R. Smg. Balilla

Balilla was an ocean-going submarine, leader of the class of the same name. During World War II, the boat carried out only six missions (three patrols and as many transfer), covering a total of 3,271 miles on the surface and 440 in immersion and spending a total of 32 days at sea, before being relegated to training duties and then disarmed.

The boat’s motto was “Che l’inse?” (Genoese dialect: “la comincio [la rivolta]?”, a phase pronounced by Giovanbattista Perasso, known as Balilla, in unleashing the revolt that led to the expulsion of Austrian troops from Genoa in 1746).

“Che l’inse?”, meaning “Should I start it?”, referring to the Genoese revolt against the Austrians.

Brief and Partial Chronology

January 12th, 1925

Laid out at the Ansaldo San Giorgio del Muggiano shipyard in La Spezia (construction number 202). The construction was directed by engineer Carlo Lardera, a former officer of the Naval Engineers, who according to a source also participated in the design of the class.

February 20th, 1927

Balilla was launch at the Odero Terni Orlando shipyards (new name assumed by the shipyards after the absorption of Ansaldo San Giorgio by the OTO) in Muggiano.

Launch of the submarine Balilla

The event also received some attention in the international press: the “Ashburton Guardian” and the “Otago Daily Times”, for example, described it as “the world’s first submarine capable of diving to 300 feet [90 meters] and sailing at 19 knots on the surface and 10 knots submerged”.

During the subsequent tests, conducted under the supervision of the director of the Muggiano shipyard, engineer Giovanni Dujardin, Balilla descended to a depth of 110 meters.

July 21st, 1928

Balilla entered active service. With the twin boats Enrico Toti, Antonio Sciesa and Domenico Millelire it formed the I Submarine Squadron (called “large cruising” because it was composed of ocean-going submarines of great autonomy), which was part of the submarine flotilla of La Spezia.

July 1928

During a diving test, Balilla set a record by reaching a depth of 105 meters.

April 1929

In Genoa, the birthplace of the eponymous patriot, Balilla receives the combat flag, offered by the Opera Nazionale Balilla (O.N.B.,  was a Fascist youth organization). it was handed over to the commander of Balilla by the president of the O.N.B., Renato Ricci. The flag box, made of walnut burl by the Roman cabinet-maker N. Babusci and with gold and ivory friezes, was designed by the famous architect Enrico Del Debbio, who was also director of the technical office of the Opera Nazionale Balilla.


The four Balilla-class submarines made a cruise with a stopover in the Mediterranean and Atlantic ports of Spain, arriving as far as Lisbon in Portugal.


Balilla and Sciesa completed a cruise to the Canary Islands and then to Northern Europe, to Antwerp.


Balilla cruised all the way to New York, Boston and Halifax.

Balilla in Boston
 (Leslie Jones Collection – Boston Public Library)


Modifications in the artillery armament: the Odero-Terni-Orlando 120/27 mm anti-aircraft gun mod. 1924, given its unsatisfactory performance, was replaced with a more modern 120/45 mm OTO Mod. 1931, positioned on deck instead of in the conning tower as before (in order to increase stability). The previous 120/27 gun (which has the distinction of being the largest caliber anti-aircraft gun ever made in Italy) was instead destined for the anti-aircraft defense of Augusta and Messina, together with those taken from Toti, Sciesa and Millelire. The two single 13.2 mm anti-aircraft guns are replaced by two twin guns of the same caliber. At the same time, the masts of the radio antennas (tubular, foldable, 15 meters long) were eliminated following the adoption of a new type of antenna.

The same year, Balilla and Millelire make a cruise to Alexandria in Egypt, touching Piraeus on the outward journey and the ports of Italian North Africa on the return.

November 26th, 1936

Balilla and twins take part in the naval parade organized in the Gulf of Naples in honor of the regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy, who was visiting Italy.


According to some sources (including “History of Italian Jews” and “The Right and the Jews: An Italian History”), in 1936 Balilla participated clandestinely in the Spanish Civil War, in support of the Franco faction, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Sergio Lusena.

Commander Lusena was proposed, for his conduct during the “Spanish” missions, for a medal of valor, which, however, he never received: shortly after the enactment of the racial laws of 1938, in fact, he was forced to leave the Navy because he was Jewish.

From other sources, however, (starting with Francesco Mattesini’s essay “The Italian Air and Naval Blockade in the Spanish War”), it would appear that the submarine commanded by Lusena during the Spanish War was not Balilla, but the Archimede and then the Galileo Ferraris.

In the following years, during the Second World War, Commander Lusena was only able to watch the departure of submarines for their war missions from the docks of their bases: “… He waved his hand at his old comrades. Tears ran down his cheeks…”

February 3rd, 1937

Balilla (Lieutenant Commander Stefano Pugliese), part of the III Submarine Group of Naples, left La Spezia for a “clandestine” mission in the context of the Spanish Civil War: a patrol between Malaga and Almeria.

