Italian Submarines Operating Outside the Mediterranean

The Barbarigo, seen here in the Garonne estuary returning to Bordeaux after an Atlantic patrol, was the most successful submarine of the Marcello class, sinking seven ships totalling 39,300 grt. With LtCdr. Enzo Grossi in command, the Barbarigo attacked two groups of enemy warships, one off Brazil in May and one off Freetown in October 1942 respectively. Both attacks took place at night, and in each case one US battleship was reported as sunk, thus giving a big boost to Italian wartime propaganda. Actually, the ships attacked by the Barbarigo were much smaller and none was sunk. The two events won LtCdr. Grossi important decorations and awards, but he was stripped of them after the war, sparking numerous controversies which lasted for many years after the end of the Second World War. The Barbarigo was sunk by enemy aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, probably between 17 and 19 June 1943.

An armed guard of the Reggimento San Marco saluting the submarine Da Vinci entering the ‘Betasom’ lock on 31 October 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic mission.

Submarines in the Atlantic

The Comando Gruppo Sommergibili Atlantico (Atlantic Submarine Command) was established at Bordeaux, France on 1 September 1940. This was a direct consequence, following the treaty signed in Berlin by Italy and Germany on 22 May 1939, of the operational agreements between the Kriegsmarine and the Regia Marina to conduct a naval war against Great Britain that would include action against merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

The Regia Marina’s choice for an independent submarine base on the French Atlantic coast (excluding of course ports and bases already being used by the Germans), fell on the river port of Bordeaux, located on the Garonne, about 50 miles upstream from its mouth on the Bay of Biscay, originating from the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne in the wide estuary of the Gironde. From the letter ‘B’ (Beta in the naval phonetic alphabet and also the initial letter of ‘Bordeaux’) the code name ‘Betasom’ – i.e. ‘Bordeaux – Comando sommergibili’ – was derived and it became both the official and the common term for the Italian Atlantic submarine base.

Repair, supply and command facilities were soon established on one of the tidal basins south of Bordeaux, as well as accommodation for the boats’ crews; the requisitioned French liner De Grasse (18,435 grt) and the German passenger ship Usaramo (7,775 grt) were berthed on the Garonne river near the lock, to be used as tenders and barracks ships, with medical facilities and an infirmary for 24 patients aboard the De Grasse. Two hundred and twenty-five men of the Battaglione San Marco provided security for the base, and there were also German army units stationed in the surrounding area.

Rear Admiral Angelo Parona was the first CinC of ‘Betasom’, with Capt. Aldo Cocchia as Chief of Staff; Cocchia was replaced in April 1941 by Capt. Romolo Polacchini who, at the end of 1941, relieved Adm. Parona as CinC; on 2 December 1942 – upon his promotion to Rear Admiral – Polacchini was relieved by Capt. Enzo Grossi, who held the post until 8 September 1943, later choosing to collaborate with the Germans.

The first boat to arrive at ‘Betasom’ was the Malaspina on 4 September 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic patrol just four days after the establishment of the base. A few days later the Barbarigo also arrived, and before the end of September four more boats (Dandolo, Marconi, Finzi and Bagnolini) followed. By the end of October, there were eighteen Italian submarines at Bordeaux as in the meanwhile twelve more boats (Emo, Tarantini, Torelli, Faà di Bruno, Otaria, Baracca, Giuliani, Glauco, Calvi, Tazzoli, Argo and Da Vinci) had arrived. Before the end of the year, nine further boats reached Bordeaux: four in November (Veniero, Nani, Cappellini and Morosini) and five (Marcello, Bianchi, Brin, Velella and Mocenigo) in December. Almost all of the boats based in Bordeaux up to the end of 1940 were originally part of the Gruppi sommergibili of La Spezia and Naples, and only four had come from Taranto.

In March 1941, the submarines Guglielmotti, Archimede, Ferraris and Perla, which had fled from Massawa in Italian East Africa after the evacuation of that base, arrived in Bordeaux; almost two years later on 20 February 1943 the Cagni also arrived in Bordeaux, after leaving La Maddalena on 6 October 1942 and thus having conducted an unbelievably long voyage (136 days) that brought her to patrol the western African coast before steaming northbound to Bordeaux.

Altogether, thirty-two Italian boats operated in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943, of which sixteen were lost as shown in the following list:

1940: Tarantini, Faà di Bruno and Nani.

1941: Marcello, Glauco, Bianchi, Baracca, Malaspina, Ferraris, Marconi.

1942: Calvi and Morosini.

1943: Archimede, Tazzoli, Da Vinci and Barbarigo.

Of the sixteen remaining boats, on 8 September 1943 the Cagni was in the southern Indian Ocean, and made for the Allied port of Durban, South Africa; prior to that, other submarines had returned to the Mediterranean and only seven boats were in Bordeaux as of mid-1943: Cappellini, Tazzoli, Giuliani, Barbarigo, Finzi, Bagnolini and Torelli. All were scheduled to be converted into transport submarines to ferry strategic materials to and from the Far East and, in fact, three one-way transport missions were carried out successfully. Tazzoli and Barbarigo were sunk on their first missions, while Cappellini, Giuliani and Torelli managed to reach Singapore between July and August 1943; after the Armistice they were seized by the Japanese, and later handed over to the Kriegsmarine. The Giuliani was lost in 1944, while the Cappellini and Torelli came under Japanese control after May 1945 and were scrapped after the war. The two last transport boats – Bagnolini and Finzi – were being overhauled at Bordeaux when the Armistice was proclaimed, and were thus seized by the Germans. Altogether, the thirty-two submarines of the Regia Marina operating in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943 sank 101 Allied merchant ships totalling 568,573 grt; an additional four freighters (35,765 grt) were damaged. The most successful submarine was the Da Vinci, with sixteen ships totalling over 120,000 grt, and other boats sank from one to seven ships each; only four submarines (Faà di Bruno, Glauco, Marcello and Velella) sank no ships at all.

The Red Sea

The Red Sea and the eastern Indian Ocean were the most important of the Regia Marina’s subsidiary theatres of operations in the Second World War, as the Italians had maintained a naval presence there since the end of the nineteenth century. On 10 June 1940 the first-line naval assets in the area consisted of six destroyers, eight submarines, four torpedo boats, the colonial sloop Eritrea, five MAS and other smaller vessels based at Massawa.

Three submarines (Macallé, Torricelli and Galvani) were lost and one captured (Galilei) by the end of June; some success was scored against British shipping in the Red Sea, but on 20 September 1940 the destroyer Nullo was lost in action with enemy ships. By early 1941 the British offensive against Italian Somaliland had begun, and Chisimaio was evacuated on 12 February; in early March, the four surviving submarines (Perla, Ferraris, Archimede and Guglielmotti) sailed for Bordeaux via the Cape of Good Hope and, between 1 and 4 April, the three Leone class destroyers, as well as the Manin and Battisti, were all lost. On 16 April 1941, the gun batteries on the Dahlahc Islands, off Massawa, surrendered and the Italian presence in East Africa swiftly came to an end: the Amba Alagi area fell on 27 May, Assab on 11 June and the last Italian stronghold, Gondar, fell on 27 November 1941.

Four ‘CB’ type midget submarines at Sevastopol in July 1942, moored at one of the quays of the large Soviet naval base there that was now under Axis control.

The Black Sea

Following the Axis offensive against the USSR, between late April and May 1942 the first MAS of the Regia Marina began to arrive at Foros in the Crimea, soon followed by some ‘CB’-type midget submarines and other surface assault craft. After the fall of Sevastopol, on 3 August 1942 MAS 568 torpedoed and seriously damaged the Soviet cruiser Molotov but, as the Axis situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated, all Italian naval activity came to an end in May 1943, and the remaining MAS and ‘CB’ were handed over to the Kriegsmarine. Finally, it should be remembered that four MAS (’526-’529) were transferred to the Baltic to operate on Lake Ladoga in support of the Axis forces engaged in the siege of Leningrad between April and November 1942.



An Italian CB-class submarine

Although the presence of midget submarines on both sides was rumoured during the Russo-Japanese War, the Italian Navy may claim to have been the first to deploy midgets in 20th-century warfare. During World War I, a few small submersibles of c.16 tons (16.25 tonnes) surfaced displacement were constructed and, having proved unsuitable for operations outside sheltered waters, were used for harbour defence in the Adriatic. These pioneer designs were dusted off in the mid-1930s when, at the time of Mussolini’s venture into Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), conflict with Great Britain temporarily threatened. A weapon for clandestine penetration of such British Mediterranean bases as Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria was advocated by many Italian officers, with Cdr Angelo Belloni, a leading spirit in the training of volunteers for the Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Light Flotilla), the Italian Navy’s “special attack weapons” unit, prominent among them.

In the event, the Maiale (“Pig”) manned-torpedo was to be the major penetration weapon; but in the pre-war years it was planned that midget submarines should penetrate enemy bases, either to carry out torpedo attacks or to release frogmen to place explosive charges. In conditions of strict secrecy, the Italian Navy constructed and had operational by April 1938 the midget submarines C.A.1 and C.A.2 (C=Costiero-tipo, “coastal-type”), built by Caproni, Taliedo of Milan.

In their original form, C.A.1 and C.A.2 were two-man boats displacing 13.5 tons (13.7 tonnes) surfaced; 32.8ft (10m) long overall; 6.43ft (1.96m) in beam; and drawing 5.25ft (1.6m). On the surface, a single-shaft 60hp MAN diesel gave a maximum speed of 6.5kt (7.5mph, 12kmh) and a range of 700nm (805 miles, 1295km) at 4kt (4.6mph, 7.4kmh). Submerged, a 25hp Marelli electric motor gave a maximum 5kt (5.75mph, 9.25kmh) and a range of 57nm (65.5 miles, 105km) at 3kt (3.45mph, 5.5kmh). Armament consisted of two 17.7in (450mm) torpedoes in external dropping gear.

Trials soon showed that C.A.1 and C.A.2 were not capable of operations involving sea passages of any distance. Nor was there much chance of the midgets surviving independent missions in the clear, shallow, inshore waters of the aircraft-dominated Mediterranean. In 1941, it was decided that the midgets must be carried to their target areas on mother boats and released under cover of darkness to penetrate defended anchorages and lay explosive charges. The diesel units were removed from both midgets, as were the torpedo racks. This reduced displacement to 12 tons (12.2 tonnes) surfaced and 14 tons (14.2 tonnes) submerged; increased maximum submerged speed to 6kt (6.9mph, 11kmh) and submerged range to 70nm (80.5 miles, 129km) at 2kt (2.3mph, 3.7kmh); and permitted a crew of three to be carried; at least one a trained “frogman”.

The Leonardo da Vinci with the CA seated in the special cradle.

Date: December 1943

Place: Hudson River, New York, USA

Attack by: Italian midget submarine “C.A.2”

Target: Shipping at anchor and dock installations

Urged on by the German high command, who stressed the moral effect on the Allies of increased Italian naval effort in the Atlantic, Cdr Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, commanding the 10th Light Flotilla, planned spectacular and potentially suicidal missions for the Italian midgets: attacks on the British base at Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa – and on harbours along the east coast of the United States. The Freetown plan, for which C.A.1 was allocated, was abandoned when it was decided that British defensive measures allowed no chance of success; but the operation against the USA, with New York specified as the target for maximum psychological effect, reached an advanced planning stage.

In mid-1942, in preparation for the New York raid, C.A.2 was transported overland to Bordeaux, where “Betasom”, headquarters for Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic, was commanded by Capt Enzo Grossi. There, too, came the Marconi-class submarine Leonardo da Vinci of 1,190/1,489 tons (1209/1513 tonnes), selected as the midget’s carrier. Under the direction of Cdr Borghese and SubLt Massano, Italian workshops at Bordeaux under Major (naval rank) Fenu removed Da Vinci’s 3.9in (100mm) gun and in its place, just forward of the conning-tower, constructed a semi-recessed “pouch” with retaining shackles for C.A.2. This arrangement led to the mother boat being designated the Canguro (“Kangaroo”). Sea trials under Borghese’s command proved to his satisfaction that the midget could be launched from the submerged Kangaroo and could be recovered when the mother boat surfaced beneath it. The latter point was important in avoiding any indication that the projected mission was regarded as suicidal: just so had the IJN made “official” plans to recover its midgets after Pearl Harbor.

According to Borghese, the Kangaroo (not Da Vinci, which was sunk by British warships off the Azores in May 1943) would launch its midget while submerged off New York Bay. C.A.2 (or, in the later stages of the operational planning, the near-identical C.A.3 or C.A.4) would make its way by night into the crowded harbour at the mouth of the Hudson. Two of the three crewmen, in frogmen’s gear, would leave the boat to plant time-fuzed explosive charges – eight 220lb (100kg) charges and twenty 4.4lb (2kg) “limpets” were carried – under ships and against dock installations. Then C.A.2 would slip downriver to make rendezvous at sea with the Kangaroo.

The suicidal nature of the plan is obvious. Borghese made the airy assumption that New York’s harbour defences “against such a surprise attack presumably didn’t exist” – although the “happy time” enjoyed by German U-boats off the American east coast in the earlier part of 1942 had resulted in much-improved anti- submarine patrolling. The Kangaroo would have to surface in American coastal waters to allow the midget’s crew to enter their craft, since they had no means of access from the mother boat; and it would have to surface again offshore, in the aftermath of the attack, to retrieve the midget. Finally, it was estimated that the midget itself, with a submerged capability – for C.A.2, C.A.3 or C.A.4 – of no more than 70nm (80.5 miles, 129km), might need to remain in the Hudson for up to two days. Yet, according to Borghese, only Italy’s collapse in September 1943 prevented the mission from being carried out, as planned, in December of that year. As well as the four C.A.-type boats, the Italian Navy built 22 midgets of C.B.-type (some of them completed under the Italian Fascist Republic in 1943–44). These four-man boats of 36/45 tons (36.6/45.7 tonnes) were not used for “special attack” missions but for conventional torpedo operations. In this role, they had some success in the Black Sea, where a six-strong flotilla operating from the Romanian port of Constanta is credited in Italian and German records (at variance with other sources) with sinking the Soviet submarines Shch. 208, in June 1942, and Shch. 207 in August 1943.

Semovente 90/53

The Semovente 90/53 was a heavy Italian self-propelled gun and tank destroyer, used by the Italian and German Armies during World War II.

It was created by mounting a 90 mm Cannone da 90/53 anti-aircraft gun on top of an enlarged chassis of a M14/41 tank. Only 48 of these vehicles were produced, all in 1941. This low production was due to Italy’s limited industrial capability at the time, as well as high demand for the 90 mm gun for regular anti-aircraft duties.

The Semovente 90/53 was primarily developed in response to demands by Italian forces on the Eastern Front for a vehicle-mounted anti-tank weapon that could take on Soviet T-34 and KV tanks. Italian armored forces on the Eastern Front were equipped only with the L6/40 tank and Semovente 47/32 self-propelled gun; neither of these had the firepower to cope with the Soviet medium and heavy tanks. However, no Semovente 90/53 were ever sent to the Eastern Front.

The major drawback of the Semovente 90/53, as with many self-propelled gun types of World War II, was the open top and rear of the gun compartment, which left the gun crew exposed to shrapnel and small arms fire. In addition, the Semovente 90/53 had little or no armor in most areas. Because these vehicles were designed to operate far enough away from enemy vehicles to not be subject to incoming fire, this was initially not considered a problem. The small ammunition capacity of the vehicle was also a problem; only six rounds could be carried. This necessitated the creation of special ammunition carriers out of Fiat L6/40 tanks, one accompanying each Semovente 90/53 in the field. The L6 ammunition carrier itself carried 26 rounds along with an additional 40 rounds in a towed trailer. It fired Effetto Pronto, or HEAT rounds, which could pierce 70 mm armor plating at a range of 2,200 meters.

None were ever sent to the Russian Front. In the North African Campaign, the Semovente 90/53 proved to be an effective weapon and its long range was well suited to the flat and open desert terrain. 24 Semovente 90/53s saw service against the Allies in the 10° Ragruppamento Semoventi, which was stationed in Sicily during the Allied invasion in 1943. Following the surrender of Italy in September 1943, the few surviving Semovente 90/53 were seized by the German Army, but were of little value in the mountainous terrain of Northern Italy where they operated. As a result, most finished their careers as long-range artillery.



