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Boats

By Cristiano D'Adamo


1940 At the beginning of the hostilities (June 10th, 1940), the submarine Michele Bianchi was assigned to the naval base of La Spezia where it completed a period of training, which protracted until August 15th, date of the first war mission. Two days after its departure, after having reached the Strait of Gibraltar, the boat remained on patrol until September 3rd. On the 25th, it sank a small vessel whose name and characteristics are unknown. After returning to base, the boat was transferred to the shipyard for special refitting work in preparation for an assignment to the newly established submarine base of Bordeaux, in France.

The Bianchi, at the command of C.C. Adalberto Giovannini, left La Spezia on October 27th directed to Bordeaux. The boat was part of a transfer group that included the Morosini, Brin and the Marcello, while the Mocenigo and Velella had to be delayed. Reached Punta Almina (Punta Europa) at 01:05 of the 3rd of November, Giovannini began the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar submerged. Between 2:20 and 4:27, the boat was detected by British units and hunted with towed torpedoes and depth charges (1). At 8:00, the boat began experiencing serious control issues due to the strong currents that dragged it down to a depth of 118 meters. This phenomenon took place aboard several Italian vessels and was probably caused by the strong opposing currents coming into the Mediterranean and going into the Atlantic (in general, due to high evaporation, currents tend to enter the Mediterranean, but others do exit it).

With the depth of the water becoming shallower, the hydrophones began to pick up sound from surface units, and the captain thought best to rest the boat on the bottom of the ocean and wait. The wait lasted from 11:50 until 13:00, but then it had to be abandoned because the strong current was dragging the hull against the rocky bottom, possibly causing damages. At 15:45, a new loss of depth plunged the vessel to 142 meters, well over the maximum allowed depth. The situation was worrisome; the air reserve was getting low and batteries were running dry. It was time to get back to the top. Surface was reached at 15:55 at about 6 miles from Tangier. After only five minutes, a flying boat of the 202nd Squadron from Gibraltar identified the Bianchi, but it did not attack it. After 90 minutes, with the air supply partially replenished, the boat sought again refuge into the abyss at about two miles from Cape Spartel (Marocco). What follows is copy of the report compiled by Commander Giovannini:

November 3rd, 1940 Controlling depth is very difficult. At 18:20 I stop the engines and begin to rest on the bottom by taking an easterly course, parallel to the coastline. Suddenly, the bottom jumps from 70 to 40 meters and at 38 meters a drag with the external appendices (barchette) on the sandy bottom. The boat is pushed up and quickly gains depth, as if we were following a rapidly raising bottom. I attempt to anchor the boat by flooding the quick dive tank; at 18:24, when I am at 10 meters, I stop due to a strong collision aft. I’m pushed up even further, and the periscope sleeves end up out of the water. From the periscope I see the bow out of the water and stuck through reefs and rocks of the steep coastline. Since I consider having run aground dangerous, I order the boat up by blowing the tanks using high-pressure air. I’m precisely at Punta de los Pichones. Off shore, I see three enemy destroyers align to the coast, spaced about 3000 to 4000 meters from each other, and moving slowly. Two aircraft provide support. I raise the flag and arm the deck gun and the machine guns. I have not been sighted and I free myself from the reefs maneuvering with the electric motors. Soon after, an airplane sees me and signals with green flares. The destroyer in the middle, at about 6000 meters, turn rapidly to port increasing speed and pointing toward me. A forth destroyer appears at the opening of the strait and moving fast. I cannot submerge and cannot use the forward torpedo tubes. I must accept combat in such conditions of inferiority, which would surely guarantee the loss of the vessel before I could inflict any damage to the enemy. Therefore, I give order not to open fire, unless attacked, and I move to enter the neutral port of Tangier. I also give orders to destroy all secret publications, and the secret operational orders I have aboard. The destroyer H.05 approaches us at high speed, attempting to gain over us. It does not open fire and does not aim its guns at us. When, at the entrance of the port I slow down, the destroyers gets to about 600 meters, turns to port, and returns outside the territorial waters. The four units remain on watch until night. I enter port at 19:00 and, following instruction from a Spanish motorboat, which had come from a dock, and moor to the Eastern buoy.

After having repaired some damage, the Bianchi departed on the 12th, and the day after, along with the Brin, eluded the careful British watch to then reach the Atlantic. This delay, along with the damage suffered, recommended the abandonment of the patrol outside of the Strait of Gibraltar, and the boat sailed directly to Bordeaux. On the 18th of December at 5:40, the Bianchi witnessed the exchange of fire between the Brin and the British submarine Tuna. Eventually, the boat reached the estuary of the River Gironde from which it then continued on, reaching the base of Bordeaux the same afternoon.

1941 After a pause of about a month in Bordeaux, the Bianchi was assigned, along with the Otaria, Marcello and Barbarigo, to a mission off the coast of Ireland to be conducted in concert with the German allied and under the directives of B.d.U. The boat was part of a deployment group which included U-boats and aerial reconnaissance by the Luftwaffe.

