Naval War WWII 1943 – Against Italy

1943 Beautiful Italian Fleet is Back from Malta

When Roosevelt, Churchill and their military staffs met at Casablanca for a war planning conference (Symbol) in mid-January 1943 they did so believing that a dramatic change had recently taken place in the fortunes of those involved in the global struggle for supremacy. It was not hard to detect that the operational momentum in virtually every theatre of the war had begun swinging from what had been an assertive Axis presence – and in many a dominant position – to one that had the Allies beginning to dictate the pace of the encounters, taking the bold initiatives, or responding far more adequately to Axis interventions than they had been able to do in the past. It was a strange and comforting reality and it led them to think of a time when the Axis threat would not just be contained but actually beaten. At sea and in amphibious operations either ongoing or recently concluded, the sense that the Allies were in the ascendancy could hardly be denied. Their resurgence was one thing, but victory was still a long way off. None of the principal enemy combatants had yet been forced out of the war and enormous problems thrown up by their continued participation in this unremittingly dour conflict still had to be overcome. Casablanca was no more than an opportunity, therefore, for both the American and British leaders and their planning staffs to revise their grand strategy for the year ahead preserving the `Europe First’ principle, but not at the risk of ignoring the war in the Pacific; agreeing upon a concerted campaign to beat the U-boats in 1943 in order to safeguard their supply chain; allowing the invasion of Sicily to take place after the conquest of Tunisia and before the launching of any `Second Front’ invasion of northern France; and planning for the re-conquest of Burma as a step on the road to the relief of the Chinese. It was apparent to everyone present that all of these plans to wear down their enemies were going to take time to mature. As such, Casablanca represented a compromise between what the American and the British service chiefs wanted. Each gained some, but by no means all, of what they wanted out of the eleven-day conference. A general outline was set for the year and an ultimate goal – the unconditional surrender of Germany – but few, if any, present at this gathering were under any illusions about the enormity of the task still before them. Peace was, therefore, unlikely to return to the world any time soon.

As Casablanca had shown, the British remained wedded to knocking the weakest link out of the Axis chain and committed to a furtherance of the campaign in the Mediterranean to bring this about. Unfortunately, the Eighth Army’s success at El Alamein in November 1942 had not led on to the immediate seizure of Tunisia and the sweeping away of Rommel’s Panzerarmee from North Africa. It was clear to all concerned that no attack on any part of Italy could be countenanced until Rommel had been finally defeated and if Bernard Montgomery was to be believed that operation couldn’t even begin in earnest until he had consolidated his own forces in their Libyan redoubt. While Montgomery took stock of the situation and gathered his reinforcements, Rommel made a series of strategic retreats westward to avoid encirclement and defeat and looked to fall back upon an improved military position in Tunisia itself. Ultimate defeat was never really in doubt given the Torch landings on 8 November, but Rommel’s main task was to try to stall the Allied advance for as long as possible. In this way, the Allies would have to delay their invasion of Europe until later in the year – and the later that took place the better it would be from an Axis perspective – as the weather could be relied upon to deteriorate during the autumn and early winter making the whole undertaking much more problematic than it would be if it were undertaken during the height of summer.

As a result, both sides sought to reinforce their positions and disrupt the supply effort for the enemy. Axis attacks on Allied shipping in Algerian waters by a mixed combination of submarines, MTBs and Ju-87s continued in January with the destruction of ten vessels and the damaging of nine more, for the loss of an Italian submarine and a solitary U-boat. For their part, the Allies began the year with an adventurous Latin flourish – sending in a team of specialists on two-man submersibles (`Chariots’) to penetrate the harbour at Palermo and attach limpet mines to some of the Italian ships anchored there. It would be fair to admit that only modest, rather than stunning, success greeted these daring activities. A far more effective response at jolting the Italian psyche was administered by Force K and the British submarines from Malta which hounded the Italian convoys that were still sailing defiantly to and from Tripoli with supplies for Rommel’s retreating forces. Over the course of a fortnight they combined to sink a total of over thirty vessels on this route ranging from steamers and minesweepers to sailing vessels and submarines before Tripoli was finally evacuated on 23 January. Thereafter, a collection of forty-eight Italian destroyers, torpedo boats and corvettes were employed in escorting convoys of retreating Panzerarmee troops from Zuara (Zuwa – rah) and bringing reserve troops to Tunis and Bizerte, as well as evacuating the wounded and the POWs to the island of Marettimo off the coast of Sicily. While their assistance undoubtedly helped the Axis cause, they were unable to stop the Allies from engaging in a continued wave of destruction against this shipping.

While the Atlantic had taken most of Dönitz’s attention in the first quarter of 1943, the situation in the Mediterranean could not be totally ignored even though it was more in the nature of a holding operation rather than a progressive theatre-changing undertaking. After all, the Allies were in North Africa to stay and there was nothing now that Rommel and the Panzerarmee could do about it. They could delay the inevitable by attacking the Allied supply network by submarine and aircraft, but they couldn’t reverse the process as they had been able to do in 1941. Moreover, when these attacks were resorted to in February and March 1943 a low average level of destruction was actually achieved by the Axis forces at an unacceptably high attrition rate. In truth, whatever was thrown at it by the enemy, the British `Inshore Squadron’ largely prevailed, landing 115,137 tons of supplies for the Eighth Army during the month of February alone.

Far more effort was devoted by the Italians to supplying reinforcements for the German and Italian troops that had been forced to retreat from Tripolitania into Tunisia in late January leaving much of their supplies behind them. In order to shore up their position and delay the moment when the Allies could clear North Africa of Axis troops, a series of troop and supply convoys sailed from Sicily to Tunis and Bizerte over the next three months escorted by Italian destroyers, torpedo boats and on occasion by a German submarine-chasing flotilla. All kinds of efforts were made by the Allies from the outset to destroy these convoys, but while a mixture of bombs, mines and torpedoes destroyed forty-nine vessels of various kinds, they were quite unable to put a stop to these sailings. From the Allied perspective, however, once their nemesis, Rommel, had been replaced at the head of the Afrika Korps and had flown out of Sfax for Rome on 9 March, victory was never in doubt. It remained no longer a question of if but purely of when. Even so, it would take another two months to the day for the Allied armies to secure their hard earned victory in Tunisia.

Rommel had left Tunisia in early March. His departure had been taken as a sign that the game was almost up for the Axis forces in North Africa. It soon was. In the Mediterranean the last rites of the Tunisian campaign had been observed from late April onwards with a series of crushing attacks by Allied aircraft and destroyers on the Italian supply convoys. Most of the vessels engaged in making these trips from Sicily to Tunis and Bizerte (a mix of destroyers, torpedo boats and transports) never made it beyond Cape Bon and once an Allied naval blockade had been established by a network of destroyers from Malta and Bone on 7 May, any spectre of replenishment from the Italian mainland was at an end.

Feeling both elation and relief, Churchill, his COS and their planning staffs left for Washington to attend the ninth Anglo-American staff conference. Designated Trident, the conference opened on 12 May and lasted nearly a fortnight. As one might expect, the strategic blueprint thrashed out at the Symbol conference in January was subject to detailed discussion in the light of the latest developments in the war. Churchill led from the front as usual and informed his American hosts that his interpretation of the `Europe First’ commitment was influenced by his genuine belief that the best way to deliver the `Second Front’ against Germany in 1944 was to knock Italy out of the war in 1943. For him, therefore, Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) should not be an end in itself but the springboard for a major attack on the Italian mainland to exploit what he believed was the soft underbelly of the Axis. His proposals, though eloquently presented, failed to convince the American representatives in the audience. They had seen how dislocative the Torch offensive had been both in terms of the diversion of resources from the build up of US forces in the United Kingdom (Bolero) and in the time spent on clearing the Axis troops out of North Africa. This experience had illustrated the problems of investing scarce resources in a subordinate theatre of war. For them the prime focus of the war and the grand strategic vision they remained committed to was the launching of a cross- Channel attack on Germany at the earliest opportunity. They were, therefore, very wary about becoming sucked into a full-scale Italian campaign and other Mediterranean-related adventures, such as an Aegean campaign, which might well end up in retarding rather than advancing the cause of the `Second Front’. After a series of increasingly acrimonious discussions, an eventual compromise strategy was thrashed out that owed much to the influence exerted by General George C. Marshall within the CCOS. This allowed Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, to do more than merely wrest Sicily from the grasp of the Italians. At this stage, however, it was not known whether the invasion of the mainland would prove to be the springboard that Churchill had envisaged or become an uncomfortable sofa from which all movement was slow and painful. Time would prove that the latter metaphor was far more appropriate than the optimistic notion engendered by the former.

Nineteen mostly British submarines were prowling the Mediterranean, the southern Adriatic and the Aegean. While their tonnage yield was not comparable to the rich harvest once enjoyed by Dönitz’s crews in their `Happy Time’ in the Atlantic, it reflected a larger reality – a growing sense of Allied naval superiority throughout this theatre that could not be denied. This impression was reinforced by a series of heavy air attacks carried out on the Italian naval bases in Sardinia (La Maddalena) and in Sicily (Cagliari) in April and May. Unlike the futility of their repeated bombing campaign against the U-boat bases on the French Atlantic coast, these massed Allied air attacks actually caused some harm to something other than the buildings and infrastructure of the ports and the cities that supported them.

These results encouraged the Allies to pursue the aerial option in preparation for their attack on Pantelleria, the island fortress situated off the northeast coast of Tunisia which had once posed a real military threat to the safety of the Mediterranean convoys and to Malta itself. While no longer cast in that role, the Italian military forces on Pantelleria still needed to be cleared out of the way (Operation Corkscrew) before any concerted attempt was made to invade Sicily (Operation Husky). As was usual in these matters, the island was subject to severe bombardment before any amphibious operation was mounted. Apart from an opening burst administered on the night of 12-13 May by the light cruiser Orion, and five other occasions when a varying combination of light cruisers and destroyers shelled Pantelleria from 31 May to 8 June, Allied aircraft did most of the damage by flying 5,285 sorties over the island and dropping a total of 6,200 bombs on those parts of it that were thought to be of any further military value to the Italians. Once the enemy troops had been softened up by this firestorm, Rear-Admiral Rhoderick McGrigor, on board the Headquarters ship Largs, landed the 1st British Division during the night of 10-11 June. Allied Commander-in-Chief General Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed the uncontested invasion from the bridge of the light cruiser Aurora and was on hand a few hours later to see Rear-Admiral Gino Pavesi, the Italian C-in-C, surrender Pantelleria to the Allies without any further loss of blood.


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