Italy entered in war the 10 June 1940; the war was decided
by Mussolini that, however, knew of the present unpreparedness to the
conflict in the Italian Armed Forces. Also Hitler knew it, because already
in the May of 1939 he had been informed of this from a memorial of the
Italian government. In this page it is spoken about the History in Mediterranean
Sea theater; the History of Italian surface units deployed in other
theaters is in this page.
According to the Steel Pact, of May, 21, 1939, was convened
that Italy would not have been ready to a participation in war before
After the outbreak of the second world war, Mussolini
became gradually more and more trusting in the Italian ability to get
ready to the conflict, establishing, at first, the date of the participation
to the half of 1941 and then, as arrived news of the German successes,
always more anticipating, in arbitrary way, this date.
Tragically, at the moment of the entrance in war, with
France by now on the hem of collapse, nothing was made in order to supply
the Italian forces presents in Libya, the only land frontier in contact
with English. Marshal Badoglio, chief of general staff of the Armed
Forces, thought that little surface units in collaboration with the
submarines would have been enough. The problem was that the Italian
army in Libya amounted to 236000 soldiers that had need of all: provisions,
tanks, weapons, ammunitions. With the space on board of the small units
it could be made very little: but it was tried.
The 25 June of 1940 left the first small convoy, two motor-ships
that sailed nearly empty: only 437 soldiers and 2775 tons of supplies,
one drop in the sea. Some day after, the 27 June, leave another convoy,
composed by three destroyers (Espero, Ostro and Zeffiro) with
on board an unit of antiaircraft artillery, but this time the convoy
was intercepted from English and attacked: the Espero sank, while
the others two unit succeeded to escape.
Obviously it could not more be sent little units to slaughter,
without no escort: consequently the 7 July 1940 great part of the Italian
fleet takes the sea in order to escort a convoy of five steamboats directed
to Bengasi. It seems an exaggerated deployment of forces, but the facts
of the Espero had made the Italian Command prudent. Also the
English fleet is in sea, the battle is unavoidable: it is the first
sea battle between battleships in the Mediterranean and it will pass
to History as the battle of Punta
The battle, for itself not conclusive, put to knot the
insufficient integration between Italian sea and air units, and, beyond
that, the inefficiency of the Italian aircraft bombs, weighting only
250 Kg, against naval units (English sailors, after the first experiences,
called them "cow shits").
Leaving to a side some smaller episode, the first months
of war saw a substantial inactivity of the Italian naval forces, intentional
by the orders from the High Command and the government: they were expecting
the invasion of England and its defeat; to the contrary, in Navy headquarters
there was much displeasing (they used the nickname of "Navy of non-intervention"),
because it was wanted to search for a greater battle with English Navy,
that, in that time, was numerically inferior.
The indolence of the Italian High Command made that English
succeeded to carry out, the 29 August 1940, an operation, called "Hats",
that previewed to send reinforces to the island of Malta and transfer
some major surface units to the fleet of Alexandria. Now the force ratio
was turned over.
The dawn of 28 October 1940 the Italian troops begin the
invasion of Greece. This action was a Mussolini's idea, and was reported
only later to Hitler: it was a strategically madness, and English happily
offered themselves to help Greece, obtaining, in doing so, the base
of Suda, in Crete, and, beyond that, precious airports on the same island.
Great part of the Italian naval efforts was centered,
in this period, on the transport of men and supplies between the Italian
ports and Albania; England found this very useful, because it could
lead the operation "Judgment", another colossal operation of supplying
of Malta, without having to fear Italian warships. Inside of this operation
there was an action of the English carrier Illustrious from which
took off torpedo bombers that attacked the port of Taranto, in the evening
of 11 November 1940; this port was unprepared to face airplane attacks,
so the English almost sank the BB Cavour and they seriously damaged
the battleships Littorio and Duilio.
The aerial attack on Taranto had an enormous world-wide
resonance (it seems that the Japanese were inspired by this in planning
the attack to Pearl Harbor), much more for, in that moment, the "personal"
campaign of Mussolini in Greece was going badly, so much that the Greeks
were passing to the offensive.
Seen the situation of weakness in which it poured Italy,
England thought about make another mission of supplying, called "Collar".
The morning of 25 November 1940 the Italian spies in Gibraltar, (they
were very active during the whole of the war), signaled to Supermarina
(Navy headquarters) the sight of the convoy; this time the situation
and the moral of the crews demanded that something was to made: so had
place the battle of
||Gibraltar, in a propagandistic postcard of the time
made for soldiers of the Regio Esercito (Italian Army).
This battle, ended more or less in a draw, had some "political"
undergoing in the two Navy headquarters; admiral Somerville, who commanded
the English fleet at Capo Teulada, was inquired for not having shown
a sufficient energy in front of the enemy; he was then acquitted by
this inquiry, but his career was damaged; on Italian part admiral Cavagnari,
who was the Navy commander in chief, was fired by Mussolini, who had,
a little later, fired Badoglio too for the going of the war in Greece.
Admiral Riccardi took the place of Cavagnari.
Riccardi's duty was certainly not easy, also because,
in that days, arrived from Greece front very bad news: Mussolini, the
8 December 1940 thought to ask the German mediation to an armistice
with Greeks; he however asked a strong military help to Germany. The
9 December it came another terrible news: English troops, commanded
by general Wavell, were attacking near Sidi el Barrani, in north Africa:
in few days the Italian army, commanded by general Graziani, was almost
destroyed. Every day Italy calls out for an help by Germany.
The month of December of 1940 was one of the happiest
for the English Mediterranean fleet: admiral Cunningham, commander of
the fleet based in Alexandria, left the port the 16 with all of his
warships and went to bombard Rhodes, then went to Suda to refuel, left
the port and entered in the low Adriatic sea, going to bombard the port
of Valona, in Albania; the day 20 entered, between soldiers and civilians
acclaims, in the port of La Valletta, in Malta; then, finally, re-entered
to Alexandria for Christmas.
It seemed the English campaign was going for the better,
January, the 3, fell Bardia, Italian fortress in Libya, under the combined
attack of English Army and Navy: the way for Tobruk is open to the English.
The moral of Italian commands, in these days, is underground, there
was a great lack of initiative, but, here it was, the hoped help arrived:
German X Fliger Corps, three hundred aircraft, under general Geisler
command, arrived in Sicilian airports, where it operated in combination
with Italian Air Force: main objective Malta.
Malta was guilty left apart by Italian commands, under
strictly orders of Mussolini, who had always think about Malta as an
island of scarce strategic importance for its nearness to Sicily. Now
Malta had to be neutralized: from its bases left submarines and aircraft
that attacked Italian ports and shipments. Between the 10 January and
the 22 May, 2188 German and 975 Italian aircraft attacked the island:
it was the beginning of a black period for Malta.
In the night between 9 and 10 January 1941 starts the
English operation called "Excess", which was to escort steamboats
going to Greece, with the same escort pattern which was so positive
for other operations; this time the English did a major mistake: they
did not inform the Navy command that Sicily was filling by Italian and
German aircraft, and, above all, that these aircraft were the most dangerous
for ships: torpedo aircraft and dive bombers; so, at 12.30 of the 10
January, the English fleet was attacked by Italian torpedo bombers,
that made no damages but the fighter escort of the fleet had to go to
sea level; the attack is well planned, at this very moment, without
the nuisance of the English fighters, dropping by the sky, arrived the
notorious German dive bombers, the Stukas: in few minutes the carrier
Illustrious is aflame, and the battleship Warspite, flagship
of the English, is slightly damaged. The Illustrious, with the
rest of the fleet, succeeded to reach Malta, where it was newly attacked
some times, between 11 and 19 January; during one of these attacks was
sunk the English cruiser Southampton. The carrier, that was unable
to combat, succeed however to take the sea by the 23 January and to
go to Alexandria, port from where it left for the American shipyards
In few days the force ratio was turned radically over:
the English fleet based in Alexandria was without carriers, and it would
be without till March; without air superiority the combat was under
the same conditions.
Meanwhile, in Africa, the Italian retreat went on; the
22 January 1941 felt Tobruk, the collapse was near, but Hitler decided
to send in that war theater the force called Afrika Corps, under general
Rommel command. The transport of German soldiers and tanks to Tripoli
was made by the Regia Marina which, without the aerial attack menace,
had not any loss.
The 9 February 1941, at 8.14 a.m., the English fleet based
in Gibraltar, commanded by Somerville, bombarded Genoa port. This action
was made because the English wanted to show to the neutral Spain (they
feared Franco could ally with the Axis) that no port was sure from them,
and moreover they wanted to lower the Italian morale. Genoa bombardment
was a true "joke": Italian fleet was at sea, but, for a lot
of incredible delays and a lot of mistakes in air recognition (even
a group of seven French cargo ships was mistaken with the English fleet),
it did not succeed to intercept the English one. At the moment a group
of Regia Marina units was at sea, and it was far larger than English
one, so, in case of contact, it could have "punish" very hard
the enemy units. After this action will follow a set of excuses by the
Italian headquarters, either of Air Force and Navy, and some lies to
justify the mistakes (they speak about bad weather conditions, while
that day the sea was calm and there was a very good visibility), until
all the reports were filed, drawing a veil over that day's events.
The 26 March 1941 a large part of Italian fleet left Italian
ports; objective of the mission was to go in Aegean sea for intercept
English convoys to and from Greece in expectation of the German invasion
of Greece. The mission had to have, theoretically, an air cover, but
in fact this was not always present; moreover, thanks to the English
decoding service, Cunningham knew of the mission. So the Italian fleet
went towards one of the more tragical page of its history: first the
battle of Gaudo and, in the
following night, the truly tragedy of Matapan.
Luckily English made some mistakes too, losing the opportunity to completely
destroy the Italian fleet on sea.
The 31 March 1941, after a meeting with Regia Marina admirals,
Mussolini had to admit that the Matapan defeat was due to the lack of
air cover; so Mussolini ordered to begin the construction of the carrier
Aquila (which was never finished) and said that, from that moment
on, Regia Marina could have to operate only in waters covered by the
fighters' range. The battle of Matapan brought finally the Navy High
Command at the conclusions that English had the radar, they won because
they used combined sea and air units, and they knew how to fight by
For a little time Regia Marina was idle, to repair damages,
with the exception of submarines and assault crafts (which, besides,
in these very days sunk cruisers York and Bonaventure).
But the war balance returned, in April, to be inclined towards Axis'
part: in North Africa, general Rommel repeatedly defeated general Wavell's
forces, in Greece and in Yugoslavia began the German invasion that ended
with their conquest by the month's end.
Another hard blow for the English was in May, when, the
20, German forces, under command of general Student, baled out on Crete
ending its conquest the first of June. Cunningham's fleet (that based
in Alexandria), in those days, went to Crete's sea, to help English
troops, facing overwhelming Axis' air superiority.
||An Italian torpedo bomber is attacking an English
English painfully discovered too what was to sail without
an adequate air cover; cruisers Gloucester, Fiji, Calcutta and
destroyers Greyhound, Kelly, Imperial and Hereward were sunk
and moreover battleships Warspite, Valiant and Barham, carrier
Formidable, and cruisers Najad, Carlisle, Dido and Orion were
damaged. It was a very hard blow that turned over again the force ratio.
Also if no greater Italian units were present on Crete's
sea, and until autumn there was no major happenings, this is not meaning
that Regia Marina was idle: for all the duration of the war Italian
units escorted convoys to and fro Libya, route that saw a multitude
of little but often heroic, from both parts, combats between Italian
and English units.
Germans had to diminish their pressure against English
too, because the 22 June 1941 Hitler attacked Soviet Union, retreating,
in doing so, troops and crafts by Mediterranean war theater.
||The 21 September, Italian "pigs"
(assault crafts) entered in Gibraltar's port and sunk two tanker,
a 6000 tons cargo ship with ammunition load and damaged another
one. At the side you can see the cover of an Italian magazine of
the time, the issue of 28 September, dedicated to the raid.
In the month of October 1941 arrived in Malta strong reinforcements,
also naval, between them some new and speedy units, two light cruisers
and two destroyers, called "K" force, which hardly stroke
Italian cargo ships and their escorts on the Libya route.
In the month of December, K force was nearly destroyed
in the period following the first
Sirte battle; this month was particularly favorable for Regia Marina,
that saw the success of the
attack to Alexandria port, by the commandos of the Xth M.A.S. flotilla.
We are now at the beginning of 1942; Malta is newly under
an heavily air attack; Axis Commands had decided that the island is
a danger for Libya routes, if left undisturbed: the
air-sea island blockade was, in the first six months of the year,
almost complete. There were some battles, the most famous of which was
called the second Sirte
The Italian High Command finally had decided itself to
plan the invasion of Malta, that was coded "C 3"; in order to carry
out an operation of such kind, with disembarkation of troops and launch
of paratroopers, the island had to be neutralized by air attacks; they
were the blackest days for English who saw their air forces based in
Malta nearly destroyed, until the pressure on the island fainted. There
had happened two things: Russia had demanded an increase of the forces
engaged in the Mediterranean sea in order to alleviate the pressure
on its front, that, however, absorbed men and crafts to the Axis, and
in the second place it was begun to feel the economic and military weight
of the United States, that, after having contained in the first months
of 1942 the Japanese offensive, could now permit to send in Europe a
part of its gigantic military apparatus.
At the end of May 1942 Rommel begins his advance that
from Libya carried him to El Alamein. The Ally headquarters become aware
that the successes obtained by Afrika Corps were due to the Italian
mercantile traffic that, not more contrasted, had allowed Germans to
reconstruct supplies of fuel, weapons and ammunitions. This was happened
because Malta, under besiege, was not more able to launch submarines,
ships and airplanes in order to attack the Italian convoys. Seen the
loosened pressure on the island (the majority of the German airplanes
had moved in Libya and on the east front), English thought about supply
the island with a massive operation that previewed the simultaneous
shipment of two convoys, one from Gibraltar and the other, simultaneous,
from Alexandria, called, respectively, "Harpoon" and "Vigorous". The
shipment of these convoys carried to the battle passed to history by
the name of half June battle.
It is, by now, the turning-point: Rommel is blocked to
El Alamein and the Germans are trying the last offensives in Russia,
until arriving to Stalingrad; the Americans have resumed themselves
after the first months of war and are beginning to use their enormous
war and economic potential. Churchill is convinced that the Mediterranean
sea is enormously important from the strategic-political point of view
and he strengthens the VIIIth Army, commanded by general Montgomery,
in Egypt in order to contain Rommel, and agrees with the Americans the
operation "Torch" that planned the disembarkation in Morocco and in
Algeria, so to conquer the North Africa by taking the forces of the
Axis between two fires; after it, it would be the turn of Italy.
To Regia Marina, in waiting that the Ally plans would
became reality, remained the usual tasks: to escort the convoys on the
Libyan route, to try to contrast the renewed efficiency of Malta, and
to try to intercept the ally convoys. It is in this context that was
intercepted a big convoy, battle that was called battle of half August.
The hard opposition to the passage of this convoy was
the last great test of force of the Axis in the Mediterranean; after
one strongly loss of aircraft on the sky of Malta, 20 October 1942,
the offensive against the island was definitively suspended: endured
uninterruptedly 28 months, it was ended with the victory of the Allies.
23 October 1942 begins the battle of El Alamein, that,
seen the difference in crafts and supplies, ended with Axis defeat;
in 13 May 1943 stops the last resistance of the Axis in Africa; approximately
200000 Italian soldiers fall captive. In this period the activity of
the Regia Marina was concentrated on the Libyan route, that was nicknamed
by the crews "the Death route", for the enormous number of losses.
Between the 10 June 1940 and the 13 May 1943 the Italian
Navy lost on the Libyan route approximately a million tons of cargo
ships, tens of warships along with their crews and 22735 Italian soldiers.
The 10 July 1943 begins the operation "Husky": the eighth
Army, guided by generals Patton and Montgomery, disembarks in Sicily;
they are in total 181000 men, escorted by 2770 ships and 4000 airplanes.
The 25 July 1943 Mussolini was jailed; Badoglio becomes
chief of the Italian government.
The 17 August 1943 ends the evacuation of the Sicily,
that remains completely in Allied hands.
The 3 September 1943 was signed, in secret, the armistice between Italy and the Allies;
it was given public announcement the 8 September 1943.
After the armistice a part of the Italian
Navy was employed in action to flank the Allies. At the end of the war
a part of the remained ships was placed in disarmament, a part was given
to foreign countries as compensation for war damages, and to Italy
remained little, almost nothing.
Regia Marina did not exist any more.
Top of the page