Of the 12 planned, the submarine ROMOLO was one of the only two boats of the class “R” to be completed (the other one was the REMO).
These large submarines, the largest ever built by the Regia Marina, were capable of transporting 600 tons of material, and were specifically built for covert transport of goods of strategic interest (especially rubber) to the Far East. The need for this task surfaced during the war, and caused some of existing oceanic boats to be adapted for this purpose.
The submarine ROMOLO.
(Photo courtesy Erminio Bagnasco and Achille Rastelli)
The construction of the 12 boats was assigned to three shipyards: 6 boats to TOSI of Taranto (they had developed the project), 3 to the C.R.D.A. of Monfalcone, near Gorizia, and 3 to the O.T.O of Muggiano, near La Spezia. Due to the urgent need for their use, the first two boats were completed in less than one year, while the other 10 were surprised by the armistice of September 8th, 1943 while they were still on the slips in advanced stage of completion. The Germans, who were in great need for such boats, captured the ones in Monfalcone and Muggiano and attempted to complete them, but none of these boats was actually completed.
The ROMOLO was built by the TOSI shipyard of Taranto and was laid down on July 21st, 1942, launched on March 21 1943, and delivered to the Regia Marina, along with the REMO, on June 19th of the same year.
Its operational life was, unfortunately, very brief. After a period of testing and training, reduced to the minimum for the already mention urgency, on July 15th 1943 (after less than a month after it had entered service), the ROMOLO under the command of Lieutenant Commander Alberto Crepas – a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic with the ARGO – left Taranto for Naples. Thereafter, all contacts were lost.
Lieutenant Alberto Crepas
(Photo from “Cento sommergibili non sono tornati” by Teucle Meneghini)
From British records, made available after the war, it appears that an aircraft of the R.A.F. probably attacked the boat in the early hours of the 18th of July, at 03:20 while the vessel was on the surface south east of Cape Spartivento, 15 miles of the Calabrese cost. The boat defended itself quite tenaciously with the on board machine guns, but it was hit, possibly by one of the five bombs dropped by the plane. Half-hour later, the boat was seen heading for the coastline on a 010° course and at low speed, while leaving behind a streak of diesel fuel. It later sank at around 05:50 without any survivor.
The submarine ROMOLO
According to the Italian commission of enquiry which reviewed the event just described, the fact that none of the crewmembers survived, despite being so close to land, made them believe that the boat was not just lost due the damages caused by the bomb, but by the explosion of the batteries – which, maybe at the time of the attack were under charge, thus producing hydrogen, and also explaining why the boat was on the surface – or the ammunitions.
From information regarding spying activities, it appears that the Allies were aware of the departure from Taranto of the ROMOLO (as well as the twin boat the REMO, also lost three days earlier off Cape Alice victim of the British submarine UNITED), and had organized ambushes with submarines from Malta and airplanes based in Sicily (Comiso and Pachino).
All this because these Italian boats worried the Allies quite a bit, as much as to consider them a primary target because of what was being develop in Germany in the area of special projects (the so-called secret weapons), and their possible transfer to Japan following the Allies bombing of Peenemunde. Nevertheless, this possibility, although credible, is not reflected in the official Italian documentation.
It is sure, however, that at a crucial junction in the war, when the situation was collapsing (Italy was close to the fall of Fascism and less than two months from the armistice), there was great urgency to immediately utilize these boats. The Germans, who still did not have boats capable of long cruises (but were building them), pushed for having Italian boats in the Atlantic used between Bordeaux and Singapore, offering in exchange U-boats. The Italian could not comply because these submarines were needed to guarantee the traffic with Sardinia (led, copper, antimony) at the time when the Allied offensive in the Tyrrhenian was on the increase. This explains the haste in which these boats, following delivery to the Navy, were sent to Naples.
Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo