In June 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini wrestled with a dilemma. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was the very essence of a victorious warlord. Nazi forces were sweeping through northern France, having already overrun Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. These rapid conquests, added to the Germans’ previous victories in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, made the Third Reich the most powerful country in Europe, if not the world.
Mussolini had to decide whether to ally himself with the all-conquering Hitler and pick up some of the pieces of a crumbling Europe or remain in supportive neutrality and gain nothing.
Against the advice of his king and his Pope, Mussolini dispatched Italian troops into France to assist Hitler and cast his lot with the victor. To his surprise and embarrassment, Hitler would not let him occupy any significant French territory, only some disputed border areas. The Führer was cobbling together an alliance with the French government at Vichy, and the upstart Italian was inconveniently in the way. This border incident set the tone for the German-Italian alliance.
The dream of Mussolini and his Fascist party was to recreate the glory of ancient Rome. The immediate goal was to control the Mediterranean Sea, making it again the Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) of the Caesars. To that end, Italy pursued its own war aims independent of Germany.
As early as 1918, Mussolini had railed against foreign navies in the Mediterranean. This meant specifically Great Britain’s Royal Navy with its important bases at Alexandria, Gibraltar, and Malta. The French also had a powerful fleet and extensive Mediterranean bases. In the 1930s, Italy inaugurated a ship-building program that created a fleet of swift battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and motor torpedo boats that outclassed much of the aging English fleet.
The Royal Navy, with its proud tradition of ruling the waves for the previous four centuries, was hard-pressed by the German Kreigsmarine, whose U-Boats roamed at will in the Atlantic. Most of England’s naval strength was committed to convoy duty in the North Atlantic and the home waters to guard against a German invasion.
That left precious few second-rate ships to guard the important passage to India through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Italian airplanes soon made Malta untenable as a naval base.
With the powerful French Navy neutralized by the armistice with Hitler and the British bombardment at Oran crippling the Vichy fleet, Mussolini was confident that he could defeat the scant British forces arrayed against him. The Mediterranean would become an Italian lake.
There were many factors that Mussolini did not consider when he went to war. Had he consulted with his naval officers, he would have learned that Italy had a finite amount of fuel oil for its thirsty ships. With both ends of the Mediterranean Sea controlled by the British, there would be no ready sources of oil available. The vast pools of oil in Italian-controlled Libya would not be tapped until after the war.
If the impending shortage came to his attention, Il Duce ignored it and began the systematic conquest of territory around the Mare Nostrum. But he bit off more than he could chew. From Libya, the Italian Army struck deep into Egypt to dislodge the stubborn English from Suez. In East Africa, Italian forces, now cut off from home, overran British Somaliland and tried to close the Red Sea to British shipping.
Meanwhile, other Italian forces invaded and occupied Albania. But when Greece became the next target of conquest, Italy got more than it bargained for. The Italian invasion of Greece stalled. Buttressed by British support, the Greeks threw back the assault and pursued the invader into Albania.
In Egypt, Britain gathered troops from throughout the empire to repulse Italian advances. On this front, Italian troops were pushed back into Libya. In desperation, Mussolini turned to his German ally for help. The result was the introduction of the small but tenacious German Africa Korps to North Africa. Units of the Luftwaffe also moved to bases in Sicily and North Africa.
In addition, Mussolini requested help from Hitler with the deteriorating situation in Greece. As the fortunes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy became more intertwined, greater military cooperation was necessary. The Italian surface fleet was far more powerful than that of the Germans in the Mediterranean, and the Italian admirals felt they had little to gain from this coerced cooperation. But the German price of assistance in Greece was the proxy use of the Italian fleet.
Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Planes Sank or Damaged Several of Italy’s Capital Ships in a Daring Raid That Would Become the Inspiration for the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor 13 Months Later.
The admirals of the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, did manage to get Germany to commit stocks of fuel oil, but Germany had little of its own oil to spare and the shortage for the Italians would always be acute.
However, the British struck first in a bold move against their Mediterranean rivals. The bulk of the Italian fleet was anchored at the well-protected port of Taranto in the arch of the Italian boot. On the night of November 11, 1940, Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from the aircraft career HMS Illustrious sank or damaged several of Italy’s capital ships in a daring raid. It was this innovative raid that became the inspiration for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 13 months later.
The crippled Italian fleet sought safer ports at Naples and in the Adriatic, where the warships remained at anchor for the next four months. But the Italians were still full of fight and desperately needed a victory. They would have preferred a fight of their own choosing, but the choice of a battle was made for them in Berlin.
Germany was willing to help Italy with the war with Greece, especially now that the British had become involved. Allied convoys of troops and supplies were moving freely between Alexandria and Athens, reinforcing the Greek counteroffensive. The Nazis wanted that supply line cut, and the Italian Navy was the only tool at hand. Germany was even willing to give the Italians some precious fuel oil for the impending naval offensive. The Italians grudgingly agreed to the proposal if the Germans could provide air support. The Germans, full of confidence, agreed. In February 1941, the senior naval staffs of each nation met for three days to plan joint operations.
Italy, like all belligerents in the war, was plagued by interservice rivalries. The Italian Air Force was vigilantly independent of the Navy and vice versa. If a naval commander needed tactical air support during a battle, he had to request it from the naval command headquarters. They passed on the request to the supreme command of all Italian forces, which in many cases meant Mussolini himself.
If he approved, the request went to the air force command and then, if convenient, to the individual aerodrome closest to the action. Divided German air authority on Italian soil only added time-consuming layers of bureaucracy in the lengthy command structure. By contrast, British commanders on the scene made all such tactical decisions and dispositions themselves without having to request permission from London.
Into the Italian cauldron of indecision was born Operation Gaudo, an effort to secure the seas around Greece. Hoping to catch a British convoy by surprise but unsure if a convoy was even at sea, a powerful Italian squadron weighed anchor on March 26, 1941. Steaming under radio silence, the Italians hoped to avenge Taranto and redeem the pride of their naval tradition. The Italian Admiral Angelo Iachino counted on the element of surprise but was already worried that no land-based German or Italian planes were overhead in support of his flotilla.
Aboard his flagship, the brand-new 45,000-ton battleship Vittorio Veneto, Iachino steamed out of Naples and moved boldly southward. Meanwhile, three squadrons of cruisers and a unit of destroyers departed from other Italian ports to rendezvous with him at sea. In all, his armada included the battleship, eight cruisers, and 13 destroyers.
On the 26th, an Italian spotter plane observed three British battleships, Warspite, Barham, and Valiant, and the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable resting quietly at anchor in Alexandria. So far Iachino was enjoying the element of surprise.
That same day, British scouting planes sighted one of the Italian cruiser squadrons, alerting the British to Italian naval activity but not unmasking their true intent. British codebreakers had also unlocked numerous German and Italian codes and provided intelligence on the Italian sortie. The British commander in Egypt, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, took heed of the warnings and alerted the 7th Cruiser Squadron, which consisted of four cruisers and two destroyers under Admiral Henry Pridham-Whippell. Cunningham ordered Pridham-Whippell to steam south of Crete to intercept what was then perceived as a single enemy cruiser squadron. A flight of 30 Bristol Blenheim bombers stationed in Greece was also put on alert.
Cunningham was convinced that there were significant Italian naval units at sea, though he could not yet determine their number, purpose, or destination. He ordered his three battleships and the carrier Formidable to build up steam and prepare to put to sea. Cunningham gave orders for all British units in the eastern Mediterranean to converge south of Crete at 1700 hours on March 28.