The Italian ‘Liberty’ Ships

Updated 22 May 2010

Well not quite.  But thanks to the excellent Miramar Ship Index, I have been able to ID a few key merchant vessels supplying North Africa which were built to what appears to be a standardised design. If I am wrong about that, corrections are welcome!

From 1939, the Riunito Adriatico shipyard at Monfalcone produced a number of standardised, fast merchant vessels of about 6,330/6,830 tons for foreign and Italian clients, which were taken over by the Sidarma shipping company in Fiume.  Many of these vessels were involved, and quite a few of them lost, on the trip to North Africa.  Many of them were named after historic figures, such as former Doges of Venice (Sebastiano Venier), or more recent Italian heroes, such as Fabio Filzi. The vessels played a significant role in supplying the Axis forces in North Africa, and 8 out of 10 were lost plying the North Africa route, with some of them surviving only a few months.

The vessels I could identify thus far out of this series are the following:

Pietro Orseleo (completed 1939, outside the Med in June 1940, sunk off Lorient 1943 – named after the Doge of Venice 991 – 1009)

Vettor Pisani (completed 1939, survived the war, broken up 1971 – named after a 14th-century Venetian admiral)

Andrea Gritti (completed 1939, sunk by a/c bomb (this source says a/c torpedo) with considerable loss of life while transporting troops, 3 September 41, off Sicily – named after the Doge of Venice 1523 – 1538)

Marco Foscarini (completed 1940, hit by a/c bomb and beached off Tripoli, 27 May 41 – named either after the Doge of Venice 1762 – 1763 or the commander of a Venetian galley at the Battle of Lepanto, or both)

Sebastiano Venier (completed 1940, hit by s/m torpedo 9 December 1941, wrecked off Cape Methino, Greece – named after the Doge of Venice 1577 – 1578) [actually, this was a captured Dutch vessel, originally called Jason]

Francesco Barbaro (completed 1940, sunk by s/m torpedo off Navarino, 27 September 41 – named after a 15th century Venetian humanist)

Fabio Filzi (first of the ships with a 500t increase in displacement, completed 1940, sunk by s/m torpedo off Taranto, 13 December 41 – named after an Italian 1st World War hero executed as a traitor by the Austrians)

Carlo del Greco (completed 1941, sunk by s/m torpedo off Taranto, 13 December 41 – named after an Italian 1st World War hero who died when his submarine engaged Austrian submarine U-5 under command of (the) Ritter von Trapp in 1915)

Gino Allegri (completed 1941, sunk by s/m torpedo off Benghazi, 31 May 42 – – named after an Italian 1st World War pilot)

Reginaldo Giulani* (completed 1942, hit by a/c torpedo off Benghazi, 4 June 42, and scuttled 5 June 42 – name provenance unknown to me)

Mario Roselli (completed 1942, survived the war, broken up 1972 – name provenance unknown to me)

*confusingly, an Italian submarine completed in 1940 carried the same name.

Transport Ship Tonnage Losses during CRUSADER

In a prior entry at this link I posted the arrival information for freight in North Africa by month, from the Italian navy’s official history. This entry will complete this information by adding monthly merchant and military (where used for freight transport, not escort – but see note on December) tonnage losses on the Libya route. I am presuming that German merchant vessels lost are included.

I am also presuming that the difference between ‘sent’ and ‘lost’ does not equal the tonnage that actually arrived, but instead includes the tonnage that abandoned the attempt. This is a particular important caveat in November, when the large convoy ‘C’ returned to port in Italy after it had been attacked from the air and by submarine, as well as the damaged Iseo and tanker Volturno. I have a separate post on successful voyages in November 41, which you can read at this link.

Numbers for returned tonnage are lower not just because of the losses, but also because vessels were held back for cabotage traffic along the Libyan coast, or because they were damaged.

As part of their very useful statistics, the USMM also provides success information by type of attack, even though this is not elaborated on further (e.g. how they counted joint attacks by air/surface, such as on Iridio Mantovani on 1 December). These numbers seem only to relate to actual attacks, not sorties:

Surface vessel – 10 attacks, 100% success rate*

Submarine – 33% success rate

Aerial – 32% success rate

November**

Sent 161,043 tonnes

Lost  54,011 tonnes (33.5%)

Returned 35,042 tonnes

Lost 0 tonnes

December***

Sent 79,930 tonnes

Lost  31,436 tonnes (39.3%)

Returned 30,266 tonnes

Lost 6,311 tonnes (20.9%)****

January

Sent 107,602 tonnes

Lost  13,098 tonnes (12.2%)*****

Returned 71,532 tonnes

Lost 5,741 tonnes (8.0%)

*I can identify four (five if attacks on Regia Marina vessels transporting goods are included) of these ten attacks to have taken place during the broader CRUSADER period:

Destruction of the Beta/Duisburg convoy

Sinking of Maritza/Procida

Sinking of Adriatico

Sinking of Mantovani (Adriatico and Mantovani were sunk on the same day, but in separate engagements)

Sinking of light cruisers da Barbiano/di Giussano (possibly included)

**Most of these losses fell on the Beta– or Duisburg convoy which was entirely destroyed.  But other ships were lost as well, such as Capo Faro to air attack on 30 Nov.

***The numbers here could be inflated by the loss of two Italian light cruisers da Barbiano and di Giussano with between them over 13,000 tonnes on 13 December. On the other hand, just adding up the losses of Iridio Mantovani, Adriatico, Fabio Filzi and Carlo del Greco, gets us to 26,189 tons, so it appears that the cruisers were not in fact included.

****This was Sebastiano Venier, torpedoed by HM Submarine Porpoise and beached on the Greek coast on return from North Africa, with Prisoners of War on board. A lot of detail on her loss and the consequences can be found at this link. I can state with reasonable confidence that while the Royal Navy knew of her passengers before she left harbour (Naval Headlines 159 issued on 8 December 1100 hours states that she was to leave harbour on 8 December 1600 hours with 2,000 POW), it is exceedingly unlikely that the  commander of HMS Porpoise could have known this, since he would have been at sea well before the naval headlines were circulated.

*****This was the large liner Vittoria, sunk by aerial torpedo attack as part of the T.18 convoy on 23 January.

Regia Aeronautica Bombers during CRUSADER

Bombers

This post continues the prior post on Regia Aeronautica fighters used during CRUSADER, at this link.

Fiat Br. 20 Cicogna (Stork)

The Br.20 was one of these planes which the Regia Aeronautica had developed just a bit too early (or alternatively, WW2 started just a bit too late) for it to shine. The Br.20 came out of the same call for proposals as the Sm.79 below.  It was a modern-looking, sleek design, and reasonably fast, overall comparable to the Vickers Wellington Mk.I, of which it is a contemporary, and superior to contemporary (1936) versions of the He 111.  By 1941 however, it suffered from a relatively short range, of just 3,000 km, and a low bombload of max. 1,600kg, as well as weak defensive armament of just 3 MGs (one heavy). The ceiling of 9,000m was quite good, given the performance of other types, both in the Italian and foreign arsenals. Given the overall payload limitation I also have doubts that you could have had max. payload and max. range. I would be interested in seeing a payload/range chart for this type. About 600 were produced, serving in all theatres with the possible exception of East Africa.

Fiat Br.20 light bomber - from Wikimedia Commons

Fiat Br.20 light bomber - from Wikimedia Commons

Savoia Marchetti Sm. 79 Sparviero (Sparrow)

This is probably the best recognised combat plane of the Regia Aeronautica, because of its almost unique (for a bomber) three-engine design.  This type doubled as transport and torpedo plane as well.  Despite having three engines it was actually less powerful than the Br.20, but could carry slightly more payload, at slightly lower speed of 430km.  Defensive armament was slightly better 4-5 MGs, 3 of which heavy), but max. bombload considerably less, at only 1,200kg.  Range was also considerably less, at only around 2,000 km, and the ceiling was considerably compromised compared to the Br. 20, at just 7,000m.

From teh Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

From the Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Junkers Ju.87 Picchiatello (no idea)

Not much needs to be said about the Ju 87. The Regia Aeronautica flew the R variant in North Africa, with quite a lot of success.

An article about the Picchiatelli over Malta can be found at this link.

Italian Ju87, probably R version, from Wikimedia Commons
 

 

Cant Z. 1007bis Alcione (Kingfisher)

I have not found any evidence if this type served in North Africa during CRUSADER (see here for a list of types and units), so would be interested in confirmation regarding this. This was another three-engine design, and again one suffering from short range.  Ceiling at 7,500m was reasonable, and bombload (external and internal) of 2,200kg considerable, and four MGs for self-defense.  The top speed was also good for the time, at 458km/h, showing the heritage of speed-racing seaplanes which spawned this plane. It was built on a wooden structure, with a very unusual tandem arrangement for the pilots, and apparently had very bad flying characteristics.  

From Wikimedia Commons - Cant 1007bis in flight

From Wikimedia Commons - Cant 1007bis in flight

 

Torpedo bombers

Savoia Marchetti Sm. 79

See above.

Ground attack

Fiat Cr.42

See previous article at this link.

 

The final article will be on reconnaissance and liaison planes.

The Amphibious Landing Scare of 1941

There has been a suggestion that the attack on Tobruk planned for 21 November 41, but cancelled because of CRUSADER, contained an amphibious landing element (see e.g. this thread at the Comando Supremo forum), similar to Operation Venezia, the attack on the Gazala position in May 42 (see here for Kampfgruppe Hecker). The evidence on which this is based is a sentence in Hinsley’s British Intelligence in World War II, Vol.II, the official history.

Having looked at the relevant evidence on the Axis side, I must say I can not find anything showing such a plan.  I did however find that elements of the Tobruk garrison were alerted to the possibility of such a landing on 16 November (e.g. D Squadron 7 RTR).  So this leaves us with evidence from the British side that such an attack was planned, but no evidence from the Axis side to that effect.

My conclusion is therefore that this was a real British scare, but not a real Axis plan. If that conclusion is correct, I find it baffling that the British official history would repeat such a claim, given that access to German plans could have been had quite easily for the writers. But I would be interested if anyone has any evidence that this was a real plan.