February 18th or 19th, 1937

Balilla returned to base after a mission in which it began four attack maneuvers but did not complete any of them. This Balilla mission is the last of the first Italian underwater campaign launched against the traffic of supplies directed towards the ports of Republican Spain; A second, larger campaign will follow a few months later.

In this period (until October 1938) the second lieutenant Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia, future ace of the Atlantic and Gold Medal for Military Valor, also served on Balilla. Already at this time, according to a source, Balilla would have begun to record a reduction in its war efficiency, due to its age and intense service in previous years.


Balilla, Toti, Sciesa and Millelire were assigned to the XV Submarine Squadron of the I Grupsom (La Spezia), formed by the largest ocean-going submarines of the Regia Marina: in addition to the four “Balilla”, also the Ettore Fieramosca and the three of the Calvi class (Pietro Calvi, Giuseppe Finzi, Enrico Tazzoli) were part of the squadron.

May 5th, 1938

Under the command of Lieutenant Commander Sergio Lusena, Balilla took part in the naval magazine “H” organized in the Gulf of Naples for Adolf Hitler’s visit to Italy


Balilla was based in La Spezia, along with the boat of the same class Toti and Sciesa. In the 1930s, submarines of the class made small cruises in the Mediterranean.

March 16th, 1940

During an exercise off the coast of Pula, Balilla collided with the steamer Albachiara, sustaining damage.

April 13th, 1940

Command of Balilla was assumed by the Lieutenant Commander Michele Morisiani.

June 10th, 1940

Upon Italy’s enter into World War II, Balilla (Lieutenant Commander Michele Morisiani) was part of the XL Submarine Squadron (which it forms together with the similar boats Millelire, Toti and Sciesa), part of the IV Grupsom of Taranto but based in Brindisi (according to another source, the XL Squadron belongs to the Brindisi Submarine Flotilla).

June 12th, 1940

During his first war patrol, an ambush south of Corfu, Balilla (Lieutenant Commander Michele Morisiani) was heavily attacked by planes and damaged, to the point of having to return to base.

(According to the British War Cabinet’s “Weekly Résumé of the Naval, Military and Air Situation” covering the period from June 27th to July 4th, 1940, Balilla was attacked and badly damaged by the Australian destroyers H.M.A.S. Stuart and H.M.A.S. Voyager and the British H.M.S. Decoy. However, it is not clear what the source of this news is and its accuracy arises doubts).

July 12th, 1940

Balilla set sail from Brindisi under the command of Lieutenant Commander Cesare Girosi for his second war patrol, an ambush south of Crete, on the junction between Cape Krio and Alexandria in Egypt. Shortly before reaching the assigned area, the mission had to be interrupted due to the sudden illness of Commander Girosi.

August 10th, 1940

Balilla was sent on patrol south of Crete.

August 16th, 1940

Balilla returned to base after an uneventful mission. This was the third and last patrol. After that, just two months after the beginning of the conflict, Balilla, too old (it is among the oldest submarines in the Regia Marina) and worn out to be destined for war missions, was reassigned to training duties at the Submarine School in Pula.


For a few months, until it was decommissioned, Balilla was used as a training unit at the Submarine School in Pula, together with the Millelire and other older submarines of the Regia Marina (Toti, Des Geneys and others).

April 28th, 1941

Balilla was laid up. Subsequently, it was transformed into a fuel depot, with the name GR 247 (G.R. means “Floating Supply”, a term that identified the tanks for port use registered in the Register of Ships instead of that of the military units).

Early May 1942

The conversion work into a fuel depot barge was completed. It involved the elimination of the Conning tower and the removal of engines, propellers, and armament, leaving only an empty shell. The interior of the hull has been divided into watertight compartments, each of which constitutes a tank in which the fuel would be stored. The shape of the bow was also modified so that it would be possible to sail in tow at a speed of 18 knots. The capacity of the GR 247 was 1,030 tons of fuel. Once the conversion work was completed, some towing tests were also carried out.

The drawing of the former Balilla, now a floating fuel depot

May 2nd, 1943

The former Balilla, now GR 247, arrived in Chalcis. After this mission, GR 247 was supposed to be towed to Volos, but instead appears to have remained in Chalcis. From the summer of 1943 to the autumn of 1944 the traces of the former Balilla were lost: there is no mention of it in any document. Falling into German hands after the armistice of Cassibile (8 September 1943), the submarine-barge was sunk by the latter in Chalcis in October 1944, immediately before their retreat, in order to obstruct that port. It was in Chalcis that the Greeks found the wreck of the former Balilla after the departure of the Germans. Recovered by a team of the company Οργανισμού Ανελκύσεως Ναυαγίων (Organismoú Anelkýseos Navagíon), the wreck was assigned to the Hellenic Navy.

Original Italian text by Lorenzo Colombo adapted and translated by Cristiano D’Adamo

Operational Records

TypePatrols (Med.)Patrols (Other)NM SurfaceNM Sub.Days at SeaNM/DayAverage Speed
Submarine – Oceanic6327144032 115.97 4.83