Archive for the ‘Mediterranean’ Category

The Battle of Taranto is one of the Second World War’s more obscure engagements.  Maybe that’s because it happened at night, or because it lasted only a few hours.  But as we’ll soon see, it was very important for a couple of reasons.

Taranto itself might be familiar to readers of Today’s History Lesson, who may recognize the harbor and city as one of the landing areas for Allied troops commencing the invasion of Italy in 1943.  But this was 1940, and Operation Husky was too far into the future to even be a gleam in the General’s eye.

In November of 1940, France had fallen and Britain stood alone in Western Europe as the only country unconquered and unoccupied by Nazi Germany.  But more than just standing on her own, Britain’s holdings in the Mediterranean were threatened as well.  Axis advances were threatening Crete, Malta was already under heavy attack, and Hitler had his eye on the key chokepoint at Gibraltar.

The Germans didn’t have a large naval presence in the Mediterranean, but the Italians did.  British operations in North Africa were supplied through Egypt, and a strong naval presence at Taranto meant Axis forces were in a good position to cut British supply lines.  A way was needed a way to level the playing field a bit.

The British had been considering action against Taranto for years, but planning stepped up after the fall of France.  A two-carrier operation was formulated using carrier aircraft from the HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious.  An attack in the latter part of October was scratched when the Illustrious suffered a small but potent fire and the Eagle was diagnosed with serious fueling problem.  In the end, aircraft from the Eagle were shuttled to the Illustrious and Operation Judgement became a one-carrier mission.

At 10:00pm on the night of November 11, 1940, two dozen Swordfish aircraft left the decks, many armed with torpedoes and some with bombs.  The Swordfish itself was a World-War-I-style biplane (shown above) that couldn’t even reach 140mph, but on this night, it didn’t need to.  Just before 11:00pm, they made their first pass over Taranto for target acquisition.  Fifteen minutes later, the attack began.

And these outdated biplanes did far more damage than their diminutive sizes would have suggested.  The battleship Conte di Cavour was hit, as was the battleship Littorio (twice).  The next wave succeeded in hitting the Littorio again and putting a large torpedo-sized hole in the battleship Caio Duilio.  Italy’s power had been seriously damaged, and its battleship force had been cut in half.  The British lost a couple of Swordfish.

Naval convention said that torpedo launches had to be made in water that was at least 100 feet deep.  The waters around Taranto were only 40 feet deep and the British dropped their torpedoes at a very low altitude and pioneered a dramatic change in torpedo tactics.

The Swordfish would go on to achieve greater fame six months later, when they would again put holes in a battleship…this time the legendary Bismarck.

The Battle of Taranto would also go on to achieve greater fame, thirteen months later, when the Japanese studied the British attack and used many of the same tactics…this time at legendary Pearl Harbor.

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We rarely visit the movie theater.  Occasionally, we’ll go and watch a movie, but even “occasionally” is too strong a word.  The last time I occupied a theater seat was in December of 2006, when I took my wife to a show as part of a Christmas present.  I don’t remember when I went before that, but I remember the movie I saw…U-571.

U-571 is another of those movies that’s “based on a true story“…which can mean just about anything in Hollywood parlance.  It stars Matthew McConaughey and is about a U.S. submarine crew that, in 1942, chases down a crippled German submarine (U-571) to capture it and remove the code machine and cipher keys.  It’s a decent movie that’s pretty exciting, which you would expect.  It’s also not that all that historically accurate, which you would also expect.

So let’s use the platform of Today’s History Lesson the clarify things.  The real U-571 was sunk in 1944, but the movie’s story more closely matches that of U-559.

U-559 was a modestly successful German submarine.  Her first few patrols were in the Atlantic, but she spent the remainder of her time patrolling the Mediterranean Sea in obscurity, putting holes in a handful of freighters and a frigate.  It wasn’t until the day of her sinking that she attained notoriety.

In the early morning hours of October 30, 1942, the sub was spotted in the eastern Mediterranean by a patrol plane, who radioed the destroyer HMS Hero.  She, along with four other destroyers, spent the rest of the day chasing and depth-charging U-559.

As night fell, the now-damaged sub was forced to surface.  Surrounded by destroyers and thinking his vessel was sinking, the captain decided to abandon it and sink it with explosives.  The crew, in its panic to get off the sub, opened the sea valves, but failed to destroy the Enigma machine and its code books.

The German crew was quickly taken into custody and below decks, at which point 3 British sailors volunteered to board the sinking sub and see what they could find.  Lt. Tony Fasson knew the sub carried the Enigma, and probably figured it was destroyed.  But still, it never hurt to take a peek.  He, along with Able Seaman Colin Grazier and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown boarded the dying sub…

…and found a bonanza.  The Enigma machine was quickly removed, along with the code books, cipher keys, and various maps.  With Brown waiting outside, Grazier and Fasson re-entered the sub again, looking for more documents.  And then the sub gave up its fight with gravity’s pull, and sank in about 200′ of water.  Brown could do nothing but swim free, knowing his two mates were now dead.

But those two deaths prevented hundreds, and maybe thousands, of other deaths.  For not only had they captured an intact Enigma machine, they also had in their hands the keys for German Navy’s SHARK and TRITON code systems.  For the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, this was like winning the lottery…twice.

The British worked very hard keeping their discovery a secret, to the point of not awarding the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award) to the three men, fearing it might tip off the Germans.

Like I said, U-571 was a pretty exciting movie.  But the story on which it is based would have been just as good a movie.  One wonders why Hollywood can’t simply tell the real story.  I suppose if that were the case, guys like me would have take up decoupage or something…

Recommended Reading:  uboat.net – Need to find information on a German submarine?  Look no further.  I’ve linked you to U-559’s page.  Need to cross-reference?  Maybe uboatwaffe.net can help.

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Italian dictator Benito Mussolini clearly had a flair for ineptitude.  He may have made the trains run on time in Rome and he may have made the grapes more delicious in Tuscany.  He might have even single-handedly kept Venice from sinking deeper into the Adriatic.

But on military matters…well…most people wanted him fighting for “the other guy”.

As a member of the Axis, Italy’s part (militarily speaking) was often to sit by and watch Germany and Japan pretty much do what they wanted.  And that didn’t sit well with Mussolini, who became jealous of their “easy” conquests.  Oh sure, there had been some gains in Africa (Abyssinia, British Somaliland, Eritrea).  And don’t forget the “conquering” of Albania.  But they paled when compared with Poland and China and Norway and France.

Mussolini needed a big feather in war-time cap.

Romania had, in the middle of October of 1940, accepted German protection for its massive oil fields at Ploesti, which bothered Benito badly.  He had long considered Romania to be in the Italian sphere of influence, and believed Germany was overstepping its bounds a little.  So he turned at Greece, sending an ultimatum demanding they allow Italy to occupy their territory.

Greece and Italy had a history of troubled relations.  Italy’s conquest (I use that term lightly) of Albania put them right on Greece’s border, and Prime Minister Metaxas was showing a preference for Britain.  For his part, Metaxas did what he could to maintain neutrality, going so far as to cover up the origins of the sinking of the Elli in Tinos Harbor in August…clearly an Italian operation and a topic worthy of discussion at some point.

But there was no way the Prime Minister of Greece was going to allow an Italian occupation.  He refused on October 28, 1940…and was attacked by Italy on October 28, 1940.  Italian Generals launched their attacks while simultaneously trying to recall the men they had sent home just weeks before to help with the harvests.

Within two weeks, Greece’s military had stopped the Italian advance.  A stalemate, which would last six months, began.  Hitler was, once again, angry with the Italian leader for going off and beginning an operation he couldn’t finish.  Evenutally (in the spring of 1941), Germany would have to delay Operation Barbarossa and commit his own forces to finally subdue Greece.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941 – This is a somewhat dry book dealing mostly with British naval operations around Crete, but it provides good background information on Greece as well.  It should go quickly for you.

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How the mighty had fallen.  When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, he had done so on a wave of immense popularity.  Twenty years later, he was on his way out.  A string of terrible military “adventures” in Africa, a disastrous invasion of Greece, the impending loss of Sicily, and the inevitable invasion of Italy by Allied forces had seriously eroded his support base.

On July 25, 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III told the embattled dictator, “Dear Duce, the situation is beyond remedy.  At this moment, you are the most hated man in Italy.  You have not a single friend left, except for me.  I am sorry, but the solution could not be otherwise.”

Italy’s Grand Council had just passed, with the greatest of ease, a vote of no-confidence against Benito.  The people were angry, the government was angry, and now the King’s words, coming from a man standing barely five feet tall, towered over the once-powerful Italian leader.

And as he left the King’s estate, he was met by armed men and arrested.  The reign of Mussolini in Italy was over.  The annoucement was broadcast over the radio shortly before midnight, leading to an impromptu after-hours pajama party in the streets of Rome.

Almost overnight, Facism in Italy vanished.  Pietro Badoglio, who took over power, said, “Facism fell, as was fitting, like a rotten pear.”  Even Mussolini’s own newspaper replaced Il Duce’s picture (shown prominently on the front page) with one of Badoglio.

In Germany, the news was met with anger and harsh words.  For all his miserable economic failures and complete ineptitude as a military leader, Mussolini had Teutonic allies.  In his diary, Joseph Goebbels would write about the deposed dictator, “…behind his massive figure a gypsy people has gone to rot.  The only thing certain in this war is that Italy will lose it.”

And then the scheming to somehow free Mussolini began…

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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After securing North Africa in May, it was time for the Allies to turn their attention to the “soft underbelly of Europe”.  It had been decided that, rather than attacking Italy directly, Sicily would be dealt with first.  Clearing the island nation would not only provide an excellent staging area for the landings in Italy, but it would keep Italian and German forces “off their backs” once the landings commenced.

But even before that, there was Pantelleria.  Never heard of it?  Well, it’s a small island situated 53 miles east of Tunisia (in North Africa) and 63 miles west of Sicily.  About 40 square miles in size, it possessed value to the Allies because of its airfield, which would support aircraft for the upcoming operations.  Pantelleria also provided good harbor facilities.

From the opposing point of view, the airport and harbor areas were valuable as well.  But the radar facilities were especially important, as they allowed Italian and German fighter squadrons on Sicily and Italy advanced warning of approaching aircraft.  British and American forces definitely wanted that equipment neutralized.

It was determined that an assault of the island, code-named Operation Corkscrew and set for June 11, 1943, would be preceded by heavy bombing, since the island’s strategic position meant it was heavily fortified with nearly 100 gun emplacements and 10,000 troops.

And so, as action was ending in North Africa in May, the bombings began.  And they increased in intensity over time and, by June 7th, were pretty much running around the clock.  June 10th saw the heaviest onslaught, with more than 4,000 tons of bombs released onto the island target.

When British commandos landed on June 11, 1943, the white flags were already flying by the surviving members of the Italian garrison.  In his memoirs, Winston Churchill would write that the only casualty among his men was somebody bitten by a mule.

As assaults go, it was one of the easiest of the War.  The defenders had been bombed senseless, more than half their guns were destroyed, the ships in the harbor were now resting at its bottom, and the air forces there had been decimated.

But it also gave the Allies something of a false impression concerning the effectiveness of air power.  Some came to believe that bombing alone could subdue targets and, as we have seen through the years, that generally just isn’t the case.

For Pantelleria, however, it pretty much was.

Recommended Reading:  The 320th Bomb Group website – A fine website with a good workup of Operation Corkscrew.

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A diadem is a type of crown.  According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s a royal headband.  I’m no linguist, but the dictionary tells me the word originates from a Greek or Latin word that means “to fasten” or “to bind”.  So it’s probably somewhat appropriate that the offensive launched by General Harold Alexander on May 11, 1944 was given that name.  Operation Diadem was designed to, once and for all, break the Gustav Line that had held up Allied troops in Italy for months, while “binding up” the German forces that held it.  And, as we saw a year it ago, it succeeded in breaking through, though not without cost, which we also saw, specifically in the case of Max Brand.

But of course, one part of the Gustav Line stood out.  The abbey of Monte Cassino, or rather, what was left of the abbey, had become one the toughest fortifications along the entire line of strongpoints.  And the Allies were partly to blame for that.

Back in February of 1944, U.S. and British forces had decided (incorrectly) that Monte Cassino, blessed with a commanding view of the valley around Cassino Town, was being occupied by enemy soldiers and artillery pieces.  They also decided (incorrectly) that bombing the abbey would not only kill the Germans there, but would also make an assault on it that much easier.

So on the 15th of February, the abbey was heavily bombed, which succeeded in killing numerous not-Germans that were there, but none of the Germans that weren’t.  Then the surviving not-Germans left, and the Germans that weren’t there suddenly were, and had a perfect redoubt to boot.  And for next 3 months, assault after assault would crash against the remains of the abbey (which continued to be bombed and shelled as well), only to be repulsed with heavy loss.  All told, the casualties suffered in the four major attacks on Monte Cassino neared six figures, most of them suffered by General Mark Clark’s U.S. 5th Army.

But Operation Diadem helped to change all that, as the massive wave of 28 divisions overwhelmed defenses all along the line.  Had the Germans stayed and defended the ruined monastery, they would have been quickly surrounded.  And so they pulled back, leaving only those soldiers too weakened or wounded to evacuate.  And on May 18, 1944, a Polish reconnassaince regiment arrived on-scene, found it abandoned, and raised the regimental colors on the…well…diadem of the monastery, using a makeshift flagpole (shown above).  Monte Cassino (that beautiful pile of rubble) was now in Allied hands.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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In 1950, Sam Newfield directed the movie Radar Secret Service.  In it, radar plays a front-and-center role in breaking up a crime ring.  Of course, radar was still a relatively new invention, to the point that the technology depicted in the movie bore no real resemblence to actual radar.  But even in its infancy, it somehow managed to out-act all the human characters.

Radar has talent.

The Battle of Cape Matapan is a lesser known naval engagement that took place between the British and Italians in 1941 in the Mediterranean Sea, but it was essentially radar (or the lack of it) that made the difference.

Intelligence intercepts tipped off the British to the fact that an Italian battle fleet was heading out to harass Allied convoys in the Mediterranean, so they sent a larger force in response.  The first part of the battle saw the British pretty much just stay out of range of the Italians but, on the evening of March 28th, they moved in.

This wasn’t 1950, but even rudimentary radar in the early 40’s gave a distinct advantage to those that possessed it.  The British had it on some of their ships, the Italians did not.  Using their advantage and the cover of night, the British closed to within 2 miles of the enemy before opening fire.  For battleships, cruisers, and even small-gunned destroyers, 2 miles is considered point-blank range.

And in very short order, the Italians got a whooping.  When morning broke on March 29, 1941, they had lost 3 heavy cruisers, a pair of destroyers, and the lone battleship was damaged.  More than 2,300 sailors were lost.  The ledger’s other side showed the British suffering very light damage to a couple cruisers and losing one torpedo bomber and its 3-man crew.

But more than the loss of the battle (fought to the west of the Grecian port Cape Matapan and to the west of Crete), the Italians had largely lost control of the Mediterranean Sea and allowed the British to concentrate on countering the German buildup in North Africa.

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