‘We will strangle inside the Mediterranean’:
Italy’s Regia Marina, 1940-1943

“However, the fleet was employed at the end of 1941 and during the first half of 1942, despite the shortage of fuel, when Malta and the Western Desert made it inescapable. It was once again kept from danger in 1942-3 when, with peace looming, conserving a navy seemed more important than making a grand gesture; by this time, a shortage of light shipping exacerbated the problems of lack of fuel and air cover.” (1)

“The Italian Fleet also lacked well-defined strategic objectives beyond exhortations from the Duce, who, in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, directed that it would be ‘offensive at all points, in the Mediterranean and outside.’ Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, the Naval Chief of Staff, was more realistic in pointing out that a sustained offensive against the combined strength of the British and French would result in irreplaceable losses, while the democracies could quickly build anew. This candor attracted a comment from Mussolini that the Admiral ‘lacked energy.’” (2)

History, Prime Minister Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, is written by the victors. If this ‘truism’ is correct, then accounts of Italy’s Regia Marina in the Second World War might well have a pro-Allied’ interpretation. Further, the success of some of the Italy’s more unorthodox weapons – like the ‘pigs’ which damaged the British battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria’s harbor in 1941 – might seem ‘underhanded’ to post-war British authors. Perhaps what the Allies were expecting from the Regia Marina in the war years was a more Nelsonian ‘up-and-at-them’ attitude from Italian naval officers.

Individual bravery aside, the Regia Marina did face several crippling handicaps in 1940-43:

“It was a new fleet of handsome ships, powerful for their class and unusually speedy. But the Italian Navy was doomed to defeat by three factors: lack of radar, a continual shortage of fuel oil, and want of a fleet air arm. Regia Aeronautica, the Royal Italian Air Force, was supposed to give air cover to the ships at sea, but seldom could and almost never did.” (3)

Add a cautious high command, a limited ship-building ability and a broken naval code to these handicaps and the sum is daunting. On the political side, Benito Mussolini’s rash decision to declare war, first on a defiant Great Britain and its allies, then subsequently on the the United States of America – the hyper-industrialized ‘arsenal of democracy’ – faced the Regia Marina with an impossible naval situation.

I. Cautious to a fault: Naval Chief of Staff Admiral Cavagnari

In the summer of 1940, the naval situation in the Mediterranean Sea radically changed in favor of the Regia Marina. With the expected fall of France in late June, the Italian Navy would now be faced with only one major foe in the Mediterranean: Great Britain’s Royal Navy. The great southern naval bases at Toulon, Oran and Algiers would soon be under the control of neutral Vichy France; French ships, specifically-designed to fight against the Regia Marina, would no longer be part of Allied naval strategy. In Mussolini’s mind, the disintegrating French war effort was an unparalleled opportunity to create Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’).

But Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, Navy Chief-of-Staff since 1934, was far from optimistic about the Duce’s grandiose naval dreams. In Cavagnari’s opinion, it would be foolish for Italy – and the Regia Marina – to intervene in the war in 1940 against the Allies:

“One of the most outspoken of Italy’s military leaders was Cavagnari. The overt redistribution of Allied naval forces into the Mediterranean at the beginning of May terrified the Italian naval chief. During the first two weeks of May, Cavagnari present the Duce with a series of intercepted naval telegrams indicating that the Allies, once Italy intervened, planned to respond with ‘immediate action’ in the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy eagerly anticipated this eventuality because, according to one British telegram, the Allies desired an enemy that they could ‘defeat heavily and swiftly’” (4)

An intervention in the early summer of 1940 would also mean that the four Italian capital ships still being built or modernized – Roma, Impero, Caio Duilio and Andrea Doria – would be unable to join the Regia Marina. Cavagnari, fearing the most – “one [British] fleet will station itself at Gibraltar and another at Suez; we will strangle inside the Mediterranean” (5) – advised his political leaders to postpone Italy’s declaration of war:

To make matters worse, Cavagnari had recently learned from his inspector general that the new battleships Roma and Impero would not be ready until December 1941 and August 1942 respectively, and the rebuilt battleships Duilio and Doria could not return to active service until September 1940 at the earliest. All of these dates represented significant delays, further weakening the Regia Marina. This dire information reinforced Cavagnari’s fear of a naval engagement with Britain and France and motivated him in late May to press Mussolini and Ciano to postpone intervention at least until the fall of 1940.” (6)

II. Conceding the initiative: Italian naval strategy

The Italian drift into war in the summer of 1940 was highlighted by its service chiefs’ apparent indifference about the Regia Marina’s potential wartime strategy. None of Cavagnari’s two other colleagues – Marshal Rodolfo Graziani of the Regia Esercito or General Francesco Pricolo of the Regia Aeronautica – had little to say about the Regia Marina:

“At a meeting of the service chiefs the following morning [30 May 1940], Cavagnari spoke neither of the navy’s offensive plans not its defensive intentions. Instead, he reminded his colleagues that three-quarters of Italy’s submarines would be at sea at the outset of hostilities and that Italian merchant ships would be scuttled immediately prior to their capture. The other chiefs offered no queries about naval war strategy.” (7)

Even Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of the Italian General Staff, seemed unconcerned about any potential strategic wartime goals:

“In the rules of engagement that he dispersed on 7 June, Badoglio insisted that Italy embark on no offensive against France in the air or on land. Italian forces at sea were to attack British and French ships if they were encounted together, but French ships alone should be spared. No air or naval objectives in the Mediterranean were identified. In short, no definite plans for the war that Italy would fight the following week were established.” (8)

The loss of their French ally in June forced the Royal Navy to reassess its strategy in the Mediterranean theatre. ‘Operation Catapult’ (3-8 July 1940) was the Royal Navy’s attempt to disarm (or destroy) French warships in harbors outside France. The results of this distasteful, but necessary, operation – the Battle of Mers-el-Kebir; the disarming of Admiral Rene-Emile Godfroy’s squadron in Alexandria; the seizing of the older battleships Paris and Courbet in Plymouth and Portsmouth; the Dakar attack on the new battleship Richelieu – were all crucial for the Royal Navy’s upcoming Mediterranean campaign. However, the Regia Marina was still formidable adversary, even after the successes of ‘Operation Catapult’:

“Much depended on whether the Italian Chief of Naval Staff’s expressed intention of an ‘offensive to the death’ was going to prove genuine or spurious. If they chose to concentrate their six battleships, which included at any rate on paper the two Littorios (30 knots, nine 15-inch guns), seven eight-inch cruisers, twelve 6-inch cruisers and forty ‘fleet’ destroyers, in a determined attempt to give battle to our Eastern Mediterranean Fleet of three battleships (Ramillies was in dock), six 6-inch cruisers and 20 ‘fleet’ destroyers with last, but not least, the aircraft carrier Eagle, then the outlook was not rosy, especially in view of the large number of submarines that we could expect to meet in a ‘set piece’ encounter. Their maneuvers of July 1939 pointed to the possibility of such an operation. On that occasion their main Fleet brought the ‘enemy’ to action off Derna, at a distance well within range of the airfields of Cyrenaica.” (9)

The truth of the strategic situation was much different than the Royal Navy expected. Much like Imperial Germany’s Admiral Hugo von Pohl did in 1915, the head of the Regia Marina preferred the passive strategy of a ‘fleet in being’. According to the ‘fleet in being’ theory, costly and irreplaceable capital ships must avoid being damaged:

“Cavagnari’s operational concepts strongly echoed those of the German admiralty in the First World War, throwing away the advantages Italian geography granted and conceding the initiative to the enemy. By the spring of 1940, furthermore, Cavagnari decided he dare not risk his battleships against the British under any circumstances and restricted offensive operations to his submarines.” (10)

III. ‘The major handicap’: Regia Marina’s fuel-oil shortage

It is clear that in the summer of 1940, Mussolini was gambling on joining a successful German-led war which he thought was almost over. The Regia Marina had little choice but to hope the Duce was right – because the navy’s fuel-oil reserve was insufficient for a prolonged naval conflict. Italian naval operations “would be greatly hampered by [the] oil fuel shortage, for even after the completion of additional bulk-storage facilities no more than seven months’ war consumption could be stocked.” (11) In fact, right from the beginning of Italy’s intervention, each of its three services faced a serious oil shortfall:

“Shortage of petroleum was the most serious problem. Italy needed at least 8 million metric tons a year for military operations. Albania and the miniscule Italian fields supplied on 170,000 tons a year. Rumania could supply no more than 600,000 tons per annum to Italy: Germany and Hungary only another million tons or so. Yet the Regia Marina held only 1,700,000 tons in reserve, the Regia Esercito 200,000 tons, and the Regia Aeronautica 130,000 tons.” (12)

Not surprising, the Regia Marina’s inadequate fuel-oil reserve needed to be replenished by one of the Axis powers. The choice was simple: either the Third Reich captured the southern Russian oilfields in 1942 or the Ploesti oilfields in Rumania supplied more oil to Italy. The whole situation could not be avoided, because “supplies of oil were limited from the start, amounting to only 1,700,000 tons which had been stockpiled before the war started and which, from the summer of 1941 onwards, had to be supplemented by a monthly supply from Romania.” The navy’s oil-fuel shortage intensified as the war continued:

“The major handicap of the Italian navy, however, was its desperate shortage of fuel oil. With the country itself almost completely dependent on oil imports, inadequate supplies from Romania, followed by the failure of the German 1942 offensive to seize the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus, meant that only the most limited missions could be run. The fuel shortage dominated Italian naval strategy in 1942-43 and in the end made it impossible for the big ships even to try to interfere with the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.” (14)

At the end of 1941, with only 200,000 tons of fuel oil remaining – and a monthly consumption slashed to 60,000 tons – Supermarina had no choice but to place the modernized battleships Guilo Cesare, Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio in reserve in early 1942. Andrea Doria’s last operation was in January 1942; after that “the ship saw little action subsequently and in March 1942 was virtually laid up as a result of the general strategic situation in the central Mediterranean, together with the acute oil shortage.” The remaining older battleship, Conte di Cavour, was undergoing repairs in Trieste – which would never be completed.

Regia Marina’s fuel oil crisis reached its peaked in the first month of 1943 when its remaining modern battleships Vittorio Veneto, Littorio and Roma, were also removed from service. (17) In fact, Roma, completed only six months before, had yet to undergo a single combat mission. (18)

IV. Technological problems: the C38m naval cipher and the EC3/ter Gufo radar

When the Regia Marina went to war in 1940, none of its warships were equipped with radar. Several Italian radar sets had been constructed in 1936-1939, but the Regia Marina had not pursued the projects – nor had it asked Hitler’s Kriegsmarine to provide any German radar sets (although a few naval units, like the Navigatori-class destroyer Lanzaretto Malocello, did eventually mount a German-built FuMo 26/40G radar set). It was only in early 1941 that a warship was fitted with the Italian EC3/bis radar.

After the Battle of Cape Matapan, the EC1, EC2, and EC3 sets – which had been built in the second-half of the 1930’s – were given practical tests. On 20 April 1941, a few months after the disaster at Cape Matapan, the Cosenz-class torpedoboat Giacinto Carini was fitted with a 1939-built EC3/bis Gufo set. The battleship Littorio was the first Italian capital-ship to receive this radar set:

“Littorio received the prototype of the Italian radar sets, type EC3/bis, in August 1941, and an updated version in April 1942 which was unsuccessful. In September 1942 she received the prototype EC3/ter set as did her sisters. By the time of the armistice in September 1943 the ship, now renamed Italia, had received a second set. Vittorio Veneto received an EC3/ter set in June 1943 and Roma one set in August of that year.” (19)

Between April 1941 and August 1943, about 100 EC3/ter Gufo sets had been installed on Italian warships, including the destroyers Carabiniere, Fusiliere and Leone Pancaldo in January 1943, the light-cruisers Scipione Africano, Attilo Regolo in April 1943 and the destroyers Velite and Dardo and light-cruisers Eugenio di Savoia and Raimondo Montecuccoli in August 1943. In September 1943, about 40 Gufo EC3/ter sets remained ready for installation.

Unknown to Supermarina, a second crucial technological failure affected the Regia Marina: insecure naval ciphers. British code-breakers working in Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire had been reading the Italian naval Enigma from September 1940 until the summer of 1941. In December 1940, C38m – the new Hagelin C-series rotor-based cipher – was introduced by Italy, but on 23 June 1941, Bletchley Park’s Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) broke it:

“…several Italian codes also provided important special intelligence to invasion planners [for ‘Operation Torch’]. GCCS had in 1941 had broken the C38m medium-grade cipher which was used and routinely decrypted until the war’s end. This naval cipher, used primarily for Mediterranean shipping, provided special intelligence on Italian naval forces and intentions – though usually only after the Italians had organized combined actions with the Germans.” (20)

There was always a danger that the Allied ‘Ultra’ intelligence sources – composed of the German Enigma cipher, the Italian C38m cipher and the Japanese ‘Purple’ decrypts – would be discovered by the Axis. However, luck also played an important part:

“The reason for our good fortune [in avoiding German suspicions about their intelligent leaks] was that the Germans had decided it was all the fault of the Italians. They had already adopted this theory to account for the regular success of our attacks on their supply convoys. Ironically, this led them to ask the Italian naval authorities to abandon their own book ciphers, which we never succeeded in breaking, for a variant of the Enigma machine and another cipher based on a similar Swedish machine which we called C38m; both of these could be rapidly deciphered.” (21)

V. Irreplaceable losses: Italy’s lack of shipbuilding capacity

In the event of a war against Great Britain, and later the United States, Italy’s lack of industrial capacity in general – and its ship-building capacity in particular — would place the Regia Marina in a very difficult situation. Scarce replacement warships, and the increasing strength of the Royal Navy and the United States Navy, would make it strategically unwise for the Regia Marina to fight a long war. Unquestionably, the Duce gravely misunderstood the potential industrial power of the United States.

The wartime ship-building capacity of the United States was phenomenal; an example of this are the hundreds of Liberty and Victory ships. Eighteen American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty cargo ships, many of them in less than 50 days (the individual time record , 4 days and 15½ hours in California, was held by SS Robert E. Peary). By 1943, three Liberty ships were finished every day. In the last two years of the war, six shipyards built 531 Victory ships: 414 standard cargo ships and 117 attack transports.

When this great expansion of the United States’ merchant marine is paired with a similar expansion of the United States Navy, Italy’s Regia Marina wartime naval construction is miniscule:

“Certainly, the naval war plans office believed, the Italian Navy could not sustain a long war. No major expansion programme would be possible and ship losses would be for all practical purposes irreplaceable, owing to the shortage of raw materials which would accompany a blockage and the basic lack of industrial capacity – three light cruisers, together with five destroyers, one torpedo-boat and 15 fast escorts were completed before Italy’s surrender in September 1943, but none of these entered service before February 1942.” (22)

The following list gives the 25 Italian warships finished in 1942-43; their launch/completion dates appear after the ships’ names:

1 x Littorio-class battleship:
Roma (09.06.1940/14.06.1942)

3 x Capitani Romani-class light-cruisers:
Pompeo Magno (24.08.1941/ 04.06.1943)
Scipione Africano (12.01.1941/23.03.1943)
Attilo Regolo (28.08.40/14.05.1942)

5 x Soldati-class [second series] destroyers:
Bombardiere (23.03.1942/15.07.1942)
Mitragliere (28.09.1941/01.02.1942)
Carsaro (16.11.41/16.05.1942)
Legionario (16.04.41/01.03.1942)
Velite (31.08.41/31.08.1942)

1 x Ariete-class torpedoboat:
Ariete (06.03.1943/08.1943)

15 x Ciclone-class destroyer escorts:
Aliseo (20.09.1942/02.1943)
Animoso (15.04.1942/08.1942)
Ardente (27.05.1942/09.1942)
Ardimentoso (28.06.1942/12.1942)
Ardito (14.03.1942/06.1942)
Ciclone (01.03.1942/05.1942)
Fortunale (18.04.1942/08.1942)
Ghibli (28.02.1943/07.1943)
Groppo (19.04.1942/08.1942)
Impavido (24.02.1943/04.1943)
Impetuoso (20.04.1943/07.1943)
Indomito (06.07.1943/08.1943)
Monsone (07.06.42/11.1942)
Tifone (31.03.1942/11.1942)
Uragano (03.05.1942/09.1942)

VI. Italy’s ‘battleship navy’: the admirals say ‘no’ to aircraft carriers

Although the Regia Marina did not possess a single operational aircraft carrier in June 1940, its opportunity to build a fleet aircraft carrier had come in the middle 1920’s. However, in the same year as the 5,400-ton seaplane tender Giuseppe Miraglia was commissioned in Italy (1927), the United States Navy commissioned its two new 36,000-ton fleet aircraft carriers USS Saratoga and USS Lexington. Despite Italy having less carrier tonnage permitted under the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty – 60,000 tons out of a total of 175,000 tons – the main opposition against building any of these warships for the Regia Marina (or even retro-fitting an existing ship) was from many of its flag officers:

“When offered the opportunity to construct at least one of the three or four aircraft carriers feasible within the 60,000 tons allocated to Italy under the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, a committee of admirals had in Mussolini’s presence and with almost perfect unanimity scornfully rejected the idea in 1925, although by that time all other major navies, including that of France, already possessed carriers. The navy staff flirted indecisively with the concept once more in 1935-6; possible solutions included conversion of the transatlantic liner Roma. The autocratic chief of staff, Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, ended all deliberation with an emphatic and peremptory marginal ’NO!!!’ in August 1936.He and key subordinates publicly, repeatedly and vehemently denied thereafter that the navy needed aircraft carriers.” (23)

By early 1940, the ongoing tactical, inter-service and technical problems had prevented any Italian carrier construction or conversion. Only the threat of a war intervention early that year resurrected the possibility of Roma’s conversion:

“The growing threat of war from late March 1940 and the subsequent mobilization of the Regia Marina led Cavagnari to press for Roma’s conversion once again. The liner, however, was at sea with thousands of Jewish passengers escaping from Europe and did not return until 5 June 1940 as a consequence of the stricter British and French blockage instituted after 1 March 1940. Conversion at Ansaldo’s yards in Genoa was, however, never begun as the FIAT diesels remained far from ready. Within weeks the government dropped the whole programme in the belief that the war would end within three months (not to mention the Air Force’s continuing lack of enthusiasm for the entire affair).” (24)

It was only after the naval battles in 1940-41, when the Regia Marina’s absence of a fleet carrier became increasingly acute, that Cavagnari suggested another, more ambitious, carrier conversion project. The ships Cavagnari wanted to rebuild were the well-known transatlantic passenger liner Rex and her sister-ship Conte di Savoia (the 51,000-ton Rex had held the westbound Blue Riband 1933-35 and the 48,500-ton Conte di Savoia was just fractionally slower). Not surprising, his new project was soon abandoned:

“In search of an immediate answer to the Navy’s needs, Cavagnari proposed the emergency conversion of the 50,000gwt liners Rex and Conte di Savoia. Capable of 27kts, these huge ships needed ‘only’ the construction of a flight deck with a small island to sail with the battle squadron, even if they lacked underwater protection and solutions to the many logistical requirements such a vessel would inevitably have. However, ‘the great economic value of these ships’ sparked protests by the fascist merchant navy minister [Giovanni] Host-Venturi and the shipping lobby and [they] killed the proposal that same month.” (25)

By early December 1940, the Duce was looking for a change of command in the Regia Marina. On 7 December, Cavagnari lost his position as Naval Chief of Staff and was replaced by Admiral Arturo Riccardi:

“More diplomatic than his predecessor, Riccardi dropped the Conte de Savoia project to concentrate on Roma. As the real problem was speed, his ideas was to use the machinery of two light cruiser of the Capitani Romani-class (Cornelio Silla and Paolo Emilio), whose construction had been suspended in June 1940 just after the declaration of war. Generals (Navy Eng. Corps) Giuseppe Bozzoni and Carlo Sigismondi presented this proposal in January 1941. However, the Air Force confirmed that month it would be unable to deliver a folding-wing fighter or attack monoplane for two years. This, together with the government’s refusal to think in terms of a protracted war, brought the proposal to a grinding halt.” (26)

A little over three months after Riccardi had assumed command, the Regia Marina suffered a dreadful defeat. In late March 1941 near Cape Matapan, Vice-Admiral Angelo Iachino lost three heavy-cruisers, two destroyers and very nearly his flagship, the brand-new battleship Vittorio Veneto:

“It took the shock of defeat at Cape Matapan (March 28 1941), which the Italians largely attributed to effective British deployment of its carrier Formidable, to revive demands for a carrier as an urgent requirement. In July 1941 the Undersecretary of the Navy authorized the conversion of the Roma into a carrier, using the design studies of the previous year as a basis. In the event, the project became much more ambitious and requires a major transformation of the relatively elderly liner as the carrier Aquila.” (27)

Aquila was almost completed by the time of the Italian Armistice in September 1943. Her 30,418-ton sister ship Augustus, built in 1927, began her escort carrier conversion much later in 1942:

“She was initially renamed Falco, but this was later changed to Sparviero. Apart from the removal of the superstructure little work was done of the ship before she was seized by the Germans in September 1943. She was scuttled 5.10.44.” (28)

VII. Tactical success, strategic defeat: ‘Operation Pedestal’ (10-15.08.1942)

The British naval operation to resupply Malta in August 1942 – code-named ‘Pedestal’ – concided with one of the most desperate periods of the Regia Marina’s fuel-oil shortage. Although major units of the Italian Navy had successfully opposed both of the Royal Navy’s simultaneous ‘Harpoon’ and ‘Vigorous’ convoys in June, they were unable to sail against ‘Operation Pedestal’.

Despite being opposed by the Royal Navy’s 16-inch-gunned battleships HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson, the Regia Marina was unable to deploy any of its three Littorio-class ships against either the British convoy or its covering force. Littorio and Vittorio Veneto – both already critically short of fuel-oil – were repairing damage; Roma, commissioned only two months before, was not officially in service yet and faced the same fuel-oil shortage as her two sister-ships. Three modernized battleships (Andrea Doria, Caio Duilio and Guilio Cesare) were already in reserve by the time of the British operation; the fourth, Conte di Cavour, was still repairing its aerial-torpedo damage inflicted in the November 1940 British attack in Taranto harbour.

In all, the Regia Marina sent eighteen warships – in addition to its MAS boats and submarines – to attack the ‘Pedestal’ convoy: ten warships from the 3rd Naval Division in Messina (heavy-cruisers Gorizia, Bolzano and Trieste; destroyers Aviere, Geniere, Camicia Nera, Legionario, Ascari, Corsaro and Grecale) and eight warships from the 7th Naval Division in Cagliari (light-cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Raimondo Montecuccoli and Muzio Attendolo; destroyers Maestrale, Gioberti, Oriani, Fuciliere;
destroyer/minelayer Lanzerotto Malocello).

Seventeen submarines were at sea (five Adua-class: Alagi, Axum, Dagabur, Dessie, Ascianghi, Uarsciek; seven Acciaio-class: Avorio, Bronzo, Asteria, Cobalto, Volframio, Giada, Granto; two Marcello-class: Emo, Dandolo; one Glauco-class: Otario; one Brin-class: Brin; one Argo-class: Vellela) along with four MAS squadrons with nineteen boats (2nd MS, 15th MAS, 18th MAS and 20th MAS)

The Royal Navy grouped two battleships, four aircraft carriers (HMS Eagle, HMS Victorious, HMS Indomitable and HMS Furious), seven cruisers and twenty destroyers together for ‘Operation Pedestal’. The big target for the Axis forces was the fourteen-ship convoy loaded with vital supplies for Malta.

Beginning on 10 August 1942, and continuing for the next four days, the Italo-German forces sank a total of four warships: the carrier HMS Eagle, the cruisers HMS Manchester and HMS Cairo and the destroyer HMS Foresight. Of the thirteen merchantmen and one oil-tankers sailing in the convoy, only four motor ships – MV Melbourne Star, MV Port Chalmers, MV Rochester Castle and MV Brisbane Star – and one tanker, SS Ohio, made port in Valetta harbour five days later. A total of five motorships (MV Clan Ferguson, MV Deucalion, MV Dorset, MV Empire and MV Glenorchy) and four steamships (SS Almeria Lykes, SS Wairangi, SS Waimarama and SS Santa Elisa) were sunk by Axis air and surface units.

It is true that, tactically, the ‘Pedestal’ convoy battle in 1942 was a success for Germany and Italy; the Allies could not accept such a high percentage of losses in convoy operations. However, the cargoes which did make it to Valetta harbour – especially that of the half-sunken oil-tanker SS Ohio – kept the important island of Malta fighting at a crucial time. It seems clear that a more successful strategic result might have been achieved had some of the Italian capital ships been able to participate in the battle. As it stood, the ‘Pedestal’ convoy, strategically, saved Malta.

VIII. Tactical and strategic failure: ‘Operation Husky’ (10.07.1943-17.08.1943)

The Allied preparation for its Sicilian amphibious assault in July 1943 ensured that the Regia Marina was unable to seriously intervene in any of the landings. The intense aerial bombing had systematically isolated the Italian Navy from Sicily:

“The repeated bombings of Sicilian ports rendered Palermo and Messina untenable for naval vessels larger than motor torpedo boats. As the Italian admiral in Messina wrote, ‘There no longer existed a harbour or naval base in Sicily where ships great or small could remain in safety.’ The Sicilian navy yards ceased to function; shore installations were destroyed.” (29)

But although the Sicilian ports lay in rubble, both the Royal Navy and the United States Navy committed a huge number of their warships to ‘Operation Husky’ – in case Supermarina tried to send its remaining vessels against the invasion convoys:

“Still, the Allies had to reckon with the Italian Navy. There was always the possibility that it might choose ‘to be a lion for a day,’ in the words of the Duce’s favorite maxim; and if it had so chosen it would have been a lion with teeth. If the Allied intentions as to Sicily had been known or correctly guessed, a resolute sortie of the Italian ships from Spezia or Taranto could have offered battle to the covering forces of the Royal Navy on at least equal terms; or, if they had eluded those forces they could have played the devil with the amphibious convoys.” (30)

On 10 July, the Allied amphibious assault went in, screened by scores of British and American warships and under total Allied air cover. That day, the surviving warships of the Regia Marina, in La Spezia and Taranto, were held back from the target area:

“When Supermarina took cognizance of the situation on the morning of 10 July, it had to consider that a challenge to Allied sea supremacy at that point would be hazardous, if not suicidal. What was available? At Taranto, two old battleships Doria and Duilio, the light cruiser Cadorna and two old destroyers. It would take them about ten hours to reach Sicilian waters and without air cover; besides, two more powerful British battleships, covered by carrier planes, were out looking for them. So the Taranto squadron had better be reserved for defense against a possible landing on the heel of the Italian boot. At Spezia two modern battleships, five light cruisers and eight destroyers were ready for sea. Commando Supremo wished to commit them at once. But the General Staff of the Navy, considering that they would require at least 25 hours, mostly without air cover, to reach Augusta, decided against it. There was no possibility of surprise, without which any surface counterattack would be ‘a sterile sacrifice’; the Spezia fleet had better be saved for the defense of Sardinia or the Italian peninsula.” (31)

Still, German and Italian planes did fly sorties into the target area, with some success. But the Allied losses on that first day – in the first invasion of Italian soil – were extremely light:

“Off Sicily, Axis planes bomb invasion shipping and screening ships, sinking destroyer Maddox, tank landing ship LST 313, and minesweeper Sentinel…Collisions in the crowded waters off the beaches account for damage to destroyers Roe and Swanson and LST 345 and submarine chaser PC 621. Tank landing craft LCT 242 is damaged by shore battery fire.” (32)

IX. Epilogue: Valetta harbour, 8-9 September 1943

On 25 July 1943, the Duce was dismissed by King Victor Emanuel III and arrested by Italian police (Carabinieri). In August, the new government under Marshal Badoglio began negotiating an armistice with the Allies, which was signed on 3 September and announced five days later. Under the terms of the armistice, warships of the Regia Marina were to sail for an Allied port (the most likely choice would be the Royal Navy’s base in Valetta, Malta).

Fourteen of the Regia Marina’s warships, under Vice-Admiral Carlo Bergamini, sailed from La Spezia: the battleships Roma (the fleet flagship), Italia (ex-Littorio) and Vittorio Veneto of the 9th Division; the light-cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Emanuele Filiberto Duca d’Aosta and Raimondo Montecuccoli of the 7th Division under Rear-Admiral Romeo Oliva; the destroyers Mitragliere, Fuciliere, Carabinere and Velite of the 12th Flotilla; the destroyers Legionario, Oriani, Artigliere and Grecale of the 14th Flotilla. The squadron came under German aerial attack from six Dornier Do 217 bombers on 9 September; Roma was sunk after she was hit by two Ruhrstahl SD 1400 X radio-guided bombs, causing one of her 15-inch primary armament magazines to explode. Italia was also damaged in the attack, but reached Valetta harbour.

From Taranto came five warships under Vice-Admiral Alberto da Zara: the battleships Caio Duilio and Andrea Doria of the 5th Division; the light-cruisers Luigi Cadorna and Pompeo Magno; the destroyer Nicoloso de Recco. Guilio Cesare, one of the two damaged modernized capital ships, sailed with a reduced crew from Pola; the unlucky Conte di Cavour, its damage from the 1940 Taranto raid still unfinished, was captured in Trieste by the Germans on 10 September.

The five surviving Italian capital ships were interned in Malta and Egypt. Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio were anchored in Valetta; Italia and Vittorio Veneto were moored in the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt’s Suez Canal. Conte di Cavour would be abandoned by the Germans in early 1945. Guilio Cesare would be ceded to Russia after the war and be renamed Novorossiysk; she capsized on 29 October 1955 in Sevastopol Bay as the result of an unexplained underwater explosion. (33)


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1. I. C. B. Dear, The Oxford Companion to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 469.
2. Bernard Ireland, The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2004) 24.
3. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume 9: Sicily, Salerno, Anzio (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002) 35.
4. Reynolds M. Salerno, Vital Crossroads: Mediterranean Origins of the Second World War, 1935-1940 (Ithica: Cornell University Press 2002) 201.
5. Williamson Murray and Alan R. Millett, Calculations: net assessment and the coming of World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1992) 127.
6. Salerno 200-201.
7. Ibid 207.
8. Ibid 208.
9. G. A. Titterton, The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean, Volume I: September 1939-October 1940 (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002) 18.
10. Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, Military Effectiveness: Volume II, The Interwar Years (Winchester: Allen and Unwin, 1988) 189.
11. Titterton xviii.
12. Millett 183.
13. Dear 469.
14. Gerhard Weinberg, A world at arms: a global history of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 390.
15. Andrea Piccinotti, “The Fuel Oil Issue,” Regia Marina Italiana 20 November 2010 <>
16. M. J. Whitley, Battleships of World War Two: an international encyclopedia (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1998) 168-169.
17. Andrea Piccinotti, “The Fuel Oil Issue,” Regia Marina Italiana 20 November 2010 <>
18. Robert Gardinier, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships: 1922-1946 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1980) 289-290.
19. Whitney 172.
20. Commander John Patch, “Fortuitous Endeavor: Intelligence and deception in Operation TORCH.” Naval War College Review Autumn 2008 76.
21. Sir David Hunt, A Don at War (Abington: Frank Cass, 2004) xiv.
22. Titterton xvii.
23. MacGregor Knox, Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime and the War of 1940-1943 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 59.
24. Enrico Cernuschi and Vincent P. O’Hara, “Search for a Flattop: the Italian Navy and the Aircraft Carrier 1907-2007” Warship 2007 71-72.
25. Ibid 72.
26. Ibid 72-73.
27. Paul E. Fontenoy, Aircraft Carriers: an illustrated history of their impact (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006) 76.
28. Gardiner 291.
29. Morison 37.
30. Ibid 37.
31. Ibid 38-39.
32. Robert Cressman, The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II (Naval Institute Press, 2000) 168.
33. This explosion was probably caused by a German magnetic mine which had evaded post-war Soviet minesweepers.