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by Alberto Rosselli


Towards the end of 1942, Germany and Italy felt the necessity to obtain from the Far East essential and rare goods no longer available in Europe at the time. Amongst these materials figured rubber, nickel, copper, cobalt, tin, wolfram, quinine, vegetal fiber and varnish. Moreover, these contacts would have allowed for the exchange of mail, news, weapons, blueprints of weaponry systems, and agents with Japan. These reasons induced both the Regia Marina and the Kriegsmarine to transform a few dozen attack submarines into transport ones.
After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the dispatching of Italian and German cargo ships to Japan, the so called “blockade runners”, became much more dangerous due to the increased naval and aerial surveillance. It is for this specific reason that, beginning in 1942, both Germans and Italians began planning a well-organized connection with the Far East utilizing much safer underwater vessels.

The modification of these ocean-going vessels, or the construction of new ones, did not represent a novelty; during World War I, the Kaiser’s navy had deployed two large submarines, the Deutschland and the Bremen, to break the entente’s blockade and conduct business with the United States. In 1916, taking advantage of the American neutrality, the Deutchland succeeded in completing the long journey from Kiel to Baltimore. During the long mission, the German unit transported paint, dyes), mail and precious stones, returning with a discrete load of silver, zinc, nickel and copper.

Before deciding to utilize the underwater weapons to maintain contact with Japan and its new Indonesian possessions recently taken from the Dutch between January and March 1942, Italy had already successfully employed various submarine units to supply her troops in North Africa. Due to the dangerous presence between the Italian ports and the Libyan coast of British airplanes and ships based in Malta, Supermarina decided to utilize submarines since very early on in the conflict. Without the necessary time to modify the units, and with the intention of maintaining their original characteristics so that they could be easily redeployed offensively, the Italian Navy simply removed the torpedoes replacing them with tons of urgent material destined for the North African front.

On June 18th, 1940 (only eight days after Italy’s entry into the war), the submarine Zoea (1938, 1,318/1,647 tons) sailed from Naples to Tobruk with an urgent load of 60 tons of ammunitions for the army (mostly 20, 37 and 47mm projectiles). A similar mission was completed on June 24th by the submarine Bragadin (1938 981/1167) which, after having left the Parthenopean port, transported over 30 tons of supplies to Tobruk.
Throughout the conflict, various Italian submarines (Toti, Santarosa, Atropo) were utilized along this and other routes. For example, starting in March 1941, the Micca (minelayer 1935 1567/1967) was frequently utilized to transport fuel, spare parts and ammunitions not only to Libya, but also the Italian islands in the Aegean, especially Rhodes and Leros. It should be noted that although these missions provided some limited relief to the Italian forces in Libya and the Aegean, it also left Supermarina without the assistance of these units against British military and commercial traffic in the Mediterranean.

As it is well known, Italy’s shortage of cargo ships and tankers forced the Regia Marina’s command into even greater sacrifices, such as the utilization of destroyers and cruisers as transport ships. Starting in 1941, various units of this kind with their decks loaded with extremely dangerous barrels of fuel and ammunitions boxes attempted to reach the Libyan ports, often with horrendous losses. (See Capo Bon).

But let us go back to the cargo submarines. Toward the end of 1942, Italy started a plan for the transformation of submarines to be utilized as transport for journeys to the Far East. Initially, 10 submarines based in Bordeaux were selected, but eventually only seven (Tazzoli, Finzi, Torelli, Giuliani, Bagnolin, Barbarigo and Cappellini) began the necessary internal and external transformations. Before the Italian armistice, September 8th 1943, only the Cappellini (1938, 1060/1313), the Torelli (1940, 1191/1489) and the Giuliani (1939 1166/1484) had been able to leave port and, after a long and dangerous journey, reach the distant Indonesian ports were they were captured by the Japaneseh just before their return to Bordeaux.

In the fall of 1942, Supermarina ordered from the Tosi shipyard in Taranto, the C.R.D.A. of Monfalcone, and the O.T.O. of La Spezia a group of 12 large new submarines specifically designed for transport missions and belonging to the class “R”. Of this group, only two, the Romolo and Remo, were eventually completed before the armistice. The Romolo and Remo (built by Tosi) displaced 2,210 tons (2,606 submerged) and measured 86.50 meters in length. These units were decisively innovative for both their dimensions and the allocation of internal space. The hull included two large holds, one aft and one fore, for a total of 610 cubic meters and capable of holding about 600 tons of cargo. The propulsion system included two 2,600 HP Tosi diesel engines, and two900 HP Marelli electric motors. The unit was capable of reaching 13 knots emerged and 9 submerged. The vessels of the R class had a range of 12,000 miles at 9 knots and 110 at 3.5 knots submerged. The Romolo and Remo were armed by three retractable 20 mm antiaircraft guns, and they were also equipped with 4 collapsible cranes installed on the main deck and used to facilitate the loading and unloading of cargo.
For the units following these two, engineers had planned the installation of two 450 mm torpedo tubes fore (smaller torpedoes). The crew of the Romolo and Remo included 7 officers, and 56 petty officers and sailors. Besides these two, the only other unit of the class which was actually completed before the end of the war was the R12 which, despite the fact it was not able to contribute to the war effort, was used until the 70 in the port of Ancona as an oil fuel depot under the denomination of GR.523.

The operational life of the two large Italian transport submarines was sad, and also extremely short. On July 15th 1943, the Remo left Taranto for Naples and was later sunk off Punta Alice by the British submarine United. Most of the crew plunged into the abyss, while only four crewmembers were rescued (1).

The Romolo had a very similar fate; on July 18th, 1943, three days after its departure from Taranto for Naples, the units was intercepted by a British airplane of the 221st Group R.A.F. near Cape Spartivento and subjected to heavy bombardment. Two hours later, seriously damaged, the Romolo, her commander T.V. Alberto Crepas and the whole crew were lost.

(1) Admiral Ranieri has informed us that despite various sources give the captain, T.V. Salvatore Vassal, as one of the fallen sailors, in fact he was one amongst the survivors. The admiral adds: "The other survivors of the Remo were the Navigational Officer and a look-out, who were with him on bridge and sergeant. E. Dario CORTOPASSI, still alive, who had time to climb out of the control room. He confirmed it himself to me, thus I corrected my own note cards in which I affirmed that all the survivors were on bridge during the torpedoing.”

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