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Battle of Matapan

by Cristiano D'Adamo

The conference of Merano (Convegno Italo-Germanico di Merano) took place in the Tyrolean town of Merano, near the Austrian border, on the 13th and 14th of February 1941. The Krigsmarine delegation included Admiral Reader and Kurt Frike, and Captain Kurt Aschmann, while the Regia Marina was represented by Admiral Arturo Riccardi, Raffaele de Courten, Emilio Brenta and Carlo Giartosio. The conference was organized in three meetings, with the most important taking place the morning of the 14th.

Following the conference, Supermarina - the Italian High Naval Command - compiled some very detailed documentation of the discussions in form of memoranda. Admiral Riccardi himself signed the memorandum covering the meeting of the 14th. The conference had been planned for December 1940, but after the well-known shake up of the Regia Marina’s commanding structure, it had been postponed. The changes at the top was the result of the failure to protect Taranto and the unsatisfactory results of the Battle of Cape Teulada. Admiral Iachino, who had criticized Admiral Campioni for the lost opportunity of Teulada, was made Commander in Chief of a now reunified fleet. It was previously divided into two main battle groups. Following the conference, and according to Iachino, Supermarina failed to inform him of the results of the discussions. This point is very controversial since the person who supposedly briefed Iachino, Admiral Campioni, was later executed in Verona and therefore could not defend himself. Either way, with Campioni informing Iachino or Iachino failing to take notice, the results , as we shall see, would be disastrous.

On the second day of the conference, the morning meeting began with Admiral Reader’s examination of the current strategic situation in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Although Admiral Reader emphasized the importance of the interception of enemy traffic in the Atlantic, he did not diminish the importance of the Mediterranean sector. The presentation might have been just a matter of courtesy; the Germans truly believed that by interdicting all commercial traffic in the Atlantic, Great Britain could be brought to her knees. The Mediterranean, despite various assurances to the contrary, had not yet been identified as the crucial sector in which the fate of the Axis forces would mostly be decided. Although the debate is still open, later events tell us that if Axis forces had pushed forward and reached the Arabian oil field, the evolution of the conflict would have been substantially different. The Mediterranean was not just the door to rich oil fields, but eventually to the desperately needed raw material available in the East.

Admiral Riccardi, representing the Regia Marina’s opinions, replied that a major battle between the two opposing naval forces (British and Italian) was inevitable. Perhaps, he was envisioning a “Mediterranean” Jutlund. Reader reminded the audience that in early discussion with the Fuehrer, he had examined the possibility of excluding the British Fleet from the Mediterranean by seizing Gibraltar. Although discussions with Franco were in progress, it appeared that Spain was not ready to join the Axis. Ultimately, Franco’s decision was a wise one, and it was primarily driven by internal issues - Spain was recuperating from a brutal civil war - and early Italian military failures did not inspire much confidence. In the Germans’ view, on the eastern front Alexandria could have been eliminated utilizing forward-located air force bases. The Germans expressed concerns regarding the delayed neutralization of Malta, to which the Italians replied that their air force was pounding the island day and night. Ultimately, the Regia Aeronautica proved incapable of subjugating the island, which was eventually brought to near collapse by the intervention of the Luftwaffe. This is an important point; the German naval command truly thought that the air force alone could do the job. The Italians, at least at the beginning, agreed, but then all parties would realize that it was up to the foot soldiers to finish the job. Despite a comprehensive plan, the actual invasion never took place and eventually Malta came back with a vengeance.

Admiral Reader thought that Malta could also be blocked utilizing mines and naval forces, similar to what was done near the Thames, but the Italians described their difficulties approaching the island due to some sort of advanced warning system. Here the Germans failed to disclose their knowledge of British radar technology, and the Italians paid a high price for this failure to disclose such vital information. When the Xa Mas attempted to violate the port of La Valletta, Malta’s radar station followed their progress all the way to the harbor, to then unleash an overpowering avalanche of fire. Although not perfect, the radar installation in Malta allowed for early warning and proved to be extremely valuable.

Reader thought that the occupation of Greece would ease the general situation, and Riccardi agreed; in fact, the occupation did help. The German admiral, although admitting that the situation was difficult, was sure about some positive resolution. “Tripoli must be reinforced,” the Germans emphatically conveyed, and “the troops sent by the Fuehrer to North Africa should receive increased escort service.” The Italians confirmed the deployment of additional torpedo boats and two cruiser divisions. Ultimately, the German ally would become aware of the enormous sacrifices made by the Italian Navy to guarantee the shipment of personnel and war materiel to the North African front. Later on, General Rommel would be the only one loudly complaining about his supplies, but he was also the one voraciously consuming them. Reader was emphatic about the geopolitical importance of stopping the British offensive in North Africa and closing the Sicilian Straits. Riccardi replied that the British were never able to send battleships across the straits, excluding the Malaya, which crossed during operation M.B.9. At the time, North Africa was the only open front; the Germans had stopped at the Atlantic wall and Operation Barbarossa had not yet commenced.

Getting back to Malta, Reader restated the importance of eliminating Malta. Referring to experience acquired during the Norwegian Campaign, the admiral pointed out that with the concentration of efforts, the enemy would eventually be forced to withdraw. The discussion then covered Benghazi, with the Italians believing that the port was in very precarious conditions. What followed is important to the understanding of the Battle of Matapan. Many believe that it was the Germans who almost forced the Italians to take action in an operation against British traffic in the Aegean. Operation “Luster” had begun and the British were shipping large numbers of troops and supplies to Greece. The Germans were concerned about this build-up since they were ready to move in from Romania and occupy the Hellenic peninsula. Clearly, the Italian report does not convey any strong German demand, it states: “Reader believed that fast units, such as the Littorios, could operate under destroyer escort against light enemy forces, including cruisers.” Italian plans for a naval action were already on the drawing board, and Admiral Iachino himself had presented one. Iachino’s plan was similar to the Germans’; a fast super battleship (super for the time, since the Littorios were the first Washington class battleship) and destroyers. Faster than the British Queen Elizabeth stationed in the Mediterranean, a Littorio class battleship could have easily avoided battle if conditions were not appropriate. According to the Germans, the destroyers would have acted at night, while the larger unit would have finished off the enemy during the day. Riccardi replied by informing the German admiral that the British always provided heavy convoy escort, “two battleships and a carrier,” and that this should be kept in mind.

Although only marginally, we can detect that Supermarina was still envisioning a Jutland style confrontation, a duel to the death, while the Germans, who after all had witnessed the squander caused by such a confrontation, were proposing the equivalent of a naval blitzkrieg. Eventually, the only Italian surface victory came about during the Battle of Pantelleria when Italian cruisers implemented a tactic which would have pleased the Germans. Unfortunately, the Regia Marina was deeply entrenched in the idea of the “fleet in being” instead of earning the position of a “fleet in action”. The Royal Navy proved its worth and rarely did her ships show stern to the enemy.

Eventually, Supermarina departed from the idea of a fast battleship with a destroyer screen and included most of the Italian heavy cruisers (the Gorizia was undergoing refitting) and two light cruisers. The original German suggestion would have allowed for a much more mobile, flexible and better controllable force. Ultimately, it was the torpedoing of the Pola, and not of the Vittorio Veneto, which caused the Italian disaster. The Germans, and Iachino, were right. If during this operation even the British experienced communication problems between ships, how could have the Italians have avoided them? Simply, the Regia Marina deployed too many ships.

Back to the conference, Reader moved on to the Aegean sector where he foresaw the utilization of light forces during nocturnal actions. Reader also discussed the utilization of submarines, admitting their difficult operating conditions during daylight, but stressing their usefulness at night and against isolated ships. With the arrival of the U-Boot in the Mediterranean, he was proven right; while the Italians’ greater pray was a cruiser, the German submarines sank battleships and the mighty carrier Ark Royal. The two groups agreed on the need to occupy not only Greece, but also some of its islands, thus allowing the air force to operate against Egypt. Eventually, this design brought about the invasion of Crete. Interestingly enough, this was to be an airborne invasion in which the Regia Marina had a very marginal role.

Riccardi reminded the Germans that Italian aircrafts in Rodi were already operating against Alexandria. Before the loss of Cirenaica, it was possible to monitor the British fleet in Alexandria, but lately its whereabouts was unknown. The Aegean situation, according to the Italians, could only be solved with the opening of the Dardanelle so that fuel could be brought in from Romania. Naturally, with Turkish neutrality this never materialized.

The discussion moved on to cover France’s current political situation, including the occupation of Corsica and Algeria. By evaluating the length of the Italian report, the time spent on the topic must have been considerable. Ultimately, despite the time spent on the topic, German failure to allow the Italian occupation of Tunisia would have a substantial cost. The shorter routes could have saved many vessels, especially the newer ones which by the end of the Tunisian campaign (spring 1943) were all sunk.

Next, the two groups discussed the fuel situation and the Italians made their allies aware of the possibility of an imminent paralysis of most naval activities due to fuel shortage. The Italian position was that by June the surface forces would have run out of oil fuel, and that the submarine forces would have a few more months, but not many. The German admiral promised to support the Italian demands with the Fuehrer, but he also reminded all attendees of the general fuel crisis throughout Europe.

The conference concluded with the usual expressions of mutual support and commitments to the war effort, but what did the conference change? Much significance has been given to these two days of talks in Merano, probably due to the fact that within a few weeks the Italians lost three heavy cruisers and two destroyers in a devastating naval encounter with the Mediterranean Fleet. It should be agreed that the Germans did not particularly influence these events. Although Enigma intercepted Luftwaffe signals, the same can be said about orders issued by the Italians to their command in the Aegean Islands.

The true significance of Merano is that only within nine months from Italy’s entry into the war, the three basic strategic failures which will bring about her defeat had already been clearly identified. Malta was left in British hands, fuel was only available in small quantities, and Italian naval strategies were outdated. The issue of Malta could be easily pushed back to the Germans, and Rommel’s insistence that occupying Egypt had a greater priority. Still, the Italian forces had the means to conduct the operation on their own. Training of special troops and the construction of landing crafts show that, at one point, there was a will. The fuel situation is more complicated, especially because some historians have noticed discrepancies in the consumption and storage reports. Ultimately, one can say that, in September 1943, the Italian fleet did have enough fuel to steam all the way to Malta. Strategy was probably the greatest failure, but also the most difficult to criticize. Would the German battleship approach have worked? Considering that naval reconnaissance and aerial coverage of the fleet’s operation was always lacking, one might have much to ponder.

Finally, Merano was important because it was the end of the parallel war (the one originally wanted by the Italian government) and the beginning of Italian subjugation to the German will. Italy, once so proud, was quickly becoming a German vassal.

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