Red Sea Forces

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Keith Enge
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Red Sea Forces

Postby Keith Enge » Tue Nov 01, 2011 1:08 am

I'm not sure which forum is the place for this thread but my best guess is that it belongs here. My question concerns the absence of any Royal Navy operation in the Red Sea to eliminate the Italian naval forces based at Massawa, Eritrea. The Italians had a handful each of destroyers, torpedo boats, and submarines there. This wasn't a powerful force so the RN should have been able to eliminate it with a harbor attack with much stronger warships.

As it was, from Italy's entry into the war in June 1940 until April 1941, the force was a threat to British traffic through the Red Sea to and from the Suez Canal. The Italian ships made sporadic raids on convoys but couldn't do this very often because of logistics. They had a very limited amount of fuel and munitions and little prospect of getting any more. Those attacks caused some attrition of the forces but eventually the remaining ships, facing a "use it or lose it" situation, went on a suicide run.

I can't see what prevented the RN from making the attack to eliminate the threat and the need to escort convoys through the Red Sea. I don't think that it was because of mines; the Italians don't seem to have had any available there. It wasn't aircraft either. They had some planes but virtually all were elderly and of limited use. Does anyone know or have any idea why the RN lived with this threat for ten months rather than squashing it early?

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby Byron Angel » Tue Nov 01, 2011 2:46 am

Keith Enge wrote:I'm not sure which forum is the place for this thread but my best guess is that it belongs here. My question concerns the absence of any Royal Navy operation in the Red Sea to eliminate the Italian naval forces based at Massawa, Eritrea. The Italians had a handful each of destroyers, torpedo boats, and submarines there. This wasn't a powerful force so the RN should have been able to eliminate it with a harbor attack with much stronger warships.

As it was, from Italy's entry into the war in June 1940 until April 1941, the force was a threat to British traffic through the Red Sea to and from the Suez Canal. The Italian ships made sporadic raids on convoys but couldn't do this very often because of logistics. They had a very limited amount of fuel and munitions and little prospect of getting any more. Those attacks caused some attrition of the forces but eventually the remaining ships, facing a "use it or lose it" situation, went on a suicide run.

I can't see what prevented the RN from making the attack to eliminate the threat and the need to escort convoys through the Red Sea. I don't think that it was because of mines; the Italians don't seem to have had any available there. It wasn't aircraft either. They had some planes but virtually all were elderly and of limited use. Does anyone know or have any idea why the RN lived with this threat for ten months rather than squashing it early?



..... In volume 1 of "The War at Sea", Roskill mentions that Great Britain undertook immediate steps to secure the Red Sea trades route as soon as Mussolini had made evident an alliance with Germany. On 24 May, the Red Sea was closed to shipping until convoys could be formed up with the AA cruiser CARLISLE + three sloops + a division of DD's were sent into the Red Sea via the Suez Canal to provide convoy protection. Roskill goes on to argue that, in the event, the Italian threat proved largely illusory: the nine Italian DDs based at Massawa apparently "never interfered effectively" with the convoy traffic; of the eight Italian subs, three were sunk and one captured; Italian aerial attacks were "equally devoid of results". I'm always suspicious of such generalized prose, as it omits much in the way of specificity and encourages the reader to surmise what such phrases as "never interefered effectively" and "equally devoid of results" represent. The most honest impression one can draw from Roskill's commentary is that the British apparently managed to keep the Red Sea convoy route open with a minimal protection force.

I would also suspect that the RN was stretched pretty thin at that time in the war.

B

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby Keith Enge » Tue Nov 01, 2011 9:04 am

Byron Angel -

I'm aware of what the RN did to protect the Red Sea convoys. However, I would think that a one-time attack would have used fewer resources than the continual drain of having to escort convoys. The Italians did attack two convoys with surface ships, BN.7 in October and BN.14 in February, without much result. However, in the BN.7 action, RN DD Kimberley had to be towed away after being damaged by a shore battery. Earlier, in June 1940, RN DD Khartoum was lost after a gun battle with the Italian submarine Torricelli. Some other DDs took damage too before Torricelli was sunk. The cause of Khartoum's loss is disputed but it seems that the Italian gunfire caused an air vessel in a torpedo to later explode, causing a fire that eventually reached the aft magazine. There was another significant consequence of the letting the Italian threat fester. RN CL Capetown was torpedoed in April 1941 off Massawa by an Italian MAS boat (motor torpedo boat) and spent more than a year under repair. All of these problems could have been avoided if the RN had assembled those ships that were used for convoying, temporarily added another CL or two, and sent them to clean out Massawa once and for all early in the war.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby mike1880 » Tue Nov 01, 2011 4:03 pm

There's nothing disputed about Khartoum's loss, the Admiralty investigation ruled out enemy action or sabotage. If you have a look on the internet you'll find reports of a similar event on Kempenfelt in Sydney after WW2.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby RF » Wed Nov 02, 2011 7:25 pm

I have only just come across this thread and the initial question is very interesting.

As Byron has observed RN forces were stretched pretty thin in 1940. The Italians didn't go over to the offensive in spite of opportunities presented to them. In particular there was General Nasi's invasion of British Somaliland in August 1940 - Italys' only military victory in WW2 - which after a week of fighting the British/Somali defence forces were evacuated by ship to Aden. The Regia Marina made no attempt to interdict the British evacuation which if they had could have made this Italian victory far more significant. Indeed the Italians could have threatened Aden itself.

Possibly the most likely explanation for Italian inaction is twofold. Firstly the lack of pre-war planning and adequate stockpiling of fuel, ammunition etc necessary for a long war. The blame for that has to go with the Italian political leadership rather than just the local commanders. But there was a lack of enterprise and leadership from the commanders on the spot. The Italian C in C in East Africa, the Duke of Aosta, had a huge theatre of war to contend with and the naval aspects in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean would be seen by him as a small sideshow. Nevertheless some small scale long range attacks were made, such as the Regia Aeronautica bombing raid on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

Secondly there is the isolation factor. East Africa was cut off by the British from receiving any reinforcements or supplies from Italy. It was beyond the range of German intervention. Given that the war was likely to be a long one - the Italians substantially overestimated British strength - there was the need to husband resources for an undefined long period. The Italians faced a huge logistical problem maintaining some 300,000 troops in this theatre and so most of the fuel allocations went to the ground and air forces. In early 1941 British cruisers in the Indian Ocean became more active, shelling Mogadishu and other coastal targets. Again the boldness of British moves caused the Italians to overestimate the odds against them and their posture became ever more defensive.
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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby RF » Wed Nov 02, 2011 7:31 pm

Another aspect to this is what could have happened if Mussolini had stationed a battleship or a carrier in the Red Sea/Indian Ocean theatre - which had he planned properly years before hand he should have done.
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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby lwd » Wed Nov 02, 2011 8:36 pm

RF wrote:Another aspect to this is what could have happened if Mussolini had stationed a battleship or a carrier in the Red Sea/Indian Ocean theatre - which had he planned properly years before hand he should have done.

I can't see why. First of all Italy doesn't have any carriers and even if they had decided to build some how many could they have had operational by 1939? They don't have a lot of battleships either and in that area they would be operating at the long end of a very tenuous logistical tether and if the British are involved at all they would have a horrible time getting them or it home if needed.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby phil gollin » Thu Nov 03, 2011 7:36 am

RF wrote:
........... Firstly the lack of pre-war planning and adequate stockpiling of fuel, ammunition etc necessary for a long war. The blame for that has to go with the Italian political leadership rather than just the local commanders. .........



Obviously you would need to back that statement up.

.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby RF » Thu Nov 03, 2011 9:41 am

lwd wrote:I can't see why. First of all Italy doesn't have any carriers and even if they had decided to build some how many could they have had operational by 1939? They don't have a lot of battleships either and in that area they would be operating at the long end of a very tenuous logistical tether and if the British are involved at all they would have a horrible time getting them or it home if needed.


The ''why'' is to create a much bigger threat to British interests and territories in the Indian Ocean theatre, backed up by the substantial land forces in Italian East Africa. Such a force could have closed off the Red sea to the British, enabled seizure of Aden and places like Diego Garcia, and supported invasions of Kenya and Tanzania.

I'm well aware that Italy had no carriers, no fleet air arm or suitable battleships for that area of the world. And certainly supply and reinforcement logistics would be a problem. That is why I said that proper planning years prior to WW2 should have been done, so these forces could have been developed, alongside the strategy of invading Abyssinia.

It does of course require a degree of foresight not common in dictators - but that of course is one reason why dictators usually end up failing.
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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby lwd » Thu Nov 03, 2011 1:54 pm

The problem with that is if they end up facing just the French a significant part of thier naval power is out of the picture and probably can't get back at least in any reasonable amount of time. Furthermore if you look at a realistic appraisal of the naval forces Italy is going to be pressed to keep the RN out of Italian waters much less be able to take and hold far off colonies. Then there's the question of just where Italy would get the resources for such ships. If you want a reasonable approach a stratgy that involves avoiding a military conflict with Britain is much easier and cheaper. But as you say that seemed to be beyond Il Duce.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby RF » Thu Nov 03, 2011 4:57 pm

However if the French are brought into this, as well as the British, then the Italians have Germany as an ally. Obviously Germany has no surface ships to offer in the Med, but if Mussolini had joined with Raeder in successfully persuading Hitler to follow a Med/Middle East strategy then German airpower and land forces can make a big difference, far bigger than the actual case in 1941/1942.

With respect to resources - had Italian fascism encouraged private enterprise capitalism instead of corporate state capitalism, focussing on rewarding initiative and productivity, with a proper strategic plan for stockpiling and modernising the armaments industry and the armed forces logistics and weaponry, then Italy would have been in a far better shape for total war in 1940 - and focus on the attack that was needed.

This of course is very hypothetical - but it illustrates the possibilities if you could turn the clock back and rerun WW2.
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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby lwd » Thu Nov 03, 2011 6:03 pm

I'm not so certain of that. Germany with a stronger economy wasn't in great shape. Indeed 1939-1940 was going to be a peak period for them afterwards they would fall progressivly behine. My impression is that Italy didn't come out of the Great Depression with an economy that was as robust as the German one. In addition the Spanish Civil War and her colonial adventures pointed to problems with the Army as well so they couldn't devote everything to the navy. It's also far from certain in say 1934 or 1935 that a Italian French war would necessarily involve the Germans or the British. I still maintain Italy would have done a lot better to follow Spain's lead rather than Germany's.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby Keith Enge » Fri Nov 04, 2011 3:21 am

Hey guys -

The last several post have gotten off topic; my question was the reasons for the Royal Navy's inaction, not the Italians. I feel that the reasons for the Italian inaction are self-evident. They were a "fleet-in-being", designed to tie up enemy forces by their mere threat. They couldn't risk these ships because, with their loss, the threat disappears. They were isolated and so couldn't be replaced. It was even difficult to replace any fuel or munitions used. Therefore, the Italian strategy was correct, they were just active enough to force the RN to tie up resources convoying ships through the Red Sea. My question is why the RN allowed this continual drain on their resources when, with a one-time reinforcement of forces available, they could have attacked Massawa and eliminated the threat permanently?

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby dunmunro » Fri Nov 04, 2011 7:32 am

Keith Enge wrote:Hey guys -

The last several post have gotten off topic; my question was the reasons for the Royal Navy's inaction, not the Italians. I feel that the reasons for the Italian inaction are self-evident. They were a "fleet-in-being", designed to tie up enemy forces by their mere threat. They couldn't risk these ships because, with their loss, the threat disappears. They were isolated and so couldn't be replaced. It was even difficult to replace any fuel or munitions used. Therefore, the Italian strategy was correct, they were just active enough to force the RN to tie up resources convoying ships through the Red Sea. My question is why the RN allowed this continual drain on their resources when, with a one-time reinforcement of forces available, they could have attacked Massawa and eliminated the threat permanently?


What were the defences at Massawa?
The Mediterranean and Middle East
Volume I
The Early Successes against Italy
(to May 1941)

http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/UK/U ... -I-13.html
p247, states:

During the night of October 20th/21st Italian destroyers made their first and only attack on a convoy. B.N.7, consisting of 32 ships escorted by one cruiser, one destroyer, and five sloops, was about 150 miles to the east of Massawa when four Italian destroyers came in to attack. On being chased by the escort they quickly withdrew. At dawn action was joined, and one of the Italian destroyers, the Francesco Nullo, was driven ashore on an island near Massawa, where she was subsequently bombed and destroyed by three Blenheims of No. 45 Squadron. During the action the Kimberley came under fire from a shore battery and received a hit in the engine room which made it necessary to tow her to Port Sudan.

If Massawa was fortified and defended by heavy gun batterys it would not be a simple matter to destroy the port and any naval forces sheltering there.

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Re: Red Sea Forces

Postby RF » Fri Nov 04, 2011 9:24 am

Keith Enge wrote:The last several post have gotten off topic; my question was the reasons for the Royal Navy's inaction, not the Italians. I feel that the reasons for the Italian inaction are self-evident. They were a "fleet-in-being", designed to tie up enemy forces by their mere threat. They couldn't risk these ships because, with their loss, the threat disappears. They were isolated and so couldn't be replaced. It was even difficult to replace any fuel or munitions used. Therefore, the Italian strategy was correct, they were just active enough to force the RN to tie up resources convoying ships through the Red Sea. My question is why the RN allowed this continual drain on their resources when, with a one-time reinforcement of forces available, they could have attacked Massawa and eliminated the threat permanently?


I'm sorry for taking this thread ''off topic'' as you say, but I do think these issues of both British and Italian ''inactivity'' are related.

The Red Sea was something of a sideshow, even within the East Africa theatre itself. I don't doubt that your analysis quoted is correct, it was alluded to in my first post in this thread.

But with British resources thinly spread in 1940 a similar argument applies. If those forces attacked the Italian bases and in the course of doing so suffered severe losses without knocking out the Italian ships, what is left to protect the convoys to Suez? There would be the fear of these convoys not having escorts and being wide open to Italian attack.

There is another consideration. Italy declared war on 10 June. Nothing substantive happened in the weeks and first months following that, the Italians were clearly in a defensive posture, while British forces were stretched. So why stir things up with an early attack; why not wait until you are ready to strike with more substantive force?
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