*** World War II naval campaigns -- the Mediterranean

World War II Naval Campaign: The Mediterranean (1940-43)

boys naval summer camp
Figure 1.--Mussolini built a modern fast fleet of battleshipd and cruisrs--The Regia Marina. The Italian youth movement had a marine division to begin the training of the officers and men to crew the new navy. The Italian fleet was one of the question marks in the early phase of the War. The combined British and French fleet dominated the Mediterranean. When Italy entered the War and France fell, the badly streached Royal Navy was left alone to face the modern, fast Italian Navy. Some advocated withdrawing the Royal Navy from the Mediterranean to reinforce the Home Fleet. Churchill decided to fight it out in the Mediterranean with the Italians. They outgunned the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. What followed from the first action off Calabria was some of the most intense surface engagements of the War.

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, immediately challenge the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean . The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sicily, and Italy posed a formidable challenge. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterrean (Suez and Gibraltar). In between and in many ways the key to the Mediterranean was the small British bastion at Malta. When the Italians faltered, they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Aftrika Corps. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bare against the Axis. The Mediterranean can not be viewed as entirely a naval war. The relatively small size of the Mediterranean meant that air power in particular could be borought to bear against naval forces and ground fotces seized naval bases as well as knocking two major powers (France and Italy) out of the War.

The Axis

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Axis Alliance with Germany. Germany and Italy signed the Axis alliance, also known as Rome-Berlin Axis or the the Pact of Steel (May 1940). Musollini described the alliance as an "Axis of Blood and Steel". The alliance formalized mutual military interests. The Axis Alliance did not require Italy to join Germany when the War began (September 1939). Rather it required the two countries to come to each other's defense if the other was attacked. Musollini's reaction to the German invasion was to declare that Italy was neutral and a non-belligerent country. Japan later joined the Axis (September 1940).

First Year of War (September 1939-May 1940)

The first year of war was essentially a land war. German launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1939). The Meditraanean was very quiet. Germany's Axis ally, Italy, stayed neutral. The Axis was a defensive military pact, thus Italy was not obligated to join Germany in the War. Germany with limited naval assets, concentrated its efforts in the North Atlantic. Germany deployed its U-boats, but the number was very small. There as a result were limited naval operationsd in the Mediterrean. The Germans dif not deploy U-boasts there. The British and French fleets outgunned the Italian fleet and Italy, a peninsular country, was extrenely vulnerable to naval attack which at first had a strong deterent affect on Mussolini. Thus Allied shipping was very safe in the enclosed Mediterranran.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The fall of France totally transformed the naval ballance of power in the Mediterranean. The powerful French fleet combined with the Royal Navy along with British control of the access points (Suez and Gibraltar) clearly controlled the Mediterrean. The French fleet was critical. Without the French the Royal Navy would be hard pressed in the Mediterrean. If the Axis could gain control over the French fleet, the British position in the Mediterrean would be untenable. French officials pledged that they would never allow this to happen. Churchill realized that the French had also pledged never to make a separate peace with the Germans.

Italy Enters the War (June 1940)

The startling success of the German Western offensive (May 1940) changed Musollini's assessment. Mussolini once Rommel cut accross northern France and reached the Channel concluded that the Germans had won the wore and that the French Arny had been essentially defeated. Musollini declared war on Britain and France (June 10). Four days later the NAZIs enter Paris (June 14). He was afraid on losing out on the spoils of war. He told the Italian Army's Chief of Staff, Marshal Badoglio, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." The decession to go to war was not a carefully made decession, but one made by Musollini personally without any real strategic assessment. He thought that the Germans would soon defeat the British as quickly as they had defeated the French. Italy itself had neither a military prepared for war or an industrial base capable of supporting an extended war effort. Nor had Italy's Fascist Party prepared the Italian people for war as the NAZIs had done in Germany.

British Strategic Decesion

The fall of France and the loss of the French fleet as an ally bin the Meditwerranean meant that the avy was badly outnumbered and outgunned in the Mediterranean. Not only did they face the Italian Navy, but also formidable Italian air assetts. The Admiralty for a time considered withdrawing from the eastern Mediterranean anc concentra\ting on Gibraltar. This would focus the Royal Navy for the vitl North Atlantic campaign. This would mean abandoning Malta. Churchill opposed the idea,/ He writes, "I resisted this policy, which though justified on paper by the strength of the Italian Fleet, did not correspond to my impressions of the fighting values, and also seemed to spell the doom of Malta. It was resolved to fight it out at both ends." [Churchill, p. 392.]

The French Fleet (July 3-8)

The Royal Navy began World War II with only 9? battleships, a fraction of the World War I Grand Fleet. Italy's fleet of fast modern battleships and carriers already outnumbered the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. The French batleships posed a grave threat. If they had fallen into German hands would have given the Axis the striking power to confront the Royal Navy. Churchill's most difficult decission upon becoming First Lord of the Admiralty was the order he gave to neutralize the French fleet. The French squadron at Alexandria (Egypt) was successfully neutralized through negotiations. There French Admiral Godfroy and British Admiral Cunningham had aersonal relationship and were able to broker a compromise. The problem proved to be the French squadrion at Oran ( Mers-el-Kebir). Churchill dispatched Force H from Gibraltar under Admiral Somerville to Oran where the French fleet had sought shelter. The British gave the French fleet the options of joining the British in the fight against the NAZIs, imobilizing their vessels, or destruction. The French rejected the British demands and the British opened fire (July 3, 1940). Only the French battleship Strassbourg survived, escaping to Toulon. The Vichy government broke off relations with the British. While they cooperated militarily with the Germans, they did not declare war on Britain. In the end, Vichy or at least the French Navy kept the surviving vessels out of NAZI hands. The NAZIs hoped to size the French fleet when they occupied Vichy (November 1942). The German occupation forces in France quickly executed Case Anton. French naval commanders, however, scuttled most of the vessels befor the Germans could seize the port.

The Italian Navy: Regia Marina

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, out-gunned the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean. The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sicily, and Italy posed a formidable challenge. The Regia Marina was the most powerful element of the Italian armed forces. Mussolini had devoted considerable resources on the Regia Marina. The fleet was modern and well built, but untested. Vessels were not as well armored as British vessels, but were fast. There were two basic weakeneses. The Itlalians had no aircraft carrierts and their ships were not equipped with radar. Italian airbases in part reduced the British advantage in carriers. Radar by 1941 was being introduced on German ships, but there has appears to have no rush to provide this technology to the Italians as part of the Axis alliance despite the fact tht the Germans wee encoyraging the Italians to close with the Royal Navy. And the British Enigma program provided critical inmtelligence on the movement of the fleet. The Italians weree not anxious to challenge the Royal Navy at the onset of the campaign. Much of the fleet, especially its battleships were kept in port, primarily at the Taranto naval base. The personnel of the Regia Marina wa better prepsared than Army personnel, but without the traditions of the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy Mediterranean Squadron

The Mediterranean was a traditional focus of the Royal Navy because it was the connection with India and the rest of the Empire. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bear against the Axis. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterranean (Suez and Gibraltar) and Malta provided a critical base in the center. The fall of France, however, meant that the French fleet was taken out of the Mediterranean equation. The British and French fleets combined provided the Allies naval superority. Without the French fleet, however, the Italian fleet on paper looked on paper as the dominant force. The Admiralty considered evacuating Malta and withdrawing from the Mediterranean, but in the end decided to strenghen the Medfiterranean Squadron and hold Malta. The Royal Navy at the time was hard pressed and only a limited number of units cold be committed to the Mediterranean. When the Italians land invasion of Egypt faltered (December 1940), they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Afrika Corps (March 1941). The Mediterranean Squadron had two primary tasks. One, to destroy the Italian fleet. Two, to deny supplies to Rommel's Afrika Korps. Vice-Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham took command of the Mediterranean Squadron ( 1939). He commanded from HMS Warspite. The major formations were the 1st Battle Squadron, 1st Cruiser Squadron, 3rd Cruiser Squadron, Destroyers, and the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. Cunnigham was outnumbered and outgunned by the Italian Royal Navy. Cinningham's plan was to hold the three decisive strategic bases (Gibraltar, Malta, and the Suez Canal) and fighting it out with the Italians. Malta was the lynch-pin of the British position and vital for interdicting supplies to the Afrika Korps.


Malta had been seized by the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars and since that time had been the centrerpiece of British naval strength in the Mediterranean. Malta located between Suez and Gribraltar and south of Sicily, the British bastion of Malta was in many ways the key to the Mediterranean and the Brish position in Egypt. Malta had been the main base of the British Mediterranean fleet, but its vuilnerable position south of Sicily made it vulnerable to Italian air attack and the Meditteran Fleet was moved to Alexandria near Suez. The important French Navy was assigned the responsibility for the western Mediteranean. This plan was undone, however, with the Germany invasion of France and the armistace which forced France out of the War (June 1940). Instead the much weaker Royal Navy 'Force H' at Gibraltar had to add resonsibility for the western Mediterrean to its Atlantic area of operatiions This greatly weakened Malta's defenses and exposed it to Axis naval and air attack.

