R. Smg. Galvani

Operational Life


At the beginning of the hostilities, the Regia Marina had a small flotilla of submarines deployed in Italian East Africa (A.O.E. ). There were six ocean going submarines (Archimede, Galilei, Torricelli, Ferraris, Galvani, Guglielmotti ) and two costal vessels (Perla, Makallè). The Torricelli and Galvani had recently reached the area to replace the smaller Iride and Onice, which had been sent back to the Mediterranean. The Galvani was of recent construction (1938) and in good operational conditions.

The beautiful silhouette of the R. Smg Galvani
(Photo Turrini Collection)

Apparently, during construction, the shipyard and the design engineers had properly consider the operational conditions the submarine would be experiencing, including tropical climates. Two primary issues had been considered and addressed: the presence in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean of violently potent storms (monsoons), and very high humidity (often 100%). The first issue was solved by providing the boats with sufficiently strong superstructures, which would not be torn away by the rough sea. The second issue, of greater importance, was solved by providing the submarine with an air conditioning system . Unfortunately, freon-based cooling equipment was not quite available , and the builder (Tosi of Taranto) opted for a methylchlorid-based system (CH3Cl). This was an odorless, colorless but highly toxic gas.

Following a plan of action developed in preparation for the upcoming hostilities, most Italian submarines left base (Massaua, Eritrea) on June 10th, 1940 directed to their patrol area; the Ferraris was sent off Djibouti, the Galilei off Aden, the Macallè off Port Sudan, and the Galvani, with the longest mission, was sent to the Gulf of Oman. The mission of the Galvani, expected to last about 28 days, was intended as a deterrent against the tanker traffic from the Persian Gulf. The boat reached the assigned area on the 23rd of June, but by then the secrecy of the mission had been already compromised.

The crew of the Galvani before the war. The first sailor to the right after the petty office is Antonio Fais
(Photo Francesco Guarducci)

It is assumed that, even before the war, British authorities were expecting similar missions; therefore they had organized the necessary countermeasures. Unfortunately, with the capture of the Galilei (June 19th) the Royal Navy had come into possession of the complete operational plan of the small Italian submarine forces. This practice of sharing plans between boats operating in similar areas was highly questionable, and proved to be disastrous. Information in hand, the Royal Navy immediately redirected all the tanker traffic and, by the time the Galvani reached the Gulf of Oman, the ocean was clean of all commercial traffic.

The operational orders captured by British aboard the R. Smg Galilei were so detailed that the British knew the Galvani would be operating about 8 miles from the entrance to the Gulf of Oman. The corvette H.M.S. Falmounth and the destroyer H.M.S. Kimberly were immediately dispatched to the area. The evening of June 23rd, unaware of the situation, the Galvani entered the gulf and the usual tanker traffic was completely absent; thereafter, the vessel was sighted by the corvette Falmouth. The official British report states that the crew of the Falmouth sighted a shadow at about two and one half miles and moved closer to identify it, discovering it was a submarine proceeding on the surface. The reports continues:

“At 23:08 at about 600 yards, the Falmouth signaled “who’s there”, and then open fire with the 4” gun”.
Lieutenant Commander (capitano di corvetta) Renato Spano, the captain of the Galvani, immediately ordered a crash dive, but while the boat was slow in submerging, and the stern section was still visibly out of the water and was hit by one of the shells. At this point, with the resistant hull badly compromised, chief 2nd class torpedoman Pietro Venuti (from the town of Codroipo, Udine) evacuated the aft torpedo room, locked himself in, and sealed the water-tight hatch. Immediately after, the Falmouth brought itself closer to the wounded submarine discharging a well-placed series of depth charges, which caused enormous damage.

2nd class torpedoman Pietro Venuti
Gold Medal for Valor

With the realization that the boat was lost, but some of the crew could still be saved, the captain order the boat to the surface, but this was achieved only with great difficulties, probably due to the several tons of water aboard and the damage to the control equipment. Of the original crew of fifty-seven, 31 are saved by the British vessels, while the remaining 26, including three officers, disappear with the Galvani. At the end of the conflict, captain Spano wrote a report (1) narrating the events that brought about the loss of the Galvani:

“ At 2:09 of June 24th, according to our estimations, we were at about 50 miles for 130° from Little Qoin, when midshipman Car, subordinate to the navigating officer sighted a shadow starboard of the bow. I recognized the silhouette of a ship with Beta 10° to starboard with polar bearing 45° at a distance of 7-800 meters. We crash dove with a concurrent turn to port, while the enemy opened fire with all guns and a projectile exploded aft of the bridge. While diving, I heard another projectile explode on bridge; I shut the water-thigh hatch. While the submarine was submerging with a strong inclination forward and with the diving plains down, I experienced a sudden heeling over which corrected itself. I believe that the enemy’s hull almost touched our aft stays which, at that point, were about 2 to 3 meters below surface. A few second later, with the boat down by the bow at a depth of about 30 meters, a lifted some of the aft planes and at the same time the submarine was violently shaken by a nearby explosion of a cluster of depth charges. While the stern kept going down, I ascertained the following damage: No lights – rudder and plans were frozen – manometers were broken – removal of the main control panel in the control room and projection of this into the middle of the room – starboard electric motor went down to 600 rpm, while the port one stopped – I could not communicate with the other compartments. Since we were down 40° aft, I had the strong feeling that the boat was lost. I decided to emerge blowing all tanks. The submarine responded with great difficulty emerging only in part. I ordered the hatch open while the gunners came up to the conning tower . I follow them and I reminded the midshipman to destroy all codebooks. As soon as I was out, I made the following observations: Aft, to port, a destroyer – the submarine had the “T” of the post of aft antenna truncated – a great gash on deck – the water was up to the aft hatch, while the boat started sinking again. Realizing that I did not have the time to arm the gun and open fire due to the heavy listing, I ordered the crew on deck and those who were already there were told to abandon ship. Lieutenant Mondaini, walking through the gash in the plating, went forward to open the hatch from which the personnel of the aft compartments escaped. The water was almost at the hatch of the conning tower. No one came up to the deck, nor anyone replied to my calls inside the submarine. I assumed that no one was left behind, and I ordered the personnel grouped aft to jump into the water while the ocean starts pouring into the conning tower’s hatch. It was 02:17. I had just left the boat when it came upright with about 8 meters of the bow sticking out of the water, and then it rapidly sunk. Since come to surface, the boat had not remained afloat for more than two minutes. Meantime, the British gunboat had lowered two lifeboats which picked up the shipwrecked. I made sure that no one was still in the water, and then I also got aboard the lifeboat. Aboard the gunboat Falmouth, I made a roll call and I realized that 26 men were missing, including Captain (EN) Torzuoli, Lieutenant (EN) Bassetti, and midshipman Gemignani. The survivors were 31, including 4 officers. “

The crewmembers of the Galvani spent the rest of the war in a prisoners of war camp.
(1) Lupinacci, P.F. Le operazioni in Africa orientale (Operations in East Africa).
Ufficio Storico Marina Militare. Rome, 1976.

Edited by Laura K. Yost