UK Warship Losses in the Mediterranean During WW2

Quote of the Day

Exit strategy is a false god. I have never known of a war in which other people had exit strategies. You don’t exit a war – you either win, lose, or have a ceasefire.

Thomas Ricks. I have listened to numerous discussions on the importance of having an exit strategy. While the US had experienced multiple wars in the last few decades, we never did seem to come up with an exit strategy for any of them. Maybe Ricks is correct …


Introduction

Fritz-X

Figure 1: Fritz-X, an early German anti-ship weapon that was a terror in the Mediterranean. (Wikipedia)

Most of my naval history reading has been about the Pacific War. This means I have not read much about the Battle of the Mediterranean. I recently heard a historian (Drach) say that the UK lost 135 major warships in the Mediterranean Theater during WW2. I must admit that I was surprised at the high losses and decided to investigate further. This theater saw numerous major battles (examples like Taranto, Cape Matapan) and some real technology innovations (example in Figure 1).

I decided to do a bit of research and see if I could find out more about the 135 warships. Fortunately, Naval-History.net provides a page that is an OCRed and uncorrected excerpt from British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1935-45, published by HMSO (Her Majesty’s Stationary Office) in 1947. Unfortunately, like all converted WW2 records, there are numerous typographic issues that had to be corrected.

I did find that 135 Royal Navy warships were lost during the Battle of the Mediterranean. This was a tough campaign. For comparison, the UK lost 45 submarines in the Med (see Figure 3), which is not much less than the 52 submarines the US lost during the entire Pacific War.

Naval-History.net provided an excellent web scaping example. The entire effort was implemented using Rstudio and Rmarkdown. For those who like to follow along, the software is available on Github.

My favorite warship is HMS Warspite, a ship with an amazing record in both WW1 and WW2. Figure 2 below shows the result of a Fritz-X (Figure 1) impacting HMS Warspite. Fritz-X is a forerunner of modern anti-ship weapons.

Figure 2: Fritz-X Hitting Warspite in the Med. (Link)

Figure 2: Fritz-X Hitting Warspite in the Med. (Link)

Background

Warship Types Counted

The original loss record contains large warships, auxiliaries, landing craft, torpedo boats, and support craft – 460+ if you include all the landing craft. I decided to limit my counting to the following ship types:

  • Aircraft Carrier
  • Battleship
  • Corvette
  • Cruiser
  • Destroyer (both standard and escorts)
  • Monitor
  • Sloop
  • Submarine

One clearly could argue for other ships to be included, like minesweepers and minelayers. But I had to draw the line somewhere and this was where I drew it.

The definition of a warship is only one of the many problems with determining ship loss totals. Here are a few of the other problems associated with coming up ship loss estimates:

  • Ships can be so damaged as to be unrepairable. Are they a loss?
    For example, the US records list 52 submarines as lost during WW2. However, 2 submarines were so heavily damaged that they were not able to continue service. Because of these two damaged beyond repair submarines, Wikipedia list 54 submarines as lost by the US (see Note at bottom of the table).
  • Ships can be refloated and repaired. How should these be tallied?
    The Italian Navy in particular was able to refloat and repair their losses.
  • Some ships are lost for causes other than battle, like grounding.

Because of these issues, it is common to find differences in lists of WW2 ship losses.

Fortunately, I was able to immediately confirm what Drachinifel said in the video (Figure 3). The UK lost 135 warships of the types I listed during the Battle of the Mediterranean.

Reference Video

Figure 3 contains an excellent briefing on the Italian Navy and Mediterranean Theater.

Figure 3: Military History Not Visualized interview with Drachinifel. He mentions the 135 ships lost total several times during this interview.

Analysis

The analysis details are rather complex and are well covered in my Rmarkdown document, which you can see in my Github repo. I will only cover results in this post.

Summary Table

Figure 4 shows a screenshot from my Rmarkdown worksheet of the ship losses by ship type. Destroyers and submarines clearly bore the brunt of the losses.

Figure 4: UK WW2 Med Ship Loss Totals.

Chart of Losses By Year and Type

Figure 5 shows that the conflict was very intense during 1942. I should note that Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943. Even so, the Germans remained active in the Mediterranean into 1945, though with greatly diminished capabilities.

Figure 4: UK WW2 Med Losses vs TIme and Ship Type.

Figure 5: UK WW2 Med Losses vs Year and Ship Type.

Conclusion

This was an interesting exercise and I am going to be spending some time reading about the Battle of the Mediterranean over the next few weeks. I have been impressed with the performance of both the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina.

A number of iconic photographs came out of the Battle of the Mediterranean. For example, the explosion of the battleship HMS Barham (Figure 6) after being torpedoed by a U-boat. She was lost off the coast of Egypt and her wreck has not been found.

Figure 5: Explosion of the HMS Barham after a torpedo attack by a U-boat. (Wikipedia)

Figure 6: Explosion of the HMS Barham after a torpedo attack by a U-boat. (Wikipedia)

 
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8 Responses to UK Warship Losses in the Mediterranean During WW2

  1. Robert Ford says:

    My father served in the British Royal Navy throughout WW2 from the age of 20.
    He was on 3 ships, all sunk in the Mediterranean, but thankfully survived.
    He also fought at the Battle of Malta.
    He suffered major burns on his last sinking and was evacuated to hospital in Palestine.
    The loss of his close shipmates was near unbearable. He told me, long after, that he was terrified most of the time at sea, but after each rescue had to go back and serve on new ships. True grit.

    The heavy naval casualties were a factor of the geography of the Mediterranean, The Germans could spot and track every ship passing through the narrow straits of Gibraltar and the ships were always within easy flight distance of German land bases in Italy etc.

     
    • mathscinotes says:

      Thanks for your response and the story of your father. I agree on the geography issue. Naval forces were having to deal with land-based aircraft, which is always a problem. I cannot imagine being on a ship in the Med at that time, particularly a submarine.

      mark

       
  2. Dan C. says:

    Hi All

    Lets not forget Operation Pedestal and lifting the siege of Malta. The Midway of the Med as far as decisive battles I’d say. And my favorite ship would have to be the tanker SS Ohio.

     
  3. Ronan Mandra says:

    Marc, thanks for sharing this interesting article.

    FYI, this website has a list of all Royal Navy losses in WWII with clickable links for each ship lost:
    https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Royal_Navy_losses_in_World_War_II

    Also, for the fun of it, I took a look at all types of landing craft losses in the Med. These include assault, emergency repair, flak, infantry, mechanised, personnel, support, tank, and vehicles. Total loss assuming no mistakes on my part is 261.

     
    • mathscinotes says:

      Way to go Ronan!

      I like to use WW2 databases for practice and examples because they are readily available, rather complex, and have a fair number of errors. It always amazes me at the level of effort put forward by nations like the US, UK, Australia, China, Soviet Union, New Zealand, and India when confronted with a common threat.

      I personally have found the landing craft very interesting (I did one post on LSTs), but have not found a good way of presenting the data. I find it interesting that you focused on landing craft. As I have read about the Civil War, WW1, and WW2, I Have become more interested in the logistic side. The various types of Landing craft are a key part of the military supply chain.

      Thanks for the note.

      mark

       
      • Ronan Mandra says:

        Mark,
        Looking at extracting data as you have done was fun and a little frustrating until I figured out a better way. I used regular expressions and Excel’s text to columns ribbon option to organize that data. I looked at the landing craft data as there seemed to be a lot of it.
        Wishing you the best for this Religious Season and a Happy New Year

         
        • mathscinotes says:

          I find all the WW2 frustrating to work with because it is riddled with errors and inconsistencies. I work with data all day and I spend 80% of my time beating my data into a useable form. My modern data is only marginally better than the WW2 data. One of my sons, a BI guy, says that he has the same experience.

          Have a great holiday and New Year! I am off for the rest of the year and will be trying to spend as much time with the grandkids as I can.

          mark

           

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