At the end of March 1942, at the time of the German offensive in Crimea and the imminent attack against the well-defended naval base of Sebastopol, the German high command realized the need to have sufficient numbers of fast smaller units, and a substantial number of pocket submarines, to provide for the defense of naval traffic along the southern cost of the Crimean peninsula and within the Sea of Azov. Since the Germans were unable to provide for the necessary means to complete this task (at the beginning of spring 1942, the Germans sent to the Black Sea utilizing the Danube a small number of shneellboats and coastal submarines), Admiral Reader requested assistance from the Italian naval command, in this far away sector, (but also on Lake Ladoga) with a mixed flotilla of MAS, pocket submarines, and explosive motorboats.
These were means tailored to oppose the frightening Soviet fleet of the Black Sea, which included a battleship (Pariskaja Kommuna), four heavy cruisers (including the Molotov, built before the war by Italian designers), ten destroyers (including some larger ones, like the Kharkov Class), the Tasken, 29 small and medium submarines, and numerous patrol and transport units. Favorably impressed by the numerous successed obtained by these kind of vessels in the Mediterranean, Reader had good reasons to consider the Italian contribution more than positively (it should be considered that the first official request for Italian participation in the Black Sea was made by the German admiral on January 14th, 1942 in expectation of the great German offensive in southern Ukraine). For the record, it should be noted that during the period of German-Italian collaboration (1940-1943), this was the only time in which Germany made a specific request for intervention because of “the superiority of the light surface and underwater torpedo crafts of the Regia Marina in comparison to what we had” (Reader). In order to compensate for the prolific activity of the German U-Boats in the Mediterranean (sent starting in 1941) against the British forces, The Italians did not want to let their ally down, and Admiral Riccardi gave immediate orders to send 4 MAS (with a displacement of 24 t.), 6 submarines class CD (35 t.), 5 torpedo-motor boats, and 5 explosive motorboats.
The three units were grouped into the 101st squadron and incorporated for the transfer into the Moccagatta convoy. The assault fleet was placed under the command of C.F. Francesco Mimbelli. It was immediately realized that the greatest problem was the transfer of the equipment to the Black Sea. In fact, the only possible solution was to transport the vessels over land since, as it is known, the Dardanelles were interdicted by international convention to all military traffic. In attempting to solve this difficult problem, the Navy gave proof of great abilities and creativity by creating a special convoy of 28 vehicles, 3 tractors, and 9 trucks.
After having successfully mastered numerous obstacles and difficulties (the drivers and the soldiers had to, in some cases, demolish and rebuild constructions along the way thus allowing for the transit of the large vehicles), the convoy reached Vienna where the vessels were slipped into the Danube, eventually reaching the Rumanian port of Costanza on May 2nd. From this point, with a fast and uneventful transfer, the Italian units finally reached the Russian port of Yalta which became their first operational base.
A few days after their arrival in this port located on the southern shores of the Crimean peninsula, the Italian units were ready to intervene against the numerous Soviet military and transport ships present in the sector between the fortress of Sebastopol, the Strait of Kerch, and the bases of Novorossijsk and Tuapse.
From May 1942 to May 1943, the Italian units performed intense and brilliant activities, scoring several sinkings and earning the respect of the German ally and the Russian enemies alike. On the 11th and 13th of June, 1942 the MAS torpedoed a 5,000 t. steamship (and sank it) and a troop transport of about 10,000 t., later finished off by Junker 87s (Stukas) of the German Air Force. Divided for security and tactical reasons between the bases of Yalta and Feodosia, the Italian units had to deal with the ferocious Russian aerial offensive which had more that 700 fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes in that area. Since the Italian forces could not count on an adequate defense (the Germans were fiercely engaged against the fortified bastion of Sebastapol and Balaklava first, and the Mariupol, Rostov, Krasnodar frontline later), the MAS and the pocket submarines experienced many losses.
At sunset on the 13th of June, a group of Soviet fighter-bombers Yak e Ilijushin, assisted by six motor torpedo boats, caused the loss of the submarine commanded by S.T.V. Farolfi. The loss was almost immediately compensated by two brilliant victories by the Italian forces: on the 15th and the 18th , during a night action, CB 3 and 2 (pocket submarines) torpedoed and sank, while they were traveling on the surface, the Soviet submarines S32 (1,070 t.) and SHCH 306 (705 t.).
On the 18th, the MAS had a day of glory, but also of bloodshed; two Italian units attacked a large column of motor barges directed to Sebastopol loaded with enemy soldiers and escorted by six gun boats. During the fight, which caused the sure sinking of a Soviet transport, S.T.V. Bisagno was mortally wounded aboard MAS 571. Between the end of June and the beginning of July, the Italian units participated, along with the Germans and the Rumanians, in the capture of Sebastopol and Balaklava. During these operations C.C. Salvatore Todaro distinguished himself by repeatedly attacking the numerous surface and submarine enemy units engaged in the evacuation of specialized personnel, political commissaries, and high-ranking officers of the Soviet army. During the gigantic battle which lasted from May to July, the four MAS completed 65 missions, while the motor boats and the pocket submarines completed respectively 56 and 24.
As proof of the daring and excellent performances of the Italian equipment and crews, on June 29th Admiral Schuster (Commander in Chief Group South of the Kriegsmarine) transmitted to Admiral Riccardi his personal congratulations, citing in an official radio broadcast “ the fighting spirit of the Italian crews under the command of C.F. Mimbelli”.
With the shifting east of the southern German armies, the Italian flotilla in the Black Sea also transferred its support bases to the east, consolidating its logistical positions in Feodosia and Iwan Baba. In the month of August, in concert with the activities of the Kriegsmarine’s motor barges and barges employed in the transport of men, weapons and supplies from the Crimean Peninsula to the western shores of the Sea of Azov (in support of the German offensive), the Italian MAS were asked to attack the enemy’s torpedo boats and gun boats on the lookout for easy prey.
On the night of August 2nd, southeast of Kerch, MAS 573 (C.C. Castagnacci), MAS 568 (S.T.V. Legnani), and MAS 569 (S.T. Ferrari) attacked the heavy cruiser Molotov (Kirov Class) and the destroyers Kharkov (Leningrad Class) out on a mission against German transports. The two large Soviet units, under the command of Adm. N.E. Basisty, suddenly came close to the coast opening fire with their 181, 122 and 100 mm guns against land-base targets between Iwan Baba and Fedosia. Having realized the imminent danger – an attack by an 11,500-ton cruiser armed with nine 181 mm guns against a flotilla of German barges in that sector would have meant disaster – the commanders of MAS 573 and MAS 568 decided to immediately attack the large units one after the other. While the first torpedoes failed, one of the two launched at a very short distance by Captain Legnani’s MAS 568 of hit the stern of Molotov which meantime had open an infernal barrage of fire with the 100 and 45 mm guns against the Italian vessels.
After hitting the ship, MAS 568 attempted to elude the enemy, but was followed at full speed by the destroyer Kharkov which had come to the aid of the Molotov. With quick thinking and nerves of steel, Captain Legnani ordered the ten small depth charges installed astern of the boat dropped just ahead of the Kharkov’s bow, damaging it to such an extent that the Russian destroyer had to give up the chase. Both the Molotov and the Karkow withdrew from the combat area returning east to their bases. MAS 568, which in less than 15 minutes had been able to disable both units, was also able to return to base (Yalta) despite being attacked by Soviet airplanes called to the scene by the glares of the explosions.
On the morning of August 3rd, MAS 573 and MAS 569 also returned to Feodonia. After this brilliant action, which caused serious damage to the Molotov, the ship, towed to the port of Bathumi was placed in dry-dock where it underwent two years of repair work and the complete replacement of about 20 meters of the aft hull which was obtained by the Russian engineers by cannibalizing the twin ship Frunze, at that time still under construction, and less serious damage to the Kharkov, the destroyer spent a few weeks in dry-dock. The Italian MAS completed 6 more missions, sinking a small steamship of about 3,000 tons. On the 9th of September 1942 after an official visit by Admiral Reader to the Italian base in Yalta, this was violently attacked by a group of Soviet bombers, which hit and sank MAS 571 and 573, a barge, and also seriously damaged MAS 567, 569 and 572. Between October 1942 and January 1943 (during the massive Russian offensive which brought about the German surrender at Stalingrad and the withdrawal from the Caucasus and the Don), the activity of the Italian vessels (including the submarines) was negatively effected by the events, and especially by a shortage of fuel. At this point, the Italian command decided to repatriate the crew, leaving to German sailors (previously trained in Pola and at the Isotta Fraschini factory) the vessels which were still utilizable. Nevertheless, between January and May 1943 the Italian forces kept fighting and on the 17th of April, during a German landing operation for the retaking of Novorossiysk, seven MAS (the units lost had in the meantime been replaced), along with German “shneellboats”, transferred to Anapa to lay a trap for Russian coastal traffic. On April 25th, after a few unfruitful fights, all operations in the area were suspended.
After abandoning the bases of Feodosia and Iwan Baba, too exposed to the growing Russian aerial offensive, the Italian MAS completed their last mission off Yalta. Thereafter, on the 20th, during an official ceremony, the Italians transferred their vessels to the Kriegsmarine. The last Italian-manned vessels left in the Black Sea were the CB in the new base of Sebastopol. Between June and August 1943, the CB completed 21 missions only one of which had a positive outcome (August 25-26). During this mission, the CB under the command of T.V. Armando Sibille was able to torpedo an unidentified Russian submarine. Thereafter, all submarines were withdrawn and moved to the Rumanian port of Costanza where, in August 1944, the Russians captured them in very bad condition.
Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo and Edited by Laura K. Yost