Italian Submarines Operating Outside the Mediterranean

The Barbarigo, seen here in the Garonne estuary returning to Bordeaux after an Atlantic patrol, was the most successful submarine of the Marcello class, sinking seven ships totalling 39,300 grt. With LtCdr. Enzo Grossi in command, the Barbarigo attacked two groups of enemy warships, one off Brazil in May and one off Freetown in October 1942 respectively. Both attacks took place at night, and in each case one US battleship was reported as sunk, thus giving a big boost to Italian wartime propaganda. Actually, the ships attacked by the Barbarigo were much smaller and none was sunk. The two events won LtCdr. Grossi important decorations and awards, but he was stripped of them after the war, sparking numerous controversies which lasted for many years after the end of the Second World War. The Barbarigo was sunk by enemy aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, probably between 17 and 19 June 1943.

An armed guard of the Reggimento San Marco saluting the submarine Da Vinci entering the ‘Betasom’ lock on 31 October 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic mission.

Submarines in the Atlantic

The Comando Gruppo Sommergibili Atlantico (Atlantic Submarine Command) was established at Bordeaux, France on 1 September 1940. This was a direct consequence, following the treaty signed in Berlin by Italy and Germany on 22 May 1939, of the operational agreements between the Kriegsmarine and the Regia Marina to conduct a naval war against Great Britain that would include action against merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

The Regia Marina’s choice for an independent submarine base on the French Atlantic coast (excluding of course ports and bases already being used by the Germans), fell on the river port of Bordeaux, located on the Garonne, about 50 miles upstream from its mouth on the Bay of Biscay, originating from the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne in the wide estuary of the Gironde. From the letter ‘B’ (Beta in the naval phonetic alphabet and also the initial letter of ‘Bordeaux’) the code name ‘Betasom’ – i.e. ‘Bordeaux – Comando sommergibili’ – was derived and it became both the official and the common term for the Italian Atlantic submarine base.

Repair, supply and command facilities were soon established on one of the tidal basins south of Bordeaux, as well as accommodation for the boats’ crews; the requisitioned French liner De Grasse (18,435 grt) and the German passenger ship Usaramo (7,775 grt) were berthed on the Garonne river near the lock, to be used as tenders and barracks ships, with medical facilities and an infirmary for 24 patients aboard the De Grasse. Two hundred and twenty-five men of the Battaglione San Marco provided security for the base, and there were also German army units stationed in the surrounding area.

Rear Admiral Angelo Parona was the first CinC of ‘Betasom’, with Capt. Aldo Cocchia as Chief of Staff; Cocchia was replaced in April 1941 by Capt. Romolo Polacchini who, at the end of 1941, relieved Adm. Parona as CinC; on 2 December 1942 – upon his promotion to Rear Admiral – Polacchini was relieved by Capt. Enzo Grossi, who held the post until 8 September 1943, later choosing to collaborate with the Germans.

The first boat to arrive at ‘Betasom’ was the Malaspina on 4 September 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic patrol just four days after the establishment of the base. A few days later the Barbarigo also arrived, and before the end of September four more boats (Dandolo, Marconi, Finzi and Bagnolini) followed. By the end of October, there were eighteen Italian submarines at Bordeaux as in the meanwhile twelve more boats (Emo, Tarantini, Torelli, Faà di Bruno, Otaria, Baracca, Giuliani, Glauco, Calvi, Tazzoli, Argo and Da Vinci) had arrived. Before the end of the year, nine further boats reached Bordeaux: four in November (Veniero, Nani, Cappellini and Morosini) and five (Marcello, Bianchi, Brin, Velella and Mocenigo) in December. Almost all of the boats based in Bordeaux up to the end of 1940 were originally part of the Gruppi sommergibili of La Spezia and Naples, and only four had come from Taranto.

In March 1941, the submarines Guglielmotti, Archimede, Ferraris and Perla, which had fled from Massawa in Italian East Africa after the evacuation of that base, arrived in Bordeaux; almost two years later on 20 February 1943 the Cagni also arrived in Bordeaux, after leaving La Maddalena on 6 October 1942 and thus having conducted an unbelievably long voyage (136 days) that brought her to patrol the western African coast before steaming northbound to Bordeaux.

Altogether, thirty-two Italian boats operated in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943, of which sixteen were lost as shown in the following list:

1940: Tarantini, Faà di Bruno and Nani.

1941: Marcello, Glauco, Bianchi, Baracca, Malaspina, Ferraris, Marconi.

1942: Calvi and Morosini.

1943: Archimede, Tazzoli, Da Vinci and Barbarigo.

Of the sixteen remaining boats, on 8 September 1943 the Cagni was in the southern Indian Ocean, and made for the Allied port of Durban, South Africa; prior to that, other submarines had returned to the Mediterranean and only seven boats were in Bordeaux as of mid-1943: Cappellini, Tazzoli, Giuliani, Barbarigo, Finzi, Bagnolini and Torelli. All were scheduled to be converted into transport submarines to ferry strategic materials to and from the Far East and, in fact, three one-way transport missions were carried out successfully. Tazzoli and Barbarigo were sunk on their first missions, while Cappellini, Giuliani and Torelli managed to reach Singapore between July and August 1943; after the Armistice they were seized by the Japanese, and later handed over to the Kriegsmarine. The Giuliani was lost in 1944, while the Cappellini and Torelli came under Japanese control after May 1945 and were scrapped after the war. The two last transport boats – Bagnolini and Finzi – were being overhauled at Bordeaux when the Armistice was proclaimed, and were thus seized by the Germans. Altogether, the thirty-two submarines of the Regia Marina operating in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943 sank 101 Allied merchant ships totalling 568,573 grt; an additional four freighters (35,765 grt) were damaged. The most successful submarine was the Da Vinci, with sixteen ships totalling over 120,000 grt, and other boats sank from one to seven ships each; only four submarines (Faà di Bruno, Glauco, Marcello and Velella) sank no ships at all.

The Red Sea

The Red Sea and the eastern Indian Ocean were the most important of the Regia Marina’s subsidiary theatres of operations in the Second World War, as the Italians had maintained a naval presence there since the end of the nineteenth century. On 10 June 1940 the first-line naval assets in the area consisted of six destroyers, eight submarines, four torpedo boats, the colonial sloop Eritrea, five MAS and other smaller vessels based at Massawa.

Three submarines (Macallé, Torricelli and Galvani) were lost and one captured (Galilei) by the end of June; some success was scored against British shipping in the Red Sea, but on 20 September 1940 the destroyer Nullo was lost in action with enemy ships. By early 1941 the British offensive against Italian Somaliland had begun, and Chisimaio was evacuated on 12 February; in early March, the four surviving submarines (Perla, Ferraris, Archimede and Guglielmotti) sailed for Bordeaux via the Cape of Good Hope and, between 1 and 4 April, the three Leone class destroyers, as well as the Manin and Battisti, were all lost. On 16 April 1941, the gun batteries on the Dahlahc Islands, off Massawa, surrendered and the Italian presence in East Africa swiftly came to an end: the Amba Alagi area fell on 27 May, Assab on 11 June and the last Italian stronghold, Gondar, fell on 27 November 1941.

Four ‘CB’ type midget submarines at Sevastopol in July 1942, moored at one of the quays of the large Soviet naval base there that was now under Axis control.

The Black Sea

Following the Axis offensive against the USSR, between late April and May 1942 the first MAS of the Regia Marina began to arrive at Foros in the Crimea, soon followed by some ‘CB’-type midget submarines and other surface assault craft. After the fall of Sevastopol, on 3 August 1942 MAS 568 torpedoed and seriously damaged the Soviet cruiser Molotov but, as the Axis situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated, all Italian naval activity came to an end in May 1943, and the remaining MAS and ‘CB’ were handed over to the Kriegsmarine. Finally, it should be remembered that four MAS (’526-’529) were transferred to the Baltic to operate on Lake Ladoga in support of the Axis forces engaged in the siege of Leningrad between April and November 1942.


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