R. Smg. Perla

In March 1941, the submarine Perla left Massaua, Eritrea when this Italian base was going to be reached by the final British offensive. Violating a British naval blockade, and after a long journey, the submarine reached the Atlantic base of Bordeaux.

During the second half of February 1941, the Italian naval supreme command decided to transfer the last four submarines still operational in the Red Sea from the base in Massaua, Eritrea to Bordeaux, France. This decision was fully supported by Duke Amedeo D’Aosta, supreme commander of the Italian forces in East Africa and by the local naval command, and it was made when the military fate of the Italian empire began to worsen without any possibility of recovery. At the end on 1940, after having breached the southern front at Giuba, the stronghold of Galla Sidama, the northern front with Sudan, the Italian defensive ring of Kurmuk, Gallabat, Kassala-Agordat e Karora, the overwhelming British land forces (supported from the air and the sea) from Kenya, the Sudan, and Aden (Yemen) began spreading inside the Italian Empire threatening its vital centers.

The submarine Perla in Massawa, Eritrea while in a dry-dock

Even though the Italian forces had momentarily halted the British offensive in Cheren (an Italian stronghold which resisted over two months, from January 31st to March 27th behind enemy infantry and armored forces), the Italian supreme command in Rome became cognizant of the severity of the situation, and also of the danger in which the Italian naval squadron in Massawa would found itself. If the British forces were going to, as they eventually did, bypass the obstacle of Cheren and reach the nearby town of Asmara (connected to Massawa by a rail line and a paved road) the small but combative Italian squadron of the Red Sea would have had to be scuttled.

Based on these considerations, it was decided to allow the surface and submarine units to attempt to run away and reach friendly or neutral ports. The submarine Perla, under the command of Bruno Napp, an officer from Trieste, and three other units (Archimede, Galilei, Ferraris, and Guglielmotti) were ordered to set sail and reach the German-occupied French coast. Theoretically, the submarine could have utilized ships supporting the German submarines operating in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

The Perla was a submarine of medium displacement belonging to the so-called “600” class. The boat, a successful submarine under an engineering viewpoint, displaced 695 t. on the surface and 855 t submerged. It was substantially smaller that the three Oceanic submarines (the Archimede and Guglielmotti had a displacement of 1,266 t, while the Ferraris had 1,259 t.) which had a much greater range (between 9,000 to 10,300 miles at 7-8 knots). The larger boats were let go one after another after the Perla, but they reached Bordeaux 20 days ahead of the smaller unit. During the long voyage, the Guglielmotti, Archimede and Ferraris navigated without stopping, and refueling at sea only once, while the Perla refueled twice.

Only sixteen days after the beginning of the hostilities, the boat was almost lost when it ran aground on a coral reef near Dancalia, in the Red Sea. The Perla departed from Massaua at 5:30 AM on March 1st, 1941 under strict orders not to engage any enemy unit during the transfer. For the records, this was the first time that a submarine of the “600” class was attempting such an endeavor, considered difficult even for boats with much larger hulls. Nevertheless, due to the quality of the hull and the engines (repaired as best as possible after the unit had run aground) and the extraordinary seamanship of Captain Napp and his crew of 38 well-trained sailors, who had never experienced such a long journey before., the Perla covered 13,100 miles in 81 days establishing a record for the class.

The journey did not start auspiciously; at the first twilight the Perla, still on the surface, was located and attacked by a British bomber Bristol Blenheim from Aden. With a very rapid dive, the Italian boat was able to avoid a couple of 110 Kg bombs, and it proceed at full speed toward the Strait of Perim, reemerging only several hours later (at 13:15) to be once again intercepted by another bomber which failed its target by a very few yards, while inside the boat the crew were cursing their bad luck. Unfortunately for the Perla bad luck had just started. After 45 minutes under water, Napp decided to surface, and for a third time he was attacked by three British aircraft determined to sink the little “nutshell” made in Italy. Incredibly, the Perla once again avoided danger, reacheing the 40-meter bottom of the ocean where it came to rest for safety. Napp decided to surface only after a few hours, leaving the Red Sea behind him for good.

Crossing the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, the Italian boat finally entered the Indian Ocean taking course toward Cape Guardafui (easternmost point of Somalia) which was reached without problems. Thanks to the excellent weather conditions, navigation went on without any problem, and on the 11th the boat passed in front of Mogadishu, to then abandon the Somali coast and direct toward Madagascar, the large island that Commander Napp, contrary to what the other three boats did, decided to navigate along the rough eastern coastline.

The German raider Atlantis

This decision, apparently unintelligent, was made because the Perla was to meet a German raider to bunker(the famous Atlantis which since several months earlier, was devastating British surface ships), and receive water and supplies. On the 12th, after having sighted an American ship of the American Export Line (a sighting which made the Perla prudently choose to dive) the boat entered an area plagued by uncertain weather conditions. On the 17th, Commander Napp and his crew had to face a violent storm with swells of seven to eight meters. Despite being shaken like a twig, the Perla was able to keep its course and continue, even though slowly, on a southerly course.

The combative commander Rogge

On March 20th, the Perla sailed by the southernmost point of eastern Madagascar in foul weather conditions, reaching five days later the prearranged meeting point for the transfer of diesel fuel and supplies from the German raider Atlantis which did not show up. Almost left without fuel, Commander Napp was forced to wait stationary, a situation this quite dangerous in an area of gale-like winds. On the 28th at 17:15 Atlantis finally showed up on the horizon (it was traveling as the Greek ship Tamesis). Moored next to the ship, Napp went aboard to thank the combative commander Rogge, who proposed to the Italian officer to complete some joint operations against British traffic. Napp, who had received very strict orders from Supermarina, (especially forbidding him to engage enemy units during the difficult transfer mission) graciously turned down the offer giving the necessary explanation to the German officer.

At the end of the war, captain Rogge sarcastically commented about Napp’s refusal stupidly assuming the “Italian reluctance to face the enemy”. During the refueling operations, German and Italian sailors fraternized, and in a few hours Atlantis provided the Perla with fuel, drinking water, food, drugs, and comfort goods. All took place very quickly, and at 18:00 the Italian submarine disconnected the mooring and continued its journey taking a westerly course. On April 7th, the Perla was ready to cross Cape Good Hope when it sighted a steamship and dived. On the 8th, after the last storm, the Perla left the Indian Ocean to enter the Atlantic on a northwesterly course.

On the 40th day at sea, April 22nd, Napp’s vessels reached with the usual delay the second German supply ship, this time a tanker (the famous Northmark). The meeting took place a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, between the islands of Tristan and Cunha and St. Elena. Filled to the gills with diesel fuel, the Perla continued its navigation toward Capo Verde. On April 30th, the submarine crossed the equator and a few days later sailed past the western shores of the Islands of Capo Verde. At this point, two-thirds into the journey, the hull and equipment of the small submarine began showing signs of wear and tear. Nevertheless, Napp’s sailors were able to make the necessary repairs to valves, pipes, and ballast tanks. On the 3rd of May, Napp was forced into a crash dive to avoid being sighted by a British ship which had suddenly appeared on the horizon.

Four days later, mechanical failures started again, this time much more serious ones. At 03:00 the starboard diesel engine stopped after failure on one of the connecting rods of the air compressor, while the other engine also stopped after the jets got clogged. Napp did not get discouraged and put his men immediately to work. After 20 hours of hard work, almost by a miracle, the damages were repaired and the engines were started once again.

The Perla while entering the ‘Bassin à Flot’ of Bordeaux
(Photo courtesy Erminio Bagnasco and Achille Rastelli)

The adventure continued; off the Azores a new alarm and yet another dive, while the crew barely avoided being intercepted by an unidentified armed ship. Tension and fatigue began to weigh on Commander Napp’s men, but this was to be the last encounter. In the late afternoon of the 14th of May, passing Cape Finisterre, the Perla pointed decisively toward the French coast arriving in sight of Bordeaux on the 18th. Escorted by a German vessels, the patched up and smoky (the diesel engines were exhausted) submarine entered the estuary of the Gironde, docking at the submarine docks around 16:00 on May 19th.

Captain Napp and his crew in Bordeaux

Once ashore, Napp and his crew were welcomed by a German and Italian honor guard, and the enthusiasm of the submarine crew present at the base. These were seamen who understood and respected the endeavor just completed by the young men of the Perla. The day after, congratulatory telegrams rained from Rome and Berlin. The first were those of Admiral Riccadi and Supermarina, and also his illustrious colleague Admiral Reader.

The Perla in Beirut after its capture
(Photo courtesy Erminio Bagnasco and Achille Rastelli)

On July 9th, 1942 The Perla was intercepted off the port of Beirut by the British corvette Hyacinth. Seriously damaged by depth charges, the boat was forced to the surface and fell into enemy hands. Towed to the Lebanese port, the Perla was repaired and renamed P.712. In 1943 it was transferred to the Greek Navy where it served until 1947

Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo