The death of the Chevalier de Belle-Isle, Battle of Assietta.
In October 1740, Emperor Charles VI died. In his youth he had held title as the Archduke Charles, claimant to the Spanish crown and for whom the Habsburgs waged the War for the Spanish Succession. He left a single heir, his daughter the Archduchess Maria Theresa.
The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy. Charles VI, however, negotiated with the ruling houses of Europe and the magnates of his monarchy to accept Maria Theresa as his legitimate and rightful heir and the next empress. Having secured domestic recognition of his daughter’s right to succeed him, he also acquired international recognition embodied in the document, the Pragmatic Sanction. It did not work. As soon as he died, the Bavarian and Saxon electors competed for the crown; and King Frederick II of Prussia, newly ascended to the throne, rejected Maria Theresa’s legitimacy and invaded Silesia, wealthiest of the Habsburg territories. France did not enter the war, but a French auxiliary corps was dispatched to central Germany in accordance with the Treaty of Westphalia, “to defend German liberties.”
The Spanish royal family decided the war offered an opportunity to reclaim Milan. Prince Philip of Bourbon, the youngest son of Philip V and Elizabeth Farnese, needed a crown; and Milan, along with Parma, suited him. A Spanish army landed in Tuscany-a neutral-and marched north to the Padana Plain. Then, Philip V asked his son Charles VII of Naples to return the army he lent him in 1733 to the Neapolitan and Sicilian thrones. Neapolitan troops marched north to join the Spanish army.
France too required allies. They requested Piedmontese permission to cross the Alps and march on Milan, but Charles Emmanuel III did not want to involve his state in this conflict. He realized that, in case of a French and Spanish victory, Piedmont would be caught between the Bourbons. It meant the end of any autonomous policy and of any possible dream of expanding his power in Italy. Moreover, he threatened the approaching Spanish army that if it entered the Padana Plain, his army would its his route to Milan.
At the same time, Britain perceived the precarious situation as a threat to the Balance of Power. Piedmont and Austria were alone against much of Europe, save Russia. London therefore committed its resources to the Habsburg cause. Charles Emmanuel received a £250,000 annual subsidy to keep his army on a war footing. Then, a British squadron entered the Mediterranean under Admiral Matthews, ordered to act in support of Charles Emmanuel. The British ships entered Naples harbor with some five thousand marines. Charles VII knew it. He had no fleet and very few men to defend the city because his army had marched north. So, when Matthews presented an ultimatum: recall all his regiments with the Spanish army, or the city would be shelled and the marines landed, Charles VII had little recourse but to accept the terms.
The defection of Naples eased Charles Emmanuel’s army action against the Spanish in the Padana Plain. Not wanting to face isolation, the Spanish withdrew through the Papal States along the Adriatic coast. Soon after, Charles Emmanuel countermarched rapidly to meet a second Spanish army entering Savoy via France. He won the campaign, but it was clear that the war was becoming harder to manage.
In 1743 the Spanish threatened Piedmont with two armies. Charles Emmanuel possessed no more than 42,000 men and could use only half against each Spanish army. Nonetheless, he crushed Prince Philip’s army, marching from France, at Casteldelfino. Simultaneously, the Piedmontese with their Habsburg allies fought and defeated the second army under de Gages at Camposanto, on the other side of Italy and pressed it to the Neapolitan-Papal States border on the Adriatic coast, where it sought refuge from the Neapolitan king.
In the autumn of 1743, Britain joined Piedmont and Austria in a formal league. The treaty signed in Wörms widened the scope of the conflict from Europe to Asia, Africa, and America, where it was known as King George’s War.
The 1744 campaign was hard fought. Unfortunately, Maria Theresa wanted Naples because, according to the Peace of Utrecht, it should have remained in Habsburg hands, yet the War of Polish Succession had reversed that agreement.
Charles Emmanuel warned the Austrian ruler that this would only increase the strategic dilemma. Why expand the conflict when victory was not in sight? Regardless of the free advice, she ordered her army to destroy de Gages’s Spanish army still waiting on the Neapolitan frontier. Charles VII of Naples, aware of the Austrian menace, declared war and once again united his troops with his father’s army.
An Austrian army marched south, passing through the Papal States from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian coast. Charles VII gathered the Spanish and Neapolitan army and encamped near Velletri, south of Rome. The Austrians attacked in August and were repulsed with great loss.
The defeat forced the Habsburgs to abandon central Italy in November. The Neapolitan-Spanish army followed on their heels, arriving in northern Italy. What a present for Charles Emmanuel, who had his own troubles.
In fact, France officially entered the war in that same year. A French army united with Prince Philip’s army passed the Alps, defeated the local Piedmontese resistance, and besieged Cuneo. Charles Emmanuel tried to relieve the city, but failed. He then directed the militia against the enemy’s ordnance and supply lines and, thanks to these guerrilla tactics and to Cuneo’s resistance, the Bourbon armies raised the siege and withdrew to France to take winter quarters.
In the early days of 1745, Genoa entered the conflict. The Most Serene Republic sought neutrality, just as Venice had done for the third time in forty-five years. Unfortunately, while Venice could defend its neutrality with 40,000 men, Genoa could not; and, moreover, Britain and Austria promised to give Charles Emmanuel the Marquisate of Finale, a little imperial fief in Liguria owned by the republic as a feudatory of the empire. Charles Emmanuel desired it as a port, an additional window to the Mediterranean.
In order to protect its territory, Genoa signed a treaty in Aranjuez and joined the Bourbon alliance. It was a disaster for Charles Emmanuel. The Genoese accession to the League provided the Spanish-French army with an opened route from France through Genoese territory, and now they could mass the army from France with the army from Naples via Velletri, adding to it 10,000 Genoese troops. This was the real disaster as it increased the powerful Bourbon army to 90,000 men.
As the war in Flanders continued, Charles Emmanuel received no support from Austria.
He had a mere 43,000 men. Maneuvering them well to avoid battle, he lost many fortresses but preserved his army. Despite this, he was compelled to accept an armistice in December 1745. Fortunately, Prussia accepted peace terms offered by Austria, allowing Vienna to send 12,000 men to Italy. It was not an impressive army, but enough to permit Charles Emmanuel to take the field upon the expiration of the armistice. In the spring 1746 he attacked and the Bourbons were defeated. Milan was reconquered, Piedmont liberated, and Genoa overrun by the Austrians. The Piedmontese army occupied western Liguria and the French and Spanish fled, abandoning the republic.
While Charles Emmanuel prepared an invasion of southern France, he sent a regiment to support the Corsican revolution against Genoese rule.
Genoa found itself under occupation and threatened with destruction if it did not pay 3 million scudi to Austria. Subsequently the city revolted, and the Austrian garrison was ejected. Charles Emmanuel halted his operations against France and marched to support Austrian operations against the city. The Genoese fleet, supported by coastal defenses, prevented the British fleet from shelling Genoa, but the Austrian and Piedmontese armies cut the city off from the outside world by land, while the French supplied its ally with men and material by sea.
In the spring of 1747, a new French army marched along the Mediterranean coast. Charles Emmanuel ordered his troops to hold Nice, but soon he knew that another French expeditionary force was approaching the Alps from the west. If they crossed the Alps, they could effectively threaten Turin.
Charles Emmanuel had no troops to stem the invasion. He scraped together what troops he could find. On July 19, 1747, at Assietta Hill, 30,000 French with artillery attacked 5,400 Piedmontese and 2,000 Austrians. At sunset, the French had lost 5,800 men and left more than 600 wounded to the victorious defenders. General Count Bricherasio lost only 192 Piedmontese and 27 Austrians; it was clearly a triumph.
Assietta Hill was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. A peace was signed on October 30, 1748, at Aix-la-Chapelle. Everything remained as it was before the war, except that Prince Philip of Spain obtained the duchy of Parma and Charles Emmanuel received from Maria Theresa two West Lombardy provinces, Vigevano, and Anghiera County, and a part of the territory of Pavia, setting the Milanese-Piedmontese border along the Ticino River.
Taranto, an ancient town of something like 150,000 inhabitants, had so far been troubled less by war than by foul weather. During the first days of November heavy storms had damaged or destroyed many of its protective ring of balloons and it had not been possible to repair or replace them to anything near the usual numbers. Such as were still serviceable, twenty-seven in all, were kept permanently aloft at a uniform height of about 1,000 feet. The Mar Grande, anchorage for many merchant ships in addition to its naval facilities, is roughly circular with a diameter of something over 3 miles and carefully contrived means of entrance. The western, seaward, entrance is blocked at its middle by the large island called San Pietro; from it extend submerged breakwaters in both north-east and south-east directions; at the extreme south-east of the harbour entrance, beyond the gap where three AA gun batteries were moored, a mole named Diga di San Vito connects with the mainland. Entry points for surface vessels of all kinds were narrow and commanded by fire.
Around the circumference of the Mar Grande or mounted on pontoons within it stood twenty-one batteries of 4-inch guns, eighty-four heavy and 109 light machine guns and twenty-two searchlights, ‘mostly modern type, long range, placed on shore and on pontoons’, as the Italian Commander-in-Chief’s report on the defences puts it. These, of course, were merely the fixed defences. The ships had guns and lights of their own, at least doubling the volume of fire that could be turned on any visiting aircraft. The heavy cruisers mounted eighteen large-calibre machine guns apiece, the Cavour class battleships twice as many and the Littorios both carried a dozen medium-sized AA guns along with forty heavy automatics, all specifically designed and placed to take on enemy aircraft. On a cold calculation of probabilities it did not seem very likely that machines as slow and vulnerable as the Swordfish could hope to escape destruction when plunging into such a concentration of bullets and shells in so small a space. Nor was there any real hope, however pleasant it might be to imagine it, that the Italian Navy might be caught napping. The report mentioned before by the Italian Commander-in-Chief afloat, which fell into British hands later on, is quite clear about it: ‘AA artillery. All in working order in accordance with plans which had been prepared for some time, with the addition of numerous machine guns recently arranged to deal with torpedo aircraft’. All ships were, so it said, in a state of complete readiness, with watchfulness at night and at dawn being intensified. ‘Ships’ main armaments were half-manned; AA guns fully so.’ The orders to ships were clear enough: ‘No barrage fire at the same time as that of shore batteries. Machine guns to be manned and fired with the main armament against aircraft visible to the naked eye or illuminated by searchlight.’ The gunners were experienced and their weapons good.
Diving into this lethal goldfish bowl was going to be a desperately dangerous business and with nothing like certainty of success. All the same, the sudden eruption of noise as a dozen Pegasus engines roared into their dives could be expected to unsteady the strongest of nerves. It was the only factor to be counted upon apart from the skill and dexterity of the pilots. Knowing nearly all about this as they did, it was still a prospect regarded by the aircrews and their acolytes with the highest of spirits.
The Royal Navy was, so far, the only one to have used aircraft carriers in war and, though more than a year had passed, save in Norway, they had done nothing spectacular. Keeping roofs over convoys did not amount to anything exciting to people not concerned with seafaring matters. In addition, war with Italy was not the same as the fight to the death with Germany. It could almost have been said that Italy’s war was of Italy’s life a thing apart but it was Germany’s whole existence. Young English gentlemen, as a matter of course, learnt Latin; few of them learned German. Italy, never an enemy since the Legions had left Britannia, posed no threat to the homeland. It was the purest coincidence that Mussolini, that same night, was planning to send his bombers to help out the Luftwaffe over London. They did not come well out of it since the RAF shot them all down, and the gesture was not repeated. Nevertheless it was known that the Italians were housetrained, in spite of all the Fascist windbaggery, and when not up against such as the Abyssinians, would fight clean. Those unlucky enough to fall into their hands as prisoners could count on civilized treatment. To bomb Berlin would have been a pleasure, especially to those who had seen London, Coventry, Liverpool and a score of other such places as the Luftwaffe had visited. Nobody wanted to bomb Rome.
The RAF alone had earned all the glory going so far by thrashing the German Air Force in English skies. The Army, neglected until the last minute as always, was still waiting for an opportunity to fight its battles with something better than the equivalent of a sharpened stick. Now it was the turn of the Senior Service to put on a performance more effective than that of Keyes at Zeebrugge and give the country a demonstrable victory. It needed one very badly. November is a horrible month at the best of times and during this one the war could hardly have been going worse.
In accordance with Rear-Admiral Lyster’s orders, Illustrious ‘adjusted course and speed to pass through “Position X”, [270° and 40 miles from Kabbo Point], at 20.00, when course will be altered into wind and speed adjusted to give a speed of 30 knots.’ Four cruisers and the same number of destroyers mounted guard over her. It was a fine night, with a bright three-quarter moon but a lot of low cloud at about 8,000 feet.
By the prescribed time all the dozen Swordfishes, extra tanks crammed in (or, with the bombers, fastened between the wheels) so that their usual range might be doubled, were drawn up on the flight deck. By 20.40 all of them were airborne; by 20.57 they had formed up in ‘Vics’ as a squadron 8 miles from the ship and set a course for Taranto Bay, Williamson and Scarlett leading the torpedo-droppers in L4A. At best they had a flight of five or six hours, broken by a battle, to look forward to. Should any Italian aircraft of almost any fighting capacity put in an appearance the Stringbags, lacking their gunners, would have been cold meat. There was too much to do in plotting and keeping a course of 170 miles to worry about such things. By 21.15 the formation had become ragged with at least one aircraft gone adrift in the clouds. All, listening keenly to the notes of their Pegasus engines, pressed steadily on. Taranto Bay was not hard to find. An American Professor with the US Geological Survey has recently produced a paper asserting its regular shape to be the work of a meteorite 35 million years ago. It was about to experience a night probably the most animating since that event; certainly, with Sword-fishes dancing like mosquitoes round a pressure lamp, the most spectacular.
The RAF had been a good friend to the Navy by making constant visits to the neighbourhood in order to take photographs and generally see what was going on. It had indeed suggested that the entire job might be done by Wellingtons from Malta; as Wellingtons knew nothing of torpedoes the idea did not catch on. What actually took place on the night of the raid was not wholly according to plan. It appears that a Sunderland flying-boat, unconscious of what the Navy was doing, had blundered across the sky half an hour before the arrival of Williamson’s raiders and had triggered off the Italian sound detectors. So began the most important naval engagement in the Mediterranean for a very long time.
Charles Lamb flatly denied the official version of the Italian awakening by a peccant Sunderland. He had come to the FAA as mentioned earlier, by devious ways, first from the Merchant Navy and then, unable to find a sea-going berth, by way of the RAF. By the time of the Taranto strike he was 26 years old and a highly experienced practitioner. Because he had been given one of the less important tasks, second flare-dropper, he had a grandstand view of the first strike. His account of the matter is that ‘Almost as soon as we were airborne we had to climb through heavy cumulus cloud, and when we emerged into the moonlight at 7,500 feet only nine of the twelve aircrafts’ lights were in sight. When the others were unable to find their leader they flew direct to Taranto. One of them was Ian Swayne, who flew at sea level and reached the target area fifteen minutes before anyone else. He had no wish to be the first uninvited guest of the Italian Navy in Taranto, and for a quarter of an hour he flew to and fro, keeping the harbour in sight waiting for the main strike. There was nothing else he could do but, of course, his presence had been detected by the Italian listening devices, and as a result all the harbour defences and the ships had been alerted.’
Whichever plane had been the marplot, the damage was done. For Lyster’s plan to have any chance of success surprise was absolutely necessary and now this essential was gone. No participant, of course, seriously expected to swoop down upon a sleeping ship, release his torpedo and disappear into the night listening for the sound of a satisfactory explosion. The complicated web of agents built up by Italy over many years around the whole Mediterranean littoral meant that their Intelligence must have a pretty good idea of the Navy’s plans and of its capability. It is more than likely that the 1935 plan, even in its improved form, existed in copy somewhere in Mussolini’s Admiralty. The best that could be hoped for, and it was enormously important, was the gift of the first couple of minutes in which to get the work done before the anchored ships and their crews realized what was afoot. It would have been beyond anticipation that the countrymen of Rizzo and Rossetti would be caught off guard simply by a form of attack never tried before. As matters stood the Stringbag torpedo pilots had no choice but to dive into the maelstrom, pick out their targets as best they could, go through the drills they had practised so often and hope for the best.
The bombers, now without the slightest chance of catching the smaller ships, the seaplane base or the oil installations in unguarded postures, must set about them quickly before making themselves scarce. Once Taranto was in sight everything depended upon the skill and determination of each individual pilot. The observer had his work cut out in navigating the machine to the target and, with luck, in navigating it back to the carrier. During the attack his only function was to cling grimly on in his gyrating canvas box, making quite sure of being properly strapped in, watching and, if he felt like it, praying. Nobody envied the observer, for he could see everything and do nothing. It was the quality of the men at the controls that would settle the business and determine whether the Mar Grande was to be decorated with sunken battleships or wrecked Swordfishes. In a cramped area littered with wide-awake gunners manning pieces of every size and half-dazzled by the flashes they must somehow combine perfection of delivery of their weapons with the avoidance of destruction until at least that had been accomplished.
The official account remarks, on the subject of considerations in the minds of the planners, that ‘The AA fire likely to be encountered at Taranto was not considered a serious deterrent’.* It certainly did not deter but it was not a factor to be lightly dismissed. Again it is the official version which asserts that ‘Not until the flares had been dropped to the East of the MAR GRANDE at 2300 did the batteries open a barrage fire against the strike, the light AA weapons on the ships joining in as the torpedo attack was delivered some minutes later’. Lamb remarked something different: ‘For the last 15 minutes of our passage across the Ionian Sea Scarlett had no navigational problems, for Taranto could be seen from a distance of 50 miles or more, because of the welcome awaiting us. The sky over the harbour looked as it sometimes does over Mount Etna, in Sicily, when the great volcano erupts. The darkness was being torn apart by a firework display which spat flame into the night to a height of nearly 5,000 feet. “They don’t seem very pleased to see us,” said Grieve. As he spoke “Blood” Scarlett’s dimmed Aldis light flashed the breakaway signal to Kiggell and me, telling us to start adding to the illuminations over the crowded harbour.’ It seems hard to contradict the man who writes that ‘for an unforgettable half hour I had a bird’s eye view of history in the making’. For that Charles Lamb certainly had.
This appears to have been the sequence of events. The Italian gunners in the San Vito area, away to the south-east, opened barrage first at about 22.50 as the first aircraft arrived. Fortunately it was aimed in the wrong direction, away from Williamson and the rest. Two minutes later the flare-droppers were detached and made their way eastward, either through or over the balloon barrage. By 13.02 Kiggell and Janvrin in L4P had laid their line of parachute flares, 4,500 feet up and half a mile apart, neatly silhouetting the battleships for the torpedo-droppers. Each flare had a delay action of 1,000 feet before it ignited and the high-angle guns, more interested in bagging these than in anything else, hit nothing. Their tracer shells, known still by the First War name of ‘flaming onions’, gave fair warning of approach to anything as agile as a Swordfish.
From his position of advantage Lamb saw the entire performance by the first strike, and a fearsome sight it was. ‘Before the first Swordfish had dived to the attack, the full-throated roar from the guns of six battleships and the blast from the cruisers and destroyers made the harbour defences seem like a side-show.’ Into this volcanic eruption of flame and steel the Fleet Air Arm had to descend. It seemed to the observers above beyond belief that anything could not be ripped to shreds by the sheer volume of the fire, however ill-directed it might be.
The leader arrived at the harbour entrance precisely as Kiggell’s first flare burst into a cloud of yellow light, so brilliant that it turned the blue-grey camouflage of Williamson’s aircraft into a shining white. Lamb watched it dive from 5,000 feet to sea level, below the flak, and quickly lost sight of what came next. Along with Sparke and Neale in L4C and Macaulay and Wray in L4R Williamson and Scarlett came in over the batteries at 4,000 feet and instantly went into a dive. Their target was Cavour and to come within torpedo range of her it would have been necessary to fly between the cables of the balloons to the south-west of the battleship anchorage, over the mole named Diga di Tarantola followed immediately by releasing. Then their luck ran out. In the words of the official report, after explaining how they had flown to the centre of the Mar Grande, ‘This was the last seen of L4A by the British. The aircraft was sighted in the path of the moon diving at high speed with the engine cut out at 23.14 by the destroyer Fulmine, which at once opened fire at about 1,000 yards range. L4A’s torpedo, dropped from a height of about 30 feet, narrowly missed the Fulmine and hit the Cavour. The aircraft then crashed near the floating dock. Both officers were rescued by the Italians and made prisoners of war.’
That is the official version. Scarlett did not put it in quite the same way. He was not wholly convinced that whilst turning in the middle of the harbour in order to make their getaway they had been shot down at all. ‘We put a wing-tip in the water. I couldn’t tell. I just fell out of the back into the sea. We were only about 20 feet up. It wasn’t very far to drop. I never tie myself in on these occasions. Then old Williamson came up a bit later on and we hung about by the aircraft which still had its tail sticking out of the water. Chaps ashore were shooting at it. The water was boiling so I swam off to a floating dock and climbed on board that. We didn’t know we’d done any good with our torpedoes. Thought we might have, because they all looked a bit long in the face, the Wops.’
They had, indeed, hit Cavour fair and square, the only aircraft in the strike to achieve a result so lethal. Cavour died of wounds. A hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow was fatal. Though beached and abandoned immediately, she was firmly on the bottom by breakfast time on the following day. One has to hope that Scarlett was satisfied. He was a reluctant aviator, press-ganged in 1937 as an observer when, as he said, ‘I wanted to be in destroyers, not bloody aeroplanes’. By the time approval came through for his transfer back to general service, following an application made in the old Glorious days, ‘Blood’ Scarlett was busily engaged in being a model prisoner of war. He developed such a talent for infuriating guards that he was turned over to the Germans. In 1945 he was the instigator of an attempt to escape from a camp at Lübeck for which he was Mentioned in Despatches. The ducking probably saved his life; few of the forty who flew to Taranto lived for long afterwards.
The two other aircraft in the sub-flight could not be expected to repeat such a success. L4C, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant (A) P.J.D. Sparke, and L4R with Sub-Lieutenant A.S.D. Macaulay at the controls both crossed the Diga di Tarantola at about the same 30 feet as their leader had done and looked for victims. This was not as easy as it may sound. Sparke was after the flagship Vittorio Veneto, moored a little to the north of the point at which the two survivors of Williamson’s sub-flight loosed their torpedoes and swung 180 degrees round to return by the same way that they had come. Much nearer, almost underneath them as they made the turn and firing with every machine gun she possessed, was the recently arrived and not yet hit Cavour. Sparke, under the impression that he was aiming for the flagship, let slip his torpedo at Cavour from a range of about 700 yards. Macaulay followed suit. Neither torpedo found a mark. The watch aboard Andrea Doria, a little to Cavour’s north-east, reported two bombs as having exploded near her at 2,3.15. Since no bombs were dropped at or near that time and place it seems a safe assumption that the noises came from the wasted torpedoes of L4C and L4R. Both crews were back on the flight deck of Illustrious a little before 01.30, touching down within five minutes of each other. Only three torpedoes remained of the six with which the First Striking Force had set off.
The other flight of torpedo-bombers occupied themselves with ships in the northern half of the Mar Grande. Swayne’s L4M, as you know, had been hanging about the harbour mouth for a quarter of an hour waiting for their turn. On seeing Kiggell’s flares beginning to light the place up at 23.02, Swayne and Buscall crossed the submerged breakwater at 1,000 feet and streaked across the centre of the Mar Grande losing height all the time. At 23.15 they made out the shape of a large battleship, Littorio, and turned sharply to port, bringing her into the torpedo sight. L4M’s missile needed no Duplex pistol. It struck Littorio on the port quarter and exploded satisfactorily. This was not Littorio’s only misfortune, for she was as unlucky as her sister Vittorio Veneto had been the reverse. Almost at the same moment as Swayne struck her aft another torpedo hit the starboard bow. This came from L4K, the Swordfish of Lieutenant Kemp. He had steered a course well to the north of the others, following the coastline of the Mar Grande to the entrance to the inner harbour; there he had made his swing southwards, under intense AA fire of all kinds, and let drive at a range of about 1,000 yards.
Eagle’s aircraft, E4F, Lieutenants Maund and Bull, came in from an even further northerly direction but soon picked up and followed Kemp. E4F was the unlucky one. Her torpedo, dropped very near to Kemp’s ‘grounded short and exploded harmlessly’. Thus were all six torpedoes of the First Striking Force accounted for. All the Swordfishes made their ways safely home, Bailey noting carefully that he had seen several shells from the anchored cruisers hitting their own merchantmen.
These aircraft had survived not merely a very heavy bombardment by AA guns of all shapes and sizes but they had run the risk, by no means negligible, of entangling themselves in the forests of balloon cables. A conversation, possibly apocryphal but still credible, has passed into folklore. Pilot to observer: ‘Where’s that bloody balloon barrage?’ Observer to pilot: ‘We’ve been through it once and we’re just going through it again.’ Another conversation, firmly attributable, survives also. Charles Lamb and his observer, Lieutenant K.C. Grieve, were making their way back each seriously believing that their L5B might well be the only Swordfish to have come through. Lamb, having said through the Gosport Tube what they were both thinking, added that ‘All the top brass will want to know exactly what happened and whether the attack was a success and how many hits were scored and so on, and if we are the only survivors they will expect us to know. Frankly, I saw nothing, apart from the flak which covered the whole harbour. I couldn’t see beyond it. Did you see whether Neil Kemp and company got any hits?’ Grieve, plainly not a great talker, answered, ‘You were throwing the aircraft about like a madman half the time, and every time I tried to look over the side the slipstream nearly whipped off my goggles! The harbour was blanked out by ack-ack and I had to check with the compass to see which way we were facing.’ In all probability every observer might have said something like it.
Lamb, the excitement over, meditated for a moment. ‘On the way back from these parties I always breathed a small prayer of thanks that I was not an observer,’ he wrote many years later. ‘Their responsibilities ended at the target until it was time to go home again, and then they had to be very cool-headed and accurate and do difficult sums. When the excitement was at its height all they could do was sit tight and pray.’ There can hardly be room for two opinions about that; but observers might well have had something much the same, though with obvious variations, to say about their pilots.
Time was soon to show that the understandable feelings of gloom were based on no foundation. The first striking force was not doing at all badly. The torpedo carriers were, of course, the heavy cavalry but there was work enough for the others. The bombers were badly let down by their equipment, but that they had as yet no reason to know.
Three aircraft, E5A, E5Q and L4H, had been given the secondary task of bombing such ships as they could find and, for good measure, the unmissable oil fuel depot. There was no shortage of targets. On the Italian Navy’s own official figures, the Mar Grande housed six battleships, three heavy cruisers and eight destroyers; in the Mar Piccolo there were two more heavy cruisers moored to buoys, two more along with two smaller ones lying bow and stern to the wharf like yachts on the riviera; twenty-one more destroyers, five torpedo boats, sixteen submarines, nine tankers and a good many smaller fry shared what should have been the safety of this enclosed basin. The Italian fleet in Taranto was far from negligible.
The most experienced pilot was Captain ‘Ollie’ Patch of the Royal Marines. At 26 and already with a DSO for his part in the Bomba Bay affair, he was one of the senior men and his observer, Lieutenant Goodwin, was even older. E5A arrived over San Pietro island a couple of minutes after the flare-droppers, having become separated on the way. On arrival Patch was conscious of some disappointment, for ‘there was nothing much happening’. Such account as he gave to posterity, in the same way as Scarlett, was preserved in his obituary. Before very long he was ‘diving down through a hail of anti-aircraft fire and a wonderful Brock’s benefit of tracer and searchlights’. These last probably came from the ships in the Mar Piccolo in which he was interesting himself. The multiplicity of targets was confusing, a confusion not helped by the volume of fire from heavy machine guns that all seemed to be directed at him as the Swordfish crossed the inner harbour from north-west to south-east. The two heavy cruisers at buoys – they would have been Trieste and Bolzano – looked the most deserving and Patch set about dive-bombing them. It does not seem that any of the bombs connected with their targets; probably this was no great matter for, according to the Italians, few of the bombs dropped that night exploded anyway. Once they had been dropped, however, Patch and Goodwin had to make their escape from the furthest point reached by anybody. The evasive action needed was violent, so much so that ‘his observer sitting behind him was thrown out of his seat and but for the “monkey’s tail” wire that secured him to the aircraft, would have gone straight overboard’. Patch, having evaded one battery by dodging behind a hill, rather cleverly took his machine low down over the roofs of the citizens of Taranto, ‘unmolested except for one horrid little man firing at us’. E5A then steered a highly individual course eight miles to the east of the town and arrived safely home at 01.35.
As the other two bomber crews were less fortunate in their obituarists they have less corroborative detail. Their bravery went unrewarded. Consider L4H, the Swordfish of the young Sub-Lieutenants Forde and Mardel-Ferreira, one of the four RNVR officers there. They too attacked heavy cruisers in the Mar Piccolo and hit nothing; but read slowly this bald statement: ‘First bomb fell in water short of the two 8-inch cruisers. During the dive intense AA fire was suffered. The pilot was not sure that his bombs had dropped, so turned round in the western part of the Mar Piccolo and repeated the attack’. ‘Best traditions of the Navy’ can be a joke expression; not always.
The last bomber, Eagle’s E5Q, had good cause to grumble. The aircraft, manned by Lieutenant Murray and Sub-Lieutenant Paine, arrived to the eastward of Cape San Vito just as the flares were beginning to burn. Then they carried out a systematic attack with their four bombs along the line of moored ships at the wharf-side, maintaining a steady height of 3,000 feet. By good luck, excellent judgment or both they dropped one of their 250-lb semi-armour piercing bombs squarely on the destroyer Libeccio. The next sentence almost writes itself. The bomb failed to go off and two disgusted naval officers flew back to their carrier.
Kemp’s observer, Bailey, had mentioned seeing a fire burning in ‘the vicinity of the seaplane base’. This would have been the work of the most junior combatants of all, Sub-Lieutenant Sarra and Mr Midshipman Bowker in L4L. Their approach had been made at a much higher level, for they were bombers not torpedo-launchers. L4L came in over Cape Rondinella – it means ‘little swallow’ – at about 8,000 feet, dived over the Mar Grande down to 1500, hotly pursued by every sort of gunfire, and looked to see what they could most profitably bomb. Hardly surprisingly Bowker found himself unable to choose between such a multiplicity of targets and, being a sensible young man, he directed his driver to the seaplane base. The result was more satisfactory than with most of the bombings. All of them exploded and the hangar and slipway were hit as well as ‘a storehouse which blew up with a loud explosion’. These were, presumably, the buildings and installations so carefully put up by the RNAS in 1917. The young men had more than their share of luck. On landing, they counted seventeen bullet holes in their Stringbag, more than any other had suffered save only for Wellham, whose turn was yet to come.
The second pair of flare-droppers were amongst the last away. Lamb, astern of Kiggell and Janvrin and with little to do, persuaded himself that he was in no danger but that every one of the torpedo-droppers must have been smashed to pieces. Having obediently bombed the oil installations, with about as much success as the others, he defiantly and rudely excreted his flares one by one in order to give the Italians something more upon which to waste ammunition. He and Grieve flew unhappily back to Illustrious firmly convinced, as has been already told, that they were the only survivors.
So ended the foray of the First Striking Force. All save the leader were back on board by 02.00 with not so much as a burst tyre between them. The damage inflicted consisted of two torpedo hits on Littorio, one on Cavour and a heavy piece of pig-iron and explosive dropped on Libeccio. The cost was one Swordfish and two officers, missing believed killed.
After the various mishaps to aircraft already related, it can hardly come as a surprise that the Second Striking Force was smaller than originally planned. It came close to being smaller still. L5F had very nearly lost her observer before the operation began. Early on the morning of the nth, when on a routine patrol, the Swordfish then carrying him had force landed in the sea some 20 miles distant from Illustrious. Going and his telegraphist-airgunner had been shot over the nose, head-first into the water, picked up by the cruiser Gloucester and flown home in her ‘Shagbat’ – Walrus amphibian. The ducking was no deterrent, though it did once more make the point that open-cockpit aircraft still had their advantages. Going remarked that ‘it was a most comfortable way to ditch, no pain being suffered by anyone’. The observation suggests meiosis. Going had no intention of being left out of the main business, as later events were to show.
The second flight began to take off at 21.23, as Williamson’s squadron was somewhere near the half-way mark. All that could be mustered was five machines carrying torpedoes, two bombers and two more doubling as bombers and flare-droppers. As the Swordfish’s bomb load counted six apiece for the bombers proper and two for the flare-droppers they did not add up to anything very formidable on that score. Once more the torpedo launchers were the grandees of the operation. There could be no question of a second surprise attack. Even if the defenders were not expecting to be hit a second time they would have recovered from the first shock and been very ready to open up with every weapon they had. No member of the second strike crews could have thought otherwise. It was not a deterrent.
The nine aircraft detailed for the task looked like being reduced to eight even before becoming airborne. Lieutenant Going, you will remember, had already had one watery experience that day. When he and his pilot, Lieutenant Clifford, were told that something had gone amiss with one of the 250-lb bombs their Swordfish was carrying they could quite honourably have taken no part in the operation. They took another view of the matter. Speaking, one may fairly infer, unkindly to those whose fault it had been, Clifford and Going insisted on the damage being put to rights even if it would mean their being late for the fair. Work was instantly put in hand. Hardly believably it was all finished within 25 minutes.
The remaining eight took off at 23.50, almost exactly a quarter of an hour after the last machine of the first strike had left the scene of action. The outward-bound adventures were not over yet. A short distance from Illustrious, while still jilling about awaiting the march off in formation, L5Q, the aircraft of Lieutenant Morford and Sub-Lieutenant Green, met with misfortune. The external overload petrol tank, badly secured in some fashion, fell off. The fittings began to bang against the fuselage. With fuel only for half the journey and unknown damage done the crew had no choice but to return. It was not a contingency for which plans had been made. On approaching Illustrious Green fired a red Very light. Those on board plainly regarded this as a hostile act; Illustrious opened fire, soon to be joined by Berwick. It was no more effective than usual. A two-star identification light made all things clear, the firing stopped and two crestfallen young officers climbed down on to the carrier’s deck. To compensate for their loss, for L5Q had also been a bomber, Clifford and Going, faint but pursuing, caught up with the others after a loss of 24 minutes’ flying time just as the battle was beginning.
The torpedo-carriers flew in to the north of cape Rondinella, keeping well away from the batteries on San Pietro island. The design was for each to cross the Mar Grande along its northern shore diving sharply from 5,000 feet to about 30, loosing the torpedoes at the battleships and returning to sea on a parallel course to the south. The flare-droppers would have arrived from a diametrically opposite position, over Cape San Vito and once more coming between the battleships and the moon. The two Swordfishes involved, L5B (Lieutenant Hamilton and Sub-Lieutenant Weekes) and L4F, (Lieutenant Skelton and Sub-Lieutenant Perkins) experienced no great difficulty in carrying out their share. That done, with lines of brightness burning along the east and south-east of the Mar Grande, they followed the examples of their precursors and set about the oil installations with bombs; ‘it was thought unsuccessfully,’ Perkins honestly reported. They could, however, stake a claim to a small fire.
Moments later the torpedo launchers swept over Cape Rondinella and dived over the merchant ship harbour under an intense barrage. The leader, Hale and Carline in L5A, in close company with L5H, (Lieutenant Lea and Sub-Lieutenant Jones) and E4H (Lieutenants Bayly and Slaughter), all went for the Littorio, still suffering from the first strike’s attentions. E4H suddenly veered to starboard, across the path of the other two, and either exploded in mid-air or crashed into the sea. It is the general belief based on the official Italian account that the aircraft was attempting to hit not the battleship but the cruiser Gorizia; a torpedo was later found floating in the outer harbour with its striking head crushed but the warhead undetonated. It can hardly have come from anywhere else. Slaughter and Bayly were never seen alive again.
Hale and the team led by his L5K enjoyed better fortune. Michael Torrens-Spence had been described by a brother officer as one of the Navy’s most accomplished aviators. ‘Tiffy’, as his friends called him, was an Ulsterman, a maintenance test pilot and second in command of 819 Squadron. Charles Lamb had written that, during the Greek campaign, he was to bring the Italian cruiser Pola to a standstill with his single torpedo. When the Italian captain was rescued from his sinking ship by the destroyer Jervis he observed, with emotion, that ‘Either that pilot is mad or he is the bravest man in the world’. It was well known in the wardroom, says Lamb, that Torrens-Spence, by reason of an innate nervousness, would push home any attack almost to the point of suicide. On the night of Taranto he and his leader swooped down together round the northern line of the balloons and inside the nets. Their torpedoes dropped almost simultaneously from a point about 700 yards north of the anchored and already wounded Littorio. Both observers told of intense AA fire of all kinds from battleships, cruisers and the shore batteries. One torpedo scored a palpable hit on Littorio’s starboard bow, the time of the explosion being exactly logged as 00.01. Nobody will ever know, nor probably now care very much, whether this one or another torpedo found stuck in the mud under the battleship’s keel came from the leader. Just this once the Duplex pistol seems to have failed.
The Italian flagship Vittorio Veneto came through the whole affair without a scratch. It seems, though certainty is not possible, that the torpedo released during the First Strike by Williamson’s wingman, Lieutenant Sparke in L4C, was intended for her even though it is recorded simply as having missed Cavour. The flagship’s luck held out through the Second Strike even when she became the target of one of Eagle’s best pilots, Lieutenant (A) J.W.G. Wellham, DSC, in E5H. Like the others, he flew in over Cape Rondinella at about 8,000 feet and followed his leader down through the flak. As he did so the first of the flares burst out to the eastward and the fire from the ground grew even more fierce. Wellham, having lost sight of the other aircraft, chose what seemed a hole in the pattern of red, yellow and green tracer that streamed around his aircraft and dived steeply with speed building up to 170 knots. Then E5H met with misfortune. Having escaped damage from every sort of gunfire she collided with a masterless barrage balloon that had been cut adrift by some means or other. As E5H began to plunge down into the middle of Taranto city, almost unmanageable from the damage she had taken, Wellham fought with the controls in order to make sure that his machine would survive and his torpedo would do something useful. Over his right shoulder loomed the bulk of a great ship – Vittorio Veneto herself – and she in turn had seen E5H. Through fire even greater than anything before, since the battleship’s guns of all kinds were setting about him, Wellham managed to make a turn of 180 degrees and, with one wing dragging, let drive with his torpedo, made a vertical turn to starboard, and sped off almost across the water.* Later investigation showed that the rod connecting the ailerons on the port side upper and lower wings had been smashed and the jagged ends were grinding together, leaving one aileron up and the other down. Add a large hole in the lower main plane on the same side and one may understand why the Fleet Air Arm insists so firmly that no other aircraft could stand such knocking about. Nor was the quality of pilots behind; only men of Wellham’s skill, experience and doggedness could have brought his Stringbag home in such a state. If any aircraft deserved to have scored a torpedo hit it was E5H. But none was recorded. Pat Humphreys, the observer, exhibited a sang-froid worthy of the occasion and of himself, bringing them home to a spectacular landing on Illustrious at a few minutes before 3 a.m.
There were to be further victims to the second striking force. Lieutenant Lea and Sub-Lieutenant Jones, the last of the torpedo men, brought L5H over Cape Rondinella between the two aircraft which were to go for Vittorio Veneto. Peeling off at about the same spot, hard by the Mar Piccolo entrance, they launched their torpedo at the battleship Duilio from about 600 yards. It struck her on the starboard side, abreast No 2 turret, at a depth of 29½ feet. It was not the moment to enquire further about the damage caused. Lea and Jones were off across San Pietro pursued by ‘violent fire from cruisers, destroyers and shore batteries’. They, too, were untouched.
Lastly came the laggard L5F of Clifford and Going. They had set a slightly different course and arrived from the far, or eastern, side of the harbour. After circling around the Mar Piccolo entrance they were rewarded with the sight of all the neatly parked cruisers and destroyers lined up against the wharf like cigarettes in a case. Their gunners in turn had seen L5F and set about making life difficult for her. It does not appear that they hit anything; the British armament factories saved them. A bomb hit the cruiser Trento very satisfactorily. It failed to explode. Other bombs narrowly missed destroyers, near enough to have damaged their thin plating had they gone off. The official account observes it to have been ‘a poor reward for his [Clifford’s] bravery’. Possibly he and Going put it in other words. By about 3 o’clock in the morning all but the two casualties were home, unscathed but very tired. They had little enough idea of what they had achieved and were not able to give any detailed account of the damage done. Until fresh photographs came in from the RAF it was possible only to wonder whether or not the whole business had been as Lamb said on the way to the briefing room: ‘It looks as though we made a complete cock of it tonight, which is why we’ve got to go back again. But I don’t see how it can be any better on a second attempt. Rather the reverse.’
Certainly it looked as if Admiral Cunningham was going to insist upon another try. Orders had been given for the fitters and riggers to have their machines ready for a second assault and it all sounded deadly serious. One officer was heard to remark that even the Light Brigade hadn’t been told to do it again. This may well have been near the mark. How could anything worth while be done without a large butcher’s bill? The Light Brigade had been almost wiped out; the Fleet Air Arm had had no more casualties than were sustained on a Bank Holiday Monday on the Brighton road. The weather scotched any attempt at repetition.
There are confused signals about the proposed second run-in. Admiral Cunningham in his Memoirs asserts that ‘The aircrews were in a state of great jubilation. They clamoured to repeat the operation the same night. I agreed at first when Rear-Admiral Lyster made the suggestion, though I rather felt that when the excitement wore off and the strain of their ordeal began to tell upon the aircrews it would be unfair to send them in again. I therefore felt somewhat relieved when a bad weather report automatically put a stop to a second venture.’ Lieutenant Lamb and his brother officers would have found this surprising. When he made his remark about not seeing how it could be done better at a second attempt, ‘Grieve answered my words with a look of sickened dismay’.
The Paymaster Commander, having fortified Lamb with an enormous whisky and soda and asked what he thought of the ‘Welcome Home’ sign put up by the stewards, received the answer, ‘I shall be more pleased to see it this time tomorrow’. The Paymaster Commander, plainly a man of excellent judgment, replied, ‘Drink that and you’ll feel better. Then have another. I’ve got a feeling in my water that none of you will be going back. Want to take a bet on it?’ Lamb took it. ‘That was one bet I was very relieved to lose.’ Sir Andrew did acknowledge the bravery, skill and determination by a signal to Illustrious that has become history: ‘Manoeuvre well executed’. One can not avoid the feeling that Admiral Riccardi would have phrased it better.
The photographs taken by the faithful RAF as soon as the light thinned brought strong evidence that no second attack would have been needed. The results of the first looked very satisfactory indeed.
Consider for a moment the gauntlet that the aircrews had had to run. Taranto was a naval base of the first order, equivalent in its own way to Portsmouth or Wilhelmshaven. Naturally enough it was furnished with guns of all shapes and sizes in profusion. There were batteries on San Pietro island, where the harbour entrance was partially blocked, floating batteries along the submerged breakwaters on either side of the island, at intervals around the harbour perimeter and, just to make sure no gaps had been left, on pontoons moored at four points in the Mar Grande. The returns of ammunition expended on this November night fell into the hands of the Royal Navy after the Italian surrender. They give a total figure of 13,489 rounds, roughly two-thirds being shells from cannon of more than 3” calibre and the remainder dispensed by machine guns of all sizes.
The Italian records are confined to shore batteries alone but contain the remark that ‘Ships’ gunfire was confined to machine guns; expenditure is unknown’. This sounds less than likely. The battleships and cruisers alone carried many heavy weapons – the Cavours carried eighteen AA guns of more than 3″ calibre and the Littorios a dozen each – and Charles Lamb was quite firm that it was the ships’ guns that contributed most to the volume. It is improbable that any exact figure of rounds blazed away will ever be put together now, certainly in the tally of small arms ammunition; nor does it greatly matter. There were enough projectiles covering the harbour to have shredded every Swordfish had they been better directed. Not unreasonably the heavier pieces were turned on the flares. Bring them down and the aircraft would be blinded. The time lag between the dropping and the ignition was, however, too great for artillery successes. Neither flare nor dropper was touched.
Other guns began by firing lines of shells so low that they seemed to be hitting each other. That discovered, they lifted their sights and provided an umbrella of flame and steel under which the Swordfishes flew unscathed. Had the gunners continued to fire low, at water level, they could hardly have failed to hit some or all of the torpedo-droppers. All of these, save of course Williamson and Bayly, made their way back scarcely at all above the level of the sea; Michael Torrens-Spence actually bounced off the water as he came through the harbour entrance with wheels partly submerged. The reason for firing barrages at that altitude was obvious. At any other, many shells would have hit the town and probably as many would have found their targets on Italian ships. Kemp, of L4K, says firmly that ‘Several shells from the cruisers were seen to hit merchant ships in harbour’.
It would have required something exceptional in the way of gunnery procedures to have achieved much against the torpedo-droppers once each had finished its run-in. The lower a ‘fish’ can be dropped the better, and performance is much improved once the weight of nearly 2,000 lbs has gone. The attacks made by Williamson’s flight lasted only five minutes from arrival to departure, except only for Williamson’s L4A. The bombers, higher up and there for longer, would have made more rewarding targets.
Then comes the matter of searchlights. No pilot reported having encountered any. The concensus of opinion on their return was that the Italians had thus deprived themselves of a possibly good bag. Ian Swayne is quoted by Lamb as having expressed the opinion that, had they used their lights, they would have shot down every single aircraft. Lamb, from his position of advantage, disagreed vehemently: ‘From above I could see that the opposite was the case; because the aircraft were only a few feet above sea level, the use of searchlights would have floodlit the six battleships and the harbour defences, and greatly assisted the attacking aircraft in selecting their target.’ He adds that ‘From my position astern of Kiggell and Janvrin I was in no danger whatever and could watch proceedings at leisure. I have never been in less danger in any attack than I was that night, when the rest of the squadron were flying into the jaws of hell. I was convinced that none of the torpedoing aircraft could have survived.’
Whatever the benefits or otherwise of searchlight activity for the defenders, it seems that the failure to use them was caused by consternation rather than fire plan. The report of the Italian Commander-in-Chief Afloat to the Chief of Naval Staff, compiled after the attack, is specific enough. Under the heading ‘Defence of Anchorage’, it reads:- ‘Defence of outer anchorage from air attack was arranged as follows:-
Shore batteries (4.09-inch, 4.02-inch and 3.05-inch).
Stations ashore and afloat, of machine guns (0.8-inch and 1.6-inch) were specially detailed to engage torpedo aircraft. ‘Photo-electrics’, ashore and on pontoons, could intercept on moonlight nights either bombers or torpedo aircraft, according to arrangements made by Central Control.
The part to be played by ships at anchor was as follows:- No barrage fire at the same time as the shore batteries.
Machine guns to be manned and fired with the main armament against aircraft visible to the naked eye or illuminated by searchlight.
On moonlight nights two searchlights a ship to work with those of the shore batteries in previously defined sectors, for defence against torpedo aircraft. These had to be integrated with the searchlights worked by the base.’
Nobody could accuse the Italian authorities of not trying. The plan did not work out as had been hoped. Such has happened to nations other than Italy at most times throughout recorded history. The report ends, a touch plaintively, with an assertion that recent enemy air activity had ‘served as a warning of heavy air attacks’. Against aircraft less acrobatic than the Stringbag and pilots of lesser quality than these the Italians might have enjoyed better fortune.
Mr Churchill, in accordance with his nature, expressed a view rather more generous than that of the Admiral. On the day after the Stringbags, less two, had returned to the nest he stood up in Parliament and spoke with feeling. The Prime Minister deserved his opportunity after months and months of nothing but failure and defeat to report. He took it. ‘I have some news for the House. It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow at the Italian fleet. The total strength of the Italian battle fleet was six battleships, two of them of the “Littorio” class, which have just been put into service and are, of course, among the most powerful vessels in the world and four of the recently reconstructed “Cavour” class. This fleet was, to be sure, considerably more powerful on paper than our Mediterranean Fleet, but it had consistently refused to accept battle. On the night of the 11th–12th November, when the main units of the Italian fleet were lying behind their shore defences in their naval base at Taranto, our aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm attacked them in their stronghold.’
He went on, not without relish, to set out in some detail all that the photographs rushed to him by the RAF had depicted. His exposition was as accurate as it could be from photographs alone. ‘It is now established that one battleship of the “Littorio” class was badly down by the bows and that her forecastle is under water and she has a heavy list to starboard. One battleship of the “Cavour” class has been beached, and her stern, up to and including the turret, is under water. This ship is also heavily listed to starboard. It has not yet been possible to establish the fact with certainty, but it appears that a second battleship of the “Cavour” class has also been severely damaged and beached. In the inner harbour of Taranto two Italian cruisers are listed to starboard and are surrounded with oil fuel, and two fleet auxiliaries are lying with their sterns under water. The Italian communique of 12th November, in admitting that one warship had been severely damaged, claimed that six of our aircraft had been shot down and three more probably. In fact only two of our aircraft are missing, and it is noted that the enemy claimed that part of the crews had been taken prisoner. I felt it my duty to bring this glorious episode to the immediate notice of the House. As the result of a determined and highly successful attack, which reflects the greatest honour on the Fleet Air Arm, only three Italian battleships remain effective.’
The Prime Minister went on to speak of heroism of a more customary kind, the loss of the Jervis Bay along with Captain Fogarty Fegen and his entire ship’s company, sunk by the German battleship she had taken on in a hopeless, valiant, attack in order to give her convoy some chance to get away. It was the first time since the purely defensive Battle of Britain that Mr Churchill had been able to speak of hitting back, and hitting back hard. Along with the entire nation, he made the most of it.
It took some days before a proper assessment of the damage could be made. Littorio, though looking dramatic with two naval auxiliaries, a large submarine, a tanker and several smaller craft close alongside, was not desperately hurt, certainly not for a ship fairly struck by three torpedoes. The two hits scored by the first strike had holed her. Neil Kemp’s hit on the starboard bow had blown an opening 49 by 32 feet in the bulge abreast No 1 6-inch turret; that from Ian Swayne in L4M had opened up another on the port quarter, 23 feet by 5, abreast the tiller flat. The second strike, that of Torrens-Spence in L5K, had been the most damaging. The torpedo had struck home at a very low level on the starboard side, forward of Kemp’s hit, blowing a hole 40 feet by 30. Less importantly, the fourth torpedo was found in the mud under Littorio’s stern – there was an unaccountable dent in her starboard quarter – with its striking cap damaged by impact after passing the target. Praise is due to Engineer Inspector-General Umberto Pugliese and the Ansaldo company for designing and building a ship strong enough to survive such punishment. Littorio, down by the bows and with her forecastle awash, retired hurt. She was, however, capable of repair and was back at sea by the end of the following March. Perhaps the 18″ torpedo, even with the Duplex fuse, was not the ultimate weapon for use against battleships and their like.
The older ships, Cavour and Duilio, were in a worse plight. Williamson’s torpedo had made the biggest impression of them all, leaving a hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow under the foremost turret. Two oil fuel tanks were flooded, and only with difficulty were the adjacent compartments prevented from flooding as well. L4A, whatever the fate of its occupants, had delivered a knock-out punch. At 05.45 Cavour was towed inshore and abandoned, settling comfortably down with her stern on the bottom. Almost all her decks were under water, the after turret submerged entirely. She was refloated in July, 1941, and towed to Trieste but for the Conte di Cavour the war was over. She never came back.
Duilio was the victim of L5H in the second striking force. ‘Sprog’ Lea’s torpedo had made a clean hit on the starboard side at a depth of 29 ft 6 in and blown a gap 36 feet by 23 between Nos 1 and 2 magazines. Both were completely flooded. Like her sister, Caio Duilio was beached, patched up and towed to Genoa. Repairs took until the end of May, 1941.
The Official Report rounds it off: ‘The results of the bombing attacks were not noticeable at the time. It is now known that the Trento and Libeccio received direct hits from bombs which failed to explode, and other ships were narrowly missed; according to the Italians, few of these bombs exploded.’ This was a disappointment of some order. Ranged alongside at the destroyer/cruiser quay complex had been twenty-one destroyers and large torpedo boats with four cruisers berthed bow and stern along a frontage of no more than 1,000 yards. Had that not been target enough there were three more destroyers and two more heavy cruisers just offshore. The two bombs out of two dozen that hit but failed to explode caused a small amount of damage – the RAF photographs show a quantity of leaked oil on the surface of the Mar Piccolo – but it was a disproportionate reward for so much skill, determination and plain old-fashioned courage. The lesson it was supposed to have taught, but which was shown a couple of months later to have been dreadfully wrong, was that the bomb was almost worthless as a means of sinking ships even at anchor. In all forty-two of them, of the standard 250-lb SAP pattern, fused nose and tail, were dropped.
The oil tanks suffered some damage, judging from the fires seen to start, but it can not have amounted to much. More important was the attack on the seaplane base. This was home to the spotters which plagued Cunningham’s fleet and radioed back every move made by every ship. It took six bombs, direct hits on hangar and slipway, with a satisfactorily large fire caused in the adjacent building. Wellham knew it to be still smouldering on the following day. The result would not, of course, have been to put the spotters out of business but it can not have been helpful to them.
Far and away the most important consequence was the moral effect. Taranto raised the hearts of everybody on the allied side, as a demonstration that we had moved on from the ‘Britain Can Take It’ slogans and posters of some months earlier. At last it was plain that Britain was beginning to acquire the ability to dish it out. The Italian navy had not seemed exactly avid to come to hand-grips with Cunningham’s ships even when they outnumbered and outgunned them handsomely. Now that the strength of the Italian battlefleet had been halved and the Royal Navy strengthened by another battleship, three cruisers and two destroyers, the light of battle in the eyes of the Duce’s sailors grew no fiercer. Small blame to them.
That the episode had been glorious was beyond question and it had come at a moment when glorious episodes were a little scarce. Even making all allowances for the general mood towards the end of a year not notable for victories, it may have been that the results were not entirely what they ought to have been. Had surprise been achieved there might have been some chance of sinking the prime targets. Vittorio Veneto and Littorio, roughly equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Duke of York, got off lightly. Littorio was removed from the scene for a matter of months only; two torpedoes were aimed at Vittorio Veneto, one grounding harmlessly and the other missing altogether. Of the two older ships, comparable with Royal Oak and Royal Sovereign, Cavour had been eliminated from the war and Duilio taken out of it for half a year. Fortune had not favoured Operation Judgment, but it would have been worthwhile for the moral effect alone. ‘Glorious Episode’ was not mere hyperbole.
Fraternal greetings came from a namesake to HMS Eagle: ‘The American Eagle Club of London expresses hearty admiration of your gallant work at Taranto. Americans abroad and at home will be proud of you. Congratulations. Robert H. Hutchinson, chairman.’ No message came from another navy whose creation had been largely the work of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Admiral Yamamoto doubtless studied the operation in detail, for it contained practical experience that would come in useful a little over a year later. Nobody expected praise from that quarter.
Captain Boyd of Illustrious addressed his ship’s company, pointing out that ‘in one night the ship’s aircraft had achieved a greater amount of damage to the enemy than Nelson had achieved in the Battle of Trafalgar, and nearly twice the amount that the entire British fleet achieved in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War’. Had he felt so inclined, Captain Boyd might have parodied Admiral Beatty’s much-quoted remark on that occasion: ‘There’s something wrong with our bloody bombs today, Chatfield.’
And so from Italian casualties to our own. The body of Lieutenant Slaughter was never found; that of his pilot, Lieutenant Gerald Wentworth Loscombe Abingdon Bayly, was accorded the honourable treatment that one may expect from a civilized enemy. He lies now in the Military Cemetery at Bari. The other victim, L4A, was more fortunate. You will remember that we left Lieutenant-Commander Williamson in the water by the floating dock and Lieutenant Scarlett sitting there waiting upon events. Their captors behaved admirably towards their prey. ‘In fact,’ said Williamson, ‘we were almost popular heroes. Two nights after our raid the RAF came over and we were put into an air-raid shelter full of seamen. They all pressed cigarettes on us and towards the end of the raid about twenty of them sang “Tipperary” for our benefit.’ Scarlett was a more abrasive character. His obituarist observes that he ‘was an excellent prisoner from the Allied point of view. He did much to annoy his captors and keep up the morale of his fellow POWs. In 1945 he was mentioned in despatches for organizing an attempt to escape from a camp near Lübeck.’
Everybody who had had any part in the business, fitter, rigger, aircrew and indeed all hands on both carriers, knew for certain that they had won a great and famous victory. Only one man seemed less persuaded. You will remember how, after Albuhera in 1811, Wellington came across General Beresford as he wrote ‘a whining report that would have driven England mad’. The Duke found it necessary to explain to the other that he had won a great victory. Sir Andrew wrote no whining report but he never seemed quite to have taken in what his newest arm had achieved. The ‘Manoeuvre well executed’ signal may have been an ironic pleasantry, for the Navy well understands the value of meiosis.
But it was within the Admiral’s power to mark the fact that it had been uncommonly well done by a fairly generous giving of decorations. When the immediate awards were announced the heavy displeasure of everybody concerned was soon made manifest. DSOs to the two flight leaders were natural enough, even though the absent Williamson would have to wait for his. The four DSCs went to Scarlett, to two other observers and to a pilot from Eagle. The entire company of Illustrious rose up in wrath at such a niggardly grant, the more so because not a single pilot from their ship, squadron commanders apart, received anything. Some unidentifiable sailor tore down the notice from the board. Being the honest man he was, Sir Andrew admitted years afterwards that he had undervalued both the feat itself and those who had performed it. Very possibly, with his traditional background, he shared the opinion of the great Duke that a man ought not to be especially rewarded for doing what he ought to have done.* The simmering anger boiled when the awards for Matapan – ‘many DSOs and scores of DSCs’, Charles Lamb called them – were announced. In May, 1941, Captain Boyd, late of Illustrious, found a well-disposed MP who was willing to ask a Question. Two more DSOs, fourteen more DSCs and Mentions in Despatches for all those left out were added. By then twenty of the forty who had flown to Taranto were dead.
Others less intimately concerned seemed to have a better understanding of what had been achieved. Admiral Pound wrote of it to Admiral Cunningham: ‘Just before the news of Taranto the Cabinet were rather down in the dumps; but Taranto had a most amazing effect on them.’ One has to sympathize. There can have been little joy around the Downing Street table towards the end of 1940. For a time there were beaming smiles and mutual congratulations.
It was not quite the same in the opposing camp. Count Ciano, Mussolini’s unfortunate son-in-law, left a diary, written up in his prison cell at Verona shortly before his relation by marriage had him shot. Ciano tells, under ‘12 November 1940’, of ‘a black day. The British, without warning, have attacked the Italian fleet at anchor in Taranto, and have sunk the dreadnought Cavour and seriously damaged the battleships Littorio and Duilio. These ships will remain out of the fight for many months. I thought I would find the Duce downhearted. Instead he took the blow quite well and does not, at the moment, seem to have fully realized its gravity.’ In this, at least, he made common cause with Admiral Cunningham. The stiff upper lip phase did not endure; rage took its place.
The Regia Aeronautica (which Ciano says was always poking fun at the navy)* tended to avoid Alexandria whilst the Fleet was in residence. It was now ordered to seek instant vengeance. During the absence of Cunningham’s ships the Italian pilots flew in during daylight hours, hit a destroyer without doing her much harm and scattered time bombs around the anchorage near to the floating dock. This could have been serious but it was no sort of spectacular revenge. On the morning of 12 November three of the big CANT flying-boats were sent in to do all the damage they could. It did not amount to much and all of them were shot down by Fulmars from Illustrious as she returned to port. From Mussolini’s point of view there was only one thing to be done and he turned to his master. Hitler and Goering had a score of their own to settle with the British after the thrashing their Luftwaffe had received from the RAFs Fighter Command. Once they had grasped the fact that the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean turned almost wholly upon the existence of a single ship the word went out from Berlin.
The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.
Map of the Arab–Byzantine naval conflict in the Mediterranean, 7th–11th centuries.
Map of southern Italy in the 10th century. Byzantine provinces (themes) in yellow, Lombard principalities in other colours.
Afterwards, the Saracens who had sailed from Rome came to Sicily, where they occupied the aforementioned city and slaughtered many of the population who had taken refuge in fortifications or in the mountains and, taking with them lots of booty or bronze, they returned to Alexandria.
Vita of Pope Adeodatus II
During the Byzantine centuries, Greek and Latin travelers to and from Sicily were examples and, indeed, agents of the complex web of connections between the Latin and Greek Christian worlds as they overlapped on Sicily. From the seventh century onward, Sicily also began to be drawn into the Islamicate world, as represented primarily by the political center of Qayrawān and the many seaports of Aghlabid Ifrīqiya (modern Tunisia) and Egypt. Long before Sicily became a Muslim province in the ninth century, in fact, considerable travel and communication were conducted between the island and the dār al-Islām, making the island increasingly important as a zone of interaction between Muslims and Christians, both Greek and Latin. Although, as in the sixth and seventh centuries, economic movements cannot be quantitatively reconstructed from the remaining data, by the eighth century, there is clear evidence of semiregular ship travel between the shores of Sicily and Aghlabid Ifrīqiya. While most of this traffic was of a military nature—with regular raids on Sicily’s southern shores starting in the seventh century of the common era—evidence also points to both diplomatic and, perhaps, even commercial transactions occurring between Sicily and Muslim North Africa while the island remained under the administrative control of Constantinople.
The introduction of Muslim powers into the western Mediterranean thus expanded the communication networks in which Sicily participated, in effect broadening the island’s place in the region rather than constricting or isolating it. New networks were opened while preexisting ones were maintained, even if altered. It is true that the relative amount of travel along each of the routes shifted and rebalanced over time, as Sicily conceptually drew closer to Muslim Africa and drifted farther from the Greek eastern Mediterranean. As the central Mediterranean Sea became populated with more and more Muslim-sailed ships, the waters around Sicily came to be linked more closely with northern Africa. At times we see ships from the Christian world encountering difficulties when sailing into hostile waters, but these voyages did not cease. The island, at the nexus of these three worlds, continued for some time to be a place of interaction and connection between Muslims and Christians, even if a preponderance of these interactions, as they appear in the sources, were hostile. Even violent interaction—and especially regularly recurring violent contact, such as that which took place during the nearly annual Muslim raids against Sicily—is a type of exchange that requires travel and the infrastructure of travel, and that connects peoples and spaces, drawing them closer together in terms of communications.
Even while communications with Muslim North Africa were increasing, Sicily remained in contact with the Greek East and with the Latin West. That is, the entry of Muslim polities into Sicilian affairs caused a relatively slow shift southward—rather than a break—of the communication networks of the island, concurrent with the persistence of many of the connections between Constantinople, Sicily, and Rome. The traditional periodization of Sicily’s history draws a firm line between the Greek Byzantine era and the Muslim period, with historians of Byzantium and the Middle East divvying up their examinations of the island. If, instead, we look across these centuries, at the transition period itself, our view of Sicily’s history and role within Mediterranean systems is very different. By placing the conquest of Sicily by Muslim forces in the middle of our examination rather than at the beginning or the end, we see that Muslim North Africa’s involvement with Sicily transformed the island’s communication networks rather than simply replacing one set of networks with another. Viewed across the period of the conquest, from the start of Muslim involvement in Sicily in the seventh century through the ninth–century conquest and into the tenth century, as Byzantine forces continued to try to retake Muslim Sicily—and by examining a variety of sources in Greek, Arabic, and Latin—political control did not necessarily determine the extent and range of the communications that defined Sicily’s regional affinities and its place within those local systems. Sicily was and remained broadly interconnected within the Mediterranean system, with Muslims and Latins as well as Greek Christians, even as the shapes and meanings of these connections shifted.
At the same time that military engagement was the most often recorded type of interaction between Sicily and Africa, the sources also allow glimpses of less martial communications between Greek Christians and Muslims. At times, those interactions took place because of or in the midst of battle, and at other times they could arise from diplomatic exchanges aimed at the stabilization of political and military tensions. Just as Byzantine Sicily was the site of diplomatic negotiations and the transfer of information between Greek and Latin Christian officials, so too did diplomats and envoys travel between Greek Sicily and Islamic North Africa, carrying both news and negotiations for peace. For example, the semiannual military incursions from Ifrīqiya were several times halted by truces that were officially concluded between embassies traveling between Syracuse and Qayrawān. Likewise, economic connections between the two may also have developed at this time. Because direct evidence for trade between Sicily and Ifrīqiya at this time is scarce, we can only assume the existence of economic connections that might be implied in the source record. Ships sailing back and forth within the Sicilian Strait between Ifrīqiyan ports and those of Sicily could have easily made the trip without meriting record in textual sources, and there are some suggestions that Sicily’s economic conditions were attracting the attention of Qayrawān. The Arabic chronicles, although written much later than the events they describe, detail the raids on Sicily carried out from Ifrīqiya and list all of the items gathered from the island, which suggests that the Aghlabid emīrate was taking an increasingly economic interest in the island of Sicily. Even if these lists of valuable items reflect a nostalgic image of a lost island of wealth, they demonstrate that the memory of Sicily’s conquest was tied closely to the perceived value of the products to be gained there. While the collection of war spoils was a regular part of this type of military strike, and a common way to reward soldiers for their service, it is the prolonged interest paid to the details of this booty by the later chroniclers that merits our attention. On the other hand, the products mentioned were exclusively high-value items—bejeweled icons and human slaves, for example—rather than more mundane trade items such as grain or textiles, which may also have proved attractive. At any rate, the Arabic chroniclers’ focus on these spoils indicates that they associated the conquest (and, therefore, also the loss) of Sicily with the annexation of an opulent and prosperous society.
The precise reasons that in the ninth century these regular raids for the collection of booty turned into an outright conquest of Sicily are not perfectly clear. The sustained interest that North African Muslims had taken in Sicily for many years suggests that the conquest was not simply the result of a sudden revival of jihād ideology or a desire to expand Islamic rule into Italy. Likewise, the conquest of Sicily should not be understood as part of the same process that brought North Africa and Iberia into the Islamic world, although those conquests do provide a background for this one. The conquest of Sicily was a major undertaking that occurred more than a century after the conclusion of the initial period of Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean region, and it arose from unique impulses relating to the nature of the Byzantine-Muslim frontier in the central Mediterranean. As with the later Norman Latin takeover of Sicily, outright military conquest followed many years of involvement in the island’s affairs. Sicily had been slowly entering the orbit of North Africa for several centuries prior to the ninth-century takeover. Then, as the boundary line between Byzantine and Muslim territory in the Mediterranean became more porous, the balance of power tipped far enough in Muslim favor that the outright military conquest of Sicily appeared to be advantageous for the Aghlabid administration of Ifrīqiya.
Indeed, it is the permeability of the Sicilian borderland itself that created the shift in relative power between Muslim and Christian authorities in the region. Much work has been done on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Muslims along the eastern frontier between Anatolia and Syria, and on the importance of that border zone for the health and wholeness of the Byzantine Empire. Far less has been written about the western frontier, partly because the Muslim-Greek battles that took place in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean were closer to the heartlands of both civilizations, and partly because that region produced the preponderance of sources about the Muslim-Christian conflict. But Sicily operated within the Byzantine Empire of the sixth through tenth centuries as an equally important frontier for Constantinople: one that both connected and separated the Greek world from the Latin Christian world and, as we will see here, one that did likewise with the Muslim world. Sicily was not simply a point on the dividing line between polities or religiopolitical civilizations; it also connected cultures in a zone of contact and conflict. The paradigm for discussing the relationships between Byzantines and Muslims has also tended to be that of conflict—both rhetorical and militarized. But some more recent work has also located shared traditions and a high degree of continuity between the Roman past and both the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Likewise, the three cultures that overlapped in the border region of Sicily and southern Italy indeed did so with violence and war, but also with shared reliance on the Roman tradition and through diplomacy, trade, and interpersonal interactions in the midst of warfare.
During the centuries of Byzantine control, Sicily was a region where fluidity of communications made it possible for Greeks, Muslims, and Latins to contest their control over a coveted locale while also maintaining the diplomatic and economic ties that were important to all of the parties involved. That is, this boundary zone between the Latin, Greek, and Muslim worlds was a disputed area, but one where various parties could meet, rather than a solid line of demarcation between Christians and Muslims. Sicily was often considered—by both Constantinople and local powers in Italy—an extension of Constantinople’s authority and, at the same time, was an important venue for managing relationships between local Muslim powers and the Greek Byzantine world. These multifaceted relationships along the Sicilian borderland will here be viewed by means of military, political, diplomatic, and economic communications between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa, along with the consequent population transfers that wrought demographic changes in the region, which would themselves also help shape future communication networks on and around the island.
Like many tribal societies, the ethnic groups of Ethiopia put a strong emphasis on martial ability. Boys were trained from early childhood in the use of the sword, spear and shield. Every man yearned to own a gun, not just for what it would do for him on the battlefield, but also for hunting.
The Italians faced an Ethiopian army larger and more organized than in all of its recent history. Menelik had centralized and streamlined the taxation system, bringing in more goods to the central government. This allowed Menelik to keep a larger standing army, and support a huge temporary army at need. Most taxes were in kind – food or labour that went directly to support the soldiers. Menelik also ordered an extensive geographical survey in order to increase revenue, and to identify land that could be given to soldiers as a reward. His government also enjoyed the revenue from customs duties on ever-increasing international trade.
Mobilization and logistics
While the emperor maintained only a relatively small standing army, the entire countryside could be mobilized when a Negus ordered a kitet, or call to arms. This was made by proclamations in marketplaces and other gathering spots, and large negarit war drums were beaten to alert outlying farms. One even acted as a platform for the messenger, who stood on an upturned drum and read the proclamation while a slave held his lance and robe next to him as symbols of his rank. While the king was not always in full control of his territory, `beating the kitet’ was generally effective; it usually summoned men to fight against a common enemy, and always offered a chance for plunder and prestige. The Ethiopian army on the march looked more like a migration. Many warriors brought their families along, and wives and children would cook and gather provisions and firewood. During the march there were no stops until a camp was found for the night. The was assembling might run into difficulties of supply, especially considering that some regions he planned to march through were suffering from famine, so he ordered depots of food to be placed at regular intervals along the lines of march. This allowed Menelik to wait out the Italians on a couple of occasions.
This need for strategic speed affected how the Ethiopians made war. They avoided long conflicts in favour of big showdown battles in which they could destroy the enemy army and force favourable terms from the enemy commander. Drawn-out campaigns could prove counterproductive, since the army would have to ravage the very land they sought to conquer, forcing the inhabitants to flee. During Menelik’s long wait before Adowa the area was picked clean of food and most of the trees were chopped down for firewood. Shortages of ammunition, and the often fragile coalitions among the leaders, also encouraged quick campaigns.
To aid the advance, teams of workmen moved ahead of the main army clearing the way of trees and stones and searching out the best passes through the mountains. The Negus Negasti kept a group that outsiders called the `Royal Engineers’, but while some were undoubtedly skilled at complex operations such as building bridges, most were simply labourers.
Ethiopians favoured a half-moon formation in order to outflank and envelop an enemy, although extreme terrain often made this impossible. Despite having a general plan, warriors fought more or less as individuals, advancing and retreating as they saw fit. Chiefs only had a loose control over their men, and never kept them in close formation except for the final charge, when everyone bunched together and hurried to be the first to reach the foe. Considering the lethal effectiveness of late 19th-century rifles, this loose mode of fighting was actually in advance of its day. The Ethiopian tendency was to get in close to ensure a good shot, although rushing en masse when the enemy appeared weak did lead to great losses. The Italian army, especially the ascari, showed good discipline under fire, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Ethiopians; the majority of these tended to be suffered during the final rush. When charging, the Ethiopians used various battle cries depending on their origin: the Oromo shouted `Slay! Slay!’, while warriors from Gojjam cried `God pardon us, Christ!’, and those from Shewa rallied to the call `Together! Together!’
The Ethiopians had no formal medical corps. Healers trained in traditional medicine followed the army, but were too few to care adequately for the huge numbers of casualties. Still, traditional healers did the best they could at setting limbs and cleaning out wounds. One method for sanitizing gunshot wounds was to pour melted butter mixed with the local herb fetho (lapidum sativum) into the wound. In battle the warriors’ families cared for the wounded, collected guns from the fallen to distribute to poorly armed warriors, and fetched water for those wealthier warriors had servants to carry their equipment and mules or horses to ride. All these extra people and animals had to be fed, increasing the need to keep mobile. While some food was carried by the men themselves or on muleback, the army was expected to live off the land, and foragers spread out over a large area. The central highlands of Ethiopia are green and filled with game, so as long as an army kept moving it could feed itself, and, being relatively unburdened, it could move quickly. If it stopped for long, however, it would soon starve; this was a major problem if the army had to besiege a fortification, or – as in the run-up to Adowa – wait for an enemy to make the first move. Menelik realized that the large force he fighting. This last detail was important; at Adowa, Itegue Taitu had at least 10,000 women bringing water to the warriors, while the Italians suffered from thirst throughout the day.
The Ethiopians lacked uniforms; common warriors wore their everyday clothing – generally a white, cream, or brown length of cotton called a shamma that was wound around the body in various ways. Chiefs and higher nobility wore a variety of colourful garments, including the lembd, a ceremonial item vaguely resembling the cope or dalmatic of Christian churchmen. If a man had slain a lion during his career, his formal clothing could be embellished with the lion’s mane.
Despite Western preconceptions, and the employment of antique firearms by the poorest warriors, the majority of Ethiopians were armed with large-calibre, breech-loading, mostly single-shot rifles no more than 30 years old since they had first appeared in Western armies. It is estimated that Menelik’s army may have had as many as 100,000 of such weapons in 1896. Until the collapse of diplomatic relations he had been able to purchase large numbers of rifles from the Italians, and also from the Russians, French and British. After Italian sources dried up Menelik strove to increase his other imports, and a key figure in this trade was Ras Mekonnen of Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia with trade links to the Red Sea. Individual chiefs also stockpiled arms, and issued them to their best warriors in times of need.
The types used by the Ethiopians included the elderly British 1866/67 Snider – an 1856 Enfield muzzle-loader converted into a single-shot breechloader. Used on the British Magdala expedition of 1867-68 against the Emperor Tewodros II, it had a massive 14.6mm calibre and a hinged breech action. However, the Ethiopians also had considerable numbers of the superior 1871 Martini-Henry – the classic British single-shot, lever-action, falling-block weapon of the colonial wars, firing 11.43mm bullets. The French 1866 Chassepot was another second-generation breechloader, a bolt-action, single-shot weapon taking 11mm paper and card cartridges; but again, the Ethiopians also had larger numbers of more modern 1871 Le Gras rifles, in which the Chassepot’s paper cartridges were replaced with 11mm brass rounds. Menelik’s warriors even had some 1886 Lebel 8mm bolt-action magazine rifles; with eight cartridges in the tubular magazine below the barrel, one in the cradle behind the chamber and one `up the spout’, these took ten rounds. The Lebel’s smaller-bore, smokeless-powder ammunition was the most advanced in the world (all the other types took black-powder rounds, which produced a giveaway cloud of white smoke and fouled the chamber fairly quickly with continuous firing).
The Peabody-Martini was an 1870 Swiss modification of an 1862 Peabody design from the United States. Widely manufactured across Europe, it had a single-shot, falling-block action in various calibres from 10.41mm to 11.43 mm. Probably the single most common rifle in Ethiopian use was the `rolling-block’ Remington, another American design very widely built under licence in the 1860s-80s, in calibres up to 12.7mm (.50 calibre). The Winchester 1866 was a lever-action 11.18mm calibre weapon with a tubular magazine taking 12 rounds; several later models used a box magazine. The Russians had supplied the Ethiopians with a fair number of US-designed, Russian-made Berdan 1864 and 1870 rifles; both were single-shot 10.75mm weapons, the 1864 model with a hinged `trapdoor’ breech and the 1870 with a bolt action. Sources also mention German Mausers, most likely the 11mm single-shot, bolt-action 1871 model. The Ethiopians also had some examples of the Austrian 1878 Kropatschek, an 11mm bolt-action repeater with an eight-round tubular magazine.
This wide variety of rifles and calibres inevitably created local shortages of ammunition. Menelik instituted a quartermaster system, and individual leaders may have helped supply individuals who were short of cartridges, but in general each man was expected to supply his own (and probably `collected his brass’ for artisan reloading). Cartridges were so valuable they were often used as currency; being hoarded, they tended to be older than was ideal, but Menelik and other leaders strove to purchase as much new ammunition as possible, and it appears that his forces at Adowa were well supplied. Still, out of habit the Ethiopian soldier conserved his ammunition, preferring to get up close before firing. Wylde noted they `made good practice at up to about 400-600 yards, and at a short distance they are as good shots as any men in Africa, the Transvaal Boers not excepted, as they never throw away a cartridge if they can help it and never shoot in a hurry’.
Despite the wide availability of firearms, many Ethiopians still went into battle with more traditional weapons. The shotel was the favoured type of sword, a heavy steel weapon curved like a scimitar, but with the sharpened edge usually on the inside of the curve so that the warrior could stab around the edge of an opponent’s shield. It was carried slung on the right side, so that the left (shield) arm had a full range of movement. Steel-headed spears were pretty much universal among men and boys for defending their flocks from wild animals; generally about 6ft long with a leaf-shaped head, they could be thrown, but were more often used for thrusting. Small shields completed an Ethiopian warrior’s kit. Styles varied among the tribes, but the most common was a circular, conical shield made of hide and covered on the front with coloured cloth such as velvet. Many were decorated and strengthened with strips of brass, tin or more valuable metals; a shield was an easy way for a warrior to show off his wealth and status, and many were quite elaborate.
Cavalry was common in the Ethiopian lowlands, and the horsemen of the Oromo were especially renowned. Horses were useful and acted as a status symbol, so every warrior wanted one. The Ethiopian horse is smaller than its European counterpart and can negotiate terrain that would stop a European steed. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain and dense thickets of thorn-bushes often meant that battles had to be fought on foot. Weaponry for cavalrymen was identical to that for footsoldiers.
The Ethiopians had 42 guns at Adowa. It is unclear what types of cannon were used, but sources agree that they were a mix of older guns bought or captured from various sources. They included Krupps, and mountain guns captured from the Egyptians when they tried to take Ethiopian territory in 1875 and 1876, or left behind when the Egyptian garrison evacuated Harar in 1885. One source describes the artillery as `of all calibres and systems’. There was a chronic shortage of shells, and thus crews had little chance to practise. While the Ethiopians were capable of bombarding a fort, as at Mekele, they had difficulty in manoeuvring guns and laying down accurate fire in broken terrain against a moving enemy; Italian eyewitnesses said that the Ethiopian artillery made a poor performance at Adowa.
More effective were the several automatic cannon that Menelik brought to Adowa. A detailed listing is unavailable, but Maxim weapons are mentioned, and perhaps six were 37mm Hotchkiss pieces. Produced by an American company from 1875, these were later licence-built in Europe, particularly France. Early versions were multi-barrel revolvers, fired by turning a crank like a Gatling gun; later models had a single barrel and were fed by a belt. These later-model `pom-poms’ fired both solid and explosive rounds, and were superior in range and accuracy to the Italian artillery.
THE MAHDIST CHALLENGE, 1890–94
SUDANESE MAHDIST WARRIORS
1: Baqqara cavalryman This warrior is protected by quilted armour under an iron helmet and long ringmail shirt; note too the extensive quilted horse-armour and leather chamfron. He is armed with a spear with a broad leaf-shaped head, and a kaskara sword and flintlock pistol carried on his saddle. The Dervishes plundered many Martini-Henry rifles from defeated Egyptian soldiers, but the only modern touch to disrupt the splendidly medieval impression created by this warrior is a holstered revolver at his hip.
2: Sudanese footsoldier This infantryman, too, wears quilted armour; while useless against firearms, this was still fairly effective against the spears and swords of the Mahdists’ tribal enemies. He is armed with a spear, and a kaskara sword carried in a crocodile-skin scabbard; the flared end of the scabbard is purely stylistic, as the blade has conventional parallel edges. His concave hide shield with a large boss and nicked rim is of a type common in the Sudan.
A challenge to the Italians came from the loosely structured Mahdiyya army in the Sudan. The Mahdi claimed to be the new prophet of Islam, and his devout followers drawn from disparate peoples made great gains against the British-sponsored Egyptians and neighbouring tribes. There had been a longstanding rivalry between these Muslim warriors and the mostly Christian Ethiopians. Emperor Yohannes campaigned against the Dervishes, but, while at first successful, he was defeated and fatally wounded at the battle of Metemma on 9 March 1889.
Although the Mahdi died in June 1885 the fight was continued by his successor, the Khalifa. Between 1885 and 1896, when the reconquest of the Sudan was undertaken by the Anglo-Egyptians.
The Mahdists fought the Italians for the first time at Agordat on 27 June 1890. About 1,000 warriors raided the Beni Amer, a tribe under Italian protection, and then went on to the wells at Agordat, on the road between the Sudan and northern Eritrea. An Italian force of two ascari companies surprised and routed them; Italian losses were only three killed and eight wounded, while the Mahdists lost about 250 dead. In 1892 the Mahdists raided again, and on 26 June a force of 120 ascari and about 200 allied Baria warriors beat them at Serobeti. Again, Italian losses were minimal – three killed and ten wounded – while the raiders lost about 100 dead and wounded out of a total of some 1,000 men. Twice the ascari had shown solid discipline while facing a larger force, and had emerged victorious. The inferior weaponry and fire discipline of the Mahdists played a large part in these defeats.
Major-General Oreste Baratieri took over as military commander of Italian forces in Africa on 1 November 1891, and also became civil governor of the colony on 22 February 1892. Baratieri had fought under Garibaldi during the wars of Italian unification, and was one of the most respected Italian generals of his time. He instituted a series of civil and military reforms to make the colony more efficient and its garrison effective. The latter was established by royal decree on 11 December 1892. The Italian troops included a battalion of Cacciatori (light infantry), a section of artillery artificers, a medical section, and a section of engineers. The main force was to be four native infantry battalions, two squadrons of native cavalry, and two mountain batteries. There were also mixed Italian/native contingents that included one company each of gunners, engineers and commissariat. This made a grand total of 6,561 men, of whom 2,115 were Italians. Facing the Mahdists, and with tension increasing with the Ethiopians, this garrison was soon strengthened by the addition of seven battalions, three of which were Italian volunteers (forming new 1st, 2nd and 3rd Inf Bns) and four of local ascari, plus another native battery. A Native Mobile Militia of 1,500 was also recruited, the best of them being encouraged to join the regular units. Like all the other colonial powers, the Italians also made widespread use of native irregulars recruited and led by local chiefs.
The first big test came at the second battle of Agordat on 21 December 1893. A force of about 12,000 Mahdists, including some 600 elite Baqqara cavalry, headed south out of the Sudan towards Agordat and the Italian colony. Facing them were 42 Italian officers and 23 Italian other ranks, 2,106 ascari, and eight mountain guns. The Italian force anchored itself on either side of the fort at Agordat, and from this strong position they repelled a mass attack, though not without significant losses – four Italians and 104 ascari killed, three Italians and 121 ascari wounded. The Mahdists lost about 2,000 killed and wounded, and 180 captured.
When the Mahdists launched raids across the border in the spring of 1894, the Italians decided to take the offensive and capture Kassala, an important Mahdist town. General Baratieri led 56 Italian officers and 41 Italian other ranks, along with 2,526 ascari and two mountain guns. At Kassala on 17 July they clashed with about 2,000 Mahdist infantry and 600 Baqqara cavalry. The Italians formed two squares, which inflicted heavy losses on the mass attacks by the Mahdists, before an Italian counterattack ended the battle. The Italians suffered an officer and 27 men killed, and two native NCOs and 39 men wounded; Mahdist casualties numbered 1,400 dead and wounded – a majority of their force. The Italians also captured 52 flags, some 600 rifles, 50 pistols, two cannons, 59 horses, and 175 cattle. This crushing defeat stopped Mahdist incursions for more than a year, and earned Baratieri acclaim at home. (In 1896 the Mahdi’s followers would make several more incursions into Eritrean territory, but without success. Fighting the Italians seriously weakened the Mahdiyya, and contributed to its defeat at the hands of Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army at Omdurman in 1898.)
Italian members of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie which assisted Franco’s forces throughout the war. They wear mounted troops’ bandoliers, and most are armed with the M1891 Carcano carbine with a permanently attached folding bayonet.
The first foreign armour to enter service with the Nationalists were five Italian CV 3/35 tankettes, which arrived at the port of Vigo on 26 August 1936 accompanied by ten Italian crewmen to serve as instructors. This would be the most numerous type of AFV employed by the Italian corps in Spain, but – armed with two 8mm machine guns, and with a maximum armour thickness of 15mm – it proved quite inadequate when faced by the Republic’s Soviet-supplied T-26 tanks with 45mm guns.
The most important Nationalist Air Corps fighter type was the Italian Fiat CR. 32, of which seven squadrons were in service by August 1938. These two machines are `3-60′ and `3-62′ (type number – individual aircraft number), which served with Escuadrilla 2-E-3 during the Brunete campaign in summer 1937. By the end of hostilities 20 Nationalist pilots had been credited with five or more aerial victories; the topscoring three were Joaquin Garcia Morato (40 kills), Julio Salvador Diaz Benzumea (25), and Manuel Vazquez Sagistazabal (21½), all of whom won the great majority of their victories while flying the CR. 32.
By far the most important foreign support received by the Nationalists came from Fascist Italy; this would total some 78,000 men, about 750 aircraft and 150 armoured vehicles. Unlike the German armed forces, the Italians had recent combat experience from their invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in October 1935-May 1936. On 12 December 1936, after the failure of Franco’s attempts to capture Madrid, Mussolini decided to send complete Italian ground units to Spain, and the first 3,000 men of the Missione Militare in Spagna arrived on 23 December. By the end of January 1937 some 44,000 Italians were in Spain, mostly members of the militarized Fascist Party `Blackshirt’ militia (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nationale, MVSN). On 17 February the expeditionary force was renamed the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, CTV; commanded by Gen Mario Roatta, in March it numbered more than 50,000 men.
The CTV initially consisted of four small divisions. The 4th `Voluntarii Littorio’ (`Lictor Volunteers’) Infantry Division was composed of Army volunteers organized as in a regular Royal Army formation, which had two infantry regiments each of three battalions, an artillery battalion with three batteries, plus a mortar and an engineer battalion. The other three divisions and an independent infantry brigade group were from the MVSN: infantry divisions designated 1st `Dio lo Vuole’ (`God Wills It’), 2nd `Fiamme Nere’ (`Black Flames’) and 3rd `Penne Nere’ (`Black Feathers’), plus the independent Grupo `XXIII de Marzo’ (`23rd of March’). An MVSN regiment (legion) had only two battalions (cohortes) each 670 strong. The CTV also had a battalion of armoured cars and light tankettes, and a corps artillery of ten field regiments and four AA batteries. It was motorized throughout, but the artillery was obsolete. In February 1937 the light armour was amalgamated with some motorized infantry and artillery into a Raggruppamento Reparti Specializzati (`Group of Specialist Units’, RRS).
In early February 1937 the 1st MVSN Div took part in the successful Nationalist attack on Malaga. In March, at Mussolini’s complacent insistence, the CTV was committed to another offensive near Madrid, at Guadalajara; this failed, however, with heavy losses among the MVSN divisions. The 3rd `Black Feathers’ Div was absorbed by the 2nd `Black Flames’ Div in April; Gen Roatta was replaced by Gen Ettore Bastico, and thereafter the CTV would not carry out operations independent of the Nationalist high command.
Many Italians served thereafter in mixed Italo-Spanish `Flechas’ (`Arrows’) formations, providing the officers and technical personnel while the majority of the rank-and-file were Spanish. From April to August 1937 the first of these mixed brigades, named `Flechas Azules’ (`Blue Arrows’), took the field in Extremadura. The second, `Flechas Negras’ (`Black Arrows’), fought in the Basque country on the Biscay front, supported by the `23rd of March’ and 11th Artillery groups. There, in August, the CTV played a successful part in the offensive against Santander; they were then transferred to the Aragon front.
In September 1937 the `23rd of March’ Group was redesignated as a division, and in October this was amalgamated, with the 1st `God Wills It’ and 2nd `Black Flames’ divisions, into a new consolidated `XIII di Marzo – Fiamme Nere’ MVSN division. In October 1938, with the repatriation of many time-expired personnel, this formation would in turn amalgamate with the `Littorio’ Div, leaving the CTV with a single consolidated Army/Blackshirt formation designated Assault Div `Littorio’, of two infantry regiments with support units. This fought in Catalonia from 23 December 1938 to 8 February 1939.
In March 1938 the Italo-Spanish `Black Arrows’ brigade had been committed to the Aragon offensive towards the Mediterranean coast, and by November it had been enlarged to divisional status. The `Blue Arrows’ mixed brigade provided the nucleus for two other mixed Italo-Spanish divisions named `Blue Arrows’ and `Green Arrows’, which in 1939 also took part in the final offensive in Catalonia, alongside the all-Italian `Littorio’ Assault Division.
In all, some 78,500 Italian volunteers served in Spain, at a cost of 3,819 killed and about 12,000 wounded.
In the summer of 1936, many Spanish generals revolted against the country’s Republican government. They asked Italy and Germany for military support. Mussolini did not like the idea very much, but he saw it as an opportunity to outmaneuver France. From the Italian point of view, France appeared to have a peculiar ability to act in a way that drew the ire of other countries. In those years, not only did Italians view French attitudes as hostile toward Italy, but also premier Leon Blum made two policy errors, which further alienated Italy. The first was a FrancoSpanish pact. Spain allowed French troops transit through Spanish territory to reach North Africa in case of war against Italy. The second was his announcement of sending weapons, ordnance, and men to support the Spanish Republic.
Mussolini did not care about Spanish affairs, but if French intervention rendered Spain a sort of French protectorate, or strategic ally, Italy could find both the exits from Mediterranean closed to Italian shipping. Suez was owned by a French-British company. The Straits of Gibraltar were passable because Spain owned the African side, despite British possession of Gibraltar. What if France indirectly controlled that side as Britain controlled the European one? This could pose a threat to Mussolini’s strategic interests. Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano convinced Mussolini to commit the Regio Esercito for the OMS-Oltre Mare Spagna (Overseas Spain)-operation.
The Italian Military Mission arrived first in Spain to coordinate with General Francisco Franco. Then the Regia Aeronautica sent him a squadron of twelve bombers. On August 4, 1936, Italian aircraft attacked and swept the loyal Republican Spanish fleet out of the Straits of Gibraltar. Then Italian and recently arrived German aircraft transported Spanish colonial troops from Africa to Spain. Italian military support gradually increased. Technicians, tanks, and specialists were sent to Franco as volunteers. He lacked modern weapons and used them not for training his troops, but directly in combat. Italian light tanks played a basic role in smashing the enemy front at Navalcarnero, on October 21. Three days later, Italian military advisers had to fight in Borox. Italian light tanks met Russian-made tanks for the first time and won. Just as the Spanish nationalists and Falange (the Spanish conservative-right party) received support from Italy and Germany, the Republic, which was dominated by Socialists, Communists, and anarchists, received substantial aid from the Soviet Union.
Italian armored forces acted as the Spanish Nationalists’ vanguard and reached Madrid University during the tenacious battle for the capital. The Italian General Staff realized this was no more matter of training the Spanish and, with Mussolini’s direction, increased its military involvement by committing forty thousand more men. “Who asked for it?” Franco curtly asked Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Faldella, chief of the Italian Military Mission, although he did not refuse them.
The CTV-Corpo Truppe Volontarie (Corps of Voluntary Troops)-arrived in Spain. It was composed of four light divisions supported by a large heavy artillery contingent-the Artiglieria Legionaria (Legionnaire Artillery)-and an air component, the Aviazione Legionaria.
Thousands of pages have been written to demonstrate that the CTV were anything but volunteers and that Italy’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War was unpopular; they are largely wrong. Although it is true that the first three thousand men sent to Spain in December originally applied to go to Ethiopia as civil laborers, it is also true that, according to archival documents, a lot of people asked to volunteer for Spain. The Army Archive contains many reports about it. For instance, L’Aquila Military District received hundreds and hundreds of applications. Campobasso Military District suddenly received more than one thousands volunteers.
Why such large participation in this civil war? There were two central reasons. The first was propaganda. News from Spain, more or less enhanced by state propaganda, depicted a terrible situation in Spain. The horror of the war being waged against the clergy, with monks and priests being tortured and shot, nuns raped, churches destroyed, and sacrilege committed, all played upon the Italian public. For a Catholic country such as Italy, these horrors were enough to encourage a sort of “crusade,” as the Nationalists called the war. The second reason was money. Each volunteer received a 300-lira enlistment bonus, 20 liras daily pay, and an additional 3 pesetas daily pay from the Spanish Nationalist government. It was a lot of money for the lower classes, especially in a period of high unemployment, even if the Fascist government did not admit it.
General Mario Roatta commanded the CTV-under the name Mancini, because officially Italy was not involved. They fought successfully at Malaga and Motril in February 1937.
On the Republican side, a lot of volunteers were coming from everywhere to fight Fascism. George Orwell from England, Ernest Hemingway from the United States, and, incidentally many Italians, too, who composed a battalion. Italians were present on both sides, but Franco did not like it. When he thought that strategic suggestions from Rome were becoming too intrusive, he sought to reduce their presence, yet events convinced him otherwise. On February 15, 1937, he asked the CTV to launch an offensive on Guadalajara within a month. Three days later, however, after a victorious Republican counterattack, Franco asked Roatta for immediate intervention. It was the turning point.
On March 8, 1937, Italian troops attacked along the Carretera de Francia, the route from the south to Madrid, Saragossa, and France. Snow and ice pelted the advancing troops, and bad weather over Nationalist airfields prevented any air support for the Italian offensive. On the Republican side, good weather did not restrict Republican aircraft from providing air cover. Moreover, when the Republicans counterattacked, the Nationalists gave no support to the Italians. Despite these circumstances the CTV initially advanced 22 miles, lost 12, and then held the remaining 10 miles. But they failed to reach their objectives, and the battle had to be considered a loss. After this, Franco did not accept Italian strategic advice.
Republican propaganda exploited this victory: No pasara`n-They will not pass! Mussolini was so angered by this propaganda that he determined to commit greater forces to the war. Italian troops increased in quality and quantity and Mussolini finally admitted official involvement on October 20, 1937. His admission also ended the grotesque “piracy” in the Mediterranean. Since the early days of the civil war, merchant ships en route to Spain had been sunk by “mysterious” submarines. The Regia Marina, did not admit responsibility, but it was well known. After a League of Nations initiative, the Regia Marina together with German Kriegsmarine, the British Royal Navy, and French Marine Nationale participated in antipiracy control in the Mediterranean and along Spanish coasts.
The Italian and German secret services in the Black Sea and Dardanelles observed Soviet ships carrying supplies and ordnance to Spain. Italian submarines acted accordingly and “pirates” sank the ships. But it was thanks to the operations against piracy that the Royal Navy was able to decipher the Regia Marina’s secret codes. This would become a problem for the Italian navy in a few years.
On land, Italian forces fought on all Spanish fronts. The Legionnaire Air Force, as the Regia Aeronautica was called in Spain, lost 175 pilots in combat. Troops were used in the north; and Legionnaire Artillery support played a fundamental role in the campaign in the north. Italian troops took part in seizing Bilbao, and the following battle of Brunete was won with the decisive role of the Aviazione Legionaria: It destroyed 100 enemy aircraft, and its close air support halted enemy counterattacks. Italian troops later attacked and, on August 26, seized Santander. When Italian tanks reached the center of the city, Nationalist supporters acclaimed them, crying, “Han pasado! Han pasado!”-they passed! After that battle, General Ettore Bastico was recalled to Rome. In fact, Franco protested because Bastico allowed many military and local civilian Republican officers to seek refuge on British ships. It was not the first time Italians acted differently from Spaniards. Italian troops considered Republicans as prisoners of war. The Nationalists did not. In the early days of the war their military courts sentenced prisoners to death. A first Italian formal protest made little impact. When Italian headquarters protested again, the Nationalists replied that they were being more careful about who was sentenced to death: they acquitted up to 30 percent of the total!
Further operations proved decisive for the war in northern Spain. Franco’s troops were hard-pressed near Huesca in December and were saved by the Legionnaire Artillery and Air Force. In March, Italian troops fought in Catalonia. They took Huesca and marched to the mouth of the Ebro. By the time they reached the sea they had lost 3,000 men, taken 10,000 prisoners, and captured three cities and fifty towns. The Spanish Republic was now cut in two.
The war ended on April 1, 1939. Italian support had clearly been decisive. Mussolini presented Franco with all the vehicles and heavy weapons used by the CTV. He did so because it was cheaper to leave them instead of shipping them back to Italy, but as it was the spring 1939, it was the worst possible time to give such a present to anyone. Italy would sorely miss the heavy equipment
Struggle is the origin of all things, for life is filled with opposites: love and hate, white and black, day and night, good and evil. And as long as these opposites do not maintain a balance, struggle will determine human nature as the final power of fate.
With victory over Abyssinia, Italy erupted in jubilation. Adowa had been avenged. The Italian tricolor waving over Addis Ababa was a glorious sight to the Duce’s fellow countrymen. But henceforward, with only two brief intervals, they would be at war for the next nine years.
The smoke of battle had hardly cleared over East Africa when Mussolini received an urgent appeal for help from Francisco Franco, leader of the Nationalist cause in Spain. In February 1936, a liberal-leftist coalition calling itself a ‘Popular Front’ won the country’s national elections by a slim margin. Immediately thereafter, radical socialists in the coalition pushed loudly for revolution. All political organizations and newspapers outside the far Left were criminalized, churches vandalized, nuns raped and priests beaten to death by incensed mobs raging through the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. Strikes spread everywhere, as military uprisings reduced the country to anarchy. On 26 July, the watchful Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, took advantage of Spanish internal distress, which he saw as an opportunity for establishing his long-dreamt-of foothold in Western Europe.
He dispatched more than 2,000 ‘military advisors’ to the new government leaders, who liquidated their liberal predecessors in the best Stalinist tradition, then set up an openly Marxist regime in Madrid, calling themselves, ‘Republicans’. Soon, 240 warplanes, 1,200 artillery pieces, and 700 tanks poured into Spain from the USSR. Soviet aid did not come cheap though, and Stalin had no qualms about bilking fellow Communists for more than $315 million, which represented Madrid’s entire gold reserve.
To counter the influx of men and arms from Russia, the Nationalists needed to transfer their army, stranded by these chaotic events in Morocco, to Iberian battlefields at once. But they lacked the means to do so. “Could we Fascists leave without answer that cry,” the Duce asked, “and remain indifferent in the face of the perpetuation of such bloody crimes committed by the so-called ‘Popular Fronts’? No. Thus our first squadron of warplanes left on 27 July 1936, and that same day we had our first dead.”
For his part, Hitler ordered an air fleet of transport planes to North Africa, from which they ferried the Nationalist army to Spain. He thus envisioned and enacted the first military airlift in history. As the Führer remarked later, “Franco ought to build a monument to the Ju-52”. The Junkers Ju-52, affectionately known as Tante Ju, or ‘Aunty Ju’, by its crews, was the aircraft that flew in Nationalist troops from North Africa. In fact, aviation was to play a more pivotal role in the Spanish Civil War than any previous conflict, and proved to be its decisive factor.
Most mainstream historians, discounting another influential component–ideological rivalry–have long insisted that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were only interested in the conflict as an opportunity to test their weapons for a future, more serious confrontation. But larger considerations were actually at stake. Hitler eventually regretted his aid to the Nationalists, because Franco later declined to reciprocate when Germany wanted Andalusian bases for the capture of Gibraltar. Mussolini was genuinely alarmed at the prospect of a Red presence in the Mediterranean, however. The venerable Continent seemed about to be surrounded, especially in view of Stalin’s oft-repeated promise to transform the world into “a dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e., the Soviet state) during his lifetime.
Franco’s appeal for help coincided with important, not unrelated events inside Italy itself. Beginning three years earlier, Mussolini had been faced with the most serious challenge to his power since he became Prime Minister. Giustiziae e Liberta was a well-financed, competently led underground of dedicated anti-Fascists formed in Turin. Although propaganda activities took place mostly in the city’s working class districts, specifically targeting the important Fiat manufacturing plant there, its leadership was made up mostly of upper middle class intellectuals, many of them with influential university positions.
They did not confine themselves to surreptitiously distributing handbills critical of the regime, but sought recruitment for its violent overthrow. Assassination of Fascist leaders, not excepting the Duce himself, was advocated and planned, and activists were busy infiltrating several important institutions, especially newspapers and schools. Although Giustiziae e Liberta organizers seemed to steer an indefinite political middle-road, the movement’s Marxist sympathies were not easily disguised, and their appeal to former leftists was beginning to attract followers among academics at some major northern universities.
Giustiziae e Liberta was a child of its time. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Stalin was concerned that Fascism, no longer confined to Italy, was spreading, and needed to be stopped. Similar movements during the 1930s were active in virtually every European country, where supporters, like those of Britain’s Sir Oswald Moseley or Holland’s Anton Mussert, ran, collectively, into the hundreds of thousands. Soviet operatives were watched with growing concern by agents of OVRA, the Organizazione Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo, or Fascist secret police. When moderate Fascists expressed misgivings about the implications of such a clandestine arm of government, Mussolini reminded them that even the benevolent Emperor Hadrian found need for a similar organization, the frumentarii. “Whenever respect for the State declines,” he said, “and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, nations are headed for decay.”
After three months of investigation, the authorities were alarmed to discover that Giustiziae e Liberta was a hybrid underground of native Italian Communists and professionally-trained propagandists (some of them expert saboteurs) who had covertly entered the country from the Soviet Union. And the anti-Fascist underground found particularly fertile ground among the country’s numerically insignificant Jewish communities, mostly in Turin. One of its members later immigrated to England, where Massimo Coen’s Parla Londra! (‘London Calling!’) was a series of radio broadcasts blasting Mussolini in the Italian language and which were heard around the world. In fact, the founder of Giustiziae e Liberta, Tancredi Duccio Galimberti, was himself a Jew.
From its inception, however, Fascism was not inherently anti-Semitic, with minimal Jewish participation in its revolution, although some Jews held key positions in government, like the Grand Rabbi of Rome, who was likewise the capital’s political leader. During an interview in 1932 with the famous German-Jewish author and journalist, Emil Ludwig (patronym Cohn), Mussolini condemned anti-Semitism as divisive and “not part of the new Italy. Race: it is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent a feeling”. Yet, he spoke out against the Jews in no uncertain terms for the first time just a year later, in August, when he felt his regime was seriously jeopardized by Giustiziae e Liberta. The following month, as some indication of his change of sentiment, he sent a personal delegation to the Nazis’ national congress in Nuremberg. It was headed by Professor Arturo Marpicati, Vice Secretary of the Fascist Party, who was allowed to address the delegates in Italian, and, for the first time, publicly broached the subject of cooperation between the two ideologically kindred movements.
In standard biographies of Mussolini he is portrayed as initially indifferent to the Jews, and only assumed the guise of anti-Semite in 1938 to curry Hitler’s favor. Actually, it was his fear of Giustiziae e Liberta with its Communist activists that elicited his first hostile statements about the ‘Jewish Question’ in 1933. The Race Law he passed five years later was exceptionally mild in comparison with Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, and did little more than forbid marriages between Italians and Jews.
The armed forces, police and all Fascist organizations were henceforward closed to Jews, but the royal House of Savoy, which effectively controlled the Army and Navy, prevented all Jews already enlisted from being removed. Even in the Fascist Party and government, their few Jewish members mostly continued to serve unmolested. During the war, Adolf Eichmann complained to his SS superiors that the French, Yugoslav and Greek zones occupied by Italians had become ‘Jewish refuges’. Italy’s Race Law mostly impacted Italian education, where schools of every level were required to teach students about ‘Jewish perfidy’.
Years before the passage of this anti-Semitic legislation, Mussolini was an ardent Zionist, going so far as to initiate important contacts with leading figures in the movement, including Bernard Baruch. The Duce heartily agreed that the only solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ was the creation of a Jewish state, where the world’s Jews could be resettled. At one time, he even proposed setting aside territory in conquered Abyssinia as ideally suited for the creation of a 20th Century Israel, if only because large numbers of Falasha Ethiopians already regarded themselves as Jewish. Baruch declined the offer on the grounds that urbanized Jews in the United States or Europe would never consent to living in East Africa. The Duce was somewhat put off by his rejection.
“If Ethiopia is good enough for my Italians,” he sniffed, “why isn’t it good enough for your Jews? You tell me they have been horribly persecuted in many parts of the world. If so, I imagine they would be happy to find refuge anywhere they can live in peace. Well, no one can say I didn’t try. It will take a more adept statesman than myself to solve this age-old problem to everyone’s satisfaction.”
Henceforward, Mussolini’s ardor for Zionist solutions noticeably cooled.
For nearly three years, an intense, underground war was waged between determined OVRA operatives and elusive Giustiziae e Liberta subversives. whose influence in northern Italy appears to have peaked by mid-1935. War in Ethiopia that year generated a national wave of patriotic fervor that mostly extinguished anti-Fascist activism, succeeding where OVRA’s counter-subversive measures failed. Even Vittorio Emanuelle Orlando, the prominent and outspokenly anti-Fascist liberal politician ousted from office by Mussolini after the March on Rome, arose from the obscurity of his legal practice to loudly praise the Ethiopian Campaign.6 Thanks to majority public support for the invasion, the fires of resistance were effectively dampened, although they were not entirely extinguished, and smoldered unseen until, eight years later, the changing winds of Mussolini’s fortune fanned them to life once again.
As some measure of Giustiziae e Liberta’s impact on the regime, of the 4,000 persons in Italy arrested for anti-government activities between 1927 and 1940, more than half took place from 1933 to 1936, the underground movement’s brief years of florescence. So too, eight of the ten men and women executed by the Fascists in that same thirteen-year period belonged to Giustiziae e Liberta.
Despite accusations of political oppression, Mussolini showed an early clemency toward his opponents he later came to regret. His most public enemy prior to achieving power in 1922 was Palmiro Togliatti, founder of the Italian Communist Party. After the March on Rome, Togliatti was unmolested until 1926, when, frustrated by Fascism’s spreading popularity, he began working underground for a Socialist revival. When that also failed, he fled to Moscow, but, courtesy of the Anglo-American invasion of Italy, returned during March 1944 to reestablish the Communist movement there.
Many government officials particularly criticized Mussolini for his mild treatment of Amedeo Adriano Bordiga. It was deemed too extreme even for his fellow Marxists, who expelled Bordiga from the Italian Communst Party; he was briefly interned in 1925, later freed under police surveillance.
The last arrests of Giustiziae e Liberta adherents had just been made when Mussolini received Franco’s request for help to defend his country from the same internal forces that bedeviled Italy. The Duce was hardly alone in his concern for events in Spain. They deeply touched most Italians, who regarded the Spaniards as not only fellow Latins, but Catholics suffering a wave of church desecrations and bloody atrocities at the hands of a militantly atheist government. People worried that the Russian calamity of 1917 was about to repeat itself, and this time not that far away. They clamored for a modern crusade to extirpate the Communist infidel from Western European soil.
But Italy’s military had been worn out by the Abyssinian experience. The Army and Air Force were in need of refitting. Mussolini was at first able to spare Franco only nineteen warplanes, which would be up against far more enemy aircraft. These included sixty French Breguet XIX reconnaissance bombers, forty Nieuport-Delage Ni.52 fighters, fourteen Dewoitine D. 371 and ten D.373 pursuit planes, plus 65 Potez Po.540 medium bombers, together with twenty British Vickers Wildebeest torpedo-bombers. Aiding the Italians were nine, wheezing biplane fighters which comprised the entire Nationalist Air Force, and ten German tri-motor transports.
On 29 July, the Morandi sailed from La Spezia for Melilla, a port in Spanish Morocco. The large freighter carried abundant supplies of ammunition, bombs, aviation fuel and aircraft for Franco’s forces. The next day, a flight of nine Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers landed at Nador outside Melilla, the first of some 720 aircraft and 6,000 aircrews Mussolini dispatched to the Nationalist cause. They were intended to support the more than 70,000 Italian soldiers that would eventually serve in Spain.
Throughout most of the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans continued to enjoy a numerical edge over their opponents, thanks to help from Russia and covert armaments smuggled across the Pyrenees by a sympathetic French Premiere, Leon Blum. At the behest of the League of Nations, along with most other world leaders, he had signed a non-intervention agreement that excluded outside involvement in the Civil War for the expressed purpose of containing hostilities in Iberia, thereby preventing them from widening into a general conflict. Although publicly avowing non-participation in the sharply drawn ideological struggle, Blum covertly slipped French arms and supplies to the Republicans, and allowed his border patrols to look the other way when leftist volunteers wanted to cross the mountains into Spain.
But other heads of foreign governments likewise paid little more than lip-service to official non-participation. U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt, who vigorously condemned the Nationalists, did not prevent thousands of Americans from joining something called the ‘Abraham Lincoln Brigade’. This was an armed assortment of socialist intellectuals, fire-breathing Communists, bored dilettantes, desperately unemployed men, one-world idealists, and Jews alarmed at the rise of European anti-Semitism who fought on the Republican side.
With its Wagnerian name, Operation Feuerzauber (‘Magic Fire’) was supposed to have been nothing more than a training exercise provided to Franco’s mechanics by a handful of German aeronautical ‘advisors’ at the Tablada airfield, near Seville. From these humble, thinly disguised beginnings, however, a Kondor Legion of Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka dive-bombers swiftly evolved. League of Nations deputies entrusted with international enforcement of the non-intervention agreement had no control over Mussolini after he stomped out of their Geneva headquarters over the Ethiopian affair, and the Soviet Union was not a member, never having been asked to join, so neither Italy nor Russia were constrained from sending men and equipment to Spanish battlefields and airfields.
Republican warplanes unquestionably dominated the skies from the beginning of the conflict. But they were challenged during August by the arrival in Seville of Savoia Marchetti and Caproni Ca.135 aircraft in two bomber squadrons. Together with the original dozen Fiat fighters dispatched by Mussolini, they comprised an early nucleus for the Italians’ Aviazione Legonaria, which eventually fielded 250 aircraft of various types. And their pilots would achieve distinction as the world’s best during the mid-1930s.
Some, like Maresciallo Baschirotto, became aces, shooting down at least five enemy a piece. His experience in Spain prepared him for duty in World War Two, when he destroyed six more Curtiss P-40s, Beaufighters, and Hawker Hurricanes during the North African Campaign. Baschirotto’s last victory was over a Spitfire near the island-fortress of Pantelleria, on 20 April 1942. “It was a happy birthday present to the German Führer,” he told a reporter for one of Italy’s oldest, most widely read newspaper, the Corriere della Sera.7 Hitler had on that day celebrated his 53rd birthday.
His comrade in Spain was Group Commander Ernesto Botto, who received the Gold Medal for downing four Republican aircraft. Although he lost a leg during their destruction, he volunteered for frontline flying two years later, when Italy went to war against Britain. Botto went on to claim another three ‘kills’ in the skies over the Libyan Desert, earning him the nickname, Gamba di Ferro, or ‘Iron Leg’.
The aircraft men like Maresciallo Baschirotto and Ernesto Botto were supposed to fly for Franco were not always as physically fit as themselves. The SM.81, for example, had already seen service during the Abyssinian Campaign in transport and reconnaissance duties. Its three 700-hp Piaggio P.X RC.35 nine-cylinder radial engines gave the Pipistrello, or ‘Bat’, as the rugged aircraft was affectionately known by its crews, 340 km/hr at 9,800 meters, with a range of 2,000 kilometers carrying a bomb payload of 1,000 kilograms–not bad for 1936. The Caproni was a more modern, twin-engine medium-bomber with a sleek fuselage and twin-boom tail. Faster by 60 km/hr than the Pipistrello, and able to deliver an additional 1,000 kilos of bombs, its three 12.7mm machine-guns in nose, dorsal and ventral turrets foreshadowed future developments.
For escort, the bombers were protected by the Fiat CR.32, generally considered the best pursuit model at the beginning of the war, “soon gaining a reputation as one of the outstanding fighter biplanes of all time,” according to British aviation historian, David Mondey.8 Agile, quick and tough, the Fiat’s extraordinary aerobatic characteristics and top speed of 375 km/hr at 3,000 meters enabled its pilots to take on maneuverable ‘double-deckers’ like itself, such as the Soviets’ Super Chata, or more modern monoplanes, including the formidable Mosca. Eventually, 380 CR.32s participated in the Spanish Civil War. But during the conflict’s first months, just a handful of Italian bombers and fighters were General Franco’s first and, for some time, only support aircraft. Terribly outnumbered as they were in 1936, their technological superiority over the Republicans’ French and British machines, together with the Ethiopian experience of their aggressive crews, made the Aviazione Legonaria a force to be reckoned with from the start.
During late August 1936, the Italian airmen launched their first sorties against enemy strongholds in the north, where the Fiats swatted Nieuports and Dewoitines, while the Pipistrellos and Capronis were dead-on target with their destructive payloads. To combat these intruders, a famous French Communist author, Alfred Malraux, helped raise twelve million francs for the purchase of new warplanes as needed additions to his Escuadrilla Espaía. Based in occupied Madrid, his fiery oratory attracted foreign volunteer pilots from France, Britain and Czechoslovakia. Not to be outdone, Mussolini rushed additional squadrons of CR.32s to Seville.
They arrived just in time to confront a major enemy offensive during September, and contributed decisively to the battle. Malraux’s elite squadron was badly mauled, as the Popular Front offensive folded under the bombs of SM.81s and CA.135s. By December, with half its aircraft destroyed, the Escuadrilla Espaía disbanded; survivors melted into the regular Republican Air Force. Replacements came in the form of fifty Russian SB-2 Katuska bombers and I-15 Chata fighters. Later, after the New Year, Leon Blum quietly slipped another twenty state-of-the-art Loire 46 pursuit planes across the Pyrenees. More troublesome for the Italians was the appearance of a remarkably advanced Soviet bomber, the Tupelev SB-2, over Cordoba. It was faster than the quick Fiats, and could even out-climb them after dropping its bombs.
For weeks, the unassailable Tupelevs ranged over Nationalist territory, wrecking havoc on troop concentrations and supply depots. All attempts to intercept them met with failure. In January 1937, a Spanish pilot, Garcia Morato, noticed that the bombers were in Cordoba skies every morning at precisely the same time and altitude. Jumping into his CR.32 before they arrived, he climbed to 5,030 meters, well above the lower-flying enemy. They appeared like clock-work, and Morato pounced on them, his 7.7mm Breda machine-guns blazing. Two of the swift Russian aircraft fell flaming to earth, and the rest frantically jettisoned their payloads to beat a hasty retreat. Nationalist fighter pilots learned from his experience. If they were given sufficient advance warning, their Fiat fighter-planes, with remarkable service ceilings of nearly 8,840 meters and a swift rate of climb, could dive on the redoubtable Tupelevs from above.
But the speedy bombers were not the only quality aircraft sent from the USSR. Squadrons of nimble biplane fighters, the Polikarpov I-15, arrived in Madrid, together with numbers of an altogether different design, the I-16. The stubby monoplane more physically resembled a trophy-racer of the era than a military machine. It was the product of a prison experience endured by Dmitri Gregorovich and Nikolai Nikolayevich Polikarpov.
By late 1932, their new I-15 was despised by Red Air Force test-pilots unhappy with its instability at high speeds, and its gull-wings which prevented the airmen from seeing the horizon while in flight and obscuring the ground on approach, making landings hazardous. Enraged by the negative reports of his test-pilots, Stalin threw Russia’s leading aeronautical inventors into prison, together with every member of their design teams, until they came up with a fighter for the Soviet Union at least as good as contemporary examples from other nations. With their freedom and, ultimately, their lives at stake, the hapless engineers, still behind bars, put their heads together for the creation of an aircraft ahead of its time.
The I-16’s successful debut on New Year’s Eve 1933 coincided with the designers’ release from behind bars. An innovative, retractable landing-gear made it the first monoplane of its kind to enter service. The cantilever, or internally braced, low metal wing, plus all-wood monocoupe fuselage, resulted in a solid form easy to maintain in frontline conditions, able to take terrific punishment, and strong enough to survive the high-speed maneuvers that broke apart lesser aircraft. As one commentator observed, “its rolls and loops could be quite startling.” Powered by a 1,000-hp M-62 radial engine, Polikarpov’s best effort flew higher by 670 meters and faster by 115 km/hr than Italy’s finest fighter, and totally outclassed the Heinkel 51, Germany’s early rival for Spanish skies.