On February 6, 1941, force “H” sailed from Gibraltar with the battleships HMS RENOWN and HMS MALAYA, the aircraft carrier HMS ARK ROYAL, 1 cruiser and 10 destroyers. The morning of February 9, the aircrafts of the aircraft carrier bombed Livorno and threw magnetic mines at the entrance of the harbor of La Spezzia and the battleships bombed the port of Genoa, causing serious damages. Then the 2 teams merged and sailed north. During these attacks, the air force didn’t appear and the only reaction came from the coastal anti-aircraft batteries. The British lost just 1 aircraft.
HMS ARK ROYAL
The Italian Navy Supreme Command was informed in time of the British movements and had ordered a force of 3 battleships – the RN VITTORIO VENETO, RN DORIA and the RN GIULIO CESARE that had just been repaired-, 3 heavy cruisers and some destroyers to be at daybreak of February 9,1941, 40 miles west of the Straits of Bonifacio. The Italian Fleet disposed superior firepower and was thus placed in an excellent position to cut off the withdrawal of the enemy, as soon as it received information about his movements. In parallel, all the available Italian air forces and 80 German aircrafts from Sicily were ordered to attack the British naval force.
However, although a large number of Italian and German airplanes were searching, hours went by and no clear information was given on the enemy movements. In reality, reconnaissance had detected naval forces in 3 cases. First, at 10:45, a force was spotted 40 miles west of the northern Cape of Corsica heading south that was assumed to be the British aircraft carrier with her escorts. Second, at 11:05, Italian airplanes bombed a naval formation sailing northwest, 70 miles west of the same Cape of Corsica. It was later determined that in both cases it concerned a French convoy of 7 cargo ships!!! Finally, at 13:00, 35 miles south of Imperia, Italian airplanes bombed a group of ships that included the aircraft carrier. However, because these pilots were executing such a mission for the first time, they ignored the air-sea communication system and submitted their reports after returning to their bases, i.e. after more than 2 hours from the time of their observations.
An Italian reconnaissance plane had in fact detected the main British force at around 12:00, but it was downed before sending his report. The relative information was received at 17:50 only, when Italian destroyers saved the airplane pilots. Several other mistakes and delays were observed at the naval communications system.
The practical result of the above was that the Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet was deciding his movements on the basis of delayed and inexact information and thus the British force was not finally detected and returned unharmed to Gibraltar on February 11.
After this flop, Admiral Iachino in his report following this operation suggested for the future the use of light cruisers for search purposes. However, if this proposal were applied in the present case, the battleships would have been left without anti aircraft protection and would have been running into serious dangers. On the other hand, in other previous similar situations where more light forces were available, the execution of searches by the light cruisers was possible and imposed.
On the opposite side, the insufficient number of air forces of naval cooperation was also very noticeable during that same period. Since the aircraft carrier left the British Fleet of the Mediterranean, the number of operations in Central Mediterranean had been significantly reduced and the re supply of Malta had been made almost impossible. The R.A.F. was doing what was humanly possible but her aircrafts were not sufficient to cover all the missions. There were not enough fighters to protect the British convoys along the Libyan coast and the long distance reconnaissance planes were of a non-suitable type.
All this was reported by the Commander in Chief of the Fleet to the Admiralty who in addition noted that following the arrival of the German air force in the Mediterranean, the aircraft carrier should dispose more fighters at the expense of reconnaissance planes and bombers. In addition, because one aircraft carrier could not cover the whole area, the Fleet should dispose aircrafts based in strategic land locations – Malta, Crete, North Africa and Epirus- for reconnaissance, anti-submarine duties, convoy protection and attack missions. In his opinion, there was need for a coastal defense organization similar to the one of England, with aircrafts permanently operating under the control of the Commander in Chief of the Navy.”