Interview with Mario Daneo. I Remember: ‘The War Diary of an Italian Submariner in Bordeaux’

Born in Fiume (this town, now part of Croatia, was at the time integral an part of Italy) on October 2nd, 1909, Mario Daneo entered the Italian Navy as a volunteer in 1929 at the age of 20. After five years in the service, Daneo left the Navy and entered civilian service as an engine officer for various Italian shipping companies. Called back to service during the war, Mr. Daneo served as a non-commissioned officer in the submarine service. After the war, Mr. Daneo returned to Fiume from which he then moved to Venice, living in Mestre until 1975, when he moved to Dolo, a small town not too far from Venice.

Mr. Mario Daneo in Dolo after retirement (Photo Marco Manfrin)

After 1987, Daneo resided at Dolo’s “Casa di Riposo”, a retirement home where he passed away a few years later. This short summary of Mr. Daneo’s life introduces us to a short manuscript he left to posterity and which we are pleased to present in a slightly edited version. In these memoirs written many years after the events, Mr. Daneo introduces us to life aboard an Italian submarine serving in the Atlantic and at the Italian submarine base of Bordeaux. Some of the dates, fogged by time, are not accurate, but the full meaning of the story remains. ——————————————————————————– I remember… We had just arrived in Venice with a load of 10,000 tons of corn, and docked under the silos. As usual, the first aboard was the shipping company’s agent for the customary paperwork, bringing along mail for the crew. In this manner, I received an express letter in which my wife let me know that five or six days earlier a representative of the Port Captaincy had come to my house with a green draft card. My wife told him that I was aboard the M/V Venier of the shipping company Sidarma. Accordingly, the representative held on to my card and began following my moves. It was May 7th or 8th and I was in Trieste where we loaded some goods (trucks, ambulances, ammunitions, food, two 120 mm guns, and two 20 mm machine guns) destined for Tripoli. Soon after, though, everything changed because during the journey the Ministry sent orders (we had been militarized) to continuously change our course. There were orders and counter orders and finally we found ourselves in Taranto. The city was under curfew and everything was dark. A raid by British torpedo bombers, I don’t remember if three or four, flew over our heads dropping torpedoes which hit an Italian battleship. What struck me were signals made by someone ashore with a flashlight to direct the airplane in the right direction for the launch of the torpedoes. People spoke of espionage or treason, but nothing came out of it. On this occasion came Mussolini with the High Command of the Navy to verify how all this could have happened, considering that we were only at the beginning of the war. We received orders from Rome to depart, escorted by two destroyers, but without being given a destination. As it was well known, there were posters both aboard and in the seaport, “Don’t talk! The enemy is listening!!” When we saw Mt. Vesuvius, we understood that we were arriving in Naples; here finally we docked in the military area. The following day, a Navy sub-lieutenant arrived aboard with a sergeant major and delivered a draft card to the captain, “Why do I have to disembark if I am already militarized?” I asked my captain. The lieutenant who had come aboard explained that since the Nostromo, a sailor, and I were former volunteers and N.C.Os with specific skills in the Navy, we had to disembark

Mr. DANEO’s family in 1940. (Photo Marco Manfrin)

Meantime, several weeks had passed since we had arrived around the 12th or 13th of December. I had five days to report to the navy depot in Pula. On December 15th, I arrived home in Fiume and at 8:30 on the 19th, I left for Pula where I arrived in the afternoon at 2 p.m.; six hours of train at the time. I went to the navy depot where I presented myself to the office and delivered the draft card. A sailor escorted me to the second floor where there was a large corridor and I was placed in a large room; there were five more noncommissioned officers dressed in civilian clothes waiting for the medical. We stayed together two days and on the third day we were called up for a medical examination performed by a colonel. The visit consisted of the measurement of height and weight. I was hoping to fare well because of a gastric ulcer, but it was not to be so! After a few days, those of us who had passed the medical went to the tailor to have measurements taken for our uniforms. Due to the confusion that reigned in that room, every Saturday I used to go home by a bus that stopped in every town on the Gulf of Quarnaro: Albona, Moschiena, Laurama (my wife’s town), Abbazia, Volosca and Fiume. Every Monday I would return to Pula at 11:00 a.m. Every day but Saturday and Sunday we had a general assembly at 2:00 p.m. in the building in front of the depot. I was lined up with the other NCO’s when it was time to receive our assignments which were given based on the requirements of the various commands. Three of us were selected because we were more than 1.7 m. tall; then sailors and officers assigned to the San Marco battalion. Those of us selected were later on posted on a bulletin board located in the caretaker’s lodge listing the assignment and departure date.

The Regia Marina’s barracks in La Spezia.

I spent Christmas and New Year’s Day 1940 at home with my wife and 2 ½ year-old son. For me the order to leave came on January 15th; I was assigned to La Spezia aboard the submarine Morosini commanded by C. V. Fraternale (in reality, the commanding officer of the Morosini was C.C. Criscualo chlater replaced by C.C. Fraternale). On February 4th, 1941 I was in La Spezia at the submarine depot. We made the usual introductions with the other members of the crew. I was the second chief mechanic. On February 10th we left but did not know where we were going. After four days of navigation, we caught a glimpse of the coast: it was the Moroccan one. The Strait of Gibraltar was controlled by British corvettes during the day and light projectors at night. I remember that we did about 10 miles underwater, then continued on the surface. We arrived in the Atlantic. At a distance, with the binoculars, we caught a glimpse of the Portuguese coast. After two days, if I remember correctly, we were in sight of the French coast in the Gulf of Biscay. At 5 AM, we entered [the Gironde] with the French pilot escorted in military uniform as they say, on close watch. After three hours, we arrived in Bordeaux in the docks, like in Venice. Each dry dock could host two submarines. After a couple of days of rest, we received orders to get ready for a mission that could last two months.

Lieutenant Commander Athos Fraternale (Photo Elio Andò)

My boat was considered the “Oceanic” type because it was larger than those operating in the Mediterranean. In peacetime, the crew included 60 men, but in wartime it was 90, 30 more. The area assigned to each boat was 40 square miles, a diameter of 65 km. Aboard, water was rationed and was needed for the kitchen. We had one-liter canteens and they had to last 24 hours for drinking, washing, etc. We all had beards and, once a week, for those who wanted to shave, the barber had a little extra water, but it was more salty than fresh. The first days on the mission, we would eat bread loaded ashore; thereafter and for as long as the mission lasted, we ate only hard tack, which required good, strong teeth and a stomach made of concrete. The first mission lasted 55 days; nothing out of the ordinary took place and we returned to base. As established, half the crew received a 15-day license, plus a round trip journey of 4 days. The journey thus began from Paris in the upper Lorena and we would arrive in Meltz, a German city, to then cross the whole of Germany to arrive in Munich. From here, a new train would take us to the Italian border. To arrive in Trieste, we had to go through Bolzano, Trento, Vicenza, and Mestre near Venice. We used local trains with 3rd class cars with wooden seats, as one might still find, but only on secondary lines. It was September 1941. In the early days of October, we left again for a new mission. Once arrived in our area of operations in the middle of the Atlantic, we stopped our main engines and started the auxiliary one to produce light and recharge the batteries in the various compartments. At a given point, from the bridge we received orders to move (smoke at the horizon) and we proceeded. The captain checked the ship’s listing; it was a Dutch ship of about 4,000 tons for civilian use as a tanker.

The submarine Morosini

We moved into position and then submerged to 7 or 8 meters to use the periscope. Two torpedoes forward and two aft were ready for launch. We heard orders from the captain “fire one”, 15 seconds later “fire two”, and after 30 seconds, which felt like an eternity, we heard two large explosions, one after another, muffled at a distance; we had reached the target. We returned to the surface and the ship was listing to one side and stopping. The second torpedo had hit the extreme stern where the propeller was located. We got close enough to see the crew members lowering the life boats into the water and getting away from the ship and closer to us, asking to be taken aboard. The captain replied that this would not be possible because they were enemy shipwrecked. We got even closer and prepared the deck gun at a distance of about 800 meters and then sank the ship. It was February 1942 when we found ourselves again in an area of operations and sighted a merchant ship. We launched two torpedoes at a depth of two meters and they left a trail visible only with the binoculars. The ship, since it was armed, opened fire, forcing us to submerge to a depth of 30 meters. After two hours, we stopped hearing gunfire and returned to the surface. It was already late evening, so the captain gave order to return to the assigned area to continue patrolling. We assumed that the ship we had attacked was British, and that it had sent a signal to base. We were later attacked by a group of destroyers. Assessing the danger, we were given orders to crash dive. We were at least at 30 meters when the bombs began exploding nearby, then we went down to 100 meters. We stayed there, still, without even a whisper. The destroyers passed above us, and then passed again, continuously dropping bombs. I don’t remember how many hours we remained like this. This way, the captain made the British believe that we were hit, so they moved on. After many hours, we slowly returned to the surface. It was night when we could breathe a little bit of fresh air. After reporting the events to the base, we were told to return: By then it had been more than 50 days since our departure. Once on land, it became known that the “Barbarigo” and the “Finzi” were also returning to base. The captain of the “Barbarigo” thought that he had sunk an American battleship off the American coast. The escort destroyers stopped to pick up the survivors.

The submarine base in Bordeaux after the bombardment of June 1943.

The episode narrated refers to the bombardment of Spring 1942..
It was March 1942. At the base in Bordeaux, in addition to officers, N.C.O.s, sailors, carabinieri, and troops of the S. Marco Battalion, there were fifty workers from the Monfalcone shipyard for the maintenance of the submarines. Suddenly, the alarm went off. We all got out and sought refuge in the bunkers built by the Germans. Here, I lost a dear friend of mine whom I had known since 5th grade. We were always together. His name was Zanella and before being called up he was a municipal policeman in Fiume. He was very dear and cared about others to the extreme. He was part of the S. Marco Battalion and was eating when a bomb fell near the kitchen barrack. A fragment wounded a 15-year old French boy who was an assistant cook. Zanella, along with other sailors, picked the wounded up to take him to the other side of the basin [Bassin à Flot]. They had to pass over the locks which were the British main target. When, along with the wounded, they arrived at the second lock, a bomb shrapnel mortally wounded my friend in the back. I will always remember all he had on him: letters, pictures, mementos, wallet, etc. I took them and delivered them to his family who had already been informed of his death. With the locks broken by the British, the “bacin a flot” emptied out and the submarines were left listing with only steel cables holding them to the docks.

The Italian submarine base in Bacalan, Bordeaux (Photo U.S.M.M.)

September 8th, 1943. Fortunately, I was at the base. Everyone was astounded and speechless. The following day we were called in the square and our commanding officer, along with the general commander in charge of the city, gave us a long speech in which he informed us that those of us who felt like it could continue with their assignment as before. My friend Precis Palesano and I (he was a 3rd class Chief) looked at each other and decided to stay. Of the 2,000 personnel from the Navy, the S. Marco Battalion, Carabinieri, workers and specialists, more than 300 stayed. The others had to pack their suitcases and backpacks. At 16:30, five or six Germans came in and began loading all those who did not want to stay, and they were brought to a camp outside Bordeaux; whatever was not needed was taken away. More than one felt guilty and came back.

Mario Daneo in wearing the uniform of the “Reggimento San Marco” (Photo Marco Manfrin)

After the landing in Normandy, we received orders to withdraw. By chance, I was given the command of a truck. I had with me six sailors and the driver, a sergeant from the S. Marco Battalion. We had to follow the caravan of retreating Germans. Once in Poitiers, halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, we stopped. The Italian commander gave me orders to refuel and get two sacks of wood and coal for the boiler. I took advantage of the situation to ask a French merchant if he could procure me some topographical maps of the region. I reversed direction and went back on the same road we had come from. Map in hand, I turned toward a boulevard with trees alongside which led to a small wood, where I was sure we were under cover. Here I met two French, husband and wife, whom I would later take to Bordeaux because they had to continue on to Spain. I instructed the French to go to a nearby village to purchase white sheets and some paint. We wanted to make some French flags and armbands. Meantime, we attempted to get rid of our uniforms and dug a hole to bury everything. We left on the truck a Breda machine gun plus my small Beretta 7.65 mm and returned to Bordeaux. Here I reported to the Italian consulate and let them know where I had hidden the weapons. The following day, they went but did not find anything because local peasants had already taken everything. I told them I would have to present myself to the Consulate in Marseilles. They placed us in a large dorm on straw mattresses. We were fine for a few days. One day, while we were eating in the refectory, we heard a few machinegun shots from upstairs, more precisely from the dorm where I was located. A worker from the Monfalcone shipyard had shot himself in the mouth. I was one of the first to help him out. The same afternoon, the French police came by truck, sequestered the weapons, and took us to a German prison camp, just outside Marseilles. We were placed in barracks with about 40 people each. We had lice and slept on straw. Every morning, the French counted us and after 20 or 25 days the Yugoslavian delegation came asking us where we were from. I answered that I was from Fiume, others were from Gorizia or other Istrian villages. Five or six of us were transferred to another camp with the Yugoslavians. Thanks to them, we were able to make it to Fiume in a freight car. Here, I gave my address and they let me go. This was the end of my war. Mario Daneo

Our special thanks to Mr. Marco Manfrin, grandson of Mr. Marco Daneo who provided us with most of the material published.

Mr. Manfrin with his grandfather, Mario Daneo while visiting the US. (photo Marco Manfrin)