“Following the neutralization in Taranto of half the Italian battle Fleet [see: “The aeronautic operation of Taranto” ], the British decided an important convoy from England to cross the Mediterranean to transport supplies to Malta and Alexandria. As usual, the convoy was to be escorted up to the Sicily Straits by force “H” of Gibraltar and off Malta be turned over to the Alexandria Fleet. On this occasion, the latter would execute some additional operations in Eastern Mediterranean and among these would escort a convoy to Malta. Because the Gibraltar force included only 1 battleship, that convoy was to rendezvous South-West of Sardinia with a squadron of ships from Alexandria that included 1 battleship, 3 cruisers and 5 destroyers. Thus, increased protection was being offered in the most dangerous part of the route to Malta.
The convoy that sailed through Gibraltar was formed of only 3 cargo ships with close escort of 2 cruisers and 5 destroyers, while force “H” that offered coverage included 1 battleship, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers and 9 destroyers.
On the morning of November 25, 1940, the Italians were informed that the Gibraltar force was sailing east, but weren’t aware of the presence of the convoy from England. The following day they were informed that the Alexandria Fleet was detected west of Crete sailing west. With the perspective that an important enemy operation was under way, the order was given to the Italian Fleet that included the battleships VITTORIO VENETO and CESARE, 6 heavy cruisers and 14 destroyers to take up a position in the morning of November 27 South-West of Sardinia.
RN GUILIO CESARE
For the Italians it was a unique opportunity to attack with much more powerful forces one of the two British formations, the force “H” or the reinforcement force that was detached from Alexandria, before these two forces joined. Evidently, the success of this operation depended from getting exact intelligence from air reconnaissance. However, for one more time the Navy, was not served well.
On 10:40 hours of November 27, reconnaissance reported the presence of the “H” force off Cape Bon of Tunisia with a feebler formation than reality, as the presence of the aircraft carrier wasn’t reported and Admiral Campioni, the Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet, rushed to meet her. In the meantime however, the two British formations had joined forces since 11:30 hours and subsequent reconnaissance intelligence concerning the formation of the enemy force was vague. The impression was thus given that the force included 3 battleships and 1 aircraft carrier. The Italians concluded that the British forces were superior and following the Taranto destruction the C.I.C. of the Fleet had orders to avoid a fight in case he did not dispose decisive superiority of forces. As a result, towards noon, he took an evasion course towards his base.
On 12:15 hours, an Italian cruiser squadron south of the main force of the Fleet came into contact with the British cruisers. A fight followed that lasted about an hour during which the battleships of both sides got also engaged. Finally the Italian ships withdrew under the protection of a smoke screen, without having succeeded anything worthwhile. A British cruiser was hit twice and an Italian destroyer was seriously damaged, but the Italians succeeded to tow her. A torpedo plane attack from the British aircraft carrier brought no results. The bombers that the Italian Admiral had requested executed their attack at 14:07 hours; they were unsuccessful. So was their second attack that followed.
RN VITORIO VENETO
In that case also, the comparison of forces was in favour of the Italians. The opponents disposed of 2 battleships each, but the presence of VITTORIO VENETO gave advantage to the Italians. Burt even if the Italian Admiral was under the impression that the British disposed of 3 battleships, again, the Italians in counterweight had a significant advantage in heavy cruisers. Besides, since the moment the two Fleets came into contact, it wasn’t difficult to check their formation. The Italian C.I.C. of the Fleet was again carried away from his assiduity to the formal application of the Supreme Command orders and hurried to withdraw. He could have waited at least for the intervention of the bombers that he had requested, irrespective of the fact that when they came they didn’t bring any positive result.
In any case, the inefficiency of the Italian air cooperation was proved once more. While the Fleet was operating close to the Sardinia airfields, the Air force fighters didn’t protect it from the enemy torpedo plane attacks and the bombers that he requested came too late. The C.I.C. of the naval force had to report to the Supermarina that would then transmit the request to the Supreme Air Command. The latter would evaluate the situation, draw an operations plan and then issue orders to the air commanders of the various areas, who would finally order the air units. These conclusions of war experience give the best argument for the absolute necessity of existence of a separate naval aviation.
The British Admiralty was also dissatisfied with the actions of Admiral James Fownes Somerville, the C.I.C. of the Gibraltar force, because he didn’t pursue the chase of the Italian Fleet. According to the Admiral’s judgment, his main objective was the safe arrival to destination of the convoy he was covering and that he had no right to jeopardize. It’s a dilemma often faced by those who command convoys. If they decide to abandon them in order to attack an enemy force that appears – and especially a more powerful one, as in the present case- and their action is successful, they deserve any honor. If however their action ends up to the destruction of the convoy, they responsibility is heavily engaged. The Admiralty in the present case went as far as to refer the Admiral to an Inquest Committee that finally cleared him. Admiral Cunningham furious for the treatment reserved to Admiral Somerville, wrote in relation to this event that it is not tolerable a general officer that does the best under very difficult conditions to be continuously under the threat of his referal to an Inquest Committee- that was waiting for him when he returned to his base- because his actions do not coincide with the judgment of those in the Center that have very little knowledge of the real events.
Admiral Arturo Ricardi
Admiral Angelo Iachino
While the adverse development of land operations in Albania and Libya cause the resignation of Marshal Badoglio, important changes in the structure and command of the Italian Navy take place in December 1940. The two pre-existing surface ship Fleets where united to a single force under Admiral Angelo Iachino, ex-commander of the 2nd Fleet. Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, Chief of the General Staff of the Navy, was replaced by Admiral Arturo Ricardi and his deputy Admiral Inigo Campioni.
The Italian Fleet at that time included 3 large battleships –the VITTORIO VENETO, GIULIO CESARE and DORIA – , 7 heavy and 8 light cruisers, in addition to the ships undergoing repairs.
When the British launched their attack in North Africa, the supply needs of Libya significantly increased for the Italians. In the period from October 1940 to January 1941, about 198.000 tons were transported. During October and November no loss was recorded, while in December and January losses reached 7% only. When the British encircled the Italian garrisons of Bardia and Tobruk, in Libya, they were re-supplied by submarines. The old cruiser ST. GIORGIO – of the Italian-Turk war period of 1911 – was effectively used as floating gun battery for the defense of Tobruk.
In December 1940, the British air attacks against the harbors and the naval bases of South Italy became more intensive. As a result, the choice of naval bases for the Italian Fleet was not dictated any more by strategic needs, air safety of the ships became the main criterion. After an attack against Naples -where the main naval force was concentrated- during which the cruiser POLA was hit, the ships changed their Naples base for Maddalena and Cagliari in Sardinia. However, because operations in Central Mediterranean were thus made more difficult, they were ordered back to Naples. During a fierce attack against Naples on the night of January 8, 1941, the battleship GUILIO CESARE was hit. She was sent for repairs to La Spezia, where she was joined by the VITTORIO VENETO that was thus taken further away from the operations area.
Among other operations undertaken by the British Fleet during that month, on the night of January 19, while cruisers and destroyers were patrolling in the Adriatic Sea without making any contact with enemy ships, 2 battleships bombed with 100 15″ shells the harbor of Avlona in Albania. It was an intimidating operation because indirect night fire without observation could not give worthwhile results. The Italians were taken by surprise and didn’t react.
In the meantime, with the British advance in North Africa, the control by the British Fleet of the Central Mediterranean was significantly facilitated and the re-supply of the Italian armies became more difficult.
Generally speaking, at the end of 1940 the situation in the Mediterranean appeared much more favorable for the British, than 6 months earlier. The German Air force, however, hadn’t yet appeared in the area…”