In late September 1944 it did not take an optimist to surmise that the war in Europe was entering its final stages. The Western Allies had conquered southern France and much of Italy and were driving toward the Rhine. The Soviets’ main summer offensive, Operation Bagration, had crushed Army Group Center and resulted in one of Germany’s worst defeats of the war. With the great port of Marseille under Allied control and the last U-boats in the Med sunk, Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, commander of the U.S. 8th Fleet later wrote: “The Mediterranean Campaign, as far as the Navy was concerned, seemed about over.”1 However, like every other optimist surveying the situation in the fall of 1944, Admiral Hewitt was wrong.
In the Franco-Italian theater the front lines stabilized, leaving German forces in control of 180 miles of Mediterranean coastline. In response, the Allies formed a multinational naval task force that, from mid-September, was known as Flank Force. For the rest of the war it fought the German and fascist Italian navies for control of Riviera littoral waters and protected the all-important traffic into Marseille. At one point Flank Force included a battleship, five cruisers, more than 12 destroyers, and dozens of minesweepers, patrol craft, and motor torpedo boats.
Every night along the coast of the Italian Rivera, Allied captains faced the calculus of risk versus reward as they pitted their large, valuable warships in restricted waters against smaller, expendable Axis threats. Flank Force’s story illustrates the frustrations and dangers involved in fighting a weaker but determined foe and reaffirms the difficult lesson that overwhelming force does not always equate to sea control—a lesson with present-day applications in many theaters of operations.
Early Clashes with Small Enemies
The Germans had no hope of matching the Allies ship for ship, so early in the Riviera campaign they dispatched a K-Verbände, or naval small battle unit, to the Riviera to attack the shipping still clustered offshore following the 15 August Allied invasion of southern France. The K-Verbände concept was inspired by the exploits of Italy’s naval commandos, the Decima Flottiglia MAS (Mezzia d’Assalto)—10th Assault Flotilla—which sank battleships, a cruiser, and hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping and, as a unit, joined the Germans after the September 1943 Italian armistice. German and Italian special weapons deployed in the Ligurian Sea included:
• Marder. One-man, self-propelled submersibles that deployed from beaches and transported an electric torpedo at a maximum speed of 5 knots to a range of 35 miles.
• Molch. One-man submarines armed with two underslung torpedoes. Each sub displaced 10.5 tons and had a speed of 5 knots, a 40-meter diving depth, and a 43-mile range.
• Linse. Radio-controlled boats packed with 300 kilograms of explosives. An operator would steer the boat toward its target and then jump out as an accompanying control boat directed the craft the rest of the way. The control boat was also supposed to rescue the operator.
• MTM. Explosive boats with no radio control and that required the operator to bail out within 50 yards of his target.
• SMA. Very small two-man assault motorboats armed with one torpedo.
ULTRA—intelligence gleaned from decrypts of German radio communications—disclosed the K-Verbände’s arrival. However, while Allied forces were forewarned, ULTRA provided no advance notice of specific operations.2 Twelve Marder of K-Flotilla 364 arrived in Menton on 3 September. In their first operation two days later, launching difficulties resulted in only five making it to sea. The French destroyer La Malin and USS Ludlow (DD-438) sank four of the small craft with depth charges and machine-gun fire.3 On the 7th, three Italian SMAs clashed with two PT boats in a melee fought at such close range each side lobbed hand grenades at the other, damaging one of the Italian boats.
On the night of 9–10 September, the Germans launched a combined operation that included 14 Marder and 3 German and 4 Italian SMAs. The Hilary P. Jones (DD-427), Madison (DD-425), and two PT boats chased down ten Marder, finding their Plexiglas domes an excellent aiming point. The Hilary P. Jones’ efforts earned her a Navy unit commendation for “Operating in bold defiance of enemy coastal batteries and . . . submarines, E-boats, explosive boats, human torpedoes and midget submarines.” Afterward the French battleship Lorraine joined the two American destroyers, and together they blasted the Marder launch site, destroying most of the remaining submersibles.
The Allied warships continued to pound San Remo, and on the 16th and 17th, naval gunfire destroyed 16 Linse boats. Nonetheless, on 20 September K-Flotilla 411 deployed 11 Molche at San Remo. Nine set out after dark on 25 September to attack Allied warships off Nice and Menton. Only two returned. M58 was depth-charged and sank; M54 fired a torpedo at the Madison, was depth-charged, and sank. M50 also expended a torpedo before suffering the same fate. The Madison and French destroyer Forbin rescued the operators of these mini-subs. The four other Molche that failed to return to port disappeared.4 After this mission, the surviving Molche were withdrawn, but Axis SMAs sortied most nights. PT boats sank one on 11 September and another on the 27th.
Battling Mines and Shore Batteries
Along with the special weapons, the German navy maintained nocturnal maritime traffic between La Spezia and Genoa, moving 1,500 to 2,000 tons of supplies a month right up to the end of the war. To protect this traffic and harass Allied shipping, the Kriegsmarine maintained naval squadrons at the two ports. By 15 September these included 4 destroyer types (either captured destroyers or torpedo boats), 4 escorts, 35 motorized armed barges, a pair of minelayers, 5 sub chasers, and 10 of the versatile 200-ton motor minesweepers called R-boats. Many more warships captured in Genoa were either under construction or in repair. The squadrons harassed the Allies in several ways, the principal one being minelaying.
The current along the Riviera shoreline runs from east to west, which encouraged the use of drifting mines. In response, the U.S. Navy deployed minesweepers from Mine Divisions 11, 18, and 32. On 11 October Mine Division 32 reported exploding 27 floating mines. During the campaign Allied forces destroyed more than 600 such weapons, and it was a rare destroyer patrol that did not encounter at least one of these drifting hazards.5
German torpedo boats and R-boats also laid defensive mine barrages off ports to protect convoys and even laid some offensive ones. Mine casualties included the transport Johns Hopkins on 2 October 1944. Loaded with 466 troops, she fortunately was able to make Marseille. The American freighter Elinor Wylie hit a mine just short of Toulon but reached her destination under tow. Less fortunate were PT-555 on 24 August, YMS-21 on 1 September, a British LCM the next day, the small minesweeper YMS-23 on 26 September, the French tug Provençal on 4 September, and PT-311 on 18 November. In addition to mines, the sweepers were subject to other dangers off the enemy coast. On 10 September, shore batteries shot off the magnetic tails of both the Implicit and Incessant, and minutes later the Improve claimed the destruction of a Marder just 200 yards away.6
German- and Italian-manned batteries vigorously contested the Allied warships’ coastal incursions. Fifteen-inch and 12-inch guns guaranteed the security of Genoa, Savona, and La Spezia. Smaller ports, such as San Remo and Imperia, had batteries of up to 6-inch guns. On 22 September Flank Force command ordered the Edison (DD-439) and Woolsey (DD-437) to take out a suspected battery of four 88-mm guns near Ventimiglia. Operating without the benefit of a spotter aircraft, the destroyers closed to 5,000 yards of shore before they drew fire. As one of the Edison’s men remembered, the ranging salvo was right on target. No flashes or smoke disclosed the source of the fire, so “like cornered animals [we] twisted and turned and built up to top speed of over thirty knots on two boilers. Our only strategy was to open the range.” The Benson (DD-421) had a similar experience on the 30th when a hidden battery inflicted splinter damage and wounded one man, forcing the destroyer to make smoke and retire at high speed.7
The Gleaves’ Action-Packed Day
The first day of October contained a full range of Flank Force tasks and threats. The Gleaves (DD-423), skippered by Commander William M. Klee, began the day south of San Remo with the Benson and PT-308. At 0850 she bombarded a ship outside Imperia’s breakwater, dodging return fire from shore batteries, and at 0938 she sank a floating mine. After a floatplane spotting for her reported shipping at San Remo, Porto Maurizio, and Oneglia, the Gleaves sent 230 5-inch rounds crashing into the latter two harbors. Late that afternoon, the destroyer expended 196 5-inch rounds against a shore battery at Cape Martola, just east of Menton, while dodging heavy return fire. Meanwhile, the Benson, after firing at a gun emplacement to the west, went after MAS (motor torpedo) boats reported at San Remo. She reported sinking two with just 15 rounds.
Early that night, after hearing a report that Allied aircraft had bombed three enemy vessels sailing up the coast near Porto Maurizio, Klee decided to search for the intruders. At 2255 the Gleaves picked up a radar contact off Porto Maurizio and within 20 minutes the PPI scope indicated three pips moving west along the coast. At 2319 the American destroyer came to a parallel course and opened fire at an estimated range of 10,900 yards.8
The Gleaves had intercepted three ships of the German 10th Torpedo Boat Flotilla—TA24, TA29, and TA32—at sea to lay a defensive minefield off San Remo. The first two vessels were ex-Italian torpedo boats that had been nearing completion at the time of the Italian armistice, while TA32 was the former Yugoslavian destroyer leader Dubrovnik (ex-Italian Premuda). TA29 and TA32 carried 98 mines on deck rails. Three R-boats, each loaded with ten mines, preceded them.
Not long before, the 10th Flotilla’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Wirich von Gartzen, had received an urgent radio message that enemy ships were operating off San Remo. Thus it was no surprise when, at 2300, his flagship, TA24, sighted a large, two-funneled warship 10,000 meters to the southwest. Reports of two smaller warships behind the first vessel followed. The Germans believed they had run into a French light cruiser and two destroyers. The apparent cruiser came to a parallel course, and Gartzen edged closer to shore, seeking shelter in the land’s radar shadow. But at 2320 guns flashed, and almost immediately shells splashed, the closest only 50 yards from the German commander’s ship.
On board the Gleaves, Klee believed he was bombarding coastal steamers. After several salvos, the destroyer checked fire and observed the target vessels circling in a small area. In fact, Gartzen had ordered a simultaneous turn to starboard. TA24 came about, but TA29’s load of mines made the 266-foot ship sluggish to the helm. She rammed TA24 at a 90-degree angle and ground six feet into the other ship’s side. For a dreadful minute the two vessels remained locked together before TA29 separated by backing her engines. TA24 suffered rudder damage and a flooded shaft tunnel, and water inundated one of TA29’s forward compartments.
While the German ships were coupled, the Gleaves’ 5-inch guns lashed out with another broadside. Minutes later, an aerial flare suddenly illuminated the area. A resident who watched the action from an ocean-side cliff recalled, “We heard the engines of an aircraft and at the same time the dark night (the whole town was in total darkness) turned into day.”9 Worried about being mistaken for an enemy ship, Klee fired a Very light to identify his vessel. Meanwhile, the German torpedo boats restored formation and began fleeing eastward, with TA24 trailing to screen the minelayers. The Gleaves slowed to ten knots and fired star shells, but they only illuminated a dense cloud of smoke where the contacts had been. Lookouts then reported an explosion from within the smoky area; aircraft were dropping bombs on the German formation.
At 2335 flashes were seen from the Gleaves and a shell splashed nearby. Klee assumed German shore batteries had joined the action, but in reality Gartzen had ordered TA24’s gunners to open fire. The ship’s 3.9-inch weapons discharged a salvo at the extreme range of 13,000 yards followed by another. German lookouts “perfectly observed” two definite hits followed by a dense cloud of smoke; it seemed that the enemy had ceased fire and turned away. The torpedo boat flotilla returned to Genoa where it celebrated victory over what it assumed was a French cruiser.10
As the German ships fled, the Gleaves made smoke and at 2348 secured from general quarters. Captain Klee concluded he had engaged three merchant ships, two of which he sank while the third escaped. The destroyer had expended 80 rounds of AA common and 8 star shells during the 20-minute action.
As the Gleaves continued westward she pinged a pair of small targets off nearby Cape Santo Stefano at 0209 on 2 October, which she assessed as two enemy coastal steamers. In fact, these were the three R-boats that had been leading the 10th Torpedo Boat Flotilla. The destroyer fired 90 rounds of common before seeing “explosion similar to that observed during the first attack.”11 Star shells revealed only smoke. Radar likewise showed clear, so the Gleaves continued westward. The R-boats went on to successfully lay their mines. The explosion was unexplained, as the Germans described the American gunfire as inaccurate.
At 0327 the Gleaves’ claxon sounded once again, when a wake appeared off the destroyer’s port bow. As the ship swung hard to port, the wake passed astern, and then personnel spotted a small boat a thousand yards off the starboard beam. The Gleaves heeled in another hard turn as all guns opened fire. Within minutes the craft, an MTM, exploded. Then two more of the boats appeared off the port bow. As the Gleaves sped past, they turned and followed off either quarter. The destroyer rolled a depth charge and fired another, which exploded and caused one of the boats to veer out of control. In fact, the MTM operators had already bailed out. The Gleaves later reported that both boats simultaneously exploded. After dawn, the destroyer returned to the scene and rescued two lucky MTM skippers, one of whom confessed to being “chagrined at having missed.”12 The destroyer also found an abandoned MTM, which she hoisted on deck.
The night of 1 October was hardly typical; the Germans had mining and special-weapon operations underway, but the Gleaves’ actions demonstrated that the patrols off the enemy shore were not milk runs.
More Fire Missions and Nocturnal Encounters
In fact, the first days of October, despite worsening weather, were a busy time for Flank Force. The Plunkett (DD-431) shelled Ventimiglia on the night of 3 October, clashing briefly with a pair of Italian SMAs, while the Niblack (DD-424) bombarded San Remo on the 3rd and 4th. Back in action on the 6th, the Niblack was rammed by the Jouett (DD-398). On 8 October, that destroyer repelled an attack by six explosive boats. The next day, with the Brooklyn’s aircraft spotting, the Eberle (DD-430) and Jouett shelled targets ashore. The French cruiser Émile Bertin and destroyer Le Fortuné also shelled the coast between 7 and 11 October.
Forty-eight Linsen arrived at San Remo on 18 October, joining the assault boats already there. As their operators prepared for a mass deployment, the craft were camouflaged under tarps in the town’s central market. However, on the 20th, the Forbin was operating off San Remo and engaged a shore battery. After expending 179 130-mm rounds, the French destroyer scored a lucky hit on the massed Linsen, and the resulting explosion destroyed every last one.13
On 18 and 23 October, PT boats tangled with coastal convoys. PT-558 was damaged and PT-561 sustained sea damage returning to port. The Woolsey shelled San Remo on the 23rd and 24th. In company with the British destroyer Fortune, the U.S. destroyer sank two German MTMs on the second mission and recovered prisoners. The German boats were part of a mass deployment of 20 German and 6 Italian assault craft into the Gulf of Juan, just north of Cannes. The German contingent lost four boats and achieved nothing.
On 5 November French Rear Admiral Robert Jaujard assumed command of Flank Force, which then consisted of four French cruisers, four French and four American destroyers, a minesweeping group, and two PT-boat flotillas. The routine of shore bombardments and nocturnal clashes established in September and October continued. Notable incidents included the ramming of MAS-531 by the French sub chaser Sabre (ex-USS PC-1248) on 11 November. On the 17th the Woolsey suffered splinter damage from near-misses in a duel with shore batteries. The next day the Germans lost 5 of 15 Marder that had deployed from San Remo.
On the 18th, 14 Marder left San Remo to attack Allied warships. Only six of the one-man subs returned. The pilot of one became disoriented and, grounding behind Allied lines, was captured by American troops. On 22 December a shore battery damaged the Gleaves. Le Fortuné escaped an attack by five Linsen off San Remo on the night of 8–9 January, sinking two. A week later, a mass deployment of 33 Linsen off La Spezia failed to find any targets and suffered the loss of ten boats to weather. Meanwhile, PT boats and British motor torpedo boats tangled with German coastal convoys on many nights, and French and American warships expended thousands of shells against targets ashore.
On 18 March, the 10th Torpedo Boat Flotilla was returning to Genoa after sowing a minefield off Corsica when Allied shore radar at Livorno detected its presence. The French destroyers Basque and Tempête, and the British Meteor and Lookout were patrolling the coast that night. The British destroyers responded to the contact reports by independently heading south, while the older and slower French destroyers united and veered southeast to cover a convoy.
Approaching from dead ahead, the Lookout intercepted the enemy first and opened fire at 0310. The rapidly closing range and the British ship’s powerful forward armament (four 4.7-inch guns compared to a single 3.9-inch weapon for TA24 leading the German column) gave her a decisive advantage, and before the German torpedo boats could deploy, shells struck TA24 and disabled TA29. As TA24 and TA32 fled north, the Lookout circled TA29, hitting her repeatedly. The German ship fought back, but finally sank at 0420 after absorbing more than 40 shells. The only damage suffered by the British destroyer happened when a burst of 20-mm rounds hit some smoke floats and ignited a small blaze.
The Meteor intercepted the other two ships at 0340, also approaching them from dead ahead. Her initial radar-directed salvos targeted TA24. Then one of the destroyer’s torpedoes blasted the 276-foot German flagship, which quickly sank. TA32 replied with some scattered salvos and a few torpedoes before escaping to Genoa. The Meteor rescued 119 of TA24’s men, but 30 were lost. Eleven days later when the Mackenzie (DD-614) was heading east to join Flank Force, she encountered the body of one of the sailors floating offshore near Cannes, 112 nautical miles from the point where TA24 went down.14
In April French and British cruisers and destroyers shelled coastal targets all along the Italian Riviera. Meanwhile, the threat posed by small Axis units remained as strong as ever even as the war drew to a close. The Decima Flottiglia MAS sortied off San Remo on the 17th with one SMA and six MTMs. After approaching the Trombe undetected, MTM-548 rammed the French destroyer. A terrific explosion ripped open the ship’s hull and her forward compartments flooded.15 The stricken destroyer made port but was never repaired. Not surprisingly, this sole victory achieved by the Axis special units during the Riviera campaign was credited to a boat from the experienced Italian Decima Flottigla MAS.
The fighting drew to a close on 23 April. First there was a mass deployment of the remaining special attack units, which completely failed, and then the German command ordered all warships scuttled. In Genoa this included TA31, TA32, and TA28 (which was completing repairs), 9 corvettes (4 operational, 5 completing), 2 submarines completing, and 14 motor minesweepers. Italian units included five MAS boats and three motor minesweepers. The next day an old torpedo boat, a destroyer, and two MAS boats scuttled in other ports.
The sheer number of vessels left and the fact that most were sailing up to the campaign’s end signified Flank Force’s failure to prevent enemy use of coastal waters. In fact, it might have been a case of the Allies devoting too many resources to the task at hand. Destroyers had remained Flank Force’s principal weapon and, as demonstrated by the experiences of the Gleaves on the night of 1–2 October, they were as much prey as predator. This was brought home in a Mackenzie action report: “this command believes that the destroyer patrol . . . should be discontinued; and the denying of the gulf of Genoa to the enemy should be left to air craft and PT-boats.”16 On 26 April U.S. Naval Forces Northwest African Waters endorsed this recommendation, but by that time the fighting was over.
The Riviera campaign demonstrated that brute force was hardly the only factor that determined sea control in narrow waters. Despite the best efforts of Allied naval forces, the Axis used stealth, cunning, and persistence to maintain a presence in the Ligurian Sea. Given the importance of littoral waters and the calculus of force in the modern combat environment, it is easy to imagine that in future conflicts the U.S. Navy will be confronted with challenges similar to those experienced by Flank Force.
1. Evelyn Cherpak, ed., The Memoirs of Admiral H. Kent Hewitt (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2004), 203.
2. F. H. Hinsley, et. al. British Intelligence in the Second World War, vol. 3, pt. 2 (London: HMSO, 1988), 877–88.
3. Barbara Tomblin, With Utmost Courage: Allied Naval Operations in the Mediterranean, 1942–1945 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 448.
4. Lawrence Paterson, Weapons of Desperation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 98–100.
5. Arnold S. Lott, Most Dangerous Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1959), 204.
7. Franklyn E. Dailey Jr., Joining the War at Sea (Wibraham, MA: Dailey International, 1998), 393. USS Benson, “Action Report of Shore Bombardments during Period 30 September 2 October 1944,” Record Group 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
8. USS Gleaves, “Report of Surface Actions with German Forces,” 1–2, 3 October 1944, 2, Record Group 38, NARA.
9. Carcello Carli, correspondence with the author, September 2005.
10. The German account is based on Wirich von Gartzen, Die Flottille Außergewöhnlicher Seekrieg deutscher Mittelmeer-Torpedoboote (Hamburg: Koehlers Verlagsgesells, 1990) and the SKL War Diary, 1 October 1944 (courtesy of Peter M. Kreuzer).
11. USS Gleaves, “Report of Surface Actions,” 3.
12. USS Gleaves. “Report of Capture of Enemy Personnel and Vessel,” 3 October 1944, 4, Record Group 38, NARA.
13. Henri Darrieus and Jean Quéguiner, Historique de la Marine française. Novembre 1942—Août 1945 (Saint-Malo: L’Ancre de Marine, 1994), 283.
14. For this engagement see Pierre Hervieux, “German TA Torpedo Boats at War,” Warship 1997–1998 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1997), 147–48. USS Mackenzie, “Action Report—Fire Support on Franco-Italo Border,” 21 April 1945, 1, Record Group 38, NARA.
15. Marc Saibene, Les torpilleurs de 1500 tonnes du type Bourrasque (Nantes: Marines editions, 2001), 135.
16. USS Mackenzie, “Action Report—Fire Support,” 16.