R. Smg. Durbo

The submarine Durbo was an Adwa-class coastal submarine (698 tons displacement on the surface and 866 tons submerged). The boat completed 6 missions in the war, covering a total of 2,598 miles on the surface and 976 submerged.

Brief and partial chronology

March 8th, 1937

Set-up in the Odero-Terni-Orlando del Muggiano shipyards (La Spezia).

March 6th, 1938

Launched at the Odero-Terni-Orlando del Muggiano shipyards (La Spezia).

The launch of Durbo
(From “I sommergibili classe 600 Serie Adua” by Alessandro Turrini)

July 1st, 1938

Official entry into service followed by a training cruise.

Durbo at sea

August 10th, 1938

Durbo was stationed in Leros – an island that for the men of Durbo, and the others who were stationed there, consisted of “only rocks and no fun” – under the command of Maricosom (the command of the Italian submarine fleet), spending a year engaged in exercises between Rhodes and Leros before returning to Italy.

June 9th, 1940

Durbo (Lieutenant Commander Armando Acanfora), which with the twin boats Beilul and Tembien formed the XXXV Submarine Squadron (III Grupsom) based in Messina (or Augusta), left base for an offensive-exploratory mission in the Gulf of Hammamet.

Four hours after departure – it was by then June 10th – Commander Acanfora, while sailing on the surface, opened an envelope and informed the crew that Italy was now at war with France and the United Kingdom.

During this period (from January 22nd, 1940 to shortly after the entry into the war) the second in command of the unit was the Lieutenant Commander Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia, future Atlantic ace on the submarine Da Vinci.

June 16th, 1940

At 6.10 AM, an position 34°06′ N and 11°33′ E (in the Gulf of Hammament, northeast of Susa and 44 miles southwest of Pantelleria), while sailing towards its patrol area, Durbo launched a pair of torpedoes against a light unit (perhaps a corvette, or a French destroyer), hearing a violent detonation after two minutes,  But rough seas made it impossible to verify whether the ship was really hit. After the attack, the submarine had to dive to a depth of 70-80 meters and remained motionless, in order to evade the enemy reaction.

Some Italian sources have speculated that on June 16th, Durbo may have torpedoed the French submarine Morse, which disappeared in those days in the waters off Tunisia, but the discovery of the wreck of the French unit off Sfax – the Morse was found already on August 16th, 1940 (the wreck was later recovered in 1956) broken in two,  next to a French minefield that was missing a mine – it actually allowed its loss to be attributed to the collision with a mine of the French defensive barriers.

July 1940

Complete two patrols, with no major events.

September 1940

Durbo carried out a patrol, without results.

October 1940

Durbo completed another mission, also without any events worth mentioning. Some of the summer-autumn patrols were carried out in the waters of Pantelleria, or in the vicinity of Malta.

The Sinking

On October 9th, 1940, Durbo, still under the command of Lieutenant Acanfora, departed Messina, immediately after the end of a British bombardment, to reach the new assigned operational area, about seventy miles east of Gibraltar (between the meridians of Malaga and Almeria), where it arrived on October 12th. Not far away, was operating the twin boat Lafolè. The two submarines, which had left at the same time to patrol the waters east of Gibraltar, at the end of the mission, were supposed to transit through the Strait of Bonifacio and then reach Naples.

On the 12th, Durbo reached its own area off the island of Alboran, south of Malaga and 70 miles east of Gibraltar, and began to patrol it in anticipation of a British convoy that was supposed to enter the western Mediterranean and of which the submarine was supposed to signal the entry into the Mediterranean, however it was not sighted. The days of the patrol passed empty, and they were all the same, without attacks or major events. The submarine spent the day immersed at periscope depth, to avoid sighting, and the night on the surface, to recharge the batteries. The only ships sighted were one or two neutral passenger steamers, probably Spanish, which were allowed to pass.

On the afternoon of October 17th, Durbo sighted a British destroyer, but Commander Acanfora felt that the sea was too rough to attempt an attack. The encounter with the enemy warship, however, put Acanfora on his toes, so that he decided to stay submerged for most of the following night, contrary to what he had done in the previous days.

At 9:30 AM on October 18th, however, the seaplane Saunders Roe A. 27 “London” K 5913 of the 202nd Squadron of the Royal Air Force, piloted by Captain Percy R. Hatfield (later protagonist of the search and identification in the Atlantic of the German battleship Bismarck), sighted air bubbles and a small slick of fuel while flying off the island of Alboran, 65 miles east of the Strait of Gibraltar. Those were the tracks of the Durbo. On board the submarine, in fact, the crew was trying to repair a leak in the compressed air system, which had always caused problems.

Along with another “London” seaplane of the 202nd Squadron, piloted by Captain N. F. Eagleton, Hatfield dropped bombs over the point from which the bubbles and fuel came, then recalled two British destroyers, H.M.S. Firedrake (Commander Stephen Hugh Norris, who would receive the Distinguished Service Order for the action), detached from the escort of convoy “HG 45”, and H.M.S. Wrestler (Lieutenant Eric Lister Jones). One of the two arrived the same morning, followed in the afternoon by the second, spotting a large slick of fuel, the two ships soon made sonar contact.

The bombs dropped by the planes, which exploded while the unit was coming to periscope depth, had not damaged the Durbo, which then dove to a depth of 35 meters, but in the following half an hour the submarine’s crew realized that warships had also arrived, and were now chasing it. At 10:00 AM in the morning, the submarine suffered the first heavy bombardment with depth charges. The first depth charge exploded near the fuel tanks, damaging them and causing a leak that began to come on the surface, marking the position of the Italian unit even more visibly (according to the memory of a survivor, in addition to the diesel tanks, the torpedo room was also damaged). Durbo then descended to 58 meters and tried to get away, but at very low speed, since the previous night the period on the surface for recharging the batteries had lasted less than usual, the electric motors now had little energy to use.

Against the Durbo, which continued to maneuver in every way tring to get away and evade the chase, was unleashed a storm of depth charges not only by the two destroyers, which continued to follow it and bombard it with intense and repeated bomb drops, but also by the two “Londons” of Hatfield and Eagleton (for a source,  probably erroneous, the destroyer H.M.S. Vidette or H.M.S. Hotspur would also have participated in the hunt).

At 1:30 PM the boat was hit by a second violent depth discharge, and the crew was “pleasantly” surprised to see how well the hull was able to withstand explosions. At 4:30 PM Durbo received a third shower of depth charges, this time with devastating effects: all the instruments were put out of action, the pumps were damaged, and the light failed, so much so that the only thing left to illuminate the dark rooms of the submarine were the flashlights of the captain and the chief engineer and a few portable lights supplied to the crew.

The main propeller shafts were deformed, which made it difficult to keep the engines running, reducing their efficiency to a scant 40 revolutions per minute with 1,000 amperes. As if that was not enough, waterways sprang in the aft compartments (aft torpedo room and engine room), and the consequent flooding caused the stern to sink, until it reached an angle of 20 degrees. Durbo descended to a depth of 110 meters, thirty meters more than the test depth. The stern pumps were no longer usable because their motors were already underwater. Chlorine gas was poisoning the air and the pressure of the compressed air had dropped to 40 kg, while the pressure inside the submarine itself was becoming unbearable. The conning tower was also badly damaged.

At 9:00 PM, after eleven hours of hammering, with the boat badly damaged, water continuing to rise, air reserves almost exhausted, and a worrying development of chlorine gas, the crew gathered in the maneuvering room.

There Commander Acanfora, after a few moments of reflection, had to order “ready to surface”; there was nothing more to do. At 9:30 PM Durbo appeared on the surface. The detonations of the depth charges had put the deck gun out of action, so, the boat was not even able to attempt to fight on the surface – with a predictable outcome – the commander had to order to start the scuttling maneuvers and to abandon the ship.

As soon as the first man opened the conning tower’s hatch, however, he was greeted by a burst of machine-gun fire from one of the destroyers, who probably believed that the submarine wanted to engage in surface combat. In the officers’ quarters, the volunteer electrician Armando Albanelli, a nineteen-year-old from Bologna who had joined the submariners because he was looking for adventure, sipped liquor to make his fear go away, as did other members of the crew.

The chief engineer shouted, “Hail to the Duce, long live the king, long live Italy.” The navigation officer went on deck and flashed lights, prompting the British ships to cease fire, after which the crew lined up and began to go out on deck. According to Armando Albanelli’s recollection, Commander Acanfora gave the order “to get out, to make the two boxes with the codes disappear and to open the scuttling valves”, but unfortunately, apparently, the second of the three provisions was not implemented.

One of the last men to abandon the boat, after having opened the seacock valves on the orders of the captain – to avoid the capture and towing of the unit – was Antonio Pisciotta. For unknown reasons his name would not appear on the first list of prisoners, so that in Italy he was reported missing, presumably fallen in action, and his parents received a telegram informing them of their son’s death.

Armando Albanelli, who also went on deck after opening the valves, threw himself into the sea as the others had done before him. The sea space in front of it was illuminated by the searchlights of the enemy ships. Albanelli immediately began to swim towards H.M.S. Firedrake, about thirty meters away, which had already lowered several cargo nets along its bulwarks, so that the castaways could cling to it.

H.M.S. Firedrake

Before the waters of the Mediterranean closed forever over the Durbo, a British boarding team composed of H.M.S. Firedrake and H.M.S. Wrestler’s men had time to get on board. Second Lieutenant Peter Louis Meryon (who later received the Distinguished Service Order), of H.M.S. Wrestler, led Sergeant Harold Brown (later decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal) and Sergeant Stoker George Andrews.  They were also H.M.S. Wrestler’s, down the ladder that led to the submarine’s maneuvering chamber, where the water was rising through the specially opened seacock valves. Cutting through the darkness of the room with a flashlight, H.M.S. Wrestler’s three men and Second Lieutenant Basil Wilson of the Firedrake (later mentioned in the dispatches as well as Sergeant Andrews), joined them, and took papers, ciphers, and operation orders – secret documents that should have been destroyed before abandoning ship, according to the instructions – before having to abandon the boat after five minutes.

Durbo sank aft at 7:50 PM (the time zone, different from the one indicating the surface at 9:30 PM, is unclear) on September 18th, shortly after being abandoned by the crew, in position 35°57′ N and 04°00′ W (or 34°54′ N and 04°17′ W according to other sources, probably erroneous, 120 miles east of Gibraltar, and off the island of Alboran), while all 46 men of his crew (5 officers and 41 non-commissioned officers and sailors; by other sources, 48 men in all) were picked up by H.M.S. Firedrake, where they were treated amicably. There were no casualties. The survivors, after receiving dry clothes, food and cigarettes on H.M.S. Firedrake, were disembarked in Gibraltar the same day.

The sinking of Durbo was the only success in anti-submarine warfare achieved by the “London” seaplanes, aircraft by that time outdated and close to replacement.

The capture of the secret documents, unfortunately, had a disastrous outcome in a very short term: the position of other Italian submarines was indicated on them, and just two days later, on October 20th, a group of British destroyers would set a trap for Lafolè, whose close position had emerged from the captured documents. Lafolè was sunk after a hard hunt, leaving only nine survivors.

In Italy, no one knew about the capture of the documents on the submarine Durbo, so ciphers and operation orders were not changed. Also from the documents captured on the Durbo, the British secret services learned the future position of three other Italian submarines in the Aegean Sea: Neghelli was found at dawn on November 25th, 1940 in position 36°30′ N and 26°30′ E, Naiade reached the same point at dawn on the 26th and Atropos was there at dawn on the 27th. Fortunately, no traps could be set up in such cases, and the three boats completed their patrols unaware of the danger they had run.

After arriving in Gibraltar, the survivors of the submarine Durbo were embarked on the troop transport Reina del Pacifico, which transported them to England to captivity at the end of October. Here, for the first 18 months, they were placed in various prison camps, the first of which was set up in the Scottish residence of Glenbranter House (POW Camp 6), but there one of the prisoners, unable to endure the cold and wet Scottish winter, the lack of food and the distance from his family, killed himself.

Later the prisoners were moved to POW Camp 13, in Derbyshire (central England), and then (autumn 1941) to POW Camp 16 near Rugeley.

When the camp became overcrowded, the men of the submarine Durbo, in the autumn of 1942, were transferred to the large transit camp of Lodge Moor (Camp 17), from where they were then embarked on a ship, crossed the Atlantic disembarking at Halifax and finally interned in a prison camp in the United States, in Tennessee, remaining in America until 1946. While in Britain, where supplies were scarce, the prisoners were almost starving, in the United States they were abundantly refreshed, and found much better conditions.

Vittorio Rappini, a radio operator (a seventeen-year-old volunteer who had enlisted in the Navy in search of adventure), during his imprisonment learned that H.M.S. Firedrake, on December 17th, 1942 (more or less at the time of the transfer of Durbo’s prisoners from the United Kingdom to the United States), had been sunk in the Atlantic by the German submarine U 211,  leaving only 26 survivors out of 196 men of his crew:. Recalling the friendly treatment he received from the sailors of the destroyer, Rappini was saddened to learn that almost all of them had died.

As for Antonio Pisciotta, Vittorio Rappini’s family had also received, on November 14th, 1940, a telegram signed by Admiral Guido Cappucci (commander of the Royal Maritime Crews Corps), informing them that their son was missing. Bu then came the news that Vittorio was alive and a prisoner of war, and that he was sending greetings and good wishes, arrived as early as December 27th through the Vatican (from the Apostolic Delegate in London), through the work of Cardinal Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI.

In 1944, after the armistice between Italy and the Allies, Rappini joined the Italian Service Units, groups of volunteer prisoners employed as a workforce in support of the Allied war effort (Rappini was part of the Italian Service Unit at Fort Meade). Also during his imprisonment, Rappini had the opportunity to learn to speak and write in English, which after the war would allow him to work with the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation program) and later – after an unfortunate attempt to emigrate to Boston – he emigrate to Canada, disembarking in June 1951 at Pier 21 of the Port of Halifax,  the same pier at which he had landed in 1942 as a prisoner, coming from Great Britain and bound for the Tennessee prison camp. Here Rampini found work and a girl who became his wife.

Durbo’s crewmembers in POW Camp 17, Lodge Moor, fall 1942.

Only six months after the sinking, Antonio Pisciotta’s parents, who believed their son to be dead, received a telegram informing them that their son was alive and a prisoner. After the war, in 1951, Pisciotta returned to the United States, to settle there with his wife and three children.

Below, an eyewitness recount from the BBC ”People’s War’ published on 20 May 2004

The date was October 7th. We resumed our anti-submarine patrols on our return to Gib. The next incident I remember was some 10 days later, when we engaged an Italian submarine in company with the destroyers Wrestler and Vidette and eventually sunk the submarine. The original sighting was by the air patrol from Gib. The aircraft dropped bombs and caused the sub. to dive. The destroyers then were called in and we then engaged in a combined operation dropping depth charges in relay. I was in the wheelhouse on duty at action stations and was able to follow the action at first hand. The submarine suddenly surfaced and a short exchange of gunfire ensued. Very soon it was apparent that the Italian crew were abandoning ship. A boarding party was dispatched by one of the destroyers and some papers were recovered before the submarine sank. The next action to involve us was the receipt of a dozen or so of prisoners in our mess deck. A very strange feeling to have them amongst us but very soon we were made aware that they were much relieved to be out of the war They were singing songs to us later in the mess deck and making it so obvious they were no longer a threat. I have in my possession a drawing in pencil made by one of them showing his impressions of the sinking.

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 – Coastal6259897634 105.12 4.38


6/16/194006:10C.C. Armando AcanforaMediterranean34°06’N-11°33’E TorpedoFailed?Corvette or DestroyerFrance

Crew Members Lost

Last NameFirst NameRankItalian RankDate