Action off Calabria (Punta Stilo) (July 9, 1940)

The Action off Calabria was the first major engagement between the Royal Navy and the Italian Regia Marina. It was an accidental engagement. Admiral Cunningham did not yet have the advantages of Ultra decripts. Both navies ran into each other by chance while escorting convoys. The Italian Navy was delivering men and material to Benghazi to supply the Italian forces in Libya. The Italian forces there were left unprepared when Mussolini declared war. The Royal Navy was escorting two convoys (MF and MS), one from and one to Malta. The convoy from Malta was evacuating British civilians to Alexandria. You might have thought that getting them home, a cpnvoy to Gibraltar made more sence, but the eastern leg to Gibraltar was much more exposed to Italian air attack (from bases in Sicily and Sardinia) than the eastern leg to Alexandria. The convoys were escorted by three different forces. The Action is not referred to as a battle, because there were no important fleet losses. A factor here that both the British and Italians were primarily interested in convoy protection. The British carrier operations proved largely ineffective. The significance of the battle was basically in the adjustments that Admiral Cunningham made to fleet operations. He substabntiaslly reassessed battle plans, especially the use of capital ships and the disposition of carriers. The Italians did not, however, make major changes in fleet operations.

Western Desert (September 1940)

The British immediately after Italy entered the War conducted small-scale operations on the Egyptian-Libyan border. The British 11th Hussars seized Fort Capuzzo. Mussolini ordered Marshal Graziani, the commander of the 10th Army in Libya, to attack the British in Egypt. Graziani was reluctabt, but his forces crossed the border (September 13, 1940). The Italians moved east 95 km and then dug in at Sidi Barrani. The British were badly outnumbered. One account estimates the British had 30,000 men and the Italians 250,000. Graziani did not know this. He decided to dig in and stockpile supplies for his army at Sidi Barrani before moving further east. This was complicated by the lack of roads and rail links between Egypt and Libya and the extended Italian supply lines. The Royal Navy also did its best to interdict the Italian convoys. The British launced a conter offensive (December 1940) which resulted in Germany entry into the cionflict. This set in motion a see-saw campaign that would finally be decided at El Alemain (October 1942).

Operation Felix

The two pillar's of British naval power in the Medterranean were highly vulnerable. Malta was virtually surrounded by Vichy Tunisia and Italian Sicily. Not only was Malta vulnerable, but Gibraltar pinned against Vichy Morocco and Franco's Spain. Thus Hitler sought to enlist these countries in the war. He pursued his only important internationsal diplomatic effort, visting with Franco, Petain, and Mussolini (October 1940). The German military after the fall of France devised a plan to take Gibralter--Operation Felix. The plan called for German forces to move through Spaiin and seize Gibraltar. Given the German capabilities at the time, such san effort almost surely would have succeeded. Franco was interested, but it would have meant entering the war against Britain. In the end the enducements offered by Hitler were not sufficent to enduce Franco to enter the War. Hitler was surprised and furious when he met with Franco (October 1940). He had assumed that a gratefull Franco would welcome him with open arms. Franco proved much more astute than Mussolini. While Franco would have welcomed reclaiming Gibraltar, he seems to have correctly assessed the impsct of allowing German troops to cross the Pyranees. And Admiral Canaris briefed Franco that planning on the invasion of the Soviet Union so dominated Hitler's mind that he would not be willing to risk a military confrontation over Felix. Despite the spectacular military successes, Hitler's attempt at NAZI diplomacy proved a disastrous failure. There was no way he could reconcile the conflicting interests of France, Italy, and Spain.

Italian Invasion of Greece (October 1940)

Not only did Hitler fail to gain the cooperation of Franco and Petain in the war effort, but when he arrived in Florence, Mussolini presented him with a shock. He found that Mussolini had invaded Greece without consulting him. This was done on purpose as Hitler had not consulted him about the German invasions. Musollini's answer to the flagging invasion of Egypt, was increadably to invade another country--Greece. The invasion was a dissaster. The invasion was timed to take place in bad weather over virtually impassible terraine. Not only were the Italians stopped, but a Greek offensive drove them back into Albania. The British occupued Crete (November 1940). This provided them a valuable refueling point in the Eastern Mediterranen during the time when the key naval battles were fought with the Italian fleet. Loss ofthese battles would have made it impossible for tge British to hold both Malta and and their position in Egypt. While the Germans were later to redeem the situation (April 1941), Musollini's entry into the war and invasion of Greece had turned Germany's previously secure southern flank into a war zone. This not only delayed the invasion of the Soviet Union, but forced Hitler to divert forces from the critical eastern front to support the front that Musollini had opened.

Taranto Raid (November 11, 1940)

Even after the removal of the French fleet from the Allied order of battle, the Italian naval command was not anxious to risk its capital ships in a major confrontation with the Royal Navy. The British, however, were anxious to engage the Italian fleet. Britain's initial problem was supplying its bases, especially Malta and Suez. Thus it was important to remove the threat the Italian Navy posed to its supply lines as soon as possible. Britain launched the first major naval engagement in the Mediterrean with a ground-breaking carrier strike against the Italian fleet at anchor its Taranto base (November 11, 1940). The British used the outdated Fairey Swordfish biplsanes. The strike severely weakened the Italians by sinking or disabling three Itlalian battleships. Unfortunately American naval planners did not properly assess the lessons to be learned from the Taranto attack. The Japanese did.

Battle of Cape Spartivento (Teulada) (November 27-28, 1940)

The Battle of Cape Spartivento occurred only 2 weeks after the successful carrier attack on Taanto. Tha Admiralty assessment was that the resulkts were so stagering that they could reposition their forces, reassigning some major units to the Home Fleet. They also quickly put together a convoy to supply Malta. The resulting operation was designated M.B.9. Admiral Pond ordered the transfer of Renown and Berwick back to England ny passing through the Strait of Sicily, a dangerous manuver exposing them to air attack. Air cover was to be provided by Force H. Unexpected by the British, the Italian Fleet put to sea with a powerful force under Admiral Angelo Iachino. He had the two surviving battleships (Vittorio Veneto and the Giulio Cesare and six heavy cruisers (Bolzano, Fiume, Gorizia, Pola, Trieste, and Trento (November 17). Taranto caused the Italians to change tactics. Until Taranto the Italians had been content to leave their major units in port serving as a derent, but safe. Tarato showed them thast the fleet was not safe in port and so they decided to commit the fleet to battle. The Italian squadron failed to intercept a British convoy delivering planes to the badly depleted RAF units defending Malta. While failing to intercept them, the convoy with the badly needed aircraft was forced back to Gibraltar. The British were surprised to find the two battleships still operational. Alerted of the unexpectd presence of the Italian Navy, Somrville adjusted operations. The convoy to supply Malta (Operation Collar) was rerun with a stronger escort. was escorted by Force H commabnded by Adm. Sommerville. It consisted of the battle cruiser Renown, the carrier Ark Royal, the light cruisers Sheffield and Despatch, and the destroyers Faulnor, Firedrake, Fury, Forester, Duncan, Wishart, Encounter, Kelvin and Jaguar. Force H lost air craft to bad weather and the Italian Navy (November 16). Force D from Alexandria was to join Force H and engage the Italians. A furious battle ensued lasting 54 minutes, but little damage was iblicted by either sude. Both forces withdrew. Admiral Iachino had orders to avoid battle unless he encountered a clearly inferior force. Upon sighting the British battleships, Iachino realized he no longer had an overwealming superiority. Somerville for his part saw that he was now within range of Italian air bases and broke off the engagement to guard the convoy.

Battle of Cape Matapan (March 27-29, 1941)

Weakened at Taranto, the Italian fleet was decisively defeated at the Battle of Cape Matapan fought off Peloponnese (southern Greece). This was just before the Axis in vasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. With air support from bases in Greece the outcome would have been very different. The British Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy commanded by Admiral Andrew Cunningham intercepted a major squadron of the Italian Regia Marina commanded by Admiral Angelo Iachino. The British and Australians sank the Italian heavy cruisers Fiume, Pola, amd Zara; sank the the destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Giosue Carducci; and severly damaged the battleship Vittorio Veneto. The British did not lose any ships. They suffered some minor damage to some of its ships and lost only a single torpedo plane. The British success was achieved by learning of Italian fleet movements through Ultra and the use of radar which the Italian ships did not have. Decisive factors were the use of Ultra intercepts, carrier strikes, and the lack of radar. The Italind did not have either radaer or air cradt carriers.

Other Surface Engagements

There were a several additional engagements between the British supported by units from Allied navies and the Italian Regia Marina. These included the Battle of Cape Spada, Battle of Cape Spartivento, First Battle of Sirte, Second Battle of Sirte, and the Battle of Cape Bon. The British had a number of advantages, including Ultra intelligence, radar, and carrier fleet support. Inaddition, the Italian ships were not as heavily armored as the Briish ships. This was an Italian decesion to allow them to build more ships using under the logic that speed was an advantage that made heavy armor less important.

