Each year Italy, a country of limited natural resources, is forced to import tons of fuel of various grades from multiple sources. This dependency on imports is particularly aggravated during war times when the larger part of these imports ceases. During World War I, when Italy was allied with the “Lords of the Sea” and with the countries controlling most of the world’s natural resources, this problem did not exist. Instead, the Central Empires were tormented by this problem, and being unable to procure what was necessary to keep the war machine running, forced to surrender. When Mussolini declared the “Autarchia” (national self sufficiency), complete self-reliance of the whole Italian industrial complex, one could not but notice the paradox of such a proclamation. Italy, even if she had had the necessary industries to sustain her (a far-fetched assumption considering the backward state of the whole apparatus), would have been unable to obtain the necessary energy to keep it running.
In the 20s and 30s, Italy imported an average of 12 million tons of good quality coal necessary for industrial production, the generation of electricity, locomotion, and winter heating. When Great Britain decided that an Italian intervention along with Germany was preferable to a pro-German neutrality, Italy was informed on January 14th 1940 of an imminent naval blockade of all coal import from Germany ( at that time coming through the then neutral Netherlands). On February 3rd, London informed Rome of the necessary prerequisites for the reinstitution of shipments of the indispensable coal, which, under the plan, would have been shipped from England. Italy was asked to provide London with a large quantity of war materiel. Following the mediation attempts conducted by the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, Great Britain materialized her threats and on March 1st, when units of the Royal Navy interdicted and captured 13 Italian coal ships taking them to internment and confiscating their cargoes.
On the 10th of the same month, when Italian reserves of coal had already decreased to less than one month, the Germans informed that they were ready to commence transferring coal through the Alpine passes at a rate of about 1 million tons per month. This remedy, which the British thought impossible, was the result of collaboration between the “Reichsbahn” and the “Ferrovie dello Stato” and lasted until late summer 1944. Considering that from June 1940 through September 1943 the Regia Marina had to face an ever increasing crisis with the supplies of oil fuel, which at one point paralyzed the fleet leaving the control of the Mediterranean in the hands of the enemy, how did the Italian war ships fill up to reach Malta, where they surrendered?
After several studies, some well-known historians pointed out several discrepancies between the fuel status reports the Regia Marina was sending to the Germans and the quantity reported by the historical bureau of the Italian Navy. The most evident of these discrepancies was noted in the meeting of Merano, in February 1941, where the head of the Navy, Admiral Riccardi, stated that the Navy had only 610,000 tons left when in fact, reserves amounted to over 1 million tons. One can easily assume that the Navy had created a sort of black fund of oil fuel to be used as a last resource with the double scope of obtaining more of the now available German fuel and, in relative security, to coordinate naval operations.
The Regia Marina, expecting the imminent conflict against Great Britain, had planned in the years preceding the war and had been able to accumulate hefty quantities of oil fuel for her boilers to about 2 million tons. This quantity was thought sufficient for about one and one half years of war without any limitations. The Navy was the only armed force, which was able to accumulate a large quantity of fuel, and in the first week of June the Minister of Corporations withdrew 250,000 tons for the operation of industries and also for the Regia Aeronautica. The Regia Aeronautica had used tanks built of tin, instead of iron, which had caused the gasoline to spoil, so the Navy had to transfer 50,000 tons of gasoline.
Italy entered the war not only with the most complete lack of readiness of her armed forces, but also without much fuel. It was thought that the war would not have last long and that the little fuel reserve would be sufficient. As a matter of fact, until January 1941, there were no limitations on the use of oil fuel, but during this month 671,560 tons had already been burned. Supermarina was forced to reduce training. Up to that moment, no large shipment of oil fuel had been acquired to replace the spent one. The 50,000 tons coming from Rumania were all destined to the Regio Esercito and civilian use, while the Regia Aeronautica benefited from 200,000 tons of very poor quality oil coming from the Albanian oil wells. The Regia Marina even attempted to increase domestic production obtaining annually 10,000 tons of low-grade fuel. The first replenishment was only 15,000 tons and it arrived from Rumania as part of an extraordinary shipment.
To worsen this situation came the attempted coup d’ètat in Rumania, which tried to replace the pro German government. Despite Rome’s denial, it was common opinion that the Italian government had supported this action and therefore all shipments of fuel were immediately ceased. For the Regia Marina this situation meant that in addition to losing any hope of replainge the oil fuel burned, 250,000 tons had to be transferred to the Ministry of Corporations which declared it “intangible” while an additional 34,000 tons had to be transferred to the national industry. During 1941, Italy was only able to import 600,000 tons of fuel and of this 163,000 tons were “donated” to the Navy. At this point the situation became really dramatic and the monthly consumption had to be reduced to 60,000 tons. The total amount of oil fuel available at the end of the year was about 200,000 tons and during this period of crisis it was decided to remove from service the older battleships. To worsen this already negative situation, after the November British attack in Egypt, the high command and Mussolini requested that the fleet defend the Libya-bound convoys. This strain, which eventually paid off, was only possible thanks to the special shipment of 80,000 tons of German oil fuel, which was delivered at the end of the year.
On January 10th, 1942 Admiral Riccardi informed the Germans that the Navy’s supplies of fuel had gone down to 90,000 tons. Admiral De Courten, in his memoirs, affirms that in that month the actual reserves were 200,000 tons. This discrepancy can be explained by the 130,000 tons of “intangible” fuel assigned to the corporation. During these months, the bottom was finally reached with reserves down to 14,000 tons. The situation was further deteriorated by the shipment of 9,000 tons of German oil fuel of quality too low to be of any use.
Fortunately, at the end of April, it was possible to start importing 50,000 tons of oil fuel per month from Rumania. Suspending the escort and mining missions conducted by the cruisers further reduced consumption. These precautions and new shipments allowed for the deployment of the whole fleet in the double operation (east and west) during the battle of mid-June. Despite the new shipment, the situation kept deteriorating because, up to the armistice, the Regia Marina transferred 40,000 tons to other units and only two shipments of German fuel (10,000 tons in July and 23,000 in September) were received. These shipments allowed for the deployment (then cancelled), of some cruisers during the battle of mid-August and the replenishment of the bunkers aboard the two naval squadrons. At the end of November, the oil fuel reserve was about 70,000 tons plus all which was stored aboard the ships; enough for one sortie of the whole fleet. At the end of December, the old battleships Cesare, Duilio and Doria were removed from service, thus allowing for their crews to be redeployed to new escort units which were just entering service.
The allied landing in North Africa and the subsequent doubling in consumption was the new event which, once again, placed the Regia Marina in a state of crisis. In fact, now instead of just refurnishing Libya, the Navy had to supply Tunisia. These new missions were made possible by the shipment of 40,000 tons of excellent German oil fuel. In January 1943, the crisis reached its climax and the three modern battleships had to be removed from service thus eliminating the Italian battle force. The only naval division still operating was the 3rd, based in La Maddalena (Sardinia). The crisis worsened with only 3,000 tons received in February 1943 and in March and April the modern destroyers had to be removed from escort missions. Meanwhile, on the 10th of April, the only major naval force, the 3rd Division, was annihilated when the Trieste was sunk and the Gorizia seriously damaged by an allied air bombardment. Expecting a possible Allied invasion, the remaining destroyers were reactivated along with the battleships which had half their bunkers filled with diesel fuel used by submarines.
In the month of April, the 9th and 7th Divisions were active and the destroyers were used in escort missions. It must be noted that, at this point, there was no reserve of oil fuel left; so, how did the Regia Marina reach Malta? To find the answer, we have to step back. When the Germans unexpectedly occupied the French base of Toulon on November 27, 1942, where most of the French fleet still afloat was kept, they were able to capture 80,000 tons of oil fuel. Having realized that the Regia Marina could not launch any offensive mission, the Germans transferred “on loan” 60,000 tons of “special” oil fuel thus allowing for the three battleships to be reactivated, along with the cruisers of the 7th and 8th Division, the light cruisers based in Taranto, and, at the end of June, the two battleships Doria and Duilio, while the Cesare was in Trieste being rebuilt. This oil fuel allowed for several training missions, event which had not happened in a long time. The final mission was not even compromised by the total cessation of German supplies following Mussolini’s fall. In fact when Italy surrendered on September 8th, the Fleet had enough fuel to reach and surrender in Malta.