Birth of the Royal Navy
The Italian Navy was officially established on Novembre 17, 1860, when the Sardinian, Tuscan and Neapolitan-Sicilian navies, as well as few remaining ships from the Papal Navy joined together. According to the policy-makers’ guidelines, the new Kingdom of Italy had to build up a navy capable of playing an international role. This became immediately evident when Camillo Benso di Cavour, the first Prime Minister, stated that: “It is the duty of a state located in the middle of the Mediterranean to create the basis for the widest development of its naval resources.”
The newly-born Navy had extensive naval assets at its disposal, consisting of wooden steam- and sail-powered warships. However, the ships in service were quite heterogeneous, while their crews had different backgrounds lacking a common naval doctrine and esprit de corps.
Cavour launched a massive program providing for the reorganization of the military and civilian personnel, the setting up of three maritime districts (Genoa, Naples and Ancona) and the establishment of a new shipyard in la Spezia.
The fleet as well required a large scale upgrading, due to the new advances in steam technology which had dramatically changed the naval scenario. Within this context, new more modern naval units were laid down in the main Italian shipyards, in the US and France. The “Affondatore” (Sinker), one of the first turret ships in naval history, was built in London.
The Battle of Lissa (July 20, 1866)
After the establishment of the Royal Italian Navy, the lack of a common maritime culture, doctrine and training within the naval forces became dramatically evident during the 3rd War of Independence.
In 1866, the Italian fleet, led by Admiral Count Carlo Pellion di Persano, engaged the Austrian fleet, commanded by Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthof, off the Island of Lissa (now Vis) in the Adriatic Sea in the first battle between armored fleets. Persano’s objective was the neutralization of the Austrian fleet to reconquer Venice.
Although the Italian fleet had twice the combat potential of the Austrians, Admiral Persano failed to take advantage of this superiority as his naval tactics turned in favor of the enemy. The result was a humiliating defeat for the Italian naval force which suffered heavy losses. The embryonic Italian Navy lacked a cohesive national officer corps, homogeneous crews, an appropriate training to experiment the new naval doctrines required to operate with the new types of vessels: the ironclads.
From Lissa to World War I
Despite her unsuccessful contribution to the 3rd Independence War Italy was able to reconquer Venice and its region. The heavy shock resulting from the stunning defeat of Lissa opened a difficult period in the history of the Italian Navy.
Besides the problems connected to the unification of widely different realities, Italy had to strife to gain in stature among the international powers.
The Italian naval vessels were engaged in the protection of national interests in the Americas and to establish new trades and navigation agreements with Japan, China, Thailand, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal. In 1868, the Italian Navy corvette Magenta completed the first circumnavigation of the globe to “fly the Italian flag in distant seas.”
In the following years, the commitment of the Ministers of the Navy, led to a remarkable reorganization of the Navy, laying down the basis for its future development. Naval planners became aware of the need to harmonize the basic training of naval officers; as a result, the two existing Genoa and Naples based naval schools were unified to form a single academy and, in 1881, the Italian Naval Academy was established in Livorno to offer future officers a homogenous training. New battleships were commissioned and the Italia and Duilio class ships resulted as the most powerful and “revolutionary” of the time. In the same years the Navy urged the installations of naval bases in the Red Sea, took part in the seizure of Massawa and established the first Italian colony in Eritrea. After the heavy defeat of Adwa, the colonial development came to a standstill.
At the turn of the 20th century, Italy joined the major naval powers of the world, taking part in the campaign of Crete and leading the first international coalition under Admiral Napoleone Canevaro. In 1900, Italian ships and seamen contributed to the defense of the Peking Legations and participated in the operations against the boxers. Thanks to the commitment by Admiral Candiani, Italy obtained a concession in Tientsin (which lasted until the 1947 Peace Treaty).
The Royal Italian Navy contributed to the birth and development of communications. Since 1897 Guglielmo Marconi had been carrying out his experiments on board Italian naval vessels. In 1903 the Navy personnel installed the first radio station in China, succeeding in establishing transatlantic radio communications between the Italian ships and their home country.
In 1908, when the earthquake and seaquake of Messina, the naval vessels carried out rescue and disaster relief operations for the Sicilian people, fulfilling one of the first humanitarian and civil protection operations.
The Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) required a great commitment of the Royal Italian Navy, whose ships were engaged in the Northern African coasts and in the Aegean Sea. Italy conquered the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in the Libyan territory and the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea.
World War I
Italy entered war against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria – Hungary) in 1915, on May 24, on the side of the Triple Entente.
The Royal Italian Navy was a key player in the war operational scenario, being thoroughly involved in coastal defense, protection of maritime supplies to and from the Mediterranean, isolation of Austria from the rest of the world by interrupting its shipping lanes, naval support to Italian land-based operations in the Northern Adriatic.
Many Italian seamen serving in the Navy performed deeds of heroism, like Lieutenant Commander Luigi Rizzo who sunk the Austrian battleship Wien inside the port of Trieste, using two MAS (Motor Torpedo Boats), in December 1917; or Italian assault teams that attacked the enemy naval forces at Pola, where the Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis was sunk by a self-propelled two-seat manned torpedo called “mignatta,” in November 1918. The Italian Navy also was instrumental in the evacuation of about 260,000 soldiers of the Serbian Army rescued from the Balkan coasts.
