“With the prospect of the fall of Tunisia, the leaders of the Axis were realizing that the next Allied operation in the Mediterranean would be against the Italian land. For her defense it was mainly necessary to reinforce the Air forces in order to counterbalance the important weapon supremacy in the air of the opponent. That reinforcement the Italians were expecting from Germany, but the later was unable to offer.
They were therefore many in Italy that considered that the continuation of the war would only bring unnecessary sacrifices; Mussolini however continued being optimistic. Confusion was prevailing among the military leadership of the Axis, there was also in uncertainty regarding the point of the next attack of the Allies. Some believed that it would be Sardinia, others that the next objective would be Sicily.
In May 1943, Admiral Doenitz visited Italy to study the measures to be taken; he proposed the reinforcement of both islands with the use of the light naval surface forces and submarines. On the other hand, General Kesserling -who since March had taken over as C.I.C. of all German forces in Italy- returning from a review in Sicily was pessimistic concerning the possibility of resistance against an invasion; he reverted to the old idea of undertaking an operation in West Africa, through Spain and Gibraltar.
But even if the necessary land forces were available, to cross the Gibraltar Strait it was necessary to locally dispose weapon supremacy in both the air and the sea. That was not available and this idea was once more abandoned.
In the summer of 1943, Italian and German troops started being sent to reinforce the garrisons of the three islands, of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. The convoys towards Sardinia and Corsica had only few losses from submarine attacks. Those however heading to Sicily were receiving fierce air attacks. Here was only one encounter with surface ships, the night of June 1-2.
According to the Italian point of view, on that night 2 merchant ships escorted by the escort destroyer RN CASTORE were attacked by at least 3 enemy ships, among which was the Greek destroyer R.H.N. VASILISSA OLGA (Lt.Cdr. G. Blessas, DSO, RHN). According to that point of view, the result of the encounter was the sinking of the escort ship and of the merchant ship Vragnizza, while the other escorted ship, the Postumia, escaped. However, according to the sailing log of the R.H.N. VASILISSA OLGA, 2 were the Allied ships that attacked, the British HMS JERVIS (Capt. J.S. Crawford, DSO, RN) and the VASILISSA OLGA; both merchant ships were reported as sunken, as well as the escort RN CASTORE and one more torpedo boat.
The Italian naval surface forces were not at all used to repel the invasion and this caused many remarks and the indignation of the German C.I.C. Admiral Doenitz. Especially because there were now sufficient quantities of fuel, to the shortage of which was attributed the immobilization of the large ships during the last period of operations in North Africa. The following explanations are given concerning the inertia of the Italian Fleet:
In June 1943, the force of the Fleet was much reduced. From the 3 large battleships, the RN VITTORIO VENETO was undergoing repairs in Genoa – following the damages suffered at the bombing of June 5- and only the other 2 were ready for action in La Spezia. The 2 smaller, RN DORIA and RN DUILIO, were since the beginning of June undergoing repairs in Taranto and weren’t expected to be ready before August. 10 cruisers were left, from which 4 in repairs and thus only 6 available. In addition, 20 destroyers remained, half of which were undergoing repairs of various degrees. On the other hand, if the large ships went out to the open sea they would be detected right away and be subjected to extremely fierce attacks. And because they didn’t dispose air coverage and sufficient escorts, they risked being destroyed or suffer important damages before even coming to contact with the enemy naval force. But even if they succeeded with minor damages to reach the battle ground, they would be able to cause insignificant damages only, because of the important weapon supremacy of the Allied naval forces. For these reasons, the Supreme Italian Command had decided not to sacrifice the Fleet but only at the very last moment, to save the honour of the Nation.
The reasons advanced are of course serious, but there is also an opposite point of view: When the enemy is attacking the home land, is there another moment for the Nation to react with all her forces?
With the disproportionate air and sea forces in that case, the probabilities to stop the invasion were really small, if not null. The interference of the Italian Fleet would of course have made the Allied operation more difficult; an operation that was difficult and complicated at the outset. In addition there was the probability of causing damages to the enemy forces. More time would have been thus given to the island troops to rush to the landing points. At least the small surface forces could have been used. When hundreds of Allied ships were sailing towards the Sicilian beaches in the middle of the night, an attack with such units would have surely caused confusion and losses.
In the Pacific the Japanese, when they were definitely losing the war, they didn’t hesitate to throw in the battle the remains of their Fleet in a suicide struggle. We Greeks, when we faced two empires, what were our chances to avoid the destruction of our forces? Mussolini himself, before the war, in a discussion that took place in the Senate on the usefulness of battle ships, replying to the opinion that was expressed that in case of a future war these ships -as was the case in the past- would remain in their port, he had declared that: “This will not happen in Italy. The cost of the ships is not the issue; it’s a matter of moral courage of the personnel and of the orders he will receive.” He however forgot these proud words, although it seems that this Supreme Command decision regarding the inactivity of the Fleet was against the general feeling of the naval personnel.
Of course it has later been proved by developments that if this decision was not in line with the traditions of naval States, it served nevertheless a purpose. When Italy, after a while, was fighting next her old enemies the only offer that she could make was a few war ships that became the core of her Fleet after the war. It cannot be excluded that those who proposed this decision to be taken had this eventuality in mind.
It has to be noted in relation to this that a few days after the Allied invasion of Sicily, the military leadership submitted to Mussolini a report in which they stressed that if it proved not possible to stop the creation of a second front in Italy, the suspension of hostilities had to be faced.
On July 19, 1943, Mussolini met Hitler in Feltre and made a last attempt to succeed sending reinforcements; he received only some vague promises. The preparation of the fall of the Italian dictator had then started.”