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Marina Militare - Early Developments

The official date of the birth of the Italian Navy is 17 March 1861, when the Sardinian, Neapolitan, and Tuscan navies, and a few remaining ships from the Pontiff's Navy joined together. The new Kingdom of Italy wished to create a Navy appropriate for the larger international role the government wanted to fulfill. This was immediately evident when Camillo Benso diCavour, the first Prime Minister, stated that "it is the duty of a state located in the middle of the Mediterranean to create [the basis for] the widest development of its naval resources, taking advantage of the elements of force of its own provinces".

But Italian naval policy was strongly conditioned by the prevaling land mentality of the politicians. The ships belonging to the Kingdom were extremely diverse, crews had different cultures, and a common doctrine was absent. From the doctrinal point of view, an autonomous Italian idea was slow to emerge. Even the recent events of the American Civil War were not well known, and the technological innovations adopted in those circumstances received minimal attention. On the other hand the tactics of the French Admiral Luis Bouet-Willaumez and the Russian Grigorij Boutakov were closely followed, and the government decided in 1863 to shift from sail to steam and ironclads.

The tactical principles of French doctrine were applied, at least theoretically, in the famous and instructive Battle of Lissa (1866). These tactical principles included principles of war -- rules for combat -- and movements of war -- maneuvers to be executed by the main body and the flanks of the steam-propelled fleet to gain advantageous positions for combat. The general strategy for employment of the fleet at sea was to form up with the French, Spanish, or British against a common foe. Yet in their first battle, Italy fought alone.

In 1866, the Italian fleet, under Admiral Count Carlo Pellione di Persano, met Austrian Rear Admiral Wilhelm vonTegetthoff off the island of Lissa (now Vis) in the Adriatic in the first battle between armored fleets. Persano's objective was to cover an abortive landing operation. Upon sight of the Austrian fleet, the Italians sortied their ironclads from the landing area to engage the enemy. Tegetthoff committed both his ironclads and wooden ships and scored a resounding defeat of the Italians, preventing the seizure of the island and driving off the Italian fleet.

Persano's fleet had twice the combat potential of the Austrians. Persano, however, had conducted no practice drills normet with his captains to discuss how to best employ an ironclad fleet in conformance with the new doctrine. Instead, he assumed that the standing instructions and the new tactical doctrine were all that were needed and would be followed. The result was a disastrous melee. The embryonic Italian Navy had not yet had the time to exercise its new doctrine or formulate a national officer corps. It certainly had not had the years of experience that Horatio Nelson had when he trusted his "band of brothers" to carry out his standing orders.

In what has been described as one of the most unfortunate ideas that an admiral could have ever conceived, Persano changed his flagship while his battle line was still forming, and did not inform anyone. Nor did his subordinates see it due to a squall. Unfortunately Tegetthoff saw the resulting slowing of ships to accomplish the transfer, and the resulting break in the battle line. He aggressively maneuvered his force to take advantage. After the presumed flagship was sunk, a subordinate signalled for chase and freedom of maneuver, but that signal was cancelled by Persano who, in doing so, made his presence known aboard another ship.

The lessons of the Battle of Lissa weighed heavily on the embryonic Italian Navy for many years to come. Although most analysts have demonstrated how this battle mistakenly influenced warship construction for the next 30 years (a resurrection of the ram), it was also to have a dramatic impact on understanding the importance of doctrine. Persano formed his fleet to maximize the performance of their guns, rather than the ram, but then spoiled the plan by his decision to shift flags. The Italians failed to take advantage of their superiority in combat potential or their formation's superiority over that of the Austrians (who were formed to maximize ramming).

The defeat must be imputed primarily to the lack of understanding between Admiral Persano and his commanders and the modest qualities of the Admiral himself. Persano did not take advantage of the greater flexibility of his line formation against Admiral Tegetthoff's wedge. Furthermore, after loosing two ships, he did not counter-attack despite the fact that he still outnumbered the Austrians. Austria used older and less well-armed ships, but the strong personality of Admiral Tegetthoff gave trust to crews and commanders, leading them to success.

The negative results of the Battle of Lissa had serious political and moral repercussions for the Navy. The Battle, however, increased the public's and politicians' awareness of conditions in the Navy. Political leaders began to understand the importance of sea control and its relationship with land operations. They began to realize that the transport of troops and coastline defense were not the only roles that navies played in directly and strategically influencing land operations.

The total renovation of the fleet was conceived andcommitted with a ten-year plan. In 1869 and in 1871 the Minister of the Navy, Rear Admiral Augusto Riboty, presented an Organic Plan for the Navy to the Parliament. In 1870, planning started for new battleships as well. These included the first warships with revolving towers and 450 mm caliber naval artillery, and were considered by many, especially the French, the most powerful ships of the time.

Italian Navy units stationed in the Red Sea from 1879 on, sometimes for very extended periods, carried out naval diplomacy missions in support of Italian colonies. The ships also carried out operations in direct and indirect support of the Army using arms and providing logistic sustainment, especially during the occupation of Eritrea (1882-1890).

In 1881 the Navy was debated again. The debate, involving both officers and Parliament, was about building battle cruisers instead of battleships. Numerous boards on the subject expressed different views. The new technologies had introduced innovations which gave rise to many questions on the right way forward. Old prejudices slowed down the renewals. Despite the positive results obtained with the new warships, many people believed that the Navy was too ambitious, and preferred to look for a fleet of smaller units.

The supporters of large ships used examples from the British and American navies' experiences as ammunition against the idea that large ships were too slow or awkward in modern combat. Big ship supporters also had to contest the idea that the combat potential of a small number of large ships could be equally obtained by adding together the tonnage of a large number of small ships. Such an approach only provided equivalent tonnage and has no bearing on combat potential. This discussion was useful to define criteria for shipbuilding and start considering the political-military objectives given financial possibilities.

Under Minister of the Navy Ferdinand Acton (1880-1883), Italian naval shipbuilding programs and doctrine were strongly influenced by the French jeune ecole. Italian ship procurement shifted to fast, lightly armored ships. The Navy supported coastal fortifications and mine fields in conjunction with small well-armed naval units in defense of^ the coast. A few large battleships were maintained in addition. These battleships were not intended to contest command of the western Mediterranean but rather to act as a mobile fleet-in-being. If actually used in combat, they would primarily act as coastal defenders, breakingup enemy ships attempting a landing or engaging in shore bombardment.






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