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Book Review – Mussolini’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Regia Marina 1930-1945

By Maurizio Brescia; Naval Institute Press; 256 pages

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Long the butt of ignorant jokes, the Royal Italian Navy (Regia Marina) of World War II had capable professional officers, gallant sailors, and beautiful fast ships designed by gifted engineers. What it didn’t have was petroleum, and that was fatal. As British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon observed at the end of World War I, the Allies “floated to victory on a sea of oil.”

Nevertheless, for 39 months, the Italian navy took many hard knocks and dished out a few to the vaunted British Royal Navy, fighting not only on the Mediterranean, but also in the Red Sea, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and even on Russia’s distant Lake Ladoga.

Nevertheless, for 39 months, the Italian navy took many hard knocks and dished out a few to the vaunted British Royal Navy, fighting not only on the Mediterranean, but also in the Red Sea, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and even on Russia’s distant Lake Ladoga. Particularly adept in special operations with small craft and frogmen, it conducted some memorably audacious raids.

Guilo Cesare

The Italian battleship Guilo Cesare firing salvos from her big guns near Punta Stilo during the Battle of Calabria. Ministero Della Difesa-Marina photo

There were many shortcomings beside lack of fuel. The navy failed to plan, train or equip for night fighting, even though a group of young technicians had constructed a prototype radar as early as 1936. Italian submarines took too long to dive. Excessive muzzle velocity, and the decision to save weight by mounting twin guns close together in single cradles on some classes of ships, resulted in inaccurate gun salvoes. Italy’s 1938 racial laws, adopted under Nazi pressure, deprived the fleet of Jewish scientists and engineers.

In war, the losers, having fewer reputations to protect, sometimes write better history than the winners. The superb 22-volume official history of the Regia Marina in World War II, published at Rome between 1958 and 1978 has never been translated. Until now, James Sadkovich’s 1994 book, The Italian Navy in World War II has been the best single-volume account for English-speaking readers, but it is now expensive and becoming hard to find.

Mussolini’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Regia Marina 1930-1945, therefore, will fill a major gap in the naval history of World War II for general readers. The book is logically organized into 10 chapters:

  1. The Regia Marina from 1861 to 1939
  2. Dock Yards, Naval Bases, Ports, Shipyards and Coast Defenses
  3. Fleet Organization and Operations
  4. Ships in Service 1940-45
  5. Surface and Underwater Assault Craft
  6. Naval Aviation
  7. Italian Naval Camouflage in the Second World War
  8. Flags
  9. Uniforms, Ranks, Insignia, and Decorations
  10. Who’s Who in the Italian Navy in the Second World War

There is a bilingual bibliography, notes on photographic sources, and Index.

In a sense, it wasn’t Mussolini’s navy at all.  It was the Royal Navy of Victor Emanuel III (1869-1947).  Although the shy and scholarly king was reduced to a figurehead by the Fascist seizure of power in 1922, the navy was fiercely monarchist and socially conservative. The new Italian Air Force, more supportive of Fascist ideology, was also more favored by the regime. Inter-service rivalry handicapped the war effort as much for Italy as it did for Japan.

Mussolini’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Regia Marina 1930-1945

Mussolini’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Regia Marina 1930-1945, by Maurizio Brescia; Naval Institute Press; 256 pages

War losses for the Italian navy totaled two battleships (Conte di Cavour, sunk at Taranto by British torpedo bombers, Nov. 12, 1940, and Roma sunk by German guided bombs, Sept. 9, 1943,) 13 cruisers, 39 destroyers, sixty submarines, and most of the large pre-war merchant fleet. But on the critical North Africa convoy route, 86 percent of the supply tonnage and 90 percent of the troops landed safely in Libya, despite Allied air superiority during much of the campaign.

On the critical North Africa convoy route, 86 percent of the supply tonnage and 90 percent of the troops landed safely in Libya, despite Allied air superiority during much of the campaign.

Dr. Maurizio Brescia, the author, is an editor of the Italian military history magazine, Storia Militare, and a talented draftsman who produced many of the detailed line drawings in the book.

Italian Fleet Surrender

After making a rendezvous off the North African coast, an Italian cruiser and a Littorio class battleship steam slowly past the British escorting ships towards Malta to surrender, all together there were two battleships, five cruisers and four destroyers. Sailors of HMS Warspite are in the foreground, Sept. 10, 1943. They were also escorted by units of the British destroyer flotillas as well as the battleships Valiant and Warspite (from which this photograph was taken). Despite some successes the Regia Marina was unable to overcome its many shortcomings. Imperial War Museum photo

This handsome, large-format book is beautifully illustrated with photographs – many never published before – drawings, and maps. The only shortcoming, perhaps, is the lack of a chapter covering detailed specifications of Italian naval guns and torpedoes. The color plates of camouflage patterns will be of particular value to modelers and naval miniatures war gamers.

  • Maurizio Brescia

    Dear Mr. Markovitz,
    First of all, many thanks for your very positive review of my book “Mussolini’s Navy”: it’s always fine reading such favourable comments and I do hope that you liked the book very much.
    Please take note that the caption of the first photo of this page (published also on page 228 of “Mussolini’s Navy”) is mistaken. In fact, it was taken in June 1942 as stated in the original caption:
    “Taranto, 21 June 1942. Aboard the battleship Littorio,
    Mussolini reviewing the ship’s crew, followed – from
    left to right – by Aldo Vidussoni (Secretary of the
    Partito Nazionale Fascista), by Adm. Arturo Riccardi
    (Capo di Stato Maggiore della Regia Marina) and by
    Adm. Angelo Iachino (CinC of the Squadra Navale).
    (Istituto Luce, Rome)”
    As a matter of fact, Mussolini visited Italian ships during the war at least a couple of other times between 1940 and 1942, but these events – not being substantial for the outcome of the naval war in the Mediterranean – are rarely described in foreign and even in Italian publications.
    Many thanks again!
    Sincerely,
    Maurizio Brescia
    (Author of “Mussolini’s Navy”)

  • Steven Hoarn

    Mr. Brescia,

    Any mistake on the caption was on our end and not Mr. Markowitz’s. I’ve corrected the caption. Thank you for commenting with a correction. We strive for accuracy.