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CAMPAIGN SUMMARIES OF WORLD WAR 2

ITALIAN NAVY AT WAR, including Atlantic Submarine Operations and Italian Air Force in the Mediterranean

Part 1 of 2 - 1940-42
 

Battleship Caio Duilio (Maritime Quest, click to enlarge)

on to Part 2, Italian Navy at War, 1942-45

 
 

Each Summary is complete in its own right. The same information may therefore be found in a number of related summaries

(for more ship information,  go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search)

 
 

 
 

Pre-War

1919 - Treaty of Versailles - Under its provisions, Germany was to be disarmed, the Rhineland occupied and reparations paid. At this time Poland was recreated from parts of Germany and Russia, as were other Central European states out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

1921-22 - Washington Naval Treaty - Britain, United States, Japan, France and Italy agreed to limit the displacement and main armament of capital ships, aircraft carriers and cruisers, and total tonnage and age of the first two categories.

1922 - Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party came to power in Italy

1927 - Geneva Naval Conference failed to reached agreement on total tonnage of cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

1930 - London Naval Treaty - Britain, US and Japan agreed on total tonnage, tonnage and armament limitations for cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Also that no new capital ships were to be laid down until 1937. Neither France nor Italy were signatories.

1934 - The 1932 Geneva Disarmament Conference finally broke down and Japan announced its intention to withdraw from the 1922 and 1930 Naval Treaties when they expired in 1936.

1935 - October - Following border disputes between Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia, Italy invaded. League of Nations sanctions had little effect and by May 1936 the country was taken over by Mussolini's forces.

1936 - July - The Spanish Civil War started; Italy and Germany became aligned with one side and Russia with the other. November - London Protocol -The major powers including Germany agreed to prohibit unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed ships. December -The 1922 and 1930 Naval Treaties were allowed to lapse and the major powers moved towards rearmament.

1937 - Italian battleships "Littorio" and "Vittorio Veneto" were launched.

1939 - March - The Spanish Civil War came to an end. April - Italy invaded Albania. May - Germany and Italy joined forces in the Pact of Steel. September 1st - Germany invaded Poland; 3rd - Britain and France declared war on Germany

 
 

1939

SEPTEMBER 1939

Maritime Situation - These were based on the assumption Britain and France were actively allied against the European Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The Royal Navy would be responsible for the North Sea and most of the Atlantic, although the French would contribute some forces. In the Mediterranean, defence would be shared between both Navies, but as it happened, Benito Mussolini's claimed ownership of the Mediterranean - his 'Mare Nostrum' - did not have to be disputed for another nine months.

Italy - declared its neutrality

 

1940

JUNE 1940

Strategic Situation concerning the Mediterranean and Red Sea Areas

Mediterranean - Italy stood astride the central basin, with Italy itself, Sardinia and Sicily to the north and Libya with its provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica to the south. Albania on the Adriatic Sea and the Dodecanese Islands in the southern Aegean off Turkey were Italian. In the western half, Britain and France between them controlled Gibraltar at the narrow entrance from the Atlantic, southern France, Corsica, Algeria and Tunisia. Malta at the centre was a British colony. In the eastern half, Britain maintained a hold on Egypt and the Suez Canal, Palestine and Cyprus. In the Levant, Lebanon and Syria were French.

The Neutral countries in the western Mediterranean were Spain, and in the east, Greece and Crete, Yugoslavia and Turkey.

Red Sea Area – In between the Sudan and Somaliland were the linked Italian colonies of Eritrea, Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Italian Somaliland. Bordering them to the south was British Kenya. To the east of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia had close ties with Britain, and at the southern end of the Red Sea, Aden was a British colony. On the west shore were Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and further south French and British Somaliland.

Military and Maritime Circumstances

A large Italian army in Libya (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) threatened Alexandria and the Suez Canal, against which only a relatively small British and Dominion force could be fielded. Fortunately this had been reinforced earlier in the year by Australian and New Zealand troops. From bases in Italian East Africa the Italian Air Force and Navy were capable of cutting Allied supply routes to Suez through the Red Sea. The Italian army was also powerful enough to conquer British and French Somaliland and posed a threat to the Sudan and Kenya. The Italians' one major problem was the impossibility of supplying these forces other than by air from Libya.

Even allied to France, Britain's position in the Mediterranean was not guaranteed. Gibraltar may have beeen secure, assuming Spain's continued neutrality, but Malta was considered indefensible in the face of the Italian Air Force based in Sicily. As it happened only the later arrival of the German Luftwaffe turned this threat into a near reality. However, Malta's well-equipped base had to be abandoned by the Mediterranean Fleet for the poorer facilities at Alexandria in Egypt. These threats to Malta, Suez and the Red Sea depended on Italy taking and holding the initiative. Instead, Malta became a thorn in the side of Axis supply routes to Libya. And Libya and Italian East Africa in fact become endangered from the very Allied territories they threatened. Over the next three years, Malta above all became the pivot about which the whole Mediterranean campaign revolved - both the problems of its supply and its effectiveness as an offensive base. Later Axis plans to invade the island so invaluable to the Allied cause came to nothing.

Major Naval Strengths

The Italian Navy maintained a small but useful force in the Red Sea. Against these could be deployed ships of the East lndies Command based at Trincomalee in Ceylon. But the Italian’s overwhelming strength was in the Mediterranean.

The Royal Navy maintained a small force of destroyers at Gibraltar, largely for Atlantic convoy work, but the Western Mediterranean was primarily the responsibility of the French Navy - although British reinforcements could soon be dispatched from the Home Fleet as shortly happened. The Eastern Mediterranean was in the hands of the Mediterranean Fleet and a small French squadron based at Alexandria. It was up to strength in major units but still weak in cruisers, destroyers and submarines when compared with the Italian Navy. This was partly offset by the presence of carrier “Eagle” to accompany battleships “Malaya”, “Ramillies”, “Royal Sovereign” and “Warspite”.

Major Warship types

Western Med
FRENCH NAVY

Mediterranean
Italian NAVY

Eastern Med
ROYAL NAVY

Eastern Med
FRENCH NAVY

Mediterranean
ALLIED TOTAL

Battleships

4

6 (b)

4

1

9

Carriers

-

-

1

-

1

Cruisers

10

21

9

4

23

Destroyers

37(a)

52(c)

25

3

65

Submarines

36

106

10

-

46

TOTALS

87

185(d)

49

8

144

Notes:

(a) Plus 10 British destroyers at Gibraltar
(b) included 2 new battleships completing.
(c) Plus over 60 large torpedo boots.
(d) Based at Massawa in the Red Sea were another 7 destroyers, 8 submarines and 2 torpedo boats.

Italy Declared War - Italy declared war on Britain and France on the 10th. Two weeks later France was out of the war. Still on the 10th, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa declared war on Italy.

France - The French Government of Marshal Petain requested armistice terms from Germany and Italy on the 17th. Later in the month Italian forces invaded southern France but with little success. A Franco-Italian Armistice was signed on the 24th, and included provision for the demilitarisation of French naval bases in the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean

12th -The Mediterranean Fleet with “Warspite”, “Malaya”, “Eagle”, cruisers and destroyers sailed from Alexandria for a sweep against Italian shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. South of Crete, light cruiser “CALYPSO” was torpedoed and sunk by Italian submarine “Bagnolini”.

13th - Mediterranean Fleet submarines operated out of Alexandria on patrol off Italian bases and soon lost three of their number (1-3). At the time mines were usually blamed, but it turned out that Italian anti-submarine forces were far more effective than expected. While Royal Navy submarines suffered their losses, the many Italian submarines on patrol suffered more heavily. The first British loss was “ODIN” (1) off the Italian coast in the Gulf of Taranto, sunk by the guns and torpedoes of destroyer “Strale”. 16th - The second British submarine “GRAMPUS” (2), minelaying off Augusta, Sicily was caught and sunk by large torpedo boats “Circe” and “Clio”. 17th - Six Italian submarines [1-6] were sunk in the Mediterranean itself, half by the Royal Navy. However the first to go, “PROVANA” [1] was rammed and sunk off Oran, Algeria by French sloop “La Curieuse” after attacking a French convoy, and just a week before France was forced out of the war. 19th - Towards the other end of the North African coast, the third British loss “ORPHEUS” (3) was sent to the bottom by Italian destroyer “Turbine” north of the Cyrenaica port of Tobruk, soon to become a household name. 20th - The second Italian boat lost in the Mediterranean was “DIAMANTE” [2] torpedoed by submarine “Parthian” off Tobruk. 27th - The third Italian submarine lost was the “LIUZZI” [3] sunk by Med Fleet destroyers “Dainty”, “Ilex”, “Decoy” and the Australian “Voyager” south of Crete. 28th - As the Mediterranean Fleet 7th Cruiser Squadron covered convoy movements in the Eastern Mediterranean, three Italian destroyers carrying supplies between Taranto in southern Italy and Tobruk were intercepted. In a running gun battle, “ESPERO” was sunk by Australian cruiser “Sydney” to the southwest of Cape Matapan at the southern tip of Greece. 28th - The first of two Italian submarines sunk by RAF Sunderlands of No. 230 Sqdn was “ARGONAUTA” [4] in the central Med as she was believed to be returning from patrol off Tobruk. 29th - The same Med Fleet destroyers after sinking “Liuzzi” two days earlier, were now southwest of Crete. They repeated their success by sinking “UEBI SCEBELI” [5]. 29th - A day after their first success, the Sunderlands of No. 230 Sqdn sank “RUBINO” [6] in the Ionian Sea as she returned from the Alexandria area

Red Sea Area

15th - In the Red Sea and Indian Ocean area, four of the eight submarines based there {1-4} were soon accounted for starting with “MACALLE” {1} which ran aground, a total loss. 19th - At the southern end of the Red Sea, the Italian “GALILEO GALILEI” {2} on patrol off Aden was captured by armed trawler “Moonstone” following a gun duel. 23rd - Also in the Gulf of Aden, but off French Somaliland, Italian boat “EVANGELISTA TORICELLI” {3} was sunk by destroyers “Kandahar” and “Kingston” with sloop “Shoreham”. During the action, destroyer “KHARTOUM” suffered an internal explosion and sank in shallow water off Perim Island, a total loss. 23rd - Italian submarine “Galvani” sank Indian patrol sloop “PATHAN” in the Indian Ocean. 24th - The following day off the Gulf of Oman, “GALVANI” {4} was accounted for by sloop “Falmouth”.

British Force H - By the end of the month, Force H had been assembled at Gibraltar from units of the Home Fleet. Vice-Adm Sir James Somerville flew his flag in battlecruiser “Hood” and commanded battleships “Resolution” and “Valiant”, carrier “Ark Royal” and a few cruisers and destroyers.

Warship Loss Summary - In a confusing month, the the Italian Navy had lost one destroyer and ten submarines; the Royal Navy one light cruiser, one destroyer, three submarines and one sloop to Italian forces; .

Battle of the Atlantic - The Allied loss of Norway brought German warships and U-boats many hundreds of miles closer to the Atlantic convoy routes. Within a matter of days the first U-boats were sailing from the Norwegian port of Bergen, while others were sent to patrol as far south as the Canary and Cape Verde Islands off northwest Africa. Italian submarines joined them in this area, but without any early successes.

JULY 1940

5th - Torpedo-carrying Swordfish from carrier "Eagle's" squadrons flew from land bases on successful attacks against Tobruk and area. On the 5th, aircraft of 813 Squadron sank Italian destroyer "ZEFFIRO" and a freighter at Tobruk. The success was repeated two weeks later.

9th - Action off Calabria or Battle of Punto Stila (map below) - On the 7th, Adm Cunningham sailed from Alexandria with battleships "Warspite", Malaya", Royal Sovereign", carrier "Eagle", cruisers and destroyers to cover convoys from Malta to Alexandria and to challenge the Italians to action. Next day - the 8th - two Italian battleships, 14 cruisers and 32 destroyers were reported in the Ionian Sea covering a convoy of their own to Benghazi in Libya. Italian aircraft now started five days of accurate high-level bombing (also against Force H out of Gibraltar) and cruiser "Gloucester" was hit and damaged. Mediterranean Fleet headed for a position to cut off the Italians from their base at Taranto. On the 9th, Eagles aircraft failed to find the Italians and first contact was made by a detached cruiser squadron which was soon under fire from the heavier Italian ships. "Warspite" came up and damaged "Giulio Cesare" with a 15in hit. As the Italian battleships turned away, the British cruisers and destroyers engaged, but with little effect. Mediterranean Fleet pursued to within 50 miles of the south west Italian coast off Calabria before withdrawing.

 

As Adm Cunningham covered the by-now delayed convoys to Alexandria, "Eagle's" Swordfish attacked Augusta harbour, Sicily on the 10th.Destroyer "Pancaldo" was torpedoed, but later re-floated and re-commissioned.

 

11th - Force H, which had put to sea on receiving reports of the Italian fleet, was now returning to Gibraltar when screening destroyer "ESCORT" was sunk by the Italian submarine "Marconi".

16th - Submarine "PHOENIX" attacked an escorted tanker off Augusta and was lost to depth charges from Italian torpedo boat "Albatros".

19th - Action off Cape Spada - Australian cruiser "Sydney" and destroyers "Hasty", "Havock", "Hero", "Hyperion" and "llex" on a sweep into the Aegean Sea were sent to intercept two reported Italian cruisers. Off Cape Spada at the north west tip of Crete, "BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI" was stopped by Sydney's gunfire and finished off with torpedoed from the destroyers. "Bande Nere" escaped.

20th - Carrier "Eagle's" Swordfish continued their strikes against Italian targets around Tobruk. In the nearby Gulf of Bomba, 824 Squadron was responsible for sinking destroyers "NEMBO" and "OSTRO" and another freighter.

AUGUST 1940

1st - Submarine "OSWALD" on patrol south of the Strait of Messina reported Italian Navy movements. She was detected and later rammed and sunk by destroyer "Vivaldi".

Malta - The decision was taken to reinforce Malta, and in Operation 'Hurry', carrier "Argus" flew off 12 Hurricanes from a position southwest of Sardinia. This was the first of many reinforcement and supply operations, often bitterly fought to keep Malta alive and in the fight against Axis supply routes to their armies in North Africa.

22nd - Land-based Swordfish from "Eagle's" 824 Squadron repeated their July success with another torpedo strike in the Gulf of Bomba near Tobruk. Just as she prepared for a human torpedo attack on Alexandria, submarine "IRIDE" and a depot ship were sunk.

23rd - Heavy mining in the Strait of Sicily by Italian surface ships led to the loss of destroyer "HOSTILE" on passage from Malta to Gibraltar. Extensive Italian fields in the 'Sicilian Narrows' sank and damaged many Royal Navy ships over the next three years.

SEPTEMBER 1940

Royal Navy in the Mediterranean - Reinforcements were sent to the Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria right through until the end of the year.The arrival of "Illustrious" allowed Adm Cunningham to go ahead with plans to attack the Italian battlefleet at Taranto.

17th - Units of the Mediterranean Fleet including battleship "Valiant" sailed with "Illustrious" for a raid on Benghazi. Swordfish biplanes torpedoed destroyer "BOREA"; mines laid by them off the port sank "AQUILONE". On the return to Alexandria, heavy cruiser "Kent" was detached to bombard Bardia, but was torpedoed and badly damaged by Italian aircraft.

22nd - British submarine "Osiris" on patrol in the southern Adriatic attacked a convoy and sank Italian torpedo boat "PALESTRO".

30th - As Italian submarine "GONDAR" approached Alexandria carrying human torpedoes for an attack on the base, she was found by a RAF Sunderland of No 230 Squadron and sunk by Australian destroyer "Stuart".

OCTOBER 1940

2nd - Mediterranean Fleet destroyers "Havock" and "Hasty" sank Italian submarine "BERILLO" off Sollum the border town between Libya and Egypt.

12th/14th - Attack on Malta Convoy - From Alexandria a convoy safely reached Malta covered by the Mediterranean Fleet with four battleships and carriers "Illustrious" and "Eagle". As the Fleet returned on the 12th, attacks were made by Italian light forces southeast of Sicily. Cruiser "Ajax" sank Italian torpedo boats "AIRONE" and "ARIEL" and badly damaged destroyer "ARTIGLIERE" which was finished off by heavy cruiser "York". Later heading back east, the carriers launched air strikes against Leros island in the Dodecanese. On the 14th as the Mad Fleet headed for Alexandria, cruiser "Liverpool" was badly damaged by a torpedo hit from Italian aircraft.

15th - On patrol off Calabria, south west Italy in the Ionian Sea, submarine "RAINBOW" was lost in a gun action with the Italian submarine "Enrico Toti". At about this time "TRIAD" was probably mined off the Gulf of Taranto.

18th - Air and sea patrols accounted for two Italian submarines to the east of Gibraltar. On the 18th "DURBO" went down to attacks by destroyers "Firedrake" and "Wrestler" working with RAF London flying boats of No 202 Squadron.

20th - Two days after "Durbo's" sinking, Gibraltar-based destroyers "Gallant", "Griffin" and "Hotspur" accounted for the "LAFOLE".

Red Sea Area

21st - Red Sea convoy BN7 was attacked by Italian destroyers based at Massawa in Eritrea. The escorts, including New Zealand cruiser "Leander" and the destroyer Kimberley, drove "NULLO" ashore with their gunfire, where she was destroyed next day by RAF Blenheim light bombers.

NOVEMBER 1940

Fleet Air Arm attack on Taranto (below)  - Early in the month a complex series of British reinforcement and supply moves mounted from both ends of the Mediterranean led to the classic air attack on the Italian battlefleet at Taranto. On the 11th, carrier "Illustrious", escorted by cruisers and destroyers, headed for a position in the Ionian Sea 170 miles to the southeast of Taranto. All six battleships of the Italian Navy were at anchor there. That night, two waves of Swordfish biplanes were launched, some belonging to "Eagle". One hit each was made on "CONTE DI CAVOUR" and "CAIO DIULIO" and three on the brand new "LITTORIA". All three battleships sank at their moorings and "Cavour" was never recommissioned, for the loss of just two Swordfish.

27th - Action off Cape Spartivento, Southern Sardinia - A fast British convoy sailed eastward from Gibraltar with ships for Malta and Alexandria. Cover was provided by Force H with battlecruiser "Renown", carrier "Ark Royal", cruisers "Despatch" and "Sheffield". Meanwhile, units of the Mediterranean Fleet including "Ramillies" and cruisers "Newcastle", "Berwick" and "Coventry" headed west for a position south of Sardinia to meet them. Other ships accompanied the two Mediterranean Fleet carriers in separate attacks on Italian targets - "Eagle" on Tripoli, Libya and "Illustrious" on Rhodes off the southwest Turkish coast. These moves took place on the 26th. Next day, on the 27th, south of Sardinia, aircraft of Force H's "Ark Royal" sighted an Italian force with two battleships and seven heavy cruisers. Force H, now joined by the Med Fleet's "Ramillies", sailed to meet them. In an hour-long exchange of gunfire "Renown" and the cruisers were in action, during which time "Berwick" was damaged and an Italian destroyer badly hit. The slower "Ramillies" had not come up by the time the Italians turned back for home. Adm Somerville pursued, but as he approached Italian shores had to turn back himself.

Battle of the Atlantic - In North Atlantic operations, Italian submarine "FAA DI BRUNO" was lost in uncertain circumstances, possibly sunk by British destroyer "Havelock". By the end of the month 26 Italian submarines were operating out of Bordeaux, but were never as successful as their German ally.

DECEMBER 1940

Late November/early December - Submarines "REGULUS" and "TRITON" were lost in late November or early December, possibly on Italian mines in the Strait of Otranto area at the southern end of the Adriatic Sea. Alternatively "Regulus" may had been sunk by Italian aircraft on 26th November.

3rd - At anchor in the poorly defended Suda Bay, cruiser "Glasgow" was hit by two torpedoes from Italian aircraft and badly damaged.

13th - Cruiser "Coventry" was torpedoed by Italian submarine "Neghelli", but remained operational

14th - Also operating in support of the land campaign, destroyers "Hereward" and "Hyperion" sank Italian submarine "NAIADE" off Bardia, Libya just over the Egyptian border.

Mediterranean Operations - Another series of British convoy and offensive operations were carried out by the Mediterranean Fleet with battleships "Warspite", "Valiant "and carrier "Illustrious". At the same time, battleship "Malaya" passed through to the west for Gibraltar. On the way, escorting destroyer "HYPERION" hit a mine near Cape Bon, northeast tip of Tunisia on the 22nd and had to be scuttled.

Mediterranean Theatre after Seven Months - A total of nine British submarines had been lost since June in the Mediterranean, a poor exchange for the sinking of 10 Italian merchantmen of 45,000 tons. In the same time the Italians had lost 18 submarines from all causes throughout the Mediterranean and Red Sea areas. Mussolini's claimed domination of the Mediterranean had not been apparent. In spite of the loss of French naval power, Force H and the Mediterranean Fleet had held the Italian Navy in check. Malta had been supplied and reinforced, and the British offensive in North Africa was underway.

Battle of the Atlantic - Italian submarine "TARANTINI" returning from North Atlantic patrol was torpedoed and sunk by submarine "Thunderbolt" on the 15th in the Bay of Biscay.

 

1941

JANUARY 1941

Air War - RAF Wellingtons raided Naples and damaged Italian battleship "Giulio Cesare".

Malta Convoy "Excess" - On the 6th, British convoy 'Excess' left Gibraltar for Malta and Greece covered by Gibraltar-based Force H. By the 10th, 'Excess' had reached the Strait of Sicily and was attacked by Italian torpedo boats. "VEGA" was sunk by escorting cruiser "Bonaventure" and destroyer "Hereward". As the Mediterranean Fleet including "Illustrious" met the convoy off the Italian-held island of Pantelleria, screening destroyer "GALLANT" hit a mine. Towed back to Malta, she was not re-commissioned and finally wrecked by bombing over a year later in April 1942.

19th - Destroyer "Greyhound", escorting a convoy to Greece, sank Italian submarine "NEGHELLI" in the Aegean Sea

Battle of the Atlantic - Italian submarine "NANI" attacked a convoy west of North Channel on the 7th and was sunk by corvette "Anemone"

FEBRUARY 1941

Force H attack in the Gulf of Genoa - "Ark Royal," "Renown" and "Malaya" sailed into the Gulf of Genoa, northwest Italy on the 9th. The big ships bombarded the city of Genoa while "Ark Royal's" aircraft bombed Leghorn and laid mines off Spezia. An Italian battlefleet sortied but failed to make contact.

25th - On patrol off the east coast of Tunisia, submarine "Upright" torpedoed and sank Italian cruiser "ARMANDO DIAZ" covering a convoy from Naples to Tripoli.

27th - After breaking out of Massawa, Eritrea's Red Sea port, Italian armed merchant cruiser "RAMB 1" was located off the Indian Ocean Maldive Islands and sunk by New Zealand cruiser "Leander".

Battle of the Atlantic - Italian submarine "MARCELLO" was believed sunk to the west of the Hebrides islands, off NW Scotland by ex-US destroyer "Montgomery" and other escorts of Liverpool-out convoy OB287 on the 22nd.

MARCH 1941

6th - Italian submarine "ANFITRITE" attacked a British troop convoy bound for Greece, east of Crete and was sunk by escorting destroyer "Greyhound".

26th - At anchor in Suda Bay, northern Crete, heavy cruiser "YORK" was badly damaged by Italian explosive motor boats and beached. She was later wrecked by bombing and abandoned when Crete was evacuated in May.

28th - Mines laid by submarine "Rorqual" west of Sicily on the 25th, sank two Italian supply ships the next day and torpedo boat "CHINOTTO" on the 28th.

28th - Battle of Cape Matapan (map above) - As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered troop movements to Greece, 'Ultra' intelligence was received reporting the sailing of an Italian battlefleet with one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers to attack the convoy routes. On the 27th, Vice-Adm Pridham-Wippell with cruisers "Ajax", "Gloucester", "Orion" and the Australian "Perth" and destroyers sailed from Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Adm Cunningham with carrier "Formidable" and battleships "Warspite", "Barham" and "Valiant "left Alexandria on the same day to meet the cruisers. Around 08.30 on the 28th, south of Crete, Adm Pridham-Wippell was in action with an Italian cruiser squadron. Just before noon he found himself between them and the battleship "Vittorio Veneto" which had now come up. An attack by Swordfish from "Formidable" failed to hit the Italian battleship, but enabled the British cruisers to extricate themselves.

Mediterranean Fleet heavy units arrived, but their only chance of action was to slow down the Italians before they could reached Italy. A second Swordfish strike at around 15.00 hit and slowed down "Vittorio Veneto", but only for a short while. At 19.30 a third strike southwest of Cape Matapan stopped heavy cruiser "Pola". All this time, RAF aircraft were attacking but without success. Later that evening (still on the 28th), two more heavy cruisers - "Fiume" and "Zara with four destroyers were detached to help "Pola". Before reaching her, Adm Cunningham's ships detected them by radar and "FIUME", "ZARA" and destroyers "ALFIERI" and "CARDUCCI" were crippled by the close range gunfire of "Barham", "Valiant" and "Warspite". All four Italians were finished off by four destroyers led by the Australian "Stuart". Early next morning on the 29th, "POLA" was found, partly abandoned. After taking off the remaining crew, destroyers "Jervis" and "Nubian" sank her with torpedoes. The Royal Navy lost one aircraft.

31st - Continuing her successes, "Rorqual" torpedoed and sank submarine "CAPPONI" off northeast Sicily.

31st - Cruiser "BONAVENTURE" with a Mediterranean Fleet cruiser force escorting a convoy from Greece to Egypt, was torpedoed and sunk to the southeast of Crete by Italian submarine "Ambra"

APRIL 1941

East Africa - On the Red Sea coast of Italian East Africa, the capture of Eritrea was completed when Asmara was occupied on the 1st and the port of Massawa on the 8th. 3rd - Leading up to the capture of Massawa, the eight surviving Italian destroyers and torpedo boats were lost or scuttled. On the 3rd, five seaworthy destroyers sailed to attack Port Sudan, Sudan further north along the Red Sea shore. Shore-based Swordfish from carrier "Eagle" sank "MANIN" and "SAURO". 8th - Before the final scuttling at Massawa, Italian MTB MAS-213 torpedoed and damaged cruiser "Capetown" escorting a convoy off Massawa. Four Italian submarines did manage to escape and eventually reached Bordeaux, France after sailing around Africa.

16th - Action of Sfax, Tunisia - Capt P. J. Mack with destroyers "Janus", "Jervis", "Mohawk" and "Nubian" sailing from Malta intercepted a German Afrika Korps convoy of five transports escorted by three Italian destroyers off Kerkennah Islands, east of Tunisia. All Axis ships were sunk including the destroyers "BALENO" (foundered next day), "LAMPO" (later salvaged) and "TARIGO". In the fighting "MOHAWK" was torpedoed by "Tarigo" and had to be scuttled.

MAY 1941

Late April/early May - Two submarines operating out of Malta were lost, possibly in Italian minefields - "USK" in the Strait of Sicily area and "UNDAUNTED" off Tripoli. "Usk" may have been sunk by Italian destroyers west of Sicily while attacking a convoy.

2nd - Returning to Malta with cruiser "Gloucester" and other destroyers from a search for Axis convoys, "JERSEY" was mined and sunk in the entrance to Valletta's Grand Harbour.

21st - In the opening stages of the attack on Crete, cruiser minelayer "Abdiel" laid mines off the west coast of Greece sinking Italian destroyer "MIRABELLO" and two transports.

21st May-1st June - Battle for Crete - Most of the Mediterranean Fleet with four battleships, one carrier, 10 cruisers and 30 destroyers fought the Battle for Crete. There were two phases, both of which take place under intense air attack, mainly German but also Italian, from which all British losses resulted.

JUNE 1941

North Africa - Another unsuccessful British offensive to relieve Tobruk started from Sollum on the 15th (Operation 'Battleaxe'). Within two days the operation was called off. A heavy price had to be paid for the supply of besieged Tobruk by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy ships involved. All trips take place under continual threat of German and Italian aircraft attack: 24th - Sloop "AUCKLAND" was lost off Tobruk. 30th - Australian destroyer "WATERHEN" was bombed and sunk off Bardia.

27th - Submarine "Triumph" on patrol off the Egyptian coast sank the Italian submarine "SALPA".

Battle of the Atlantic - Italian submarine "GLAUCO" was scuttled west of Gibraltar on the 27th after being damaged by destroyer "Wishart".

JULY 1941

5th - Submarine "Torbay" on patrol in the Aegean Sea sank Italian submarine "JANTINA".

11th - On the Tobruk Run, destroyer "DEFENDER" was bombed by German or Italian aircraft and went down off Sidi Barrani.

20th - Two more British submarines fall victim to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks in July - the first was "UNION" to torpedo boat "Circe" off Pantelleria.

21st-24th - Malta Convoy, Operation 'Substance' - 'Substance' set out from Gibraltar with six transports covered by Force H with "Ark Royal", battlecruiser "Renown", cruisers and destroyers. Battleship "Nelson", three cruisers and more destroyers reinforced Force H from the Home Fleet. On the 23rd, south of Sardinia, sustained Italian air attacks started. Cruiser "Manchester" was hit and destroyer "FEARLESS" sunk by aircraft torpedoes. Next day the transports reached Malta safely. On the 26th the Italians launched an attack on Grand Harbour with explosive motor-boats, human torpedoes and aircraft, but failed to reached the recently arrived ships.

30th - The second Royal Navy submarine loss to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks was "CACHALOT" while on passage from Malta to Alexandria, rammed by torpedo boat "Papa".

AUGUST 1941

Malta Convoy - Operation 'Style' - Early in the month, two cruisers, cruiser-minelayer "Manxman" and two destroyers successfully carried reinforcements and supplies from Gibraltar to Malta. On the way, cruiser "Hermione" rammed and sank Italian submarine "TEMBIEN" southwest of Sicily on the 2nd.

18th - Submarine "P-32" was lost on mines off Tripoli as she attempts to attack a convoy entering the port. "P.33" was also lost around the same time in this area, possibly on mines.

26th - As an Italian battlefleet returned from a sortie against Force H, submarine “Triumph” torpedoed and damaged heavy cruiser "Bolzano" north of Sicily.

Battle of the Atlantic - Submarine "Severn" on patrol for U-boats attacking HG convoys west of Gibraltar, torpedoed and sank Italian submarine "BIANCHI" on the 7th.

SEPTEMBER 1941

24th-28th - Malta Convoy: Operation 'Halberd' - 'Halberd' sailed from Gibraltar with nine transports. Force H, reinforced from the Home Fleet, included "Nelson", "Rodney" and "Prince of Wales" and air cover from "Ark Royal". On the 26th the Italians sailed to intercept but returned to base next day. South of Sardinia on the 27th, "Nelson" was damaged by an Italian aircraft torpedo, and at the end of the day Force H turned back for Gibraltar. Convoy and escort went on to reach Malta on the 28th minus one transport lost to air attack. As Force H returned, screening destroyers "Gurkha" and "Legion" sank Italian submarine "ADUA" off the coast of Algeria on the 30th.

27th - Submarine "Upright" sank Italian torpedo boat "ALBATROS" off Messina, northeast Sicily.

28th - Corvette "Hyacinth" on patrol off Jaffa, Palestine, sank Italian submarine "FISALIA".

Battle of the Atlantic

8th - As Italian submarines patrolled to the west of Portugal for HG convoys, "BARACCA" was depth charged and rammed by destroyer "Croome". A second Italian submarine may have been sunk later in the month.

21st - Destroyer "Vimy" claimed to have sunk Italian submarine "MALASPINA" during attacks on Gibraltar/UK convoy HG73. She may have been lost earlier through unknown causes.

OCTOBER 1941

20th - Mines previously laid by submarine "Rorqual" in the Gulf of Athens sank Italian torpedo boats "ALDEBARAN" and "ALTAIR".

Late October - Submarine "TETRARCH" sailed from Malta for Gibraltar but fails to arrive, presumed lost in the Italian minefields in the Strait of Sicily.

Battle of the Atlantic - Two escorts and two U-boats were lost in attacks on the UK/Gibraltar convoy routes. One of the submarines was the Italian "FERRARIS" on the 25th, damaged by a RAF Catalina of No 202 Squadron and sent to the bottom by the gunfire of escort destroyer "Lamerton".

NOVEMBER 1941

9th - Action off Cape Spartivento, Southwest Italy - RAF reports of an Italian convoy in the Ionian Sea making for North Africa led to British cruiser Force K sailing from Malta. The convoy consisted of seven transports escorted by six destroyers, with a distant cruiser covering force. Early in the morning every one of the transports and destroyer "FULMINE" were sent to the bottom. Later, while rescuing survivors, destroyer "LIBECCIO" was sunk by submarine "Upholder".

DECEMBER 1941

Declarations of War - In a series of diplomatic moves, numerous declarations of war were made, including 11th-13th - Germany, Italy, Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary against the United States.

1st - Malta-based Force K searching for Axis shipping encountered Italian destroyer “DA MOSTA” north of Tripoli. She was sunk by cruisers “Aurora” and “Penelope” and destroyer “Lively”.

6th - Submarine “PERSEUS” on patrol off the west coast of Greece was mined and sunk off Zante Island.

11th - Submarine “Truant” sank Italian torpedo boat “ALCIONE” north of Crete. On the same day escort destroyer “Farndale” on passage sighted and sank Italian submarine “CARACCIOLA” on a supply trip from Bardia on the Libyan side of the border with Egypt.

13th - Action off Cape Bon, Tunisia - Destroyers “Legion”, “Maori”, “Sikh” and Dutch “lsaac Sweers” sailed from Gibraltar to join the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. Off Cape Bon, Tunisia they sighted two Italian 6in cruisers, “DA BARBIANO” and “DI GIUSSANO” returning from an aborted mission to carry a deck cargo of petrol to Tripoli. In a short night action and without being seen, the destroyers quickly sank both cruisers with gunfire and torpedoes. Italian loss of life was heavy.

13th-20th - First Battle of Sirte and Related Actions - Italian convoy operations to Libya led to major Royal Navy losses over just a few days. A first Axis convoy bound for Benghazi set out on the 13th, covered by an Italian battlefleet. On receiving the news, Rear-Adm Vian left Alexandria with a cruiser force to join up with Force K from Malta. On the evening of the 14th, submarine “Urge” torpedoed and damaged battleship “Vittorio Veneto” off the Sicilian Strait of Messina and the Italians cancelled that operation. The cruiser forces returned to their bases but as they did Adm Vian's “GALATEA” was sunk by “U-557” and went down off Alexandria. Adm Vian went out again late on the 15th to escort fast supply ship “Breconshire” from Alexandria to Malta. On the 17th they met Force K off the Gulf of Sirte, and shortly encountered Italian battleships covering a second convoy, this time to Tripoli. The two cruiser forces attacked and the Italians withdrew in what became known as the First Battle of Sirte. “Breconshire” reached Malta on the 18th and Force K left harbour to search for the second convoy still making for Tripoli. Early on the 19th off Tripoli, the British force ran into an Italian minefield. Cruiser “NEPTUNE” hit three or four mines and sank with only one man surviving. “Aurora” was badly damaged and “Penelope” slightly. Trying to assist “Neptune”, destroyer “KANDAHAR” was mined and had to be scuttled the following day. Out of a three cruiser and four destroyer force, only three destroyers escaped damage.

19th - That morning three Italian human torpedoes launched from submarine “Scire” (Cdr Borghese) penetrated Alexandria harbour. Their charges badly damaged battleships “Queen Elizabeth” with Adm Cunningham on board and “Valiant”. They both settled to the bottom and the Mediterranean Fleet battle squadron ceased to exist. News of the sinking was kept from the Italians.

 

1942

JANUARY 1942

Early January - Submarine "TRIUMPH" sailed from Alexandria on 26th December for a cloak-and-dagger landing near Athens before patrolling in the Aegean. She reported the landing on the 30th, but failed to rendezvous back there on the 9th and was presumed mined off the island of Milo, southeast of the Greek mainland.

5th - Italian submarine "SAINT-BON" was torpedeod and sunk north of Sicily by submarine "Upholder".

Malta - During the month, Malta was resupplied by three small convoys coming from the east. During this period the Italian Navy had escorted two substantial convoys to North Africa in time for Rommel's next offensive. Malta continued to be heavily bombed for many months by the German and Italian Air Forces.

30th - The second Italian submarine loss in the month was "MEDUSA", torpedoed by "Thorn" in the Gulf of Venice, in the far north of the Adriatic.

FEBRUARY 1942

13th - Two Royal Navy submarines were lost. The first was "TEMPEST" which torpedoed a supply ship off the Gulf of Taranto but was depth-charged by the escorts including Italian torpedo boat "Circe", brought to the surface and soon sunk.

23rd - Ten days later "P-38" attacked a heavily defended convoy off Tripoli and was also lost to the escorts' counter-attack which again included Italian torpedo boat "Circe".

MARCH 1942

14th - Italian submarine "MILLO" was sunk off Calabria in the Ionian Sea by submarine "Ultimatum". Two more were lost to British "U" class submarines

17th - The second was "GUGLIELMOTTI" also off Calabria, by "Unbeaten".

18th - Finally "TRICHECO" went down off Brindisi in the southern Adriatic torpedoed by "Upholder".

22nd - Second Battle of Sirte (map left) - Adm Vian sailed on the 20th from Alexandria with four fast supply ships for Malta escorted by cruisers "Cleopatra", "Dido", "Euryalus" and "Carlisle" plus destroyers. Early on the 22nd, Italian battleship "Littorio" with two heavy and one light cruiser plus destroyers headed for the British force. In the early afternoon the Italians were sighted to the north, just off the Gulf of Sirte. The four main phases of the battle lasted for a total of four hours. For much of this time the convoy was heavily attacked from the air. Starting around 15.00: (1) The three Italian cruisers were driven off in a long-range gunnery duel with the Royal Navy's 5.25in "Dido" class cruisers. (2) The Italian cruisers returned, this time with "Littorio". A series of attacks out of the smoke by cruisers and destroyers held them off. (3) Contrary to Adm Vian's expectations, the Italians worked around the smokescreen to the west, suddenly appearing only eight miles away. Torpedo attacks by four destroyers were unsuccessful, and "Havock" was disabled by a 15in shell. (4) The Italian force continued trying to get round the smoke and, in another destroyer torpedo attack, it was "Kingston's" turn to receive a 15in hit. As the Italians turned north and away, the British cruisers went in one last time.

Just after the battle, severe storms damaged ships of both sides and on the 23rd two of the returning Italian destroyers foundered east of Sicily. As for the convoy, all four transports including the "Breconshire" were lost to air attack, two off Malta and two in harbour before much of their cargo could be off-loaded. As the Hunt class "SOUTHWOLD" stood by "Breconshire" on the 24th, she hit a mine and sank off the island. And on the 26th the returned destroyer "LEGION" and submarine "P-39" were lost in air-raids.

APRIL 1942

1st - Submarine "Urge" sank Italian cruiser "BANDE NERE" north of Sicily. This was a welcome success in a month that saw heavy Royal Navy losses including "Urge" herself.

Malta - By now Malta had almost ceased to be of any value as a base for attacking Rommel's supply lines, and most of his transports were getting through. The German and Italian bombing led to the loss, directly and indirectly, of numerous ships including four destroyers and four submarines. 1st - Submarines "P-36" and "PANDORA" were sunk in Malta and others of the 10th Flotilla damaged. "Pandora" had only recently arrived from Gibraltar on a supply trip. 4th - Greek submarine "GLAVKOS" was also sunk in Malta. 5th - Destroyer "GALLANT" wrecked in Malta. She was badly damaged in January 1941 and had not been repaired. 6th - A number of ships managed to escape. "HAVOCK" tried to reach Gibraltar but ran aground and was wrecked near Cape Bon, Tunisia. She was later torpedoed by an Italian submarine. 9th - Destroyer "LANCE" in dry dock in Malta was badly damaged and never repaired. 11th - Destroyer "KINGSTON" was bombed and sunk in harbour.

14th - 10th Flotilla lost its most famous boat when "UPHOLDER" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn VC) was lost. She attacked a convoy northeast of Tripoli and was presumed sunk in the counter-attack by destroyer escort "Pegaso".

27th - By this time the 10th Submarine Flotilla had been ordered to leave Malta. "URGE" sailed for Alexandria on the 27th, but failed to arrive, probably lost in an Italian minefield.

MAY 1942

29th - In a series of attacks on convoys bound for North Africa, submarine "Turbulent" sank three transports in May and on the 29th torpedoed and sank escorting Italian destroyer "PESSAGNO" northwest of Benghazi.

JUNE 1942

12th-16th - Malta Convoys 'Harpoon' from Gibraltar, 'Vigorous' from Alexandria - Six escorted merchantmen passed through the Strait of Gibraltar covered by battleship "Malaya", carriers "Argus" and "Eagle", cruisers "Kenya", "Charybdis", "Liverpool" and destroyers - this force comprised Operation 'Harpoon'. Attacks by Italian aircraft on the 14th led to the first merchant ship going down south of Sardinia. "Liverpool" was also damaged and had to return. Later that day at the entrance to the Strait of Sicily, the big ship cover force turned back. In the morning of the 15th, south of Pantelleria, an Italian two-cruiser squadron in conjunction with Italian and German aircraft attacked the by-now lightly defended convoy. The five escorting fleet destroyers headed for the Italians, but "Bedouin" and "Partridge" were disabled by gunfire. Three more merchantmen were lost to bombing attacks and Italian torpedo aircraft finished off BEDOUIN. Later that evening, as the seriously depleted convoy approached Malta, it ran into an Italian minefield. Two destroyers and the fifth supply ship were damaged, but Polish escort destroyer KUJAWIAK was sunk. Just two of 'Harpoon's' six ships reached Malta for the loss of two destroyers and serious damage to three more and a cruiser.

Meanwhile, the Operation 'Vigorous' force of 11 ships and their escorts sailed from Haifa and Port Said, and were met on the 13th off Tobruk by Adm Vian with seven light cruisers and 17 destroyers. By the 14th, two ships had been lost to air attacks and two more damaged. That evening Vian learnt an Italian battlefleet with two battleships, two heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers had sailed south from Taranto. The chances of driving them off were slim. Early on the 15th the first of five (1-5) course reversals were made as 'Vigorous' tried to break through to Malta. As the convoy now headed back (1), German E-boats from Derna launched torpedo strikes. Cruiser "Newcastle" was damaged by "S-56" and destroyer HASTY sunk by "S-55". Around 07.00, when the Italian fleet was 200 miles to the northwest, the convoy turned back for Malta (2). Attacks by Malta-based aircraft were made on the main Italian fleet without serious effect, although they disabled heavy cruiser "TRENTO" which was finished off by submarine "Umbra". Between 09.40 and noon on the 15th, two more course reversals (3 & 4) were made so that once again the convoy was bound for Malta. All afternoon air attacks were mounted; and south of Crete, cruiser "Birmingham" was damaged and escort destroyer AIREDALE sunk by Ju87 Stukas. The convoy was now down to six ships when Australian destroyer "Nestor" was badly damaged. That evening 'Vigorous' finally turned back for Alexandria (course reversal 5). Now into the early hours of the 16th, cruiser HERMIONE was torpedoed and sunk by "U-205" and NESTOR had to be scuttled. At this time, as the Italian fleet headed back for Taranto, a RAF Wellington from Malta torpedoed and damaged battleship "Littorio". None of the 'Vigorous' ships reached Malta. One cruiser, three destroyers and two merchant ships had been lost in the attempt.

 

on to Part 2, Italian Navy at War, 1942-45
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revised 8/7/11


 

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