R. Smg. Pier Capponi

Pier Capponi was a medium-cruising submarine, second unit of the Mameli class (displacement of 830 tons on the surface and 1,010 in submergence). No longer a young boat (it was nicknamed “old nail” by the crew), it nevertheless had a considerable war activity, mainly in the waters around Malta, before meeting its tragic end. The boat completed 9 war missions (6 patrols and 3 transfers), covering 3,655 miles on the surface and 812 submerged and spending 30 days at sea. It was credited with sinking a merchant ship of 1,888 GRT.

Pier Capponi

Brief and Partial Chronology

August 27th, 1925

Set-up began at the Franco Tosi shipyards in Taranto.

June 19th, 1927

Pier Capponi was launched at the Franco Tosi shipyard in Taranto. (Another source gives the date of the launch as April 1st, 1928.)

January 20th, 1929

Official entry into active service. Together with the twin boats Goffredo Mameli, Tito Speri and Giovanni Da Procida, Capponi formed the Submarine Squadron of Medium Cruise, part of the Taranto Flotilla. Shortly after its entry into service, the Pier Capponi dove to a depth of 54 meters.

Pier Capponi with the original conning tower

February 1st, 1929

Capponi became the squadron leader unit of the Medium Cruise Submarine Squadron.

June 26th, 1929

During diving tests carried out five miles off the coast of La Spezia, Capponi descended to a depth of 110 meters.


Capponi, Mameli and Da Procida made a long cruise with a stopover in the Mediterranean ports of Spain and then also in the Atlantic, up to Cadiz and Lisbon. This was the first Atlantic cruise made by Italian submarines from which it was revealed the good qualities of the boats of the Mameli class, suitable for ocean navigation and long stays away from base.


The Medium Cruise Squadron becomes IV Submarine Squadron. Capponi, Mameli and Speri took a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, and the Dodecanese. In the same year, Capponi also took part in training maneuvers in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The submarine Capponi diving in the pre-war-period


Capponi and the rest of the squadron were transferred to Naples.


The commander of the Pier Capponi was the Lieutenant Commander Giuseppe Carlo Speziale.

May 1933

Capponi and the rest of the squadron made a training cruise of about 20 days, calling at Thessaloniki, Leros and Rhodes and participating, during their stay in the latter islands, in exercises with ships and planes. The results were judged to be very positive.


Capponi and the rest of the squadron were again transferred to Taranto, where the squadron became IX Squadron of the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. The units continue their normal training and make short cruises to Italy and the Dodecanese.


The IX Squadron changes its name to XII Submarine Squadron.

Capponi surfacing

December 22nd, 1936

The command of the Pier Capponi was assumed by the Lieutenant Commander Domenico Emiliani.

September 3rd, 1937

Assigned to the IV Submarine Group of Taranto, the Capponi (Lieutenant Commander Domenico Emiliani) set sail from Leros for a clandestine mission in the context of the Spanish Civil War, with the order to patrol a sector in the Aegean Sea to counter the smuggling of supplies for the Spanish Republican forces. Capponi thus indirectly participated in the “blockade” of traffic directed from the Soviet Union to Republican Spain, patrolling the waters of the Aegean near the exit of the Dardanelles Strait, where Soviet steamers and other nationalities passed, employed in the transport of supplies for the Republicans, whose passage through the Bosphorus was reported by the Italian Intelligence Service in Istanbul. The task of the submarines was to try to locate and sink the reported ships. This mission was part of the second Italian submarine campaign in the Spanish Civil War, launched in August 1937 (with the use of 10 submarines in the Aegean, 17 in the Strait of Sicily and 24 in the western Mediterranean) at the request of Francisco Franco, worried about the increase in the flow of supplies for the Spanish Republican forces after the interruption of the first Italian underwater campaign,  It took place in February 1937, in order to avoid incidents with the United Kingdom and France (the campaign undertaken by Italian submarines, in the absence of a formal state of war between Italy and the Spanish Republic, was clandestine and de facto illegal).

September 4th, 1937

After a day of sailing, the Capponi had to return to port due to damage. The boat still performed a single attack maneuver against a suspicious ship, but interrupts it before launching the torpedoes.

September 5th, 1937

After a few hours in port, Capponi left again to resume the mission, heading towards the area assigned.

September 12th, 1937

Capponi returned to Leros concluding the mission, during which he began 11 attack maneuvers, but did not complete any of them.


The Squadron became XLI Submarine Squadron, then was transferred to Messina, and named XXXI Submarine Squadron (part of III Grupsom).

June 10th, 1940

Upon Italy’s entry into the Second World War, Capponi (Lieutenant Romeo Romei) was part of the XXXIV Submarine Squadron (III Grupsom), based in Messina, together with the twins Goffredo Mameli, Giovanni Da Procida and Tito Speri.

Lieutenant Romeo Romei (1906-1941), commander of Capponi during the Second World War. Of Dalmatian origin (he was born in Castelnuovo di Cattaro (Montenegro) on August 14th, 1906), and graduated from the Naval Academy of Livorno in 1928 and volunteered on submarines in 1933. For his daring adventures in the waters around Malta, narrated by Pietro Caporilli, the Italian press of the time nicknamed him “corsair of the abyss” (Caporilli describes him as follows: “Italian from Dalmatia, tall, robust, decisive expression (…) he had already to his credit the cannon sinking of an armed steamer, (…) the attack on an entire British naval formation and a daring raid under Malta, in front of the Port of Valletta. A true corsair of the abyss who will write (…) as we shall see, superb pages of daring”). The Italian Navy has named two submarines in his memory, one (S 516, former American Harder of the Tang class) in service from 1974 to 1988 and another (S 529, of the U212/Todaro class) which entered service in 2017.

June 21st, 1940

Capponi began his first war assignment, being sent on patrol in the Strait of Sicily, between the Island of Pantelleria and Tunisia (within the operational zone “B”, which embraces the entire central Mediterranean and a large part of the western one). Capponi was part of the third “wave” of Italian submarines sent on missions after the declaration of war: starting from June 19th, a total of 21 submarines are sent to the central and western Mediterranean to primarily counter French naval traffic.

June 22nd, 1940

At 00.35 AM the Capponi (Lieutenant Romeo Romei), lying in ambush between Pantelleria and Tunisia, sighted the Swedish steamer Elgö (1,888 GRT, often mistakenly mentioned by Italian sources as Helge) at 36°59′ N and 11°12′ E, south of Sicily and east of Ras Mihr. After opening fire with the cannon – it will fire a total of 23 rounds with the 102 mm cannon – putting a few shots on target before having to stop firing due to a failure of the piece, at 01.32 AM and 01.35 AM Capponi launches two torpedoes against the steamer, which however avoids them with a maneuver.

At 01:45 AM a third 533 mm torpedo was launched, which this time seemed to hit the target, producing what appeared to be a muted explosion, after which the Elgö stopped. Finally, at 02.01 AM (another source mistakenly speaks of 1.50 Am), Capponi launched a fourth and final torpedo, this time a smaller 450 mm, which hit the target amidships and caused the sinking of the steamer in just five minutes, south of Cape Bon and north of Sfax.

(According to another source, after the sighting the Capponi would have launched a first torpedo, avoided by the steamer with a maneuver, then it would have opened fire continuing the shot until the failure of the cannon, then it would have launched two more torpedoes immobilizing the ship, and then accelerated its sinking with a last torpedo).

On board the Elgö, the captain was awakened at 00:20 AM on June 22nd, about three miles east of Ras Mhir, by the third officer, who announced that the ship was under fire from a submarine of unknown nationality (in all, the crew of the Elgö counted about 15 cannons). The Swedish captain orders the crew to abandon ship on the lifeboats, remaining on board with the first mate until the lifeboats had been lowered. Then, when the first mate was about to abandon ship – about half an hour after the submarine opened fire – he saw the wake of a torpedo rushing towards the Elgö and passing under the hull of the steamer without exploding. (This was probably the third torpedo launched by Capponi, which, according to Commander Romei’s estimation, would have hit the target, producing a dampened explosion and immobilizing it, in which case the torpedo would not have exploded, passing instead under the hull of the ship, while the impression of having hit and immobilized the Elgö probably derives from the fact that more or less at this time the crew had stopped the engines to abandon ship).

About ten minutes later, when there was no one left on board the steamer, it was hit by a second torpedo, immediately broke in two and sank in only five minutes. One of the crew was killed, a seafarer who disappeared during the shelling, probably hit by shrapnel. Several survivors, on board the lifeboat on the port side that was hit and seriously damaged by the explosion of the torpedo, were injured.

According to some Italian sources, the Elgö was sailing on a route from Tunisia to Malta, but in reality, the ship, which left Tunis on June 21st, was headed to Sfax with 500 tons of various goods, including asphalt. Sweden was a neutral nation, but according to Italian sources, the Elgö was chartered by the British. According to the researcher Platon Alexiades the steamer had probably been chartered, perhaps by France (which seems more logical, considering its ports of origin and arrival, both in French Tunisia), and therefore equally at the service of a belligerent country (which would have made it a legitimate target), but so far, he has not found effective evidence in this sense.

Italian sources also speak of the Elgö as an armed steamer. Romei’s report states that after ordering the ship to be detained, it briefly opened fire on Capponi before being silenced by the latter, but this seems unlikely, since at this stage of the war Swedish merchant ships were usually unarmed. Elgö was the second merchant ship to be sunk in the Mediterranean by an Italian submarine in World War II, preceded only by the Norwegian tanker Orkanger, sunk by the Naiade on June 12th, 1940.

The war correspondent Pietro Caporilli recalls the episode of the sinking of the Elgö, as it was narrated to him by Romei, in the book “Noi della ciurma” (We, the crew), published while the war was still in progress, in 1942: “It was the night of June 22 (…) After sixteen hours of diving, up and down the abyss I order: at periscope depth. How long until sunset? (…) The red disk of the sun had just gone down (…) when he finally wrote it up. As soon as we get out, I jump into the conning tower together with the second and the lookout and we carefully look around with our binoculars. Nothing! An hour passes. (…) Suddenly, the lookout’s hand touches my arm and points to the right. (…) I order Mariani to fire a warning shot at the enemy ship.” The steamer increases speed without stopping. He was caught up and hit by a Capponi torpedo. The commander continues: “… A fearful explosion reverberates in the silence of the night, a terrible crash and a high column of water rises against the sides of the mortally wounded steamer. I then witnessed a terrifying sight. The enemy ship – certainly loaded with explosives – literally breaks in two, rising out of the water with a good part of the keel; then the two sections, folding in a V shape, sink simultaneously!

June 25th, 1940

While sailing back to base, Capponi unsuccessfully launched a torpedo at an enemy submarine sighted off the northern coast of Sicily.

Capponi on its first war patrol

July 6th, 1940

Capponi was sent on patrol off Malta, under the command of Lieutenant Romeo Romei. In the following days, following the sighting at sea of the Mediterranean Fleet, which had sailed from Alexandria to provide protection to two convoys bound for Malta, Supermarina alerted all submarines located in ambush zone “C” and in the eastern part of zone “B” (i.e. in the central-eastern Mediterranean).

July 11th, 1940

At 11.20 PM (or 10.30 PM), while Capponi was lying in ambush southeast of Malta in adverse weather conditions, the sailor Luigi De Donno, on lookout on the Cunning Tower, sighted three British battleships (according to other sources, cruisers) escorted by several destroyers, with an apparent course from Malta to Alexandria. Favored by the darkness, Capponi approached on the surface up to a short distance from the enemy battleships, and at 11.40 PM (or 10.40 PM), still on the surface, launched two torpedoes against the lead ship. The torpedoes did not hit, and the Capponi had to disengage with a crash dive, being subjected to heavy hunting with depth charges, which causes several damages to the external hull and propellers, also causing failure of the gyroscopic compass, which makes it difficult to orient itself while diving.

July 12th, 1940

Trying to escape the hunt by the British units, Capponi ended up going as far as the coast of Malta. Resurfacing near the islet of Fifola to recharge its batteries and change the air, the submarine ran into a British coastal surveillance unit (Italian sources variously speak of minesweepers or submarine destroyers). Trying to buy time, the Italian crew tries to deceive the small unit that approaches, saluting and feigning a friendly attitude. Thus, it allowed the British ship to approach, and when the distances was reduced sufficiently, Capponi opens fire on it with machine guns, taking it by surprise, then launches smoke bombs and makes a crash dive while the British unit reacts with the weapons on board, hitting the submarine and causing various damage in the conning tower. Italian sources also speak of volleys by the coastal batteries of Marsa Scirocco, which would have fired on the submarine.

Max Polo, in the chapter “Submarines in the open sea” of the book “Fatti d’arme di una guerra senza fortuna” (1972), describes the incident in rather emphatic tones: “Capponi wanders blindly underwater [having the gyroscopic compass out of order], and when he comes back to the surface it  discovers that it was in the enemy’s lair, no less than under Malta, exactly near the islet of Filfola,  within range of the cannons of Marsa Scirocco. The situation was becoming extremely dangerous. It becomes even more dramatic when, from behind the islet, the commander noticed the silhouette of an English submarine destroyer launched at full speed on an inclined course to cut off its way. What’s left to do at Capponi? To give battle, not even to think about it: it would be like having your flank ripped open and sunk under a hail of bullets from the coastal batteries. All that remained was to play everything for everything, cunningly. Romei didn’t get upset, he calmly advanced towards the enemy unit with the flag unfurled. A moment of hesitation on the part of the English fighter, which for the moment has the doubt of being faced with a French submarine. From the deck of the Italian submarine, Commander Romei begins to gesture with his hat. In the meantime, with a lightning leap Lieutenant Stea and Bumbaca threw themselves on the machine guns: fire! The gusts took the English boat by surprise, swept the bow, killing the captain as well. A riot erupted. From the coastal batteries, from the wounded fighter, it was an infernal fire that fell on the Capponi. What to do? There was only one way: cover yourself behind a smokescreen and dive.

According to British documentation (consulted by researcher Platon Alexiades), the units involved in the brief skirmish with the Capponi was not one but two, the armed anti-submarine fishing boats Coral and Jade, which after the exchange of shots on the surface bombarded the submarine with depth charges while had meanwhile reached to a depth of 97 meters. The clash took place at 6.40 AM on July 12th, southeast of Malta, when Capponi opened fire on one of the two British units, which reacted by opening fire in turn and causing the submarine to dive. Contrary to what the Italians believed, neither the Coral nor the Jade were hit by the submarine’s fire. The documentation of the Maltese defense, which was very sparse, did not mention the opening of fire by the coastal batteries.

In the brief clash on the surface, the Capponi was hit twice by the fire of Coral and Jade: one bullet hit it at the stern, tearing the outer hull, while another pierced the conning tower, which as soon as it ended up underwater for the dive was completely flooded, filling with eight tons of water (according to another source the damage to the conning tower would have been caused by shrapnel that would have hit it on the left side). When the submarine submerged, it began to take on water, and Romei decided to return to Malta, where the sea was shallower, and settle on the seabed near the mouth of the port of Valletta, at a depth of 102 meters, where he then waited for darkness to get away. Naphtha was also released, hoping that the British would be convinced that they had sunk the boat and therefore desist, but this expedient did not achieve the desired purpose.

One could hear ships’ propellers passing on the vertical of the submarine stationary on the bottom and from the noises detected, it appeared that the British ships were looking for Capponi more out to sea. Capponi therefore spent all day resting on the seabed, motionless, hoping not to be located, while the situation inside becomes more and more precarious: there were increasing infiltrations of water in several points, and the electrical system failed causing all the lights to go out (some sources also speak of methyl chloride leaks, hazardous and toxic gas used in the air conditioning system). At 10:30 PM, Romei ordered the boat to the surface, but Capponi did not move. Frantically, other attempts were made, all to no avail. It almost seems as if the submarine has been trapped by the mud of the seabed. In the end, it was tried to move the boat by means of a jolt, the propellers were set in motion and at the same time compressed air was introduced into the tanks: this time the attempt was successful, and Capponi slowly began to sway and then to move, while depth gradually decreases. Battered but safe, the submarine saw the light again and headed for Messina.

For the record, it should be mentioned that two days after this episode, on July 14th, the British armed tugboat Emily, patrolling in the coastal waters of Malta, opened fire on a non-existent enemy submarine. An episode not uncommon: “false sightings” of this type and related attacks against nothing (or against wrecks, or unfortunate cetaceans) occurred in that period on several occasions. Perhaps, in this specific case, it was linked to the previous clash of Coral and Jade with an enemy submarine – the Capponi – in waters so close to Malta, which had taken place just two days earlier.

September 1st, 1940

Again, Capponi was sent on a patrol 30 miles southeast of Malta. The same evening, at 10.45 PM, Capponi (Lieutenant Romeo Romei) sighted a British destroyer and attacked it, but was immediately spotted and subjected to heavy hunting, thus being forced to disengage by diving.

September 4th, 1940

The boat returned to base.

Photo taken on board the Capponi on its return from a war patrol
(from “L’affondamento del sommergibile Pier Capponi‘ (The sinking of the submarine Pier Capponi) by Enzo Poci)

November 5th, 1940

Capponi (Lieutenant Commander Romeo Romei) was sent on patrol east of Malta. In the following days, Capponi and four other submarines (Topazio, Corallo, Fratelli Bandiera and Goffredo Mameli, all departing from Augusta and Messina) were sent about 90 miles south-south-east of Malta to counter the British operation “Coat”.

The decision to send some submarines (Pier Capponi, Topazio and Fratelli Bandiera) to the south-east of Malta was taken by Supermarina (Admiral Domenico Cavagnari) following reports, received on November 7th, about British naval movements in the Mediterranean. Italian agents stationed on the Spanish coast of the Strait of Gibraltar reported, on the evening of November 7th.  On the same day, a reconnaissance aircraft S.M. 79 of the Libyan Air Force noticed the absence of the large units of the Mediterranean Fleet in the port of Alessandria (the two formations appeared to have convergent routes towards the central Mediterranean), news later confirmed by the interception of radio traffic, from which Supermarina deduced that 2-3 battleships were sailing from Alexandria to the west,  6 cruisers and a dozen destroyers.

In Rome, the purpose of these movements was unknown. It was a complex British operation, ‘MB. 8″, which will culminate with the famous torpedo bomber attack against Taranto on the night of 11-12 November.

The capon painted on the cunning tower of Capponi

Following a sighting by a reconnaissance plane, Admiral Cavagnari ordered Capponi, Topazio, Bandiera and two other submarines, Corallo and Mameli, to move to ambush sectors located south-east and south-south-east of Malta, at a distance of 50-90 miles from that island, forming a barrage 90 miles south-south-east of Malta with intervals of 20-30 miles between each unit and the order to carry out night commuting (in contrast to Operation “Coat”).

November 9th, 1940

During the day, the Capponi, lurking about 50 (for another source 40) miles southeast of Malta, was attacked by British light units off Malta and subjected to anti-submarine hunting, from which it managed to escape despite having suffered several damages. Capponi still remained in the ambush in the area. That evening, having resurfaced, it began to recharge the batteries, returning to the ambush point indicated by the order of operations. There was a strong sea force 6, from the northwest, with wind force 5 also from the northwest. The sky was cloudy, but the horizon was clear.

At 11:54 PM (with a “fairly high moon”), while the submarine was on the surface, the lookout Luigi De Donno excitedly announced the sighting of a large enemy formation (“Commander, a million ships!”) in position 34°33′ N and 16°08′ E. Commander Romei and the second-in-command Stea, who were sitting on their seats at the time, got up, scanned the horizon with binoculars and sighted a British squadron at a distance of about 10,000 meters, of which Romei appreciated the composition of two battleships, an aircraft carrier, some cruisers and numerous destroyers (the historian Francesco Mattesini states that Romei estimated that the British force consisted of an aircraft carrier,  two cruisers and eight destroyers; however, Romei’s report shows: “The formation was made up of a large number of destroyers and light cruisers escorted forward to wedge, an aircraft carrier and two large ships whose silhouette was that of the Royal Sovereign and Ramillies. These three large units proceed in a line of order, in the order mentioned above. The last unit of the forward side escort looms on the aircraft carrier.”) Cruisers and destroyers precede the aircraft carrier, which in turn was followed by battleships; the formation was heading for Malta.

This was Force A, the main nucleus of the Mediterranean Fleet (which includes the four battleships H.M.S. Valiant, H.M.S. Warspite, H.M.S. Malaya and H.M.S. Ramillies and the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Illustrious), under the direct command of Admiral Cunningham: at 09:00 PM this formation, which arrived 100 miles southeast of Malta, took course 310° (northwestwards) to join Force F arriving from Gibraltar (H.M.S. Barham,  H.M.S. Berwick, H.M.S. Glasgow and its destroyers). At the time when the Italian submarine spotted them, Cunningham’s ships were proceeding towards the islet of Gozo, part of the Maltese archipelago, to reach the pre-arranged point for the rendezvous with the ships of Force F. (Other sources state that the force encountered by Capponi consisted only of the battleship H.M.S. Ramillies and the destroyers H.M.S. Havock, H.M.S. Hyperion and H.M.S. Ilex, detached from the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet to refuel in Malta or to escort the MW convoy to Malta. 3 together with H.M.S. Coventry and some destroyers).

Capponi approaches the enemy formation to attack while remaining on the surface, assuming a 235° course, perpendicular to the scion direction of the British squadron (which was 325°). To try to close the distance, Romei orders the chief engineer Giuseppe Leognani to also use the diesel engine in partial failure, accepting to run the risk of being spotted (the damaged engine emits a lot of exhaust smoke, which could make it easier to identify). As if that were not enough, during the approach the Capponi swerved strongly to the left due to a failure of the air vents and twice Romei gave orders to try to right the submarine.

November 10th, 1940

Even with the two diesel engines pushed to the maximum possible speed, when the Capponi found itself in a position suitable for launching against the first important target – the aircraft carrier, i.e. the H.M.S. Illustrious – its distance was still more than 5,000 meters, too much to hope for a hit. Therefore, he let it pass, without being able to do anything. Just then, moreover, the British squadron pulled out, widening the beta. Romei then decides to attack the last ship of the formation (which was, according to one version, the silhouette of a Ramillies-type battleship). At 00:08 AM the opposing formation approached again, now returning to tighten the beta.

A minute later, the distance was reduced to about 4,000 meters (indeed still a little too high to launch with a good chance of success, as noted in a comment also from the official history of the USMM. Perhaps the fear of seeing the two battleships escape as already had happened with the aircraft carrier had weight in the decision). Commander Romei estimated the speed of the British formation at about 15 knots, the beta at 90°, the aiming angle at 21.; This data is transmitted to the forward torpedo room, where three 533 mm torpedoes and one 450 mm torpedoes were prepared (the latter, being adjusted for a range of 2000 meters, was not launched). At 00.09 AM Capponi launched three 533 mm torpedoes against the British ships: according to the rules of the time, the three torpedoes were launched with an initial phase shift of five degrees (with the aim of ensuring a salvo opening of 85 meters on each side; at a distance of 4,000 meters, the opening would be 340 meters on each side).  Therefore, the one launched by tube number 1 has an angle of 16°, that of tube 3 of 21°, that of tube 4 of 26°. The first torpedo (tube 1) was launched aiming almost “one and a half hulls” forward of the target’s bridge (so that the opening produced by the angle was reduced to 70 meters, and then to 270 to 4,000 meters); the second (tube 3) was launched with a tappet on the bridge of the British ship; the third (tube 4) in Romei’s intentions should be launched one and a half hulls aft of the bridge (again in order to reduce the opening of the salvo within the limits desired by them), but a strong yaw occurred at the time of launch means that it was actually launched with tappets forward of the bow of the target. All three torpedoes were adjusted to a depth of five meters.

A little more than three minutes after launch, three detonations are heard on the Capponi, which are believed to indicate that the torpedoes have hit (also because usually the Italian torpedoes, if they reached the end of their run without having hit targets, did not explode, but merely sank). Just before the first of the three explosions, from aboard the submarine – which in the meantime was preparing for the crash dive, which was soon to be carried out – what appears to be a tall black column rising from the hull of the chosen target, the last ship of the formation, was also observed. Commander Romei wrote in his report: “The first two explosions were heard after about 3 minutes and 15 seconds, and the first of them was preceded by a high black column raised against the hull of the targeted target (last unit of the formation). The interval between these two explosions was very short, in the order of about 3 or 4 seconds. The third explosion followed after about 6 seconds and the recoil on the hull of the submarine was heard, while operations for the rapid were already beginning; therefore, it was not possible to visually observe the effect produced.” About the third torpedo, Romei estimates that it passed about 500 meters forward of the target. Having heard the explosion, he believes that it hit the ship that preceded the one that was hit in the formation. At 00:30 AM Romei reported on the radio that he believed he had hit a heavy cruiser with two torpedoes, or perhaps even three.

In fact, no British ships were hit. Even the British, although not realizing that they were under attack, actually heard two loud explosions around midnight, the same ones felt by the crew of the Capponi but believing that they were due to the explosion of torpedoes at the end of the run. It has then been hypothesized, on the Italian side (for example, by Francesco Mattesini in his essay on the operation “Judgment”), that the torpedoes exploded by encountering the wake of one of the ships, since they usually did not explode at the end of their run, but by contact. The wake hypothesis would also explain Romei’s impression of having struck (given the reciprocal positions, the great distance in the darkness of the night and the perspective, the water column of a torpedo exploding against the wake of a nearby ship could have appeared as the water column of a torpedo exploding against a ship). Another hypothesis (put forward by Platon Alexiades) was that the torpedoes exploded by hitting the seabed after reaching the end of their stroke.

Shortly after its unsuccessful attack against Force A, which was not followed by a counterattack (according to one source, some destroyers approached the submarine, causing it to move away, but without locating it), Capponi had to abort the mission and return to base due to failures with the electric motors.

Commander Romei’s erroneous appreciation, far from inexplicable or unprecedented in the context of underwater warfare – where submarines, after attacking heavily escorted enemy formations, often had to hastily dive and move away after having been able to evaluate only summarily the results of their launches – was absurdly amplified in the days that followed by a gross error of judgment on the part of Supermarina. Having received Capponi’s communication on the alleged damage to a heavy cruiser, in fact, the command of the Regia Marina asks its counterpart in the Air Force (Superaereo) to send his planes to give the coup de grace to the stricken cruiser.

The reconnaissance sent to the scene of the attack on the morning of November 10th did not spot either damaged ships or wreckage indicating a sinking, but some FIAT CR 42 biplanes of the 23rd Fighter Group noticed the presence of H.M.S. Ramillians in Valletta, which was stopping there to refuel. Judging with too much optimism the reason for the stop in Malta of this unit (very rarely, since the outbreak of the war, the British battleships stay in the Maltese port), Supermarina believes that this must be the ship hit by the Capponi, and that it has taken refuge in Malta because of the damage suffered. H.M.S. Ramillies, after refueling, left Malta at 01.30 PM on the same day, together with the Coventry and the destroyers H.M.S. Decoy and H.M.S. Defender, escorting the four steamers of the convoy “ME. 3” bound for Egypt.

The erroneous news of the torpedoing of an enemy battleship was given in the bulletin no. 158 of the Supreme Command of 12 November (“On the night of the 1st of November in the central Mediterranean one of our submarines attacked a significant British naval force and certainly hit with two torpedoes and probably with a third the last large ship of the formation. It was to be considered probable that the enemy unit will be lost, which was certainly very seriously damaged“) and then taken up again in bulletin no. 161 of 15 November with more details “On the night of the 9th to the 10th of this year — as already announced in bulletin no. 158 — the submarine Capponi hit with three torpedoes a battleship type Ramillies which, together with others,  escorted the aircraft carrier Illustrious in the Strait of Sicily. The Lieutenant Commander Romeo Romei, commander of the submarine, checked with direct vision from the submarine that emerged the explosion of the three torpedoes on the hull of the enemy ship”. In the following days, the Italian press gave ample prominence to the episode. The Anglo-Saxon one will refute the Italian claims. Commander Romei, as a consequence of this colossal misunderstanding, was decorated with the Silver Medal for Military Valor for torpedoing a battleship, while the rest of the crew was awarded the War Cross for Military Valor with the same motivation.

Pietro Caporilli, war correspondent of the “Giornale d’Italia” embarked on the Pier Capponi, wrote an illustrated pamphlet (“The extraordinary adventures of the submarine Pier Capponi“) published in 1941 by the” Editoriale di Propaganda Gioventù Italiana del Littorio” in Rome, the first issue of the “Series of monographs on the heroes of the sea, sky and earth” (cost, two lire at the time). Subsequently, Caporilli will also take up this theme in the book “Noi della ciurma” (We, the crew).

Drawing by Vittorio Pisani for “La Tribuna Illustrata” of December 1st, 1940. The caption read: “Torpedoes hit the target to death – On the side of the British ship – a battleship of the type “Ramilles” – a huge column of water was raised. The enemy unit was certainly sinking and soon the submarine that torpedoed it – our “Pier Capponi”, commanded by the Lieutenant Commander Romeo Romei – will return to dive to hunt for other prey. This brilliant war action took place in the Strait of Sicily” (from “The sinking of the submarine Pier Capponi” by Enzo Poci, edited by the Società di Storia Patria per la Puglia).

A page from Pietro Caporilli’s pamphlet on the adventures of Capponi (from “The sinking of the submarine Pier Capponi” by Enzo Poci, edited by the Società di Storia Patria per la Puglia)

February 23rd or 24th 1941

Capponi (Lieutenant Commander Romeo Romei) left Messina for a new ambush in the waters of Malta but had to return to port the same day due to a breakdown.

Caporilli’s book about the Capponi and his commander

March 9th and 10th, 1941

Capponi was on patrol east of Malta. Again, it had to interrupt the mission and return to base earlier than expected due to a breakdown (which among other things prevented the boat from diving, thus forcing it to sail on the surface), arriving in Messina on March10th.

The Sinking

After its last mission off Malta, Capponi was now of limited use due to precarious conditions, no longer able to participate in war missions (according to one source, it was no longer even able to dive, but this was contradicted by the report of the Special Commission of Inquiry of 1947). For this reason it was ordered to be transferred from Messina to La Spezia to be disarmed there,  move authorized by Supermarina with hand message 1894 of March 29th, 1941, sent to Maricosom (the Submarine Squadron Command).

On the same day, Maricosom in turn sent the telecipher (TN encrypted teletype message) 89010 to the III Submarine Group of Messina, with which it was ordered: “Recipient of the third Grupsom STOP Submarine “Capponi” was to move as soon as possible to La Spezia where it will begin disarmament operations STOP Coastal route Strait Messina point 3 miles west Stromboli point eight miles west Scoglio d’Africa point A La Spezia alt 183029″. Marina Messina replied with the telecipher 13612, which confirming the receipt of the order added: «Forecast of movements of the submarine “CAPPONI” from Messina 100031 to La Spezia on the surface speed 11.5 miles coastal routes up to point no. 1 of Messina then direct route point at miles three west Stromboli expected transit 150031 direct route point at miles eight west Scoglio d’Africa expected transit 190001 route point A La Spezia expected arrival 070002 – 100030».

In the Ligurian base, according to some secondary sources, Capponi was to receive repairs and then be put back into service, but from the documents of the Special Commission of Inquiry (C.I.S.) established after the war to investigate its loss it appears instead that once arrived in La Spezia the submarine was to be decommissioned. (According to a different source, Capponi was to be demolished – but it seems more likely to speak of disarmament, considering that old boats such as the Balilla, the Pisani or the X were disarmed but not even demolished – only if it was no longer convenient to repair it). Moreover, according to the C.I.S., which in turn cited information from the General Staff of the Navy (Maristat), Capponi was not usable since February 15th, 1941.

The journalist Pietro Caporilli, who had already embarked on Capponi as a correspondent in various war missions and a friend of Commander Romei, would recall in the post-war period, in an article published posthumously by his son Memmo in the book “War in the Abyss“: “The old nail’ could not take it anymore and, after a few attempts to patch it up at the Shipyards of Navalmeccanica in Naples,  the Superior Command decided to disarm it by assigning the entire crew, including me, to arm the large cruise submarine (2,000 tons, 14 launch tubes, 36 torpedoes and 120 days of autonomy) “Admiral Cagni” being fitted out in Monfalcone for the war on the American coasts.

This was the formal promise that the Commander-in-Chief of the Submarine Squadron, Admiral Falangola, had made to Romei and that the entire crew had greeted with great enthusiasm. But fate had arranged otherwise. On March 15th, Romei and Caporilli went on leave together, the former to Caprarola, where his family was, and the latter to Rome. In Messina, with Capponi, the second-in-command, the twenty-six-year-old lieutenant Alessandro Stea, a Neapolitan, had remained. On the morning of 30 March, Romei went to Rome, where Caporilli was, and from the latter’s house he telephoned Stea, telling him to be ready because the next morning he would be in Messina and they would leave for La Spezia. Stea replied that it was not appropriate for Romei to come all the way to Messina again, he could take the “old nail” to La Spezia himself, after which he would join him in Rome, where his old mother was, who was taking care of by Caporilli’s wife. Stea’s mother, who was present at the call, instead asked Romei to send her son on leave immediately, without waiting for his arrival in La Spezia (“… almost as if a mysterious voice had already spoken to her mother’s heart of the tragic destiny that was about to be fulfilled“); Capponi’s commander replied calmly: “Madam, it’s a walk in the park. Sandro will be here on Wednesday. Caporilli was also coming with us.”

After the phone call to Stea, Romei and Caporilli went to the Ministry of the Navy, where they spent the rest of the morning. After having had lunch together, the two spent the afternoon reviewing the narration of Capponi’s adventures in Caporilli’s notebook. At 10:00 PM. they called a taxi to be taken to the station, the train to Messina would leave in an hour. Caporilli’s phone, however, turned out to be isolated, and since they were unable to put it back into operation, they made the call from the adjacent apartment. Romei wanted Caporilli to come with him on what he called “the funeral” of his old boat, but in the end, he was persuaded that it would be a waste of time for him, especially since on a trivial transfer trip in national waters there would be nothing that a journalist could talk about. Therefore, they parted, with the agreement that Caporilli would join him together with Stea, who after arriving in La Spezia would go on leave to Rome, to Monfalcone, for Cagni’s rehearsals. “A handshake, another laugh (Romei was always laughing) and then Tassi took him away.”

Capponi left Messina for La Spezia on March 31st, 1941, at 10:00 AM. It was still commanded, as in all missions since the beginning of the war, by the Lieutenant Commander Romeo Romei. However, since the submarine was destined for decommissioning, most of the crew was disembarked in Messina, leaving on board only the personnel strictly necessary for the transfer trip to La Spezia: 5 officers, 7 non-commissioned officers and 26 sub-chiefs and sailors. For the “extra” men, the decision to land them in Messina represented salvation.

On the other hand, Chief petty Officer First Class Pasquale Ammirati, from Campania transplanted to Pula (from a seafaring family: his father Ciro, captain of the C.R.E.M. assigned to the Arsenal of the Istrian city, had moved there with the whole family after the  World War I, for reasons of service; his brother Fulvio was also in the Navy), chief engineman: initially designated among those who had to disembark before departure,  was then kept on board due to problems with the diesel engines that occurred at the last moment (the remaining engine engineers, less experienced, could not start them). Ammirati’s wife, with their nine-month-old son Ciro, was also in Messina at the time: she embraced her departing husband, not knowing that it was the last time she would see him.

Leaving Messina, Capponi then began sailing northwards with a reduced crew, proceeding on the surface at a speed of eleven and a half knots. Commander Romei had the order to report the passage of his boat to the various Harbor Master’s Offices in whose waters it would pass during the transfer journey to La Spezia, but after the departure, Capponi gave no more news of itself (a secondary source states that the last signal of the submarine would have was sent near Stromboli clearly state that after the departure the Capponi “gave no more signs of life”).

On the morning of March 31st, at 10.40 AM, Marina Messina announced the departure of the submarine with the telecipher 04086 (“Submarine CAPPONI for La Spezia 104031“). The arrival of the Capponi in La Spezia was scheduled for the morning of April 2nd, but the submarine never arrived there. Searches carried out in the conventional point “A” by the means sent by that Command did not give any results, and 05:00 PM of  April 2nd Marina La Spezia informed both Supermarina and Maricosom with the telecipher 82724:  «Aerial search on route from the CAPPONI submarine that was supposed to reach point A/1 La Spezia 0700 today gave a negative result (STOP) Traffic light stations and lookout stations involved (Alt) 170002».

Since the submarine had not been sighted even by the semaphore stations of Stromboli, on the morning of April 3rd, Marina Messina sent the torpedo boat Simone Schiaffino to look for it in the waters between Capo Rasocolmo and Stromboli itself, in cooperation with aircraft, on the assumption that the submarine had incurred some accident in that stretch of sea. That Command informed Supermarina of this with the telecipher 32131, which reported: “Torpedo boat SCHIAFFINO from 070003 hours in systematic search for traces of submarine slain between point N. Capo Rasocolmo and point miles three miles west of Stromboli until sunset in collaboration with air search (Alt) 090003″. Schiaffino searched until sunset but found nothing. Supermarina ordered the search to continue in the following days, with ships and planes, but nothing was found. On March 8th, Marina La Spezia communicated by telecipher to the General Staff of the Navy (Maristat) that it had not yet found anything (“71070… I would like to inform you that the submarine “CAPPONI”, which was expected to arrive at 0900 a.m. on the 2nd of the current and has not yet arrived STOP systematic naval and air searches organized by this Commander-in-Chief and ordered by Supermarina have given negative results STOP  Supermarina kept constantly informed since the early afternoon hours of the two current alt 173008»).

No semaphore or lookout station had sighted the Pier Capponi after its departure from Messina (according to Pietro Caporilli, however, the passage of the submarine was recorded for the last time by the semaphore of Punta Faro, after which nothing more was heard of it).

Pietro Caporilli recalls in his “War in the Abyss” a disturbing event, which occurred on the very evening of his farewell to Romei: “Around 11:00 PM, I hear my wife calling me excitedly and she hands me the microphone of the telephone that she had picked up to hear if the interruption had ceased. I hear a blood-curdling wail as if on the other end of the line a dying person were crying out for help. In vain I cry; I tap on the fork. Then the moaning stops. At exactly midnight a long ringing of the phone makes me jump out of bed. I run, but I hear nothing but the usual characteristic signal of the device that had started working again. What had happened? Mystery!” The arrival in Rome of sub-lieutenant Stea was scheduled for April 2nd, but Stea did not arrive in Rome. A week passed without Caporilli having any news from Romei, after which, pressed by Stea’s mother, the journalist went to Admiral Mario Falangola, commander-in-chief of Maricosom, to ask for news. “As soon as he saw me, he understood the purpose of my visit, and a veil of sadness clouded his face. He was like a father to his submariners and every loss was a cause of acute suffering. He told me the whole truth; that is, what little that resulted.” Lieutenant Stea’s mother, after losing her only son, killed herself. Her body was found one morning in the Vomero Park in Naples, where she lived: in her hand she had the last letter written by his son three days before his death, on March 28th, 1941 (it was Caporilli, leaving on his leave, who had given it to her). By her express wish, the letter was buried with her in the grave.

Commander Romei, on the left, and the second commander Stea, on the right (from “The sinking of the submarine Pier Capponi” by Enzo Poci, edited by the Società di Storia Patria per la Puglia)

On 12 April 1941 Supermarina concluded, with an internal memo, that Capponi must have been sunk by an enemy submarine during the transfer from Messina to La Spezia. The crew was reported missing on that date.

The crew of the Pier Capponi, who have passed away in their entirety:

  • Sebastiano Accolla, sub-chief helmsman, from Syracuse
  • Ettore Acquafresca, chief torpedo pilot third class, from Matera
  • Antonio Alberelli, sailor, from Banari
  • Pasquale Ammirati, Chief Mechanic Third Class, from Torre Annunziata
  • Raffaele Ayala, second chief furier, from Herculaneum
  • Enzo Bernardini, sailor electrician, from Arezzo
  • Aldo Breanza, sailor stoker, from Legnano
  • Antonio Bumbaca, sailor gunner, from Siderno
  • Francesco Buonocore, sailor, from Amalfi
  • Aldo Cesolini, sub-lieutenant, from Rome
  • Pasquale Costa, electrician sergeant, from Anoia
  • Giulio Cozzani, midshipman, from La Spezia
  • Emilio Dainesi, torpedo sailor, from Laurana
  • Luigi De Donno, sailor (order of the captain), from Aradeo
  • Sestilio Fabbri, sailor electrician, from Castiglione dei Pepoli
  • Cesarino Gasparini, sailor radiotelegraphist, from Novi di Modena
  • Renzo Gemme, sub-chief radiotelegraphist, from Genoa
  • Giuseppe Giardino, sub-chief electrician, from Bari
  • Emilio Greco, sub-chief engineman, from Torre Annunziata
  • Giuseppe Leognani, Lieutenant of the Naval Engineers (chief engineer), from Loreto Aprutino
  • Vittorio Maccari, sailor stoker, from Carrara
  • Armando Mazzetti, sailor electrician, from Sasso Marconi
  • Vito Muolo, Chief Electrician Second Class, from Ginosa
  • Ersilio Nardi, Deputy Chief Signaller, from Cremona
  • Ruggero Nordio, sailor, from Chioggia
  • Roberto Orciani, sub-chief torpedo pilot, from Ancona
  • Vilfredo Paradisi, sub-chief torpedo pilot, from Massa Marittima
  • Vittorio Pavone, Chief Engine Engineer First Class, from Taranto
  • Alessandro Pazzaglia, sailor stoker, from Rome
  • Policarpo Rigon, second chief helmsman, from Vicenza
  • Luigi Rima, sailor, from Gallipoli
  • Romeo Romei, Lieutenant Commander (commander), from Castelnuovo di Cattaro
  • Pietro Russo, torpedo sailor, from Galati Mamertino
  • Armando Sartori, sub-chief torpedo pilot, from Maserada sul Piave
  • Remo Simoniello, sailor gunner, from Brindisi
  • Alessandro Stea, lieutenant, from Naples (second in command)
  • Pietro Vella, sailor, from Santa Flavia
  • Celestino Zadra, motor sailor, from Valdobbiadene

The crew of the Pier Capponi; the two circles mark the chief mechanic of the third-class Pasquale Ammirati (circled in black) and the sailor Luigi De Donno (circled in white) (from “The sinking of the submarine Pier Capponi” by Enzo Poci, edited by the Società di Storia Patria per la Puglia)

Among the families of the missing, as often happened in these cases, the strangest rumors chased each other for a long time. There were those who did not believe in the sinking by a submarine, given that the searches carried out immediately after the disappearance and for several days to follow by ships and planes along the presumed route of the Capponi had not led to the discovery of any wreckage, body or slick of naphtha, nor other traces that indicated the sinking. Stories circulated, fueled mostly by the hope of seeing loved ones again, that the submarine had been captured and the crew taken prisoner; the family of the chief mechanic Pasquale Ammirati, for example, heard for a long time stories to this effect made by nuns and missionaries active in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

The Italian Navy’s top brass learned the truth after the war, from British documents to which they were finally able to have access: Capponi had been sunk on the very day of its departure, March 31st, 1941, by H.M.S. Rorqual, a minelaying submarine commanded by Commander Ronald Hugh Dewhurst. H.M.S. Rorqual was an old and painful acquaintance for the Italian Navy: during the conflict it had sunk 35,951 tons of Axis ships with its mines (which makes it the most successful minelayer submarine of the Second World War), mostly Italian, including the torpedo boats Generale Antonio Chinotto, Calipso, Fratelli Cairoli, Altair and Aldebaran.  the military tankers Ticino and Verde, the auxiliary submarine destroyer AS 99 Zuri and the merchant ships Celio, Loasso, Salpi, Rina Croce, Leopardi, and Ankara (the latter German), but also the British corvette Erica, which jumped in 1943 on an old minefield. In addition to these, another 21,753 tons of ships had sunk with cannon and torpedo.

On March 22nd, 1941, H.M.S. Rorqual had left Malta for her thirteenth war mission, the tenth in the Mediterranean. After laying two minefields, between March 25th and 26th, off the coast of Palermo (on which, between March 26th and 28th, the torpedo boat Chinotto and the tankers Ticino and Verde landed), it laid in ambush north of Sicily, sinking the tanker Laura Corrado with torpedoes off Capo Gallo on March 30th. Then, at 01:37 PM. on March 31st, H.M.S. Rorqual, diving at noon, detected engine noise on the hydrophones at 140°, in position 38°32′ N and 15°19′ E (or 15°15′ E), northeast of northeastern Sicily and south of Stromboli (another source, probably erroneous, indicates 38°42′ N and 15°12′ E). The sea was almost completely calm. Two minutes later, the British submarine had spotted something on the horizon: after a few minutes, the “something” had turned out to be an Italian submarine sailing on the surface. H.M.S. Rorqual had therefore begun an attack maneuver, identifying its target as a Calvi-class submarine (of dimensions, in truth, considerably larger than the Mameli-class to which the Pier Capponi belonged) and estimating that it would follow a 325° course without variations, passing south of Stromboli.

At first Dewhurst had had some uncertainties about the opportunity to attack: it had been reported to him as probable the passage in the area of important Italian naval forces, units damaged a few days earlier in the battle of Cape Matapan, and in fact that morning he had sighted in those waters two destroyers, perhaps intended to escort those ships. An attack against the sighted submarine could have betrayed the presence of H.M.S. Rorqual in the area and thus made more “appetizing” targets fade away; but, on the other hand, the passage of the Italian naval forces had been announced for that morning, and by now it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon without any trace appearing of them. The British commander had therefore decided to attack. He was already in a perfect position for this purpose, he didn’t even have to change course to lead the attack.

At 02:02 PM, from a distance of 915 meters, H.M.S. Rorqual had launched five torpedoes – the last ones the boat had left – against the Italian submarine, on a course of approximately 85°: Dewhurst had estimated that the latter had a speed of 13 knots (in reality it was slightly lower) and had aimed starting from mid-length, forward. There was an interval of five seconds between torpedoes. 55 seconds after launch, one of the torpedoes hit the target under the conning tower, and after another five seconds another torpedo hit it in the stern: the latter, indeed, had been a double explosion, particularly violent. Perhaps there had been two, instead of one, torpedoes that had hit the stern, or perhaps the torpedo that had hit at that point had in turn caused the explosion of the torpedoes present in the victim’s torpedo room. The bow of the Italian submarine had remained visible for a few moments after the torpedoing, stretched out towards the sky at an angle of 60°, while the rest of the boat had dissolved in a cloud of brown smoke, as if disintegrated. Dewhurst judged it unlikely that anyone could have survived. At 02:03 PM, H.M.S. Rorqual had descended to the depths for 20 minutes as a precaution, and at the same time the British crew had heard a further explosion: perhaps a torpedo at the end of its run, perhaps an explosion in the sunken submarine. At 02:23 PM, having reached periscope depth, H.M.S. Rorqual had sighted nothing; having run out of torpedoes, Dewhurst had embarked on the return voyage. The attack took place 17 miles south of Stromboli and 28 miles northwest of Messina (or 10 miles north of Milazzo).

Given the time and the position, the victim of the Rorqual could only be Capponi. In October 1941, Dewhurst was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for the destruction of the Italian submarine.

The Special Commission of Inquiry on the loss of Capponi, composed of the captains Giovanni Di Gropello (commander in war of the destroyers Grecale and Antoniotto Usodimare and then of the battleship Littorio) and Araldo Fadin (former commander of the destroyer Daniele Manin, sunk in the Red Sea in 1941) and chaired by the rear admiral Emilio Brenta, seemed to hint at a veiled criticism when in his report he mentioned that “no news appears from the documentation that the submarine “CAPPONI” was unable to dive and the C.I.S. in this regard observes that in this case it would have been appropriate not to derogate from the usual safety rules that provided for underwater units to navigate underwater during daylight hours and in dangerous areas. On the other hand, the C.I.S. does not rule out that the news, certainly known on board, that the unit was going to La Spezia for disarmament, caused a certain détente in spirits that ultimately resulted in a relaxation of vigilance.

Here we take the opportunity to observe, regarding the fact that the Capponi was sailing on the surface, that the telecipher 13612 of Marina Messina of 30 March 1941, which communicated to Maricosom the program for the transfer of the submarine from Messina to La Spezia, announced that the submarine would make the journey by sailing on the surface. This gives the impression that the decision to proceed was not the choice of Commander Romei. Be that as it may, the C.I.S. report went on to state that “no evidence has emerged that could cast doubt on the part of the Commander or any member of the crew for the loss of the vessel, or that the high traditions of honor and duty of the Italian Navy were not followed (…) the Commander, Lieutenant Commander ROMEI Romeo, an elderly and very talented submariner, (…) had distinguished himself very much during the short period of war accomplished”.

The Special Commission of Inquiry finished its report on August 6th, 1947 and sent it to the Chief of Staff of the Navy, who after reading it replied with an order sheet of February 9th, 1948, declaring that he shared its conclusions: “I agree with the conclusions of the C.I.S. that no responsibility for the loss of the unit was to be attributed to the Commander or to any other person of the crew:  all of whom disappeared at sea with the unit, behaved according to the highest traditions of honor and duty of the Italian Navy. Regarding a greater exaltation of the work and figure of Capt. of Corv. Romeo ROMEI (…) the proposal to convert the Silver Medal on the field, already granted, into a Gold Medal was underway. With the granting of the highest reward to the V.M., it was considered necessary to recognize the courageous, intelligent work, of absolute dedication to duty of the said superior officer.

If the Navy was thus able to know as early as 1947 how and when Capponi had been sunk, the relatives of the missing were not informed for many years, continuing to know only that their loved ones were missing at sea with their submarine on April 12th, 1941. Also on May 31st, 1959, in a commemorative ceremony in memory of the fallen of the Capponi and other submarines held at the crypt of Magnanapoli in Rome, in the presence of Admirals Domenico Cavagnari (former Chief of Staff of the Navy from 1934 to 1940, by the 83 years old), Salvatore Pelosi (former commander in war of the submarine Torricelli sunk in the Red Sea) and Giuseppe Roselli Lorenzini (former commander of submarines in the Atlantic during the conflict:  indeed, he had received the command of Cagni, who should have gone to Romei if he had not died in Capponi’s last mission), as well as numerous relatives of Capponi’s fallen including Ciro Ammirati and the widow and daughter of Commander Romei, the military chaplain and the officers called to remember Capponi and his crew spoke of a submarine declared missing at sea,  not to mention that it had been sunk by H.M.S. Rorqual.

Ciro Ammirati, son of the chief engineer Pasquale Ammirati who was missing on Capponi, learned that the submarine had been sunk by H.M.S. Rorqual off Stromboli only several years later, almost by chance, by an aunt from Venice. Others among the relatives of the missing, or among the “miraculous” who landed in Messina before departure, who had lost their comrades in so many war vicissitudes on the Capponi, knew the truth only when the translation of the book “Battle for the Mediterranean” by the British commander Donald Macintyre was published in Italy in 1965, in which he briefly mentioned,  between one page and another, to the sinking Capponi by H.M.S. Rorqual. Macintyre was not, however, the first to reveal Capponi’s fate in a book; Two years earlier, in 1963, the U.S.M.M. had published the volume “The Italian Submarines 1895-1962”, edited by Captain Paolo Mario Pollina, in which it was mentioned that “Capponi was lost on March 31st, 1941 south of Stromboli while moving from Messina to La Spezia, almost certainly due to torpedoing by the British Submarine H.M.S.. Rorqual“.

After the war, along with the circumstances of Capponi’s loss, the Naval General Staff also re-examined the question of the action of November 10th, 1940. It was now clear that the attack of the Capponi on that date, contrary to what had previously been believed, had not led to the sinking of a British battleship, nor of any other enemy ship (although strangely, despite the information from British sources denying it, the Chief of Staff of the Navy stated that “it can be affirmed, however, with well-founded elements that a British major ship was torpedoed in the action,  probably RAMILLIES.” As late as 1947 the members of the Special Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of Capponi seemed to believe that not only had the Ramillies been torpedoed, but even that it could have been sunk, although in that year this ship was still afloat, although decommissioned in 1946 and awaiting demolition).

In noting this fact, however, the Chief of Staff of the Navy pointed out in February 1948 that “the attack was carried out (…) with a high aggressive spirit, despite the precarious condition of the unit following the serious damage suffered due to the hunt suffered during the day by British anti-submarine units. The fact that the action did not end with the sinking of the affected unit [sic] does not substantially diminish the merit of the Commander and crew who did everything possible to obtain the maximum yield from the means and weapons available. (…) The Capt. of Corv. ROMEO ROMEI (…) confirmed in this action his brilliant qualities as a determined and firm fighter and his particular aptitude as a submariner“. In addition, “The value of his command work, in the light of current knowledge, was even more evident, as it can be rightly noted that the use of the unit carried out by Commander Romei in various war actions was the most appropriate to the characteristics of modern underwater tactics even if in contrast with the existing directives of the time“. Based on this, it was decided not only to keep the Silver Medal for Military Valor awarded to Commander Romei for the action of November 10th, 1940, but also to commute it to the Gold Medal, in memory, in recognition of “not only [the] particular action of November 10th, 1940, but [for] all his work as a submariner”.

The commutation took place in 1949, the motivation for the decoration was: “Submarine commander distinguished himself from the beginning of the conflict for his skill and valor. At the ambush near an important enemy base, attacked during the day by light surface units, he managed to escape the hunt with remarkable skill, despite the considerable damage that had significantly impaired the possibility of maneuvering of his unit. With courageous determination and sure intuition, he still maintained the ambush in the area and could thus sight, at night, a large enemy naval formation consisting of an aircraft carrier, two battleships and various cruisers and CC.TT. Anticipating the theories of use, later adopted by submarines, he resolutely led the attack on the formation on the surface and, to achieve his daring intent, he did not hesitate to use a partially damaged heat engine that with the significant exhaust smoke could have revealed its presence to the enemy. Once the attack was carried out, he hit an enemy battleship with two torpedoes and with a third, probably, another unit, taking the dive only after having ascertained the explosion of the weapons. During the next mission, he disappeared at sea with his unit. He was an example of serene bravery, exceptional fighting spirit and high military virtues. Strait of Sicily, night of November 10th, 1940; Lower Tyrrhenian Sea, March 31st, 1941”. While the motivation, compared to that of the previous Silver Medal, had been extended to embrace the entire war service of Commander Romei, the reference to the torpedoing of a battleship was still maintained, strangely, despite the information obtained from the former enemy at the end of the war.

Pietro Caporilli, the journalist who had become a close friend of Romeo Romei during his missions as a war correspondent and who had written so much about his deeds, learned that Capponi had been sunk by H.M.S. Rorqual more than three years after the end of the war, in October 1948. Not satisfied with the little he had been able to learn through the Navy or by reading the official history of the Royal Navy (Naval Staff History, Vol. II, Submarines: “… The following day the submarine Pier Capponi (800 tons) paid for its imprudence to sail on the surface during the day, being hit by two torpedoes…”). In the following decades Caporilli continued his research on the fate of Capponi and the commander who had been his best friend in wartime, writing to the British Admiralty to obtain the mission report of H.M.S. Rorqual, which he received, and also the address of Commander Dewhurst.

In the seventies he was still alive, residing in Rotorua, New Zealand. He replied politely to Caporilli’s letter, with a letter dated May 5th, 1976 in which he summarized what he remembered about that episode: “Mr. Caporilli, I am sorry that I did not reply to your letter sooner. Please excuse me. I do not have a copy of the mission report I made to the Admiral on the action that you have mentioned, but the details are still vivid in my memory, and I can clarify more fully what you already know. I was on a mission in the Strait of Messina, about ten miles north of the city. I had been warned that important Italian naval forces were expected in the morning in the area north of the strait, but no sign of them appeared on the horizon. In the early afternoon a submarine came out either from the harbor or from the strait on a northerly course. The weather was nice, and the sea was very calm, almost a mirror, making the attack difficult. I launched five torpedoes about nine hundred yards away, followed by three explosions. Due to the sea conditions, I took the special precaution of avoiding the surface, so I could not see the torpedoes hit the target. But when I climbed back up to periscope depth about a minute later, I saw only a blanket of smoke. I continued to approach the sinking site but saw no sign of life. I can’t give more details about the sinking of the submarine because two destroyers moved towards me to sink me.

I hope this will be useful to your work and you will have my best regards.”

Capponi at sea
(photo from “Mare grosso forza 6… Luna basta alta”, by Daniela Stanco and Patrizia Giuliani)

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 – Medium Range9365581230 148.90 6.20


6/22/194001.35C.C. Romeo RomeiMediterranean36°59’N-11°12’ETorpedoSankElgoSteam Freighter1888Sweden
11/10/19400.09C.C. Romeo RomeiMediterraneanMaltaTorpedoFailedRamilliesBattleshipGreat Britain

Crew Members Lost

Last NameFirst NameRankItalian RankDate
AccollaSebastianoJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
AcquafrescaEttoreChief 3rd ClassCapo di 3a Classe3/31/1941
AlberelliAntonioNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
AmmiratiPasqualeChief 3rd ClassCapo di 3a Classe3/31/1941
AyalaRaffaeleChief 2nd ClassCapo di 2a Classe3/31/1941
BernardiniEnzoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
BreanzaAldoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
BunbacaAntonioNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
BuonocoreFrancescoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
CesoliniAldoSublieutenantSottotenente di Vascello3/31/1941
DainesiEmilioNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
De DonnoLuigiNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
FabbriSestilioNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
GaspariniCesarinoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
GemmeRenzoJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
GiardinoGiuseppeJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
GrecoEmilioJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
LegnaniGiuseppeEnsign Other BranchesSottotenente Altri Corpi3/31/1941
MaccariVittorioNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
MazzettiArmandoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
MuoloVicoChief 2nd ClassCapo di 2a Classe3/31/1941
NardiErsilioJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
NordioRuggeroNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
OrcianiRobertoJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
ParadisiVilfredoJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
PavoneVittorioChief 1st ClassCapo di 1a Classe3/31/1941
PazzagliaAlessandroNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
RigonPolicarpoChief 2nd ClassCapo di 2a Classe3/31/1941
RimaLuigiNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
RomeiRomeoLieutenant CommanderCapitano di Corvetta3/31/1941
RussoPietroNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
SartoriArmandoJunior ChiefSottocapo3/31/1941
SimonielloRemoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
SteaAlessandroLieutenantTenente di Vascello3/31/1941
VellaPietroNaval RatingComune3/31/1941
ZedraCelestinoNaval RatingComune3/31/1941