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By Salvatore Romano
The task of escorting convoys, which during World War Two became increasingly challenging and exhausting, was set by assigning to the undertaking both fleet destroyers, the number of which was barely sufficient to escort battleships, and torpedo boats of the “Spica” class of which, between 1935 and 1938, 32 had entered service. These last units were the ones that had to sustain the onerous task of escorting convoys for the duration of the conflict. The torpedo boats of the “Spica” class, known as fast torpedo boats, thus with characteristics specific to attack units, were not particularly adapted to the task assigned to them due to their range, seaworthiness, maneuverability and antisubmarine armament. Nevertheless, they performed their duty but at a human cost of enormous dedication, performing beyond any prize. Of the 30 units in service at the beginning of the war, 23 were lost due to war events.
Therefore, it became necessary to firmly face the problem of the fast construction of units tailored to convoy escorts adequately equipped for antisubmarine warfare. At the Ministry of the Navy, some projects already existed for the construction of ships of modest displacement, particularly adapted to convoy escort, and antisubmarine activity. It was only after the institution of the antisubmarine Department in summer 1941 that such projects were reexamined with the goal of coming up with a definitive one.
From an initial project which called for coastal units of about 400 tons, and another which increased it up to 580 tons, was born yet another one which brought displacement up to 613 tons. None of these solutions was completely satisfying.
The best qualities were in the end found in a project by Admiral (E) Fea for a vessel of about 660 to 670 tons, which included the best in terms of weaponry and equipment the Italian industry could offer at the time Thus were born these “pure” escort units and their construction could be considered, without any doubts, the best success in the area of naval constructions reached by the Italian Navy in World War Two. Without any relation to their forerunners of the second half of the 18th century (sail corvettes, steam corvettes with both paddlewheels and propellers), these units were called “antisubmarine corvettes”.
Their performances proved excellent: high range, readiness (they could become operational in 10 minutes), and relative simplicity so that their construction could be assigned to several shipyards. As a result, the construction of the ships of the “Gabbiano” class in six shipyards started at such a rhythm that some of them were ready to enter service after only eight and one half months from being laid down.
The hull was made of high strength steel and the upper structure in light aluminum alloys. The engines were diesel using light diesel fuel and not fuel oil like steam engines. Thus, there was no need for water for the engines, and they could be started right away. Range was high, and the number of engine personnel limited.
All the units were equipped with sonar, the most modern equipment used to detect submerged submarines. In addition to the standard fore-bridge which was quite large, there was just above an upper fore-bridge which had a secondary rudder and engine telegraph. Since this fore-bridge was also equipped with a magnetic compass, it could be used for regular navigation, making escorting and A/S much easier. From this fore-bridge there was a complete view of the horizon and the whole ship. The only negative aspect was the fact that deck personnel was constantly exposed to the weather, even though there were some deflectors which would break the air flow caused by the movement of the ship, thus reducing the impact of air and water when the ship was into wind.
On these corvettes the adoption of electric power was absolutely new. This was just like the one on submarines, utilizing batteries. The intent was two fold: reduce the noise of the ship while chasing a submarine, and also reduce interference with the sonar thus improving its ability to discover and attack. The antiaircraft and anti-ship armament included a 100/47 gun placed forward, three 20/70 machine guns in single installations also forward, four 20/65 machine guns in dual mounting installed on the deck-house in the middle of the ship, and two 450 mm torpedo tubes, one on each side of the ship.
The antisubmarine armament was quite considerable; it included 8 single throwers (mud hoppers), four on each side, and two Gatteschi dischargers installed aft. Each thrower could launch a 150 kg bomb 100 to 140 meters away. Each thrower could launch in rapid succession up to three bombs before it had to be reloaded. The two Matteschi dischargers installed one next to the other aft were equipped with six 2-charge trolleys, which upon command could be dropped into the water. This armament allowed for the contemporaneous dropping of 12 bombs for a total of 1,800 kg of explosive which made a “pocket” around the submarine under attack. Some of the corvettes were also equipped with 2 antisubmarine towing torpedoed type “Ginocchio”.
These corvettes were not equipped with radar and did not have any special equipment to compute “firing and shooting”. Even though the deck-house was equipped with a small elevated area to rest a telemeter, the deck gun was directed using the “non instrumental” shooting and the order were given via a voice-pipe or by telephone. The machine guns were operated with simple eye sights. Same for the torpedoes; there was no firing control mechanism. The commanding officer estimated Cinematic data and the calculation of the shooting angle was computed with a protractor or using a simple predictor made by De Pace. Antisubmarine attacks were conducted following the standard “dog tail”. Thus, simplicity was the fundamental characteristic of these ships.
Maximum speed was slightly higher than 18 knots, but only during trials, while the regular speed was only 10 to 12 knots, sufficient for convoy escort, and at this speed range was over 3,400 miles. Crew included 5 officers (2 from the reserve), 12 non-commissioned officers, and 93 sailors. In conclusion, these ships were beautiful ships from an architectonical viewpoint, but also well conceived from all other viewpoints. One should consider that although they were built for a war service estimated at only six months, they had a very long service history and were of great use in multiple use for over 25 years.
Their construction began at the end of 1941; sixty were ordered, and at times shipyards had up to six on the slip at the same time. Their history was ranging. Only 28 units entered service before the armistice and they were used operationally only for a small period of time, but they served with honor. Some units were lost during the war, others were lost during the armistice, and others were captured by the Germans when still under completion or on the slips. Some were not even finished. 19 units survived the armistice and almost immediately began their operational activity alongside the Allies. In total, in the short period before the armistice the corvettes completed 278 antisubmarine missions, 174 escort missions, 6 transport, and 137 of another nature.
Between September 8th and May 8th 1945, the surviving 19 units completed 11 war patrols, 31 antisubmarine missions, 133 antisubmarine patrols, 32 transports, 1,508 escorts, 45 miscellaneous and 340 training missions. At the end of the hostilities the corvettes were transformed into minesweepers completing several minesweeping campaigns. In the subsequent years, three more “rescued” units entered service, thus bringing the total number in the post-war period to 22. Since over time the various codes painted on the bow varied based on national (1950-52) or NATO schema, we are providing the following chart:
Over time these corvettes received various alterations to the power plant. The electric motors and the very heavy batteries were removed, and so was the main 100/47 gun. The machine guns were replaced with others of greater caliber. The lateral throwers were replaced with more modern ones and an American-made “porcupine” (Pneumatic thrower) was installed forward since the A/S attack criteria had in the meantime changed. The “Gatteschi” railings were removed, reinstalled, and removed again based on need. The same applied to the torpedo launchers. Superstructure was also radically modified. All units eventually received radar and the fore-bridge was altered. In short, these corvettes were continuously modified to adapt them, from time to time, to specific tasks. The activity which involved all the units with great intensity, even though with the necessary rotations, was the one of “command school” demonstrating themselves really fit for the training of young captains.
After over 25 years since the first unit had entered service, 14 units were still in service. The corvettes were no longer used as part of the naval squadron, but they were useful nevertheless: training cruises, departmental services, rescue of merchant ships, hydrographic campaigns, fishing surveillance, etc. After so much activity, they were eventually stricken from the active role of the Navy, but left behind nostalgia in the officers who acquired their first command experience, and in generations of non-commissioned officers and sailors who got their feet wet aboard them.
- Esploratori Fregate Corvette ed Avvisi italiano Autore Bargoni Ed. U.S.M.M. 1974.
- Almanacco storico delle Navi Militari Italiane 1861 – 1995 Autori Giorgerini - Nani Ed. U.S.M.M. 1996.
The author, a former Navy officer, spend over four years aboard these vessels with different ranks and assignments.
Translated from Italian by Cristiano D'Adamo and edited by Laura K. Yost
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