All three Littorio class battleships as photographed by a RAF reconnaissance aircraft on 18 April 1943 in La Spezia’s Darsena Duca degli Abruzzi. Photographic analysts also duly identified the heavy cruiser Bolzano and the ‘Capitani Romani’ class light cruiser Caio Mario (without her bow, which was used to repair her sister-ship Attilio Regolo) in the lower left-hand corner.
In March 1942, the battleship Vittorio Veneto was painted with this ‘standard’ scheme of wide triangular panels with a radiating or ‘sunburst’ arrangement. White areas at the bow and at the stern were overpainted with light grey in August 1942, and Veneto kept this scheme until after the Armistice, being repainted – the same as Littorio – light grey overall with a dark grey rectangular area amidships during her internment at the Great Bitter Lake.
Fitting out at Trieste, the Roma is virtually complete in this late spring 1942 photograph. Note ‘standard’ camouflage, the red and white recognition stripes extending aft up to the forward 6in turrets, and the different shape of the main gun directors compared to those of Littorio and Vittorio Veneto.
An impressive image of Vittorio Veneto entering the Canale Navigabile at Taranto on 1 April 1941, bound from Mar Grande to the dockyard in Mar Piccolo, having been damaged by a British aerial torpedo on 28 March, after the clash with the British off Gaudo. All the weapons of the Littorio class battleships may be seen in this image: the 15in guns of ‘B’ turret, the 6in guns of the forward starboard triple turret, the six starboard 3.5in AA guns, two illuminating 4.7in/40 guns on the side of the forecastle deck abreast the funnels and twin 37mm and 20mm cannon.
The first studies for a new class of battleships complying with the provisions of the Washington Treaty of 1922 started in 1928, and the final design, drafted by Gen. Umberto Pugliese of the Genio Navale, was completed between 1933 and 1934 on behalf of the Comitato Progetti Navi of the Regia Marina’s General Staff.
It was correctly decided that the design and construction of new 16in guns would be uneconomic and take too long, so a 15in, 50 calibre, gun was developed, partly based on the experience already gained with the 15in/40 guns built for the projected Caracciolo class battleships, later used aboard monitors, armed pontoons, in coastal batteries etc.
Gen. Pugliese’s project was then passed on to CRDA, Trieste and to Ansaldo, Genoa who, in order to build one ship each, drew up the final plans for the new battleships. The hull lines were drawn up by CRDA, and the standard displacement was soon recalculated to 38,600 tons: by the time the ships were commissioned, standard displacement had risen to well in excess of 41,000 tons, with a full load displacement of over 45,700 tons for Littorio and Vittorio Veneto and 46,215 tons for Roma.
Armour protection was well balanced, with 350mm on the hull sides (based on an innovative ‘two-layer’ system of plates, one of 70mm thick and the other 280mm), 207mm for the main deck and 260mm on the conning tower; the main gun turrets were protected by 350mm of armour and a full Pugliese underwater protection system had been incorporated from the start, giving the Littorios quite a good chance of surviving underwater damage, as they in fact did. Another innovative feature in the design was the presence of three rudders, one astern on the centreline and one on each side aft of the outer propellers, affording good handling in a seaway, either in normal conditions or when damaged.
The ten boilers in the original design were reduced to eight, powering four shaft-geared turbines, with an output of 130,000hp: a maximum speed of 28–29 knots was attained in wartime, this being considered more than enough under operational conditions, although all ships easily exceeded 31 knots during trials.
These ships had a long forecastle, extending as far as the barbette of ‘C’ turret and, on the main deck astern, a catapult and a crane were fitted: initially, three IMAM Ro 43 floatplanes were embarked but during summer 1943 a couple of Reggiane Re 2000 land fighters replaced two of the Ro 43, thus giving these ships a minimal air-defence capability. A long deckhouse was built between the barbettes of ‘B’ and ‘C’ turrets and, above the deckhouse, running fore to aft, the conning tower, the two funnels and a stub structure supporting the main mast were found. The funnel design was quite similar to that of the rebuilt Cavour and Doria classes, and of the Garibaldi class light cruisers.
The main armament consisted of three triple 15in turrets, two forward (‘B’ turret superimposed) and one aft; the secondary armament consisted of four triple 6in turrets, one on each corner of the superstructure. Twelve 3.5in AA guns, six on each side, were fitted in gyrostabilised mounts, but the performance of these weapons was never completely satisfactory, because of the complexity of the stabilising machinery and the unreliability of the optical directors. The main fire directors were placed co-axially above the conning tower and, late in the war, one or two sets of the E.C. 3/ter ‘Gufo’ air and surface-search radar were fitted.
The first two ships, Vittorio Veneto and Littorio, were built by CRDA, Trieste and Ansaldo, Genoa respectively; during sea trials in early 1940, it was found that strong vibrations were produced in the fore part of the hull, with bow waves rising well over the forecastle even at moderate speeds. The cause of all this was identified in the shape of the hull sides and in the ‘arched’ design of the stem post, so a new bow structure – less flared and with a ‘straight’ stem post – was built over the old one, finally solving the problem. The pressure of war prevented this modification being made to the third ship of the class (Impero), while the fourth (Roma, commissioned in 1942) was built by CRDA with a bow of the modified design, incorporating the straight stem post and with a significant sheer, thus improving the ship’s general seaworthiness.
One of the first missions of the 9a Divisione Navi da Battaglia (9th Battleship Division) came when both Littorio and Vittorio Veneto put to sea in order to oppose the British Operation ‘Hats’ (late August/early September 1940); the Littorio was damaged by an aerial torpedo during the British attack on Taranto on 11 November 1940, returning to service in March 1941, while the Vittorio Veneto took part in the battle of Cape Teulada on 27th November. Vittorio Veneto herself was damaged during Operation ‘Gaudo’, the ill-fated sweep south of Crete which led to the night action of Cape Matapan between 28 and 29 March 1941. The Littorio was among the Italian ships at the First Battle of Sirte in December 1941 and at the Second Battle of Sirte in March 1942. By the end of 1942, after Roma’s commissioning the previous summer, the three battleships shifted their homeport to La Spezia, because Allied air superiority made Taranto and the other southern Italian ports too vulnerable.
Following the Armistice of 8 September 1943, the ships at La Spezia complied with the condition that Italian ships should make for a port under Allied control. While steaming to Malta the Italian ships that had left La Spezia were attacked off the island of Asinara (north-western coast of Sardinia) by Luftwaffe bombers that hit the Roma with two PC 1400X guided bombs, sinking her. The former Littorio (renamed Italia after 25 July 1943) and Vittorio Veneto, after short stays in Malta and Alexandria, were interned in the Great Bitter Lake area of the Suez Canal, getting back to Italy only on 9 February 1947. Great Britain and the United States, which were to have received one ship each as war reparations, gave them up, requiring the ships to be scrapped, and these two fine battleships, decommissioned in the first half of 1948, were later stricken and broken up at La Spezia between 1951 and 1955.
The incomplete hull of Impero was towed in May 1941 from Genoa to Brindisi, where it was expected to continue her fitting out. In January 1942, under her own power, the Impero sailed out of Brindisi bound for Venice in order to be definitely completed, shifting in November 1942 to the CRDA San Marco yard in Trieste. After the Armistice, the incomplete battleship fell into German hands and her breaking-up began, but at the end of the war her still-floating hull was sabotaged by the Germans soon before abandoning Trieste. Having been refloated in 1947, Impero’s hulk was towed to Venice, where her breaking up was completed between 1948 and 1949.