“At the end of January 1943, all the ports and airports of Algeria and Tripolitis were in the hands of the Allies. Malta had recovered its importance as naval and air base and in November 1942 already, a convoy was arriving at the island without being harassed by the enemy.
The British had recovered control of the Central Mediterranean and the big problem of Malta’s supply had lost its acuity.
After the Allied landing in North Africa, the main units of the Italian Fleet were moved to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the hope that, since the Allies ignored their obligatory immobilization for lack of fuel, their presence would oblige the Allies to take corresponding measures. Indeed, they were obliged to dispose almost continuously a force of battleships, airplane carriers and destroyers that patrolled between Gibraltar and Oran, to cover the supply lines of Algeria.
The battleships RN LITTORIO and RN VITORIO VENETO had moved from Taranto to Naples, where RN ROMA later joined them, while the light cruiser squadron was moved from Navarino to Messina.
The Allies however started to air bomb the south ports of Italy and especially Naples. During the bombing of that port, the light cruiser RN ATTENDOLO sunk, the cruisers RN MONTECUCCOLI and RN EUGENIO DI SAVOIA suffered light damages and 4 destroyers were struck.
As they couldn’t move, it was then decided to move these units more towards the north in order to avoid exposing them with no reason to serious dangers. In November 6 the battleships and cruisers were moved from
Naples to La Spezia and heavy cruiser squadron from Messina to Maddalena, in the north end of Sardinia. Only one squadron of light cruisers remained in Messina to face urgency, but this squadron too moved to Taranto in January, after receiving repeated air attacks.
With all these movements, the main force of the Italian Fleet withdrew so far away form the probable battle grounds, that it was practically incapacitated. In that period, the compulsory immobilization of the ships explained this withdrawal; however these ships did not return to the south bases later, even when there was a relative sufficiency of fuel.
Following the pullback of the Axis armies in Tunisia, their sea supply was done mainly through Bizerta. That transport line had the advantage that the distance Sicily to Bizerta was just above 100 miles and could be traveled in a night.
On the other hand however, that line was surrounded -at close range- by air and naval bases of the opponent, who then disposed overwhelming supremacy in weaponry. Thus, the supply operation was becoming extremely difficult and dangerous.
To protect that transport line, the Italians laid additional minefields. The existing extended from Cape Bone to a distance of about 30 miles from Sicily’s coast, near Trapani and was protected from surface ship forces attacking from Malta. To protect the transport line from west, a similar minefield was laid from Bizerta to a northeast direction, in a distance of about 80 miles.
Thus, the convoys would be passing through a corridor 50 miles wide that would be protected almost completely in both sides by minefields. Because that corridor would be used at night, they would largely avoid attack risks from air and sea forces. The British naval forces operating from Malta and Cape Bone, in order to confront the enemy convoys would be obliged to follow a circular and longer way, passing through the clear spaces that remained near Sicily -where big depths didn’t allow laying mines- and getting thus inside the range of action of Sicily’s airfields.
Even if this measure was very good, in practice it didn’t prove so efficient. The British were quick to take counter measures, laying mines with fast minelayers between the two Italian minefields. However, only a few open-sea minesweepers still remained, following their intensive use, and the Italians were informed of the existence of new enemy minefields from the ship losses that were quite significant.
The minefields laid by the two opponents were so dense that at a certain point in time at a distance of about 40 miles from Tunisia’s bases, the clear corridor that remained was only 1 mile wide. Evidently the nautical difficulties for a large convoy to pass through such narrow corridor were quite serious. Facing these problems, the Italians used an alternative route passing outside the eastern minefield and from the corridor left near Cape Bone. As soon as the Allies realized this, they sent to that corridor surface and air forces and thus that route became as risky as the previous.
In general, since the Italian convoys were obliged to follow determined routes because of the minefields, they were under continuous surveillance -day and night- of the enemy air force and in the entire voyage were subjected to fierce air attacks from large numbers of aircrafts. The Americans in particular were using dozens of bombers, even against the most insignificant targets. Because of the intensity of the air attacks, the Italians -sacrificing the advantage of the shortest distance- were forced to abandon the convoy departure points in Sicily and move them to Naples and other ports of the Italian peninsula.
In relation to the above mentioned operations, an interesting piece of information is given by Admiral Cunningham. When he asked the Commander of the American air forces of the Mediterranean to dispose bombers for the attacks against the Axis convoys, he considered his duty to let him know at the same time that the Army airmen would face many difficulties in these operations against ships, without the assistance of experienced navigators. The American General, underestimating the difficulties, didn’t take into account the suggestion. After a ten day operation however, during which the American bombers had not succeeded a single hit against the enemy marine, the General very honestly conceded that “I knew nothing about over the sea operations” and ask for the help of the British Navy. The British graciously then supplied him with about a dozen experienced observers of the naval air weapon and their presence made immediately a significant difference.
On the contrary, they reported 10 days later that the cruiser was seriously hit by 2 submarine torpedoes. The following day, as the British force was returning to her base, German torpedo planes sunk the destroyer HMS QUENTIN. Anyhow, the blow that the Italians suffered with the sinking of this important military convoy was very serious.
The same night another Italian convoy was detected by the enemy air force and the next evening was attacked by torpedo planes that hit one of the two merchant ships of the convoy. The escort destroyer RN LUPO remained by it to help, but was later attacked by 4 destroyers from Malta and sunk. The remaining convoy succeeded to escape.
On the other hand, British submarines operating against the enemy supply lines of Tunisia inside the minefields of Sicily Straits and off the Italian convoy embarkation ports were causing important damages. In November and December 1942, they sunk 14 merchant ships, 2 destroyers, 1 submarine and 2 small units and caused damages to another 10 merchant ships, 1 cruiser, 1 destroyer and 1 torpedo boat. In the 4 first months of 1943 they sunk 58 merchant ships, 1 submarine and 7 small units and damaged another 11 merchant ships and 1 destroyer. During the November and December 1942 operations, 3 British submarines were lost. 3 more were lost in March 1943.
As already mentioned, during this period the Axis operations against the naval forces of the Allies were limited to the action of the submarines and the air force that caused several damages. Among other, a submarine sunk a 24.000 tons troop transport ship carrying army units and a fast minelayer was damaged by a torpedo. The Axis submarines, on the other hand, suffered many losses, especially from the Allied Air force. With the passage of time, Allied convoys were being better organized and losses from submarines decreased, but the danger remained till the end.
The Allied convoys when sailing in the Western Mediterranean, especially between Oran and Algiers, were attacked by the enemy air force operating out of bases in South France; these attacks were significantly reduced when the allies disposed sufficient coverage with fighters.
The base of Cape Bone was also fiercely bombed by the Axis air force. During these bombings the cruiser HMS AJAX was seriously damaged and some merchant ships were sunk or damaged.
In general however, the allies transported to the ports of North Africa huge quantities of every kind of supplies and military equipment, with very few losses from Axis attacks. 8,029,929 tons were unloaded since the beginning of the landing in North Africa till 12 March 1943 with a loss ratio of only 2.4%. With the same ease Malta was getting supplied. In March 1943, 2 convoys from Alexandria transported 28,000 tons of supplies and 7,500 tons of fuel.
In January 1943, the Allies decided during the Casablanca conference –in which the President of the USA and the British Prime Minister participated- that after the final defeat of the enemy in North Africa, the following Allied operation in the Mediterranean would be the seizure of Sicily. The idea to first proceed to the more easy seizure of Sardinia was abandoned, because it was decided that seizing Sicily with the many air fields presented many advantages.
Under very different conditions the Italians were fighting to supply the Axis forces in Tunisia. Admiral Cunningham narrates: “I was always amazed how the Italian seamen continued using their ships, confronting such dangers. They were exposed to attacks from surface ships, submarines and air planes, during the entire voyage from Sicily and the fact that they were faced them is in their honor.”
After the destruction of the convoy of December 2, 1942, the transport of troops through the Sicily Straits was considered very risky and from then on the troops were practically always transported with destroyers, the number of which had drastically decreased because of the important losses. After January 1943, the available ships were on average 10 and given that about 300 men were boarding and that the total number transported was around 50,000, the mission executed by these ships was exhausting.
The escort of convoys during that period was undertaken that period by smaller destroyers, of which the available at any point of time were no more than 10. Thus, these ships were executing escort duties 27 to 28 days each month. Equally heavy was the mission of the remaining smaller naval units. In addition, most of the supply ships were in a bad shape and any kind of floating means were used to that end, motor boats, motorized sailing boats, fishing boats, etc.
Under these conditions it was natural the losses to be important and Tunisia’s supply insufficient. Most of the losses were mainly caused by the air force, while those caused by enemy surface ships weren’t relatively so big. During a night attack on April 15, 1943, against an Italian convoy, 2 small escort destroyers confronted 2 large fleet destroyers and one of the escorts sunk but the Italians succeeded to sink of the British ships.
In spite of all these difficulties, during the months of December, January and February, the transport towards Tunisia of about 188,000 tons of supplies with 23% losses on average and 42,000 men with average losses of 7.5%. After March however, after the air attacks of the Allies that were extremely fierce, losses almost doubled and reached around 43,000 tons and 29,000 in April. The transports continued and in the first days of May 3,700 were transported, but with 77% losses. During March and April around 12,000 were transported; 12% of those boarded were lost.
In total, from November 12, 1942, to May 13, 1943, 294,000 tons of supplies and 67,000 men reached Tunisia, with corresponding losses of 28% and 7 % respectively.
During the 6 months that the Italian Navy was supplying Tunisia, 243 war and merchant ships were lost and a further 242 damaged. Out of the 485 ships that either sunk or were damaged, 167 were units of the Italian Navy, of which 12 destroyers and 11 escort destroyers and the remaining small ships. These damages were caused 5% by surface ships, 8% by submarines, 7% by mines, 67% by the air force and 13% were lost for various reasons, or auto-sunk, or abandoned in seized ports. Two thirds of the losses were therefore due to the Air force of the Allies.
At the end of April, with the final attack from west and east of the Allies, the bridgehead of the axis in Tunisia had been reduced to the peninsula of Cape Bone. However, even on April 30, 1943, 3 destroyers with 900 of troops were sent; they all perished. The German Air force had disappeared and had left the expeditionary Corps uncovered; Rommel facing annihilation had been ordered by Hitler to surrender command to von Arnim.
On May 7, 1943, Bizerta and Tunis had been seized by the allies and on the 12th seized every resistance of the Axis troops. 250,000 men were taken prisoners and large quantities of supplies fell in Allied hands. Any thought of evacuating the troops from the narrow ring they were trapped was abandoned and very few succeeded to escape at night with small ships. Any opposite thought under the prevailing conditions would have corresponded to clear murder of men that had done their duty to the last moment.
The allies with the prospect of the possibility that enemy forces would attempt to escape by sea, had assembled from the entire Mediterranean light surface forces that were continuously patrolling -day and night- in the Straits of Sicily and near the land strips of Tunisia that still remained under Axis control. On May 8, 1943, Admiral Cunningham had ordered his ships “Sink, burn and destroy them. Do not leave anything to pass by.”
The evacuation should have been executed long ago, as soon as the situation appeared leading to nowhere. Those who could have succeeded to escape would have been precious for the defense of mainland Italy, during the operations of the Allies that followed.”