Merchant Marine – Introduction

On 10 June 1940, Italy went to war, and the sailors of the merchant ships left out of the Mediterranean were among the first Italians to suffer the consequences. In terms of the cargo-carrying Marine, another important event took place: nearly all ships, while formally remaining their companies’ property, were in fact run by the Government, either through requisitions for actual war aims (escorts, patrol vessels, minesweepers, etc.), or through leases for convoys and war supply work.

Besides, in all of Italy’s history there has never been a naval operation that did not require merchant ships: this need has always been met in various ways, such as time-limited leases, compulsory transportation, requisition, or requisition with purchase. For Italy, naval warfare during the last conflict essentially involved convoys, needed to re-supply troops fighting in Africa and in the Balkans, to keep connections with the islands and to protect coastal traffic.

The Battle Fleet’s major operations were conducted to protect Italy’s own convoys or attack the enemy’s – headed for Malta, ever-present thorn in the side throughout the war. The consequence of this type of warfare was that an enormous toll of lives and materiel was paid not only by Italy’s combatant ships, but also by its Merchant Marine; the numbers speak for themselves.

As of June 1940, the Italian merchant fleet comprised 786 ships with a gross tonnage exceeding 500 tons, for a total of 3,318,129 tons, and about 200 ships between 100 and 500 tons. As many as 212 ships, amounting to 1,216,637 tons, were stranded out of the Mediterranean when Italy declared war, and almost all of them were consequently captured or sunk by the enemy.

Between 10 June 1940 and 8 September 1943, the fleet gained 204 ships – newly constructed or captured – amounting to 818,619 tons; but 460 ships, amounting to 1,700,096 tons, were lost.

Left: number of ships over 500 t.
Right: total tons

As of 8 September, 324 ships for 1,247,092 tons were still serving; after the armistice, they were mostly captured by the Germans (and then sunk) or self-destroyed to avoid capture.

At the end, in May 1945, the Italian merchant ships exceeding 500 tons were only 95, for 336,810 tons: 10% of the gross tonnage available at the outset of the conflict.

Left: personnel transported and lost
Right: goods transported and lost

The amount of capital lost was immense, not only in terms of quantity but also quality: many ships were new and excellent vessels along with thousands of brave sailors were lost at sea. 3,100 seamen died on merchant ships registered as auxiliary naval vessels, 3,257 men belonging to the crews of requisitioned and non requisitioned ships lost their lives, 537 perished as POW’s; a total of 7,164 were lost out of 25,000 registered sea-going personnel.

Italian ports were destroyed, and it took years to remove the wrecks and rebuild them; even coastal shipping, once flourishing, had to restart from scratch. This notwithstanding, it is fair to recall that merchant ships in wartime performed their tasks in exemplary fashion, delivering nearly all their war cargoes to their proper destination: out of 4,199,375 tons of goods embarked, only 449,225 tons failed to reach their destination, i.e. about 10.5%.

The number of embarked soldiers was 1,266,172, and 23,443 were lost at sea, i.e. 2%: many in absolute terms, of course, but few in relation to the efforts expended. In light of these numbers, one can unquestionably state that the Merchant Marine amply deserved the Gold Medal for Military Valor awarded to its flag by the President of the Republic, Luigi Einaudi, with his decree of 11 April 1951.

Captain (Deep Sea Master) Cesare Rosasco
Gold Medal for Valor for an action against a British
submarine in the Western Mediterranean.
(Photo USMM.)

The Medal was bestowed on 16 September 1951 in Genoa by Luigi Einaudi himself: the motor vessels Saturnia, Conte Grande and Italia, the cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi and the corvettes Ibis and Chimera were in the harbor to render homage. The flag, carried by Gold Medal winner Captain Cesaro Rosasco (Merchant Marine), was decorated by the President as a solemn act of recognition by the Nation to the bravery and sacrifice of its merchant seamen.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis