“In July 1940, British torpedo planes attacked and annihilated an Italian destroyer squadron at Tobruk, Libya. Three destroyers were sunk and the fourth heavily damaged was towed to Taranto, Italy.
From the middle of July the Italians started continuous supply transports from Italy to Libya. Around 149,000 tons of supplies were transported between July 10 and September 30, 1940, without any loss. Towards the end of July in a single mission a very important convoy was sent comprising 11 large ships full of troops and ammunition. 11 cruisers, 23 destroyers and 14 escorts protected it. It reached its destination without being disturbed by the British.
At the beginning of August 2 new large battleships the LITTORIO and the VITTORIO VENETO joined the forces of the Italian fleet. They were maybe the best in the world in this period. In addition, in that same month the battleship Caio DUILIO completed her modernization. Thus, by the end of August 1940, the Italian Fleet disposed a very remarkable main force of 5 battleships.
The British Fleet of Alexandria was also significantly reinforced during the same period. The battleship HMS VALIANT, the aircraft carrier HMS ILLUSTRIOUS carrying the much awaited by the Navy Fulmar fighters and 2 antiaircraft cruisers, the HMS CALCUTTA and the HMS COVENTRY, were added the Alexandria force. The last two were valuable types of ships for convoy escorts, as we also had the opportunity to realize during their cooperation with Greek convoy escorts. Thanks to those reinforcements, the Alexandria Fleet had for the first time available 2 large ships equipped with radar that could detect attacking aircrafts from a distance of 40 to 50 miles. The advantage of this new for that period technical innovation was soon made apparent.
However, the safe crossing of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Alexandria was no simple matter for the British, as their ships were facing innumerous dangers. This was also the case when the reinforcements had to cross the Mediterranean. The method usually applied was used again. The naval force of Gibraltar escorted the reinforcements up to the Sicily Straits, which they crossed at night, and next day they were joined with the Alexandria Fleet between Pantelaria and Malta. At that end the entire Fleet of Alexandria had sailed on August 30, escorting with this opportunity to Malta the first 4 ships convoy. This convoy was fiercely bombarded south of Crete and one of the ships had suffered serious damage.
As soon as the Italians were informed of these British forces movements, the Italian Fleet with 5 battleships, 10 cruisers and 34 destroyers sailed to meet the Alexandria Fleet. They left the submarines and airplanes attack the Gibraltar force. However, the sortie of this large naval force was with no results.
The British reconnaissance on the other hand reported the presence of the Italian force at about 90 miles from the British Fleet. Because this report was received at dusk and it was too late for the torpedo planes to attack at such distance and there were very thin chances to drag the Italians in a night battle, Admiral Cunningham decided to remain close to the convoy during the night and to wait the morning reconnaissance to decide his next actions. But next morning there was no trace of the enemy.
On the night of August 31, 1940, the Italian Fleet was ordered to reverse course and take up his southern course the following morning. The explanation given for this order was that the British formation was heading south and there was therefore no chance of encounter before nightfall; if during the night the British were again changing course and sailing west they could always catch them up the next day in the Central Mediterranean.
From the narration of Admiral Cunningham however, we can’t deduct that the convoy he was covering had changed course. It seems evident that the Italians wanted to avoid a night battle, for which they were ill prepared.
But the encounter was not to happen the next day. During the night there was a storm, the Italian destroyers suffered and the air reconnaissance was interrupted. Thus, for the whole day of September 1, the Italians had not any information on the movements of the British ships and in addition the destroyers had soon to return to their bases for refueling and as a result in the evening of that same day the Supermarina ordered the Fleet to return to their bases.
The British Fleet went on with his mission according to plan. The convoy reached Malta and the reinforcements of the Alexandria force reached their destination without being disturbed by the enemy. On the way back, a part of the Fleet with 2 aircraft carriers bombarded intensely the airports of the Dodecanese.
The Italians who had a great superiority of forces recognize that they have lost a great opportunity, especially if the encounter had taken place before the reinforcements joined the Alexandria Fleet.
In addition to the arrival of a second aircraft carrier in Alexandria, British Air force reinforcements had also arrived in the Mediterranean during August 1940. Their presence allowed the execution of intensive bombardments of the Italian ports of North Africa. Several ships were sunk and among them 2 Italian destroyers were sunk in Benghazi and 2 escorts were seriously damaged.
During these first months several British submarines patrolling outside Italian ports were lost. Admiral Cunningham attributes this to the unsuitability of the old submarines that he disposed. The tonnage at surface of these submarines was 1,475 tons, too much for the clear waters of the Mediterranean because they were easily spotted from the air even in relative high depths.
On the occasion of the arrival of the reinforcements of the Fleet of Alexandria, Winston Churchill, the British Minister of National Defense sent a message to the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet asking him to show a more belligerent spirit against the Italian Fleet. In his reply Admiral Cunningham was stating that in order to successfully execute operations in Central Mediterranean he needed full and continuous air reconnaissance, which he lacked, and that the operations of the Fleet was seriously limited by the insufficient number of destroyers he disposed and out of which one third was constantly out of service. In addition, an important number of these destroyers were busy escorting the numerous local convoys in Eastern Mediterranean, for which smaller and slower destroyers could have been suitable if they existed. [The old Greek destroyers offered precious services in that end, after their arrival in the Middle East.]
Besides, for the re-supply of Malta about two convoy operations were needed each month. Escorting such convoys was a major operation mobilizing the whole Fleet. During these operations some good opportunities could arise to encounter the Italian Fleet, whenever he would chose to attack the convoys, under the condition that the entire main force of the Alexandria Fleet covered these escorts. However this was not possible because there were not enough destroyers available to simultaneously screen all the heavy ships. It was also required that the utilization of the big ships be made with caution, because in case of damages the repair facilities in Alexandria were very limited and the naval base of Malta could not be used for these ships because of enemy air attacks. In relation to all this the Admiral expresses his discomfort because those serving at the Center did not realize the difficulties he had to face. But this is often the case.
Some time later, what the British C.I.C. had said was confirmed in the facts. The British lost a good opportunity to encounter the Italian Fleet, because the lack of destroyers did not allow covering the convoys to Malta with the entire battle Fleet of Alexandria. At the end of September 1940, 2 thousand troops were sent on 2 cruisers from Alexandria to Malta escorted by 2 battleships and 1 aircraft carrier. The Italians detected this British force when she was sailing outside Sidi Baranni and the Italian Fleet with 4 battleships, of which 2 of the Littorio type, left port immediately. The British reconnaissance spotted the Italian Fleet at a distance of 120 miles north. Taking into account the important disproportion of forces, Admiral Cunningham decided to avoid confrontation and continued on his course to execute his principal objective, the safe transportation of the troops to Malta. Indeed, he reached Malta without being annoyed by the enemy. Once more, the Italian reconnaissance failed to detect the British force in time. The British were finally detected two days later when they were returning to Alexandria. In the mean time, because of lack of information on the movements of the enemy, the Italian ships had returned to their base. It was one more lost opportunity for the Italians. No information on the movements of the Italian ships is given; responsibility is simply pinned to the Air force. It is not easy to evaluate these inactive sorties of the Italian fleet, because of lack of sufficient information. The question can nevertheless be raised if the Italians had shown a greater insistence, in some cases at least, if they wouldn’t have succeeded to encounter the enemy, as it was happening before the times of air reconnaissance.
At about that time, the Italian Air force was equipped with torpedo planes carrying torpedoes supplied by the Navy. The Italian Navy on the other hand, following the intensification of the enemy air force, tried to improve its antisubmarine organization.
During the period from the outbreak of the war till the end of October 1940, 7 British and 1 French submarines were lost in the Mediterranean, against 13 Italian lost in the Mediterranean and 4 in the Red Sea.
From the end of August 1940, Italy started preparing the attack against Greece and the Italian navy was ordered to transport to Albania an expeditionary Corps. Between September 10 and 20, 40.000 troops, 7.700 animals, 700 vehicles and 35.000 tons of supplies were transported without suffering any loss.”