Regia Marina ww2

Mare Nostrum

“Mare Nostrum”: This ancient motto known to the Greeks Byzantines and Turks was the embodiment of the a navy dreamed by Mussolini. Il Duce indeed tried to restore in modern times the greatness of the Empire Roman, a perfect nationalistic theme that fit its ego and ambition for Italy in the XXth Century. Indeed total control of the Mediterranean (the “roman lake”) was achieved at the beginning of the Roman Empire, and for Fascist Italy would have been the goal for a formidable colonial empire, raising Italy again to the rank of great power. However, this strategic sector was then controlled by France and Great Britain.

The former aligned about the same number of ships to Italy, but dispersed between several strategic bases, securing passage to the Suez Canal, which basically shut the eastern Mediterranean while Gibraltar blocked access to the Atlantic. The neutrality of Spain ensured its perennial nature. Malta was a strategic position, and the port of Valletta is a fundamental step for access to the Eastern Mediterranean and to Egypt.

France aligned the bulk of the Marine Nationale there to protect its possessions in North Africa and West Africa, a department like Algeria, its protectorates like Morocco, and guaranteed access through the Suez Canal to its Indochinese colonies, just as vital as for the British and India. Besides a main naval base in Toulon, other bases comprised Mers el-Kebir near Oran in Algeria, Bizerte, Rayak in Syria and Dakar on the west coast of Africa.

Italy’s challenge

The Italian Navy was like Germany formerly a collection inherited from an ancient kaleidoscope of ten kingdoms, and since ww1 went a long way towards industrialization, not yet completed in 1940. The history of the Italian navy is also that of technological innovations Brought to the end of the 19th century by talented engineers like Duilio and Cuniberti, the latter now recognized as the pen genitor the new “breed” of monocaliber battleship better known as the Dreadnought in 1906. Of the three arms, Regia Marina was by far the most effective, and a powerful propaganda tool.

The ten-year moratorium imposed by Washington in 1922 stopped the construction of four fast battleships of the Caracciolo class. Construction of heavy units resumed in 1937, with the class Littorio (first true Italian “super-dreadnoughts”). The design paralleled a radical overhaul of ww1 dreadnoughts, Cesare and Duilio classes, which were brand new in 1940.

The Franco-Italian rivalry:
Based on tonnage (175,000 for each nation as allocated by Washington), the Franco-Italian rivalry in the Mediterranean quickly turned into a race almost on a unit-per-unit base. “Supermarina” was perceived very early as a threat by France to its communication roads to Africa and conversely the Marine Nationale became for Mussolini an obstacle to his cherished expansion, the first stage of which was Abyssinia in 1935, then Libya followed.

Conte di Cavour


To the two Courbet and three Lorraine, The Italian only opposed four ww1 era dreadnoughts, the Cesare and Duilio. France seems to have the advantage of numbers, but in reality the two units of the Courbet class had a questionable military value, as older and with only cosmetic changes. The Provence class had a more thorough refit in the early 1930s, but this was not enough for 1940. As for fast battleships, to France’s Dunkirk class, Italy replied with her two Littorio. Then, with the Richelieu class was launched the Roma class, enlarged sister-ships of the Littorio replied in turn, but too late. However neither Jean Bart (fr) nor Impero (It) were completed during the war.

Aircraft carriers:
France had definitely an advantage with Béarn (a converted battleship) against nothing comparable in Italy. The idea of an aircraft carrier in Italy was long brushed aside by Mussolini speaking of Italy being itself a super-large aircraft carrier, which was arguably true due to the central position in the Mediterranean. The idea however resurfaced after the crushing defeat of Cape Matapan, where the Ministry of the Navy finally realized the importance of air support, and compounded with the breathtaking air raid on Tarento (the main inspirator for Pearl Harbour to the Japanese). The old coal carrier Giuseppe Miraglia was converted to operate seaplanes in the 1920s, which answered to the French Commandant Teste, a far larger, purpose-built ship. while the conversion of two liners (modern, large and fast) was started, the Aquila and Sparviero, none was completed, while on the French side the two fast, purpose-built aircraft carriers of the French Joffre class of 1940 were never launched.

Italian heavy cruiser Trieste in Mar Grande, Taranto, early 1930s.

The parallel resulting from this rivalry was even more evident in this particular area: To the two heavy cruisers Duquesne, Italy responded with the Trento. Then the Bolzano to oppose Algeria. Zara class corresponded to the four Suffren. The three light cruisers Duguay Trouin, Emile Bertin and Joan of Arc to the four Giussano, the first class Condottieri, and the two Cadorna of the second group. The six Galissonniere-class faced the Condotierri (2nd group), Montecuccoli and Abruzzi classes, for a total of six units.

Trento, Bolzano
3rd naval division: Trento, Trieste, Bolzano.

As for the destroyers, “Supermarina” had a total of fifty-six units against fifty-eight for the French, compensating by new constructions in wartime, bringing this total to 66. However the French had a qualitative superiority. Italian units were well designed, inexpensive and fast, exported successfully, but remain small and poorly armed, with limited autonomy. To “flotilla leader” squadrons, the 32 heavy French destroyers had equivalents only the ww1 ships of the classes Leone and Mirabello (4 units). To the heavier Mogador, the Italians responded during the war with the class “Capitani Romani”. These included the Sella, Sauro, Turbine, Navigatori, Freccia, Folgore, Maestrale, Oriani and Soldati classes, seven of which will be completed during the conflict.

Soldati class destroyers
Soldati class destroyers

Torpedo Boats:
French torpedo boats were equal in value and quality to the Italians, but the Italians produced much more from 1936, with the Spica and Pegasus classes. (34 were also former reclassified destroyers built between 1916 and 1922). Other classes will follow during the war, for a total of thirty-two units. TBs were a must for short range operations in home waters, so they were largely seen as substitute destroyers for coastal defence. The 1,625 long tons Ciclone class of 1942 were considered rightly as escort destroyers. They were not supremely fast but had sonar and hydrophones plus improved ASW capabilities.

To ensure colonial service, the sloop Erythrea was built. The yacht of the Admiralty, the frigate Diana, was also converted. To escort shipping and troops in Africa during the war, Italy also launched the construction of 47 corvettes of the “Gabbiano” class, a response to the British “Flower” well suited for the Mediterranean.

As for the “submarines”, France has a homogeneous fleet of 81 units against 116 for the Italians. The latter dispersed their production in numerous classes, counting only 2, 3 or 4 boats ranging between oceanic and coastal types. The French aligned the submarine cruiser Surcouf, while three Roland morillot and eight Aurore in 1940 were in construction when the war broke out. The Italians in wartime built 14 Acciaio and 10 Flutto (26 planned), underwater pocket submarine CMs (2 units), CC, CA (2) CB (22). Oceanic submarine has been based at La Pallice, Bordeaux in occupied France, to operate on the Atlantic.

Cagni class submarines
Cagni class submarines

Porfidio class submarines, Acciaio class

Adua submarine
Adua submarine

Squalo class submarine

Miscellaneous ships
The Italians firmly believed in “naval dust” with the famous MAS, MTSM and MTSMA, MS and VAS patrollers which did wonders against the Austro-Hungarians in ww1, and tried in wartime some daring experiences with “Maiales” and “pigs”/SLCs, human torpedoes, and SSBs, MATs and MTMs, explosive MTRs. These cheap units were built in the hundreds and performed well in a very few occasions.

Older ships
The old cruiser San Giorgio (1908) revised in 1937 as a coastal defense ship, war reparation German ships (1918) relegated to the Colonies such as Taranto and Bari, Torpedo boats (ex-destroyers reclassified from the great) Pilo class, Sirtori, La Masa, Palestro, Generali and Curtatone, and Audace and Insidioso units. A total of 34 ships, plus six H-class submarines (1917), three old battleships, three former Austrian minesweeper Albona class, Ostia and Fasana, over 43 DR mine minesweepers.

Wartime shipbuilding

During the conflict, Italy started an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, several “super-destroyers”, destroyers, torpedo boats and a large number of submarines, midget subs and crafts.

The sixth group of Condottieri included the Ciano and Venezia, launched in June but whose construction was suspended in 1940. 12 light cruisers “Capitani romani” were also started, 8 launched, but only four entered service. These were large “super-destroyers”.
The Etna class, initially ordered by Siam were requisitioned but never completed.
68 torpedo boats, 16 of the class Ciclone and 52 Ariete, were started but few were completed and entered service in 1943.

Procione TB
Procione torpedo boat, Pegaso class (1937) – Giorgio Parodi coll.

Destroyers of the class Commandante Medaglie d’Oro, very modern ships comparable to the American Fletcher or Gearing comprised 20 units, none of which was completed. Some destroyers of the second group of Soldati class were completed after the capitulation and served under German colors. Finally, the numerous Gabbiano class corvettes were unable to effectively fight the British submarines mostly because of the lack of modern detection systems. This example mirorred other technological deficiencies that weighted decisively in the war for Regia Marina.

Artigliere, Soldati class destroyer

Captured ships
For a short time, the French cruiser Jean de Vienne and La Galissonnière, sunk in Toulon, but salvaged and repaired were temporarily assigned to the Italian navy before the armistice, as FR11 and 12. They were never restored into operational service and were sunk in by an Allied attack. In the same way, the Toulon offered 11 destroyers of several classes, but only two were salvaged and repaired, entering active service as the FR21 (Lion) and FR32 (Scirocco) plus three Melpomène Class torpedo boats as the FR41 , 42 and 43. In addition, 9 submarines captured in Bizerte in 1942 by the Afrika Korps were transferred to Italy. The Yugoslav navy, also captured in 1941 supplied to Italy the powerful destroyer Dubrovnik, Ljubljana and Belgrade (renamed Premuda, Sebenico and Ljubljana) as well as six torpedo boats, two submarines, six minesweepers and a small gunboat.

colorized photo of battleship Duilio

Tonnage in 1939:
-4 Battleships
-19 Cruisers
-56 Destroyers
-70 Torpedo Boats*
-122 Submarines
-73 MAS
-75 Miscellaneous
*Including 34 old reclassed destroyers in 1939.

Additional units (entered in service between June 1940 and September 1943):
-3 battleships
-4 cruisers
-7 Destroyers
-50 Submarines
-47 Corvettes
-420 MTBs and misc.

Super-destroyer Scipione Africano –

“Supermarina” in operations

Mussolini funded great hopes for his fleet, justified by a real, objective offensive potential, especially after the defeat of France the the fate of her fleet, immobilized captured or destroyed. This event placed the entire Italian Navy face to the feeble Royal Navy of the area. It should have been and interesting match for the best navy on the world. But its action would prove disappointing due to perhaps too timored admirals, politic meddling into naval affairs, industrial shortcomings in many areas, poorly managed and coordinated naval aviation, and a technological gap (radar, and modern sonar). Statistics showed that the majority of the Italian fleet was either sunk by Allied aviation, or, in November 1943 by the guided bombs of a former German ally. There were nevertheless some surface battles, Italian submarines did scored numerous kills, and small crafts or even frogmen performed rarely equaled feats of bravery.

Cruiser Zara firing
Cruiser Zara firing

The weakness of AA artillery was also patent, the bulk of which comprised Breda 13mm mounts, not fir to catch fast, modern planes. However after 1940s many units would receive 20mm and 37mm mounts. The lack of adequate ASW means also weighted a lot in the losses by British submarines (T, S and O classes), which participated to the full to the deliquescent supplies to the axis in Africa, making the Afrika Korps at some point devoid of any resources, having to make due with captured equipments. Finally, despite their success in 1917-1918 against the Austro-Hungarian fleet, MAS proved disappointing in operation, as context differed and British bases, well guarded proved often out of reach. It was same for the cohort of small crafts, either manned torpedoes, charges or midget submarines. Most also were achieved too late, when Italy collapsed.

Vittorio Veneto firing at the battle of cape Spartivento
Vittorio Veneto firing at the battle of cape Spartivento

A series of failures for the fleet

The few important engagements, such as the famous Battle of Cape Matapan, were essentially defeats, but certain operations such as the blockade of Malta or the second battle of Syrta were half-successes (or Pyrrhic victories) but the Luftwaffe greatly contributed to these. In addition to the lack of radars and coordination between the Navy and the Regia Aeronautica (also dominated by the Royal Air Force) was a crucial factor in all these operations. The advantageous position of the peninsula in the center of the Mediterranean was doomed at operational level.

Aircraft Carrier Falco (Aquila) during conversion

Successes: Luftwaffe support, submersibles and special operations

The massive support of the Luftwaffe and then the construction of two aircraft carriers should have changed the situation. Italian submarines were also the most successful, engaged with the same tactics as the Germans in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, but limited in the last theater of operations by their lack of autonomy. Arguably the most successful Italian operation of the war (even honored by their enemy) are to be credited to special units such as “Flotilla 10” using explosive MAT and “Maiales”, human torpedoes, inflicting serious losses Like the cruiser York, the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth.

MAS camouflaged in 1942
MAS camouflaged in 1942

Armistice and its consequences

The final sortie of the Italian Navy was played in November 1943, with the armistice. Regia Marina went to surrender to the allies, but the Luftwaffe waited for them, and tested with success their Henschel flying bombs (the first antiship missiles) on Italian capital ships. Attempts to repair and rebuild scuttled ships by Germany were generally unsuccessful. However, many units of the Kriegsmarine operated captured Italian ships, sometimes equipped with modern radars and AA artillery. Most were sunk or scuttled in 1944-1945, and a few joined the servile Italian Social Republic (SALO regime).

Finally, some Ex-Italians ex-German submarines carrying supplies and never returned were recovered by the Japanese and, in turn, sunk by the US Navy. After the war, surviving ships (less than 50%) were distributed as compensation between France and the USSR. These ships were used until the 1970s, proof of their sturdiness. There was another, perhaps more trivial aspect about Italian ships that has to be noticed, they were generally the most handsome. Built for USSR, the “blue beauty” was a famous black sea destroyer and perhaps one of the most gorgeous destroyer ever put at sea. The Italians also largely participated in the design of Soviet destroyers and cruisers.

Conway’s all the world fighting ships 1906-1921 & 1921-1947