard League!

And may a shiver freeze the bones

of fierce Barbarossa.

His humiliating defeat forced Barbarossa to negotiate, and at the Treaty of Constance in 1183 he conceded the rights of the communes to elect their own leaders, make their own laws and administer their own territories. Concessions made by his opponents were nominal or unimportant: among them were an oath of allegiance and a promise to give a sum of money to future emperors as they proceeded to Rome for their coronations. As the historian Giuliano Procacci noted, ‘the communes recognized the overall sovereignty of the emperor, but kept the sovereign rights they held’.15 Barbarossa died seven years later, drowned in an Anatolian river on his way to join the Third Crusade, but his Italian ambitions lived on in the person of his grandson, the Emperor Frederick II, who made equally futile attempts to cow the cities of northern Italy.

The wars between Barbarossa and the communes were part of a longer and wider struggle between the Holy Roman emperor and the papacy, which had supported the Lombard League. As with so many conflicts on Italian soil, this one thus became internationalized, several popes calling in German and French princes to assist their cause. Competing factions in the Italian communes soon acquired labels of bewildering foreign origin. Papal supporters were known as Guelphs, called after the Bavarian Welf family that produced Otto IV, briefly an emperor in the early thirteenth century, as well as, later and less relevantly, the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain. Their opponents, the pro-imperial Ghibellines, took their appellation from an even more obscure source, the Salian and later Hohenstaufen town of Waiblingen, a name sometimes used to denote members of the house of Swabia. In their endless medieval struggles, however, Italian Guelphs and Ghibellines were motivated far more by local factors than by remote loyalties to popes and German emperors.

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, it was clear that the Franks, who had rescued the papacy from the Lombards, were the senior partners in the alliance. Yet Leo’s successors tried to reverse the roles by claiming the right to choose who would be emperor. By the eleventh century they were insisting that the emperors acknowledge they received their thrones from the pope, who, as Christ’s vicar on earth, was the highest authority in Christendom. Power was involved along with pride and prestige. Gregory VII, pope (1073–85) and later saint, insisted that only he had the right to invest the clergy with abbeys, bishoprics and other ecclesiastical offices: secular rulers who disobeyed him were excommunicated. The Emperor Henry IV, who planned to continue the policy of his father (Henry III) of appointing and dismissing popes as well as bishops, reacted by deposing Gregory and calling him ‘a false monk’. In retaliation the pope excommunicated the emperor and encouraged his subjects to rebel. Alarmed by threats to his rule in Germany, a contrite Henry then apologized to the pope, waiting for three days in the snow outside the castle of Canossa until Gregory finally absolved him from excommunication. Within three years, however, they were again at odds, and Henry was deposed and excommunicated once more. This time he responded by seizing Rome and setting up an anti-pope who crowned him emperor, but he was soon expelled by the real pope’s Norman allies, who burned much of the city. The feud between Henry and Gregory was not a unique one: these medieval centuries abound with examples of emperors dethroning popes and of popes deposing and excommunicating emperors as well as other monarchs.

Another ingredient in the dispute between pope and emperor was the status of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The south of Italy was already very different from the north, more rural and feudal, more ethnically varied, its life determined by the Mediterranean and its peoples in a way unknown to the cities of the Po Valley with their ties to Europe beyond the Alps. Under authoritarian rulers, who liked to direct the economy themselves, and living uncomfortably beside a feudal baronage, the towns had little chance to prosper as their counterparts could do further north; the few that had recently flourished, such as the port of Amalfi with its merchants in Egypt and on the Bosphorus, soon withered. Like the north, the south had its Romans, Lombards and Franks, but it also contained large numbers of Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs as well as a significant Jewish minority. This multicultural, multi-confessional amalgam was unexpectedly welded into a kingdom by a small band of knights from Normandy whose descendants ruled it, flamboyantly and on the whole successfully, for nearly 200 years.

Norman adventurers, seeking work as mercenary soldiers, had begun arriving in the south early in the eleventh century. Pope Benedict VIII hired some of them to fight the Byzantines in Apulia, and before long a few of the knights, notably the remarkable Hauteville brothers, were receiving lands from grateful employers. Fearing that these Normans were becoming too strong, a later pope led an army against them but was defeated and taken prisoner by one of the five Hautevilles, Robert Guiscard, in 1053. Making the best of it, the papacy agreed soon afterwards that, in return for recognizing papal sovereignty over the south, Robert Guiscard could call himself ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria and future Duke of Sicily’. The adjective ‘future’ soon became redundant when the new duke, assisted by his equally talented younger brother Roger, advanced down Calabria and invaded Sicily in 1061. Thereafter, Robert Guiscard concentrated on conquering the mainland north, capturing Bari and ending Byzantine rule there in 1071, while Roger (later known as ‘the Great Count’) overcame the Arabs of Sicily, taking Palermo in 1072 and completing his conquest of the island in 1090. After the deaths of the two brothers, the Great Count’s son, another Roger, united the Hauteville territories and, following the capture of another pope, was recognized as Roger II, King of Sicily.

The new king was one of the finest rulers of the Middle Ages, a broadminded and farsighted man of wide culture and much administrative ability. He refused to join the Second Crusade because religious toleration was fundamental to his rule, and he insisted that the laws and customs of the peoples of his kingdom should be respected. Fluent in Greek and Arabic, he presided over the most intellectual and cosmopolitan court in Europe, and the architecture he loved – a blend of Saracen, Norman and Byzantine – is still visible in Palermo, in the Palatine chapel with its mosaics and in the red domes of the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. He returned Sicily to the prosperity and influence it had not enjoyed since the days of the ancient Greeks – and to which it would not return again. He made of the Mediterranean’s largest island a microcosm of what the sea might be but very rarely is, a space where cultures, creeds and peoples meet in a climate of mutual tolerance and respect.

The popes treated the Normans much as they treated the emperors: cajoling and pleading when they needed them, fighting and trying to depose them when they did not. Robert Guiscard and Roger II both suffered excommunication. When the Hautevilles and the Hohenstaufen (Barbarossa’s family) became dynastically united in 1186, the hostility became almost permanent. Roger was succeeded by his son William I, another talented and successful Hauteville, unjustly known by his foes among the barons as William the Bad, and by his grandson, William II, called ‘the Good’ because he was more lenient to those perennially annoying subjects. Since Barbarossa after Legnano was no longer a threat to Italy, the second William decided to marry his aunt Constance to the emperor’s heir, the future Henry VI; as his own marriage was childless, a son of this union might thus add the crown of Sicily to the titles of King of Germany, King of Italy and Holy Roman emperor. The prospect of an emperor ruling lands both north and south of the expanding papal states naturally alarmed Pope Celestine III, who first promoted a rival claimant (an Hauteville bastard) to the Sicilian throne and then tried to thwart Henry’s plan to have his son Frederick elected King of Germany. He failed when Frederick was chosen by the electors at the age of two in 1196, but the deaths of the boy’s parents before he was four, together with Constance’s choice of the next pope (Innocent III) as her son’s guardian, postponed an inevitable struggle.

The infant became the charismatic Frederick II, a monarch whose cultural range makes his fellow rulers of the period seem brutal, boorish and philistine in comparison. Hailed as stupor mundi (‘the amazement of the world’), he was lauded in his time as a linguist, law-giver, builder, soldier, administrator and scientist; as an ornithologist he wrote a masterly book on falconry and dismissed the notion that barnacle geese were hatched from barnacles in the sea – an example of deductive reasoning rather than observation because he had no opportunity of studying the breeding habits of the geese inside the Arctic Circle. Yet the adulation, like the appellation, was excessive. The comparison with contemporary kings may stand, but he was not as wise a ruler or as cultured a man as his maternal grandfather, Roger II. He was justly famous as a champion of religious tolerance, yet his skills as a builder, architect and linguist have been exaggerated. In any case, whatever his talents, he failed to solve the three great inherited problems of his position: relations with the papacy, relations with the Lombard cities, and the relationship between Sicily and the empire.

Frederick antagonized the papacy early in his reign by crowning his baby son King of Sicily and, a few years later, making sure he was elected King of Germany. When he himself was crowned emperor in 1220, at the age of twenty-five, he assured the papacy that the crowns would remain legally separated. Yet the assurance did not convince a subsequent pope, Gregory IX, once a friend of St Francis and St Dominic but now a dogmatic and irascible leader of the Church. In 1227 he excommunicated Frederick after an outbreak of plague had forced the emperor to abandon a crusade; when the expedition was resumed a year later, the pope was so enraged that an excommunicant was leading it that he launched an invasion of Sicily while its king and his army were away campaigning triumphantly for Christendom. Frederick soon returned from the Holy Land, where he had crowned himself King of Jerusalem, defeated the papal armies and forced Gregory to come to terms and absolve him from excommunication.

The truce between the two men lasted for almost a decade after 1230, but the pope did not relinquish his ambitions to remove the Hohenstaufen from Sicily and to promote a new dynasty for the empire. Frederick’s invasion of Sardinia in 1239 gave him a pretext to excommunicate the emperor once again and build alliances with the pro-Guelph cities of the north. Gregory died in 1241, yet his vendetta was continued, with matching vindictiveness, by a successor, Innocent IV, who deposed Frederick, called him a precursor of the anti-Christ and urged the German electors to supply a new emperor.

Stupor mundi may have been unlucky in his relations with the papacy but he was unwise in his dealings with the Lombard cities. Claiming that northern Italy legally belonged to him, he was determined to succeed where Barbarossa, his paternal grandfather, had failed. In 1226 he summoned an imperial assembly to Cremona, most loyal of Ghibelline towns, and announced his intention ‘to restore regalian rights’. His ambitions predictably led to a revival of the Lombard League, and most of the Po Valley cities banded together to resist him for the last quarter-century of his life. Frederick defeated the League at the Battle of Cortenuova in 1237 but then overplayed his hand by demanding an unconditional surrender, which the cities refused to give him; the following year he was humiliated by his failure to capture Brescia after a lengthy siege. Despite military successes in 1240–41, when he captured parts of the Papal States, and in 1246, when he suppressed a rebellion in the south, the campaigns achieved nothing durable. Even more humiliating than Brescia was the siege of Parma in 1248, when the apparently beleaguered garrison unexpectedly stole out of the town and ransacked Frederick’s camp while he was out hunting.

The emperor died in 1250 and, after the brief reign of his son Conrad, his southern territories were claimed by his bastard child Manfred. Another talented descendant of the Hautevilles, Manfred was a poet, a scientist and a diplomat wiser than his father in his dealings with northern Italy. Yet Frederick’s death had not halted the papacy’s efforts to eliminate the house of Hohenstaufen and to find a new monarch for the kingdom of Sicily. In 1266, after the entreaties of several popes, Charles of Anjou, a brother of the French king, victoriously invaded: Manfred was killed in battle, and the last male Hohenstaufen, Conrad’s teenage son Conradin, was executed.

Charles made himself unpopular in Sicily, chiefly by transferring his capital from Palermo to Naples, and he was ejected by the islanders following the uprising in 1282 known as the Sicilian Vespers. In his place the throne was offered to King Peter of Aragon, whose wife was a daughter of Manfred. Peter’s acceptance and reign may have given some solace to supporters of the Hohenstaufen, but Aragonese rule presaged the long decline of the island. Already cut off from north Africa and the Arab world, it was now detached from France and Italy, although over the centuries the southern mainland – known as ‘continental Sicily’ – was from time to time reunited with island Sicily to be called eventually the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Yet from the end of the thirteenth century the island was effectively an outpost of Spain, tied torpidly to Iberia for over 400 years. Like Sardinia, it received viceroys but little attention from its Hispanic rulers.

Frederick’s rule had resulted in the extinction of his dynasty and the impoverishment of Sicily, which had to pay for his wars. Another casualty was the idea of uniting Italy under a single ruler, which is what he wanted and which no one tried to make a reality again for another six centuries. The beneficiaries of his failure were the cities of Tuscany and the north, which could now pursue their cultural and communal development – as well as their local rivalries – without much external interference. The defeat of a cultured monarch of the south thus led to a cultural efflorescence of the north.

Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano’s Folly

Turin’s military monuments were not all erected to commemorate individual kings and commanders. Some of them are collective memorials, representing units of the armed forces, principally the bersaglieri (who are always shown running) but also the cavalry, the carabinieri and the Alpine regiments. Only one monument, that dedicated to the men who went to the Crimea, contains a statue of a sailor.

Piedmont had no nautical traditions; indeed, until it was given Liguria by the Congress of Vienna, it possessed no coastline except around Nice. Its insignificant navy did little in the early wars of the Risorgimento and was never required to fight a proper battle. United Italy, however, had an extremely long coastline. Since it also had aspirations to join the Great Powers, it set about building an impressive fleet, though its only plausible enemy was Austria, which had little naval history or ambition of its own. By 1866 this new fleet included twelve new ironclads and was commanded by an admiral, four vice-admirals and eight rear-admirals. The Austrian navy was smaller, slower and less well equipped: it possessed only seven ironclads. The Italian force was thus superior in all material respects though generally inferior in most human ones, most markedly in the abilities of the admirals in command.

The Italian commander was Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano. Unlike Garibaldi, who was a seaman both by birth and by aptitude, the Piedmontese Persano had seafaring neither in his blood nor in his upbringing. He came from the inland rice-growing area of Vercelli and was apparently unable to swim. Some people believed he chose to be a sailor because there was so much less competition for posts in the navy than there was in the army. He himself owed his very rapid promotion not to his exploits but to his talent at flattery, intrigue and making himself popular at court. He managed to ingratiate himself with Cavour and became an unlikely friend of Azeglio, possibly because that amorous statesman was attracted to his English wife. A vain and quarrelsome individual with a taste for fighting duels, Persano was both frivolous and irresponsible: he once asked Azeglio, who was prime minister at the time, to give him a false passport so that he could pursue a ballerina in Austrian-held Milan. His friend refused to help.

Persano’s seamanship could be embarrassing. In 1851 he ran his ship aground outside Genoa harbour when carrying Piedmont’s contribution to the Great Exhibition in London. Two years later, even more embarrassingly, he ran aground again, this time while transporting the royal family to Sardinia for a hunting trip; apparently he was trying to take a short cut and hit some rocks that were not marked on his charts. Although he was arrested and reduced in rank for six months after this episode, the setback did not harm Persano’s career. In 1860 Cavour entrusted him with the job of shadowing Garibaldi and stirring up trouble in Palermo and Naples, and in the autumn of that year Persano assisted Cialdini in the capture of Ancona by bombarding the papal port from the sea. Over the next two years he became a parliamentarian, the minister of the navy and the admiral who in 1866 found himself in charge of the fleet at Ancona under government orders to defeat the Austrians and rescue Italy’s reputation after the fiasco of Custoza.

Persano was not, however, eager for combat and, although he had only brought his ships up from Taranto, claimed that they needed an overhaul. To repeated orders from Agostino Depretis, the current naval minister in Florence, he responded with a range of reasons for delay: the fleet was not ready, the crews were not trained, water had got into the cylinders and something was wrong with the coal; most important of all, the Affondatore (the Sinker), the best and newest ship, was still on its way from England, where it had been built. When Depretis told him to make himself master of the Adriatic, Persano replied that he had no proper charts of the one conceivable sea where his navy might fight. While the fleet was still being overhauled after its voyage from Taranto, the audacious Austrian admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff appeared with his navy off Ancona, fired a few salvoes and waited for the Italians to come out and engage him; when they remained in port without returning fire, he sailed away and claimed a moral victory.

An exasperated government eventually used the threat of dismissal to force Persano out and attack the island of Lissa off the Dalmatian coast. The navy was duly shelling the Austrian batteries on the island and preparing to land its troops when Tegetthoff reappeared and made a reckoning unavoidable. While Persano was organizing his line, the long-awaited Affondatore steamed up, its arrival persuading him to abandon his flagship, the Re d’Italia, and direct the battle from an armour-plated turret on the new vessel. Most of his captains were unaware, however, of the changeover and continued to look for signals from the Re d’Italia – until it was rammed and sunk by Tegetthoff’s own flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he still easily outnumbered the Austrians and could have carried on the fray. Like the generals at Custoza, he converted a setback into a disaster and, as with Lamarmora, ordered an unnecessary retreat, leading his ships back to Ancona, where expectant crowds were waiting to cheer captured Austrian vessels.

Lissa ended the career of Persano, who was accused of cowardice but cashiered for the lesser sins of negligence and incapacity. The defeat had other repercussions, especially for the future of the Italian navy, which henceforth tried to avoid battles on the open seas; one consequence of this was the disaster of November 1940, when the British disabled half the fleet that lay anchored in the harbour of Taranto. Yet the most insidious effect of the 1866 war was its impact on the psyche of the Italian nation. The very names Lissa and Custoza became reproaches, incitements to redress and redemption. Instead of persuading Italians not to attempt to become a Great Power, they encouraged them to try even harder. As Austria seemed the obvious place to seek such redemption, Victor Emanuel suggested to Bismarck in 1878 that a joint attack on the Habsburgs would give each of them victory and new territory. When the chancellor replied that Germany was big enough already, Italy abandoned the idea, became an ally of Austria and embarked on colonial adventures in Africa. Yet the defeats of 1866 rankled and continued to do so well into the twentieth century. The obsession with amends was a fundamental motive in the decisions to take part in the world wars in 1915 and 1940.

Ironclad Palestro

The only high-seas fleet action of the ironclad era was the Battle of Lissa fought between the Piedmont/Italian and Austrian navies on 20 July 1866. The opposing fleet commanders were two very different personalities. The Austrian admiral, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, upon the declaration of war, immediately made for the Italian port of Ancona and challenged the Italian fleet to battle. For various unconvincing reasons, the Italian commander, Count Carlo Persano, refused to come out. Persano was the type of officer often highly praised in peacetime for his organizational ability, which usually consists of reorganizing the previous reorganization. Persano hoped to win by his material preponderance, which was, in all truth, his only advantage. His fleet could boast of 11 ironclads (soon to be increased to 12) compared to Tegetthoff’s technologically inferior seven. But Tegetthoff had already won a moral advantage off Ancona. He also drilled his crews constantly while Persano idled his time, conducted a useless bombardment of the Austrian island of Lissa, and continued to complain that the odds were still not in his favor.
On 20 July, Tegetthoff’s fleet appeared in the Adriatic mist in a ramming formation something like a flying wedge, and his captains had their straightforward orders: “Armored ships charge the enemy and sink him.” Tegetthoff knew that he had to get in close to the Italians to negate their superior rifled gun range with his own concentrated fire and his ram bows. Persano’s exhausted command was confused, scattered, and unready. Persano added to their trials by a series of complex and conflicting orders, particularly when he discovered that his fleet faced the wrong direction. Then Persano decided to transfer his command to the newly arrived ironclad ram Affondatore (Sinker) but neglected to inform his captains. As it was, Affondatore failed to touch any of its enemies with its truly de Bergerac snout, although its rifled guns wrought sad execution at pistolshot range on the timber upperworks of several Austrian ironclads.
A point-blank melee followed, with the ironclads ramming and maneuvering to avoid the ram-mostly the latter. (The Italian wooden warship contingent, for unexplained reasons, remained aloof from the battle.) The Austrian Kaiser (the only ship-of-the-line ever to fight ironclads) scraped by the Italian Re di Portugallo, broadside flaming, leaving its bow sculpture on the Italian’s deck. Yet very little damage was inflicted on either side, as the ironclads mutually avoided or harmlessly bumped into each other and their broadside discharges bounced off armor plating. The misnamed Italian ironclads Terrible and Formidabile proved useless-the former loitering with the spectator wooden ship squadron, while the latter left for Ancona to repair what its captain claimed was serious damage from the Lissa Island bombardment. Meanwhile, Persano dashed about in Affondatore, incognito, turning away from several ramming opportunities, although the ram did fire some three shots at the Don Juan de Austria, breaking off some armor plates.
The battle turned decidedly more deadly when the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Max suddenly rammed the putative Italian flagship Re d’Italia, which heaved on its beam ends and sank like a stone. For decades following, the example of the Italian warship would be held up as a prime example of the awful power of the ram. Actually, Re d’Italia was almost dead in the water at the moment of its ramming. Still, considering the weakness of the guns of that era against armor plate, and the technical inferiority of Tegetthoff’s warships, ramming was probably his most promising tactic.
Lissa’s immediate aftermath for the Italians was almost as grim as the battle itself. The ironclad Palestro, set afire during the battle, soon after exploded with all hands. Affondatore later foundered, not from battle damage but from stormy seas. When the wretched Persano inquired as to the whereabouts of his cherished ram, the reply was perhaps unintentionally ironic: Affondato (sunk). The real tragedy of Lissa is that it was unnecessary; the Austrians had already agreed to an armistice and to hand over Venetia (the bone of contention) by way of France, but the Italian leadership vaingloriously felt that they had to appear to win the province and city by their own efforts.

Antisubmarine War WWI – Mediterranean 1916-17

Kaba departing Ryojun, 1925. She was deployed in the Mediterranean in WWI.

Japanese cruiser Akashi in drydock. Rear-Admiral Kōzō Satō commanded the “Second Special Squadron” with Akashi as flagship with the 10th and 11th Destroyer Units (eight destroyers) based at Malta from 13 April 1917. He was reinforced by the 15th Destroyer Unit with four more destroyers from 1 June 1917 to carry out on direct escort duties for Allied troop transports in the Mediterranean.

The Allies had abandoned exclusive use of patrolled routes in the Mediterranean shortly before the Germans adopted unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans declared the great majority of the Mediterranean a Sperrgebiet (prohibited area) except for the extreme western portion off Spain, including the Balearics, and initially, the 20-mile-wide corridor to Greek waters. The Austrians promised to assist the Germans outside of the Adriatic. Their smaller submarines as they became available would now operate against Allied shipping between Malta and Cerigo. In the early part of 1917, the situation in the Mediterranean was deceptively favorable to the Allies, for in January the greater part of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla was under repair and refit at Pola and Cattaro after the heavy demands of 1916. In January sinkings fell to 78,541 tons, only 24 percent of the total of 328,391 tons sunk in all theaters. It was the lull before the storm, for by 10 February the Germans had 10 U-boats at sea in the Mediterranean, along with an Austrian submarine, and that month submarines sank 105,670 tons of shipping. This, however, represented only 20.3 percent of the 520,412 tons sunk in all theaters, for with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Mediterranean percentage of total sinkings inevitably declined. The successes of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla declined again in March to 61,917 tons, just under 11 percent of the total of 564,497 tons in all theaters. April 1917 turned into a record month for the Mediterranean flotilla, just as it was a record month for U-boats in all theaters. The Germans had 14 U-boats at sea at the beginning of the month, joined by 2 Austrians. They sank in the Mediterranean 254,911 tons (3,724 tons by submarine-laid mines), or 29.6 percent of the 860,334 tons sunk in all theaters. The Austrians contributed another 23,037 tons.

The Admiralty were so alarmed by the heavy losses along the coast of Algeria, which they naturally attributed to the ineffectiveness of French patrols, that they ordered British shipping to abandon the coastal route in favor of hugging the Spanish coast from Gibraltar to Cape San Antonio and then use dispersed routes to Malta. The French, however, complained that they were using more than eighty patrol craft of all sorts on their patrolled routes in the western Mediterranean whereas the British were escorting all British troopships or ships with valuable cargoes and following routes entirely different from the French. Furthermore, the French charged that the British used their destroyers to escort troopships, leaving trawlers on the patrolled routes through British zones. These trawlers often lacked wireless receivers and could not be counted upon to divert ships from threatened areas. Admiral Gauchet, now French commander in chief, described the situation on the Malta-Cerigo route as “every man for himself.”

Allied merchant ships deliberately made use of Spanish territorial waters. This proved to be correct, if not very heroic, and it naturally added to the length and duration of a voyage. German U-boat commanders were ordered to observe the Spanish 3-mile limit, and, in fact, to avoid mistakes they were normally to observe a 4-mile limit unless there was a particularly valuable target in the fourth mile and they were quite sure of their position. On the whole, German U-boat commanders respected Spanish territorial waters and the Allies made extensive use of them. The Allies suspected the Germans were violating them, but careful analysis of sinkings generally established that the ships had strayed out of those waters when they were sunk. It was not hard to do; navigation so close to the coast could be difficult and hazardous, and merchant ship captains often were inclined to take a shortcut across the curve of a bay, which made them legitimate targets for the Germans. U-boat commanders were not angels; they obviously found more than enough targets in the Mediterranean without having to violate Spanish waters.

The Mediterranean situation could not be ignored by the Allied leaders by the spring of 1917. In early April General Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff, asked Jellicoe about a joint statement from the British naval leaders as to what reductions at Salonika would be necessary if the British were to continue the war in 1918. Jellicoe was a strong partisan of abandoning the Salonika expedition because of the strain on shipping and naval resources to support it. He recommended the immediate reduction or withdrawal of the British contingent, and he advocated a complete withdrawal if the cabinet expected the war to continue beyond 1917. This would then allow the British to recover a number of patrol craft for safeguarding commerce in home waters, free a large amount of shipping to build up a reserve of food and supply the French and Italians with coal and other necessities, and permit the British to give better protection to the sea communications with the army in Egypt. The French could be expected to strongly oppose what in their eyes was a British attempt to abandon the Salonika expedition, where France was preponderant, in favor of the pursuit of imperial gains in Palestine. An Allied conference with the Italians at St. Jean de Maurienne on 19 April took no decision on Jellicoe’s proposal, and one is inclined to believe that if the Allies did not succeed in mastering the submarine danger the issue was likely to be moot. It would then be a question of whether or not the British could continue the war.

The conflicting policies in the Mediterranean had made it obvious that another international conference was necessary. The Corfu conference took place during the crisis of the naval war. It was held in Gauchet’s flagship Provence at Corfu 28 April to 1 May. The Allies unanimously decided they would not return to the discredited system of patrolled routes created at Malta in 1916. They would navigate only by night and along coastal routes whenever possible, and those coastal routes would be patrolled along with certain strategic straits. The conference made a major change in procedure: on routes that ran far from the coast, ships would be protected by convoys and escorts following dispersed routes, that is, routes chosen by a routing officer at the port of departure according to the circumstances of the moment.

The Corfu conference had really created a hybrid system rather than one of general convoys or ships sailing independently. All ships entering the Mediterranean were now required to stop at Gibraltar for instructions and formation into convoys before proceeding to Oran, although the authorities sometimes allowed ships to navigate independently without escort if there was no submarine danger. Ships followed the patrolled coastal route between Oran and Bizerte, but they were not necessarily escorted in those waters. Ships were formed into convoys again at Bizerte for the remainder of their voyage eastward. Ships bound from Gibraltar to Marseille or Genoa continued to follow Spanish coastal waters as long as the Germans respected them.

The most important decision of the Corfu conference as far as its implications for the future were concerned was the establishment of a “Direction Générale” at Malta, which was composed of officers delegated by the different navies and was charged with the direction of everything concerning transport routes and their protection. The idea was proposed by Admiral Gauchet, but the British managed to turn it to their own advantage, for they proposed that, without modifying the present system of a French commander in chief for all the Mediterranean, all the British naval forces be placed under a single commander. The British commander in chief would have an officer of flag rank charged with protecting transport routes who would be the British representative on the Direction Générale that Gauchet had proposed. The effect of this would be to give the British the predominant role in the antisubmarine campaign. Gauchet remained the theoretical commander in chief with the largest number of dreadnoughts, seemingly preoccupied with preparing for that major naval encounter with the Austrian fleet.

The French and the Italians had by far the preponderance in capital ships, but the real action in the Mediterranean by this date was the antisubmarine war, and here the balance had quietly swung decisively toward the British. In May 1917 the total of patrol vessels of all sorts in the Mediterranean, from destroyers to sloops, from trawlers to small torpedo boats, was: British, 429; French, 302; Italian, 119; and Japanese, 8. The British had really learned that the Mediterranean was too important to be left to the French. British interests, whether they were shipping or overseas expeditions, were extensive, and they could not rely on others who, with the best will in the world, were apt to lack the resources to do the job. The British were forced to assume the leading part in the antisubmarine war.

The Japanese contribution needs a word of explanation. The British had long been anxious for Japanese assistance. The Japanese had been reluctant to send forces to European waters, although they had, as we have seen, provided considerable assistance in the opening months of the war and later in the search for the German raiders. In mid-April Rear Admiral Kozo Sato arrived at Malta with the Tenth and Eleventh Japanese destroyer flotillas, eight 650-ton Kaba class. Sato flew his flag in the cruiser Akashi, which served as headquarters ship. In August 1917 the Fifteenth Flotilla arrived with four of the new 850-ton Momo class and the armored cruiser Idzumo, which relieved the Akashi. The Japanese were nominally independent, but actually carried out whatever orders they received from the British commander in chief at Malta. The Japanese in fact worked very closely with the British, particularly in escorting troopships. They soon gained an excellent reputation. Their ships were new and well-handled, and the British paid them the ultimate compliment by turning over two of their own H-class destroyers to be renamed and manned by Japanese crews for the duration of the war. This Japanese contribution of fourteen destroyers at a critical moment in the war against submarines has been largely forgotten, but under the circumstances it was far from negligible.

The decisions of the Corfu conference were only recommendations; they naturally had to be accepted by the respective governments. The Admiralty, however, acted fairly quickly, and the Malta-Alexandria convoy was introduced on 22 May with four ships escorted by four trawlers. It proved a success; only two ships were lost between 22 May and 16 July. The French on 18 June formally established a special directorate for the submarine war. The Direction générale de la guerre sous-marine was to a large extent the result of pressure from the French parliament, where there were strong suspicions that the French naval staff had been too tradition-bound and had not paid enough attention to submarine warfare.

Admiral the Honorable Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, second son of the seventh Baron Calthorpe, was appointed British Mediterranean commander in chief. He had formerly commanded the Second Cruiser Squadron and had been second sea lord in 1916. Calthorpe was hardly one of the household names of the war and was deceptively mild mannered. He apparently had a certain amount of difficulty getting his authority accepted by the other commands, but he grew in assurance as time went on. He also possessed good judgment, although he was unfortunately somewhat backward about realizing the value of convoys. At the end of the war he was destined to play a considerable role in negotiating the armistice with the Turks and subsequently became high commissioner in Turkey and the Black Sea. One of his staff officers considered him a man who never sought greatness but had it thrust on him.

The introduction of convoys into the Mediterranean proved difficult. The route structure was complex and the entire Mediterranean was considered a danger area, unlike the situation in the Atlantic where only about 350 miles required special protection for convoys. The British Isles naturally received priority in the allocation of escorts, and the Admiralty added to their own difficulties by insisting that convoys must remain small. There was also the problem of dealing with Allies, notably the Italians. The Italians proved extremely recalcitrant about contributing destroyers and escorts to the common cause, that is, convoys from Gibraltar, and Calthorpe really had no authority over their antisubmarine operations. The Italians insisted they were the only one of the Allies close to the enemy battle fleet, for Pola was only a few hours steaming distance from Venice. They therefore had to retain a significant destroyer force for the protection of Venice and needed their other antisubmarine forces for the protection of Italian traffic in the Tyrrhenian or on the routes to and from Albania and Libya.