The Sinking of the Esperia


The official war record of the Italian Navy states: “The most painful loss of the month of August 1941 was, undoubtedly, the SS Esperia of over 11,000 t., sunk by a submarine when it was already in sight of the port of Tripoli.” The official Italian war record, as published in “La Difesa del Traffico con l’Africa Settentrionale” (The Protection of the Traffic with North Africa) reads:

“The convoy left Naples on the 19th of August at 02:00 AM, and included the passenger ships Marco Polo, Esperia, Neptunia and Oceania and it was routed east of Malta (Sicilian Channel, Island of Pantelleria, Kerkennah Islands). Starting from its departure in Naples, the convoy was escorted by the destroyers Vivaldi (lead) Da Recco, Gioberti, Oriani. The Vivaldi had aboard, for the occasion, Rear Admiral Amedeo Nomis di Pollone, Commander at Sea for the mission. After 1:30 PM, the convoy was reinforced by the torpedo boat Dezza and, after 2:50 PM at the beginning of the more dangerous section of the crossing slightly to the north of Marettimo, by the destroyers Maestrale, Grecale and Scirocco.

Moreover, during daylight navigation, both in the Tyrrenhian and in the Sicilian Channels, the convoy was escorted by airplane S. 79 and CR 42 and, in the later afternoon of the 19th, by seaplanes Cant Z 506 for antisubmarine protection. From 5:20 PM to 6:30 PM, north of Pantelleria, the convoy endured two successive underwater attacks, and both times the torpedoes, timely sighted by the convoy’s lookouts, were avoided with prompt maneuvers. The Vivaldi and the Gioberti pursued the enemy submarines for approximately one hour without appreciable results.

The 20th of August at 01:00 AM, the destroyers Maestrale and Grecale returned to port to refuel, and the destroyers Vivaldi, Da Recco, Oriani, Gioberti and Scirocco, along with the torpedo boat Dezza were left in charge of defending the convoy. At 8:30AM, when the convoy was entering the safe channel to Tripoli (a navigational path leading to port and free of mines), the escort was augmented with the arrival of the torpedo boat Partenope and two MAS.

After daybreak, Cant Z 501s had also resumed circling over the naval formation, providing for submarine protection. During the approach to Tripoli, the convoy was preceded by a group of mine sweepers that had already searched the approaching route for several hours. The Italians, undoubtedly, had taken all the necessary precautions to guarantee the safety of their vessels, but unfortunately not even such a large deployment of defensive measures succeeded in avoiding the convoy being attacked by a British submarine.

From British documentation, it turns out that in those days there were three submarines in ambush in the area immediately surrounding the “safe” route to Tripoli: UNIQUE (Lieutenant-Commander R.D. Cayley, D.S.O.), P. 32 (Lieutenant D.A.B. Abdy) and P. 33 (Lieutenant R.D. Whiteway-Wilkinson, D.S.C.). The fact was not exceptional, as English submarines were generally in ambush in the special points of the Italian traffic with Libya. The boats P. 32 and P. 33 were both lost, but the UNIQUE, avoiding the convoy’s defensive screen, succeeded in positioning itself close enough to the MV Esperia to torpedo it.

Admiral Nomis di Pollone, Commander at Sea, reported:
“At 10:20 AM of August 20, the convoy including the SS Marco Polo and Esperia, and the MV Neptunia and Oceania, escorted by the destroyers Vivaldi, Gioberti, Da Recco, Oriani, Scirocco, the Torpedo boat Dezza and two MAS from Tripoli were preceded by the pilot, torpedo boat Partenope, at a point 11miles for true bearing 318° from the beacon of Tripoli, and proceeded at a speed of 17 knots on safe route n. 3 (true course 138). The formation was flown over by aerial defenses composed of 2 Cant Z 501 and 2 fighters.

All the units in the convoy, excluding the pilot, were zigzagging and although the convoy was already on the safe route, it had to be maintained in formation due to the frequent presence of submarines near the Libyan coast. Upon initiating the approaching procedures, the Oriani launched six depth charges to scare off any enemy.

At 10:20 AM, without having sighted the periscope, the Esperia detected the wave of a torpedo to the left perfectly aiming at the ship. Before it was possible to execute any evasive maneuver, the Esperia was hit by a torpedo forward of the bridge; the explosion was immediately followed by the explosion of two others torpedoes, one to the center of the ship (boiler room) and the other one aft. The Esperia immediately began leaning to the left; it remarkably lost headway very quickly, coming to a stop approximately 40° to the left of the original course. The other units in the convoy, as prescribed, continued on due course to port and the Marco Polo raised the signal “I T” (follow me) increasing to full speed ahead. Such a quick decision by the convoy’s commander was very opportune since going astray from the prescribed route could have brought the convoy in dangerous waters due to defensive mine fields.

In the meantime, aboard the Esperia the crew was trying to put in sea the lifeboats, but the maneuver succeeded only partially because of the excessive list and the residual headway of the ship. At 10:31 the Esperia completely pulled down to the left side and sank with the prow low without generating too much gurgle.

At first the explosions against the side of the Esperia were of indeterminate nature, since an observer from any other ship could have assumed a mine, as well as a torpedo, or perhaps bombs from a high flying airplane. A few minutes later, bombs dropped at about 1,000 meters to the left of the Esperia made everyone realize that the planes were after a submarine and that torpedoes had caused the explosions.

I then ordered the Oriani, Scirocco and Dezza to approach the area of the shipwreck and begin the rescue operations, while the Gioberti proceeded with the MAS to give hunt to the submarine, assisted later on by the Da Recco, which at first I had designated to accompany the convoy on the escape route.

At 12:00 three tugs and some motor-sail boats from Tripoli reached the place. Meantime, since the greater part of the shipwreck had been recovered by the units in the convoy, I ordered these units to direct for Tripoli in order to avoid further risks of attack by submarine, leaving in place the Dezza to protect the crafts from Marilibia (Italian Naval Command in Libya) .

People rescued by the:
Vivaldi 76
Oriani 254
Scirocco 471
Dezza 61
Naval units from Tripoli 277
Total 1,139

Observations and proposals – the circumstances described in which the attack has taken place induce us to assume that the submarine executed a launch at a short distance, probably utilizing hydrophones. It is possible that the enemy knew of the arrival of the convoy, since it had been attacked the previous evening by a submarine near Pantelleria with the launch of two torpedoes… “.

The SS Marco Polo, and MV Neptunia and Oceania, as previously said, after the attack of the Unique, continued on to Tripoli entering port at 12:30 PM. They quickly carried out the disembarkation of men and materials and then the three cargo vessels left Tripoli at 5:00 PM of the 21st and reached Naples under the escort of the destroyers Vivaldi, Da Recco, Oriani, Gioberti, Scirocco.”

War Diary of Lt. Fabrizio Romano

August 18, 1941. – At 1530, I arrive at the Pisacane Pier riding a motorcycle with my buddy Raffaele “Fefè” di Russa. As I get into the harbor area, I hear my name called by a voice I know well. It’s Peppino Passarella, whose brother is Doctor Fabrizio, a Captain in the Medical Corps, from my own Regiment and due to leave for North Africa with me: he’s my cousin on my mother’s side. He shouts his greeting to me. I get off the motorbike and I approach him; he’s with his brother and his father-in-law, Mr. Rotundo, who’s seeing off his son, Doctor Antonio Rotundo, also a Medical Corps Captain, bound for North Africa with us. We exchange warm greetings. Captain Rotundo is to embark on the Motor Vessel Esperia.

As for us, i.e., Lieutenant Raffaele di Russa, my close friend and brother in arms since the start of the war, Captain Fabrizio Passarella, MD (my cousin, as I have explained), and myself, we are scheduled to embark on “Neptunia”. In saying our goodbyes, I notice that Dr. Rotundo’s father is emotionally distressed: he hugs his son repeatedly, and says he’s really sorry we’re not all sailing together. Captain Rotundo himself, when we hug before embarking aboard our ships, tells me again how disappointed he is to sail on Esperia. Could it be a foreboding of the tragedy that will soon unfold? As I walk away from him, I shout: “See you in Tripoli!”

We get into the harbor. The accommodation ladders teem with military personnel. Our ship makes a very good impression on Fefé and me.
As I am about to climb aboard the ship, another very pleasant, unexpected encounter makes me even gladder. One of my closest childhood friends, Bruno Mazzarelli, is sailing on my ship; we were together in high school and through university. He is an attorney, he recently got married, and he volunteered to go to North Africa.

Before we embark we are greeted by His Excellency General Rosi, 6th Army Commander, and General Piazzoni, C.O. of our motorized Division “Trieste”. We are all issued small flags with our nation’s colors.
At 1730, after completion of the troops’ embarkation procedures, we board the ship. The stateroom assigned to me and my friend Fefé is spacious, with two bunks. Fefé points out to me that it would be easy to get out through the two portholes, located near his bunk… just in case we have to abandon ship in a hurry. As we try to verify whether our bodies’ bulk allows for a quick egress maneuver, we are pleased to notice that a rope ladder and a thick line hang outboard, near the portholes.

According to the scuttlebutt we got yesterday, during the visit paid by the Colonel commanding our Regiment to the ship, we should get underway tomorrow morning, around 0500. So everyone waits for nightfall without any undue apprehension, since for now we are safe from torpedoes and we’ll be able to spend the night resting in our staterooms and living spaces.
Around 1930 I have a rather good meal, sharing my table with my friends Fefé and Bruno Mazzarelli. From 2100 on, we rest in our staterooms, fully intending to get a good night’s sleep. The rope latter and the thick line are still hanging there near the portholes, which we leave open. The light breeze that barely moves the harbor’s sultry air makes them swing rhythmically.

August 19. – I wake up with a start. My wristwatch shows 0310. To my amazement, I realize the ship is steaming regularly and quite fast.
Where are we, by now? How long has the ship been underway? I’m sure we’re quite far from our safe harbor in Naples! Should we put our lifejacket on and get topside? I wake Fefé to ask him if he knows what’s up. He replies with an indistinct muttering which clearly conveys to me that he’s as clueless as I am about our present position and what we should do. What’s more important, he wants to sleep even more badly than I do, so I decide to follow his example. “Live Dangerously!” I exhort the slumbering Fefé, wishing him goodnight with one of Mussolini’s favorite slogans, and I peacefully go back to sleep myself.

At 0700 we hold reveille in our stateroom. Now that our brains are engaged, we consider the risk we took during the night, and after calling each other irresponsible, Fefé and I engage in a long and highly technical discussion about using the lifejacket. We also discuss whether, if we are attacked by aircraft or submarines, it would be advisable to stay in our stateroom and, above all, about the best way to bring with us some waterproof bags originally meant to carry ice, given to us by my physician brother Vittorio. We decide that we will dive, if the need arises, wearing the short trousers and the bush jacket, and we will place the bag with cognac, sugar and cookies in one of the jacket’s pockets. After a frugal breakfast of coffee, milk, and jam, everyone spreads out on the ship’s decks. The sea is very calm. The air is crystal clear and visibility is excellent.

Our convoy comprises the following ships: Esperia, Oceania, Neptunia, Marco Polo. Our regiment is embarked aboard the latter three ships: on Neptunia, the Regimental Staff and 1st Battalion; on Oceania, the 2nd Battalion, and Marco Polo the 3rd Battalion. Quite a few Germans are also sailing aboard each of the ships. Around 1030 we sight some fairly distant wakes in the water. There are three of them; they travel almost parallel, at moderate speed, in the direction of our convoy. Most of the onlookers at first think they’re dolphins, but the ship’s watchstanders know better. The signal bridge immediately puts up a complex signal made up of colored flags, which translated into everyday speech means: “Torpedo wakes, port side!”.
Almost at the same time, we notice that our ship turns suddenly and at a very fast rate, imitated by Marco Polo, which is nearly parallel to our own Neptunia. In the meantime the general alarm has been sounded on all ships. Everyone fits his lifejacket more snugly to his body. The minutes tick by slowly, filled with trepidation; but after a while, the all clear signal is given. That was close! Dolphins, schmolfins, I say!

The danger of having to abandon ship starts hanging over us all like Damocles’ sword. On the ship, everyone exchanges comments. Of course we all swear we were the first to sight the deadly wakes, and in fact many of us presume they actually alerted the bridge watchstanders and strut around as if they saved the ship from being torpedoed. Now that the danger is behind us, this whole thing is degenerating into a farce.
As always, our Commanding Officer, Colonel Cesare Fabozzi, distinguishes himself by his truly monumental calmness. This excellent, professional soldier commands his regiment more with his heart than with ironclad discipline and he deserves to be briefly described in this war diary.
He is a huge, highly decorated man; battle-scarred, he is one of our best known regimental commanders. Although he knows several foreign languages, off duty he always speaks his native Neapolitan dialect, accompanied by the typical mimicry that goes with it. He is a born optimist, but he firmly believes in the influence of jinxing and of so-called unlucky days. In every situation he has always shown great calm and an equally large dose of common sense.

On the occasion of this journey, he – as always – sees happy tidings from any event that is even slightly out of the ordinary. From the first day he set foot on MV Neptunia, where he took command of military personnel, he considered the omens very favorable, because MV Esperia’s arrival was held up by repair work in a shipyard, needed after an air attack: so our convoy’s sailing date had been moved from the 17th to the 18th. “That date [the 17th] was grossly jinxed !” he’d whispered to me with his characteristic open smile, usually followed by a no less original boisterous laugh, which came in evenly spaced staccato bursts. By expressing out loud his wholehearted approval for the opportune date change, he had – in a sense – transfused into me his conviction that for our Regiment, fate would continue to be very benign, as it had been on the Western alpine front. The torpedoes’ failure to hit us therefore found him at his battle station, calm and ever more optimistic.

The 19th was not totally uneventful: around 1700, a new alarm was sounded. Two torpedoes had been launched against “Marco Polo”, another ship in our convoy, but they missed their target. That evening, after dinner, though the recent dangers we had been through should have made us anxious, we retired to our stateroom. We did, however, stay dressed and we kept our lifejackets at hand.

August 20. – At 1022 a formidable explosion roils the water. It is immediately followed by two more very loud bangs.
Our attention is totally focused on the ship to our left: it’s Esperia.
After the first explosion a huge column of water rises heavenwards, about 65 feet up. The stricken ship lists to starboard, but she stills moves forward. The escorting destroyers, which tried to cover our treacherous route with sudden, very fast course changes, now all converge in the direction of the beautiful, condemned ship. She was hit by no less than three torpedoes!
We see a thick, dense column of black smoke rise from a destroyer. She got hit herself, and now she starts listing, then quickly sinks: her death throes are incredibly short.

Our eyes are all on Esperia. Given the time of day, visibility is perfect. From the sky, with very quick dives, the planes do their best to assist in rescuing personnel off the stricken ship, and above all they try, by releasing a veritable torrent of depth charges, to flush the enemy submarine from its lair in the depths and destroy it. A puff of white smoke, rising from the water, leads us to believe that the submarine has also been mortally wounded. The water is coated with a film of fuel oil. Just a few minutes have gone by. Esperia, after listing even further to starboard, sinks rapidly, without any visible eddies, and disappears from our view forever. When the tragic moment comes, we all stand rigidly at attention. The signal, ordered by bugle by our ship’s Captain, finds all soldiers in the Regiment motionless in the final salute to the beautiful ship as she disappears beneath the waves, taking so many brothers in arms with her.

From the time of the first explosion, which occurred at 1022, no more than eight minutes have elapsed: at 1030 the only tangible evidence that Esperia ever existed is flotsam and a few survivors in the water.
Our ship sails on, no longer escorted by the destroyers, which stay behind to complete their rescue work. We are very close to Tripoli’s shore: the coast of Africa we have all been yearning for is now in sight. Our hearts are deeply moved. We all stand motionless, speechless, in our places.
The very present danger of a torpedo attack on our ship no longer worries us, shaken as we are by the terrible vision of our Esperia’s end, burnt indelibly in our eyes.

My cousin, Fabrizio Passarella, is at my side. Like me, he has also experienced the ship’s tragic end from start to awful finish. We look into each other’s eyes, and without saying a word we share the same, terribly painful feeling of the tragic fate that befell our mutual friend, Doctor Antonio Rotundo, the one we had said farewell to when he embarked on Esperia. We try to check our emotions and we rush to our respective muster station. I, along with my friend Raffaele di Russa who has joined me, hurry to the bridge where, together with the Colonel and the Adjutant Captain Borsi, we remain until we reach Tripoli’s harbor.


Original in Italian provided by Mr. Fabrizio Cao and translated by Sebastian De Angelis

S.S. Esperia

Built 1920
Shipyard Società Esercizio Bacini (Cantieri del Tirreno, Riva Trigoso)
Call sign (W/T) IBUK
Owner Società Anonima di Navigazione Adriatica
Naval Department Genoa
Register 1500
Length 527′ 11”
Beam 61′ 11”
Draught 23′ 7”
Engine 2 turbines, 10 boiles, 56 burners
HP 18,000
Propellers 2
Comsuption 172
Maximum Speed (knots) 20
Gross Registered Tonnage (g.r.t.) 11398
Net Register Tonnage (n.r.t) 5963
Carrying Capacity 2900
Holds 3 x 3451 Cubic Yards
Passengers 375


Data provided by Mr. Franco Prevato.