Operation Toro

On September 10th, 1941 the Germans allies explicitly requested a naval bombardment of the British stronghold of Tobruk at the time surrounded by the Italo-German army of General Rommel. The operation called for a naval bombardment in coordination with a land offensive against the base, real thorn in the flank of the 5th Italian Army and the Afrika Korps. The targets of the mission would have been the coastal defenses, and the area of the bay used by the British to land reinforcements coming from Egypt.

The Regia Marina, mostly basing her comments on experience acquired in Spain and during the occupation of Greece, was very skeptical of the effectiveness of naval bombardments. This kind of action was believed uneconomical compared to aerial bombardment and of low accuracy. Supermarina noted: “the bombardment will be necessarily of brief duration, about half an hour, and due to the distance to be covered to reach Tobruk departing from bases in Italy, it will be difficult to synchronize it with land-based operations.” Therefore, the operation was thought to be mostly demonstrative and to benefit morale and obtain some political gain, but of minimal military value.

Admiral Iachino

The operational plan, created by Adm. Angelo Iachino himself, did not call for the utilization of battleships. The naval force tasked with the mission would have included the heavy cruisers Trento, Trieste and Bolzano (3rd Division), with the escort of a squadron of destroyer and two modern torpedo boats to provide, during the bombardment, for mine sweeping operations just ahead of the cruisers.

One of the required elements for the mission was surprise, and therefore it was decided to take an approach route divided into two segments, each to be covered during the night. Leaving Messina (Sicily) two days earlier and with at least 72 hours notice, the units would have reached Navarrino the following morning. From here, immediately after dark, the 3rd Division would have reached Tobruk around 10 AM. Iachino decided not to reach Tobruk around daybreak to avoid encountering superior enemy forces. In the final plan, extensive aerial reconnaissance was to be carried out by German aircraft based in Crete and starting at sunrise of action day. The commander at sea, based on the circumstances, would have established the return route.

The actual bombardment would have been executed by a destroyer at a distance of 800 meters (keeping at a minimum depth of 100 meters), while the cruisers would have sailed further out at about 3000 meters utilizing their airplanes to secure accurate range finding. In the final draft, it was also thought of utilizing land-based airplanes with a naval observer aboard so to spare the Ro43 installed aboard the cruisers in case of engagement with the enemy.

Much more ambitious was a different plan, referred to as “Operation #2”. This plan called for the utilization of two fast battleships, the Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, and the 3rd Cruiser Division for an action off Tobruk with the goal of impeding the replenishing of the stronghold during the land offensive. This ambitious plan was nevertheless put aside almost immediately due to the impossibility of keeping the enemy unaware of the redeployment of the major forces of the Regia Marina. As a matter of fact, the two battleships were constantly kept under the eye of British aerial reconnaissance. Furthermore, the elevated consumption of oil fuel was kept under consideration.

Aerial cooperation called for the mobilization of all Italian bombers and torpedo bombers based in North Africa and in the Aegean sector, and the German planes based in Crete. These airplanes would have been used to attack enemy naval formations, while fighters from the Regia Aeronautica’s bases in Cirenaica would have provided for a protective umbrella of over 100 aircraft. The Regia Aeronautica’s inability to provide for such a large involvement caused a postponement of the original date of mid November. Eventually, due to the successes of the land-based forces, Operation Toro was postponed indefinitely

Operation Bona

By Andrea Piccinotti

After the Allied landing in Morocco, and the Axis’ occupation of Tunisia, the epicenter of naval warfare in the Mediterranean had definitely shifted to the West. German and Italian political pressure forced Supermarina into preparing plans for an operation against enemy traffic between Bougie and Bona. Since November 1942, the Italian armed trawler “Corrispondende Omega,” flying the French flag, had begun an adventurous study of Allied naval traffic along the Algerian and Tunisian coastlines.

This action was meant to be mostly demonstrative and of little military value; it was to prove the offensive determination of the Regia Marina, especially in the eyes of the German ally. The serious shortage of oil fuel, by now at its worst, would have made the mission impossible to repeat. The only active naval force at the time included the two surviving heavy cruisers, Gorizia and Trento, assigned to the III Division. All other ships were locked in port for several months to save the little oil fuel left in expectation of the final sortie at sea of the three modern battleships. Also, since March 1943, the shortage of destroyer escorts was very serious, and the seven units left of the “Poeti” and “Soldati” class were withdrawn from the Tunisian slaughterhouse for some rest and training. It was therefore decided that the cruiser division would be escorted by only two units, and in case of emergency, they would have done without them.

The mission was naturally subject to the availability of an effective aerial reconnaissance, and the element of total surprise, in order to avoid direct confrontation with superior enemy forces. Weighing anchor from La Maddalena, the cruisers would have navigated South, hence reaching the assigned area at dawn, thus beginning patrol. Here the plan was twofold:

1. If the Italian units had been able to encounter an enemy convoy, probably while it was approaching the port of Bona, they would have destroyed it and then quickly returned to Italy.
2. In case of failed encounter with the convoy, the two cruisers would have navigated within sight of the enemy base, used by enemy cruisers, at a speed of 30 knots, keeping always away from shoals and bombarding the unit at anchor. Immediately after, they would have returned at full speed to Italy.

The whole plan was based on the assumption that the threat posed by the Allied air force could be contained by the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe. In fact, during the first months of 1943, Allied aerial attacks against Axis convoys to Tunisia were conducted by a few British Squadrons based in Malta and Libya. These attacks had never caused painful losses and were not a serious threat to ships sailing at high speed. In early April the situation changed quite dramatically with the arrival of the new American bombers, which doubled the menace thanks to the introduction of high level formation bombing by 50 to 60 aircrafts which laid real carpets of bombs known as “carpet bombing”.

The situation at night was quite different; the British had refined their night attack techniques, reaching a high level of expertise which the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe could not counteract at all. The Regia Marina paid particular attention to the electronic equipment of the ships involved in this mission. First, in addition to the installation of a German radar detector of the type Metrox, it was thought to equip the cruiser Trento with one of the latest Italian radars of the type E.C. 3 Gufo, but later it was realized that such installation would have required too much time. Due to mechanical problems, and considering that the cruisers would have had to enter a naval repair facility, the mission would have been delayed too much. Later, it was thought to provide the cruisers with the escort of destroyers furnished with radar equipment: first the famous Legionario, which had a German “Dete”, then the Oriani, which was equipped with similar equipment.

Delays linked to the fine tuning of the equipment, and the need to operate during a night without lunar light, forced Supermarina to delay the mission from the middle of March to April. The time lost was not wasted; the Italian cruisers completed a long ballistic exercise on the 18th of March. This was an incredible luxury for the times, since the last time the fleet had gone to sea for practice dated back to the 19th of October, 1942.

Suddenly, on the 10th of April, less than 48 hours before receiving departure orders from Supermarina, the island of La Maddalena was, for the first time, bombed by the Allied air forces. The raid, conducted by 136 aircrafts, was extremely accurate and had disastrous effects: the cruiser Trieste, after a few hours of agony, sank with the hull completely devastated. The cruiser Gorizia received serious damage, which forced her commander to beach the ship in shallow waters. Later, the Gorizia would be rescued and sent to La Spezia where it was lost on September 8th, 1943.

The loss of the only active naval force caused an indefinite postponement of the operation. Immediately after, the Regia Marina began hunting for the “traitor”, since such a close coincidence was not conceived possible. In reality, the Allied forces feared a naval incursion against their convoys and had kept La Maddalena under strict surveillance. The sortie at sea of March 18th had not eluded the Allied forces, who decided to speed up planning for their action, thus preempting the Italian one.

Operation BA

Upon Italy’s entry in the war, the Regia Marina had to immediately concentrate resources on the protection of traffic destined for Libya. This was accomplished better than it is commonly believed, and in almost all of 1940 the Italian Navy did not organize any offensive action. In the summer of 1941, the first study for an offensive action, called “Operation BA”, was started. This plan contemplated an incursion by light forces to surprise British naval units engaged in the surveillance of costal traffic between the Balearic Islands and Cartagena (Spain). Following the German offensive against Russia, destroyers based in Malta intensified patrols in the Spanish waters searching for contraband cargo aboard Spanish, French, Swiss and Turkish ships. It should be noted that the British considered contraband any goods destined for Italy or Germany, including medicines. The study of the operational habits of the enemy, and the British tendency to operate with only two groups of destroyers without the support of cruisers, pushed the operatives within Supermarina to immediately conceive the first plan (on July 15th, Admiral Campioni was replaced by the younger and much respected Admiral Sansonetti).

To overcome the limited range of their destroyers, the Italian Planning Office (operations planning office within Supermarina) decided to concentrate the attack force in La Maddalena (Sardinia). The Italian group would have included two light cruisers of the “Di Giussano” class and four destroyers. The group would have left port at 11:00 AM a day before action day (day X) and, taking advantage of the very limited British aerial reconnaissance in the area, would have reached the zone between Cartagena and the Balearic Islands early morning of the following day. The ships would have traveled 44 hours, covering around 800 miles at about 18 knots, thus leaving the commander at sea with the option of forcing to full speed for about one hour while engaging the enemy. The oil fuel consumed would have totaled 1,650 tons, to which one would have to add the fuel necessary to reach La Maddalena and then return to the original bases.

It was also necessary to obtain further intelligence regarding the patrol schedule followed by the British, thus reducing the quantity of fuel oil necessary to locate the enemy. A failed mission, even though politically useful, was not at the time acceptable. Furthermore, aerial exploration was to be intensified starting from the day before action day and up to a day after. Meantime, the British, starting in June 1941, began to periodically send naval groups composed of two aircraft carriers escorted by a battleship tasked with the delivery of airplanes to Malta. In a later study, it was taken into consideration that it would have been more appropriate to utilize two of the newer cruisers because they were more protected than the faster, but vulnerable, “Di Giussano” class. Up to this point, since 1939, the Regia Marina had realized that the “Di Giussano” class could not match enemy cruisers and therefore should be used in other functions.

Any further study of this operation ceased for various reasons: first, it was not possible to ascertain when the British destroyers would be engage

British Operations Hats and M.B.3

The battle of Punta Stilo (Action off Calabria) had left much dissatisfaction within the high command of the Royal Navy. Admiral Cunningham had realized that two of his battleships, the Royal Sovereign and the Ramillies, were too slow and constituted an obstacle to the operations which the Mediterranean Fleet was conducting. To this point, during the battle of Punta Stilo, the Royal Sovereign had not been able to reach the battle zone in time. Furthermore, the Regia Marina was superior in terms of number of cruisers, and in some cases also in terms of quality; in particular, the Royal Navy did not have any 203mm-equipped vessel in the Mediterranean.

A rare color picture of the R.N. Littorio

Therefore, Admiral Cunningham requested from the Admiralty that the heavy cruiser Kent be transferred from the Indian Ocean to Alexandria. Meantime, Force F with the battleship Valiant and the modern aircraft carrier Illustrious, along with two cruisers, would be also transferred to Alexandria. These two cruisers, the Calcutta and Coventry, were equipped with radar.

A predicted Italian offensive in North Africa prompted the organization of a fast convoy, which would be escorted by the cruisers Ajax and York along the safer route around the Cape of Good Hope. These two cruisers would then be incorporated in the Mediterranean Fleet. Taking advantage of all these movements, the Alexandria-based fleet would escort a convoy of three ships destined for Malta to then pick up a convoy coming from Gibraltar. This complex operation was codenamed “Hats”.

The operation began in the afternoon of August 29th when three cargo ships, escorted by four destroyers, departed for Malta. The following day, Force B strong of the battleship Renown, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the light cruiser Sheffield, along with 12 destroyers, left Gibraltar in support of Force F. At the same time, the battleships Warspite and Malaya, the heavy cruiser Kent, the cruisers Orion, Sydney, Gloucester and Liverpool, along with 13 destroyers, left Alexandria with the dual task of escorting the Malta-bound convoy and the units arriving from Gibraltar. Also, on the way back to port, the same group would have bombarded some Italian airports. Supermarina, having received news of some British activity on the 30th, the following day at 6:00 ordered the departure of the 9th Division ( battleships Littorio, Vittorio Veneto), the 5th Division (battleships Cavour, Cesare, Duilio), the 1st Division (Heavy Cruisers Pola, Zara, Fiume, Gorizia ), the 8th Division (Light cruisers Duca degli Abruzzi. Garibaldi ) and several destroyer squadrons for a total of 27 units.

This naval force, once outside Taranto, was to move between Malta and Zante to intercept any enemy ship from reaching Italian waters. The Italian command was not aware of the presence of the British convoy. Before departure, the battleship Cesare experienced technical problems with the condensers and was left in port.

No engagement

Doubts about British intentions vanished when, on the 31st, reconnaissance found a convoy of three merchant ships directed to Malta. This convoy was attacked by bombers, which scored a hit on the stern of the steamship Cornwall causing a small fire, locking the rudder and destroying two antiaircraft guns. Even when the intentions of the British fleet were quite clear, and Admiral Iachino’s forces were only 120 miles from the enemy, Supermarina, at 17:00, ordered the Italian fleet back to Taranto. At that moment Italian superiority would have been overwhelming.

During the night, Admiral Campioni, aboard his repaired battleship Cesare, rejoined the fleet and was ordered back south with the order to intercept the enemy on their way back from Malta. This task proved impossible due to the quickly deteriorating weather conditions and the Italian destroyers’ inability to withstand the heavy sea. Once again, the fleet was ordered back to port, and during the return voyage several crew members were lost at sea and the destroyers suffered damages to the superstructures. The cruiser Duca degli Abruzzi was attacked by a submarine, which launched two torpedoes without finding its target.
On the 2nd of September, the British convoy reached Malta almost at the same time with Force F, which unloaded even more supplies. On the way back, the new ships engaged in other operations, including:

The escort of a convoy from Nauplia to Port Said.
The bombardment of the airport of Scarpanto.
An aerial attack on the airport of Rodi

During these operations, which were generally accident-free, four British planes were lost during the attack, which caused the destruction of 2 Savoia Marchetti S.79, and damage to another 7 aircraft. During the bombardment of Scarpanto, the Italians suffered the lost of MAS 537. On the 6th of September, all British ships were back in Alexandria.


Probably, Hats was the most important opportunity for the Regia Marina to inflict a definitive blow to the Royal Navy, but the Supreme Command inexcusably squandered it. The numeric superiority was crushing and for the first time the new modern battleships of the “Vittorio Veneto” class were part of the Fleet. The Regia Marina had twice as many cruisers and destroyers as the British, and the 17 old swordfish would not have influenced the battle too considerably. Instead of returning to base, the Italian Fleet could have waited a day longer at sea, possibly attacking at night with the destroyers and inflicting definitive losses.

The British had been very imprudent, but Malta had been replenished, the Mediterranean Fleet reinforced, and Italian airports bombed. The Regia Marina, instead, had several of her destroyers damaged in the storm along with the loss of several sailors. Worse, tons of precious oil fuel had been wasted and the morale of the crew, who were craving a good fight with the British, inexorably fell. The audacity of Punta Stilo, in which the Regia Marina fought in numerical inferiority, had transformed itself in fear, even in conditions of clear superiority.

Translated from the original Italian version by Cristiano D’Adamo