In the early 1930s the Regia Marina continued expanding and modernising its destroyer fleet. Following the reduction in the construction programme for the larger light scouts of the Navigatori class, a more conventional destroyer design was chosen and built in an initial two groups of four, known as Dardo Series I and Dardo Series II.
This second series was an almost identical repeat of Dardo I, other than a reduced fuel load (530 tons instead of 640), which reduced range from 4,600 to 3,800 miles.
Another group of four Dardos was built for the Royal Hellenic Navy as Hydra class. Unlike the Dardos it carried its four main guns in single turrets though. Of the Hydras, two were lost to German aircraft in April 1941, while the other two escaped and survived the war.
The succeeding Maestrale and Oriani classes were essentially improved Dardos, which addressed some of the major issues the Dardo class had, and they were considered a major improvement.
Fulmine – Official Photo. USMM
Lampo underway at speed. USMM
The names of the second group of Dardos all related to thunderstorms, similar to the first series of four Dardos.
- Folgore – Thunderbolt (class leader)
- Baleno – Flash or lightning
- Lampo – Lightning
- Fulmine – Lightning or lightning bolt
The Dardos of both classes were built on what was standard destroyer tonnage at the time, around 2,100 tons at full displacement, and are similar in terms of capabilities to the Royal Navy’s D, E, and F classes of destroyers which were being built around the same time.
The Dardos were an OTO Genoa design, improving on the previous Turbine class by providing ten per cent more power, lengthening the hull by one metre and widening it by half a metre. They also improved substantially on the range of the Turbine class, while being considerably faster. They were the first Regia Marina destroyer design with a clipper bow, a late design addition which was not retrofitted to Dardo and Strale of the first group.
Like preceding Regia Marina destroyer classes, the Dardos were armed with four 120mm (4.7”) guns in twin turrets fore and aft, unlike the Navigatoris which had the same gun turrets, but shipped an additional turret added amidships. They received the same, modern Ansaldo M1926 120L50 turret installation. The Dardos also received the same forward superstructure as the Navigatori class.
They were originally equipped with four 40L49 AA guns and four 13.2mm machine guns for air defense, but these were replaced with eight modern single-mounted Breda 20L65 guns before the war.
The Dardos were also armed with two triple-sets of 533mm torpedo tubes amidships. The aft set was removed early in the war to make space for additional 37mm AA guns and depth charge racks, which they strangely did not carry originally. Like almost all Italian vessels, they were equipped for mine-laying, and could carry up to 60 mines.
The propulsion system was conventional, with three boilers working on two turbines and two shafts. 44,000 horse power could be generated which enabled them to reach 38 knots, again in keeping with the Regia Marina philosophy, which emphasized speed. For the first time in a destroyer in any navy however, the Dardos were designed using a single, large stack located directly behind the forward superstructure. This reduced clutter and gave the AA equipment a better field of fire. This design was adopted by other navies during the 1930s.
The Dardos were originally crewed by 156 sailors and officers, although in wartime this increased to over 200 men, accounting for the additional weapons and equipment.
Like many other Regia Marina vessels designed in this period, the Dardos suffered from from stability issues due to being top heavy. These were addressed to some extent in the succeeding Maestrale class, which was slightly lengthened but otherwise remained similar in terms of layout, speed, and capability.
Unlike the Navigatoris and di Giussanos, no fundamental reconstruction took place for the Dardos, meaning that the issue was never fully addressed, although some actions were undertaken during construction to improve matters somewhat. These included the replacement of the tripod mast behind the superstructure with a lighter one, adding 90 tons of ballast which reduced speed and range, the redesign of the rear rangefinder cover and the elimination of the two planned 120L15 star shell howitzers in the second group. Just before war started a major reconstruction project was planned, but Italy’s entry into the war prevented it from being carried out.
The seriousness of the design issue is shown by the fact that Dardo capsized in Palermo port while under tow for maintenance. It is also likely that while they were designed to carry mines, the stability issues prevented them from actually carrying out mining missions.
Fulmine – plans as built. USMM
The Dardos participated in the Spanish civil war, and were at first used as main destroyer force escorting the battle fleet. By 1940, their age was telling and their speed was not considered to be able to reach above 30 knots. They were nevertheless considered capable enough to work with the modernized battleships of the Cavour class, and in this role participated at the Battle of Calabria/Punto Stilo in July 1940, although they did not engage in combat during this battle.
After the summer of 1940 they were consequently relegated to work with the older cruisers of the di Giussano sub-class of the Condotierri light cruisers who in their turn had suffered severe speed degradation.
Both Dardo series were unlucky, and none survived the war. Of the second group, all four vessels were lost in surface battles, which is highly unusual, and it is probably the only group of Regia Marina vessels that was lost this way, even though the second time Lampo was sunk was due to air attack.
Loss of Lampo and Baleno
The Dardo II group suffered its first loss on 16 April 1941, when Lampo and Baleno escorted the 20th German convoy to North Africa, which was carrying parts of 15. Panzerdivision. The convoy was intercepted by Royal Navy destroyers from Malta off the Kerkennah Banks off Tunisia. In the ensuing battle the whole convoy was lost, together with all escorting destroyers.
In the engagement on 16 April 1941, Lampo came under fire first, and while she managed to engage HMS Nubian with three salvoes from her rear 120mm turret before this was disabled, she was quickly hit and rendered dead in the water. Her forward turret was disabled before firing a single shot, and Lampo was then hit several times while trying to come about and making speed. She managed to launch her torpedoes without achieving any success, but was then left without power or fighting capability, ultimately drifting onto the Kerkhennah Banks where she sank in four metres of water.
HMS Nubian underway. Wikipedia
Baleno was the next Dardo to go, shortly after Lampo. While trying to cover the convoy with smoke she in turn came under heavy fire, which devastated her bridge and main armament, the boilers and steering gear. On fire and with a third of her crew, including her commander, dead she was deliberately grounded on the Kerkennah Banks.
Despite being severely damaged and sunk in shallow water, Lampo could be raised in August 1941 and returned to service in 1942. She was finally lost on a supply run to Tunisia in April 1943, when she was bombed carrying over 50 tons of ammunition (see below).
Loss of Fulmine
After a few months of convoy duties over the summer and into autumn, it was then the turn of Fulmine. She was part of the close escort of the Beta or Duisburg convoy from Naples to Tripoli in early November 1941, which was sunk in its entirety by Force K, a mixed cruiser/destroyer force operating from Malta during the night 8/9 November. Two destroyers were also sunk during this disastrous encounter, Fulmine by gun fire from Force K, and Maestrale-class Libeccio the next morning by a torpedo from HM/Sub Upholder, while she was rescuing survivors of the sunk vessels. The Maestrale class destroyer Grecale was also heavily damaged.
In the engagement, Fulmine was on the side of the convoy approached by Force K, and she was the Italian vessel most closely operating to the attacking Force K. She initially came under fire from destroyer HMS Lance, followed by being fired on by the 40mm pompoms of HMS Aurora which caused severe losses to her crew. She finally came under fire from light cruiser HMS Penelope who quickly disabled and mortally wounded her with 6” rounds from her main guns. Fulmine attempted to fight back and her main turrets kept firing to the last, but within just nine minutes of the start of the engagement she was a barely afloat wreck, quickly capsizing and taking most of her crew and passengers with her. Her captain, Commander Milano, made it off the ship severely wounded but bled to death in the water. He was decorated with the Gold Medal for Military Valour. Lt. Graura, commander of A turret, kept firing until the water reached the turret, and after getting his men off the ship, decided to go down with her, shouting “Long live the King” as she went down. He also received the Gold Medal.
Many survivors of Fulmine were picked up by Libeccio, but then perished when she was sunk in turn the next morning by HM/Sub Upholder. In total, 177 men of Fulmine died on either Fulmine or Libeccio that night. Of these, 151 were members of the crew, and 26 soldiers who had taken passage on her. About 90 men survived, between the crew and passengers.
Loss of Folgore
The leader of the Dardo II group, Folgore, then was lost on 2 December 1942, in the Battle of Skerki Banks off Tunisia, while escorting convoy H with men and supplies for the Axis forces in Tunisia. The convoy was attacked by Force Q, a mixed cruiser/destroyer force including the old adversary HMS Aurora. Over 2,200 men were lost in the destruction of the convoy.
Folgore was again the first Italian vessel to engage, attacking Force Q with torpedos and gunfire, but was heavily damaged by the superior enemy without scoring a success. Her fire enabled the commander of the escort, Captain Aldo Cocchia to locate Force Q and to engage it. Almost wrecked, with many crew members wounded and out of ammunition, Folgore attempted to withdraw to Sicily, but took on so much water that she sank an hour after the battle. Her captain, Commander Bettica, who had just been appointed to her, chose to go down with the ship. Like the attacks on the Tarigo and Beta convoys, the battle of Skerki Bank pitted a weaker Italian force against a strong Royal Navy force, and the outcome was pre-ordained.
Final loss of Lampo
The last member of the Dardo II group to go was Lampo. Having been raised and refurbished until the middle of 1942, she was finally destroyed in April 1943, when carrying 50 tons of munitions to Tunisia. On this mission she was attacked by P-40 Warhawk fighter bombers of the USAAF’s 79th Fighter Group, with 86th, 87th and 316th Fighter Squadrons. She was sunk in Tunisian waters when her escort of Regia Aeronautica fighter planes was simply overwhelmed by the number of attackers. Thus, she met her fate two years and two weeks after first being sunk, in the same waters she sank in during the Tarigo convoy battle on 16 April 1941.
316th Fighter Squadron P-40 Warhawk, North Africa, 1943. Wikipedia.
Thus, after almost three years of war, this group of four elderly destroyers had been wiped out by enemy action. They had collectively participated in over 450 wartime missions, sailing over 140,000 miles. 198 missions were convoy escorts. These ships had worked hard, and found a hard end, fighting in all cases against superior odds but not giving up. Over 480 sailors went down with them, including every one of their commanding officers.
While the Dardo class suffered from serious design issues, and had aged by the start of the war, it nevertheless provided important lessons for the subsequent destroyer designs of the Regia Marina, and indeed other navies.
The second group is sometimes referred to as Folgore class, but this is not correct. They are also referred to as Freccia/Folgore classes, e.g. in Bagnasco & Cernuschi. The Dardo I and II comes from the USMM website.
Sources vary, with 2,100 tons being the upper limit at full displacement, and 1,540tons the lower limit at empty.
Some sources say six.
The battle was a one-sided affair, with the Royal Navy destroyer force superior both numerically and in terms of gun armament, while also aided in their night attack by radar, which the Italian destroyers did not have. It was a close-fought brawl at 2,000 yards maximum engagement range, going down to 50 yards at times. See regimarina.net for details.
After the war Cocchia was to become head of the Italian navy’s Office of History.
- Bagnasco, E. and Cernuschi, E. Le Nave da Guerra Italiana 1940 – 1945
- Brescia, M. Mussolini’s Navy
- Con la pelle appesa a un chiodo – Lorenzo Colombo’s excellent blog
- USMM website