By Tom Anderson
World War II has, for understandable reasons, left a long shadow on our cultural memory. Not only the greatest war the world has ever seen, but also the first one regularly captured on film and remaining, still, in living memory, it has defined our images of what ‘war’ is. This has varied from nation to nation and from generation to generation. This is true of the specifically naval aspects of the war as much as it is of any other part. The Second World War saw much more naval combat than the First, and in multiple theatres. For that reason, rather than neglect any part of the war, we shall devote this first article purely to the European, Mediterranean and Atlantic aspects of the war, saving the Pacific for a future article.
As we have seen, the lead up to World War I emphasised naval warfare in a manner in which the war itself largely failed to live up to. While naval clashes were important in particular theatres, and blockade and submarine warfare tactics were crucial to the outcome of the war, the notion of a decisive battle between fleets of dreadnought battleships failed to materialise. Even Jutland did not change the status quo. Nonetheless, the postwar naval treaties mainly focused on restricting capital ship construction, although Germany was also banned from constructing U-boats.
Popular culture has created an endlessly-repeated and –reinforced version of the narrative of the leadup to World War II; the charismatic but diabolical Adolf Hitler cowing the naively pacifist Allies, exemplified by Neville Chamberlain, into appeasing his remilitarisation of Germany and occupation of surrounding countries. This narrative is not without some justice, but does drastically simplify matters. For example, it is treated as a foregone conclusion that Mussolini would be Hitler’s ally; Italian fascism inspired Nazism, and the Rome-Berlin ‘Axis [about which all Europe rotates]’ is ingrained into our historical pictures of the war. In fact, Mussolini wished to maintain Austrian independence against Hitler, not least because Italy had annexed German-speaking territory in South Tyrol after World War I, and Hitler wanted to unite all German-speaking peoples under his rule. In 1935, the ‘Stresa Front’ (signed in the Italian town of that name) attempted to unite Britain, France and Italy to protect Austria against Hitler—but it soon broke down after Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Later that same year, Britain signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement with Hitler, allowing Germany to build submarines once more in exchange for a (never materialising) German return to the League of Nations and moves towards disarmament. This decision both offended the French and convinced Mussolini of the western Allies’ weakness.
The Agreement was crucial for the kind of war that World War II would become. In terms of German capital ships it was not so important as it may seem, due to the time required to construct such vessels. Two new battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz, were built in time for the outbreak of hostilities—but neither proved important to the outcome of the war. In a similar issue to that seen in the First World War, both ships were too symbolically important to risk. The Bismarck conducted only one offensive operation, ‘Exercise Rhine’, aimed at British shipping in 1941, before she was sank. In the process, she did sink Britain’s battlecruiser HMS Hood in a surprisingly easy manner considering that ship’s reputation for invincibility, which was a blow to British morale. Tirpitz, meanwhile, only fired its main armament once in the course of the war, in Svalbard (Spitzbergen) of all places, before being sunk in 1944. Once again, the great German status symbols of battleships proved essentially irrelevant to the outcome of the conflict—although this did not stop the iconic 1960 film Sink the Bismarck! being made, itself based on C.S. Forester’s book The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck.
The Agreement was more important in that it allowed Germany to build more U-boats, but even then, in 1939 Germany only possessed 56 of them, of which only 22 were sea-going models. U-boats did, once again, prove very important for attacks on British freight in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain’s Royal Navy was slow to re-learn the lessons of the First World War in how to counter the U-boat menace, although the convoy system was brought back swiftly. U-boats did not pose a serious threat to British shipping until France and Norway fell in 1940, at which point bases in those occupied countries could be used by the Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy). From July to early 1941, the U-boats wrought havoc on British shipping, a time known to the U-boat commanders as Die Glückliche Zeit (“The Happy Time”). More than 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping were sunk at this time. Britain regained the upper hand with the deployment of corvettes and radar (more details later). The United States, still officially neutral, also began a policy of firing on U-boats that attacked American escorts. The Germans, on the other hand, were developing ‘Wolf Pack’ tactics which rendered the U-boats more effective by clustering them. However, this required considerable radio communication between the U-boats to coordinate their mass attack. This rendered them vulnerable to the Allies’ High Frequency Direction Finder technology, usually dubbed ‘huff-duff’ after the acronym.
America entered the war in December 1941 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor (more later) and Hitler’s declaration of war. However, the US was slow to adopt the convoy system, and American coastal cities’ bright lights silhouetted convoy ships (the U-boats now possessing the range to attack as far away as the West Indies). Those cities refused a blackout for six months due to claims it would harm the tourist trade! U-boat commanders unsurprisingly called this the “Second Happy Time.” It would not be until 1943 that the balance shifted once again to the Allies. U-boats were being sunk faster than they could be built. Advances in Allied naval tactics and antisubmarine weapons were a part of this, but also crucial was the widescale deployment of radar (with only a small window of the Atlantic not covered between Iceland and Newfoundland) and long-range antisubmarine aircraft. Increasingly, U-boats simply could not escape the latter after showing themselves. It also helped that Britain had broken Germany’s Enigma code and naval orders could be intercepted and decrypted—though there was a dangerous period in 1942 when the Germans had introduced the new 4-rotor ‘Shark’ Enigma system for U-boats specifically, and those codes had not yet been broken. Typically, to conceal the fact that the codes had been broken, the British would send an aircraft over the enemy ship to provide a plausible reason why she had been spotted ‘by chance’.
Winston Churchill feared that the U-boats had done more to bring Britain closer to defeat than anything else in the war. He was also aware of the importance of ‘othering’ in propaganda, as illustrated by his famous correction: “Enemy submarines are to be called U-Boats. The term submarine is to be reserved for Allied under water vessels. U-Boats are those dastardly villains who sink our ships, while submarines are those gallant and noble craft which sink theirs.” However, the U-boats were the exception to the rule when it came to the Kriegsmarine, which otherwise had little impact on the outcome of the war.
There were cinematic naval clashes, as in the case of the sinking of the Bismarck, but not war-changing ones. Indeed, history repeated itself from the First World War when, only months into the conflict, the Battle of the River Plate was fought against the German pocket battleship Graf Spee by Royal Navy forces operating from the Falklands. The hunt and kill captured the world’s attention, but achieved little else.
Germany’s naval weakness meant that Hitler had no real recourse for invading Britain if she refused to be bombed into submission following the Fall of France. The ‘Operation Sea Lion’ from which this publisher takes its name was always hopelessly unrealistic, using Rhine barges for transporting troops, which would have been dangerous to cross the Channel with even if the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force hadn’t been shooting at them all the way. Things might have been different if the French Navy, able to do little before France fell, had fallen into German hands. British forces attacked the French fleet at Mers el Kébir in Algeria to prevent this from happening, which was regarded as a betrayal by the French (who had no intention of turning their fleet over). Churchill was motivated in part out of a desire to impress his American would-be allies through ruthless and decisive action, but described his decision as the most ‘hateful, unnatural and painful’ he had ever taken. The attack fuelled anti-British sentiment that buoyed the collaborationist Vichy French regime under Pétain; when (after Operation Torch toppled Vichy North Africa), the Vichy French scuttled the remainder of the French fleet in Toulon to prevent the Germans seizing it. Resentment over Mers el Kébir continued to poison Franco-British relations even after the war.
However, Mussolini’s decision to enter the war changed everything. Even in 1939, this was not predetermined. Mussolini had become particularly contemptuous of France, which he saw as an old, dying nation, but Britain was still keen to get Italy on board as it had been in World War I. Mussolini saw this through an imperialistic lens and would only consider such an alliance if France was willing to discuss the status of Corsica, Nice and Savoy (the latter two having been ruled by Italy’s royal family before 1860) but, naturally, France was not. Mussolini was still warned by his subordinates that Italy was not ready for war, but after France fell unexpectedly swiftly in 1940, he entered what he expected to be a quick mop-up and an acquisition of colonies at the resulting peace. The reality turned out to be rather different. Italy’s entry into the war came so late in the day (just 12 days before Marshal Pétain signed an armistice with Germany) that Italian troops had barely crossed the border—and at that point they had, embarrassingly, been held up by 6 valiant French divisions who were outnumbered more than five to one by the Italians. Italy did not obtain Nice and Savoy, but only some bare smidgens of French border territory, so small that they are often forgotten on otherwise accurate maps of the war. It was for this meagre prize that Mussolini hurled his unprepared nation into a war that would end its monarchy and empire, humiliate its armed forces, and destroy his own political movement.
Italy’s role in the war essentially provided Britain, fighting on alone as the Battle of Britain raged in the air and the Blitz set cities ablaze, with someone it could beat far afield to keep up public morale. All the alleged might of Il Duce’s new Roman Empire crumbled in the space of months. Italy’s Marshal Graziani attacked British-allied Egypt, only to have his armies swatted aside by British Generals Wavell and O’Connor. In two months the British counter-attack destroyed nine Italian divisions and took 130,000 prisoners. A similar story was told in the Horn of Africa, where the Duke of Aosta’s attempt to occupy British Somaliland was decidedly temporary. Britain had crushed the Italians in Abyssinia by the end of 1941, and Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie returned, five years after Mussolini’s conquest had forced him to leave. Of course, the war was not over so easily; the war in North Africa became a long struggle after the entry of German forces under Rommel and the undoing of Wavell and O’Connor’s initial gains. It would be a long slog, and require the addition of American forces, before the Axis could be ejected from North Africa and Italy itself could be invaded. But the Italian Army had certainly been humiliated. What is much less talked about is the role of the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, perhaps because it does not fit such a simple narrative.
Though not discussed that much in many histories of the war, overshadowed by more glamorous fronts, the Mediterranean in World War II was what initially made it dramatically different to World War I. In that war, as we have seen, all the great naval powers were essentially on the same side. In the Mediterranean then, only the Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans faced off against the combined might of France, Britain, Italy and even Japan. Japan’s different alignment in World War II would, of course, also produce a very different war—but more on that in the next article. Now, with Italy opposing Britain, major naval clashes could take place in the Mediterranean.
Although it had a number of modern ships, the Regia Marina had a number of disadvantages in the war. As noted in the last article, it had neglected aircraft carriers and naval aircraft. It also had neglected radar. Radar was a technology that was being independently developed by seven countries at the time, all of which thought they were the only one to have it (broadly speaking). Italy possessed radar, but did not use it as extensively for its naval forces as Britain did. As before, British codebreaking efforts also meant Britain could often listen in on Italian communications. Italy also lacked a global empire (what little it had being swiftly rolled up, as noted above) and could not resupply with raw materials to build new ships as easily as Britain could. Finally, the Supermarina (naval high command) of Italy made a bad but understandable mistake at the start of the war, believing Malta was too heavily fortified to be worth attacking. In fact, Britain initially planned to abandon the island as it was not yet sufficiently defended. This delay meant that Britain had time to remedy the situation; Malta would be bombed continuously by the Axis throughout much of the war, leading to King George VI awarding the entire population of the island a George Cross (visible on the modern Maltese flag).
The flip side of Britain’s global empire was that resupply from the home islands was required for Wavell’s forces in Egypt, and Italy blocked the Eastern Mediterranean from the West. Admiral Cunningham’s Force H at Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria were, even put together, outnumbered by the Italians in between. A few conventional clashes between capital ships, such as the Battle of Calabria in June 1940, proved indecisive. The most effective part of the Italian war effort was unquestionably the Decima Flottiglia MAS (an acronym for ‘Tenth Mobile Assault Vehicle Flotilla’). These elite special forces frogmen built on the greatest Italian naval successes of World War I, which had come in the form of manned torpedoes and fast-attack torpedo boats. Such tactics, along with planted limpet mines proved effective in sinking British ships such as HMS York, HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Ironically, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal may have escaped purely because it had been sent off to hunt the Bismarck!) The frogmen were also effective in sinking ships at Gibraltar; one of their British opposite numbers tasked with foiling their activities was Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, who would later become involved in an infamous incident involving spying on a Soviet cruiser in 1956.
Admiral Cunningham needed to reduce Italian naval strength to take pressure off the British convoys linking the East and West Med. To do this, a new tactic, theorised but never implemented, was used: a mass air assault launched from an aircraft carrier on the enemy fleet in harbour. The Illustrious launched 22 obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplane bombers against the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour on November 11 1940. Only two planes were lost in the attack, which torpedoed and crippled three Italian battleships and two cruisers. The battle was successful in its aims, and rendered Mussolini more cautious about deploying his naval force farther afield. In March 1941 Hitler persuaded Mussolini to sortie his ships against British forces reinforcing Greece (then under Axis invasion).
The result was the Battle of Cape Matapan, which again displayed the importance of air power; the brand-new 35,000-ton Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto was torpedoed by Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers from the Formidable. Though the Italians escaped, the naval balance had tilted decisively against them (even as Greece did fall to the Axis). Once again, British codebreaking at Bletchley Park was crucial to the victory, although this remained classified for years. Admiral Iachino, the Italian commander, stated instead that the battle had exposed the Regia Marina’s deficiencies in night-fighting and coordinating between air and naval forces. This effectively ended Italy’s naval role in the war, other than the successes by the special forces frogmen mentioned above and the Second Battle of Sirte against a British convoy to Malta.
As noted above, these aspects of World War II are little covered in popular accounts. But they were crucial for the outcome. Not only did these naval clashes pave the way for the defeat of the Axis in North Africa and the invasion of Italy, but they had impacts farther afield. The Imperial Japanese Navy had long been preparing for a clash with the United States Navy. The playing field would have to be levelled early on for Japan to stand a chance. Attacks on enemy ships in harbour with aircraft had also been theorised for years. Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, assistant naval attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin, flew in to Taranto following the British attack there to observe the damage. The first real-life attempt at such an attack had exposed a number of interesting ideas. The waters of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii were only an average of about 42 feet deep, and air-dropped torpedoes usually needed to plunge about 100 feet deep before turning upwards to strike a hull. But the Royal Navy had added wooden fins to keep the torpedoes horizontal, meaning they could dive to only 35 feet and still hit.
This was a very interesting insight to Naito, who shared his thoughts with Commander Mitsuo Fuchida—the man who, in ‘a day that will live in infamy’, December 7th 1941, would lead the Japanese naval air attack on Pearl Harbor...
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth