During CRUSADER a range of Italian naval vessels were engaged in protecting traffic across the Mediterranean. The aim of this post is to give a short overview of some selected types were involved and what their capabilities were. The focus is primarily on the smaller escort vessels, but I give some information on the work of the cruisers and battleships as well. One thing that is not well understood is that the Regia Marina made an all-out effort to support the forces in North Africa, even risking battleships in the close escort role. But all the heroism and dedication of the Italian sailors could not overcome the odds stacked against them by ULTRA interception of their messages, failure to subdue Malta, and a lack of fuel hampering operations throughout.
One area that took me by surprise was how advanced the Regia Marina was compared to the Royal Navy in the area of anti-aircraft (AA) defense of its vessels. All the small units had multiple light AA guns and AA MGs from 1936 onwards, maybe because of the experience made during the Spanish civil war. By comparison, even British destroyers planned in the late 1930s had weak close-in AA armament, consisting of a single 4-barrel Pompom gun and a single high-angle gun, but their main armament was able to fire at high angles for AA defense, even though the 4.7″ gun on the L-class was not able to fire at very high elevations above 50 degrees. It appears from this site with information on the Italian 120mm and 100mm destroyer/torpedo boat guns, that these were not able to fire at very high elevations, which made them less useful for AA work. I suspect a difference in design philosophy here, but would welcome comments on this. It is interesting to note that both navies significantly increased close-in AA capabilities after the start of the war.
In terms of their main armament, the Italian destroyers went for a higher number of guns (six versus four) than the Royal Navy did at the time, maybe because of their proposed role of chasing around the much more heavily armed French ‘super’-destroyers of the Chacal and Guepard classes (5x 130mm and 5x 138mm, respectively) which came into service at the same time as the Navigatoris. But the arrangement in a twin-turret seems not to have been ideal, especially since the Italian 120mm used 2-piece ammunition, while the British guns were QF type with single-piece ammunition. This is easier to handle, and makes a significant difference in rate of fire, especially on smaller vessels subject to being affected significantly by swell.
This was a large class of small escort vessels built from the mid-1930s onwards which served prominently on the convoy route, typical workhorses of any navy, doing lots of the dreary work and being recognised very little for it. They were produced in four sub-classes: Spica (2 vessels, sold to Sweden in 1940 and endearingly named Romulus and Remus); Climene (8); Perseo (8); and Alcione (17). Their standard displacement was of 650-680 tons, with full load displacement of 1,100 – 1,200 tons, and a crew of 116. Their closest equivalent in the Royal Navy in terms of their role would probably be the Hunt-class destroyer escorts even though these were slightly larger and better armed. The Spica’s main armament consisted of 3x100mm guns (one forward, two aft), plus AA guns, torpedoes and depth charges. Later in the war they shipped very considerable AA protection. They also had the ability to lay up to 20 mines. Like all Italian vessels, they were built for a relatively high top speed of 34 knots (compare that to the 27 knots of the Hunts).
Notable events with these vessels during CRUSADER include the sinking of the German steamers Maritza and Procida on 24 November, who were escorted by Lupo (under the command of the famous Commander Mimbelli) and Cassiopeia, which engaged in a firefight with the far superior Royal Navy Force K but failed to safe their charges from destruction. On 11 December Alcione was damaged so severly by torpedoes from HM Submarine Truant off Crete that she had to be beached and was declared a total loss (you can see a picture of Alcione being hit at this link). By the time of CRUSADER these units or at least some of them may have received German active sonar.
A class of four based on the Spica-class and with a difference in armament. The Orsas lost one of the 100mm guns and made up for this with enhanced anti-submarine capability (four launchers instead of two) and endurance. Their initial AA armament was weak, with only 4x 13.2mm HMGs, and they carried four torpedo launchers. The Orsas displaced 1,016/1,600 tons, had a crew of 154 and a top speed of 28 knots, considerably slower than the Spicas. They participated in convoy protection throughout CRUSADER, and none were lost during this period. Two of the Orsas were lost in 1943, while the other two served to mid-1960s with the Italian navy. They are significant because they were the first Italian vessels to carry active sonar for submarine hunting.
Navigatori-class Destroyers (Information in Italian)
These were a class of 12 units of relatively large fleet destroyers (in the Royal Navy terminology) of about 2,400 tons standard and 2,700 tons full displacement, named after famous Italian seamen of the past, the Navigators. Their crew consisted of 173 officers and sailors. They were at first called light souts (esploratori leggeri) by the Regia Marina, indicating the role they were supposed to serve in while working with the battle fleet. While designed for very high speeds of 38 knots (with Antonio Pigafetta reaching 41.6 knots during her trial) they were supposed to be very fast, but after rebuilding in the late 1930s they were apparently reduced to 28 knots (with the exception of two smaller ones, still capable of doing 33 knots), and relabeled later as destroyers. The rebuilt was necessary because as designed the ships had stability problems, and quite radical measures were taken to (successfully) address this. My guess is from the rebuilt on they were mostly supposed to work as convoy escorts, since they would have struggled to keep up with most cruisers and battleships of the Regia Marina and the change in armament reflects this as well. They were originally armed with 6x120mm guns in three twin turrets arranged forward/centre/aft, 2x40mm and 8×13.2mm (in four twin-mounts) for AA defense, 6x torpedo tubes in two sets of three (reduced to 2×2 later) and mine-laying gear with an ability to carry 56 mines. They did not have anti-submarine capabilities at first, but received two depth-charge launchers when they were rebuilt for stability reasons. At the time of their construction they had a relatively strong armament for destroyers, while the later armament was much more of an alround nature.
Notable events involving Navigatori include the sinking of the large tanker Iridio Mantovani on 1 December. This was escorted by Alvise da Mosto. Its captain, Commander dell’Anno decided to fight it out, and had his ship blow up under him.
Dardo-class (2nd) Destroyers (Information in Italian)
This was the second evolution of the first modern destroyers designed as such after the Great War. The class consisted of four units, armed with 4x120mm in two turrets, 4x40mm AA guns (WW1 designs by Vickers, later replaced by 8x20mm HMGs) and 6x torpedo tubes in two sets of three (after 1940, but probably not by the time of CRUSADER the aft launcher is replaced with 4x37mm AA guns and 2x depth charge launchers, reflecting the increased emphasis on convoy work and the need to provide more AA protection). They were capable of carrying 60 mines and had a crew of 156 with a displacement of 1,650 standard, 1,920 full load, comparable to the Royal Navy’s L-class designed at the end of the 1930s. The Dardos had problems with stability and sea-keeping.
The most notable event during the CRUSADER period was the sinking of Fulmine by Force K in the battle of the Beta, aka Duisburg convoy during the night 8/9 November.
Maestrale-class Destroyers (Information in Italian)
Another class of fleet destroyers based on the Dardo class, smaller than the Navigatori and built after them in a class of four units. They displaced about 2,000 tons standard and 2,250 tons full load. As a consequence had weaker armament, of only 4x12cm in two turrets fore and aft, with 2 torpedo launchers in the centre, and from 1936 had very strong AA armament of 8x20mm MGs and a 37mm gun. They were capable of a high speed of 38 knots as well, and carried a crew of 168. Unlike the Navigatori they were apparently not able to lay mines. They were not very stable, and one of the class, Scirocco, was lost in a storm at the 2nd battle of Sirte in March 42.
The most notable event during the CRUSADER period is the sinking of Libeccio by HM Submarine Upholder after the battle of the Beta convoy, while she was picking up survivors.
Camicia Nera or Soldati-class Destroyers (1st) (Information in Italian)
These were the most modern of the Italian destroyers, relatively large, well-armed, and fast at 39 knots. They displaced 2,140/2,460 tons, had a crew of 187, carried 6x120mm, 8x20mm, 6x torpedo launchers in two sets of three, and could deploy 52 mines. During CRUSADER their primary role was to act as protection for the heavy cruisers and the battle fleet and they sortied only together with these as far as I know. None were lost during this battle.
Light Cruisers (Information in Italian)
Three light cruisers figured prominently during CRUSADER. Cadorna ran petrol across the Mediterranean in December 1941 as part of the emergency programme. The Condottieris were designed as lightly armoured scout cruisers, sacrificing protection for speed, and their appearance begat a race on the part of the French and British navies to develop powerful destroyers to counter them. But in wartime reality it was difficult to find a role for these cruisers with the battle-fleet, and unlike the Royal Navy the Regia Marina did not have many opportunities to employ light cruisers in what amounted to roving commissions or on small stations, so the Condottieri found themselves used to protect convoy traffic or to undertake emergency deliveries of supplies. They were well armed with 8x152mm and 6x100mm, as well as 16x AA (8x37mm, 8×13.2mm) , 4x torpedo launchers, and carried 2 seaplanes. They displaced 6,571/6,950 tons and were capable of 37 knots on paper (although real speed may have been slower), with a crew of 507.
The most notable events involving Condottieris during CRUSADER occured when Da Barbiano and da Giussano were caught by a group of British and a Netherlands destroyer on the night of 13 December while trying to do the same, and were sunk with heavy loss of life. The more modern and comparatively well-armoured Condottieri-class Duca degli Abruzzi participated in the escort of the convoy on 19 November, and was torpedoed and damaged by aircraft from Malta.
Heavy Cruisers (Information in Italian)
Heavy cruisers played a role in the Beta convoy operation, with both Trento and Trieste part of the distant escort. They had no effect on the battle. Not even two weeks later, on 19 November they are at sea again in the same role, together with Gorizia. During this operation, Trieste is torpedoed by HM Submarine Upright and heavily damaged, reaching Messina only with difficulty. Following damage on another cruiser, Duca degli Abruzzi, by an aerial torpedo attack the convoy is ordered to return to Tarento, after Force K and the British battle fleet from Alexandria are also reported to be at sea.
All five operational battleships of the Italian navy participated in convoy protection operations during CRUSADER, and the four of them that remained operational at that date participated in the inconclusive 1st Battle of Sirte. This was an operational success of the Regia Marina however, since the Italian convoy went through unscathed, while the British Malta convoy had to turn back.
Caio Dulio was part of the close escort of M.42. Both Giulio Cesare and Andrea Doria were part of the distant escort during this operation.
Vittorio Veneto was part of the distant escort of the M.41 convoy on 14 December, during which it was torpedoed and severely damaged by HM Submarine Urge. This led to the breaking off of the operation and rescheduling as M.42 a few days later. Littorio then was part of the distant escort for the M.42 convoy.