Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Background

The initial transport of the Afrikakorps (see this link)to North Africa went without any losses on the south-bound route until one of the last convoys saw the German merchant Herakleia sunk at the end of March. Despite this success though, it was not without losses overall.

The most serious strike by the Malta-based submarines happened on 25 February 1941, when a Condottieri-class light cruiser of the early two series of six vessels went down, this time it was the Cadorna sub-class RN Armando Diaz. 

The first loss of a light cruiser of this class had occurred in July 1941 at the Battle of Cape Spada, when RN Bartolomeo Colleoni was sunk by HMAS Sydney.

UntitledImage

RN Armando Diaz at Melbourne in 1934 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The early Condottieris

By the the start of the war, the early Condottieris could be considered obsolete due to their lack of protection, and their degraded top speed, which for  Armando Diaz seems to have declined from 39 knots when launched in 1932 to 31-32 knots by 1941. They were primarily to be used for convoy escort, mine-laying, and training, or indeed as transports in their own right, although da Giussano did serve in the battle fleet at Punto Stilo in 1940.

These early vessels of the Condottieri  class also had construction weaknesses, and the rapid sinking of Diaz confirmed their low survivability. These light cruisers were built for high speed, with the aim to be able to chase and engage on superior terms the French ‘super- destroyers’ of the Chacal  and  Guepard  classes. The test speed of some of the early vessels was astounding, reaching well over 40 knots (64 km/h).

The design for speed of these six early  Condottieris caused them to suffer from multiple issues however, including strong vibrations, and a lack of stability due to being top-heavy. The latter ultimately required the removal of the original tripod mast behind the bridge, which was present in the first vessels.

On the six vessels of the follow-on sub-classes, a completely new armoured forward structure was introduced, giving the Montecuccoli sub-class it’s very distinctive look, and the final iteration of the two Abruzzi-class light cruisers were in my view two of the finest 6″ cruisers of the war.

Sinking of Armando Diaz

On 25 February 1941, while moving south to reach Tripoli, Armando Diaz was torpedoed off Kerkenah Bank in position 34°33’N, 11°45’E by HM/Sub Upright under command of Lt. Norman, D.S.C. RN, who was on his last patrol with this submarine.

Diaz was acting as distant escort to the German 4th Convoy to Libya, consisting of the German merchants Marburg, AnkaraReichenfels, and Kybfels. On this mission she was part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, together with the di Giussano sub-class RN Giovanni delle Bande Nere and the modern Soldati-class destroyers  Ascari and Corazziere.

Diaz was hit by two of the four torpedoes that HM/Sub Upright fired at her, resulting in catastrophic explosions in her magazine and boiler rooms, leading to rapid sinking. Over 500 sailors were lost with her, and only 153 men were rescued. Ascari was also near-missed, and she proceeded to attack HM/Sub Upright without results.

Details on the attack can be found at this link, and in Italian at this link

Upright

HM/Sub Upright returning to Holy Loch submarine base, Scotland, 17 April 1942, Lieut J S Wraith, DSO, DSC, RN on the left, her 1st Lieutenant on the right. (IWM A8424)

A full article on the operations and fate of the early Condottieris is under preparation.

D.A.K. War Diary 29 March 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 29 March 1941

29 March 1941

A supply operation to Marada was successfully carried out.

Lt.Col. Count Schwerin intended for 29 March to repair motor vehicles, and for 30 and 31 March to march back to Hun. The two missing motor vehicles found their way back by themselves.

Quartermaster Tripoli reports: submarine attack[1] on 29 March 1941 against 15th Naval Transport convoy at the height of Kerkennah. steamer Heraklea[2] sunk, steamer Ruhr[3] heavy torpedo hits. Towing into Tripoli will be attempted.  Two additional destroyers sortied from Tripoli. Losses not known yet.

Utmost

HM/Sub Utmost (N19) underway. IWM FL 4279

[1]The attack was carried out by HM/Sub Utmost. It was the first major disruption of the Afrikakorps’ transport to North Africa. HM/Sub Utmost survived its Mediterranean tour, returning to the UK in February 1942.

[2]Heraklea, 1,927 GRT, was a smaller steamer built in 1922. She carried all the vehicles and most of the personnel of 2./Fla.Btl. 606 (60 ORs were on Ruhr), as well as some staff vehicles of Fla.Btl. 606, and one armoured car for A.A.3. A total of 206 men and 100 vehicles, as well as 144 tons of fuel, 45 tons of ammunition, and 39 tons of rations for the German army. 69 men were lost on her, as well as a whole battery of self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

[3]Ruhr, 5,955 GRT was actually a Motor Vessel, finally sunk by aircraft in 1943. On this voyage she carried most of the elements of Fla.Btl. 606, a truck supply company, vehicles for the Corps Signals Battalion, a medical company, a total of 585 men and 160 vehicles. She also carried 448 tons fuel, 120 tons of ammunition, and 208 tons of rations for the army and 104 tons of equipment for the Luftwaffe.

A costly Strike– No 107 Squadron 11 October 1941

A costly Strike– No 107 Squadron 11 October 1941

Background

No. 107 Squadron was one of two Bristol Blenheim Mk. IV equipped light bomber squadrons on Malta during the time of Operation CRUSADER. It carried  out anti-shipping strikes throughout the central Mediterranean, as well as ground strafing of traffic on the coastal road in Libya, and bomb attacks on fixed installations. The squadron was commanded until his death in action by Wing Commander Harte, a South African, followed Flight Sergeant (later Air Marshal Sir) Ivor Broom, and then from December 1941 by W/Cdr Dunlevie, a Canadian. In January 1942 the squadron was disbanded and the remnants moved back to the UK, where they reformed and converted to Douglas Bostons. Operating light bombers from Malta was not a task which would have been appreciated by a life insurance underwriter. The picture below shows the daring of the pilots quite well, and repeatedly there is talk of ‘attack at mast height’ in the ORB. But many of the crews paid for this with their lives.

Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 18 Squadron RAF head back for Luqa, Malta, at low level after bombing a target in the port of Locri, Italy. Photograph taken from the mid-upper turret of the leading aircraft. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

A bad day at the office

11 October 1941 was a bad day for the squadron. Two Blenheims were lost on operations on the day. The squadron ORB has a good account of this, and the Italian official naval history has a full account of the attack on the small convoy undertaken by No. 107 Squadron. Both are given below. The relevant references are AIR27/842, held at Kew, and La Marina Italiana Nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale Vol. VII – LA DIFESA DEL TRAFICO CON L’AFRICA SETTENTRIONALE Dal 1 Ottobre 1941 Al 30 Settembre 1942. The convoy consisted of the following vessels:
Steamer Priaruggia, 1,196 GRT, built in 1925. Finally sunk 28 November 41 in Benghazi harbour, when she was hit and blew up during a night raid, still carrying the cargo of ammunition she carried on 11 October. Steam tanker Alberto Fassio, 2,298 GRT, built in the US in 1914. Finally sunk on 26 July 1943 when it hit a mine off Preveza, Greece. Escorted by Torpediniera (Spica class corvette, Alcione sub-series) Partenope under the command of Capitano di Corvetta B. de Moratti. Finally lost when she was captured by German troops in dry dock after the Italian surrender, while under repair, and broken up 1945.

Partenope in wartime colour scheme. Courtesy of the U.S.M.M. Italian Corvettes 1881 – 1964, 2nd Volume 1974.

The Royal Air Force view.

11 October

Six Blenheims captained by F/O. Greenhill, Sgt. Routh, Sgt. Broome, Sgt. Level, Sg.t Baker, and Sgt. Hopkinson were ordered to attack shipping in the GULF OF SIRTE. 3,000 lb of bombs were dropped. Total flying time was 20 hrs. 50 mins. At 14.04 hours they located one m/v 3 – 5,000 tons, one Cargo boat 1 – 1,500 tons and one corvette in a position 31.53′ N 15.43′ E. They were escorted by ONE twin-engined monoplane. F/O Greenhill hit the large m/v forward and his aircraft was then seen by Sgt. Harrison to be hit in the belly and crash in the sea as he climbed over the ship. The vessel held fire until the aircraft was 50 yards away. Sgt. Broome attacked the same vessel and hit it aft and left the vessel in flames with grey smoke pouring from it. He was chased by the escort plane which did not get within firing range. Sgt. Harrison saw Sgt. Routh attack the small Cargo boat, set it on fire and then crash into the sea having been hit by guns from the large m/v. Sgt. Leven, Sgt. Baker and Sgt. Hopkinson did not make an attack and brought back their bombs. Four aircraft returned safely, but it is not thought that there could be any survivors from the two aircraft shot down. The crews of the aircraft were as follows:

F/O Greenhill, Sgt. Smith, Sgt. Whidden

Sgt. Routh, Sgt. Parker, Sgt. McLeod.

What is noticeable is the reasonably good identification of the size of the vessels (even though they got the type of propulsion and size of A Fassio wrong), the description of the attack, which claimed serious hits on both vessels even though only one was hit, and that three aircraft chose not to press the attack, presumably because of a mixture of respect for the anti-air defense, and the believe that both vessels might have been finished. The Italian side – the Italian history uses this case as an example of the strong defense put up by the coastal convoys:

From a practical perspective however, the coastal vessels were anything but easy targets, and not only because of their small size, but because they always reacted very lively, together with the escorting corvette, sometimes inflicting severe losses on the attacker. Many episodes could be cited in evidence, but it is sufficient to give just one as an example; that of the attack suffered on the afternoon of 11 October by a convoy consisting of the steamer Priaruggia, the tanker A Fassio, escorted by the corvette Partenope under Lieutenant-Commander B. de Moratti.

The convoy, which left Tripoli at 1600 hours on 10 October, was attacked by three Bristol Blenheim in low-level flight, about 24 hours later. Regarding this the commander of the escort writes the following in his report:

    At 15.02 the left vessel advised of three enemy bombers which approached the convoy in low-level flight. The formation at that moment was as follows: Partenope in front, zig-zagging, steamer Priaruggia and tanker A Fassio in line abreast (Fassio to the right), with Priaruggia slightly behind. The escorting plane was far off, ahead of the formation. The three Bristol Blenheim planes formed in an offset formation on the left of the convoy, coming roughly from the north-east. Partenope immediately opened fire with its central 20mm gun at a distance of about 800 metres. While turning and climbing the planes dropped a series of small bombs and strafed the convoy with machine guns. Of the bombs, one hit Priaruggia at the base of the funnel, the others drop to the left and right of the steamer, as well as between Partenope and the steamer. Almost at the same time, two planes appear to be hit by the precise fire of Partenope, one in a staggering turn trying to touch down on the water, hitting hard, and then dives into the sea breaking up. The other, on fire, still manages a half turn, then dives into the sea head first, vanishing completely. The third plane carries out a wide turn, then continues to remain cruising for some minutes. During this time three German transport plane pass on the horizon on the westerly route.

I am turning around, and order Fassio to remain in the area, zig-zagging. I am moving towards the life boats and rescue floats of the Priaruggia which, after emitting abundant black smoke and steam, now appears intact everywhere apart from the centre, where it shows damage to the base of the funnel, the masts, and the loading equipment. I am ordering to put the wounded on board of Partenope, and the able to return on board the steamer to prepare the tow. In the meantime I move to the area where the remains of one of the shot-down planes are and where a wounded airman reacts to calls. I set the whaler into the sea to recover the airman and a yellow bag, which contained emergency signalling equipment. The wounded airman is tended to together with the wounded of the Priaruggia. He shows splinter wounds on the right knee and leg, and other wounds on the forehead, the right hand, and the front of his body.

16.00 – 17.58 Fassio extends a tow and commences the turn to move to Ras Cara, in line with my orders. During the maneuver the tow breaks. With a new tow, Fassio moves towards Ras Cara. During the move to Misurata, the tow breaks again. Taking up the tow again to move to Misurata where, by order of Marilibia, the Priaruggia and the wounded have to be brought.

During the last five miles I pull slightly ahead of Fassio, to disembark the personnel.

23.16 – 00.25 Arrival at Misurata. Drop anchor. The Fassio, coming closer, communicates that it has broken the tow for a fourth time, and that neither it nor the Priaruggia have any more cables. It therefore left Priaruggia behind, about five miles off Misurata.

00.25 – 01.28 Leave Misurata and move towards the steamer Priaruggia which I find about four miles at 95 degrees off Misurata with a part of the crew in the launch, about to pull away from the ship.

Communicate to that part of the crew that a tug will soon arrive. At 01.28, with all the crew on board, Priaruggia drops anchor.

I should mention the act of a torpedo operator who threw himself into the sea to rescue the enemy airman while waiting for the launch.

Priaruggia is then towed to Tripoli by the tug Ciclope with the escort of the corvette Cascino, and reaches the port without problems on the 13 November. In the overall account on the positive side are two shot-down enemy planes – one of which, prior to crashing, hits the foremast of the Piaruggia, bursting into flames, and breaking off the mast; – on the negative side the not heavy damage of the steamer which remains immobilised only for a few days.

The Aftermath

From the Italian account it is clear that Priaruggia must have appeared very badly hit, but it is also clear that Fassio was neither hit nor attacked. The episode shows very clearly the dangers the pilots on Malta exposed themselves to, and the brutal and very quick end that awaited most of them. Fassio arrived in Benghasi on 13 October. The lost planes were Z7618 and Z9663. While Sergeant Whidden survived the crash, he died of his wounds in hospital shortly after. (Many thanks to Brian for this information, provided in this thread.) Their loss was not completely in vain however. As is pointed out in this threadPriaruggia was badly enough damaged that she had to return in tow to Tripoli after an initial stay at Misurata. When she arrived (still with the same cargo, including ammunition) in Benghazi six weeks later, after the conclusion of repairs, she was bombed on the night of her arrival, and all her cargo was lost when she blew up.

The statistics below show the activity and losses of No. 107 Squadron during October 1941.

Date

Planes Sorties

Planes Lost

Share

Type of mission

3 October 8 0   Bombing
4 October 8 1 16% Shipping
5 October 2+2 0   Recce/Bombing
6 October 4 0   Shipping/Strafing
7 October 1 0   Armed Recce
8 October 6 0   Strafing
9 October 2+4 2 33% Strafing/Shipping
10 October 2 0   Recce
11 October 6 2 33% Shipping
13 October 4 0   Strafing
17 October 6 0   Strafing/Bombing
21 October 6 0   Shipping
23 October 4 0   Shipping
25 October 6 0   Strafing/Bombing
28 October 4 0   Bombing
29 October 2 0   Bombing
29 October 4 0   Bombing
30 October 4+3 0   Bombing/Shipping

Missions were flown on 18 days, and a total of 21 missions was flown. Total sorties were 88, and losses were 5 planes (a loss rate of 5.7%), all on shipping strikes. What is of importance to note however is that all losses occurred on shipping strikes (2 planes were lost by collision, one of them flown by the squadron commander, the other 3 due to enemy action). So for shipping strikes alone, the loss rate was 14.3%, or rather meaning 1 in 7 planes would not return – quite sobering.

Sinking of HM Submarine P.38 – 23 February 1942

Sinking of HM Submarine P.38 – 23 February 1942

Background

This is only indirectly related to Operation CRUSADER, but of interest nevertheless because it shows the increasing sophistication of Italian escort vessels which happened around the time of the end of the operation, and which probably contributed somewhat to 1942 becoming the worst year for losses in the Mediterranean, with a total of 13 of HM Subs lost, compared to 9 in 1940 (admittedly in just over six months), and 11 each in 1941 and 1942. I have added information on the Italian convoy on 28 May, based on the entry in the Seekrieg website.

HM/Sub P.38

P.38, under the command of Lieutenant R.J. Hemingway RN DSC, was sunk by Tp Circe (Tp = Torpediniere – torpedo boat, a class of light escort destroyers), which sank or participated in the sinking of four Royal Navy submarines, HM S/M Grampus on 16 June 1940, HM S/M Tempest and P.38 in February 1942, and HM S/M Union in July 1942. Circe herself was lost on 27 November 1942 in a collision with auxiliary cruiser Citta di Tunisi. Lt. Hemingway was probably awarded his DSC on 20 December 1940 for  what was believed to be a successful action against an Axis submarine (either U-58, or Italian submarines Veniero or Otario) in the Bay of Biscay, while serving on HM S/M Tigris under Lt.Cdr. Bone, DSO, DSC. In reality however Tigris did not sink the target, whichever of the three it was. His previous command was HM S/M H.31, which was lost with all hands on 19 December 1941 in the North Sea.

Hms p38 submarine

HM/Sub P.38 underway. Wikipedia.

Attack Operations

P.38 was sunk while trying to attack one of the big convoys of early 1942, in this case the third major operation of the year, convoy K.7. It consisted of two separate convoys of six merchants each from Messina and Corfu. The convoys were the fast motor vessels Unione, Monginevro, Ravello (all in convoy 1), and Monviso, Lerici, and Giulio Giordani (convoy 2). They were escorted by destroyers in direct escort (Ugolino Vivaldi, Lanzerotto Malocello, Nicolo Zeno, (all Navigatori-class), Premuda (captured Yugoslav Dubrovnik), Strale (Freccia-class), – convoy 1; Antonio Pigafetta (F), Emanuele Pessagno, Antonio Usodimare, (all Navigatori-class) , Maestrale, Scirocco (both Maestrale-class) – convoy 2) and also by two squadrons of heavy escorts, those of the  old battleship Duilio with the Soldati-class destroyers Aviere, Ascari, Geniere, Camicia Nera, and the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the light cruiser Giovanni della Bande Nere, and the destroyers Alpino (Soldati), Antonio Da Noli (Navigatori), and Alfredo Oriani (Oriani/Poeti-class).

Convoy 1 was escorted by the Spica-class torpedo boat Pallade, and convoy 2 by Spica-class torpedo boat Circe. Commander of the close escort of convoy 2 was the Captain of the destroyer Antonio Pigafetta.  It appears that only Circe and Pallade were equipped with the German S-Gerät sonar and German depth charge throwers (and maybe also depth-charge rails, since references to depth charges used on Circe use two German separate designations).

 

Torpediniere Circe Marina Militare

Spica-class Torpedo Boat Circe with dazzle camouflage, which she carried by May 1942. USMM

Lt. Commander Palmas’ Report

Here’s the report of her captain, Capitano di Corvette (Lt.Cdr.) Palmas, which is held in the captured German records section in NARA. It can be found in the files of the German Naval Attache in Rome.

GKDOS 1706/42

28 March 1941 (sic!)

SECRET COMMAND AFFAIR!

REPORT ABOUT THE SINKING OF AN ENEMY SUBMARINE BY TORPEDO BOAT “CIRCE” ON 23.2.42 – ACCORDING TO STATEMENT BY COMMANDER K.KPT.PALMAS

CIRCE escorted a convoy of 3 steamers on the way to Tripolis. Calm sea. Light swell. Speed 14 knots.

Northwest of Cape Misurate an echo was reported at 1014 [hours] in 46 degrees, 1,800 metres. Bearing wanders out quickly. Signal to convoy to turn to port.

Boat [CIRCE] turns into the bearing, increases speed to 18 – 20 knots and moves across the target. At around 1,000m the periscope is sighted at the position of the echo. With 16 knots moved onto it and dropped six depth charges from rails and four from throwers into the location of the dive which was indicated by air bubbles. Depth setting 70 metres. Shortly after the submarine surfaces with heavy list to stern, it had apparently used pressurised air [emergency surfacing]. Other boats [escorts] and planes open fire and throw depth charges, in some cases in front of other boats. One Italian rating is killed by friendly machine-gun fire. This makes an orderly attack by CIRCE impossible. After the other boats have been called off, CIRCE again receives an echo from the by now again submerged submarine. This resurfaces shortly after like a dolphin with running screws and drops 45 degrees listing to prow into the depth. A lot of oil and air bubbles come up, which only slowly reduce. Apart from that parts of the interior fittings (polished cupboard door, table top), one bag with flags and body parts (lung) drift up.

Boat remains 1.5 hours on the scene of the attack. Echo shows the same location until the last. Water depth 350m. The echo is probably caused by the continuing rising of oil and the still escaping air.

In his formal report to Supermarina, the Italian admiralty, he also analysed the performance of the attack. Below is the section on lessons learnt.

  1. March during lively sea during the night 22 to 23 February has taxed the ship’s hull very much, especially while marching direction 180 degrees.
    Three cracks occured at the movement gap [Dehnungsfuge], which is situated in the centre of the boat, between machinery centre and the ventilators of boiler room 2.
  2. In contrast to the attack on 13 February [on HM S/M Tempest, which was sunk], this attack on a submarine was carried out almost with lightning speed, with the intent to prevent the submarine, which was already lying ready to attack, from carrying this out and to then hunt and destroy it.
    The second task, far more important by comparison to the first, was achieved almost immediately. The convoy could, because of my signals, turn away 90 degrees to port, and thereby move away from the danger zone. The second task was then resolved shortly after, by the almost immediate dropping of all depth charges, which were set at 75 metres depth [sic!] from the rails and throwers.
    The explosion has certainly hit the submarine which was in rapid dive. It was so strong that the enemy commander could do nothing else but surface immediately and give pressurised air on all the tanks.
    The second and last attempt by the submarine to surface failed, and it dived forever.
  3. The attach was carried out based on the information received from the S-Geraet, the prior sighting of the periscope, and the air bubbles which remained on the surface when the submarine dived rapidly. These visible signs led me to drop all depth charges at once, even though by this I partially violated existing regulations. 11 depth charges were dropped. I found it not useful to undertake further depth charge drops during the later phases of the search since the proof I had seen and collected left not the slightest doubt about the result of the attack. The parts of the interior fittings of the submarine and the human remains prove beyond any doubt the destruction of the submarine. During the two unsuccessful attempts to surface the tower was closed and nobody came out. The small bag with flags was probably inside the tower under the hatch, inside the pressure vessel.
  4. The behaviour of the crew was again commendable. The rapidity of the attack has excited the crew beyond belief.
  5. The explosion of a depth charge packet is extremely strong. The hull of the torpedo boat has vibrated noticeably, but not too much, because I carried out the attack at a speed of 15 knots.

