Interview with an Italian WWII Veteran: Admiral Giuseppe Pighini

Following my graduation from the Naval Postgraduate School, in December of 1995, I had the opportunity to take some leave and visit my mother in Italy. It was there that, through a set of serendipitous circumstances, I found out that Giuseppe Pighini, (pronounced Pea-gee-nee) a retired Italian Admiral who saw considerable action during WWII, lived only a few blocks from my mother’s house, in the northern section of Rome.

I was already somewhat familiar with the name because Admiral Da Zara, perhaps the most successful of the Italian Admirals during the war, mentions him several times in his biography. An episode in which the destroyer escort Calliope, under Pighini’s command, shoots down a British reconnaissance plane is also recounted in a collection of war chronicles by the Italian journalist and author Vero Roberti.

Driven by my strong interest in WWII naval operations, I couldn’t resist contacting the Admiral. He graciously agreed to receive me on the following day for a brief interview at his residence. As one would expect, his tastefully furnished house had quite a number of nautical mementos on display. The most striking feature in the living room, however, was an oil painting of a lovely and exquisitely dressed lady, his wife and companion of thirty-seven years, prematurely deceased in 1983.

Even before the formal introductions were complete I realized that, in spite of his age, the Admiral is very much “in gamba”, an Italian expression which stands for capable and energetic. He is also quite personable. Not only was he curious of the specific reason of my visit, but he took meticulous notes when I outlined my background at his request. He cautioned me that his memory was not as good as it used to be, yet he never skipped a beat throughout the two-hour interview that ensued.

Born in 1911 in Parma, Pighini’s wanderlust drove him to enter the Italian Royal Naval Academy in Leghorn, from which he graduated in 1931. Highlights of his long and fulfilling career include a tour in China during the mid-thirties, his war time experiences, a tour as Naval Attache in Paris, his assignment to the Naval War College in Newport, RI in the late fifties, and finally a tour as ComNavSouth. Between 1936 and the end of the war he worked, in several capacities, for Admiral Da Zara, who held him in very high esteem.

Admiral Pighini’s personal awards include two “medaglie d’argento”, roughly equivalent to our Navy Cross, and a long list of lesser awards and campaign ribbons. He earned his first “medaglia d’argento” when the destroyer escort Calliope, which he commanded, shot down three of the six planes which were attacking the convoy in Pighini’s charge. The second was bestowed upon him following a successful cooperative engagement of the torpedo boat flotilla he commanded, which resulted in the sinking of an enemy destroyer.

What follows is a brief summary of the Admiral’s replies to my questions. Although I faithfully reported the substance of his answers, I did take the liberty to paraphrase his statements and translate them somewhat loosely from Italian.

Q. It is commonly said that the Italian Navy, and the officers in particular, were lukewarm toward fascism. Is this statement correct?

A. Yes, very much so. There had been a time, in Italian history, when only a dictatorship could provide the expediency in government needed to extricate the country from the deep crisis it found itself in following WWI. By the mid-thirties, however, the fascist system was a type of government whose time had come and gone. That is why many officers, myself included, refused to become members of the party in spite of strong encouragement to do so.

Q. What was the prevailing reaction, among Navy officers, to the Duce’s declaration of war in June of 1940?

A. Surprise, perplexity. Although Mussolini had a quick wit, he was fundamentally an ignorant man who had rarely been outside his country. When he visited Germany, in the mid-thirties, he was so impressed by the industrial and military might of that country, that he became convinced that the Germans were unstoppable. As a result, when France started to give obvious signs of collapse in 1940, the Duce declared war anticipating to be sitting at the peace table within a few months.

As Navy officers, our immediate concern was, of course, the Royal Navy, then the most powerful in the world. We also realized that Mussolini did not have a clear understanding of the disproportion in industrial and raw material resources that existed between the Axis and the British Empire, especially when the weight of a sympathetic United States were taken into account. Finally, Mussolini had lost touch with the desires of the country: the heart of the common man was not in the war.

Q. What assignments did you have during the war?

A. When the war started, I was a Lieutenant, assigned to the light cruiser Di Giussano. This unit was part of the IV Cruiser Division, commanded by Admiral Da Zara. On the Di Giussano I participated in the Battle of Punta Stilo in which our Air Force failed to recognize our ships and attacked us.

I was subsequently assigned as executive officer on the destroyer Granatiere for six months, during which the ship performed several convoy escort missions. Following my promotion to Lieutenant Commander, I took command of the destroyer escort Calliope, one of the many Italian small combatants that distinguished herself in the thankless task of escorting our convoys to and from North Africa.

I left Calliope in July of 1942 and was assigned to Da Zara’s VII Cruiser Division staff at the Admiral’s request. Unfortunately it was too late to participate in the battle of Pantelleria.

Early in 1943, I assumed command of a Corvette Flotilla based in Sicily. Following Italy’s surrender, in September of 1943, the Navy was the first Service to assume a cobelligerent status. I did my share by escorting some Allied convoys with the ships under my command.

At the end of 1943, I returned on Da Zara’s staff, who by then had a shore command in Southern Italy and had embarked in a very innovative and successful project. It consisted in reorganizing our personnel and transform the Navy’s property into farmland in order to alleviate the food shortage of our troops.

Q. What is your opinion of the Italian ships of the war era?

A. Since it was felt that Italy’s prestige was reflected in her ships, performance and appearance were strongly emphasized. Unfortunately, this resulted in ships whose hulls were too light in relationship to the caliber of their guns. In order to save weight and gain speed, compartmentation, armor and range were all sacrificed. There were, however, two exceptions. The Littorio class of battleships and the Pola class of heavy cruisers. In these ships a much better balance between armament, speed and armor was achieved.

Q. What is your assessment of the level of training of the Italian Navy’s officer corps?

A. It was, and continues to be, excellent. Following their graduation from the Naval Academy, the officers’ seamanship was honed through a fairly long series of sea tours. Later in their careers, as senior Lieutenants, they were typically assigned to a training squadron of small combatants, where they would further improve their ship-handling ability and qualify for command.

The staff corps, i.e. engineering, supply etc., would receive comparable training in their specialties. During my entire career, I never had any complaints about the professional capabilities of my subordinates, be they seaman officers or staff. In fact I would say that our Academy still produces the best officers in our Military and that the Navy is our best service from the readiness standpoint.

Q. Indeed, the number of mid-grade officers who distinguished themselves during the war, especially on small combatants, supports this thesis. How do you explain, then, the fact that none of the Italian Admirals achieved a similar recognition?

A. What you are saying is slightly incorrect. It is true that the officers typically chosen to be our “Comandanti Superiori in Mare”, although professionally accomplished, were not brilliant or charismatic leaders. Iachino, for example, made some of his decisions based on statistics and mathematical formulas. These methods may be appropriate under certain circumstances, but frequently, and especially in war time, intuition can lead to the right decisions quicker than analytical ability.

We did, however, have a man who possessed intuition and imagination, as well as courage and a superior intelligence: his name was Alberto Da Zara and he was the best and brightest of our Admirals. He executed successfully all the tasks he was assigned, yet he was not given command of a battleship task force until late in the war, when there was very little he could do. Had he been put in that position earlier, he would have been the type of inspirational leader that the mid-grade officers you are referring to richly deserved.

Q. What do you suppose are the reasons for choosing other officers over Da Zara for the most senior leadership positions?

A. There are several reasons. Da Zara had many original ideas, and most of them clashed with those of our CNO, Admiral Cavagnari. Also, whereas most of the officers who achieved flag rank had had one or several tours at the Navy Ministry, Da Zara shunned those assignments, preferring sea duty and overseas tours. But, perhaps more importantly, he was seen too much as a socialite. He did, of course, enjoy sparkling conversation and he certainly had a penchant for horses and attractive women. Among his many conquests, the most famous is perhaps Mrs. Wallis Simpson, who, several years later, was to become the Duchess of Windsor.

Q. It is often said that, during the war, the Italian Navy Central Command exercised too much control over the on-scene Commanders. What is your opinion on the subject?

A. Our Central Command, referred to as Supermarina, was a pretty remarkable organization in that it was capable of receiving and processing all the available information relevant to our maritime operations. Unfortunately, this sometimes resulted in orders which were either too late or did not take into account the exact position of the ships that were supposed to carry them out. For these reasons it became incumbent on the man on the spot to make the final decision on whether or not to obey.

On three different occasions, while on convoy escort duty, I took the liberty of trusting my own judgment rather than blindly following orders. Although I had some explaining to do upon completing my missions, in the end I was praised for correctly interpreting the spirit of the orders issued to me, meant at maintaining my convoy safe from enemy attacks.

Q. What was the most memorable of these situations?

A. It was while I was escorting a convoy en route for North Africa. We were attacked by a British submarine but were able to maneuver in time to avoid the torpedoes. I dropped some depth charges in the location where I estimated the submarine to be on the basis of the torpedo wakes, then returned to the convoy. I was worried because the submarine had had enough time to transmit our position to the Royal Navy units based in Malta. For this reason I had the convoy alter course and proceeded toward Pantelleria at best speed.

Supermarina contacted us shortly afterwards by radio, to warn me that we had been spotted and to order a different course from the one I had chosen. Instead of answering, I maintained radio silence to avoid giving the enemy any further information concerning our position and intention, then decided to proceed along my original plan.

When I arrived at Pantelleria, the Admiral in charge on the island told me that he had already written me off after I failed to respond to Supermarina’s many calls. He then asked me why I had failed to execute my orders. I replied that, had I obeyed Supermarina, the British would have had an opportunity to intercept the convoy, so in the end I was actually praised for “correctly interpreting my orders”.

At this point in the interview, I felt I had taken enough of the Admiral’s time. Before I took my leave, he made some sobering remarks concerning the deep effects of the current budget restrictions and political situation on the Italian Navy, a topic I could certainly sympathize with. As a parting shot, he showed me portions of his hand written war diary, which is extremely interesting and would have significant documentary value.

He told me to visit him again should I come to Rome in the future. As Admiral Pighini had made the two most instructive hours of my Italian vacation a genuine pleasure, I’m looking forward to take him up on his most courteous offer.