Conte di Cavour in early 1916 a few months after commissioning. Note the small false bow wave to give the impression of greater speed.
Conte di Cavour in Taranto’s Mar Piccolo in 1938, as rebuilt between 1933 and 1937.
The first Italian dreadnought was the Dante Alighieri, launched in 1909 by the Royal Naval Yard of Castellammare di Stabia (Naples) and commissioned on 15 January 1913. Although Italy was quite late in commissioning all-big-gun ships (as already envisaged by the Italian naval engineer Vittorio Cuniberti in the 1903 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships) the Dante Alighieri incorporated many ‘firsts’ on her appearance on the international naval scene. She was the first Italian battleship, and one of the first in the world, armed with triple large-calibre (12in) turrets, and the first with some of her medium-calibre guns mounted in turrets; she was also the first Italian battleship with four screws.
The good performance of the Dante Alighieri prompted the Regia Marina to plan and build the three ships of the Cavour class (Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare and Leonardo da Vinci), laid down in 1910, launched in 1911 and commissioned between 1914 and 1916. As built, these ships displaced 24,300 tons full load and were armed with thirteen 12in/46 guns, three in triple turrets (’A’, ‘Q’ and ‘Y’), and two in twin superimposed turrets (‘B’ and ‘X’); secondary armament was eighteen 4.7in/50 guns in casemates. The ships had a rather ‘classical’ appearance, with a long forecastle extending up to the barbette of ‘X’ turret, small superstructures, two tall funnels and two tripod masts. The Parsons geared turbines of the four-shaft plant received steam from twenty boilers (twenty-four aboard Da Vinci) and the maximum speed was 22 knots, with an endurance of 4,800nm at 10 knots.
Leonardo da Vinci was the only ship of the class lost during the war, sunk in an explosion at Taranto on 2 August 1916 that was blamed on sabotage; she was refloated in 1919 and despite initial plans to rebuild her with her midships turret removed, she was sold for scrap in March 1923.
The Cavour and Cesare remained in service in their original configuration until early 1933, the only structural change being the re-positioning of the fore mast in front of the forward funnel in the early 1920s. In October 1933 they were taken in hand by CRDA at Trieste and Cantieri del Tirreno at Genoa respectively, for a complete reconstruction based on the design drawn up in the early 1930s, by Col. Francesco Rotundi of the Genio Navale (Naval Engineering Corps).
The fore part of the hull was completely rebuilt and lengthened, with a new raked ‘oceanic’ bow built around the former ram bow; the stern remained almost unchanged, and a ‘Pugliese’ underwater protection system (based on two cylinders placed inside each side of the hull, designed to absorb the energy of underwater explosions by predetermined deformation) was fitted. A new 75,000hp powerplant (which in fact delivered more than 90,000hp on trials) was fitted, with eight boilers, two geared turbines and two shafts. Speed was thus increased to 26/27 knots. The superstructure was completely rebuilt, with a conning tower similar to that of the Montecuccoli class light cruisers, two funnels grouped amidships and a tripod mast aft of the funnels.
Because of the new arrangement of the propulsion plant, ‘Q’ turret amidships was removed, and the ten guns of the remaining four turrets were re-bored to 12.6in, the barrels’ length in calibres decreasing correspondingly to 43.8. The development of new large-calibre guns would have been impossible (and uneconomic) in the short term, and the now re-bored guns could fire a heavier and more powerful projectile, although there was the problem of increased salvo dispersion. Secondary armament consisted of twelve 4.7in/50 guns in six fully-enclosed twin turrets and eight 3.9in/47 guns in four twin mounts.
Both ships took part in the Battle of Punta Stilo, during which Cesare was hit by a 15in shell from HMS Warspite: damage was not extensive, and after repairs lasting a few weeks she was back in service. Cesare took part in other surface actions and convoy operations until spring 1942, when she was placed in reserve at Taranto; later, her homeport shifted to Pola, where she served as a training ship and – after the Armistice – she was decommissioned at the Taranto Dockyard until the end of the war.
The Cavour was damaged by a torpedo during the air attack on Taranto on the night of 11 November 1940: she was not beached in time and sank in shallow water, leaving only the superstructure visible the next morning. She was refloated after a long and expensive operation and at the end of 1941 she was able to proceed to Trieste, where she was scheduled to be repaired and modernised again: in particular, the project envisaged the replacement of the old 4.7in and 3.9in guns with new 5.3in dual-purpose guns and 65mm/64 AA guns. The repairs were finally suspended in June 1943 and, after the Armistice, the Cavour was captured by the Germans who began to dismantle her. She capsized and sank on 23 February 1945 after an Allied air raid on Trieste, and the hulk, which had been refloated soon after the end of the war, was scrapped in 1946.
The Cesare was transferred to the Soviet Union in 1949 as part of the war reparations paid by Italy and was renamed Novorossiisk; she sank on 29 October 1955, after hitting a German wartime mine while anchored just off Sevastopol. Her sinking was quite similar to that of Cavour at Taranto in November 1940: in both cases, misguided rescue attempts combined with led to the loss of the ships. insufficient hull strength and internal subdivision.
Displacement (tons): 26,140/29,100
Dimensions (m): 186.4 overall, 168.9 pp, 28.6 max. beam, 10.4 max. draught.
Machinery: 8 boilers and 2 turbines, 75,000hp (over 93,000hp on trials)
Speed (kts): 26 (Cavour 28.0 and Cesare 28.2 on trials).
Endurance (nm/kts): 5,200–5,400/18,1,700/26: fuel 2,500 tons.
Armour (mm): 250 (waterline); 135 (main deck); 260 (conning tower); 280 (main turrets); 120 (secondary turrets).
Armament: Ten 12.6in/44 (2 × III, 2 × II); twelve 4.7in/50 (6 × II); eight 3.9in/47 AA (4 × II); eight 37mm/54 light AA guns (4 × II); sixteen 20mm/65 cannon (8 × II, Cesare from 1941).
Complement: 1,260 (60)