A 66-kilometer long anti-submarine barrier made of nets was laid down in the Otranto Channel to prevent the transit of Austrian submarines to the Mediterranean. This measure was extremely effective. The Austrians tried to destroy the barrier several times, to break through the Otranto Channel. On June 10, 1918, during one of these attempts, the Austrian battleship Szent Istvan was sunk by MAS 15 and 21 led by Lieutenant Commander Luigi Rizzo, off the Island of Premuda. Rizzo has become a national hero and this date was chosen to celebrate the Italian Navy’s day. At present, MAS 15 is displayed at the “Sacrario delle Bandiere” of the Italian Armed Forces in Rome.
The Italian Navy also contributed to the development of the naval aviation. In 1914 an ad hoc aviation department operated at sea and later two seaplane support ships were built. Over the course of the war, Italy employed a great number of seaplanes and airships for bombardment, air reconnaissance and blockade operations.
Also remarkable was the role played by the Navy in the land campaigns. After the withdrawal from Caporetto, naval teams were engaged in land operations to defend Venice. At the end of the war, in recognition of the successful results achieved in the protection of the city, Venice gave the Marines Regiment its flag with the winged lion. Since then, the Naval Infantry Brigade has been called “San Marco.”
Inter War Years
On November 4, 1918, the armistice put an end to WWI.
Soon after, the Royal Italian Navy occupied the territories and the islands along the eastern coast of the Adriatic. The Italian ships and landing parties reached Trieste, Pula, Fiume, Zara, Split, Sebenic and several Dalmatian Islands. The defense of the national interests in Istria, Dalmatia, Eastern regions and Aegean Sea urged the Minister of the Navy to resume the overseas campaigns to demonstrate European major powers the role Italy could play worldwide.
In February 1922, few months before the advent of Fascism, Italy took part in the Washington Naval Conference to discuss naval disarmament. The Five-Power Treaty established an equal ratio of warship tonnage between Italy and France (175,000 tons).
In 1923, the “Regia Aeronautica” became a separate military service and all the aircraft were put under its control. For many years, the lack of an air doctrine in support of maritime operations and the reduction of effective airborne assets in naval warfare had a profound impact on the course of the war.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, the Navy started to create 10,000 ton heavy-weight cruisers, and from 1940 an extensive shipbuilding program was launched for new destroyers and submarines. In June 1914 the underwater fleet could boast 113 submarines, the second greatest submarine force in the world, after the United States, in terms of total tonnage.
In the mid-1920’s, the Italian Navy tackled the problem of the ships modernization for the training of the Naval Academy Cadets. It was considered that the best impact with the marine environment was to live aboard a sail ship, which requires the widest knowledge of the natural elements. To this end, tall ship Amerigo Vespucci was built and fitted out in the Royal Shipyard of Castellammare di Stabia. Laid down on May 12, 1930, launched on February 22, 1931, the ship was commissioned as School Ship the next June 6, joining her sister ship Cristoforo Colombo. In July the same year she started her first training cruise in Northern Europe.
World War II
On June 10, 1940, Italy entered World War II against France and the United Kingdom. The Italian Navy key missions were the control of the Mediterranean shipping lanes to protect Italian convoys headed for Northern Africa and the interdiction of the British shipping re-supplying Malta and Alexandria. At the outbreak of the war, the Italian fleet consisted of two fully modernized battleships (Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare), plus the battleships Littorio, Vittorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Andrea Doria, seven heavy cruisers, twelve light cruisers, over one hundred destroyers and torpedo boats, in addition to the submarine force (over 100 submarines). Despite the powerful assets available, the Italian Navy ships lacked air support and technological equipment, such as radars and sonars; consequently, Italian vessels were unable to detect British ships or to track a target at night or in rough weather. Besides, the UK’s superior intelligence permitted the British to decrypt most information about shipping movements thanks to a device code-named Ultra.
The first major attack against the Italian fleet occurred on the night of November 11, 1940, when the British launched Swordfish torpedo-bombers from aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. As a consequence, most of the Italian ships moored at the naval base of Taranto were damaged. In the meantime, the “Regia Marina” was testing forms of attack against enemy ships moored in port, employing frogmen and manned torpedoes. The most successful raids were conducted by the X MAS Flotilla (10th Assault Vehicles Flotilla), which sank or damaged a great number of ships, including the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in the harbor of Alexandria on December 18, 1941. Other successful results were achieved by the naval raiders at Souda Bay (March 27, 1941) and later at Gibraltar, Haifa and Malta.
Within the war of the convoys, the Mediterranean was the theatre of major clashes between the British and the Italian fleets. During the war, the Italian vessels were also engaged outside the Mediterranean, namely in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and even on Russian Lake Ladoga and in the Italian concession territory of Tientsin (China); while the Italian submarines, headquartered at Bordeaux (France), were deployed to the Atlantic.
After the Armistice (Sept. 8, 1943) most of the Italian ships and their crew began to cooperate with the Allies in escort operations, in rescue of Italian soldiers from the Balkans and special missions. The San Marco Naval Infantry Regiment played an active role in the struggle for the liberation of Italy.
The Peace Treaty (1947) imposed on Italy very hard restrictions. The building and the acquisition of aircraft carriers, battleships, heavy and long range weapons, assault craft and submarines were forbidden. At the same time, the treaty ordered Italy to put most of its naval force at disposal of the victorious nations as war compensation.