Attack against Greece

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The attack against Greece

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

“According to the Italian report, the Italian Navy was completely unaware of the fact that an attack against Greece was being prepared and was not represented in the meeting of October 15, 1940, at which the seizing of Greek islands and ports and landing on the Greek coast was decided. The Italian Navy when informed of these decisions expressed its opposition, because the strategic situation in East Mediterranean and the Ionian Sea would be thus become more difficult and a larger dispersion of forces would result.

 

On October 22, the Italian Navy was ordered, in parallel to the transports to Albania, to prepare a landing operation in the island of Corfu.  The units earmarked for this operation sailed on the night of October 31, but were ordered the following day to disembark instead as soon as possible the troops in Avlona, because the situation in the Albanian front was developing adversely.

 

The difficulties that faced the Italian Navy to secure a constant flow of transports in the Adriatic, under the prevailing adverse weather conditions that often interrupted transports for several days, are also presented in the Italian report.  It is also reported that after the installation of the British in Greek airports, the Italian ports at both sides of the Adriatic were being bombed every night.  Although there was an important concentration of ships, damages were not significant because of the successful reaction of the naval antiaircraft batteries.

 

During these torpedo plane attacks, 1 escort destroyer and 1 floating hospital were sunk.  The insufficiency of the Albanian ports was creating problems, because their daily throughput couldn’t exceed 3,500 tons while the campaign against Greece required more than 10,000 tons.  Thus as an example, on November 1, 70 ships were waiting to unload, while about 30,000 tons were already stacked on the docks.

 

The Italian transport losses in the Adriatic during the whole campaign against Greece were not significant. As it is reported, until the end of April 1941, were transported [with the corresponding losses in parentheses] 516,440 men (0.18%), 510,688 tons of supplies and ammunitions (0.2%), 87,092 animals (0%) and 15,951 vehicles (0.55%).  The loss of SARDEGNA, 11,450 tons, sunk by the Greek submarine R.H.N. PROTEFS, is reported as the most important loss of a cargo ship.  The Italian destroyer ANTARES has next sunk PROTEFS by ramming.

 

During the Greek-Italian war Greek submarines sank at least 3 more cargo ships. Thus, the total tonnage of ships undoubtedly sunk by our submarines amounts to 21,368 tons.

 

In Commander Bragadin’s book no mention is made to the torpedoing of the light cruiser R.H.N. ELLI by the Italian submarine R.N. DELFINO [see: "The torpedoing of the light cruiser ELLI" ], well before the declaration of war against Greece.  Also, no mention is made to the reasons for which the Italian Navy action against our transports in the Greek waters has not been more intensive, when some of our large military convoys presented an interesting target for both the enemy Navy and the Air force.  During the troops collection transports of November 1940 [see: The Italian attack – New days of Glory. Part A’: October-November 1940 ], 60,000 men with their supplies and 25,000 animals were transported without any loss whatsoever. It is worth noting in that respect that for these escorts we only disposed a few destroyers and torpedo boats with completely insufficient anti aircraft means and without any submarine detection equipment that had to rely on World War I escort methods.

 

The Italian submarines that were assigned this task had repeatedly attacked but always unsuccessfully.  Even the 3 audacious raids of the Greek destroyers at the approaches of the Adriatic Sea didn’t meet any enemy reaction.  Especially during the third raid, when the Greek destroyers bombed Avlona, it would have been natural to provoke the intervention of the Navy or at least of the Air force the next morning, when the ships were returning to their base via the Gulf of Corinth.  On the other hand, the presence in the island of Leros of 1 or 2 Italian cruisers could have been quite a nuisance for the movements of our ships, since the diplomatic representatives of their German allies were still based in Athens.

 

In that same book it is also mentioned among other things that the Italian ships based in the Dodecanese were often operating against Greek ships and positions on Greek islands of the Aegean Sea. The reference to attacks against Greek ships concerns most probably the submarines, because Italian surface ships had never encountered our own. As far as attacks on island positions are concerned, the mention may refer to some bombings of deserted small islands and of inhabited areas of the island of Samos, by destroyers based in Leros that immediately after these bombings were returning at full speed to their base.

 

I believe that answers to the above questions are indirectly given by what was previously presented concerning the naval policy that Italy applied, by the objectives set to her Navy and by the difficulties that –as it is admitted – it faced in the execution of its mission.

 

The additional mission to secure the transports to Albania that it undertook after the attack against Greece was considered an important charge and was not extended to the interruption of transports in Greek waters.  Eventually, because they didn’t trust their air reconnaissance, they didn’t wish to suddenly come into contact with superior British forces, especially after the destruction they suffered in Tarnato on November 12,1940 [ see: "The aeraunotic operation of Taranto" ] that changed drastically the situation in the Mediterranean for several months at the expense of Italy.

 

Finally, as far as the nerveless action against our ships of the Italian Air force is concerned, it can be partially at least be explained by the Italian Navy’s criticism.  On the other hand however, Admiral Cunningham reports in his memoirs that the Italian Air force action against the British Fleet was quite intensive during that period.

 

During that same war period, the Italian Navy was quite successful in supplying the Dodecanese, which had been isolated after the attack against Greece.  In addition to the transport of small quantities of supplies by submarines, more that 16,000 tons were sent with 3 1,200 tons cargo ships without suffering any loss. These ships, using various tricks, executed 16 trips in total.  One of them while crossing the Kassos island Straits in stormy weather, taking advantage of the prevailing low visibility, succeeded to join without being noticed a large British convoy and thus enter the Aegean Sea and at the right moment left the convoy and reached its destination.

 

The entrance of Greece in the war at the side of Great Britain gave the opportunity for the execution of an existing British plan aiming at using Suda bay in Crete, as advanced naval base.

 

A garrison was immediately sent along with the necessary means to secure a basic level of defense of the base. These measures were gradually reinforced.  Although the relative preparation had been made well in advance, strangely there was lack of anti torpedo nets to protect the ships in the bay. They came several months later and in the meantime, on December 3,1940, the cruiser HMS GLASGOW that was anchored in Suda was hit by 2 torpedo plane torpedoes, launched from a relative important distance. The ship suffered extensive damages, but succeeded to sail to Alexandria.

HMS GLASGOW

The anti-aircraft defense of the Suda bay was also insufficient and were not re-enforced enough till the seizure of the island by the Germans.

 

Just after the attack of Italy against Greece, the entire Fleet of the Mediterranean left Alexandria and headed west of Crete to cover the ships that had been sent at Souda and to eventually fight with the Italian Fleet, in case the later decided to intervene.  Although the enemy Air force detected the British Fleet, the Italian airplanes didn’t attack. On November 1,1940, the Italian Air force started to intensively bomb the city of Chania and Suda bay and these attacks went on for several days.

 

Greece’s participation in the common war effort created new obligations for the British Fleet of the Mediterranean, in order to secure for an ally the safe transport of supplies in East Mediterranean.  This transport activity was most intensive in March 1941, when 58,000 British troops with their vehicles, supplies and ammunitions were transported from Egypt to Greece.  When the Greek military transports had been completed at the end of December 1940, the Greek Fleet participated with all available destroyers in the escorts of the British convoys.”