During the conflict, Italy’s Merchant Marine also had a chance to grow thanks to the capture of ships belonging to enemy countries. Apart from some isolated captures in 1940, such as those of the British steam ships Dalesman (then Pluto in the Regia Marina) and Ulmus, the first sizable group of captured ships dates back to the Spring of 1941, after the campaigns in Greece and Yugoslavia. While in Greece almost all captured ships, both civilian and military, were seized by the Germans, in Yugoslavia nearly all vessels found in the harbors were taken by the Italians.
The Dalesman, at the time of it seizure
However, the bigger units, in particular the merchant ships, were in British-controlled harbors, so they escaped capture. A high number of ships, amounting to little overall tonnage, was taken into Italy’s Merchant Marine after the entire Dalmatian coast was proclaimed to be part of the Kingdom of Italy.
Nearly all of them were coastal vessels, and among the few larger ships one, the Tomislav, was in Japan and became Italian by order of the Japanese authorities.
The ex-Yugoslavian ships remained the property of the same owners while sailing under the Italian flag, and they changed their names; some were later requisitioned by the Regia Marina and employed for war purposes, others went on plying the coastal waters, though less and less frequently, or were leased to fulfil urgent military needs.
The service provided by these little steamboats was always very difficult: the ships, for safety reasons, always had to sail during the daytime, with considerable delays also due to the checks and inspections they frequently had to undergo. Another difficulty was due to the fact that certain harbors, such as Durazzo, were open only to ships with all-Italian crews, and this was not always possible.
We have said that some ex-Yugoslavian ships were requisitioned by the Regia Marina: among them, Cattare and Lubiana became auxiliary cruisers, Traù and Giovanni Ingrao coastal patrol boats, Monte Maggiore and Frangipane sub hunters.
On 8 September 1943, nearly all ships still afloat were seized by the Germans or by the Croatian Ustashas, who were thus able to put together a small Navy also with ships provided by the Germans; at the end of the war the few ships still remaining were taken over by Marshall Tito’s partisans and returned under Yugoslavian flag.
In November 1942 there was another considerable increase in the number of merchant ships flying the Italian flag: when Tunisia, Corsica, and Provence were taken, many French vessels fell prey to the Axis.
Already three tankers (Proserpina, Saturno, and Capo Pino) had been transferred from France to Italy in June 1940 by way of compensation for sunk ships; in 1942, all French merchant ships, considered war booty, were apportioned to Italy and Germany; thus, the Italian fleet acquired about eighty more vessels.
Although the shipyards worked at their maximum capacity, not all these units could be refitted to serve in the convoys shuttling back and forth between Italy and Tunisia to re-supply the troops fighting the Allies’ pincers advancing from Libya and Algeria. Many of them were sunk during this period; others, left in Northern Italian harbors, were seized by the Germans on 8 September and used or broken up; by war’s end almost none of them were still afloat.
All these units, however, were in fact turned into the Regia Marina which requisitioned them and nominally assigned them to various shipping companies, mostly Finmare or Cooperativa Garibaldi which, as stated, had already been tasked with running Regia Marina auxiliary ships; therefore, it is highly likely that the actual legal status of these units was that of armed ships belonging to the State.
Translated from Italian by Sebastian De Angelis