Was the Regia Marina in 1940 prepared for war with Great Britain?
On 11 April 1940 Admiral Cavagnari, the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Navy, wrote to the Italian Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Badoglio:
The possibility thus not existing to carry out the fulfillment of important strategic objectives or to bring about the defeat of the enemy’s naval forces, entering the war on our own initiative does not seem justified, given the prospect of only being able to carry out defensive operations.
War Comes Sooner Than Expected
Cavagnari’s letter was in response to information given in a meeting of the Chiefs of Staffs of the Armed Forces two days earlier. At this meeting, Marshall Badoglio told his subordinate officers of the Duce’s “firm decision to intervene at such time and place as he will choose”. Meaning Mussolini was ready to go to war when the proper occasion arose. Badoglio had ended his briefing with directing that the war “should be conducted defensively on land, but actively in the air and on the sea”.
This should not come as a total surprise to Cavagnari and he must have felt much like Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, when Hitler “forgot” his promise not to go to war for several years and stranded Raeder´s navy well short of his estimated time for a proper build-up of the Kriegsmarine. Up till then the “official” time for the start of an eventual war involving Italy had been 1942, as had been confirmed during the signing of the Axis treaty between Italy and Germany. This was what the Italian Navy had worked by.
Regia Marina in 1940
The Regia Marina was in the middle of an extensive expansion and modernization program for their heavy naval units. Only the battleships Cavour and Cesare were in service while the Littorio, Veneto, Duilio, and Doria were fitting out. The modern battleships Roma and Impero were still building, not expected to be ready until 1942.
Regia Marina’s Lack of Reconnaissance Capabilities
Cavagnari had other misgivings. He rightfully complained of the Navy’s lack of dedicated air reconnaissance capacity and Italy’s lack of resources to make good eventual losses which, according to him, would not be a problem for the British, the expected main opponent in a war in the Mediterranean. It is interesting to note that the British had exactly the same misgivings at the time, upping the enemy’s imagined capabilities and complaining about their own. The problem with lack of dedicated naval air resources was actually common for both Italy, Britain, and Germany. A problem stemming from the “land” air forces´ having gained an inflated level of influence in the mid-war years, an operational hegemony, so to speak, forgetting the particular demands of long-range overseas navigation and ship’s recognition. For Italy and Germany, the only really available naval air capability was the ship-borne units onboard their battleships, heavy cruisers and raiders.
At the outbreak of the war, the land-based German Küstenfliegers were originally under the control of the Navy. As the war progressed Field Marshall Göring dismembered these quite effective units, obtaining complete control of them and thereby form a large part disrupting its core of professional naval officers.
The British also had reconnaissance aircraft based on their battleships and heavy cruisers in addition to their carrier-based units. These, however, were few in numbers in 1940 and the British carriers had a rather low capacity as to the number of aircraft fielded and many were outdated. That said, if an RN carrier was incapacitated for one reason or another, its aircraft often operated from land bases. The Coastal Command, like the German Küstenfliegers, was under the regular air force and therefore down-prioritized in numbers as well as in the quality of its combat aircraft. The Bomber Command, that had little training or experience in naval warfare, had first priority. However, more than in the areas around the UK, the various branches in the Mediterranean seemed to be more flexible towards each other, cooperating better. This was a result of localized leadership.
Failure to Assess British Situation
As for Cavagnari’s assumption that Italy could not make good eventual losses, while the British could, he does not seem to have taken into consideration the major British problem, the vast worldwide areas its Navy was supposed to cover, its other enemy Germany and the potential future enemy, Japan.
If Cavagnari, in the Spring of 1940, had known the opinions of some central British politicians and its Naval Commander, Admiral Pound, he might have felt some relief. The British leadership was not at all agreed on the wisdom of holding on to the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. This was shown in the neglect of Malta’s defense and the withdrawal of naval assets to the Far East. Not to talk about the need for escorts for the Atlantic convoys. The Kriegsmarine had already made several raids with their modern warships and their merchant raiders were constantly making a nuisance of themselves in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. The pocket battleship Admiral Graf von Spee had met its fate in the Southern Atlantic but at a cost. Dozens of Royal Navy vessels had for months been kept busy around the world to the detriment of the safety of the British supply system converging on their island from all over the world. After the Fall of France, with new German bases popping up along the Biscay, this worsened considerably.
British Reinforcements Arrive in the Mediterranean
As Italy’s entrance into the war approached, the British woke up from their lethargy but they had a long way to go to correct the previous neglect. When Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940 all doubt was cast aside, the Mediterranean must be kept under British control, if at all possible! Admiral Cunningham, the Commander-in-Chief of the East Mediterranean Fleet, had never been in doubt about this. As the Summer of 1940 approached a steady trickle of British reinforcements started to arrive in Alexandria, the British main base in the Eastern Mediterranean. The first was the old battleships Royal Sovereign and Malaya, followed by the cruisers Orion, Neptune, Gloucester, Liverpool, Sidney, and the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle. The Home Fleet sent out 16 destroyers, 3 escort sloops and, on May 15th, the famous battleship Warspite, to serve as Admiral Cunningham’s flagship. The last ones to arrive, through the Suez Canal, were the carrier Eagle, the old battleship Ramilies and 10 submarines. To cooperate with Cunningham the French battleship Lorraine and a cruiser squadron were also based in Alexandria.
Low Fuel Supplies and Wear and Tear
It was not as if the Regia Marina was thrown hodge-podge into the war with green conscripts arriving from all over the country to man vessels fresh out of moth-ball storage. As a matter of fact, the Italian Navy had more or less been on a war footing since 1935, with the opening of the hostilities in Ethiopia. After that followed the Spanish Civil War where Italy participated with “volunteer” units on land and in the air and the Navy in the neutrality watch at sea. The Italian invasion of Albania in the Spring of 1939 gave little rest before the “real” war started in September 1939. As such, it is reasonable to claim that the Navy was well trained in the various procedures of naval warfare. The main drawback was the constant wear and tear on the equipment with less than ideal time for maintenance and upgrading. It also meant spending dwindling oil stores. In June 1940 the Navy had available 1.800.000 tons of fuel oil with an estimated monthly usage of 200.000 tons. With other words, less than a year’s consumption. Plenty if Mussolini’s divination of a 3 months war was fulfilled.
A Strategy of France as an Opponent
The Navy did not heed this, they had laid down their own strategy which was to keep its forces concentrated for maximum defensive and offensive power. Protection of commercial sea traffic should not take place except in very special cases. No specific plans had been laid for the future extensive sea transport effort between Italy and Libya. With France as an opponent, this route was considered a major operational problem.
Allied Naval Superiority Established
Before France was finally beaten, and Italy entered the war, the Allied naval superiority in the Mediterranean was overwhelming. Together, France and Britain could field 11 battleships, 3 carriers, 23 cruisers, and innumerable destroyers and auxiliary vessels. They could also transfer at will many more vessels from the outside, through the Gibraltar Straits and the Suez Canal, both controlled by Great Britain. Regia Marina’s force disposition could be compared with those of the Air Force and Army except that there were only light units positioned on the North African side. Their main bases were in La Spezia near Genoa, Naples, and Taranto. More or less cut off from the homeland were the units in the Dodecanese. Only light forces were deployed there. A group of MTB’s, destroyers and submarines were based in the port of Massawa in the Red Sea. An outbreak of war would totally cut off them off with no prospect of reinforcements or any chance of withdrawal as the British controlled the Suez Canal. Furthermore, as they threatened the British supply line to Egypt, which was their mission, they could surely expect the immediate attention of the Royal Navy.
On 30 May 1940 the orders to prepare for hostilities, starting June 5th, ticked into Admiral Cavagnaris’s headquarters. On 10 June 1940 the Order of Battle of the Italian Navy was as this (Roskill):
3 battleships – Cavour, Cesare, (Veneto – not operational), 3 heavy cruisers, 5 light cruisers, 20 large destroyers, 8 light destroyers, 22 submarines, 4 escort vessels, 2 minelayers, 8 MTB’s
1 battleship (not operational), 4 light cruisers, 4 large destroyers, 14 light destroyers, 11 submarines, 3 minelayers, 6 MTB’s
4 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, 16 large destroyers, 8 MTB’s
12 light destroyers, 2 minelayers, 12 MTB’s, 17 submarines
8 light destroyers, 18 submarines, 1 minelayer, 6 MTB’s
4 large destroyers, 2 light destroyers, 8 submarines, 1 minelayer, 20 MTB’s
8 large destroyers, 9 submarines, 3 sloops, 1 depot ship (San Giorgio)
4 light destroyers
1 battleship (Andrea Doria), 6 light destroyers, 4 submarines, 1 sloop, 8 MTB’s
2 large destroyers, 8 MTB’s
1 battleship (Caio Duilio), 13 light destroyers, 18 submarines, 2 sloops, 1 sub chaser, 20 MTB’s
7 large destroyers, 2 light destroyers, 4 sloops, 8 submarines, 5 MTB’s
State of the Italian Navy
Quite an impressive line-up except for battleships of which 2 of 6 were under building or refurbishment, not to be ready until the Fall. Something should be said about the Italian vessels. In general, this fleet was more modern than the British one present in the Mediterranean at the time and the new Italian battleships and their cruisers and destroyers were generally faster. What is missed in battleships it gained in heavy and light cruisers. All destroyers had 4-6 torpedo tubes, the large destroyers had four or five 12 cm. guns, the light ones three or four 10 cm. guns The Italian heavy cruisers had 21 cm. guns, the light ones 15 cm. Most of them also had torpedo armament. With 7 heavy and 12 light cruisers, it was on par with the combined Allied naval forces. Therefore, as long as France was in the fight the British saw no need for a separate battle fleet based in Gibraltar.
The Allies feared the Italian fleet but both the British Royal Navy and the Italian had its chores. The Italian Army in Albania needed a constant flow of supplies across the Adriatic as did its army component in Libya. The Libyan army was threatened by a two-front struggle and was bound to have reinforcements transported over from Italy.
Any large excursions by the Italians would have to await the result of the struggle for France.
War at Sea 1939-45: Volume I Official History of the Second World War. (v. 1) by Captain S. W. Roskill