Monday, January 2, 2012

The Royal Italian Navy in World War II - A Gallant Struggle

     The Royal Italian Navy (Regia Marina) in World War II, the fifth largest in the world, was a formidable fighting force, at least on paper, and was designed for aggressive, offensive action.  However it was doomed to suffer defeat at the hands of the allied forces for several reasons.  The organization, designated functions and composition of forces, and reasons for defeat of the Royal Italian Navy in World War II are discussed here.

New battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto
firing main batteries at speed

     The fascist state established by Benito Mussolini made every effort to build a powerful navy.  Such a force represented prestige for Italy, and prestige and glory were things that Mussolini thrived upon.  Mussolini hoped to establish an overseas empire for Italy reminiscent of the ancient Roman Empire.  A large and mighty navy would be essential to achieve this goal.  Lao-Tzu said, "....wage war by being crafty...", however Mussolini favored a more straightforward approach.  The Royal Italian Navy in World War II was a formidable fighting force by all appearances.  Mussolini intended to use it aggressively to achieve his goals.  However, as we will see, several factors combined rendered the Royal Italian Navy incapable of achieving victory for Italy in the Mediterranean.

     At the top of the organizational hierarchy was Vittorio Emanuele III, King of Italy.  A small man of slight stature, the King was constitutionally the titular commander in chief of all Italian armed forces.  However, since allowing Mussolini to form a dictatorship in the early 1920's, King Vittorio Emanuele III had become little more than an impotent figurehead in his own realm.  The king possessed nominal authority only and exercised very little control over military matters.

King Vittorio Emanuele III,
titular Commander-in-Chief,
Italian armed forces.

     The person who had actual control over the Italian navy and other armed forces during World War II was Premier Benito Mussolini.  Known by his chosen title of "The Duce", meaning the leader, Mussolini was allowed by the king to establish a dictatorship in Italy.  This position enabled him to exercise final authority on all military matters, which is exactly what he did. 

Premier Benito Mussolini,
the Italian dictator.

     Under Mussolini in the chain of command was the person who held the title of "Comando Supremo".  This position was held by Marshal Badoglio to Dec, 1940; by General Cavalerro from Dec, 1940 to Feb, 1943; by General Ambrosio from Feb, 1943 to Nov, 1943; and by Marshal Meese from November 18, 1943, after the Italian surrender.  Comando Supremo was the uniformed military chief of Italy's armed forces.  He was responsible for coordinating all the martial activities of the Kingdom of Italy.  Comando Supremo was responsible only to Mussolini and nominally to King Vittorio Emanuele III.

General Ambrosio, one of the officers
who served as "Commando Supremo".

    The highest naval post in the military structure was the position of "Supermarina".  Supermarina was the chief of the naval general staff at naval headquarters.  This position corresponded to the American chief of naval operations (CNO) and the British first sea lord.  Supermarina was responsible for the overall structure and operations of the Royal Italian Navy.  This included logistics, planning, supplies, fleet operations, and training.  At the time of Italy's entry into World War II in June, 1940, the post of Supermarina was occupied by Admiral Campioni, who was then succeeded by Admiral Cavagnari until December 11, 1940.   Admiral Riccardi was then appointed to the post and served until the Italian surrender.  Operational fleet commanders includes Admiral Iachino and Admiral Bergamini, among others.

Admiral Riccardi, one of the officers
who served as "Supermarina".

     Under the organizational ladder described above, the Royal Italian Navy was expected to perform certain functions and was assigned certain responsibilities during World War II.  Premier Mussolini had intended that the fleet would be used in aggressive actions against the navies of Great Britain and France.  The collapse of France less than one month after Italy's entry into the war in June, 1940 eliminated any threat from French naval forces.  This left only the British Royal Navy to contend with.  The British Empire, including the Mediterranean theater, was protected only by the thinly spread out British naval forces.  Nonetheless, the Royal Italian Navy was never able to effectively challenge the British forces.  The navy of Great Britain was already battle-hardened with more than a year's worth of action against the forces of Italy's partner, Germany.  The British also possessed certain weapons and devices that the Italians did not, such as radar and naval air power operating from aircraft carriers, which proved to highly valuable to them.  After several brief skirmishes, the Italians found themselves unable to cope with the British.  In the end, the heavy units of the Italian navy became a "fleet in being" which served to tie up large British naval units that were desperately needed elsewhere.  Although not Mussolini's intended purpose of the navy, the "fleet in being" status served its purpose.  The British always had to keep adequate forces available in case the Italians decided to try another sortie with their large ships. 

Battleship Giulio Cesare, showing battle damage from a
very long range 15 inch shell hit by the British battleship Warspite,
during an early surface engagement called the Battle of Punta Stilo on July 9, 1940.

     Even though it was unable to effectively challenge the British, the Italian navy had various duties and responsibilities that it was bound to try and carry out.  The defense of Italian territory was very important.  Should the allies try and make an amphibious landing, the Italian navy was responsible for disrupting it.  The Italian mainland as well as the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia had to be defended and protected.  In addition, Italian territory in North Africa had to be defended.

     Another extremely important function of the Royal Italian Navy was that of re-supplying the Italian and German land forces battling the British, and later the Americans as well, in North Africa.  Supply convoys were organized by Comando Supremo, and Supermarina had to utilize all available forces to get the convoys to their destinations intact.  To accomplish this task, Supermarina assigned light forces in the form of destroyers and torpedo boats to attend the convoy ships as an escort against submarine, air, and surface attack.  The heavy ships available, such as battleships and cruisers, were used by Supermarina as a detached covering force.  The covering force was designed to ward off or repel any attempt by British surface forces to destroy the supply ships of the convoy.  In a role-reversal type situation, the Italians also attempted on several occasions to use their heavy ships to attack British supply convoys.  The Italian attacks were, however, rarely successful.

     To carry out the responsibilies of engaging the enemy fleet, protection of Italian territories, and defending supply convoys, Mussolini designed a fleet of ships he felt would be well suited for the tasks at hand.  In general, Italian warships were quite heavily armed and faster than their contemporaries in foreign navies.  In order to comply with certain treaty limitations regulating the size and tonnage of major warhips, something had to be sacrificed to pay for the additional weaponry and speed.  The sacrifices were evident in that Italian ships, particularly the cruisers, were quite thinly armored and short ranged.  It was Mussolini's opinion that since Italian vessels were going to be operating in the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, firepower and speed would be the qualities sought after.  These qualities would make the ships ideally suited for hit and run type raids, but left them vulnerable to a concentrated, well-led, and drawn-out surface action.

     A number of different categories of warships were built and put into service by Mussolini and his naval staff.  The most powerful ships in the Italian navy's inventory were the battleships.  Before the war began, four old World War I era battleships were taken in hand and completely rejuvenated and rebuilt.  These were the Conte di Cavour, Guilio Cesare, Andrea Doria, and Caio Duilio.  They were given new guns, new engines, new superstructures, new damage control systems, new fire control systems, and reconnaisance aircraft with catapults.  When completed, they were superior to several of the French battleships then in commission, but they were still out-gunned by the larger British battleships.  Two new 35,000 ton battleships of the Littorio class, the Littorio (later re-named Italia) and Vittorio Veneto, were just completing when Italy entered the war, and a third, the Roma, was completed in 1943.  The Littorio class were highly regarded as an excellent design and were an equal match for any British battleship.  They were the most powerful warships ever designed and built in Italy.  Six of the seven battleships survived the war, and they were all surrendered to the allies, with the exception of the Conte di Cavour, which was under repair and non-operational at that time. 

The completely rejuvenated and modernized
Battleship Andrea Doria at sea

     A total of seven heavy cruisers were constructed by Italy before World War II.  All of these were in the 10,000 to 12,000 ton range, and each had a main armament of eight 8-inch guns.  These were the Trento, Trieste, Pola, Zara, Gorizia, Fiume, and Bolzano.  These heavy cruisers saw extensive action during the war.  They suffered heavy losses as a result thereof.  Five of them were sunk or destroyed.  The other two, the Gorizia and Bolzano, had been heavily damaged and were under repair when Italy surrendered in September, 1943.  They were taken over by German forces and later destroyed.

Heavy Cruiser Zara at sea, making smoke
with main battery trained to port

Heavy Cruiser Gorizia firing to starboard

     The third most powerful category of surface warships available to the Royal Italian Navy was that of the light cruisers.  Twelve of them were built before the war.  These were the Bartolomeo Colleoni, Giovanni della Bande Nere, Alberto da Guissano, Alberico da Barbiano, Luigi Cadorna, Armando Diaz, Muzio Attendolo, Raimondo Montecuccoli, Engenio de Savio, Emanuele Filberto Duca d'Aosta, Giuseppi Garibaldi, and the Duca degli Abruzzi.  Three more were completed during the war.  These were the Attilio Regolo, Scipione Africano, Pompeo Magno.  Several others from this same class were building and in various stages of completion, but were not finished before the Italian surrender.  Most of the unfinished units were captured by the Germans and later destroyed.  One was later completed after the war and served in the post-war Italian navy. 

Light Cruiser Giovanni della Bande Nere
in camouflage

Light Cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli

     The Italian light cruisers ranged in tonnage from 5,500 to 8,000 tons.  They were armed with varying numbers of six inch or smaller guns and were very fast.  Some of them held world speed records for their class, but this was achieved in very light load displacements, and these extreme speeds were not achieved in battle conditions.  This was clearly evidenced in 1940 when the Bartolomeo Colleoni was overtaken after a prolonged running fight and sunk by the Australian light cruiser Sydney, which on paper was at least 6 knots slower.  These light cruisers saw heavy action during World War II.  Better than half of them were sunk in action.  The remainder were surrendered to the allies in September, 1943, and most were eventually transferred to various allied nations, such as Russia and Greece, as war reparations. 

Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni after being
heavily damaged in an encounter with
Australian Cruiser Sydney and destroyers.

Another view of the fatally damaged
cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni.  Note the
ship is missing its forward bow after being
struck by a torpedo.

     The real work horses of the Italian navy were the destroyers and torpedo boats.  Called "tin cans" because of their total lack of armor protection, these vessels served in many different roles.  They served as anti-submarine escorts to the larger surface ships.  They also escorted convoys and attacked enemy convoys and installations.  Destroyers were used in almost every fleet operation.  They were invaluable to the fleet and often fought bravely and courageously against superior enemy forces.  Italian destroyers, of which there were sixty or seventy, supplemented by many torpedo boats, suffered very heavy loses during the war also.  What few survived were either surrendered to the allies or captured by the Germans when they overran Italy after its surrender. 

Destroyer Artiglier

Destroyer Oriani at speed

     The Italians also had a moderate number of submarines available for them to use during World War II.  These submarines did have a few notable successes, but they were ineffective as a whole.  They never achieved the level of success that the German submarines did.

Submarine Malachiti

     The Italian fleet was rounded out with a number of light craft, such submarine chasers and auxiliary craft, including oilers, ammunitions ships, and transports.  Of particular interest were the special forces such as the human torpedoes.  These small submersibles were carried and launched by a standard size submarine.  They were manned and ridden by two frogmen and carried explosive charges attached to them.  Supermarina would select a target to be attacked.  The mother submarine would approach the target area submerged.  The human torpedo and the frogmen would be launched, and the mother submarine would retire from the area.  The frogmen would then ride the human torpedo to its target.  The explosive charges would be attached to the hull of the target ship and the timer set.  The frogmen would swim for safety before the charges blew up.  Such devices were used against the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth while they were moored at Alexandria, Egypt.  The resulting explosions sank both ships.  Although later refloated and repaired, these two battleships were out of service for an extended period of time, and for a time this significantly altered the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean to the Italian's advantage. 

Italian submarine on surface, with crew on deck

     Equpped with these multiple types of warships, the Royal Italian Navy had definite and specific functions, duties, and responsibilities.  A clear chain of command was in place.  Yet even though it looked formidable on paper, the navy of Italy was doomed to defeat for several different reasons.  To begin with, until late in the war the Italians lacked something very important and useful that the allies had.  This was radar.  By not having radar, the Italian commanders were unable to detect the approach of hostile aircraft converging upon their squadrons, nor were they able to locate any hostile surface forces which might be approaching.  Enemy forces often swooped in upon Italian ships before they had adequate warning to mount a coordinated defense.  An example of when this was occurred in March, 1941 when two Italian heavy cruisers, the Zara and Fiume, which were enroute to provide assistance to the previously immobilized cruiser Pola, were surprised by a British battleship squadron at night and quickly overwhelmed and sunk.  The British had been tracking the Italian ships on radar, but the Italians, with no radar, were unaware of the dangerous presence of the British battleships.  The Italian's lack of radar was certainly detrimental to the Italian war effort as far as naval operations were concerned.

Battleship Vittorio Veneto, damaged at the
Battle of Cape Matapan, the same engagement
that saw the loss of Heavy Cruisers Zara, Pola, and Fiume.
Note the stern riding low in the water, which is the result of
damage from a torpedo hit.

Italian cruisers under British air attack
during the Battle of Cape Matapan.

     Yet another factor contributing to the Italian navy's defeat was the total lack of a fleet air arm like the one enjoyed by the navy of Great Britain.  Premier Mussolini believed that the Italian mainland was a fixed aircraft carrier.  Consequently, Mussolini saw no need to build aircraft carriers for the fleet and prevented their construction.  The Royal Italian Air Force, the "Regia Aeronautica", was assigned the responsibility of providing combat air patrol and aerial reconnaisance for the fleet when it was at sea.  This was an unfortunate decision.  The Regia Aeronautica was a weak force with a small number of mostly obsolete aircraft.  It could not possibly hope to provide that type of support to the fleet, and it almost never did.  Because of these deficiencies, several battles were lost and a number of Italian warships sunk. 

     The Royal Italian Navy suffered its first devastating blow in November, 1940 when the British launched a surprise night attack on the main Italian naval base of Taranto.  The attack was carried out by a squadron of obsolescent Swordfish bi-plane torpedo bombers launched from the aircraft carrier Illustrious.  All of Italy's battleships and many of her cruisers were anchored or docked in port.  They were caught completely by surprised  Two separate waves of torpedo bombers attacked the harbor.  In the end, three Italian battleships had been heavily hit.  One of them, the Conte di Cavour, sank upright on the harbor bottom with decks awashed.  Although later raised and repairs initiated, she would never return to operational service.  The other two, the Littorio and Caio Duilio, were heavily hit but did not sink outright.  They were eventually repaired and returned to see further service.  One half of Italy's battleship strength had been eliminated from this single British operation.

A drawing of Taranto harbor showing
the positions of the Italian warships.

Overhead view after the attack.

Battleship Conte di Cavour,
on bottom of the harbor with decks awash.

     After the war started, and particularly after the attack on Taranto, Mussolini finally began to recognize the need for aircraft carriers in the fleet.  Conversion of two auxiliary vessels into aircraft carriers was commenced, but it was too late.  Italian industry simply could not complete the carriers due to a constant lack of supplies and materials.  The two incomplete hulks, the Aquila and Sparviero, were taken over by Germany after the Italian surrender.  They were later sunk in harbor. 

The incomplete aircraft carrier Aquila,
Italy's belated attempt to provide a carrier for the fleet.
She was seized by the Germans in her incomplete state following Italy's surrender.

     Finally, the Italian navy was seriously handicapped by lack of fuel oil.  As the war progressed, it became more and more of an issue.  By 1942, several of the Italian battleships had become immobilized due to lack of fuel oil.  The newer battleships, the Littorio, Vittorio Venito, and Roma (completing and joining the fleet in 1943), were kept marginally operational at bases in Northern Italy, but their use was very restricted due to the fuel situation and because allied air power hindered any potential surface operations by the large ships.  They were in fact damaged several times by air attack while in port.  The older battleships were reduced to reserve status or used as training ships. 

     The Royal Italian Navy fought bravely and valiantly during every engagement it was involved in from June, 1940 to September, 1943.  It suffered heavy losses, but it also caused significant losses to the navy of Great Britain.  When Italy announced its capitulation to the allied forces, the Italian fleet was ordered to sortie and make for the British island of Malta, where it was to surrender and be interred.    The Italians attempted to convice their German allies that the fleet was sailing to attack allied invasion forces.  The Germans suspected deception and organized an air attack on the Italian squadron.  The surrender order was carried out, but after the bulk of the Italian fleet sortied from La Spezia, it came under air attack by the German luftwaffe.  Admiral Bergamini's flagship Roma was hit by radio-controlled glider bombs, broke in two, and sank with very heavy loss of life.  The battleship Littorio (Italia) was also struck, but the damage was not severe and she continued on.  The Vittorio Veneto was undamaged.  A second Italian squadran, including battleships Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio, sortied from the large naval base at Taranto in Southern Italy.  This squadron reached Malta without incident.  Battleship Giulio Cesare, which had been laid up at Pola with a caretaker crew, departed after some difficulty and also arrived safely at Malta.  The final battleship, Conte di Cavour, was still under repair and immobilized, unable to flee.  She was captured dockside by German forces.

Units of the Italian fleet sailing
to surrender to British forces.

     The war was essentially over for the Royal Italian Navy.  Italy eventually re-entered the war on the side of the allies as a co-belligerent.  Some of her remaining light cruisers were utilized by the allies with Italian crews.  After the war was over, Italy retained a few of these ships in her post war navy, but many others were taken away from her and given to other nations as war reparations.  The two remaining Littorio class battleships were eventually scrapped.



  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.