Bombing of La Maddalena

April 10th, 1943

Starting at 2:37 PM the Sardinian base was subjected to heavy bombing by 84 Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers of the USAAF.

The Heavy Cruiser Trieste in a picture from one of the B-17 bombers. The location is mistakenly identified as “La Maddelina”
(National Archives)

Since the sighting system in Piazza della Maddalena had neither aerophones nor radar, the bombers arrived practically unannounced. The alarm was sounded one or two minutes before the bombs began to fall. The aircraft were divided into three groups, each of which had a specific task: their targets were the submarine base and the heavy cruisers Trieste and Gorizia of the III Division, transferred from Messina to La Maddalena a few months earlier. 36 bombers (of the 97th Bomb Group) attack the Gorizia, 24 (of the 99th Bomb Group) the Trieste, 24 installations on land and the submarine base, where there were five boats moored (all belonging to the VII Submarine Group: the Aradam, the Sirena, the Topazio, the Dandolo and the Mocenigo).

The bombs, including 1000-pound (450 kg) ordnance, were dropped from an altitude of between 5,000 and 6,000 meters, i.e. outside the range of the anti-aircraft batteries defending the base. The raid was precise and devastating. The heavy Cruiser Trieste, hit bullseye, sank, and capsized after a couple of hours. The Gorizia, heavily damaged, remained afloat, but would never be repaired. The 24 “Flying Fortresses” of the 301st Bomb Group (32nd Bomb Squadron), tasked with hitting land installations and the submarine base, dropped more than two-hundred 500-pound bombs against docks and workshops: in all, over 45 tons of explosives.

The naval base of La Maddalena was reduced to a pile of rubble: the power plant, the submarine workshop, the torpedo workshop, the artillery workshop, the auto repairs workshop, part of the carpentry workshop, the winch room, the slipway, the shipping and accounting offices were almost destroyed; the officers’ and non-commissioned officers’ quarters, the barracks for the troops, the MAS barracks, the carabinieri barracks and the lighthouse warehouse are seriously damaged. Many docks were devastated by bombs and collapsed.

The whole base, or what was left of it, was without electricity; Telephone and telegraph communications were largely interrupted. Two seaplanes of the III Division, MAS 501 and 503 (which were under construction), six boats and all the vehicles under repair, were shattered under the bombs. The requisitioned motor sailers V 266 Eliana, O 88 Maria Pia and V 143 Carmen Adele (the first and last used for breakwater surveillance, the second to guard obstructions) also sank in the harbor. The accommodation and office of the submarine group leader and the “Faravelli” barracks, where the submarine crews were housed, are also rendered unusable.

In the midst of so much debacle, the submarines, finding themselves moored in the roadstead, remained miraculously unscathed; only one, the Mocenigo, was hit, but was not seriously damaged. Paradoxically, however, the submarines recorded several casualties and injuries among the personnel on land, involved in the bombing of the Faravelli Barracks and the naval base: the Aradam thus complained of two wounded. One of them probably died of his wounds a few hours later, as the twenty-one-year-old sailor electrician Emilio Poletti dell’Aradam, from Genoa, died on April 10, 1943.

Another thirteen injured, and five dead and missing, were recorded among the crews of Topazio, Mocenigo and Sirena, while the personnel of the Submarine Station (Maristasom) complained of three dead, one missing and two wounded.

At 9.15 PM, the VII Submarine Group informs Maricosom of the dramatic situation of its base in La Maddalena: «At 2.50 PM immediately air attack of which an objective east was the submarine base STOP Accommodation for both officers and personnel practically temporarily unusable STOP Submarine workshop and torpedo workshop hit in full by unused bombs STOP Units present only submarine Mocenigo drilled double bottom number 2 starboard oil box et tubing compensation external and double bottom air vent pipe number 2 starboard STOP Arranged except for counter-order submarine Aradam displaces immediately Bonifacio STOP Arranged appropriate thinning out of other units STOP On submarine Mocenigo et submarine Topazio it is not possible to use STOP works I propose transfer other headquarters alt Units present from 08.00 current will all perform continuous radiotelegraphy listening STOP Lieutenant Vascello Garofani Luciano Lieutenant G. N. Vigiari Carlo Maggiore G.N. Sini Mauro Second Lieutenant Vessel Sella Gregorio wounded STOP Reserve to communicate number of victims and wounded STOP Submarine Sirena not currently in condition given number of wounded personnel perform mission alt».

Overall, the bombing of La Maddalena caused over 160 deaths and 250 wounded among the personnel of the Regia Marina, mostly among the crews of Trieste and Gorizia. Four carabinieri in charge of guarding the base and four militarized workers also died. On the other hand, the village of La Maddalena, where there were no victims among the civilian population, had been spared; However, fearing other and less precise bombings in the future, after this attack the inhabitants of the town would flee “en masse”.

Activities of the Italian MAS and pocket submarines in the Black Sea: 1942 – 1943

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

Italian Surface Raiders

History of the Italian plans to transform motorships into military units for war in the oceans from 1940 to 1943

After Italy’s foray into WW II (June 10th, 1940), Supermarina began a series of studies with the purpose of transforming a certain number of motor vessels of medium displacement, but with large range, into units modified to intercept and destroy British maritime traffic in the oceans.

These studies, which were considered part of a single project, did not produce any practical result since during the favorable first year of war, Italy failed, as we know, to seize the British bases of Suez and Gibraltar, which precluded the existence of Axis surface ships from the Mediterranean into the oceans.
However, since Italy had a certain number of hulls fit for this use and already placed outside the Mare Nostrum (the Italian and German merchant ships docked in neutral or friendly ports, such as the Japanese ones, were quite a few), the supreme command of the Italian Navy, even though with a great delay, decided in the summer of 1940 to begin a study. This study attempted to emulate the orders given by the Kriegsmarine relative to the creation and utilization of the so-called “auxiliary cruisers.” It should be noted that since 1939 Germany had created the first “raiders”, introducing them, since early 1940, into the oceanic trade routes.

On the 6th of September, 1940, the Project Office of the “Stato Maggiore” of the Navy generated a first list of three modern cargo ships, all belonging to the “Monginevro” class, (at the time, near completion at the “Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico” shipyard) and all fit for radical transformations. The three ships belonged to the Società di Navigazione Alta Italia and were in an advanced phase of completion (the first one was 99% complete, the second one 96% and the third one 92%). These ships had all the required characteristics for long missions (obviously after a few alterations), and, due to their structural characteristics, could easily receive the installation of the necessary guns, torpedo launchers, antiaircraft guns, and the equipment and the extra storage indispensable to a raider of the oceans.

The units of the Moginevro class were 124 meters long, 18 meters wide and had a drought of 7.40 meters loaded. The total displacement was around 5,500 tons with a capacity of 8,600 tons. The three ships could reach a maximum speed of 16.5 knots (and maintain 15), and had a range, at a speed of 15 knots, of 12,000 miles.

The engineers of the Regia Marina in charge of compiling a report on the characteristics of the hull under construction reported: “the deck is wide, quite unobstructed and it is quite suited for the installation of guns and mines… the silhouette of the “Monginevro” make us believe they will be seaworthy. The deck is wide and well-equipped, the quarters and stowage comfortable and in large quantity…” So, after a first analysis, Supermarina took positive, though incomplete, estimates and made assumptions (since the ships were not ready, they could not be actually tested) on the potentiality of these ships, moving on to an actual implementation plan to make them ready for combat.

It was thought to arm the ships in a manner similar to the one implemented by the German navy for the raiders. The naval engineers of Supermarina introduced the idea of installing six 152/40 guns (one near the bow, one near the stern, and four to the sides), two antiaircraft and anti-ship 37mm guns (on the boat deck, past the funnel), two 20mm AA guns (on the boat deck, or on top of the deck, near the compass), two 450 mm torpedo launchers (one on each side, installed in the hull about 5.5 m below the water line), and a smoke screen apparatus.
The selection of the 152 mm guns (weapons with a maximum range of 16,000 meters) was dictated by the need for a weapon of assured destructive capabilities against the hulls of merchantmen, and also for the need to respond to the guns of British light cruisers equipped with similar weapons. The 120 mm guns with which were equipped some Italian destroyers, at the time, and some auxiliary vessels (including the auxiliary ship Eritrea which operated in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean), were not selected, at least initially, because they were thought insufficient in facing large enemy cargo ships often equipped with 114mm, 120mm and even 152mm guns, or the British light cruiser of the Leander class often utilized to patrol oceanic routes.

To allow the Monginevro to locate their prey over the horizon with greater speed and ease, it was thought to install a hydroplane with folding wings, but this idea was later abandoned due to technical problems (boarding a plane would have required the creation of a gasoline bunker and other accessories which were expensive and voluminous). Regarding the offensive weaponry aboard, it was decided to equip the ships with 200 rounds and 5 star-shells for each 152 mm barrel, 300 shells for each 37mm guns and 6,000 cartridges for each 20 machine gun. In addition, over 600 explosive charges were to be placed inside the hull and the quick-work (the upper part of the ship extending from the hull) to provide for self-destruction in case of capture or severe damage.

The engineers of the Regia Marina in charge of the conversion of the “Monginevro” did not forget to plan for the installation of about 100 to 150 mines, of the Elia type, stowed in the stern hold. These mines would be lifted by cranes and transferred on specially constructed rails. The radio and signaling equipment would have consisted of the already existing radio equipment (a D/F fix, a 0.5 Kw transmitter, and a short and medium wave receiver). In addition, it was planned to install two additional receivers and a small radio.

Above the fore-bridge there was enough space for a model 60 or a model 90 discovery searchlight, possibly retractable, a signaling light projector, and an echo-sounding gear. The Monginevro’s fuel consumption was excellent (with a normal load of 770 t. they could cover over 12,000 miles at fast speed), but was not good enough for the Italian Navy engineers who wanted to increase the already excellent range by almost four fold, striving for a maximum range of 40,000 miles, or the equivalent of 5 months without calls. The plan called for the installation of an additional bunker for an additional 1,730 t. of oil fuel (for marine diesel engines).

The new bunker would have been installed on the hold’s dunnage, and in the forward and aft peak. Also, the Monginevros would have received large storage areas for flour and foodstuff, a refrigerated area, two ovens for the baking of bread, plus a large infirmary with a large selection of medicines. Also, to guarantee the good health of the personnel, one of the forward holds would have hosted a stable for a dozen milk cows and a large cage for about 50 chickens. Finally, the equipment for the new Italian “pirates” would have included a repair shop and spare parts depot.

The crews of the Monginevros would have included 12 officers, 10 petty officers, 14 sailors and mechanics, 42 sailors to man the guns, plus, if needed, 18 additional officers and sailors as crew for captured ships. Technical difficulties, politics, and financial issues did not allow Supermarina to go beyond a simple but highly detailed study for the transformation of the Monginevro, the Monviso and the Monreale. As it is known, the Italian Navy, since the very beginning of the war, had to concentrate all efforts on resolving multiple high-priority emergencies, since it had to face the toughness of the British Navy and Air Force.

During 1942, also considering the United States’ entry into the war, the project for the conversion of the Monginevros into raiders was definitively abandoned, leaving to the surviving German “Handels-Stor-Kreuzer” (cruisers for the disturbance of maritime traffic) the task of spreading panic along the oceanic routes.


Between 1940 and 1943, the Kriegsmarine successfully deploy several raiders on all oceans: Orion (10 ships sunk, including 2 in collaboration with Komet), Atlantis (22 ships sunk), Widder (10 ships sunk), Thor (22 ships sunk), Pinguin (32 ships sunk), Stier (4 ships sunk), Komet (6 ships sunk), Kormoran (11 ships sunk plus the Australian cruiser Sydney), Michel (17 ships sunk).

Atlantis was sunk by the British cruiser Devonshire in the Southern Atlantic Ocean (11/22/1941). Thor exploded following a fire in Yokohama (11/30/1942). Pinguin was sunk near the Seychelles by the British cruiser Cornwall. Stier sunk after a fight with the American armed ship Stephen Hopkins (9/27/1942). Komet was sunk near Cap the Hague by the British VAS N 236 (10/14/1942). Kormoran sunk after a fight with the Australian cruiser Sydney west of Sharksbay (11/19/41). Michal was sunk by the US submarine Tarpon near Yokohama (10/17/1943)

The Oil Fuel Issue


Each year Italy, a country of limited natural resources, is forced to import tons of fuel of various grades from multiple sources. This dependency on imports is particularly aggravated during war times when the larger part of these imports ceases. During World War I, when Italy was allied with the “Lords of the Sea” and with the countries controlling most of the world’s natural resources, this problem did not exist. Instead, the Central Empires were tormented by this problem, and being unable to procure what was necessary to keep the war machine running, forced to surrender. When Mussolini declared the “Autarchia” (national self sufficiency), complete self-reliance of the whole Italian industrial complex, one could not but notice the paradox of such a proclamation. Italy, even if she had had the necessary industries to sustain her (a far-fetched assumption considering the backward state of the whole apparatus), would have been unable to obtain the necessary energy to keep it running.

In the 20s and 30s, Italy imported an average of 12 million tons of good quality coal necessary for industrial production, the generation of electricity, locomotion, and winter heating. When Great Britain decided that an Italian intervention along with Germany was preferable to a pro-German neutrality, Italy was informed on January 14th 1940 of an imminent naval blockade of all coal import from Germany ( at that time coming through the then neutral Netherlands). On February 3rd, London informed Rome of the necessary prerequisites for the reinstitution of shipments of the indispensable coal, which, under the plan, would have been shipped from England. Italy was asked to provide London with a large quantity of war materiel. Following the mediation attempts conducted by the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, Great Britain materialized her threats and on March 1st, when units of the Royal Navy interdicted and captured 13 Italian coal ships taking them to internment and confiscating their cargoes.

On the 10th of the same month, when Italian reserves of coal had already decreased to less than one month, the Germans informed that they were ready to commence transferring coal through the Alpine passes at a rate of about 1 million tons per month. This remedy, which the British thought impossible, was the result of collaboration between the “Reichsbahn” and the “Ferrovie dello Stato” and lasted until late summer 1944. Considering that from June 1940 through September 1943 the Regia Marina had to face an ever increasing crisis with the supplies of oil fuel, which at one point paralyzed the fleet leaving the control of the Mediterranean in the hands of the enemy, how did the Italian war ships fill up to reach Malta, where they surrendered?

After several studies, some well-known historians pointed out several discrepancies between the fuel status reports the Regia Marina was sending to the Germans and the quantity reported by the historical bureau of the Italian Navy. The most evident of these discrepancies was noted in the meeting of Merano, in February 1941, where the head of the Navy, Admiral Riccardi, stated that the Navy had only 610,000 tons left when in fact, reserves amounted to over 1 million tons. One can easily assume that the Navy had created a sort of black fund of oil fuel to be used as a last resource with the double scope of obtaining more of the now available German fuel and, in relative security, to coordinate naval operations.


The Regia Marina, expecting the imminent conflict against Great Britain, had planned in the years preceding the war and had been able to accumulate hefty quantities of oil fuel for her boilers to about 2 million tons. This quantity was thought sufficient for about one and one half years of war without any limitations. The Navy was the only armed force, which was able to accumulate a large quantity of fuel, and in the first week of June the Minister of Corporations withdrew 250,000 tons for the operation of industries and also for the Regia Aeronautica. The Regia Aeronautica had used tanks built of tin, instead of iron, which had caused the gasoline to spoil, so the Navy had to transfer 50,000 tons of gasoline.

Italy entered the war not only with the most complete lack of readiness of her armed forces, but also without much fuel. It was thought that the war would not have last long and that the little fuel reserve would be sufficient. As a matter of fact, until January 1941, there were no limitations on the use of oil fuel, but during this month 671,560 tons had already been burned. Supermarina was forced to reduce training. Up to that moment, no large shipment of oil fuel had been acquired to replace the spent one. The 50,000 tons coming from Rumania were all destined to the Regio Esercito and civilian use, while the Regia Aeronautica benefited from 200,000 tons of very poor quality oil coming from the Albanian oil wells. The Regia Marina even attempted to increase domestic production obtaining annually 10,000 tons of low-grade fuel. The first replenishment was only 15,000 tons and it arrived from Rumania as part of an extraordinary shipment.


To worsen this situation came the attempted coup d’ètat in Rumania, which tried to replace the pro German government. Despite Rome’s denial, it was common opinion that the Italian government had supported this action and therefore all shipments of fuel were immediately ceased. For the Regia Marina this situation meant that in addition to losing any hope of replainge the oil fuel burned, 250,000 tons had to be transferred to the Ministry of Corporations which declared it “intangible” while an additional 34,000 tons had to be transferred to the national industry. During 1941, Italy was only able to import 600,000 tons of fuel and of this 163,000 tons were “donated” to the Navy. At this point the situation became really dramatic and the monthly consumption had to be reduced to 60,000 tons. The total amount of oil fuel available at the end of the year was about 200,000 tons and during this period of crisis it was decided to remove from service the older battleships. To worsen this already negative situation, after the November British attack in Egypt, the high command and Mussolini requested that the fleet defend the Libya-bound convoys. This strain, which eventually paid off, was only possible thanks to the special shipment of 80,000 tons of German oil fuel, which was delivered at the end of the year.


On January 10th, 1942 Admiral Riccardi informed the Germans that the Navy’s supplies of fuel had gone down to 90,000 tons. Admiral De Courten, in his memoirs, affirms that in that month the actual reserves were 200,000 tons. This discrepancy can be explained by the 130,000 tons of “intangible” fuel assigned to the corporation. During these months, the bottom was finally reached with reserves down to 14,000 tons. The situation was further deteriorated by the shipment of 9,000 tons of German oil fuel of quality too low to be of any use.

Fortunately, at the end of April, it was possible to start importing 50,000 tons of oil fuel per month from Rumania. Suspending the escort and mining missions conducted by the cruisers further reduced consumption. These precautions and new shipments allowed for the deployment of the whole fleet in the double operation (east and west) during the battle of mid-June. Despite the new shipment, the situation kept deteriorating because, up to the armistice, the Regia Marina transferred 40,000 tons to other units and only two shipments of German fuel (10,000 tons in July and 23,000 in September) were received. These shipments allowed for the deployment (then cancelled), of some cruisers during the battle of mid-August and the replenishment of the bunkers aboard the two naval squadrons. At the end of November, the oil fuel reserve was about 70,000 tons plus all which was stored aboard the ships; enough for one sortie of the whole fleet. At the end of December, the old battleships Cesare, Duilio and Doria were removed from service, thus allowing for their crews to be redeployed to new escort units which were just entering service.


The allied landing in North Africa and the subsequent doubling in consumption was the new event which, once again, placed the Regia Marina in a state of crisis. In fact, now instead of just refurnishing Libya, the Navy had to supply Tunisia. These new missions were made possible by the shipment of 40,000 tons of excellent German oil fuel. In January 1943, the crisis reached its climax and the three modern battleships had to be removed from service thus eliminating the Italian battle force. The only naval division still operating was the 3rd, based in La Maddalena (Sardinia). The crisis worsened with only 3,000 tons received in February 1943 and in March and April the modern destroyers had to be removed from escort missions. Meanwhile, on the 10th of April, the only major naval force, the 3rd Division, was annihilated when the Trieste was sunk and the Gorizia seriously damaged by an allied air bombardment. Expecting a possible Allied invasion, the remaining destroyers were reactivated along with the battleships which had half their bunkers filled with diesel fuel used by submarines.

In the month of April, the 9th and 7th Divisions were active and the destroyers were used in escort missions. It must be noted that, at this point, there was no reserve of oil fuel left; so, how did the Regia Marina reach Malta? To find the answer, we have to step back. When the Germans unexpectedly occupied the French base of Toulon on November 27, 1942, where most of the French fleet still afloat was kept, they were able to capture 80,000 tons of oil fuel. Having realized that the Regia Marina could not launch any offensive mission, the Germans transferred “on loan” 60,000 tons of “special” oil fuel thus allowing for the three battleships to be reactivated, along with the cruisers of the 7th and 8th Division, the light cruisers based in Taranto, and, at the end of June, the two battleships Doria and Duilio, while the Cesare was in Trieste being rebuilt. This oil fuel allowed for several training missions, event which had not happened in a long time. The final mission was not even compromised by the total cessation of German supplies following Mussolini’s fall. In fact when Italy surrendered on September 8th, the Fleet had enough fuel to reach and surrender in Malta.

The Sinking of the Esperia


The official war record of the Italian Navy states: “The most painful loss of the month of August 1941 was, undoubtedly, the SS Esperia of over 11,000 t., sunk by a submarine when it was already in sight of the port of Tripoli.” The official Italian war record, as published in “La Difesa del Traffico con l’Africa Settentrionale” (The Protection of the Traffic with North Africa) reads:

“The convoy left Naples on the 19th of August at 02:00 AM, and included the passenger ships Marco Polo, Esperia, Neptunia and Oceania and it was routed east of Malta (Sicilian Channel, Island of Pantelleria, Kerkennah Islands). Starting from its departure in Naples, the convoy was escorted by the destroyers Vivaldi (lead) Da Recco, Gioberti, Oriani. The Vivaldi had aboard, for the occasion, Rear Admiral Amedeo Nomis di Pollone, Commander at Sea for the mission. After 1:30 PM, the convoy was reinforced by the torpedo boat Dezza and, after 2:50 PM at the beginning of the more dangerous section of the crossing slightly to the north of Marettimo, by the destroyers Maestrale, Grecale and Scirocco.

Moreover, during daylight navigation, both in the Tyrrenhian and in the Sicilian Channels, the convoy was escorted by airplane S. 79 and CR 42 and, in the later afternoon of the 19th, by seaplanes Cant Z 506 for antisubmarine protection. From 5:20 PM to 6:30 PM, north of Pantelleria, the convoy endured two successive underwater attacks, and both times the torpedoes, timely sighted by the convoy’s lookouts, were avoided with prompt maneuvers. The Vivaldi and the Gioberti pursued the enemy submarines for approximately one hour without appreciable results.

The 20th of August at 01:00 AM, the destroyers Maestrale and Grecale returned to port to refuel, and the destroyers Vivaldi, Da Recco, Oriani, Gioberti and Scirocco, along with the torpedo boat Dezza were left in charge of defending the convoy. At 8:30AM, when the convoy was entering the safe channel to Tripoli (a navigational path leading to port and free of mines), the escort was augmented with the arrival of the torpedo boat Partenope and two MAS.

After daybreak, Cant Z 501s had also resumed circling over the naval formation, providing for submarine protection. During the approach to Tripoli, the convoy was preceded by a group of mine sweepers that had already searched the approaching route for several hours. The Italians, undoubtedly, had taken all the necessary precautions to guarantee the safety of their vessels, but unfortunately not even such a large deployment of defensive measures succeeded in avoiding the convoy being attacked by a British submarine.

From British documentation, it turns out that in those days there were three submarines in ambush in the area immediately surrounding the “safe” route to Tripoli: UNIQUE (Lieutenant-Commander R.D. Cayley, D.S.O.), P. 32 (Lieutenant D.A.B. Abdy) and P. 33 (Lieutenant R.D. Whiteway-Wilkinson, D.S.C.). The fact was not exceptional, as English submarines were generally in ambush in the special points of the Italian traffic with Libya. The boats P. 32 and P. 33 were both lost, but the UNIQUE, avoiding the convoy’s defensive screen, succeeded in positioning itself close enough to the MV Esperia to torpedo it.

Admiral Nomis di Pollone, Commander at Sea, reported:
“At 10:20 AM of August 20, the convoy including the SS Marco Polo and Esperia, and the MV Neptunia and Oceania, escorted by the destroyers Vivaldi, Gioberti, Da Recco, Oriani, Scirocco, the Torpedo boat Dezza and two MAS from Tripoli were preceded by the pilot, torpedo boat Partenope, at a point 11miles for true bearing 318° from the beacon of Tripoli, and proceeded at a speed of 17 knots on safe route n. 3 (true course 138). The formation was flown over by aerial defenses composed of 2 Cant Z 501 and 2 fighters.

All the units in the convoy, excluding the pilot, were zigzagging and although the convoy was already on the safe route, it had to be maintained in formation due to the frequent presence of submarines near the Libyan coast. Upon initiating the approaching procedures, the Oriani launched six depth charges to scare off any enemy.

At 10:20 AM, without having sighted the periscope, the Esperia detected the wave of a torpedo to the left perfectly aiming at the ship. Before it was possible to execute any evasive maneuver, the Esperia was hit by a torpedo forward of the bridge; the explosion was immediately followed by the explosion of two others torpedoes, one to the center of the ship (boiler room) and the other one aft. The Esperia immediately began leaning to the left; it remarkably lost headway very quickly, coming to a stop approximately 40° to the left of the original course. The other units in the convoy, as prescribed, continued on due course to port and the Marco Polo raised the signal “I T” (follow me) increasing to full speed ahead. Such a quick decision by the convoy’s commander was very opportune since going astray from the prescribed route could have brought the convoy in dangerous waters due to defensive mine fields.

In the meantime, aboard the Esperia the crew was trying to put in sea the lifeboats, but the maneuver succeeded only partially because of the excessive list and the residual headway of the ship. At 10:31 the Esperia completely pulled down to the left side and sank with the prow low without generating too much gurgle.

At first the explosions against the side of the Esperia were of indeterminate nature, since an observer from any other ship could have assumed a mine, as well as a torpedo, or perhaps bombs from a high flying airplane. A few minutes later, bombs dropped at about 1,000 meters to the left of the Esperia made everyone realize that the planes were after a submarine and that torpedoes had caused the explosions.

I then ordered the Oriani, Scirocco and Dezza to approach the area of the shipwreck and begin the rescue operations, while the Gioberti proceeded with the MAS to give hunt to the submarine, assisted later on by the Da Recco, which at first I had designated to accompany the convoy on the escape route.

At 12:00 three tugs and some motor-sail boats from Tripoli reached the place. Meantime, since the greater part of the shipwreck had been recovered by the units in the convoy, I ordered these units to direct for Tripoli in order to avoid further risks of attack by submarine, leaving in place the Dezza to protect the crafts from Marilibia (Italian Naval Command in Libya) .

People rescued by the:
Vivaldi 76
Oriani 254
Scirocco 471
Dezza 61
Naval units from Tripoli 277
Total 1,139

Observations and proposals – the circumstances described in which the attack has taken place induce us to assume that the submarine executed a launch at a short distance, probably utilizing hydrophones. It is possible that the enemy knew of the arrival of the convoy, since it had been attacked the previous evening by a submarine near Pantelleria with the launch of two torpedoes… “.

The SS Marco Polo, and MV Neptunia and Oceania, as previously said, after the attack of the Unique, continued on to Tripoli entering port at 12:30 PM. They quickly carried out the disembarkation of men and materials and then the three cargo vessels left Tripoli at 5:00 PM of the 21st and reached Naples under the escort of the destroyers Vivaldi, Da Recco, Oriani, Gioberti, Scirocco.”

War Diary of Lt. Fabrizio Romano

August 18, 1941. – At 1530, I arrive at the Pisacane Pier riding a motorcycle with my buddy Raffaele “Fefè” di Russa. As I get into the harbor area, I hear my name called by a voice I know well. It’s Peppino Passarella, whose brother is Doctor Fabrizio, a Captain in the Medical Corps, from my own Regiment and due to leave for North Africa with me: he’s my cousin on my mother’s side. He shouts his greeting to me. I get off the motorbike and I approach him; he’s with his brother and his father-in-law, Mr. Rotundo, who’s seeing off his son, Doctor Antonio Rotundo, also a Medical Corps Captain, bound for North Africa with us. We exchange warm greetings. Captain Rotundo is to embark on the Motor Vessel Esperia.

As for us, i.e., Lieutenant Raffaele di Russa, my close friend and brother in arms since the start of the war, Captain Fabrizio Passarella, MD (my cousin, as I have explained), and myself, we are scheduled to embark on “Neptunia”. In saying our goodbyes, I notice that Dr. Rotundo’s father is emotionally distressed: he hugs his son repeatedly, and says he’s really sorry we’re not all sailing together. Captain Rotundo himself, when we hug before embarking aboard our ships, tells me again how disappointed he is to sail on Esperia. Could it be a foreboding of the tragedy that will soon unfold? As I walk away from him, I shout: “See you in Tripoli!”

We get into the harbor. The accommodation ladders teem with military personnel. Our ship makes a very good impression on Fefé and me.
As I am about to climb aboard the ship, another very pleasant, unexpected encounter makes me even gladder. One of my closest childhood friends, Bruno Mazzarelli, is sailing on my ship; we were together in high school and through university. He is an attorney, he recently got married, and he volunteered to go to North Africa.

Before we embark we are greeted by His Excellency General Rosi, 6th Army Commander, and General Piazzoni, C.O. of our motorized Division “Trieste”. We are all issued small flags with our nation’s colors.
At 1730, after completion of the troops’ embarkation procedures, we board the ship. The stateroom assigned to me and my friend Fefé is spacious, with two bunks. Fefé points out to me that it would be easy to get out through the two portholes, located near his bunk… just in case we have to abandon ship in a hurry. As we try to verify whether our bodies’ bulk allows for a quick egress maneuver, we are pleased to notice that a rope ladder and a thick line hang outboard, near the portholes.

According to the scuttlebutt we got yesterday, during the visit paid by the Colonel commanding our Regiment to the ship, we should get underway tomorrow morning, around 0500. So everyone waits for nightfall without any undue apprehension, since for now we are safe from torpedoes and we’ll be able to spend the night resting in our staterooms and living spaces.
Around 1930 I have a rather good meal, sharing my table with my friends Fefé and Bruno Mazzarelli. From 2100 on, we rest in our staterooms, fully intending to get a good night’s sleep. The rope latter and the thick line are still hanging there near the portholes, which we leave open. The light breeze that barely moves the harbor’s sultry air makes them swing rhythmically.

August 19. – I wake up with a start. My wristwatch shows 0310. To my amazement, I realize the ship is steaming regularly and quite fast.
Where are we, by now? How long has the ship been underway? I’m sure we’re quite far from our safe harbor in Naples! Should we put our lifejacket on and get topside? I wake Fefé to ask him if he knows what’s up. He replies with an indistinct muttering which clearly conveys to me that he’s as clueless as I am about our present position and what we should do. What’s more important, he wants to sleep even more badly than I do, so I decide to follow his example. “Live Dangerously!” I exhort the slumbering Fefé, wishing him goodnight with one of Mussolini’s favorite slogans, and I peacefully go back to sleep myself.

At 0700 we hold reveille in our stateroom. Now that our brains are engaged, we consider the risk we took during the night, and after calling each other irresponsible, Fefé and I engage in a long and highly technical discussion about using the lifejacket. We also discuss whether, if we are attacked by aircraft or submarines, it would be advisable to stay in our stateroom and, above all, about the best way to bring with us some waterproof bags originally meant to carry ice, given to us by my physician brother Vittorio. We decide that we will dive, if the need arises, wearing the short trousers and the bush jacket, and we will place the bag with cognac, sugar and cookies in one of the jacket’s pockets. After a frugal breakfast of coffee, milk, and jam, everyone spreads out on the ship’s decks. The sea is very calm. The air is crystal clear and visibility is excellent.

Our convoy comprises the following ships: Esperia, Oceania, Neptunia, Marco Polo. Our regiment is embarked aboard the latter three ships: on Neptunia, the Regimental Staff and 1st Battalion; on Oceania, the 2nd Battalion, and Marco Polo the 3rd Battalion. Quite a few Germans are also sailing aboard each of the ships. Around 1030 we sight some fairly distant wakes in the water. There are three of them; they travel almost parallel, at moderate speed, in the direction of our convoy. Most of the onlookers at first think they’re dolphins, but the ship’s watchstanders know better. The signal bridge immediately puts up a complex signal made up of colored flags, which translated into everyday speech means: “Torpedo wakes, port side!”.
Almost at the same time, we notice that our ship turns suddenly and at a very fast rate, imitated by Marco Polo, which is nearly parallel to our own Neptunia. In the meantime the general alarm has been sounded on all ships. Everyone fits his lifejacket more snugly to his body. The minutes tick by slowly, filled with trepidation; but after a while, the all clear signal is given. That was close! Dolphins, schmolfins, I say!

The danger of having to abandon ship starts hanging over us all like Damocles’ sword. On the ship, everyone exchanges comments. Of course we all swear we were the first to sight the deadly wakes, and in fact many of us presume they actually alerted the bridge watchstanders and strut around as if they saved the ship from being torpedoed. Now that the danger is behind us, this whole thing is degenerating into a farce.
As always, our Commanding Officer, Colonel Cesare Fabozzi, distinguishes himself by his truly monumental calmness. This excellent, professional soldier commands his regiment more with his heart than with ironclad discipline and he deserves to be briefly described in this war diary.
He is a huge, highly decorated man; battle-scarred, he is one of our best known regimental commanders. Although he knows several foreign languages, off duty he always speaks his native Neapolitan dialect, accompanied by the typical mimicry that goes with it. He is a born optimist, but he firmly believes in the influence of jinxing and of so-called unlucky days. In every situation he has always shown great calm and an equally large dose of common sense.

On the occasion of this journey, he – as always – sees happy tidings from any event that is even slightly out of the ordinary. From the first day he set foot on MV Neptunia, where he took command of military personnel, he considered the omens very favorable, because MV Esperia’s arrival was held up by repair work in a shipyard, needed after an air attack: so our convoy’s sailing date had been moved from the 17th to the 18th. “That date [the 17th] was grossly jinxed !” he’d whispered to me with his characteristic open smile, usually followed by a no less original boisterous laugh, which came in evenly spaced staccato bursts. By expressing out loud his wholehearted approval for the opportune date change, he had – in a sense – transfused into me his conviction that for our Regiment, fate would continue to be very benign, as it had been on the Western alpine front. The torpedoes’ failure to hit us therefore found him at his battle station, calm and ever more optimistic.

The 19th was not totally uneventful: around 1700, a new alarm was sounded. Two torpedoes had been launched against “Marco Polo”, another ship in our convoy, but they missed their target. That evening, after dinner, though the recent dangers we had been through should have made us anxious, we retired to our stateroom. We did, however, stay dressed and we kept our lifejackets at hand.

August 20. – At 1022 a formidable explosion roils the water. It is immediately followed by two more very loud bangs.
Our attention is totally focused on the ship to our left: it’s Esperia.
After the first explosion a huge column of water rises heavenwards, about 65 feet up. The stricken ship lists to starboard, but she stills moves forward. The escorting destroyers, which tried to cover our treacherous route with sudden, very fast course changes, now all converge in the direction of the beautiful, condemned ship. She was hit by no less than three torpedoes!
We see a thick, dense column of black smoke rise from a destroyer. She got hit herself, and now she starts listing, then quickly sinks: her death throes are incredibly short.

Our eyes are all on Esperia. Given the time of day, visibility is perfect. From the sky, with very quick dives, the planes do their best to assist in rescuing personnel off the stricken ship, and above all they try, by releasing a veritable torrent of depth charges, to flush the enemy submarine from its lair in the depths and destroy it. A puff of white smoke, rising from the water, leads us to believe that the submarine has also been mortally wounded. The water is coated with a film of fuel oil. Just a few minutes have gone by. Esperia, after listing even further to starboard, sinks rapidly, without any visible eddies, and disappears from our view forever. When the tragic moment comes, we all stand rigidly at attention. The signal, ordered by bugle by our ship’s Captain, finds all soldiers in the Regiment motionless in the final salute to the beautiful ship as she disappears beneath the waves, taking so many brothers in arms with her.

From the time of the first explosion, which occurred at 1022, no more than eight minutes have elapsed: at 1030 the only tangible evidence that Esperia ever existed is flotsam and a few survivors in the water.
Our ship sails on, no longer escorted by the destroyers, which stay behind to complete their rescue work. We are very close to Tripoli’s shore: the coast of Africa we have all been yearning for is now in sight. Our hearts are deeply moved. We all stand motionless, speechless, in our places.
The very present danger of a torpedo attack on our ship no longer worries us, shaken as we are by the terrible vision of our Esperia’s end, burnt indelibly in our eyes.

My cousin, Fabrizio Passarella, is at my side. Like me, he has also experienced the ship’s tragic end from start to awful finish. We look into each other’s eyes, and without saying a word we share the same, terribly painful feeling of the tragic fate that befell our mutual friend, Doctor Antonio Rotundo, the one we had said farewell to when he embarked on Esperia. We try to check our emotions and we rush to our respective muster station. I, along with my friend Raffaele di Russa who has joined me, hurry to the bridge where, together with the Colonel and the Adjutant Captain Borsi, we remain until we reach Tripoli’s harbor.


Original in Italian provided by Mr. Fabrizio Cao and translated by Sebastian De Angelis

S.S. Esperia

Built 1920
Shipyard Società Esercizio Bacini (Cantieri del Tirreno, Riva Trigoso)
Call sign (W/T) IBUK
Owner Società Anonima di Navigazione Adriatica
Naval Department Genoa
Register 1500
Length 527′ 11”
Beam 61′ 11”
Draught 23′ 7”
Engine 2 turbines, 10 boiles, 56 burners
HP 18,000
Propellers 2
Comsuption 172
Maximum Speed (knots) 20
Gross Registered Tonnage (g.r.t.) 11398
Net Register Tonnage (n.r.t) 5963
Carrying Capacity 2900
Holds 3 x 3451 Cubic Yards
Passengers 375


Data provided by Mr. Franco Prevato.

The Loss of the Galilea

The three years of naval warfare in the Mediterranean which saw the British and Italian navies face each other was, for the most part, a war of convoys. All the battles, engagements and other episodes of war which characterized these eventful three years were directly or indirectly related to the shipment of personnel and materiel from and to the front.
Usually, the burden of heavy losses and disastrous incidents rested with those involved in transporting more than those obstructing. A clear confirmation of this statement can be found in the heavy British losses in the defense, and then the retreat from Greece and Crete. Furthermore, the convoys to Malta are another proof that, whenever asked to defend a convoy or organize transports in general, the British Navy was neither more nor less successful than the Regia Marina.

The substantial difference between the roles of the two navies can be traced back to politics more than military reasons. The first blatant Italian mistake was, in addition to the moral aspect of the whole affair, the invasion of Greece. This ill-conceived campaign demanded vast shipment of war material from the mainland to Albania. Although the actual route was very short, Albania did not have enough facilities to allow for the unloading of the merchant ship.

The second mistake was, and this can be debated either way, the missed occupation of Tunisia. After the surrender of France, it was thought that by using Tunisian ports the routes to North Africa could be made more secure and, of course, much shorter. This proposed occupation was vetoed by Hitler even though, after the Allied landings in western North Africa, it was eventually accomplished. The strategic alternative, which called for the occupation of Malta, never materialized. So the Italian Navy was left transporting supplies to North Africa over longer routes easily within reach of the Malta-based airplanes and ships.

These perilous journeys, conducted by an ever decreasing number of vessels under ever more difficult circumstances, are the untold story of a conflict which, in such a tragic way, touched the lives of so many people. One of these journeys of misery and death started from the port of Piraeus, continued through Lutraki and the Strait of Corinth. The ship Galilea left Corinth the evening of the 27th of March, 1942 along with the ships Crispi and Viminale. Near Patrass, the convoy was joined by the ships Piemonte, Ardenza and Italia. The convoy left Patrass at 1 PM on the 28th of March under the auxiliary escort Città di Napoli, the destroyer Sebenico and the torpedo boats San Martino, Castelfidtardo, Mosto and Bassini . The Regia Aeronautica provided reconnaissance and aerial support until sunset.

The limited escort can be explained by the chronic shortage of escort vessels that the Regia Marina was already experiencing. Before the beginning of the war, Italy had built a new series of destroyers, but this was too little and too late. Most of the vessels in service had already logged thousands of hours and machinery was prone to failures. Furthermore, the general antisubmarine capabilities of these vessels were limited and their number, especially toward the end of the conflict, became dramatically small.
The Galilea was a passenger ship belonging to the Adriatica Società Anonima di Navigazione based in Venice and Trieste. Built in 1918 by the San Rocco shipyard of Trieste with the name of Pilsa, it was sold to the Trieste-based company in 1935 and christened Galilea. Documents from Lloyds of London describe the ship as a liner with two propellers and steam engines with a displacement of 8,040 t., a length of 443’8″, width of 53’2″ and a drought of 25″11″. The nominal speed was 13.5 knots and room for 47 passengers in first class and 148 in second.

During this period the Galilea had been designated as a hospital ship. In this function, it had been designated as the transport for part of the Battaglione Gemona of the famous Julia alpine division (Italian alpine troops are called “Alpini”). Specifically, distributed between first and second class and the various decks were personnel of the 629, 230, 814 MASH, 8 Health Section and 8th group assistance. This battalion, after the Greek campaign where it was assigned to the defense of the Channel of Corinth, was scheduled to join another Mussolinian adventure as part of the Italian Army in Russia.

The journey went on regularly despite the continuous and frequent explosions of depth charges. At 6:30 PM, the convoy passed Cape Ducati while the weather conditions were deteriorating with increasing rain and patches of thick fog. At 7:00 PM the convoy left the single line formation and was organized in two lines with the Viminale leading to port and the Galilea to starboard about 600 meters apart.

Despite the fact that the convoy was in complete darkness, it fell prey to the British submarine HMS Proteus, commanded by LtCdr Phillip Stewart Francis. This vessel had left Alexandria the 12th of March and was scheduled to be on patrol until the 24th in the Gulf of Taranto. At the end of this fruitless patrol, the boat was ordered to the Strait of Otranto where she sank the Galilea. After this sinking, the Proteus continued her patrol and on the 30th sank the Bosforo (3,648 tons). The submarine returned to Alexandria on the 4th of April.

The attack was swift. The steamship Galilea was hit by a torpedo on her starboard which created a hole of about 6 meters by 6 just below the bridge in compartment number 2. The ship immediately began to list about 15 degrees. The ship’s commander attempted to reach the nearby Islands of Passo and Antipasso but the maneuver was impeded by the bad weather and the damages received. Similarly to most war vessels, the ship was not equipped with enough lifeboats for most of her passengers. The bad weather made matters even worse. The rest of the convoy was quickly ordered to leave the scene of the attack, while one of the two destroyers began bombing the enemy submarine, with little positive result.
The ship’s agony continued until 3:50 AM on the 29th of March when eventually it sank. The sinking is officially reported to have taken place on 93.04 N 20.05 E. Even if the ship did not sink until the 29th, it is officially reported as having been lost on the 28th. The torpedo boat left behind attempted to rescue part of the survivors, but the cold water of the wintry Mediterranean and the presence of the submarine made it very difficult. The following morning, MAS 516 and two minesweepers arrived from the base of Prevesa, along with a Red Cross hydroplane from Brindisi which crashed during a landing maneuver . The escort units reported having damaged an enemy submarine, a fact which cannot be confirmed by the official British records.

Of the 1,275 man aboard the Galilea only 284 were rescued. The Battaglione Gemona lost 21 officers, 18 petty officers and 612 alpine troops. Along with the “Alpini” perished some Italian “Carabinieri” (Military Police) and Greek prisoners of war. The rest of the convoy reached Bari on the 29th.
Between May 1941 and August 1943, during the period described as “occupation garrisons,” the navy transported 377,425 men and 870,625 tons of war material between Italy and the Albanian-Greek ports. Of these, 1,546 men and 6,224 tons of materiel were lost. One can easily see that the sinking of the Galilea amounted to almost 70% of all Italian losses. Although the overall percentage of Italian losses is relatively low (.2%), one can comprehend the magnitude of this tragedy.

The following morning rescue operations continued but it was now too late. The news of the disaster soon reached the Friuli region of Italy from where most of the ‘Alpini” had come. The sorrow and the despair felt then can still be felt today. Many of the soldiers were never found, while the bodies of others were washed onto the Greek shores. Once again, the war machinery had devoured brave Italian men as it had done before, and would again later. Throughout the war Allied and Axis troops shared this horrible fate equally.

Dedicated to the memory of Virginio Tonelli

The Sinking of the Battleship Roma

On September 9th 1943, the day following the proclamation of the armistice, the Italian battlegroup, under the command of Admiral Carlo Bergamini, was attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Asinara by a formation of German bombers. During the attack, the ship was struck and the commander at sea, along with a great number of officers, petty officers and sailors perished, in all 1.253 men.

The battleship R.N. Roma in 1943

How did it happen? Why was the most modern and most powerful Italian battleships sunk by just one bomb? Why did so many loose their lives?

September 3rd, 1943. Gen. Castellano, on behalf of Marshal Badoglio and the Gen. Bedeli Smith, representing Gen. Eisenhower, secretly signed in Cassibile (Sicily) the so-called “Short Military Armistice”. The document was composed of 13 clauses and the fourth one called for «the immediate transfer of the Italian fleet and the Italian airplanes to those places that will be designated by the allied Command with the details of their disarmament, that will be decided by the Allied forces». Adm. Raffaele de Courten, Minister of the Navy, along with the commanders responsible of the other branches, was called by Prime Minister Badoglio, who informed them that «negotiations are in progress to conclude an armistice with the Anglo-Americans», but that the news must be kelpt absolutely secret.

September 5th, 1943. The Head of the Armed Forces, General Ambrosio, mentioned to de Courten that the conclusion of the armistice and its declaration were to be expected between the 10th and the 15th of September , probably on the 12th or 13th and that most probability the fleet would be relocated to La Maddalena (Sardinia), where the King would most probably come with the royal family and part of the Government.

September 6th, 1943. De Courten received confirmation from Ambrosio that such a course of action should be implemented if events hamper the actions of the government and the military leaders so recommend. Consequently, Supermarina ordered that the two destroyers, the Vivaldi and Da Noli be stationed in Civitavecchia at dawn on September 9th, ready to sail in two hours. Two corvettes were stationed in Gaeta, and two MAS in Fiumicino (near the estuary if the Tiber River). The morning of the 7th, De Courten called a meeting in Rome for all admirals reporting to the Naval High Command (Supermarina). By this time, he still did not know that the armistice had been signed on September 3.

More and more, evident signs predicted an allied offensive against the southern coast of Italy. Twenty submarines were deployed along the possible approach routes of the convoy and they were put in a state of alarm.

September 7th, 1943. De Courten called a meeting at the Ministry of the Navy. Attendees included the Naval High Commander, Adm. Carlo Bergamini. During the meeting, de Courten did not consider it opportune to inform all present of the negotiations in progress for the armistice because such information was considered highly secret. With the attendees, he defined a conventional signal that would be used to order the scuttling of the fleet.

September 8 th, 1943. As soon as confirmation of the beginning of the allied landing in Salerno was received, de Courten gave orders to the Commander at Sea, Adm. Carlo Bergamini, (who in the meantime had returned aboard the Roma in Spezia), to fire up the boilers and be ready to sail at 2:00 PM. Anticipating an offensive the following day, orders were given to coordinate operations with the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe.

De Courten was called by the supreme commander General Ambrosio, who informed him that the Allies had rejected the proposal to transfer the fleet to La Maddalena, but that they had allowed one cruiser and four destroyers to be left to the disposal of the King. Nevertheless, he added that he would continue to insist on the La Maddalena issue, and that he still hoped to succeed in convincing the Allies. Finally, he told him to wait for orders to leave La Spezia with the battle group in about six hours.

De Courten was then called to the Quirinale (Royal Palace) for a meeting directed by the King. Gen. Ambrosio informed the audience that the armistice had been signed on September 3 with the agreement that a specific day for implementation would be communicated based on the mutual operational needs of the Italian and the Anglo-American.

At 18:30, Radio Algiers releases the news of the armistice to the world.

At 19:45 Badoglio made the following radio announcement: “The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the uneven struggle against the overwhelming enemy power, with the intent of saving further and more serious calamities to the Nation, has asked Gen. Eisenhower, commaner in chief of the Allies forces, for an armistice. The request has been accepted. Consequently every action of hostility against the allied armed forces must stop from the Italian armed forces in every place. They (the Italian forces), however, will react to possible attacks of any other origin».

According to the clauses of the armistice, the Italian ships, bearing black circular panels in sign of surrender, would be to transferred to Malta to await their final destiny. The situation had been completely turned upside-down. A few hours before, the Regia Marina was prepared to go to sea and fight the Allies. Not even the commander. Admiral Carlo Bergamini, had been made aware of the developments of the political situation. The highest secrecy, desired by Gen. Vittorio Ambrosio, had had its results.

Adm. Sansonetti gave orders to the fleet to reach the agreed allied ports but without “deliverering of the ships and lowering of the flag”. To convince friends and enemies alike, he transmitted his orders in clear..

Gen. Ambrosio asked the Anglo-Americans that the Fleet, for technical reasons, be moved to La Maddalena and that everything be ready for the docking of the ships.

Aboard the ships the excitement reached a dangerous level. Bergamini had to issue orders forbidding anyone from boarding the ship without proper notification and authorization. “No one should ask for directives”, he announced, “They will come when needed”. In the end, it was decided to call all admirals and commanders to a meeting. It was 10 PM.

The departure of the fleet, given as imminent during the day, had been postponed several times. Tension amongst the crew was at its worst. Bergamini took the situation under control and confirmed to the admirals and commanders the news of the armistice and summarily mentioned his telephone calls with Rome. He reminded everyone of the supreme duty of obedience so paramount in such a dramatic time.

September 9th, 1943. At 3 PM the fleet left for La Maddalena. It did not hoist the black signs of the surrender. At the same time, in the Gulf of Salerno, the Anglo-American operation “Avalanch” had begun.

Three battleships left La Spezia: the Roma, with Adm. Bergamini aboard, the Vittorio Veneto and Littorio (renamed Italia after July 25, 1943) with Adm. Garofolo. Three cruisers (Eugenio di Savoia, Adm. Oliva; Montecuccoli and Regolo) and eight destroyers (Legionario, Grecale, Oriani, Velite, Mitragliere, Fuciliere, Artigliere and Carabiniere). The Fleet was maintained at about twenty kilometers from the western coast of Corsica at a speed of 22 knots. At dawn, an allied plane spotted the fleet. At 8:00 AM Adm.. Meendsen Bohlken, commander of the German forces in La Spezia, gave the alarm to Berlin: «The Italian fleet has departed during the night to surrender itself to the enemy».

At noon on the 9th the Fleet , with the ships in a line formation, was in sight of the Bocche di Bonifacio. Bergamini took a 90-degree left turn toward la Maddalena, but at 13.40 PM he received news that La Maddalena had been occupied by German forces. Without hesitation, Bergamini reversed course 180 degrees.

At 2:00 PM, Bergamini was in sight of the Asinara. Meantime more reconnaissance planes were spotted. Unexpectedly, from five thousand meters, airplanes dropped a few bombs without striking any of the ships

From lstres (Marsiglia) 15 two-engine Donier 217 KIIs from the 3rd Squadron of the 100° group took off. Each airplane was equipped with a type FX-1400 bomb. This bomb had been designed in 1939 by Doctor Kramer and was originally named FritzX. The FX-1400, which was also knows as the SD 1400, was a high penetration 1400-kilo device with four small wings, tail controls and a rocket motor. Near the tail a remote control system was also installed. The control was operated by the airplane from which the bomb had been launched. The bomb, with 300 kilograms of explosives, was 3,30 meter long .

At 15.30 the first bomb was directed toward the Littorio (named Italia after July 25 1943) and it fell near the battleship temporarily blocking the rudder. The ship was then controlled with the auxiliary rudder. The point of the attack was about 14 miles southwest miles of Cape Testa (Sardinia).

The rocket bombs were a great surprise. Not only were they extremely precise, but the fact that they were dropped at 60 degrees instead of the usual 80 created confusion. This new technique tricked the Italian officers into believing that the German intentions were not offensive. This mistake was fatal, considering that the Italians were under order to fight back only if attacked.

Only after a demonstration of such evident hostility from the Germans, did the Roma give the signal of «air alarm». The antiaircraft batteries, first from the right, then from the left, opened swift fire, but it was too late! The airplanes were just above the ships and in that position they were safe.

At 15.45 the Roma was hit on the right side. The bomb burst into sea after having crossed the whole hull and the ship’s speed was reduced to 10 knots.

At 15.50 the Roma was struck again by a second bomb. This one exploded in the forward deposits of the big caliber complexes. The ship was fatally wounded. A column of flames and smoke rose for a thousand meters. The turret n. 2 (1.500 tons) along with all of its occupants and the command tower were projected aloft and tilted to the right side. It was the end for Bergamini and his staff. The ship began to tilt to the right side. It was a horrendous show of death and destruction. The majority of the men were burnted alive.

At 16.12 the Roma turned upside-down, br

Italian Night Surface Actions

“Our Searchlights shone out with the first salvo, and provided full illumination for what was a ghastly sight. Full in the beam I saw our six great projectiles flying through the air. Five out of the six hit a few feet below the level of the cruiser’s upper deck and burst with splashes of brilliant flame . . .” The gunnery officer cried ” `Good Lord! We’ve hit her!’”1

Major surface warships (torpedo boat or larger) of the Italian Navy participated in fifteen night actions with major Allied warships in the three years between June 1940 and May 1943. The Italian Navy, which was so successful in many respects, failed to accomplish its mission in nearly all these battles. The immediate and easy explanation is that the Italians did not train for such actions, and lacking radar, could not successfully hold their own at night against the radar equipped Royal Navy. However, training and technology do not fully account for the repeated Italian defeats. This essay examines two other factors that played a crucial part in the outcome of nearly all these actions. These are the nature of the actions themselves – the Italians were usually on the defensive, they were usually surprised and they were usually outnumbered — and the fact that although every battle included torpedo capable platforms, the Italians inflicted almost no damage at all with this, the most deadly of nighttime weapon systems.

These fifteen night actions fall into four categories: The Italian Navy intercepted and attacked Allied forces four times, all in the first six months of the war. In the other eleven actions, the Italians acted defensively: once during a transport mission, twice during rescue operations and eight times escorting convoys.

In four offensive actions Italian light forces intercepted Allied forces, achieving complete surprise twice, but without the benefits such an advantage usually bestowed. On June 14, 1940 an Italian torpedo boat supported by four motor torpedo boats launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack against a French bombardment force of heavy cruisers and destroyers. One MTB was sunk by return fire. This action may be considered a qualified failure in that it encouraged the French to terminate their mission early. The second interception bears closer examination because the Italians had the superior force (three torpedo boats and four destroyers verses a single light cruiser), they achieved surprise, launching torpedoes from close range before the British knew they were under attack and still they were roundly defeated, losing two torpedoes boats sunk and two destroyers severely damaged. The cruiser was hit seven times by light shells and only moderately damaged. Of this action Bragadin wrote:

“The reports about the battle gave reason for much reflection. The enemy had escaped with only a few hits scored by the guns of the Airone and the Ariel, damage about equal in all to that suffered by the Aviere alone. The Italians, on the other had, had lost a destroyer and two destroyer escorts; yet the Italian ships were among the more efficient in the Navy, and their commanders were outstanding. Each ship that had come into contact with the enemy had conducted herself gallantly in every respect, even to the point of gaining the enemy’s admiration. But it had to be admitted that the Italians were technically inferior to the British, at least as far as carrying out night encounters at sea was concerned. In reality this inferiority was probably to be explained solely by the fact that the Ajax was equipped with radar.”1

In fact, it is questionable whether Ajax’s Type 279 radar had much to do with the outcome of this action. It was designed to detect aircraft and was, in any case, disabled by Italian gunfire although Sadkovich affirms that the radar provided Ajax’s initial warning of the Italian presence. In any case, it wasn’t training, technology or lack of dash that accounted for this defeat. A German analysis of the event seems closer to the truth.
Commenting on this incident after the war, the German Admiral, Eberhard Welchold . . . attributed the Italian losses without accompanying success to the clearness of the night, and the insufficient number of the boats employed in the tactical execution of the attack.”2

The Italian ships attacked separately, or in pairs and fired their torpedoes the same way, signally or in pairs. Of this, more later.

On 20 Oct 40 four destroyers intercepted an Allied convoy in the Red Sea, but the escort, which included a light cruiser, a destroyer, three sloops and two minesweepers, drove them off. The Italian torpedo attack, made at high speed and without the advantage of surprise, was unsuccessful. Neither side suffered damage in this portion of the battle although the British noted that “the enemy were provided with flashless cordite and with good tracers to aid their shooting” whereas they suffered the disadvantage of being temporarily blinded by the flash of their own guns.3

The last Italian offensive nighttime action occurred on 26 November 1940. An Italian torpedo boat unsuccessfully launched torpedoes at a Royal Navy force consisting of a battleship and two cruisers. The British never noticed. Surprise was there and the enemy did not engage in evasive maneuvers, which leaves only the conclusion that too few torpedoes were launched to ensure success at the range fired.

In their eleven defensive encounters the Italian Navy hardly faired better.

Twice superior Allied forces surprised and literally obliterated Italian forces engaged in rescue operations. In the first occasion, the Battle of Cape Matapan, 28 March 1941, Royal Navy battleships ambushed and sank three Italian heavy cruisers. In the destroyer engagement which followed, four Italian destroyers fruitlessly counterattacked Allied destroyers with torpedoes and gunfire, losing two of their own to torpedoes while another was damaged by gunfire. On 02 December 1942 in a miniature repeat four Royal Navy destroyers surprised and sank an Italian torpedo boat engaged in rescuing survivors from an earlier sinking. The Italian did not get a shot off in her own defense.

The Italian Navy used warships reluctantly during extreme situations to transport supplies to North Africa. One of the worst defeats suffered by the Italian Navy occurred when four Allied destroyers ambushed two light cruisers, their decks loaded with fuel, sinking both with torpedoes and gunfire with no loss to themselves. The single torpedo fired by the counterattacking torpedo boat missed while the cruisers only had time for a few salvoes before their guns were silenced.

Half of the night surface engagements occurred as the result of British interceptions of Italian convoys. These interceptions and their results are listed below:

12 November 1940: Achieving complete surprise three Allied light cruisers and two destroyers attacked a convoy of four merchant ships escorted by a torpedo boat and an armed merchant cruiser. The Allies sank all four merchantmen with gunfire and torpedoes and badly damaged the escorting torpedo boat. The escort counterattacked with torpedoes and gunfire, but inflicted no damage.
16 April 1941: Achieving complete surprise, four British destroyers attacked a convoy of five merchantmen escorted by three destroyers. The British sank all five merchantmen and the entire escort with gunfire and torpedoes while losing one destroyer to Italian torpedoes. Italian gunfire was ineffective.
8 November 1941: Achieving complete surprise, two British light cruisers and two destroyers attacked a convoy of seven merchantmen escorted by two heavy cruisers and ten destroyers. The British sank all seven merchantmen and one destroyer with gunfire and torpedoes, damaging three destroyers more while suffering superficial gunfire damage to one of their own destroyers. The escort did not fire torpedoes.
02 December 1942: Achieving complete surprise three British light cruisers and two destroyers attacked a convoy of four merchantmen escorted by four destroyers and two torpedo boats. The British sank all four merchantmen and one destroyer with gunfire and torpedoes and damaged an additional destroyer and a torpedo boat. The escort counterattacked with torpedoes and gunfire, inflicting light damage with gunfire.
15 January 1943: Achieving complete surprise two British destroyers attacked a single merchantman escorted by a torpedo boat. They sank the merchantman and avoided two torpedo attacks from the escort, which then escaped undamaged.
16 April 1943: Two British destroyers attacked a single merchantman escorted by four torpedo boats. The British sank one torpedo boat and damaged another with gunfire. The escort counterattacked with torpedoes and gunfire, sinking one British destroyer and lightly damaging the other with gunfire. The merchantman escaped unharmed.
04 May 1943. Achieving complete surprise three British destroyers attacked a single merchantman escorted by a torpedo boat. They sank both Italians with gunfire without suffering any damage in return.
02 June 1943. Achieving complete surprise, a British and Greek destroyer attacked a small convoy of two merchantmen escorted by a torpedo boat. They sank the escort and one merchantman with gunfire, suffering no damage in return. One merchantman escaped.

The British achieved decisive results in seven of the eight cases listed above sinking 22 of 23 transports under escort as well as seven escorts, at a loss of only one destroyer to themselves. In the single instance of a successful defense, the Italians lost one torpedo boat with another heavily damaged, but in return sank one of the attacking destroyers and lightly damaged the other, while preserving the ship under escort.
The Italian debacles share several characteristics in common. The British enjoyed the advantage of surprise – an enormous, usually decisive advantage at night. Except for the 08 November attack, they had the superior force and even then, they were able to avoid the strongest part of the escort and defeat the balance in detail. On the one occasion the Italians successfully completed their mission, they detected the British before the attack commenced and, with four torpedo boats verses two destroyers, they were not massively outnumbered.

Defending a convoy at night against a superior force that achieved surprise was something no navy did particularly well. British nighttime interceptions, for example, shot up German coastal convoys escorted by torpedo boats and/or minesweepers on August 5 and 15, 1944 in the Bay of Biscay, on October 17, 1944 in the Aegean and on November 13, 1944 and January 11, 1945 off Norway. French destroyers also destroyed a German torpedo boat escorted convoy in the Adriatic on February 28, 1944. The Battle of Savo Island on August 8, 1942, when a Japanese force massacred American and Australian cruisers and destroyers defending a beachhead, may also be mentioned in this context. Nor were the Japanese immune, suffering destruction of destroyer transport forces at Vella Gulf on 06 August 1943 and Cape St. George on 25 November 25, 1943 under similar conditions.

After the opening months of the war, the Italian Navy avoided night surface engagements with the Royal Navy. The British enjoyed the benefits of radar, both for detection and gunnery. The British trained for this type of action and, until they ran up against the Japanese, fancied themselves masters of the dark. However, as the Japanese example demonstrated, lack of radar did not automatically relegate a navy to an inferior position. The Japanese compensated with superior weapons, hard and realistic training, outstanding pyrotechnics and excellent optics used by individuals selected for their superior night vision. Japanese eyes outperformed American radar on many occasions. The Italian navy did not specifically train and equip themselves for night action. In effect, they conceded the dark to the British. Their pyrotechnics were inadequate, as demonstrated in the Duisberg action when star shells fired by the heavy cruisers repeatedly failed to properly illuminate targets. Sadkovich notes: “Italian industry failed to develop good star shells and flares.”4

The other thread common to these actions is the failure of Italian torpedo forces to inflict damage with their torpedoes. Torpedoes were the silent killer, the equalizer. Tassafaronga stands as the outstanding example wherein a quickly delivered torpedo barrage by a completely surprised inferior force engaged in a transport mission turned certain defeat into overwhelming victory. In these fourteen night engagements the Italian Navy units used torpedoes eleven times. But only once did they actually hit a British ship. In contrast, British torpedoes were used successfully in six of their ten offensive engagements.

The important question is why? It was not a lack of courage or resolution. Italian destroyers and torpedo boats pressed their attacks, risking and receiving damage from heavier warships on numerous occasions: During the action of 12 November, 1940 Fabrizi, a World War I torpedo boat, turned toward three cruisers, and although hit repeatedly, she fired torpedoes, one of which just missed Sydney astern.

During the action of October 12, 1940 Alcione, Airone and Ariel all fired two torpedo salvos from ranges of 2,200 yards to about 6,000 yards. All ran wide without the British ship taking any avoiding action. Airone, closing rapidly, fired off another pair of torpedoes from 750 yards (also wide). Both Ariel and Airone paid the price for pressing their attacks and were sunk. Other examples of Italian willingness to close range include the actions of 02 December 1942, 15 January 1943 and 16 April 1943.
It is not easy to hit a moving target from a moving platform at a distance of up to thirty kilometers. United States Navy destroyers unsuccessfully fired hundreds of torpedoes at Japanese ships in six major engagements between Badung Strait on February 19 1942, through Java Sea, Savo Island, Cape Esperance, First Guadalcanal and Tassafaronga, not damaging a Japanese warship until the First Battle of Kula Gulf on March 5, 1943, almost 13 months later. Much of the problem with American torpedoes was mechanical – they ran too deep and both the magnetic and contact exploders did not function properly. The Italian Navy could not claim this excuse. “Italian torpedoes were also reliable”5 However, they produced a tell tale bubble until 1941 when compressed air was replaced by a more effective system producing a wakeless torpedo. Percussion fuses were replaced by magnetic fuses only in 1942, when electric propulsion was introduced.

Then, why did crews displaying extraordinary resolution launch attacks at close range with a reliable and tested weapon so unsuccessfully? Examining the pattern of attacks and their results, it seems many torpedoes ran wide. This suggests that the attacks were carried out in haste and at high speeds and often under heavy enemy fire. In the one case where an Italian destroyer did conduct a successful attack, the vessel was dead in the water and the three single torpedoes fired were manually trained and aimed. Two hit and so would have the third if it had not run too deep. A second, perhaps more telling reason involves Italian doctrine. Simply put, the Italian navy didn’t fire enough torpedoes. Many torpedo boats, for example were capable of only firing two torpedoes per salvo and even those that could manage four often restricted themselves to salvos of one of two. Compare this with Japanese and American practice where in attacks were generally conducted with full salvos of eight torpedoes per ships and divisions of ships would fire simultaneously, not individually. All things being equal, an attack of 24 or 32 torpedoes stands a much greater chance of inflicting damage than an attack of 2 or 6 torpedoes. Most revealing in this context is the statistic that in June 1940 the Italians had 1,450 tubes, but only 3,650 torpedoes in stock, many the older 450mm version

Navies that used torpedoes successfully used them lavishly. The two-day Battle of Java Sea provides a good example: the Japanese fired 39 torpedoes in their initial attack and sank one destroyer. They fired with 92 in a second attack and missed with every one. In a third attack 16 torpedoes fired sank two light cruisers. The next day they fired 85 more at Surgano Strait and 33 in the action against Exeter, sinking three cruisers (and at least four of their own transport vessels). Thus, in one battle the Japanese expended 265 torpedoes. The entire Italian Navy, including submarines, fired 549 torpedoes during six months of warfare in 1940. “All Italian units, naval and air fired only 3,700 torpedoes during the entire war, rationing their use due to low production.”6 This averages to only 95 torpedoes used per month over 39 months of war. Contrast this to the average of 323 torpedoes used per month by American submarines in the Pacific over 45 months of war.

German torpedo boats provide a rare instance of a night surface strike force being defeated. It is interesting to contrast this success with Italian experiences.

On October 23, 1943 a British force of a light cruiser, two destroyers and four destroyer escorts sortied along the Briton shore to intercept a blockade runner reported by ULTRA. German shore radar detected the British and vectored five German torpedo boats (purportedly escorting the blockade runner) in to intercept. Just after British radar detected the Germans and before the British could go into action, a barrage of 24 German torpedoes struck. Two torpedoes hit and sank the cruiser and another severely damaged a destroyer escort, which was subsequently scuttled. The British made mistakes against the Germans they did not make against the Italians, at least in such numbers. They had conducted several similar offensive missions prior to this disaster in the same waters in the same fashion, permitting the enemy to anticipate their tactics; they were using a scratch force that had never operated together and finally, they permitted themselves to be surprised. Of course, none of this would have benefited the Germans if their torpedo barrage had missed. The German torpedo boats had a decisive advantage over Italian boats in that they could fire salvoes of six, equivalent to most Italian fleet destroyers. Most importantly, when it was time to fire, the Germans held nothing back. They attacked in masse.

Returning to the action off Cape Passero on October 12, 1940, Italian torpedo boats, enjoying surprise, made four separate, uncoordinated attacks, firing two torpedoes each time. These particular Spica class boats had their four tubes on the centerline so they were capable of doubling their efforts. A coordinated surprise barrage of twelve torpedoes would surely have had a better chance of success than four separate salvos of two torpedoes each, no matter how gallantly delivered.
Night surface actions were most difficult to conduct. In conclusion everything was working against the Italian Navy. Their training and doctrine dictated that such actions be avoided. Their early experiences reinforced and confirmed this policy of avoidance. A lack of radar placed them at a disadvantage when necessity or circumstance required they fight at night. They generally fought at night in a time and place of the enemy’s devise and generally against an enemy that outnumbered them, usually by a very wide margin. Finally, the failure of Italian light forces to successfully use torpedoes condemned them to repeated defeats. This failure appears rooted in the tactics of poverty. Torpedoes were precious things and in short supply. Rather than fling them at the enemy when the opportunity presented in the manner of the Japanese, the Italians appeared to dole them out and consequently, saving torpedoes, they lost ships.


1 Cunningham, Andrew, A Sailor’s Odyssey, New York, 1951, pg. 332.
2 Bragadin, Marc, The Italian Navy in World War II, Annapolis, 1957, pg 40.
3 Gill, Hermon, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942, Adelaide, 1957, pg 225.
4 Ibid, pg 228.
5 Sadkovich, James, The Italian Navy in World War II, Westport, 1994, pg. 18.
6 Ibid, pg 24.
7 Ibid, pg 24.

Text copyright Vince O’Hara, 2000

Military harbors, anti-ship and anti-aircraft coastal defenses

In 1936, after the conclusion of the victorious military operations against the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, the Supreme Command of the Italian Navy, which during the 1935-1936 war had contributed to the success of Rome’s armies, faced the complex but inevitable problem of creating along the coastline of the new Italian Empire of East Africa a series of harbor structures and infrastructures capable of consolidating and protecting the vast new conquests.

According to the experts of the Regia Marina, Italy could guarantee a complete pacification and regular economic growth of this area only through the strengthening of the defenses of the main harbors in Eritrea and Somalia (Massaua, Assad, Dante, Mogadishu, and Chisimayu). Furthermore, it could also station two naval squadrons, including large surface ships, in both the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Already from the time of the Ethiopian War, the engineering branches of the Navy and the Army had, in part, restructured the old harbor of Massaua and Mogadishu, but this work, which included amongst many other things hospitals, barracks and shops, a submarine battery charging station, twenty fuel tanks (distributed between Massaua, Assab, Dante, Mogadishu, and Kismaayo), two coal depots, six ammunition depots, two torpedo depots, two goods and water depots, and the transfer to Massaua of two dry-docks (one for 7,500 t. ships, and the other, smaller, for 1,600 t. ones), resulted insufficiently due to the evolution of diplomatic relations between France and Great Britain (considered, from an Italian viewpoint, quite negative). As known, these countries did not welcome the expansion of Italian interests into the Indian Ocean.

Toward the end of 1936, an emergency program was started to provide for armed defenses for the most important harbors (Massaua, Assab, Mogadishu, Kimaayo), but unfortunately, the plan was never completed due to lack of full funding at the time. However, between the period 1936 and the beginning of the hostilities (June 10th, 1940) the Italian Command of Massaua was able to set up a relatively complex network of defenses linked to a system of anti-ship and anti-aircraft guns, which was better than other fortified harbors (lookout posts, signaling stations, radio stations, identification and airplane sighting stations). In this case, the small and medium guns (76/30 AA, 74/40 AA, 76/50, 102/35, 120/45 e 152/45) were installed in the harbor area and on some of the islands that make up the archipelago facing the harbor (Dahlak Islands).

The guns were paired with nine 120 cm and 150 cm photoelectric cells. Passive defenses relied on minefields of “Bollo” and old Austrian mines (the weapons were laid on the bottom of the Dahlak Archipelago by the minelayer Ostia and the Colonial sloop Eritrea). One of the three gun batteries in Assab (Ras Garibale, Ras Gombo, Om and Baker) was also based on an island, Fatma, while the harbor was defended by two minefields laid by the destroyer Pantera. To protect the harbor (during the war, due to its proximity to Aden, the port was the object of numerous attacks by the British air force) there were some 13.2 mm machine guns. In Assab, it appears that there also were three 120 cm photoelectric cells. In total, on June 9th 1940 the Italian harbors in Eritrea were defended by 30 gun batteries (11 of medium and 19 of small caliber).

At the same time In Kisimaayo there was a very small number of guns: two 120/45, four 76/40, a 120/25 army field gun, and about ten 13.2 mm Breda machine guns (a large number of the guns was positioned on the ‘Snake’ and ‘Shark’ islands). Soon after the beginning of the hostilities, the base commander, Captain Fucci, made a proposal to the Italian Command in Addis Ababa to reinforce the site with 152 mm guns, relocating the existing 120 mm ones to Dante and Burgao; none of this was ever completed.

At the beginning of the war, the base in Mogadishu, and also in Dante, were far less protected (Dante did not even have a single gun). Mogadishu, despite being the largest city in Somalia, was protected by a single 120/45 battery of four guns manned by personnel of the Milmart (backshirt), and half a dozen 13.2 mm machine guns, while the city’s land defenses did not have a single gun. Over all, the Italian naval bases in Eritrea and Somalia could rely on 4,500 officers, non-commissioned officers, and rating in grand part deployed in Massaua.

After the fall of the large defensive bastion of Cheren (where for a long period, between January 31st and March 27th the Italian Army of East Africa had been able to repulse the advance of the powerful British army of the Sudan at a price of very heavy losses), the British armed divisions spread, with the support of the air force, into the entire region occupying Asmara (March 31st) and threatening the harbor of Massaua. This base was protected by forces completely lacking anti-tank weapons.

Expecting these dramatic events since the middle of January 1941, the base commander had opted to hurry the construction of new defenses (anti-tank ditches, gun batteries, etc) facing both the ocean and land in an attempt to resist as much as possible and expecting the imminent and inevitable collapse of the front in Cheren. The Italian command, aware that no aid could come from other sectors or from the motherland (it should be remembered that Italian East Africa was practically isolated from Italy since the outbreak of the hostilities), sought, before all, to rescue all the materiel and the weapons which could be located around the site.

In Massaua, Vice-Admiral Mario Bonetti (the base commander) improvised, creating some gun batteries utilizing four of the seven 120/35 guns of the torpedo boat Acerbi which had been seriously damaged during a British aerial attack, and also the twin-mounted 120 mm guns of the destroyer Leone which had run aground on a sandbank off the Dahlak islands.

Some very old Skoda guns (dating back to the end of the 19th century) were also placed into service. These guns were discovered in a warehouse and, by sheer luck, were also located, in the holds of a German ship in port, twelve 75/22 Krupp guns originally destined for the Emir of Afghanistan. Meantime, the base commander in Kismaayo was able to have some 25 mm home-made small anti-tank guns constructed out of inserts usually employed for firing smaller caliber shells in larger guns.

For antiaircraft defenses, officer and rating alike made themselves very busy constructing small batteries in which they placed gun mountings built on site utilizing few means and much imagination and equipped with 7.7 and 12.7 mm Breda Safar machine guns removed from seriously damaged and unsalvageable airplanes. At the beginning of the British attack against Massaua (conducted with heavy Matilda tanks armed with 88 and 122 mm guns, and troops of the 7th Anglo-Indian Brigade, 10th British Brigade, and troops of Free France) the Italian and Eritrean forces under Vice-Admiral Bonetti, and Generals Tessitore, Bergonzi and Carmineo (the hero of Cheren) had in total 6,500 soldiers and sailors, 80 artillery guns, 100 machine guns (including some 40/39 from the torpedo boats Acerbi and Orsini), plus the guns of the ships still in the harbor.

On Land

Quota 21 (4 76/40) from the tanker Niobe
Moncullo (4 76/40)
Otumlo (4 76/30)
Amateri (4 76/40)
M.Nadi (4 76/40)

I.Sceik-Said (4 76/40) multipurpose
Ma.173 (4 76/40) multipurpose
Ma.370 (3 102/35)
Maffei di Baglio (4 120/50)

On the Islands

Capo Grabau (3 120/45)
Isolotto Assarca (2 76/30)
I. Shumma Quarto (4 120/45)
Dahlach Chebir (4 102/35)
Isolotto Dur Gaam (3 120/45) 2 from the destroyer Nullo
I.Dehel (3 152/45 + 4 120/45)
I. Sceik-al-Abù (2 76/50)
I.Hamil (4 120/45)

On April 8th, after an initial assault was repulsed by Italian grenadiers and guards of the Fiscal Police (Guardia di Finanza) and a large number of British tanks, supported by artillery, broke through the defensive ring of Mount Massaua entering the urban area. Meantime, British air forces based in Perim and Aden hammered the last resisting bastions. Despite all this, some Italian troops attempted a desperate defense, but eventually they were overwhelmed, in large part because some of the guns with which the base was equipped could not be used because specifically positioned for anti-ship use.

On April 7th and 8th, when the city was already in British hands, the torpedo boat Orsini, even though it did not have all of its guns, bombarded up to the last shell the British motorized columns near Embereni at about 20 kilometers north of Massaua. After the fall of the base, some contingents of sailors, gunners, and machine gunners went on resisting, moving to the islands thanks to a cache of foodstuff and water accumulated beforehand. At sunrise on April 8th, a few hours after the British breakthrough, Vice-Admiral Bonetti, after having given orders to sink all ships at the opening of the harbor to close it, let a small flotilla of tug boats and barges loaded with provisions move to the Dahlak Islands.

On April 16th, Commander Pierantoni , the commanding officer in charge of the last troops resisting on the islands, opted for surrender, but not after having had all guns and weapons destroyed, and then ordered the cease-fire. About 60 soldiers decided to keep on fighting and, rescued by a small flotilla of dhows sent from Assab, went on to that base where they served under Commander Bolla. For the record, Assab (still defended by five 76/40, 120 and 152 mm guns, and about a dozen 13.2 mm machine guns, in addition to a few 65 and 77 mm field guns) was the last Italian naval base to surrender. This would not happen until June 11th, 1941 when, after a series of violent British aerial bombardments, the garrison was forced to surrender, but not before having shot down with the last 13.2 mm Breda machine gun still serviceable, a British light bomber Bristol Blenheim: the twenty-seventh shot down during the span of a wretched war.

Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo
Edited by Laura K. Yost

Far East

Italian submarines and surface vessels in the Far East

In the course of World War II, although with a very limited force, the Regia Marina Italiana was present in the remote waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. This presence, dating back to the Boxer Revolution of 1901, consisted of two gun boats located in Tiensin, the Lepanto and the Carlotto (1), along with some detachments of troops assigned to the defense of the small Italian commercial interests.

After Italy’s entry into the war, Supermarina (the Navy High Command) ordered some units based in Massawa, Eritrea transferred to the Far East. This move was the result of well-founded fear that the A.O.I. (Italian East African Empire) would soon fall, thus allowing the British to capture the Italian vessels. In February 1941, just two months before the fall of Massawa, the colonial sloop Eritrea (armed with four 120mm guns, two 40mm and two 13.2 mm machine guns) and the armed ships Ramb I and Ramb II left for Kobe, Japan or, as an alternate, Shanghai or Tientsin. The two Rambs, built as banana ships, were modern and fast and had been transformed into auxiliary cruisers with the installation of four 120 mm guns and some 13.2 mm anti-aircraft machine guns.

While the Eritrea and the Ramb II reached their destination eluding British patrols, the Ramb I was less fortunate and was sunk by the British cruiser Leander near the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean. Despite the partial failure of the relocation mission, the Italian diplomats and military attachés in Tokyo discussed with the Japanese authorities the possibility of utilizing the Ramb II as a pirate ship (like the German Kormoran).


The utilization of this modern and efficient vessel, which would have received some necessary alterations from the Kobe shipyard, was to be the interdiction of British traffic in the Indian Ocean. The ship, already since Massawa, was scheduled to receive several antiaircraft machine guns and a larger naval gun, such as a 120 mm or a 152 mm. Nevertheless, because of the strong opposition presented by the Japanese Navy, both the Ramb II and the Eritrea were left at their docks. Japan, at least until December 7th, 1941, the day of the sudden attack against Pearl Harbor, always wanted to avoid any confrontation with the USA and Great Britain. Only after the official declaration of war did the Japanese government allow the ship Eritrea to provide assistance to the oceanic submarines, which were arriving in Penang and Singapore from the very distant base in Bordeaux carrying rare goods (2).

Some Italian Merchant Marine ships, like the Conte Verde, which were in Japanese or Chinese waters at the time of the declaration of war, were not utilized or were employed by the Japanese, while others attempted to reach Bordeaux. This base (known as Betasom) was used by the 27 Italian submarines which operated in the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans from September 1940 through September 1943 against the Allied blockade.

Some of these merchant ships, similar to the Himalaya, succeeded in the very difficult endeavor of transporting to Europe a discrete quantity of rare goods, such as rubber, tin, and quinine, while others were forced to seek refuge in neutral ports. As we will see, the Italian Navy during the war, similarly to the German one, attempted to utilize submarines to exchange goods with Japan despite the high losses and small advantages.

On September 8th, 1943 at 2:00 AM (local time), the ship Eritrea was transferring from Singapore to Sabang in support of the submarine Cappellini , which had just arrived after a long and difficult journey to transport strategically important material to Tokyo. Having received a Reuter communiqué of the Italian surrender, the ship changed course for Colombo (Ceylon) through the strait of Sumatra avoiding the immediate and tenacious hunt by Japanese naval and aerial forces (3).

The other units deployed in the sector were:

Submarine Giuliani, C.C. Mario Tei and Submarine Torelli, T.V. Enrico Gropalli 4a were in Singapore already loaded and ready to set sail for Bordeaux. Submarine Cappellini, C.C. Walter Auconi, in Sabang ready to return to Europe. Submarine Cagni, C.C. Giuseppe Roselli-Lorenzini, coming from Bordeaux and in transit in the Indian Ocean bound for Singapore 4b. .

Gunboat Lepanto, C.C. Morante, and gunboat Carlotto, T.V. De Leonardis, were both in Shanghai, while the auxiliary cruiser Calitea II and Ramb II, C.C. C. Mazzella, were in Kobe for repair work. These last two units were scuttled on the 9th so not to fall into Japanese hands. The submarine Cappellini decided to fight along the Germans and the Japanese as part of the newly created “Repubblica Sociale Italiana”, but once escorted to Singapore it was captured. Despite the pledge of allegiance of the captain, Commander Auconi, Admiral Hiroaka interned the ship and captured the crew serving them inhuman treatments. The Giuliani and the Torelli followed the same fate, even if the crew, but not the officers, wanted to keep fighting along with the old allies. The only unit saved was the Cagni, which, made aware of the armistice, reached Durban in South Africa and surrendered.

Despite the awful Japanese behavior, many Italian submariners in the Indian Ocean kept fighting for several months. The Italian boats were transferred to the German U-Boat command in Penang and continued operating with a mixed Italian-German crew. After the German surrender, on May 8th 1945, about 20 sailors kept fighting along the Japanese (5).. For the record, the Torelli operated in Japanese waters until August 30th, 1945 and was even able to shoot down an American B-25 Mitchell, the last success of a “Japanese” naval vessel in War World Two.

1- The minelayer Lepanto was built in 1927. It had a displacement of 1,040 tons, a speed of 15 knots and was armed with two 120mm guns, 2 40mm machineguns and 80 depth charges. The gunboat Ermanno Carlotto was built in 1923. It had a displacement of 318 tons, speed of 13.5 knots and was armed with two 76 mm guns and 4 machineguns.

2- The first German ship able to break through the Allied blockade was the Weserland (6,500 tons), under commander Krage who on December 28th, 1940 sailed from Kobe with a load of rubber, wolfram, felt, vegetable oil, tea, coffee and pharmaceutical products. The Waserland crossed the Pacific, Cape Horn, the Atlantic and arrived in Bordeaux on April 4th, 1941 after 98 days at sea. At the outbreak of war, 14 German and 2 Italian ships were locked in the Japanese ports of Yokohama, Osaka and Sasebo and in the Manchurian port of Dairen.

3- Between 1942 and 1943 the shipyard Tosi designed and built two large transport submarines, the Romolo and the Remo, originally developed to reach the Far East. These two submarines (from 2,210 to 2,606 tons) were able to transport 610 tons of goods and had a range of 12,000 km. The Romolo and Remo were the only two of 12 units planned and were lost upon their first cruise, one sunk by airplanes and the second one by an enemy submarine.

4- During the second half of May 1943, just after the end of some structural work, the first Italian transport submarine left Bordeaux followed by a few others. The fate of these vessels was a sad one; Two, the Tazzoli and the Barbarigo, disappeared at sea after their departure, probably sunk by Allied planes. The Giuliani and the Torelli, caught on September 8th in Penang, Malaya were captured by German forces. The apparent disaster which had stricken the Italian forces did not impede the Japanese from capturing in Penang 355 tons of war material coming from Germany, equivalent to 55% of the total load of the 6 Italian vessels. On the other hand, the Germans never received the 377 tons of rubber and the 184 tons of felt already loaded on the Italian submarines. As a matter of fact, the Germans did not want to sail these worn down vessels back to Bordeaux.

4a – 4b- The Italian submarines based at Betasom which underwent transformations were actually seven.
Cappellini, Tazzoli, Finzi, Giuliani and Bagnolin, Barbarigo, and Torelli. The Tazzoli and the Barbarigo were sunk. The Cappellini, which had arrived in Penang on September 10th, 1943, was captured by the Germans and renamed U.IT.24. After May 8th, 1945 this unit was transferred to the Japanese who named it I.503. The Giuliani, which had arrived in Singapore in late summer 1943, was captured by the Germans and renamed U.IT.23. This vessel with a mixed Italian and German crew was sunk in the Malacca Strait in 1944 by the British submarine Tallyho. The Finzi, which in September 1943 was still in Bordeaux waiting for the completion of some repair work, was incorporated into the German Navy with the name U.IT.21. The vessel was never utilized as a transport and was sunk by the German in Bordeaux on August 25th, 1944 just before the arrival of Allied forces.

5- For the record, after May 8th, 1945 the Japanese captured and renamed the following Italian vessels, already in German hands: U181 (I.501), U-862 (I.502) U-219 (I.505) e U-195 (I.506). Similarly, the Japanese captured the Cappellini (U.IT.24) renamed I.503 and the Torelli (U.IT.25) renamed I.504


“German Warships 1815-1945″, vol. 2 ” U-boats and mine warfare vessels”

“Betasom: I sommergibili italiani negli oceani”

“The last year of the Kriegsmarine. May 1944-May 1945”

Maurice ROLE
HISTORIA, September 1990, n. 525, pagg. 6-17
“Les puissances de l’Axe et le Japon”

“Sommergibili della Seconda Guerra Mondiale”

Robert G. STERN
“U-Boot, Classe VII”

“Guida alle Navi d’Italia”, 1982