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Interview with a stoker of the light cruiser “Bande Nere”

by Andrea Piccinotti

Leghorn, January 18th, 2002

What were your duties aboard ship?

I was called to arms in the early months of 1941 and I was assigned to the naval base of Messina where I completed a relatively short period of training. After two months in charge of a warehouse, I was ordered to Palermo to take service aboard the cruiser “Giovanni dalle Bande Nere”. It was, if I am not mistaken, around June 1941 and I was a stoker. It was not a bad assignment, as one might otherwise think. Differently from my comrades, I had the opportunity to rest quite often since in the proximity of each boiler there was a small room where, during periods of calm, we could take turns resting. Naturally, it was not allowed, but fortunately this rule was never enforced too rigidly.

A stoker is inside the ship and does not know what is happening, right?

Well, rumors were rampant, but of course we could not know everything. We had to simply follow orders, but more than once I went up to the upper deck to see what was taking place.

How was the crew-officer relation?

Well, relation, there was no relation with them. They were a separate caste by themselves, which refused to talk to a simple sailor unless to give orders. Once, while I was smoking a cigarette on deck, an officer walked by and I attempted to engage in a conversation but this person did not reply and stood, in silence, close to me. When I finished my cigarette, I was ready to throw it overboard but the wind tossed it back onto the deck and this officer gave me a “note of demerit” for having soiled the deck!

In the Navy, was food good in those days?

I’m sorry to let you down, but food was really bad and it was one of the main reasons for our complaining. When we were fed up eating that disgusting stuff, two or three representatives would go to the captain to protest. Most of the time, nothing would happen, but twice the protest was more energetic and for two or three days they fed us pasta with tomato sauce or a good soup to then go back to the usual meals. Sleeping was better. Everyone had his own hammock which was attached to two posts with hooks at various heights, specifically installed in various rooms where we could rest. The annoying thing was that each time we got up we had to disassemble the hammock, fold it, and place it in special lockers on the side of the room. The same had to be done in case of alarm because during battle station all the compartments had to be perfectly unobstructed.

Which kind of missions did you do?

The most common missions were mine laying. We would leave at night and the mission would last two days. The scary thing was that we would see six or seven ships of various types navigating next to each other and, every so often, dropping a mine into the sea. Another kind of mission, which in reality we did not complete too often, was the escort to a convoy. These missions were very tiring and we were under constant aerial attack and our anti-aircraft guns (the 100 mm guns) were always in use. The projectiles were brought up from the storage area by hand, and after awhile the people assigned to this task were exhausted, so we stokers had to help them. It was not a pleasant job, especially after four hours in the boiler room. The turns were 4 hours of work and 4 hours of rest, but in reality during the rest periods there was always something to do. Anyway, our missions were short and we spent more time in port than at sea. Fortunately, we never completed transport missions as the “da Giussano” and “da Barbiano” did. If I think about all the friends I lost… Also, we participated in the Second Battle of Sirte.

What do you remember about it?

A bad experience because we lost a destroyer, “Scirocco”, (in reality two were lost), due to the heavy sea; I had many friends aboard. Reckon that the sea was so bad that at a certain point we could no longer fire our guns and withdrew. At that point I was on deck and saw flares from the Littorio’s guns and I realized that there was a battleship with us, but I could not see it, I could only see the flares from the big guns. During the return trip, we experienced many serious breakdowns, thus as soon as we reached Taranto we were ordered to La Spezia for repairs. We were all happy because it would have meant a shore leave. When the ship was in dry-dock, we were housed in nearby buildings and would all go on leave. The only negative aspect of dry-dock works was that all the little extra things on board, meaning what we had set up to improve our lives on board, were taken away and each time we had to readapt the ship to our needs. Unfortunately, we never made it to La Spezia.

Could you tell us about the torpedoing?

It was a tragic experience. It was April 1st and I was on duty in my boiler area when, around 9 AM, we were shocked by a large explosion and the boiler room filled with smoke (note: evidently, he was in the aft boiler room as the forward one was ripped apart by the torpedo). Thus, I told a friend of mine that we had to leave right away and rushed to a ladder to go up on deck. The ladder usually was straight up but I immediately realized that it wasn’t, so I rushed even more, and in the confusion this friend of mine below me took my shoes off! Fortunately, our ship did not have modern watertight bulkheads typical of modern ships, so we could make it to the upper deck (this explains why 5 out of 6 ships of this kind were lost due to torpedoing). I immediately realized that the situation was dramatic and I started looking for a life vest, but then I decided to jump without wearing one because I was afraid of not wearing it properly and making things even worse. While I was jumping, I heard the captain scream, “ viva il duce, viva il re, viva l'Italia “ Long live Mussolini, the King and Italy” and I almost started laughing. Once in the water, I began swimming to get away from the ship which by then, with the stern out of the water, had started sinking: it was a terrible moment. It had been my home for nine months and by then I was attached to it.

I was in the water for a long time until the destroyers in escort, after having thrown some depth charges against the submarine which had torpedoed us, came to pick us up. The Aviere picked me up and immediately, due to the intense cold, I went down to the boiler room and hugged a steam pipe. Someone tried to get me off there, but I resisted and that was probably what saved me. Thereafter, I was taken to the infirmary where they tried to their best to clean off the fuel oil I had all over me and especially in my eyes where it hurt very much.

We were disembarked in Messina, while the other survivors were taken to Palermo. Up to this day, I don’t know who survived, excluding the few with me on the Aviere. After the sinking, I was sent to La Spezia where I served at an artillery station near the Varignano jetty. I tried several times to get back aboard a ship because, after all, life was better than on shore, but it did not work out. The strange thing is that our pay was higher on shore: 180 lira on the “Bande Nere” and 200 lira in La Spezia.

What do you remember of this period?

I remember an event. One day, while I was on watch an enemy airplane dropped many boxes containing flyers. One of these boxes did not open and fell off the jetty, thus the officer in command gave me the assignment, along with another sailor, to go get the box. We got closer using a dingy, but were very fearful it might be a bomb, but the incitement from shore gave us courage and I picked up the box and brought it back to the battery commander. On the flyers it was written, “Tomorrow we are going to bomb the jetty and the port, go away”. The other sailor and I had already read the flyer, despite orders received, thus very soon the news spread across the port. The port commander told us that it was just propaganda. The day after, more than 200 airplanes began bombing La Spezia. It was an unforgettable experience. At our post we were just waiting for our time to come; fortunately, not a single bomb hit our battery, but the shipyard was destroyed, along with the nearby houses, and the (battleship) Littorio was seriously hit by a bomb (it is almost surely the bombing of April 19th).

After September 8th, 1943 what did you do?

I was still in La Spezia and at the news of the armistice our joy lasted very briefly because we all knew that the Germans would now be our enemies. The morning of the 9th, after the fleet had left, we got aboard a mail ship to Leghorn. On this ship there were a few German soldiers who took control of the boat and almost had it run aground on a reef, just before getting there. At night, along with other folks from my town, we attempted to get back to the Island of Elba. Thus, on a dingy eight of us made it toward the island and arrived in the morning, landing despite threats from a few Italian soldiers who did not want any more trouble. A few days later, while we were at the Navy headquarters to find out what to do, there was a German bombing raid which hit several towns and killed many innocent people, especially because around there of “blameworthy” ones there were very few. Then, the Germans arrived and, along with the others, I was forced to hide in the hillside. It was not an easy time. Then the war ended and I began living again, even though hunger went away much later…

Thanks

I greatly thank this gentleman who, in honor of those who have fallen aboard the “Bande Nere”, has requested not to be named. I also would like to thank my friend Ameris who has made this interview possible.

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