“British submarines had no significant successes in the first year of the war. During the second half of 1941 however, their action became very noticeable. They were appearing in all the areas, the various Straits and the Libya re-supply routes.
The Italian Navy tried to react against that threat by building additional anti-submarine ships and improving anti-submarine means. The Italian ships didn’t dispose submarine detection equipment, although some experimental prototypes did exist and the Germans disposed some similar. Because their mass production by the Italian Industry would take long, it was entrusted to the German and from the summer of 1941 and onwards the Italians started to install such equipment, initially onboard the escort destroyers and later on other ships. However, in spite of the lack of such equipment, the Italian ships sunk up to the end of 1941, 16 submarines (of which 1 Greek and 1 French). 4 more British submarines sunk, after hitting mines.
The Italians were also not satisfied with the performance of their own submarines. After sinking the cruiser HMS BONAVENTURE in March 1941, in the following 12 months they hadn’t succeeded any other war ship and their successes against cargo ships were very minor. To justify this unsuccessful operation of their submarines – quite disproportionate with their total number- the Italians advance various arguments. The most serious of them is their easy detection with the means that the British ships disposed, the asdic for the submarines in submersion and the radar for the ships at surface. In relation to this point of view, it can be noted that during the war in Greece although the R.H.N. ships didn’t dispose of any of the above mentioned means, the Greek convoys hadn’t suffered any loss from submarine attacks.
It is also mentioned that convoy movement in East Mediterranean was limited and that in cases of important convoys the British were taking such measures of protection, that the execution of an attack against them was extremely difficult. This might have been the case with convoys re-supplying Malta and with important troops transport convoys, but wasn’t the case for smaller convoys that continuously crossed the Aegean and other areas of East Mediterranean. Another explanation given is that part only of the submarines was used for purely attack missions, because many were busy in reconnaissance missions and some in re-supplies.
Out of 70 Italian submarines in service in the Mediterranean in the beginning of the war, 19 were lost before the end of June 1941. However, after the summer of 1941 submarine building was accelerated and until the Italian capitulation 41 new submarines had taken up service. In addition, in the fall of 1941, 10 submarines were recalled, from those operating in the Atlantic. Italy disposed about 30 submarines suitable for action in the ocean that had been sent to that area since the beginning of the war. These submarines had not suffered any loss when passing submerged the Gibraltar Straits. After the fall of France, they were using as base the one that the Italian Navy had set-up in Bordeaux.
Following the poor results of the operation of their submarines, the Italians accepted a German proposal to send 20 German submarines that started arriving at the end of September 1941. 5 of those were lost while crossing the Gibraltar Straits, but the remaining had some brilliant successes. As we will later see, among other ships they sunk 2 aircraft carriers and 1 battleship.
The Italians attribute the success of the German submarines to the perfection of their equipment. We must however also remind the human element, the value of which was proved during the battle of the Atlantic.
Finally, during that period the Italian Navy succeeded to produce torpedoes with magnetic ignition”