“When in June 1939 Admiral Andrew Cunningham was taking over as Commander in Chief (C.I.C.), the Mediterranean Fleet was composed of 4 battleships, 7 cruisers, 1 airplane carrier, 3 destroyer fleets, one submarine fleet and one torpedo boat fleet. Alexandria was already the main base of the Fleet, but with many shortcomings to successfully face her mission. The repairs means and ship docking facilities were completely insufficient, the antiaircraft defense was feeble and an airport for the naval air force was scheduled but not yet built.
At that time, the prevailing opinion in the political circles in London was that if Italy were to join the war, she would be easily been neutralized. However, as there were not enough land forces available and as Italy wouldn’t capitulate with air bombardments only, it was on the Navy that they mainly counted on.
These political circles expected on one hand that with intensive bombardments from the sea of ports and cities on the coastline the morale of the Italian people would be shattered, even if the Navy would thus suffer heavy losses from the enemy submarines, air force and minefields. On the other hand, thanks to the naval blockade, naval transports of Italy to and from her forces outside the mainland and her supply sea routes would be interrupted. In addition there was a perception that by simply seizing Libya, the Italian East Africa would fall and Italy would be defeated.
The Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean was of the opinion that the military seizure of Libya wasn’t necessary and that the complete interruption of Italy’s naval transports in combination with bombardments of the Italian coastline by the Fleet would suffice. He considered that the available then British naval forces in the Mediterranean, that were expected to be reinforced by the French, were sufficient to reach these objectives if some shortcomings were covered. A relative important number of reconnaissance planes were mainly needed to secure – to a certain degree – the surveillance of Eastern Mediterranean and the reinforcement of the antiaircraft defense of Malta, destined to be used as advanced base.
Admiral Cunningham disagreed with the point of view advanced by some military analysts that the battleships should be safeguarded for an eventual future use against the Japanese. These ships should be used to bombard the Italian coastline and this way eventually the Italian Fleet would be obliged to fight, as was the Admiral’s wish. In addition, as the Alexandria naval base didn’t dispose sufficient antiaircraft and antisubmarine defenses, the ships were eventually safer at sea than in the harbor.
After the declaration of war with Germany, on September 3, 1939, it became evident that Italy was not planning to enter the war any time soon. Thus it was decided that the presence in the Mediterranean of important naval forces was not contributing to the war effort. The surveillance of the Gibraltar straits would be enough in order to hinder the sailing in of German submarines. This objective was of course not achieved when the war was raging in the Mediterranean.
Thus, progressively, most naval forces left the Mediterranean up to the point that by the end of 1939 only 3 light cruisers and a few Australian destroyers remained in the Fleet. Then, from May 1940, the Mediterranean fleet started being reinforced, because of the doubtful position of Italy. In the mean time the French had informed of their intention to keep in the Mediterranean 2 heavy cruisers and a few cruisers, some destroyers in Mers-El-Kebir, Algeria and 4 heavy cruisers and some destroyers in Toulon. These promises were realized and at some point in time most ships in Alexandria were French.
While the naval forces of the Mediterranean were continuously reinforced, the other shortcomings and especially the most serious that concerned the reconnaissance aviation were not covered. For long distance reconnaissance only a few flying boats were available in Malta and in Alexandria. They were perfect to fulfill their objective, on condition that there was no reaction from enemy air force.
In case of an Italian attack against Greece, the seizure of Souda bay in Crete was under consideration, because of her great importance for the refueling of light ships. For such a case British and French troops would be made available. In preparation of this operation, 4 French cruisers had already sailed from Alexandria to Beirut to take aboard French troops.
The first important difference of opinion between the C.I.C. of the Mediterranean Fleet and the Admiralty, assumingly acting under the pressure of the British Prime Minister, erupted in June 1940.
When Admiral Cunningham was asked to report on his plan of operations, he informed that his initial objective was to secure the transport routes in Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, to interrupt the enemy supplies in the Dodecanese and to execute a sweep with heavy ships in Central Mediterranean. He considered that the interruption of supplies in the Dodecanese was imposed because, if there was hope that Turkey would fight by the side of the British, the Italian naval forces operating there had to be neutralized. In this rather limited objective, the interruption of the Italian transports with Libya was not included, as there were not available sufficient light ships and airplanes and as a military attack of the British against Libya was not then an option. As the Admiral explained, the main force of the Italian Fleet was not an issue for him in order to sweep the Central Mediterranean, despite the fact that available intelligence was not clear if the enemy disposed 3 or 7 battleships. In reality, as we will see later, when Italy entered the war, the truly ready for war battleships were only two. The Admiral considered that if the Italian Fleet accepted to fight, the naval forces available in Alexandria were able to confront her successfully. If on the other hand the Italian ships decided to maneuver and avoid confrontation, the British battleships being slower had very few chances to catch them up. It was of course sure that if the British Fleet entered the Central Mediterranean, she would have to face serious dangers from enemy submarines and airplanes.
When Admiral Cunningham was maintaining the above, he was depending on British forces only, as he didn’t know that the fall of France was imminent. The British Admiralty disagreed with his plan, considering that the proposed strategy was defensive. However, the evolution of the war operations proved the degree to which an offensive spirit that only his auto-restraint could contain drove the British C.I.C.
This case brings to mind a similar situation during the Greek- Italian war. Some military authorities and several persons who remained behind the front completely ignored the capabilities of our Navy and accused our Fleet for limiting its operations into securing transports in the Greek Seas and of being unable to interrupt the Italian transports to Albania. [See: “The Italian attack – New Days of glory Part B: November 1940- March 1941” ]. In addition, conditions in the Adriatic, with the enemy naval and air force bases in close vicinity, were much more difficult from those that the British Fleet was facing in the Central Mediterranean.
The difference of opinion with the Admiralty was finally settled after the explanations given by the C.I.C. of the Mediterranean Fleet. His first action would be the seizing of Souda bay in Crete, assuming of course Italy would attack Greece. He would install submarine patrols in the Greek Seas and along critical points of the Italian coastline, where the submarines would lay mines. In case the Souda bay operation wasn’t undertaken then, fatefully, the British Fleet operations would depend on the Italian’s. A powerful naval force would meet any enemy action against Malta or elsewhere. At the same time the Fleet would proceed to sweeping operations towards the Dodecanese and Northern Africa and enemy submarines would be chased south of Crete and at the Eastern and Western straits of the island. The assault against the Italian transport routes with Libya could be assigned to a joint force of cruisers and destroyers, under the condition that the air reconnaissance of the region could be secured. He stressed however that in case all of the above missions were undertaken, an insufficient force of destroyers would remain available to provide sufficient antisubmarine protection to the battle Fleet, in case of simultaneous operation of all ships.
To this indirect request for reinforcement with additional destroyers, the Admiralty replied unable to satisfy. Destroyers were in short supply because since the beginning of war against Germany 22 were sunk and many more had suffered damages and were undergoing repairs.
The British Navy was suffering of many other shortcomings. The number of available escorts and of light forces in general was quite insufficient to cover needs. The old battleships compared poorly to the modern ones of other Powers, especially in speed and antiaircraft protection. Possessing aircraft carriers was an important advantage for the British Navy, however many more were needed for serving efficiently all fronts.
In the Mediterranean more specifically, besides the insufficient number of reconnaissance planes and light units – to which we have already referred – several kinds of war materials were missing. They were not enough ammunition and for the defense of the Alexandria base many more antiaircraft guns were needed. In case sailing through the Mediterranean became impossible, the re-supply of the Fleet by the circumnavigation of South Africa would become quite problematic.
One of the most serious problems was the almost complete absence of antiaircraft protection of Malta, precious as advanced base of light ships and airplanes and for her vast naval base installations.
In spite of the above shortcomings, when Italy declared war on June 10,1940, the Alexandria Fleet disposed an impressive force. It consisted of 4 battleships (Warspite, Malaya, Royal Sovereign, Ramillies), an aircraft carrier (Eagle), 9 cruisers and about 25 destroyers and 12 submarines. On the other hand the French force in Alexandria consisted of the battleship Lorraine, 4 cruisers and 3 destroyers. Unfortunately, the cooperation with the French ships didn’t last long because it was interrupted by the capitulation of France on March 24, 1940.”
H.M.S. WARSPITE R.N.
H.M.S. EAGLE R.N.