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Boats

by Admiral (ret) Attilio Duilio Ranieri


The submarine DELFINO (the same name was assigned to the first Italian submarine designed and build by Gen. Pullino at the beginning of the last decade of the 18th century) belonged to the class “SQUALO”. This class derived from and was an improvement on the preceding classes “PISANI” and “BANDIERA”, and was efficient and reliable and, as a matter of fact, brought to an end the experimental period of Italian submarine naval constructions.

The “SQUALO” class included four boats: SQUALO (2), NARVALO (2), DELFINO (2) and TRICHECO (2), all built by the C.R.D.A. shipyard of Monfalcone (Gorizia), between 1928 and 1931. The DELFINO was laid down on October 27th, 1928, launched on April 27th, 1930 and delivered to the Navy on June 19th, 1931.

Operational Life

Upon entering service, the DELFINO, along with the three other boats of the same class, was assigned to the 2nd Squadron based in La Spezia. In 1933, along with the TRICHECO, the boat completed a long cruise in the Black Sea. The following year, the four boats of the “SQUALO” class were transferred to Naples where they made up the 4th Submarine Squadron. From Naples, the DELFINO and TRICHECO completed a second cruise in the eastern Mediterranean. Toward the end of 1936, the boat began participating in the Spanish Civil War under the command of Lieutenant Folco Buonamici, completing a special mission from the 9th to the 24th of December. On patrol in the waters off Barcelona and Terragon, it attempted a single attack against a merchant ship, but failed to succeed.

In 1937, the DELFINO was assigned to the Red Sea. Later on, the four boats of the same class were reunited, first in 1938 as part of the 33rd Squadron of the 3rd Submarine Group based in Messina; later, in 1940, as part of the 51st Squadron of the 5th Submarine Group based in Leros (Greece).

Upon Italy’s entry into the war (June 10th 1940), the DELFINO was under the command of Lieutenant Giuseppe Aicardi and already on patrol off the Strait of Khesos (Greece). Other missions quickly followed, one after another. On July 18th, while on patrol in the Doros Channel, the DELFINO was attacked by a British submarine, but was able to avoid the torpedo. A few hours later, the boat again sighted the enemy vessel, this time launching a torpedo. A strong explosion and a tall column of water made the crew believe that the torpedo had reached its target, but there is no reference to this action in any British documentation.

On August 15th, while on patrol off the Cyclades Islands, the DELFINO was the protagonist of a very sad episode, such as for a long time it was not mentioned in the official historical annals: the sinking of the old Greek light cruiser HELLI in the harbor of the Island of Tino, during the celebrations of Assumption. During the attack a merchant ship was also hit and sank into the shallow waters, while a third weapons hit the docks.

The attack, planned and executed in total secrecy (not even Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister knew about it), was ordered by the Italian Governor for the Aegean, the zealous and bellicose De Vecchi (he was part of the Fascist “quadrumvirato”), under instructions from his superiors (it appears that the order was issued by Mussolini himself, via Supermarina). De Vecchi augmented these orders when he gave instructions (verbally) to Captain Aicardi. The intention was to intimidate Greece, not yet involved in the conflict but under suspicion, and rightly so, of favoring British operations in the Aegean.

To Greek protests, the Italian government replied by rejecting all accusations, but was refuted by the recovery of debris of a torpedo of Italian manufacturing. To this, it was pathetically replied, attempting to shift the blame to England, that in the past some weapons from the Italian torpedo factory in Fiume had been sold to the British who had used them to inculpate the Italians.

After the war, Captain Aicardi reported that he had entered the bay to hit two small merchant ships when the Helli caught up with him and looked like it was moving against the submarine: the attack was inevitable. This was an ugly episode, useless and ignoble, which only achieved the result of provoking great resentment toward Italy. At the end of the conflict, within the peace treaty negotiations, Greece requested and obtained the assignment of the Italian cruiser Eugenio di Savoia as part of war reparations; it would be renamed Helli.

In November 1940, Lieutenant Aicardi passed the command of the DELFINO to Lieutenant Commander Alberto Avogadro di Cerrione. In the next mission, from November 25th to the 30th in the northern Aegean Sea, on the 29th he sighted a convoy against which two torpedoes were launched. Explosions were clearly heard and it was believed that, perhaps, the Greek destroyer PSARA might have been hit, but this was never confirmed.

On August 1st, 1941, during a patrol off Tobruk, the DELFINO was attacked by a British airplane type “Sunderland”, but it defended itself with the machine guns and was able to shoot it down, rescuing four members of the crew. The following missions, until February 1942, took place in the Sicilian Channel and in the waters of Malta. In February 1942, Captain Avogadro relinquished command to Lieutenant Mario Violante who held command until the loss of the boat. With the new captain, the DELFINO was assigned to the Submarine School in Pola where it completed 67 training sorties.

On November 10th, 1942 the boat was sent back to the frontline in Taranto, with the onerous task of transporting materiel to North Africa. During three missions, from November 13th 1942 to January 6th, 1943, the DELFINO transported over 200 tons of ammunitions and fuel. Thereafter, it entered the shipyard in Taranto for a period of refitting lasting until March 20th. After, it relocated to Augusta.

On March 23th at 12:15, the DELFINO left Taranto, followed by a pilot boat which was to escort it outside the harbor. Precisely an hour later, six and one half miles for 205° from the S. Vito lighthouse, a sudden failure of the rudder abruptly veered the submarine: collision with the pilot boat was inevitable. The gash produced by the collision aft was large. Any counteraction was inevitable: the boat sank rapidly taking with it 28 crew members. Up to that moment, the DELFINO had completed 29 missions for a total of 17,429 miles, 1,756 of which were underwater.

Translated from Italian by Cristiano D'Adamo



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