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Boats

by Cristiano D'Adamo


The MARCELLO was the first of a series of 11 boats and which bears its name (Marcello Class). The boat was laid down at the C.R.D.A. shipyard of Monfalcone on January 4th, 1937, launched on November 20th of the same year, and delivered to the Navy on March 5th, 1938. After a brief period of training and testing, the boat was assigned to the 21st Squadron, 2nd Submarine Group with its base in Naples. Foles Buonamici commanded the MARCELLO from the 25th of September 1939 to the 22nd of February 1940. Later, the boat was under the command of Raffaele Barbera from February 23rd 1940 to April 4th, and later transferred to the command of Luigi Domini.

Operational Life

Even before the beginning of the hostilities, the MARCELLO was one of the six boats assigned to a screen to be deployed between Capo Palos, Cape Falcon and Cape Tenes in the western Mediterranean. The MARCELLO left Naples on June 5th, 1940 and while in navigation a failure of the cooling system caused a methyl chloride leak with subsequent poisoning of part of the crew. Thus the mission was abandoned and the boat returned to Cagliari on June 10th, the day of the declaration of war.

After the necessary repairs, the MARCELLO was called up to another mission with the MEDUSA for a short patrol 25 miles NE, 40 miles east of the Island of La Galite to be conducted in coordination with surface vessels of the 1st Naval Division against French traffic to North Africa. The boat arrived in the area on June 23rd, but then returned right away to port due to the cancellation of the action. Eventually, the boat reached Naples where the commanding officer, Luigi Domini was disembarked on July 29th and replaced by Carlo Alberto Teppati who would perish aboard the vessel in Atlantic.

During the month of August, the MARCELLO was part of another mission in the western Mediterranean (from the 2th to the 19th), which included the GONDAR and the ASCIANGHI, to patrol the area east of the Strait of Gibraltar, primarily around the 36th parallel. In those days operation “Hurry” was underway for the transport of aircraft from Gibraltar to Malta. Furthermore, the British had organized the bombardment of Cagliari by carrier-based aircrafts and also a diversionary action off the Balearic Islands. Despite the large activity at sea, the MARCELLO did not sight any vessel and, at the end of the mission, returned to port having navigated 2,432 miles.

At the end of this mission, the boat received orders to transfer to the Atlantic to become part of the new submarine base established in Bordeaux. The MARCELLO was part of a transfer group that included the BIANCHI, MOROSINI, and BRIN, while the MOCENIGO and VELELLA were delayed. After departure, which took place on October 31st (the day before the new moon), the boat crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to then go on patrol off Oporto. The MARCELLO, still under the command of Lieutenant Commander Carlo Alberto Teppani, completed the difficult crossing the night of November 5th, submerged, with favorable weather conditions and without encountering any enemy vessel. During navigation the boat received orders to replace the BIANCHI which, due to damage suffered during the Strait of Gibraltar, had to make directly for the base. Thus, from the 7th to the 27th of November, the MARCELLO remained on patrol off Cape S. Vincenzo but without intercepting any target despite news received of a convoy departing Gibraltar. Having left the patrol area on November 27th, the boat arrived in Bordeaux for the first time on December 2nd.

In early January 1941, the MARCELLO left for its first mission completely in the Atlantic as part of a group that included the MALASPINA and TORELLI. The group was assigned an area between 59 30’ N, 53 00’ N and 17 00’ W, 20 00’ W. The MARCELLO left Le Verdon, at the estuary of the river Gironde, the night of January 11th to reach the area of operations six days later. As soon as he arrived, Commander Teppani sighted a convoy and moved to its stern to determine speed and direction. Soon after, a destroyer from the escort sighted the Italian boat (not too difficult due to the size of the cunning tower), thus the MARCELLO had to dive even before launching the discovery signal. The enemy vessel launched only 5 depth charges, but they damaged the forward trim tank. After the all clear, the boat surfaced to launch the discovery signal. After assessing the seriousness of the damage, the MARCELLO aborted the mission on the 19th to return to Bordeaux. On the 20th, after having sighted a ship on the surface, the crew lost contact underwater (maybe due to problems with the hydrophones or the horrible weather conditions), and regained it once back on the surface where it attacked with the deck gun.


Despite Italian documentation dating back to 1963 which indicates that this attack failed, it has been ascertained that the MARCELLO indeed attacked and sank the Belgian ship “Portugal”, of 1,550 t. and not the Greek “Eleni” as indicated at the time by the xB-Dienst (naval cryptanalytic division). The “Portugal” was an old ship built in 1906 by the AG Neptun shipyard of Rostok (Germany) and previously known as the “Barman” (1922), “Consule Cords”, and “Minna Bolt”. The ship belonged to “Compagnie National Belge de Transports Maritimes”. It should be said that during the attack four gunners were dragged into the sea by the fierce weather. Three were rescued, but the fourth, probably stunned after an impact with the boat’s structure, disappeared between the waves despite the intense search. The MARCELLO continued on, arriving in Puillac on January 24th.

After a brief period at the base, the MARCELLO was again assigned to a mission, this time as part of the "Group Bianchi”, along with the BIANCHI, OTARIA, and BARBARIGO. The MARCELLO, still under the command of Lieutenant Commander Teppani, left Bordeaux on February 6th with orders to reach an area between 14 00’ W and 17 00’ W and between 55 N and 56 N (a rectangle of about 61 by 101 miles). On the 18th, the MARCELLO was ordered to a new prearranged patrol area further north. The same day, the MARCELLO received orders to attack a large tanker that at 1330 was in position 6167 square 11 (to be determined) and previously damaged by an aircraft. On the 19th at 1205 (Rome Standard Time), the MARCELLO was ordered to a new area designated “B”. Later, at 1920, the MARCELLO and BARBARIGO were informed that an airplane had sighted a convoy in quadrant 4615 and the BARBARIGO was ordered to sub-quadrant 66 and the MARCELLO to sub-quadrant 46 both with orders to patrol along the parallel (East-West and vice-versa). The boats were also informed that Germans submarines were in the area of operations. On the 21st, at 0223, BETASOM issued a new set of orders. BARBARIGO was assigned to 46-67-36, BIANCHI to 46-99-52 and MARCELLO to 27-74-43. The following day, February 22nd at 0120, BETASOM sent another signal ordering the three submarines to patrol on a 45° route at a speed of 8 knots until further orders.

What follows are a series of assumptions often resulting from various mistakes made by the British and Italian naval authorities.

On the 24th at 1015, BETASOM ordered the submarines to communicate their position. The same order was issued again on the 25th at 1200. Later that day, at 2020, BETASOM ordered the BARBARIGO, BIANCHI and MARCELLO to move to a new position; 5399 11 for the BARBARIGO, 2799 44 for the BIANCHI and 6199 13 for the MARCELLO. The same message indicated a convoy of 25 ships in position 2715 sub quadrant 25 direction 270 at the speed of 7 knots at 1400. The following day, BETASOM indicated at 0220 that the convoy was at 2350 (of the previous day) in position 61 90, sub quadrant 56 moving at 8 knots in direction 230. The boats were ordered to converge.

On the 27th at 0215, BETASOM informed the submarines that the convoy was now dispersed and ordered the attack on two ships in position 56-99/66 moving at the speed of 4 knots in direction 270. The same day, BETASOM informed Rome at 1125 that they had lost contact with the MARCELLO. This telegram was followed by another one on the 9th of March in which BETASOM informed Rome of the following:

The morning of February 22nd at 1000, the BIANCHI sighted a “submerged submarine” in position 57° 55’ N, 17° 40’ W which could have been the MARCELLO. The same boat heard depth charges explosions, about 40 total, at 16:00 and again 21:15. The destroyer Montgomery, one of the old American four-stacks transferred to the Royal Navy by President Roosevelt, conducted an antisubmarine action in position 59° 00’ N, 17° 00’ W at 15:00 (16:00 Italian time) and it is believed that this action brought about the destruction of the Italian vessel. If the time is correct, between 10 AM (early morning in the area of operations and still under cover of darkness) and 4 PM the MARCELLO navigated no less than 68 miles while submerged. Assuming that the boat never came to the surface, it would be impossible for a boat of the MARCELLO class to cover 68 miles in 6 hours if not on the surface and at elevated speed.

If one also considers that the original document “German, Italian and Japanese U-Boat Casualties during the War” published in 1946 by the Admiralty attributes the sinking of the MARCELLO to a Sunderland of the 210 Squadron of the R.A.F. on January 6th (a month before the boat left port) west of the Hebrides Islands, then we must assume that the necessary checks and double checks did not take place.

On March 18th, 1941 BETASOM and MARICOSOM finally declared the MARCELLO missing. Years went by and with the cessation of the hostilities the various historical departments attempted to shed light on many war events, amongst them the loss of the MARCELLO. On February 12th 1949 the Italian Navy officially requested the collaboration of the British authorities in clarifying these events. The first correction made was simple since the R.A.F. had claimed the MARCELLO following an attack by a Sunderland (4210) on January 6th, 1941 date in which the MARCELLO was still in Bordeaux.

Later, the British Admiralty forwarded a letter to the Italian authorities on May 17th, 1954 (HSL.159/54) in which they informed their former enemies that the information reported on page 52 of “Warship Losses” (Navi Perdute, Tomo I) indicating the loss of the MARCELLO following an attack by a British Hurricane (aircraft) was also erroneous. The British attempted to clarify the record by indicating that “the most likely cause of the MARCELLO’s destruction seems to have been the attack by the Motgomery at 1550 of February 22nd 191”.

The Italian inquire completed on October 9th, 1949 was indeed embarrassing has it not only mistakenly reported some of the data provided by the British, but also failed to provide for the necessary references. In essence, it looked like the only interested was closing the file and moving on to new matters. As noted on the original documentation, this new version was accepted by the Ufficio Storico (USMM) on November 15th, 1956 and a note was handwritten indicating that the book “Navi Perdute - Tomo I” would be updated accordingly. To these days, the causes of the MARCELLO's loss are still unknown.

Additional notes
Clair Blair, the author of the book “Hitler’s U-Boot War” wrote: “During the night of February 23-25, five German boats and the Italian Bianchi attacked… During this melee, the Italian submarine Marcello, commanded by Carlo Alberto Teppani, arrived on the scene . One of the convoy escorts, the ex-American four-stack destroyer Montgomery, merely a month out of her overhaul and upgrade, spotted Marcello and attacked with guns and depth charges [1]. The attack was successful: Marcello sank with all hands. She was the first Axis submarine to fall victim to one of the American warship transferred to the Royal Navy in the “Destroyer Deal…”.

Giorgio Giorgerini, in his book “Uomini sul Fondo” (Men on the Bottom) published by Mondadori in 1994 wrote: “In the fist ten days of February the group “Bianchi” left Bordeaux (Bianchi, Marcello, Otaria, Barbarigo); unfortunately the Marcello lost all contacts: disappeared, without survivors. Some sources indicate February 21st as the possible date of the loss, and also indicate as the possible cause one of the three antisubmarine actions conducted by British ships. The first was conducted by the destroyer HURRICANE in position 56 19’ N, 07 59’ W. The second was conducted by the destroyer MOTGOMERY in position 59 00’ N, 17 00’ W. The third was conducted by the corvette PERWINKLE in position 59 18’ N, 14 32’ W. Nevertheless, none [of these actions] is positioned in full in the operational area of the Marcello which, starting February 19th, was between 57° 00’ N and 58° 00’ N.”

[1] We don't know where he gets his gun attack from, the report from Montgomery is quite specific "attacked firm contact with six depth charges - there was no evidence of destruction".


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