Riccardi had the unfortunate task of taking over from a predecessor deemed to have failed in the eyes of Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini. Evidence of the failure was not hard to find, with three out of Italy’s six battleships sitting on the bed of the major naval base at Taranto.
Born in Pavia in 1878, Riccardi saw action with the marines in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900–1901 and also further action during the First World War, although this would have been relatively limited. Post-war, he spent a period as a staff officer before being promoted to rear admiral in 1932, and after joining the Fascist Party in 1934, he was later promoted to vice admiral in 1935. His responsibilities included naval personnel, making him the equivalent of the Royal Navy’s Second Sea Lord. Succeeding the disgraced Admiral Domenico Cavagnari as Chief of Staff of the Regia Marina on 11 December 1940, Riccardi also held the position of the Navy’s Under-secretary of State.
His duties included liaison with the Kriegsmarine over the defence of Italy, but despite Riccardi forcing a more aggressive strategy at sea, Italian failures continued with the Battle of Cape Matapan, the big clash between the Italian and British navies, where the Axis air power was not provided by the Italian Regia Aeronautica but by the German Luftwaffe.
Riccardi had taken up his new post at a time when Italy had proved incapable of subjugating Yugoslavia and Greece, but the Germans pressed him to cut British maritime communications between Alexandria and Athens. Italian ships were sent into the waters south of Greece to attack British convoys, but British aerial reconnaissance soon spotted the Italian ships. This was a marked contrast to the situation with the Italians, which lacked their own naval air power and relied upon the Air Force to provide reconnaissance as well as air strikes, but cooperation between the two services was so poor as to be virtually non-existent.
The Battle of Cape Matapan exposed a major weakness in Italian battle plans, which was that they did not expect to engage an enemy at night. Lacking radar, night gunnery would have been difficult, but not impossible given training and suitable optical instruments.
Mussolini had boasted that the Mediterranean was ‘Mare Nostrum’, which meant ‘our sea’, but while Italy effectively cut the sea in two, it never controlled it. It was only a matter of time after the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942, followed by an amphibious and airborne assault on Sicily the following spring. When Benito Mussolini was overthrown, Riccardi also fell from grace and was replaced on 25 July 1943.
While some maintain that Riccardi was a specialist in naval air power, the truth was that he, and other Italian naval officers, had precious little experience of air power. His failure to ensure that the fleet under his command at Taranto was adequately protected was unforgivable, but he was promoted further. It was not his fault that Italian aerial reconnaissance was so bad that the presence of the British Mediterranean Fleet was not detected, but even so, there was complacency at Supermarina, the Italian Admiralty, which took it for granted that British forces would be detected in time for Italian warships to leave harbour and engage them.
It is, perhaps, not surprising that Riccardi did not face charges of being a war criminal.
Although it was a substantial force on paper, the Italian navy suffered from fundamental problems. Italy lagged in several key areas of naval technology. One area was sonar, which was just beginning to be introduced at the start of the war. Also, in the disastrous March 1941 Battle of Matapan, the Italians discovered to their dismay that the Allies had deployed radar on their warships. The Italians did not deploy their first warship radar until a year later, in March 1942. Ironically, Italy’s scientific community had been working on radar in the mid-1930s, but the Italian government did not fully support its efforts. Of ULTRA intercepts, the Italians knew nothing, although they assumed the Germans were letting the Allies know about Italian operations, and the Germans assumed the Italians were doing the same.
Italian ship armor plate was inferior as judged by Allied standards. Italian heavy ships relied on long-range gunnery, but guns in cruiser and destroyer turrets were mounted too close to each other, thus interfering in the flight of shells, a problem compounded by an immoderate 1 percent weight tolerance for shells. This resulted in excessive salvo spreads, as opposed to the much tighter British salvos.
The Italians sought to avoid night fighting by their heavy ships, and the navy lacked flashless night charges for ships with 8-inch or larger guns, an error not rectified until 1942. The navy dropped night-fighting training for large ships in the 1930s, precisely when the British navy was adopting such tactics for its heavy ships, including battleships. Italian losses in night surface actions during the war would be heavy and almost completely one-sided.
Italy also experienced problems with its submarines. There were three classes of subs. The large oceangoing submarines were part of the new oceanic navy. Many were based out of Bordeaux, France. In 189 patrols, they sank over 500,000 tons of Allied ships, with another 200,000 tons damaged. They also conducted mostly ineffective runs to Japan for key war sup- plies, and they operated in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Medium and small submarines hunted closer to home. In the Mediterranean Sea, these classes conducted 1,553 patrols with dismal results when contrasted to the successes tallied by far fewer German submarines dispatched to that theater. This outcome was, in part, due to the Italian doctrine that called for submarines to submerge during daytime and wait for a target to come within range. The Italians eschewed attacks on the surface in wolf packs at night. Their torpedoes were reliable but had smaller warheads than those of most other nations, thus causing less damage. Despite its long coastline and its colonies, Italy had only 25,000 mines in 1939, and most dated of these from World War I.
In the 1920s, the Italians experimented with the snorkel, a tube to the surface that allowed submarines to secure air while submerged, but they ultimately dropped its development as a dead end. Their submarines also suffered from slow submerging speeds—they were two or three times slower than German boats. Italy also had to rebuild many of its submarines during the war because their large sails (the superstructure where the surface bridge and periscope were located) were easily picked up by radar. Italian periscopes were too short, and the Mediterranean itself was a much clearer sea then the Atlantic, which made it easier for Allied pilots to locate submerged submarines.
In spite of these limitations, the fuel-strapped Italian navy fought bravely during the war and transported to Africa 85 percent of the supplies and 92 percent of the troops that left port. In numerous battles above, on, and below the seas, the navy sank many Allied warships and forced the British to maintain a powerful naval force at both ends of the Mediterranean. In September 1943 when Italy switched sides in the war, the bulk of the Italian fleet joined the Allies.
Italian naval losses before the armistice consisted of 1 battleship, 11 cruisers, 44 destroyers, 41 large torpedo boats, 33 MAS-style PT boats, 86 submarines, and 178 other vessels. After the armistice, Italy lost 1 battleship, 4 destroyers, 5 large torpedo boats, 25 MAS boats, 3 submarines, and 23 other vessels. Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, organized in north Italy, seized some Italian warships, and most of these were subsequently sunk; the most important was the heavy cruiser Bolzano. Total wartime personnel losses for the Italian navy came to 28,837, with 4,177 of this number occurring after the armistice. Up to the armistice, Italy also lost 2,018,616 tons of merchant shipping.