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Marina Militare - World War II

Mussolini did not think the war would last long, and decided to enter it to reap the benefits of victory without fighting. Italy's aim in joining the war was to dominate the Mediterranean. Mussolini's idea of a sphere of domination included Nice in France, Corsica, Malta, Tunisia, the Sudan, Aden, and potentially part of the French central African colonies. From this, Italy wanted to have influence over Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Pre-war doctrinal development and training proved inadequate. There was no doctrine for joint actions with the Regia Aeronautica. Insufficient attention had been given to the management of maritime shipping and its protection, the doctrine for night fighting, and the role of aircraft in war at sea. The lack of aircraft carriers and inadequate cooperation by the Regia Aeronautica in maritime missions afflicted the Navy throughout the war.

Fascist government policy was ambitious and it overestimated the level of military preparedness. The Italian military was told by Mussolini in March 1940 to plan for an air-naval offensive in the Mediterranean; a ground offensive in Yugoslavia, while the Army maintained a defensive posture in Albania, Libya, and theAegean; and a wait and see attitude on the French border.

In April 1940, the Chief of Staff of the Navy, Admiral DomenicoCavagnari, summarized the Navy's key shortfalls to the head ofthe government. Cavagnari believed that the only possible strategy was defensive. Cavagnari's recommendations were made to an Italian Supreme Command dominated by Mussolini and the Army, neither of whom understood naval warfare.

Concepts for initial operations in the Mediterranean were released by the Chief of Staff on May 29, 1940, about two weeks prior to Mussolini's declaration of war. This initial guidance directed the Navy to maintain a defensive attitude but to exploit opportunities for medium-sized clashes. The Navy was to prepare to defend itself and to act as a fleet-in-being. In fact, no decisive clash occurred during the war, but there were a series of minor engagements throughout the war.

Mussolini had mistakenly predicted a short war, assuming that the resupply of Libya would not become an issue. Hence morethan 200 ships of the merchant fleet, were located and captured outside the Mediterranean at the beginning of the hostilities. During the Spanish Civil War the British were able to take the measure of the Italian Navy, with devastating results for the Italians at the start of World War II: decimating their submarines from June to July 1940 followed by their surface navy suffering defeats at Punta Stilo, Cape Spada, Taranto, and Capego Matapan.

After the brief conflict with France and the removal of the threat of the Toulon fleet, the Italians launched their attack into Greece from Albania on 28 October 1940. Through a combination of bad weather and unexpected Greek resistance the Italian force was thrownback into Albania by December. In conjunction with this setback the Italian Navy suffered a decisive loss at Taranto when Royal Navy aircraft sank or damaged the main strikin gpower of the Italian fleet on the night of 11-12 November. Thrown out of Greece, stalled in Egypt and its navy wounded, Italy's strategic outlook was not good and it was vulnerable to attack by the end of 1940.

The Italian Navy was tasked to interdict British shipping re-supplying Malta and Alexandria, to prevent the massing of the British fleet, and to attack the British in ports. The Navy was also told to protect Italian shipping going to North Africa. Due to the limited capacities of North African ports, the Navy had to form numerous small convoys instead of a few big ones; more than 1,200 convoys were formed in one thirty-six month period. Allied sea and air forces in Egypt, Algeria, and Malta menaced Axis shipping on both the voyage to and from North Africa. The need to protect its own convoys drained resources and limited the Italian fleet's freedom of action against the British.

For example, in November 1941 the Italians gathered a large convoy of seven merchant ships carrying over 34,000 tons of materiel to include almost 400 vehicles and over 17,000 tons of precious fuel for the Axis forces in North Africa. This convoy, called the Duisburg Convoy after one of the merchantmen, was escorted by 2 cruisers, 11 destroyers, 3 submarines, and 72 aircraft. As the convoy crossed the Mediterranean, British forces from Malta, both air and naval assets, relentlessly attacked the convoy, ultimately sinking all seven merchant ships as well as two destroyers.

When Germany strongly suggested to Italy that it sortie a fleet to disrupt British sea lines of communication to North Africa, the Italians complied. The resulting Battle of Cape Matapan (March 28, 1941) was an unequal match between the British, who had radar, air support, and Ultra, and the Italianswho had none of these. Admiral Angelo Iachino, Commander-in-Chief Afloat, paid heavily for his fleet's inability to fight at night or with the proper weapons -- a price that was based on the positions that he adopted prior to the war in programming debates. Although the severe losses suffered at Matapan are traditionally imputed to the lack of radar and a suitable doctrine for night fighting, the lack of information and a clearly stated mission are to blame as well.

The Italian Navy successfully used assault vessels at Souda Bay (March 27, 1941), midget submarines at Alexandria (November 19, 1941), and in later attacks at Gibraltar, Haifa and Malta. The doctrine for raids by assault vessels had been well developed and trained to during the 1930s. During the war, Italy also employed naval forces outside of the Mediterranean. Italian Navy submarines operated in the mid-Atlantic during the war and they achieved a high degree of combat success, perhaps in excess of that of the average German U-boat. The German High Command requested, and the Italian Navy obliged, assistance for naval operations on the Black Sea against the Soviet Union. Additional units fought against the Soviets on Lake Ladoga.

From the summer of 1940 when Italy entered World War II, to the Italian armistice in the fall of 1943, a handful of brave and tenacious Italian patriots, carried out a naval guerrilla war against Allied ships in the British controlled harbors of the Mediterranean Sea. In those short three years, the men of the Tenth Light Flotilla sank or significantly damaged two battleships, one heavy cruiser, one destroyer and 27 merchant ships for an aggregate tonnage of 265,352 tons. Relatively low cost in terms of lost lives and material, their handiwork provided some of the greatest tactical success stories of the war. The celebrations of their heroics were short lived, however, because their missions were conducted outside any unifying operational plan or strategy.

Unsupported and unsupporting, these attacks were characterized by two recurring flaws in operational design. The first ofthese was weak strategic reassessment biased by fatal optimism and false bravado. Invariably the assault teams were hopeful that their mission would have strategic impact, such as a decisive blow, but in reality they were overly sanguine in expectations. The second flaw was the lack of unity in Italy's command structure. Inter-service and intra-service cooperation were poor. The operational fires provided by the assault teams were neither coordinated nor synchronized with other forces or follow-on missions. As a direct result of these weaknesses in operational design, Italy failed to capitalize on the victories of the assault teams to achieve grander objectives.

By the end of 1942 the strategic conduct of war became solely defensive. As this phase of the war approached an end, Italy attempted to maintain what was left of its fleet for use in diplomatic negotiations. This decision disappointed many crews and commanders who wanted to prove their worth in combat. When the Armistice was declared (September 8, 1943), sixty-five percent of what had remained of the Italian fleet was moved to Malta in accordance with the orders of the new government. The remaining units were scuttled, disabled by the crews, or struck by the Germans.

War against Germany was declared on October 13, 1943. Italian ships began to co-operate with the Allies for escort operations, withdrawal of Italian soldiers from the Balkans, and for special missions. The San Marco Naval Infantry Regiment had an active role in the struggle for the liberation of the peninsula. Many cadets from the Naval Academy fought under the command of the Italian Corps of Liberation.

Not everyone supported Italy's entry into the war on the Germans' side, but everyone in the Navy did his job, nonetheless, even when everything was lost. On September 8, 1943, everyone had the opportunity to decide on which side to fight. Some went with the ships to Malta, some decided to stay or to move to the North because they believed their duty was to continue the war with the Germans. Such complications for naval personnel are rare in many navies, but appear to be more frequent in the history of Italy.

The willingness of its officers and sailors to fight Allied vessels and protect Axis convoys, even when facing virtually suicidal odds, is well established. Their quasi-fanatical dedication to keeping the Africa Korps fueled, even if it meant piling highly explosive gasoline containers on the decks of their warships, speaks for itself.

Given the resources provided, the overall strategy of the war effort, individual Service and overall strategic culture, geography and demographics, and the type of government, the Italian Navy performed about as well as could be expected. Italy had only beena unified nation for about a hundred years and their relative success against the Royal Navy during the war, despite serious handicaps, speaks well of their combat effectiveness.

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Page last modified: 26-02-2013 10:54:54 ZULU