“In the middle of the confusion prevailing in Italy before her fall, it appears that the Navy was still an organized force. In the second fortnight of August 1943, with the exception of those undergoing repairs, 5 battleships, 8 cruisers, about 12 destroyers and some 25 escort destroyers and corvettes, 24 submarines and a number of torpedo boats and attack units were still available. These units were divided in two fronts, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian.
The Italians report that just before the landing on continental Italy, the Supreme Command of the Italian Navy had issued the very orders that their issuance had not been considered advisable when the invasion of Sicily was being prepared. Admiral Bergamini, Commander in Chief of the Fleet at that time, had been ordered to repel the enemy landing operations with all available ships, from battleships to torpedo boats, even if forced to give battle against overwhelming forces.
The submarines were instructed to rush to the operations zone and all small units were ordered to join the battle the first night of the landing. As it is pointed out, this order was issued with full knowledge that no positive result could arise, because of the overwhelming superiority of the opponent in the air and the sea. It was just a gesture for the honor of the Navy.
Anyhow, the Italian Fleet didn’t have the opportunity to execute these orders, because the moment it had to act coincided with the time of signature of the armistice. It is impressive however that this last sacrifice of the Fleet was only decided when mainland Italy was in danger, as if Sicily was not part of the national territory. The Fleet’s action could have proved much more useful at the time of the landing in Sicily, rather than when the Allies were landing on the Italian peninsula already having at their disposal all the airports of Sicily.
In the meantime, the Italian Navy was getting on with the usual missions, transporting reinforcements from Sardinia and Corsica, laying minefields in possible landing areas, as well as anti-landing mines. In the course of these last operations, executed under fierce bombings by the enemy air force, 2 destroyers, 2 escort destroyers, 1 submarine and a number of smaller units were lost.
The Supreme Naval Command was unaware of the negotiations for the conclusion of an armistice. On September 3 only –when the provisional Agreement had already been signed- it was announced to the then Commander of the General Staff of the Navy Admiral De Courten that relative negotiations were taking place with the Allies. He was instructed however at the same time, not to inform anyone. In the evening of September 6, the information was given to the Admiral that the armistice agreement was about to be signed –but not before September 10- and was informed on what concerned the Navy. He was at the same time instructed to give verbal top secret instructions to the Admiral Chiefs, for the case of a possible German mutiny, without making any reference to the armistice to be signed.
It was surely a very bizarre situation. Under the peculiar conditions that the armistice was signed, it was of course a must to keep absolute secrecy, in order that the Germans wouldn’t be aware of anything till the last moment. It is however not understandable that secrecy was extended to the Chiefs of the General Staffs. Which secret instructions could the Chief of the General Staff of the Navy issue to his subordinates, when even he was not aware that the armistice had been already signed, and how could he explain the possibility of a German mutiny without mentioning anything about armistice?
Thus, when a large allied landing force was reported off Palermo, as the armistice had not as yet been announced in order not to create suspicions to the Germans, the Supermarina ordered the undertaking of resistance measures. As a result, according to existing orders, the submarines headed to the pre-determined patrol areas. In the evening of September 7, one of them was sunk by a British submarine off Salerno. In addition, when in the morning of the following day the presence of allied convoys with the landing forces were reported midway between Palermo and Naples, the Fleet was ordered to get ready to sail in the afternoon of that day for its last battle, as the crews believed. The departure of the ships was finally postponed, when it was later learned that the Allies were going to announce that evening the armistice.
The Admirals Chiefs had been asked to a meeting in Rome in the evening of September 7. At that meeting the Chief of the General Staff of the Navy made the announcement “about a possible German mutiny” and having in mind that the armistice announcement would eventually be made on September 10, he ordered them to be at their positions on the 8th, in order to take the necessary measures the following day. The allies however proceeded to the announcement of the armistice two days earlier and as a result all the planning was overturned. Some Admirals serving in the most remote Headquarters had just arrived at their posts.
This early announcement of the armistice had serious repercussions regarding the taking by the Services of the necessary measures.
The opinion of the Chief of the General Staff of the Navy had not been asked on the terms of the armistice that concerned the Navy. He was informed of the relative details only when the armistice was declared. The Navy nevertheless considered its duty to absolutely obey to the orders of the legal Government of the country. As it is pointed out, no consideration was given to the possibility of self sinking the ships – a solution that presented the advantage of simplicity and had the fewer risks- because it was considered that according to the terms of the protocol of the armistice the honor of the Navy was preserved. The term “surrender” was not used in the protocol and the ships were to be transported to allied ports to be put out of commission, under the Italian flag.
Reference is made to the case of the German Fleet after the end of World War I that was self sunk only after a seven month stay in Scapa-Flow, when it was confirmed that there was no intention of ever letting the Fleet return to Germany. Under that spirit the Supermarina had issued the relative orders.
As a matter of fact it was surrender. Besides, with the Peace Treaty Italy was forced to transfer to the Allies, in the form of war indemnities, several of her best ships. It is quite possible however that the Italians were hoping that in the future part at least of their Fleet would be returned – as it really happened – since soon after the armistice some of their ships collaborated with the Allies against the Germans.
From a practical point of view, it can be said that the absolute compliance of the Italian Navy to the terms of the armistice proved advantageous for Italy.
According to the terms of the armistice, the Italian ships based in La Spezia were expected to sail as soon as the armistice was declared and head towards the North Africa shores; there they were going to meet a British force that would lead them to Malta. The ships from Taranto were going to be lead to the same base a couple of days later. The Italian ships were going to hoist a black flag, as indication of compliance to the terms of the armistice.
The missions of the ships were determined by detailed orders of the Supermarina. According to them surrender or lowering of the flag were excluded and if asked they should self sink. The same order concerned the ships that couldn’t move from their bases, because of damages or repairs.
The Chief of the Italian General Staff of the Navy had requested approval of the British for the Fleet to first sail to Maddalena, Sardinia, where the King and the Government had the intention to move. Thus, the Commander in Chief of the Fleet was ordered to sail to that port and wait for further orders.
The Fleet sailed from La Spezia on 03:00 h of September 9 and was formed by the battleships RN ROMA, under the Commander in Chief of the Fleet Admiral Bergamini, RN VITTORIO VENETO and RN ITALIA (as RN LITTORIO had been renamed), 6 light cruisers and 8 destroyers.
German airplanes coming from the south of France attacked this naval force, at around 15:50 h of September 9, as she was sailing west of Corsica and was in view of Maddalena. The Germans used for the first time a new type of teleguided bombs, one of which hit RN ROMA close to the fore powder-magazine. A dangerous fire erupted and 20 minutes later the powder-magazine exploded and the battleship sunk, taking with her the Admiral, almost all the officers and most of the crew. The German air planes also hit the battleship RN ITALIA, but the damages were not serious and she continued her course.
The next morning the Italian Fleet under the leadership of Admiral Oliva on board the cruiser RN EUGENIO DI SAVOIA, joined the British force consisting of the battleships HMS WARSPITE and HMS VALIANT and 7 destroyers, among which the Greek RHN QUEEN OLGA and one French, and was led to Malta were they arrived on the morning of September 11.
After the attack of the German air force against the Italian force, the Supermarina had requested from the British the dispatch of air coverage, but there was none available.
The Italian Fleet suffered more losses during its voyage to Malta. Two destroyers that had been ordered to join the Fleet were hit by shore gun batteries manned by Germans and sunk, while sailing near Bonifacio, Corsica. These destroyers had originally been sent to Civitavecchia to collect and transport to Maddalena the King and the Government. The mission was however cancelled, when they decided to set up in Brindisi.
The small cruiser RN REGOLO, 3 destroyers and 1 escort of the La Spezia force were sent to rescue the shipwrecked of RN ROMA and the 2 destroyers. These ships, after taking up the survivors, with another 2 escort destroyers and 3 landing ships that joined them sailed towards Port Mahon, the Balearides, where they were disarmed by the Spaniards, because all the ports of Sardinia had been seized by the Germans. Before reaching their destination, the 2 escort destroyers were damaged following an air attack and a collision and were sunk by their crews.
On the night of September 10, the Italian ships from Taranto – the battleships RN DORIA and RN DULIO, 2 cruisers and 1 destroyer under British escort and with the participation of the Greek destroyer RHN ADRIAS – reached Malta.
In the morning of September 9, while the Allies were landing in Salerno, the Germans, who after July 25 had sent large reinforcements to Italy, started occupying Italian ports and cities. That same night they were controlling al the ports of the Tyrrhenian, Sardinia and Corsica. The naval bases, where possible, put up a certain degree of resistance; in Cephalonia, the Germans killed the Naval Commander, almost all officers and most of the sailors. A large number of ships immobilized because of damages or repairs were anchored in the ports seized by the Germans and among them the heavy cruisers RN BOLZANO and RN GORIZIA, 8 destroyers, 22 escort destroyers, 10 submarines and 9 corvettes. Most of these ships were destroyed or sunk by their crews.
In addition, there were about 200 smaller or auxiliary ships, several of which were sunk, while others have not succeeded avoiding being seized. The Germans executed the Commanders of the ships that were self sunk.
Several other isolated war ships situated in northern Italian ports that tried to escape, were attacked by the Germans and were sunk. Thus, in the period September 9 -12, 14 war ships that attempted sailing towards the south were sunk. About 10 German small ships attacked the escort destroyer RN ALISEO, but she succeeded to sink them all before joining the Allies.
The battleship RN CESARE that was situated in Pola damaged and used for the dwelling of crews, succeeded to escape from the Germans’ watch and sailed first to Taranto and then to Malta. In addition, 1 submarine, 2 gunboats and 12 merchant ships situated in the Far East were self sunk by the Italians.
On September 11, Admiral Cunningham went to Malta to give instructions to Admiral Da Zara, the Commander of the Italian force from Taranto, concerning the disposal and the decommissioning of the Italian Ships. The Italian Admiral did not express any objections.
On September 14, the Italian battleships RN ITALIA and RN VITTORIO VENETO, 4 cruisers and 4 destroyers left Malta for Alexandria -were they were disarmed-, escorted by 2 British battleships and by destroyers, among which was the Greek RHN QUEEN OLGA.
The terms of the provisional armistice protocol signed on September 3, on which the opinion of Admiral Cunningham, Commander in Chief of the Allied naval forces, gad not been asked, were vague on naval maters. He therefore sought to clarify them when he met in Taranto Admiral De Courten, Minister of the Navy of the Italian Government.
This clarification must have created an unpleasant surprise to the Italians, who had interpreted the term “transport to allied ports of the Italian ships” as not implying a future surrender to the Allies of at least part of them.
In that meeting, the British Admiral asked the Italians to participate in the war effort against the Germans, with their merchant ships that had been saved and with providing convoy escorts with their destroyers and other small units. It is a fact that the Italians had not been satisfied with that request. At the same time, the British indicated to Admiral De Courten that Italy would have to transfer some war ships to counterbalance the allied losses. The request was politely formulated and the Italian Admiral accepted in principle with the reservation of a future settlement of the mater by the two Governments.
When the mater was finally settled in the context of the Peace Treaty of Paris, Italy was forced to transfer to the allies most of the large units of her Fleet. Thus, from the battleships, the 2 largest were transferred to Great Britain and the USA and the RN CESARE to Russia, while Italy was to keep the RN DORIA and RN DULIO. From the cruisers, the 3 small ‘REGOLO’ type were given to France, the RN EUGENIO DI SAVOIA to Greece, the RN DUCA D’AOSTA to Russia, while Italy kept the RN GARIBALDI, RN DUCA DEGLI ABRUZZI, RN MONTECUCCOLI and RN CADORNA.
From the 11 large destroyers, 4 were transferred to France, 3 to Russia and 4 remained in Italy. From the 22 small escort destroyers, Italy kept 16, 3 were transferred to Russia and 3 to Yugoslavia. From the submarines, 8 were transferred to the Allies and Italy kept none. The 22 torpedo boats were split between Russia and France. From the remaining small units Italy conserved 19 corvettes, the minesweepers and some other auxiliary. A gun boat was given to Albania. The ships that were not expressly named were dismantled. Great Britain and the USA gave up their claim on the ships they were assigned, under the condition that they would be dismantled in Italy.
What had initially been agreed between Admirals Cunningham and De Courten, were included in an Agreement that was signed by them on September 23, and confirmed on the 29th in a ceremony on board the battleship HMS NELSON by Eisenhower and Badoglio.
However, even before the above meeting, the Italian Navy had offered its cooperation to the Allies. The naval bases of Taranto and Brindisi that had remained in the hands of the Italians were working for the allied needs. The torpedo boats in Capri and other auxiliary units in Salerno were at the disposal of the Allies, after September 12. On the 13, following a request of the British, 2 Italian destroyers were sent to Corsica to support the French and Italian forces fighting against the Germans.
With the passage of time, the Italian Navy tried to offer as many services as possible to the Allies, who started facing more favorably their old enemy. Gradually, they allowed the Italian ships, with the exception of the battleships, to gather in ports of South Italy. Later, even the 3 small battleships were transferred from Malta to Augusta and only the 2 large remained in the Suez Canal, as “enclosed”.
A number of light naval units were thus gathered in the naval bases of South Italy, were willingly placed at the disposal of the Allies, for any service that they would request. In addition, 90 Italian merchant ships of a total displacement of 300,000 tons were available. 2 Italian cruisers, later reinforced by a third, were sent at the end of October to Freeport to protect the allied navigation in Central Atlantic, against eventual attacks by German armed merchant ships. These ships were recalled in April 1944, after establishing that there were no more such raiding forces in the Atlantic.
Light Italian forces and submarines have also been used to execute various missions in the Adriatic shore controlled by the Germans, the North Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, to land commandos and spies, military equipment for the partisans, reconnaissance, etc. Intensive use of light forces was also made for allied convoy escorts in the Mediterranean.
That cooperation of a Navy with his yesterday’s opponent, against an old ally, may seem rather strange. In fact, as previously mentioned, proved quite useful if examined from a practical point of view.
Following the Italian armistice, various Italian army troops had been cut-off in Dalmatia, Albania, Western Greece and the Ionian islands –some of which were resisting against the Germans. The Italian Navy tried to save those that were escaping towards the shores. It was thus made possible to transport to Italy about 25,000 men. During these missions, the German air force sunk 2 Italian destroyers, 1 escort destroyer and 2 merchant ships full of soldiers.
As reported, only 5% of the naval personnel cut-off in Northern Italy accepted to collaborate with the German friendly Mussolini Government formed there, while most joined the Resistance and 34 officers and about 700 men lost their lives.”