Italian Navy in WWII Part I

Edited from material by Mike Yaklich, et al

        “Although its participation in World War II has been ignored by Anglo-American historians, the defeat of the Regia Marina Italiana (RMI, Royal Italian Navy) has preoccupied European authors, many of whom have rejected as superficial assertions that the Italian navy was led by a general staff “paralyzed” by fear of a British navy that enjoyed a “moral ascendancy” over its opponent.  Instead, they have attributed the Italian defeat to material deficiencies and structural weaknesses, as well as to a flawed strategy and poor command decisions.  Although little of their work has been translated into English, the history of Italian naval operations by Marc’Antonio Bragadin and Giuseppe Fioravanzo has been available in an English edition since 1957.  Like other Italian authors, they pointed out that an inadequate industrial base and an uneven technological development had deprived the RMI of radar, sonar, electric torpedoes, and reliable shells, while a chronic shortage of fuel oil had “paralyzed” the Italian fleet and Germany’s rush to war had caught the Italian navy in the midst of a building program (1).

        Admiral Angelo Iachino, commander of the Italian surface fleet for most of the war, likewise stressed the problems created by the lack of fuel oil, a weak industrial base, and the inability to develop radar and sonar.  But he also underscored the problems of coordination between the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (RAI, Royal Italian Air Force) and the RMI, and thought that “a couple of aircraft carriers and a good fleet air arm” could have secured the central Mediterranean for Italy…”

        (1)Mussolini was under the impression that he had an agreement with Hitler not to precipitate a war before 1942-43, and as late as the second half of May 1939 Hitler personally assured Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, that he had no intention of going to war for at least another three years– this barely three months before he actually started the war by invading Poland.

James Sadkovich – The Italian Navy in World War II

By December 1941, the Italian Navy/Air Force, with, of course the various Luftwaffe contingent included, were absolute masters of the Mediterranean.  While Japanese intervention certainly strained the Royal Navy efforts in the Med, the British Navy was simply unable to even attempt to do anything but harass the Italian convoy efforts.  Throughout 1942, any British convoy activity took months of planning and involved a massive commitment of force from several theatres.  While the axis air forces were the primary threat to the merchant ships, it was the presence of the Italian Fleet units that necessitated the vast warship commitment to attempt to get the convoys through.  In effect, the Italian Navy suckered them in to air range for the ensuing feast by the air units.  The Italian Navy’s problem throughout 1941 and 1942 was the total expenditure, in 1940 (!), to the Fleets strategic oil reserve, and the consequent inability to commit the fleet, en masse, on any but special occasions.  Further, on these occasions, the effort was usually fruitless because the aerial recon forces (Italian and German) did not properly do their job and find the Fleets target or, when they did, the Royal Navy simply fled the scene (they were, after all, hardly stupid).  Also, while fuel hampered the heavy forces, the Italian Navy light forces (and submarines) were bold, brash, and daring and took on the Royal Navy with vigor.  Also, their ASW forces got to be very deadly.

Simply put, after 1940 when the lack of oil crippled their efforts, the Italian Navy (with the Axis Air Forces of course) actually prosecuted a fleet in being concept that worked.  They forced massive efforts by the Royal Navy to get anything done in the Med.  On the other hand, if you look at warship commitment in home waters after the loss of the Bismarck, the Royal Navy basically ignored the Kriegsmarine surface forces.  During this time the Germans had Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Scheer, Lutzow, Hipper, Eugen, Nurnberg, and Koln, yet the Germans never managed a decent sortie with any of it, and on any day in 1942 (except, perhaps, as the Duke of York, Anson, and Howe worked up) the Royal Navy Home Fleet certainly wasn’t close to this strong.

The Mediterranean saw less decisive naval battles than one would expect because for most of war, one side was simply unable to challenge the other.  During the times that either side had a legitimate shot, the Royal Navy elan coupled with fleet-based aircraft (something the Italians never had) carried the day.  But there was a long time in 1941 to 1942 that the Royal Navy was forced to simply not play.  That was an Italian Navy victory.

Naval Balance Mediterranean 1940

England- in Mediterranean

3 battleships (all Queen Elizabeth Class with 15-inch guns)

1 carrier

3 heavy cruisers

3 light cruisers

France – in Mediterranean

3 battleships

1 carriers

10 heavy cruisers

28 light cruisers

Italy – Total

4 battleships with 12.5-inch guns, 2 15-inch gunned ships almost complete but not worked up for about 12 more months

0 carriers

8 heavy cruisers

12 light cruisers

The Italians are clearly outnumbered until the fall of France in June of 1940. After that, they have more cruisers than the British, but their 4 old battleships are no match for the bigger and stronger 3 British battleships. And even if the Italians manage to defeat these three, the British have 7 battleships, 2 battlecruisers, 4 carriers, and 17 cruisers at Scapa Flow, plus 15 more cruisers in the Atlantic and 2 battleships and 2 cruisers coming out of refit.

To risk the entire Italian Fleet in a showdown would be foolhardy. In the game of risk versus reward, the Italians would be risking their entire navy for the reward of destroying one quarter of England’s. That is a trade England would make any day of the week.

So now, as the smaller fleet, Italy must play for survival. The old battleships would not be a great asset in combat, but their loss would be quite a blow to the nation (look at how the loss of Arizona and Hood rocked the US and UK, and they were just one ship out of 15). A serious blow like that would not be conducive to keeping Mussolini in power.

The cruisers can be risked, so they were sent out on operations to harass the British. But with a serious shortage of fuel oil in Italy, each harassment mission just reduced the chance that the entire fleet could sortie if it needed to.

In the end, I guess the Italian navy did all that it could do: stay alive to tie up the British Fleet and prevent it from being used elsewhere. As long as the British did not have a free hand in the Mediterranean, the Italians were doing their job.

I think that the Italian High Command was torn between conflicting strategies. The classic ‘fleet in being’ and need to nullify or destroy Allied power ‘safely’. So the end result was confused or ambiguous policy planning and too many caveats on fleet commanders.

There is no question in my mind that the Italian Navy could fight bravely, which it demonstrated in particular in small-ship actions and special operations like those of the Decima Flotilla. It is clearly wrong to attribute Italian failures to innate cowardice, a view that was once common in English-language histories. However it is my belief that the Italian High Command was weak and the Navy had severe material and technical deficiencies. I certainly believe that its achievements fell well short of its nominal strength and potential.

Italian “PT” boats

Look at what is available about the Regia Marina (and, after the armistice, the Decima MAS) activity against the “Allies”. Just about the Italian fast boat war 1940 until 1945 it’s possible to remember, speaking only of the most important ships, not only the loss, by MS 16 and 22, of the British cruiser HMS Manchester, on August 13th 1942 (the biggest ship sunk by such a kind of vessel [PT boat] during the last world war) but the serious damage also of the Soviet cruiser Molotov by MAS 568 on August 2 1942 (Black Sea) and another incident which occurred to the British cruiser HMS Capetown, torpedoed off Massawa (Red Sea) on April 8th 1941. This last success was obtained by MAS 213, a 14t boat launched on 1918, unable – on 1941 – to do more than 10 knots for no more than an hour and in such a bad general condition that it was necessary to repair the hull many times, in 1940-41, using concrete.

The vintage MAS Flotilla of Massawa and an other one, formed by seven ex auxiliary motor boats based at Assab, were organized and led by Commander Paolo Aloisi, a very particular kind of officer and sailor who than fought in underground way the English in AOI (Italian East Africa)until September 1943. Cdr Aloisi is at the origin of the idea developed twenty years later by the famous comic author Ugo Pratt for the character of Corto Maltese.

Bibliography: Erminio Bagnasco, Le motosiluranti della seconda guerra mondiale, ed. Albertelli, Parma.

Enrico Cernuschi, “Dietro la maschera di Corto Maltese”, Rivista Marittima (The Italian Navy Staff monthly) Luglio (July) 1977

Damage Inflicted by Italians On Enemy Naval Units

This applies only to events in the Mediterranean. Thus nothing in ocean waters, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, or Lake Ladoga appears.


June 1940:

British light cruiser Calypso sunk by sub Bagnolini.  Tanker (Norwegian but in British service) Orkanger sunk by sub Naiade.  British sub Odin sunk by destroyer Strale.  British sub Grampus sunk by destroyer escorts Circe and Clio.  British sub Orpheus sunk by destroyer Turbine.  British sub Olympus badly damaged by Italian air attacks while in port at Malta (Italian air raids also sink Malta’s floating drydock, the only one possessed by the RN in the central Mediterranean).  French “super-destroyer” Albatros hit by 6-inch shell from Italian coastal battery during bombardment of Genoa (ten men killed).  Small freighter Elgo (1,900 tons) sunk by sub Capponi while en route to a French North African port.

July 1940:

British destroyer Escort sunk by sub Marconi.  British sub Phoenix sunk by corvette Albatros.  British light cruiser Gloucester hit on bridge by Italian bomb:  captain and 18 others killed (“battle of Punta da Stilo”). Australian light cruiser Sydney hit by 6-inch shell from Italian light cruisers, but only minor damage to funnel and one man wounded (“battle of Cape Spada”).  When British convoy to the Aegean is attacked by SM79 and SM81 bombers, British light cruiser Liverpool hit by bomb which penetrates two decks but fails to explode, and Australian light cruiser Sydney suffers minor splinter damage from near misses, which destroy her on-board aircraft and cause a few non-fatal casualties.  Tanker Berne (3,300 tons) sunk by sub Tarantini off Haifa.  Small French steamer Cheik (1,000 tons) sunk by sub Scire.

August 1940:

British destroyer Hostile sunk by mines laid by Italian destroyers. British sub Oswald rammed and sunk by destroyer Vivaldi.  During Malta convoy operation merchantman SS Cornwall (10,000 tons) hit by three bombs from SM79s, stopped and on fire, but makes it to Malta due to superb damage control.

September 1940:

British heavy cruiser Kent damaged by SM79 torpedo planes (out of action one year).  Polish destroyer Garland damaged by Italian air attack (near misses cause boiler damage, towed back to port).

October 1940:

British light cruiser Liverpool damaged by SM79 torpedo planes (out of action six months).  British sub Triad sunk in surface action by Italian sub Toti.  British sub Rainbow sunk either by Italian mine or possibly when rammed by Italian merchantman Antonietta Costa.  British destroyer Imperial damaged by Italian mine near Malta (out of action six months).  British aircraft carrier Eagle suffers hull damage from near misses by Italian bombers (out of action more than a month, misses Taranto operation).

November 1940:

British heavy cruiser Berwick hit by two 8-inch shells from Italian heavy cruisers:  one hits officers’ quarters (no casualties), the other one knocks out one of the aft main gun turrets, killing seven men (“battle of Cape Spartivento”).  British submarine Regulus sunk, possibly by Italian aircraft (otherwise by Italian mine).  British destroyer Decoy damaged by Italian night air raid on port at Alexandria (one bomb hit, eight killed), freighter Zamaam also damaged in same attack.

December 1940:

British destroyer Hyperion sunk by Italian mine.  British light cruiser Glasgow damaged by SM79 torpedo planes while at anchor in Suda Bay (two torpedoes hit, knocking out two of four screws:  returned to light escort duties in the Indian Ocean in two months, but not fully repaired until 1942).  British antiaircraft cruiser Coventry torpedoed by Italian sub Neghelli (damage not too serious).  British sub Triton sunk, apparently by Italian mine.  Greek sub Proteus rammed and sunk by Italian destroyer escort Antares (after torpedoing and sinking Italian troop transport Sardegna).


1.  I did not include the small Greek steamer Roula and the old Greek light cruiser Heli, both sunk by Italian submarines in August 1940, because Italy was not at war with Greece at the time, and I therefore consider these to be more in the line of acts of terrorism than legitimate acts of war (British ships sunk in Greek waters at the same time I did include, also neutral vessels bound for ports of legitimate enemy belligerents).

2.  In regards to sinkings from mines, this is another difficult topic.  If mines were known or strongly suspected to have caused the loss, and only Italian minefields existed at that time of the war or in the area in question, I have credited these to the Italians (of course, in some cases, such as Hostile or Force K in December 1941, it is definitely known that the mines were Italian-laid).  Mine damage around Malta is a particularly difficult call.  Although the Italians laid most of the minefields there, German aircraft and S-boats also contributed.  Thus I was pretty lax in some cases– if I found any source willing to identify the mines as either Italian or German, without contradicting testimony, I went with that.  Thus I am crediting destroyer Southwold to the Italians, but destroyer Jersey and sub Olympus to the Germans, while making no call on destroyer Kujawiak…

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