The Battle of the Mediterranean is not a single engagement, but rather, a long-term conflict for the strategic control of the Mediterranean Sea. This conflict began when Italy declared war on Britain, guaranteeing a clash of interests at the center of the sea. Britain and Italy remained the principal adversaries until the Italians changed sides, but France, Germany and the United States participated in the struggle as well. The opening phase of the Battle of the Mediterranean can be considered, roughly, to last from the Italian declaration of war until the commitment of significant German forces to the Italian war effort in 1941.
For both Britain and Italy, the security of the Mediterranean was of paramount importance. Britain’s bases at Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt marked a long line from one end of the sea to the other; when the path from Gibraltar to the Suez Canal was clear for British traffic, it allowed ships to travel from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean over just 2,000 miles, instead of the more than 12,000 miles that the journey would take by voyaging around Africa. Italy’s interest was much narrower, but also much nearer to home. The Italian colony of Libya lay on the other side of a short bottleneck at the center of Mediterranean, passing from Sicily to the port of Tripoli. This path did not merely cross the British line of supply, however; it barely skirted the island of Malta itself, while the full distance lay in the range of British fighter planes based on the island. Both sides saw vital national interests intersecting over Malta.
Neither side was entirely ready for the fight when it came. The Royal Navy was clearly Britain’s leading branch of service by long tradition, but it was already engaged in other places, with limited resources for the Mediterranean. Moreover, the assets that were available included older vessels; they were slower than Italian ships, and they fired with a shorter range. Italy’s Regia Marina was building a larger and more modern force, but much of it was incomplete when Italy declared war. It is often observed that the Regia Marina had six battleships, but four of them were still in some phase of construction in June 1940, and two of them would not be available until the fall. Thus, the Italian declaration of war posed a threat to Britain’s interests in the Mediterranean, but it was not the most immediate threat.
Indeed, it was the French Navy that drew Britain’s attention first. France also had substantial assets in the Mediterranean, and France’s surrender to Germany raised the question of whom they would serve. The French vessels at harbor in Alexandria were neutralized by negotiation, but French commanders at Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar were less cooperative, and British assets at Gibraltar, designated Force H, opened the Battle of the Mediterranean with attacks on these French forces.
Mers-el-Kebir was attacked on July 3, where the principal targets were four battleships and a carrier. One battleship, the Strasbourg, evaded the British trap with twelve other vessels and reached relative safety at the port of Toulon, but the Bretagne was destroyed, while the Dunkerque, Provence and the carrier Commandante Teste suffered substantial damage in the attack. On July 8, Force H attacked the French at Dakar, where two battleships were based. In this case, only one of them, the Richelieu, suffered substantial damage. These attacks were enough, however, to deter any French involvement in the fight between the British and the Italians.
First contact between those two fleets came on the following day, July 9, in the Action off Calabria (or the battle of Punta Stilo). Italian air assets made a largely ineffectual attack on the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet the day before, but the naval battle came about because both fleets took advantage of a target of opportunity. On both sides, a sizable fleet detected the other while protecting one of its own convoys, and each turned to engage the other. The Italians had both of their operational battleships, the Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare; these were supplemented by fourteen cruisers and sixteen destroyers. The British had three battleships, including the HMS Warspite, an aircraft carrier, the HMS Eagle, five cruisers and sixteen destroyers.
The battleships opened fire at the limits of their respective ranges, but only the Warspite had demonstrable effect, damaging the Giulio Cesare. The Cesare withdrew, and with this change in the balance of power between the two fleets, the rest of the Italian force followed. Aircraft from the Eagle managed to sink one of the Italian destroyers, but then the superior speed of the Regia Marina told, and the Italians escaped.
Ultimately, this was a result of Italian tactics, rather than a failure of nerve. Italian battleships were faster than the British battleships in the area, and they could fire from a longer range. Italian planning therefore called for engagements in which the Italian battleships could fire with relative impunity, and withdraw to a safe distance as the British sought to engage. The Action off Calabria had been a reversal, but not a powerful one, and the Regia Marina tried several times during the summer and fall of 1940 to engage the British. During this time, the two battleships of the Duilio class became available, and the Italians were confident in their naval strength. The British, however, avoided contact until November.
By that time, the two battleships of the Vittorio Veneto class were also operational, and Italy’s entire battleship reserve was concentrated at the port of Taranto. Here was the opportunity that the British had sought, and on November 11, the HMS Illustrious sent a flight of Fairey Swordfish biplanes to attack the Italians in port. They attacked at night, and the Italians lacked radar warning systems, and so the British aircraft struck with complete surprise, sinking two battleships and running a third aground with serious damage. The attack also damaged a heavy cruiser and some destroyers, and struck at the Italian oil depots. Against these successes stood only the loss of two planes; the Battle of Taranto stands as an early turning point in the Battle of the Mediterranean.
The Italians were far from discouraged, although their commanders were instructed to exercise caution. Several times from November through February, the Italians attempted to engage the British. In all cases save one, the Italians failed to make contact. The lone exception was on November 26, when British and Italian cruisers fired at each other from long range. Eventually, the battleship Vittorio Veneto closed to firing range. It also came under British air attack, but no effective damage resulted from the engagement.
German involvement in Italy’s war was escalating, and the opening phase of the Battle of the Mediterranean drew to a close. An elite formation of the Luftwaffe, Fliegerkorps X, was first detailed to assist the Italians at sea in December, 1940. The Afrika Korps was sent to aid the Italians on land in North Africa the following February, while in Europe, Hitler sent troops into Yugoslavia and Greece to assist the Italians in their flagging offensives. For their part, the British struggled to defend Greece, drawing supply over sea from Egypt. The Germans called for the Regia Marina to come in force to the eastern Mediterranean and cut off that supply.
In an effort to comply, the Italians mustered a task force of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and thirteen destroyers around the battleship Vittorio Veneto, commanded by Admiral Iachino. The British, whose codebreaking skills contributed to many victories during the Second World War, were aware of their approach, and sent an even larger force north from Alexandria. The advance guard, commanded by Rear Admiral Pridham-Wippel, consisted of four cruisers and nine destroyers; behind him followed the main force under Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, with the battleships Warspite, Barham and Valiant, the carrier Formidable, and a further nine destroyers. They met just south of Crete on March 28.
As in previous battles, the exchange of fire by the cruisers at long range had no appreciable effect. The Italians were able to bring the Vittorio Veneto into range before Cunningham’s main body arrived, and Admiral Pridham-Wippel looked for a way to lead the Italians into the range of the British battleships, which needed more time to reach the battle. Admiral Cunningham was equally aware of this problem, and sent torpedo bombers from the Formidable to attack the Italians, hoping mainly to reduce the Italian fleet’s speed.
Surface action remained ineffective while this transpired around noon. Notably, the Vittorio Veneto failed to score a single hit. The torpedo bombers, on the other hand, changed the course of the battle. They damaged the Vittorio Veneto, prompting Admiral Iachino to return home with his flagship at roughly half speed. Air attacks continued during the Italian withdrawal, and the heavy cruiser Pola sustained heavy damage, leaving it unable to follow the rest of the fleet. The heavy cruisers Fiume and Zara, accompanied by two destroyers, remained with the Pola in the waters south of Cape Matapan in Greece. Cunningham’s battleships reached these stragglers that night, sinking all five from close range
The Battle of Cape Matapan ensured that the Regia Marina would not be able to challenge the Royal Navy openly in the Mediterranean. As such, it did as much to end the opening phase of the Battle of the Mediterranean as the escalation of German involvement did. The Regia Marina returned to its primary duty of securing Italy’s supply lines to North Africa, where Rommel’s Afrika Korps was restoring the initiative to the Axis side. The fall of Greece and Crete ended British efforts to supply Allied ground efforts in the eastern Mediterranean, and the attention of both sides fell to the island of Malta. The British would struggle to keep their bases on Malta operational while the Luftwaffe sought to crush them, and the convoys brought in to support them, from their new airbases on Sicily.
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Stilwell, Alexander, ed. The Second World War: A World in Flames. Osprey, 2004
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Bedrick, 1990
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