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Boats

by Cristiano D'Adamo


The submarine Malaspina was one of the six boats of the Marconi class. It was named after Alessandro Malaspina, the world-famous Italian navigator. Laid down in 1939 by the shipyard OTO of Muggiano, near La Spezia, the vessel was delivered to the Navy on June 20th, 1940, a few days after the beginning of the war. Following a relatively short period for the usual shake down, the boat was assigned to the submarine base of La Spezia.

Operational Life

1940

On July 29th, the Malaspina left La Spezia for a patrol into the Atlantic. Under the command of Commander Mario Leoni, the submarine crossed the Strait of Gibraltar the night of September 3rd, while proceeding at the maximum speed of 16 knots, and at 3:35 AM the crew sighted in the clear and luminescent night the menacing silhouette of an enemy destroyer. The captain gave the order to dive and, slowly the large vessel disappeared under the surface to meet, and fortunately avoid, a tragic destiny. Commander Leoni described these tense moments in his mission report:

“The submarine, as usual, for the first 30 to 40 seconds remained horizontal, dove one or two meters,and thereafter began going down by the bow. When the bow was down 10°, in leveling the aft planes, it is discovered that they are locked in a down 20° position. The forward planes are then set full up and at a depth of 20 meters I give orders to blow the emergency tank.

The submarine goes down quickly by the bow up to 35° and in a few seconds reaches the depth of 25 meters. After we passed the 15° down by the bow, I order the tanks closed and air to the ballast tanks (except the aft ballast tank), full blown.

The submarine, in seven or eight seconds, thus before the tank valves were closed, reaches a depth of 70 meters.

The opening of the air valves and the leveling of the two reserve air systems is done rapidly, but with great difficulties because personnel in the control room has fallen, since the beginning of the maneuver, near the forward passageway, while I am gripped to the controls of the hydraulic system, but cannot reach the telegraphs to order the engine stopped.

Although we keep pumping air into the tanks, ballast tanks and emergency tank, the submarine keeps going down quickly remaining 35° down by the bow.

Reached 130 meters, the descend slows down, but it does not stop. At a depth of 147 meters at the main gage (152 meters at the center of the hull and 165 meters forward) the submarine stops, and still 35° down by the bow remains at this depth for about 10 seconds and then begins to rise, first slowly and then rapidly.”

After surviving this ordeal and having successfully crossed the strait, the boat began its patrol and, on August 12th, intercepted the British tanker “British Fame”, a unit dispersed from convoy OB193 from Liverpool. The sinking took place in position 37° 44’ N, 22° 56’ W. Three of the crew members perished, one was captured as a prisoner of war, and the remaining 45 survived. According to Walter Ghetti, author of “Storia della Marina italiana”, Commander Leoni towed the surviving crew of the British vessel closer to land. This modern motor tanker, built in 1936 by the shipyards Swan, Hunter, & Wigham Richardson of Sunderland, belonged to the British Tanker Company of London.

Eventually, the Malaspina reached Bordeaux on September 4th, at 8:00 PM (Rome Standard Time). During this first patrol, the second in command was Lieutenant Oreste Odorici, while the navigation officer was sub-lieutenant Giovanni Volterra.

On the last day of September, the Malaspina was visited by Admiral Doenitz as part of his inspection of the newly established Italian base of Bordeaux. Soon after, the boat would be again at sea for another patrol. This patrol is eloquently narrated by the U.S.M.M. (Historical Division of the Italian Navy) in the book “I sommergibili negli oceani”:

“The Malaspina (Commander Mario Leoni) left Bordeaux in the afternoon of October 9th and on the 18th of the same month reached the patrol area west of Scotland where it intercepted a discovery signal radioed by a German submarine. Having immediately changed course to approach the convoy, the boat continued for 30 hours, reaching position 59 25 N, 30 10 W without sighting the convoy, which meantime had dispersed.

The night of the 20th, the Malaspina attacked a ship of about 3,400 t. The first torpedo was deflected by the waves, and of a second launch of three torpedoes, one reached the target. The Malaspina began firing with the deck gun, but it soon had to interrupt due to the darkness of the night, which did not allow the crew to locate their hits, while it gave the ship, which had the advantage of better stability and a higher position, the possibility of closing their hits to the cunning tower. Contact with the merchant ship, lost after a heavy squall, was later never re-established. On October 31st, at 13:15 in position 57 17 Nm 23 25 W with heavy sea and marine fog, the Malaspina sighted during a brief clearing a convoy of 7 ships at a speed of 12 knots on course due SW with the escort of two destroyers, one of which, placing itself constantly between the convoy and the submarine, forced the boat first to go away and then submerge. Thus, the boat lost contact with the convoy.

On November 4th, at 13:10 in position 51 00 N, 20 $) W, having left the patrol area two days ahead of schedule due to limited range, the boat sighted another convoy of 17 ships, on course due SSE, speed 8 knots, all vessels of limited displacement escorted by an auxiliary cruiser positioned at the end of the convoy. The submarine, which had kept uninterrupted contact, attempted around sunset to close distance, but the auxiliary cruiser, probably having sighted the submarine, maneuvered several times to remain in between, forcing the submarine to go away until darkness, when the opportunity of the Malspina to reestablish contact vanished.

On November 5th, at 7:10 at about 800 miles from the Gironde, near the 20th meridian, where at the time the largest part of the British traffic was routed, the Malaspina sited an auxiliary cruiser, a converted liner of great displacement on due course NW and which, having sighted the submarine, changed course to intercept the vessel at a speed of 20 knots. At about 5,000 meters, the cruiser opened fire, forcing the submarine to dive. Lost contact, and after two quick reappearances of the cruisers in between squalls, the Malaspina gave up the chase and moved on toward Bordeaux where it arrived in the afternoon of November 9th.”


1941

After a brief period for refitting, the Malaspina was again at sea on January 5th, 1941, assigned to the same operational area west of Scotland. On the 13th, the boat reached the assigned area where it continued the patrol until the 24th without detecting any traffic. Following orders from Betasom, Commander Leoni moved to a new area to the south where, within 2 days from its arrival, the crew sighted a destroyer which, due to the poor beta, could not be attacked. Again, in the morning of the 28th, Commander Leoni had the opportunity to attack another enemy vessel, this time an auxiliary cruiser moving at about 16 knots, but the distance to the target was too great to conduct a favorable attack. The 30th of January, the Malaspina left the patrol area, reaching Le Verdon February 28th. At the end of this patrol, Commander Leoni left the Malaspina to take command of the destroyer Malocello, while Lieutenant Giuliano Prini replaced him.

Another unsuccessful patrol took place from the 23rd of April to early June as part of the Da Vinci patrol group. This time, despite having sighted a large convoy of over 20 ships west of Ireland, the boat failed to conduct an attack. As with other Italian submarines, operations in the North Atlantic were becoming less and less productive. According to the documentation provided by the U.S.M.M., on the night of May 3rd the Malaspina attacked, hitting with one torpedo the British liner Lycaon that, despite some substantial damage, was able to take advantage of the frequent squalls to elude the hunter. On the 20th, the Malaspina was attacked by an airplane, followed by three destroyers, which hunted the boat for over 9 hours making any offensive maneuver improbable and certainly impossible. This would be the last patrol north, as the following one took place off Gibraltar and produced two successes.

After having left Bordeaux on June 27th, following a very brief period of rest, the Malaspina was sent west of Gibraltar. On July 3rd, the crew sighted a destroyer, which could not be attacked due to unfavorable kinematics conditions. A few days later, on the 14th, Captain Prini hunted down the Greek merchant ship Nikiklis of 3,576 t. 105 miles southwest of the Azores. This older ship, built in 1921 by the Burger Shipyard as the Lingedijk belonged to the Maraitis Lines of Athens. Of the 28 crewmembers, 17 survived.

Only three days later, Captain Prini scored another success, this time the British merchant ship Guelma of 4,402 t. Belonging to “La Tunisienne Steamship Co”, the Guelma was built in 1928 by the Rhead Shipyard. The sinking took place in position 30° 44’ N, 17° 33’ W and all 41 crewmembers were rescued. After a few additional days on patrol, the Malaspina returned to base for another period of refitting, this time lasting until September.

On September 18th, 1941 Captain Romolo Polacchini, who since April had replaced Captain Also Cocchia as the Chief of Staff of Betasom, took over the command of the Italian Atlantic submarine forces from vice-admiral Angelo Parona, who, in the meantime, had been called to command a naval division. It is during this period that the Morosini was assigned to a new mission, along with the Da Vinci, Morosini and Torelli, west of the Strait of Gibraltar, a patrol area just visited during the previous mission and mode adapted to the characteristics of the Italian vessels. Thus, on September 7th, the Morosini sailed from Bordeaux still under the command of Lieutenant Prini. The official records indicate that the boat was due back to port in late October, but never arrived. On November 18th, the Italian authorities declared it lost at sea in unknown circumstances.

The fate of the Malaspina remained uncertain for several decades until, in March 2004, Dr. Axel Niestlè and Eric Zimmerman published a report crediting the loss of this submarine to an attack by a Sunderland. Part of this report reads:

“In some post-war publications the destruction of Malaspina is attributed to the attack of the destroyer HMS Vimy on 21 September 1941 while escorting convoy HG 73 enroute from Gibraltar to Liverpool. However this attack was actually directed against the Italian submarine Luigi Torelli, which suffered serious damage in the action, forcing the boat to return to base. Likewise, Malaspina was credited by the German U-boat Command and Betasom Command with a successful attack against convoy HG-73 in position BE 7648 (44.09’N / 21.45’W) on 24 September 1941. However, this credit was based entirely on the observation of a German reconnaissance aircraft of KG 40, which had sighted a convoy in the above given position and then noted two sinking steamers and another on fire at 1410 and 1425 hours. As there were no reported successes by either German or Italian submarines it was decided that the Malaspina must have been responsible. This decision was made despite the fact that there had been no signal from the boat made since her departure from Bordeaux and that also signals sent to her had gone unheeded. Moreover, there is no report of any Allied ships being lost or damaged in this area on that date.

A thorough examination of all Allied A/S-attacks during September 1941 in the Bay of Biscay and within the boundaries of the initial operational area assigned to Malaspina nevertheless revealed a very promising attack by Sunderland “U” of 10 Squadron RAAF on 10 September 1941 in position 46º23’N / 11º22’W. At 1200 hours, the aircraft sighted a fully surfaced submarine 1000 yards away on the port bow, running on course 260º and estimated speed of 8 knots. As the aircraft was at 1000 feet at the time of sighting and too close to make a direct attack, a turn was made to starboard and height lost to 50 feet. As the turn commenced the submarine submerged bow first. The aircraft closed and attacked down line of the submerging wash with the blue green shape of the submarine hull still visible when the Mk VII depth charges, set to explode at 50 and 100 feet, were released. The first depth charge was estimated to have been a direct hit between the conning tower and the stern and the second depth charge is thought to have been a hit forward of the conning tower. The third depth charge hung up and the fourth fell approximately 140 feet ahead of the submarine. After the attack the Sunderland climbed to 500 feet and turned to investigate a large red-brown patch approximately 100 yards from the position of the explosions. The front gunner observed what might have been the under wash of the submarine attacked but the observer stated that from the port midships position he distinctly saw the submarine stationary underwater partly in the brown patch. A second attack was made thereafter with the one remaining depth charge, which, however, failed to explode. A film of oil was observed on the surface three minutes after the first explosions. The aircraft then circled over the position for 20 minutes. The submarine, which was thought to be a German ocean going U-boat, was camouflaged with purple, green, and gray paint. No forward gun was visible and no members of the crew were seen. Afterwards the Sunderland carried out a search in the attack area until 1525 hours when the Prudent Limit of Endurance was reached and course was set back to base. 48 hours after this attack and within 35 miles of the position other aircraft investigating the area saw a large oil patch. Also oil bubbles two feet in diameter were gushing to the surface at the location but no air bubbles were seen.

From the description of the attack it is very likely that the boat attacked must have suffered at least serious damage if not sunk. From relevant German and Italian documents it is known that none of the Axis submarines transiting through the Bay of Biscay on 10 September 1941 and returning to base thereafter reported being attacked by aircraft this day at or anywhere near the position of attack. In addition, none of the German U-boats then at sea and lost thereafter could have been the target of the attack. The only boat in question was the outbound Malaspina, which could have reached the position of attack at the time given.

Based on the foregoing information it is proposed to amend the loss of the Italian submarine Alessandro Malaspina in the way that it was sunk on 10 September 1941 by depth charges from Sunderland “U” (serial # W3986) of 10 Squadron RAAF, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Athol Galway Hope Wearne, in position 46º23’N / 11º22’W.”


(Photo courtesy Erminio Bagnasco and Achille Rastelli)
Considering that the location of the attack was 435 miles from Bordeaux, and that the estimated speed of the vessel (8 knots) was the accurate cruising speed, it is reasonable to accept the findings of these two researchers as accurate and therefore the official Italian records should be emended.

The report of Dr. Axel Niestlè and Mr. Eric Zimmerman is copyrighted and reproduced with permission of the authors.

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