But the Torelli experienced the most unique anti-aircraft action of its kind. Among the most successful Sommergibili Italiani, she sank seven enemy vessels totaling 43,000 tons, but incurred extensive damage from a British flying-boat on 5 June 1942 in the eastern Atlantic while under way to the Bahamas. Just two days later, while limping back to Bordeaux on the surface, unable to dive, she was attacked again by two more Sunderlands. Their bomb-runs repeatedly spoiled by defensive fire, they strafed the submarine, killing Sergeant Flavio Pallucchini, wounding Captain Antonio de Giacomo and another officer. During a low pass, one of the aircraft was hit, and both turned away.
The following 16 March, the Torelli was hunting along the Brazilian coast, when three Catalinas caught her on the surface. Failure of her main shut-off valve on the engine intake prevented the boat from submerging, so she was forced to engage in a ferocious gun battle with the American torpedo-bombers. One was destroyed and the other two driven off, but the deck was badly shot up, and there were casualties. The radio-man had been killed; wounded included the chief engineer, an engineer, and, once more, the captain, this time badly injured, who transferred control to his second-in-command.
Thereafter, the Torelli was made over into a long-distance transport. Stripped of all offensive weapons, save her four 13.2mm anti-aircraft guns, her torpedo tubes were used as extra fuel tanks to extend her range and interior extensively renovated. On 14 June 1943, she departed Bordeaux with 150 tons of mercury, steel, and munitions, including 20mm cannons and a 500-kg. bomb. Also on board was Colonel Kinze Sateke, a Japanese officer specializing in telecommunications, who had just finished advanced training in Germany. He was accompanied by a German engineer, plus two civilian mechanics. All of these personnel were to assist in technologically up-grading Japan’s war effort. Although Allied intercepts learned of the secret voyage before it got underway, alerted Sunderland and Catalina flying-boats patrolling from Gibraltar to Freetown failed to locate their prey.
The Torelli arrived in Singapore without incident on 31st August. Just nine days later, word came of the Badoglio armistice, and she was seized by German authorities, her officers and men interned in POW camps. But when Mussolini established his Social Republic three months later, most of them elected to fight for him again aboard their old submarine, re-named UIT-25 for her Italo-German crew. Assigned to the 12th and later the 33rd U-boat flotilla, she served in the western Pacific until the surrender of the Third Reich was learned on 10 May 1945.
But the vessel’s life was not yet finished. She received yet a third designation when drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy as I-504. Some die-hard European officers and men stayed on board, and for the rest of World War Two, I-504 was manned by a mixed German-Italian-Japanese crew. A few days before the close of hostilities, their boat was approached by a Mitchell B-25 medium bomber. Forty-one years later, when Raffaele Sanzio was 66 years old, he recalled that attack as an engineer aboard the former Torelli:
“For the record, I can confirm that it was the 13.2mm Breda machine guns of my submarine that, on August 22nd 1945, shot down the last American twin engine bomber. It happened in Kobe, and it was us Italians who shot it down.” Theirs was the last Axis victory of the Second World War.
Although Italian submariners avoided surface combat with warships whenever possible, they did engage enemy submarines, not always by choice. The first such encounter took place on the night of 15 October 1940, when the Enrico Toti went full ahead on the surface to investigate a suspicious craft some sixty kilometers off Cape Colonne, Calabria. At about 5,000 meters, the enemy identified himself by opening fire and maneuvering for a torpedo run. A shell struck the base of the Italian boat’s conning tower, followed by one torpedo racing just passed the stern. The Toti’s four machine-guns replied by raking the stranger’s deck with 13.2mm rounds. The target turned, the Toti in pursuit, firing both of her 100mm guns at the slightly faster prey over the next thirty minutes. At 0140 hours, the 1,475-ton British submarine, Rainbow, went down with all hands.
The Toti was something of a sub-killer. The same month she sank the Rainbow, her torpedoes found the Perseus, near Zante.
The Sommergibili often gave Italian morale a boost when most needed. Just three days after 1941’s unfortunate Battle of Cape Matapan, the Ambra torpedoed HMS Bonaventure. A veteran of the raid on Taranto five months before, the battleship keeled over near Crete. That night, two freighters in a convoy bound for Greece were sunk by another Italian submarine, the Dagabur, with one, well-aimed torpedo apiece. These successes were broadly publicized to restore general confidence in Italy’s war at sea.
Italian submarines carried out less well-recognized but equally important missions. With Axis supply convoys being savaged by Allied interdiction, the Delfino transported more than 200 tons of ammunition and fuel to Italo-German troops in Libya from 13 November 1942 to 6 January 1943, shooting down a Sunderland in the process. Joining her was the Micca, formerly the flagship of the Italian submarine fleet. As such, she led a famous naval parade in honor of Adolf Hitler’s visit to Naples on 5 May 1938. When war came, the Micca was assigned to the 16th Squadron of the 1st Sommergibili Group, serving as a successful mine-layer off the Egyptian coast. In one such mission alone, on 12 June 1940, she daringly laid forty mines before the approaches to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet headquarters at Alexandria. As a transport, the Micca delivered 2,163 tons of materials to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
While Italian submarines took a beating in North Atlantic gales, their hull integrity was robust, perhaps even more so than their German betters. Crash-diving to escape the destroyer escort of a British convoy the Argo was just about to attack on 5 December 1940, she was battered by twenty-four well-placed depth-charges for more than four hours. A storm, not any damages incurred during the previous day’s underwater attack, practically swamped the boat and shorted out most of her electrical system, forcing Captain Crepas to make for Bordeaux. Three days earlier, the Tarantini endured 176 depth-charges hurled at her for twenty-four hours to emerge scarred but seaworthy. But the Smeraldo held the record for survival after escaping another round-the-clock barrage, this time in the Mediterranean, of more than 200 depth-charges between the 7th and 8th of July 1940, returning for minor repairs at the Regia Marina base in Tobruk. More impressive, the redoubtable Torelli survived an attack that would have broken the back of most other submarines, when two bombs launched at her from a Sunderland exploded under the vessel’s keel. Although badly damaged, on fire, with all her navigational aids knocked out, Commander Migliori brought her safely to the Spanish port of Aviles, where the Torelli was repaired and went on to fulfill her interesting destiny in the Pacific. Ironically, the Schnorchel, an extendable tube that allowed diesel-powered submarines to recharge their batteries without exposing themselves while surfaced, had been invented by an Italian major, Pericle Ferretti, as early as 1922. Like radar, another Italian invention, no one bothered to develop his Schnorchel.
These two neglected devices could have altered the course of military history in the Regia Marina’s favor. Mussolini’s envisioned navy had always included submarines, which received preferential considerations in fuel and production. Even so, Italy lacked the industrial capacity to keep up with attrition. German shipyards mass-produced more than 1,000 U-boats, while just forty new submarines were built by the Italians.
Far more decisive, however, was the unseen battle of military intelligence. An early gift to Allied cryptographers was a copy of the Sommergibili Italiani SM 19/S code book retrieved from the Uebi Scebeli. Described by Jackson as “among the best Italian submarines to be used during the war, giving good service in a variety of roles … strong and very maneuverable”, she was scuttled by her crew after having been depth-charged to the surface and subjected to the concentrated fire of five enemy destroyers on 28 June 1940. Over the next two weeks, eight more vessels of Italy’s sub-surface fleet were sunk in equally quick succession, until Regia Marina commanders realized the missing manual was being used to intercept their submarines, and revised all naval codes. Henceforward, Italian undersea successes resumed when a destroyer, HMS Escort, failed to survive her encounter with the Marconi off Gibraltar on 11 July.
But the power of code-breaking to sway the fortunes of war would return two years later, when the last impediment to the ULTRA secret and its capacity to render all Axis’ secrets transparent was removed with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of security in the Third Reich. ULTRA code-breaking was in large measure responsible for most of the Italians’ eighty-two submarines lost during World War Two. That they were able to sink 724,656 tons of enemy shipping in just three years is a remarkable testimony to their courage and skill, operating as they did at distinct disadvantages not confronted by Allied submarines. The enemy read orders issued by Commando Supremo at the same moment they were received by Regia Marina captains. As such, virtually every Italian vessel–not only most submarines–was ambushed before it could locate an opponent. Whereas the Italian Navy depended on a few, slow reconnaissance planes of limited range to search the vast Mediterranean Sea for targets, cryptographers sitting in London knew in advance almost every move Axis commanders made.
The Sommergibili were additionally confronted by formidable anti-submarine measures, the like of which no Anglo-American boats need ever have feared. The fifty-two U.S. submarines lost in the Second World War escaped the almost invariably innocuous attacks by enemy destroyers to be far more often bombed while surfaced by Japanese aircraft. Britain’s Royal Navy Submarine Service lost seventy-five submarines, but sank 1,500,000 tons of merchant shipping, plus 169 warships in all theatres, although during a longer period of time (three more years). Moreover, the vast majority of these successes were made against virtually defenseless Japanese convoys in the South and Central Pacific. During the first half of World War Two, British submarines operated primarily out of Malta, protecting that besieged, strategically valuable island, and raiding Axis convoys to North Africa. In the course of fulfilling these duties, they were eminently successful, but had they been forced to operate in the North Atlantic, as the Italian submarines did, they would have suffered no less grievously. Hitler’s U-boats were true, ocean-going vessels, more advanced than any contemporaries, and Admiral Legnano perhaps mistakenly compared them to his own country’s submarines, which had been designed for the less navigationally-challenging Mediterranean Theater.
Had he juxtaposed his Sommergibili with American versions, he would have had cause for optimism, because the U.S. Navy’s ‘Silent Service’ was far inferior to Italy’s undersea fleet. Beginning after the attack at Pearl Harbor, throughout all of 1942 and most of 1943, American submarines ran up a virtually unrelieved record of failure. Its boats were plagued with stability and buoyancy problems. Their torpedoes ran too deeply and exploded harmlessly, if at all, against an enemy hull in the rare instance they could be made to hit a target. Of the first four torpedoes fired by the submarine Tinosa on 24 July 1943 at a Japanese whaling factory ship, two struck the 19,000-ton vessel, which suffered no damage. U.S. Commander Daspit launched two more torpedoes, both of which hit the Tonan Maru 111 and stopped but could not sink her. At close range, and at right angles to his stationary target, he loosed off nine additional torpedoes. All hit; none exploded.
Solutions were needlessly prolonged by Bureau of Ordinance bureaucrats, who steadfastly stood by the sacred design superiority of ‘American torpedoes,’ and blamed all failures on human error. An authoritative website additionally points out that “many U.S. submarine captains did not stand up to the rigors of war time command that was demanded of them; in 1942, 30% were removed for lack of fitness or lack of results, and 14% for the same reason both in 1943, and 1944. All were career officers, generally older and thus much more conservative and cautious in combat. Consequently, most of the early offensive maneuvers were made from the safety of deep water by sonar, with predictably dismal results.”
Another web site reveals that “the lack of a unified submarine command (in the U.S. Navy) compounded the challenges. Infighting between the Pacific Fleet based in Pearl and the Asiatic Fleet in Manila for manpower and materials accounted for a schism in command that lasted throughout virtually the entire war. But even with the ‘heads up’ intelligence information being provided (by ULTRA code-breakers), tactical positioning errors by top leadership continued to haunt the submarine fleet. Boats were continually given orders of deployment to stalk the entrances of harbors and ports, ignoring the fact that the bulk of the Japanese shipping was concentrated along established, high seas trade routes. ”
Immediately after the war, commanders of the ‘Silent Service’ announced they sank ten million tons of Japanese shipping, amounting to 4,000 enemy vessels. Subsequent U.S. Navy investigation of the record showed that the total destroyed tonnage was actually half as great, while the number of ships sunk was a third of the original claim. Investigators also learned that of America’s 16,000 submariners, 375 officers and 3,331 enlisted men perished at sea–a 22% casualty rate, the highest percentage in all U.S. armed forces.
Properly functioning torpedoes were not introduced until the close of 1943, long after the war had already turned decisively in the Allies’ favor. For the remaining twenty months of that conflict, Americans sank the most ships of any submarine service of the war, possibly because they were fighting an enemy whose ability to defend himself was severely hampered.
The Soviet Navy’s undersea fleet would have likewise encouraged Admiral Legnano. After having primarily distinguished themselves for most of the war by being sunk by German Stuka dive-bombers, the few Russian submarines that survived attacked unarmed passenger liners overcrowded with refugees during the waning days of hostilities. On 30 January 1945, Commander Alexander Marinesko sank the Wilhelm Gustloff with the loss of 9,343 wounded soldiers, medical personnel, Baltic families and other civilians–the highest loss of life at sea in recorded history. A similar Soviet ‘triumph’ was submarine L-3’s destruction of the Goya, carrying 7,000 Eastern Europeans the following 16 April. Only 183 survived.
The Italian submarine service made up for its deficiencies with some of the most outstanding commanders of the war. Among them was Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia. Kriegsmarine admirals were so impressed by him, they awarded Ursus atlanticus, as his crew members affectionately referred to their Captain, the distinguished Ritterkreuz, or ‘Knight’s Cross’, an honor infrequently bestowed on their own commanders, let alone foreigners. Among his many, perilous exploits, he eluded destroyers dispatched to intercept him, while sinking six Allied vessels, including the Empress of Canada, a large British troopship. Before he was killed in action on 23 May 1943, he sank 90,601 tons of Allied shipping, making his Leonardo Da Vinci the most successful Italian submarine, with 120,243 tons sunk. Fifty years later, the Italian Navy’s new S525 was christened the Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia.
The last hurrah of the Sommergibili Italiani was their desperate defense of Sicily against an overwhelming Allied onslaught. A few managed to get in some significant hits before most of them went down fighting, such as the Dandolo, when her torpedoes so badly wrecked HMS Cleopatra on 16 July 1943 the anti-aircraft cruiser would never see combat again. Thereafter, aside from a handful of Italian submarines that happened to be operating outside the Mediterranean on 8 September, those in harbor were immediately seized by the Badoglio authorities. All the rest still at sea were ordered, under protocols laid down by the Anglo-Americans, to strictly observe a cease-fire and proceed at once on the surface under a black flag to various assigned ports. A few submarines, such as the Torelli, ran for Axis-held territories or neutral havens elsewhere.
The Topazio was less successful. For two days, she accompanied three other boats, the Diaspro, Marea and Turchese, all of them headed dutifully for Allied-held Bona on the Algerian coast. But during the night of the 10th, the Topazio slipped away, and Lieutenant Pier Vittorio Casarini hauled down the disgraceful flag of surrender. Two days later, his boat was twenty kilometers southwest of Sardinia’s Cape Carbonara when it was attacked by a Sunderland. The Topazio sank almost at once, taking Lt. Casarini and his entire crew with her. By that time, all but forty-four of the Italian submarine service’s original 172 boats had been lost, most of them after June 1942, when the Allies finally and completely broke all Axis military codes. In thirty-nine months of combat, Italian submarines sank thirteen warships, amounting to 24,554 tons. Their primary targets were, however, convoys or individual freighters, and they claimed 129 merchant vessels, an impressive 668,311 tons, up until the day of the Badoglio armistice.
Italians everywhere were flabbergasted by the dramatic turn of events. Mario Daneo was a San Marco guard on duty at Bordeaux’s Italo-German submarine base when the news reached him. “Everyone was astounded and speechless,” he remembered. “The following day, we were called into the square, and our commanding officer, along with the general commander in charge of the city, gave us a long speech in which he said that those of us who felt like it could continue with their assignment, as before. My friend, Precis Palesano, and I–he was a 3rd class Chief–looked at each other, and decided to stay. Of the 2,000 personnel from the Navy, the San Marco Battalion, Carabinieri, workers and specialists, more than 300 stayed. The others had to pack their suitcases and back-packs. At 16:30, five or six Germans came in and began loading all those who did not want to stay, and they were brought to a camp outside Bordeaux; whatever was not needed was taken away. More than one felt guilty and came back.”
A man who felt particularly guilty was Carlo Fecia di Cossato, among the most able of Italian submarine aces. Beginning on 15 April 1941, he commanded the Tazzoli in the western Atlantic, adding sixteen sunken ships to the boat’s first two under the previous Captain Vittore Raccanelli for a total of 96,553 tons, plus another damaged ship of 5,000 tons. The Germans respected Di Cossato, and bestowed several awards on him, the most distinctive having been the Iron Cross First Class, presented in person by Admiral Dönitz. From his fellow countrymen, Di Cossato received the Gold Medal, the Italian Armed Forces’ highest decoration, and two silver medals for military bravery. He was also a popular commander with fellow officers and enlisted men, who admired his intelligence and compassion.
On 2 February 1942, Di Cossato was given leave of absence, while the Tazzoli was placed under new command, stripped of armaments, and modified into a transport. As such, she departed Bordeaux for Japan with 165 tons of special cargo on 16 May, but was sunk the next day with all hands in a depth-charge attack carried out by the destroyer, U.S.N. Mackenzie. By then, her former commander had been transferred to the Aliseo, patrolling the Ligurian coast. It was while on station here that he learned of Badoglio’s surrender, and received orders to attack German naval forces evacuating Corsica. There, he destroyed several German landing-craft outside Bastia, and went on to perform escort duty for Allied ships in the Adriatic throughout most of 1944.
But these operations weighed heavily on di Cossato, until he spoke openly of his deep disappointment with the post-Mussolini regime for the first time in mid-summer, and requested dismissal from active duty. When word spread to Taranto, crews at the naval base demonstrated angrily on his behalf, and the Gold Medal recipient was punished with a six-month suspension. Sometime thereafter, he received offers for a lucrative commission in the U.S. Navy. He turned it down without explanation.
Unable to join his family residing in Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic up north, Di Cossato wrote to his mother on 21 August, about his “revolt toward the meanness of this period … For the last nine months, I have reflected upon the extremely sad moral position in which I found myself, following the ignominious surrender of the navy to which I resigned myself only because it was presented to me as a direct order from the king … You understand what is happening in Italy, and how we have been unworthily betrayed, and committed an ignominious act without any result. It is from this gloomy realization that I have developed a deep sadness, a disgust for what surrounds us. For months I have been thinking about my sailors of the Tazzoli, who are honorably on the bottom of the sea, and I think that my place is with them.”
Six days later, Captain di Cossato took his own life.