It is clear from this account that P.38 and her crew never stood a chance. The Italian commander made all the right decisions (and risky ones – emptying his depth charge racks could have landed him in trouble if P.38 had survived the first attack), he had advanced detection systems that allowed him to find the enemy (and I wonder if 10th Flotilla on Malta was aware of this – does anyone know?), and his relentless initial attack doomed the submarine.All 32 hands on her were lost. May they Rest in Peace. You can read a bit of background on one of her crew, 22-year old Clarence Durnell, at this link. Before rejoining the convoy escort, Circe made a final gesture to the fallen, according to the report of her commander:

Before I finally move off, I cross the site of the sinking at slow speed and and offer the fallen honourable recognition with the whole crew on combat stations.

The convoy arrived in Tripoli without any losses, and brought much needed reinforcements for the Axis forces in North Africa, allowing them to build up strength for the Gazala battles in May 1942, the conquest of Tobruk, and the advance to El Alamein.

Many thanks for Dili from the Comando Supremo forum for his comments and corrections.

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

Introduction

Operation CRUSADER saw about 8,500 Commonwealth soldiers become prisoners of the Axis forces, in the fighting around Tobruk and during the counter offensive in January. See this older post for a discussion of losses suffered by each side. This post here is based on research around the internet.

In general, as the old line goes, ‘For you [insert nickname here], the war is over!’. In the case of North Africa, this was however not the case for the Commonwealth POW. In order to secure them and relieve the supply situation in North Africa, beginning in December 41 they were shipped off to Italian-controlled territory, either to Italy or to Greece (and thence to Italy, I guess), either on naval units or on homeward bound merchants (the New Zealand Official History has a good account of the situation of the POW at this link – note that Sebastiano Venier is called Jantzen in this account).  This could be dangerous, since POW transports were not marked, and since even if ULTRA had given warning to the Royal Navy that a particular transport carried POW, it was likely impossible to warn the submarine commander without risking a breach in the ULTRA secret (e.g. if the submarine commander were to be taken POW himself, and informed his captors about the warning he was given about leaving a particular transport alone).

In consequence, several hundred Commonwealth POW lost their lives during or shortly after the end of Operation CRUSADER and the counter-offensive in three separate sinkings. The casualty figures were high because of overcrowding on the vessels.

Screenshot 2019 10 12 16 15 44

 

HMS Porpoise in harbour, from Ebay.

The loss of Venier

At 1435 hours on 9 December 1941, the large mine-laying submarine HM S/M Porpoise (Lt.Cdr. Pizey DSC) attacked Sebastiano Venier, ex-Jason, off Cape Methone. She is so badly damaged she has to be beached and is written off. Around 300 of the 2,000 Commonwealth POW estimated to be on board died in the attack, most of them when the torpedo struck the forward hold of the Venier.

Entry in Log of HMSub Porpoise describing the attack on Sebastiano Venier

The fact that Venier had POWs on board was known in London since at least 1100 GMT on 8 December, the day before, and probably earlier than that. The document below is a compilation of intercepts that was passed on to Downing Street. This would indicate that there would have been some time to alert submarines to not attack merchants moving north, albeit of course with the risk that this would lead to compromising the secrecy around the radio interception. Furthermore, a later intercept indicated that Venier would only leave Benghazi at 1600 on 9 December, a time at which she was well aground off Cape Methone.

Naval Headlines

Naval Headlines 159, 1100 GMT, 8 December 1941. UK National Archives, HW1/308

Nevertheless, it is clear that in other circumstances, the Middle East command did play fast and loose with the protection of this secret (see this older post).

The incident is well described in the New Zealand Official History ‘Prisoners of War’:

On 8 December a large draft of 2100 had left on the Jantzen , an 8000-ton cargo vessel, with rations sufficient for the 36-hour dash across to Italy . In the middle of the next afternoon, just off Cape Methoni, near Pilos on the south-west coast of the Greek Peloponnese, she was struck by a torpedo in one of the forward holds. Five hundred or more of the prisoners packed there were killed, and the hatchboards falling in with men lying on them killed others as they crashed below. As soon as they had recovered from the shock of the explosion, men rushed to the decks up ropes or still usable ladders. The rugged coastline of Greece could be seen a mile or two away with heavy seas breaking on it, lashed by a bitterly cold wind.

The Italian captain and crew had taken themselves off in two of the three lifeboats, the other having capsized in launching, and some of the men jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the shore. Nine New Zealanders reached one of the boats, which eventually made a nearby uninhabited island where they spent the night, and they were taken over to the mainland next day. Fifteen got away on a raft they had managed to launch, but more than half of these died of exposure. Meanwhile a German naval engineer had taken control of the ship, explaining to those on board that the engines would still go and that there was a good chance of reaching safety. He ordered everybody aft in order to keep the weight off the damaged bow and organised rescue parties to bring up to the officers’ quarters the injured from the lower decks. Although the wind and sea were still strong, the ship was brought in stern first and beached about 5 p.m. broadside on to an open piece of coast. In spite of the bitter cold many now swam the remaining fifty yards to the shore, and when darkness fell many others made their way to safety along ropes secured to the rocks.

Next day dawned fine, and those still on board came off in the remaining lifeboat or on stretchers slung to the ropes. A check made later showed that a little over two-thirds of the British prisoners had survived, the remainder (including 44 New Zealanders) having perished either in the explosion or in the events which followed.

Nlnzimage

Ship Sebastiano Venier aground at Point Methoni, Greece, New Zealand Archives PAColl-2242-1-2

Other Incidents

On 14 February 1942 the brand-new HM S/M P.38 (Lt. Hemingway) attacked a small convoy consisting of Italian steamer Ariosto, German Atlas, and escorts Ct Premuda (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik) and Tp Polluce. Ariosto was sunk, hit by two torpedoes, and going down after a few hours in the early hours of 15 February, with 138 Commonwealth POW are lost, almost half the contingent.

On 27 February 1942 the most famous of the Malta submarines, HM S/M Upholder (Lt.Cdr. Wanklyn, VC) sinks the old steamer SS Tembien, launched in 1914.  390 out of 468 Commonwealth POW on board died, together with 68 Italians and 10 Germans.

In total therefore, over 800 POW are killed in these attacks, or around 10% of the number of POW taken during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive.

All three submarines undertaking the attack were to be lost with all hands during the war. HM S/M Porpoise was to become the last Royal Navy sub to be sunk by the enemy in the Malacca Straits in 1945. HM S/M P.38 was lost on 23 February on the patrol after she sank Ariosto in a counter-attack by Tp Circe.  HM S/M Upholder was sunk on 14 April 1942, possibly by Tp Pegaso, or she may have run on a mine.

It is of note that Tp Circe, a Spica-class escort destroyer, was already fitted with German S-Geraet active sonar and depth charges (see this older post). She was on a roll in February 1942, sinking HM S/SM Tempest on 13 February, and HM S/M P.38 on 23 February (misidentified as a ‘Unity-class’, presumably U-class), showing quite well the capability of the new equipment.  I have reports by the captain of Circe and a member of the German sonar crew, which I have posted at this link.

Many thanks go to Brian Sims who has researched this topic exhaustively, and to Barb Edy, whose father Don of No. 33 Squadron RAF was on the Ariosto as a POW, and suvrived the sinking. An account of her sinking by Don can be found in Don’s book ‘Goon in the Block’, which I would highly recommend.

Pizey

 

Captain G B H Fawkes with Commander (S) E F Pizey, DSC, RN. IWM16004 – Picture is part of a series showing the men and boats of the Submarine Flotilla in Algiers, February 1943, during their operations against Axis supply traffic to Tunisia.

German Antisubmarine Equipment on Italian Vessels

German Antisubmarine Equipment on Italian Vessels

Background

In the files of the German naval command in Italy held at NARA, I found something completely new to me (as one does).  In autumn 1941 the German navy had started to equip Italian escort vessels withASDIC active sonar equipment (S-Geraet) and depth charge launchers (WBW).  The priority was apparently given to equipping escort units in the Aegean, where allied submarines had been active and successful for a while.  In December 1941, the Kriegsmarine established a sub-hunting flotilla at Piraeus to be able to contribute to the Regia Marina’s effort.  Italian vessels were equipped with the German sonar when they went into wharf in Italy for general maintenance, i.e. they were not pulled from service to have this equipment fitted. My guess is they were stretched so thin already that this would not have been possible.  Until the German sonar came along, the Italian vessels had to use passive listening devices to locate submarines.  One is tempted to conclude from the significant successes achieved by Allied submarines that these were not very good at fulfilling their purpose.

The sonar equipment on the Italian vessels was operated initially by German sailors, while Italian naval personnel was attending the Kriegsmarine anti-submarine school at Gotenhafen. One of the first Italian units to be outfitted with the German equipment was the older destroyer Alvise da Mosto. She was sunk in a surface engagement with the Royal Navy’s Force K from Malta on 1 December 1941, off Tripoli (see this older entry). It had only been outfitted at the Italian navy shipyard in Fiume two weeks beforehand, it appears.

Alvise Da Mosto5 da La difesa del traffico con l AS vol VII

Alvise da Mosto underway in the first months of the war, probably off Taranto. USMM.

Report for the Kriegsmarine

A report by the two surviving German sonar operators found its way into the files of the German naval command, and is preserved at NARA.  Both of these men were re-assigned to other Italian escort vessels and when on the Spica-class torpedo boat helped sink HM Submarine Tempest on 13 February 1942 (this article describes the incident). In this attack, Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff being credited with re-establishing her location when she was submerged.

The report must be from after March 1942, since it refers to the death of Commander del Anno who was lost when his destroyer went down in a gale  at the 2nd battle of Sirte. While probably not a completely accurate report, it is an interesting eye-witness statement. Below is a translation of the report.

Report about the Actions of the Destroyer “Da Mosto” from 18 November 1941 to 1 December 1941 based on the Statements of the two Rescuees Petty Officer Rublack and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff

 

German listening crew consisting of:

Petty Officer (Bootsmaat) Rublack

Able Seaman (Matrosengefreiter) Hartmann

Able Seaman Macar

Ordinary Seaman (Matrose) Maidenoff

Ordinary Seaman Retter

During the move from Fiume to Pola on 18 November a submerged Italian submarine located at 4200 [metres].  Echo remained good until the end. Speed 16 knots.

During the move Pola -Tarent on 24 November one steamer escorted. Defect on the motor cinema [screen of the sonar, I guess]. Mirror running too slow, therefore no correct distance.  Reason: strong variations in net. Turning the unit off leads to only slight improvement.

Around 0700 [hours] perfect echo ranged at 320 degrees. Distance could not be fixed. Boat [this refers to Da Mosto] zig-zags at high speed, steamer turns away.  This location was very probably an enemy submarine since a few hours later  an attack occured on another steamer in the same area (statement by the commander).

Enter Taranto on 25 November around 1500. With help from a German mechanic the cinema motor is changed against another one from the installation of another boat.  The work is completed shortly before the boat leaves harbour.

On 26 November 1500 left harbour with a tanker for Trapani.  In the Messina Straits submarine alarm raised by another boat. Search by Da Mosto without result.

At the southern tip of Sicily an unknown mine barrier was well located.  Proceeded according to guidance by S-Geraet.

28 November at 2000 entered Trapani with tanker.

30 November at 0300 left harbour with tanker on western route to Tripoli.  On the way location of a floating mine, a buoy, and a wreck.  Furthermore three French coastal vessels were located on 3,600 to 3,800 metres, which were only then recognised from the bridge.

During the course of 1 December attacks by English bombers occured in several waves. The tanker was hit in the stern and remained motionless. Attempts to take it in tow failed.  Air defense of tanker was weak.  Around 1730 English surface units came into view.  Da Mosto immediately went into the attack and achieved hits on a cruiser.[1]  After a short time Da Mosto was hit in the stern.  Ammunition and the Italian depth charges went off.  During the sinking the forward torpedoes were fired, but without a hit. Da Mosto sank around 1800. The crew gave cheers to its ship, the Duce and the Führer.  The English destroyers drove through the swimming crew without attempting to rescue someone, and shouted derisively “Good bye boys”.

Petty Officer Rublack swam to the tanker with two Italians to bring a still intact boat into the water and to sink the tanker. A destroyer opened fire however, so that the intent could not be carried out.  The tanker then also sank soon afterwards.  Another destroyer appears to have had the intent before that to take it into tow[2].

The S-Geraet was kept manned until the start of the engagement when the boat went to high speed.  The listening crews thereafter went to their battle stations on the guns.  Petty Officer Rublack and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff were on the bridge. Able Seaman Macher fell at the rear gun.  Nothing has been observed concerning the whereabouts of Able Seaman Hartmann and Ordinary Seaman Retter, who until the last moment manned the S-Geraet.

Around 2300 the torpedo boat Prestinari reached the site of the engagement and took the survivors on board.

The commander, Fregattenkapitaen (Commander) del Anno was very complimentary about the performance and the brave behaviour of the German listening crew. Petty Officer Rublack received the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Italian Bronze Medal of Valour, and Ordinary Seaman Maidenoff the Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Italian War Merit Cross. The commander received the Gold Medal (later killed in action as commander of Scirocco).

RCT Da Mosto USMM

Alvise da Mosto underway in the 1930s. The picture shows the unusual configuration of the B-turret very well. USMM via Wikipedia.

Notes

[1]This is not correct.

[2]This is wrong.

Further Reading
A very informative article on the anti-submarine warfare development of the Kriegsmarine can be found at this link (search the document for “magnetostrictive” to jump directly to the ASW section).

A very informative, but highly technical, article on German passive sonar can be found at this link.

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.