Churchill Documents: The Italian Navy

by Richard Langworth on 23 March 2017

Excerpted from “The Italian Navy in The Churchill Documents, Volume 19,” by Andrew Roberts. To read the full article, click here.

Fateful Questions: September 1943 to April 1944, latest volume in The Churchill Documents, is available from Hillsdale College Bookstore. To order click here.

Andrew Roberts writes:


Littorio (later Italia) was the first of four fast, modern Italian battleships laid down in 1934-42. She and two sisters, Vittorio Veneto and Roma, participated in Mediterranean attacks on British convoys. The fourth, Impero, was seized before completion by the Germans and used as a target vessel. Following the Italian surrender in September 1943, the three battleships were sent to Malta, but German bombers sank Roma en route. The two survivors, ultimately American and British war prizes, were broken up for scrap in 1952-54. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S54286 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

After the surrender of Italy to the Allies in September 1943, the Italian Fleet was apportioned between the Allied powers and absorbed into their navies. Although the Axis had by then been cleared out of the Mediterranean, the ships played a significant part in the rest of the war.

Negotiations regarding the apportioning of the Italian Fleet, in volume 19 of Hillsdale’s Churchill Documents, provide a fascinating backdrop and insight into relations between Britain, America and Russia leading up to the November 1943 Teheran Conference and its aftermath. For although Soviet Russia had played no part in the Mediterranean victory, it nonetheless demanded a third of the Italian Fleet—not least as a tribute paid to its continuing enormous losses on the Eastern Front. In the new volume, Churchill and Roosevelt emerge as generally willing to indulge Joseph Stalin’s demands for part of the Italian Fleet, though not to quite the extent of one-third of it.

Soviet Demands

Churchill told the his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden: “Assuming we get the Italian Fleet, we gain not only that fleet but the British fleet which has hitherto contained it. This very heavy addition to our Naval power should be used at the earliest possible moment to intensify the war against Japan.” Churchill hoped that no fewer than ten aircraft carriers, suitably supplemented by the Italian Littorio class battleships and smaller craft, might be able to take part in action in the Far East, and also, possibly in Operation Overlord, the invasion of France in June 1944.

By 7 October 1943, however, the Russians had indicated an interest in taking over about one-third of the Italian Fleet. Although the British Chiefs of Staff weren’t opposed to this in principle, they did feel that “handing over of the ships would, however, give rise to a great many difficulties which would need very careful examination.” The ships were not conditioned for Arctic weather; that the Free French, Greeks and Yugoslavs might also make demands for Italian vessels; handing any to Russia might “discourage Italian co-operation.”  

At Teheran on 1 December, Stalin, Molotov, Roosevelt and Churchill thrashed out the issue of the Italian Fleet. “A large number of merchant ships and a smaller number of warships could be used by the three nations during the war and then could be distributed,” suggested Roosevelt. “It would be best until then for those to use these ships who could use them best.”  Churchill magnanimously said “this was a very small thing after all the efforts that Russia was making or had made.” He added that “The matter would have to be so arranged that there would be no mutiny in the Italian Fleet and no scuttling of ships.”

British Objections

By the end of December the Combined Chiefs of Staff did not want to hand anything over to the Russians in the short term, for fear of scuttling, mutiny, destruction and non-cooperation by the Italians. To that end, on 3 January 1944, Churchill told Roosevelt that the Royal Navy would hand over eight of its own destroyers instead of the Italian ones, indeed some of the same destroyers that it received from America in the destroyer-for bases deal of September 1940. Since Britain had no free submarines, he asked Roosevelt to supply them “until we can get the Italian craft.” The Anglo-Americans went even further, and as Churchill told the War Cabinet: “We had undertaken to loan a battleship, the Royal Sovereign, and 20,000 tons of merchant shipping; the U.S. had agreed to hand over a cruiser and 20,000 tons of merchant shipping.”

Italian Fleet Decisions

It was a stark sign of quite how far both Churchill and Roosevelt were willing to go to appease Stalin in early 1944, before Operation Overlord and whilst the huge preponderance of battlefield combat was being undertaken on the Eastern Front—which ultimately was where four out of every five German soldiers died in combat during World War II. Overall, Britain lent no fewer than thirteen of the fourteen vessels Russia demanded, namely a battleship, eight destroyers and four submarines, while the Americans donated a cruiser. But when the Russians continued to demand one-third of the Italian Fleet on top of the American and British ships they were being loaned till the end of the war, Churchill balked. On 7 March he told Roosevelt: “I have never agreed nor have you ever asked me to agree to a division of the Italian Fleet into three shares.”

Churchill said Britain deserved compensation for having carried almost the whole burden of the naval war against Italy. Between 1940 and 1943, he wrote, that war had cost the Royal Navy the staggering total of a battleship, two aircraft carriers, a monitor, fourteen cruisers, forty-eight destroyers, thirteen escorts, three fast minelayers, two depot ships and forty submarines, along with 129 merchant vessels of 780,000 gross tonnage. He added: “We certainly feel that we are entitled to have our claims for replacements duly considered by our closest Ally.”

Stalin Insists

Roosevelt agreed, but on 17 March, Stalin wrote saying that the issue of the Italian Fleet “is, of course, entirely beyond dispute, and the Italian Government should be given so to understand in the particular case of the Italian ships which are liable to be handed over to the Soviet Union.” Here was a direct impasse—and a dangerous one, considering that British and American troops were now less than three months from undertaking Operation Overlord.

As The Churchill Documents, volume 19 closes, we find the Russians on one side of yet another thorny question, and Churchill and Roosevelt on the other. As the documents in this book make clear, the Italian Fleet issue saw the two Western leaders doing everything they reasonably could to accommodate a fundamentally unreasonable and pathologically ungrateful and suspicious Stalin. It was not for the first time, and would certainly not be for the last.




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