The main task performed by passenger liners, however, was to transport troops to overseas fronts, i.e. Libya, Albania, and, starting during the winter between 1942 and 1943, Tunisia.
The development of airlift capabilities allowed to use transport aircraft for the immediate deployment of small units or the emergency evacuation of the severely wounded; occasionally, warships were also used for these missions, sacrificing them in a role they had not been designed to fulfil. However, most of this traffic was concentrated on passenger liners, which brought most of the military personnel to their destination, for a total number of 1,242,729 men from all service branches.
German troops waiting to be transported to North Africa
(Photo Imperial War Museum)
This is not the proper venue to recall all the missions these ships accomplished, because their history is an integral part of the convoy war and, thus, of the history of the Regia Marina’s war at sea. Suffice it to say that, because of the type of ship required, they all belonged to the Finmare fleet and hence they were always State-owned vessels, which for these missions sailed almost always as requisitioned ships, but almost never militarized, and always with Merchant Marine crews.
Some of these ships were at the center of some of the most tragic episodes of the convoy war: Neptunia and Oceania were sunk on 18 September 1941 by the British submarine Upholder, and 384 men, out of the 5,818 aboard, were killed.
The Conte Rosso, after leaving Naples bound for Tripoli on 24 May 1941 in convoy with Esperia and Marco Polo, was hit by the Upholder with two torpedoes. The ship sank in 14 minutes, and 1,291 soldiers and sailors died; 1,441 were rescued by the escorting torpedo boats and by the hospital ship Arno which had sailed from Messina. One of the most heavily felt losses for Italy’s Merchant Marine was that of the motor vessel Victoria, one of Italy’s most beautiful and famous ships, hit by British torpedo bombers in the Gulf of Sidra. 249 men went down with the ship, among them her Captain, Arduino Moreni, and the officer in charge of the military detachment, Captain Giovanni Grana.
The M/V Victoria under the protection of the heavy guns of the battleship Duilio.
The list of passenger liners sunk during troop transport mission is tragically long: Sardegna, Vicinale, Francesco Crispi, Liguria del Lloyd Triestino, Calitea, Esperia, Galilea (where 995 alpine troops perished), Quirinale, Celio of the Adriatica company; Città di Agrigento, Città di Bastia, Città di Tripoli, Firenze, Catalani, Puccini, Aventino, Città di Catania of the Tirrenia company, as well as others captured by the Germans.
At the end of the war, very few ships were left in service, and they had to be relied on to resume civil traffic, essential in those first years after the war.
Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis