Starting in 1935, the Italian Fascist government had eliminated the division of roles and responsibilities at the highest level of the armed forces by nominating Benito Mussolini minister or the Army, Air Force and Navy and thus giving him total control over these institutions.
The highest hierarchy within the Navy which used to be called “Ufficio del Capo di S.M.” was renamed in 1936 “Ufficio di Stato Maggiore” (High Command Office) and was organized in three units:
- Information (I)
- Operations and Training (OA)
- Mobilization, Defense, Services (MDS)
And four inspectorates:
- Artillery and ammunitions (IAM)
- Submarine Weapons (IAS)
- Naval Engineering (ISGN)
- Naval aviation (IAV)
- Historical Bureau and Procurement
All units and inspectorates were led by an admiral with the sole exception of Naval Aviation which was under the command of a general from the air force. As early as 1938, when a looming war against the British Empire appeared inevitable, the 1st Office (Operations and War Plan) was reorganized in what was a precursor of SUPERMARINA. Before the beginning of the conflict, in May 1940, the government decreed a reorganization of the Navy command into:
- Operational Group (SUPERMARINA)
- Units and Inspectorates (MARISTAT)
Specifically, SUPERMARINA responsibilities were defines as:
- Give general directive regarding naval warfare.
- Issue general operational orders.
- Disseminate information regarding naval activity
- Disseminate information regarding enemy naval activity.
- Designate the commanding officer at sea.
- Coordinate the strategic activities at sea of detached units.
- Promote, under established rules, the participation of ARMERA (independent air force), Italian North Africa High Command (A.S.I.), and the Aegean High Command for both activities organized by itself and or emergencies.
- Promote, based on individual or ongoing agreement s, the participation of the allied air force (Germans)
SUPERMARINA included as part of its operation group:
- The Chief of Naval Operations along with his flag officer and designated personnel
- The Vice Chief of Naval Operations along with his flag officer and designated personnel
- Four assisting admirals along with their flag officer and designated personnel divided in
- Head Operation unit.
- Head plans and operations.
- Officers assigned to the “Comando Supremo” office.
SUPERMARINA was the telegraphic denomination for this office, and, during the conflict, it quickly became a household name due to the many mentions in war bulletins. SUPERMARINA operated, more or less, in the same manner during the whole conflict. Shifts lasted 12 hours and the change of officer on duty took place at 8:00 PM and 8:00 AM. After the morning change of guard, a small report was presented to the new officer and forwarded to the head of the Navy and also ‘Comando Supremo’. At 11:30 AM all admirals met under the presidency of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (Adm. Edoardo Somigli until December 10th, 1940 and then Adm. Inigo Campioni, and eventually Adm. Luigi Sansonetti) to review the situation and issue orders which had to be approved by the Chief of Naval Operations .
Naval operations, including the position of ships, were tracked on a very large map of the Mediterranean though the use of push pins (some authors refer to ship cutouts). Each type of unit was represented by a different type of pin. If the precise position of the units were not known, a new position was estimated based on previous direction and speed. The positions were regularly updated and included know enemy and neutral vessels.
This operational center was located within the building which still houses the Ministry of the Navy along ‘Lungotevere Flaminio” (Along the river – Tiber- in the Flaminio neighborhood). In addition to the primary area, the Navy had constructed a secondary one in the basement in expectation of aerial bombardment which never materialized. In fact, the ministry was too close to the Vatican to even consider such a reckless action. When Rome was declared an open city (August 14th, 1943), SUPERMARINA was relocated in Santa Rosa (La Storta) where the Italian Navy hosted its radiotelegraphy operation center located in subterranean bunkers.
This new temporary command center was only 20 km north of the city along the ancient Cassia road and was temporarily housed above ground in specially built barracks. This office closed definitively on September 12th following the Italian surrender. By then, although it had lost its operational functions, it was the only functioning Italian high military command post having similar organizations, SUPERAEREO and SUPERESERCITO, already disbanded.
Throughout the conflict, SUPERMARINA was directly in control of most naval operations in line with Italian military naval doctrine which called for a highly centralized command post. Lack of operational freedom for the commander at sea was often the reason for a very conservative conduct and, as in the case of Matapan, resulted in terrible losses. SUPERMARINA, despite the capillary organization, lacked the intelligence insight the Royal Navy and the direct line of communication and collaboration with both the other branches and the German allies. To overcome this last deficiency, SUPERMARINA positioned German coordination officers aboard the larger units of the Italian fleet.