R. Smg. Argonauta

The submarine ARGONAUTA (second boat with this name; the first one operated in WW I) was the first and the eponymous of a successful series of 7 boats built in the early 1930s (Series ARGONAUTA Class “600”). This was the period in which Italy got started with a massive construction program of submarines, which would bring her, upon her entry into the war, to be the first submarine fleet in the world for total tonnage, and only second in number of boats to the Russian Fleet.

The ARGONAUTA at sea (1932)
(Photo Turrini)

The ARGONAUTA was a submarine of over 600 tons of displacement, 61.5 m. long and capable of reaching a depth of 80 meters, something quite respectable for the period. With a surface speed of 14 knots and 8.5 knots submerged, the boat was armed with a single 102 mm gun, 4 machine guns and 6 torpedo tubes: 4 forward and 2 aft. The crew included 50 men of which 5 or 6 were officers.

Built by the C.R.D.A. (Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico) shipyard of Monfalcone, near Gorizia, the boat was laid down on November 9th, 1929, launched on January 19th, 1930 and delivered to the Navy on January 1st, 1932. Upon Italy’s entry into the war, the boat was assigned to the 61 Squadron of the VI Submarine Group based in Tobruk, Libya.

The ARGONAUTA in Messina
(Photo courtesy Erminio Bagnasco and Achille Rastelli)

On June 10th, 1940 the ARGONAUTA, under the command of Lieutenant Vittorino Cavicchia Scalamonti, was one of the 55 boats already on patrol in the Mediterranean. Along with other boats, the ARGONAUTA was assigned an area between the Island of Crete and the Egyptian Coast where enemy traffic to Suez and the naval base of Alexandria was to be expected. In fact, from these bases the British sent out anti-submarine forces meant to free these waters of Italian submarines.

The ARGONAUTA remained on patrol until June 21st in an area about 100 miles north east of Alexandria, picking up on the hydrophones heavy anti-sub activity but failing to locate and attack any target. It should be considered that, according to the regulations in place at the time, boats had very limited freedom of action to “eliminate dangerous interferences with each other” and a small square of sea was assigned to each of them. They absolutely could not leave this “square”, but had to wait for enemy ships to come their way. Crossing into another square was very dangerous: since there were no means for recognizing “friends and foes” (today we have electronic systems), and in a fight between submarines only the one who fires first survives, precisely as it happened between the submarines TRICHECO and GEMMA. The latter had entered the area assigned to the first and was sunk; it happened to other navies.

Enemy ships, instead, swept the sea in large numbers and on the 21st the ARGONAUTA was located and made object of an intense and precise bombardment with depth charges. With quick maneuvering (when a submarine is located and under attack by enemy warships, it prefers this tactic and reacts only if there is no way out), the boat was able to escape the enemy hunt, but suffered several serious malfunctions such as the failure of the attack periscope which practically blinded it.

The Argonauta in drydock

Under these circumstances, the ARGONAUTA was forced to interrupt its mission and return to base in Tobruk where it arrived on June 22nd. The damage was repaired as well as possible, but the base was not equipped for the replacement of the periscope, thus it was decided to send the boat to Taranto, where the shipyard could have easily completed the task. At 21:45 on June 27th, the ARGONAUTA left Tobruk sailing along the Libyan coast to Cape Ras el Hilal (the northern most point of the coast), from which it directed to Cape Colonne, near Crotone (Calabria) on a north-north-west due course. After departure, all communication was lost.

From research conducted after the war, and by consulting documentation provided by the British, it was reasonably assumed that the ARGONAUTA was sunk around 6:15 on the 29th of June in position 35°16’ N, 20°20’ E (one third into the journey), by a squadron of British destroyers (DAINTY, DEFENDER, DECOY, VOYAGER and ILEX) which from the 27th to the 30th had patrolled the area between Alexandria, the Aegean Sea and the central Mediterranean as part of operation “MA3” in support of British convoys from the Greek ports to Port Said and from Alexandria to Malta.

There were no survivors. Other submarines were lost in similar circumstances. An official British source indicates that an antisubmarine airplane of the type “Sunderland” (a large flight boat which was deadly to most submarines) on June 29th at at 14:50 attacked with two volleys of depth charges a submarine navigating at periscope depth in position 37°29’ N, 19°51 E; a point almost coinciding with the route of the ARGONAUTA, but quite ahead of what the position should have been based on the speed of the vessel. Since there were no other attacks and losses reported in those days, besides those checked and located, the
report of the “Sunderland”, possibly erroneous in defining the actual position, could be correct. Anyway, the Historical Bureau of the Italian Navy, and the vast majority of historians, believes the first theory to be more believable. But, in my opinion, the doubt persists.

Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo