The Italian–Turkish War 1911–12 – Qunfudha Bay [Kunfuda Bay]

Italy and Turkey went to war in 1911, with Italian forces invading Libya. Turkey mounted more resistance than had been anticipated, leading to a broadening out of the war. This was notably so with conflict in the Aegean, which led to the Italian conquest of Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese and to Italian torpedo boats entering the Dardanelles. Italian warships also attacked the Hejaz, the Turkish part of Arabia. The maps locate the war and show Italian warships as victorious at the battle of Cunfida or Al Qunfudha Bay, 1912, the largest naval battle of the war. Naval bombardment of Turkish coastal positions is also shown. On 7 January 1912, the Italian cruiser Piemonte and the destroyers Garibaldino and Artigliere which had been searching for the Turkish Red Sea squadron found it in Cunfida Bay. In spite of shallow waters, the narrow entrance to the bay, and the opposition from coastal batteries, the Italian ships attacked and easily destroyed seven gunships out of the eight vessels composing the squadron. The eighth, the armed yacht Shipka, was captured and added to the Italian Red Sea squadron.

The Idrisi’s rebellion in `Asir had effectively driven the Turks from most of the country by the end of 1910. Abha, however, held out and the governor and an Ottoman garrison were bottled up. Attempts by Ottoman forces coming up from the Yemeni coastal town of Hodaida to relieve Abha were unsuccessful, and there was a real chance that the besieged town would fall into rebel hands, with the Ottomans unable to mount a relief expedition or to convince the Idrisi to accept some form of autonomy under Ottoman suzerainty. There was no alternative for the Istanbul government but to ask Sharif Hussein to lead an expedition against the Idrisi and to re-establish Ottoman authority. The Porte sent two battalions of regular Ottoman troops with artillery to join Hussein’s force of five thousand armed Bedouins and militia. On 15 April 1911 Hussein, together with his two sons `Abdullah and Faisal, marched out of Mecca to relieve Abha.

One of the columns, about three thousand strong and led by `Abdullah, with Faisal in charge of the cavalry and the sharifian units, had reached the town of Qunfudha on the way to Abha. The weather was scorching hot and the land scape bleak and desolate. The column was ambushed by the Idrisi forces in a place called Quz Aba al’Ir. In the ensuing battle that lasted six hours, both sides suffered heavy losses, but the Idrisi had the better of `Abdullah, who was obliged to retreat to Qunfudha with a greatly reduced force. Regrouping, the force, now stiffened with about 1,200 regular Ottoman troops, once more left Qunfudha fifteen days later. They met the Idrisi near the site of the earlier battle. Intense fighting ensued, in which Faisal led his cavalry against one of the Idrisi columns trying to break the relief force’s formations, and routed them. The second battle was decided in favour of the combined Ottoman and sharifian forces, but another enemy laid them waste: cholera. A third of the relief force came down with the dreaded disease, which disproportionately affected Turkish troops with their reduced immunity. Faisal later related the extent of the disease’s devastation. He ordered one of his sentries to shout out that the enemy was near. The call was carried into the tents, but out of a force of nearly seven thou sand only five hundred were able to get up and prepare themselves for battle. Faisal could only thank God that in fact there was no enemy in the vicinity.

The two battles of Quz showed both the courage and cruelty of the regular Ottoman troops. Their reprisals against innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the Idrisi were fearsome, and the burning of people alive, the impaling, mutilations and beheadings all profoundly disturbed Faisal. It was an early exposure to the horrors of war. Such dreadful scenes would multiply during the Arab Revolt.

Hussein’s forces finally entered Abha on 16 and 17 July 1911. The Idrisi forces fled to the mountains, but the `Asir campaign did not end the rebellion. The Idrisi’s influence on the tribes did not diminish and he continued to rule from his headquarters in Sabia, biding his time for another uprising. Nevertheless, Sharif Hussein could claim victory as he did lift the siege of Abha. His forces had done their fair share of fighting and the Istanbul government acknowledged his help in containing the threat of the Idrisi’s secession in `Asir by awarding him medals. Sharif Hussein, `Abdullah and Faisal returned to Ta’if in triumph in August 1911. Faisal, however, was carried on a litter. He had contracted malaria towards the end of the campaign, which debilitated him for a long time afterwards.

The confrontation with the Idrisi took another turn when the Italians declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 29 September 1911. Italy had coveted the Ottoman provinces of Libya ever since they had dreamed of an Italian overseas empire to rival that of Rome and put Italy on the same footing as other western imperial powers. On the pretext of the Ottomans’ `mistreatment’ of the Italian colony in Tripoli, the Italians invaded and occupied the coastal areas. The interior, however, continued to resist. The Idrisi took immediate advantage of this Italian declaration of war. The Italians promised him financial, military and logistical support. The Italian navy controlled the Red Sea and freely attacked Ottoman coastal installations. The port of Luhayya was besieged by the Italian navy from the sea and by the Idrisi’s forces on land. Elsewhere the Idrisi took over the important town of Jizan, which the Ottomans had evacuated. He then concentrated on cutting the Ottoman lines of communication between the `Asir and the Hijaz, and with the sea route blocked the Ottomans had little means of confronting the renewed challenge from the Idrisi. For the second time, they called on Sharif Hussein to help them in their predicament. Hussein agreed and this time put Faisal in charge of the campaign.

Faisal rode out at the head of a force of 1,500 Bedouins and 400 irregular troops of the sharif ‘s own private army (the bisha) and a Turkish- financed mercenary force of tribal Arabs from the Qasim area (the `uqail). The `uqail fighters only rode female camels on their expeditions, while the bisha mainly comprised people of African origin, that is, freed slaves. They were paid from the sharif ‘s own resources and were entirely loyal to him. They were frequently used for escorting pilgrim caravans. Faisal’s force reached Qunfudha and joined up with two Ottoman battalions that were already in the town. The Idrisi was also assembling his army in the area of Qunfudha in preparation for the expected battle. The Italian navy had sent its warships to support the Idrisi with their guns and to land Italian troops into Qunfudha. A fierce battle ensued between Faisal and the Turks and the Idrisi’s army supported by the Italian naval guns. The Italians abandoned the landing of their troops when the Idrisi was defeated on land, and fled the battlefield with the remnants of his troops. 30 In spite of Faisal’s military victory, the Qunfudha encounter did not eliminate the threat from the Idrisi. Faisal returned to Mecca, and the Idrisi continued in his activities against the Ottomans. The peace treaty that ended the Italian war in October 1912 left the Idrisi in his position and later Ottoman attempts to come to terms with him led nowhere. The situation in `Asir at the outbreak of the First World War had not fundamentally changed since 1912. But the Italians gained Tripoli, which the Ottomans had to concede to face a far bigger threat that broke out in September 1912: the First Balkan War.

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ITALY IN WORLD WAR I (1915–1918)

The Italian Army was large, consisting of some 850,000 soldiers, and based on a conscription system, but there were severe problems with both equipment and training. The officers were still recruited from a fairly narrow regional base and there was an inherent lack of professionalism in their general approach.

Italy adhered to the pact of London on 26 April 1915 and declared war on Austria-Hungary (but not on Germany) on 23 May. The Italian army was not fully prepared for war in Europe, and indeed was still heavily committed in Libya. It was short of 13,500 officers. Although it mobilised 1.2 million men, it had equipment for only 732,000. The problems of its war economy were comparable with those of Russia: it was not a fully industrialised power. In 1912-13, the army had been allocated 47 per cent of state spending, and since 1862 it had received an average of 17.4 per cent. However, Italy’s backwardness meant that the actual sums were small. Its re-equipment with quick-firing field artillery had just been completed, but it was short of heavier pieces and of mountain guns. The latter were particularly relevant, given the battlefield it now faced.

Although King Victor Emanuel was nominally Commander in Chief, the Italian Chief of General Staff and de facto commander was General Luigi Cadorna. Born in 1850, Cadorna had demonstrated considerable abilities as an administrative staff officer and was widely respected as a theoretical military strategist, although he had no relevant experience as a field commander. The lower ranks of his army were largely drawn from peasant stock and were dogged by high levels of illiteracy, which hampered the development of good NCOs. However, they would demonstrate a tough resilience to both harsh conditions and severe casualties on active service.

The standard infantry weapon was the magazine-charged 6.5 mm bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano rifle which dated back to 1891. It proved hard-wearing and its lighter calibre made it eminently suited to the mountainous regions where much of the fighting would occur. They were also equipped with Fiat-Revelli machine guns, which proved perfectly sound weapons – the problem was the paucity of their numbers in service condition. Even worse was the shortage of modern artillery. The most common field guns were the 75 mm Krupp or Deport models, with a number of 65 mm mountain guns which could be broken down to be transported by mules in rough country. But again there were simply too few of them, while heavy artillery was also in scarce supply. The Italians had none of the high-trajectory mortars that were so essential in mountain warfare. Throughout the years that followed the Italians would be desperate for artillery support from their British and French allies. Nevertheless, the Italian Army deployed in the field in May 1915 thirty-six infantry divisions in fourteen corps, in contrast to the paltry six divisions of the BEF in 1914. And so, the Italian entry into the war was a considerable blow to the Central Powers.

Of all the fronts of the First World War the Italian was the most ill suited for offensive operations, or indeed for any form of war at all. The frontier with Austria-Hungary was 600 km long, and four-fifths of it was made up of mountains. Several peaks rose above 3,000m; in the winter they were covered with ice and snow, and explosions could set off avalanches. In the summer the rock made entrenching impossible and sent off jagged splinters when hit by shellfire. Its northern sector was dominated by the Austro-Hungarian salient of Tyrol and the Trentino. Here Italy’s task was to hold the passes to prevent the Austrians from debouching onto the Venetian plain. As the frontier moved east it formed a fresh, Italian salient, bounded to the north by the Dolomites and the Carinthian Alps. It then swung due south following the line of the River Isonzo as it made its way to the Adriatic. Even here the Italians were going uphill, in the face of good fields of fire, but this was the logical sector on which to attack. It was the shortest route to Trieste and Ljubljana. Cadorna deployed fourteen of his thirty-five divisions along its 100 km.

Italy’s entry to the war caused less panic in Austria-Hungary than it ought to have done. The addition of a third front to an empire which a year before had embarked on a short war on one could only stretch its resources to breaking point. But in the pre-war years Conrad von Hötzendorff had suggested a pre-emptive strike against Italy almost as often as against Serbia. Its treachery in not honouring its alliance obligations confirmed that – in Conrad’s words – it was ‘a snake whose head has not been crushed in time’.28 The prospect of war with Italy revitalised the Dual Monarchy. Slovenes, Croats and Serbs could rally against a common enemy, and the success at Gorlice-Tarnow was well timed in relieving the most obvious pressure on the empire. Under pressure from Falkenhayn to give priority to the east and not to divert forces to the Italian front, the Austrians fought defensively – and did so successfully and with determination. ‘Will you tell me’, Enzo Valentino, an eighteen-year-old volunteer from Perugia, asked his mother from the front on 3 September, ‘why you persist in imagining and believing a lot of things which I do not write to you? … To be always going forward, and soon to be about to make a great advance? I have never heard anything of all this. As to advancing, it is now a month and a half that I have been up here and always in the same place.’ In the same letter he reported the first fall of the snow. Seven weeks later he was killed by shrapnel fire, an edelweiss in his cap, as he ran forward, shouting ‘Savoia, Savoia, Italia’. Or at least that was what Captain Carlo Mayo told his mother. In four battles on the Isonzo in 1915 alone the Italians made no appreciable progress, suffering 235,000 casualties, of whom 54,000 were dead.

Italy’s decision to participate in the war that broke out in August 1914 was a matter of acute calculation of the country’s best interests. When war broke out, Italy was joined in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria. Seen by the Italian government as purely defensive, the treaty promised Italy’s assistance to Germany and Austria should either be the victim of an attack. As Austria’s displeasure mounted concerning Serbian aggrandizement at Turkey’s expense in the Balkan Wars, Italy made clear that the Triple Alliance would never be a license for Austria to engage in aggressive war against the Serbs. Thus, when the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand led to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Italy—claiming that the Triple Alliance’s conditions had not been met—declared its neutrality, while Serbia’s and Austria’s allies mobilized for what each thought would be a swift war resolving outstanding problems of national aspirations, imperial ambition, and the settling of scores.

It soon became clear that the most an Austrian victory might yield to Italy would be concessions in Africa (perhaps Tunisia, French since 1830). But a French victory over Austria and Germany could mean that territories such as the Trentino might become Italian. Neutrality, the policy favored by Giovanni Giolitti, might favor either Austria or Serbia at war’s end but certainly not Italy. The decisive factor was the desire to establish Italian credentials as a power and to take part in establishing the postwar equilibrium. Thus, the Treaty of London of April 1915 formalized Italian entry into the war as an ally of France and Britain. It was accepted by the Italian Parliament only after Gabriele D’Annunzio and other nationalists had manipulated crowds in the public squares of Italy to rout opposition opinion that, in fact, held the majority in Parliament.

War fever, however, was followed by bloody reality. Hostilities in some of Europe’s highest mountains could not have begun at a worse time. Russian forces had suffered defeats that obliged them to withdraw from (Austrian) Galicia, thus freeing Vienna to reinforce its positions in the Alps and in Friuli. In 1916, the Austrian Strafexpedition in the Trentino caused the government of Antonio Salandra to fall. By the summer of 1917, 11 bloody but indecisive battles at the Isonzo River had been fought on a 96-kilometer (60-mile) front and had advanced Italian forces barely 16 kilometers (10 miles) toward Trieste. When the Austrians learned of a massive Italian offensive being planned by General Luigi Cadorna for the spring of 1918, they sought, and received, assistance from their German ally in the form of experienced troops and officers. The 12th battle of the Isonzo, begun in October 1917, ended at Caporetto, where the Italian line broke.

Rumors of a rout became self-fulfilling. It was only at the Piave River that the line finally held. British and French reinforcements soon arrived and enabled the Italian army to counterattack with a vengeance, driving Austria to ask for an armistice after a stunning defeat at Vittorio Veneto in October 1918, at which the Italians took more than 400,000 prisoners. The armistice came on 3 November 1918, eight days before the armistice on the Western Front. In all, Italy lost 650,000 killed or missing during the war, less than the terrible sacrifices made by France and Germany, but comparable with Great Britain. Half a million men were permanently disabled.

The war also reduced respect for Parliament and for the liberals who controlled it. The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor heightened social tension. Moreover, many returning veterans found that even the newer engineering and metallurgical industries, made rich by the conflict, now faced shrinking markets and needed no new workers. Thus, not only were social divisions sharper than they remembered, but the consequent bitter tensions did not stand comparison with the comradeship of the military life. All of these factors contributed to the rise of Fascism.

British in Egypt 1940

Officers of the 11th Hussars in a Morris CS9 armoured car use a parasol to give shade while out patrolling on the Libyan frontier, 26 July 1940.

On 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on the United Kingdom. As soon as they heard the news the three Commanders-in-Chief set in motion their plans for striking the enemy. Disparity of strengths was great. Wavell had some 36,000 men in Egypt, but they were neither properly organized nor equipped. 7th Armoured Division had only four regiments of tanks; 4th Indian Division was short of a brigade and of artillery; the New Zealand Division amounted only to a brigade group. In Palestine were 27,500 troops but of these only one British brigade and two battalions were equipped and trained; in any case these units were earmarked either for duty in Iraq or for internal security in Palestine. East Africa was even more lightly garrisoned–a British brigade in the Sudan, two East African brigades in Kenya, and a mere 1,500 local troops in British Somaliland. Against this, and bearing in mind that the fall of France removed the threat from Tunisia and Algeria altogether, Marshal Graziani had about a quarter of a million men in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, whilst in Italian East Africa the Duke of Aosta commanded a total, white and native, of nearly 300,000 soldiers. As we shall see it was not numbers which worried Wavell. What he lacked was fully trained, properly organized and equipped formations. Without these, battles could not be fought.

Nevertheless on 8 June 1940 General Richard O’Connor took command of all forces in the Western Desert. Wavell had already given orders that offensive action against the Italians at the frontier with Egypt would be taken immediately war was declared, so that Western Desert Force was in action three days after receiving its new commander. O’Connor, who had commanded a brigade on the North West Frontier and had also been in action recently against Arab rebels in Palestine, enjoyed a reputation for originality and boldness. He was certainly to live up to it. He would not have been able to do so, however, had Wavell long before not established the logistic foundations which were indispensable to military operations of any sort. Wavell had always maintained that administration and logistics were the most difficult and yet most necessary accomplishments of generalship. The battle for North Africa, as we have already noted and will see confirmed, was a battle of supplies. If Wavell had done nothing else, his place in this battle would have been assured by the steps he took first to prepare for and then to establish a huge base in Egypt and elsewhere able to withstand the endless demands made on it. The Official History underlines the extent to which he himself made the running :

It was also clear to General Wavell that the land forces in the Middle East would sooner or later have to be appreciably strengthened if their contribution to the war was not to be confined to trying not to lose it. He therefore initiated a preliminary survey for the creation of a base for fifteen divisions–say 300,000 men. This figure was no more than an estimate based on a consideration of possible roles, for by the end of October (1939), when the survey of ports, railways, roads and sites was completed, the long-term policy for the Middle East was still being considered in London.

One of the roles that Wavell foresaw was that of invading Libya and he instructed General Wilson, then Commanding British Troops in Egypt, to prepare plans for it, including the problem of supply in the desert. Early in 1940 the War Cabinet gave instructions that the base organizations in Egypt and Palestine were to be developed. So began the process of building ports, airfields, roads, railways, water storage wells, workshops, depots, petrol stores; then of procuring both raw materials to continue their development and the actual commodities to put in them together with vehicles to move them about. All these preparations meant that, by the time O’Connor took over Western Desert Force, units of 7th Armoured Division positioned near Mersa Matruh were able, although short of vehicles, to operate right up to the frontier with Cyrenaica. They were about to show that Italy’s declaration of war was interpreted by the British as actually meaning the start of hostilities. Almost before some of the Italian soldiers knew they were at war, the 11th Hussars had taken Fort Maddalena and the 7th Hussars had attacked Fort Capuzzo.

Of all the Desert Rats perhaps the 11th Hussars characterized most completely the troops Churchill had called ‘lean, bronzed, desert-hardened and fully mechanized’. Indeed the regiment had had armoured cars since 1928 and been in the Middle East since 1934. They had been training in the Western Desert for five years and were as experienced in desert lore and navigation as anyone. They would have endorsed the comment on their own regiment made by an Army Cooperation pilot that ‘the British trooper is really marvellous under any conditions; that the desert offers an enchantment unbeknown to anything else; and that, if romance has gone out of the cavalry, there is something equally fascinating in its newly acquired role’. On the night of 11 June the 11th Hussars were engaged in a skirmish which interrupted the desert’s silence for the first time in the three years of shooting which were to follow. Ambushing a column of Italian lorries near Fort Capuzzo, two armoured cars captured some fifty soldiers and seventy weapons, but the squadron did much more than take prisoners. They discovered that the Italians were in no way prepared to start operations against Egypt. O’Connor therefore gave orders on 13 June that Capuzzo and Maddalena would be assaulted.

Armoured cars were not traditionally the sort of troops to use for an assault, but none the less the job of capturing Maddalena was given to a Squadron, 11th Hussars. Next day the squadron set out at 5 am to cross fifty miles of desert to a rendezvous near the fort. There they were to wait until the RAF softened the defences, and on arrival were misled into thinking that this bombing was actually in progress by a rival demonstration of air power–the Regia Aeronautica attacking a former Egyptian Army post nearby. The squadron was lucky not to be spotted by the Italian bombers.

Before long RAF Blenheims appeared, and no sooner had they done so than the enemy bombers made themselves scarce. To the watching Hussars, the Blenheim attack seemed rather puny, but as arranged they ringed the fort with their armoured cars and closed in, expecting a fierce action. Far from having a fight, however, the crews were astonished to see the white flag run up. They rapidly made good the fort’s capture, and all was over by midday.

Later that month the 7th Hussars were engaged in a different sort of battle at Fort Capuzzo after it had been re-occupied by the Italians. Their task was to advance against the enemy artillery batteries, to destroy them and withdraw–almost a Balaclava affair. It says a good deal for what still had to be learned about the proper use of armour, and in particular about cooperation with infantry, that the regiment was invited to attack an enemy defensive position at night without infantry support and with a questionable manoeuvre by which the three squadrons converged from all points of the compass. It was no surprise that the operation, whilst exciting, was not an unqualified success.

The thing began badly. Postponement of the attack meant that it was already too dark when it did get started. The regiment advanced rather slowly and its squadrons were out of position, bunched much too closely together, before they were near enough to the fort to open fire effectively. When they did so, halted only 500 yards away from it, they received a hot rejoinder. Verey lights, multi-coloured tracer, machine guns and, least comforting of all, field guns, apparently on fixed lines, all shot at them. A and C Squadrons, close to these enemy batteries, yet unable to see properly what was happening, were quite helpless to deal with them and had to withdraw. B Squadron, however, attacking from another direction, got quickly across the enemy anti-tank obstacles and into the gun positions. One tank, commanded by Troop sergeant-major Clarke, was hit, then rammed by three enemy tanks, one of whose guns fired point-blank and by some ballistic mystery failed to penetrate even the driver’s glass shield. Then Clarke’s .5 machine gun jammed, a favourite trick of this particular weapon, so he opened up with the .303, wholly ineffective against armour, but which persuaded the enemy tanks to back away and allowed him to reverse too. Again his tank was hit, and this time caught fire. It looked unhealthy, but another tank rushed up and took Clarke and his crew off. Fort Maddalena with an irresolute garrison had been captured with armoured cars by day easily enough, but Fort Capuzzo, defended by Italian gunners, who almost always fought well, was not going to succumb to an uncoordinated attack by tanks at night.

From such modest beginnings grew the battles which were to ebb and flow up and down the desert. Operations like that at Fort Capuzzo and the 11th Hussars’ vigorous patrolling, which resulted in more successful ambushes by themselves and other units of 4th Armoured Brigade, gave these covering troops invaluable knowledge of the frontier areas. The opportunities for bold enterprise were many, and to begin with it was only the British who took them. The desert was something to be used, not feared, and at the end of June General Wavell was to establish an irregular force which made remarkable use of it–the Long Range Desert Group, whose principal tasks were to gather intelligence and harass the enemy. They went on doing so until all North Africa was in Allied hands. But whilst the British might have seized the initiative at the very opening of the campaign, they could not prevent the Italian Army from concentrating its strength between Bardia and Tobruk as a first step to an offensive which everyone expected to be mounted before long.

What was it like to be in the desert behind enemy lines during this period of relative inactivity before the Italian advance got under way?

For the 11th Hussars, keeping their constant vigil, noting every Italian move and change in deployment, getting to know the desert better and better, the days went by in slow time. Just before dawn the patrols would go out, whilst those at squadron headquarters settled down to cook their breakfast. Each armoured car was its own storehouse and own kitchen, and those who have served in regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps will no doubt have observed that the squadron leader’s driver was generally the best cook in the squadron. Wonders could be done with a few eggs and some bully beef. In the heat of the morning while the car commanders on patrol searched through their binoculars, the squadron leader would get his administrative work done, walk round the troops in reserve, and keep an eye open for enemy aircraft. It was easy enough to keep armoured cars and men hidden under camel thorn and camouflage nets provided they kept still. But to move about was to be spotted. Every half hour the watching patrols would report, and if it were, as it so often was, a negative report, the midday meal would come as a welcome break to the endless waiting, however tired men might be of hard-tack biscuits, tinned cheese and bully. With air and ground sentries posted, the afternoon was a good time to sleep, for too much of the night was needed for other things. Perhaps at tea-time there would be a hot bully stew, tea, of course, and some sausages. The BBC overseas service would give them the latest news, and even about the very desert activities they were engaged in, its emphasis or purpose could sometimes come as a surprise to them.

A glass of whisky and water was an agreeable prelude to packing up before moving back to a new position for the night. To this position would come all the troops which had been on patrol and they would be joined there by the transport echelons carrying petrol, rations, letters from home, and, if needed, ammunition. Then the bedding would be unrolled, and again with sentries posted the squadron would sleep. Fifty miles inside enemy territory, they could never relax; choosing where to spend the night was an important matter. Ambushes were all too easy to set. Before first light out the patrols would go again, squadron headquarters motored off to one more piece of desert, and yet another long day full of nothing but waiting, monotony, routine, would have begun.

Long and monotonous the days may have been, but they were not wasted, for when the time came that it mattered the 11th Hussars’ familiarity with the desert was unrivalled and their reconnaissance record unequalled. Time, in any event, was not on the Italians’ side.

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On the afternoon of 7th May1943, the leading armoured cars of 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, the Derbyshire Yeomanry and 11th Hussars reached the centre of Tunis. It was fitting that the 11th Hussars, who had begun the battle for North Africa, should be in at the kill.

 

 

Savoia-Marchetti SM.79

Even if SM.79s were considered overall to be quite sturdy and well-developed aircraft, they had their share of misfortune.

In Spain, SM.79 MM.28-16 (with a total crew of 17) was destroyed in the air on 12 April 1938, when one of its bombs detonated in the bomb bay. MM.28-25 (again with a crew of 17) was lost when another SM.79 damaged by anti-aircraft guns collided with it on 23 March. A further SM.79, MM.28-16 was damaged by an anti-aircraft shell, and landed with dead and wounded on-board (4 January 1939). On 30 June 1939 two of the aircraft, 13-6 and 13-7, both carrying a full fuel load, collided and crashed, with the entire crew of nine killed on impact.

At the beginning of World war II, on 13 June 1940, six Sparvieros of 9th Wing bombed Ghisonaccia airfield, but one was shot down by anti-aircraft guns and became the first Sparviero downed in World War II.

The 9th Stormo continued to suffer heavy losses in Africa. Initially used to harass light forces operating in the desert, the Sparvieros were subsequently sent against the British advanced columns in Operation Compass. On 16 December 1940, six Sparvieros were sent over As Sallum to counter enemy armoured units, but before they could reach their target, three of the lead section were shot down with the loss of 16 men, including Commander Mario Aramu. The wing was put out of action and the personnel were sent back to Italy aboard the RM Città di Messina, but on 14 January 1941 the ship was sunk by submarine HMS Regent, with the loss of 432 men, including 53 members of the 9th. The wing was later re-formed with Z.1007s.

A major safety issue in the operation of the SM.79 was the difference between the calculated and effective range figures, which led to several mishaps. Two accidents highlight the deficiencies in range of the Sparvieros.

One such incident befell MM.23881 of the 278th, which took off at 1725 hours on 21 April 1941, captained by Oscar Cimolini, with the intention of searching for enemy shipping near Crete. The SM.79 carried out an attack at around 20:00 hours, and then began the trip back to its base near Benghazi. The crew became disoriented and unable to locate their exact position, missing their airfield in bad weather conditions. Their radio was broken and they were unable to communicate. They were also unaware that they had reached the African coast. The fuel supply was exhausted at around 23:00, and the aircraft made a forced landing some 500 km (310 mi) away from its base. Most of the crew of six had suffered some injuries, but one crew member, Romanini, was able to leave to search for help. He walked for over 90 km (60 mi) in the desert, and finally was overcome and died only a few kilometres from a road, where his remains were found in 1960. Subsequent searches led to the discovery of the SM.79 and the remains of the rest of the crew.

Another example was the ferry flight of 27th Gruppo. This unit was transferred from Alghero to North Africa. The 16 Sparvieros took off at 11:50 of 4 April 1941, but one of the eight aircraft of the 18th Squadriglia in the first wave had an accident and crashed on the airport strip. The other eight from 52nd Squadriglia could only take off 40 minutes later, while the first seven circled over the airfield. The 15 Sparvieros flew together until reaching Misurata, but the 18th squadriglia had flown for much longer and was short of fuel. Subsequently, its SM.79s crashed one after the other with only two landing safely. At least two were completely destroyed, and three damaged. On that day, on a simple ferry flight of 1,100 km, the 18th lost five Sparvieros and at least one crew, with many wounded. The flight of 52nd Sq lasted for 4 hours and 45 mins but 18th Sq flew for 5h and 15 mins, without any payload, at an average speed of only 210 km/h.

9–11 July 1940: Battle of Calabria, one SM.79 (38th Gruppo) was downed by a Blackburn Skua of HMS Ark Royal. On 11 July, another SM.79 (90th Gruppo) was downed by a Gloster Sea Gladiator of HMS Eagle.

1 August 1940: an SM.79 was shot down by a Skua from Ark Royal. This was General Cagna’s aircraft.

2 September, Operation Hats: the new Fairey Fulmar fighters based on HMS Illustrious downed a 41 Stormo SM.79.

4 September: another SM.79 (34th Gruppo) was downed by Fulmars.

12–14 October 1940, Operation MW 2: two SM.79 (36th Stormo) were downed by Fulmars from Illustrious.

10 January 1941, Battle of Taranto: a single Fulmar from Illustrious downed two SM.79s of 30th Stormo.

20–22 April 1941: one SM.79 (278th Squadriglia, torpedo unit) was shot down on the 21st, another, from 34 Gruppo was shot down the next day, by Fulmars from HMS Formidable

8 May 1941, Operation Tiger: two SM.79s (38thGruppo) were downed by the Ark Royal’s Fulmars

21–25 July 1941, Operation Substance: 23 July, one SM.79 (38th) and two (283rd) torpedo bombers and on the 25th, one SM.79 (89th Gruppo) were shot down, all by Fulmars from Ark Royal.

12–17 June 1942, Operation Harpoon: Fulmars and Sea Hurricanes downed four SM.79s of 36th Stormo (torpedo-bombers) on 14 June. On 15 June another SM.79 (52nd Gruppo) was shot down.

10–15 August 1942, Operation Pedestal: two SM.79s (109th and 132nd Gruppo) were downed on 12 August.

The total number of reconnaissance, bomber and torpedo bombers downed in these two years by naval fighters was, not counting aircraft heavily damaged and eventually lost, 24 aircraft, 2% of total production.

 

BEFORE LEPANTO I

A galley which Ottoman Sultans used at inshore waters. Built at the end of the 16th century. Length: 40 m; Width: 5.70 m. It is reportedly the only original galley in the world. (Maritime Museum, Istanbul).

On August 14, 1571, a gigantic ship’s pennant of silk damask passed through the congested streets of Naples. Embroidered to the pope’s commission, it was the standard of Christendom, to fly from the tallest mast in the fleet of the Holy League as it sailed into battle. The pope’s banner with a huge golden figure of Christ nailed to the cross loomed over the stocky Spanish soldiers who carried it in procession from the steps of the Church of Santa Clara. As the blue flag moved through the Neapolitan crowds, an unnatural stillness gripped all who watched it go by. An hour before, inside the church, the assembled nobles, officers, monks, and priests had stood silent and unmoving, all their eyes on the admiral of the Holy League, Don John of Austria. Arrayed in cloth of gold, scarlet satin, and white velvet, the young admiral knelt before the altar as the pope’s representative, Cardinal Granvelle, handed him his staff of office and pointed to the great banner behind him. “Take these emblems,” the cardinal exhorted, “of the Word made flesh, these symbols of the true faith, and may they give thee a glorious victory over our impious enemy and by thy hand may his pride be laid low.”

Below the cross of Christ were the emblems of the king of Spain and of the Holy Father, Pope Pius V, with the badge of the Republic of Venice, all linked by a great golden chain, symbolizing the power of faith that bound them together. From that chain, in slightly smaller scale, hung the pendant crest of Don John. The emblems marked a brief moment of unity. For the first time in more than a century, Christendom had combined in force to do battle with the power of “Islam.” The war was sanctified, waged under the protection of the golden figure of Christ. The pope had declared that those who fought in this struggle were to be granted the same plenary indulgences as earlier Crusaders fighting to secure the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All who died in the shadow of this battle flag would be spared the worst rigors of purgatory.

Eight hundred miles to the east a similar, if less public, ceremony had already taken place. From the treasury of the imperial palace in Constantinople, a bulky bundle wrapped in silk had been brought from Sultan Selim II to Ali Pasha, admiral of the Ottoman fleet. It also contained a flag, but one colored a vivid green instead of the lambent Christian blue. Even larger than the banner that Pope Pius V had entrusted to his commander, this was one of the most potent emblems of Islam. Upon its surface the ninety-nine names and attributes of God had been embroidered in gold. It was reputed that these were repeated no less than 28,900 times. The giant Kufic characters were surrounded and interlaced with endless reiteration of those same names, in a smaller script, so that from a distance the whole surface of the pennant appeared a shimmering network of golden filigree.

The two commanders were opposites—in rank, status, and experience of life. Don John was the acknowledged natural brother of the king of Spain, Philip II, and the by-blow from a few months Emperor Charles V had spent with a young widow called Barbara Blomberg in the imperial city of Regensburg. Don John had come to Naples from fighting a savage war in the mountains of southern Spain, to command the largest fleet ever assembled by Christian Europe. He had never fought at sea before. By contrast, Ali, the Kapudan Pasha of the Ottoman fleet, was a veteran of galley warfare, feared throughout the Aegean and into the far west of the Mediterranean. His origins were more humble, as the son of a muezzin, a mosque servant who called the faithful to prayer. But the two leaders, for all their differences, had much in common. They were like twin paladins from an epic poem: yearning for battle, chivalrous, and honorable. Fate decreed divergent destinies for them. One would die with a musket ball through the skull, his head then hacked off and stuck on the point of a pike. The other would return in triumph, honored and feted, his victory celebrated with paintings, engravings, poems, coins and medals, essays and learned disquisitions through more than four centuries.

