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Italian night surface actions

by Vince O'Hara

"Our Searchlights shone out with the first salvo, and provided full illumination for what was a ghastly sight. Full in the beam I saw our six great projectiles flying through the air. Five out of the six hit a few feet below the level of the cruiser’s upper deck and burst with splashes of brilliant flame . . ." The gunnery officer cried " `Good Lord! We’ve hit her!’"1
Major surface warships (torpedo boat or larger) of the Italian Navy participated in fifteen night actions with major Allied warships in the three years between June 1940 and May 1943. The Italian Navy, which was so successful in many respects, failed to accomplish its mission in nearly all these battles. The immediate and easy explanation is that the Italians did not train for such actions, and lacking radar, could not successfully hold their own at night against the radar equipped Royal Navy. However, training and technology do not fully account for the repeated Italian defeats. This essay examines two other factors that played a crucial part in the outcome of nearly all these actions. These are the nature of the actions themselves – the Italians were usually on the defensive, they were usually surprised and they were usually outnumbered -- and the fact that although every battle included torpedo capable platforms, the Italians inflicted almost no damage at all with this, the most deadly of nighttime weapon systems.

These fifteen night actions fall into four categories: The Italian Navy intercepted and attacked Allied forces four times, all in the first six months of the war. In the other eleven actions, the Italians acted defensively: once during a transport mission, twice during rescue operations and eight times escorting convoys.

In four offensive actions Italian light forces intercepted Allied forces, achieving complete surprise twice, but without the benefits such an advantage usually bestowed. On June 14, 1940 an Italian torpedo boat supported by four motor torpedo boats launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack against a French bombardment force of heavy cruisers and destroyers. One MTB was sunk by return fire. This action may be considered a qualified failure in that it encouraged the French to terminate their mission early. The second interception bears closer examination because the Italians had the superior force (three torpedo boats and four destroyers verses a single light cruiser), they achieved surprise, launching torpedoes from close range before the British knew they were under attack and still they were roundly defeated, losing two torpedoes boats sunk and two destroyers severely damaged. The cruiser was hit seven times by light shells and only moderately damaged. Of this action Bragadin wrote:

"The reports about the battle gave reason for much reflection. The enemy had escaped with only a few hits scored by the guns of the Airone and the Ariel, damage about equal in all to that suffered by the Aviere alone. The Italians, on the other had, had lost a destroyer and two destroyer escorts; yet the Italian ships were among the more efficient in the Navy, and their commanders were outstanding. Each ship that had come into contact with the enemy had conducted herself gallantly in every respect, even to the point of gaining the enemy’s admiration. But it had to be admitted that the Italians were technically inferior to the British, at least as far as carrying out night encounters at sea was concerned. In reality this inferiority was probably to be explained solely by the fact that the Ajax was equipped with radar."1

In fact, it is questionable whether Ajax’s Type 279 radar had much to do with the outcome of this action. It was designed to detect aircraft and was, in any case, disabled by Italian gunfire although Sadkovich affirms that the radar provided Ajax’s initial warning of the Italian presence. In any case, it wasn’t training, technology or lack of dash that accounted for this defeat. A German analysis of the event seems closer to the truth.
Commenting on this incident after the war, the German Admiral, Eberhard Welchold . . . attributed the Italian losses without accompanying success to the clearness of the night, and the insufficient number of the boats employed in the tactical execution of the attack."2

The Italian ships attacked separately, or in pairs and fired their torpedoes the same way, signally or in pairs. Of this, more later.

On 20 Oct 40 four destroyers intercepted an Allied convoy in the Red Sea, but the escort, which included a light cruiser, a destroyer, three sloops and two minesweepers, drove them off. The Italian torpedo attack, made at high speed and without the advantage of surprise, was unsuccessful. Neither side suffered damage in this portion of the battle although the British noted that "the enemy were provided with flashless cordite and with good tracers to aid their shooting" whereas they suffered the disadvantage of being temporarily blinded by the flash of their own guns.3

The last Italian offensive nighttime action occurred on 26 November 1940. An Italian torpedo boat unsuccessfully launched torpedoes at a Royal Navy force consisting of a battleship and two cruisers. The British never noticed. Surprise was there and the enemy did not engage in evasive maneuvers, which leaves only the conclusion that too few torpedoes were launched to ensure success at the range fired.

In their eleven defensive encounters the Italian Navy hardly faired better.

Twice superior Allied forces surprised and literally obliterated Italian forces engaged in rescue operations. In the first occasion, the Battle of Cape Matapan, 28 March 1941, Royal Navy battleships ambushed and sank three Italian heavy cruisers. In the destroyer engagement which followed, four Italian destroyers fruitlessly counterattacked Allied destroyers with torpedoes and gunfire, losing two of their own to torpedoes while another was damaged by gunfire. On 02 December 1942 in a miniature repeat four Royal Navy destroyers surprised and sank an Italian torpedo boat engaged in rescuing survivors from an earlier sinking. The Italian did not get a shot off in her own defense.

The Italian Navy used warships reluctantly during extreme situations to transport supplies to North Africa. One of the worst defeats suffered by the Italian Navy occurred when four Allied destroyers ambushed two light cruisers, their decks loaded with fuel, sinking both with torpedoes and gunfire with no loss to themselves. The single torpedo fired by the counterattacking torpedo boat missed while the cruisers only had time for a few salvoes before their guns were silenced.

Half of the night surface engagements occurred as the result of British interceptions of Italian convoys. These interceptions and their results are listed below:

12 November 1940: Achieving complete surprise three Allied light cruisers and two destroyers attacked a convoy of four merchant ships escorted by a torpedo boat and an armed merchant cruiser. The Allies sank all four merchantmen with gunfire and torpedoes and badly damaged the escorting torpedo boat. The escort counterattacked with torpedoes and gunfire, but inflicted no damage.
16 April 1941: Achieving complete surprise, four British destroyers attacked a convoy of five merchantmen escorted by three destroyers. The British sank all five merchantmen and the entire escort with gunfire and torpedoes while losing one destroyer to Italian torpedoes. Italian gunfire was ineffective.
8 November 1941: Achieving complete surprise, two British light cruisers and two destroyers attacked a convoy of seven merchantmen escorted by two heavy cruisers and ten destroyers. The British sank all seven merchantmen and one destroyer with gunfire and torpedoes, damaging three destroyers more while suffering superficial gunfire damage to one of their own destroyers. The escort did not fire torpedoes.
02 December 1942: Achieving complete surprise three British light cruisers and two destroyers attacked a convoy of four merchantmen escorted by four destroyers and two torpedo boats. The British sank all four merchantmen and one destroyer with gunfire and torpedoes and damaged an additional destroyer and a torpedo boat. The escort counterattacked with torpedoes and gunfire, inflicting light damage with gunfire.
15 January 1943: Achieving complete surprise two British destroyers attacked a single merchantman escorted by a torpedo boat. They sank the merchantman and avoided two torpedo attacks from the escort, which then escaped undamaged.
16 April 1943: Two British destroyers attacked a single merchantman escorted by four torpedo boats. The British sank one torpedo boat and damaged another with gunfire. The escort counterattacked with torpedoes and gunfire, sinking one British destroyer and lightly damaging the other with gunfire. The merchantman escaped unharmed.
04 May 1943. Achieving complete surprise three British destroyers attacked a single merchantman escorted by a torpedo boat. They sank both Italians with gunfire without suffering any damage in return.
02 June 1943. Achieving complete surprise, a British and Greek destroyer attacked a small convoy of two merchantmen escorted by a torpedo boat. They sank the escort and one merchantman with gunfire, suffering no damage in return. One merchantman escaped.

The British achieved decisive results in seven of the eight cases listed above sinking 22 of 23 transports under escort as well as seven escorts, at a loss of only one destroyer to themselves. In the single instance of a successful defense, the Italians lost one torpedo boat with another heavily damaged, but in return sank one of the attacking destroyers and lightly damaged the other, while preserving the ship under escort.
The Italian debacles share several characteristics in common. The British enjoyed the advantage of surprise – an enormous, usually decisive advantage at night. Except for the 08 November attack, they had the superior force and even then, they were able to avoid the strongest part of the escort and defeat the balance in detail. On the one occasion the Italians successfully completed their mission, they detected the British before the attack commenced and, with four torpedo boats verses two destroyers, they were not massively outnumbered.

Defending a convoy at night against a superior force that achieved surprise was something no navy did particularly well. British nighttime interceptions, for example, shot up German coastal convoys escorted by torpedo boats and/or minesweepers on August 5 and 15, 1944 in the Bay of Biscay, on October 17, 1944 in the Aegean and on November 13, 1944 and January 11, 1945 off Norway. French destroyers also destroyed a German torpedo boat escorted convoy in the Adriatic on February 28, 1944. The Battle of Savo Island on August 8, 1942, when a Japanese force massacred American and Australian cruisers and destroyers defending a beachhead, may also be mentioned in this context. Nor were the Japanese immune, suffering destruction of destroyer transport forces at Vella Gulf on 06 August 1943 and Cape St. George on 25 November 25, 1943 under similar conditions.

After the opening months of the war, the Italian Navy avoided night surface engagements with the Royal Navy. The British enjoyed the benefits of radar, both for detection and gunnery. The British trained for this type of action and, until they ran up against the Japanese, fancied themselves masters of the dark. However, as the Japanese example demonstrated, lack of radar did not automatically relegate a navy to an inferior position. The Japanese compensated with superior weapons, hard and realistic training, outstanding pyrotechnics and excellent optics used by individuals selected for their superior night vision. Japanese eyes outperformed American radar on many occasions. The Italian navy did not specifically train and equip themselves for night action. In effect, they conceded the dark to the British. Their pyrotechnics were inadequate, as demonstrated in the Duisberg action when star shells fired by the heavy cruisers repeatedly failed to properly illuminate targets. Sadkovich notes: "Italian industry failed to develop good star shells and flares."4

The other thread common to these actions is the failure of Italian torpedo forces to inflict damage with their torpedoes. Torpedoes were the silent killer, the equalizer. Tassafaronga stands as the outstanding example wherein a quickly delivered torpedo barrage by a completely surprised inferior force engaged in a transport mission turned certain defeat into overwhelming victory. In these fourteen night engagements the Italian Navy units used torpedoes eleven times. But only once did they actually hit a British ship. In contrast, British torpedoes were used successfully in six of their ten offensive engagements.

The important question is why? It was not a lack of courage or resolution. Italian destroyers and torpedo boats pressed their attacks, risking and receiving damage from heavier warships on numerous occasions: During the action of 12 November, 1940 Fabrizi, a World War I torpedo boat, turned toward three cruisers, and although hit repeatedly, she fired torpedoes, one of which just missed Sydney astern.

During the action of October 12, 1940 Alcione, Airone and Ariel all fired two torpedo salvos from ranges of 2,200 yards to about 6,000 yards. All ran wide without the British ship taking any avoiding action. Airone, closing rapidly, fired off another pair of torpedoes from 750 yards (also wide). Both Ariel and Airone paid the price for pressing their attacks and were sunk. Other examples of Italian willingness to close range include the actions of 02 December 1942, 15 January 1943 and 16 April 1943.
It is not easy to hit a moving target from a moving platform at a distance of up to thirty kilometers. United States Navy destroyers unsuccessfully fired hundreds of torpedoes at Japanese ships in six major engagements between Badung Strait on February 19 1942, through Java Sea, Savo Island, Cape Esperance, First Guadalcanal and Tassafaronga, not damaging a Japanese warship until the First Battle of Kula Gulf on March 5, 1943, almost 13 months later. Much of the problem with American torpedoes was mechanical – they ran too deep and both the magnetic and contact exploders did not function properly. The Italian Navy could not claim this excuse. "Italian torpedoes were also reliable"5 However, they produced a tell tale bubble until 1941 when compressed air was replaced by a more effective system producing a wakeless torpedo. Percussion fuses were replaced by magnetic fuses only in 1942, when electric propulsion was introduced.

Then, why did crews displaying extraordinary resolution launch attacks at close range with a reliable and tested weapon so unsuccessfully? Examining the pattern of attacks and their results, it seems many torpedoes ran wide. This suggests that the attacks were carried out in haste and at high speeds and often under heavy enemy fire. In the one case where an Italian destroyer did conduct a successful attack, the vessel was dead in the water and the three single torpedoes fired were manually trained and aimed. Two hit and so would have the third if it had not run too deep. A second, perhaps more telling reason involves Italian doctrine. Simply put, the Italian navy didn’t fire enough torpedoes. Many torpedo boats, for example were capable of only firing two torpedoes per salvo and even those that could manage four often restricted themselves to salvos of one of two. Compare this with Japanese and American practice where in attacks were generally conducted with full salvos of eight torpedoes per ships and divisions of ships would fire simultaneously, not individually. All things being equal, an attack of 24 or 32 torpedoes stands a much greater chance of inflicting damage than an attack of 2 or 6 torpedoes. Most revealing in this context is the statistic that in June 1940 the Italians had 1,450 tubes, but only 3,650 torpedoes in stock, many the older 450mm version

Navies that used torpedoes successfully used them lavishly. The two-day Battle of Java Sea provides a good example: the Japanese fired 39 torpedoes in their initial attack and sank one destroyer. They fired with 92 in a second attack and missed with every one. In a third attack 16 torpedoes fired sank two light cruisers. The next day they fired 85 more at Surgano Strait and 33 in the action against Exeter, sinking three cruisers (and at least four of their own transport vessels). Thus, in one battle the Japanese expended 265 torpedoes. The entire Italian Navy, including submarines, fired 549 torpedoes during six months of warfare in 1940. "All Italian units, naval and air fired only 3,700 torpedoes during the entire war, rationing their use due to low production."6 This averages to only 95 torpedoes used per month over 39 months of war. Contrast this to the average of 323 torpedoes used per month by American submarines in the Pacific over 45 months of war.

German torpedo boats provide a rare instance of a night surface strike force being defeated. It is interesting to contrast this success with Italian experiences.

On October 23, 1943 a British force of a light cruiser, two destroyers and four destroyer escorts sortied along the Briton shore to intercept a blockade runner reported by ULTRA. German shore radar detected the British and vectored five German torpedo boats (purportedly escorting the blockade runner) in to intercept. Just after British radar detected the Germans and before the British could go into action, a barrage of 24 German torpedoes struck. Two torpedoes hit and sank the cruiser and another severely damaged a destroyer escort, which was subsequently scuttled. The British made mistakes against the Germans they did not make against the Italians, at least in such numbers. They had conducted several similar offensive missions prior to this disaster in the same waters in the same fashion, permitting the enemy to anticipate their tactics; they were using a scratch force that had never operated together and finally, they permitted themselves to be surprised. Of course, none of this would have benefited the Germans if their torpedo barrage had missed. The German torpedo boats had a decisive advantage over Italian boats in that they could fire salvoes of six, equivalent to most Italian fleet destroyers. Most importantly, when it was time to fire, the Germans held nothing back. They attacked in masse.

Returning to the action off Cape Passero on October 12, 1940, Italian torpedo boats, enjoying surprise, made four separate, uncoordinated attacks, firing two torpedoes each time. These particular Spica class boats had their four tubes on the centerline so they were capable of doubling their efforts. A coordinated surprise barrage of twelve torpedoes would surely have had a better chance of success than four separate salvos of two torpedoes each, no matter how gallantly delivered.
Night surface actions were most difficult to conduct. In conclusion everything was working against the Italian Navy. Their training and doctrine dictated that such actions be avoided. Their early experiences reinforced and confirmed this policy of avoidance. A lack of radar placed them at a disadvantage when necessity or circumstance required they fight at night. They generally fought at night in a time and place of the enemy’s devise and generally against an enemy that outnumbered them, usually by a very wide margin. Finally, the failure of Italian light forces to successfully use torpedoes condemned them to repeated defeats. This failure appears rooted in the tactics of poverty. Torpedoes were precious things and in short supply. Rather than fling them at the enemy when the opportunity presented in the manner of the Japanese, the Italians appeared to dole them out and consequently, saving torpedoes, they lost ships.


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1 Cunningham, Andrew, A Sailor’s Odyssey, New York, 1951, pg. 332.
2 Bragadin, Marc, The Italian Navy in World War II, Annapolis, 1957, pg 40.
3 Gill, Hermon, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942, Adelaide, 1957, pg 225.
4 Ibid, pg 228.
5 Sadkovich, James, The Italian Navy in World War II, Westport, 1994, pg. 18.
6 Ibid, pg 24.
7 Ibid, pg 24.

Text copyright Vince O'Hara, 2000

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