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Merchant Marine

by Achille Rastelli


Even in peacetime, mobilization plans called for the use of certain ships for specific purposes. In particular, the following were contemplated:

- ships for escorting traffic, or auxiliary cruisers
- hospital ships
- coastal and harbor services patrol boats
- troop transports
- ships for transporting materiel and fuel
- minelayers
- minesweepers
- amphibious landing ships


For each of these tasks, the most suitable ships were determined (small, fast motor vessels as escorts, Railroad ferries as minelayers, and so on).
When war broke out, however, mobilization plans were disrupted by the vast number of ships stranded out of the Mediterranean. This complete loss was partially offset by the commissioning of about fifty new motor vessels, but they too took severe losses because of their intense utilization. In 1941, the Italian Merchant Marine received many units of the former Yugoslavian merchant marine, but nearly all of them were small, old, and suitable only for coastal traffic.

A shot of oxygen for war transport was provided by the capture, in November 1942, of several French merchant ships, but this replenishment was also nullified by the fact that the war had entered its most arduous period, with convoys concentrated on the Tunisia route, where losses were very heavy.

Throughout all this hardships, due to war hazards and requisitions, the Merchant Marine also did its utmost to maintain some essential civilian services, such as connections with the islands and some coastal services. However, these were destined to rarify as the war ground on: for instance, around the summer of 1943 connections with Sardinia were almost completely broken off.

Let us examine some of these issues in greater detail:

Traffic Escort Ships and Auxiliary Cruisers

To meet the need of escorting the convoys, thus sparing ever-scarce warships, from the onset of the conflict the Italian Navy had requisitioned those merchant ships which, thanks to their characteristics, could be suitable for this service. In particular, requirements called for reduced tonnage that would still allow blue water ops, a speed of about 15 knots and the ability to serve also as fast transports.

The postal motor vessels of the Adriatica and Tirrenia shipping companies fit these requirements very well, so nearly all of them were requisitioned by the Regia Marina and registered as war ships, thereby ceasing to be civilian ships and becoming naval units. During the conflict, thirty-six ships were requisitioned as auxiliary cruisers (military designation: D followed by a progressive number), and of these as many as thirty-two were sunk, although three of them were recovered and restored to service after the war. The armistice was particularly harmful: two auxiliary cruisers were sunk and ten were captured by the Germans.

In terms of shipping company, 14 ships came from Adriatica, 8 from Tirrenia, 3 from Fiumana, 2 from Eritrea, 2 from Istria-Trieste, 2 ex-Yugoslavian, 4 from the Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane (the banana monopoly). One of the ships from this company, Ramb III, of the most active escorts during the conflict, was captured by the Germans and used by them with the name of Kiebitz; sunk in Fiume (Rijeka) on 5 November 1944, it was retrieved by the Yugoslavs, repaired, and transformed into the presidential ship Galeh, to be used by Marshal Tito for many years thereafter.

Some of the ships met with a tragic fate: the Egeo was sunk on 24 April 1941, 65 miles off Tripoli, by the British destroyers Jarvis, Janus, Jaguar and Juno: hit by two torpedoes fired by the Juno, it sank in a few minutes. The cruiser Adriatico was sunk on December 1st, 1941 by the cruiser Aurora and the destroyer Lively: when she was hit by two broadsides, the order to abandon ship was given; in spite of this, the ship's forward battery returned fire, but a third broadside blew her up. Twenty-one survivors were rescued by the Lively and sixty-six more by the Giovanni da Verrazzano, which arrived on the scene later. Other combat losses were those of the cruisers Brioni, Brindisi, and Zara.

Hospital Ships

A function that during the war required passenger ships was the evacuation of wounded personnel. For this purpose, involved shipping companies had been notified, in peacetime, of the ships to be requisitioned for this service, and the supplies (beds, linen, health care items) needed for quickly equipping the ships had been stored in various navy yards.

Twelve ships were used, all belonging to state-owned companies; nine were lost in the conflict: four were torpedoed and two (Aquileia and Virgilio) were lost after being captured by the Germans. One of the ships that survived the war, the Gradisca, was lost when she ran aground in January 1946.

Some of these ships, such as Aquileia and Gradisca as well as others like Arno and California, performed an essential service during the war, bringing tens of thousands of wounded and sick men back home; Gradisca had also participated, in March 1941, to the rescue of the survivors from the Matapan disaster.

Seven rescue ships also operated during the conflict: they were specialized in rescuing shipwrecked seamen and downed pilots, or in transporting small groups of wounded men.
Although they prominently displayed hospital ship markings, they were not recognized as such by the enemy, who considered them a fair target throughout the war.
In fact, six of these ships (Epomeo, Capri, Meta, Giuseppe Orlando, San Giusto, Sorrento) sank in combat, and the seventh, the Laurana, was captured by the British in Tunisia in May 1943.

Passenger liners were also used as hospital ships for other delicate missions: Gradisca and Cittą di Tunisi (reclassified for this purpose from her previous role as an auxiliary cruiser completed some trips to Smyrna, where, in neutral waters, they rendezvoused with British hospital ships and exchanged disabled prisoners. For these internationally sanctioned missions, the ships sailed with their hull painted white and a large inscription, PROTECTED, on their sides.

The missions completed in A.O.I. (Italian East Africa) by the ships Saturnia, Vulcanici, Giulio Cesare and Duilio to repatriate civilian refugees became famous: these trips, which have been examined by many authors, were conducted with the British authorities' agreement and were all successful, though they did not dispel the bitterness that came from the realization that they were the symbol of Italy's defeat, or the grief of many families that would be separated until the end of the war.
Of these four units, Saturnia and Vulcania survived, while Duilio and Giulio Cesare sank in 1944, in Muggia bay, the victims of air raids.




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