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Four Victories

Vincent P. O’Hara

The United States Navy is the world’s strongest. Other nations can only envy its record of maintaining the maritime superiority that supports America’s wealth and security. The Navy looks to its own history for lessons and its way forward, but as rich as that history is, it cannot cover all challenges the nation may face. For example, there is no case where the Navy has established maritime superiority in narrow waters through which lines of communication vital to both sides run, and then lost it for a prolonged period to a weaker foe. For lessons pertaining to this possibility, which may, at some future date, face us in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, or elsewhere, the Navy can look to the Mediterranean in November and December 1941.

In the autumn of 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged the First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, to base a surface strike force on Malta, Britain’s isolated base in the central Mediterranean Sea. Malta lay astride the sea lanes between Italy and Africa along which the Axis powers were supplying their North African army. Churchill wanted the Royal Navy to intensify its efforts to choke this flow of supplies before the British launched a long-awaited offensive, Operation Crusader, on 18 November. Churchill envisioned his army driving all the way to Tripoli and then leapfrogging to Sicily and forcing Italy from the war. Ironically, the German commander of Panzergruppe Afrika, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, was planning an offensive of his own to start on 20 November. He initially intended to capture the besieged port of Tobruk with the Suez Canal as his ultimate objective. Both plans hinged on logistics. North Africa grew nothing, built nothing, provided nothing. Everything had to go by ship. Maritime superiority was the prerequisite for victory on land.[1]

Admiral Pound succumbed to the Prime Minister’s pressure, but he wrote to Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria, Egypt, that he was sending with great reluctance two small cruisers only because, should the Crusader offensive fail, he did not want to answer criticism that the navy failed to do all it could. [2]

Admirals generally have strong ideas of how best to use their assets and a clear concept of how sea power is gained and maintained. This was as true for Pound and Cunningham as it was for their Italian counterparts, Admirals Arturo Riccardi, the Regia Marina’s chief of staff, and Angelo Iachino, the battle fleet commander. All four admirals, and most of their peers, held that maritime superiority was gained by defeating the enemy’s fleet at sea. Pound, for example, recognized that the traffic between Italy and Libya was important, but stopping it was the job of submarines and aircraft, not the battle fleet. In a similar fashion, Riccardi complained that the hard usage his fleet destroyers received escorting ten-knot merchantmen back and forth across the central Mediterranean compromised their readiness to support the battleships in a fleet action.[3]

The requirements of war, however, sometimes clash with the requirements of admirals. Two small cruisers, Aurora and Penelope, and two large destroyers, Lance and Lively, arrived at Malta on 21 October 1941 to form a strike force. Rome noticed almost immediately. Riccardi advised the high command that this represented a new dynamic in the struggle to supply North Africa and that cruisers would now need to escort convoys. He stressed the risk these irreplaceable fleet units would face shepherding slow merchantmen, and he also noted a cruiser division would use 3,500 tons of fuel oil to escort each convoy that skirted east of Malta. Given that reserves stood at 141,000 tons and monthly consumption was averaging 95,000 tons, this was a serious matter. [4]

Sea power is classically defined as the ability to use the sea for one’s purposes while denying the enemy that same ability. In its first weeks, the British strike force, called Force K, caused Italy to suspend all convoys from Italy to Africa, demonstrating that a viable threat can establish sea control just as well as a major victory, at least temporarily. The threat in this case, however, showed its teeth when the Italian navy—pressed by Libya’s urgent need of supplies—finally attempted its first major convoy after Force K’s arrival. This consisted of five merchantmen and two tankers, which departed Naples on 7 November. The Regia Marina assigned this convoy a close escort of six destroyers and support group of two heavy cruisers and four destroyers.

Force K intercepted the convoy at 0050 on 9 November. What followed was, perhaps, the most brilliant sea denial victory of the 20th century. The outnumbered British flotilla led by Captain Bill Agnew sank all seven transports, one of the destroyers, and damaged three other destroyers at the cost of a few splinter hits. The Italian cruisers—which Agnew thought were merchant ships—failed to intervene effectively. There were several reasons for this result, but the most significant was doctrine. Agnew outlined a simple, coherent procedure for attacking convoys at night, consisting of four main principles. His ships adhered to these principles and Agnew only made two signals during the whole 75-minute action, and one of those was to conserve ammunition. The Italians had their own doctrine for fighting at night, but this applied to fleet actions and was founded on their defeat at the March 1941 Battle of Cape Matapan. They had no doctrine specifying how the close escort should react to a surface threat at night, what the ships in the convoy should do, and how the support group should cooperate with the close escort. Agnew’s ships avoided at least one Italian torpedo assault because they attacked from the direction where the close escort thought its own cruisers should be. Italian authors blamed British radar—and the Italians lack of radar—for this result. Indeed, radar was helpful, but as the Japanese proved repeatedly in the Solomon Islands during 1942 and 1943, good doctrine, hard training, and superior optics could regularly defeat radar-equipped forces in a night action.[5]

Nine days later the British army launched its offensive. In the interim, just four Axis transports reached Africa from Italy. The British used all the tools in their arsenal of sea power to ensure their forces had and maintained a vital superiority in supplies. These included submarines, aircraft, and surface ships based in both Malta and Egypt. They deployed these assets using decrypted radio traffic to position submarines and reconnaissance aircraft. Between 18 November and 13 December, the Italians dispatched 43 ships to Africa; 14 arrived, 16 were sunk, and the rest turned back.[6]  Faced with this slaughter, the Italians struggled to find a solution. They scheduled more air raids on Malta. They tried splitting their convoys to spread the risk. They loaded warships and submarines with critical supplies. They even committed their most modern battleships as convoy escorts. They used their intelligence resources to learn when a convoy had been spotted and to take defensive measures. Such prophylactic tactics, however, just played to British strengths and failed to change the situation’s dynamics.

The British/Commonwealth army relieved the besieged port of Tobruk on 10 December and drove west toward Tripoli. Italian efforts to reinforce the retreating Axis army grew more desperate. On 13 December, Operation M41 began. This involved eight merchant ships in four convoys. The direct escorts included 12 destroyers, while four battleships, five cruisers, and 13 destroyers served as a distant screen. Six weeks before, Riccardi had worried about using 3,500 tons of oil to protect one convoy. Now he was expending nearly ten times that amount.

Such was the emergency in Africa that the Axis air forces there lacked gasoline to cover the convoy. To meet this need, the Italian navy dispatched from Sicily two light cruisers loaded with aviation fuel. They were to race down the Tunisian coast and land their cargo in Tripoli in advance of the M41 convoy. By happenstance, a flotilla of four Allied destroyers was en route from Gibraltar to reinforce the Mediterranean fleet that same night. The Italians reached Tunisia’s Cape Bon just a little ahead of the destroyers. The cruisers spotted the enemy warships behind them and reversed course because their aft turrets were blocked by stacked oil drums.[7] They encountered the destroyers on a reciprocal course with the coast less than two miles to port and minefields to starboard. The destroyers launched torpedoes from 1,500 yards and hit both Italian warships. As one survivor reported, “The blaze from the gasoline barrels aft propagated itself to the oil gushing from the bunkers igniting a hellish inferno.”[8] Italian losses included the commanding admiral, both captains, and 920 sailors.

For the Italians, this was tragic but the situation worsened. Before M41 even started, the British had received 21 separate ULTRA messages about the operation, including one that gave enough information to preposition submarines.[9] These sank two of the eight merchant ships en route to their departure port. A strengthened Force K roared out of Malta seeking a night engagement while three cruisers hurried from Alexandria to reinforce the Malta squadron. An Italian reconnaissance aircraft mistook the cruisers from Alexandria for battleships and the Italian high command scrubbed the operation, worried about the lack of air cover and the possibility of a night battleship action. To complete this tale of woe, a British submarine torpedoed the modern battleship Vittorio Veneto on the morning of the 14th as she was returning to port, and two merchantmen collided.

14 December marked the nadir of Italian fortunes in the Mediterranean. It seemed that the British had truly secured control of the sea. Admiral Riccardi submitted a memorandum to the high command entitled: “Traffic with Libya.” It reviewed the situation and the Operation M41 debacle and concluded that “As things stand and until air superiority can be regained from Sicily and Crete, we can no longer continue, except in exceptional occasions, the traffic with Libya other than with submarines, destroyers and air transport. Otherwise we run the risk of losing the Fleet, without effectively aiding Libya.”[10] Admirals Riccardi and Iachino clearly believed that winning a fleet action and defending against a possible invasion of Sicily was the battle fleet’s real mission.

Abandoning Africa was indeed an option, but a better choice for the Italian navy was to transform the dynamic of the convoy battle by fighting under its own terms, using weapons in which it had the advantage. It needed to win a transformative victory that would nullify the British surface warfare advantage and restore the government and high command’s confidence in the fleet.

On 15 December 1941, the Italo-German army abandoned the Gazala position west of Tobruk and continued its retreat. The Axis faced defeat unless the Italian navy could fight a major convoy through to Tripoli. Mussolini and the Italian high command rejected Riccardi’s recommendations and the next convoy, Operation M42 commenced just as fast as the ships involved in M41 could refuel. The operation included four merchantmen in two convoys escorted by six destroyers and a torpedo boat. The transports carried 14,770 tons of supplies and 45 desperately needed tanks. The support groups included four battleships, five cruisers, and 13 destroyers. It was M41 redux less the ships damaged the first time around. [11] Even as M42 got underway, the British launched a supply operation of their own. The Malta strike force needed fuel, so Admiral Cunningham agreed to send the naval auxiliary, Breconshire, loaded with 5,000 tons of oil, to Malta escorted by four cruisers and eight destroyers. Force K with two cruisers and six destroyers would meet Breconshire and bring her into Malta. With the defeat of the Italian convoy operation, “[i]t was thought that Breconshire could be got through to Malta before the enemy had re-organised sufficiently to intercept with surface forces or sail the Libyan convoys again.”[12]

What followed has entered history as the First Battle of Sirte. Italian reconnaissance spotted the British force but misidentified Breconshire as a battleship and concluded that the British mission was seeking the M42 convoy. The Italian battle fleet struck out to intercept the enemy and indeed surprised the British at dusk on 17 December. After a few very long-range salvoes inflicted minor damage on the British, the two sides lost contact in the dark. The British sent Breconshire on to Malta with Force K. The cruisers and destroyers from Alexandria looked for the Italian convoy without success. From the Italian point of view, they had driven off an enemy strike force and protected their convoy. An Italian historian proclaimed, “the route to Libya, red with the blood of Italian sailors, could now be considered open again.”[13] This is an exaggeration because Sirte alone did not break the blockade, but Admirals Riccardi and Iachino—and their men, and the government—thought it did and that was important. Morale matters and sometimes a perceived victory is nearly as good as the real thing.[14]

What broke the British blockade and swung the balance of sea power over to the Axis side of the scale were two victories won by Italian forces on the next night of 18–19 December. What is particularly interesting is that the actions required to win these victories had been started weeks, even months before.

Force K, after seeing Breconshire safely to port, and assured of the oil she carried to fuel further operations, sailed in haste on the afternoon of 18 December for the waters off Tripoli hoping to intercept three of the four M42 ships as they entered port. Instead, it rushed straight into a mine field laid seven and a half months before, in waters deeper than thought possible. The three cruisers all struck mines and Neptune eventually sank with the loss of 762 men. A destroyer also sank. This disaster eviscerated Force K, and for the next year surface ships operating out of Malta only sank two minor vessels. In a subsequent investigation, Admiralty Staff noted that, “From plotting the course and speed of the enemy and our own Forces it would appear that there was small chance of interception.” The vice admiral commanding Malta, Wilbraham Ford, responded that he and his staff hoped that the convoy would scatter after an air attack timed for 0100 and that this, based on “previous experience and results of air attack on Italian convoys” would give “anything up to two hours delay... and allow surface forces to intercept.”[15] However, the air attack, at extreme range in poor conditions, was itself a low probability mission. Force K had survived submarine attack, surface gunfire and torpedoes, and repeated air attacks. It did not survive wishful thinking and hubris.[16]

On that same night the Mediterranean Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers that had escorted Breconshire returned to Alexandria. When they arrived, the boom was opened to permit their entry. At that moment there waited, by sheer coincidence, three Italian two-man submersible devices, referred to as human torpedoes but really self-propelled sleds with a detachable warhead, called maiale (pigs) by their operators because they were difficult to operate. These innovative weapons were one of Italy’s responses to its need to fight a more powerful foe. They had been conveyed to Alexandria by the submarine Sciré, which had left port on 3 December before the Cape Bon and M41 disasters. This was, therefore, an offensive stroke, not a defensive reaction to enemy actions.

The three “pigs” made their individual way through the open boom to predesignated targets. All three delivered their explosives. Nearly two hours before the first charge detonated, Admiral Cunningham was awoken from his wardroom on board the battleship Queen Elizabeth and told that two Italian swimmers had been captured clinging to battleship Valiant’s mooring buoy. Despite this warning, the British failed to mitigate the impact of what happened. At around 0600 the charges exploded. A midshipman on board Queen Elizabeth wrote, “there was the low, rumbling underwater explosion and the quarterdeck was thrown upwards about six inches, maybe more. . . A blast of thick smoke and flame shot out the funnel. Then the ship seemed to settle rapidly.”[17] Both battleships came to rest on the bottom, although their decks remained above water. The frogmen, as they were described, also targeted a large tanker that became a constructive loss and severely damaged a nearby destroyer.[18]

The loss on the same day of the surface strike force and the battleships knocked askew the props of British sea power. The Italians proceeded to assert themselves in the central Mediterranean. Italian fleet sorties in February and March 1942 helped frustrate Malta convoy operations from Alexandria and in June 1942 an entire 11-ship convoy, escorted by eight cruisers and 25 destroyers turned back rather than face a pair of Italian battleships supported by four cruisers and a dozen destroyers. Not only did the victories off Tripoli and in Alexandria allow the Italians to gradually impose a naval blockade of Malta, it allowed them to freely run supplies to Africa. Without the surface warships in in the mix, the submarines and aircraft from Malta were less effective. German air power, which started entering the theater at the end of December, and which had, by the end of March, largely neutralized Malta as a base, further reduced their effectiveness. Crises in the Atlantic and Far East prevented the British from redressing the balance in the Mediterranean.

The Axis powers maintained maritime superiority in the central Mediterranean until November 1942 when the Allies intervened from outside the theater and invaded French North Africa. Two statistics demonstrate how fortunes swung based on the Italian victories of 17 and 18 December. In the nine months before December 1941, 28 transports sailed for Malta in convoy and 26 arrived (93 percent). In the following nine months, 44 transports sailed and 15 arrived (34 percent). Measuring Axis traffic to Africa in the same period, 80.6 percent of supplies shipped arrived before the December victories. In the nine months after, 90.2 percent arrived.[19]

In November 1941 the British gave a textbook example of how to establish maritime superiority in an environment that included intersecting lines of communication, strong enemy forces, and narrow seas—an environment found today in the Mediterranean and in Asian littoral waters. They established superiority through the application of multiple layers of force, that is by establishing a surface strike force to complement the ongoing efforts of their submarine and air forces, aided by actionable intelligence, and effective doctrine.

The British lost that superiority in large part by discounting the capabilities of their enemies. In the case of operation M42, they assumed that the enemy would not mount another major resupply effort so hard upon the heels of a major failure and were thus caught with their submarines standing down while in the midst of an operation of their own. They deployed Force K on a risky sortie with a low probability of success, assuming the enemy would act in a certain way, not knowing the enemy had sown deep water mines across their path months before. Finally, and most importantly, the British discounted the enemy’s ability to deploy innovative weapons to attack their main fleet units in port, despite previous successful Italian actions with explosive boats at Suda Bay and human torpedoes at Gibraltar. The hard work of months was thus wiped out in a single night. However, this loss of maritime superiority was not just about what the British did wrong, it was also about what the Italians did right.

The Italians seized maritime superiority by persisting in resupplying Africa despite repeated demoralizing defeats and self-doubt at the highest levels. They transformed the dynamics of the campaign by engaging the enemy on their own terms, and then asserted a blockade of Malta by the appropriate use of their main weapons, the battle fleet complemented by German and Italian air forces to maintain maritime superiority.

The missile environment of the 21st century imposes new challenges, but the principles of maritime superiority so clearly at play in the Mediterranean in November and December 1941 still apply. Large and successful services such as the U.S Navy naturally look to their own history when seeking inspiration and guidance, but sometimes there is much to be learned by looking elsewhere, especially in the case of challenges the Navy has yet to face.



[1] For British expectations see The National Archives (TNA), CAB 80/60, “Possible Action in Middle East and Mediterranean,” 15.10.41, 4. And “Operation Whipcord Report.” 17.10.41.  For general accounts of the Mediterranean war at this period see Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt. Germany and the Second World War: Volume III. The Mediterranean, South-east Europe, and North Africa 1939–1941 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), Part 5: VI and I. S. O. Playfair, The Mediterranean and Middle East. Volume III: British Fortunes reach their Lowest Ebb (Uckfield, England: Naval and Military Press, 2004), Chapters 1–4.

[2] Michael Simpson, ed. The Cunningham Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, O.M., K.T., G.C.B., D.S.O. and Two Bars (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1999), 514. 

[3] Augusto de Toro “La crisi del traffico con la Libia nell'autunno 1941 e il carteggio Weichold-Sansonetti.” Bollettino d'archivio dell'Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare 23(1) (March 2009), 63.

[4] Mattesini, Francesco. Corrispondenza e Direttive Tecnico-Operative di Supermarina: Volume Secondo II Tomo Giugno 1941–Dicembre 1941 (Rome: Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare (USMM), 2001), 1157–58. For oil see La Marina italiana nella Seconda Guerra mondiale. Volume I. Dati statistici (Rome: USMM, 1972), Table 78, 245 and Table 94, 277. 

[5] Agrew’s report, which details his doctrine, is contained in TNA, ADM 199/897. “Report of Action, H.M.S. ‘Aurora’ 11th November 1941.” The most complete Italian account is in La Marina italiana nella Seconda Guerra mondiale, Volume VII,  Difesa del traffico con l’Africa Settentrionale dal 1° ottobre 1941 al 30 settembre 1942 (Rome: USMM, 1962), 43–71. For Italian doctrine see Angelo Iachino, Le due Sirti: Guerra al convogli in Mediterraneo (Milan, Arnoldo Mondadori, 1953), 48.

[6] Difesa del traffico, 377–86.

[7] See the discussion in Andrea Ghisotti, “La note di Capo Bon.” Bollettino d’Archivio dell’Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare. 23(4), December 2009, 30–31.

[8] Archivio dell’USMM. Capo di Stato Maggiore della Regia Marina (CSMRM). Cartella Notizie sulle Azioni Navali, No. 53. “Affondamento degli incrociatori Da Barbiano e Di Giussano.” January 12, 1942, 22.

[9] TNA, DEFE 3/746 MK 522, 554, 564, 574, 583, 599, 617, 662, 664, 676, 698, 700, 759, 764, 779, 777, 801, 803, 811, 821, 976.

[10] Quoted in De Toro, “La crisi del traffico,” 63.

[11] Difesa del traffico, 194.

[12] TNA ADM 199/415, “Mediterranean War Diary, 15 December 1941, Operations.”

[13] Marc' Antonio Bragadin, The Italian Navy in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957), 151.

[14] For the Battle of Sirte see, TNA, ADM 199/897, “Report Rear Admiral 15th CS;” Mattesini, Corrispondenza, II, 2:1243; Iachino, Due Sirti, 117; Pack, S.W.C. The Battle of Sirte (London: Ian Allan, 1975), 20.

[15] TNA ADM 1/11947, “Minutes of Evidence,” 17.

[16] The reports of the Force K ships are contained in ADM 1/11947.

[17] Quotes: Frank Wade, A Midshipman's War: A Young Man in the Mediterranean Naval War 1941–1943 (Victoria, Canada: Trafford, 2005), 122.

[18] For Alexandria see Vincent P. O’Hara and Enrico Cernuschi, “Frogmen against a Fleet.” Naval War College Review, 68(3) Summer 2015, 119–37. La Marina Italiana nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale, Volume 5, Le azioni navali in Mediterraneo dal 1 aprile 1941 al’8 settembre 1943 (Rome: USMM, 1970), 112–133 contains the reports of the operators.

[19]Arnold Hague. The Allied Convoy System 1939–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 192–93; Datis statistici, 127–28.

Published: Mon Aug 13 15:23:30 EDT 2018