Red Sea Flotilla
|Red Sea Flotilla|
Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, with modern boundaries
|Active||to June 1940|
|Size||7 destroyers, 8 submarines, 5 motor torpedo boats and auxiliary ships|
|Commander||Carlo Balsamo di Specchia Normandia|
The Red Sea Flotilla was a unit of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italia) based in Massawa, Eritrea, when Massawa was part of Italian East Africa. In World War II, the Red Sea Flotilla was active against the British Royal Navy's Eastern Fleet from Italy's declaration of war on 10 June 1940 until the fall of Massawa on 8 April 1941.
The location of the squadron meant it was isolated from the main Italian bases in the Mediterranean by distance and enemy dispositions. British capture of Massawa and other Italian ports in the region ultimately ended the Italian naval presence in the region in April 1941.
Purpose and organization
While, in general, the Red Sea Flotilla was not used aggressively by the Italians, the British viewed it as a potential threat to Allied convoys traveling in the Horn of Africa area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. This was a critical resupply route for British forces operating from Egypt. The Red Sea Flotilla was especially well situated to attack convoys headed from the Gulf of Aden through the Red Sea and to the Suez Canal, forcing Allied ships to take a much longer passage around the Cape of Good Hope.
On 10 June 1940, the day Italy declared war, the Italian Red Sea Flotilla had seven destroyers organized into two squadrons, a squadron of five Motor Torpedo Boats (Motoscafo Armato Silurante, or MAS), and eight submarines organized into two squadrons. The main base was at Massawa, with other bases at Assab (also in Eritrea) and Kismayu, in southern Italian Somaliland.
Several attempts were made after Italy's entry into the war in June 1940 to stage offensive actions against the British Royal Navy and Allied convoys from Massawa. Some of the earliest failed when submarine air conditioning systems intended to reduce temperatures in the warm water of the Red Sea proved dangerous under wartime operating conditions. Leakage of chloromethane refrigerants caused central nervous system poisoning in the recirculating air during submerged operations. Approximately a dozen sailors died aboard Archimede. Perla and Macallè ran aground while their crews were intoxicated; and the latter could not be salvaged. Galileo Galilei, Torricelli and Galvani struck early; Galilei sank the freighter James Stove off Djibouti before British counter measures forced the submarines to depart the area.
Torricelli was spotted on 23 June while approaching Massawa and an intensive search ensued involving four warships and aircraft from Aden. After a fierce resistance on surface, during which HMS Khartoum was damaged beyond repair and HMS Shoreham was also damaged, Torricelli was sunk. As a mark of respect for his crew's gallantry, the Italian captain was guest of honour at a dinner at the British naval base. Galilei had also been found on 18 June, captured and taken to Aden on the same day. Galvani sunk HMIS Pathan at the same time that her sisters were fighting and was herself sunk on the following day.
The destroyers based at Massawa attacked the 32-ship British convoy BN 7 with negligible results in October 1940. The convoy's escort beat off the attack and Nullo was driven ashore and sunk by air attack the following day. On the British side, only the leading transport ship of the convoy sustained minor splinter damage, while HMS Kimberley was crippled by Italian shore batteries with three wounded among her crew, and had to be towed to Aden by the cruiser HMS Leander.
As Italian fuel supplies in Massawa dwindled, so did the offensive capability of the Red Sea Flotilla. Ultimately, the vessels of the flotilla became what is known as a "fleet in being", offering a threat without action, and rarely left port.
In late March 1941, the three large destroyers, Leone, Pantera and Tigre, were to attempt a night attack on Suez but Leone ran aground off Massawa and had to be sunk by gunfire. The delay caused the operation to be cancelled. Instead the two remaining ships joined three smaller destroyers - Battisti, Manin and Sauro, on a final raid on Port Sudan in early April. Engine problems kept Battisti in port, where she was subsequently scuttled to prevent her capture by the British. The Italian ships were spotted by aircraft while en route and came under attack from land and carrier based aircraft. Pantera and Tigre were scuttled on the Arabian coast and Manin and Sauro were sunk by Fairey Swordfish aircraft.
The armed merchant cruisers Ramb I and Ramb II and the colonial despatch ship Eritrea were ordered to escape and reach Japan. Ramb II and Eritrea reached Kobe successfully but Ramb I was intercepted and sunk by HMS Leander. The four Italian submarines that had survived were ordered to join the Italian submarine flotilla at Bordeaux, which they all did successfully, despite concerted British attempts to intercept them. All motor-torpedo boats (MAS) were lost, but one, MAS 213 made a successful torpedo attack on the light cruiser HMS Capetown, causing serious damage.
On 8 April 1941, Massawa fell to the British and the Red Sea Flotilla ceased to exist for all intents and purposes. Few vessels of the flotilla survived the East African Campaign.
Order of battle
Destroyers, motor torpedo boats (MAS), and submarines
Seven destroyers were organized into two divisions:
- 3rd Destroyer Division (All Sauro class (1,600 tons full load displacement))
- Francesco Nullo - Crippled by HMS Kimberley and eventually destroyed by RAF 22 November 1940
- Nazario Sauro - Bombed and sunk by 813 & 824 Naval Air Squadrons at 0615 3 April 1941 in position 
- Cesare Battisti - scuttled after bombing by RAF 3 April 1941.
- Daniele Manin (1,058/1,600 tons displacement) - Sunk by RAF 3 April 1941 in position 
- 5th Destroyer Division (All Leone class (2,690 tons full load displacement))
The five MAS were organized as follows:
- 21st MAS Squadron
- MAS 204 - Lost due to mechanical difficulty
- MAS 206 - Lost due to mechanical difficulty
- MAS 210 - Lost due to mechanical difficulty
- MAS 213 - Scuttled 8 April 1941
- MAS 216 - Lost due to mechanical difficulty
The eight submarines were organized in the 8th Submarine Group as follows:
- 81st Submarine Squadron
- Guglielmotti (896/1,265 tons displacement) - Sailed to Bordeaux, France and arrived 6 May 1941
- Galileo Ferraris (880/1,230 tons displacement) - Sailed to Bordeaux, France and arrived 9 May 1941
- Galileo Galilei (880/1,230 tons displacement) - Captured 19 June 1940
- Luigi Galvani (896/1,265 tons displacement) - Lost 24 June 1940
- 82nd Submarine Squadron
- Perla (620/855 tons displacement) - Sailed to Bordeaux, France and arrived 20 May 1941
- Macallè (620/855 tons displacement) - Lost 15 June 1940
- Archimede (880/1,230 tons displacement) - Sailed to Bordeaux, France and arrived 7 May 1941
- Evangelista Torricelli (880/1,230 tons displacement) - Lost 23 June 1940
- Colonial ship Eritrea (2,170 tons displacement) - Sailed to Kobe, Japan, and surrendered to the Allies in Columbo, Ceylon, when Italy surrendered
- Torpedo boat Vincenzo Giordano Orsini (670 tons displacement) - Scuttled 8 April 1941
- Torpedo boat Giovanni Acerbi (670 tons displacement) - Scuttled in the mouth of the harbor at Massawa as a blockship after suffering heavy bomb damage
- Gunboat G. Biglieri (620 tons displacement) - Lost
- Gunboat Porto Corsini (290 tons displacement) - Lost
- Minelayer Ostia (620 tons displacement) - Sunk by British Royal Air Force attack within the harbor at Massawa; all mines still racked
- Auxiliary cruiser Ramb I (3,667 tons displacement) - Sailed to Kobe, Japan. Lost 27 February 1941 in battle against the light cruiser HMNZS Leander.
- Auxiliary cruiser Ramb II (3,667 tons displacement) - Sailed to Kobe, Japan, and placed into the service of the Imperial Japanese Navy when Italy surrendered
- Hospital ship Aquileia - former Ramb IV - Captured and placed into the service of the British Royal Navy
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