In August 1939, Germany, because of its failure to provide a precautionary warning to its merchant ships steaming in faraway oceans, had lost over half of them, as they were stranded in neutral ports, captured by the enemy or self-destroyed to avoid capture.
In spite of this precedent, in June 1940 the Italian Government avoided giving accurate instructions to its merchant ships, probably harboring the illusion that the conflict would end quickly. Shipping owners and captains, for their part, in their desire to take advantage of extremely favorable market conditions, failed to take any precautions even after March 1940, when everyone was convinced that Italy’s decision to enter the fray was imminent.
This situation led as many as 256 ships to be stranded outside the Straits of Gibraltar or in enemy waters when war broke out.
The overall situation was as follows:
33 ships were in Italian Eastern Africa
11 in Northern and Eastern Europe
22 in Spain and its territories, 3 in Portuguese territories
26 in the USA
10 in Central America
8 in Colombia and Venezuela
19 in Brazil, 2 in Uruguay
15 in Argentina, 3 in Iran
2 in Thailand
5 in China and Japan
34 in British or Allied ports
3 in French ports.
Among the most heavily hit shipping companies were two Finmare firms, i.e. State-owned: 16 ships were lost by the Italia company and as many as 37 by Lloyd Triestino, i.e. almost half the company’s fleet.
Some of these ships had considerable military interest and importance; in particular:
– the Conte Grande transatlantic steamer, interned in Santos, Brazil, in June 1940, was later transferred to the USA, where it was transformed into the troop transport “Monticello”;
– the Principessa Maria steamer, stranded in Argentina;
– many ships of considerable value, such as the Leme, Belvedere, Cellina, and Fella;
– the passenger ships Colombo, Nazario Sauro, Tripolitania, Conte Verde, Leonardo da Vinci, Conte Biancamano, Giuseppe Mazzini, Rodi and Gerusalemme;
– the motor vessels Remo, Romolo, Volpi, Sumatra, Ramb I, Ramb II and Ramb IV;
– many tankers, left stranded in Venezuelan and Mexican harbors.
To stress the importance of these units, suffice it to recall that the Volpi and Sumatra, stranded in Puket Harbor (Thailand), were destined to become, in case of requisition, auxiliary cruisers.
The transatlantic Conte Grande
Of course, in addition to the ships, thousands of officers and men were also left stranded: those captured in warring nations were immediately interned, while others were free until the nations they were in joined the war; they were then interned – this was the case in the United States.
The ships stranded in the USA had initially been taken into the custody of the Coast Guard, based on the Espionage Act of 1917. On 28 August 1941 they were requisitioned by an appropriate act of 6 June 1941, and refitted in December 1941.
The crews that came off the various requisitioned vessels were temporarily detained in the immigration stations of New York, Philadelphia, Portland, or, where these stations were not available, in the local jails.
Subsequently, most of them were interned in the camps of Fort Missoula (Montana) or Petersburg (Virginia).
Personnel found – by US authorities – guilty of violating the law by sabotaging the power plant or navigation instruments were tried by a Federal Court, which found everyone guilty and issued sentences varying between one and three years, to be spent in a reformatory. About 300 seamen were convicted, but the constant involvement of the papal delegation in Washington, in the person of Monsignor Edigio Vagnozzi, got the authorities to relent and allow the convicted Italians to join the Missoula camp, between July 1942 and January 1943.
The crews of some merchant ships did not resign themselves to be passively subjected to internment or capture and, loaded with useful goods for the Country’s war needs, they forced the naval blockade and were able to reach German-occupied French ports on the Atlantic.
There were quite a few of these units: the motor vessel Pietro Orseolo of SIDARMA and the motor vessels Cortellazzo, Himalaya and Fusijama of Lloyd Triestino were the most famous ones, reaching Bordeaux from Japan or sailing through British patrols as many as three times, as the Pietro Orseolo did.
Other units that successfully made their escape were the steam ships Clizia and Capo Lena from Spanish ports on the Atlantic, the steam ships Capo Alga, Burano, Todaro, Atlanta, Eugenio C. and Ida from the Canary Islands, the steam ships Prisco, Mombaldo, XXIV Maggio, Butterfly and Africana from Brazil.
Tanker Franco Martelli was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine H.M.S. Urge
Other ships were not as lucky in their attempt and were sunk: this was the fate of the steam ships Sangro and Emani, of the tanker Franco Martelli, while the steam ship Stella was captured. All these ships ended up being lost during the conflict, either sunk in other attempts to force the blockade, or captured by the Germans after the armistice.
Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis