February 9th, 1941
At the beginning of 1941, the British government sought to further the already low Italian moral, thus forcing the weaker of the Axis powers to a separate peace. After the successful arrival of the Luftwaffe in Italy in early 1941 and the sinking of the cruiser Southampton, the British were in need of re-establishing their control over the Mediterranean. The same action which saw the destruction of the Southampton, also saw the damaging of the cruiser Gloucester and the carrier Illustrious.
Commander at Sea: Sommerville
Battleship: Renown, Malaya
Carrier: Ark Royal
Commander at Sea: Iachino
Battleship: Vittorio Veneto, Cesare, Doria
Heavy Cruiser: Trento, Trieste, Bolzano
A new action called for the bombardment of Genoa where the Italian battleships Littorio and Cesare were thought to be undergoing repairs. Even after it was ascertained that the battleships were not in port but were actually being refitted in La Spezia, Genoa was kept as the primary target.
The overall command at sea was assigned to Admiral Sommerville, commander of the Gibraltar-based force H. The action was very audacious; it called for a large naval force to sail the 700 miles between Gibraltar and the Ligurian coast to bombard port and industrial facilities.
The battlecruiser HJ.M.S. Renown
The operation was scheduled for the end of January, and on the 31st Force H left Gibraltar. Adverse atmospheric conditions dissuaded the commander from continuing the action, when the ships had already reached Sardinia. The airplanes of the Ark Royal tried, without success, to torpedo the dam on the Tirso River in Sardinia. Again, the British force left port on the 6th of February. On the 8th, alerted by various sources, the Italian fleet consisting of the Vittorio Veneto, Cesare and Doria left La Spezia with the escort of 8 destroyers. Later, three cruisers of the 8th squadron along with two more destroyers joined the search.
Undetected, the British force arrived near Genoa on the 9th and began a naval bombardment, which started at 8:15 AM and lasted one hour and 30 minutes.
The Malaya targeted the docks, while the Renown and the Sheffield focused on the industrial area. The Sheffield fired 782 salvos, while the battleships expended 272 15″ shells and over 400 4.5″ shells. Four merchant ships and a training vessel were sunk, while another 18 were damaged. The Italians suffered 144 casualties, many of whom were amongst the local population. The British lost one of the Ark Royal’s Swordfish.
While the British forces were sailing out of the Tyrrhenian sea, Admiral Iachino was steaming on a 330’ course which was going to bring him into contact at around 15:00. Instead, due to faulty instructions from Supermarina, the Italian forces changed direction toward Italy on a 30’course. The Italians were so sure of imminent battle that the Vittorio Veneto even had her 15’ gun loaded. A great opportunity was lost, and the British were completely unaware that they had escaped a possible deadly confrontation.
Almost non-existing aerial reconnaissance and erroneous sighting hampered the Italian fleet. At 12.00 o’clock, an Italian airplane sighted the British formation but before it could give its position, it was shot down. Its crew was later picked up by the torpedo boat Masa but only at 17.55 was the alarm finally given: too late for the Italians to catch the fleeing British. So, after having given chase to a French convoy mistaken for the retreating British, the Italian fleet ultimately returned to port.
The material damage was not too serious, but the fact that the British fleet could come to the doorsteps of Italy without been intercepted was troublesome. Ultimately, the bombardment of Genoa was an Italian humiliation, which further destabilized the Fascist Party’s grip on Italy.
It should be mentioned that Antonio Trizzino, in his book Ships and Armchairs (Navi e Poltrone), assert that the principal reason for the British action was the intention of sending a message to the Spaniards in advance of the meeting between Mussolini and Franco which was held in Bordighera, near Genoa, on February 11.