Directly evolved from the Carro Armato 8ton of 1935 vintage and of similar dimensions, with the same diesel engine and 37mm gun. It differed in having superior sprung bogie suspension, the 37mm gun remaining in the superstructure. Impetus for its adoption came after early operations by Italian-equipped Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 had shown up the inadequacy of the little CV 35 light tanks. A redesign of the Carro Armato 8ton prototype was ordered, Ansaldo and Fiat being asked to build 100 of the new vehicles under the designation Carro Armato M11(8T). First deliveries were made in early 1939 and were completed by 1940. The M 11/39 was of riveted construction with rear engine, front drive, side access doors, and the manually operated turret was offset to the left. There was a stowage box formed within the hull at the rear. Owing to its very light armour and small size the M 11/39 was obsolescent by the lime it went into action in Libya in 1940.

Many vehicles were swiftly knocked out and the type was withdrawn from service early in 1941. 11tons; crew 3; 37mm gun plus 2 MG; armour 6-30 mm; engine (diesel V8) 105hp; 21mph; 15.5ft x 7.08ft x 7.33ft. Other users: Few captured and used temporarily by Australian forces in the Western Desert, early 1941.

M11/39s in Compass

A handful of surviving M11s were used at Tobruk – a brisk Italian counterattack there being led by a few M11s. There were 9 M11s in running order inside the fortress, forming what was left of the 1st Battalion, 4th Tank Regiment, under Capt. V. La Rosa. Most officers of the Battalion were killed or wounded in action. An M11 platoon instead was employed in the Derna sector, January 1941, against the advancing Australians of Robertson’s brigade. According to the Australian Official History the tanks played practically no role in the battle as their crews were put out of combat by sniping fire while they were standing outside their tanks.

Additionally, my understanding of the organisation of the two M11/39 battalions in Nth Africa is three companies of two platoons of 5 tanks each and a platoon commanders tank and a battalion HQ company of 2 tanks making 35 tanks in each battalion. The 24 tanks in East Africa were two coys of 11 tanks and an HQ coy of two tanks. At the start of Libyan campaign, the Italian army have on hand a lot of L battalion and only two M11/39 battalions. This two battalion were: 1st and 2nd armoured battalion M 11/39 of 32. o Reggimento Fanteria Carrista of 132. a Ariete Armoured Division. They have a theoretical composition of 37 tanks (each) subdivided in two companies of 13 tank each. An Hq company with 10 tanks and a single Hq tank. For the Sidi Barrani offensive the Italian HQ grouped this two armoured battalion with other L battalion to form two provisional “ad hoc” “Raggruppamenti carristi” with this composition: 1. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 21. o, 62. o and 63. o and 1. o battaglione carri M11/39 2. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 9. o, 20. o and 61. o and 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 The 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 and the 60. o battaglione carri L 3/35 give, a company each to “Raggruppamento Maletti” to form a provisional tank battalion. After the Sidi Barrani offensive 23 M11/39 tank went to the divisional repair station for repair. At the start of December in Marsah Lucch the Italian HQ start to group some tank battalion to for a provisional armoured brigade. This one grouped: 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39, 3. o battaglione carri m 13/40, 21. o e 60. o battaglione carri L and some Bersaglieri and artillery units.

At the start of Compass offensive, the 2nd battalion M 11/39 (with only 22 tank) was attached to “Raggruppamento Maletti”. The unit was entirely destroyed between December/9/1940 and January/5/1941 1941. The 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 with only 5 tanks was detached to Ain el Gazala airport. All its “out” tanks went to Tobruk for repair. With the loss of Tobruck all these tanks were lost. After some days also the remnants of 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 were lost. I believe 322a Compagnia carri M11 had some in service in AOI until May 1941. More or less.

Africa Orientale Italiana

The Italian tanks at Agordat were L3 tankettes and a small number of M11/39s (there were 24 M11/39s in all in East Africa in June 1940). The tanks clashed frontally, with predictable results.

The last operational mention of M11 tanks in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East Africa) I know about is the battle of Agordat, January 1941. I have seen a photo of a relinquished M11 “in Massawa” (so reads the caption): Massawa fell in April 1941. I am unsure, though, whether M11s took actually part in some fighting near Massawa or elsewhere after Agordat. – For the defense of Massaua, only 2x L3 tankettes of 1a Compagnia were available (not sure they had any useful role!); they had recently been sent from Asmara, probably after repairs.  No mention of M11/39 at Massaua.  But it could be that some damaged M11 had been afterwards transported to Massawa by the Allies and photographed there. –

There were many small scale engagements involving the M11/39 of 322e Comp., but I was thinking of its participation in the Raggruppamento motorizzato “Buonamico” (a hodge-podge of small motorized units commanded by Colonel Giuseppe Buonamico), and then with the 25th Colonial Division late in the AOI campaign.

In late April 1941, General Gazzera ordered a diversionary attack towards Adama.  322a Comp. was part of this, with 10x M11/39, but the advance was stopped short.  The column was exposed to air attacks, but apparently the tanks saw no serious action there. At the Bubissa river (11 May 1941), the M11 made a successful counterattack though (see Gazzera, p. 128). And later (19 May), near the Billate river, the M. 11 (reduced to 5) were involved in a fight against South-African troops.  25th Col. Division commander, Colonel De Cicco, was killed while riding upfront on a M. 11 (along with the crew); he was awarded posthumously a “Medaglia d’oro alla valor militare” (Gazzera, p. 103; Le operazioni in AO, II, p. 401). 322a Comp. disappeared at Soddu (22 may), along with the remains of 25th Col. Div.

Some M11s were used in the Battles of the Lakes, but I believe 10-12 were used along with some L3s and armoured cars. The South African Official history has quite a bit of information concerning operations in this area. HQ coy it should be two tanks making 35 tanks per M11 battalion a total of 70 tanks in Libya and 24 tanks in IEA and 6 left back in Italy which I gather were sent to the Adriatic some time later in the war. Italian and German OH’s clearly state 74x M11/39 sent to Libya and 24 to East Africa. Try again. Here’s some more information on the AOI M11/39’s that might be of interest:

24 were present at start of campaign along with 36-39 tankettes 10 were lost at Agordat (1 medium tank damaged /destroyed Bubissa hill after being hit by artillery fire May 1941 3 medium tanks captured at Colito 19 May 1941 6 medium tanks plus 4 tankettes captured at Soddu 22 May 1941 additionally 9 tankettes were captured at Dadaba 13 May 1941.

Download British 1943 Report on M11/39

Italian Navy 1940

Of the various design teams from the subordinate powers that were pressed into action around the globe, arguably none managed to produce a range of vessels under the treaty limits with more flair and panache than the Italians. Encouraged by the fascist dictatorship that Mussolini had erected after becoming prime minister in October 1922, the Italian Navy needed no second bidding to create something of a stir in the Mediterranean. Apart from the appearance of their ambitious 10,000-ton cruisers – TRENTO and TRIESTE – in 1927, units of the new light `condottieri’ type Giussano class (5,110 tons) were achieving sea trial speeds of roughly 40 knots by 1930 without sacrificing armaments to do so. Their new destroyers were soon going even faster, even though they were notoriously poor sea keepers and rolled viciously in bad weather. Speed was, of course, an extremely useful asset for any vessel to have at her disposal, but better protection for her crew was imperative if she was to be combative as well as swift and be able to make any lasting impression on those that she would be employed against.

Wartime shortages and the British blockade had made the situation critical in some areas even during Italy’s nine months of “non-belligerence.” In January 1940 the nation had possessed only twelve days’ worth of coking coal for blast furnaces (which suffered damage if allowed to go out), and some individual facilities had access to no more than a single day’s supply in reserve. The situation could only grow worse as the war progress, and Italy moved from being a bystander to being a participant, with the much greater consumption of strategic materials implied therein. By the summer of 1943 Germany had provided the Italians with some forty million tons of coal, one of the few areas in which their allies largely kept their economic agreements. The Germans had also supplied the Italians with 2.5 million tons of various metals during the same period, but even this was not enough to prevent key factories in Milan and Torino from reporting, in 1942, that for every five hours worked they stood another hour idle for lack of raw materials. Oil remained an even greater problem area. By a careful policy of purchasing abroad and stockpiling during the pre-war years, the Italian Navy had managed to amass some 1,800,000 tons of oil in reserve by June 1940. At a projected wartime consumption rate of 200,000 tons per month for full operations, that would be the equivalent of nine months’ supplies. The Army and the Air Force were in much worse shape, each having access to about 100,000 tons of petroleum products (including lubricants). Although the needs of these latter two services did not approach the prodigious thirst for bunker oil of the Navy’s big ships, their holdings nonetheless amounted to no more than a few months’ supplies. Essentially, the Army and Air Force had managed to stockpile just enough to survive the short war Mussolini predicted in late May 1940, and nothing more. The Army’s situation was so bad that in 1939, when the first Italian armored divisions were formed, and deployed to their defensive home stations, none of these units had access to enough fuel for more than 120 miles’ driving. As war approached the Army had undertaken plans for establishing and stocking large fuel depots in North Africa, a perhaps rather rare piece of strategic foresight which would have proved immensely helpfull to the Axis cause in that theatre had it been implemented. But in the face of the climate of scarcity described above this kind of planning represented little more than wishfull thinking, and Italian as well as German motorized units in the desert were to suffer severe fuel shortages which by the second half of 1942 came to seriously hamstring even their tactical capabilities. During the war overall Italian oil imports fell to one-fifth of the country’s normal peacetime usage! In spite of its own energetic preparations, the Navy, which had much higher consumption rates, was the service which was hit the hardest by this drought in liquid fuels. The Regia Marina, which had eaten up a good share of the pre-war military budget (each new battleship cost roughly 850 million lira, for example), was probably the best-equipped branch of the Italian armed forces. The Italian Navy had its share of serious technical shortcomings and difficulties, primarily its unpreparedness to fight an air-sea war, lacking radar, aircraft carriers, or an air force of its own. Still, the Italian battle fleet boasted some impressive ships. The two brand-new Italian battleships, the LITTORIO and the VITTORIO VENETO, were among the best in Europe when they went fully operational in August 1940. At 41,000 tons, they each mounted nine 381-mm/15-inch guns, managed a remarkable speed of 30 knots (equivalent to roughly 34.5 mph), and were very well protected, as both ships demonstrated by surviving hits of all kinds– torpedoes, shells, bombs, even rocket-propelled glider bombs– during the war. They were also among the best-engineered battleships in the world at the time of their introduction, and proved fairly efficient for their size. The Italians also had four small battleships (CAVOUR, CESARE, DORIA, and DUILIO), which dated back to the First World War, but had all since been modernized and up-gunned. (The improvements involved removing one 305-mm/12-inch gun turret, boring out the ten remaining guns to 320-mm/12.6-inch calibre, and modifying the remaining turrets to permit the guns a greater elevation. The ships also received new engines, giving a top speed of 28 knots, and additional protection below the waterline, the latter upgrade however proving insufficient, as single torpedo hits sank the DUILIO and the CAVOUR at Taranto). The Regia Marina could in addition deploy seven modern heavy cruisers, all armed with eight 203-mm/8-inch guns, four of which (TRIESTE, TRENTO, BOLZANO, GORIZIA) were very fast (35 knots or more) but lightly armored for their size, and the other three (ZARA, POLA, FIUME) of normal speed (32 knots) but somewhat better protected. The Italian Navy had sizeable fleets of light cruisers (many of them remarkable for their high speed), destroyers, smaller destroyer escorts, and submarines, with a fair percentage of modern designs in all these categories. But as the war progressed, lack of fuel began to drastically curtail the Navy’s very ability to operate. As mentioned, the Italian naval command estimated wartime needs at about 200,000 tons of oil per month. This meant a nine-month supply at the start of hostilities. However, when war was declared the Navy was immediately forced to turn over 300,000 tons from its own stocks for Air Force and civilian usage. With France tottering and the British ground forces already fled from the continent, Mussolini was at this stage gambling on a short war. When the conflict dragged on much longer than the Duce had confidently predicted, the Regia Marina was forced to scale back its actual consumption to 90,000 tons per month, then to 60,000 tons. This was reaching an absolute base level, however, since the crucial convoys to North Africa, which the Italian Navy made its top operational priority throughout the war, in themselves required about 175,000 tons of fuel every three months, if they were to be properly escorted. Vigorous British opposition made the provision of such escorts imperative, but if the Italians were to continue putting their full efforts into the convoy activities on the level demanded, there would be virtually no fuel left for anything else. And, indeed, by the second half of 1942 even submarine sorties were curtailed by fuel shortages, so that only a small percentage of the boats in operational condition were able to actually deploy on war patrols (for instance, of 55 boats theoretically available to attack Allied shipping to French North Africa after the “Torch” landings in November 1942, less than a dozen subs were actually used for these missions due to lack of fuel). The crisis became so acute for the surface vessels that as early as spring 1942 the Italians had to resort to pumping fuel out of their battleships and cruisers, leaving the big ships immobilized in port, in order to keep the vital escorts running. Likewise, in 1943 Italian mine-laying efforts also came to a virtual halt, as even these small vessels were emptied of their fuel to permit continued operations by the escort craft. The severe shortages had, of course, all kinds of operational ramifications, none of them good from the Italian point of view. After June 1942, when the mere fact of their sortie forced a British convoy to Malta to turn back, the battleships were essentially confined to port due to lack of fuel– they would not come out again until Italy surrendered, and they dashed to Malta to give themselves up. Training throughout the fleet suffered as well, and in fact had been cut back due to fuel shortages even in the pre-war years. Practically all of the oil the Italians received during the war came from Romania, either directly in the Italian purchase of the scanty amounts still up for sale outside of the German-Romanian trade agreement, or indirectly through the Germans. In Axis joint planning, their German allies undertook to fulfill the Italian Navy’s needs (at the Merano naval conference and thereafter), but the Germans proved woefully unable to keep their promises in this matter. By the spring of 1943, by which time the Regia Marina’s own stocks had long been completely exhausted, the Italian Navy in one month received from its allies only 24,000 tons. The “paralysis” of the Italian fleet many non-Italian authors complain about was obviously at least as much a matter of material than of psychology.

When the Italians joined the war on the side of the Axis on 10 June. 65 Although four of its six battleships were not immediately operational, the Regia Marina Italiana (Royal Italian Navy) still had seven heavy cruisers, fourteen light cruisers, sixty-one destroyers, 144 torpedo boats and 117 submarines at its disposal from the outset. As such, its deployment in the Mediterranean and the Aegean was bound to complicate the Allied war effort in these seas and through its active presence in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean potentially compromise the safe operation of the Suez Canal as well. Dudley Pound and his trusted VCNS Tom Phillips certainly believed that with the French Navy apparently out of the equation, the Italians could make things very uncomfortable for the British in the Mediterranean. While they were in favour of withdrawing the fleet from Alexandria, neither Churchill nor his combative C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, would hear of it. Churchill’s fervent support for an active presence in the Mediterranean was crucial in convincing the COS to endorse the decision to retain the Alexandria base for the time being. This left Cunningham with a fleet that was certainly capable of holding its own in the Eastern Mediterranean, but whose scattered units looked acutely vulnerable at both Malta and Gibraltar without substantial French support and with the Spanish dictator General Franco weighing up the option of abandoning neutrality in favour of joining the Axis Powers as Hitler and Mussolini fervently wished he would.

It was with unalloyed relief that both Cunningham and Somerville put their recent confrontations with the French behind them and sought to take the fight to their real enemy – the Italians – in the Mediterranean during the next few weeks. An initial 105-minute engagement between the two fleets took place off the southeast coast of Calabria during the afternoon of 9 July. Although indecisive, the Battle of Punta Stilo demonstrated that Admiral Inigo Campioni’s capital ships were fast and were well supported by light forces that had `outnumbered, outgunned and outranged’ Cunningham’s own cruisers. When the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Italians in all types of aircraft was also factored in, Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet looked decidedly shorthanded and desperately in need of a modern carrier if it was do something more than merely hold its own in these waters. Churchill wanted much more than a mere stalemate in the Mediterranean and was prepared to support the call for reinforcements to be sent to Alexandria so that the fight could be taken to the Regia Marina. His enthusiasm for doing so was heightened by the action off Cape Spada (Crete) on 19 July and in the Gulf of Bumbah (off Tobruk) on the following day when a mixture of Allied warships and carrier aircraft got much the better of the Italians. What these three encounters in July revealed was an underlying inconsistency in the performance levels of the Italian Navy. While it could be good on occasion, it could also be demonstrably lame on others. It was a mercurial condition that afflicted the other services too, and left both friends and enemies alike wondering just what to expect from the Italians in the war.

Although it was tempting for those in Whitehall to dismiss the bombastic Mussolini as a preposterous poseur and his military as more of a liability than an asset to the Axis cause, the fact was that both were still perfectly capable of complicating the strategic picture for the British and they demonstrated this art to perfection by invading British Somaliland at the beginning of August. Once again the British were forced to retreat and conduct the latest of their series of evacuations – a small scale affair from Berbera to Aden – within a few days. Success in one theatre was quickly followed by failure in another. Throughout the war Italian combined arms operations routinely promised more than they actually delivered. Too often the degree of liaison between the services or the level of competence of any one of them left much to be desired. Above all, however, the failure of the Italian military to make the most of its geographical position was to be a recurring and galling theme for the fascist leadership. An early example of what was to come was shown in late August when an important Allied reinforcement convoy (Operation Hats) sailed through the heart of the Mediterranean to join Cunningham’s Fleet at Alexandria defying and evading aerial reconnaissance, submarine patrols and an Italian Fleet bristling with five battleships, thirteen cruisers and thirty-nine destroyers that had been deployed to detect and destroy it.

New major ships delivered to the Italian Navy during the war. The chief of these were the last eight big destroyers (1,820 tons) of the SOLDATO class (the first batch of eleven had entered service just prior to the war), and the three fast but very small cruisers of the “Roman Generals” class (because that’s what they were named after). None of these ships was available before 1942, and the Italians didn’t have much luck with the cruisers. The first one to come into service, the ATTILIO REGOLO, had only been operational for two months when it had its bow blown off by a British submarine’s torpedo while returning from a minelaying mission in November 1942, putting it out of action for six months. The TRAIANO had not even gone fully operational before it was sunk in its Sicilian harbor by a British underwater assault team using methods deliberately copied from the Italian special shipping attack units, this in January 1943. The SCIPIONE, while passing through the straits of Messina to take up a new assignment as a minelayer in the Ionian Sea in July 1943, was attacked in these narrow waters by four small British motor torpedo boats. But this time the Italians got the upper hand, and the SCIPIONE, with some very accurate shooting, sank two of its assailants and set another one on fire.

There was one aspect of naval warfare in which the Italians were indubitably the world leaders in 1940-43, not only in theory and practice, but also in the development of the relevant technology. That was in special attack methods, particularly geared toward destruction of enemy ships in their harbors via penetration by small undersea or surface units. The Italians lumped these methods under the title “mezzi navali d’assalto” or “naval assault craft.” The Italians had indeed pioneered the modern applications of this field during the First World War, when they produced some remarkably sophisticated devices (including one which crawled like a tank over the ocean floor) and had scored a stunning success with the sinking of the Austrian battleship VIRIBUS UNITIS. In 1940 these special assault methods were divided into four categories. The first of the “mezzi navali d’assalto” were the “explosive motorboats” (“motoscafi esplosivi”). These were exactly what the name implied, small, fast boats (of very shallow draft to aid in negotiating potentially blocked harbor entrances), filled with explosives, which were to be rammed into enemy ships. Unlike the later Japanese “kaiten,” this was not intended as a suicide mission. The operator of the boat, once zeroing in on his target, locked the steering mechanism, and then, at about 100-200 yards away, rolled off a special platform built on to the back of the boat for this purpose, and swam like hell in the opposite direction (exceptional swimming ability was one of the prerequisites for inclusion in the elite force formed to employ these various attack methods). Although five of these craft were later sent to the Black Sea, their most memorable employment was in a raid on Suda Bay, the main British naval base on Crete, in March 1941. Six boats, deployed from the destroyers CRISPI and SELLA, managed to enter the harbor, and these sank a tanker and a freighter, as well as damaging the heavy cruiser YORK so badly that the ship had to be beached, and although later used as a sort of semi-floating headquarters (thus leading to later claims by German Stuka pilots that they had “sunk” the cruiser) it never sailed again.

The most dangerous, and most successful, of the Italian special attack craft were the “piloted torpedoes” (“siluri pilotati”). Also known as SLC’s (for “Siluro a Lenta Corsa” or “Slow-running Torpedo”), these were small underwater vehicles, which looked very much like a torpedo, on which the two crewmen sat, straddling the craft as if on horseback and breathing with “scuba” type oxygen tanks. A small electric motor drove the device at a top speed of 4.5 knots, although the normal operating speed was half that, and the “torpedo” could dive to about 100 feet (30 meters). The craft could travel under its own power for up to 15 miles, though more often 10-12 miles under actual operating conditions (at top speed, however, the battery ran out after about four miles). The “piloted torpedo” had a detachable, 661-lb (300 kg) magnetic warhead (early in the program lighter warheads were used, but the 300 kg was both the most common and the most effective), fitted with a time fuze, which was attached to the underside of the target vessel. The Italian specialists who operated them called them “maiali” (“pigs”), because when attacking a ship they looked like piglets suckling at a sow’s belly. A number of Italian subs were specially fitted to transport and launch the “siluri pilotati.” Seven Italian submarines were converted for various special attack operations at one time or another, but of these only four (originally the IRIDE, GONDAR, and SCIRE, later the AMBRA as a replacement after the first two of these were sunk) were actually employed on “live” missions with this equipment. The conversion for all four of these boats involved the installation of three watertight containers on the sub’s deck, each holding a single “piloted torpedo,” which could then be prepared for action while dry and launched by the submarine while submerged.

A third class of the “naval assault craft” were the midget submarines (“sommergibili tascabili”). The RMI experimented with both a two-man and a four-man version (the two-man called the CA, the four-man the CB). The CA was slow in reaching operational service, but twelve of the four-man type, the CB, were eventually built before the surrender to the Allies. At 36 tons, these little craft had a top speed of 7.5 knots surfaced or seven knots submerged. They could achieve a range of up to 1,400 miles on the surface (at three knots), but only about 50 miles submerged. Armament consisted of two external 17.7-inch torpedo tubes, mounted in much the same fashion as on the MAS torpedo boats, and in fact the CB, with its rather high foredeck and low, streamlined bridge, when surfaced bore an uncanny resemblance to the MAS. Six of the midget subs were sent to operate against the Soviets in the Black Sea in May 1942, and they had some success there. In June 1942 the CB-3 sank the Russian STALIN-class submarine S-32, and a few days later the CB-2 sank the smaller Shchuka-type sub Shch-306. One CB-type midget was lost during operations (to air attack while in port), the survivors eventually given to the Royal Romanian Navy. The Germans praised the dedication to duty demonstrated by the crews of these little boats on extensive patrols blockading the Soviets in Sebastopol during the Axis conquest of the Crimea. The final special attack tactic worked out by the Italians was the use of what were called “Gamma men.” These were not machines, but humans– strong, trained ocean swimmers, wearing flipper fins on their feet and towing small magnetic mines attached to their belts. They were usually carried to the scene of their assaults in submarines (some being deposited behind enemy lines in Tunisia by this method of insertion as late as the opening weeks of 1943, although in this case without much result).

However, there was at least one notable incident, Franco Maugheri and the SIS (naval intelligence), involving a bit more cloak-and-dagger stuff. In July 1943, an experienced Italian “frogman” named Luigi Ferraro, helped by SIS agents who accompanied him on the mission, made his way in disguise to Alexandria, his suitcases full of magnetic mines and diving gear. By staying on the move, he managed to remain undetected by the authorities long enough to mine (after long swims from remote beaches to the anchorages) two ships at Alexandria, and two more at Mersina in Syria. Three of the four vessels were sunk, the British saving the fourth when they discovered the mine attached to its hull before it exploded. Ferraro also managed to make his getaway. It is worth noting that Italian intelligence had a pretty fair network of agents and informants in Egypt, who in particular kept them regularly informed of shipping movements at Alexandria and Aboukir (although one of their greatest successes, the sinking of the two battleships at Alexandria, remained unknown to them for several weeks, as all of the crews of the “piloted torpedoes” involved were captured, and the ships settled on the bottom at their shallow berths still looked like they were afloat at first glance in aerial reconnaissance photos).

The Italians formed a special unit to employ the “mezzi navali d’assalto,” which was given the cover name 10th MAS Flotilla (“decima mas” to the Italians). The unit did have a few MAS boats assigned to it, both to legitimize the cover story and also to assist in operations (for example, the attempt on Malta of July 1941, of which more later). It also included the specially-modified submarines described above, and had other larger naval units attached as necessary (for example, the two destroyers used in the Suda Bay operation and the fast transport DIANA for the Malta attempt). The original commander of the 10th MAS was Commander Giorgini.

The Italian Navy did indeed fight the powerful British Royal Navy for 39 months in the Mediterranean– and fought to something like a draw, with wild swings of momentum and dominance, from the summer of 1940 until the fall of 1942, when the balance swung to the British for the last time. And it did so with minimal German assistance, at least in the surface war (German submarines achieved a few spectacular successes when they first appeared in late 1941, but proved a minor factor in the long run– the most palpable German contribution to the Mediterranean sea war was arguably in the air). Likewise, the Italian merchant fleet provided the bulk of the transport that kept the North African theatre operational for almost three years (with almost entirely Italian escorts), in a grueling convoy war that consumed considerable resources on both sides. But the reach of the Regia Marina ranged much further than the Med, Aegean, etc. Italian submarines operated in both North and South Atlantic, in the Caribbean, off the coasts of the United States and Brazil. They cruised on missions to the Indian Ocean and back, and in fact often enjoyed their best success in these various waters more remote from Europe proper (for example, during the “happy time” for German U-boats off the US coasts in early 1942, five Italian subs also operating in American waters between them sank 14 ships totalling 88,000 tons, a fairly merry outing as well. The most successful Italian submarine of the war, in terms of tonnage sunk, the LEONARDO DA VINCI, sank six ships totalling 58,000 tons on a single cruise into the Indian Ocean and back, accounting for roughly half its total in the war). The Italians were also the first navy in the world to operate submarines in the Red Sea. Italian subs and blockade runners (and the colonial sloop ERITREA) sailed into the Far East, some of them all the way to Japan and let’s not forget that small detachment of Italian marines stationed in China between the wars.

The Battle of Gazala – Rommel’s Masterpiece

26 MAY-21 JUNE 1942

“It was only in the desert that the principles of armoured warfare as they were taught in theory before the war could be fully applied and thoroughly developed. It was only in the desert that real tank battles were fought by large-scale formations ” Erwin Rommel

The wide open spaces and lack of inhabited areas have always given desert warfare its own particular quality. In World War II, the campaigns fought in the coastal desert of Italian Libya had their own special importance for believers in the tank and in the blitzkrieg. They offered the chance of manoeuvre and the interplay of rapidly moving armoured forces almost in their purest form. It was in this arena that Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most famous of all the German generals of the war, earned his formidable reputation as a winner of armoured battles.

The battle that was fought south of Gazala in eastern Libya, between 26 May and 14 June 1942, is crucial in that it was Rommel’s greatest victory over the British Eighth Army. His German Afrika Korps, combined with substantial Italian elements, took on and decisively defeated British, Imperial, and Allied forces which were dug-in behind minefields in a strongly defended position. Furthermore, the Eighth Army had a narrow superiority in numbers of men, tanks, and guns. This might seem unexceptional, were it not that orthodox tactics required a 3:1 advantage to the attacker, which was precisely what Montgomery demanded before he attacked Rommel at El Alamein 6 months later. Seen in this light, Rommel’s victory was nothing less than miraculous. Yet it should also be remembered that it almost never came to pass, and that for 12 hours at the battle’s crisis it was Rommel who contemplated surrender.

The British Plans

The British Eighth Army was no easy opponent for Rommel. Not only had it tasted victory over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941, but it had also driven back an over-extended Afrika Korps to El Agheila in `Operation Crusader’ at the end of 1941. In May 1942 it was in position covering Tobruk (held by its 2nd South African Division), because it had been forced back there by Rommel’s outflanking manoeuvre in January. Yet Rommel had been compelled to halt before the apparently well-planned defences of the Gazala Line. Almost 60 miles of minefields (known as the `mine marsh’) stretched south from the coast to the fortress at Bir Hacheim, designed to protect the desert flank of Eighth Army from encirclement.

About 100,000 strong, the bulk of Eighth Army formations were concentrated into `boxes’, independent strongpoints combining infantry and artillery. In the north, there was the 1st South African Division, then the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division, stretching as far as the Sidi Muftah box in the centre of the position. A brigade-sized force of Free French under Major General Joseph Pierre Koenig held Bir Hacheim, yet 20 miles of mine marsh between these two boxes was left uncovered by artillery.

In addition, the British commander Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie had forgotten the lessons of the early desert war. While one of his successful predecessors, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, had recognized the need to keep a deep cushion of reconnaissance forces between him and the enemy, Ritchie had almost all his infantry in the front line. His tank formations, 1st Armoured Division, and the famous 7th Armoured Division (the `Desert Rats’), were kept a little to the right rear of the main position, but they were not properly integrated into the defence and not capable of coordinating with the other arms to best effect. This was despite reforms instituted by the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck (known as The Auk’ to all). The `Crusader’ operation, although eventually successful, had proved the inflexibility of grouping armour and infantry in separate divisional formations, so Auchinleck broke them down into self-contained brigade groups with their own engineers and supporting artillery. By the start of the Gazala battle an armoured division was, theoretically at least, composed of an armoured brigade and two motorized infantry brigade groups, and the intention was to combine armour and anti¬ tank weapons in imitation of successful German tactics.

Yet the Eighth Army lacked the tactical doctrine to operate these novel formations effectively, and the infantry and armour were condemned to fight separate battles. Ritchie’s unimaginative deployment was matched by the clumsy command structure. The area north of the Trigh Capuzzo highway he designated as under XIII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General William (`Strafer’) Gott. South of this line lay XXX Corps under Lieutenant General Baron Willoughby Norrie, who commanded troops in the boxes as well as the two armoured divisions, an unhappy arrangement further worsened by their scattered dispositions. Auchinleck advocated a concentration of armour centrally around the box code-named `Knightsbridge’, but Ritchie did not take this advice. Both British commanders were aware that a sweep around Eighth Army’s left or desert flank was a likely option; but they were expecting an attack on the centre of their position along the Trigh Capuzzo.

The German Plans

The German attack was code-named `Operation Theseus’. Field Marshal Rommel’s plan, as expressed in his planning order of 1 May, was no less than the destruction of the enemy forces opposing him and the subsequent capture of Tobruk. This fortress had held out against an eight-month siege in 1941, and seizing it was crucial to the wider plan of Rommel’s attack upon Egypt. Axis forces numbered about 90,000, including 561 tanks, although 228 of these were of Italian manufacture, known to the British as `mobile coffins’. Rommel’s 333 German tanks, or Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw), included 220 PzKw IIIs, most of the rest being PzKw IVs with short-barrelled guns more effective in the infantry support role. There were also upgraded versions of both types, known as `Specials’, whose long 75-mm guns gave them greater penetration, but Rommel had only 4 PzKw IV Specials and 14 PzKw Specials at the beginning of the battle. This was important because it meant that the Germans did not have the decisive qualitative superiority in armour with which they have so often been credited. The British possessed an enormous numerical superiority in armour – 849 tanks – although only 167 were the new US-built M3 Grants, which carried a 75-mm gun and were superior to the PzKw Ills.

A crucial part of the Desert War was fought in the air. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe, Rommel’s immediate superior, was acutely conscious of the need to keep the Panzerarmee supplied with petrol, food, and other necessities. In order to do this he directed an intensive bombing campaign against Malta, the British island base which threatened the Axis supply route from Naples to Tripoli. The results led to Kesselring prematurely declaring on 11 April that: `Malta as a naval base no longer demands consideration’. In the build-up to the Gazala battle, supplies reaching Rommel greatly increased. In January 1942, the Afrika Korps received 60,000 tons of fuel; in April this had risen to 150,00 tons. Also, on 26 May, Kesselring was able to assemble some 260 aircraft to support Rommel’s attack. Against them, the British Desert Air Force could only muster 190 aircraft, and its US-built P-40 Kittyhawk and Hawker Hurricane fighters proved inferior to the new Messerschmitt Bf 109F. As a result, the Germans were able to maintain a considerable air superiority throughout the battle.

The Opening Moves

Rommel launched his attack on the afternoon of 26 May. Gruppe Cruewell under Lieutenant General Ludwig Cruewell, himself a former Afrika Korps commander, consisting of four Italian infantry divisions under X Corps and XXI Corps, attacked the British and South African positions north of the Trigh Capuzzo. This was a feint to persuade the enemy that Cruewell’s was the main point of attack.

In fact, Rommel was already leading 10,000 vehicles southeast. At about 9.00 p. m., on the pre-arranged codeword `Venezia’ (Venice), Rommel swung this force around Eighth Army’s southern flank. On the inside of the wheel were the Italian Trieste Motorized Division, then their Ariete Armoured Division, then the German mobile forces: 21st Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division, and, on the extreme right flank, 90th Light Division. The last named carried aircraft propellers to create more dust and convince the British that theirs was also a tank formation.

At 6.30 a. m. on 27 May the Ariete fell upon the surprised 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade and, although held up momentarily, dispersed it with the help of a few tanks from 21st Panzer Division. One hour later, 90th Light Division came into contact with the 7th Motorized Brigade (part of 7th African Division) was supposed to coordinate with 22nd Armoured Brigade’s 156 tanks, but this simply failed to happen because the infantry and armour had not trained together. In the north, an attack by 32nd Army Tank Brigade was struck in the flank by German panzers, and of the 70 Matilda and Valentine infantry tanks only 20 survived the attack.

On the afternoon of 5 June the Germans counter-attacked; a pincer movement with 21st Panzer Division and Ariete in the north and 15th Panzer from the south. That evening, Major General Messervy’s headquarters was overrun again, and the Indian units’ command and control broke down completely; 22nd Armoured Brigade was unable to provide any support, having already been withdrawn into leaguer for the night. It too had been severely handled, losing 60 tanks. The following day 15th Panzer struck through Bir el Harmat to close the line of retreat: 3,100 prisoners, 96 guns, and 37 anti-tank guns fell into German hands. Eighth Army had lost over half its cruiser tanks (down from 300 to 132), and 50 out of 70 infantry support tanks. Rommel’s assessment of the situation was that Ritchie had missed a great opportunity to form a Schwerpunkt (`critical point of an attack’) in front of 21st Panzer Division.

One area in which the British did enjoy success was in raids upon the German supply line. On 8 June, Italian positions were overrun by four troops from 8th Royal Tank Regiment supported by South African armoured car and reconnaissance units. On the same day an infantry column of 2nd Rifle Brigade destroyed over 40 lorries, 4 tanks, and 7 artillery pieces. Important though such moves were, they were no more than flea bites in comparison to the kind of response that was needed to hold Rommel in check. With the hapless British assault crushingly repulsed, he was able to turn his attention to the destruction of the isolated Free French at Bir Flacheim.

Crisis at Bir Hacheim

From 2 June to 9 June there were 1,300 German air attacks on the Bir Hacheim position, 120 on the last day alone. Rommel appreciated the difficulty of the task, since he considered the carefully prepared strongpoints within Bir Hacheim as `practically proof against air and artillery attacks’. Effective ground attacks began on 6 June, the day that Rommel broke out of `The Cauldron’, when two attacks by infantry with tank support were beaten off. On 8 June, 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division, combined with 15th Panzer Division and supported by heavy Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive- bombing attacks, eventually began to the crack the position – `the thorn in my side’, as Rommel described it. Attacks the next day left 250 Axis dead in front one defending battalion’s position alone. But by the end of 9 June it was apparent to Koenig that Bir Hacheim could no longer be held.

Still, Rommel was unwilling to try and overrun the position with tanks because of the heavy losses which he knew he would have to take. On 11 June, Koenig engineered a breakout which left only 500 men in German hands, although losses in equipment had been heavy. By holding on so determinedly the Free French had bought time for their Allies. Could this now be used to the best advantage? Although Rommel had turned Eighth Army’s flank, all was not lost for the British. They held a strong defensive position stretching from the original Gazala Line in its northern portion and along the Trigh Capuzzo from the Knightsbridge box over 20 miles east to Sidi Regezh. This was defended in depth, and behind lay the garrison of Tobruk, although crucially, the town’s fortifications had not been repaired since its recovery six months earlier. Also, the Afrika Korps had taken substantial damage. It was below half its original strength and some, infantry units were down to a third; the Germans had 160 tanks and the Italians 70 tanks, although the Axis artillery was almost entirely intact, and was to be increased in strength by the large numbers of captured British guns which were distributed to its units.

The End of the Battle

For the next phase of the battle, Rommel was determined to repeat the medicine as before. Once more he intended the total destruction of the enemy. On the afternoon of 11 June, 90th Light Division moved south and leaguered for the night 7 miles south of El Adem, while 15th Panzer followed as far as Naduret el Bhesceuasc. The new British plan was to break through southeast to Bir el Gubi with 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, which would bring them upon the flank of 15th Panzer as it attacked El Adem. But the British armour was still forming up on 12 June when it was attacked from the north by 21st Panzer and Ariete and counter-attacked from the south by 15th Panzer. Although 22nd Armoured Brigade came to the assistance, it was severely mauled by German tanks. The other armoured brigades were then surrounded and destroyed. Although the figures are uncertain, it seems that on the morning of 12 June there were some 250 cruiser tanks and 80 infantry tanks available to the British; by the next day these had been reduced to 50 and 30 respectively, with 4th Armoured Brigade having only 15 tanks, and 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades only 50 tanks between them.

On 12 June, Auchinleck flew up from Cairo to assume direct command from Ritchie, but he was too late to save the situation. Almost the only factor in Eighth Army’s favour was the extreme exhaustion of the German forces, whose attacks began to falter towards the end of 13 June. The Gazala Line had become untenable. Auchinleck drew up plans for a new defensive position, centred upon Acroma, to prevent the investment of Tobruk, and Eighth Army troops west of this line were effectively abandoned to the enemy. On the night of 14 June, the South Africans in the north of the original line fell back down the Via Balbia to Tobruk. Elements of 50th (Northumbrian) Division actually broke through the Italians opposing them and swung through the desert, escaping to Egypt. For the rest of the British forces, Tobruk provided an illusory refuge. They fell back in disorder to a position that had not been maintained to provide an effective defence. Unlike the previous year when the garrison had held out for eight months, the situation was to prove impossible, and by 21 June the town had fallen. Some 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including over 13,000 South Africans) were taken prisoner, together with huge amounts of guns, ammunition, and especially fuel essential to the Afrika Korps’ continued mobility.

After the Battle

Rommel’s plan had succeeded brilliantly. Although it had come near to failure on 29 May, and he himself had been prepared to surrender, Rommel was able to rescue the situation and inflict upon Eighth Army the most severe defeat it had ever suffered. His signal of 21 June epitomizes his style of command: Tor all troops of the Panzerarmee… Fortress of Tobruk has capitulated. All units will reassemble and prepare for further advance’. Five days later he was at El Alamein, the last-ditch defence line before Egypt – but that is another story. – Summer 1942 was the zenith of Rommel’s career in North Africa. He himself summed up why the British could not beat him by asking, `What is the advantage of enjoying overall superiority if you allow your enemy to smash your formations one after another; your enemy who manages in single actions to concentrate superior forces at a decisive point?’ That was the essence of the kind of war he practised: blitzkrieg.

The Loss of Szent Istvan


After receiving word of the Italian declaration of war on the evening of May 23, 1915, Admiral Haus sailed from Pola with the largest Austro-Hungarian naval force to put to sea during the war. His plan was to attack the Italian east coast, hoping to disrupt Italian troop movements to the front and to inflict an early blow against Italian morale. Haus’ bombardment force consisted of the 12 dreadnoughts and battleships, the armored cruiser Sankt Georg, the cruiser Novara, five destroyers, and 29 torpedo boats. Haus conducted a carefully planned attack on a number of targets in this opening engagement and dispatched several strike groups from the main bombardment fleet. Zrinyi and two torpedo boats bombarded the railway facilities at Senigallia, temporarily severing the coastal rail line; Radetzky and two torpedo boats attacked the railway near the mouth of the Potenza River; Sankt Georg and two torpedo boats bombarded Rimini; finally Novara, a destroyer, and four torpedo boats attacked the Porto Corsini naval base near Ravenna. The rest of the bombardment force, including Viribus Unitis, Tegetthoff, Prinz Eugen, Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand, Erzherzog Karl, Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, Erzherzog Friedrich, Habsburg, Arpad, Babenberg, four destroyers, and 20 torpedo boats, targeted the port and military facilities at Ancona. The bombardments went off without a hitch and all of Haus’ battleships were back in Pola before midday on May 24. Here Babenberg opens fire on the the Cantiere Liguro Anconitano shipyard in Ancona.

The last major operation involving Austro-Hungarian battleships in World War I has its roots in a naval mutiny that broke out aboard several of the larger ships stationed at Cattaro on February 1, 1918. On February 3 the three Erzherzog-class battleships sailed into the Bocche and demanded the surrender of the mutineers, who were also threatened with bombardment from the coastal batteries and other ships in the port that had remained loyal. The mutiny ended with over 800 sailors dismissed from the service. Some of the blame for the poor morale throughout the fleet due to months of inaction fell upon Flottenkommandant Admiral Maximilian Njegovan, who was relieved of duty after the mutiny. Linienschiffskapitän Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya was selected personally by Kaiser Karl I to replace Njegovan, primarily because of his proven aggressive spirit. Horthy, commander of the cruiser Novara, had led a successful cruiser raid against the Otranto Barrage in May 1917. If anyone could instill an aggressive and driving spirit into the fleet, Kaiser Karl believed that Horthy was the man for the job.

Horthy had an arduous task before him. Not only did he have to address the poor morale through the navy but he also had a smaller battle fleet to command than had his predecessors. Budapest was in shipyard hands, having a Skoda 380mm L/17 howitzer mounted in place of her forward main turret. Monarch and all of the Habsburg-class battleships had been decommissioned, freeing their crews for use in the growing U-boat and naval aviation arms. The ships of the Erzherzog Karl class had been assigned to Cattaro as guard ships to take the armored cruisers that were decommissioned in the wake of the mutiny. This left the ships of the Radetzky and Tegetthoff classes as the core of the battle fleet stationed at Pola. It took Horthy some time to become acquainted with managing fleet operations so nothing large scale was immediately planned, but the new commander felt more action was critical to raise morale throughout the fleet. By late spring 1918 Horthy was ready to undertake an aggressive action with his capital ships, with the same élan with which he had led his cruisers in battle the previous year. This would be the first major operation for the fleet’s battleships since the bombardment of Ancona in 1915. On June 8, 1918 Horthy steamed out of Pola with Viribus Unitis and Prinz Eugen, followed a day later by Szent Istvan and Tegetthoff. After rendezvousing with the Erzherzog Karls out of Cattaro, Horthy planned to lay in ambush with his battleships north of the Otranto Barrage after several of his cruisers and destroyers made a hit-and-run raid against the line and enemy shipping. He hoped to welcome pursuing Allied cruisers into the waiting embrace of his battleships.

On the opposite side of the Adriatic in the early evening hours of the 9th, the Italian torpedo boats 15 OS and 18 OS left Ancona, each towing an MAS boat, MAS 15 and MAS 21. The MAS boats had orders to search throughout the night for targets off the Dalmatian coast along the main Austro-Hungarian supply route between Fiume and Cattaro. In command of the MAS boats was Lt. Luigi Rizzo, who was eager to see action. The evening patrol passed without incident. Shortly before 0300 on the 10th, Rizzo ordered his MAS boats to proceed to the rendezvous point with the torpedo boats. At 0315 Rizzo spotted a rising cloud of smoke astern and ordered his boats to reverse course to investigate. What he found greatly excited him. Rounding Sansego Island at a leisurely 14 knots were two Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts and their escorts. Rizzo, aboard MAS 15, ordered full throttle and the boats headed for the dreadnoughts. At 0325 the MAS boats sped through the Austro- Hungarian escort screen and fired their torpedoes. Aboard Szent Istvan the sea seemed calm; visibility was good except to the west, where the view was hampered by a slight haze. At 0330 a muffled explosion was felt along the starboard amidships of the dreadnought, followed by a second only moments later. The lookouts quickly scanned the horizon for enemy vessels but nothing could be seen. They then saw torpedo boat TB 76 altering course and firing shots from its bow gun. Beyond the water spouts of TB 76’s shots they spotted two MAS boats speeding off in the distance. The Szent Istvan had been struck by two torpedoes from Rizzo’s MAS 15. Within minutes the MAS boats dropped depth charges to ward off TB 76 and soon accelerated out of range of the torpedo boat’s guns. Rizzo had just earned himself a second medaglia d’oro al valor militare.

Shortly after the torpedoes struck, Linienschiffskapitän Heinrich Seitz ordered the ship’s turbines stopped. The aft boiler room had flooded and water began to leak into the forward boiler room after the explosions had ruptured the main bulkhead between the two rooms. A list of 10º to starboard developed but was brought back to 7º through counter-flooding. Captain Seitz signaled the Tegetthoff to prepare to take the crippled Szent Istvan in tow, but Tegetthoff had broken away at full speed on a zigzag course. The torpedoes fired from MAS 21 missed the dreadnought, causing her captain to order evasive action. There were several false sightings of periscopes by the jittery lookouts, followed by shots fired into the empty sea. This frantic search for phantom submarines went on for over an hour. After counter-flooding, Captain Seitz ordered Szent Istvan’s turbines back on and, creeping along at 4.5 knots, set a course for Brgulje, on the coast. In the lower decks the damage control teams were having difficulties containing the flooding. Water began leaking into the forward boiler room and adjacent ammunition stores. Bulkheads were failing to hold the force of the water to the extent that rivets were beginning to shoot out of their holes. Attempts to shore up the leaks with collision mats and hammocks failed and eventually the forward boiler room flooded. Soon all of the boilers were out except for two on the port side and these did not generate enough power to keep the pumps working. Again the dreadnought came to a halt. As a result of ineffective underwater protection, poorly constructed bulkheads (most likely due to the Danubius yard’s inexperience in building large warships), and the loss of the pumps, water continued to spread to other compartments.

At 0520, when Tegetthoff had returned from its wild goose chase, Szent Istvan signaled its sister ship to arrange a tow as quickly as possible. Her list to starboard continued to increase and eventually the casemated secondary batteries slipped below the waterline. The crews worked furiously to prepare a tow but at 0538 Szent Istvan began to lurch to starboard and the tow line had to be cut. The order to abandon ship was given as Tegetthoff backed away. The crew lined up in an orderly fashion on the sloping deck, some jumping into the water. At 0605 Szent Istvan made its final death roll and capsized. Captain Seitz and the ship’s senior officers were thrown off the bridge and a number of sailors scurried on to the keel as the ship rolled over, many injuring themselves on the sharp barnacles on the hull. At 0612 the dreadnought slipped beneath the waves. Four officers and 85 sailors were killed by the explosions or went down with the ship and the rest of the ship’s crew were rescued by Tegetthoff and the escorts. When word of the attack on Szent Istvan reached Admiral Horthy, he decided to abandon the operation against the Otranto Barrage, the element of surprise having been lost. Not knowing that Rizzo had happened upon Szent Istvan by pure chance, Horthy was convinced at the time that the Italians knew of his movements and believed that they had dispatched submarines and MAS boats to attack his forces. By the morning of June 11, Horthy’s remaining dreadnoughts had safely returned to Pola. Thus ended the last major fleet action conducted by the k. u. k. Kriegsmarine.