On the 14 of February, soon after his arrival in the area of operations, Commander Giovannini sighted in the darkness of the night the British ship BELCREST of 4,517 t. which was sunk with two torpedoes. This steamship, built in 1925 by the shipyard “ Northcumberland Shipping Co.” of Howden-on-Tyne was previously known as the Treherbert (1939) and Gardèpèe and belonged to “Crest Shipping” of London. The location of the sinking was given at 54° N, 21° W and all 36 crewmembers lost their lives. This was one of the dispersed units of convoy SC.21 from Halifax to Great Britain. During this period, on February 19th, the Luftwaffe signaled the presence of a convoy of about 30 ships, probably OB.288. During the events that followed, Italian and German submarines alike attacked the convoy, thus creating great confusion in regards to credits for the sinking. Confirmation of the fact that this area was full of submarines is given by the sighting of a periscope made on the 22nd of February by the Bianchi (57° 55’N, 17° 40’W). It is assumed that this could have been the periscope of the Marcello which, faced with intense antisubmarine activity, was lost in circumstances to this day unclear.

Continuing to follow orders issued by B.d.U., the Bianchi moved to an area westerly of the one originally assigned, making contact with enemy units on both the night of the 23rd and 24th of February. The first attack was carried out against the British cargo Manistree of 5,360 t., later sunk by U.107. The night of the 24th, the Bianchi conducted another attack against a cargo ship whose identity has long been matter of debate. Commander Giovannini wrote about the action:

February 24th, 1941 11:54 Signal informing us of a convoy. Since it is to our stern, we turn around. 16:45 I begin the approach. New signal giving a new position for the convoy. I move full force to close contact. 17:45 Sighting of a ship at the horizon. We maneuver to keep ourselves out of sight waiting for a favorable position from which to attack. We identify zigzagging [of the convoy]. 17:50 Sighting of a German 750 t. submarine [Type VII] at about 1,500 meters. 21:22 We slow down to decrease distance. Second sighting of the allied submarine which is evidently maneuvering to attack the same target. 22:20 Sighting of the target a distance of 3000 to 4000 meters. I attack from the bow. 22:34 Sighting of the allied submarine which is attacking from the bow the same target. 22:38 The allied submarine rapidly change course to starboard to attack from the stern. I turn around to port not to impede his maneuver. I attack from the stern. 22:45 The allied submarine has launched and hit the target which is not sinking, but begins to list and moves very slowly with the rudder fixed. [alla banda] 22:45 We maker full turn to starboard. A get closer to attack from the bow, at the minimum [distance]. From 600 meters, I launched a 533 mm torpedo which hits the stern. The ship lists even more while the crew gets into the lifeboats. 23:05 I leave the area to free up the allied submarine. We resume looking for other units of the convoy.

Originally, the ship described in this action was identified as the Waymegate of 4,260 t. This cargo ship was given by the Lloyds of London lost in position 58° 50’N, 21° 47’W with the complete rescue of all 44 crewmembers. This sinking is credited to U.73 of Commander Rosenbaum. The “Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Marinearchiv” of Stuttgart, Germany confirms this information. In an historical revision completed by Mattesini, the boat in question was later identified as the Linaria, but this was sunk by U.96 of Commander Lehmann-Willenbrock in position 61°N, 25°W at 1:16 AM (GST).

The attack of the Bianchi was conducted at 23:05 of February 23rd (Rome time). According to the above-mentioned “Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Marinearchiv” (the author in question is the famous “Jürgen Rohwer”), the ship sunk by the Bianchi with the aid of U.96 was the HUNTINGDON, of 10,946 t. This assumption cannot be fully confirmed, but it is quite credible, especially because it was made by one of the most respected German naval historian.

L’Huntingdon was a steamship of German construction (1920) previously known as the Munsterland and belonged to the “Federal Steam Navigtion Co.” of London. The ship is given lost in position 58° 25’N, 20° 23’W and all 66 crewmembers were rescued.

The good hunt of the Bianchi was not over. During the twilight of the 27th, Giovannini intercepted three ships belonging to the same convoy. The first ship, probably the Empire Ability, avoided the torpedoes, while the second one, the BALTISTRAN, was hit right on. The Baltistran was a British steamship of 6,803 t. built in 1937 by “insert” of South Shields and belonged to the “Strick Line”. The sinking was given in position 51° 52’N, 19° 55’W and 51 crewmembers were lost, while the remaining 18 were rescued.

Immediately after the attack, the Bianchi avoided an auxiliary cruiser seeking shelter into the abyss. Completed the patrol, the Bianchi began the return voyage reaching Bordeaux on March 4th, 1941. During the usual period of refitting, C.C. Giovannini disembarked leaving the command to C.C. Franco Tosoni Pittoni.
The next mission was not very successful. As part of the Marconi group and with four other boats, the Bianchi left the Aquitane capital on April 30th, 1941 to move again off the British Islands. On the 12th, the Bianchi intercepted in a small convoy position 56° 40’N, 24° 40’W escorted by various light units. This fast convoy, estimated at 14 knots, did not allow the Italian boat to keep up with it, thus Commander Tosoni Pittoni limited his actions to sending a discovery signal. Again, the Bianchi found a convoy on the 15th of May, but this time it had to give up due to the intense fight put up by the escort units. What follows is part of the war diary and it documents the intensity of the activity of the escort units:

May 15th, 1941 9:15 I sight smoke in the direction from which I expect the convoy to appear. I move up and a few minutes later I quickly sight ten more, then fifteen, and twenty. 9:21 I send without hesitation the first discovery signal without specifying anything about the convoy because I believe the communication to be urgent, important for the moment and accurate enough even though missing course and speed. I get closed to identify the formation, but before I could identify its course, the rear escort unit approaches me. I cannot run away on the surface because I quickly see the top of the mast and the funnel; at 10:00 I get away by diving and without getting spotted. I take the best course to get close to the convoy. Brief and sporadic use of the periscope, and rapid dives to avoid being sighted by aerial reconnaissance; I prepare a more thorough discovery signal and go up to periscope depth at 10:30, 11:00 and 11:50 to verify if it possible to submerge to send the signal (radio communication). At each visual verification I note that the convoy makes turns to port 240, 270 and 300. Since I reached submerged up to a distance of about 10 to 12 meters where I could see the bridges of the ships, I verified the presence of about 30 ships into two lines or maybe three, with a large escort ahead, to the sides and to the rear. 12:10 Due to the starboard turns of the convoy, the line of ships appears very slowly and since of the long wave radio I only heard a repetition of by earlier message, I found necessary to give further information. I dive to a depth of 60 meters, and move away from the enemy by turning to port,; engine half speed, course due north. During this phase, the hydrophones do not pick up any sound, not even when I could make visual contacts with the periscope. 13:00 The convoy is passed us enough; I wait a few more minutes so that the rear escort units can get further away and at 13:05 I emerge. I send the discovery message with the average courses observed and I return to make contact on the left of the convoy to keep myself away from the rear escort units. 14:25 Due to a round made by the external screen I dive gain to avoid being sighted. 15:25 The convoy, after it had returned on due course 270, continue turning to port on a 240 course and may be for an even more southerly course moving away from me. The head of the convoy as almost reached the 19th parallel and I think that course is 300 was taken, as a fake, before turning south. I decide to reach the surface to conduct a better observation. 15:35 I emerge. While I attempt to signal again and while I am exhausting the central ballast tank I sight, on my left and very close an camouflaged airplane coming out of the sun beam. 15:45 I order a crash dive, even though I am not safe from an eventual aerial attack, because I am forced to do so due to the presence of nearby surface escort units. 16:20 35 minutes after diving I hear the first explosion of depth charges which shake the hull. I stop all notice making equipment. The hydrophones do not pick up any sound by I cannot trust them since all morning they have not been able to detect any sound, not even the nearby convoy. 16:47 The dropping begins following intervals ever closer until I hear from the hull noise of the bubbling of gases following the explosions. 17:57 A lone explosion make me believe that the enemy unit is moving away after having dropped 29 depth charges. I restart the Calzoni (pump) to reach periscope depth but at 18:36 I give up and return down due to the explosion of other charges. I am much impeded by the fact the I cannot trust the hydrophones. The explosions continue weaker and then stronger, with bubbling noises and vibrations to the hull. They start again, but weaker, around 23:10. We detected a total of 80 explosions. During the long waits I attempted to come up to periscope depth I I always had to give due to the explosions. 23:30 I restart all services and the Calzoni pump and begin the ascent. I listen to the radio on the midnight long wave channel, then I emerge and move to a new point assigned to me by Betasom (50 05’N, 21 25’W); the leftmost point of a group pf 5 submarines moving in parallel.

On the 19th, the Bianchi intercepts a discovery signal from the Otaria, but it is too far to intervene. A few days later, on May 2nd, having reached the end of the fuel reserve it began the return voyage to base arriving between the 25th and the 30th of May.

After the mediocre, if not limited success in the northern Atlantic (excluding the Bianchi) Betasom’s shark of steel were assigned to the more temperate waters of the central Atlantic and the coast of Africa.

After a routine maintenance period, the Bianchi took again to the sea on July 4th, 1941 assigned to an area west of the Strait of Gibraltar as part of a group of nine boats. After a single day at sea, a British submarine sank the Bianchi. For many years, the fate of this vessel was unsure; the first British reports credited the sinking to the submarine Severn, but later the sinking was credited to the Tigris. It should also be noted that the original date of the sinking communicated by the Royal Navy (July 8th) was later corrected to more probable one of July 5th. The entire crew was lost.

(1) The leader, according o the British version of the facts was the destroyer Grayhound. These units called by the airplane reached the area when the Brin had already dived. The British naval command received news of the arrival in Tangiers of the Italian submarine from the local consulate.

Edited by Laura K. Yost


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