Ships Seized by the Germans

We have repeatedly mentioned September 8: this tragic day, that had grave consequences for the Armed Forces and for all of Italy, obviously had some consequences also for merchant ships, especially those that were in the North of the country. On September 9, the order was transmitted from Rome to the port authorities of the entire country, to ship owners and captains, to make all efforts to prevent the Germans from seizing all vessels that could be employed against the United Nations, and to adhere to any requisition requests made by Allied Commands out of necessity.

The Cattaro scuttled by its crew in Santa Margherita Ligure  to avoid capture
(Photo  Giuliano Gotuzzo)

In Northern Italy, this second part could not be carried out, because there was no time to execute the first part: few units self-destructed or were sabotaged, almost none was able to reach Southern Italian ports, in particular those in Apulia and Sicily, the only regions that had already been liberated.

Some ships made an effort: the motor vessel Vulcanici left Trieste the morning of September 8 headed for Pola where she was due to embark reserve officer candidates. The evening of September 10 the school Commandant, Captain Enrico Simola, decided that it would not be prudent to sail with a crew of questionable loyalty and hundreds of green young men.

The next day he got all officer candidates off the ship (most of them ended up interned in Germany) and purposely ran the ship aground near the Island of Brioni, ordering it to be sabotaged; but the order was not carried out.

On September 17, the motor vessel Vulcanici was seized by the Germans, floated off and taken to Venice, loaded with Italian soldiers evacuated from Pola; she spent the remainder of the war idling in Venice.
This fate was shared by many ships seized by the Germans: considered useless for war purposes, they were abandoned or purposely sunk as barriers in harbors; this happened, for instance, to the passenger liner Marco Polo in La Spezia, or to the ocean liner Augustus in Genoa, where she was waiting to be transformed into the aircraft carrier Sparviero.

The ships the Germans did use were taken – except for a few inducted directly into the Kriesmarine – through mandatory leasing contracts, after a short period during which they were all considered war booty, and embarked personnel were removed and replaced with German seamen.

Later, the property of the ships that had not attempted to escape capture or had not been sabotaged was recognized: the war booty principle, however, still applied to hospital ships or for ships registered as auxiliary shipping of the Italian State. With these exceptions, Italian ships were returned to their owners, but forcibly leased to the Mittelmeer Reederei. Nevertheless, few ships actually served: Italian sailors did not enjoy sailing aboard German-requisitioned ships.

Many of them were deported, some tried to avoid being embarked either by not obeying the call-ups, or deserting when forcibly embarked. Resistance and desertions reached such proportions that in April 1944 the German Administration filed a formal complaint with the Republic of Salò, which for its part, tried, insofar as it could, to protect the seamen from German reprisals and to safeguard the ship owners’ interests.

In October 1944, after prolonged discussion, the private property of the ships, even if requisitioned, was recognized, along with the owners’ entitlement to be paid all amounts due for the ships’ employment in war.
However, in March 1945 the Germans denounced the agreement and no more dues were recognized to the owners. It should be recalled that, throughout the time the ships remained under German control, their owners and the R.S.I.’s authorities were almost always forbidden from boarding them.

At the end of this difficult time, in May 1945, almost all Northern Italian ports were full of wrecks, due both to Allied bombings and to the havoc wreaked by the retreating Germans: the conclusion was that the Italian Merchant Marine had practically ceased to exist, and a long time would have to go by before anyone could speak of ship borne traffic under the new flag.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Landing Ships

Other ships were requisitioned for an operation the Government had decided on the occasion of the campaign against Greece: the Special Naval Forces were established, with the intention of landing in Corfu Island.
This mission was scrapped and study began on a landing by the Special Naval Forces against the Island of Malta, which also came to naught.

However, with that requirement in view some particular types of ships were requisitioned, such as the motorboats and steamboats owned by the Venetian company A.C.N.I.L. – i.e. those used to sail within the lagoon – and tens of Adriatic fishing boats called bragozzi.

In addition to these vessels, quite zany in view of a landing against strongly defended coasts (even if they had been somewhat modified to make them more survivable), trawlers and steam boats previously employed for coastal patrolling and minesweeping were also used. Thus, a haphazard “fleet” was put together, almost certainly unsuitable for a landing on Malta, even if manned by gallant sailors.

One of the MZ-A class motor barge built for the invasion of Malta

The Malta landing was postponed indefinitely, which was unfortunate for the ultimate outcome of the war but fortunate for those happy few who were supposed to participate in it aboard requisitioned motorboats, steamboats, and bragozzi. However, many of these vessels were in fact used in November 1942 for a relatively easier operation, i.e. the landing in Corsica. The requisitioned motorboats and steamboats remained to ply the coastal waters of Provence and were caught up in the crisis of 8 September 1943.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Mine Layers

Mine laying was one of the most widespread forms of warfare in the Mediterranean: all belligerents laid both defensive and offensive minefields.
The Regia Marina participated in this form of warfare, laying fields both in coastal waters and to protect naval sea lanes, such as in the Sicilian Channel.
Most mine laying was carried out by warships (cruisers and destroyers): almost all Italian ships were fitted with tracks for these weapons. However, this task was also performed by specifically assigned ships, i.e. minelayers, transport ships and even some tankers.

The ferry Andrea Sgarallino, originally assigned to the Piombino – Elba route

A valuable support was provided by the units requisitioned in the Merchant Marine: some auxiliary cruisers (Adriatico, Barletta, Brindisi, Brioni, etc.), coastal minesweepers (Andrea Sgarallino and Elbano Gasperi) and, above all, some Ferrovie dello Stato (Italian Railways) ferries were assigned this mission.

The latter type of ship (Scilla, Cariddi, Villa, Reggio, Aspromonte) were considered particularly suited to the task, because they exhibited one of the peculiar features of mine laying ships, i.e. a deck that could be totally taken up by mines. Their drawback, being small and with little draft, was that their sea-keeping capabilities were poor.

The requisitioned ships served as minelayers especially during the first week of the war, laying coastal fields, and then returned to their most specific functions: the ferries returned to their duty in the Stretto di Messina and the other units were shifted to escort or coastal patrol service.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Minesweepers and Auxiliary Units

One area of the naval conflict where civilian ships were heavily employed was that of the so-called “minor” shipping: hundreds of tugs, trawlers, and coastal transports were requisitioned for a variety of tasks. A total number of 2,207 civilian vessels were requisitioned, classified according to their missions, as:

  • Coastal Patrol Boats (designation V): 260 ships whose official mission was to provide advance warning of any aircraft approaching the coasts from the sea. In fact, in addition to this mission, they were also called to carry out many others, such as harbor piloting, escorting, and connecting the mainland with the islands or smaller bases.
  • ASW mission (designation A5): 66 units, mostly trawlers or small steam ships, whose duty was to patrol coastal areas and fight off the ever more aggressive activities of British submarines, which approached Italy’s coasts to attack small convoys or even fishermen at work. Although their activity was intensive, their results were very poor, because the searching means they were allocated were highly primitive and their attack weapons were not very powerful.

A group of Italian auxiliary minesweepers
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

Minesweeping (designations F-B-G-R-DM): as many as 983 ships operated in this area, which thus had the highest number of requisitioned vessels. The F designation indicated coastal sweeping, but these ships were very often used for other tasks, not least to connect the islands and smaller bases; the B designation indicated close-in sweeping, G deepwater sweeping; R a specific kind of deepwater sweeping, and DM magnetic sweeping. Work on these ships was relentless and tiresome; the crews, almost entirely made up of drafted merchant seamen, had to spend long stretches far from home, under constant risk of sudden attacks by fighter-bombers or submarines.

Many other small vessels were requisitioned for piloting (136, with the designation P), guarding obstructions (118 units with the designation O) and harbor services (94 units with the designation Z).
However, these numbers are totals referred to the whole duration of the war; over the years, many of these ships, nearly all trawlers, were de-requisitioned or requisitioned anew under a different designation. Many were sunk during the war, but many were also raised afterwards: having sunk near the coast or in the harbors, their recovery did not entail excessive difficulties, although the costs and losses, especially in terms of human lives, were considerable.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

War Booty

During the conflict, Italy’s Merchant Marine also had a chance to grow thanks to the capture of ships belonging to enemy countries. Apart from some isolated captures in 1940, such as those of the British steam ships Dalesman (then Pluto in the Regia Marina) and Ulmus, the first sizable group of captured ships dates back to the Spring of 1941, after the campaigns in Greece and Yugoslavia. While in Greece almost all captured ships, both civilian and military, were seized by the Germans, in Yugoslavia nearly all vessels found in the harbors were taken by the Italians.

The Dalesman, at the time of it seizure

However, the bigger units, in particular the merchant ships, were in British-controlled harbors, so they escaped capture. A high number of ships, amounting to little overall tonnage, was taken into Italy’s Merchant Marine after the entire Dalmatian coast was proclaimed to be part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Nearly all of them were coastal vessels, and among the few larger ships one, the Tomislav, was in Japan and became Italian by order of the Japanese authorities.
The ex-Yugoslavian ships remained the property of the same owners while sailing under the Italian flag, and they changed their names; some were later requisitioned by the Regia Marina and employed for war purposes, others went on plying the coastal waters, though less and less frequently, or were leased to fulfil urgent military needs.

The service provided by these little steamboats was always very difficult: the ships, for safety reasons, always had to sail during the daytime, with considerable delays also due to the checks and inspections they frequently had to undergo. Another difficulty was due to the fact that certain harbors, such as Durazzo, were open only to ships with all-Italian crews, and this was not always possible.

We have said that some ex-Yugoslavian ships were requisitioned by the Regia Marina: among them, Cattare and Lubiana became auxiliary cruisers, Traù and Giovanni Ingrao coastal patrol boats, Monte Maggiore and Frangipane sub hunters.
On 8 September 1943, nearly all ships still afloat were seized by the Germans or by the Croatian Ustashas, who were thus able to put together a small Navy also with ships provided by the Germans; at the end of the war the few ships still remaining were taken over by Marshall Tito’s partisans and returned under Yugoslavian flag.
In November 1942 there was another considerable increase in the number of merchant ships flying the Italian flag: when Tunisia, Corsica, and Provence were taken, many French vessels fell prey to the Axis.

Already three tankers (Proserpina, Saturno, and Capo Pino) had been transferred from France to Italy in June 1940 by way of compensation for sunk ships; in 1942, all French merchant ships, considered war booty, were apportioned to Italy and Germany; thus, the Italian fleet acquired about eighty more vessels.
Although the shipyards worked at their maximum capacity, not all these units could be refitted to serve in the convoys shuttling back and forth between Italy and Tunisia to re-supply the troops fighting the Allies’ pincers advancing from Libya and Algeria. Many of them were sunk during this period; others, left in Northern Italian harbors, were seized by the Germans on 8 September and used or broken up; by war’s end almost none of them were still afloat.

All these units, however, were in fact turned into the Regia Marina which requisitioned them and nominally assigned them to various shipping companies, mostly Finmare or Cooperativa Garibaldi which, as stated, had already been tasked with running Regia Marina auxiliary ships; therefore, it is highly likely that the actual legal status of these units was that of armed ships belonging to the State.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

New Motor Vessels

After the conquest of Ethiopia and the Spanish adventure, the situation of the Merchant Marine had been reviewed, and found to have worrisome aspects: in 1926, a law aimed at modernizing the merchant fleet had resulted in the construction of passenger liners only, some of them highly prestigious such as Rex, Conte di Savoia and Victoria; but the cargo fleet had not been upgraded.

During the war for the conquest of the Ethiopian empire, shipping companies had snatched up a large number of old tubs, bought abroad, to meet the Army’s replenishment needs: so there were many ships, but all old and of poor quality.
Therefore, provisions were issued with the aim of causing a profound renewal of the cargo fleet, trying to avoid the pitfalls of the past. These provisions were set down with Royal Decree no. 330 of 10 March 1938, known as the Benni Act, after the Minister of Guilds, who sponsored it.

The act provided incentives to shipyards and shipping companies, with an annual allocation of 103 Million Lire for ten years. The goal: merchant ships totaling 2,500,000 gross tons. The first consequences of the act were positive: Italian shipping companies ordered about fifty ships right away, and almost all Italian shipyards were involved: Ansaldo, Cantieri Navali Riuniti in Riva Trigoso, Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico in Monfalcone, etc.

M/v Orseolo, one of the Italian block runners

Both State-owned and private companies had committed themselves: six motor vessels of 6,200 gross tons each for Società Italia, four 7,000 ton motor vessels for Lloyd Triestino, eleven of 3,180 tons each for Tirrenia, four of 8,000 tons for Garibaldi, four diesel tankers, each of 10,500 tons for AGIP, nine motor vessels, each of 6,338 tons, and three diesel tankers, each of 8,400 tons for SIDARMA, and so on.
When the war broke out, the ships that had been ordered from the shipyards came under the Regia Marina’s control. All fitted out and crewed by the owner company, they were equipped with anti-aircraft weapons and with a detachment of C.R.E.M. sailors to handle embarked weapons; the ship’s Captain was complemented, as in all requisitioned ships, an Officer in Charge of the naval detachment, general a Regia Marina reserve officer.
These ships, being new, fast, and rationally built, were the backbone of Libya-bound convoys and, because of their intensive employment, took proportionately higher losses than all other merchant fleet components.

Not all of them were completed, for many reasons: the shipyards were overloaded with work (and some of them were also poorly organized); raw material shortages (in some cases, irrational allocation of resources); priority given to some constructions (and here – not parenthetically – there is a legitimate suspicion that some civilian shippers pressured the shipyards, exhibiting little sense of duty, to try to slow down the completion of their ships to save them from an almost certain tragic fate).
In any case, most of the new motor vessels were in fact completed, and many were, as stated, duly sunk. As a result of these events, Law no. 797 of 12 May 1942 was enacted, followed by Royal Decree no. 1808 of 7 December 1942, which obligated the owners of lost ships to invest in building or acquiring new ships the loss indemnities liquidated by the agencies that requisitioned or leased the sunk ships, or by insurance companies for insured ships.

M/v Monginevro one of the ships selected for the transformation into raiders.
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

From the construction point of view, the make up the losses the Regia Marina had the shipyards come up with standard merchant ship designs to accelerate the construction of new ships: a 1,590 gross ton motor vessel type, an 850 gross ton type and a 1,600 gross ton motor tanker.

If we examine more closely the fate of the more modern motor vessels, we see that many of them had a very intense activity and, oftentimes, met a violent end: the Lerici was sunk on 15 August 1942; the four motor vessels of Lloyd Triestino were also sunk, as were the three of Navigazione Alta Italia (Monginevro, Monviso, and Monreale). Of Tirrenia’s eleven motor vessels, ten were completed, and all were sunk; of the SIDARMA’s nine motor vessels, only one survived the conflict. (one of the lost ships was Pietro Orseolo, famous for repeatedly breaking through the enemy blockade in the Atlantic.)
The motor vessel Caterina Costa met with a particularly fiery end: on 28 March 1943, while she was loaded in Naples harbor, a fire broke out aboard and soon went out of control; the flames reached the ordnance that had already been embarked, causing the ship to explode and devastate the harbor.

Thee other ships that won fame in the convoy war were the motor tankers Minatitland, Panuco and Poza Rica: ordered by the Mexican company Pemex, they were requisitioned in June 1940 and assigned to Garibaldi, a shipping cooperative that already ran ships belonging to the Regia Marina.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Materiel and Fuel Transports

Together with the troop transports, essential to sustain overseas armies, hundreds of merchant ships were tasked with carrying weapons, ammunition, food and, especially, fuel, indispensable to keep armored troops moving.

This sector was the hardest hit by the loss of the ships stranded out of the Mediterranean at the start of the conflict: those units were the best ones available to the Merchant Marine, so the burden of transporting war cargo fell on fifty-plus year old “tubs”, which had to ply war routes, often with dramatic results.

M/v Carlo Del Greco torpedoed by the submarine Upright on December 13 1941.
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

Some help to this traffic came from new constructions, motor vessels that were excellently built but frighteningly few; yet more help came from quite a few merchant ships captured from the French in November 1942; we are also duty-bound to mention that roughly fifty German merchant ships, left in the Mediterranean at the start of the war, fought the convoy war side by side with the Italian ships, also taking heavy losses.
In spite of severe crises, such as the one in the Fall of 1941, the merchant ships succeeded in carrying most of the cargo they had loaded in Italian ports.

We should recall that the ships’ crews were military on requisitioned ships, but not on the others and, as a rule, the seamen did not try to get out of facing the risks of wartime steaming, such as mines, surface warship attacks, torpedoing by submarines and the torpedo bombers’ swift and deadly night-time raids.
Even in port, the living was far from easy: African ports were hellish, both because of the climate and the constant air raids; domestic ports, especially Naples and Palermo, were in the RAF’s sights throughout the war.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Troop Transports

The main task performed by passenger liners, however, was to transport troops to overseas fronts, i.e. Libya, Albania, and, starting during the winter between 1942 and 1943, Tunisia.

The development of airlift capabilities allowed to use transport aircraft for the immediate deployment of small units or the emergency evacuation of the severely wounded; occasionally, warships were also used for these missions, sacrificing them in a role they had not been designed to fulfil. However, most of this traffic was concentrated on passenger liners, which brought most of the military personnel to their destination, for a total number of 1,242,729 men from all service branches.

German troops waiting to be transported to North Africa
(Photo Imperial War Museum)

This is not the proper venue to recall all the missions these ships accomplished, because their history is an integral part of the convoy war and, thus, of the history of the Regia Marina’s war at sea. Suffice it to say that, because of the type of ship required, they all belonged to the Finmare fleet and hence they were always State-owned vessels, which for these missions sailed almost always as requisitioned ships, but almost never militarized, and always with Merchant Marine crews.

Some of these ships were at the center of some of the most tragic episodes of the convoy war: Neptunia and Oceania were sunk on 18 September 1941 by the British submarine Upholder, and 384 men, out of the 5,818 aboard, were killed.

(Photo Jordan)

The Conte Rosso, after leaving Naples bound for Tripoli on 24 May 1941 in convoy with Esperia and Marco Polo, was hit by the Upholder with two torpedoes. The ship sank in 14 minutes, and 1,291 soldiers and sailors died; 1,441 were rescued by the escorting torpedo boats and by the hospital ship Arno which had sailed from Messina. One of the most heavily felt losses for Italy’s Merchant Marine was that of the motor vessel Victoria, one of Italy’s most beautiful and famous ships, hit by British torpedo bombers in the Gulf of Sidra. 249 men went down with the ship, among them her Captain, Arduino Moreni, and the officer in charge of the military detachment, Captain Giovanni Grana.

The M/V Victoria under the protection of the heavy guns of the battleship Duilio.
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

The list of passenger liners sunk during troop transport mission is tragically long: Sardegna, Vicinale, Francesco Crispi, Liguria del Lloyd Triestino, Calitea, Esperia, Galilea (where 995 alpine troops perished), Quirinale, Celio of the Adriatica company; Città di Agrigento, Città di Bastia, Città di Tripoli, Firenze, Catalani, Puccini, Aventino, Città di Catania of the Tirrenia company, as well as others captured by the Germans.
At the end of the war, very few ships were left in service, and they had to be relied on to resume civil traffic, essential in those first years after the war.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Hospital Ships

A function that during the war required passenger ships was the evacuation of wounded personnel. For this purpose, involved shipping companies had been notified, in peacetime, of the ships to be requisitioned for this service, and the supplies (beds, linen, health care items) needed for quickly equipping the ships had been stored in various navy yards.

Twelve ships were used, all belonging to state-owned companies; nine were lost in the conflict: four were torpedoed and two (Aquileia and Virgilio) were lost after being captured by the Germans. One of the ships that survived the war, the Gradisca, was lost when she ran aground in January 1946.

Some of these ships, such as Aquileia and Gradisca as well as others like Arno and California, performed an essential service during the war, bringing tens of thousands of wounded and sick men back home; Gradisca had also participated, in March 1941, to the rescue of the survivors from the Matapan disaster.

An old picture of the Gradisca

Seven rescue ships also operated during the conflict: they were specialized in rescuing shipwrecked seamen and downed pilots, or in transporting small groups of wounded men.
Although they prominently displayed hospital ship markings, they were not recognized as such by the enemy, who considered them a fair target throughout the war.
In fact, six of these ships (Epomeo, Capri, Meta, Giuseppe Orlando, San Giusto, Sorrento) sank in combat, and the seventh, the Laurana, was captured by the British in Tunisia in May 1943.

Passenger liners were also used as hospital ships for other delicate missions: Gradisca and Città di Tunisi (reclassified for this purpose from her previous role as an auxiliary cruiser completed some trips to Smyrna, where, in neutral waters, they rendezvoused with British hospital ships and exchanged disabled prisoners. For these internationally sanctioned missions, the ships sailed with their hull painted white and a large inscription, PROTECTED, on their sides.

Italian hospital ship. In the foreground the Vulcania

The missions completed in A.O.I. (Italian East Africa) by the ships Saturnia, Vulcanici, Giulio Cesare and Duilio to repatriate civilian refugees became famous: these trips, which have been examined by many authors, were conducted with the British authorities’ agreement and were all successful, though they did not dispel the bitterness that came from the realization that they were the symbol of Italy’s defeat, or the grief of many families that would be separated until the end of the war.
Of these four units, Saturnia and Vulcania survived, while Duilio and Giulio Cesare sank in 1944, in Muggia bay, the victims of air raids.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis

Traffic Escort Ships and Auxiliary Cruisers

To meet the need of escorting the convoys, thus sparing ever-scarce warships, from the onset of the conflict the Italian Navy had requisitioned those merchant ships which, thanks to their characteristics, could be suitable for this service. In particular, requirements called for reduced tonnage that would still allow blue water ops, a speed of about 15 knots and the ability to serve also as fast transports.

The postal motor vessels of the Adriatica and Tirrenia shipping companies fit these requirements very well, so nearly all of them were requisitioned by the Regia Marina and registered as war ships, thereby ceasing to be civilian ships and becoming naval units. During the conflict, thirty-six ships were requisitioned as auxiliary cruisers (military designation: D followed by a progressive number), and of these as many as thirty-two were sunk, although three of them were recovered and restored to service after the war. The armistice was particularly harmful: two auxiliary cruisers were sunk and ten were captured by the Germans.

One of the four RAMBs, in this case RAMB II which served in the Orient.
(Photo Duncan)

In terms of shipping company, 14 ships came from Adriatica, 8 from Tirrenia, 3 from Fiumana, 2 from Eritrea, 2 from Istria-Trieste, 2 ex-Yugoslavian, 4 from the Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane (the banana monopoly). One of the ships from this company, Ramb III, of the most active escorts during the conflict, was captured by the Germans and used by them with the name of Kiebitz; sunk in Fiume (Rijeka) on 5 November 1944, it was retrieved by the Yugoslavs, repaired, and transformed into the presidential ship Galeh, to be used by Marshal Tito for many years thereafter.

The auxiliary cruiser Brindisi
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

Some of the ships met with a tragic fate: the Egeo was sunk on 24 April 1941, 65 miles off Tripoli, by the British destroyers Jarvis, Janus, Jaguar and Juno: hit by two torpedoes fired by the Juno, it sank in a few minutes. The cruiser Adriatico was sunk on December 1st, 1941 by the cruiser Aurora and the destroyer Lively: when she was hit by two broadsides, the order to abandon ship was given; in spite of this, the ship’s forward battery returned fire, but a third broadside blew her up. Twenty-one survivors were rescued by the Lively and sixty-six more by the Giovanni da Verrazzano, which arrived on the scene later. Other combat losses were those of the cruisers Brioni, Brindisi, and Zara.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis