France had long been the Italian navy's presumptive regional rival, but from March 1935, Admiral Cavagnari began to focus on Great Britain as a more likely Mediterranean threat. He proposed developing a large Italian counterfleet to deal with that threat, although Mussolini refused to consider the concept. The Italian navy embarked on more modest building and rebuilding projects focused on capital ships, but as late as 1938, it had no plans for an aircraft carrier, despite the manifest lack of cooperation between the navy and air force. Also, the May 1939 Friedrichshaven summit confirming the Pact of Steel left Cavagnari skeptical of the practical benefits of a naval alliance with Germany.
The coming of war in June 1940 nonetheless found Italy with a navy that was well positioned to disrupt British movements in the Mediterranean. Cavagnari, however, did not deploy his forces decisively, which effectively gave an initially weaker Royal Navy opportunities to regroup and build to strength.
The 11 November 1940 torpedo attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto by Royal Navy carrier aircraft clearly demonstrated the power of naval aviation, and it crippled not only the Italian navy but also the credibility of the "fleet in being" imperative. Mussolini relieved Cavagnari of his dual command in December 1940, and the admiral soon went into retirement. He died in Rome on 2 November 1966.
Gordon E. Hogg
Bragadin, Marc'Antonio. The Italian Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957.; Mallett, Robert. The Italian Navy and Fascist Expansionism, 1935–1940. London: Cass, 1998.