Monday, 18 November 2013

The Improbable Case

In 1914, when Europe went to war over Austrias feud with Serbia, the Great Powers where split into two blocs of power - France, Russia and Britain more or less united in the Triple Entente and Austria and Germany on the other side.

After the outbreak of War, Naval Action in the Mediterranean was limited to the chasing of the German Mediterranean Division, consisting of the Battlecruiser Göben and the Light Cruiser Breslau, whose commander sought to escape the trap that the Adriatic Sea was for his ships and push towards Istanbul, initially under the assumption that the Ottoman Empire was Germanies ally, but later on his way informed that this was not the case. He still decided to turn towards Istanbul, hoping to bring Turkey into the war, in which he actually succeeded. Subsequently, the German ships operated under Ottoman flag in the Black Sea.

After their escape, not much of an enemy remained in the mediterranan. The Gallipoli Campaign, supported by massive Naval presence, was not much of a naval fight, and the Austrian Fleet remained at Port in Pola, massively outnumbered first by the French and British and later the Italian Fleet.

So - Why the hell should I open a blog on Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean?

Actually, the first sentence of this post is not quite correct. Or rather, incomplete. When Europe went to War in 1914, the Continent was split into two major alliance blocs, the Triple Entente, as stated above, and the Triple Alliance, including Germany, Austria AND Italy.
To everyones surprise, Italy had renewed the alliance one year earlier, but refused to honor the call to arms, citing that the alliance was purely defensive, whereas Austrias operations against Serbia, an offensive operation, where the trigger for the war.

For the sake of fun and more or less balanced odds, this Blog will assume that Italy made the fateful decision to stand by its allies in 1914 and went to war against the Entente. This is an improbable case, a decision that no rational and calculating Italian leader would have made in 1914. Austria was one of Italies chief rivals, occupying Trentino and Dalmatio, areas that Italy claimed as rightfully theirs [Interestingly enough, many People in the Trentino still speak German today... maybe Austria should try to reclaim it :D].

The Balkan interests of both countries also caused quarrels between both countries, as did the Expansion of Italian overseas territory in Libya, previously owned by the Ottoman Empire, a nation friendly to Germany. The occupation of the Greek Dodecanese, with Greece being another germanophile country didn´t help either. Furthermore, Irredentists in Italy where on the rise in the chaotic first half of 1914, with growing clamour for taking back Italian terroritory "occupied" by Austria.

As no coherent data is easily available on this topic, we can only guess what impact the economic considerations had on the decision makers. Being a nation centrally located in Italy and with good access to the sea, I believe that Italies dependence on naval trade would have made a war with Britain and France a rather unattractive affair. The British could easily close the entire mediterranean for Italian Shipping, depriving the country of any seaborne imports. With the ceasing of naval trade, Italy would have been completely dependent on imports of raw materials from Germany and Austria, both of which suffered from shortages of said materials during the war.

However improbable, it is still conceivable that Italy might have honored its alliance. Even a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and with the crisis looming over Europe, Italy and Germany agreed that Italian troops would be sent to the Rhine to support German operations in a war with France. This was approved by the King on August 2nd, 1914, one day before the same king contacted the German government that Italy would not commit herself in a war against the Triple Entente. Furthermore, it is not quite clear who could have seized the initiative during the critical days of July 1914. It is conceivable that elements of the Italian government and general staff favoring Italies entry into the war could have exerted enough pressure during the critical window of opportunity to overcome the resistance - once at war, even the nationalist peer groups could have done little to revert the decision.

For whatever reasons Italy might or might not have gone to war, is irrelevant after all. We cannot change history and it is of no concern how probable or improbably a diversion from our timeline is, as it did not materialise. Seemingly improbably events happen all too often to waste time on judging possibilities - the fact that the possibility existed is enough, and this is clearly the case. And I guess I´m not venturing into realms of fantasy in pursuing this scenario - at least no deeper into it than anyone playing a Cold War Gone Hot Scenario :)

So, why is this scenario particularly interesting for Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean?
With Italy as one of the Central Powers, the Naval Balance would have dramatically shifted towards a situation of roughly equal capabilities. In 1914, the British Mediterranean Fleet consisted of 3 Battlecruisers, 4 Armored Cruisers and 4 Light Cruisers, as the British had drawn down their presence in agreement with France to bolster their commitment to the North Sea. France was tasked with the defense of the Mediterannean, especially the Western Basin, and had amassed most of their naval forces in Toulon. The French fleet consisted of 4 Dreadnoughts (With 2 still on their way back from Russia at the outbreak of the war - "France" and "Jean Bart" where tasked with carrying Raymond Poincare, the French president, to a state visit in Russia in late July 1914 and back.),  11 Pre-Dreadnoughts, 6 old battleships and 15 armored and protected cruisers.

These forces would have stood against 3 Italian and 3 Austrian Dreadnoughts (6 in total), 8 Italian and 9 Austrian Pre-Dreadnought Battleships (17 total) and 8 Italian and 3 Austrian armored cruisers, with several light cruisers available. Add to this the German Mittelmeerdivision with 1 Battlecruiser and another light cruiser and the allies would have been in dire need to either call in British reinforcements from the North Sea or start at a disadvantage in numbers.

This is what I take as a premise for my Naval Wargaming in the Mediterranean.
It´s a long term Project, with the buildup of forces starting now in preparation for 1914, when the hostilities should commence (not yet sure if it will start in August or if I´m driving for a quicker entry into the war). Of course, I´ll likely play some naval action before that time, but we´ll see. Projects tend to making their own schedules obsolete pretty quickly!

 Stay tuned for more!

1 comment:

  1. If you can get a copy of the old SPI magazine board game "Flight of the Goeben", it makes a good vehicle for an August 1914 Mediterranean naval campaign, with lots of "what if"s", including Italian ones.