The Loss of the Galilea

The three years of naval warfare in the Mediterranean which saw the British and Italian navies face each other was, for the most part, a war of convoys. All the battles, engagements and other episodes of war which characterized these eventful three years were directly or indirectly related to the shipment of personnel and materiel from and to the front.
Usually, the burden of heavy losses and disastrous incidents rested with those involved in transporting more than those obstructing. A clear confirmation of this statement can be found in the heavy British losses in the defense, and then the retreat from Greece and Crete. Furthermore, the convoys to Malta are another proof that, whenever asked to defend a convoy or organize transports in general, the British Navy was neither more nor less successful than the Regia Marina.

The substantial difference between the roles of the two navies can be traced back to politics more than military reasons. The first blatant Italian mistake was, in addition to the moral aspect of the whole affair, the invasion of Greece. This ill-conceived campaign demanded vast shipment of war material from the mainland to Albania. Although the actual route was very short, Albania did not have enough facilities to allow for the unloading of the merchant ship.

The second mistake was, and this can be debated either way, the missed occupation of Tunisia. After the surrender of France, it was thought that by using Tunisian ports the routes to North Africa could be made more secure and, of course, much shorter. This proposed occupation was vetoed by Hitler even though, after the Allied landings in western North Africa, it was eventually accomplished. The strategic alternative, which called for the occupation of Malta, never materialized. So the Italian Navy was left transporting supplies to North Africa over longer routes easily within reach of the Malta-based airplanes and ships.

These perilous journeys, conducted by an ever decreasing number of vessels under ever more difficult circumstances, are the untold story of a conflict which, in such a tragic way, touched the lives of so many people. One of these journeys of misery and death started from the port of Piraeus, continued through Lutraki and the Strait of Corinth. The ship Galilea left Corinth the evening of the 27th of March, 1942 along with the ships Crispi and Viminale. Near Patrass, the convoy was joined by the ships Piemonte, Ardenza and Italia. The convoy left Patrass at 1 PM on the 28th of March under the auxiliary escort Città di Napoli, the destroyer Sebenico and the torpedo boats San Martino, Castelfidtardo, Mosto and Bassini . The Regia Aeronautica provided reconnaissance and aerial support until sunset.

The limited escort can be explained by the chronic shortage of escort vessels that the Regia Marina was already experiencing. Before the beginning of the war, Italy had built a new series of destroyers, but this was too little and too late. Most of the vessels in service had already logged thousands of hours and machinery was prone to failures. Furthermore, the general antisubmarine capabilities of these vessels were limited and their number, especially toward the end of the conflict, became dramatically small.
The Galilea was a passenger ship belonging to the Adriatica Società Anonima di Navigazione based in Venice and Trieste. Built in 1918 by the San Rocco shipyard of Trieste with the name of Pilsa, it was sold to the Trieste-based company in 1935 and christened Galilea. Documents from Lloyds of London describe the ship as a liner with two propellers and steam engines with a displacement of 8,040 t., a length of 443’8″, width of 53’2″ and a drought of 25″11″. The nominal speed was 13.5 knots and room for 47 passengers in first class and 148 in second.

During this period the Galilea had been designated as a hospital ship. In this function, it had been designated as the transport for part of the Battaglione Gemona of the famous Julia alpine division (Italian alpine troops are called “Alpini”). Specifically, distributed between first and second class and the various decks were personnel of the 629, 230, 814 MASH, 8 Health Section and 8th group assistance. This battalion, after the Greek campaign where it was assigned to the defense of the Channel of Corinth, was scheduled to join another Mussolinian adventure as part of the Italian Army in Russia.

The journey went on regularly despite the continuous and frequent explosions of depth charges. At 6:30 PM, the convoy passed Cape Ducati while the weather conditions were deteriorating with increasing rain and patches of thick fog. At 7:00 PM the convoy left the single line formation and was organized in two lines with the Viminale leading to port and the Galilea to starboard about 600 meters apart.

Despite the fact that the convoy was in complete darkness, it fell prey to the British submarine HMS Proteus, commanded by LtCdr Phillip Stewart Francis. This vessel had left Alexandria the 12th of March and was scheduled to be on patrol until the 24th in the Gulf of Taranto. At the end of this fruitless patrol, the boat was ordered to the Strait of Otranto where she sank the Galilea. After this sinking, the Proteus continued her patrol and on the 30th sank the Bosforo (3,648 tons). The submarine returned to Alexandria on the 4th of April.

The attack was swift. The steamship Galilea was hit by a torpedo on her starboard which created a hole of about 6 meters by 6 just below the bridge in compartment number 2. The ship immediately began to list about 15 degrees. The ship’s commander attempted to reach the nearby Islands of Passo and Antipasso but the maneuver was impeded by the bad weather and the damages received. Similarly to most war vessels, the ship was not equipped with enough lifeboats for most of her passengers. The bad weather made matters even worse. The rest of the convoy was quickly ordered to leave the scene of the attack, while one of the two destroyers began bombing the enemy submarine, with little positive result.
The ship’s agony continued until 3:50 AM on the 29th of March when eventually it sank. The sinking is officially reported to have taken place on 93.04 N 20.05 E. Even if the ship did not sink until the 29th, it is officially reported as having been lost on the 28th. The torpedo boat left behind attempted to rescue part of the survivors, but the cold water of the wintry Mediterranean and the presence of the submarine made it very difficult. The following morning, MAS 516 and two minesweepers arrived from the base of Prevesa, along with a Red Cross hydroplane from Brindisi which crashed during a landing maneuver . The escort units reported having damaged an enemy submarine, a fact which cannot be confirmed by the official British records.

Of the 1,275 man aboard the Galilea only 284 were rescued. The Battaglione Gemona lost 21 officers, 18 petty officers and 612 alpine troops. Along with the “Alpini” perished some Italian “Carabinieri” (Military Police) and Greek prisoners of war. The rest of the convoy reached Bari on the 29th.
Between May 1941 and August 1943, during the period described as “occupation garrisons,” the navy transported 377,425 men and 870,625 tons of war material between Italy and the Albanian-Greek ports. Of these, 1,546 men and 6,224 tons of materiel were lost. One can easily see that the sinking of the Galilea amounted to almost 70% of all Italian losses. Although the overall percentage of Italian losses is relatively low (.2%), one can comprehend the magnitude of this tragedy.

The following morning rescue operations continued but it was now too late. The news of the disaster soon reached the Friuli region of Italy from where most of the ‘Alpini” had come. The sorrow and the despair felt then can still be felt today. Many of the soldiers were never found, while the bodies of others were washed onto the Greek shores. Once again, the war machinery had devoured brave Italian men as it had done before, and would again later. Throughout the war Allied and Axis troops shared this horrible fate equally.

Dedicated to the memory of Virginio Tonelli