Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Lieutenant Commander Charles R. Train, United States Naval Attaché in Rome, report on The Situation in the Mediterranean as it is Affected by Submarine Warfare


SUBJECT   The Situation in the Mediterranean as it is Affected by Submarine Warfare.

     From T    No. ----199 Date Sept. 23-1917


     1.   The following report included the ideas of Vice Admiral Gough Calthorpe the British C-in-C,1 the Italian summary of the situation and finally the ideas of the Naval Attache.2

Situation as Seen by the English C-in-C.    

August 22,1917.         

     Italy’s existence and indeed the existence of all the Allied Powers, would be in jeopardy if Germany obtained permanent ascendency in the submarine war.

     Two things are essential for us-i.e.(I) To sink as many submarines as possible-and (2) To protect traffic from those submarines that manage to evade the offensive measures of the Allies.

     As regards (I) we are not at present sinking sufficient submarines (this applies to all seas). As regards (2) we are short of the necessary small craft required to protect traffic in all seas. We can only ameliorate these two conditions by “pooling” the Allied naval resources and using them to the best advantage.

How are we to organize our forces so that we can protect our traffic and also sink as many submarines as possible as near their bases as possible? In the Mediterranean; of course the Straites of Otranto Barrage Force exists for the purpose of harassing submarines near their base.

     It is at present impossible for England to send any surface small craft to re-inforce the barrage so it is all the more necessary for full use to be made of all other means at the disposal of the Allies, such as destroyers, submarines, air-craft, etc

     As regards the question of protection of traffic, the shortage of escorting craft will be even more accentuated when an increased amount of coal and wheat is sent to Italy. The present shortage of escorting craft in the Mediterranean has been estimated as about 150 Vessels, including the needs of troop transports.

     It may be possible to provide the tonnage necessary to give Italy additional supplies of coal and wheat in the following manner-(I) By resuming British traffic to the East through the Mediterranean, thereby releasing a considerable amount of our tonnage because the voyage would be shorter than round the Cape of Good Hope. (2) By maintaining the Italian wheat supply from India thereby freeing Italian ships to carry coal.

     This would subject our large ocean cargo vessel to the increased risk in traversing the Mediterranean and a corresponding strengthening of the organization for protecting the Gibraltar-Genoa and the Gib.-Egypy [i.e., Egypt] lines is evidently necessary. To lessen the risk of this increased traffic seems that as Italy cannot for the moment see her way to divert many extra escorting ships for the protection of Allied convoys she might greatly assist the general cause by helping to carry out a very vigorous offensive policy against submarines in the Lower Adriatic.

     A system of large convoys of from 16 to 25 ships escorted by 6 to 8 patrol craft has been adopted for the Atlantic traffic proceeding to and from the West Coast and East Coast ports of Great Britain. It has so far proved eminently successful, the number of casualties being less than 1% (one per cent). The adoption of such a system in the Mediterranean is contemplated in the near future, and I hope, by “pooling’ the Allied resources, to be able to make complete, and extend to other waters, the system of convoys which Italy has so successfully initiated between Gibraltar and Genoa. I cannot very well discuss details as to the advantages of one scheme over another until I have heard the views of the Allied Admirals of Patrols, but I shall study with great care and interest any notes on the subject which you will be good enough to give us.

     To sum up:-

     The situation in the Mediterranean is rendered particularly acute by the necessity of supplying Italy with more coal.

     In order to do this, England contemplates risking her larger and more valuable cargo vessels, provided some reasonable measure of protection can be afforded them.

     With this object, England and France are combining their resources for the protection of shipping, and I would ask you to consider what additional assistance Italy can give to the common cause.

     I understand the difficulties which confront you when it is a question of transferring any torpedo craft from the Adriatic, and therefore it will probably be considered that Italy can best assist the anti-submarine operations of the Allies

     a) by intensifying her offensive measures with destroyers, submarines, and aircraft in the lower Adriatic;

     b) by strengthening the protection of the drifters in the Straits of Otranto;

     c) by assisting in the convoy of British ships on the route between Gibraltar and Genoa, with a few destroyers from her western forces.

     It would be a matter of great satisfaction for me to learn from you that Italy is able to contribute to the Allied cause in the manner outlined above, as I desire, at the earliest possible moment, to request the authorities in England to proceed with the arrangements for dispatching larger vessels to Italy, and to assure them that all available means, both offensive and defensive, at the disposal of the Allies will be employed to protect them.

     2. – The following is a summary of the Italian point of view regarding the situation in the Mediterranean and Adriatic.

     The Italians agree that the urgent necessity for Italy as well as the Allies is to (a) sink as many submarines as possible and (b) to protect ships against those submarines which succeed in evading the offensive measures of the Allies.

     The war on the land battle front dimi[ni]shes in importance in comparison with the naval war against submarines, because it would not be possible to continue the former without the victorious success of the latter.

     After considerable experience and efforts of every description in the campaign against submarines, Italy is convinced that the present system is wrong, and that it is absolutely necessary to resort to new methods of conducting the war against submarines if it is not desired to continue to waste an immense amount of money with practically such limited results. The fundamental error of all the Entente nations was to accept from the commencement the idea that submarines should be fought on the surface instead of under the water. By reason of this all efforts were directed to complete surface craft large and small; from cruisers to drifters, - from destroyers to motor boats.

     Naturally, at the beginning, some success was obtained because of the inexperience of the submarines, but it was to be foreseen that the submarine would soon completely abandon surface action for submerged action, thereby using its most advantageous weapon – that of invisibility. When this happened what was the result? That all the above water craft that had been got ready became at once only a means of look-out, scouting and warning, but not of offensive. Today, by their help they occasionally succeed in seeing submarines when they voluntarily show themselves, but they do not succeed in destroying them before they submerge except on very rare and lucky occasions. To obtain this result enormous force is uselessly employed, which would be much better employed in other directions. This statement may be modified, however, in one respect – that the sighting of the submarine is often equivalent to compelling it to submerge; and compelling it to submerge is equivalent to putting it out of offensive action: from this point of view surface measures are therefore without doubt the best defensive measures, insofar as they paralyse the action and the will of the enemy, and this fully justifies their employment for the protection of convoys and ships, in fact, in many cases, it is sufficient to delay for a few hours the action of the submarine to enable a ship and its cargo to reach port. But is this the real problem to be faced? No. The problem is a great deal vaster. It is that of sinking the greatest number of submarines in order to prevent them from increasing in number and audacity – to prevent not delay them from sinking tomorrow the ship which they had been unable to sink today. Our object should not only be to paralyse the enemy but to destroy him. To obtain this result surface measures have up to the present proved insufficient.

     It must be realized that submarines should be fought under water. But inasmuch as a combat between submarines would practically amount to a fight between two blind men the only alternative are fixed nets and mines.

     On the other hand, it is impossible to scatter the nets and mines over vast area like the Mediterranean. Therefore the most urgent requirement is to restrict the zones in which enemy submarines operate, thus confining them to restricted areas which permit employment of nets and mines. These restricted waters are represented by the Adriatic.

     The barrage at the entrance to the Adriatic should therefore be the object of all our efforts, but the above results can only be obtained by fixed nets fitted with large number of mines.

     The problem would only be half solved, however, if the Straits of Gibraltar are not also blocked. It is true that up to now enemy submarines have been able to use Cataro as a base. But it is also correct that during these three years of war the submarine has made enormous progress in construction as regards personnel, radius and power. The new German submarines have a radius of 10,000 miles and good living accommodations. It is no longer necessary to send them to Pola to be put together in sections in order to reach theMediterranean by way of the Adriatic. They arrive in the Mediterranean by direct course from the northern bases, enter by Gibraltar, work for five or six weeks and return to their bases at Wilhelmhaven, Emden, Heligoland, Zeebruge, Bruges, etc. 

     The operations of Austrian submarines will be prevented by blocking the Adriatic, also of the German submarines, large or small, which may already base at Pola or Cattaro; but if this result was obtained it would not mean the cessation of the submarine danger in the Mediterranean for reasons stated above.

     The blocking of Otranto Channel without a doubt would be the first great step towards the solution of the problem, because it would allow the freeing of a large force of drifters and patrol units to help in the protection of the ships coming from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, and of a more effective defense of convoys in the Mediterranean. Statistics, in fact, tell us that the area lying between Cape St. Vincent in Spain, Cape Tarifa and Mazagan has become extremely dangerous; it represents a funnel toward which all ships are obliged to shape their course if they wish to enter the Mediterranean unless at the same time steps were taken to prevent their being sunk at the gates of that sea. The results would be the same that is, the ships would not arrive at their destination.

     Submarine warfare not only calls for great quantity of surface craft for escorting convoys and for the patrol of important points, such as Gibraltar, Tunis, Messina, Candia, Suez etc., but is also necessary in the majority of cases to save human life in the event of a disaster. There is quoted an example in the case of the “MINAS”; this ship was full of Italian troops and was torpedoed on a prescribed route which, however, in practice, was not patrolled by the nation whose duty it was to do so. Without entering into the question of the torpedoing, (which cannot absolutely be prevented even when a power-ful escort is provided) there is no doubt that the greater part of the Italian soldiers would have been saved if patrolling units had been in the neighborhood. As a matter of fact the disaster was only known by an accident when, after 24 hours, another steamship passed the spot, picking up a few survivors. 

     In conclusion it seems necessary that the following steps should be taken:-

     (I) to intensify by every means the placing of fixed nets for the Otranto barrage.

     (2) to intensify by every means the placing of fixed nets in the Straits of Gibraltar.

     (3) gradual substitution of aircraft for drifters and small surface craft for lookout and patrol.

     (4) liberate the greatest possible number of surface patrol craft and use them for the effective patrol of the entrance to the Mediterranean and for convoys in the Mediterranean.

     (5) develop the organization of hydrophones at the same time as the nets are placed.

     (6) to intensify the search for and the destruction of submarines at their bases by means of continuous attacks by aircraft, destroying thus their supply bases.

     (7) concentrate in the Adriatic motor boats, torpedo craft, and anything else that can be of use in fighting submarines as soon it is certain that they can no longer leave the Adriatic. To organize, in fact, in that sea every form of intensified chasing and destruction by sea, air, in the open and their bases, concentrating in a limited zone all the offensive forces which are at present scattered all over the Mediterranean and therefore unable to obtain any tangible results. . . .

     When these defensive and offensive means are perfected in the lower Adriatic it is clear that the increased security of navigation in the Mediterranean will permit of a greatly increased use of the routes, Suez to Italy, France and Malta. This enormous advantage will not only make itself felt by the greater punctuality in the arrival of supplies from India, but also by the greater amount of tonnage available, because by abolishing the long Cape of Good Hope route, there will be a greater number of steamers available at shorter intervals.

     The problem would further permit of a further increase in the supply of coal to Italy. This is explained as follows:

     Our supplies reach few principal Ports – Genoa, Savona, leghorn, Naples, because the quick discharge of cargoes can alone be undertaken in these to permit the prompt restitution of shipping tonnage. But the peculiar geographical shape of Italy makes the distribution of supplies from the chief ports of arrival to the various and distant points of the Peninsular difficult. This distribution could easily be made by means of the railway system, if there was coal, but owing to the lack of coal ¾ of the trains have been taken off, and those still running burn partly wood and partly supplies of coal of the Royal Navy, but they are not nearly sufficient to insure the distribution of important supplies to the Peninsular.

     It is therefore necessary to make use of the sea route, so that food stuffs are sent out from the ports of arrival and distributed along the coast to secondary ports for final distribution to the interior. This coasting trade cannot be performed with small steamships on account of lack of coal, so the only motive force which costs nothing must of necessity be relied on – the wind. But the wind does not blow always as it should and the sailing must therefore follow routes which are not always the safest. Again these must be protected as well as the large steamships, because if these means of distribution and decentralization were lacking it would be impossible to feed the population.

     For Italy therefore, the problem of traffic defense is not solved when the large steamships have entered the large ports; this problem becomes more difficult than ever between the large ports and the smaller ones as regards sailing ships.

     When it is insisted upon that it is impossible to decrease the few means which are available for the protection of the Tyrrhenian traffic the explanation of the reasons and the motives thereof cannot always be made and it is often believed that Italy has little inclination to support with all her force the general interest of the Entente. In truth, however, one must needs say that the Italian problem and its grave difficulties which have to be faced have never been thoroughly studied by the Allies, and hence it is completely ignored.

     The problem of the protection of foodstuffs and coal is so intimately connected that one cannot argue about it or take one link from the chain without upsetting the equilibrium of the whole system. Italy is asked for units for the defense of the general Allied traffic in the Mediterranean, and her reply is that: give her coal for the railways and the railways will do what is now being done by sailing ships, and then the patrol units may be given up. But as long as there is no coal for the railways sailing ships must be used, otherwise the people will die of hunger, and the units which Italy possesses are not sufficient to protect the sailing ship traffic. Italy will give all her energy but the first amongst all the contributions is that of assuring her the possibility of continuing the struggle. She has always kept her difficulties hidden persuaded that they equaled by those of the other countries, but if a close examination of reciprocal difficulties should be made it is necessary that it should proceed in a way which will not break the present equilibrium.




     3. – In commenting upon the two situations as seen by the British Commander in Chief and by Italy, the Attache will only deal with the Italian summary which is a reply to the British point of view as seen by Vice Admiral CALTHORPE.

     4. – All are of one mind regarding the Mission of Italy and her Allies – “To protect Maritime Traffic with the resulting operations of sinking as many submarines as possible.

     The necessity of restricting the area of operation of the submarines has always been recognized not only as a defensive feature but also as an offensive necessity. Why the two great steps for reaching this condition, that of closing the Adriatic at the Straits of Otranto and the Mediterranean at the Straits of Gibraltar, have been left so long without serious consideration is hard to understand. The seven steps mentioned by Italy as being necessary for combatting the situation, I believe will be admitted as sound, but the Attache believes that the elimination of the drifters is unwarranted. If fixed nets are placed closing the Adriatic and the Straits of Gibraltar, then it is believed that the drifters which constituted the old barrage should be most efficiently utilized at those terminal points where steamers are due to arrive at daylight, and where they are occasionally forced to remain outside of port until entrance is permitted. They also could be utilized in localities where passages must be made in restricted waters. The barrage at the Straits of Otranto is at present useless, submarines go and come at their leisure chiefly because a single line with many holidays in it cannot prevent submarines from passing. It is confidently felt that by breaking up this present inefficient drifter barrage and sending the boats in groups further up the Adriatic in unexpected localities they would meet with more success, particularly at night and particularly along the course from Cattaro. Of course they will require protection, but that is what the Brindisi force is for, and at the same time the presence of this force cruising about at high speed will deprive the submarine of his eyes and thus occasionally and with good fortune cause him to foul a net. The tactics of the drifters may be so organized that they would be easy of concentration and thus easily protected. Again it should be so arranged that the net could be slipped by the drifters. The drifters would then remain in the vicinity to depth-charge a submarine if caught; the submarine would dodge the area immediately in the wake of the drifter and then would possibly run into the invisible net.

     The great complaint laid against Italy is that she does not keep enough of her small craft at sea and that the disposition of her forces is bad. One must realize that Italy has more seaports and coast line than any of her Allies in comparison with her Navy. Her repair facilities are bad in that she lacks material and that the Atlantic has insufficient means to take care of the Navy operating therein. Thus the vessels that are laid up for overhaul take twice the time that we would find necessary if they were in our own yards.

     As regards the lack of coal and in consequence the shutting down of ¾ of her railways, thus increasing coastal traffic by sailing ships, and with it patrol craft, a condition Italy considers a direct cause of her being unable to give up more patrol craft – the Attache begs to state that he has brought to the attention of the General Staff of the Italian Navy, the tremendous saving which would result if they utilized the hundreds of idle sailing ships by dismantling them and using them in a great towing coastal trade as is so enormously successful in the United States. This question is the subject of a special report of the Attache and is still under consideration of the General Staff.

NOTE. An effective plan for escort in the Mediterranean would insure Italy’s coal supply and render the coastal traffic less necessary. N.C.T.3

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 1: Adm. Sir Somerset Arthur Gough-Calthorpe, Commander, Mediterranean Fleet.

Footnote 2: Lt. Comdr. Charles R. Train.

Footnote 3: Capt. Nathan C. Twining.