During the between the wars period Italy applied an intensive shipbuilding program that would endow her with a really important Fleet. More specifically, as battle ships four new 35.000 tons battleships were planned, with speed of 30 miles/hour and armed with nine 381 mm guns (the Littorio, Vittorio Veneto, Roma and Imperio) and four overhauled old battleships of 23.000 tons, with speed of 26 miles/hour and armed with ten 320 mm guns (the Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare, Duito and Doria).
Battleship Conte di Cavour
Battleship Guilio Cesare
However, in accordance with the directions given to the Navy, because there was no probability of going to war before 1942, the shipbuilding program was scheduled to be completed towards the end of that year, while war started two years earlier.
Thus, in June 1940 from the 8 battleships only two, the Cavour and Cesare, were in service. The construction of the two large battleships – Litttorio και Vitorio Veneto- and the overhauling of two olds – Duito and Doria – was still going on, the Roma was planned to be operational in two years and for the construction of the Imperio – whose construction was finally abandoned- three more years were needed. In addition, 12 light cruisers were under construction as well as an important number of destroyers, escorts, submarines and other smaller units.
Therefore, on the day Italy declared war, her Fleet disposed as large ships the two overhauled old battleships and 19 cruisers. However, as it turns up in the memoirs of Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the Italians had succeeded in keeping in doubt the British as far as the number of ready for war ships was concerned. In addition the British ignored many other shortcomings of the Italian Navy.
The Italians on the other hand stress especially the difficult situation that the Italian Navy faced from the point of view of air force of naval cooperation, under her triple aspect, reconnaissance at sea, protection of friendly naval forces and attack actions against the enemy. Indeed, by studying the various points of view that are expressed concerning the evolution of the war operations, one can draw the conclusion that the absence of sufficient air cover was one of the main reasons for the misfortunes of the Italian Fleet. It’s worthwhile to point out however that, in some cases at least, Admiral Andrew Cunningham doesn’t seem to agree with this conclusion.
The Italian Navy had already created a naval air force during World War I, which however had been dismantled in 1923 when a special Air force Corps was created. According to Mussolini, the Italian peninsula constituted a big aircraft carrier and the Air force’s aircrafts could undertake any naval mission from their bases on the mainland. Thus, any proposal by the Navy to create a naval air force or build aircraft carriers was rejected. It was only when the evolution of the war operations had shown how wrong that point of view was, that Mussolini gave the order in 1941 to transform 2 ocean liners into aircraft carriers. It was however too late and the war ended for Italy before these ships were launched.
What was created was an “Air force for the Navy” destined to naval air reconnaissance. The operational use of this air force belonged to the Navy that dispatched its own observers. However, the Air force had never completely understood the air problems of the Navy. Thus, upon the declaration of war, when the Italian air forces outnumbered those of the enemy, the lack of efficient cooperation of the Navy with the Air force had a negative effect on the naval operations. Besides, the about 100 reconnaissance airplanes that were assigned to the Navy were sufficient in number at the beginning of the war, but most of them of an unsuitable type and of poor performance. They were single engine hydroplanes with 180 km maximum speed. Because the replacement of their losses wasn’t possible, their number kept falling.
The Air force would undertake several reconnaissance missions to give a helping hand to the Navy. However the results were not satisfactory, because their personnel lacked experience. What was worse was that in some cases wrong intelligence was given and this had very serious consequences on war operations.
In addition, while the British reconnaissance was also operating at night, the Italians didn’t dispose night reconnaissance throughout the war. Only towards the end of the confrontation in the Mediterranean, German airplanes were sometimes executing night reconnaissance flights.
The Italian Air force had neglected to build torpedo planes, while the Navy had developed a special type of torpedo that could be launched from a 100 meters height, from air planes flying at 300 km/hour speed. It was during the war that the Air force decided to use torpedo planes carrying torpedoes supplied by the Navy.
The British Navy also disposed few naval airplanes at the beginning of the war [see: “The British Fleet of the Mediterranean” ]. The personnel was however much more experienced in naval cooperation and succeeded to more or less satisfy the reconnaissance needs, until a sufficient number of air planes was supplied. On the Italian side, on the other hand, results were unsatisfactory in spite of the great efforts made by the Italian Air force during the war to improve her cooperation with the Navy. To gain the necessary experience a long period of training and preparation was indeed necessary.
For a Navy as powerful as the Italian, even if it did not dispose aircraft carriers, the existence of a separate naval Air force Corps disposing the types of aircrafts that the Navy considered appropriate, was absolutely necessary. The solution that was given in Italy for naval reconnaissance is the one usually applied for reasons of economy by smaller Navies. It can nevertheless be more efficient if during the peace period the Air force complies with the suggestions of the Navy, as far as the types of aircrafts is concerned, and with joint manoeuvres personnel training is kept at high level.
In some cases, the observed inactivity of the Italian Navy can be attributed to another very serious shortcoming, to the lack of sufficient fuel stocks. At the time of war declaration fuel stocks reached 1.8 million tons, a quantity that was considered sufficient for 9 months of war needs. Beyond this period of time the Germans had assumed the responsibility of re-supplying. They never kept their promise. Thus, the initially scheduled monthly consumption of 200 thousand tons had to be continuously reduced, reaching 24 thousand tons only at the beginning of 1943. Inevitably, for this reason ship movements were constrained. Mussolini should have taken seriously this factor into account, before ordering his Navy to attack the Naval Force that was controlling the gates of the Mediterranean.
In addition to the above two very serious problems, they were also some technical shortcomings disadvantaged the Italian ships compared to the British. The Italians had no radars during the whole war period and their submarine listening equipment was much inferior to those of the British.
On the other hand, as it became apparent by the evolution of the war operations, training of the Italian naval personnel was lagging. In particular, the complete lack of preparation for night battle was amazing.
Another point worth examining is the whole hierarchical structure of the Italian Navy and the weak points that it entailed. Contrary to the freedom of operations that the British Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean disposed, the Italian Chiefs disposed reduced possibility of initiative and the direction of operations was in a great extent concentrated in the hands of the Supermarina, based in the Ministry of the Navy. The Chiefs at sea had only the tactical command of the operations, while the strategic directions, the drawing up of the plans and the disposal and deployment of the forces belonged to the Supreme Command of the Navy at the Centre. The result was that the heads of the naval forces, feeling that the Supermarina was behind them, often waited or were asking for orders, even in cases where they could have acted at their own initiative.
An important weakness of such an organization, that all Navies similarly organized should be aware of, is the following. The Chief of the General Staff of the Navy, head of the Supermarina, was also acting as Deputy Minister of the Navy and had also the responsibility of the administrative services of the Ministry of the Navy. Under the weight of so much work he was obliged to delegate the direction of operations to his deputy, who was usually the only person knowing the details of the situation but whose initiative was necessarily limited. This arrangement created another absurdity. Because Mussolini, as Supreme Commander of the armed forces, had a very limited understanding of naval matters it was necessary that the representative of the Navy with whom he discussed to be completely aware of the details. Mussolini’s interlocutor was the Chief of the General Staff of the Navy and therefore they conferred without the presence of the officer that really directed the naval operations.
In the beginning of April 1940, Mussolini informed his Chiefs of Staff of his intention to declare war at a time he would consider appropriate. At the same time he informed them that the war would be defensive on the land fronts and offensive at sea and air.
Admiral Cavagnari, the Italian Chief of the General Staff of the Navy, presented in a report that under the prevailing conditions the Navy could not undertake an offensive war. He added that, in his personal opinion, Italy shouldn’t enter the war if she were to be limited to defence. Mussolini, fearing that the war would end soon without Italy taking advantage of it, disregarded this sound comment. The Italian dictator had the fixed idea that the war would last no more than 3 months. He agreed that the Navy should act according to the pre-existing plans, based on the following general directions:
The naval forces would always remain concentrated in order to obtain maximum offensive and defensive power. Therefore, they wouldn’t participate in convoy protection missions, except in exceptional and rare occasions. The Navy was unable to undertake the supply of Libya and had to be abandoned, to avoid confrontation with the French. This point of view was accepted, as it was believed that the supplies of Libya could last 6 months while the war would be of shorter duration.
When the moment of truth came, the Navy was obliged to act in a completely different way than planned. Immediately after the beginning of hostilities, the urgent transportation of necessary supplies was ordered. Progressively, after the capitulation of France, the supply missions to Libya became the main mission of the Italian Navy and as a result its forces were dispersed.
In the beginning of the war the Italian ships were mainly earmarked to Napoli and Taranto and few cruisers in ports of Sicily. In the bases of Northern Tirrenia only submarines and torpedo boats remained. The interior sea of Adriatica was secured strategically from the Taranto base. Light naval forces were based in the advanced bases of Tobruk in ibya and Leros in the Dodecanese. Finally, at the war outbreak, old submarines, destroyers and torpedo boats based were isolated in Massaoua base, in the Red Sea. With this deployment the main forces of the Fleet were concentrated around the centre of the Mediterranean and the remaining was in positions in the periphery with mainly defensive objective.
From the above we can deduct that the action plan of the Italian Navy at the time the war was declared didn’t provide for an attack strategy and that the Supermarina considered that there wasn’t any such capability. Indeed, at that precise time, when the attack Fleet had only two battleships in service and France was still in war, the avoidance of battle in array was absolutely justified. Any other way to harass the enemy was of course within the operating capabilities of the Italian Navy.
The battle avoidance strategy cannot be justified however in later periods, when conditions and enemy forces balance were very different.
From the comparison of the opinions of the two sides, a curious situation is evident. At the very moment that Admiral Cunningham had reservations concerning the request of the British Admiralty for the detachment of forces to be used for the interruption of Italian transports to North Africa [see: “The British Fleet of the Mediterranean” ], the Italians considered that they didn’t dispose the means to protect convoys and were abandoning the idea to re-supply Libya. Maybe the British were overestimating in that period the naval might of Italy.”