Taken from The History of Italian Naval Doctrine by Vice Admiral Luigi Donolo, Italian Navy (Retired) and Dr. James J. Tritten.Interwar Years
At the end of World War I, Italy, like many other nations, faced very difficult financial conditions. The difference between pre-war doctrine and on-the-field results was debated, and opinions fell initially into two main camps. One opinion was that the lessons of the jejune evolve had been validated by the war. Large capital ships had proven vulnerable to small vessels. Now-Admiral Bernotti accepted that Italy should take advantage of new technologies afforded by the jeune ecole and that fleet doctrine should be based upon a division of labor. Bernotti wrote that war "had several forms: guerrilla, military and commercial blockade, troop transport, coastal actions, combined operations with the Army." He also noted that during the past war, the main battle fleets had been almost inert, while escorts and submarines operated freely. The other school asserted that the mere presence of the armored battle squadrons as a deterrent to other main fleet units had allowed the smaller vessels more freedom of action. German Admiral Reinhardt Scheer's statement that “the force of bigger armored ships was the handle of the dagger and the blade was the submarine force" was appreciated in Italy as well.
Several Italian military experts supported the so-called "underwater revolution," which emphasized the role of submarines, considering them to be a decisive weapon. These experts were countered by others who believed that the submarines' success in World War I was due to the lack of preparation of surface ships and their low speed. They also considered submarines to be unsuitable for night or defensive operations.
Eventually two main theories emerged on the type of surface naval units to be built. One, which we will call the "naval tradition," supported the concept of a kernel of traditional warships with large caliber guns and robust self-•defenses. Despite their self-defense capabilities, additional antiair and antisubmarine protection would be provided by escort ships. The other theory, which may be called the "naval compromise," highlighted the role of quick, light, and heavily armed cruisers against primarily non-first-level navies. Their employment was, however, limited to offensive operations and required aircraft carriers for support.
During this era, Commander Oscar di Giamberardino wrote extensively about these issues. Although di Giamberardino recognized the need to prepare for both offense and defense, he was primarily a supporter of the offensive form of warfare, i.e., destruction of the enemy fleet and forcing the enemy to fight in decisive combat. He recognized the usefulness of a small fleet of assault vessels, such as in commando-type operations, but considered them non-decisive. The most important of di Giamberardino's works was L 'arte della guerra in mare (The Art of War at Sea) in 1937, in two volumes. Its theories influenced many politicians and military men, and di Giamberardino was eventually promoted to admiral.
Even more influential were the writings of Commander Giuseppe Fioravanzo. 1n a 1925 article in Rivista Marittima, he postulated the need for what would eventually become command ships (LCC) in the U.S. Navy. Fioravanzo also wrote La guerra sui mare e Ia guerra integrale (War on the Sea and War as a Whole), in two volumes (1930- 193 1). Fioravanzo examined the relationship between politics, strategy, and maritime power, and he became a supporter of the defensive form of warfare. He defined the defensive in terms of an operational-level strategy used to protect the sea lines of communications by means of a navy employed on the tactical offensive.
Fioravanzo felt that the most important characteristic of a military unit designed to operate in a relatively small sea, such as the Mediterranean, had to be invulnerability. On the other hand, the most important quality of forces designed to operate in the open oceans had to be autonomy. Fioravanzo's conclusion was that in narrow-sea areas light cruiser types were the worst option, as they were "not small enough to be naturally immune, but not big enough to be artificially immunized."
In 1922, Admiral Bernotti was asked to reestablish the Instituto di Guerra Marittima (Naval War College) in Livorno. He wrote a series of important books, including Fondamenti di strategia navale (Fundamentals of Naval Strategy) and II potere marittimo nella grande guerra (Maritime Power in the Great War) in 1920; and La guerra maritima (The Naval War): studio critico sull'impiego dei mezzi nella guerra mondiale in 1923. Fondamenti di politica navale (Bases of Naval Politics) was published in 1927.
In The Naval War, Bernotti discusses how the navy should be linked to politics, the general naval policies of various nations, the maritime character of the World War, and new strategic possibilities. He believed that sea lines of communication had to be defended with methods other than those used during World War I, and he advocated a mixed system of direct protection, including antisubmarine and antiair capabilities, and indirect protection. The latter was to be achieved by means of offensive actions against enemy forces in port and at sea.
Bernotti shifted his favor to large warships, but he warned that the type of ships available in the late 1920s were no longer adequate and could create unrealistic illusions, hiding real and urgent problems. Admiral Bernotti supported the need for aircraft carriers, recognizing that even if Italy was in a central position in the Mediterranean, "a naval force needing aircraft at any time had to include units capable of transporting a relevant number of aircraft."
Bernotti rejected the construction of a ship -half as an aircraft carrier and half as a light cruiser- as a compromise solution to the need proposed at that time for naval air power. Admiral Bernotti's thoughts stimulated debates with the air force over the control of naval aviation and conflicted with the views of Admirals di Giamberardino, Angelo Iachino, and Virgilio Spigai, who were against the construction of aircraft carriers. In the end it was Fioravanzo's theory of defense that influenced the navy's leaders and resulted in the actual employment of the fleet during the next war.
The theories of General Giulio Doubet received attention as well. Because airplanes appeared to be so capable, he assumed that in future wars the greatest effort would be sustained in the air. Doubet's doctrine considered the sea to be just a space to be flown over. He suggested that the air force would lead offensive action, and that the navy and army would intervene a posteriori to exploit the results of the air battle. In Doubet's opinion, cooperation between the armed forces was not necessary, since the action carried out by "one head only" was better. Those who supported Doubet's air theories thought that a naval war could be won by aircraft alone. Air power advocates held the view that surface ships could not be defended successfully from air attack. It would become evident that the sea allowed surprise air bombardment missions against land targets, and fleets would be unsafe when in port.
In 1923, the Regia Aeronautica was established, and all the aircraft were put under the control of this new service. The consequences were that for many years air doctrine in support of maritime operations was inadequate, and the effectiveness of airborne assets in naval warfare was reduced, with grave consequences.
Most Italian strategic decisions were made without consideration of the naval elements. This problem was typified by the experiences of war in Ethiopia (1935-1936), which was fought to enlarge the empire, but without consideration of the increased vulnerability at sea. Italy now had to use the sea and was pitted against the strongest maritime nations of the world. Italy's successful participation in the Spanish Civil War from 1936- 1939 created false illusions of Italian naval strength; success had actually resulted from the enemy's weakness.
Italian naval thought between the two world wars developed doctrine based on a strategy that called for little more than interference with a superior fleet or convoys in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was especially suited to light and swift forces built by Italy, which would quickly sortie from bases and strike at a fleet offshore. The fleet would naturally retain a role for coastal defense. Another logical role for the Italian Navy was safeguarding the sea lines of communication to North Africa.
In 1940 Admiral Guido Po, historian of the navy, wrote La guerra sui mari (War at Sea), which stated that current Italian naval strategy was based on: (1), the offensive use of warships and extensive use of submarine packs; (2), the exploitation of Italy's geographical position in the Mediterranean to disrupt the enemy's communication lines; and (3), seeking the maximum cooperation with the Regia Aeronautica to overcome the lack of aircraft carriers. The Italian Navy did not completely follow this doctrine in the next war.
Before World War II, Italian naval plans were to keep forces together to maximize combat effectiveness against the presumed enemy, France. Due to the preponderance of French naval power in the Mediterranean, Italian doctrine was defensive, consciously avoiding doctrine for distant operations or even guerre de course. 14 More difficult to understand was the lack of doctrinal development for counterblockade techniques, night operations, or even convoy defense.
World War II
Italian Navy units that fought during the war were conditioned by interwar-era doctrine. For example, cruisers were capable of very high speeds, since speed rather than armor was believed to be the best weapon to use against numerically and technically superior navies. Despite doctrinal debates on the vunerability of surface ships and the theories of air power, the navy entered the war without its own aviation forces, aircraft carriers, and many of the latest technical improvements that might have aided air defense. Night-fighting equipment and radar were not introduced into the fleet until after their lack was felt in actual combat.
Pre-war doctrinal development and training proved to be inadequate. There was no doctrine for joint actions with the Regia Aeronautica. and insufficient attention had been given to the management of maritime shipping and its protection, the doctrine for night fighting, and the role of aircraft in war at sea. The lack of aircraft carriers and inadequate cooperation by the Regia Aeronautica in maritime missions afflicted the navy throughout the war.
Fascist government policy was ambitious, and it overestimated the level of military preparedness. The Italian military was told by Benito Mussolini in March 1940 to plan for an air-naval offensive in the Mediterranean; a ground offensive in Yugoslavia, while the army maintained a defensive posture in Albania, Libya, and the Aegean; and a wait-and-see attitude on the French border. In April 1940, the Chief of Staff of the Navy, Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, summarized the navy's key shortfalls to the head of the government. Cavagnari believed that the only possible strategy was defensive, but his recommendations were made to an Italian Supreme Command dominated by Mussolini and the army, neither of whom understood naval warfare.
Concepts for initial operations in the Mediterranean were released by the Chief of Staff on 29 May 1940, about two weeks prior to Mussolini's declaration of war. This initial guidance directed the navy to maintain a defensive attitude but to exploit opportunities for medium-sized clashes. The navy was to prepare to defend itself and act as a fleet-in-being. In fact, no decisive clash occurred during the war, although there was a series of minor engagements throughout.
Mussolini assumed that the resupply of Libya would not become an issue and mistakenly predicted a short war. Hence, more than two hundred ships of the merchant fleet were located and captured outside the Mediterranean at the beginning of hostilities.
The command organization of the Italian forces included a Chief of General Staff and three high commands for each of the three armed forces. These high commands were headed by the respective service chiefs of staff. Strategic-level tasks were issued by the Chief of the General Staff. Centralized strategy and doctrine were oriented toward the centralization of responsibilities. Supermarina, the high command of the navy, converted these strategic-level directives into orders and forwarded them to subordinate naval commands. These Supermarina orders were very detailed, leaving little freedom of action to local commanders. The tactical commander was given only limited decision-making authority.
After the brief conflict with France and the removal of the threat of the Toulon fleet (i.e., the French fleet}, the Italian Navy was tasked with interdicting British ships resupplying Malta and Alexandria; preventing the massing of the British fleet; and attacking the British in port. The navy was also told to protect Italian shipping going to North Africa. Due to the limited capacities of North African ports, the navy had to form numerous small convoys instead of a few big ones; more than 1,200 convoys were formed in one thirty-six-month period. The need to protect its own convoys drained resources and limited the Italian fleet's freedom of action against the British. Navy tasking was eventually modified to require offensive operations in only the central Mediterranean.
Raids against British convoys to Malta produced a number of important clashes between the British and Italian fleets. is The most memorable are: Punta Stilo (9 July 1940); Cape Teulada (27 November 1942); Channel of Sicily (10 January 1942); Sydra (17 December 194 1); and operations "Mid-June" (12-16 June 1942) and "Mid-August" (11-14 August 1942).
When Germany strongly suggested to Italy that it sortie a fleet to disrupt British sea lines of communication to North Africa, the Italians complied. The resulting Battle of Cape Matapan (28 March 194 1) was an unequal match between the British (who had radar, air support, and "Ultra" cryptanalysis data) , and the Italians (who had none of these). Admiral Angelo Iachino, Commander in Chief Afloat, paid heavily for his fleet's inability to fight at night and for its lack of proper weapons-a price that arose from the positions that he himself had adopted in programming debates prior to the war. Although the severe losses suffered at Matapan are traditionally imputed to the lack of radar and suitable doctrine for night fighting, the lack of information and of a clearly stated mission are to blame as well.
Both opponents used the strategy of attacking the enemy in port. The British used shipborne planes at Taranto ( 12 November 1940). The Italian Navy was successful using assault vessels at Souda Bay (27 March 194 1), midget submarines at Alexandria ( 19 November 1941), and in later attacks at Gibraltar, Haifa, and Malta. Forces were trained during the 1930s for the now well-developed doctrine for raids by assault. During the war, Italy also employed naval forces outside of the Mediterranean. Italian Navy submarines operated in the mid-Atlantic during the war, and they achieved a high degree of combat success, perhaps in excess of that of the average German U-boat. The German high command requested assistance for naval operations on the Black Sea against the Soviet Union and the Italian Navy obliged. Additional units fought against the Soviets on Lake Ladoga.
By the end of 1942, the strategic conduct of war became solely defensive, but the effort to maintain the sea lines of communication with Tunisia continued. On 10 July 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily. As this phase of the war approached an end, Italy attempted to maintain what was left of its fleet for use in diplomatic negotiations. This decision disappointed many crews and commanders who wanted to prove their worth in combat. When the armistice was declared (8 September 1943), 65 percent of the remaining Italian fleet was moved to Malta in accordance with the orders of the new government; the rest were scuttled, disabled by the crews, or taken over by the Germans.
War against Germany was declared by Italy on 13 October 1943. Its ships began to cooperate with the Allies for escort operations, withdrawal of Italian soldiers from the Balkans, and for special missions. The San Marco Naval Infantry Regiment had an active role in the struggle for the liberation of the peninsula. Many cadets from the Naval Academy fought under the command of the Italian Corps of Liberation.
Not everyone had originally supported Italy's 1940 entry into the war, but everyone in the navy did his job, nonetheless, even when all was lost. On 8 September 1943, each individual had the opportunity to choose on which side to fight. Some went with the ships to Malta, and some decided to stay or to move to the North because they believed their duty was to continue the war supporting the Germans. Such complications for naval personnel, rare in many navies, appear to be frequent in the history of Italy.
There have been many assessments of Italy's performance during the war. According to Admiral Iachino, commander of naval forces from 1940 to 1943, Italy found itself fighting a modem war with an obsolete naval organization.
In 1956, retired Admiral Bernotti clearly and concisely evaluated Italian naval performance in the Second World War in I principi della guerra nel secondo conflitto mondiale (The Principles of War in the Second World War). He affirmed that the lessons learned from history emphasized that war presupposes risk and that the necessary aggressive attitude consists of both the will and the capability to act. In Bernotti's opinion, the policy of avoiding battle with superior forces Was flawed. Bernotti also argued that centralized commands should not expect automatic and passive obedience to orders but should encourage initiative and ingenuity by subordinates in combat.
Italian naval doctrine in World War II can also be criticized because it did not acknowledge that when a defensive posture is applied, it must be pursued to the end. Cooperation between the armed forces was not efficient, due to the absence of joint doctrine. Furthermore, doctrine did not provide for an assessment of risk that considered the advantages that can be gained even from lost battles when the behavior of the forces has been admirable. The gallant behavior of officers and crews, even in defeat, must be mentioned because it led directly to some of the Italian successes.
Italian Navy doctrine in World War II was probably proper for the conditions at the time. The problems that beset the fleet were beyond the navy's ability to correct. Given the resources provided, the overall strategy of the war effort, individual service and overall strategic culture, geography and demographics, and the type of government, the Italian Navy performed about as well as could be expected. Italy had been a unified nation for about only a hundred years, and its navy's performance against the Royal Navy during the war, despite serious handicaps, speaks well of its combat effectiveness.
The whole work is available here: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a296628.pdf just in case anyone is interested in other time periods.