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