Operation Compass I

Stroke and Counter-Stroke

On the surface, Mussolini’s Italy was firmly in the ascendant in the Middle East by the second half of 1940. In the Horn of Africa, the conquest of British Somaliland by the Duke of Aosta’s forces presented a potential threat to British sea traffic accessing the southern end of the Suez Canal, and Italian forces also occupied key locations in northern Kenya and Sudan. To the west, the Italian forces in Libya were poised to invade Egypt; in conjunction with their incursion into Sudan this raised the prospect of a concerted attack seizing the Suez Canal and thus severing the most direct British line of communication with India, the Far East and the Antipodes. In addition, Italian air and ground forces in both locations were more numerous than their British and Commonwealth opponents, and also better equipped in many instances.

The reality was somewhat less positive, however. A combination of British naval superiority and geography meant that Italian East Africa’s isolation from reinforcement or outside assistance outweighed the threat it presented to British Imperial communications, and the same could be said of the Italian occupation of the Egyptian coastal border zone. The latter appears to have been driven less by strategic vision or desire for further colonial expansion than Mussolini’s feelings of inferiority and consequent desire to match Hitler’s achievements and keep his place as a belligerent at future peace tables. This explains his insistence that the Italian move into Egypt coincide with the German invasion of Britain, to which all other considerations were subordinate; on 10 August 1940 he explicitly made this point the paramount concern of the senior Italian commander in Libya, Maresciallo Rodolfo Graziani, in a letter that stated ‘The invasion of Great Britain has been decided on, its preparations are in the course of completion and it will take place…the day on which the first platoon of German soldiers touches British territory, you will simultaneously attack. Once again, I repeat there are no territorial objectives, it is not a question of aiming for Alexandria, nor even for Sollum. I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you. I assume full personal responsibility for this decision of mine.’

With such poor to non-existent strategic direction from the top Balbo and Graziani’s tardiness in embarking on an invasion of Egypt is arguably excusable and certainly understandable, and this also goes some way to explaining the relative incompetence and lack of push displayed by the Italian forces in British Somaliland and subsequently in Egypt. All this ought to have made the Italians relatively easy meat for a competent opponent, but the British were initially unable to capitalise upon them. The key factor was simply numbers, for the Army and RAF contingents in both locations were simply too badly outnumbered to offer more than token resistance, as the fighting in British Somaliland had clearly shown. This was a puzzling and serious omission given the importance of the region to the efficient running of British Imperial trade and communications, and it is therefore germane to establish how such a state of affairs came about before moving on to examine the British reaction to the attacks on their territory.

As we have seen, while the Italians saw their Libyan colony as an extension of their domestic territory, the British presence in Egypt was focussed primarily on safeguarding the Suez Canal as a communications link between Britain and the Empire.

Consequently, prior to the emergence of Italy as a regional threat, the principal role of the British ground and air forces stationed in Egypt and across the wider Middle East was imperial policing. Operations of this type are frequently regarded as something of a soft option, but the reality was somewhat different. Dissident tribesmen and indigenous populations were just as capable of inflicting death and injury as conventional military forces, and service in the reaches of the Empire also involved coping with extremes of geography and climate as a matter of course. Carrying out even the most basic of military operations under such conditions thus required a high level of operational competence and flexibility.

Troops operating in the Western Desert, for example, had to contend with extreme heat by day and near-freezing cold by night as a matter of course, as well as sandstorms that reduced visibility to zero and the khamsin, a hot wind blowing from the Sahara between February and June that routinely raised the temperature to in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit; according to local lore murder was justified when the khamsin blew. Even routine tasks like patrolling in the arid, largely featureless terrain required strict water discipline and navigational skills of a high order. Keeping weapons and equipment functioning amidst the ever-present sand and gritty dust required constant and diligent cleaning, and mechanisation increased the maintenance load manifold. The dust shortened the life of engines even when equipped with special filters, and the rough terrain took a similarly heavy toll on suspension components, tyres and tracks. Vehicle and aircraft maintenance was complicated yet further by the paucity of sheltered facilities; an RAF report on air operations in the Western Desert noted that it took up to twenty-four hours’ work to restore aircraft on forward bases to a flyable condition after sandstorms, with instrument intakes and constant speed propeller mechanisms being especially troublesome.

Relations between the Air Ministry and War Office in the inter-war period and Second World War were frequently acrimonious at best, not least because the RAF had justified its existence after 1918 by cutting into the Army’s traditional function to create an imperial policing role for itself by ‘…substituting air power for land power in the more inaccessible corners of the British Empire.’ After contributing an eight-aircraft strong detachment codenamed Z Squadron to suppressing the ‘Mad Mullah’ in Somaliland in 1919–20, the Air Ministry was given responsibility for Iraq on 1 October 1922. However the practical limitations of Air Control, as the policy was labelled, rapidly became apparent when the RAF were obliged to form a ground support unit equipped with Rolls Royce armoured cars. In fact, Air Control had always been something of a fiction, given that there had been a substantial Army involvement alongside Z Squadron and that the then Secretary of State for War and Air, Churchill, who had played a major role in the implementation of Air Control, nonetheless considered that policing Iraq would also require at least 14,000 Army troops. Despite this, the inter-service hostility diminished with distance from London, if only for reasons of pragmatism and operational necessity; hence the comment from Sir Gifford Martel, one of the British Army’s armour pioneers, while serving in India in the 1930s: ‘the Air Force is a good show out here; I wish the Army was as progressive.’

The result was an extremely high level of co-operation between the Army and RAF at the operational level in the Empire. The evacuation of casualties by air began with Z Squadron, which deployed the world’s first custom-built air ambulance, and rapidly became a staple feature of British imperial policing operations. Over 200 men were airlifted from Kurdistan for treatment in Baghdad following a serious outbreak of dysentery in 1923, and by the mid-1930s an average of 120 patients per year were being airlifted to hospitals in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. There was also a regular medical shuttle to Port Said and Jaffa for cases requiring repatriation to Britain by sea. Aircraft were also pressed into service for more routine military transport tasks. In September 1920 two Handley Page 0/400s lifted a dismantled mountain gun complete with crew and ammunition from Heliopolis to Almaza in Egypt, and a complete company of infantry was lifted from Baghdad to Kirkuk in May 1924 in response to an outbreak of civil disorder. A similar operation from Palestine to Cyprus in October 1931 was the world’s first troop airlift over the open sea, and the following year the RAF mounted its largest airlift in the interwar period, using twenty-five Vickers Victoria aircraft to move a complete infantry battalion the 800 miles from Egypt to Iraq in the period 22–27 June 1932. By the late 1930s such large-scale operations were routine; during the Waziristan campaign a total of 5,750 troops and 400 tons of supplies were lifted in the period between November 1936 and May 1938.

However, operational co-operation and flexibility were of little use against a threat arguably more insidious than desert dust or inter-service rivalry. Government fiscal parsimony toward the British Armed Forces was and remains something of a perennial, as demonstrated by the debate about overstretch and equipment shortages in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time of writing. The root of the problem at the beginning of the Second World War dated back to the military drawdown immediately after the First World War. In August 1919, within a month of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, a Government memo declared that ‘non productive employment of manpower and expenditure, such as is involved by naval, military and air effort, must be reduced within the narrow limits consistent with national safety.’ This policy resulted in a series of military budgets that were barely sufficient to cover the Service’s existing commitments. The Army had its budget reduced every year between 1919 and 1932 despite a parallel raise in its commitments, for example, and pay cuts prompted by a £5 million cut in the Royal Navy’s budget in 1931 sparked a mutiny in the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. The situation continued until the mid-1930s, when a Government statement in Parliament admitted that the situation was ‘approaching a point when we are not possessed of the necessary means of defending ourselves against an aggressor.’ As events in 1939 and more especially 1940 were to show, subsequent measures to reverse the situation came barely in the nick of time. That was of little immediate solace to those charged with safeguarding the Empire, for Home defence requirements were the first priority and the former were thus obliged to accept whatever of modern equipment or obsolescent hand-me-downs could be spared.

This was not initially seen as a matter for concern because Italy was not considered a threat to British interests in the Middle East, and this remained the case even when Mussolini embarked on an extensive re-armament programme in 1933 and invaded Abyssinia two years later. Although the British Mediterranean Fleet was substantially reinforced in September 1935 in anticipation of enforcing League of Nations sanctions against Italy for her aggression, Italian vessels carrying supplies and munitions for their forces in Abyssinia were still permitted to transit the Suez Canal, in line with the 1888 Treaty of Constantinople that guaranteed access to the Canal for all and prohibited warlike activity within three miles of the Canal’s entry points. Indeed, the possibility of conflict with Egypt itself was a more pressing concern, as relations had been ambiguous between the abolition of the British Protectorate over Egypt in 1922 and the signature of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in August 1936. The Treaty bound the British to withdraw from Cairo within four years, to restrict its military presence in the country to the area immediately adjacent to the Suez Canal and the RAF airfield at Abu Sueir, seventy miles from Cairo, and to train and equip the Egyptian Army and Air Force. In return the Egyptian government was to improve and/or increase road and rail links, permit British military training in designated areas and provide unlimited access to all Egyptian facilities in time of war. In return the British sponsored Egypt’s election as an independent member of the League of Nations in May 1937.

In the meantime relations with Italy had deteriorated, and the British initially tried to address the situation with diplomacy, leading to the Anglo-Italian Joint Declaration signed in Rome on 2 January 1937. Popularly dubbed the ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, the Treaty debarred both parties from interfering with the sovereignty of states in the Mediterranean area and guaranteed mutual free movement in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the Declaration quickly failed to live up to expectations, and the British government was obliged to extend its policy of military renovation to the Middle East from July 1937, beginning with a modernisation programme for port defences in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Limited measures to counter possible Italian attacks were also authorised, with the caveat that they should be discrete and unprovocative.

British concerns initially centred on naval matters, and specifically secure basing for the Mediterranean Fleet. Traditionally this had been provided from Gibraltar and Malta, but the former was too distant from the likely seat of future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Malta was too close to the Italian mainland. Alexandria was selected as the best option in April 1937, not least because it had undergone modernisation during the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935, and permission was obtained from the Egyptian government to extend docking and repair facilities. The situation was more serious with regard to air and land defence, for most of the army units were based away from the Libyan border and were significantly under their official War Establishment strength, while there were no RAF fighters or army anti-aircraft units based in Egypt at all. Nonetheless, the British were able to mount some semblance of defence during the Sudeten Crisis in September 1938 with the army occupying defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, two thirds of the way between Alexandria and the Libyan border, and the RAF deploying to forward airfields in support. By that time some of the more glaring deficiencies had been addressed, at least to an extent. An anti-aircraft brigade equipped with twenty-four 3-inch guns and the same number of searchlights had been despatched from Britain in December 1937 along with a battalion of light tanks. This was followed by a twenty-one strong squadron of Gloster Gladiators and twelve Bristol Blenheims in February 1938. More reinforcements followed. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Egypt in July 1939, followed by a New Zealand brigade in February 1940, and the Indian presence was expanded to form the 4th Indian Division by the arrival of a second brigade eight months later.

By the outbreak of war with Italy in June 1940 the British were thus in a better, if not comfortable position to defend Egypt. At the top, the clumsy and arguably unworkable triumvirate system created in June 1939, which relied on the local Commander in Chiefs of the three Services to co-operate voluntarily whilst beholden to their individual Chiefs of Staff and Ministries in Whitehall, had been modified with the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief Middle East on 15 February 1940. The officer selected to fill the new post was Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had been commanding the army’s Middle East Command from July 1939. Wavell was a highly experienced and competent soldier who had seen service in the Boer War, India and as an observer with the Russian Army before 1914; during the First World War he served initially in a Staff position, was wounded and lost an eye at Ypres in 1915, was seconded to the Russian Army in Turkey as a liaison officer the following year, and ended the war on General Allenby’s staff in Palestine. The RAF contribution to defending the Libyan frontier was No. 202 Group, commanded by then Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw DSO and Bar, DSC, DFC. A Canadian by birth and also a First World War veteran, Collishaw had begun his career flying fighters with the Royal Naval Air Service and was the third highest scoring British ace at the end conflict, with sixty victories. No. 202 Group consisted of six squadrons, the Gladiator equipped No.33 Squadron, Nos. 45, 53, 113 and 211 Squadrons equipped with Blenheims, and No. 208 Army Co-Operation Squadron equipped with Westland Lysanders. The army contingent in Egypt numbered 36,000 men, but not all were organised into complete formations, and the formations that did exist were understrength in addition to overall shortages of artillery, transport and ammunition. The Western Desert Force tasked with defending the border with Libya was commanded by Major-General Richard O’Connor, who arrived from Palestine to take over on 8 June 1940. O’Connor’s Force consisted of the understrength 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions; the former lacked two of its constituent armoured regiments and the latter a complete infantry brigade, although this was offset to some extent by the presence of the 6th Infantry and 22nd Guards Brigades.

This was a fairly respectable force, but not in comparison with the Italian 10° Armata facing them across the border in Libya. However, there was more to the matter than bald numbers, and the British possessed a qualitative advantage that to an extent offset Italian numerical superiority. There were two aspects to this advantage. The first went back to 1935, when elements of the Cairo Cavalry Brigade were formed into a Mobile Force and began training for mechanised desert operations. This was a new concept and thus very much a matter of trial and error. At the beginning it took a squadron from the 11th Hussars three days to reach the oasis at Baharia, 200 miles south of their base at Cairo, thanks to navigation difficulties, vehicle suspension failures, flat tyres and bogging in soft sand, and it took a further two days of intensive maintenance before the return trip could begin. Within ten months the same unit was capable of sallying forth south across the coastal plain from Mersa Matruh to the Siwa Oasis on the rugged plateau that separated the plain from the Great Sand Sea and back in the same time, a round trip of almost 400 miles as the crow flies. The experience garnered in the process was converted into a formalised training programme for all British mechanised units in Egypt that taught the importance of vehicle loading, field maintenance and repair, desert driving techniques, how to use the terrain for movement and concealment, and navigation by the sun and stars as well as with the magnetic compass. The end result was a number of units capable of operating in the harsh conditions of the Western Desert as a matter of routine. The second aspect was turning these trained units into a cohesive mechanised force, and that was down to the involvement of Major-General Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart DSO MC.

Hobart was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1904 and after service on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia during the First World War, transferred to the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. A disciple of Colonel J.F.C. Fuller and an armoured theorist in his own right, he was promoted to command the 2nd Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in 1928. In 1933 he became Inspector Royal Tank Corps, and after promotion to Brigadier the following year formed and commanded the 1st Tank Brigade, the first armoured formation of that size in the British Army. A single-minded and difficult character, Hobart made more than his fair share of enemies in the army establishment, but avoided being edged out of the army like his fellow armour pioneers Fuller and Liddell Hart and was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office in 1937, on the understanding that he would be given a command more in line with his expertise in the event of war. That circumstance came with the Munich Crisis, and Hobart was despatched to form an armoured division in Egypt on 25 September 1938. His appointment was not universally popular as his difficult reputation appears to have preceded him; the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, greeted him with the immortal words ‘I don’t know what you’ve come here for, and I don’t want you anyway.’

Despite this inauspicious start, Hobart set to work reorganising and expanding the Mobile Force into the Mobile Division at his base at Mersa Matruh. The new formation consisted of three parts. The Light Armoured Brigade was created by the simple expedient of renaming the Cairo Cavalry Brigade, which was made up of the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars equipped with a variety of Light Tanks, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars making do with 15 cwt Ford trucks in lieu of tanks, and the 11th Hussars mounted in Rolls Royce Armoured Cars. The Heavy Armoured Brigade consisted of the 1st and 6th Battalions, Royal Tank Corps, the former equipped with Light Tanks and the latter with a mixture of Light and Medium. The third part, dubbed the Pivot Group, was intended to provide the armoured striking force with infantry and artillery support. It consisted of 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), and the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) equipped with 3.7-inch howitzers. Hobart also managed to form a divisional HQ with personnel located through his parallel responsibility for Garrison Troops in Cairo, including increments from the Royal Corps of Signals and a complete company from the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). The latter proved invaluable in locating supplies of ammunition and spare parts, and more modern replacement equipment slowly became available over the winter of 1938–39; this permitted the 6th Royal Tank Regiment to replace some of its venerable Mk. II Medium Tanks for more modern A9 Cruisers, and the 3rd RHA to re-equip with 25-Pounder guns. In parallel with all this Hobart instructed and drilled his command until its disparate components were capable of operating smoothly together in offensive and defensive manoeuvres. By the end of 1939 Hobart had largely achieved his mission, as is clear from Major-General O’Connor’s comment that the Mobile Division was the best trained division he had ever seen.

Operation Compass II

In the event, Hobart did not get to see the fruits of his labour in action. In July 1939 Gordon-Finlayson was replaced as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief by Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland Wilson, who had attended the same course as Hobart at the Staff College at Camberley in 1920. Initially their relationship was good, and Wilson praised the performance of the Mobile Division after attending the final phase of a week long exercise at the end of July. Things deteriorated rapidly following another divisional exercise three months later however, when a series of misunderstandings and missed communications ended in a stand up argument and a public dressing down for Hobart. Wilson followed this up on 10 November 1939 with a request that Hobart be relieved, and Wavell complied after a personal interview with Hobart four days later; he was replaced by Major-General Michael O’Moore Creagh MC. The news does not appear to have gone down well with Hobart’s men, for according to his biography they lined the road from Hobart’s HQ and cheered him all the way to the airstrip where he began his journey back to Britain.

The relief of such a technically proficient officer during such perilous times was certainly curious, and Hobart’s biography suggests that it was the upshot of long standing grudges against Hobart in the army’s upper echelons, and that it was accomplished via improper use of confidential competence reports. While Wavell’s decision is far more likely to have been motivated by the need for harmonious working relationships than resentment over an incident during an exercise in 1934, subsequent events do support the grudge theory to some extent. Despite assurances to the contrary from the Chief of Imperial General Staff General Sir Edmund Ironside, Hobart was retired from the army with effect from 9 March 1940, and interestingly the British Official History published in 1954 makes no mention of Hobart at all. Be that as it may, this was clearly a waste of talent and expertise, but fortunately it was not the end of the story. In August 1940, while serving as a Lance-Corporal in the Chipping Camden detachment of the Local Defence Volunteers, Hobart took a position with the Ministry of Supply linked to tank production. He came to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attention at a conference at Chequers, and by early 1941 he had been returned to the army active list and given the task of forming the 11th Armoured Division. He was then given the same task with regard to the 79th Armoured Division in March 1943, and oversaw the development of a host of specialised armoured vehicles that played an important role in the D-Day invasion on 6 June 1944.

Wavell’s plan in the event of war with Italy was to seize the initiative from the outset by using the Western Desert Force to attack Italian border posts in Libya and dominate the border zone as far west as practicable. This was intended to forestall or at least delay any Italian attack into Egypt, with the object of denying it the coastal town of Mersa Matruh, which housed the terminus of the coastal railway to Cairo. Thus the 7th Armoured Division, as the Mobile Division had been renamed on 16 February 1940, had been deployed in the area of Mersa Matruh and Maaten Baggush, where O’Connor had established Western Desert Force HQ on 8 June 1940. The division had been expanded, and its constituent formations had also been renamed and reorganised. The Light and Heavy Tank Brigades had become the more balanced 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades, made up of the 7th Hussars and 6th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and 8th Hussars and 1st RTR respectively. The Pivot Group, renamed the Support Group, was made up of the 1st KRRC, the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade and the 4th RHA, while the 3rd RHA and 11th Hussars were grouped together as Divisional Troops.

As soon as news of the Italian declaration of war was received O’Connor ordered the 11th Hussars up to the border, followed at around a forty mile interval by the 7th Hussars Light and Cruiser Tanks and the Support Group. At around the same time Collishaw moved No. 202 Group HQ up to one of his forward airfields and ordered all aircraft to be made ready, but confirmation came too late to commence operations before nightfall on 10 June 1940. Dawn sorties by reconnaissance Blenheims from No. 211 Squadron to the major Regia Aeronautica base at El Adem found aircraft parked in the open, and eight Blenheims from No. 45 Squadron made the first of several attacks shortly afterward. By the end of the day the RAF had destroyed or damaged eighteen Italian aircraft for the loss of two Blenheims and three damaged. On the ground the 11th Hussars reached the border in the evening of 11 June, and their Rolls Royce and Morris armoured cars crossed the border at four points between Forts Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena, after breaching the Italian concertina wire by the simple expedient of flattening the picket posts with their vehicles and then dragging the wire aside or churning it into the sand. At 02:00 on 12 June a small detachment from B Squadron guarding one of the gaps shot up an Italian truck on the path paralleling the border, capturing fifty-two very surprised Italians who had not been informed that hostilities had commenced; the occupants of another truck captured near Fort Capuzzo told a similar story.

This set the tone for the next few days and nights and once the Support Group closed up and took responsibility for dominating the area immediately inside the Libyan border, the 11th Hussars pushed their activities further into Italian territory in company with elements of the 7th Hussars. On 14 June the Italian posts at Fort Maddalena and Fort Capuzzo were captured, the former without a fight by A Squadron, 11th Hussars; the garrison of five Italians and thirteen Libyans ran up the white flag on their approach. Fort Capuzzo also surrendered after an RAF attack that failed to actually hit the Fort and a few of the 7th Hussars’ Cruiser Tanks had put some 2-Pounder armour piercing rounds through the walls. The heaviest fighting of the day took place at Sidi Azeiz, the target of a subsidiary probe by a mixed force from the 7th and 11th Hussars supported by an RHA battery. The 11th Hussars tanks successfully overran outlying Italian infantry positions protecting the post but ran into a minefield that knocked out three tanks and stranded several more, which then came under accurate Italian artillery fire. When the accompanying RHA battery proved unable to suppress the Italian guns, which were deployed on the reverse slope of a ridge, the British force withdrew in the afternoon. While all this was going on six Italian CV33 tankettes approached a screening position held by elements of B Squadron, 11th Hussars, but retired at speed when one of their number was knocked out with a Boys anti-tank rifle, leaving the crew to be made prisoner.

By 16 June the 11th Hussars had expanded their marauding to the north, and C Squadron had set a successful ambush on the stretch of the Via Balbia linking Tobruk with Bardia using a felled telegraph pole as a roadblock. Over the course of the morning this netted a number of Italian trucks and a Lancia car carrying Generale di Corpo Lastucci, senior engineer officer to the 10° Armata, his aide-de-camp and two female companions, one of whom proved to be pregnant. Lastucci carrying detailed plans of the Italian defences at Bardia and, in one of those curious coincidences of war, was also a personal acquaintance of Major-General O’Connor; the latter saw Lastucci briefly en route to captivity along with his pregnant companion, who subsequently gave birth in Alexandria. The same day saw the largest engagement of the period at Nezuet Ghirba, south-west of Fort Capuzzo, when C Squadron 11th Hussars ran into an Italian column of thirty trucks, four artillery pieces and twelve CV33 tankettes divided equally between the front and rear of the column. According to orders subsequently found on the body of the Italian commander, a Colonello D’Avenso, the column was part of a force – another larger column had also been spotted by British scouts – tasked to ‘destroy enemy elements which have infiltrated across the frontier, and give the British the impression of our decision, ability and will to resist’, but things did not turn out quite that way.

On being somewhat impetuously attacked by two Rolls Royce armoured cars after a communications failure, the Italians made no attempt to find cover or occupy defensible terrain but simply formed their trucks into a square formation with their artillery pieces at the corners while the CV33 tankettes patrolled outside. The formation came as something of a surprise to Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe, the commander of the 11th Hussars, when he arrived on the scene and was presumably a drill developed to counter unsophisticated colonial enemies. Whatever its provenance, the tactic proved of little value against better armed and more adept opponents and having summoned tank and artillery reinforcements, the British went on the offensive. The Italians may have been tactically inept but they were not short of courage. Three CV33s had been knocked out in the initial stages of the action, and seven of the remainder mounted a counter charge to protect their infantry from the oncoming British tanks, but their inadequate armour was not up to the task and they were knocked out in quick succession. When the Italian square broke under the British assault the last surviving CV33 was destroyed in an attempt to ram an A9 Cruiser tank and the Italian artillerymen also fought to the last, being machine-gunned as they tried to bring their guns to bear on the British tanks. Only around a hundred Italians and a dozen trucks survived to be escorted back through the frontier wire to captivity in Egypt; their opponents did not incur a single casualty.

O’Connor’s men thus achieved Wavell’s objective of throwing the Italians off balance and dominating the Libyan side of the frontier, but the operational tempo soon began to tell on machines and especially men alike. According to the history of the 11th Hussars the first two weeks of hostilities were considered by some to be the most intensive of the entire war. The lack of sleep, insufficient water and short and monotonous rations were bad enough in themselves; it was not unusual for exhausted crewmen to simply collapse to the floor of their vehicles, and bully beef and biscuits were literally the only rations available for days on end. All this was exacerbated by the onset of the khamsin on 19 June, with 25 June being recorded as the hottest day the 11th Hussars had experienced to date. The heat was so intense that the armoured cars were too hot to touch, and the unfortunate crews were obliged to dismount and seek shelter beneath them. The severity of the conditions is well illustrated by an episode involving the second-in-command of the 4th Armoured Brigade who, during a reconnaissance for a joint operation to take the Italian-held oasis at Jarabub, refused to subject his tanks to such furnace-like conditions and insisted that they made operations impossible; the same officer collapsed later when informing Lieutenant-Colonel Combe that he intended to get the armoured car unit withdrawn.

By July the strain was becoming too much, and when C Squadron 11th Hussars lost four men dead and fourteen captured in an abortive action O’Connor intervened. The 11th Hussars were thus ordered to reduce their activities to allow half its strength to be resting on the coast at Buq Buq, while the 4th Armoured Brigade was rotated out of the frontier zone in its entirety and replaced by the 7th Armoured Brigade. Thereafter the screening force reverted to a watching brief, and kept the British commanders informed of the Italian reoccupation of Fort Capuzzo, and their pre-invasion build-up and reconnaissance activity in the vicinity of the latter, Sidi Omar and Bardia. This prompted a further reorganisation to face the developing threat, and on 13 August all the British armour was withdrawn to Mersa Matruh, leaving responsibility for the frontier zone to the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group, commanded by Brigadier W.H.E. Gott; the latter was instructed to maintain close watch on the enemy, especially in the area between Sollum and Maddalena. To achieve this, the Support Group had received reinforcements including the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards, the 3rd RHA, a section from the 25/26th Medium Battery R.A., two anti-tank batteries, a detachment of Royal Engineers and the 7th Hussars’ Cruiser Tank Squadron.

The reorganisation was in line with O’Connor’s defensive plan, which required the Support Group to conduct a fighting withdrawal to Mersa in preparation for an armoured thrust from the desert to the south against the Italian’s flank, to cut off and hopefully starve their vanguard into submission. This was a little less wishful than it appears, for on 10 August 1940 the War Office had presented Churchill with a list of the units and equipment allocated for despatch to Egypt as soon as shipping and escorts could be procured. The list included forty-eight 2-Pounder anti-tank guns, the same number of 25-Pounders, twenty Bofors guns and over million assorted rounds of ammunition. Perhaps more importantly, the list also included the 3rd King’s Own Hussars and the 2nd and 7th Royal Tank Regiments, equipped with Light, Cruiser and Infantry Tanks respectively.

O’Connor was obliged to put his plan into effect at dawn on 13 September 1940, when Graziani finally launched his invasion. It began with the bombardment and seizure of Musaid via the gaps torn in the frontier wire by the 11th Hussars on the night of 11–12 June, followed by an advance on Sollum and the adjacent airfield. All this was observed by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards which primed mines emplaced along the tracks leading east as it withdrew, and in Sollum proper the Royal Engineer detachment attached to the Support Group busied themselves demolishing buildings and supply dumps. The damage inflicted by the mines was compounded by the RHA, which accurately dropped salvos of shells on the advancing Italian transport using the reflections from their windscreens as a target indicator. British artillery also shelled the large traffic jams that built up on the trails leading down to the Halfaya Pass that cut through the Sollum Escarpment and provided access to the coastal plain to the east. The 1st Libica and Cirene Divisions were occupying the approaches to the Pass by nightfall, and began to move through it on the morning of 14 September. By the afternoon Italian troops were occupying the 11th Hussars rest and recuperation site at Buq Buq, almost forty miles from the border. On 15 September the Support Group’s fighting withdrawal toward Mersa Matruh continued, although the RHA batteries exhausted their supply of 25-Pounder ammunition in the early afternoon, and the 7th Armoured Division’s armour was moving west in readiness to begin their counter-attack on 17 or 18 September.

The slow but seemingly unstoppable Italian advance continued on 16 September, and by the early evening lead elements of the 1st MVSN Division entered Sidi Barrani where, at least according to Italian propaganda broadcasts, non-existent trams were still running. A defensive screen was pushed out as far as Maktila, fifteen miles to the east, but there the advance stopped. Over the next few days the remainder of Graziani’s force closed up in the region of Sidi Barrani, having achieved ‘maximum exploitation’ as planned sixty miles or so inside Egypt. At first the British assumed that the halt was temporary, but a close reconnaissance by a Sergeant from the 11th Hussars revealed the construction of permanent defences, and aerial observation noted the construction of a surfaced road and water pipeline between Sollum and Sidi Barrani and the arrival of large amounts of supplies. With that the 7th Armoured Division’s tank formations were recalled and deployed to cover the approaches to Mersa Matruh; according to O’Connor they considered their withdrawal to be ‘rather a disappointment’. The Support Group was also withdrawn for a well earned rest, and the 11th Hussars took up their watching brief once again.

On the Italian side Mussolini was soon badgering Graziani to push on, but the latter was intent on modernising and strengthening his logistic links to Libya before resuming the offensive, and then only as far as Mersa Matruh. It was at this point that the Germans made their first, brief foray into events in North Africa. Following a meeting with his senior land and air commanders Hitler had cancelled the invasion of Britain, codenamed Operation Seelöwe (Sealion), on 17 September 1940. As a result the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) began to consider the possibility of deploying an armoured force to assist their Italian allies in Libya, and with Hitler’s approval despatched Generalmajor Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma to Libya to investigate the possibilities. In the meantime the 3 Panzer Division was warned of possible North African service, and Hitler formally offered Mussolini assistance at their Brenner Pass meeting on 4 October 1940. Von Thoma’s report was not encouraging. The situation was judged ‘thoroughly unsatisfactory’, largely due to the poor road net and resultant logistical difficulties. As the presence of a German mechanised force would compound the latter severely, von Thoma therefore counselled against any deployment until Mersa Matruh was in Italian hands. Hitler accepted the report, 3 Panzer Division was stood down and the whole idea was placed on the back burner.

In the meantime the British had no intention of allowing Graziani to make his preparations unmolested, and thus reverted to harassing the Italians. RAF Blenheims destroyed three Italian bombers on the ground at Benina airfield near Benghazi on 17 September, and sixty day and night sorties were carried out against Italian road convoys and forward positions between 16 and 21 September alone. The RAF in Egypt was also receiving more modern aircraft; by the end of September No. 202 Group had re-equipped No. 33 Squadron with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters and No. 113 Squadron with Blenheim Mk. IVs, and had operational control of the Vickers Wellington equipped No. 70 Squadron from Middle East Command. However, their effectiveness was offset by the loss of the forward landing areas in the vicinity of Sidi Barrani. This reduced the effective range of Nos. 6 and 208 Army Co-Operation Squadron’s reconnaissance aircraft, a mixture of Lysanders and Hurricanes, by around a hundred miles and also obliged Blenheims to operate at extreme range to reach the port of Benghazi, through which much of Graziani’s materiel was passing. It also removed the possibility of shuttling fighters from Egypt to Malta, and curtailed air cover for RN vessels operating further west than Sidi Barrani. This was offset to an extent by the activities of the latter. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from HMS Illustrious mined the approaches to Benghazi and sank the destroyer Borea and two cargo ships on 17 September, and nearer the front destroyers and the gunboats Aphis and Ladybird bombarded targets of opportunity along the coast from Sollum to Sidi Barrani. The damage was not all one-way, however. On the night of 17–18 September the cruiser HMS Kent was attacked by SM.79 torpedo bombers from 240ª Squadriglia Aerosiluranti whilst en route to shell Bardia; Tenente Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia scored a hit on the cruiser’s stern which damaged the vessel to the extent it had to return to Britain for dockyard repair after a temporary fix at Alexandria.

On the ground the 11th Hussars continued to penetrate deep into Italian controlled territory, but the strain of virtually non-stop operations was taking a barely sustainable toll that manifested itself in unreliable and worn-out vehicles and a lengthening list of battle casualties at the hands of the increasingly adept Italians. The Hussars were reinforced in October 1940 with No. 2 Armoured Car Squadron RAF from Palestine, but in the meantime a stopgap response was the formation of small all-arms units equipped with artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to protect the Hussars as they went about their business. Named ‘Jock Columns’ after the inventor of the concept, Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell RA and drawn largely from the Support Group, these units were tasked to support the 11th Hussars from the end of October. They also engaged in operations on their own, including surveying Italian defences and general harassment including attacking installations and transport in the Italian rear areas. This was all in line with the Support Group’s mission to dominate the seventy miles that separated the main forces between Maktila and Mersa Matruh, to which end the latter’s units also engaged in raiding on their own account. On 23 October 1940, for example, troops from the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders supported by tanks from the 8th Hussars attacked a fortified Italian camp near Maktila. Unfortunately, the Italians were forewarned courtesy of poor security in Cairo, and the attackers were greeted by the Marmarica Division in its entirety. Despite this a platoon of Highlanders penetrated the camp and succeeded in taking prisoners and destroying a number of motor vehicles before escaping in a commandeered truck; unfortunately the truck was shot up by friendly anti-tank fire and the prisoners escaped in the confusion.

Operation Compass III

Wavell had been looking for an opportunity to attack the Italians since before the invasion of Egypt, and had ordered a study into the possible problems presented by an advance into eastern Libya as early as 11 September 1940. After Graziani’s force had been immobile around Sidi Barrani for a month he ordered Lieutenant-General Wilson to begin planning for a rapid, limited attack involving the 7th Armoured Division, the 4th Indian Division and the Mersa Matruh garrison. By this time the Italians had four divisions and Raggruppamento Maletti ensconced in a chain of ten fortified positions located roughly on a line running south for the thirty-odd miles between Maktila and Bir Enba on the edge of the coastal escarpment, and then west along the escarpment for a further twenty miles to Sofafi. Starting at the coast, Sidi Barrani was held by the 4° MSVN Division, with the 1° Libica Division holding Maktila and a fortified camp to the east of the town. The 2° Libica Division occupied three camps around Tummar, Raggruppamento Maletti one at Nibeiwa, and the remaining four at Rabia and around Sofafi were held by the Cirene Division. Further west, the Catanzaro Division was concentrated near Buq Buq, the Marmarica west of Sofafi and around Halfaya, and the 1st and 2nd MSVN Divisions were located near the border at Sidi Omar and the Sollum-Fort Capuzzo region respectively.

The information painstakingly gathered by the 11th Hussars and Jock Columns showed that while the Italian camps were generally well constructed and laid out, frequently with protective minefields, anti-tank ditches and wire, they were too far apart to provide mutual support. This was especially the case in the centre of the Italian line where the camps at Nibeiwa and Rabia were separated by almost twenty miles, an opening dubbed the Enba Gap. Graziani later claimed to have brought this to the attention of the commander of 10° Armata in November 1940, but whether that was ex post facto justification or not, nothing was done. Initial planning discussions involved only Wilson, his Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant-General O’Connor and Major-General Creagh, in part because the raid on the Maktila camp had stressed the importance of tight security. The resulting scheme, codenamed Operation COMPASS, was largely O’Connor’s and envisaged a two-pronged attack. The northern prong involved an advance along the coast road to attack the 1st Libica Division at Maktila and thus distract Italian attention from the Enba Gap, by a 1,800 strong force drawn from the troops holding Mersa Matruh. Christened ‘Selby Force’ after its commander Brigadier A.R. Selby, it was made up of the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards, three companies drawn from the Northumberland Fusiliers, the South Staffordshire Regiment and Cheshire Regiments respectively, a detachment from the Durham Light Infantry, and tanks from A Troop, 7th Hussars.

The main blow was to be delivered from further south. The 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions were to carry out a sixty mile approach march to a concentration area approximately fifteen miles south-east of Nibeiwa. They would then attack through the Enba Gap, with the 4th Armoured Brigade heading north toward Azziziya, midway between Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani. Its running mate, the 7th Armoured Brigade, was to form a screen between the Gap and the Italian camps at Rabia and Sofafi, and act as an exploitation reserve. While the armour was rampaging around the Italian rear areas as Hobart had envisioned the 4th Indian Division would attack the Italian camps around Tummar from the rear. Supplies for the operation were to be stockpiled in two large dumps forty miles west of Mersa Matruh from 5 November, well inside the disputed zone between the two armies. Field Supply Depot No.3 was located near the Sidi Barrani–Mersa road ten miles from the coast, and No.4 Field Supply Depot a further fifteen miles to the south, a hundred mile round trip across difficult terrain for the transport units tasked to shuttle the materiel forward from dumps near Qasaba. Each Depot was stocked with sufficient fuel, ammunition, hard scale rations and water for personnel and vehicle cooling systems to last for five days, the period of the attack.48 Thereafter the forces involved were to withdraw and revert to their former defensive posture.

The plan may have been straightforward, but preparations proved to be less so. Wavell had originally intended to keep knowledge of COMPASS from an increasingly impatient Churchill until the planning and preparation was complete, to avoid raising unrealistic expectations and long-range micromanagement from London. This strategy succeeded until the Italians invaded Greece on 28 October 1940, for the effort to assist the Greeks threatened to remove aircraft, troops, anti-aircraft guns and transport needed for COMPASS. Ironically, this placed Wavell in virtually the same predicament as his opposite number Graziani; on 5 November Mussolini informed the latter that he ought to be attacking in Egypt to tie up British forces that might otherwise be sent to Greece. In order to avoid having the forces allocated to COMPASS stripped away Wavell therefore revealed the operation to Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden when the latter visited the Middle East on Churchill’s orders on 8 November; the latter was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what he perceived as Wavell’s failure to make the best use of his reinforcements. Churchill reacted with characteristic aggression on learning of COMPASS, insisting that any success should be exploited to the full, and his dissatisfaction with Wavell was reinforced when he saw the content of a cable from him to Chief of Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John Dill pointing out that ‘undue hopes [were] being placed on this operation which was designed as a raid only. We are greatly outnumbered on ground and in air, have to move over 75 miles of desert and attack enemy who has fortified himself for three months. Please do not encourage optimism.’ Churchill’s response was equally forthright, expressing shock and the opinion that Wavell was ‘playing small’ and thus failing to rise to the occasion in the spirit required. This may have been the driver for a memo Wavell sent to Wilson while the COMPASS force was moving to its jump off positions, which acknowledged that it was ‘possible that an opportunity may offer for converting the enemy’s defeat into an outstanding victory’, and asking that if so all ranks be ‘prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest’.

Be that as it may, it was too late for Churchill to interfere for good or ill as COMPASS was scheduled to begin on 9 December 1940. Security remained tight, and the Western Desert Force’s senior commanders were not informed of the plan until 2 November 1940; Wavell briefed the senior commanders in Kenya and the Sudan the same day. O’Connor issued strict instructions that nothing was to be committed to paper until shortly before the attack commenced, and the troops were not to be informed until they were en route to their assembly areas. The latter thus had no idea that Training Exercise No.1 carried out near Mersa Matruh on 25–26 November was actually a full-scale rehearsal for COMPASS, and that Training Exercise No.2 was in fact the opening stages of the Operation. The first unit to move was the 7th RTR, which reached Field Supply Depot No.4 en route to an ‘exercise’ area in the vicinity of Bir el Kenayis, forty miles south west of Mersa Matruh, on Thursday 5 December. Having only been in Egypt for two months, this was the unit’s first foray into what desert veterans referred to as ‘the blue’, and its early start was necessary because the forty-five Tank, Infantry, Mk.IIs with which the unit was equipped were only capable of eight miles per hour cross country. Despite this the unit was O’Connor’s ace in the hole, and not merely because the Italians were unaware of its presence in Egypt. The twenty-six ton Matilda, as the vehicle was popularly known, weighed over twice as much as the Italian M11/39, and the former’s 78mm cast armour was not only twice as thick but also impervious to Italian anti-tank weapons. The 4th Indian Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, followed on 6 December, and remained dispersed around Bir el Kenayis for thirty-six hours, to give the impression of routine training; an Italian reconnaissance aircraft flew overhead during a well attended church parade on 7 December.

The 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Brigadier J.R.L. Caunter in lieu of a temporarily hospitalised Creagh, left its nearby harbour area for the forward concentration area on 7 December; as this was only fifteen miles from Nibeiwa the division went into hard routine on arrival, with no fires or unnecessary movement. The air preparation for COMPASS began the same night, with a raid by eleven Malta-based Wellingtons that destroyed or damaged twenty-nine Italian aircraft at Castel Benito airfield near Tripoli. The following night a mixed force of Wellingtons and Blenheim Mk.IVs destroyed ten more at Benina, while other Blenheims attacked Italian forward airfields. Even obsolete Bristol Bombay bomber/transports from No. 216 Squadron were pressed into service to bomb the Italian forward positions. No. 202 Group’s fighter contingent were employed in creating and maintaining air superiority over the COMPASS ground forces; almost 400 fighter sorties were made in the first week of the Operation, with some pilots carrying out four in a single day. In the process they claimed thirty-five Italian machines shot down and a further twelve possibles for a loss of six RAF aircraft and three pilots.

That lay in the future, however, and by the late afternoon of 8 December the 4th Indian Division had also reached the concentration area near Nibeiwa and O’Connor had set up his forward HQ nearby at a location codenamed ‘Piccadilly Circus’. This was no mean feat in itself, involving as it did moving some 36,000 men and in excess of 5,000 vehicles undetected across sixty miles of open desert. The move may not have gone totally unnoticed, for an Italian reconnaissance pilot reported 400 vehicles at various points approximately forty miles south-east of Nibeiwa at around midday on 8 December, but no account appears to have been taken of his report. O’Connor’s force carried out its final preparations and moves up to start lines under cover of darkness on the night of 8–9 December. The 7th Armoured Division moved up into the Enba Gap, and sent back guides to direct 7th RTR and 11th Indian Brigade to their jump off positions for the opening attack on the Nibeiwa camp. To the north the noise of Selby Force moving into position was concealed by Royal Navy gunfire. A Bombarding Force consisting of HM Monitor Terror, the minesweeper Bagshot and the gunboats Aphis and Ladybird had sailed from Alexandria at 20:00 on 7 December. Terror and Aphis were to concentrate on Italian strongpoints and transport parks, while Ladybird was to shell gun positions and troop tents just to the west at Sidi Barrani; the latter was intended as cover for a Commando raid against Italian communications and pipelines, but the landing was prevented by heavy seas that also prostrated the raiders with seasickness. The bombardment began at 23:00 on 8 December and lasted for ninety minutes, although dust and misdropped flares from supporting Fairey Swordfish from HMS Illustrious made spotting difficult.

The Italian camp at Nibeiwa was occupied by Generale Pietro Maletti’s Raggruppamento, with a battalion of M11/39 medium tanks, a battalion of L3/35 Light Tanks and 2,500 Libyan infantry. The camp measured a mile by a mile and a half and was protected by a perimeter wall, an anti-tank ditch and berm, barbed wire and a perimeter minefield. However, on the night of 7–8 December a reconnaissance patrol from the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade located a gap in the defences at the north-western corner of the camp where supply columns passed back and forth; approximately twenty tanks, mostly M11/39s, were deployed outside the camp in a screen to protect this weak point. The action began shortly before 05:00 on Monday 9 December with an hour long diversion against the eastern side of the camp, followed by a light shelling on the south-east corner of the camp at 07:00. The main attack commenced at 07:15 with a simultaneous artillery concentration from seventy-two guns on selected targets within the perimeter and attack by two Squadrons of the 7th RTR against the north-western gap. The vehicles in the protective tank screen were unmanned, and the Matildas proceeded to pick them off at leisure before advancing into the camp proper, followed at 07:45 by the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and the 1st/6th Rajputana Rifles.

As at Nezuet Ghirba back in June, some of the Italians attempted to make up for operational incompetence with raw courage. Artillery men fired ineffectually at the Matilda IIs at point blank while others attacked the armoured behemoths with hand grenades, and the British were obliged to bring up artillery pieces to reduce some stubborn groups of defenders. Most were simply overawed by the speed and surprise of the assault, however, and by 10:40 Nibeiwa camp had been secured at a cost of fifty-six British and Indian casualties. Italian losses are unclear, but the dead included Generale Maletti and his aide-de-camp son, who had been cut down as they emerged from the tent where they had been awaiting breakfast. The British captured between 2,000 and 4,000 prisoners and twenty-three tanks along with numerous transport vehicles, water and supplies. The latter included large numbers of dress uniforms and associated accoutrements, freshly made beds and a positive cornucopia of food and drink. According to a journalist on the spot, the latter included freshly baked bread, fresh vegetables, jars of liqueurs, hundreds of cases of Rocoaro brand mineral water, huge amounts of spaghetti and macaroni and Parmesan cheeses the size of wagon-wheels.

While this was going on the 4th Armoured Brigade was forging northward. Elements of the 11th Hussars reached the Sidi Barrani-Buq Buq road at 09:00, and within a few moments had captured eight trucks and fifty POWs. They were joined by the rest of the Brigade shortly thereafter, which had taken another 400 POWs at Azziziya when the garrison surrendered without firing a shot. With Sidi Barrani thus cut off from reinforcement the 11th Hussars began probing to the west while the 7th Hussars crossed the road and patrolled north toward the coast. Back to the south-east the 5th Indian Brigade had attacked the next camp in the chain, Tummar West, with the arrival of the 7th RTR at around 11:00, although the latter had lost six Matilda IIs immobilised by mines leaving Nibeiwa. Preparations were complicated by a sandstorm and the arrival of the Regia Aeronautica, which scattered bombs randomly into the dust cloud. However the Matildas and infantry from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers attack finally went in through another gap in the defences at 13:30.

The Tummar West garrison put up stiffer resistance and the Fusiliers were obliged to fight through with grenades, bayonets and rifle-butts; one group of dug-outs in the centre of the camp held out until Matildas were brought in to crush the shelters under their tracks. By 16:00 the surviving defenders had been pinned down in the south-east corner of the camp, and they surrendered after negotiations by an Italian general and thirteen senior officers, putting another 2,000 POWs into the British bag. The garrison of the Tummar East camp had been reduced substantially when two M11/39 tanks, six trucks and a large number of infantry sallied forth to assist their neighbours and unwittingly traversed the frontage of the 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles and a machine-gun detachment from the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers. The tanks were knocked out with Boys anti-tank rifles and the infantry driven back into their camp, leaving 400 dead and wounded behind them. The 7th RTR’s sixteen running Matilda IIs redeployed and penetrated Tummar East in the early evening but the attack was called off due to the onset of darkness and a thickening of the ongoing sandstorm.

Word of events at the Tummar camps was carried by survivors to the main Italian force engaged with Selby Force east of Sidi Barrani. The senior Italian officer there, Generale di Corpo Sebastiano Gallina, had informed Graziani that afternoon that the entire area of his command was ‘infested’ with British mechanised forces against which he had no effective counter. The commander of the infestation came forward to 4th Indian Division’s HQ near Nibeiwa at 17:00 and expressed his pleasure with progress. Although nothing had been heard of Selby Force, the fact that 4th Armoured Brigade had been left largely unmolested astride the Sidi Barrani-Buq Buq road suggested that the Italian garrison at Sidi Barrani and Maktila were being kept occupied, while the camps at Rabia and Sofafi had also remained passive. O’Connor therefore instructed the 7th Armoured Division to despatch the 8th Hussars to a blocking position west of Sofafi, and ordered the 4th Indian Division to reduce the remaining camps at Tummar East and Point 90 the next day, and to send its reserve formation, the attached 16th Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier C.E.N. Lomax, north to join the 4th Armoured Brigade in preparation for an attack on Sidi Barrani; Lomax moved off on receipt of the order and covered part of the distance during the night.

Operations on 10 December were again hampered by sand storms but began well with the surrender of the Tummar East camp at dawn without a fight. The 16th Infantry Brigade was on the move by 06:00, prompted in part by Italian artillery fire on its exposed night position. After a stiff fight involving the 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Alam el Dab, eight miles or so east of Azziziya, the Brigade was in position across the routes running west and south from Sidi Barrani by 13:30. Eager to press his advantage, Beresford-Peirse engaged in some hasty reorganisation. The 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to cover the 16th Infantry Brigade’s left flank with the Cruiser-equipped 2nd RTR and to send the 6th RTR to reinforce Selby Force, and the 7th RTR’s remaining serviceable Matilda IIs were assigned to assist Lomax as well. That done, the 16th Infantry Brigade was ordered to launch an attack on Sidi Barrani, which began with a divisional artillery concentration at 16:00 hours. Within thirty minutes the attackers had passed right through the town in spite of a severe sandstorm, and at 17:15 the 6th RTR overran the Italian defences east of the town. The action cost the 16th Infantry Brigade 277 casualties but left the remnants of the 1° and 2° Libica and 4° MVSN Divisions trapped against the sea in a pocket ten miles long and five miles deep, bloodied but as yet unbowed; a subsequent attack at around midnight by the 6th RTR was rebuffed, largely due to the efforts of Italian artillerymen, and reduced the unit’s strength to twelve tanks.

Thus by the end of the second day of Operation COMPASS the Italian camps north of the Enba Gap and Sidi Barrani itself were in British hands. The exception was the camp at Point 90, where elements of the 2nd Libica Division continued to hold out. The impact of all this on the Italians only became apparent on the third day, 11 December. The Italian troops bottled up east of Sidi Barrani began to give up as soon as the British renewed the attack at dawn, the 1st Libica Division formally surrendering by 13:00, and the 4th MVSN Division by nightfall. To the south, patrols from the Support Group found that the Cirene Division had abandoned the camps at Rabia and around Sofafi during the night. The last to give in were the 2nd Libica holdouts at Point 90. When the Italian commander responded to demands for surrender by saying that he intended to fight to the death, a deliberate attack was organised by the 3rd/1st Punjab Regiment, supported by seven Matilda IIs from the 7th RTR, two of which turned up at the last moment after hasty repair, and two RA Field Regiments. They found 2,000 Libyan troops waiting patiently to surrender complete with packed luggage, the fight to the death threat being merely a face saving ploy by their commander. By nightfall on Wednesday, 11 December 1940 the British had captured between 20,000 and 38,300 prisoners, seventy-three tanks, 237 guns and over 1,000 transport vehicles. The fighting cost the British and Indians 624 killed, wounded and missing, with 153 of these coming from the 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Operation COMPASS had therefore far exceeded expectations for a limited raid within three days. In the process the military situation on Egypt’s western border was totally recast, prompting a shift in British thinking.


Invisible Enemy by Ivan Berryman.

Perhaps among the bravest of those serving within the Regia Marina in WW2, the crews of the Italian SLCs (Siluro a Lavita Corsa, or Slow-Running Torpedoes) carried out some of the most daring submarine raids of the war. At 23ft in length and with a maximum speed of just 4 knots, the Maiali (or Pigs, as they were known, due to their lack of maneuverability) frequently delivered their 300kg warheads direct to their targets with devastating results, as when three Italian SLCs sank the British battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth as well as a tanker in Alexandria Harbour on 19th December 1941. Here an SLC has cut its way through the torpedo netting, just one of the many hazards encountered on these highly dangerous covert operations.
Assault from the Deep by Ivan Berryman. (PC)

Sitting menacingly at a depth of 15 metres below the surface, just 2 km outside the heavily defended harbour of Alexandria, the Italian submarine Scire is shown releasing her three manned torpedoes, or Maiali, at the outset of their daring raid in which the British battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant and a tanker, were severely damaged on 3rd December 1941. All six crew members of the three Maiali survived the mission, but all were captured and taken prisoner. Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi can be seen moving away aboard 221, whilst Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino (222) carry out systems checks. Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat, on 223, are heading away at the top of the picture.

The first of the manned torpedoes was the Siluro Lenta Corsa (SLC), `slow speed torpedo’, nicknamed the maiale or `hog’, first developed by Tesei and Toschi in 1935-36. By summer 1939 about 11 of these were available, but it was not until July 1940 that the new generation entered production. These were designated Series 100, and followed in 1941 by the improved Series 200. They were based on the standard 533mm torpedo with suitable adaptations: the double propellers were replaced by a single larger one in an enclosed structure to prevent snagging on nets, and seats for two crewmen and superstructures housing controls were added. The SLC weighed from 1.3 to 1.4 tons, and measured between 6.7 and 7.3m (22-24ft). The 1.6hp electric motor gave a speed of 2-3 knots, to a depth of between 15m and a theoretical maximum of 30m (49-98ft). Once they reached their target the two crewmen had to detach the 1.8m (5.9ft) explosive warhead; this contained a charge of between 230kg and 260kg (507lb-573lb), or, in the last model, two 125kg (275lb) charges. By September 1943 some 50 examples had been built; by then they were largely outdated in comparison with the British `Chariots’ and the new Italian Siluro San Bartolomeo (SSB) – though only three prototypes of this greatly improved model had been built by the time of the Italian surrender.

HMS Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria harbour.

On 19 December in 1941, limpet mines placed by Italian divers sink the HMS Valiant (1914) and HMS Queen Elizabeth (1913) in Alexandria harbour.

Developed in 1918, by two divers of the Italian Navy-Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti, they rode a primitive manned torpedo into the Austro-Hungarian Naval base at Pola, and sank the Austrian battleship Virbus Unitis and a freighter. Sans breathing gear, they rode in with there heads above water. Both men were discovered and captured, but not before their success.

As a result of this first attempt, the First Fleet Assault Vehicles were formed in 1939, by Major Teseo Tesei & Elios Toschi of the Italian Royal Navy. In 1940, Commander Moccagatta of the IRN, reorganized this group, into the Tenth Light Flotilla of Assault Vehicles aka X-MAS. It constructed manned torpedoes and trained navy frogmen. The IRN X-MAS group attempted an attack on Valletta Harbor in July of 1941, which was a complete disaster and which resulted in the death of Major Tesei.

A better design, was the Italian Human Torpedoes, called Maiale-meaning “Pig,” as it was slow to steer. Three feet high and 23 feet long, it was electrically powered by a 2 hp electric motor. It had a crew of two, which rode atop the device and had a max. speed of 4 knots. It carried a detachable 300 kg warhead.

During the war Italian Special Forces unit Decima MAS (10th Flotilla, aka X-MAS) pioneered various diving and submersible technologies and used them to devastating effect against the Allies. The main underwater vehicle was the SLC (Siluro a Lunga Corsa which means long running torpedo’, and not the common mistake of ‘Siluro a Lenta Corsa’ which means slow running torpedo, and is incorrect). This was described as a ‘human torpedo’ and popularly known as the ‘maiale’ (pig). Two frogmen sat astride a torpedo body with a massive mine carried on the nose. They would creep into an enemy port and attach the mine to the target using clamps. Suspended between the bilge keels, the mine was large enough to sink a capital ship. The SLC was used on several successful attacks on Allied shipping in the Mediterranean including the disabling of two battleships. The effectiveness of these tactics led the British to copy the design, developing the Chariot. Following the SLC, Decima MAS developed the more advanced SSB (Siluro San Bartolomeo) with the crew sitting inside the craft. The SSB never saw combat because it arrived too late, but was the model which influenced the post-war development of SDVs. Pucciarini was himself an SSB pilot.

The Raid on Alexandria was carried out on 19 December 1941 by Italian Navy divers, members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, who attacked and disabled two Royal Navy battleships in the harbour of Alexandria, Egypt, using manned torpedoes.

On 3 December, the submarine Scirè of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) left the naval base of La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes, called maiali (pigs) by the Italians. At the island of Leros in the Aegean Sea, the submarine secretly picked up six crewmen for them: Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi (maiale nº 221), Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino (maiale nº 222), and Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat (maiale nº 223).

On 19 December, Scirè—at a depth of 15 m (49 ft)—released the manned torpedoes 1.3 mi (1.1 nmi; 2.1 km) from Alexandria commercial harbour and they entered the naval base when the British opened their defenses to let three of their destroyers pass. There were many difficulties for de la Penne and his crewmate Emilio Bianchi. First, the engine of the torpedo stopped and the two frogmen had to manually push it; then Bianchi had to surface due to problems with the oxygen provider, so that de la Penne had to push the Maiale alone to where HMS Valiant lay. There he successfully placed the limpet mine, just under the hull of the battleship. However, as they both had to surface, and as Bianchi was hurt, they were discovered and captured.

Questioned, both of them kept silent, and they were confined in a compartment aboard Valiant, under the sea level, and coincidentally just over the place where the mine had been placed. Fifteen minutes before the explosion, de la Penne asked to meet with Valiant’s captain Charles Morgan and then told him of the imminent explosion but refused to give further information, so that he was returned to the compartment. Fortunately for the Italians, when the mine exploded just before them, neither he nor Bianchi was severely injured by the blast, while de la Penne only received a minor injury to the head by a ship chain.

Meanwhile, Marceglia and Schergat had attached their device five feet beneath the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth ‘s keel as scheduled. They successfully left the harbour area at 4:30 am and slipped through Alexandria posing as French sailors. They were captured two days later at Rosetta by the Egyptian police while awaiting rescue by the Scirè and handed over to the British. Martellota and Marino searched in vain for an aircraft carrier purportedly moored at Alexandria, but after sometime, they decided to attack a large tanker, the 7554 gross register ton Norwegian Sagona. Marino fixed the mine under the tanker’s stern at 2:55 am. Both drivers managed to land unmolested but were eventually arrested at an Egyptian checkpoint.

In the end all the divers were made prisoners, but not before their mines exploded, severely damaging both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant, disabling them for nine months and six months respectively. The Sagona lost her stern section and the destroyer HMS Jervis, one of four alongside her refuelling, was badly damaged. Although the two capital ships sank only in a few feet of water and were eventually raised, they were out of action for over one year.

This represented a dramatic change of fortunes against the Allies from the strategic point of view during the next six months. The Italian fleet had temporarily wrested naval supremacy in the east-central Mediterranean from the Royal Navy.

Valiant was towed to Admiralty Floating Dock 5 on the 21st for temporary repairs and was under repair at Alexandria until April 1942 when she sailed to Durban. By August she was operating with Force B off Africa in exercises for the defence of East Africa and operations against Madagascar. Queen Elizabeth was in drydock at Alexandria for temporary repairs until late June when she sailed for the United States for refit and repairs, which ended the following June. The refit was completed in Britain. Jervis was repaired and operational again by the end of January.

Italian Naval Special Operations

General Luigi Cadorna: A Reappraisal

The year 1866 was not an auspicious time to join the Italian Army. The service was still reeling from the disastrous influence of its constabulary duties during the brigantaggio, the period from the unification of Italy to the late 1860s, when the primary function of the army was maintaining law and order, and was not, therefore, organized to engage a major European opponent. Although theoretically reforms had been set in motion since the late 1850s, the Italian Army defeated at Custozza in June continued to be plagued by natural inertia, the causes of which were a rigid officers corps, a lack of operational precedents, and a dearth of natural resources and national cohesion. It was in this atmosphere that Luigi Cadorna began his military career.

When he joined the army, Cadorna, like his colleagues, faced slow advancement and poor salaries. However, certain ambitious and motivated officers were interested in the study of the art and science of war, forming a ‘dedicated and compact’ corps. Luigi showed potential and an exceptional ability to organize, and in 1892 at forty-two years of age, he earned his colonelcy. Nevertheless, he was overshadowed in many respects by his father. Raffaele Cadorna had enjoyed much success during his career, fighting in 1848–9, and serving in the Piedmontese Army in the Crimea. In 1866, his corps was one of the few noteworthy Italian success stories, which helped to distance him from Italy’s dismal failures in the Seven Weeks’ War. Raffaele’s crowning achievement came in September 1870, when he completed the unification of Italy by capturing Rome during the Porta Pia while the French were fighting the Franco-Prussian War.

The years after the demise of France as Europe’s chief land power was a monumental era in the evolution of warfare. It was in this climate that Luigi formulated the ideas that were to prevail later in his military tenure. He was quick to see that the Italian Army had to modernize in order to compete in European military circles. However, this was easier to conceptualize than it was to implement. The need for quick mobilization was readily apparent, but in Italy, with its mountainous terrain and regional population differences, the new standards of military rail organization proved difficult to realize. Military modernization was expensive; and although Italy spent most of her national expenditure on the armed forces during this period, by August 1914 Italy was still considered in its military infancy. Cadorna was just reaching the higher command positions as the Italian Army grappled with these imposing dilemmas.

Four years after being promoted to colonel, Luigi was appointed to the General Staff, and there had to wait fourteen years before obtaining corps command. When the Chief of Staff position became vacant around the same time, Cadorna was considered, but was passed over for the more pliant Alberto Pollio, although many believed that Cadorna was better suited to address many of the army’s more urgent problems. However, Pollio was pro-German, and therefore seemed to be a safe choice in this era of diplomatic and military instability. Pollio continued to plan military operations with Germany and Austria-Hungary, although the alliance had been deteriorating for some time. Indeed, the reason that Italy joined the Triplice in 1882 was the need to capitalize on German military prestige. The central difficulty with the alliance was that the national antagonism between Rome and Vienna hindered diplomatic and military co-operation, and by the turn of the century, many European commentators questioned its validity. From 1902 to the beginning of the First World War, Italy negotiated with Great Britain and France, although the Italian government did not want to see the French continue to grow into a Mediterranean power. This created an enormous rift between Italy’s political and military leaders, for the politicians kept the negotiations secret, and continued to do so right until Italy declared war in May 1915. To operate in a diplomatic and military climate that was basically Clausewitzian in nature, communications between the heads of state and the military leaders were a necessity. Correspondence between the Italian government and the military establishment was virtually non-existent, and when the representatives did talk about crucial matters, the meetings were normally strained and led to misunderstandings. Furthermore, the lines of communication between the army and the navy were worse than existed between the politicians and the generals. These conditions so hampered Italian military operations that Cadorna must have felt that he was an island in a sea of confusion. With no reliable information coming from any quarter, Cadorna became isolated in his own theories. This made him appear like a hapless and disconnected commander, out of touch with reality, and unable to keep his finger on the pulse of contemporary diplomatic and military attitudes.

Just after assuming his country’s highest military rank after Pollio’s death in July 1914, it seems that many of Cadorna’s characteristics became readily apparent. He was born of an aristocratic family in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, and therefore it was assumed that he inherited many ‘Nordic’ traits from his Germanic ancestors. He was a firm disciplinarian, who was often regarded as cold and indifferent to the conditions of his front-line soldiers. However, Cadorna was preparing the Italian Army for the storm of the First World War from the time he was appointed Chief-of-Staff until Italian mobilization, for he needed to rectify numerous weaknesses before the army could become an effective force. Cadorna was not a ‘from the front’ style of commander, choosing to lead by telephone and courier, staying behind the lines to perceive the front as a whole instead of becoming fixated on one particular sector. The truth of the matter was that most of his contemporaries could not produce solutions to the complexities of modern attritional warfare, and it was Cadorna’s misfortune that many considered the Italian Army defeated by its reputation before it was ever engaged in military operations.

In a conundrum rare in the annals of military-diplomatic history, Italy needed to align herself with the leading land and naval powers to achieve anything diplomatically. Desiring to manoeuvre behind the shield of German military might, Italian diplomats also had to consider that the Italian peninsula presented over 4100 miles of indefensible coastline, therefore Great Britain and the spectre of the Royal Navy heavily influenced any Italian military venture. Although this difficulty was not as severe just after 1871, due to the awe in which Germany was held after her impressive defeat of France, as the Royal Navy continued to assert its presence in world affairs, Italy’s diplomatic bonds with Germany and Austria-Hungary weakened. At the time of the Sarajevo assassination, Italy was in a quandary about what she would do in case of a European war. When Cadorna assumed command, he fell straight into this abyss, for he was not kept abreast of the vicissitudes in Italian diplomacy. While Italian politicians wrangled with Allied and Triplice negotiators for territorial compensation, Cadorna remained dangerously unaware of the change in Italian foreign policy. Just a few weeks before Italy was to announce that she was going to war with Austria-Hungary, Cadorna was informed to make the necessary plans for conducting an offensive against the Habsburg Empire. Cadorna, taken completely by surprise and astonished that he was kept in the dark for so long, rightfully exploded ‘What? I knew nothing!’ Much of the military planning to this time had been directed against France. Although exigency plans had been created for a war with Vienna, many changes had to be implemented before the Italian high command could enact any effective strategy against Austria-Hungary.

No one was prepared for the tactical realities of the First World War. Not only did Cadorna have to contend with an army that was materially weak and engaged in a nasty little colonial war, but, in addition, his theatre of operations was arguably the most difficult of the entire war. Hemmed in along the northern frontier with mountains often reaching elevations over 10,000 feet, the Italians were at a severe topographic disadvantage. Any other avenue of approach to the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to be by sea, an unlikely prospect considering the strained relations that existed between the army and navy. Selecting the extreme north-east sector of the Austro-Italian frontier just north of the Adriatic Sea for his main effort, Cadorna soon found himself in a slugging match with a skilled and determined enemy. Since most of the writings about the influence of modern weapons on tactics were poorly received or simply ignored, Cadorna reacted to the stalemate in a typically First World War fashion: headlong assaults with massive concentrations of artillery and infantry. Although the existing historiography does not cover the matter in detail, it was an Italian characteristic to make up for the deficiencies in weapons and tactics with the blood of the foot soldier. To assuage the popular myths created by the debacle at Caporetto, and by British and American veterans of the Second World War, the Italian infantryman between May 1915 and October 1917 displayed abundant courage and zeal when coming to grips with the Austro-Hungarians. However, Cadorna failed to consider the wellbeing of his main instrument, for rest in the rear areas was almost unheard of in most Italian divisions. The morale of any soldier would be devastated by the rigours of combat without periods of recuperation.

Since Cadorna fought his war from behind the lines, the Italian high command was slow to develop tactical innovations that considered the hostile geography of the Italian front. More often than not, Italian infantrymen had to attack over rocky and rugged surfaces, up slopes averaging between thirty and forty-five degrees, against a well-equipped enemy protected by defences excavated out of solid rock. Much of what the Italians learned tactically was from the Austrians, who were refining tested German operational and tactical practices, or from the French, who were not known at this time to be a source of tactical innovation. A good example of this was the Austrian offensive in the Trentino in May 1916. Using loose formations that used terrain features to open holes in the Italian lines after a tremendous artillery preparation, the Austrians enjoyed some success before the weight of their attack caused the logistic apparatus to break down. Using this information to form infiltration units of his own, Cadorna shifted ample reserves and guns to the Isonzo while the Austrians were preoccupied with the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front to capture Gorizia in August 1916. Proving adept at handling large bodies of men over Italy’s less than adequate rail system, Cadorna shifted the brunt of his army and guns to the Isonzo after the abortive Austrian attack on the Asiago plateau. Massing one of the largest artillery concentrations ever to be used on the Italian front, and employing select infantry units at certain concentration points, the Italians captured Gorizia, Mount Sabotino, and carried the western section of the Carso plateau in two weeks, whereas before nearly six months of offensive action failed to secure any of these objectives.

At the beginning of the war, the Italian Army consisted of thirty-five divisions. When Cadorna started his eleventh battle on the Bainsizza plateau in September 1917, he had sixty-five divisions at his disposal. The drain of attritional mountain warfare and rapid growth produced severe problems, such as an acute lack of munitions. Cadorna had to organize, arm, and train over one million men in two years – not an inconsiderable feat for an institution that was not known for its organizational capacity, especially considering that going into the conflict the Italians were still suffering substantial casualties in Africa. It is in this realm where Cadorna did his best work, and if it were not for this progress, the results of the Austro-German offensive in October would have been far worse.

Nearly two years of continual action was not only sapping Italy’s material ability to wage the war, it was also draining her morale. Cadorna, a strict disciplinarian far removed for the realities of trench warfare, failed to allow his soldiers to have any substantial periods of rest and relaxation, and therefore they lost much of their elan. Moreover, the offensive posture of Cadorna’s military operations often forced Italian division and corps commanders to neglect their forward defences. Just after the Italian successes in September on the Bainsizza, Cadorna ordered defences to be strengthened, for the near capitulation of Russia had freed Austrian formations from other duties, and he feared an enemy offensive. Although the Italians had fortified certain areas, mainly in the topographically favourable stretches of terrain around Gorizia and the Carso plateau, the Austro-German army struck on the upper Isonzo, along a lightly defended ridge just south of the small town of Caporetto. The Italians had planned to use a mobile defence, but the speed of the enemy advance caught them completely off guard, and soon the Italian Second Army was in flight, while the Third Army was forced to enact a strategic withdrawal across the Fruili Plains. The enemy offensive forced Cadorna to leave behind much of his heavy equipment and artillery – the accumulation of two years’ hard work. These losses, and the capture of about 300,000 men severely crippled the Italian war effort.

Not having secured the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Army after two years of extreme hardship and losses, Cadorna was sacked and replaced by one of his corps commanders, Armando Diaz. Cadorna’s cold and indifferent attitude toward not only his soldiers, but also toward the politicians had not ingratiated him with any power bloc that might have proved beneficial to him in case of a disaster. Therefore, Cadorna was supposedly kicked upstairs, and was sent to represent Italy on the Supreme Allied War Council. Soon thereafter, an investigation fixed the blame for the debacle squarely on his shoulders, and Cadorna retired in disgrace in December 1918. In all fairness, the Italian government needed a scapegoat, and since Cadorna was no longer the Chief of Staff and had directed the Italian armies since the beginning of the war, he was the logical choice. The government failed to pay attention to Cadorna when he warned that the front-line soldiers were being saturated with anti-war propaganda, which was growing vociferously all over Europe. He should have expected a great deal of criticism for his lack of preparedness when the Central Powers struck; however, the government should have realized that by attaching most of the blame to Cadorna, they had negated a fair record of success along the Isonzo during the first two years of the war.

The reputation of the Italian Army and Cadorna continues to languish. Holger Herwig, for example, recently deprecated him and his Austrian counterpart General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in the following way: ‘Both ignored terrain and weather. Both underestimated supply. Both stressed the will to fight. Both devised grandiose strategies that bore little relation to ready strength. And both insisted on their own infallibility.’28 However, Cadorna should not be uncritically blamed for the apparent lack of Italian progress during the war. He took an army embroiled in a colonial venture and forged it, under the most trying conditions, into one comparable with other European armies of the era. It is easy to say the Italian Army was bad, and that Cadorna was unimaginative or, as John Keegan puts it, a ‘château general’. However, the Italian Army had to attack in the most inhospitable front of the entire war, and was capable of capturing many key objectives, often when their efforts were hampered by lack of artillery and ammunition. The Austrian defences were exceedingly strong and set in mutually supporting positions across the front, providing Austrian machine gunners and artillery officers with strong positions for enfilade fire. Cadorna had conducted reconnaissance of the front before the war, and knew what his soldiers would have to face while fighting in the mountainous terrain. He was aware that operations on the Italian front would take patience and technical innovation, and was quick to adopt new weapons, such as the trench mortar and the teleferiche railway. The latter was a cable anchored to a base and stretched to the summit of an elevation, on which a cart or basket moved supplies and men to areas where the altitude and slope prohibited road construction. The need for mechanical assistance played an important role in the development of Cadorna’s army. Unfortunately, these gadgets were seen as the answers to tricky tactical and operational questions instead of being incorporated into existing doctrine, or being the catalysts for entirely new procedures. Often when certain divisions formulated new practices, the lack of communication on the administrative level prevented them from being disseminated. This is probably Cadorna’s most glaring fault, and shows just how isolated he was from the various contingents of his own army.

Contending with the rocky rugged terrain and the Austrian positional supremacy should have been an ideal catalyst for tactical innovation. However, the topographical compartmentalization of the front prevented the Italian high command from forming a clear picture of what was working or failing. Still, the Italians implemented some astonishing tactical changes, which were generally a result of learning from the enemy, or from division commanders who assessed certain areas and formed their units according to specific geographic problems. As the first four Isonzo offensives attempted to pierce the Austrian defences, the first just north of Mount Sabotino, the last three on the topographically more conducive Carso plateau, the Italians found it impossible to make any substantial progress against the enemy while using tactics that would not have been out of place on a battlefield during the Napoleonic era or during the American Civil War. This was not just an Italian problem – even the much vaunted Germans went to war in 1914 with tactical formations that were little changed since the victorious campaigns of 1866 and 1870–1. Realizing that they had to contend with perplexing terrain difficulties, and that their methods lacked the finesse to overcome and retain most defensive positions, the Italians began to search for solutions and, unfortunately, looked to the French for tactical answers. Although not as inept as many historians portray it be, the French Army was not exactly the source from which any belligerent would want to borrow military instructions at this stage of the war. The French were also enamoured by the results of the Wars of German Unification, and thought the answer to their military conundrum was to emulate the German model on a larger, more efficient scale. Each nation is a separate and unique entity, and therefore should forge its military accordingly. Therefore the problem with Italy, and indeed much of Europe, was that she should have been trying to create a national force based on her own capabilities and limitations instead of copying a successful yet dated German model. The Italian Army needed to be Italian, not a mere imitation of the German Army whose strength was as much from economic and industrial power as it was from any radical advances in the military arts and sciences.

By the time the Austrians struck in the Trentino, the Italians had received some tactical advice from the French, who were then going through the horrors of Verdun. However, the problem was not that they were receiving procedural assistance from the French, it was that they were usually receiving this help nearly six months after the tactics were first employed. Considering the rigid and ponderous methods prevalent in the Italian Army, it was usually several more months before any of this experience could be translated into military practice. Some procedures would take even longer to employ because of material deficiencies. The result was that the Italians were tactically and operationally behind most of the other major belligerents. A case in point was the massive artillery concentration used against Austrian defences on the Bainsizza. An overwhelming concentration of guns was nearly a constant goal of Allied and Central Power planners since the beginning of the war, the desire increasing after the German attack at Verdun. The attack on Verdun began in February 1916. The battle of the Bainsizza started in August 1917. This was just three months before the Central Powers introduced new tactical methods at Caporetto. Cadorna was methodical, but he often did not push tactical and operational changes fast enough, and hardly had time to use the old methods before he fell victim to a new set of offensive procedures.

Many historians wonder why Cadorna did not use the navy to land combat units in an area where geography would allow them to be employed more effectively. The army and navy never enjoyed a convivial relationship, and therefore could not count on each other to be the most ‘co-operative’ partners. Both were wary of enterprises that would waste resources and leave themselves in the lurch. Cadorna was hesitant to release any of his battalions to make a landing along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and the navy did not want to risk its capital ships in the same enterprise, for they knew amphibious operations would force a major surface action with the Austrian Navy. Although the Italians had landed approximately 40,000 troops along the north African coast during the war with Turkey in 1910–1, the aftershocks of this campaign still weighed upon the minds of military planners. Moreover, the areas where troops could be landed did not offer better geographic conditions that existed on the Isonzo Front. Italian formations were landed in Albania, and promptly suffered a reverse in the field and had to be evacuated with the loss of much equipment. Another venture, where Italian forces were deployed in Salonika, did little more than isolate a sizeable force. The enterprise held little chance of tactical success, and did not make a strategic contribution until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies late in 1918.

In hindsight, Cadorna seems to be just another commander that falls into the stereotype of a First World War general, an indifferent man who sent his soldiers to die by the thousands, while staying safely behind the front, out of harm’s way. This is only half true. Cadorna was conscious of the heavy losses the Italians were suffering – one and a half million casualties during the war, 460,000 of which were fatalities – if not from a humanitarian viewpoint, from operational realism. He knew that the Italian nation could not go on indefinitely due to its lack of natural resources and economic reserves. He used the only commodity the Italians possessed, a sizeable population base, until better operational and tactical methods could be developed. It was his misfortune that the Central Powers were generally the first to introduce innovative tactical and operational procedures, and just happened to test them in the secondary theatres before employing them on the Western Front.

It is curious that the Italians have been castigated for their debacle at Caporetto, as Cadorna skilfully withdrew his Third Army across the congested Fruili Plains, and even managed to salvage certain portions of the Second Army. Although trying to establish defensive positions on the major waterways in the eastern sector of the plains, he was forced back to the Piave River before he could restore his front. Geography and distance prevented the British or the French from saving the Italians, for by the time Allied troops reached Italy, Cadorna had stabilized the front, but had been fired in the process. Haig finally had to succumb to French pressure for overall direction of the war so that unity of command could re-establish Allied defences on the Western Front.

Cadorna was not totally forgotten after Caporetto. He went on to be the Italian representative on the Supreme Allied War Council, and exhibited an uncanny grasp of military problems. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Cadorna had invaluable experience in handling an army; the second was that he was a well-known theoretical writer about European military affairs, and had dealt academically with many problems concerning coalition warfare before the war. Cadorna’s problem was that he undoubtedly held the wrong post, for he could not deal appropriately with the minutiae of war. His father, the general who had shown some promise in the Seven Weeks’ War, realized his full potential as the Minister of War for the government of Tuscany in 1859. It was in this area where Cadorna showed his optimum potential. Once the politicians confided in him concerning Italy’s diplomatic endeavours, Cadorna followed their policies and worked energetically toward their realization. His realistic mind, although restricting his creativity, never allowed him to entertain fantastic or unrealistic schemes. This aptitude for the diplomatic-military sphere was clearly seen at the Supreme War Council, for he could quickly equate objectives with available means and gauge probable outcomes, not only in a military sense, but in the diplomatic realm as well. This could be a result of having to contend with Italy’s chronic lack of resources while trying to conduct a major war effort – something that he lost sight of during the offensives of 1915, but then addressed in future operations. Therefore, his organizational talents would have been better suited to the war ministry, and were not geared to the frustratingly complex phenomenon of a First World War army command. After the war, Cadorna busied himself with writing a book about the Italian front, much of which was in defence of his actions connected with Caporetto. Falling into relative obscurity, he was somewhat revitalized when Mussolini, ever the astute politician and consummate showman, made Cadorna a Field Marshal in 1924. This ceremony was an empty gesture, doing nothing to vindicate Cadorna’s reputation, which still suffers today from a lack of scholarship and interest. He will never be known as one of the great captains of history, but considering what he did with what he had available, his story deserves better treatment.

Soon the Western Front would be embroiled in a chaotic retreat, and many of the divisions sent to Italy would be recalled. However, with Cadorna fading into the history of the First World War, a new phase of the war emerged in Italy, as British and French contingents arrived to bolster their crippled ally.

The Air Battles Over the Piave

Illustration: Sopwith Camels over Italy in 1918 (image from ‘Sopwith Camel’ by Jon Guttman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

When the British army occupied the Asiago sector, the original plan had been to attack the Austrians towards the Val Suguna. However, the situation in France caused a postponement, and instead it was the Austrians that took the offensive. Then, as the problem in France caused British troops to be withdrawn from the Italian front on the Piave River, the Camels began flying three-man patrols over both the Piave and Asiago areas to maintain a presence.

Enemy reconnaissance aircraft were constantly over allied positions and the Camels were flying barrage patrols between Fornia and Gallio. It was presumed that while the Austrians were preparing to attack, unknown to the allies they had changed their plan of advance to the Piave. In order to conceal their intentions, they were moving all men and equipment during the hours of darkness.

On the first day of June 45 Squadron lost one of its ace pilots – Earl Hand – to the Austro-Hungarian pilot Frank Linke-Crawford. Hand was on patrol along with Lieutenants Paddy O’Neill and J. P. `Proc’ Huins. Huins had this to say about the action in a letter:

An early morning O. P., 6-7.15 am, over the lines. Paddy had engine trouble and returned to base before we crossed the lines. Hand and myself climbed to 12,000 feet flying east, with me on his starboard side. When some 7-10 miles over a sudden waggling of wings by Hand, indicated he had spotted some E. A. well below us. Down he went in a good dive and I followed on, flattening out after the dive. Hand immediately closed in combat with a black machine with a large camouflaged letter `L’ on the top of the centre section of his machine.

I was about 100 yards away and as I hurried on a parallel course, Hand turned out of the tight circle in which he and the E. A. was involved, and I saw flames come from Hand’s main tank behind his back. The pilot of the `L’ machine was about 200 yards away. I turned towards him and we came head-on; he opened fire first and a second later I replied – a two-second burst but then both [my] guns jammed. I held my head-on approach and decided to fly for a collision. At the last moment when it seemed certain we would collide the E. A. went under, and he passed beneath me. I immediately did a steep left turn and came round inside the E. A., which was turning left. I finished some ten yards or less on his tail, the pilot looking over his left shoulder, then he half-rolled and went down vertically. I held my height as the E. A. flattened out at tree-top level, and flying `on the carpet’ went east.

I realised my engine was running rough as my Camel had been damaged in the encounter. The leading edge of my wings were torn and flapping in the breeze, the engine damaged, and the windmill pump on the right centre section strut had been shot away. I turned on to the gravity tank and limped back to our side of the lines, taking a last look at Hand’s burning machine.

Earl Hand, from Ontario, was lucky to survive the encounter, crashing in flames. Although he suffered some burns, he got clear of the wreckage and soon found himself taken prisoner. He had gained five victories over France and Italy, and later received the DFC. `Proc’ Huins later became a doctor and spent a lot of time studying aviation medicine, for which he was made an OBE and received the Air Force Cross and Bar.

Two casualties in early June were Second Lieutenant A. F. Bartlett of 66 Squadron (B7353) taken prisoner on the 6th, and Lieutenant G. D. McLeod of 28 Squadron (B2316) wounded and captured on the 8th. He lingered until he succumbed to his injuries on 22 January 1919.

From 10 June 1918, Camels again began making their barrage patrols between Fornia and Gallio in order to restrict Austrian air reconnaissance over these areas; also what were termed `long patrols’ which were flown some 5 miles into enemy territory between Casotto and Cismon. Meanwhile, British and Italian air reconnaissance reports and photographs finally revealed that the Austrians were planning to attack the Piave sector. Austrian intentions, however, were not clear until a heavy bombardment began at 0300 hours on the 15th from the Adriatic coast to Astico. The Austrians also attacked Italian positions on the Piave, French positions on Mount Grappa and the remaining British forces on the Asiago plateau.

Low mist prevented any real air operations against the enemy offensive, especially over these mountainous regions. However, a patrol led by Spike Howell of 45 Squadron did manage to spot early signs of the attack. Austrian troops were crossing the Piave under cover of smoke screens, in boats and by erecting pontoon bridges. No. 45 Squadron then began sending out Camels in threes, dropping 20lb Cooper bombs on both these types of targets. The Camels then came in at low level to machine-gun targets of opportunity, causing many casualties among the assaulting soldiery. These attacks continued as the weather improved and in total, 45 Squadron alone flew thirty-five sorties dropping 112 x 20lb bombs plus another twenty bombs on Asiago targets. This was followed by an all-out attack by Camels and Bristol fighters of `Z’ Flight, the latter recently formed from C Flight of 34 Squadron, to help with recce sorties and based at Istrana. (In July it would become 139 Squadron.) Italian fighters and bombers also added to the Austrians’ discomfort.

In all, during the initial assault by the Austrians, the RAF dropped 350 x 20lb bombs on the crossings. After dark, the Austrians began rebuilding destroyed or damaged pontoon bridges and also managed to get troops across in boats under cover of darkness. As dawn broke on the second day, ground mist again hampered early attempts by the RAF to engage them but as this began to lift around 0900, the Camels were once more causing mayhem.

Austrian and German aircraft were in evidence above these crossings, and British pilots had some success. On the 15th 28 Squadron claimed three Albatros fighters and two balloons, while 66, under Carpenter, shot down three: two Albatros D. Vs and a Brandenburg two-seater. In the meantime, 45 Squadron bagged four two- seaters, including one by the CO, Major A. M. Vaucour: a DFW in flames. Lieutenant S. W. Ellison was wounded on the 16th (B5204), later dying of his wounds. By the 16th the Austrians were in retreat.

On the 17th low cloud and rain grounded all aircraft, but the weather became the ultimate ruin of the Austrian offensive. These rains poured tons of water down from the mountains and into the river, sweeping away bridges and upsetting boats as the torrent raged. By 18 June only two bridges remained usable but it was the beginning of the end for the Austrians. The Italians now began a counter-attack and by the 19th the Austrians were in full retreat. Better weather allowed Camels to get into the action, 45 Squadron claiming eight enemy aircraft, two of these by Howell and three by Lieutenant J. H. Dewhirst. Bunny Vaucour destroyed another two-seater.

Cooper of 28 had downed one enemy machine on the 18th, while McEwen and Williams scored on the 19th; McEwen with one Berg fighter in flames and another `ooc’, Voss Williams a D. V crashed. On the 19th Lieutenant S. M. Robins of 28 was brought down by AA fire to become a prisoner (Camel D9310 `D’).

A serious loss to Britain’s Italian ally was that of Maggiore Francesco Baracca, their leading air ace with thirty-four victories. He had flown out on a ground strafing sortie on the 19th and failed to return. He was 30 years of age and had claimed his last two victories on 15 June.

At around 0900 hours on 21 June, Barker, Apps and Birks claimed three Albatros D. IIIs near Motta air base, located 10 miles east of the Piave. Barker and Birks had been flying together for some time, with Birks acting as his wingman; in fact, there had been nearly forty such flights and on this date, Gerry Birks made his twelfth and last claim. In the event it seems that only one Albatros was actually destroyed, with Oberleutnant F. Dechant of Flik 51J in 153.88 being killed. Barker had spotted a number of Austrian fighters taking off from Motta and decided to climb higher and to the north-east, biding his time till the hostiles were near Oderzo, closer to the front lines. Barker took his two partners in an arc so that the morning sun was behind them and then dived. Barker’s fire sent one opponent down in a spin and then it broke up. Birks and `Mable’ Apps each sent opponents spinning earthwards. On the 22nd Eycott-Martin flamed a Brandenburg C-type over Arsie.

Gerry Birks had flown a total of sixty-six patrols over Italy by the 24th and was pretty tired, so was rested. It was not long before he was on a ship sailing home to Canada. He went on to live to the age of 96, although he never flew again. A banker, he married twice, had several children and died in Toronto in May 1991. Apart from Josef Kiss, Birks had also downed another Austrian ace, Oberleutnant Karl Patzelt on 4 May 1918, as mentioned earlier.

By the 24th, the Austrians had fallen back to their original positions at the start of the offensive, having incurred serious losses including some 20,000 men taken prisoner, those who had been unable to get back across the Piave. The RAF, especially the Camel squadrons, had played a significant part in this victory.

Combats continued to be had by all three Camel squadrons during the rest of June and into July. Cliff McEwen racked up eleven victories in these two months, bringing his score to twenty-four. Seven of these he scored flying D8112 but following one of these in this machine on 1 July, a Berg Scout, he crashed into trees near Isola di Cartura and was badly shaken. However, he was awarded the DFC, adding this to his earlier MC. He also received the Italian Bronze Medal. In the Second World War he commanded No. 6 (Canadian) Bomber Group in England from January 1944. He died in Toronto in 1967.

Lieutenant McEvoy, in D8235 `T’, shot down a Pfalz Scout north-west of Asiago on 4 July and ten days later, in this same machine, he was forced to crash-land in a marsh following another combat. He was unhurt.

No. 28 Squadron lost Lieutenant A. R. Strang on 13 July (D8209) on a morning patrol. He was attacking a two-seater with two other pilots and although the enemy machine was claimed as destroyed, Strang sharing the kill with Joe Mackereth and Captain J. E. Hallonquist, he was missing after the fight, ending up as a prisoner.


On 3 July, the RAF’s `Z’ Flight became 139 Squadron and command of it was given to Will Barker in mid-July. It was equipped with the BF2b – Bristol Fighter – a fighting machine that had already proved itself on the Western Front. Manned by an aggressive pilot and a competent observer/gunner, the `Brisfit’ was a formidable adversary for the enemy. Barker by this time had achieved thirty-eight victories. One amazing concession already given was to be allowed once again: that he could take his beloved Camel B6313 with him, despite his command flying two-seater Bristols. By this stage the two front wing struts of his Camel had white notches painted on them, one for each victory. When his Italian tour of duty ended in September, there would be forty-six notches. Incredibly he had scored all these victories in this aircraft, operating with it in France and Italy for almost a year. Some years ago this author saw this Camel’s log book, retained in the Imperial War Museum, London.

What Barker thought of this posting can only be imagined, but at least he could continue flying his beloved Camel. Before mid-September, he added a further seven victories to his score and was then posted back to England. As is well known, he managed to wangle a posting back to France, arguing that he needed to be brought `up to speed’ on operations over France, and went to 201 Squadron, flying the new Sopwith Snipes.

On 27 October he fought a number of enemy aircraft in a one-man scrap, and although badly wounded he was credited with four victories before being forced to crash-land. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross.


By far the most serious loss to the Camel squadrons in Italy was the death of 45 Squadron’s CO, Major Awdry Morris Vaucour MC & Bar, DFC and the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour (Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare). His penchant for often flying over the front on his own finally cost him his life.

On 16 July he was flying Camel D8102, keeping an eye out for his squadron’s patrols across the front lines. There are two versions of what happened; the British one believing that Vaucour, having spotted an aircraft and realizing that it was Italian, had tried to reassure its pilot he was friendly by flying in front so that the pilot could recognize the British roundels. However, the Italian pilot reported seeing an aircraft heading towards him, and being at around 0900 hours, the low sun was blinding him. He believed he could see black crosses on it and as it passed, he turned and dived to the attack, firing as he came within range.

Too late, he saw that it was a British machine but his fire had already hit Vaucour, the wounded pilot diving some distance before the Camel began to disintegrate, the wreckage falling near Monastier di Treviso. The Italian pilot was Lieutenant Alberto Moresco in a Hanriot scout of the 78ª Squadriglia. Bunny Vaucour was 28 years old, the son of a vicar, born in Topcliffe, Yorkshire. He had claimed five victories over Italy plus three more in France.

Gordon Apps of 66 Squadron was wounded by AA fire over Belluno in B7358 on the 17th. He had gained his tenth and final victory before this event, sharing an LVG two-seater destroyed with Lieutenant A. E. Baker. Apps was later awarded the DFC.

On 27 July, Major J. A. H. Crook MC arrived from England and took command of 45 Squadron. Amazing as it sounds, Joe Crook was only 21 years of age and had won his MC in 1916, aged just 18, on two-seater corps aircraft. One might have expected one of the experienced Camel pilots in Italy to have been promoted to this command.

The Austro-Hungarians also lost one of their leading pilots on 31 July. Oberleutnant Frank Linke-Crawford had downed his 29th victory two days earlier, a BF2b of 139 Squadron. In recent weeks he had also claimed four Camels, with both 28 and 45 Squadrons suffering losses. Flying a Berg D. I, he tangled with 45 Squadron and had to spin down out of trouble and damaged, but then ran into two Italian fighters. Unable to manoeuvre properly, he fell to the guns of Corporal Aldo Astolfi of the 81ª Squadriglia, the latter’s first and only combat success.

Upon hearing that Linke-Crawford had been killed, RAF HQ quickly tried to establish whether an RAF pilot had got him and soon discovered that 45 Squadron had been in action that morning, also that Lieutenant Jack Cottle had claimed a victory. At first it was thought that Cottle should be credited; indeed, he was told so by Colonel Joubert de la Ferté who had telephoned 45 Squadron asking that Cottle should come to his HQ. In his own recollections, Cottle said that the machine he shot down was a new type with red and green stripes along its fuselage and a large octagonal `C’. Cottle, along with Charles Catto and Francis Bowles, had been in a scrap with enemy fighters and the latter two pilots confirmed seeing Cottle’s opponent going down. In 45’s game book Cottle’s record page has even had reference to Linke-Crawford being the victim, the fighter falling in pieces over Fontane.

However, other evidence seems to indicate that Cottle had shot down a Phönix D. I flown by Feldwebel J. Acs of Flik 60J. The difficulty is that Acs appears to have made a forced landing, his machine badly damaged, so not falling to pieces in the air. The Phönix was not a new type at the front, and photos of Linke-Crawford’s machine – a Berg, serial number 115.32 – show a large `L’ on the fuselage. The Italian pilot had reported his victim crashing in flames and he had received confirmation from a nearby artillery observation post. Other pictures show that Flik 60J carried octagonal letters on their machines, such as Kurt Gruber’s `G’.

Linke-Crawford was in fact engaged by Italian Hanriots and shot down in flames after a long combat with 81ª Squadriglia, Corporal Aldo Astolfi claiming his first and only victory as stated above.


August 1918 saw a continuation of the fighting in the air. No. 45 Squadron made a total of twenty-two claims, sixteen noted as destroyed. No. 66 Squadron also put in claims for twenty-two, all but one as being destroyed. No. 28 Squadron only claimed four, three being destroyed. All suffered losses.

No. 45 Squadron lost Lieutenant A. L. Haines DFC on the 10th. Alf Haines came from Evesham, Worcs, a pre-war farmer, and two victories on 29 July had brought his score to six. His DFC was announced after his death. He was very unlucky to be hit by an anti-aircraft shell while flying at 10,000ft, falling in no man’s land from where enemy troops carried his body to the British lines under a white flag.

The other two losses were both results of flying accidents, with Captain W. C. Hilborn DFC losing his life. Canadian Bill Hilborn had attained seven victories and again his DFC was announced after his death on 16 August. He had flown with 66, 28 and finally as a flight commander in 45 two days prior to his crash, although he lingered on for ten days before dying.

No. 28 Squadron only suffered one loss in August with Lieutenant S. Yates being injured in a crash, but 66 Squadron had three casualties. On the 5th, Lieutenant G. C. Easton (B6354) was lost on a patrol and reported killed. Lieutenant E. P. O’Connor- Glynn died following a flying accident on the 17th in B2433, while Captain J. Mackereth (E1496) failed to return on the 31st. However, John Mackereth from Essex survived as a prisoner. Most of his time in Italy had been spent with 28 Squadron until being made a flight commander with 66. However, his tour with them did not last long, for while attacking and destroying a balloon he was hit in the leg by ground fire, crashed and was taken captive. He had gained seven victories.

Another successful 66 Squadron pilot was C. M. Maud from Leeds, formerly with the Royal Field Artillery. Charles Maud celebrated his 22nd birthday on the day the RAF was formed: 1 April 1918. He had been with 66 since March but finally got into his stride during May, with five victories that month. By 23 August he had raised this to ten and number eleven came on 7 October. He was awarded the DFC and the Italian Croce di Guerra.

Air fighting diminished during September, although patrols were still flown across the Asiago front. RAF Intelligence Reports indicated to RAF HQ that the Austro- Hungarian Air Corps were in poor shape, and bad weather over northern Italy did not help either side. Following the massive German offensive in France, it was thought at one stage that much of the British force in Italy might need to return to the Western Front and indeed, nine army battalions were sent during the summer.

Also going back to France was 45 Squadron, and they fought their last air actions on 31 August. In early September the squadron began to dismantle its aircraft and prepare to leave. Once they returned they were attached to Hugh Trenchard’s Independent Force, tasked with bombing French and German strategic targets. Although the squadron was there to give protection, its fighters saw little action until the last weeks of the war, mainly against German reconnaissance aircraft.

The pilots of 28 Squadron managed to get into several combats, but it was mostly new pilots who began to claw down the odd victim or two. Stan Stanger and Cliff McEwen both added to their already impressive scores as the war over Italy gradually came to an end. Stanger, from Montreal, was a flight commander with 28 after initially being with 66. His last three victories in September and October brought his score to thirteen, and he added the DFC to his earlier MC. McEwen, from Manitoba, brought his score to twenty-seven during the last weeks of the war, and had also been awarded the MC and DFC. One of his claims, for an Albatros D. III on 18 February 1918, was only credited as an `ooc’ victory, but some years later the wreckage was discovered in the mountains which raised his credit to `destroyed’.

No. 66 Squadron, on the other hand, got into numerous combats and during September and October gained an impressive thirty-one claims. Among these pilots was Lieutenant H. K. Goode.

Harry King Goode, from Handsworth and formerly a Royal Engineer, had achieved seven victories by August 1918, but in the last weeks he downed seven more, the last six being kite balloons. One of these fell on 29 October, after which he attacked the enemy airfield at South Gioncomo, claiming three enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He ended the war with the DFC and then the DSO. He remained in the RAF after the war, becoming a group captain, but was killed in a flying accident, as a passenger, in August 1942.


With the war on the Western Front going well, it was hoped that in northern Italy the Austro-Hungarian forces would also soon be defeated. One British division remained on the Asiago plateau, but the other two had joined up with the American and French units who were supporting the Italians on the Piave front. To allay suspicions, British soldiers took to wearing Italian uniforms, while all flying operations were kept to the Asiago front.

The opening push began on 4 and 5 October with two air-raids on Austrian advanced training schools. Twenty-three Camels from 28 and 66 attacked Campoformido with high-explosive and phosphorus bombs, and a few enemy machines that tried to interfere were engaged, one being claimed by Stanger and McEwen. The next day Egna in the Adige Valley received attention from twenty- two Camels. No. 28 Squadron had two pilots shot down on the 4th – Lieutenant J. H. R. Bryant killed in B5638 and Lieutenant A. Latimer killed in D8244 – while Lieutenant R. H. Foss shot down an LVG two-seater on the 5th. No. 28 Squadron also had a pilot wounded on the 5th: Second Lieutenant C. S. Styles in E1581.

On the 7th Oberleutnant Ludwig Hautzmeyer of Flik 61J shot down Camel D8215 of 66 Squadron flown by Lieutenant W. J. Courtney, his sixth victory, and Oberleutnant Franz Peter of Flik 3J downed another (E1498) flown by Second Lieutenant G. R. Leighton, a 26-year-old Scot from Glasgow, also his sixth victory. Further operations were begun on 23 October, followed by more decisive action on the 27th. Allied troops crossed the Piave, attacked by the Austrians from the air, while Camels went for the enemy’s balloon lines, three being shot down by 66 Squadron. Enemy forces, once allied soldiers had got across the river, were in retreat.

Augustus Paget from Wiltshire gained all his six victories in these last weeks in Italy with 66 Squadron and was awarded the DFC. However, his luck ran out on 30 October, being brought down and killed by ground fire.

Austrian forces tried to counter the offensive on the 29th but they were finally broken, with low-flying Camels constantly ground-strafing and bombing Austrian ground forces. Over the next few days much carnage was done to the enemy troops from the air, as the allied soldiers constantly pushed forward. The Armistice in Italy finally came into effect on 4 November 1918.

The Red Sea 1940–41

The Red Sea, 1940–1941

Long months of torture in the blazing heat and incredible humidity of Massawa had left us apathetic and drained of hope of escape.

—Edward Ellsberg, No Banners No Bugles

Italy’s East African possessions, particularly its Red Sea base at Massawa, were situated strategically astride the sea route to Suez. With the Sicilian Channel closed to normal transit, Italy theoretically possessed the ability to block maritime access to Egypt.

Between 1935 and 1940 Italy’s planners envisioned the construction of an oceanic fleet that, in its most realistic version, would have consisted of two cruisers, eight destroyers, and twelve submarines, all fitted for tropical service and supported by a network of bases along Italian Somaliland’s Indian Ocean coast. However, this Flotta d’evasione proved more than Rome could afford. Thus, Rear Admiral Carlo Balsamo, who commanded Italy’s East African naval squadron, deployed eight modern submarines, seven middle-aged destroyers, two old torpedo boats, five World War I–era MAS boats, and a large colonial sloop, all concentrated at Massawa. In Supermarina’s view, the squadron’s limited stocks of fuel and ammunition restricted its role to one of survival and sea denial, relying mainly upon the submarines, for the duration of a six-month war.

Great Britain intercepted Italy’s 19 May orders for the “immediate and secret mobilization of the army and air force in east Africa,” whereupon the Royal Navy reinforced its Rea Sea Squadron, which consisted of the Dominion light cruisers Leander and Hobart, the old antiaircraft cruiser Carlisle, three sloops, and four ships of the 28th Destroyer Flotilla. This force was tasked with preventing Italian reinforcements, engaging the Massawa squadron, blockading the coast of Italian Somaliland, and protecting the shipping lanes to Suez and Aden.

On 10 June Italy’s Red Sea submarines occupied, or were on their way to, their patrol stations, but their forewarned enemy had already halted all mercantile shipping to the Red Sea on 24 May. They enjoyed only one success, when Galilei sank the Norwegian tanker James Stove (8,215 GRT) on 16 June. In exchange the Italians lost four boats. Crew poisoning caused by the release of methyl chloride, used as a cheap substitute for freon in the air-conditioning system (a defect that inadequate testing and training under realistic battle conditions failed to reveal), led to the stranding and wrecking of Macallé on 15 June. Galilei attempted to fight it out on the surface with the 650-ton trawler Moonstone on 19 June, but two well-aimed shells from the auxiliary’s 4-inch gun killed Galilei’s captain and all the officers except a midshipman. A British boarding party captured the submarine and a set of operational orders. These enabled the sloop Falmouth to track down and sink Galvani in the Persian Gulf on 24 June. The same intelligence led to the interception of Torricelli, the fourth Red Sea submarine lost in the war’s first fortnight.

Destroyers Kandahar, Kingston, and Khartoum, along with sloops Shoreham and Indus, intercepted Torricelli north of Perim Island, at the entrance to the Red Sea, at 0418 on 23 June. The Italian submarine, initially seeing only one sloop, and considering her damage and the clear waters that made a submerged boat easy to track, elected to run on the surface for the Italian shore batteries at Assab. In the ensuring fight, Torricelli, firing her deck gun, almost hit Shoreham, which reported “two shells falling close ahead.” Then the three destroyers appeared and closed rapidly.

Kingston opened fire with her forward guns at 0536. Torricelli, trailing a wide ribbon of oil, launched four torpedoes back at the destroyer, but their wakes were clearly visible in the calm sea and Kingston easily evaded. At first the British tried to clear the submarine’s decks, to permit a boarding attempt. However, Kingston’s 40-mm shells struck one of her own antennas and wounded eight crewmen. After that the destroyers shot to sink, but they had to expend nearly seven hundred 4.7-inch rounds before a shell finally wrecked Torricelli’s forward bow planes at 0605 and flooded the torpedo room. The submarine sank at 0624.

After rescue operations Khartoum, with prisoners embarked, set course for Perim while the other ships headed for Aden to refuel. At 1150 a torpedo in Khartoum’s aft quintuple mount suddenly exploded, igniting a huge fire in the after lobby. The crew could not control the conflagration, and Khartoum ran for Perim Harbor, seven miles distant. There her men (and the prisoners) abandoned ship, swimming for their lives. At 1245, no. 3 magazine blew up, rendering the destroyer a total loss.

Red Sea Convoys

The first of the Red Sea convoys, collectively the BN/BS series, consisting of nine ships including six tankers, gathered in the Gulf of Aden on 2 July. Thereafter these convoys sailed up and down the Red Sea on a regular schedule. Admiral Balsamo attempted to attack this traffic, but the war’s opening months held little but frustration for his destroyers. On six occasions in July, August, and September, they sortied at night in response to aerial reports of Allied vessels but in every case failed to make contact. Aircraft and the surviving submarines did little better. Guglielomotti torpedoed the Greek tanker Atlas (4,008 GRT) from Convoy BN4 on 6 September 1940, while high-level bombing attacks damaged the steamship Bhima (5,280 GRT) from BN5, which four Italian destroyers had failed to locate, on 20 September.

As Italian warships burned their oil reserves on unsuccessful sorties, the Allied Red Sea Squadron grew stronger, deploying by the end of August four light cruisers, three destroyers, and eight sloops. Other warships passed through on their way to and from the Mediterranean. In September, as traffic volume swelled, the Mediterranean Fleet lent the newly arrived antiaircraft cruiser Coventry, which alternated with Carlisle along the Aden–Suez route to provide extra protection against air attacks.

By October the Italian ships faced mechanical breakdowns, the increasing exhaustion of crews by the extreme climate, and a growing shortage of fuel. Nonetheless, they continued to sail. On the evening of 20 October, four destroyers weighed anchor to search for BN7, which aerial reconnaissance had spotted sailing north. The plan called for the slower and more heavily armed Pantera and Leone to distract the escort while Sauro and Nullo slipped in to send a spread of torpedoes toward the merchant ships.

Australian sloop HMAS Yarra

Italian destroyer Pantera

Attack on Convoy BN7 and Battle of Harmil Island, 20–21 October 1940, 2320–0640

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

BN7 Escort (Captain H. E. Horan): CL: Leander (NZ) (F); DD: KimberleyD2; DS: Auckland (NZ), Indus (IN), Yarra (AU); MS: Derby, Huntley

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

Section I (Commander Moretti degli Adimari): DD: Sauro (F), Nullo Sunk

Section II (Commander Paolo Aloisi): DD: Pantera (F), Leone

The convoy timed its progress to pass Massawa around midnight. The moon was bright, but haze reduced visibility toward the African coast. At 2115 the Italian sections separated, and at 2321 Pantera detected smoke off her starboard bow. She reported the contact to Sauro and began maneuvering at twenty-two knots to position the low-hanging moon behind the contact.

BN7 was thirty-five miles north-northwest of Jabal-al-Tair Island (itself 110 miles east-northeast of Massawa) when Yarra, zigzagging in company with Auckland, sighted Captain Aloisi’s ships ahead. Yarra challenged and Pantera replied with a pair of torpedoes at 2331 and then another pair at 2334, at ranges fifty-five and sixty-five hundred yards, respectively. Shooting over Yarra, she “lobbed a few shells” into the convoy. According to a wartime British account, “a lifeboat in the commodore’s ship was damaged by splinters, but otherwise no harm was done.” Leone, which trailed Pantera by 875 yards, never fixed a target and thus did not fire torpedoes.

Yarra saw the torpedo flashes from broad on her port bow and turned toward the enemy. Both sloops opened fire as torpedoes boiled past, narrowly missing. The Italian ships altered away, shooting with their aft mounts. Aloisi reported explosions and claimed two torpedo hits, but in fact, his weapons missed. Kimberley was trailing the convoy. She rang up thirty knots and steered northwest to close the action. Leander, sailing on the convoy’s port beam, headed southwest, while the sloops and minesweepers stayed with the merchantmen. Pantera and Leone, considering their mission successfully accomplished, continued west-southwest and broke contact. They eventually returned to Massawa via the south channel.

After the gunfire died away, Captain Horan steered Leander northwest to cover Harmil Channel believing the enemy ships had retired in that direction.

Upon receiving Pantera’s report, Sauro and Nullo had turned to clear the area while the first group attacked and to put themselves in a favorable position relative to the moon. This involved a ninety-degree port turn at 0016 on 21 October and another at 0050. The section then headed southeast, but for nearly an hour it encountered nothing. Finally, at 0148, Leander and another ship hove into view. Sauro snapped off a single torpedo at the cruiser (another misfired). In response Leander lofted star shell, and then ten broadsides flashed from her main batteries in two minutes before she lost sight of the target. Italian accounts say this engagement occurred at sixteen hundred yards, while Leander’s report stated the enemy was more than eight thousand yards away.

Sauro turned south by southwest and at 0207 attempted another torpedo attack against the convoy. One weapon misfired, and although Sauro claimed a hit with the other, it missed. At the same time Nullo detected flashes that she believed came from an enemy torpedo launch, and within minutes a lookout shouted that wakes were streaking toward the Italian destroyer’s bow. At 0212 Sauro turned north and disengaged, eventually circling behind the British and taking the south channel to Massawa. Nullo’s captain, however, put his helm over even harder, “because it was [his] intention to attack, being still in an opportune position to launch against the convoy, before taking station in formation.” However, the rudder jammed for several minutes, causing Nullo to circle and lose contact with Sauro.

At 0220 Leander’s spotlights fastened onto “a vessel painted light grey proceeding from left to right”—in fact, Nullo steaming north. The cruiser engaged from forty-six hundred yards off the Italian’s starboard bow. Nullo returned fire, first against “destroyers” spotted astern (probably Auckland) and then at Leander. The ships dueled for about ten minutes. The Italian enjoyed one advantage: she employed flashless powder (the British noted only two enemy salvos), whereas British muzzles flared brightly with each discharge. Leander fired eight blind salvos (“little could be seen of their effect”), but several rounds nonetheless hit home, damaging Nullo’s gyrocompass and gunnery director. With this the Italian destroyer abandoned her attack attempt and turned west-northwest running for Harmil Channel at thirty knots. In the two actions Leander fired 129 6-inch rounds.

Guessing Nullo’s intention, the cruiser pursued in the correct direction. At 0300 Kimberley joined, and at 0305 Leander turned back, “appreciating that the enemy was drawing away from her at the rate of seven knots and that the convoy might be attacked.” Kimberley continued, hoping to intercept.

The British destroyer arrived off Harmil Island before dawn. At 0540 her lookouts reported a shape to the south-southeast, and she closed to investigate. Nullo’s lookouts likewise reported a contact. The sharp angle of approach made it impossible to be certain, but the Italian captain assumed it was Sauro, especially when it seemed to signal the Harmil Island station. He was more “worried about the shallows scattered around the mouth of the northeast passage and above all of the 3.7 meter sandbank immediately north of his estimated 0500 position.”

At 0553 the British destroyer opened fire from 12,400 yards. Surprised, Nullo took four minutes to reply and at 0605 swung sharply from a northwest heading to a south-by-southwest course. By 0611 the range was down to 10,300 yards. Due to her prior damage, Nullo’s gunners fired over open sights, while human chains passed shells up from the magazine. Harmil Island’s battery of four 4.7-inch guns joined the action at 0615 from eighteen thousand yards. At the same time, with the range now eighty-five hundred yards, Kimberley turned south, emitting black funnel smoke, causing Nullo’s gunners to think they had scored a hit.

At 0620 Nullo scraped a reef, opening her hull to flooding and damaging a screw. Then, while the ship was setting course to round Harmil Island, a shell exploded in the forward engine room and a second slammed into the aft engine room. Nullo skewed sharply to the left and lost all power; splinters swept the upper works. The captain ordered his men to prepare to abandon ship while he angled the ship toward Harmil in an attempt to run it aground. The aft mount continued in action until the heel became excessive.

Having expended 115 salvoes, Kimberley launched a torpedo to dispatch her adversary; it missed, so she closed range and uncorked another. The second torpedo slammed into Nullo at 0635 and blasted her in two. Meanwhile, the Harmil battery finally found the range, and a shell struck Kimberley’s engine room, wounding three men. Splinters cut the steam pipes; the British destroyer lost power and came to a halt.

Kimberley’s men frantically patched the damage while the drifting ship’s guns remained in action, shooting forty-five rounds of HE from no. 3 mount, and achieving some hits that wounded four of the shore battery’s crew. After a few long minutes, the destroyer restored partial power and pulled away at fifteen knots. The shore battery fired its final shots at 0645, when the range had opened to nineteen thousand yards. During the battle Kimberley expended 596 SAP and 97 HE rounds.

After she was clear the destroyer lost steam pressure again. Finally Leander arrived and towed Kimberley to Port Sudan. Nullo remained above water; her guns ended up equipping a shore battery. On 21 October three Blenheims reported destroying a wreck east of Harmil Island. This led the British to conclude two enemy ships had been involved in the action.

The Aden command faulted the escort (except for Kimberley) for demonstrating a lack of aggressiveness, although deserting the convoy to chase unknown numbers of enemy destroyers through a murky night does not in retrospect seem the best course of action either. The Italian ships, although outnumbered, delivered two hit-and-run torpedo attacks, according to their plan. However, while using widely separated divisions increased the probability of finding the enemy, a natural consideration given the history of failed interception attempts, it also guaranteed that the Italian forces would lack the punch to take on the escort and deliver a meaningful attack. In fact, the first Italian attack seemed more formulaic than a serious attempt to cause damage.

The Italian East African squadron conducted another (fruitless) sortie on 3 December 1940. It aborted a mission planned for early January after British aircraft damaged Manin, one of the participants, and on 24 January it sortied again, without results. On the night of 2 February 1941, however, three destroyers departed Massawa and deployed in a rake formation to search for a large convoy known to be at sea.

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

Convoy Escort: CL: Caledon; DD: Kingston; DS: Indus (IN), Shoreham

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

Sauro spotted the enemy, made a sighting report, and immediately maneuvered to attack. She launched three torpedoes at a group of steamships and then, a minute later, at another dimly seen target marked by a large cloud of smoke. She then turned away at speed. Her two sisters did not receive the report, but ten minutes later Pantera stumbled across the enemy and also fired torpedoes. The Italians heard explosions and later claimed “probable” hits on two freighters. Tigre never made contact.

On her way to Massawa’s south channel, Sauro encountered Kingston. Out of torpedoes, the Italian retreated at full speed. Concerned that the British were attempting another ambush, the squadron concentrated on Sauro and radioed for air support at dawn. In the event, the three destroyers safely made port. The Italian East African press reported two freighters as probably hit, but despite this claim, all torpedoes missed.

By April 1941 Imperial spearheads were probing Massawa’s defensive perimeter. With Supermarina’s approval, Rear Admiral Mario Bonetti, Balsamo’s replacement from December 1940, ordered a last grand gesture—an attack by the three largest destroyers (Leone, Pantera, and Tigre) against Port Suez, five hundred miles north, and a concurrent raid by the smaller destroyers Battisti, Manin, and Sauro against Port Sudan. The British Middle Eastern command had considered such an attack possible and had reinforced Port Suez with two J-class destroyers and sent Eagle’s experienced air group south to Port Sudan, while the carrier waited for mines to be swept from the Suez Canal so she could proceed south.

The Italian venture ran into problems early when Leone struck an uncharted rock forty-five miles out of Massawa. Flooding and fires in her engine room forced her crew to abandon ship. Her two companions returned to port, as the rescue operation left insufficient time for them to continue the mission.

On the afternoon of 2 April the remaining Italian destroyers sailed once again, this time against Port Sudan, 265 miles north. British aircraft attacked them about two hours out of port but caused no damage. Then Battisti suffered engine problems and scuttled herself on the Arabian coast. The other four continued at top speed through the night and by dawn were thirty miles short of their objective. However, Eagle’s Swordfish squadrons intervened, sinking Sauro at 0715. The other ships headed for the opposite shore, under attack as they went. Bombs crippled Manin at 0845. She eventually capsized and sank about a hundred miles northeast of Port Sudan. Pantera and Tigre made it to the Arabian coast and were scuttled there.

Caught off guard by the Italian sortie, British warships rushed north. At 1700 Kingston found Pantera’s and Tigre’s wrecks. The two ships had already been worked over by Wellesley bombers, but Kingston shelled Pantera’s hulk and then torpedoed it, just to be sure.

The biggest Italian naval success in the Red Sea was a Parthian shot that occurred on 8 April, with Massawa’s defenses breached and ships scuttling themselves on all sides. MAS213, a World War I relic no longer capable of even fifteen knots, ambushed the old light cruiser Capetown, which was escorting minesweepers north of the port, and scored a torpedo hit from just over three hundred yards. After spending a year in repair, the cruiser sat out the rest of the war as an accommodation ship.

This was the Italian navy’s final blow in East Africa. The capture of Massawa relieved Great Britain of the need to convoy the entire length of the Red Sea and released valuable escorts for other duties. On 10 June an Indian battalion captured Assab, Italy’s last Red Sea outpost, eliminating a pair of improvised torpedo boats. After that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the narrow sea a nonwar zone, permitting the entry of American shipping.

However, German aircraft continued to exert a distant influence over the Red Sea, by mining the Suez Canal and attacking shipping that accumulated to the south of the canal. As late at 18 September Admiral Cunningham complained to Admiral Pound that “the Red Sea position is unsatisfactory . . . about 5 of 6 ships attacked, one sunk [Steel Seafarer (6,000 GRT)] and two damaged. . . . The imminent arrival at Suez of the monster liners is giving me much anxiety. They are crammed with men and we can’t afford to have them hit up.” In October 1941 the Suez Escort Force still tied up four light cruisers, two fleet destroyers, two Hunt-class destroyers, and two sloops. The British maintained a blockade off French Somaliland until December 1942.

Cavour Class

Conte di Cavour in early 1916 a few months after commissioning. Note the small false bow wave to give the impression of greater speed.

Conte di Cavour in Taranto’s Mar Piccolo in 1938, as rebuilt between 1933 and 1937.

The first Italian dreadnought was the Dante Alighieri, launched in 1909 by the Royal Naval Yard of Castellammare di Stabia (Naples) and commissioned on 15 January 1913. Although Italy was quite late in commissioning all-big-gun ships (as already envisaged by the Italian naval engineer Vittorio Cuniberti in the 1903 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships) the Dante Alighieri incorporated many ‘firsts’ on her appearance on the international naval scene. She was the first Italian battleship, and one of the first in the world, armed with triple large-calibre (12in) turrets, and the first with some of her medium-calibre guns mounted in turrets; she was also the first Italian battleship with four screws.

The good performance of the Dante Alighieri prompted the Regia Marina to plan and build the three ships of the Cavour class (Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare and Leonardo da Vinci), laid down in 1910, launched in 1911 and commissioned between 1914 and 1916. As built, these ships displaced 24,300 tons full load and were armed with thirteen 12in/46 guns, three in triple turrets (’A’, ‘Q’ and ‘Y’), and two in twin superimposed turrets (‘B’ and ‘X’); secondary armament was eighteen 4.7in/50 guns in casemates. The ships had a rather ‘classical’ appearance, with a long forecastle extending up to the barbette of ‘X’ turret, small superstructures, two tall funnels and two tripod masts. The Parsons geared turbines of the four-shaft plant received steam from twenty boilers (twenty-four aboard Da Vinci) and the maximum speed was 22 knots, with an endurance of 4,800nm at 10 knots.

Leonardo da Vinci was the only ship of the class lost during the war, sunk in an explosion at Taranto on 2 August 1916 that was blamed on sabotage; she was refloated in 1919 and despite initial plans to rebuild her with her midships turret removed, she was sold for scrap in March 1923.

The Cavour and Cesare remained in service in their original configuration until early 1933, the only structural change being the re-positioning of the fore mast in front of the forward funnel in the early 1920s. In October 1933 they were taken in hand by CRDA at Trieste and Cantieri del Tirreno at Genoa respectively, for a complete reconstruction based on the design drawn up in the early 1930s, by Col. Francesco Rotundi of the Genio Navale (Naval Engineering Corps).

The fore part of the hull was completely rebuilt and lengthened, with a new raked ‘oceanic’ bow built around the former ram bow; the stern remained almost unchanged, and a ‘Pugliese’ underwater protection system (based on two cylinders placed inside each side of the hull, designed to absorb the energy of underwater explosions by predetermined deformation) was fitted. A new 75,000hp powerplant (which in fact delivered more than 90,000hp on trials) was fitted, with eight boilers, two geared turbines and two shafts. Speed was thus increased to 26/27 knots. The superstructure was completely rebuilt, with a conning tower similar to that of the Montecuccoli class light cruisers, two funnels grouped amidships and a tripod mast aft of the funnels.

Because of the new arrangement of the propulsion plant, ‘Q’ turret amidships was removed, and the ten guns of the remaining four turrets were re-bored to 12.6in, the barrels’ length in calibres decreasing correspondingly to 43.8. The development of new large-calibre guns would have been impossible (and uneconomic) in the short term, and the now re-bored guns could fire a heavier and more powerful projectile, although there was the problem of increased salvo dispersion. Secondary armament consisted of twelve 4.7in/50 guns in six fully-enclosed twin turrets and eight 3.9in/47 guns in four twin mounts.

Both ships took part in the Battle of Punta Stilo, during which Cesare was hit by a 15in shell from HMS Warspite: damage was not extensive, and after repairs lasting a few weeks she was back in service. Cesare took part in other surface actions and convoy operations until spring 1942, when she was placed in reserve at Taranto; later, her homeport shifted to Pola, where she served as a training ship and – after the Armistice – she was decommissioned at the Taranto Dockyard until the end of the war.

The Cavour was damaged by a torpedo during the air attack on Taranto on the night of 11 November 1940: she was not beached in time and sank in shallow water, leaving only the superstructure visible the next morning. She was refloated after a long and expensive operation and at the end of 1941 she was able to proceed to Trieste, where she was scheduled to be repaired and modernised again: in particular, the project envisaged the replacement of the old 4.7in and 3.9in guns with new 5.3in dual-purpose guns and 65mm/64 AA guns. The repairs were finally suspended in June 1943 and, after the Armistice, the Cavour was captured by the Germans who began to dismantle her. She capsized and sank on 23 February 1945 after an Allied air raid on Trieste, and the hulk, which had been refloated soon after the end of the war, was scrapped in 1946.

The Cesare was transferred to the Soviet Union in 1949 as part of the war reparations paid by Italy and was renamed Novorossiisk; she sank on 29 October 1955, after hitting a German wartime mine while anchored just off Sevastopol. Her sinking was quite similar to that of Cavour at Taranto in November 1940: in both cases, misguided rescue attempts combined with led to the loss of the ships. insufficient hull strength and internal subdivision.

Displacement (tons): 26,140/29,100

Dimensions (m): 186.4 overall, 168.9 pp, 28.6 max. beam, 10.4 max. draught.

Machinery: 8 boilers and 2 turbines, 75,000hp (over 93,000hp on trials)

Speed (kts): 26 (Cavour 28.0 and Cesare 28.2 on trials).

Endurance (nm/kts): 5,200–5,400/18,1,700/26: fuel 2,500 tons.

Armour (mm): 250 (waterline); 135 (main deck); 260 (conning tower); 280 (main turrets); 120 (secondary turrets).

Armament: Ten 12.6in/44 (2 × III, 2 × II); twelve 4.7in/50 (6 × II); eight 3.9in/47 AA (4 × II); eight 37mm/54 light AA guns (4 × II); sixteen 20mm/65 cannon (8 × II, Cesare from 1941).

Complement: 1,260 (60)