Key Point: The plan succeeded, at the expense of the British Navy.
Mussolini's effort to seize control of the Mediterranean had, by late 1941, largely ended in failure.
The success of the Royal Navy in the raid on Taranto and at the Battle of Cape Matapan had given the British a decisive advantage. Low morale and fuel shortages further limited the effectiveness of the Regia Marina. Yet the Italians still had several modern battleships, along with a few older, modernized vessels. And on the upside, the Royal Navy had lost one of its battleships, HMS Barham, to U-boat attack in late November. In anticipation of war with Japan, additional Royal navy warships were headed to the Far East.
That's when the Italians decided to get creative. In order to further redress the imbalance, the Italians conceived a daring operation to attack British ships directly. They borrowed a page from their own history in World War I, and managed to knock two British battleships out of the war.
Italy lacked aircraft carriers, and consequently could not respond in kind to the Taranto attack. But in a previous war, the Italians had developed a weapon that could be just as lethal to battleships as the torpedo bomber. In 1918, days before the surrender of the Central Powers, the collapsing government of Austria-Hungary made clear that it would pass one of its dreadnought battleships, SMS Viribus Unitis, on to the newly created State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, a forerunner of Yugoslavia. Italy believed the ship still to be in the possession of Austria-Hungary, and no peace treaty yet existed. In any case, the Italians had little interest in seeing a battleship pass into the possession of what might become a regional rival. Accordingly, a team of divers entered Pula Harbor and attached a mine to the bottom of the battleship. They were quickly captured, and confessed to attaching the weapon without indicating the exact spot of its placement. But the Austrians couldn't find the mine, which exploded and sank the battleship.
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