WWII, Italian Submarines in the Atlantic: The underdogs

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When Italy entered WWII the Regia Marina Italiana (Italian Royal Navy) fielded around 115 submarines. It was the biggest fleet of its kind; almost double the number of Germany in 1939. USA had 100, France 86, Great Britain 69, Japan 65. (Numbers may vary, depending from the sources).

The majority of the Italian “Boats” had been recently manufactured and well made. Nevertheless because they had been designed and built on the experiences of WWI and not for a more modern and always evolving warfare, they had many shortcomings. Unfortunately this situation became obvious only after the beginning of the war and during the action along the German counterpart.

The difference between the two types of boats began to show in June 1940. It was at this time that the first Italian submarine the Finzi was sent into the Atlantic to organise, in cooperation with Germany , a naval base in Bordeaux . This location was chosen because it was an important and well-equipped port on the French coast. It was code named b Som ( Beta for Bordeaux and Som as Sommergibili, the Italian word for submarines). Here it became obvious that the German U-boats were much more suited the Atlantic operations, especially in the tactic of mass attack conceived by the Admiral Doenitz, the wolf pack now under evaluation and development.

While Germany had smaller submarines, the Italians ones had been designed to operate almost as cruisers, capable of engaging the enemy on the surface and on long-range cruises. Generally they had too big displacement, too high structures above the deck, because of their size they had poor manoeuvrability, low under water speed and insufficient diving and surfacing speed.

Because they were mainly designed for operation in the relative warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea , they encountered numerous difficulties when sailing in the atrocious conditions of the Northern Atlantic . Frozen pipes, broken down pumps, trouble in transferring ballast and fuel, not to mention the hardship for the crew not properly equipped for the harsh environment encountered during the winter months at high latitude.

The instrumentation was also outdated. They didn't have an adequate mechanical device for the calculation of parameters needed for the torpedo launch and especially for multiple launching. The torpedo ejection from the tube was still obtained by using compressed air and this generated quite a visible bubble on the surface, an obvious give away of the submarine position. Further more the Italian submarines didn't have the sonar or similar equipment for the detection of underwater obstacles or vessels, therefore once below periscope dept they were practically blind.

We must remember that the deployment of the Italian submarines (27 by the end of the war) in the Atlantic had been arranged in 1939 at Friedrichshaven at a meeting between the high command of the Regia Marina and the Kriegsmarine. The meeting didn't involve technical personnel at lower levels and the Italian missed out on a big chance to contact the German counterpart for an exchange of information and expertise. If this had happened all the shortcomings and defects would have been identified early instead of one year later, allowing plenty of time for the modifications before the deployment in such difficult conditions. The upgrade of the Italian submarines operating from b Som begun late and was never properly completed.

Nevertheless the Regia Marina managed to modify the vessels already in service and improve those being built. The diving speed was increased; the bulky over structures and conning towers were reduced in size. A mechanical calculator for the torpedo launching was developed and installed. Even if it was a rudimentary piece of equipment it was functional. Finally, even if a little too late, the sonar was installed.

Considering the difficult conditions encountered by the Italian submarines in the Atlantic theatre, an area completely unknown and with inadequate equipment the results were quite remarkable. Obviously the performance of the units would have been much better if it was not for the initial lack of preparation that without doubts caused such great loss of young lives.

Ref: Sopra di noi l' Oceano (The Ocean above us) by Antonio Trizzino, 1962.


I remember. The story as narrated many years ago

This above is now a sad chapter of the naval history but there are many episodes that were never logged in the official records. In 1967 I was called for the national service into the navy, having just completed the Nautical School .

At that time the national service in the Italian Navy lasted two years and I spend it all on the same ship. It wasn't a flashy cruiser or a glorious fighting ship but just a medium tonnage landing craft transformed in a floating workshop capable of deploying close enough to action for helping when and where emergency repairs may be required. Of course we didn't se much action and apart from a eight hours sailing every month for shaking off the barnacles and some training at sea or when it seemed all hell was going to break lose during the six day war in Israel , we were hidden from site in a corner of the La Spezia Naval Base. Life was quiet and there was plenty of time to chat on the deck during the warm summer evenings. With a couple of glasses of wine (standard issue) it was easy to drag out some of the memories from de old sea dogs ex submariners, serving on the same ship as me. The following are some of those stories:

Armando Frandi, now a naval mechanic NCO, joined the Regia Marina as volunteer at sixteen years of age. After the two years of training school he volunteered for the submarines and was sent onto one bound for Bordeaux .

The sailing through the Mediterranean was uneventful especially because they were under strict orders not to engage unless the odds where all in favour. The first serious hurdle was the passage through the Gilbrater Straight. It was heavily patrolled and mined. The crossing was successful despite the flotilla of subs hunters searching the area.

During a previous mission one of the Italian subs captain discovered that was possible to take advantage of the different currents generated by the tides and the thermal exchange between the Atlantic cold deep water entering Mediterranean and the hot one exiting at a lesser depth. The different temperature and layers of current generated strong turbulence but also disrupted the aldis used by the hunters. All they had to do was to find the right level; turn off the engines and in complete silence let the nature work in their favour. According to a witness sometimes it was quite a ride, almost like being in a barrel floating down a creek.

The port of Bordeaux was reached and after a short R&R they were sent into action. Not much was achieved because of the problems mentioned before. The crews were growingly frustrated and dissatisfied by the lack of kills.

Then one day there was a call for volunteers to take part in an action that was not granting a return trip. At just eighteen, full of patriotic fervour, propaganda and thirst for heroic actions, many young sailors like able seaman Frandi stepped forward. One of the subs was stripped off what unnecessary, fuelled and supplied for one way trip, loaded to the deck with high explosive and sent off on a south western route under strict orders of radio silence. Half way the Atlantic the mission was explained to the crew. They were supposed to reach Panama Canal , access the locks under an entering ship, launch forward and stern torpedoes and blow themselves up destroying the canal or putting it out of action for some time.

Then one night they found themselves in the middle of an east bound convoy, so big that it took four days and nights to sail by. It was a too big sight to ignore, the captain decided to break radio silence and inform b Som.

The suicide mission was aborted and they were ordered to shadow the convoy, transmit its position at regular intervals and wait for further orders. As the tracking continued they heard more and more subs arriving and joining the pack. Then one night the attack commenced. Subs were everywhere around and amongst the transport ship picking them up one by one despite the escort mad chase.

Unfortunately the Italian sub was pinpointed and a couple of depth charges blew her up to the surface with damaged steering and diving gear. The helpless boat was out of control circling on the surface. Being lit by the burning cargoes she was an easy target for the British sub hunters and as this wasn't enough a U-boat tried to hide underneath the disabled sub to avoid the hunters.

One of the crew panicked and opened a hatch in the conning tower allowing the internal light to give a bright aiming point for the corvette's gunners. The conning tower was hit and the oxy acetylene bottles stored in it blew it away killing all the officers and the captain. There was no other alternative but to abandon ship and they did so.

The Brits immediately deployed a boarding party trying to recover the secret codes from the damaged sub. Once on board they were confronted by the same sailor who opened the hatch who, recovering his cool managed to kill some of them, opened the cock and sunk with the sub.

Able seaman Frandi couldn't swim but managed to cling to a dead body with life jacked until a corvette looking for survivors picked him up. He was badly hurt across the back and with the head full of fascist propaganda offered no cooperation. Unluckily for him he was on the same ship that sent the boarding party and they were not very friendly after the loss of their mates. The fate is very unpredictable because the captain of another corvette escorting the convoy personally knew the commander of the sunken Italian sub. When he discovered that the captured survivors were badly treated, he had them transferred on his ship for more humane conditions. The sailing continued for few more days and every night the quiet shaken by more explosions, evasive actions, chasing and sinking.

Once landed in England able seaman Frandi and the few survivors were sent to a camp called the dream's castle for interrogations. This compound was in the middle of a prisoner's camp but it was built in such a way that every time a prisoner was taken out of the cell for interrogation or any other reason and when he was returned to the cell, the corridors and doorways were always in a different position, like if they were in a moveable theatrical stage. He supposed it was done in such a way to confuse the inmates and discourage any break out attempt. When Abel seaman Frandi was interrogated for the first time he only declared name, rank and number refusing to answer any more questions. A good slap on the back of his head made clear the intentions of the interrogators. In the end they realised that they knew more than him and they didn't question him any further.

After some time the prisoners were embarked on the Queen Mary and sailed without escort to the United States . This ship was so fast, sailing at full speed and changing course following a zigzag pattern that didn't have to worry about U-boats attack.

The welcoming party on the US wharf was impressive. It was the first shipments of prisoners to reach the States and everybody was expecting wild, fierce and dangerous fascist fanatics. Two rows of heavily armed personnel escorted the prisoners to the detention camp.

For an eighteen years old sailor it was a shock and another worrying experience not knowing what else to expect but his fears disappeared once he reached the barracks and saw all the food on the tables. It looked to good to be true, especially after the hardship of the life under war rationing at home, shortage on the sub and the prison camp in England . Worrying that such an abundance wouldn't last, the first thing they did was to hide some of it and take it in to the dorm for later date. The day after, at meals time the tables were empty. The ward warned that they could eat as much as they wanted but no food was to be removed form the mass room. After that episode life got better and better. The butter was a perfect leather treatment for the soccer balls and after a while they were even allowed outside the camp unsupervised to work in nearby farms.

This was the end of the fighting for able seaman Frandi who was Uncle Sam's guest until the end of the war. He was repatriated, almost unrecognisable after years of good food and peaceful life. He rejoined the rebuilt Italian Navy (not Royal anymore) and I'm grateful for sharing with me his remarkable war experience. The obvious souvenir was a deep scar across his back from one shoulder to the waist.=

CDM Vincenzo Merlo - 3/2007