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Marina Militare - The Inter-War Period

At the end of World War I Italy, like many other nations, had to face a very difficult financial condition. The difference between the pre-war doctrine and the on-the-field results were debated and the opinions initially fell into two main camps. The first was that the lessons of the jeune ecole had been validated by the war. Large capital ships had proven vulnerable to small vessels. Admiral Bernotti accepted that Italy should take advantage of new technologies afforded by the jeune ecole and that fleet doctrine should be based upon a division of labor. Bernotti wrote that war "had several forms: guerrilla, military and commercial blockade, troop transport, coastalactions, combined operations with the Army." He also noted that during the past war, the main battle fleets had been almost inert, while escorts and submarines operated freely.

The other school asserted that the mere presence of the armored battle squadrons as a deterrent to other main fleet units had allowed the smaller vessels more freedom of action. German Admiral Reinhardt Scheer's statement that "the force of bigger armored ships was the handle of the dagger and the blade was the submarine force" was appreciated in Italy as well.

Several Italian military experts supported the so-called "underwater revolution" which emphasized the role of submarines,considering them to be a decisive weapon. These experts were countered by others who believed that the submarines' success in World War I was due to the lack of preparation of surface ships and their low speed. They also considered submarines unsuitable for night or defensive operations.

Eventually two main theories emerged on the type of surface naval units to be built. One supported the concept of a kernel of traditional warships armed with large caliber guns and with robust self-defenses. Despite self-defense capabilities, additional anti-air and anti-submarine protection would be provided by escort ships. The other theory highlighted the role of quick, light and heavily armed cruisers to be used primarily against non-first level navies. Their employment was, however, limited to offensive operations and required aircraft carriers for support.

In 1923, the Regia Aeronautica was established and all aircraft were put under the control of this new Service. The consequence was that, for many years, air doctrine in support of maritime operations suffered and the effectiveness of air assets in naval warfare was reduced, with grave consequences.

Italian naval thought between the two world wars developed doctrine based on a strategy which called for little more than interference with a superior fleet or convoys in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was especially suited to light and swift forces which would quickly sortie from bases and strike at a fleet offshore -- forces which Italy built. The fleet would naturally retain a role for coastal defense. Another logical role for the Italian Navy was the safeguarding of the sea lines of communication to North Africa.

Both Italy and Britain were interested in Spain because it was a gateway to the Mediterranean. When the war broke out in Spain, the Italians intervened decisively on behalf of the Nationalists. The Italian Navy acted quickly on Mussolini's agreement with Franco to stop merchant vessels carrying Soviet war material.

The Italians were much more forthright in their involvement in the Spanish Civil War than the Germans and ran much greater risks. One example will suffice: the Germans sent submarines U-33 and U-34 to the Mediterranean to interdict Republican shipping. The German submarine commanders had to positively identify targets prior to shooting, and the submarines left after just one patrol. The Italians waged an extensive and "secret" anti-Republican shipping campaign. The Italians did not modify their operations until their submarines fired clearly identifiable Italian torpedoes up on the beaches at Barcelona and Tarragona and a combined French and British naval force threatened to sink these "unknown" submarines as part of the Nyon Agreement.

An international naval conference was convened in Nyon, Switzerland on 10 September 1937. The Nyon Agreement was concluded among a number of great powers in an effort to protect shipping in the Mediterranean from attacks by unidentified submarines assumed to be operating for the opposing factions in the Spanish Civil War. Afterwards, the Italians were able to slow down the supplies the Russians were delivering to the Republic, sink a few vessels, and be declared a great power. Most importantly from a German perspective, the Italians were even now more firmly in the German sphere of influence.

The outcome of the Spanish Civil War depended as much as controlling sea lines of communication and maintaining local sea control as it did on fighting and winning battles on land. Italy's participation in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 created false illusions of Italian naval strength. Actually, success resulted from the enemy's weakness. Due to the preponderance of French naval power in the Mediterranean, Italian naval doctrine was defensive; consciously avoiding doctrine for distant operations or even guerre de course.

In general, the Italian Navy performed poorly during the war. Their submarine campaign resulted in very few successful attacks on merchant shipping. The Italian Navy was primarily employed for convoy escort. The successes that the Italians had at sea (in the face of no overt threat) led them to believe that their material, doctrine, and training were sound. Unfortunately for the Italians, the British were able to take their measure with devastating results for the Italians at the start of World War II.

The Italian navy was impressive for its pioneering naval research into radar and its prowess in torpedo technology the latter resulting in powerful aerial and magnetic torpedoes and contributing to the maiali, or small human-guided torpedoes the ultimate weapons in asymmetric naval warfare. It was with the maiali that Italian commandos sunk the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth in the harbor of Alexandria, which helped avenge the battleships temporarily sunk at Tarento by the British Swordfish torpedo bombers. Nevertheless, the Italian naval obsession with the traditional battleship doctrine of Mahan ensured its failure to exploit fully such innovations and capabilities early on in the war.

Italian Navy units that fought during the war were conditioned by inter-War-era doctrine. For example, cruisers were capable of very high speeds since speed, rather than armor, was believed to be the best weapon to use against numerically and technically superior navies. Following doctrinal debates on the vulnerability of surface ships and the theories of airpower, the Navy entered the war without its own aviation forces, aircraft carriers, and many of the latest technical improvements which might aid air defense. Night fighting equipment and radar were not introduced into the fleet until after their lack was felt in actual combat.






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