When Italy declared war on Britain and France, the Allies had already been in it for nine months. The British Dominions had mobilized as could be expected and their reinforcements were already on their way to England and the potential battle zones in Africa, the Middle East and Singapore. France had transferred troops from their North African colonies to the mainland. As such, the Allies had had time to prepare themselves for the upcoming struggle much more than Italy. Personnel of all kinds had been called up, shifting of important resources had taken place and most of all, events of the period had steeled officers and soldiers in all branches and areas. The same could be said for the civilian side of the Allied nations. For Italy the situation had been much the same as the summer of 1939 for France and the British. While war seemed looming matters weren’t really taken seriously until it actually broke out, the Allies had a gracing period of nine months – notwithstanding the Norwegian Campaign and the war at sea. Italy’s army, navy and air forces were thrown right into it pressed on by Mussolini’s urge to conquer French territory and the British immediate minor air and land offensives in the Desert and across the Red Sea. There was no “Phony War” in the Med!
In Italy there had been vacillations and many grandiose speeches by Mussolini. The Italian people were obviously worried about Italy entering into a new war and the same could be said for the higher officers of its armed forces. Reading Count Ciano’s diaries one cannot but wonder how a country with an officer corps of such standing and opinions could ever enter into a war of such proportions and constellations. Also, there was little love lost between the leaders of the two Axis partners, King Victor Emanuelle III himself was an example of this but both parties hoped to benefit from the exertions of the other and swallowed their doubts only to venture into an unsure future. Mussolini’s eyes were on the French colonies in North Africa and the vast Balkan, a part of the world that once was under the Roman Empire. Various treaties established between Britain and Turkey, Greece and Romania earlier was perceived by Mussolini as a British plan of hemming in Italy, to restrict its future plans for Italian Lebensraum in the Balkans. He was further aggravated by the British (half-hearted) negotiations with the Soviet Union at the same time, a treaty that never came off. Instead, the Germans were able to temporarily pacify the Soviets through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. All this added to the hostility developed during the Ethiopian crisis.
With their natural flux for movement it was the air and naval forces of both parties which first came into play when Italy delivered its declaration of war to France and Britain on June 10th. The immediate major targets Mussolini wanted his subordinate leaders to achieve were the occupation of as large a portion of Southern France as possible, with Tunis as a possible bonus, and the occupation of Egypt with the Suez Canal. The Balkans would come later.
It was not as if Italy’s declaration of war came as a surprise to neither Britain nor France. Britain in particular had made preparations if not to improve its Mediterranean defenses to any major degree so to limit any immediate damage to its bases and installations. We have seen that they reinforced their Eastern Mediterranean fleet in Alexandria with naval vessels of all sort streaming through the Suez Canal and Gibraltar Straits, among them ten submarines from the Far East. The French would have to be relied upon to cover the Western part, which was only natural with the French supply lines running between mainland France and its North African colonies. Even so, some French naval units took up station in Alexandria. Part of the British naval force in Alexandria was soon sent back through the Canal to establish escort for convoys through the Red Sea, a necessary precaution considering the Italian naval force stationed in Massawa, Eritrea, which consisted of no less than 9 destroyers, 8 submarines and some support vessels. Still, Malta had no real fighter defense and Gibraltar did not have a proper airfield.
The first major Italian moves were made by their submarine force. At the outbreak of war no less than 49 units were deployed through the Mediterranean, an impressive operational number when compared with the German and British submarine fleets. Their missions were split into reconnaissance, offensive and mining operations. Already on June 6th the laying of defensive minefields had started along the coast and on the first night of the war the Sicilian channel was mined by surface mine-layers covered by a cruiser detachment. It was expected that the mining of these important waters should be opposed by the French Navy but it was nowhere to be seen. Partly due to problems with the mine-laying apparatus the result of the first submarine mining operations were unimpressive but it was a flying start for the keen Italian submariners.
Playfair, the official RN historian, criticizes the lack of results yielded by the large Italian submarine effort in the beginning of June but the Italian submarine Bagnolini corrected this when it torpedoed and sank the cruiser HMS Calypso south of Crete on June 12th, the first British naval loss in the Med. HMS Calypso was part of Cunningham’s raider force and sailed in company with her sister ship HMS Caledon. These ships were companions stretching back to the First World War. Caledon and the destroyer HMS Dainty took off the survivors from the Calypso but 40 sailors lost their lives. As a foretaste of the upcoming blockade of Malta, on the same day the submarine Nereide torpedoed and damaged the Norwegian tanker Orkanger (8000 brt.) on its way from Alexandria to Malta. It was finally sunk by the Naiade the day after.
The anti-submarine warfare as a whole gave the opponents some surprises. With a score of 3-10 to the Allies during this first period of the war, four of the Italian losses were in the Red Sea, these were relatively equal considering the number of units at sea, with an advantage to the RM. The British, when learning of their first three submarine losses believed these to be caused by mines, actually, they were all sunk by Italian surface vessels as a result of conventional submarine search and destroy mission, a capacity the RN did not expect the RM to have. In an attempt to torpedo the cruisers Fiume and Gorizia in the Taranto Bay HMS Odin was sunk in a counterattack by the destroyers Strale and Baleno. On the same day RM Finzi passed through the Gibraltar Strait as the first one into the Atlantic. It was followed later in the month by Calvi, Cappelini, Malaspino and Veniero. Finzi returned safely on July 6th. At one time 27 Italian submarines operated in the Atlantic from their bases in Bordeaux and Italy and they executed almost 50 passages through the Straits without incidents.
The French submarine force was also supposed to be an important factor, on the eve of war no less than 29 French boats departed their bases to take up positions in the Western Med. At the same time 9 RN submarines departed Malta and Alexandria to ambush the Italian navy outside their main bases and along the shipping routes in the Aegean. The Allied operational pattern for the submarine forces was that the French covered the area west of Sicilia with the RN units on the Eastern side.