SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

This compelling study provides a wealth of information on the history, infrastructure, matériel, organization and operations of the Italian Navy of the Second World War. Brescia emphasizes the point that the wartime Italian Navy was a relatively modern force, having emerged from the conflicts that created the modern state between 1860 and 1870, linking Piedmontese, Neapolitan, Venetian and even Papal elements into a national force. The psychological impact of the humiliating defeat inflicted on this half-formed service by the Austrians at Lissa in 1866 drove the next 50 years of Italian naval thinking. Victory in 1918, celebrated by naming post-war heavy cruisers after towns and provinces taken from Austria at the peace, healed some of the scars. In 1922, the Washington Treaty, which gave Italy parity with France, bolstered the self-esteem of the service, and focused much of its thinking on France. The result was a fleet designed for short-range, high-speed surface warfare and relatively static submarine operations. In the mid 1930s the focus of naval policy shifted to the battlefleet, modernizing four old battleships and building the four new units of the Littorio class. Cruiser and destroyer building was cut or curtailed, exposing the limits of Italian finance and industrial capacity. When the ambitions of Mussolini's Fascist regime plunged the Navy into war in June 1940 it would be against Britain. Whatever the service might have achieved against France, it was not ready to face the battle hardened and highly capable Royal Navy. Regia Marina went to war desperately weak in two key areas, naval aviation and modern electronics, including sonar and radar. Despite those problems the service managed to keep the Axis armies in North Africa supplied, and came close to throttling Malta. When Italy surrendered in 1943 much of the fleet changed sides, serving with the Allies in supporting roles, down to the end of the war. As a result the post-war Italian Republic retained a significant navy, with ships and personnel from the wartime force.

Before discussing the materiel of the fleet, Brescia focuses on naval bases and shipyards, emphasizing the limits of Italian productive capacity. While Italian cruisers and destroyers were fast and well built they lacked endurance, and suffered from flawed gun-mountings. Fitting two medium-calibre guns in a fixed cradle meant that when fired the shells interfered with each other's ballistic performance, leading to very wide salvo dispersion. The massive pre-war submarine fleet had been designed for static operations, more intelligent minefield laying than the dynamic hunter-killer approach of the German U-boats. Wartime production of major warships was limited, but some very effective escort vessels were designed and built for the convoy route to North Africa. Light craft and special forces achieved disproportionate success, famously sinking two British battleships in Alexandria harbour, but they could not compensate for damaging defeats at Taranto and Cape Matapan, let alone the crippling shortage of oil fuel that limited operations after mid 1941, or the absence of naval air cover. The Navy had lost control of all aviation assets to the Air Force, and entered the war without a carrier, or any dedicated fighter aircraft. Allied to the lack of radar this weakness gave the Royal Navy control of the skies, while British penetration of Luftwaffe ‘Enigma’ exposed Italian convoys to attack. Considering the incomplete carrier Augustus, Brescia observes that the failure of the Air Force to train the necessary pilots made completing the ship pointless, the air group would not be ready before mid 1945.

A section of colour images, contemporary photographs, flags and elegant camouflage schemes rounds off a book that is both a rich source of information and insight, and a visual treat. Regia Marina built some strikingly beautiful ships in all categories, and the photographic skills to capture them for posterity: it would be hard to improve on the image of the heavy cruiser Trieste on p. 75. The reproduction of drawings, photographs and camouflage designs is superb, as good as anything from this highly rated publisher. The book ends, appropriately enough, with a note on the Italian photographic studios that produced so many of these striking images.

Regrettably there is no discussion of the 140,000 officers and men who served in the wartime fleet. We do not learn how the sailors were recruited and trained, whether they were long-service volunteers or short-service conscripts, if there is any regional bias in recruiting officers or men. Only a handful of Admirals and heroes get a mention in the ‘Who's Who’ chapter. That omission aside, Brescia's book will be essential reading for all those studying the Italian Navy in the Second World War. It provides an ideal companion for Erminio Bagnasco's striking 2011 book on the Littorio class battleships, from the same publisher, (reviewed IJNA 41.2: 468), and in both cases Ralph Riccio's involvement has ensured an accessible and elegant English language text.