Supplying the Afrika Korps

Armies in World War II had to be supplied by rail and sea. Air supply could be used to supply surrounded units on an emergency basis, but could not deliver heavy equipment or the supplied needed for major forces over an extended period. Italy was the major Axis player in the Mediterranean area and even after the German took over the bulk of the North African campaign, it was the Italian navy supported by the air force that had the major responsibility of delivering supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. [Sadkovich] The Royal Italian Navy organized and protected the convoys that supplied Rommel and the Afrika Korps. They faced formibable attacks by British aircraft, submarine, and surface units. And unknown to the Axis, Admiral Cunningham was getting Ultra intercepts, allowing him to effective use his limited forces to devestate the Italian convoys. The Italians proved unable to deliver adequate supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. To preserve the Ultra secret, the British allowed some supplies to get through. They were so limited, however, that Rommel was force to take up a defensive position at El Alemaine and gradually Montgomery with extensive American support built up a far superior force.

German Navy (1941-44)

The German Kriegsmarine entered the Mediterranean campaign after the Italian Navy had been largely defeated. The only units which could be committed were U-boats. The fitst German U-boat to entered the Meditrranean did so (September 21, 1941). The principal German interest was to weaken Malta as part of the effort to safeguard the supply convoys to the Afrika Korps. This proved a very difficult effort for the Kriegsmarine. The most difficult part was getting in to the Mediterranean. The only way was through the Straits of Ginraltar. Here the narrow confinces allowed the Britih to install underwaer listening devices making U-boats entering the Meditrraneam vulnerable to attck even at night. The German Kriegsmarine sent more than 60 U-boats into the Mediterraneam. The British suceeded in sinking 9 and damaging 10 more while making the passage. The Meditteranean was not a favorable place to deploy U-boats whose strength was stealth and the ability to disaapear in the vast Atlantic Ocean. The Mediterranean was a much more confined body of water and a large area of it was cobered by aerial patrol and U-boats can not operate with aircraft overhead. The clsarity of the water and shallow depths were other problems for the Germans. Despite the commitment, the U-boats did not prevent the Operartion Torch landings (November 1942). Torch and the British victort at El Alemine meant more of the coast was controlled by the Allies with more air bases and air bases. As thec Allies moved toward Rome (May 1944), the U-boat campaign came to an end as the Kriegsmarine had lost bases needed to seperate the U-boats.

Italian 10th Light Flotilla

While the major units of the Italian Navy performed poorly in the, the Italians achieved some success with unconventional operations. One tactic was to use frogmen to man specially designed torpedoes. The Italian 10th Light Flotilla sunk or crippled 28 mostly British ships (September 1940 through December 1942). Their successes included attacks on two battleships (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant which were sunk in Alexandria harbor (December 18, 1941) as well as over 110,000 tons of merchant shipping.

Operation Torch (November 1942)

America upon entering the War (December 1941) began concentrating its forces in Brirain, despite the dire situation on the Pacific. American planners hoped for a cross-Channel invasion as soon as possible. It soon became apparent that an invasion in 1942 was not feasible. Planners then began to consider how to best use the growing Allied forces against the European Axis. The only feasible theater was the Mediterranean. This was the alternative the British had been urging. Churchill wascterrigfied at the possible casualties from a premature cross-Channel invasion. Not only did the Allies have the appropriate firces, but North Africa unlike France had many advantages, Axis supply lines were streached and were being interdicted by the Royal Navy and the RAF. In addition, the Allies believed that the French Vichy forces in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia would rally to the Allied side. The Allies assembed forces in Britain and dispatched additional forces directly from the Unioted States. A key factor in the invasion was the need to engage Allied forces to relieve pressure on the hard-prtessed Soviets. Other onjectives were to wrest French African colonies from Vichy control, to attack the Afrika Corps from the west, and once gaining North Africa establish Allied domination of the Mediterrean. This would vastly improve logistics for supporting the war in the Far East as well as to provide bases for operations against Italy. The Combined Chiefs of Staff approved the the plan and General Eisenhower was appointed commander in chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The code name for the invasion was designated Opetration Torch.



Internment of the Italian Fleet (September 1943)



Churchill, Winston S. Memoirs of the Second World War (Bonanza Books: New York, 1978), 1065p.

Sadkovich, James J. The Italian Navy in World War II (Contributions in Military Studies).


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Created: 7:20 AM 10/11/2004
Last updated: 6:37 AM 11/21/2010