Stories of their encounter abound, some closely following facts, others embellished to make a better tale. Quite where history ends and legends begin is still unsure. The battle they fought in the Gulf of Lepanto has a double character: the event itself and its burgeoning afterlife. This afterlife, the mythic Lepanto, came to stand as a synecdoche for the contest between the Islamic and the Christian worlds. In deciphering the meaning of Lepanto, we may find a point of entry into those deeper mysteries. The greater struggle had deep roots. For almost a thousand years the Christian world had felt threatened by the power in the East. Sometimes, with the Crusades in the Levant, for example, in Sicily and in Spain, Christian Europe had taken war to the enemy. Over the centuries a brooding sense of Muslim threat came to mesmerize Christendom. By the sixteenth century conflict was accepted as the natural and inevitable relationship between East and West. Like a child’s seesaw, the rise of the East required the fall of the West. In 1571, the two adversaries sat roughly in balance.

Scholars reinforced a common belief in the danger and evil of “Islam.” The Muslims, according to the Venerable Bede, who wrote in the eighth century, were descended from Hagar, the prophet Abraham’s concubine. Many Muslims believed that she and her son, Ishmael, lay buried under the Kaaba, the great black stone in Mecca, which was the focal point of the Islamic faith. Christians, however, were descended from Abraham’s lawful offspring, Isaac. Worse still than the stain of bastardy, an even darker curse hung over the people of the East. Christians inferred that while all men traced their line back to Adam and Eve, the Muslims were the lineal descendants of Cain, thrust from the presence of God for murdering his brother Abel. For his crime, Cain bemoaned that he would “be a fugitive and a wanderer upon earth … and everyone who finds me will slay me.” They had been forced to dwell “east of Eden.” Between the children of Cain and the other descendants of Adam, there could be only mutual slaughter and revenge for the primordial crime of fratricide. So this struggle grew from a long tradition of atavistic hatred between the peoples of the West and East.

What this meant in practice it is hard to say. Naturally, Christians in battle routinely insulted their enemies as the “sons of Cain,” as “misbegotten,” or “Antichrist.” Muslims decried their enemies with equal vehemence. Conflict between East and West seemed permanent, inevitable, preordained, as much for the Christians as for the Muslims. Yet it did not destroy the skein of mutual economic and political interests that dominated the Mediterranean and the Balkans, the border and boundary between the two worlds. Trade and commercial interests were constantly in play, especially in the case of Venice and the other city-states of the Adriatic, which preferred to negotiate with Muslim power rather than fight it.

The Christian powers in the Mediterranean had much to fear from an Ottoman Empire intent on expansion. The desire for a great victory went beyond political calculations, and not only for the pope, the architect of the grand alliance. After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, many Christians were convinced that the triumphant advance of Islam could only be part of God’s plan. The Islamic scourge was a means to chasten mankind to a better sense of its faults and flaws. Were Christians being punished for the sins of declining faith and, latterly, schism? For more than a century Christian Europe had resisted the Islamic onslaught, but had won few decisive victories. What better sign of renewed divine favor could there be than a great and annihilating victory over the forces of darkness?

Victory was also much in the minds of Sultan Selim II and his advisers in Constantinople. Although the armies of “Islam” had continued to press forward against the infidel, the pace of advance had slowed. Selim’s grandfather and namesake had brought vast territories in Egypt, Arabia, and the Levant into the Ottoman domain. His father, Suleiman the Lawgiver, had captured the fortress island of Rhodes, Belgrade, and Budapest, and held the Hungarian plain almost to the walls of Vienna. Suleiman had destroyed the Kingdom of Hungary in a single day on the battlefield of Mohacs in 1526. Yet Suleiman too had his setbacks. He twice failed to capture Vienna—in 1529 and 1566—and the island of Malta had withstood all the Turkish efforts at storm and siege. In the Mediterranean, the great naval battle in 1538 at Prevesa, just off the Greek mainland north of the Gulf of Lepanto, produced no decisive result.

The Ottoman state was built upon a theory of infinite expansion, and annual war to advance its frontiers. Without conquest it would decay. Moreover, all good Muslims were duty bound to extend the Domain of Peace, and that burden weighed heaviest upon the sultan. Selim II had committed himself to advance the boundaries of righteousness by seizing the island of Cyprus, which was under the rule of Venice. He used the pretext that privateers had sailed from the island to harry his shipping and the coastal towns of Anatolia. By late 1570, it seemed likely that the island would fall to his armies. Even so, he desired much more than the capture of an island. The sultan demanded a dramatic victory from his commanders, another Mohacs. Thus, his admiral, Ali Pasha, knew that he had to achieve the complete destruction of the Christian fleet, and return laden with trophies, slaves, and booty.

The two adversaries gathered their forces from far distant points in the Mediterranean. Throughout the summer of 1571, little clusters of ships moved toward the designated meeting points: Messina for the Christians commanded by Don John, the Aegean for the sultan’s war fleet under Ali Pasha. They were galleys, a type of ship built for the specific conditions of the Mediterranean. Galley warfare occupied its own universe, utterly different from battles fought between the sailing ships of the Atlantic. Long, sitting low on the water, frail by comparison with their solid northern counterparts, war galleys appeared to be able to move regardless of the force or direction of the wind. Although these slender craft carried two or three large triangular sails, their main motive power was banks of oars that extended out forty feet or more from either side of the ship, both banks pulling in unison so that the boat moved forward swiftly in what seemed a series of rhythmic spasms. In their element, with a calm sea and a following wind, they resembled gigantic water beetles skittering on their long legs over the surface of the water. Although the galleys were faster under sail than when they depended on their oars alone, their power of maneuver came from the rowers. It meant that a galley never risked being blown ashore onto a rocky coast, which was a constant danger for the clumsy deep-hulled merchant sailing ships. A galley could move almost as fast backward as it did forward and, with its shallow draft, could negotiate shoals that would strand other sailing vessels.

Over the centuries galleys had developed many forms, some designed to carry cargo, but by the mid–sixteenth century they were evolving for a single purpose: war. The Mediterranean war galley had been adapted over many generations, from the Greek triremes that destroyed the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis, almost two thousand years before. After 1500, some galleys acquired superstructures at bow and stern, to house guns and fighting men. But the essence of the galley remained the same. As in classical times, galleys were merely a floating platform from which men could board and overcome the crews of other ships, an insubstantial shell for carrying the oarsmen and men-at-arms. Originally, as in the rowing skiffs and caïques to be found in every Mediterranean port, each man had pulled his own oar, but this became a costly option since oars had to be made from expensive well-seasoned timber, much of it imported from northern Europe. From the mid–sixteenth century a new style of rowing appeared that reduced the number of oars. Three or four men, sometimes as many as five, would sit side by side on benches, all pulling in unison on a single massive sweep. It was easy thereafter to add more men to increase the force behind the oars.

The power of a war galley lay in its personnel. Aboard each one would be a number of well-equipped professional fighting men, a battle crew. On Muslim and Venetian ships, many among the rowing crew were also armed and would join the melee. Of the Venetian oarsmen, who were volunteers, those on the end of each bench had a sword and short pike close at hand, while the second man had a bow and a quiver of arrows. As the ships closed, they would leave their oars to the third man and gather, ready to swarm across onto the deck of their victim. No merchant vessel loaded with cargo could hope to outrun a galley pursuing at full speed. Most tried, because the alternative was dire. The galley attack resembled that of a hawk swooping to snatch its prey. The sharp beak of the galley would come closer and closer to the fleeing ship, so close that the crew of the doomed vessel could see its nemesis preparing to board. At that point, many ships yielded; any that continued to run would be showered with arrows or musket fire and the crew killed. For reasons of economy the great bow guns of the attacking galley were rarely used.

Galleys were raptors, living off weaker and less well armed vessels.

Like the carnivorous dinosaur the war galley dominated its environment. But like the dinosaur, it grew progressively larger and more powerful to compete with its own kind until, like the dinosaur, it became increasingly immobile. The tactical power of the Mediterranean war galley, with the teeth and jaws of Tyrannosaurus Rex, depended on a continuous supply of flesh and blood.

Unless a galley could keep its rowing benches filled it could not survive. Much of the ceaseless raiding and predation was to seize not cargo but manpower. When a Muslim vessel took a Christian ship, all non-Muslims aboard would be immediately enslaved. Often the crew and any passengers would be the most valued prize. Some could be ransomed, and others sold for a good profit in the markets of North Africa or Constantinople.

If a Christian galley intercepted a Muslim ship, exactly the same transactions would take place. All non-Christians would be made prisoner and put to work at the oars. But Spanish, French, and Venetian ships preyed as frequently on the ships of other Christian nations. There were many excuses that would permit a war galley to seize a merchant vessel. They might search a Christian ship for “contraband,” claiming that the crew was trading with an enemy. The Knights of St. John, sailing from their fortress island of Malta, were feared by all, Christian and Muslim alike. If they stopped a Christian ship in eastern waters, they would examine the cargo minutely for anything that could be termed illicit. When lacking anything more obvious, they were in the habit of uncovering “Jewish clothing” during a search, indicating that the ship was trading with the Jewish population of Muslim ports. This justified the expropriation of the whole cargo, and the enslavement of the crew.

BEFORE LEPANTO IV

Battle of Lepanto.

In the curious parallelism that surrounds the events of 1571, at that moment the Ottoman commander, Ali Pasha, was also holding a council of war with his captains, and their opinions were divided in a roughly similar manner. Hassan Pasha, a bey of Algiers, spoke for the overwhelming majority. He acknowledged that the scouts had told them that this was the largest fleet they had ever seen. But he recalled how at Prevesa (in 1538) and at the island of Jerbi, off Tripoli (in 1560), the infidels had faded under Turkish attack. He believed that they were cowards, without spirit, and would flee here, as they had done in the past. The opposite view was presented by Hamet Bey, who suggested it would be a mistake to underestimate the power or unity of the Christians, and that Don John, although young and inexperienced, had proved himself in the war against the Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity) in the Alpujarras mountain range of southern Spain. The Ottoman fleet had everything to gain by playing a waiting game, under the protection of the guns of the Lepanto fortress.

Ali Pasha himself favored an immediate attack, and his resolve was hardened by the long-awaited orders from the sultan. Selim ordered the fleet to capture the Christian ships and to bring them immediately as trophies of war to line the waters of the Golden Horn, below his palace of the New Seraglio in. The order admitted no dissent, and all doubters were silenced Constantinople. The council came to a precipitate end, and the captains returned to their ships to prepare for battle. The efficient Ottoman commissary quickly stocked the hundreds of ships with food and water, and with large quantities of powder and shot, while Ali summoned more troops from neighboring garrisons. He speedily added 10,000 janissaries and 4,000 other troops to his fighting crews.

Meanwhile, the fleet of the Holy League moved south. By October 3, it was off Prevesa, but its advance was halted by high seas and adverse winds from the south. October 4 and 5 were spent battened down, riding out the storm. While the fleet was at anchor, a small vessel heading north from the island of Crete to Venice brought terrible and unexpected news.

Every Venetian in the fleet knew that the Ottomans were besieging the town of Famagusta in Cyprus. The island’s capital, Nicosia, had fallen a few months after the invasion of July 1570. Twenty thousand inhabitants had been slaughtered when the Turkish troops broke into the city, and the rest of the islanders submitted to avoid the same fate. Only the small port city of Famagusta refused to surrender and held out in the hope of relief from the sea. Within hours of the fall of Nicosia, Turkish horsemen were riding around the walls of Famagusta, taunting the inhabitants with the heads of the leading citizens of Nicosia impaled on their lance points. However, Marcantonio Bragadino, the governor in Famagusta, had prepared his command to withstand a long siege and it was clear that the city would resist, despite the frightful example of Nicosia’s fate. By the early spring of 1571 more than 100,000 Turks had gathered around Famagusta. It seemed that it could not hold out for long. But for four months the 4,000 defenders beat back every assault until attacks in July 1571 breached the walls in six places, and the troops in the garrison were reduced to their last barrels of gunpowder. Faced with certain defeat, Bragadino sought an honorable surrender. The terms agreed on August 1 with the Ottoman commander, Lala Mustafa, were unusually favorable: the Venetians secured protection for the remaining citizens, while the garrison would be evacuated to the Venetian island of Crete.

The Turks had lost more than 50,000 men in the capture of Nicosia and Famagusta. The terms granted were remarkable, especially after the massacres at Nicosia. On August 4, Lala Mustafa summoned Bragadino and his staff to his camp. The Venetian commander, wearing the purple robe of a senator, rode out from Famagusta under an ornate parasol (against the searing heat) at the head of his officers and with a bodyguard of forty harquebusiers. He was, according to the records, “serene … without fear or pride.” At the meeting, the Ottoman commander accused him of breaching the agreement for the city’s surrender and demanded hostages. Bragadino responded that this did not form part of the terms. Then, at a prearranged signal, janissaries rushed into the tent and overpowered the Venetians. Outside, the senator’s escort had already been disarmed.

The subsequent events were played out for the benefit of the Ottoman army gathered in a huge mass around Lala Mustafa’s encampment. It seems unlikely that Bragadino expected to survive the surrender, or to see the treaty honored. The Ottomans usually repaid resistance with death, and to allow the defenders to retire with their arms in hand and flags flying was almost without parallel. On previous occasions the Ottomans had invariably slaughtered or enslaved the bulk of their captives, sparing only a few for ransom, or to take the news back to their enemies. After the battle of Mohacs, Sultan Suleiman had “sat on a golden throne” while his soldiers decapitated thousands of prisoners. The Venetians were playing a grim but well-understood role in a gory traditional drama. The performance was designed to be exemplary, and to satisfy the sultan in Constantinople that the long and costly siege had not been in vain. Bragadino’s officers and staff were beheaded in front of him, so that a rivulet of blood flowed across the hard dry ground and washed over his feet.

This was the news brought to the fleet of the Holy League waiting fogbound between the islands of Cephalonia and Ithaca. It stilled any remaining doubts about the need for a battle, which would now, additionally, revenge the death of Bragadino and repay his humiliation many times over. As soon as the fog lifted sufficiently for the fleet to move safely, in the early hours of Sunday, October 7, the whole armada advanced into the open sea, in the mouth of the Gulf of Patras, and some forty miles from the entrance to the well-protected harbor of Lepanto. With the mainland coast in sight, Don John sent two fast ships forward down the gulf to discover if the Ottoman fleet was still at anchor. If it was, it would not slip past the mass of Christian ships rowing down the narrowing gulf toward the straits before Lepanto.

To the north, as the Christian galleys pushed into a stiff breeze, lay the high mountains of Acarnia; to the south, the lowlands of the Morea. The winds came off the high ground, veering back and forth, so the sails on the galleasses could not be used, and the whole fleet slowed to the rowing pace of these ungainly vessels. Shortly after dawn the fleet halted, and moved into the battle formations designated by Don John. He also gave orders that the rams, or spurs, mounted on the prow of each war galley should be cut away. These stout wooden structures were designed to hook into the side of an enemy ship, providing a platform along which boarders could advance. But the spur made it difficult to maneuver the bow guns, which alone had the capacity to cripple an enemy vessel. Don John’s strategy was not to capture the Ottoman fleet but to destroy it. He intended to use his heavy guns to smash the lighter hulls of the Ottoman vessels, boarding where necessary, but first sending as many ships and crews as possible to the bottom of the sea. But the order gave a deeper message to his men: cutting away the spurs was equivalent to throwing away the scabbard of his sword, signifying that it would not again be sheathed unbloodied.

No one had any prior experience of marshaling so large a fleet into battle. Moreover the six galleasses were new and wholly untried weapons. The forthcoming conflict would be like no other at sea, but Don John planned to fight in the open waters of the Gulf of Patras much as he would have fought a cavalry battle on land. However, the scale was vast: the fleet extended in a line for almost four miles end to end. Don John divided the hundreds of galleys into four divisions: the center, which he oversaw in person; two wings; and behind this line the reserve, commanded by a trusted Spaniard, and intended to staunch any breach made by the enemy. The battle tactics were simple: in front would be the six galleasses, and the galleys of the Holy League would row forward at a steadily increasing pace behind them. Once the firefight began, the rowing rate would rise until the galleys covered the last few hundred yards in less than a minute, until they smashed into the enemy, also advancing at full speed. Then all semblance of strategy would vanish in the melee of hand-to-hand fighting. The great danger was that the fast and maneuverable Ottoman galleys would break through the line and swarm around the Christian ships on every side, rather in the way that on land Turkish horsemen would pull down armored Christian knights by weight of numbers.

Although he had never fought at sea, Don John knew his enemy. The war in the Alpujarras, from house to house, from village to village, had taught him that even Muslim peasants would die rather than yield or retreat. The lesson of innumerable galley battles was that once the hardy Muslim fighters gained a foothold on the opponent’s decks, then the chances of survival were small. As a last act before the fray, he ordered that all his ships should be rigged with boarding nets, to act as a fence all along the sides above the rowing decks. The nets would not stop boarders, but they would slow them down, giving the defending crew time to rally. The only effective protection against the rush of the janissaries was firepower. On the Real he trained a force of 300 men, armed with the heavy Spanish harquebuses and muskets, to fire in volley if the enemy did succeed in boarding. But ultimately Don John could not control the flow of the fight on his ships. Success would depend on the spirit and morale of his men. In the early morning light, in a fast small fregata he traversed the line of stationary ships back and forth, shouting encouragement to the crews and soldiers, telling them that God was with them, and reminding them of the fate of Bragadino, for whom they would wreak revenge upon the bodies of their enemy. Cheers rose as he passed each ship. He had ordered that every Christian convict oarsman should be freed so that they could join the Crusade, while Muslim rowers were double-chained, by both hand and foot, to the oars.

Only the best of his soldiers were equal to the Ottomans, and the advantage lay with Ali Pasha, with fresh troops rested, well fed, and eager for battle. Don John’s victory at Lepanto was due to the supremacy of the gun. He had placed the six galleasses in front of his line at intervals, confident that their firepower would disrupt the Ottoman line of battle. As well as the heavy guns, he crammed them full of marksmen with muskets. Later pictures of the battle show the ships bristling with gun barrels, like the spines on a hedgehog. Success would depend on Ottoman willingness to be drawn into the killing zone around these floating fortresses. But if the Ottomans retreated, drawing Don John’s ships farther down the gulf toward the guns of the Lepanto fortress, then the dynamics would alter. There was already a stiff breeze and the sea was running against the Christian ships. The more his oarsmen exhausted themselves, the greater chance that the advantage would slip to the Turks. As in all battles, chance and providence were in command.

 

Reconnaissance Battalion Nizza

AB41 appatenant à la Nizza Cavalaria et à la Monferrato.

While reading Panzer Commander, the memories of Colonel Hans Von Luck I can across an interesting few paragraphs.

“Some days later Rommel’s HQ informed me that I was to be sent an Italian armored reconnaissance battalion, the Nizza. At first, I was not very pleased, as I had no great opinion of Italian weapons or morale. They duly arrived, well spread out and apparently still at normal fighting strength. Their commander, a tall, fair haired Major, presented himself. As he told me later, he had been given the posting “for disciplinary reasons,” because of an affair with a member of the Royal House. The officers and men came exclusively from the north. They were proud Piedmontese and Venetians. They wanted to show that they knew how to fight.

“May our patrols go on reconnaissance with your?” I was asked by the commander and his officers. “That would be the best way to learn.” I inspected their armored cars and weapons. “More sardine tins,” said our men, who were standing around inquisitively. Indeed, the equipment didn’t approach the standard of that which we had at the start of the Polish campaign. It was hopelessly inferior to the British Humbers and anti-tank guns. And yet, the Italians wanted to be sent into action at the front. IN the difficult weeks that followed, my feeling waved between admiration and pity for these brave men, who despite heavy losses, didn’t give up and so remained to the end, our good friends.

He (The Italian) doesn’t take war with deadly seriousness and ends it for his part when he considers it to be hopeless. Hitler’s pathetic, cynical maxim, “the German soldier stands or dies,” is, to the Italian profoundly alien.

It is against this background that the active service and performance of our allies is to be seen. So much more highly did we value the service of the Nizza Battalion, whose officers and men fought bravely beside and with us to the bitter end”

Then near the end in Africa he received the Medaglia d’Argento, by request of the Nizza Battalion commander.

3rd Battalion Nizza Cavalleria (AB41 Armoured cars) part of Italian 132 Armoured Division Ariete.