1817-1860: KINGDOM OF THE TWO SICILIES II

The Army of the Two Sicilies was the land forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose armed forces also included a navy. It was in existence from 1734 to 1861. It was also known as the Royal Army of His Majesty the King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Reale esercito di Sua Maestà il Re del Regno delle Due Sicilie), the Bourbon Army (Esercito Borbonico) or the Neapolitan Army (Esercito Napoletano). Later many ex soldiers of this army joined Italian Royal Army.

SICILY AND NAPLES 1860

Garibaldi was diverted from the escapade in Nice by news of a revolt in Sicily and pressure from a number of patriotic colleagues who begged him to lead an expedition in its support. In early April a Mazzinian plot in Palermo, which was quickly suppressed, had touched off a wider rebellion in the interior: bands of hostile and impoverished peasants spread across the island, killing or ejecting policemen and tax collectors and eliminating all form of local government. Many educated Sicilians approved of the rebellion against the Bourbons but were nervous of the other aims of an essentially social uprising. A few of them wanted independence and a few others hoped for union with the rest of Italy; Francesco Crispi, a lawyer and a future Italian prime minister, opted for union partly because he considered his fellow islanders incapable of ruling themselves. Most Sicilians were autonomists, however, who would have been content with a revival of the 1812 constitution and the distant sovereignty of the Bourbons. Their dislike of Naples was more vivid than their desire to join Italy.

Garibaldi was delighted by the tidings from Sicily and enthusiastic about the idea of an expedition there. He was an idealistic man with a simplistic ideology. Italy must be free and united, and its enemies – principally the pope, the Bourbons and the Austrians – must be overthrown. Although originally a republican, he now realized that the national cause was only likely to succeed under the leadership of Victor Emanuel.

The Sicilian uprising seemed to be faltering in mid-April, when Bourbon forces regained control of the coastal regions. Garibaldi was disheartened by the news and vacillated over his impending expedition. He had criticized Mazzini for irresponsible adventures and he did not wish to emulate Carlo Pisacane, the socialist patriot whose followers had been annihilated after landing three years earlier on the Neapolitan coast. Another problem was munitions. Garibaldi’s lieutenants had gone off to collect the money, arms and volunteers that were always available for any enterprise commanded by himself, but Azeglio, now the Governor of Milan, blocked a consignment of modern British rifles. ‘We could declare war on Naples,’ wrote the former prime minister, ‘but not have a diplomatic representative there and send rifles to the Sicilians.’14

At the end of the month, after further dispiriting news from Sicily, Garibaldi called the expedition off, but two days later, apparently convinced by Crispi that the rebellion was still active, decided to go ahead after all. As soon as one of his lieutenants had seized two steamships in the harbour of Genoa, he dressed himself up in the outfit he had picked up in South America – red shirt, pale poncho and silk handkerchief – and set off with his ‘Thousand’ volunteers across the Tyrrhenian Sea, a voyage that propelled him and them into legend and into comparisons with the ‘three hundred’ soldiers of Leonidas, the Spartan king who had held the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian army in 480 BC. It was indeed an heroic enterprise but it was also, incontrovertibly, illegal. Apart from stealing the two ships, Garibaldi was making an unprovoked attack on a recognized state with which his country, Piedmont-Sardinia, was not at war. History may have forgiven him for the deed, but it was an act of piracy all the same.

The Neapolitan king, Francesco II, did not at first take the expedition seriously. To him it seemed another adventure in the manner of Pisacane and the Bandiera brothers, a raid by a rabble of revolutionaries who would easily be defeated, despite the support of local rebels, by his troops on the island. Yet Garibaldi was a successful and charismatic guerrilla leader who enjoyed other advantages as well. King Ferdinand had died the previous year at Caserta after a reign of twenty-nine years, and his son, nicknamed Franceschiello, was young, timid and inexperienced. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had few allies except Austria, which was no longer in a position to help, and it had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain and France following their governments’ denunciations of Ferdinand’s ‘despotism’. The current Napoleon was unsympathetic to the Bourbons because he wanted their throne for his cousin Murat, and the British disliked them because Gladstone had convinced his colleagues that they presided over a uniquely awful regime. The hostility of France and Britain was fatal to the Bourbons because those nations had the means to decide whether ships might or might not reach their destinations in the Mediterranean. Had they wished to do so, their navies could have prevented Garibaldi from landing in Sicily in May and from crossing to Calabria in August.

While the expedition enjoyed the support of the small number of southern patriots, it also had backing, equivocal and confusing though this often was, from inside the Piedmontese establishment. Even those who opposed it did so halfheartedly. Cavour tried to dissuade the Thousand from embarking but he did not threaten force to deter them. Later he dispatched the Piedmontese navy to intercept the stolen ships, to prevent reinforcements from reaching Sicily and to delay Garibaldi’s crossing of the Straits of Messina. But the navy’s failure to achieve any of these objectives was not entirely the fault of the commander, the inept Count of Persano. Without some degree of official connivance, it is difficult to see how steamships could have been seized in Piedmont’s principal port, how the expedition could have managed to reach its destinations, and how so many soldiers ‘on leave’ from the Piedmontese army could have enlisted with the volunteers.

Garibaldi was lucky with his landing at Marsala on Sicily’s west coast on 11 May. The Bourbon garrison had just marched off to Trapani, and Neapolitan ships protecting the town had just sailed off to the south; later, when one of these vessels returned, it delayed firing at the red-shirted volunteers who were in the process of disembarking for fear of hitting two British ships in the harbour. The garibaldini had expected a welcome from islanders pining for liberation and were thus surprised to find a complete absence of enthusiasm for their arrival; also disconcerting was the invisibility of the revolt they had come to support. A few days later, however, the Thousand defeated a badly led Neapolitan force at Calatafimi and attracted a small number of Sicilians to their ranks. After the battle Garibaldi marched eastwards, capturing Palermo in June and Milazzo in July, landing on the Calabrian mainland in August and reaching Naples in September, four months after he had set forth from the Ligurian coast. In Palermo, where he established a government with himself as interim dictator and Crispi a secretary of state, he demonstrated his radical zeal by abolishing the grist tax and promising land reform for the peasants. Yet he could not go as far as he wished in this direction since he could not afford to alienate those landowners whose support was crucial for the achievement of political union with the north.

Although Garibaldi displayed courage and military skill in his campaign, the heroics were not quite on the scale that legend suggests. He did not defeat the 25,000 Neapolitan troops on the island with the thousand men he had arrived with at Marsala; over the summer, reinforcements from the north brought his own forces to more than 21,000. Nor was outrageous valour always required to overcome an enemy that, while well equipped, was poorly commanded and widely scattered. The young king was encumbered both with octogenarian ministers and with septuagenarian generals, one of whom had fought at Waterloo. These officers were not only old but also cowardly, incompetent and in some cases treacherous. At Calatafimi the Bourbon forces were positioned on a hilltop, inflicting casualties on the garibaldini attacking up the slope, when they were inexplicably ordered to retreat. One general foolishly suggested a truce which allowed Garibaldi to re-arm and take control of Palermo, another withdrew his troops unnecessarily from Catania to Messina, and officers from both the army and the navy deserted and took bribes. Some of these individuals were subsequently sent to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where the guilty ones were lightly demoted.

In Calabria Garibaldi found the opposition even feebler than in Sicily. Although the Neapolitan generals had 16,000 soldiers in the toe of Italy, they put up little resistance and sometimes submitted without firing a shot; one battalion surrendered to six wandering garibaldini who had got lost. Reggio was handed over with hardly a fight, and so was Cosenza. In Naples the minister for war announced in the mornings that he was departing for Calabria to defeat Garibaldi but then changed his mind in the afternoons because he considered his presence in the capital was essential to prevent disorder. Well did he and the other generals deserve a dismissive line in Richard Strauss’s opera, Der Rosenkavalier: when the Marschallin thinks she is about to be surprised with her lover, she decides to confront her husband, the field marshal: ‘Ich bin kein napolitanischer General: wo ich steh’ steh’ ich.’ (‘I am not a Neapolitan general: where I stand I stand.’)

On 7 September Garibaldi entered Naples by train, in advance of his army, where he was welcomed by Bourbon officials: the minister of police had already sycophantically told him that the city was waiting ‘with the greatest impatience … to greet the redeemer of Italy and to place in his hands the power and destiny of the state’. King Francesco had left the city the previous day, intending to carry on the war from Gaeta, the coastal fortress town near the border with the Papal States in the north. For all his limitations, he was a conscientious and honourable monarch who realized that a siege of Italy’s largest and most densely populated city would cause terrible carnage. But he did not shirk or run away like the dukes of central Italy had done a year before. He left garrisons in the castles of Naples and marched out, leaving nearly all his money and his personal possessions in his capital. He expected to return.

In the north of the kingdom the Bourbon army was transformed. Loyal regiments from Naples and other provinces of the mainland fought valiantly and were victorious in several skirmishes against the redshirts near Capua. Yet once again the generalship was defective, too slow, too cautious, too lacking in imagination. An urgent and vigorous counter-attack might have defeated the smaller enemy force; but when the advance eventually came, Garibaldi halted it on the River Volturno, a dogged defensive action in which he lost more men than his opponents. Even then the Neapolitans might have remained undefeated if the contest had been limited to themselves and the volunteers.

As soon as Cavour realized that Garibaldi would conquer Sicily, he was eager to annex the island to Piedmont. He had always detested home-grown revolutionaries more than he disliked Bourbons and Austrians, and the last thing he wanted was to see Sicily and possibly Naples in the hands of democrats and other radicals. Once the redshirts had reached Palermo, he therefore sent his representative, La Farina, who arrived in early June with posters proclaiming ‘We want annexation’. It was a strange appointment because La Farina was an insensitive individual and a well-known antagonist of both Garibaldi and Crispi. So much of his time in Sicily was spent intriguing and causing friction among members of the new government that after a month Garibaldi had him arrested and sent back north.

In Naples Cavour chose to employ a tactic similar to that which La Farina had failed with the previous year in the Po Valley: arranging a ‘spontaneous’ uprising in the city – and doing so before Garibaldi arrived. He duly sent Persano to the Bay of Naples with money in his pockets to bribe officials, and soldiers hidden on his ships ready to rush to the aid of the conspirators on land. In the city the Piedmontese ambassador duly gave the signal for revolt but, as so often with these Cavourian schemes, nothing happened. The Neapolitans were sensibly waiting to see which side was likely to win before committing themselves to the conflict.

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Few Europeans mourned the fall of the Bourbons. Nor did later Neapolitans greatly regret the passing of a dynasty that had provided them with five kings over a century and a quarter – longer than the rule of either the Tudors or the Stuarts in England. Sentimental attachment was subdued perhaps by distant memories of earlier dynasties and by the presence of so many monuments of previous ages. The family had indeed produced no outstanding monarch but nor – despite what propaganda said – had it supplied a very bad one. In any case, was the general standard any lower than those of their cousins in Spain, the Savoia in Piedmont or the Hanoverians in Great Britain? The victors and their international supporters claimed that the Bourbon exit was an inevitable episode on the road to Italian unity, a necessary consequence of a war of liberation, the conflict having been simply a logical stage in the process of nation-building, a way of absorbing natural national territory – as Wessex had ingested Mercia or France had taken in Provence. Few people outside the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies saw it for what it ultimately was, a war of expansion conducted by one Italian state against another. The unusual feature of the contest was that it was a three-sided one, two sides playing the recognized parts of protagonist (the garibaldini) and antagonist (the Bourbons) while the third (the Piedmontese) took on a more subtle role, pretending to be a friend of the others but in reality being the enemy (and eventual conqueror) of both.

Moral and historical justifications for the conquest of Naples are perplexing. According to G. M. Trevelyan, the doyen of British eulogists of the Risorgimento, unification was necessary because of ‘the utter failure of the Neapolitans to maintain their own freedom when left to themselves in 1848’. Yet other people have failed in similar fashion without needing or deserving conquest. Another argument, still favoured by certain Neapolitan historians, is that the rapid collapse of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1860 proved that it was rotten and required elimination. Again, other regimes have collapsed before a sudden onslaught only to be resuscitated later by their allies. A distinguished historian of Naples, an elderly man whose great-grandparents were all Neapolitans, insists that his country could not have become a modern nation by itself after 1860, that it needed the partnership of Piedmont to give it the apparatus of a modern state. His argument does not convince. Piedmont was undoubtedly a richer and more liberal state than the Two Sicilies in 1860, but for most of the eighteenth century Naples had possessed a more enlightened regime than Turin, and only a generation before union it had had more industry and more progressive codes of law. The belief that Naples, unlike other countries in western Europe, was incapable of evolving by itself is simply illogical, an example of that southern inferiority complex which was engendered by the triumphalism of the Risorgimento and reinforced by much subsequent talk, northern and condescending, about ‘the southern question’ and ‘the problem of the mezzogiorno’.

 

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CV.33 series

The Italian tank type built was the CV.29, designed in 1929, which was based on the Carden-Loyd Mk VI tankette, four of which were purchased from Britain; the CV.29 was in all respects similar to the British original, and 25 were built.

Fiat and Ansaldo improved on this version to produce the slightly more sophisticated CV.33 series.

Two heavier tanks were produced in 1933-6, as prototypes for possible production; they had diesel engines and differed in details though had similar suspension. Largest was the turretless Carro Armato 12ton Tank of 1933. The lighter of the two tanks, the Carro Armato 8ton Tank appeared in 1936 and featured a 37mm gun in the hull front and an MG in the turret. From this prototype was developed the M.11 of which 100 were ordered in 1938. About this time the designation system for tanks was changed and the old CV type (Carro Veloce 33) became ‘L’ (for Light, L.33).

Meanwhile a greatly improved version of the L.33 appeared, the L3/35 which had better armour and a superior engine. There were several variants of this vehicle including a flamethrower. A further improved model was the L3/38 of 1938 which featured new suspension and other detail changes. In 1936 Fiat-Ansaldo built prototypes of 5ton vehicles which were light tanks considerably bigger than the L3/35 and fitted with turrets and 8mm MGs; this type was known as the L.6.

CARRO VELOCE 33 TANKETTE

Designed by Ansaldo and closely derived from the basic Carro Veloce 29 (see above) in 1931-2. Officially tested and design finalised in 1933. Total of 1,300 ordered initially, later increased. Built by Fiat-Ansaldo. Numerous variants and improved models (see below). Widely used and widely exported. The vehicle was airportable beneath an aircraft and could tow a tracked ammunition trailer. It was distinguished by being very low and small, and lacking a turret, the gun(s) being set in the superstructure. Riveted and bolted construction was used throughout and the vehicle was of very simple shape. Rear engine and front drive. MG armament except in special variants. 3.15tons; crew 2; 1 MG or 2 MG; armour 5-l5mm; engine (gasoline) 43hp; 26mph; 10.4ft x 4.67ft x 4.25ft. Other users: Afghanistan (1936-?); Albania (1938-40); Austria (1935-9); Bolivia (1937-?); Brazil (special export model with Madsen MG, 1938-c. 1946); Bulgaria (1936-9); China (1936-9); Greece (captured vehicles, 1941), Hungary (1934-8); Iraq (1936-41); Spain, Nationalist (1936-9).

CV Fiat-Ansoldo L38: Improved 1937-8 model with stronger suspension, new tracks, episcope for driver, and Breda MG. Many older vehicles were retrospectively modified to this standard. From 1940 some vehicles were rearmed with a 20mm Solothurn anti-tank pun, as in the illustration above.

L35/Lf (later L3-35Lf in 1940): Flamethrower conversion of any of the, three production types. Featured a 500kg armoured fuel trailer towed behind the vehicle. Flame-gun was mounted in the hull, replacing MGs. On some later vehicles the fuel tank was mounted on the rear superstructure. Range up to 100 metres. JLf stood for ‘lanciafiamme’ (flamethrower); known as ‘Carro d’assalto lanciafiamme’.

CV 33/11 special export model for Brazil with torsion bar suspension and 13 2mm Madsen MG.

Other variants: Recovery Vehicle (unarmed and with towing equipment); Tank Destroyer (1939 prototype, not adapted); Radio Controlled Demolition Tank (conversion by a tank unit); AA Tank (L3 with 8mm MG on AA mount in limited service).

Tug Argan 1940 Part I

The Road to Zeilah by David Pentland. (P)
British Somaliland, 1940. Italian Carro Amato M11/39 tanks of the ‘Compania Speciale Carri M’ advance on the British held town of Zeilah. These where only one of two medium tank companies of 12 tanks each which were deployed in Africa Orientale (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somaliland) by the Italian Army.

Italian invasion of British Somaliland.

When Wavell had visited British Somaliland in January 1940 he concluded that, whilst this had great potential for halting any Italian advance, there were about four miles of ground to be defended and at least three strongpoints would be needed, set about a mile apart from each other. Another visit was made two months later by a junior officer from the Royal Artillery who viewed at first hand this strategically significant feature, which he measured at about 8,000 yards in length. On his return to Cairo he submitted a detailed appreciation highlighting how the advantages offered by the local terrain could be used to best effect. This also recommended that the smallest possible defending force needed was a full battalion of troops with, potentially, a second in reserve, supported by eight 25-pounder guns split into two groups. With a maximum range of 13,000 yards, these were vital, and it was recommended that ideally they should be situated at the foot of Castle Hill, one of the position’s small flat-topped hills, from where there was good visibility over the entire gap. The report noted the need for additional fixed defences to be prepared, but by this stage the lack of available men and money had slowed down work and prospects for anything being finished already looked bleak. The officer’s comment at the very end of his report was that ‘whatever the type and number of guns employed they are sure to be inadequate for the demands which will be made upon them’. The clear suggestion was that Tug Argan could not be held.

Despite such a pessimistic conclusion, four defended localities were formed and manned by the recently arrived North Rhodesians and a machine gun company of the Camel Corps. Consisting of well-prepared defences with barbed wire and concrete posts, they were dug in on what were named Black Hill, Knobbly Hill, Mill Hill and Observation Hill, with Castle Hill being used as the headquarters. Elsewhere, Indian and Nigerian troops occupied other key positions across the territory, defending routes that offered access either to the coast road or the mountain passes. From an entirely desperate position just a few months before, when the Italian attack eventually began there were in fact a total of 4,507 British and Commonwealth troops scattered across the protectorate, and whilst 75 per cent of these were African infantrymen and Somali irregulars, this was still an eightfold increase on the available strength at the beginning of the year. Although this represented less than 1 per cent of the British and Commonwealth troops then available for active duty across the British Empire, in many respects it was a remarkable outcome, particularly in light of the worsening situation in Europe and the calls for manpower that were being made from elsewhere.

There remained, however, significant deficiencies. Other than a light battery on Knobbly Hill manned by Kenyans, and despite the recommendations that had been made, crucially there were still no significant anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns. This failure to provide adequate firepower, when it was known that the Italians had tanks and armoured cars, undermined any claims that there were plans to conduct a credible defence. Some of the shortages were made up by the homemade mortars that had been produced in the railway workshops of Nairobi, but when they were eventually used, lacking proper dial sites as they did, there was no way of achieving precision when firing. There were other key problems: lack of transport meant that the defenders lacked mobility, despite a strong mobile reserve being thought absolutely critical. The positions were widely separated but the Italians were known to have mules, which would allow them to cross the rough terrain and outflank the defenders. The differences that still existed between the senior political and military figures in Berbera about what strategy to follow only made the situation worse. Whilst preparations had been made at the Sheikh Pass to completely destroy the road and make its repair a very long operation, Glenday continued to refuse to allow explosives to be put in place for fear of unsettling public opinion. He had proved a grave obstacle throughout the year and it was only in July, as the situation dramatically worsened, that the governor finally adopted a new outlook, proposing that he now leave as ‘there was not much left for him to do as the military had everything more or less in their hands’. Chater chose to encourage him to stay while also asking Wavell’s headquarters what he should do if London’s senior political representative did depart.

The lack of clear decision-making was, for once, not mirrored on the Italian side. Despite his previous orders from Rome, the viceroy of Italian East Africa, the Duke of Aosta still wanted to launch attacks on Jibuti in order to secure control of the coast and prevent his opponent from using the excellent port to land additional forces. As he assumed that the troops in British Somaliland would interfere, Aosta proposed to march on Berbera at the same time. His plan was once again submitted to Mussolini on 18 June but it was not until early the following month that he was finally given authority to proceed. Aosta had used the intervening period to study how an invasion might be conducted, and the viceroy and his deputy, General Guglielmo Nasi, who had arrived in Italian East Africa the previous May and who was one of Italy’s most capable military officers, had produced an accurate estimate of likely enemy forces and an appreciation which outlined the campaign’s objectives. On 25 July detailed instructions were issued to his troops by Lieutenant-General Carlo De Simone, who was in command of what would be the main advancing column. He controlled the bulk of Italian fighting power, including the reinforced Harrar Division, with its three colonial brigades comprising eleven infantry battalions supported by plentiful artillery and even some tanks and armoured cars, and a further two Blackshirt battalions. The priority still appeared to be to keep apart the French and British forces and prevent any landings which might lead to a counter-offensive against Harrar. A subsequent British analysis also identified two main objectives, but these were to occupy British Somaliland and to destroy the defending garrison. De Simone had chosen to interpret his main task as being to pass through Hargeisa and Sheikh in order ‘to annihilate the enemy and occupy Berbera’.

The timetable for the advance was set and East Africa’s period of relative calm was about to come to an end. There were very few aircraft available to the defending garrison, just three Blenheims and a number of antiquated Gladiators, but air reconnaissance on 3 August confirmed that about 400 Italian troops had crossed the border at Biyad. The next morning, a Sunday, additional reports identified De Simone’s column moving towards Hargeisa. Along with the road to Odweina further to the south, these were the only practical routes that could be taken to Berbera. Having been held up by the Camel Corps, just after 10 a.m. on 5 August the Italians attacked the protectorate’s major inland town with a mixed bombardment from mortars and light and heavy artillery supported by aircraft flying over the position. Three hours later, twelve light tanks advanced in line and, although three were disabled by anti-tank rifles, the decision was taken to withdraw the company of Rhodesians who had blocked the Italians’ progress. Moving in three columns but separated by a considerable distance, Nasi relied upon wireless and aircraft to communicate with De Simone he as manoeuvred into a position to attack Tug Argan from the front. The other two columns tried to mislead their opponent and potentially exploit any weakness as it appeared.

Elsewhere troops led by Lieutenant-General Sisto Bertoldi had occupied the port of Zeilah on the invasion’s first day, which removed any possibility of help for the British coming from French Somaliland. The Italian commander failed to exploit the opening presented to him and proceeded cautiously south-east along the coast, managing only to occupy the small village of Bulhar. This was possibly because the local defences had been thought to be much stronger, and thus more able to hold out longer, than was the case. However, had the defenders, operating about 150 miles from Berbera, tried to fight in such an isolated position they would have run the risk of being surrounded and destroyed, and it was sensible that they withdrew. Whilst the opportunity had not been taken to seize this potentially open road to the port, there were now scant defences blocking the advance towards Tug Argan and both sides appeared to recognise, as Wavell had anticipated, that this was the critical point in the coming battle.

Despite British and Commonwealth troops falling back at every point, the initial media reports showed an apparent lack of concern, the suggestion being that the invasion was merely ‘a “face-saving” tactic designed to strengthen morale in Italy’. Several referred to it as having been expected for some time, and that the Camel Corps, ‘an excellent and capable body of men’ with knowledge of the local terrain, was well equipped to use guerrilla tactics and act as a mobile defence that would cause casualties and delays. Great emphasis was also placed on the challenging nature of the terrain, with the Italians forced to conduct long marches over the mountainous Golis ranges, 10,000-feet-high peaks across which mechanised troops could not travel and where British aircraft could easily find targets. There was also the climate: August was the start of the dry season during which a constant burning wind and temperatures in excess of 120°F made conditions almost unbearable. Another cause for optimism were the local nomadic groups who were said to ‘both dislike and despise’ the Italians and could be counted on to fight for the Empire. These kinds of themes were commonly repeated throughout the campaign’s initial days, during which a narrative was developed for the largely ignorant readership in Britain and elsewhere about just how difficult it would be for the attack to succeed. However, this failed to grasp that virtually all of the factors enumerated as slowing down the Italians were also challenges for the garrison. Within only a few days of the fall of Zeilah and Hargeisa there was a subtle change in the media’s tone, with references to how much more difficult the defence was due to the collapse of France and the removal of any chance of support from Jibuti. Such reports even accepted that the possible loss of ‘the wretched tract’ of British Somaliland might have to be considered, and it seemed clear that the British public were being readied for worse to come.

Enemy aircraft had initially flown over Tug Argan late on 6 August 1940, by which point the Italians had already secured local air superiority and the RAF had practically lost the battle. What few aircraft there were had been put in the air immediately following the invasion but there were insufficient fighters to provide any protection, and of the only three bombers one was lost within hours. With no radar and little or no anti-aircraft defence, the decision had been quickly taken to withdraw from the temporary landing strips that had been built at Berbera and fall back on the small permanent base at Aden more than 200 miles from the battle area. Two days later, six Italian aircraft carried out a first raid on the gap, killing an askari and three Somali refugees. At the same time reports were received that a small column of tanks and infantry were moving from Hargeisa, and were finding the roadblocks and homemade landmines in front of the hills to be no barrier to their advance. The troops in the forward trenches were consequently withdrawn just after midday on 10 August and pulled back to the main prepared defences. Here they faced an intensive artillery bombardment followed by an advance of troops, both colonials and some of the paramilitary Blackshirts whom the defenders considered to be the equivalent of second-line infantry. The assault continued into the night and, after a brief pause, resumed the next morning shortly after first light as every defended post along the British line was attacked. Although the wire was reached in each case, only one of them fell. Even though by this stage it was clear that the defending forces were handicapped by a lack of adequate provisions, Chater believed that ‘my present feeling is that troops will stick it out but [I] do not think we shall be out of the wood for some days yet’.

With the battle under way it was very difficult to provide additional support to the embattled British and Commonwealth forces. A few attacks were launched from Aden by the remaining aircraft, and HMS Kimberley, Auckland, Carlisle, Ceres and HMAS Hobart, all of which were patrolling the coast, bombarded shore targets. The last of these vessels, a light cruiser under the command of Captain H.L. Howden, Royal Australian Navy, had sailed in October 1939 for the northern Arabian Sea and, from its new base in Aden, its role during the intervening months had been to escort troopships carrying reinforcements to Berbera, and then, as the battle progressed, helping to evacuate refugees. With the invasion now well under way, and in response to an attack by three Italian fighters, the ship’s single Walrus seaplane was launched against Zeilah and what was believed to be the newly created Italian military headquarters. The lone aircraft machine-gunned trucks and staff cars and two 112-pound bombs were also dropped within forty yards of the target. When the Walrus returned to the ship it had two bullet holes to show for its efforts but little actual damage had been done; the British media, looking for any positive story at this stage, nonetheless reported it as a great triumph.

Back at Tug Argan itself, one of the war’s most gallant defences was being fought. Even according to Glenday, writing a few days later in a letter sent prior to his evacuation, this ranked ‘amongst the historic actions of the British Army’ – a conclusion which seems to have been widely held. The defenders managed to hold out for three days and nights and only stopped firing when all their ammunition was exhausted. As the various military visitors who had made the journey to the protectorate beforehand had warned, it was the lack of artillery that proved decisive: it meant the defenders had little meaningful firepower to halt such a large advancing body. As the Italians neared the gap an urgent cable was received in Cairo pleading for anti-tank guns to be sent by fast ship; while four gunners were immediately flown out, it was more difficult to move equipment, which did not make it in time. When the guns did eventually arrive they were instead sent to the Sudan, later forming an important element of a mobile anti-tank gun troop. The absence of anti-aircraft defences was also considered acute and the headquarters in Cairo issued instructions that the guns helping defend Port Said should be removed and sent at once. This would leave another important element of the imperial network unguarded, and two days later the orders were quietly rescinded. All that did arrive to aid the defenders, driven in on a truck at first light on 10 August, was a three-pounder Hotchkiss gun from HMAS Hobart along with three Australian naval volunteers dressed in soldier’s uniform to act as its crew. Even this gun, however, had to be dismantled to load rounds, which meant it could only achieve a rate of fire of one shell every five minutes. There were in any case only thirty-two rounds of high explosive and the same of steel shell, hardly a devastating counter to the Italian tanks and aircraft. Although more guns were on the way, it was, however, too little and too late.

Over the days that followed, near-constant attacks by waves of Italian and colonial troops progressively moved closer to the defenders’ positions. Mill Hill had been abandoned on 12 August and, eventually, the attackers managed to reach within a few yards of the centre of the entire line. This caused the rest of it to also fall back and, with a counter-attack failing to recover the lost positions, it was only a matter of time before a withdrawal would need to be made. The situation was now reviewed by the local British commander in the knowledge that every man had already fought for seventy-two hours without rest and little ammunition remained. What proved to be the determining factor was the loss of the few available artillery pieces. There had been four guns of the 1st East African Light Battery deployed with the Rhodesians, two on Knobbly Hill and two more on Mill Hill; these either ran out of ammunition or, when the Italians had closed within their minimum range, they could no longer fire, even over open sights.

Observation Hill held out until the evening of 15 August and, even before it fell, the order had been given to pull back towards Berbera. This part of the plan was carried out without any real Italian opposition and the remaining British and Commonwealth troops withdrew in the direction of Knobbly Hill. They left behind Acting Captain Eric Wilson, who had been responsible for directing the fire from the Camel Corps’ machine guns on the last of the hills still held by the defenders. Hit by artillery fire on 11 August, which severely injured his right shoulder and left eye, he repaired his weapon and continued to fire on the advancing Italians until his position was finally overrun four days later; by then all of those around him, including his dog, were dead. As the garrison fell back on Berbera his capture went unnoticed, but his actions on Observation Hill were not: he was awarded the first Victoria Cross of the war in Africa, though he was presumed dead. (In fact, Wilson died in 2008, by which point he was the oldest surviving wartime recipient of this medal.) His formal citation, gazetted on 11 October 1940, opened with the words ‘For most conspicuous gallantry on active service in Somaliland’ and ended ‘The enemy finally overran the post at 5pm when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed’. Wilson’s father’s comment on hearing the news was that ‘he has died, I suppose, as every soldier would wish to die – fighting. It’s a great and terrible loss to us, but we know that he did his duty.’ The more sensational media wrote of ‘Another Rorke’s Drift’.

Tug Argan 1940 Part II

Defence of the Tug Argan Gap.

Throughout this period Wavell was away from Cairo, having been summoned back to London by Churchill. The Middle East commander had many admirers but the prime minister, in office for two months and having inherited all of the senior military commanders from his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, did not appear to be one of them. The men had their first disagreement in early June when the general in Cairo had been instructed to send back to Britain from Palestine eight battalions to help man the country’s defence against the anticipated German invasion. Wavell was unwilling to reduce his very limited forces and the troops were not sent, a decision which Churchill apparently never forgot. Their differing opinions on how to resource and conduct operations in the Middle East were undoubtedly the principal source of friction, but the military commander’s character proved incomprehensible to the politician and Churchill’s resulting loss of trust in Wavell encouraged his tendency to become embroiled in operational and tactical details of battle. In late July one well-placed observer in the War Office noted that the prime minister had decided to send for Wavell ‘for personal consultation’, but it had proved possible to persuade him that removing a senior commander for several weeks when an attack might come at any time was not the best course to follow. Even then Churchill apparently only accepted this delay reluctantly, reversing the decision a few days later and leading to Wavell’s ‘flying visit’. This was seen by many as an early, very clear indication of Churchill’s lack of confidence in his commander and his abilities.

At the same time, and despite the now obvious extent of the Italian military advantage, in London the prime minister and the Middle East Committee were still anxious that the garrison in British Somaliland should hold out. This led to the decision to send a battalion of the Black Watch, which had been kept in Aden as a reserve, to join the four others already there, making, it was argued, a potentially potent force. With only one transport ship available it would, however, take three days for it to be moved and assembled alongside the existing formations. As a further demonstration of this sudden new-found commitment, enquiries were also made as to whether 1st Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment could be transferred by a fast cruiser, and it was even suggested that medium tanks might be sent, although this idea was quickly amended to the possibility of making some Bren gun carriers available instead. Further discussions also took place about improving the port facilities at Berbera: Wavell had expressed his concern about their poor quality the month before, particularly for maintaining the flow of supplies or, possibly, managing the evacuation of troops. He had warned then about the danger of ‘congestion and confusion’ but there was no time for this to be remedied. As the fighting around him became increasingly desperate, detailed instructions were now sent from London to the base commandant for the long-term improvements that were to be made. This was a positive step but it had come much too late and pointed to how little understanding there was of the impossible task facing the defenders and the desperate battle that had already begun.

With this heightened interest in London, the headquarters in Cairo was also asked to develop an updated appreciation and proposals for what would be needed to retain control of the protectorate. In Wavell’s absence, one of his senior colleagues was quick to offer a view of regional strategy which seemed to run counter to those held by the general. Air Chief Marshal Longmore noted that out of a force of 187 bombers and fighters in Italian East Africa and Eritrea, only 39 were believed to be operating against British Somaliland. He also stated that, whilst the total available to them appeared to represent a significant advantage, the Italians actually faced serious problems in maintaining their forces. Longmore wrote that, at their present rate of consumption, the enemy would have no more than seven months of fuel and faced potentially critical shortages of ammunition, bomb components and aircraft spares. Mindful of both the increasing threat facing Egypt and the successes being achieved by aircraft based in the Sudan in attacking Italian frontier posts and supply bases, Longmore argued that nothing could be spared to help defend the protectorate. All he was prepared to contribute to its defence was sending long-range bombers to attack key objectives in and around Addis Ababa which, he argued, might draw off some of the advancing Italian troops. There was in fact only a remote prospect of this offering any real respite to the defenders in British Somaliland and it highlighted once again the reluctant commitment to its defence which had, since at least 1938, been such a common feature of official policy.

Another decision made in London, which reflected the increased size of the garrison, was to appoint a more senior commander to lead the protectorate’s defence. Major-General Reade Godwin-Austen, who inherited the unenviable task, was another professional soldier who had been commissioned from Sandhurst in 1909 into the South Wales Borderers and had fought throughout the First World War in the Middle East, where he received a number of awards for bravery. During the inter-war years he spent periods based back in England but for most of the time he was in Palestine. Wavell thought highly of him, and in August 1940 he had been poised to take command of the 2nd African Division when instead he was ordered to proceed to Berbera as quickly as possible. According to Arthur Smith, when the general was woken in the early hours of the morning to be told that he was to leave Cairo at 6 a.m. he reportedly responded with a booming voice, ‘Godwin will be there’, before going back to sleep for a few more hours. Prior to setting off to take over his new command he was provided with a single page of instructions with only six points and a brief administrative appendix. The first confirmed he had been appointed to replace Chater, and the next gave him the authority to organise the command as he wanted, with advice that he remain closely in touch with the Senior Naval Officer and Air Officer Commanding in Aden. The strategic advice was brief: he was to prevent any advance beyond the main established defensive position and, whilst the immediate role of his troops was defensive, any opportunities for local offensive operations were not to be overlooked. At the same time he was to prepare for withdrawal and evacuation, although this possibility was to be disclosed to the bare minimum of people.

On reaching the protectorate Godwin-Austen followed his additional instructions to relieve Glenday and also take over civilian administration of the territory alongside his military role. Although he had only just arrived it was already clear what had to be done and on the evening of 14 August he wrote to Cairo to suggest that the position was becoming hopeless. His principal concern was that there was no possibility of concentrating the dispersed forces he still had available which were covering various passes and the routes through them towards the port. Each of the outposts knew it had to hold out for as long as possible, but as there were not enough reserves to provide adequate support the Italians could infiltrate on foot the unmanned openings. As he put it, this meant ‘there was no defensive position close in [and] defending Berbera which cannot be outflanked’. The general was also facing difficulties in receiving instructions from Wavell as a shortage of staff and the increased number of messages being sent meant that some were left undeciphered for up to thirty hours. Further hampering him were the limited means of communicating between his units and he had grave doubts about the ability of the African and Indian troops to stand up to concerted Italian artillery fire. This final point was prominent in his calculations as he was concerned about the effect that ‘a serious disaster’ could have on British and Commonwealth troops elsewhere.

By the following morning it was growing obvious that those men who remained in the forward positions were exhausted and shaken by the continuous bombardment they had experienced for several days. Godwin-Austen assured the headquarters in Cairo that his forces were willing to fight on ‘if total sacrifice of forces considered worth it’, but at this stage he believed evacuation would allow for about 70 per cent of them to be saved. He therefore decided to fall back on the port and orders were issued to withdraw. General Maitland ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, deputising for Wavell while he was in London, had received a series of messages from Berbera warning that the situation was critical and this led him to accept the advice and issue the code-word ‘Snipe’. As he later wrote, ‘I had no hesitation in agreeing to immediate evacuation’ as ‘we could not afford to waste a single soldier for the heroics of defending to the last man a territory which a year previously was not considered to be worthwhile’. Having indicated that he still had large numbers of men he could pull back to the port, Godwin-Austen was, however, told that it was assumed this final position could then be held for some time. Instructions were also given that, whilst he was not to prejudice the success of the evacuation, he should try and save his heavier equipment. Exactly this type of operation had previously been identified as being fraught with difficulties in a report that had examined the possibility of evacuation the month before the Italian attack began. It noted that it would be impossible to bring ships alongside due to the poor quality of the harbour facilities, and boats would have to take the troops off from the wharf. Using this method and with access to three large naval vessels, one of which would need to be a cruiser, it was calculated that 1,000 men could be moved each day but all 350 vehicles and the bulk of the stores would have to be left behind. This forecast proved entirely accurate and little of the transport was recovered. Parts were removed to disable vehicles but no attempt was made to destroy them as it was feared fires might illuminate the town and allow the Italians to interfere with the escape. At least all of the troops were safely evacuated, the only exception being those of the Camel Corps, most of whom were simply told to return to their homes and await the return of the British. Previously they had been told that in the worst case they were to hold as much territory as they could and harry the occupying Italians, but this plan had apparently now been set aside.

With the withdrawal complete, on the morning of 19 August HMAS Hobart’s guns shelled Berbera for two hours and destroyed key structures including government buildings, barracks and storehouses. One of those on board recorded the final scenes: ‘as we steamed out we could see the Italian forces in the hollow of distant hills waiting to move in when our guns had finished firing. As we steamed away we watched eagerly to see if there might not be one more man to be saved from the shore before it receded from our sight.’ Another witness, a British colonel standing on the same deck, said it reminded him of the Gallipoli evacuation. The warships stayed on for a few more days and kept in touch with stragglers, rescuing those who had not been able to make it back to Berbera. After taking aboard a final group the small convoy set sail for Aden, arriving later the same day. Some of the Indian troops eventually remained there but most of the evacuees headed straight for Kenya and Egypt. The end had been relatively swift, no more than a couple of weeks in total, but the impact of this defeat would rumble on for far longer.

Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake, Additional Assistant Chief of Naval Staff at the Admiralty in London, was saddened to hear the news of the withdrawal but wrote to the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean:

I don’t think, except from the point of view of prestige, that it is going to have any very great effect on the strategical position vis-à-vis Aden, but nevertheless, it seems to me a thing which should not have occurred. It appears to have taken the Military Authorities at home here quite by surprise, and it was only a matter of about 10 days ago that they were talking quite hopefully of the position in the hills being maintained indefinitely until reinforcements arrived at Berbera. Apparently their information must have been rather faulty as they seemed to have no idea of the number of tanks and other armoured vehicles which the Italians appear to have had available to them.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham replied that he also regretted what had happened and that ‘the soldiers were caught with their trousers down’. This was a more accurate description than he might have known. Although the need for their evacuation had been recognised as a possible outcome of an Italian attack, the issuing of the actual order had not been anticipated by the British colonial officers who still remained in Berbera, and many of them arrived in Aden with little more than a pair of pyjamas.75 A post-war review concluded that if the port facilities had been improved as had been recommended, most of the transport could have been saved, but there was an ‘insistence on running our Colonies “on the cheap” especially in matters of defence’.

Despite what had happened, Britain’s media tried to remain positive. Once the fighting had begun to grow in intensity and the narrative had started to point to the protectorate’s possible loss, the argument that this was not that critical an element of the imperial network had begun to play out. One commentator wrote that it was simply of ‘scant account’ in the overall strategic picture, while others highlighted the idea that the Italians were in fact being deliberately encouraged to wear down their manpower and resources. As late as 12 August it was still being reported that the invading forces had not reached the main defensive positions when the final battle was in fact already poised to begin. In all these accounts Berbera was consistently referred to as being important and it was argued that there was never any intention of surrendering the port. Such statements exposed the initial lack of recognition by the media and the public at large that the situation was so desperate. An editorial in the Manchester Guardian three days later argued that there was still an opportunity to inflict a setback on the Italians by mounting a successful defence, and called for more troops to be sent. This also noted that the official statements referred to the situation as ‘serious but by no means critical’, which was reminiscent of the comments made in France before its final collapse. Even when news arrived that the withdrawal back to Berbera had begun, correspondents on the ground remained optimistic that the British and Commonwealth troops would be able to hold on to the port. One writer for The Times described the Italian forces across the region as ‘a beleaguered army which must live on its reserves of supplies and whose only hope of survival is that Hitler may pull Mussolini’s chestnuts out of the fire by winning the war elsewhere’. Whilst this assessment was, of course, entirely correct, and would later be shown to be exactly what the Italians were also thinking, it was some time before this would become known and did little to help the situation.

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Militarily, Wavell had done nothing wrong; indeed, with the disparity between the opposing forces in the protectorate it was remarkable that the defenders were able to hold out as long as they did. The Battle of Britain was, however, in full flow and there was no Churchillian appetite for a defeat that could not be portrayed in heroic tones. The prime minister’s vision of strategy may have had moments of genius but it was also often based on acts of heroism and sacrifice, not the logical use of force and the notion that it is sometimes preferable to wait for a better opportunity to secure a decisive victory. Churchill was wrong to condemn Wavell and his subordinates for their entirely reasonable actions, but one of the steps he had taken when he assumed leadership of Britain only a few months before was to appoint himself as the first ever Minister for Defence. It was this title that offered him the conviction that his way was the only way and there would be consequences for those involved in the defeat.

The loss of British Somaliland marked the first redrawing of the British Empire’s map since 1931 when a strip of land in the Sudan had been ceded to Italy. Godwin-Austen admitted that he smarted about what had happened and it drove him on during the subsequent campaign to show the Italians ‘what being overwhelmed by numbers and superior armament felt like’. Hitler apparently referred to it as ‘a hard blow to British prestige’, but it was actually more an emotional setback than a military one. As one contemporary writer put it, ‘all the British had lost was the privilege of maintaining an expensive garrison in their least valuable colony’. And the outcome could have been much worse. Aosta wrote after his own eventual surrender the following year that the key theme of his plan had been speed and his commanders had been urged to move on as quickly as they could following Berbera’s capture. Difficulties in getting supplies forward, particularly food and water, along with some very poor weather and heavy rains which rendered some of the roads impassable, made this difficult to achieve. Having encountered the strong defences around Tug Argan and the additional delay they imposed, Aosta made an attempt to send troops forward by aircraft and a force of 300 volunteers was readied to make a bold attempt to seize the port; but the only landing ground was in British hands and so the plan was abandoned. If it had not been, the haphazard and poorly defended evacuation could easily have been disrupted and some, or even all, of the withdrawing forces captured. Once again, the Italians had failed to exploit the opportunities presented to them and within a matter of months this high point of victory would seem a distant memory.

The ‘Libli’ railcars

In 1942 it was decided to armour the ALn-556 railcars of the Ansaldo firm, for service in Yugoslavia. The Railway Engineers chose models produced from 1936 to 1938. They had to be shortened by 5.60m (18ft 4½in). The prototype was tested in the Ansaldo-Fossati workshops in Genoa, and was adopted on 5 September 1942, with several recommended changes, with the designation ‘Littorina blindata mod. 42 (Li.Bli 42)’. The first production model was rolled out on 20 September and joined the 1o Compagnia Autonoma Littorine Blindate. This company would receive eight railcars in total, and was made up of ten officers, twelve NCOs and 167 men. The 8.5mm armour protection was built in one piece, pierced only by access and maintenance hatches, and firing ports.

Armed with two tank turrets mounting 47mm guns, two versions were used at the same time. The first version had two openings in the roof to allow firing two 81mm Model 35 mortars, or flamethrowers through side apertures. The second had a circular tub with a pedestal-mounted 20mm Breda Model 35 cannon. The 8.5mm armour protection was built in one piece, pierced only by access and maintenance hatches, and firing ports.

When the Italian Armistice was signed, the ‘Liblis’ were based at Karlovac, Ogulin and Split (Croatia), Ljubljana and Novo Mesto (Slovenia) and Suse (in Italy, 30km/19 miles west of Turin). A series of machines was then ordered for the Wehrmacht in 1943 (see the chapter on Germany).

The Independent Railway Company saw hard service up until the Armistice of 1943, and suffered heavy losses. In particular two ‘Libli’ were destroyed, the first at Split in October 1942 and the second at Ogulin on 12 February 1943.

Technical specifications:

Length: 13.50m (44ft 71/2in)

Width: 2.42m (7ft 111/4in)

Height: 3.57m (11ft 81/2in)

Weight: 39.5 tonnes

Motor: FIAT 355C, 80hp at 1700 rpm

Fuel: Diesel

Maximum speed: 80km/h (50mph)

Range: 450km (280 miles)

Armour thickness: 8.5mm

Armament: 2 turrets similar to those fitted to the M13/40 tank, with 47mm/L32 gun with 195 rounds and 8mm Breda 38 machine gun

Either 2 x 81mm Mod. 35 mortars with 576 bombs Or 1 x 20mm Breda Mod. 35 anti-aircraft cannon

2 Mod. 40 flamethrowers

4 x 8mm Breda 38 machine guns in side ball mountings with 8,040 rounds

The personal arms of the crew and hand grenades

Crew: 1 officer, 2 drivers, 2 gunners, 2 loaders, 6 machine gunners, 2 mortar specialists, 2 flamethrower engineers, 1 radio operator

Radio equipment: Marelli RF2CA or RF3M set

Various: Turret searchlights, track repair equipment.

Italy-Naval AAA

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The Ansaldo 65mm/64 was the only new gun project of the wartime Royal Italian Navy.

Radius_of_action_of_Allied_aircraft_from_Malta_in_relation_to_Axis_shipping_routes,_Summer_and_Autumn,_1941

The Royal Italian Navy developed radar but, as with the Germans, mainly for gunnery (LA range-finding). The only wartime anti-aircraft gun project (indeed, the only wartime gun project at all) was a new 65mm/64 HA gun intended specifically for the projected conversion of two small cruisers, Etna and Vesuvio, laid down pre-war for Siam, and left incomplete at the end of the war. Each was to have been armed with three twin 135mm/45 LA guns (as in the ‘Capitani Romani’ class) and a total of ten 65mm/64. Twelve were to have been mounted on board the carrier Aquila, left incomplete in 1943. The gun would also have armed ‘Capitani Romani’ class cruisers (a single mount would have replaced each twin 37mm/54). It was begun by the two gun manufacturers (Ansaldo and OTO) in collaboration in 1939 and was nearly ready in 1943. Production was cancelled in the summer of 1943, just before the Italian armistice. Length was originally to have been 56 calibres, increased to 62 calibres and then to 64 calibres. It fired a 4kg (about 8.8lbs) shell at a muzzle velocity of 950ft/sec (3117ft/sec). Originally it had an all-elevation electric loader, but that proved difficult to develop, and before the programme died altogether the gun was to have been hand-loaded. On that basis it could fire about 20 rnds/min. Maximum elevation was 80°.

Wartime anti-aircraft upgrades were limited. Thus the Littorios received a few additional twin 20mm/65 (fourteen rather than the original ten in Littorio and Roma). Other ships received small numbers of additional twin 37mm/54s (two more in the Dorias, to supplement the existing six). Some cruisers had their pre-war twin 13.2mm machine guns replaced by larger numbers of 20mm/65s. Destroyers were more heavily rearmed with 37mm/54s and 20mm/65s. For example, as completed Maestrale class destroyers had four twin 20mm/65s as their sole anti-aircraft weapons. In 1942 Maestrale had another two single 20mm/65s. In 1943 her sister Grecale had a twin 37mm/54 and four single 20mm/65. These short-range weapons were apparently quite effective against low-flying attackers, as the RAF suffered badly from intense anti-aircraft fire in the war to cut the supply line across the Mediterranean.

Effective machine gun range, as estimated in January 1942, was 1500m for the 37mm and 1200m for the 20mm, based on the capability of the predictors (alzi calcolatori and correttori rapidi), which took several tens of seconds to produce solutions. They were considered effective against aircraft flying a straight course, such as torpedo bombers.

During the war, the main Italian fleet encountered only a few air attacks in the open sea (as opposed to attacks in harbour, as at Taranto). Much of the Italian naval effort was devoted to running small convoys to North Africa in support of the Italian and German armies there. The destroyers and smaller ships fought an intense battle against RAF bombers, many of them operating out of Malta. At the same time they had to deal with submarines and with surface striking forces, also based on Malta. In this sense Italian convoy operations were a kind of microcosm of the larger British operations intended to resupply Malta. The Italian convoys generally did not enjoy air support, apart from the indirect effect of attacks on Malta. Neither the Germans nor the Italians ever seem to have developed effective shipboard fighter control, although on occasion their fighters formed a CAP over a convoy. That was probably adequate in view of the limited number of attacking aircraft, although the RAF did mount mixed bomb and torpedo attacks from time to time. In turn, the situation on Malta decided how effectively the convoy route could be squeezed. For example, limited workshop facilities limited the use of aerial torpedoes by strike aircraft operating from Malta. The alternative was masthead bombing. Alexandria suffered similar limitations, particularly after the depot ship Medway, with her torpedo workshops, was lost.

The RAF used low-level tactics from the autumn of 1941 up to the autumn of 1942. Losses were due not only to anti-aircraft fire but also to crashing into the ships’ masts. For example, an RAF Blenheim V crippled a tanker almost inside Tobruk in October 1942, but his wingman crashed after colliding with the ship’s mast. Many of the combat narratives in the official RAF history of the maritime war in the Mediterranean refer both to intense anti-aircraft fire and to heavy losses. Often it is clear that pilots were unable to observe hits due to heavy smoke screens, and the narrative relies heavily on official estimates of how well the pilots did. It is not clear how accurate those estimates, which are far more pessimistic than the pilots’ reports, were.

Initially the British rules for dealing with merchant ships from the air were related to rules for submarines; for example aircraft could not attack at sight, and ships in convoy were not regarded as part of the enemy fleet. Presumably the British hoped to limit enemy air attacks on shipping. In August 1940 the Italians announced that any ships within 30nm of enemy territory would be attacked, and the rules were dramatically relaxed.

At the outset the demand on shipping was limited because the German objective in setting up the Afrika Korps was to stop the British advance into Italian North Africa. Transport across the Mediterranean to Tripoli began in mid-February 1941. In March Hitler ordered a blitzkrieg, which pushed the British out of their conquests in the area. At the same time the Germans attacked in Greece and within a month they occupied Crete. With the loss of Crete, the Admiralty considered that it could no longer use carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its torpedo bombers moved ashore to Malta; by December 1940 a Swordfish squadron (830) was on the island. Until the fall of Greece Swordfish also operated there. However, the Swordfish lacked the range to attack convoys in transit, and by December the Mediterranean and Middle East commanders were asking for longer-range torpedo bombers (Beauforts) to challenge the Axis supply route across the Mediterranean to Tobruk.

The Germans later complained that commitment of their air forces to the offensive in North Africa and also to the Russian campaign opened the convoys to air attack. Convoy losses in February and March 1941 were negligible, but in April and May they amounted to about 32,000 tons each month out of totals of 143,000 and 112,000 tons respectively. The situation was further complicated in that the army in North Africa was soon 1000km from its main port of Tripoli, and Tripoli itself had insufficient capacity. Thus a substantial fraction of the limited transport capacity had to go to repairing the port and to extending the key coastal road. To put the loss figures in perspective, in May 1941 the British Ministry of Economic Warfare estimated that the Axis was getting very short of shipping, because the enemy had nearer 500,000 tons than 1,000,000 tons available, excluding tankers and ships over 10,000 tons (useless for this service). They needed 250,000 tons to supply Albania and Tripoli, 100,000 tons for commercial service in the Adriatic, and 100,000 tons would always be under repair, leaving 100,000 tons for expeditionary warfare (at that time for Greece). Italian successes in getting tonnage across the Mediterranean in the face of British attacks can be attributed both to successful defence and to evasion based on code-breaking; evasion was similarly a vital element in Allied success in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Most of the damage to the Italian convoys during the first half of 1941 was by submarines, as the Swordfish had only limited capability. By this time the British were coming to sea attacks on the convoys as the best way to limit supplies going to North Africa; VCNS said that a successful attack on a ship in transit by an aircraft was worth the effort of fifty aircraft attacking the same cargo once it was ashore. For his part Winston Churchill wanted the largest possible submarine force based at Malta.

Air Staff wanted to use bombers. For the moment it was impossible to base Beauforts at Malta. With so few torpedoes on the island, Blenheim light bombers were sent out again, supplemented by Beaufighters (with IFF so that they could co-operate with ships) to help protect convoys. The Beaufighters operated in detachments of six aircraft at a time, the first six arriving on 27 April 1941 and carrying out their first anti-shipping strike on 1 May against a 3000-ton merchant ship escorted by a destroyer near the Kerkenna Islands. They claimed three hits on the destroyer and one on the merchant ship, both later confirmed as having been sunk. This detachment returned to England on 11 May, to be replaced by a second, which began its attacks on 22 May. A further detachment arrived on 21 May, suffering the first losses (two aircraft) during a 26 May convoy attack. In all, Blenheims of No. 2 Group made thirty-four sorties and attacked fifteen ships, sinking two, seriously damaging five and somewhat damaging another five, at the cost of two aircraft lost and two damaged. Blenheim detachments continued to operate from Malta through at least late 1941. The Blenheims attacked at low level, a very dangerous tactic. Typically Blenheims operated by day, torpedo-armed Swordfish at night. By the end of August 1941, there were thirty-two Blenheims on Malta, together with seven Marylands (typically used for reconnaissance, but now fitted with bomb racks), fifteen Wellingtons and twelve Swordfish. The Blenheims were having increasing trouble due to stronger convoy escorts and also fighter escorts, and AOC Mediterranean (Air Marshal Tedder) wanted to shift to attacks on enemy ports, but the Air Ministry considered it more useful to attack shipping in transit, so it decided to send another Blenheim squadron to Malta (this squadron, No. 18, did not leave for Malta until 10 October). At the time it was estimated that twenty-two ships had been sunk in August, of which submarines sank ten, torpedo bombers five, Blenheims four and heavy bombers (Wellingtons) three in harbour. In 1942 Malta continued to operate as an effective air-striking base but it was gradually choked by heavy enemy attacks (and very limited resupply, due to difficulties in running convoys), which nearly closed it down in March–April 1942.

In June the British air effort had to be cut back as the German- Italian army advanced towards Egypt: only 8500 tons out of 118,000 tons total were damaged or lost. Then British attacks increased, presumably partly because air pressure on Malta was relaxed due to the demands of the Russian campaign. In July, out of 153,000 tons sent out, nearly 20.000 tons were sunk and 7000 tons damaged. In August losses were 36.000 tons sunk and nearly 13,000 tons damaged out of 150,000 tons sent. In September losses were 49,000 tons sunk and nearly 14,000 tons damaged out of 163,000 tons sent out. Losses squeezed the capacity to ship heavy material, particularly vehicles such as tanks. There was no industrial capacity to replace heavy shipping losses. The large convoys could not be sustained, so in October shipping fell to 50,000 tons, of which 18,800 tons were lost and 12,800 tons damaged. Even had all the supplies gone through, they would have been grossly insufficient. In November, shipments fell to 37,000 tons – of which 26,000 tons were sunk and 2100 tons damaged. This was the worst damage ratio of the war, and the remaining 8400 tons was the least which had been delivered to Libya to date. In December only 36,000 tons was despatched, of which 13,000 tons was lost and 4800 tons damaged. These disasters coincided with the opening of a British offensive. Interdiction has always been most effective when the force being starved is also being forced to fight. The British advance into Cyrenaica greatly reduced Axis options to starve Malta, because it improved their prospects for convoy operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Three long-range Wellingtons fitted with ASV radar (sea-search radar) were deployed to Malta towards the end of September 1941 specifically to work with the Royal Navy surface force based at Malta, with the Malta-based naval torpedo bombers (Albacores at this time), and to shadow and attack enemy shipping. These aircraft acted as snoopers.

British anti-ship activity out of Malta was particularly intense in November 1941 in connection with the Crusader offensive in North Africa. It included a 19 November masthead-height attack on a convoy, escorted by one destroyer, by five Blenheims in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire. Three were shot down. At this time the RAF was also flying Wellingtons out of Malta, armed with semi-armour-piercing bombs. One night thirteen of them, working with four Swordfish, attacked a large convoy: five merchant ships escorted by a cruiser and five destroyers. The Swordfish opened with torpedoes (one hitting the cruiser escorting the convoy). The Wellingtons followed at low and medium altitude. No hits could be observed due to the thick smoke screen the convoy generated. The Wellingtons claimed straddles, which might damage the ships, but there was no assessment. One Swordfish failed to return. A particular effort was made to attack enemy ships in harbour, presumably because bombs were more likely to be effective against static ships.

For their part the Germans felt compelled to divert U-boats from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (initially twenty-one, ultimately thirty-six) specifically to deal with the convoys reinforcing Malta. For example, U-boats sank the carriers Ark Royal and Eagle, the latter during the ‘Pedestal’ convoy. By late 1941 it had become far more difficult to run convoys to Malta, and the onset of war in the Far East reduced the British capacity to make up losses in the Mediterranean. During the autumn of 1941 strikes from Malta became less effective both because the Italians learned to route their convoys out of range and because Malta itself was heavily bombed. The see-saw land war in North Africa did not help because bases seized there were too far from the Italian convoy routes for naval torpedo bombers.

The effect of renewed attacks against Malta showed in an improving Italian shipping situation. In January 1942, 60,000 tons were delivered to North Africa without loss. In February only 5000 tons of the 60,000 tons sent that month was lost. In March, 70,000 tons were sent, of which 15,800 tons were damaged and 1000 tons lost. None of these shipments was on the earlier scale, but in April 145,000 tons was sent, of which only 3500 tons was lost. The April shipment was the first and last time that it exceeded demands. At that time Rommel required 12.000 tons each month, but that did not include amassing supplies for any major operation. The more numerous Italian troops fighting alongside Rommel needed about twice the tonnage. With the reduction of air activity on Malta, at the end of March the Italians began to run single ships with heavy AA armament instead of convoys. The situation on Malta improved with the arrival of strong reinforcements of Spitfires in May 1942.

In April the total requirement for the German forces was 32,000 tons, the army taking 14,000 tons of fuel, as well as 1565 vehicles (including thirty-four tanks). May was even better: over 170,000 tons sent out, and only 10,000 tons lost. However, Rommel’s needs were also escalating, because on 26 May he began the offensive which took him to El Alamein. As he advanced, he needed not only convoy traffic across the Mediterranean but also coastal shipping from the main ports in North Africa (Tobruk to Mersa Matruh). Both convoys and coastal shipping were vulnerable to air and surface attack. In June the combination of cross-Mediterranean and coastal shipping depended on a total of about 107.000 tons of shipping, of which about 10,000 tons were lost or damaged.

The improvement in the Axis convoy position seems traceable directly to the worsening situation on Malta, which affected both strike aircraft and submarines based there. The British were well aware of the connection between Malta-based interdiction and the campaign in North Africa, and that explains the very costly convoy operations mounted in June and August 1942 (‘Pedestal’). Air attacks on the Axis convoys through the end of June 1942 were very limited, the bulk of Italian losses being by submarine.

The convoys were, however, still in range of RAF torpedo bombers. The first two Beaufort squadrons were sent out from the United Kingdom at the end of 1941. They began operating from Malta and Egypt early in 1942 (the second squadron soon moved to India). The day-attack Beaufort squadrons benefitted heavily from escort by Beaufighters. These aircraft carried out synchronised attacks after flying from their bases at very low altitude. Beaufighter escorts provided a diversion by strafing escorting destroyers and anti-aircraft ships. Converted Wellington medium bombers intended for night attack were successfully tested early in 1942, one squadron becoming operational by the end of May 1942. A second followed late in 1942. Few Wellingtons were lost.

Convoy losses began to rise in August (figures for July are not given): 114,000 tons despatched, of which 38,000 tons were sunk and 2000 tons damaged. In September 108,000 tons were despatched, of which 23,000 tons were sunk and over 9000 tons damaged. The situation continued to worsen, so that in October of over 96,000 tons sent, 24,000 tons were sunk and 14,000 tons damaged. In November demand exploded, because with the Allied landings in French North Africa, and with the offensive in the east, the Germans and Italians were fighting on two fronts. They made a supreme effort: 178,000 tons were sent out – but Malta was now fully operational, and 31,500 tons were sunk and 25.000 tons damaged. In December, even more was sent: 212,500 tons; but over 68,000 tons were sunk and over 15,000 tons damaged. The damaged ships were all hit in harbour. From August on the weight of the offensive against Axis shipping moved from submarines to bombers. Of the twenty-eight ships sunk in December, thirteen were sunk by air attack. Most of the sinkings by air attack seem to have been by torpedo. Attacks on convoys destroyed a large percentage of the Italian merchant fleet. They also wiped out many of the destroyers and seagoing torpedo boats which might otherwise have screened the Italian battle fleet.

Cities in Collision I

View of Genoa and its fleet by Christoforo de Grassi (1597 copy, after a drawing of 1481); Galata Museo del Mare, Genoa.

Map of Italy in 1494.

There was one other significant competitor with which Venice had to deal. Genoa was known to the world as “la Superba,” Genoa the proud. Petrarch had described Venice and Genoa as “the two torches of Italy”; but fire can drive out fire. Both cities were known throughout Europe for their rapacity and acquisitiveness. The Genoese were more individualistic and inventive; the Venetians were more communal and conservative. The Genoese had a history of internecine warfare and rebellion; the Venetians were quiescent. Could they ever have lived at peace with one another?

For many centuries the merchants of Genoa competed with those of Venice in the eastern markets. But the success of the Venetians materially hindered the commerce of the rival city. It had been decreed, after the fall of Constantinople, that the Genoese were to be excluded from trade throughout the empire. But the Genoese fought back. They, too, were a seafaring people who had built up a great fleet that could challenge Venice on the seas of the known world. There were open clashes between the rival cities on the coasts of Crete and in Corfu, where the native inhabitants welcomed the arrival of the Genoese. A truce was agreed in 1218, but this was merely a prelude to further and more fatal struggles.

The tension between the two cities remained constant throughout the century, with skirmishing and assaults in all the markets where they competed; in 1258, after some particularly bloody fighting in Syria, the Venetians expelled the Genoese merchants from their quarter in Acre. There was then, for the Venetians, an unfortunate and unexpected development. In 1261 the Greeks, under the leadership of Michael Palaeologus, regained control of Constantinople. The Venetian fleet was at sea and the city was relatively unprotected. Under these auspicious circumstances the emperor’s forces mounted a rapid attack on the Latin contingent, and gained the defensive walls. Three weeks later Michael walked in glory to the basilica of Saint Sophia. He owed much of his success, however, to the Genoese who had supplied him with fifty ships; in return for their support they wished for unrestricted trade access in the markets of the city. They wanted revenge upon the Venetians for their forced departure from Acre. When the Venetians returned, they could do nothing except rescue their compatriots whose shops and dwellings had been destroyed by fire.

The Genoese were not faithful allies. Their merchants were, according to report, arrogant and avaricious. Their fleet proved unequal to a naval challenge from Venice. More importantly their representatives in Constantinople were accused of mounting a conspiracy against Paleologus himself. Ever ready to supplant a rival, Venetian envoys were sent in secret to the court of the emperor. A new trade pact was concluded. The Genoese were to be expelled from the empire, whereas Venice would be granted free privileges. In addition the Venetians were allowed to retain the former Byzantine possessions of Crete, of Negroponte, of Modon and Coron. These were sufficiently generous terms, and the emperor now understood that Venice itself was the greater power.

The Venetians were becoming accustomed to empire. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the doge, Pietro Gradenigo, made a speech to the great council of patricians in which he declared that “it is the duty of every good prince, and of every worthy citizen, to enlarge the State, to increase the Republic, and to seek its welfare by every means in his power.” It was the responsibility of the state, too, to seize every favourable opportunity for aggrandisement. Gradenigo had the mainland of Italy particularly in mind, where now the Venetians were actively promoting a policy of aggressive warfare. They had once sought neutrality in the battles between pope and holy Roman emperor over the cities of Italy. They had once wanted simply to preserve their trade routes. But now the experience of imperial expansion had hardened their sinews. They had become more belligerent. The mainland of Italy was in any case changing its nature. The principal cities no longer saw themselves as vassals of superior powers, such as the papacy, but as sovereign regions or city-states. There were some eighty of them throughout the land of Italy. Some were under the control of individual families, such as the Este of Ferrara, and others were in theory republican communities. Yet the central point was their independence. Independent cities want power and territory. They compete with each other for trade and influence. They even fight each other.

In 1308 Venice fought on the mainland in order to maintain its commercial rights within Ferrara and gain control over the Po. It allied itself with Florence and Bologna in order to fight back the expansive policies of Verona, and in the process captured much mainland territory. It fought against Padua and by its victory gained the provinces of Treviso and Bassano as well as the city of Padua itself. It won Verona and Vicenza. The Italian cities that came under Venetian domination were not subjugated. Venetian civil and military commanders were dispatched to the cities, but municipal government continued in the familiar fashion. The Venetian ruling class had a genius for administration and government. Its power was neither too lax nor too onerous. There are some indications of an imperial style but in the colonies overseas the rulers were blended within the native landscape. There was no ruling ideology of conquest. There was no attempt to impose new standards of value or new principles of belief. They came not as conquerors or as missionaries but, essentially, as traders. Their true belief was in the efficacy of commerce. They were a very practical people. They were unpopular enough, but they were resented rather than hated.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that there was no internal discontent. The immediate fact of conquest was, for the conquered, hard to bear. The example of Crete is representative. The lands of the local Byzantine magnates were expropriated, and given to Venetians. There were neither finances nor resources to maintain a standing army on the island, so a number of Venetian patricians were sent out as colonisers who retained their lands as fiefdoms on condition that they defended them. These Venetians tended to inhabit the towns and cities of the island. They were accustomed to cities. Cities were their natural habitat. In due course a predominantly agricultural economy was in part turned towards urban trade, trade directed almost exclusively to the mother-city. And of course the Venetian authorities imposed heavy taxation upon every transaction. They encouraged trade for the purpose of exploiting it. Yet merchants began to flourish on the island. There was also a growing market for the wares of Cretan icon-painters. It has been estimated that 95 per cent of the icon-painters, throughout the Venetian empire, originally came from the island.

The Venetian strategy was to remodel the governance of the island on the example of Venice herself. Crete was divided into sestieri. There was a duca in the principal role, modelled on the doge. The major decisions of security and trade, however, were still the prerogative of the Venetian senate. There were more visible changes. The principal square of Candia, the capital of Crete, was renamed Piazza S. Marco. It became the meeting place and market of the island, with its own basilica and ducal palace. It was remodelled and restored to lend dignity and seriousness to the new administration. It became the stage for festivals and public celebrations. A processional way was constructed between the entrance gate of the port and the basilica. Venice was re-creating its theatre of trade and of politics in a new environment. The Byzantine palaces and monuments were reused, their symbolic meaning subtly altered to reflect Venetian hegemony. Some of them were given new, “Venetian,” façades.

Venice saw itself as the natural heir to Byzantium. There was no sudden disruption but, instead, an orderly transition. The religious traditions and the public ceremonies of the old empire were appropriated and adapted. As always Venice lived by assimilation. The example of Crete is again instructive. The ecclesiastical rites of the Latin Church, in ceremonies and processions, were moulded with the rites of the Greek Church. The Venetians adopted the cult of the local saint of the island, Titus. So there were no religious wars. The Venetians were not like the Spanish. There were endless reconciliations and compromises, simply in order to maintain the momentum of what was essentially a vast trading regime. Cretans married Venetians. Venetian merchants migrated to Crete. Cretan scholars and painters migrated to Venice. A new culture emerged, of the West and of the East. After the fall of Byzantium Crete became the centre of Hellenism in the West. There were, naturally enough, influences of opposite tendency. There are still Venetian dialect words embedded in modern Greek, among them the words for steel, armada, velvet, the acacia tree and the wedding ring. Indeed there was a revival of Greek letters under Venetian rule. It was Venice, rather than Byzantium, that preserved native Greek culture in the early modern period. Its poetry was composed by men whose political, racial, spiritual and cultural allegiances were to Venice.

There were revolts and rebellions, as a result of local grievances and factions, but the island remained in Venetian hands for more than four centuries. It can be concluded, therefore, that the Venetians were effectively the first modern colonial power.

Yet in a world dominated by war and empire, there could be no end to rivalry and struggle. In the letters and chronicles of the late fourteenth century the optimism of the Venetians is in some part replaced by intimations of gloom and melancholy; the world seems more uncertain, and the role of providence ill-defined. The loss of confidence is accompanied by the search for greater security in the world. The acquisition of empire, then, brought its own burdens. In 1364 the native inhabitants of Candia rebelled against their Venetian overseers; several Venetian patricians also joined in the revolt. The insurrection was put down, its leaders executed, but it had been a troubling moment for Venice. Petrarch was in the city when the victorious force returned to the lagoon. “We augured good news,” he wrote, “for the masts were garlanded with flowers, and on the deck were lads, crowned with green wreaths and waving flags over their heads …” Relief, as well as triumph, was the emotion of the day. A high mass was celebrated in the basilica, and a great festival was organised in the square itself. Petrarch was present on this occasion, too, and remarked upon the magnificence of the ceremonies. As the empire of Venice became more assured, so the taste for spectacle and ceremonial grew more intense.