Churchill Documents: The Italian Navy

Churchill Documents: The Italian Navy

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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