General review of the activity of the opponent Navies

“In order to complete the present study, a more general review of the activity of the opponent Navies is required. The Hellenic Navy with its light forces played a very active role in the naval operations of the Mediterranean and suffered important sacrifices in human and material resources. Special interest presents the research concerning some questions relative to the activity of the Italian Navy, for which a lot has been said and written and many criticisms have been expressed not always fully documented and often unfair.

Following the fall of France, the British Fleet of the Mediterranean had to face alone multiple requirements in the Mediterranean. New needs were created following the Italian attack against Greece and her joining the war at Great Britain’s side.

The main task of the Hellenic Fleet, with the few ships it disposed, was to secure sea transports in the Greek seas. As long as they were availability of ships the R.H.N. also contributed to escorting convoys, transporting military reinforcements and supplies from Egypt. The main part of these transports was however handled by the British.

Especially heavy was the task of the British Fleet during the evacuation of the British troops and later at the battle of Crete, where it suffered very heavy losses.

Later, when the few Greek ships that were saved when Greece was occupied were repaired, modernized and reinforced, the services they provided proved very valuable, especially during the critical periods that the British naval forces in the Mediterranean had been reduced to a minimum. However they were not available in sufficient number, in order to have an important contribution.

With the landing in North Africa, the American Fleet joined the war effort at the side of the British, but conditions in that period were such that the presence of heavy American ships was useful, especially as a force of deterrence. The cooperation of the American Air forces in the naval operations in the Mediterranean that had started before the landing was also very valuable, because the British Air forces, although excellent, were never available in sufficient number during the whole war period.

The most important advantage of the British Navy was the quality of its human resources. It disposed leaders inspired by centuries’ old traditions and personnel with excellent training that was well prepared to face the most difficult conditions of a naval war. In addition, the political leadership of Great Britain was also inspired by the same naval traditions.

As far as equipment is concerned, there were important shortcomings. The old battleships were not sufficiently protected against air attacks and were in disadvantage concerning speed, compared to the modern ships of that type that other Naval Forces disposed. The number of available cruisers, destroyers and escort ships in general, in the various theaters of war was not sufficient. The naval Air force was excellent but insufficient. The air boats used for long distance reconnaissance were quite suitable for that task, but only when there was no enemy resistance in the air. On the other hand, the British disposed aircraft carriers and some technical innovations that proved extremely valuable, that the enemy didn’t dispose.

When Italy declared war, the British Fleet of the Mediterranean in Alexandria disposed a force of 4 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 9 cruisers, about 20 destroyers and 12 submarines and for 2 weeks, till the French capitulation, had the support of the French Fleet of the Mediterranean.

The British force was important, but with the evolution of the operations and because of losses there were periods that the British Fleet was reduced to a few cruisers and destroyers. In parallel, there was a naval force of variable size available in Gibraltar that had a double mission: contribute to the protection of the transport routes in the North Atlantic and secure convoy escorts in Western Mediterranean. The Gibraltar force was not reporting to the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, but was directly reporting to the Admiralty. At the end of June 1940 the force consisted of 1 heavy cruiser, 2 battleships, 2 cruisers and 12 destroyers.

The Fleet of Alexandria reinforced by the Gibraltar force disposed a smashing supremacy in weaponry against the Italian. However, the distance separating these two parts of the British Fleet was so big, that there were very slim chances to succeed united to face the Italian Fleet.

A serious problem for the British Fleet of the Mediterranean was also created when it had to abandon the important base of Malta, which besides its advantageous strategic position disposed extended ship repair installations that Alexandria was missing.

The organization system of the British Fleet of the Mediterranean was much more advantageous than the Italian Navy’s, because the Commander in Chief was commanding all the surface naval forces, the submarines, the naval Air force and the shore naval installations of the area and disposed vast initiative for action.


As far as the Italian Navy is concerned, it is true that it had accomplished significant progress in the period between the wars, having applied a program of intensive naval constructions. With the completion of this program, Italy would have disposed a really mighty Fleet and – most importantly- of mainly modern construction. That Fleet would include as large units 8 battleships – 4 of them of recent making, the remainder old but modernized – and more than 30 cruisers – out of which 7 of 10,000 tons – and numerous smaller surface units and submarines.

The political leadership had however determined that this program had to be completed by 1942, as there was no forecast for entering war earlier. Thus, when Italy entered the war two years earlier, of the larger ships there were only 2 old (overhauled) battleships and 10 cruisers ready for action. Two months later 2 more old (overhauled) battleships were added and 2 of the large at the end of 1940, while the construction of the third was completed after two years and the 4th was never finished. From the 12 small 3,400 tons cruisers that were being built, only 3 were commissioned during the war. The construction of a significant number of smaller units was also not completed.

At the beginning of the war the total displacement of the Italian war ships, including the 4 battleships, reached 689,000 tons, of which 500,000 tons were combative ships. In addition to the battleships and cruisers mentioned, the Fleet included about 60 destroyers, a similar number of smaller escort ships of various types – many of them old – and about 120 submarines. During the war, 320 more units were added of a total displacement of 136,000 tons: they included 1 battleship, 3 cruisers, 5 destroyers, 44 escort destroyers and corvettes, 41 submarines and the remaining were smaller crafts and auxiliaries. Taking into account the fact that the shipyards were continuously busy repairing all the ships that were being damaged, these new constructions represent an important effort of the Italian war industry, of which the capabilities were limited.

It is of course evident that because of the important losses, the above figures do not give the comparative power of the two opponents at each phase of the war. It must also be noted that the British that disposed a much larger industry were more at ease in replacing losses and in case of need could transfer ships to the Mediterranean from other theaters of war.

The radars that could detect surface ships and aircrafts and the antisubmarine ‘asdic’ devices, undoubtedly proved extremely useful innovations for the naval war, which the Italian ships missed. Many of the losses of the Italian Fleet were due to surprise that the ships might have avoided if they disposed radars. In any case the Italians were totally unprepared for night battle, while the British training proved excellent.

As it was often mentioned in the present study, the absence of naval Air force and air support proved one of the most serious shortcomings of the Italian Navy. In several cases, the movements of the Italian Fleet were purposeless or wrong, because of incorrect intelligence of the air reconnaissance or even of its complete absence. Eventually, the actions of their combat Fleet would have been bolder if they disposed air coverage. Of course, during the periods that German Air force was present in the Mediterranean, their contribution to the war effort was extremely important, especially because of the extensive destructions they inflicted on the enemy. However, because of the absence of sea war experience of the German airmen, their cooperation with the Italian Navy was not that efficient. As already mentioned, also the British disposed insufficient air forces – in some periods their number was critically small- but their efficiency was excellent. The leadership of the Italian Navy had in time reported this important shortcoming, but the Italian dictator was not persuaded, until it was very late.

Italy, a country without raw materials, depending on the sea for its supply and situated inside a closed sea with its gates in enemy hands, before entering the war should have created very large inventories of supplies necessary for the continuation of the war effort. The Navy had assembled all the supplies that were necessary for the operation of the naval bases in sufficient quantities that lasted for the whole war period. It didn’t succeed however to secure the storage of petroleum products that would last for a war of long duration. The existing stocks could barely last for a tear long war.

Whenever the naval leadership would raise the subject, Mussolini would answer that he would enter a war that wouldn’t last more than 3 months. After the declaration of war the Italians would depend on Germany for their fuel supplies. Germany not being sufficient herself in petroleum products, was giving low priority to the needs of the Italian Navy. As a result, as the war was progressing, the shortage of fuel was imposing restrictions to the movements of the large ships. Some of these ships, during a certain period, were immobilized for that reason.

In spite of these shortages, Italy disposed of a powerful naval force, at least since the new constructions were added to her combat Fleet. The officers’ Corps was well educated and had a good naval experience and its large majority had a combative spirit, especially in the lower echelons, as it was proved in many light ships and small naval units missions.

Because of the strategy that the Italians applied, the two main Fleets were not confronted in real battles in party in this war. The battle of Tainaron was in reality an accidental night encounter. From the evolution of all the operations that took place, one can deduct that as a whole there were shortcomings in the training of the Italian Fleet, the most serious being the absence of training for night battles, as we have already pointed out. Another one was the insufficient training of the submarines, as we also had the opportunity to realize.

The organization system of the Command of the Italian Navy was also disadvantageous. In contrast with the British Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean that disposed wide initiative, the Italian Chiefs disposed very limited and the command of the operations was in the hands of the Supermarina.

With the exception of some isolated cases, eventually presented with some exaggeration, the blame that was mainly addressed to the Italian Navy was that it applied a clearly defensive strategy. This lack of aggressiveness was also observed during the Greek-Italian war, when the convoys that daily crossed the Greek waters never met an enemy surface ship, even though at least some of them presented very interesting targets for the enemy.

The non-aggressive strategy that was followed does not necessarily mean a lack of combativeness of the personnel. The responsibility for the strategy that was followed mainly lies with the political leadership and the top of the naval hierarchy and much less with the subordinate groups that however cannot be released from all responsibility in all cases.

The Supreme Italian Command imagined that by following a defensive policy she would secure the supremacy in Central Mediterranean and was protecting the battleships as precious jewels, for reasons that are not clear to me. Their opponent, facing a myriad of dangers, has repeatedly risked sending convoys to Malta through the Sicily Straits, escorted by light forces only. Although a matter having an extreme influence on the whole war, the Italian Fleet was never ordered to attack these convoys with all available forces. And this was happening while the British Prime Minister with his extremely driving character was characterizing as defensive the policy followed by the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean who was famous for his combative spirit!

Under the spirit of the general directions given by the Supreme Command, the Supermarina was issuing instructions and orders to the subordinate Chiefs on the ships. It seems that that they were issued in such a way that they would leave ambiguities concerning the real intentions of the Naval Command. In some cases even the ship movements that were ordered by the Supermarina were either wrong or pointless.

The Chiefs on the ships, on the other hand, were more than they should ready to comply with the letter and the spirit of these instructions and hesitant to take decisions that were not completely in line with these, even when they personally realized that should show greater combativeness. The great Admirals in History in similar cases overlooked such orders.

The British Admirals also made mistakes, as in all honesty Admiral Cunningham recognizes. That’s natural of course in a war of such duration. What is important however is that finally, after so many obstacles, the naval chiefs lead the British Navy to win the war.

On the other hand, the impression created that the inertia that in many cases characterized the Italian Navy was due to a lack of virtues of its personnel is not justified. It is mainly the naval and military leadership of Hitler’s entourage that tried to create this impression, in order to unload their own mistakes on the shoulders of their allied Navy. Admiral Weichold, naval attaché for two years, who knew of course the Navy better than any other German, wrote for the Italian Navy after the war: “The crews proved that the reserve showed by the leadership is not due to a lack of courage of the men. As proved by the crews of the destroyers and the means of attack, all officers and crews did their duty and honored their country.”

Admiral Cunningham is also expressing a favorable opinion on the Italian naval personnel, while he is very critical concerning the leadership of the Italian Navy. Besides, better than anyone else speak the numbers – no matter the final result – concerning the efforts of the Italian Navy.

The total losses of the Italian Navy till the armistice – inside and outside the Mediterranean – in combat and auxiliary naval units, without taking into account the ships that were partially sunk and then pulled up, reach 393 ships of a total displacement of about 314,000 tons. Out of these, 112 combat surface units were lost in the Mediterranean, of a total displacement of about 164,000 tons, i.e. 11 light cruisers, 37 destroyers, 39 escort ships and 25 torpedo boats, as well as 65 submarines (a further 25 were lost outside the Mediterranean) and 162 smaller and auxiliary units. Another 61 ships, including the battleship ROMA, were lost after the armistice from German attacks, while some 253 ships of all types that were found in ports that the Germans occupied were unable to sail and most of them were sunk by their crews.

The total losses of the Italian naval personnel during both periods reached 1,404 officers and 27,433 men and the number of injured reached 8,000 men. The number of men killed represents 15% of the average personnel that served the Navy and in total reached 190,000 men. The percentage of men lost that were serving on ships that sunk reached 30% for the crews, 50% for the officers and 75% for the commanders, while all the admirals that were onboard of these ships were lost. It would thus be unfair to say that these personnel “have not fought”.

The Germans lost about 50 ships in the Mediterranean of a total displacement of about 30,000 tons. Of these 38 were submarines.

The sacrifices of the British Navy and of its ally the Greek Navy were even greater.

In comparison to the 112 Italian combat surface ships of total displacement of about 164,000 tons lost before the Italian armistice, the British lost in the Mediterranean 137 ships, of a total displacement of about 281,000 tons. They included 1 battleship, 2 aircraft carriers, 16 light cruisers, 48 destroyers, 32 escort ships and38 torpedo boats. Thus, the total displacement of the lost British ships exceeds by 72% the one of the Italian. This is natural because the British risked much more their large ships and they were sailing more often. On the other hand, the losses of British submarines were significantly less, as the British lost 41 in the Mediterranean, compared to 65 of the Italians.

The losses of the American Navy in the Mediterranean were small. They lost 1 destroyer, 1 mine sweeper, 2 antisubmarine, 2 patrol boats, 5 tank carriers and a number of landing crafts.

There is no clear information concerning the percentage of the British losses due to actions of the Italians or the Germans. The most important part of the losses due to air attacks is however attributed to the German Air force. German submarines have sunk the 3 large ships that were lost. From the 238 British ships sunk in the Mediterranean, in which number are included smaller and auxiliary units, 56% was lost from naval weapon actions, 26% from air attacks and 18% from other or unknown reasons.

As we have already mentioned, the heavy losses of the Greek navy – 5 destroyers, 10 torpedo boats, 4 submarines, i.e. 65% of the light forces available at the beginning of the war – is mainly due to attacks of the German Air force. Only 3 submarines were sunk by naval action, while they were attacking convoys, one by the Italians and 2 by the Germans.

The final conclusion is that all the Navies – of both sides- that acted in the Mediterranean did well their duty. The British and the Greek rendered the maximum one could expect from them. The action of the Italian Navy was not in line with what one could expect from a powerful naval force. However, it tried to execute as best as possible the orders that were given and doing so suffered heavy losses. Many examples of self-sacrifice prove that they were not in short supply of men that were distinguished for their courage.”



· Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Cunningham: “A Sailor’s Odyssey”
· Commander (R) Marc’ Antonio Bragadin : “The Italian Navy in World War II”
· Contre Amiral R. de Belot: “La guerre aéronavale en Méditerranée
· Fleet Admiral Ernest King : “U.S. Navy at War 1941-45”
· Vice Admiral D. Fokas : “Report on the activity of the R.H.Navy during the war 1940-44”