Beginning of Operations

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The beginning of Operations

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

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

 

 

“One of the first Italian actions at the beginning of naval operations was the deployment in the Mediterranean of about 50 submarines, i.e. about 50% of the ready for war, in attack and reconnaissance missions.  Setting simultaneously missions to such a large proportion of the submarine fleet and their deployment plan - which was considered as not corresponding to the strategic situation- was criticized in Italy, because it entailed excessive tear and wear of the equipment.

 

Apparently, this point of view wasn’t a major preoccupation for them, as they anticipated a war of such a short duration [see: “The Italian Navy” ].  It was as late as the end of August 1940, that the Italian Supreme Command issued orders to the armed forces to start preparations for a war of a long duration.

 

The Italian submarines had few major successes during the first war period.  They themselves acknowledge that they were missing enough experience for night surface attacks.  This was also observed during the Greek- Italian war, when several Italian submarine attacks against our convoys had no success whatsoever. [see: “The Italian Attack –New days of Glory. Part A’: October – November 1940 and “The Italian Attack –New days of Glory. Part B’: November 1940- March 1941” ].

As mentioned in the Italian report, the submarines started to be used efficiently towards the middle of 1942.

 

Mine laying along the Italian coastline was among the first activities of the Italian Navy.  Six submarine-mine layers were assigned to lay attack mines outside ports and along the enemy’s transportation routes.  It seems however, because the mine laying mechanisms were defective, the use of submarines for that purpose was not a success.  During the total duration of the war, in total 55.000 mines were laid by the Italians.  Especially difficult was the laying of mines in the Straits of Sicily, because of the usually prevailing adverse weather conditions, strong sea-currents, big depths and their sudden variation.

 

On the other side, one of the first operations of the British Fleet after the breakout of the war was a destroyer flotilla search – with unknown results- for enemy submarines.

 

On June 11, 1940, the British executed a sweep in the Central Mediterranean with a powerful naval force, in the hope to encounter a convoy heading to Libya or enemy naval units.  They didn’t meet either.  They noticed nevertheless the insufficiency of the Italian air reconnaissance.  During the three days that the British Fleet remained at sea they met not trace of enemy airplane, while they were expecting to face continuous and intensive air bombardment during the day.  We had a similar surprise when Italy declared war against Greece on October 28, 1940 and by nightfall our ships anchored in the Gulf of Elefsis had not received the expected and considered as certain enemy air attack of the so much advertised by Mussolini air force. [See: “The Italian attack- New days of Glory. “Part A’: October-November 1940” ]

 

During this first operation of the British force, the Italian submarines had a good success.  On June 12, 1940, they torpedoed and sunk the British cruiser H.M.S. CALYPSO, in spite the fact that she was well protected by screen of submarines.

 

H.M.S. CALYPSO

 

During the whole month of June the British applied their plan of sweeps and also bombarded Bardia in Libya.  French naval units participated in these operations, till the capitulation of France on June 24, 1940.

 

The fall of France improved significantly the strategic position of Italy and to such a degree that the British Admiralty had to face at some point the abandonment of the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Anyhow, the re-supply of Libya was greatly facilitated and the Italians unobstructed sent their first convoy while their war ships transported ammunitions.  During one such mission of a 3-destroyer squadron, a British airboat detected them and 5 British cruisers attacked and sunk one of the destroyers. The other 2 escaped thanks to their superior speed.  Apparently, if the Italian reconnaissance had detected the British force, the destroyers would have probably had avoided the attack.

 

By the end of June 1940, during a war period of only 20 days, 9 Italian submarines were lost -of which 5 in the Mediterranean and 4 in the Red Sea- and many others had suffered damages.

 

Three British destroyers and 2 gunboats had attacked one of those sunk in the Red Sea, while damaged was sailing on the surface.  The Italian submarine fought with the gun, launched her torpedoes and before she was sunk inflicted a blow against a destroyer that finally caused her sinking.  The British under curious conditions took prisoner another one of the Italian submarines that was lost in the Red Sea following an attack.  It was found drifting pointlessly, most of its crew killed during the attack and the rest lying unconscious, poisoned by gazes that had been emitted.

 

During the same period 3 British submarines were lost, having fell on minefields laid by the Italians outside their ports in depths of 150 to 200 fathoms. As a result, the British Commander in Chief of the Fleet issued an order to his submarines not to sail in depths of less than 200 fathoms, unless they are hunting important enemy units.

 

The British were very concerned with the intensive bombardments of Malta that have started from the first day of the war.  Only 4 fighter planes, spares of the aircraft carrier, were based on the island and were soon shot down.  Admiral Cunningham was vainly asking for at least 20 more to be sent for the defense of Malta.

 

The fall of France was perhaps the best moment for the Italians to invade Malta. Such an operation should however been prepared well in advance.  The Navy had made a relative recommendation since 1938, stressing that seizing this island was of outmost importance for going to war against Great Britain in the Mediterranean.  The Italian Supreme Command disagreed however, based again on the assumption that the war will be of short duration and because it considered that the Air force could by herself neutralize this important basis.  On the other hand the Air force had declared that to support an eventual invasion of Malta operation she could earmark no more than 100 airplanes, most of them of an old type.   Therefore, the weight of such an operation was going to fall on the Navy. 

 

The delay in seizing Malta, which the British had left almost completely unprotected from the air, was one of the greater mistakes of the Axis in the Mediterranean.  Even if we accept that the shortcomings of the Italian Navy at the beginning of the war didn’t allow the immediate launching of such operation, later, when an adequate preparation was made and with much more favorable conditions, the mistake was repeated.

 

With Malta in the hands of the Axis, especially used as an air base, the difficult position of the British Fleet in the Mediterranean would have become even more difficult. The British were well aware of this and with unimaginable sacrifices succeeded in keeping her. Their naval and air forces launching their attacks from Malta, inflicted heavy losses to the Axis’ transports to Northern Africa. Later on Malta was used as launching base for the invasion of Sicily.

 

Seizing Tunisia, which did not present a major difficulty after the capitulation of France, would have been of great importance to the Axis.  If they had at their disposal the airports existing there, the important naval base of Bizerta and the other ports, they would have become the masters of both sides of the Straits of Sicily.  The transport routes to Northern Africa would have shortened significantly, passing at a long distance from Malta, and communication between Western and Eastern Mediterranean would have been interrupted for the British. However for reasons of political nature and rivalry between the allies this operation was never undertaken.

 

We will examine next in general lines, the development of naval operations in the Mediterranean and the main war events, stressing the points that can lead us to useful teachings.

 

As it is mentioned in the introduction of this book [see: “Introduction” ], there are important differences between what is reported by the two sides, not so much in the narration of the events but mainly concerning the reasons that triggered them.  A special effort was made to reach conclusions by combining opposite opinions and information from other sources.”