On April 11th 1940 Admiral Cavagnari, the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Navy, wrote to the Italian Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Badoglio: “The possibility thus not existing to carry out the fulfillment of important strategic objectives or to bring about the defeat of the enemy’s naval forces, entering the war on our own initiative does not seem justified, given the prospect of only being able to carry out defensive operations”.
Cavagnaris’ letter was in response to information given in a meeting of the Chiefs of Staffs of the Armed Forces two days earlier. At this meeting Marshall Badoglio told his subordinate officers of the Duce’s “firm decision to intervene at such time and place as he will choose”. Meaning Mussolini was ready to go to war when the proper occasion arose. Badoglio had ended his briefing with directing that the war “should be conducted defensively on land, but actively in the air and on the sea”.
This should not come as a total surprise to Cavagnari and he must have felt much like Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in Chief of the German Navy, when Hitler “forgot” his promise not to go to war for several years and stranded Raeder´s navy well short of his estimated time for a proper build-up of the Kriegsmarine. Up till then the “official” time for the start of an eventual war involving Italy had been 1942, as had been confirmed during the signing of the Axis treaty between Italy and Germany. This was what the Italian Navy had worked by.
The Regia Marina was in the middle of an extensive expansion and modernization program for their heavy naval units. Only the battleships Cavour and Cesare were in service while the Littorio, Veneto, Duilio and Doria were fitting out. The modern battleships Roma and Impero were still building, not expected to be ready until 1942.
Cavagnari had other misgivings. He rightfully complained of the Navy’s lack of dedicated air reconnaissance capacity and Italy’s lack of resources to make good eventual losses which, according to him, would not be a problem for the British, the expected main opponent in a war in the Mediterranean. It is interesting to note that the British had exactly the same misgivings at the time, upping the enemy’s imagined capabilities and complaining about their own. The problem with lack of dedicated naval air resources was actually common for both Italy, Britain and Germany. A problem stemming from the “land” air forces´ having gained an inflated level of influence in the mid-war years, an operational hegemony, so to speak, forgetting the particular demands of long-range overseas navigation and ship’s recognition. For Italy and Germany the only really available naval air capability was the ship-borne units on board their battleships, heavy cruisers and raiders. At the outbreak of the war the land-based German Küstenfliegers were originally under the control of the Navy but as the war progressed Field Marshall Göring was able to dismember these quite effective units, obtaining complete control of them and thereby for a large part disrupting its core of professional naval officers. The British also had reconnaissance aircrafts based on their battleships and heavy cruisers in addition to their carrier-based units. These, however, were few in numbers in 1940 and the British carriers had a rather low capacity as to the number of aircrafts fielded and many were outdated. That said, if an RN carrier was incapacitated for one reason or another, its aircraft often operated from land bases. The Coastal Command, like the German Küstenfliegers, was under the regular air force and therefore down-prioritized in numbers as well as in the quality of its combat aircraft. The Bomber Command, that had little training or experience in naval warfare, had first priority. However, more than in the areas around the UK, the various branches in the Mediterranean seemed to be more flexible towards each other, cooperating better. This was a result of the localized leadership.
As for Cavagnari’s assumption that Italy could not make good eventual losses, while the British could, he does not seem to have taken into consideration the major British problem, the vast world-wide areas its Navy was supposed to cover, its other enemy Germany and the potential future enemy, Japan.
If Cavagnari, in the Spring of 1940, had known the opinions of some central British politicians and its Naval Commander, Admiral Pound, he might have felt some relief. The British leadership was not at all agreed on the wisdom of holding on to the Central and Eastern Mediterranean. This was shown in the neglect of Malta’s defense and the withdrawal of naval assets to the Far East. Not to talk about the need for escorts for the Atlantic convoys. The Kriegsmarine had already made several raids with their modern warships and their merchant raiders were constantly making a nuisance of themselves in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. The pocket battleship Admiral Graf von Spee had met its fate in the Southern Atlantic but at a cost. Dozens of Royal Navy vessels had for months been kept busy around the world to the detriment of the safety of the British supply system converging on their island from all over the world. After the Fall of France, with new German bases popping up along the Biscay, this worsened considerably.