The Main Causes of Merchant Vessels’ Sinkings

The causes for the losses of merchant ships during the conflict were multifold. The main ones were unquestionably submarine and aircraft attacks. The latter were deadly, both during convoy sailing and when the ships were in port. At sea, the attacks, brought for the most part by Beaufort or Wellington torpedo bombers, took place at dusk or during the evening, under the light provided by flares and when the British flyers were sure they would not meet any opposition from any escorting planes provided by the Regia Aeronautica or Luftwaffe.

Equal ruinous were the attacks brought by Anglo-American bombers on the harbors of Italian cities, especially Naples, Palermo, Cagliari, and Messina, which from 1940 to 1943 were subjected to constant day and night air raids.
Aerial bombings on Northern Italian ports, above all Genova, La Spezia and Trieste, took place during the second period of the war, between 1943 and 1945.

Italian convoy at sea
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

Particularly severe was the December 1943 attack unleashed on Bari by the Luftwaffe, which succeeded in destroying almost twenty Italian and Allied merchant ships. The attack had grave consequences, with hundreds of deaths among seamen and harbor workers, also because a US ship was loaded with mustard gas bombs which exploded, wreaking havoc.

Surface ship attacks had lesser consequences, though the effects thus obtained were more dramatic, because, in some cases (“Duisburg” and “Tarigo” convoys) they ended with the complete destruction of the convoy. Less numerous were losses due to mines or sailing accidents, while the single most important cause of shipping loss, for operational purposes was – without a doubt – the failure to provide sufficient advance warning of the upcoming declaration of war to ships left outside the Straits.

Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis