Medieval Venice I

The Lion City

As Venice grew richer, it became more powerful. A city needs a ruling authority, and the acquisition of authority invites arrogance and belligerence. It encourages the will for further power. Venice, surrounded by the sea, could not grow out of its own frontier. But it could be enlarged and enriched by its extension in other lands and in other cities. It could become an empire.

In earliest times la Serenissima, the city of the Virgin, had been given a masculine identity by its citizens. It was the Lion City. The very conditions of its existence made warfare an inevitable part of its history. There was warfare against the natural world and then warfare against its competitors. It was obliged to fight for its survival. Venice had archers and oarsmen and maritime warriors. Sea powers are natural competitors. While land powers may agree to the division of land into frontiers, the ocean has no frontier. Wherever there is sea, there are hostile ships. Throughout its long history, Venice could never rest.

The drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, composed in the mid-fifteenth century, contain many studies of cavaliers and crossbowmen preparing themselves for combat. Half of Bellini’s lifetime was spent in the battles of Venice against other powers. “This nation of sailors,” Petrarch wrote, “was so skilful in the handling of horses and weapons, so spirited and so hardy, that it surpassed all other warlike nations whether by sea or by land.” So it can indeed be construed as a masculine city. The history of Venice was conceived, and composed, as the history of patriarchal families. The government of Venice was patriarchal in all of its elements. The society of Venice was considered to be patrilinear in nature. The image of the city was wholly dependent upon the exercise of paternal authority.

The patrician youth were trained to use the bow, and to command galleys at sea. They were educated in all the knightly virtues, in a period when the chivalric code of warfare was honoured throughout Europe. The first jousts, in Saint Mark’s Square, are recorded as early as 1242. From that time forward they were staged at regular intervals. In Bellini’s drawing books, chivalric opponents dash upon each other in spectacular tournaments. On these occasions the city was given up to the celebration of militarism and the military virtues. It provided the theatre of war. Painters were employed to embellish shields and armour as well as icons and portraits. Artists, among them Bellini himself, were used to design fortifications and draw military maps. In the sacred paintings of Venice the saints are often seen wielding swords. Saint George, one of the patrons of the city, was the archetypal military saint. This is very different from the picture of Venetians as quick-witted traders or as earnest statesmen. But knightly valour was once an aspect of their culture. How else could the Venetians have created an empire?

So they knew how to use force when it was required. They were quick to strike, when the opportunity presented itself. One conquest led to another conquest. In fact, one conquest demanded another conquest. In a state that never felt itself secure, the condition of the world was always perilous. Unsuccessful generals and admirals were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. When they employed the newly invented cannon against a recalcitrant Italian town, an old chronicle reported that “one would think that God were thundering.” One cannon was named “the Venetian Woman who Casts down Every Wall and Spike.”

The first colonies of Venice were in the lagoon itself; originally the smaller islands had self-ruling or self-sustaining communities. Once each island had its monastery, and its church. But, soon enough, they all became part of Venice itself. The leaders of the city might then take comfort from the opening words of the ninety-seventh psalm: “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.” The multitude of islands were swallowed up by the great city growing in their midst. Or their communities simply withered away.

Torcello, seven miles (11 km) to the north of the most serene city, was once a thriving place. Before the city of Venice ever rose from the waters, it was a great civic centre for the exiles from Venetia. They had first come in the middle of the fifth century. A cathedral of Byzantine form was raised here in the seventh century. It was built as a refuge and a strength by exiles fleeing from the mainland; the windows of the church have shutters of stone. Wealthy monasteries were founded on its fertile soil. In the tenth century it was described by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus as “magnum emporium Torcellanorum.” Yet the success of Venice led ineluctably to the decay of Torcello. There was no room for two thriving centres of trade in the lagoon. There are some, however, who say that it was poisoned by the malarial waters of the lagoon. The sea was silted up, and the island was surrounded by stagnant ponds. There may be truth to this, but the visitation of disease added only the final blow to a long process of disintegration. Ineluctably Torcello sank in the significance of the world. In the nineteenth century a nobleman of spurious or dubious origin was dubbed as “a count of Torcello.” Now the once thriving island supports a handful of people; all around are wastes of mud-filled creeks and rivulets and what Ruskin described as “salt morass.” The brick campanile, and the mosaics within the cathedral itself, are the only remnants of its faded splendour. The civic square is covered by wild grass. Yet the silence of this island, interrupted sometimes by the soughing of the wind through the reeds or the rustle of rippling waters, is a vivid token of the primeval lagoon to which the first Veneti came. Another symbol can be found here of the Venetian world. There is a restaurant on the island, frequented by the tourists who journey to Torcello as an outdoor museum. It is really no more than that. And might it then somehow anticipate the fate of Venice itself?

On the majority of the islands could once be found a tall campanile and brick-built church; there was a small piazza, with the image of the lion on wall or pillar; there were little clusters of whitewashed houses, their gardens protected from the depredations of the salt wind by neat red fences. Then they were touched by decay more insidious than the wind. The island of Ammiana once boasted eight churches; then it was depopulated and turned into a salt farm. And where did the inhabitants go? They migrated to Venice. All of these dead towns and cities and settlements could once have been proposed as alternatives to Venice; they might have flourished and grown strong, as Venice did. If we were to follow the precepts of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we might create the possible cities of the lagoon; the distinct customs and dialects of each island might then have created several different cities, resembling and yet not resembling Venice itself. But, then, this would be a fantasy.

Other islands, once under Venetian control, have disappeared. The island of Constanziaca was engulfed by the waters. It had once contained monasteries and churches. It became so woeful, however, that it was turned into a burial site where the bones of the dead were left to bleach in the sun. Then with all its churches and bones it simply subsided into the sea. No one knows its precise position. Other islands suffered a similar fate, among them Terra dei Mani and Terra dei Soleri. Five little islands encircling Murano have been washed away by tides and currents. There is seaweed now where once tall cypresses grew. Some islands were overcome by earthquakes or tidal waves; others were claimed by a slow and general desuetude. They could not compete against the most serene city.

The Venetian authorities turned some of these once flourishing islands into prisons or hospitals. It was one way of pushing the undesirable elements of the population to the margins. It was also an exercise in total power. The island of S. Servolo was turned into a lunatic hospital for men, while the island of S. Clemente was a mental asylum for Venetian women. Sacca Sessola was a place of exile for those suffering from consumption, while the Isola della Grazia held those who burned with fever. On the island of Poveglia were laid out huts for the lepers banished from the city. All these islands were known to the Venetians as “isole del dolore” or the islands of sorrow.

The island of S. Biagio, now called Giudecca, was once a green haven of orchards and gardens; here were a convent, a home for penitent prostitutes and a pilgrims’ hostel. But the secular world of Venice intervened. It became essentially a suburb of the city. Other islands were used as agricultural factories for the markets of the Rialto. In the second half of the fifteenth century the island now known as the Lido became an extension of Venice’s port. It became part of the economic zone that now encircled and sustained the city.

The beginning of the Venetian empire beyond the lagoon can be found in the ninth century. Venice was not as yet a leading sea-power. That position was reserved for the Spanish and for the North Africans. But it needed to control its immediate environment. It had to find, and maintain, a reliable food supply for an increasing population. It needed to secure access to water and to agricultural land. It needed to control the lifelines of its trade. So Venice turned to the mainland. The people of the sea were obliged to conquer terra firma.

Towards the close of the ninth century Venice sacked the rival cities on the Italian coast and took control of the mouths of the Adige and Po rivers. The rivers gave them access to the markets of northern Italy; within a short time the bargemen of the city were offering their wares in Pavia, the capital of Lombardy. The merchants of Venice were prominent, too, in the markets of Verona and Cremona. In the tenth century Venetian markets and warehouses were built on the banks of the rivers Sile and Piave. The Venetians occupied a castle beside the Livenza river, so that their goods could reach the German traders coming down into Italy. By 977 the Venetian traders had a colony in Limoges, and by the next century they had diffused themselves into Marseilles and Toulouse. The corn-growing areas of Treviso and Bassano were acquired. In this period, too, the Venetians began the slow process of purchasing mainland property and territory. Some of the great families of Venice, like the Badoer and Tiepolo, acquired land around Treviso. The larger monasteries purchased estates along the coastal plain. This gradual enlargement of Venetian property continued for seven centuries. The key issue, as always, was that of commerce and in particular of the supply of grain.

Once the trade with northern Italy and much of Europe was considered secure, the governors of Venice turned their attention towards the sea. The merchants already effectively controlled the trade in eastern goods, but the success of that trade demanded that the routes to the East should be strengthened and defended. The sea was to be made safe for the mass transport of goods. The principal cities of Istria, immediately across the sea from Venice, submitted. The northern part of the Adriatic became known as the Gulf of Venice. Then the Venetian navy worked downwards. By the end of the tenth century it effectively controlled the Middle Adriatic, and set about the conquest of Dalmatia (now part of modern Croatia). The islands and cities of the region surrendered to the superior force and numbers of the Venetians. Some cities, more alarmed by the depredations of the pirates who found safe haven in the small islands and inlets along the Dalmatian coast, invited the doge and his troops to enter their gates. Other cities were tormented by the demands of the petty despots, characteristically living in fortress outposts, and preferred the more benign sovereignty of Venice. Other places were simply happy to enter stable trading relations with the great sea-city. All of them were treated as allies, rather than as subjects, of Venice. Yet in truth the empire was being born. The pirates were defeated. The marauding Slavs were pushed back from the coast. In 998, the doge added the honorific of “dux of Dalmatia” to his title.

The seaway was open for increased traffic with Egypt and, more particularly, with Byzantium. Venice had already become that ancient city’s single most important trading partner, sending slaves and timber in exchange for wine, oil and wheat. In 991 Greek and Arab envoys travelled from the East to pay respect to the new doge, and a year later a treaty confirmed that Venice had been granted “most favoured” status by the Byzantine emperor. It confirmed what was already known. Venice had become the dominant trader of Europe, its commercial supremacy sustained by a vigorous and expanding navy. In return Venice offered its ships as transport for Byzantine soldiers crossing the Adriatic. The city was also, for all practical purposes, inviolable. At the time of the Magyar invasions of Lombardy, at the end of the ninth century, a stone wall was built to defend the islands of the Rialto. A great chain was placed across the water to prevent enemy ships from entering the Grand Canal. But the precautions were unnecessary. The Magyars could not reach the sea-girt city. They were beaten off in the shallow waters of the lagoon, where their ships foundered and sank. The great wall itself was demolished in the fourteenth century. It was not required.

By the eleventh century, therefore, Venice had become an autonomous and influential state. In the latter part of that century it fought with the troops of Byzantium against the Norman invaders of Sicily. The reason for the Norman adventure, as well as all the other policies and actions of Venice in this period, was very simple. No other state or city could be allowed to block the mouth of the Adriatic, thus imprisoning Venice within its own waters. This was the great fear and the abiding preoccupation.

It has become customary to describe the eleventh century as the period in which Latin Christendom emerged triumphant. This is nowhere more powerfully evinced than in the history of the Crusades. They have been construed as a direct attack upon the Muslim world, or as a form of spiritual imperialism, but the participation of Venice in the First Crusade had no such motives. The Venetians were waging economic warfare by other means. They were not concerned with the cross, or with the sword, but with the purse. The point was that rival trading cities, Genoa and Pisa in particular, were already taking part. Venice could not permit its competitors to gain an advantage in the lucrative markets of Syria and Egypt. To have a permanent presence in Antioch, or in Jerusalem, would be a source of innumerable commercial benefits. So, in the summer of 1100, a fleet of two hundred Venetian ships arrived at Joppa (Jaffa); the Venetian commanders agreed to help the crusaders on condition that the merchants of their city were given the rights of free trade in all dominions recovered from the Saracens. The terms of this practical bargain were accepted. The Venetians were then despatched to besiege the town of Caifa (Haifa) and, having achieved the surrender of that place, they returned to the lagoon before the end of the year. They were not content, however, with this single and relatively simple victory. They wished to acquire more profit from their participation in the holy cause. They established trading stations within the Syrian ports, and began a lucrative business in transporting pilgrims to the newly captured Jerusalem.

On their way to Joppa, too, they had engaged in a peculiarly Venetian piece of business. The fleet had cast anchor at the ancient Lycian town of Myra (Bari), in search of the bones of Saint Nicholas who had been bishop of that place; the saint is now better known as the progenitor of Santa Claus but, in the eleventh century, he was revered as the patron saint of sailors. The Venetians, naturally enough, wanted him. It is alleged that they arrived in the town and put to the torture four Christians, the keepers of the shrine. They learned nothing of any consequence from these unholy proceedings, however, and made do with the theft of the bones of Saint Theodore. Theodore had been the patron saint of Venice before the arrival of Mark; he was a good second-best. Yet before their departure, according to the Venetian chronicles of Andrea Morosini, a wonderful fragrance issued from a recess beneath an altar in the church itself. The scent was that of Saint Nicholas. So he was removed, too, and brought back in triumph to Venice where his bones were lodged in the monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Lido. That is the story, at least. In fact the remains of Saint Nicholas, if such they are, have remained in Bari to this day. Whether the tale reveals more of Venetian mendacity, or of Venetian greed, is an open question.

The crusading venture had been a success for Venice, and in 1108 the Venetian fleet once more sailed under the flag of the cross. It may be noted that the governors of the city were particularly interested in the seaports of the Mediterranean, and that Venetian merchants were established in Acre, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Yet the attentions of the doge and senate were not confined to the principalities and powers of the Middle East. They thought it prudent to maintain and consolidate their presence on the mainland. They took Ferrara and Fano under their control, and moved against Padua. In the process they reasserted their rights over the principal rivers of the territory. On the other side of the Adriatic, they struggled with the Hungarians over the coastal regions of Dalmatia. They now had many enemies. The cities of the mainland were jealous of Venetian wealth, and fearful of Venetian power. The Norman kingdom of Sicily had long regarded Venice as a foe. The German empire of Hohenstaufen still laid claim to northern Italy.

There emerged one other formidable enemy. In 1119 the new emperor of Constantinople decreed that the trading privileges of Venice were at an end. He ordered all Venetian residents within the boundary of his empire to remove themselves and their business. He also proposed a treaty with the king of Hungary, thereby recognising Hungarian claims to the Venetian settlements in Dalmatia. The reaction of Venice was slow but assured. The Venetian fleet raided and sacked a number of Byzantine territories; Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Lesbos and Modon were some of the objects of their vengeance. They had set out to prove that they were now the single most important sea power in an area previously deemed to be the preserve of Constantinople. The emperor signed a new trade agreement with Venice in 1126.

The Venetian empire could justify its existence with the claim that trade, and not conquest, was its purpose. It naturalised its subjects with a spirit of enlightened commercialism. The motive was one of constructive self-aggrandisement. There was no true cult of empire, as there was in nineteenth-century London or in third-century Rome. There was no interest in massiveness or monumentality for their own sake. The only concession to the appetite for glory lay in the construction of gateways at key points in the city—the Torre dell’Orologio, the Porta della Carta, and the Arco Foscari among them. The gateway to the Arsenal is in every guide to the city. These were the Venetian equivalent of the triumphal arch, all the more striking in a city without a defensive wall.

Yet the Venetians who lived and traded in Constantinople, and in the other markets of the kingdom, became increasingly unpopular. They were judged to be arrogant and greedy. Away from Venice, the Venetians became insecure and fractious. They attacked their Genoese and Pisan rivals in trade, and refused to obey Byzantine edicts. They even stole the relics of saints from the churches of Constantinople. They were generally considered by their hosts to be vulgar, mere merchants looking for bargains. In turn the Venetians despised the Greeks, as effete and indolent. Then in 1171, on the command of the emperor, all the Venetians in Constantinople and elsewhere were arrested and imprisoned. A Venetian fleet, despatched to threaten the lands of the emperor, was reduced to impotence by the onset of plague. The commander of the unsuccessful expedition, on his return to Venice, was assassinated in the streets. It was the condign justice meted out to all perceived failures. The Byzantine emperor then sent a message to the doge in which he asserted that the Venetian nation had acted with great foolishness. He noted that they were “once vagabonds sunk in the utmost poverty” who had somehow claimed the right to imperial ambitions. But their abject failure and “insolence” had rendered them “a laughing stock.”

The leaders of Venice reacted cautiously. They formed alliances with some of the emperor’s enemies, and began an insidious campaign against Byzantine territories. There were secret talks and clandestine meetings. An accord was eventually reached and in 1183, twelve years after their arrest, the Venetian merchants were finally permitted to leave the prisons; a formal peace treaty between Venice and Byzantium was signed. It had represented a great crisis, and a vivid token of the real enmity between Constantinople and Venice; one city was dying, and the other was impatiently waiting to emerge supreme. Over the next few years there were pacts and agreements and messages of mutual confidence between the two cities. But in truth there could be no end to the struggle other than a fatal one.

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Medieval Venice II

In August 1379, the Genoese are victorious in the Adriatic and seize the port of Chioggia, at the entrance of the lagoon, and besiege Venice. But the Doge Contarini and Admiral Pisani galvanize resistance and in turn attack the besiegers who capitulate June 24, 1380.

The new eminence of Venice was exemplified by one of those scenes of living theatre at which Venice excelled. The characters in this lavish spectacle were the leaders of Latin Christendom. One was the emperor of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa, and the other was Pope Alexander III. Barbarossa laid claim to the Lombard states, and in particular to Milan; Pope Alexander strenuously resisted the claim, and allied himself with the Italian cities. The emperor was excommunicated. Nevertheless Barbarossa, spurned by the Church, had success with the sword. The Lombard cities were taken. Milan fell, and was largely destroyed. Yet the dominion of Germany over this part of Italy was constantly being threatened by internal rebellion and by the open hostility of other Italian cities that looked to the pope for leadership. The weariness of continual warfare, and the inevitable cycle of victories and defeats, eventually disheartened both sides. The pope and the emperor contemplated the principles of an agreement. But where should they meet formally to ratify their pact?

Venice had largely kept itself aloof from the hostilities, on the very good ground that it is better to remain neutral in any battle between such powerful enemies. Venice did not in any case concern itself with the affairs of Italy if its own interests were not directly touched. So the most serene city became the most appropriate setting for the reconciliation of Barbarossa and Alexander. On 23 March 1177, the pontiff landed at the Lido and was received at the monastery of Saint Nicholas; he was no doubt shown the so-called “relics” of the saint himself. On the following day he sailed into Venice, where he was received by the doge. There were now long and difficult negotiations over the terms of the peace, with the emissaries of both sides raising objections and proposing alterations. Yet the pact was finally sealed. On 23 July the emperor was welcomed to the monastery of Saint Nicholas. On the following day he sailed to Venice, where Alexander awaited him. The pope sat in state upon the papal throne, which had been placed before the central gates of the basilica; he was surrounded by his cardinals, like some crowd scene from the sacred plays of the period. The emperor, disembarking from the glittering barge of the doge, walked in stately procession towards the pontiff. Before him walked the doge himself. Saint Mark’s Square was filled with spectators, eager to see the play unfold. When the emperor reached the papal throne he took off his scarlet cloak and, bowing to the ground, kissed the feet of the pope. Alexander, now weeping, raised up the emperor and gave him the kiss of peace. The audience now began to sing the Te Deum, and all the bells of the city rang out. It had been a great performance.

This dramatic scene was also used by Venice as an advertisement for the city’s strength and sense of justice. It was the seat of a general reconciliation. The city was the place of impartial judgement and of equity because it was subject to God alone. It played no part in the power politics of popes or emperors, except to heal the wounds caused by them. That, at least, was the message of the Venetian chroniclers in reporting these events from the summer of 1177. For that moment, when the bells pealed, Venice was the centre of the world. There were more immediate benefits also. The emperor granted trade privileges to Venice throughout his empire, and the pope gave Venice ecclesiastical dominion over Dalmatia.

The spectacle itself might have acted as an overture for the grander opera that was about to be performed. In the years that followed, Venice entered another, and greater, phase of its imperial power. It conquered and stripped Constantinople. A new scenario began with another holy war. The pope had declared a fourth crusade against the infidels and, in the early months of 1201, the French princes who had taken the cross came to Venice to plead for the ships that would transport them to the Holy Land. They were received in great state by the doge, and were asked to plead their case before the people of Venice in the basilica. So, after mass had been heard, one of their number stepped forward and declared that “no nation is so powerful on the seas as you”; after that piece of flattery, he implored the aid of the Venetian people. The princes then knelt down and wept. Immediately there were cries all around the basilica. “We grant it! We grant it!” It was a fine piece of stage management, in the best traditions of the city.

The doge, Enrico Dandolo, was already old and nearly blind. He was elected at the age of eighty-four, but he was one of those Venetian patriarchs whose tenacity and singleness of purpose were the visible proof of the city’s own ruthlessness. It was said that he had nourished a grievance against Constantinople ever since the mass imprisonment of 1171. According to one Byzantine Greek chronicler, “he boasted that so long as he failed to take revenge on them for what they had done to his people he was living under sentence of death.” It was even reported, in later chronicles, that he had been blinded by the Byzantines themselves when he had once travelled to the city as an ambassador; this is the stuff of legend only.

The carpenters of the Arsenal were set to work, engaged to build and equip enough ships to carry 4,500 horsemen and 30,000 soldiers. In return Venice demanded 84,000 silver marks. The efficiency of the shipbuilding yards was by now well known throughout Europe, and all of the ships were delivered on time. But there was one problem. The crusaders had been unable to find the money to pay for them. So a new arrangement was concluded. The Venetians would waive full payment, on condition that the crusaders would assist them in subduing the rebellious city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. It was a diversion from the Holy Land, but the leaders of the forces of the cross considered it to be a necessary one. Three hundred ships left the lagoon in October 1202, to the chant of the Veni Creator, and sailed down the Adriatic. Zara, after a siege of five days, surrendered. Christian had turned against Christian rather than the common enemy of the Saracen. The pope, incensed by this unwelcome development, excommunicated the forces of the expedition. It is not reported that the Venetians, in particular, were in any way cowed or humbled by the papal wrath.

Once the Venetians were fully in possession of the town, they were surprised by the arrival of an unexpected guest. The son of the deposed emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Angelus, came to Dandolo in search of justice. He wished the crusaders to overthrow the usurper, on the throne of the empire, and reinstall his father. For his part he pledged to finance and otherwise assist the armies in their high purpose. It was an offer that could not be refused. It has often been surmised that Dandolo had held this aim in mind throughout all the preparations for the crusade, and that he had already determined that Constantinople rather than Syria was to be the destination of the Venetian fleet. There can be no doubt that Dandolo saw a great opportunity for advancement and enrichment in this war at the expense of Constantinople. But there are elements of adventitious chance in all the affairs of men. Dandolo could not have known that the French crusaders would be unable to honour their obligation, although it is likely that he knew in advance of the arrival of Alexius in Zara. The Venetians were always adept at taking advantage of chance and circumstance. Yet in another perspective the great events of the world seem, on close scrutiny, to be made up of a thousand singular elements and accidents and coincidences. In the midst of this swirling world it would be hard to detect a pattern. So we may say that it just happened. As a consequence of these events the power of Byzantium was extinguished, its city and empire weakened beyond repair.

The Venetian fleet, in aid of Alexius, moved against the city. On 24 June 1203, it sailed beside the walls. A French attack by land seemed to have failed and so, under the command of Dandolo, the Venetians tied their galleys together to form a united front; from the decks and turrets of the vessels, military engines discharged their fire into the city. Constantinople was in flames. Dandolo himself stood at the prow of the first ship that struck land. He was dressed in full armour, and the standard of Saint Mark flew at his side. At his urging the Venetian soldiers leapt from their vessels and scaled the ladders swung against the walls. There was some combat, but the forces of the Byzantines were overwhelmed by this swift attack from the sea. The banner of the republic was fixed on the rampart. The city was taken. The deposed emperor, on whose behalf Alexius had pleaded, was rescued from his dungeon and placed upon the throne. Alexius himself was crowned in the basilica of Saint Sophia, and took his place as co-ruler of the empire.

Yet the fatal decline of Constantinople was about to resume its inevitable course. Alexius had promised the crusaders more than he could achieve. He lacked finance and, more importantly, he had forfeited his authority among his countrymen by relying upon the forces of the crusaders to obtain the imperial crown. The citizens of Constantinople, instigated by fear and rumour, rebelled against the new emperor. Alexius was cut down, his father abandoned to his grief.

The Venetians and their allies now had to extinguish this rebellion, and bring the city under their rule. They had not come so far to be simply asked to leave. So once more, in March 1204, they laid siege to the city. On the eve of the assault Dandolo declared to his men that they must “be valiant. And with the help of Jesus Christ, milord Saint Mark, and the prowess of your bodies, you shall be tomorrow in possession of the city, and you shall all be rich.”

Once their victory was assured, the Christian armies, inflamed by greed and anger, began a general sack of the city. Constantinople was pillaged and burned. The wealthiest city of the world, filled with art and sculpture, was laid bare. Its citizens were slaughtered, the frenzy of blood-lust such that it seemed that the gates of hell had been opened. The palaces and houses of the city were ransacked. The churches were despoiled. The statues were melted down, and the pictures ripped apart. The tombs were opened, and the sacred vessels removed. It is reported that a prostitute was enthroned in the chair of the patriarch, in the basilica of Saint Sophia, from where she “hurled insults at Jesus Christ, and she sang bawdy songs, and danced immodestly in the holy place.” One chronicler claimed that the rapine exceeded any other since the creation of the world. And the Venetians were the principal agents of this despoliation. Much of the plunder found its way to Venice. The four great horses that surmount the basilica of Saint Mark’s are part of the fruit of that brutal victory.

There were other spoils. The crusaders claimed the dominions of Constantinople, and carved up its empire among the victors. Venice negotiated its portion with its customary merchant zeal, and was rewarded “the fourth part and the half of the Roman empire”; that is, it commanded three-eighths of the old empire. It already claimed Dalmatia and Croatia, and now it took possession of the Aegean coasts and islands as well as parts of the Mediterranean. It controlled Crete and Corfu as well as the islands of Modon and Coron. It took the western part of Greece and the islands of the Ionian Sea. It demanded the coast of Thrace, as well as the ports on the Hellespont. It seized Negroponte in the Aegean. While the other crusaders were unsure of their geography, the leaders of Venice knew exactly what they wanted. Many of the islands were then granted to various patrician families of Venice, who held them as fiefdoms of the republic. There was now also a large Venetian colony within Constantinople itself, which acquired a large measure of independence from the home city. There were even reports that the capital of the new empire was about to remove from Venice to Constantinople, but these were discounted. Yet one central fact was clear. The markets of the east were beckoning. All thought of the war against the infidel was forgotten and, indeed, the crusaders never did reach the Holy Land. It was the last of the crusades.

The strategy of Venice was that of a sea power intent upon strengthening its command of the sea. That is why the first great conquests were in the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean, where Venice might pose as the begetter of “an apostolic empire of the East” as a fitting successor to the Christian empire established in the East by Justinian and Constantine. It is a typical example of Venetian rhetoric masking policy. To the victors, the spoils. So the imperium of Venice was largely confined to the islands and to the coastal regions. The Venetians wanted no part of the inland empire of Byzantium, whether in Asia or in Europe. The city could never have become another Rome. Instead it settled for secure trading routes across the seas, with a series of ports under Venetian control linking the market of the lagoon to the markets of the Levant. These were not so much colonies as trading posts, stretching from Venice to the Black Sea. The nature of Venetian dominion was now clear for all to observe. The power of Constantinople was effectively gone for ever. The consequences of the Venetian adventure, however, were by no means beneficent. That which is born in fire may die in fire. A weakened Constantinople became the prey of the Turks; the newly established Latin empire endured for only sixty years; the colonial possessions of Venice also left it exposed to attack in a long sequence of wars that tested its strength. For the next seventy years the serene city would be engaged in almost constant warfare with its rebellious subjects and with its rivals, with the Saracens and with the pirates of the Mediterranean.

Arsenalotti

It was estimated by the reigning doge, in 1423, that the city possessed thirty-five galleys, three hundred round ships and three thousand other vessels; they required a complement of thirty-six thousand sailors, almost a quarter of the entire population of 150,000 people. There were ships christened La Forza, La Fama and La Salute. They were used to protect the armed galleys of the trade convoys that left Venice on prearranged dates; they were used to combat pirates and to harass enemy traders. No foreign ship was safe in the waters Venice considered its own. The officers were elected from the patrician class of the city. Service at sea was an indispensable part of the education of the young patrician.

The crews were at first all free men, volunteers found in Venice or in Venetian possessions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century conscription had been introduced. This of course so lowered the status of galley labour that it became a burden to be avoided. To be an oarsman, a galeotto, was considered to be part of a “low” profession. So by the middle of the sixteenth century there was a change in the nature of these crews. It was said that they comprised drunks and debtors, criminals and other outcasts. The courts of Venice sometimes consigned the guilty to the galleys rather than the cells. By 1600 prisoners made up the principal part of the crew. The measure of their servitude can be computed by the records of the Venetian courts—eighteen months of galley service was considered equivalent to three years of close imprisonment and a period in the pillory, while seven years in the galleys was considered to be equal to twelve years of confinement. Their rations were made up of biscuit, wine, cheese, salt pork and beans. The diet was designed to feed the sanguinary humour. A Franciscan friar was always on board to rouse them. Yet there are reports of disease and of early death, of exhaustion and despair. Carlo Gozzi, in the eighteenth century, saw “some three hundred scoundrels, loaded with chains, condemned to drag their life out in a sea of miseries and torments, each of which was sufficient by itself to kill a man.” He noticed that, at the time, “an epidemic of malignant fever raged among these men.” It is not clear, however, that the changed personnel were in general any less proficient as oarsmen. They helped to win a famous victory against the Turks at Lepanto.

The maritime marvel of Venice was the Arsenal, the greatest shipbuilding concern in the world. The word itself derives from the Arabic dar sina’a, or place of construction, thus affirming the strong connection of Venice with the East. It was built at the beginning of the twelfth century, and was continually being extended and expanded until it became a wonder of technology. It was variously described as “the factory of marvels,” “the greatest piece of oeconomy in Europe” and “the eighth miracle of the world.” The epithets are a measure of the respect in which new technologies were then held. Its famous gate, made up of Roman and of Byzantine elements, was raised there in 1460. The Arsenal had become the centre of another empire. It was the engine of trade. It was the foundation of naval might. It was a token of the supremacy of industrial enterprise in the most serene city.

Eventually two and half miles (4 km) of walls, and fourteen defensive towers, surrounded sixty acres (24 ha) of working space. It was the largest industrial enterprise in the world. A population of skilled workers and labourers grew up around the site. The number of workmen has been estimated at anything between six thousand and sixteen thousand; in any event they worked in large numbers. This shipbuilding neighbourhood in the eastern part of Venice became a recognisable part of the city, with its own prejudices and customs. People lived and died, were baptised and married, within the three parishes of S. Martino, S. Ternita and S. Pietro. It is still an area of tiny houses, crowded tenements, small squares, dead-ends and narrow alleys.

The inhabitants became known as arsenalotti, and such was their importance to the state that the male population of ship-makers was also used as a bodyguard for the doge. They were also employed as fire-fighters. Only the arsenalotti were allowed to be labourers in the Mint. They alone rowed the ceremonial barge of the doge. Proud of their status, they never united with the other artisans of Venice. It is a case of divide and rule. It is also a signal example of the subtle way in which the leaders of Venice co-opted what might have been an unruly group of people within the very fabric of the city. The loyalty of the arsenalotti materially helped to secure the cohesion and the very survival of Venice.

The Arsenal was the first factory established upon the assembly line of modern industry, and thus the harbinger of the factory system of later centuries. One traveller, in 1436, described it thus:

as one enters the gate there is a great street on either side with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side. On this narrow strip of water floated a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows of the various houses they handed out to the workers, from one the cordage, from another the arms …

It was known as “the machine.” The armed galleys were constructed here. The relatively unarmed “round” ships, with sails instead of oars, were also made here. The key to its efficiency lay in the division, and specialisation, of labour; there were shipwrights and caulkers, rope-makers and blacksmiths, sawyers and oar-makers. Thirty galleys could be built and fitted within ten days. When the French king visited the place in 1574, a galley was built and launched in the two hours it took him to eat his dinner. The whole process of industrial collaboration, however, might be seen as an image of the Venetian polity itself. Everything is of a piece.

Dante visited the Arsenal in the early fourteenth century, and left a description of it in the twenty-first canto of the Inferno:

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians

Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch …

One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,

This one makes oars and that one cordage twists

Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen.

It may not be coincidence that Dante places this vision in the eighth circle of hell, where corrupt public officials are punished eternally. The blatant sale of public offices became a problem in Venetian governance.

Eventually the Arsenal was outmoded. The development of craft technology in the seventeenth century rendered it obsolete. It continued producing galleys when no galleys were needed. It became inefficient, its labourers underpaid and underworked. Yet it did not finally close until 1960, when eleven thousand families were removed from their ancient neighbourhood. Now the factories and production lines are used to house exhibitions for the various festivals that visit Venice. It is an apt token of the nature of the city.

The Venetian army was as effective by land as the Venetian navy on the oceans. By the middle of the fifteenth century it could afford to maintain a standing force of twenty thousand troops, with extra militia ready to be called up in an emergency. By the beginning of the following century, that number had doubled. It was of mixed identity. Venetian engineers were well known for their skills in siege weaponry, but it was said that the Venetians themselves did not make good soldiers. To a large extent, therefore, the city relied upon mercenaries for its defence. Its soldiers came from Dalmatia, Croatia and Greece as well as from Germany and Gascony; there were light horse from Albania and cuirassiers from other parts of Italy. When some Venetian gunmen were captured at Buti in 1498, and their hands cut off, some of the unfortunate troops were from England and Holland.

The acquisition of a land empire, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was the direct motive for the creation of a standing army. Yet such an army posed problems for the leaders of the city. An army could move through its streets. An army could threaten its mainland possessions. That is why no Venetian was ever made general or commander. The danger of a military coup was always present to the administration. Venetian patricians were not allowed to command, at any one time, more than twenty-five men. It was a safeguard against faction. Instead a foreign commander was always chosen, although he held his office under the watchful care of two senior patricians in the field with him. It was not an ideal arrangement, especially in the very heat of battle, but it served Venetian interests well.

The foreign generals were known as condottieri, from the Italian word for contract. They were contracted men. But they were also adventurers, and sometimes brigands, who were suited to the theatre of Venice. They aspired to the type of the classical Roman general, ferocious in war and gracious in peace; they were deemed to be no less wise than courageous, no less virtuous than judicious. And they were paid well. Venice was known as a generous, and prompt, employer. The condottieri were given ornate houses along the Grand Canal, and were granted large estates on the mainland. They seemed to be indispensable to the state, but there were some who questioned the wisdom of employing them. They could be persuaded to change sides, if large enough bribes were offered, and they could sometimes be feckless and excessively independent. Machiavelli blamed the collapse of Venice, in his lifetime, on the use of mercenaries and mercenary commanders. If the Venetians did not excel at warfare, they would soon become deficient in the arts of peace. Sir Henry Wotton, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, commented that “by the lasciviousness of their youth, by the wariness of their aged men, by their long custom of ease, and distaste of arms, and consequently by their ignorance in the management thereof” the Venetian state was in sad decline. Yet decline was always being predicted for Venice, even at the acme of its power.

GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI, (1807–1882).

Born in Nice to a sea captain father, the young Garibaldi was a professional revolutionary. He took part in the Mazzinian uprising against the Piedmontese monarchy in 1834 and, following its suppression, was condemned to death for his role in the fighting. Garibaldi, however, had fled to Brazil. There, he met his first wife, Anita, and fought gallantly for six years (1836–1842) on behalf of the South Rio Grande republic, trying to achieve independence. Garibaldi ended the war as admiral of the would-be republic’s small fleet. In 1846, he organized and commanded the Italian legion that fought for Uruguay in its war against Argentina. Garibaldi’s reputation as the “hero of two worlds,” and his familiar penchant for South American peasant garb, dates from this period.

News of the 1848 revolutions, however, prompted his return to Turin. Garibaldi fought bravely against the Austrians in Lombardy and in defense of the Roman republic in the spring of 1849. Together with a faithful band of volunteers and Anita, Garibaldi broke out of Rome and retreated toward Venice, which was still resisting Austrian rule. After suffering heavy casualties, they were forced to take refuge in the swamps surrounding Ravenna, where Anita died of exhaustion.

Garibaldi, at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, was expelled from Piedmont-Sardinia and was forced to lead the life of an exile once more. He worked briefly as a candle-maker in Camden, New Jersey, before returning to Europe in 1854. He established himself in a house on the Sardinian Island of Caprera and gradually became more politically realistic. Under Camillo Benso di Cavour’s influence, Garibaldi accepted that the Piedmontese monarchy offered the best hope of unifying Italy. This renunciation of his Mazzinian and revolutionary principles restored him to favor in Turin, and in 1859 Garibaldi was made a general in the Piedmontese army.

Garibaldi was violently critical of the Treaty of Villafranca. In January 1860, he endorsed the latest venture launched by Giuseppe Mazzini, the “Action party,” which openly espoused a policy of liberating southern Italy, Rome, and Venice by military means. To this end, in the spring of 1860, Garibaldi led a corps of red-shirted patriots from Genoa to the assistance of a Mazzinian uprising in Palermo. The “Expedition of the Thousand” is the most famous of all Garibaldi’s military exploits. After landing near Palermo with the support of ships from the British fleet, Garibaldi swiftly took command of the island. On 14 May 1860, he became dictator of Sicily and head of a provisional government that was largely dominated by a native Sicilian who would play an important role in the political future of Italy, Francesco Crispi.

With the support of thousands of Sicilian peasants and workers, Garibaldi then invaded the Italian mainland, intent on marching on Rome. He entered Naples in September 1860. He was joined there by the principal republican theorists, Mazzini and Carlo Cattaneo, and for a brief moment it looked as if the process of Italian unification would take a radical turn. Cavour’s shrewdness enabled him to outmaneuver Garibaldi. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States, blocking the road to Rome. Garibaldi decided not to compromise Italian unity by risking a conflict with the Piedmontese. On 26 October 1860, he consigned southern Italy to the monarchy.

Garibaldi, however, was unable to consider Italian unification complete while Rome remained under clerical domination, protected by French troops. He became a thorn in the side of the first Italian governments by carrying on his own independent foreign policy. In 1862, Garibaldi returned to Sicily to raise another army of volunteers willing to march under the melodramatic slogan “Rome or Death.” The outraged reaction of Napoleon III compelled the Italian government to intervene, and Garibaldi’s advance was halted by Italian troops at Aspromonte in Calabria. There was a skirmish, and Garibaldi was shot in the foot. Garibaldi was briefly imprisoned, but his international fame (especially in England, to which he made a triumphal visit in 1864) soon led to his release.

In 1866, Garibaldi led Italian troops in the Trentino, liberating a great part of the Italian-speaking territory under Austrian rule before being ordered to relinquish his gains upon the end of the hostilities between Prussia and Austria. His short reply amply conveyed his disgust at the command: Garibaldi sent a one-word telegram saying obbedisco (I obey). His exploits in the Trentino were a prelude to further impolitic attempts to take Rome in the fall of 1867. Escaping from house arrest on Caprera, he joined 3,000 waiting volunteers in Tuscany. The courage of his amateur troops, however, was no match for the French army defending Rome, and at the small but bloody battle of Mentana on 3 November 1867, Garibaldi was decisively beaten. Once more, he was forced into exile on Caprera.

Garibaldi played no role in the liberation of Rome in 1870. His last campaign was on behalf of the French Republic. Garibaldi led a corps of Italian volunteers at the battle of Dijon in the fall of 1870, and his efforts were a useful contribution to what was the only French victory of the Franco–Prussian War. In his last years, Garibaldi dedicated himself to writing his memoirs (and heroic poetry) and became a declared socialist. He died on Caprera in 1882, but his myth has been a powerful influence on Italian political life ever since

RISORGIMENTO

In Italian, the Risorgimento means the awakening of national sentiment that led to the creation of the modern Italian state. The decisive moment for Italian political unity was the wars of 1859–1861. Thanks to a felicitous combination of international and domestic factors and skillful diplomacy, Italy was substantially united under the rule of the House of Savoy. First, the international context was favorable for the reduction of Austrian power in Italy. Austria had isolated itself during the Crimean War by staying neutral and was facing France’s challenge to its role as the power broker in Europe. Liberal England, moreover, wished to see the end of the anachronistic absolutist regime of the Bourbons in southern Italy. Within Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia, thanks to the modernizing efforts of Camillo Benso di Cavour, had emerged as a power of some weight capable of attracting the middle classes of Lombardy, Tuscany, and the rest of northern Italy to its cause. Liberal and nationalist ideas, moreover, were widespread by the end of the 1850s. The views of Vincenzo Gioberti, Cesare Balbo, and Massimo D’Azeglio had been read by every educated Italian, and republicans and democrats such as Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini also had a substantial following, particularly in central Italy.

Cavour’s unique diplomatic skills turned these favorable conditions into political action. First, he persuaded Napoleon III to ally France to Piedmont in July 1858 at Plombières by promising France Nice and the duchies of central Italy (the eventual status of Savoy was left open) in exchange for French assistance to liberate Lombardy and Venetia from Austrian rule. The four northern Italian regions so liberated were then to form a federation under the presidency of the Pope. Cavour then goaded Austria into declaring war in April 1859, allowing Piedmont-Sardinia to appear as the innocent victim of an act of aggression by a larger power. As the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino demonstrated, without French support the Piedmontese army would never have been able to defeat the Austrians. Simultaneous insurrections in Tuscany, Modena, and Parma in favor of unification with Turin were in large part organized by Cavour’s agents, thus nullifying the Plombières agreement by thwarting Napoleon III’s ambitions. The peace of Villafranca in July 1859—which granted Lombardy to Piedmont but insisted on the return of absolute rule in central Italy—was a tardy attempt by Napoleon and the Austrians to close the Pandora’s box opened by their own ambition. The treaty provoked Cavour’s resignation, but by now the movement for unification with Piedmont in central Italy was too strong to be blocked by anything short of a bloody war of repression. Cavour returned triumphantly to office in January 1860 and, in exchange for the cession of Savoy as well as Nice to France, was allowed to incorporate all of north-central Italy into Piedmont-Sardinia.

Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi regarded Cavour’s patient diplomacy as too cautious, however. At the beginning of 1860, the so-called Action Party was founded with the specific goal of liberating Rome, Venice, and southern Italy from absolutist and Papal rule. In April 1860, Garibaldi and his “Thousand” redshirts sailed from Genoa to Palermo to assist the Mazzinian uprising that had broken out against Bourbon rule. With the assistance of the British fleet, Garibaldi disembarked and swiftly established his personal dictatorship over Sicily. In August 1860, he crossed the Strait of Messina at the head of an army of Sicilians and marched on Naples, which he entered in September without encountering resistance. He was joined by Mazzini and Cattaneo, who openly argued that the red-shirts’ conquests should herald a democratic and republican solution to the unification of Italy.

Cavour, alarmed by this project, used the threat of a democratic revolution in Italy to persuade France to give him a free hand in southern Italy. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States and blocked Garibaldi’s road to Rome, and at Teano on 26 October 1860, Garibaldi ceded his conquests in person to Victor Emmanuel II. This decision was confirmed by regional plebiscites in February 1861. Only the wealthiest citizens were allowed to vote, and, particularly in the south, ballot fraud was widespread. Italy had completed its liberal revolution but had installed a regime that was ignorant of the needs of the southern peasantry and strongly identified with the interests of the northern upper classes. It is not fanciful to claim that many of Italy’s subsequent problems stemmed from the political settlement of the process of unification.

Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115)

The states of the Apennine Peninsula in the second half of the 11th century.

The name Matilda means “mighty in war.” The gran contessa Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115) lived up to her name. According to military historian David Hay, she was not only the most powerful woman of her time but was among the best European military commanders of her day—high praise for a woman who at best plays a supporting role in general histories of the period.

Matilda was born in 1046, at the start of the “high middle ages,” a period when Europe was beginning to recover from the political and economic chaos left behind by the unraveling of the Roman Empire in the West. She was the daughter of Margrave Boniface II of Canossa and his second wife, Beatrice, who was the daughter of the Duke of Upper Lorraine and a military commander in her own right. Through Beatrice, Matilda was a cousin of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry III and Henry IV.

Her father’s assassination in 1052 and the subsequent deaths of her older siblings left Matilda the sole heir to extensive lands. She held much of the territory between northern Italy and Rome, including a system of fortresses that controlled access to the two main road systems across the Apennine Mountains. Although she was pressured twice into marriages that were politically advantageous to others, she kept control of her inheritance and the power that went with it at a time when it was not common for women to do so.

In 1076, a long-standing dispute between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire flamed into armed conflict. As the ruler of lands lying directly between the two greatest powers in Latin Christendom, Matilda was physically in the middle of things.

The Investiture Controversy was the culmination of several generations of conflict surrounding the relationship between religious and secular power in general and the relative power of the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor in particular. The issue at the heart of the controversy was who controlled appointments to church offices—and the wealth and power church officials wielded.

Unresolved issues regarding lay investiture of bishops came to a head with the consecration of the reformist monk Hildebrand as Pope Gregory VII in 1073. Secular rulers had long claimed the right to appoint bishops and abbots in their realms and to perform the ritual that installed them in office. Gregory initiated reforms throughout the church, including a ban on simony, aka trafficking in ecclesiastical offices. Gregory expanded the definition of simony to include lay investiture of bishops. His ban on lay investiture of bishops was not just a religious reform. It also struck at the power of secular leaders.

The routine appointment of the archbishop of Milan in 1075 provided the spark for ten years of war. Local reformers in Milan had elected a new archbishop, but after initially accepting the local choice, Emperor Henry IV attempted to install the chaplain of his Saxon campaign in the position instead. Gregory ordered Henry to stop interfering in church affairs. In January 1076, Henry pushed back. He called a council of German bishops and convinced them to depose Gregory. Gregory then excommunicated the emperor. For good measure, he excommunicated Henry’s most active supporters among the bishops.

The potential consequences for Henry were serious. In theory, excommunicating a monarch absolved his subjects from their obligation to obey him. In the Kingdom of Germany, where the monarch was elected by his peers, an excommunicated king could easily be deposed.

Henry discovered he had overestimated the strength of his position. Many of the German bishops backed away from Henry as fast as their ceremonial robes would allow and reconciled with the pope. With the validity of their oaths of allegiance in question, his newly pacified Saxon subjects rose once again in revolt, while his opponents among the German princes pressed for the election of a new king. His supporters won Henry a year and a day to free himself from excommunication before a new king was elected. He needed to grovel hard and he needed to do it fast.

In January 1077, Matilda and an armed force escorted the pope through her territory as he traveled toward Augsburg to meet with the German princes and bishops. When Matilda and Gregory reached Mantua, where he was scheduled to meet his escort from Germany, they learned Henry was nearby. Matilda moved the pope from Mantua to her castle at Canossa—a fortress in the heart of the Apennine Mountains where she could ward off a small imperial force if necessary.

Matilda was prepared to defend the pope against attack, but Henry came to Canossa not as an aggressor but as a penitent.

Having crossed the Alps with a small escort, including his queen and infant heir, through what contemporary chronicles unanimously describe as unusually severe winter conditions, Henry presented himself at the gates of Canossa without any of the trappings of royalty. For three days he stood before the gates, barefoot and dressed in a plain wool robe, begging for the pope’s mercy—sometimes in tears. Occasionally, he knocked on the door, but was not allowed to enter. On the fourth day, after negotiations in which Matilda played a key role, the shivering emperor was allowed into the fortress to beg face-to-face.

Gregory granted Henry absolution, but the emperor’s humiliation at Canossa did not end his quarrels with the pope or his problems in Germany. Despite the fact that Henry had been reinstated in the church, his opponents back home elected a new king to replace him, Rudolf of Swabia. Both king and anti-king petitioned Gregory for his support.

At the Lenten synod of 1080, representatives of both would-be kings presented their petitions to Gregory in person. After hearing their arguments, Gregory excommunicated Henry a second time, on the grounds that he had not kept the promises he made at Canossa, and gave Rudolf his support. Henry convinced another council of German bishops to depose the pope. This time Henry’s bishops elected an antipope, Archbishop Guibert of Ravenna, who took the title of Clement III (1080–1100).

On October 15, 1080, Rudolf died in battle. No longer threatened by the existence of a rival candidate for the crown, Henry returned to Italy at the head of an army, to settle the question of the papal succession and his long-delayed coronation as Holy Roman emperor.

Matilda of Tuscany stood in his way.

Matilda had been an ardent supporter of church reform since childhood. She supported the monk Hildebrand before his election to the papacy in 1073 and continued to support his efforts after his investiture as Gregory VII. While Henry and Rudolf faced off in their final battle, Matilda mustered troops to defend Gregory against Henry and Guibert. She would provide the main military support for Gregory and his successors in their struggles with Henry for the next twenty years.

The first battle of the Investiture Controversy took place in October 1080, as soon as word of Rudolf’s death reached Italy. Henry’s Italian supporters attacked and defeated Matilda’s troops near her castle at Volta: the first of several defeats Matilda suffered at the hands of Henry’s supporters. Matilda was not yet a seasoned commander, unlike her younger cousin Henry, who had spent most of his adulthood on the battlefield. According to contemporary accounts from both sides of the conflict, she suffered heavy losses after Henry entered Italy in the spring of 1081. Bishop Benzo of Alba, a hard-core Henry supporter, mocked her as “wringing her hands and weeping for lost Tuscany.”

And yet there are signs Matilda was still a serious force in Italy. Henry felt threatened enough to convene a court that judged her guilty of treason for refusing to honor her feudal allegiance to him, placed her under “ban of empire,” and stripped her of her title and her lands. Like Gregory’s excommunication of Henry, this act released her vassals from their feudal obligations.

The ban was easy to pronounce but proved hard to enforce. Rather than meet Henry’s forces on the battlefield, Matilda retreated to her fortress at Canossa. While Henry’s main army besieged Rome, Matilda’s forces attacked Henry’s supply lines and raided the holdings of his northern supporters from the protection of her network of mountain castles. She kept Gregory’s communication lines open and provided him with information about Henry’s movements—military and diplomatic. She exerted enough pressure on Henry’s allies from her mountain stronghold that by 1082 his beleaguered supporters insisted he come north and campaign against Matilda in person.

After systematically ravaging the north, Henry besieged Rome itself. He captured the city on March 21, 1084. With Henry in control of the city, Guibert was consecrated as pope on March 24. Seven days later, on Easter Sunday, Guibert returned the favor and crowned Henry as Holy Roman emperor—which had to be a relief to Henry, who had ruled as king of the Germans since 1056 without papally approved imperial authority.

With the imperial crown on his head and a consecrated pope in his pocket, Henry left Rome on May 21, 1084. As he hit the road for Germany, he ordered his Italian allies to capture Matilda and destroy her fortresses, which would secure his lines of communication with Rome and gut the military strength of the papal reformists.

The combined troops of Henry’s supporters marched along the Via Emilia, through the Po Valley—pillaging as they went. Matilda monitored their progress from the security of her Apennine fortresses. On the night of July 1, 1084, her opponents camped on the plain at Sorbara, close to one of Matilda’s castles. Having crossed the valley from Parma to Modena unopposed, the invaders grew careless and did not set an adequate guard.

The next day, Matilda led a small force in a dawn raid on the sleeping camp of Henry’s supporters—the first time she met imperial forces in open battle in three years. Her troops broke through the camp’s outer defenses, causing panic among the enemy ranks. They slaughtered large numbers of fleeing foot soldiers, captured a hundred knights, and took more than five hundred horses as part of their booty. Matilda lost a handful of her men and “no one of note”—the medieval assessment of a successful battle. Sorbara was a major victory in medieval terms and a turning point in the war, giving new hope to the reform party at the moment when Henry seemed triumphant.

For the next six years, Matilda was on the offensive against Henry’s supporters. Pope Gregory’s death in exile in 1085 did not end the conflict. Matilda became the secular rallying point for the reform cause and the armed supporter of two reformist popes in succession: Victor III, whose papacy lasted only four months, and Urban II, who completed Gregory’s reforms, launched the first crusade, and left the papacy stronger than he found it.

In the spring of 1090, Henry mounted a counterattack. He seized Matilda’s remaining lands in Lorraine, then invaded northern Italy. Over the next two years, he drove his armies toward Canossa. He took city after fortress after city with a combination of military victories and bribery. (The promise of imperial privilege, in which an autonomous town owed fealty only to the emperor, was a tempting offer to towns held in feudal tenure to a more-or-less local lord.) When she lost Mantua and Verona, the first to bribery and the second to betrayal, Matilda fell back south of the river Po. Henry continued to press her.

In September 1092, after a string of imperial victories, Henry offered Matilda generous peace terms if she would recognize Guibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III. Against the advice of many of her supporters, she refused.

That October, Henry moved against Canossa, hoping to force Matilda to surrender by trapping her in her fortress. Warned of his approach, Matilda withdrew with an armed force to an outlying castle. After Henry exhausted his troops against Canossa, she attacked. Henry’s siege turned into a rout, with Matilda’s forces harassing the emperor’s troops as they retreated in disorder across the Po.

Henry remained in Italy for the next three years, but the war was effectively over.

Whether or not Matilda actively fought, sword in hand, she was a “combatant commander” by any standard. Over the course of a forty-year military career, Matilda mustered troops for long-distance expeditions, fought successful defensive campaigns against the Holy Roman emperor (himself a skilled commander), launched ambushes, engaged in urban warfare, directed sieges, lifted sieges, and was besieged. She built, stocked, and fortified castles. She maintained an effective intelligence network. She negotiated alliances with local leaders. She rewarded her followers with the favorite currencies of medieval rulers: land, castles, and privileges.

Matilda fielded her last military action in 1114, putting down a revolt in the city of Mantua less than a year before her death. Mighty in war to the end.

Italian Navy in WWII Part I

Edited from material by Mike Yaklich, et al

        “Although its participation in World War II has been ignored by Anglo-American historians, the defeat of the Regia Marina Italiana (RMI, Royal Italian Navy) has preoccupied European authors, many of whom have rejected as superficial assertions that the Italian navy was led by a general staff “paralyzed” by fear of a British navy that enjoyed a “moral ascendancy” over its opponent.  Instead, they have attributed the Italian defeat to material deficiencies and structural weaknesses, as well as to a flawed strategy and poor command decisions.  Although little of their work has been translated into English, the history of Italian naval operations by Marc’Antonio Bragadin and Giuseppe Fioravanzo has been available in an English edition since 1957.  Like other Italian authors, they pointed out that an inadequate industrial base and an uneven technological development had deprived the RMI of radar, sonar, electric torpedoes, and reliable shells, while a chronic shortage of fuel oil had “paralyzed” the Italian fleet and Germany’s rush to war had caught the Italian navy in the midst of a building program (1).

        Admiral Angelo Iachino, commander of the Italian surface fleet for most of the war, likewise stressed the problems created by the lack of fuel oil, a weak industrial base, and the inability to develop radar and sonar.  But he also underscored the problems of coordination between the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (RAI, Royal Italian Air Force) and the RMI, and thought that “a couple of aircraft carriers and a good fleet air arm” could have secured the central Mediterranean for Italy…”

        (1)Mussolini was under the impression that he had an agreement with Hitler not to precipitate a war before 1942-43, and as late as the second half of May 1939 Hitler personally assured Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, that he had no intention of going to war for at least another three years– this barely three months before he actually started the war by invading Poland.

James Sadkovich – The Italian Navy in World War II

By December 1941, the Italian Navy/Air Force, with, of course the various Luftwaffe contingent included, were absolute masters of the Mediterranean.  While Japanese intervention certainly strained the Royal Navy efforts in the Med, the British Navy was simply unable to even attempt to do anything but harass the Italian convoy efforts.  Throughout 1942, any British convoy activity took months of planning and involved a massive commitment of force from several theatres.  While the axis air forces were the primary threat to the merchant ships, it was the presence of the Italian Fleet units that necessitated the vast warship commitment to attempt to get the convoys through.  In effect, the Italian Navy suckered them in to air range for the ensuing feast by the air units.  The Italian Navy’s problem throughout 1941 and 1942 was the total expenditure, in 1940 (!), to the Fleets strategic oil reserve, and the consequent inability to commit the fleet, en masse, on any but special occasions.  Further, on these occasions, the effort was usually fruitless because the aerial recon forces (Italian and German) did not properly do their job and find the Fleets target or, when they did, the Royal Navy simply fled the scene (they were, after all, hardly stupid).  Also, while fuel hampered the heavy forces, the Italian Navy light forces (and submarines) were bold, brash, and daring and took on the Royal Navy with vigor.  Also, their ASW forces got to be very deadly.

Simply put, after 1940 when the lack of oil crippled their efforts, the Italian Navy (with the Axis Air Forces of course) actually prosecuted a fleet in being concept that worked.  They forced massive efforts by the Royal Navy to get anything done in the Med.  On the other hand, if you look at warship commitment in home waters after the loss of the Bismarck, the Royal Navy basically ignored the Kriegsmarine surface forces.  During this time the Germans had Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Scheer, Lutzow, Hipper, Eugen, Nurnberg, and Koln, yet the Germans never managed a decent sortie with any of it, and on any day in 1942 (except, perhaps, as the Duke of York, Anson, and Howe worked up) the Royal Navy Home Fleet certainly wasn’t close to this strong.

The Mediterranean saw less decisive naval battles than one would expect because for most of war, one side was simply unable to challenge the other.  During the times that either side had a legitimate shot, the Royal Navy elan coupled with fleet-based aircraft (something the Italians never had) carried the day.  But there was a long time in 1941 to 1942 that the Royal Navy was forced to simply not play.  That was an Italian Navy victory.

Naval Balance Mediterranean 1940

England- in Mediterranean

3 battleships (all Queen Elizabeth Class with 15-inch guns)

1 carrier

3 heavy cruisers

3 light cruisers

France – in Mediterranean

3 battleships

1 carriers

10 heavy cruisers

28 light cruisers

Italy – Total

4 battleships with 12.5-inch guns, 2 15-inch gunned ships almost complete but not worked up for about 12 more months

0 carriers

8 heavy cruisers

12 light cruisers

The Italians are clearly outnumbered until the fall of France in June of 1940. After that, they have more cruisers than the British, but their 4 old battleships are no match for the bigger and stronger 3 British battleships. And even if the Italians manage to defeat these three, the British have 7 battleships, 2 battlecruisers, 4 carriers, and 17 cruisers at Scapa Flow, plus 15 more cruisers in the Atlantic and 2 battleships and 2 cruisers coming out of refit.

To risk the entire Italian Fleet in a showdown would be foolhardy. In the game of risk versus reward, the Italians would be risking their entire navy for the reward of destroying one quarter of England’s. That is a trade England would make any day of the week.

So now, as the smaller fleet, Italy must play for survival. The old battleships would not be a great asset in combat, but their loss would be quite a blow to the nation (look at how the loss of Arizona and Hood rocked the US and UK, and they were just one ship out of 15). A serious blow like that would not be conducive to keeping Mussolini in power.

The cruisers can be risked, so they were sent out on operations to harass the British. But with a serious shortage of fuel oil in Italy, each harassment mission just reduced the chance that the entire fleet could sortie if it needed to.

In the end, I guess the Italian navy did all that it could do: stay alive to tie up the British Fleet and prevent it from being used elsewhere. As long as the British did not have a free hand in the Mediterranean, the Italians were doing their job.

I think that the Italian High Command was torn between conflicting strategies. The classic ‘fleet in being’ and need to nullify or destroy Allied power ‘safely’. So the end result was confused or ambiguous policy planning and too many caveats on fleet commanders.

There is no question in my mind that the Italian Navy could fight bravely, which it demonstrated in particular in small-ship actions and special operations like those of the Decima Flotilla. It is clearly wrong to attribute Italian failures to innate cowardice, a view that was once common in English-language histories. However it is my belief that the Italian High Command was weak and the Navy had severe material and technical deficiencies. I certainly believe that its achievements fell well short of its nominal strength and potential.

Italian “PT” boats

Look at what is available about the Regia Marina (and, after the armistice, the Decima MAS) activity against the “Allies”. Just about the Italian fast boat war 1940 until 1945 it’s possible to remember, speaking only of the most important ships, not only the loss, by MS 16 and 22, of the British cruiser HMS Manchester, on August 13th 1942 (the biggest ship sunk by such a kind of vessel [PT boat] during the last world war) but the serious damage also of the Soviet cruiser Molotov by MAS 568 on August 2 1942 (Black Sea) and another incident which occurred to the British cruiser HMS Capetown, torpedoed off Massawa (Red Sea) on April 8th 1941. This last success was obtained by MAS 213, a 14t boat launched on 1918, unable – on 1941 – to do more than 10 knots for no more than an hour and in such a bad general condition that it was necessary to repair the hull many times, in 1940-41, using concrete.

The vintage MAS Flotilla of Massawa and an other one, formed by seven ex auxiliary motor boats based at Assab, were organized and led by Commander Paolo Aloisi, a very particular kind of officer and sailor who than fought in underground way the English in AOI (Italian East Africa)until September 1943. Cdr Aloisi is at the origin of the idea developed twenty years later by the famous comic author Ugo Pratt for the character of Corto Maltese.

Bibliography: Erminio Bagnasco, Le motosiluranti della seconda guerra mondiale, ed. Albertelli, Parma.

Enrico Cernuschi, “Dietro la maschera di Corto Maltese”, Rivista Marittima (The Italian Navy Staff monthly) Luglio (July) 1977

Damage Inflicted by Italians On Enemy Naval Units

This applies only to events in the Mediterranean. Thus nothing in ocean waters, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, or Lake Ladoga appears.

1940:

June 1940:

British light cruiser Calypso sunk by sub Bagnolini.  Tanker (Norwegian but in British service) Orkanger sunk by sub Naiade.  British sub Odin sunk by destroyer Strale.  British sub Grampus sunk by destroyer escorts Circe and Clio.  British sub Orpheus sunk by destroyer Turbine.  British sub Olympus badly damaged by Italian air attacks while in port at Malta (Italian air raids also sink Malta’s floating drydock, the only one possessed by the RN in the central Mediterranean).  French “super-destroyer” Albatros hit by 6-inch shell from Italian coastal battery during bombardment of Genoa (ten men killed).  Small freighter Elgo (1,900 tons) sunk by sub Capponi while en route to a French North African port.

July 1940:

British destroyer Escort sunk by sub Marconi.  British sub Phoenix sunk by corvette Albatros.  British light cruiser Gloucester hit on bridge by Italian bomb:  captain and 18 others killed (“battle of Punta da Stilo”). Australian light cruiser Sydney hit by 6-inch shell from Italian light cruisers, but only minor damage to funnel and one man wounded (“battle of Cape Spada”).  When British convoy to the Aegean is attacked by SM79 and SM81 bombers, British light cruiser Liverpool hit by bomb which penetrates two decks but fails to explode, and Australian light cruiser Sydney suffers minor splinter damage from near misses, which destroy her on-board aircraft and cause a few non-fatal casualties.  Tanker Berne (3,300 tons) sunk by sub Tarantini off Haifa.  Small French steamer Cheik (1,000 tons) sunk by sub Scire.

August 1940:

British destroyer Hostile sunk by mines laid by Italian destroyers. British sub Oswald rammed and sunk by destroyer Vivaldi.  During Malta convoy operation merchantman SS Cornwall (10,000 tons) hit by three bombs from SM79s, stopped and on fire, but makes it to Malta due to superb damage control.

September 1940:

British heavy cruiser Kent damaged by SM79 torpedo planes (out of action one year).  Polish destroyer Garland damaged by Italian air attack (near misses cause boiler damage, towed back to port).

October 1940:

British light cruiser Liverpool damaged by SM79 torpedo planes (out of action six months).  British sub Triad sunk in surface action by Italian sub Toti.  British sub Rainbow sunk either by Italian mine or possibly when rammed by Italian merchantman Antonietta Costa.  British destroyer Imperial damaged by Italian mine near Malta (out of action six months).  British aircraft carrier Eagle suffers hull damage from near misses by Italian bombers (out of action more than a month, misses Taranto operation).

November 1940:

British heavy cruiser Berwick hit by two 8-inch shells from Italian heavy cruisers:  one hits officers’ quarters (no casualties), the other one knocks out one of the aft main gun turrets, killing seven men (“battle of Cape Spartivento”).  British submarine Regulus sunk, possibly by Italian aircraft (otherwise by Italian mine).  British destroyer Decoy damaged by Italian night air raid on port at Alexandria (one bomb hit, eight killed), freighter Zamaam also damaged in same attack.

December 1940:

British destroyer Hyperion sunk by Italian mine.  British light cruiser Glasgow damaged by SM79 torpedo planes while at anchor in Suda Bay (two torpedoes hit, knocking out two of four screws:  returned to light escort duties in the Indian Ocean in two months, but not fully repaired until 1942).  British antiaircraft cruiser Coventry torpedoed by Italian sub Neghelli (damage not too serious).  British sub Triton sunk, apparently by Italian mine.  Greek sub Proteus rammed and sunk by Italian destroyer escort Antares (after torpedoing and sinking Italian troop transport Sardegna).

NOTES:

1.  I did not include the small Greek steamer Roula and the old Greek light cruiser Heli, both sunk by Italian submarines in August 1940, because Italy was not at war with Greece at the time, and I therefore consider these to be more in the line of acts of terrorism than legitimate acts of war (British ships sunk in Greek waters at the same time I did include, also neutral vessels bound for ports of legitimate enemy belligerents).

2.  In regards to sinkings from mines, this is another difficult topic.  If mines were known or strongly suspected to have caused the loss, and only Italian minefields existed at that time of the war or in the area in question, I have credited these to the Italians (of course, in some cases, such as Hostile or Force K in December 1941, it is definitely known that the mines were Italian-laid).  Mine damage around Malta is a particularly difficult call.  Although the Italians laid most of the minefields there, German aircraft and S-boats also contributed.  Thus I was pretty lax in some cases– if I found any source willing to identify the mines as either Italian or German, without contradicting testimony, I went with that.  Thus I am crediting destroyer Southwold to the Italians, but destroyer Jersey and sub Olympus to the Germans, while making no call on destroyer Kujawiak…

Italian Navy in WWII Part II

Edited from material by Mike Yaklich, et al

1941

January 1941:

British destroyer Gallant badly damaged by Italian mine near Malta (later bombed while under repair, never sails again).  Italian-flown Ju-87 dive-bomber scores one of the six bomb hits that severely damage British aircraft carrier Illustrious.   Free French submarine Narval sunk by destroyer escort Clio.  British merchantman Clan Cumming torpedoed by sub Neghelli but reaches port.  British tanker Desmoulea torpedoed by destroyer escort Lupo (towed back to port).

February 1941:

British gunboat Ladybird damaged (not seriously) by Italian air attack during unsuccessful commando raid on island of Kastelorizo.  Italian bombing raids on Benghazi force the British to stop using the port for the time being.

March 1941:

British heavy cruiser York severely damaged (beached, never sailed again) and tanker Pericles sunk by Italian “explosive motorboats” (launched from destroyers Crispi and Sella) in Suda Bay.  British light cruiser Bonaventure sunk by Italian sub Ambra.

April 1941:

British destroyer Mohawk torpedoed and sunk by Italian destroyer Tarigo (itself also sinking) in action against Italian convoy off the Kerkenah light buoy.  British tanker British Science (7,300 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  Greek destroyer escort Proussa sunk by Italian Ju-87s. Small freighter Susanah (900 tons) hit by Italian Ju-87s, beached, later destroyed in another attack by Italian Ju-87s.  British fleet oiler British Lord damaged by SM79 torpedo planes.  British salvage vessel Viking sunk by SM79s. Freighter Devis (6,000 tons) damaged by SM81s (multiple bomb hits, seven men killed, 14 wounded, on fire but rejoins British convoy). (1)

May 1941:

During battle of Crete, British destroyer Juno sunk by Italian Z1007s in level bombing attack; destroyer Imperial sunk by Italian SM84 bombers; light cruiser Ajax damaged (20 serious casualties) by Italian SM84s. (2) British submarine Usk sunk either by Italian destroyers (Pigafetta and Zeno) or Italian mines.  British submarine Undaunted sunk either by Italian destroyer escorts (Pegaso or Pleiadi) or Italian mines.  British transport Rawnsley hit by SM79 torpedo planes (previously damaged by German bombers- towed to Crete after Italian attack, later sunk there).  British gunboat Ladybird sunk by Italian Ju-87s at Tobruk.

June 1941:

Australian destroyer Waterhen sunk in combined attack by German and Italian Ju-87s (Italian pilot Ennio Tarantola was credited with a near-miss that caused serious damage).

July 1941:

During Malta convoy operation, British destroyer Fearless sunk by SM79 torpedo bombers; British light cruiser Manchester damaged by SM79 torpedo bombers (38 killed, out of action nine months); British destroyer Firedrake damaged by Italian bomb (boilers and steering out, towed back to port); freighter Sydney Star torpedoed in attacks by MAS 532 and MAS 533, but reaches Malta.  Tanker Hoegh Hood (9,350 tons), returning to Gibraltar from Malta empty in simultaneous operation, hit by Italian torpedo plane but makes port.  British destroyer Defender sunk by Italian aircraft off Sidi Barrani. (3)  British sub Union sunk by destroyer escort Circe.  British sub Cachalot rammed and sunk by destroyer escort Papa.

August 1941:

British light cruiser Phoebe damaged by Italian torpedo plane (out of action eight months).  British sub P. 32 sunk by Italian mines while trying to enter port of Tripoli.  British sub P. 33 sunk in same area, presumably by Italian mines.  British tanker Desmoulea damaged by SM79 torpedo planes. Belgian tanker Alexandre Andre damaged by SM79 torpedo planes.   British tanker Turbo sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  British small armaments carrier Escaut sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  British netlayer Protector severely damaged by SM79 torpedo planes (out of action four years).

September 1941:

During Malta convoy operation, British battleship Nelson damaged by SM84 torpedo bombers (one torpedo hit, out of action six months); merchantman Imperial Star (12,000 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  British small tanker Fiona Shell, fleet oiler Denbydale, and merchantman Durham (11,000 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by “piloted torpedoes” launched from submarine Scire (however, Denbydale and Durham settled in shallow water and were both later recovered).

October 1941:

British merchantman (blockade runner to Malta) Empire Guillemot sunk by SM84 torpedo planes.  British sub Tetrarch presumed sunk by Italian mines off Sicily.

November 1941:

British merchantmen (blockade runners to Malta) Empire Defender and Empire Pelican sunk by Italian torpedo planes.  During sinking of “Duisburg” convoy, British destroyer Lively suffers minor splinter damage from near misses of 8-inch shells from Italian heavy cruisers.

December 1941:

British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, tanker Sagona, and destroyer Jervis (tied alongside Sagona for fueling) damaged at Alexandria by “piloted torpedoes” launched from sub Scire (Queen Elizabeth sank but settled in shallow water:  raised and repaired, out of action almost a year and a half.  Valiant out of action eight months.  Sagona henceforth used only as a stationary fuel bunker.  Jervis under repair one month).  British light cruiser Neptune, destroyer Kandahar sunk (only one survivor from Neptune!), light cruisers Aurora and Penelope damaged by mines laid by light cruisers of Italian 7th Division (Aurora out of action eight months). British destroyer Kipling suffers minor splinter damage from near misses (one man killed) during “First Battle of Sirte.”  Small British steamer Volo (1,500 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo bombers.

NOTES

(1) Italian SM79s also claimed the sinking of the British transport Homefield, however according to Shores et al (“The Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete”) the damage that resulted in this ship being scuttled was inflicted in a later attack by German Ju-88s.   Shores states that the Italian torpedo bombers which claimed a hit were mistaken, and that all damage resulted from (German) bomb hits.

(2) Italian torpedo bombers also claim to have fatally damaged British destroyer Hereward during the Crete battle.  Bragadin (“The Italian Navy in World War II”) repeats this claim, and also says that the badly-damaged Hereward was scuttled as Italian MAS torpedo boats approached.  Greene and Massignani (“The Naval War in the Mediterranean”) accept the account of Shores et al (op cit) that Hereward was hit by German Ju-87s (although, contrary to much of the book, Shores does not specify the exact unit or mission for the attacking aircraft), and refute Bragadin, Sadkovich, and others.  Shores does also note that survivors were picked up by Italian MAS boats, as do other British accounts.  My own conclusion is that the best evidence is for the ship being fatally damaged by German air attack, but that the Italians may be accorded a small role, as the appearance of the MAS probably prompted the decision to scuttle.

(3)  A number of accounts list this as a combined attack by German and Italian planes, but sources I consulted seemed to agree that Italian aircraft should get either full or partial credit for the sinking.

1942

January 1942:

British sub Triumph sunk, apparently by Italian mines off Greek island of Milo.

February 1942:

British sub Tempest sunk by Italian antisubmarine forces, including destroyer escort Circe.  British sub P. 38 sunk by Italian convoy escorts, again including Circe.  British sub Thresher badly damaged while attacking Italian convoy.

March 1942:

During Malta convoy operation (“second battle of Sirte”) British light cruiser Cleopatra hit by 6-inch shell from light cruiser Bande Nere (radio and antiaircraft fire director knocked out, 15 men killed:  splinters from near misses kill one more man); light cruiser Euryalus suffers splinter damage from near-miss by 15-inch shell from battleship Littorio; destroyer Kingston hit by 15-inch shell from Littorio (passes through ship without exploding, but kills 14, wounds 20, and starts a small fire); destroyer Havock hit by splinters of 15-inch shell from Littorio (seven killed, nine wounded, one boiler flooded); destroyer Lively hit by 15-inch splinters from Littorio (minor flooding, funnel on fire); destroyer Sikh straddled by 15-inch shells, but only minor damage. (4)  British destroyer Southwold sunk by Italian mine outside Malta.

April 1942:

British sub Upholder sunk by destroyer escort Pegaso.  British sub Urge sunk (exact cause uncertain, but all sources which cite cause agree it was to Italian action:  most probably Italian mines, possibly to destroyer escort Pegaso or to Italian aircraft).  British subs Pandora and P. 36 sunk by Italian bombers in raid on port at Malta.  British destroyer Havock torpedoed by sub Aradam, but only after it had been run aground, abandoned, and largely demolished by its crew. (5)

May 1942:

(None found?)

June 1942:

During Malta convoy operation, destroyer Bedouin sunk by SM79 torpedo plane, after having been heavily damaged in surface action by ships of Italian 7th Division (hit by 12 shells, mostly 6-inch, some of which passed through the ship without exploding); Dutch merchantman Tanimbar (8,000 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo plane; British light cruiser Liverpool damaged by SM79 torpedo plane (towed back, out of action almost two years); freighter Burdwan and tanker Kentucky sunk by ships of Italian 7th Division (both had been badly damaged in previous air attacks); antiaircraft cruiser Cairo damaged in surface action with 7th Division (one armor-piercing 6-inch shell- used because the Italian light cruisers had run out of the more effective high-explosive ammunition- penetrates fuel bunker but fails to do fatal damage because it failed to explode); destroyer Partridge damaged by ships of 7th Division (stopped but gets under way again); minesweeper Hebe hit by one shell from ships of 7th Division (badly damaged).  (6)  British destroyer Nestor, badly damaged by German air attack but being towed back to port (SM79s also participated in that attack but scored no hits), is scuttled on appearance of more Italian aircraft due to the risk to the towing vessel.

July 1942:

Tanker Antares (Turkish but in British service) sunk by sub Alagi.  Small British freighters Meta, Shuma, Snipe, and Baron Douglas (total approx. 10,000 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by Italian “frogman” swimmers.

August 1942:

During major Malta convoy operation, British antiaircraft cruiser Cairo sunk, light cruiser Nigeria damaged (52 killed, severe structural damage), and tanker Ohio (10,000 tons) damaged by sub Axum (Ohio stopped and on fire, but fires are extinguished by water pouring in through large torpedo hole in its side!); light cruiser Manchester sunk by large torpedo boats MS 16 and MS 22 (each scored one hit); destroyer Foresight sunk by SM79 torpedo bomber; freighter Glenorchy (9,000 tons) sunk by large torpedo boat MS 31; freighter Wairangi (12,400 tons) sunk by torpedo boat MAS 552; freighter Almeria Lykes (7,700 tons) sunk by torpedo boat MAS 554; freighter Santa Elisa (8,300 tons) sunk by torpedo boat MAS 557; freighter Empire Hope (12,600 tons) sunk by sub Bronzo after being severely damaged by (German) air attack and abandoned;  light cruiser Kenya damaged (three killed, one wounded; sonar knocked out and extensive flooding- however, the ship remained with the convoy) by sub Alagi; freighter Rochester Castle (7,800 tons) damaged by torpedo boat MAS 564, but makes it to Malta; aircraft carrier Victorious hit by two 1,386-lb bombs by Re2001 fighter-bombers, but one bounces over the side before exploding, other one does minor damage to flight deck (six killed, two wounded); aircraft carrier Indomitable hit by one 220-lb bomb by CR42 fighter-bomber which does minimal damage to flight deck; battleship Rodney hit by one bomb by Italian Ju-87s, but it bounces off main gun turret before exploding and does no damage; tanker Ohio damaged again by near-miss from Italian Ju-87, which buckles bow plates and causes more flooding; freighter Port Chalmers hit on paravane of minesweeping gear by torpedo from SM79, but this is cut loose and the torpedo explodes underwater, causing no damage.  (7)  British destroyer Eridge damaged beyond repair by MTM small assault torpedo boats off North African coast (towed back to Alexandria but written off). British sub Thorn sunk by destroyer escort Pegaso.

September 1942:

During foiled large-scale commando raid on Tobruk, British destroyer Sikh sunk and destroyer Zulu badly damaged by combined fire of Italian and German shore batteries (Zulu later sunk by air attack); British torpedo boats MTB 308, MTB 310, MTB 312, were sunk and MTB 314 was captured [She was later used by the Germans] in same raid, along with two motor launches, by Italian MC200 fighter-bombers and/or Italian shore batteries.  (8)  British small freighter Raven’s Point sunk at Gibraltar by Italian swimmers.

October 1942:

(None found?)

November 1942:

British sub Utmost sunk by destroyer escort Groppo.  British sloop Ibis sunk by Italian torpedo plane.  British auxiliary antiaircraft ship Tynwald and troopship Awatea (13,400 tons) sunk by submarine Argo (Awatea had previously been heavily damaged by bombing).  (9)  British minesweeper Algerine sunk by submarine Asciangi.  British minesweeper Cromer sunk by Italian mines off Mersa Matruh.  French tanker Tarn damaged by sub Dandolo but makes port.

December 1942:

British destroyer Quentin sunk by SM79 torpedo bomber.  British corvette Marigold sunk by Italian torpedo planes.  British sub P. 222 sunk by destroyer escort Fortunale.  British sub P. 48 sunk by destroyer escorts Ardente and Ardito.  British sub P. 311 sunk by Italian mines outside port of Maddalena.  British light cruiser Argonaut hit by two torpedoes from sub Mocenigo (only three men killed, but out of action eleven months).  Small Norwegian freighter Berto (1,400 tons) sunk, freighters Ocean Vanquisher (7,000 tons), Empire Centaur (7,000 tons), and Armattan (4,500 tons) damaged in port at Algiers by “piloted torpedoes” and swimmers launched from sub Ambra.

NOTES

4) There are many conflicting reports of damage inflicted at Second Sirte. The above reflects only what I have been able to verify from sources on the British side.  The Italians believed they had also damaged light cruiser Penelope and destroyers Lance and Legion, and at least one British source I consulted also gives this information.  On the other hand, the British thought they had torpedoed battleship Littorio and hit light cruiser Bande Nere and an unidentified heavy cruiser, when in actuality they only scored one hit, a 120mm (4.7-inch) shell which struck Littorio doing minimal damage.  The fog of war was apparently very thick in this battle (literally, given the effective British use of smokescreens), as the Italians thought that Kingston had been hit by a heavy cruiser, variously reported as Trento or Gorizia, and some Italian accounts also credit Trento (not Bande Nere) with having hit Cleopatra.

(5)  Italian accounts almost unanimously reverse the cause and effect, saying that Havock was first torpedoed, and then beached- including eyewitness reports from the crew of Aradam, which surfaced and reported seeing the British destroyer on fire.  I have accepted the British version, not necessarily incompatible with that eyewitness testimony.

(6) There are claims that Burdwan was crippled by Italian SM84s which were mistakenly reported as German planes.  Kentucky was eventually finished off by the guns of light cruiser Montecuccoli and a torpedo from destroyer Oriani.

(7) Great confusion surrounds the August 12 night action against the “Pedestal” convoy, which is perhaps understandable given repeated attacks by Italian submarines and various Axis aircraft, sometimes virtually overlapping, over a period of about two hours.  Sadkovich (op cit, p. 292-296, citing several other sources) mentions Italian claims that freighter Brisbane Star was hit by Italian sub Dessie (a claim often repeated but now generally considered to have been in error, the sub’s crew probably having heard the successful torpedo hits of Axum and assumed they were their own); that the sub Alagi also hit the freighter Clan Ferguson  (this is far more plausible, but as Sadkovich times the attack at 21:18, while Clan Ferguson with its load of ammunition had been reported hit by a German He-111 torpedo plane at 21:02, the ship would have already been abandoned, on fire, and rapidly sinking when this occurred);  and that sub Bronzo also crippled Glenorchy (this ship was at any rate credited to Italian action, as it was confirmed sunk by an Italian torpedo boat later that night).  Sadkovich also claims that Italian Ju-87s hit destroyer Ashanti while attacking Ohio on August 13, but I have been unable to find any other reference which verifies this, or indeed that Ashanti was damaged at all during “Pedestal” (the ship was providing close escort to Ohio at a time when Italian Ju-87s scored a near-miss, and was heavily engaged). Other sources mention Brisbane Star as having been torpedoed by an SM79 (a possibility, since there were only seven He-111 torpedo planes involved in the German air attack- the other German aircraft being 30 Ju-88s armed with bombs- and these already appear to have accounted for Clan Ferguson, the previously-damaged Deucalion, and possibly Empire Hope, which had a 15-foot hole in its side that sounds like a torpedo hit.  However, I have not come across anything that gives more specifics on any Italian planes involved in these air attacks), and still other sources list Deucalion as a victim of Italian rather than German torpedo planes (probably an error).  British destroyer Wolverine had its bows badly damaged when it rammed and sank Italian sub Dagabur with all hands, but I hesitate to classify that as “damage inflicted by the Italians,” given the circumstances.

(8) Again, it is difficult to decipher exactly who did what in this action. By the best accounts, Sikh was hit twice by a German 88mm battery and took at least three more shells of unknown origin.  From accounts of those aboard, the best reconstruction of its fate seems to be that the ship was crippled by the German guns and then finished off by the Italian (152mm). Zulu was probably hit by an Italian battery.  The exact identity of the aircraft that sank Zulu also remains unclear.  Many Italian sources credit MC200 fighter-bombers.  The MC200s definitely did effectively bomb and strafe British motor torpedo boats, claiming to sink three and badly damage a fourth.  Another four British torpedo boats were claimed by Italian shore batteries.  British reported losses of small craft, as seen above, were four torpedo boats and two motor launches.

(9) Italian SM79 torpedo bombers also claimed Awatea in the original air attacks, but most accounts have it set afire by German Ju-88s.

1943

January 1943:

British corvette Samphire sunk by sub Platino.

February 1943:

British minesweeping trawler Tervani sunk by sub Accaio.

March 1943:

British sub Turbulent sunk either by Italian anti-submarine trawler or by Italian mines outside La Maddalena.  British sub Thunderbolt sunk by corvette Cicogna.

April 1943:

British destroyer Pakenham sunk as a result of gun battle with destroyer escorts Cassiopea and Cigno (Cigno was also sunk in this encounter). British sub Sahib sunk by corvette Gabbiano (after being attacked by German Ju-88s).  British torpedo boat MTB 639 sunk by destroyer escort Sagittario.

May 1943:

Freighters Pat Harrison (7,000 tons), Marhsud (7,500 tons), and Camerata (4,800 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by “piloted torpedoes” operated from derelict freighter Olterra (interned by Spanish at nearby Algeciras and converted by Italians into secret base for missions against Gibraltar).  British minelayer Fantome sunk by Italian mines off Bizerte.

June 1943:

(None found?)

July 1943:

During invasion of Sicily, British carrier Indomitable seriously damaged by SM79 torpedo plane (out of action seven months); British light cruiser Cleopatra damaged by sub Dandolo (out of action four months); US transport Timothy Pickering sunk by Re2002s (166 killed, including British troops aboard); US transport Joseph G Cannon damaged by Re2002s (hit by bomb which failed to explode, returned to Malta); British torpedo boat MTB 316 sunk by light cruiser Scipione Africano; sub Flutto inflicts 17 casualties before being sunk in surface battle with British torpedo boats MTB 640, MTB 651, and MTB 670.  Greek steamship Orion (4,800 tons) sunk by mine planted by Italian swimmer in neutral Turkish harbor one week earlier (the swimmer, Lt. Luigi Ferraro, smuggled in by undercover agents of naval intelligence, as were the mines).  Freighter Kaituna (4,900 tons) damaged by mine placed by same swimmer (Ferraro mined two other ships which were saved by underwater inspections after British found a second unexploded mine on Kaituna).

August 1943:

Tanker Thorshoud (10,000 tons), freighter Harrison Grey Otis (7,000 tons), and freighter Stanbridge (6,000 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by “piloted torpedoes” from Olterra.  British sub Saracen sunk by corvettes Minerva and Euterpe.

September 1943:

(none found?)

French Ships

See below.  My comments marked *.

– French “super-destroyer” Albatros hit by 6-inch shell from Italian coastal battery during bombardment of Genoa (ten men killed).

* 14/6/40: the “contre-torpilleur” Albatros was indeed hit by a 152mm round from the Pegli coastal battery; 12 men in all died from burn wounds.

– Small freighter Elgo (1,900 tons) sunk by sub Capponi while en route to a French North African port.

* 22/6/40: the Elgo was a Swedish freighter going from Tunis to Sfax.

– Small French steamer Cheik (1,000 tons) sunk by sub Scire.

* 10/7/40: torpedoed by error on the Marseille-Alger route; 13 men missing.  I suppose this does not count as a legitimate sinking since the Franco-Italian armistice was already in effect.  The Italian sub rescued the survivors, later repatriated to Corsica on board Italian minesweeper Argo.

* Other reported incidents involving Vichy French vessels in the Mediterranean:

* Note: there could be more cases, but the attacker often remains unidentified, or no damage was done.

* 13/9/40: a French convoy (11 merchantmen) drifted a bit from its Bone-Marseille route and entered an Italian minefield near San Pietro (Sardinia).  The liner Cap Tourane struck a mine first but kept afloat; 3 dead and 17 missing among military passengers.  The freighter Cassidaigne, coming to help, then struck a mine too and sank rapidly.   Finally, the freighter Ginette-Leborgne, bringing up the rear of the convoy, suffered the same fate.  No other casualties are reported.

* 28/7/41: Tunisian sail-ship Sidi Fredg attacked by 3 Italian seaplanes (somewhere between Nabeul and Korba); 2 wounded, ship abandoned, later retrieved.

Italian Navy in WWII Part III

Edited from material by Mike Yaklich, et al

1941

January 1941:

British destroyer Gallant badly damaged by Italian mine near Malta (later bombed while under repair, never sails again).  Italian-flown Ju-87 dive-bomber scores one of the six bomb hits that severely damage British aircraft carrier Illustrious.   Free French submarine Narval sunk by destroyer escort Clio.  British merchantman Clan Cumming torpedoed by sub Neghelli but reaches port.  British tanker Desmoulea torpedoed by destroyer escort Lupo (towed back to port).

February 1941:

British gunboat Ladybird damaged (not seriously) by Italian air attack during unsuccessful commando raid on island of Kastelorizo.  Italian bombing raids on Benghazi force the British to stop using the port for the time being.

March 1941:

British heavy cruiser York severely damaged (beached, never sailed again) and tanker Pericles sunk by Italian “explosive motorboats” (launched from destroyers Crispi and Sella) in Suda Bay.  British light cruiser Bonaventure sunk by Italian sub Ambra.

April 1941:

British destroyer Mohawk torpedoed and sunk by Italian destroyer Tarigo (itself also sinking) in action against Italian convoy off the Kerkenah light buoy.  British tanker British Science (7,300 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  Greek destroyer escort Proussa sunk by Italian Ju-87s. Small freighter Susanah (900 tons) hit by Italian Ju-87s, beached, later destroyed in another attack by Italian Ju-87s.  British fleet oiler British Lord damaged by SM79 torpedo planes.  British salvage vessel Viking sunk by SM79s. Freighter Devis (6,000 tons) damaged by SM81s (multiple bomb hits, seven men killed, 14 wounded, on fire but rejoins British convoy). (1)

May 1941:

During battle of Crete, British destroyer Juno sunk by Italian Z1007s in level bombing attack; destroyer Imperial sunk by Italian SM84 bombers; light cruiser Ajax damaged (20 serious casualties) by Italian SM84s. (2) British submarine Usk sunk either by Italian destroyers (Pigafetta and Zeno) or Italian mines.  British submarine Undaunted sunk either by Italian destroyer escorts (Pegaso or Pleiadi) or Italian mines.  British transport Rawnsley hit by SM79 torpedo planes (previously damaged by German bombers- towed to Crete after Italian attack, later sunk there).  British gunboat Ladybird sunk by Italian Ju-87s at Tobruk.

June 1941:

Australian destroyer Waterhen sunk in combined attack by German and Italian Ju-87s (Italian pilot Ennio Tarantola was credited with a near-miss that caused serious damage).

July 1941:

During Malta convoy operation, British destroyer Fearless sunk by SM79 torpedo bombers; British light cruiser Manchester damaged by SM79 torpedo bombers (38 killed, out of action nine months); British destroyer Firedrake damaged by Italian bomb (boilers and steering out, towed back to port); freighter Sydney Star torpedoed in attacks by MAS 532 and MAS 533, but reaches Malta.  Tanker Hoegh Hood (9,350 tons), returning to Gibraltar from Malta empty in simultaneous operation, hit by Italian torpedo plane but makes port.  British destroyer Defender sunk by Italian aircraft off Sidi Barrani. (3)  British sub Union sunk by destroyer escort Circe.  British sub Cachalot rammed and sunk by destroyer escort Papa.

August 1941:

British light cruiser Phoebe damaged by Italian torpedo plane (out of action eight months).  British sub P. 32 sunk by Italian mines while trying to enter port of Tripoli.  British sub P. 33 sunk in same area, presumably by Italian mines.  British tanker Desmoulea damaged by SM79 torpedo planes. Belgian tanker Alexandre Andre damaged by SM79 torpedo planes.   British tanker Turbo sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  British small armaments carrier Escaut sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  British netlayer Protector severely damaged by SM79 torpedo planes (out of action four years).

September 1941:

During Malta convoy operation, British battleship Nelson damaged by SM84 torpedo bombers (one torpedo hit, out of action six months); merchantman Imperial Star (12,000 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo planes.  British small tanker Fiona Shell, fleet oiler Denbydale, and merchantman Durham (11,000 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by “piloted torpedoes” launched from submarine Scire (however, Denbydale and Durham settled in shallow water and were both later recovered).

October 1941:

British merchantman (blockade runner to Malta) Empire Guillemot sunk by SM84 torpedo planes.  British sub Tetrarch presumed sunk by Italian mines off Sicily.

November 1941:

British merchantmen (blockade runners to Malta) Empire Defender and Empire Pelican sunk by Italian torpedo planes.  During sinking of “Duisburg” convoy, British destroyer Lively suffers minor splinter damage from near misses of 8-inch shells from Italian heavy cruisers.

December 1941:

British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, tanker Sagona, and destroyer Jervis (tied alongside Sagona for fueling) damaged at Alexandria by “piloted torpedoes” launched from sub Scire (Queen Elizabeth sank but settled in shallow water:  raised and repaired, out of action almost a year and a half.  Valiant out of action eight months.  Sagona henceforth used only as a stationary fuel bunker.  Jervis under repair one month).  British light cruiser Neptune, destroyer Kandahar sunk (only one survivor from Neptune!), light cruisers Aurora and Penelope damaged by mines laid by light cruisers of Italian 7th Division (Aurora out of action eight months). British destroyer Kipling suffers minor splinter damage from near misses (one man killed) during “First Battle of Sirte.”  Small British steamer Volo (1,500 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo bombers.

NOTES

(1) Italian SM79s also claimed the sinking of the British transport Homefield, however according to Shores et al (“The Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete”) the damage that resulted in this ship being scuttled was inflicted in a later attack by German Ju-88s.   Shores states that the Italian torpedo bombers which claimed a hit were mistaken, and that all damage resulted from (German) bomb hits.

(2) Italian torpedo bombers also claim to have fatally damaged British destroyer Hereward during the Crete battle.  Bragadin (“The Italian Navy in World War II”) repeats this claim, and also says that the badly-damaged Hereward was scuttled as Italian MAS torpedo boats approached.  Greene and Massignani (“The Naval War in the Mediterranean”) accept the account of Shores et al (op cit) that Hereward was hit by German Ju-87s (although, contrary to much of the book, Shores does not specify the exact unit or mission for the attacking aircraft), and refute Bragadin, Sadkovich, and others.  Shores does also note that survivors were picked up by Italian MAS boats, as do other British accounts.  My own conclusion is that the best evidence is for the ship being fatally damaged by German air attack, but that the Italians may be accorded a small role, as the appearance of the MAS probably prompted the decision to scuttle.

(3)  A number of accounts list this as a combined attack by German and Italian planes, but sources I consulted seemed to agree that Italian aircraft should get either full or partial credit for the sinking.

1942

January 1942:

British sub Triumph sunk, apparently by Italian mines off Greek island of Milo.

February 1942:

British sub Tempest sunk by Italian antisubmarine forces, including destroyer escort Circe.  British sub P. 38 sunk by Italian convoy escorts, again including Circe.  British sub Thresher badly damaged while attacking Italian convoy.

March 1942:

During Malta convoy operation (“second battle of Sirte”) British light cruiser Cleopatra hit by 6-inch shell from light cruiser Bande Nere (radio and antiaircraft fire director knocked out, 15 men killed:  splinters from near misses kill one more man); light cruiser Euryalus suffers splinter damage from near-miss by 15-inch shell from battleship Littorio; destroyer Kingston hit by 15-inch shell from Littorio (passes through ship without exploding, but kills 14, wounds 20, and starts a small fire); destroyer Havock hit by splinters of 15-inch shell from Littorio (seven killed, nine wounded, one boiler flooded); destroyer Lively hit by 15-inch splinters from Littorio (minor flooding, funnel on fire); destroyer Sikh straddled by 15-inch shells, but only minor damage. (4)  British destroyer Southwold sunk by Italian mine outside Malta.

April 1942:

British sub Upholder sunk by destroyer escort Pegaso.  British sub Urge sunk (exact cause uncertain, but all sources which cite cause agree it was to Italian action:  most probably Italian mines, possibly to destroyer escort Pegaso or to Italian aircraft).  British subs Pandora and P. 36 sunk by Italian bombers in raid on port at Malta.  British destroyer Havock torpedoed by sub Aradam, but only after it had been run aground, abandoned, and largely demolished by its crew. (5)

May 1942:

(None found?)

June 1942:

During Malta convoy operation, destroyer Bedouin sunk by SM79 torpedo plane, after having been heavily damaged in surface action by ships of Italian 7th Division (hit by 12 shells, mostly 6-inch, some of which passed through the ship without exploding); Dutch merchantman Tanimbar (8,000 tons) sunk by SM79 torpedo plane; British light cruiser Liverpool damaged by SM79 torpedo plane (towed back, out of action almost two years); freighter Burdwan and tanker Kentucky sunk by ships of Italian 7th Division (both had been badly damaged in previous air attacks); antiaircraft cruiser Cairo damaged in surface action with 7th Division (one armor-piercing 6-inch shell- used because the Italian light cruisers had run out of the more effective high-explosive ammunition- penetrates fuel bunker but fails to do fatal damage because it failed to explode); destroyer Partridge damaged by ships of 7th Division (stopped but gets under way again); minesweeper Hebe hit by one shell from ships of 7th Division (badly damaged).  (6)  British destroyer Nestor, badly damaged by German air attack but being towed back to port (SM79s also participated in that attack but scored no hits), is scuttled on appearance of more Italian aircraft due to the risk to the towing vessel.

July 1942:

Tanker Antares (Turkish but in British service) sunk by sub Alagi.  Small British freighters Meta, Shuma, Snipe, and Baron Douglas (total approx. 10,000 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by Italian “frogman” swimmers.

August 1942:

During major Malta convoy operation, British antiaircraft cruiser Cairo sunk, light cruiser Nigeria damaged (52 killed, severe structural damage), and tanker Ohio (10,000 tons) damaged by sub Axum (Ohio stopped and on fire, but fires are extinguished by water pouring in through large torpedo hole in its side!); light cruiser Manchester sunk by large torpedo boats MS 16 and MS 22 (each scored one hit); destroyer Foresight sunk by SM79 torpedo bomber; freighter Glenorchy (9,000 tons) sunk by large torpedo boat MS 31; freighter Wairangi (12,400 tons) sunk by torpedo boat MAS 552; freighter Almeria Lykes (7,700 tons) sunk by torpedo boat MAS 554; freighter Santa Elisa (8,300 tons) sunk by torpedo boat MAS 557; freighter Empire Hope (12,600 tons) sunk by sub Bronzo after being severely damaged by (German) air attack and abandoned;  light cruiser Kenya damaged (three killed, one wounded; sonar knocked out and extensive flooding- however, the ship remained with the convoy) by sub Alagi; freighter Rochester Castle (7,800 tons) damaged by torpedo boat MAS 564, but makes it to Malta; aircraft carrier Victorious hit by two 1,386-lb bombs by Re2001 fighter-bombers, but one bounces over the side before exploding, other one does minor damage to flight deck (six killed, two wounded); aircraft carrier Indomitable hit by one 220-lb bomb by CR42 fighter-bomber which does minimal damage to flight deck; battleship Rodney hit by one bomb by Italian Ju-87s, but it bounces off main gun turret before exploding and does no damage; tanker Ohio damaged again by near-miss from Italian Ju-87, which buckles bow plates and causes more flooding; freighter Port Chalmers hit on paravane of minesweeping gear by torpedo from SM79, but this is cut loose and the torpedo explodes underwater, causing no damage.  (7)  British destroyer Eridge damaged beyond repair by MTM small assault torpedo boats off North African coast (towed back to Alexandria but written off). British sub Thorn sunk by destroyer escort Pegaso.

September 1942:

During foiled large-scale commando raid on Tobruk, British destroyer Sikh sunk and destroyer Zulu badly damaged by combined fire of Italian and German shore batteries (Zulu later sunk by air attack); British torpedo boats MTB 308, MTB 310, MTB 312, were sunk and MTB 314 was captured [She was later used by the Germans] in same raid, along with two motor launches, by Italian MC200 fighter-bombers and/or Italian shore batteries.  (8)  British small freighter Raven’s Point sunk at Gibraltar by Italian swimmers.

October 1942:

(None found?)

November 1942:

British sub Utmost sunk by destroyer escort Groppo.  British sloop Ibis sunk by Italian torpedo plane.  British auxiliary antiaircraft ship Tynwald and troopship Awatea (13,400 tons) sunk by submarine Argo (Awatea had previously been heavily damaged by bombing).  (9)  British minesweeper Algerine sunk by submarine Asciangi.  British minesweeper Cromer sunk by Italian mines off Mersa Matruh.  French tanker Tarn damaged by sub Dandolo but makes port.

December 1942:

British destroyer Quentin sunk by SM79 torpedo bomber.  British corvette Marigold sunk by Italian torpedo planes.  British sub P. 222 sunk by destroyer escort Fortunale.  British sub P. 48 sunk by destroyer escorts Ardente and Ardito.  British sub P. 311 sunk by Italian mines outside port of Maddalena.  British light cruiser Argonaut hit by two torpedoes from sub Mocenigo (only three men killed, but out of action eleven months).  Small Norwegian freighter Berto (1,400 tons) sunk, freighters Ocean Vanquisher

(7,000 tons), Empire Centaur (7,000 tons), and Armattan (4,500 tons) damaged in port at Algiers by “piloted torpedoes” and swimmers launched from sub Ambra.

NOTES

4) There are many conflicting reports of damage inflicted at Second Sirte. The above reflects only what I have been able to verify from sources on the British side.  The Italians believed they had also damaged light cruiser Penelope and destroyers Lance and Legion, and at least one British source I consulted also gives this information.  On the other hand, the British thought they had torpedoed battleship Littorio and hit light cruiser Bande Nere and an unidentified heavy cruiser, when in actuality they only scored one hit, a 120mm (4.7-inch) shell which struck Littorio doing minimal damage.  The fog of war was apparently very thick in this battle (literally, given the effective British use of smokescreens), as the Italians thought that Kingston had been hit by a heavy cruiser, variously reported as Trento or Gorizia, and some Italian accounts also credit Trento (not Bande Nere) with having hit Cleopatra.

(5)  Italian accounts almost unanimously reverse the cause and effect, saying that Havock was first torpedoed, and then beached- including eyewitness reports from the crew of Aradam, which surfaced and reported seeing the British destroyer on fire.  I have accepted the British version, not necessarily incompatible with that eyewitness testimony.

(6) There are claims that Burdwan was crippled by Italian SM84s which were mistakenly reported as German planes.  Kentucky was eventually finished off by the guns of light cruiser Montecuccoli and a torpedo from destroyer Oriani.

(7) Great confusion surrounds the August 12 night action against the “Pedestal” convoy, which is perhaps understandable given repeated attacks by Italian submarines and various Axis aircraft, sometimes virtually overlapping, over a period of about two hours.  Sadkovich (op cit, p. 292-296, citing several other sources) mentions Italian claims that freighter Brisbane Star was hit by Italian sub Dessie (a claim often repeated but now generally considered to have been in error, the sub’s crew probably having heard the successful torpedo hits of Axum and assumed they were their own); that the sub Alagi also hit the freighter Clan Ferguson  (this is far more plausible, but as Sadkovich times the attack at 21:18, while Clan Ferguson with its load of ammunition had been reported hit by a German He-111 torpedo plane at 21:02, the ship would have already been abandoned, on fire, and rapidly sinking when this occurred);  and that sub Bronzo also crippled Glenorchy (this ship was at any rate credited to Italian action, as it was confirmed sunk by an Italian torpedo boat later that night).  Sadkovich also claims that Italian Ju-87s hit destroyer Ashanti while attacking Ohio on August 13, but I have been unable to find any other reference which verifies this, or indeed that Ashanti was damaged at all during “Pedestal” (the ship was providing close escort to Ohio at a time when Italian Ju-87s scored a near-miss, and was heavily engaged). Other sources mention Brisbane Star as having been torpedoed by an SM79 (a possibility, since there were only seven He-111 torpedo planes involved in the German air attack- the other German aircraft being 30 Ju-88s armed with bombs- and these already appear to have accounted for Clan Ferguson, the previously-damaged Deucalion, and possibly Empire Hope, which had a 15-foot hole in its side that sounds like a torpedo hit.  However, I have not come across anything that gives more specifics on any Italian planes involved in these air attacks), and still other sources list Deucalion as a victim of Italian rather than German torpedo planes (probably an error).  British destroyer Wolverine had its bows badly damaged when it rammed and sank Italian sub Dagabur with all hands, but I hesitate to classify that as “damage inflicted by the Italians,” given the circumstances.

(8) Again, it is difficult to decipher exactly who did what in this action. By the best accounts, Sikh was hit twice by a German 88mm battery and took at least three more shells of unknown origin.  From accounts of those aboard, the best reconstruction of its fate seems to be that the ship was crippled by the German guns and then finished off by the Italian (152mm). Zulu was probably hit by an Italian battery.  The exact identity of the aircraft that sank Zulu also remains unclear.  Many Italian sources credit MC200 fighter-bombers.  The MC200s definitely did effectively bomb and strafe British motor torpedo boats, claiming to sink three and badly damage a fourth.  Another four British torpedo boats were claimed by Italian shore batteries.  British reported losses of small craft, as seen above, were four torpedo boats and two motor launches.

(9) Italian SM79 torpedo bombers also claimed Awatea in the original air attacks, but most accounts have it set afire by German Ju-88s.

1943

January 1943:

British corvette Samphire sunk by sub Platino.

February 1943:

British minesweeping trawler Tervani sunk by sub Accaio.

March 1943:

British sub Turbulent sunk either by Italian anti-submarine trawler or by Italian mines outside La Maddalena.  British sub Thunderbolt sunk by corvette Cicogna.

April 1943:

British destroyer Pakenham sunk as a result of gun battle with destroyer escorts Cassiopea and Cigno (Cigno was also sunk in this encounter). British sub Sahib sunk by corvette Gabbiano (after being attacked by German Ju-88s).  British torpedo boat MTB 639 sunk by destroyer escort Sagittario.

May 1943:

Freighters Pat Harrison (7,000 tons), Marhsud (7,500 tons), and Camerata (4,800 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by “piloted torpedoes” operated from derelict freighter Olterra (interned by Spanish at nearby Algeciras and converted by Italians into secret base for missions against Gibraltar).  British minelayer Fantome sunk by Italian mines off Bizerte.

June 1943:

(None found?)

July 1943:

During invasion of Sicily, British carrier Indomitable seriously damaged by SM79 torpedo plane (out of action seven months); British light cruiser Cleopatra damaged by sub Dandolo (out of action four months); US transport Timothy Pickering sunk by Re2002s (166 killed, including British troops aboard); US transport Joseph G Cannon damaged by Re2002s (hit by bomb which failed to explode, returned to Malta); British torpedo boat MTB 316 sunk by light cruiser Scipione Africano; sub Flutto inflicts 17 casualties before being sunk in surface battle with British torpedo boats MTB 640, MTB 651, and MTB 670.  Greek steamship Orion (4,800 tons) sunk by mine planted by Italian swimmer in neutral Turkish harbor one week earlier (the swimmer, Lt. Luigi Ferraro, smuggled in by undercover agents of naval intelligence, as were the mines).  Freighter Kaituna (4,900 tons) damaged by mine placed by same swimmer (Ferraro mined two other ships which were saved by underwater inspections after British found a second unexploded mine on Kaituna).

August 1943:

Tanker Thorshoud (10,000 tons), freighter Harrison Grey Otis (7,000 tons), and freighter Stanbridge (6,000 tons) sunk at Gibraltar by “piloted torpedoes” from Olterra.  British sub Saracen sunk by corvettes Minerva and Euterpe.

September 1943:

(none found?)

French Ships

See below.  My comments marked *.

– French “super-destroyer” Albatros hit by 6-inch shell from Italian coastal battery during bombardment of Genoa (ten men killed).

* 14/6/40: the “contre-torpilleur” Albatros was indeed hit by a 152mm round from the Pegli coastal battery; 12 men in all died from burn wounds.

– Small freighter Elgo (1,900 tons) sunk by sub Capponi while en route to a French North African port.

* 22/6/40: the Elgo was a Swedish freighter going from Tunis to Sfax.

– Small French steamer Cheik (1,000 tons) sunk by sub Scire.

* 10/7/40: torpedoed by error on the Marseille-Alger route; 13 men missing.  I suppose this does not count as a legitimate sinking since the Franco-Italian armistice was already in effect.  The Italian sub rescued the survivors, later repatriated to Corsica on board Italian minesweeper Argo.

* Other reported incidents involving Vichy French vessels in the Mediterranean:

* Note: there could be more cases, but the attacker often remains unidentified, or no damage was done.

* 13/9/40: a French convoy (11 merchantmen) drifted a bit from its Bone-Marseille route and entered an Italian minefield near San Pietro (Sardinia).  The liner Cap Tourane struck a mine first but kept afloat; 3 dead and 17 missing among military passengers.  The freighter Cassidaigne, coming to help, then struck a mine too and sank rapidly.   Finally, the freighter Ginette-Leborgne, bringing up the rear of the convoy, suffered the same fate.  No other casualties are reported.

* 28/7/41: Tunisian sail-ship Sidi Fredg attacked by 3 Italian seaplanes (somewhere between Nabeul and Korba); 2 wounded, ship abandoned, later retrieved.

UK Losses in the Mediterranean

The UK losses in the Mediterranean for the duration of the war were 41 submarines and 175 surface warships of all types. So, the impact of Italian Navy and Italian/German aircraft was not small.

Coincidently the surface ships lost in the Atlantic also amounted to 175 of all types (the Japanese accounted for another 50).

I do not denigrate the Italian war effort, but emphasise that their surface combats between Warships (not MTB’s etc) could have been more effective.

Figures are from “Standard of Power”, Dan Van Der Vat.

Italian Chances

The Italian pre-war doctrine was very similar to that of the USN. Their ships were designed to fight long-range (20,000 yards plus) gunnery duels. The Italians practiced this doctrine almost exclusively. Thus, their ships were designed with extremely long, high-velocity guns to give great range. However, this gave the guns extremely short barrel lives for modern designs, as much as a third of their foes. Barrel life has a significant effect on accuracy, especially if the individual guns have different wear. Further, the Italians had poor production standards in both shells (weight) and powder. This further exacerbated gunnery calculations. All this was then combined with optics that were not designed with good water resistance – but the same optics were also usually mounted too low and were, thus, extremely wet! Taken in concert, the resulting gunfire, under wartime conditions, produced patterns with great variations in dispersion, which greatly affected the chance to hit, especially at long range! Thus, the Italians went to war with a doctrine that was all but assured to fail – but they did not know it! Of course, neither did anybody else!

Another serious factor was the fact that the new Littorio class battleships, which had a new and marvelous torpedo defense system in theory, found that it was seriously flawed in actual practice. Thus, their newest and most powerful warships were prone to suffering severe underwater damage at inopportune times.

One the Italians became aware of these two serious issues, it was 1941, and they found themselves with a navy that was designed to fight in a fashion that it could not, really, succeed at. Add a severe fuel crunch into the mix, and you can see why the Italians ended up relying on small craft.

#

“For Vittorio Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy [Mach Pari tra due grande flotte Mediterraneo, 1940-1942], the naval war was a “match pari”– a draw– between the British and the Italians, and this seems a reasonable judgement.  While Supermarina (1) certainly made errors, and cooperation with the air force was not perfect, in the spring of 1941, the RMI understood the need to occupy Tunisia, and it pressed for the seizure of Malta in 1941 and 1942. Had Supermarina been able to use Tunis and Bizerte, and had the Germans aided their ally as generously as the United States did theirs (2), the war would probably have run a different course.  Certainly, the Italian navy cannot be blamed for the failure of Hitler and OKW to appreciate the importance of the Mediterranean, and it is clear that the British held crucial technological and intelligence advantages in their struggle with Italy (3).

        Yet Italy was the major Axis player in the Mediterranean, and it was the Italian navy and air force, with only sporadic help from their German ally, that stymied the British navy and air force for most of the thirty-nine months that Italy was a belligerent.  To pretend otherwise is to raise propaganda to the level of reasoned analysis, just as to explain the RMI’s defeat by culling criticism regarding Italian competence from German and British sources is to credit racist prejudice as objective observation. All navies made mistakes, and all navies had personnel who were bureaucratic, marginally competent, prone to error, and individually unpalatable, but to criticize Iachino as cowardly for not entering British smokescreens while praising Cunningham’s decisions to avoid Italian smokescreens as prudent is to apply a pernicious double standard. If Vian is to be praised for avoiding Iachino in the two battles of Sirte Gulf, then Campioni should also be praised for avoiding Cunningham and Somerville at Punta Stilo and Cape Teulada (4).  And if so much is made of the few convoys that managed to reach Malta, much more should be made of the many that kept the Axis war effort in Africa alive by repeatedly braving attack by aircraft, submarine, and surface vessel.  If doomed by its technical weaknesses and Ultra, the Italian navy still fought a tenacious, and gallant, war; and if it did not win its war, it avoided defeat for thirty-nine long, frustrating months.”

        (1) Supermarina was naval command, the central headquarters for the RMI.

        (2) In the previous paragraph, Sadkovich had mentioned that “between 1940 and 1942, the United States supplied Britain with over 11,000 aircraft, far more than the few squadrons of Ju.87s sold Italy by Germany.”

        (3) the chief intelligence advantage was of course Ultra, which from the spring of 1941 proved invaluable in locating and harassing Italian convoys to North Africa.

        (4) Sadkovich’s point here is that at Punta da Stilo and Cape Teulada the Italians were the inferior force and should be given credit for being able to disengage more or less intact.  An assertion open to argument, perhaps, but not too much of a stretch.  At Punta da Stilo (Jul ’40) Cunningham had three 15-inch gun battleships (Warspite, Malaya, Royal Sovereign) plus a carrier (Eagle), while Campioni had the two small battleships Cesare and Cavour (also the oldest in the Italian navy), which had 12.6-inch guns.  The Italians did possess a considerable advantage in cruisers– six heavy and a dozen light compared to five cruisers total for the British– but in a long-range gun battle, which was essentially what

Punta da Stilo was, the characterization of Campioni as being at a disadvantage is pretty accurate.  At Cape Teulada (Nov ’40) the British had two forces which managed to unite, giving them the battleship Ramillies, battlecruiser Renown (both with 15-inch guns), carrier Ark Royal, five large cruisers, and ten destroyers. Campioni had battleships Vittorio Veneto (15-in) and Cesare (12.6-in), six heavy cruisers, and 14 destroyers.  So again, it is not unreasonable to say the advantage lay with the British.  Furthermore, Campioni was under very restrictive orders—he was no to move beyond the range of land-based air cover from Sardinia, and he was not to risk what remained of the Italian fleet (this encounter occurred less than three weeks after the raid on Taranto) unless he had a clear superiority. Personally, although there is much to be said about the Italians in these two encounters–for starters, they did come out and face arguably superior British battle fleets on both occasions, something their critics frequently say they were too “afraid” to do, even when they had an advantage that was definitely lacking in these examples–I would choose as the Italian counterpart to the escapes of Vian at the two Sirte battles (albeit on a smaller scale) the incident in May 1941 wherein the Italian destroyer escort Sagitario, escorting 30 small vessels carrying German mountain troops to Crete, held off a British force of five cruisers and three destroyers, and saved the convoy.

James Sadkovich – The Italian Navy in World War II

This revisionist history convincingly argues that the Regia Marina Italiana (the Royal Italian Navy) has been neglected and maligned in assessments of its contributions to the Axis effort in World War II. After all, Italy was the major Axis player in the Mediterranean, and it was the Italian navy and air force, with only sporadic help from their German ally, that stymied the British navy and air force for most of the thirty-nine months that Italy was a belligerent. It was the Royal Italian Navy that provided the many convoys that kept the Axis war effort in Africa alive by repeatedly braving attack by aircraft, submarine, and surface vessels. If doomed by its own technical weaknesses and Ultra (the top-secret British decoding device), the Italian navy still fought a tenacious and gallant war; and if it did not win that war, it avoided defeat for thirty-nine, long, frustrating months.

James Sandkovich: The Italian Navy in World War Ii, ed. Westport. 1994 (In Rome, at the Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare, Mr.Sandkovich epic activity looking for documents which were used for this very documented work is still a legend. He arrived to buy a personal Xerox machine to copy the various files he needed without having so to wait for the official copy service and presented it at the Ufficio Storico – where they consider it quite a monument in loving memory – after a year of continuous activity, almost night and day).

Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani, The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943, July 15, 2011 Updated and Revised.

This was the first [1998] English-language account of the naval war to take advantage of the research in all languages to provide a comprehensive record of fighting in the Mediterranean during World War II. Far more than an operational history, it explains why the various warship classes were built and employed, the role of the Italian Air Force at sea, the successes of German planes and U-boats, the importance of the battle of Malta, and the distrustful relationship between the Italians and Germans.

Period photographs and detailed maps illustrate the realities of war at sea and provide a clear visual record of the war’s key events in the Mediterranean theater. With its in-depth background information, exhaustive research, and fascinating narrative, this book is essential reading for those interested in World War II.

Marc’Antonio Bragadin, The Italian Navy in World War II, Annapolis 1957 (It is dated but is the only one which can give you the right idea of what were the actual opinions at Supermarina – The Royal Italian Navy H.Q. – during the war)

Cdr. Junio Valerio Borghese, Sea Devils, Chicago 1954, reprinted 2009 by the Naval Institute Press.

Erminio Bagnasco and Mark Grossman, Regia marina, Italian battleships of World War Two ed. Pictorial Histories Publ. Co. Missolula, Montana (good photos, excellent drawings and a concise but authoritative text); Erminio Bagnasco is also the author of “Submarines of World War Two”, ed. U.S. Naval Institute (there’s a German version too)

Aldo Fraccaroli, Italian Warship of World War Two, ed. Ian Allan, London, 1967 (a precious pocket book with the right description and data of all the Italian Warships of the last world war).

A.Santoni/F.Mattesini “La partecipazione tedesca alla guerra aeronavale nel Mediterraneo (1940-1945)”

Though about the Germans, could perhaps be useful for contested hits. The authors wrote it (25 years ago) to prove that, compared with the Germans’, the Italian Navy and Air Force achievements in the Mediterranean War were poor: this against some Italian authors who over-estimated or over-exalted them, not for anti-national feelings (btw Santoni was teacher of Naval History at the Italian Navy’s Naval Academy).

G. Giorgerini “Uomini sul fondo” and “La Guerra Italiana sul mare”.

Giorgerini’s first book is a history of the Italian Navy submarine branch (a good work, very objective if not even a little bit too severe with our submariners in some judgements), the other one is a general overview of the Italian Navy’s WWII (the book is recent and, well researched, a good work too).

The Rivista Marittima (the Italian Naval staff monthly since 1868) has got, at the end of its various articles a summary in English, German, French and Spanish. It’available on the web at

http://www.marina.difesa.it/rivista/index.htm while the e-mail is maririvista@marina.difesa.it

and the address is: Via dell’Acqua Traversa 151 00135 ROMA. You may have the 11 numbers of the year and the 12 “supplementi” (separate books inclusive of the service).

With a bit of will and a good dictionary (The Associazione Navimodellisti Bolognesi, C.P. 976 40100 Bologna, may let you have, with their catalogue formed by more than 2.200 drawings of ships, weapons and boats based on the original projects of the Italian ships since XIX to XXI century a concise but very useful technical Naval dictionary in English, German and French) Italian language is not a too much difficult obstacle for naval matters and it may give you quite a lot of surprises.