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