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by Cristiano D'Adamo
The ARGO was one of the two submarines originally designed and built for the Portuguese Navy by the C.R.D.A. (Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico) shipyard of Monfalcone, near Trieste. In that period, 1920s and 1930s, several foreign navies purchased submarines from Italian shipyards. These two boats (the other one was the VELELLA), were already in an advanced state of completion when, due to financial difficulties, Portugal had to renounce their construction.
Thus, in 1935, these boats were acquired by the Regia Marina, which completed their construction, making some alterations to the original design. The two boats, named VELELLA and ARGO, made up the ARGO class of coastal submarines. They turned out to be a good purchase since their design, slightly altered, would be utilized to build the famous TRITONE class from 1941 to 1943. The ARGO, although laid down since the early 1930s, was officially laid down in September 1935, when the Regia Marina took over the project. It was launched on November 26th, 1936 and delivered to the Navy on August 31st, 1937.
At the beginning of the conflict, the ARGO was assigned to the 14Th Squadron, 1st Group based in La Spezia. From the 10th to the 11th of July, the boat was part of the screen of four submarines, which included the Iride, Scirč, and Diaspro, all positioned 15 miles apart. The ARGO, last boat of the screen, was ordered to a position 80 miles for 310° from the light of Point Asinara (Sardinia). Although during this patrol the ARGO was not able to sight any vessel, the Scirč, under the command of Liutenant Adriano Prini, sank the French ship Cheik of 1058 tons.
In August, the ARGO, still under the command of Lieutenant Alberto Crepas, completed a second patrol in the Mediterranean as part of a mission involving six other boats, the Scirč, Neghelli, Turchese, Medusa, Axum, and Diaspro. The Italian submarine command had ordered a screen on two lines (three and four boats each) north of Cape Bougaroni (6°20’E). The two lines were 10 miles apart and each submarine was positioned 20 miles from the next one. The second day into the mission, the Medusa had to return to base and was later replaced by the Manara. Despite the British Force H having crossed well past the position of the Italian screen, it had done so well north of the position where the submarines were located, thus there were two sightings. On the 8th, the mission was completed and the boats returned to base. The ARGO was to have more successful patrols in the Atlantic and later back in the Mediterranean.
In September the ARGO was selected as one of the many submarines assigned to the newly established base in Bordeaux (France). The boat left La Spezia on October 2nd, 1940 and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar underwater on the 8th. While at sea, the ARGO was ordered to an area 50 miles off Cape S. Vincent. Here, the boat joined the TAZZOLI, located 80 miles away, to create a screen. On the 11th, the Tazzoli sighted a convoy and the ARGO was immediately called to the scene, but failed to locate the enemy ships. On the 12th, after having moved away, the ARGO sighted and attacked an armed merchant vessel of unknown nationality, which was able to first avoid the torpedoes, and then the shots from the deck gun. Failing the attack, the ARGO remained in the area between the 14th and the 19th, and as soon as it ran out of fuel, it moved on to Bordeaux, reaching the new base on October 24th. The ARGO was the 21st submarine to reach Bordeaux and the last of a group of nine.
In November, the ARGO was part of the group “Giuliani”, along with the Giuliani, Tarantini and Torelli for a mission off the coast of Ireland. The group covered an area spanning from 15°W to 20°W and between 57°20’N and 53°20’N. German U-boats were instead located east of the Italian group. The ARGO left Bordeaux the evening of November 22nd and reached the assigned area six days later. At 04.49 on December 1st, Captain Crepas sighted a silhouette very low on the horizon. Concerned that it could be another Italian submarine, Captain Crepas sent a message with the on-board light. Once the ARGO was close enough, the unit was recognized as a two-stack destroyer and the attack commenced immediately. A single weapon (the Italians had a tendency to use only one weapon and this was often not sufficient in sinking the enemy vessel) was launched and it hit the target squarely. A second torpedo was also launched later on, giving the impression that the target was destroyed. Once back to the surface, the crew of the ARGO picked up numerous debris indicating the vessel in question as H.M.C.S. Sagueney (D79). Only 10 days later, the German submarine command (B.d.U.) received information that H.M.C.S. Saguenay, despite having been seriously damaged, had been towed back to England. After the war, the Royal Navy added that the destroyer was part of the escort for convoy HG.47 and that it had reached Barrow in Furness on December 5th (five days after the attack), confirming this information.
Lieutenant Crepas described the action as follows:
Copy of the war diary of the Argo.
The same night, having received a signal informing the ARGO of a convoy of 8 or 10 ships, the boat moves to the NE full force ahead, but capable of only 8 knots due to the heavy sea. In the early hours of the 2nd, the crew sighted flares, cannon shots and torpedo explosions. At 08.25 the ARGO sighted a small ship, stopped while picking up shipwrecked sailors, and launched a torpedo that failed right away, jumping out of the water. Immediately discovered, the submarine was the object of a prolonged hunt which lasted for over 5 hours and included the launch of 96 depth charges, some of which fell close to the hull. This was probably convoy HX.90 that had fallen victim to U 101, U 47 and U 99.
The ARGO continued on and on the 4th at 12.55 it sighted a Sunderland flying boat, which attempted an attack but was obstructed by the strong wind giving the submarine time to submerge. In the early hours of the 5th, the ARGO attacked and sank the British motorboat Silverpine of 5,066 tons, part of convoy OB.252 from Liverpool. This ship belonged to the Silver Line of London and was built in 1924 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson of Sunderland. The sinking took place in position 14°N, 18°08W and there were 36 casualties and 19 survivors. The Silverpine was a straggler of convoy OB252. After the attack, the ARGO was sighted by one of the escort units and, once again, it was forced in to an intense hunt lasting over 4 hours with the launch of 24 depth charges.
The following day, December 6th, the weather turned violent, causing the personnel on deck to be drenched under avalanches of water which entered the hull through one of the hatches, causing widespread damage to the equipment and the electrical system. Having ascertained the amount of damage suffered, Captain Crepas decided to return to base. In the afternoon of the 15th, with the tempest still tossing the small boat around, the second in command, Lieutenant Alessandro De Angelis, was thrown into the sea and the long and desperate attempt to save his life failed.
The tragic event is vividly described in Captain Crepas’ diary. Despite the heavy sea, he was able to drive the boat about 20 meters from De Angelis. A 23-year-old sailor, Chief Gunner Lorenzo Ciappetti, volunteered to dive into the boiling waters. The attempt was courageous but desperate and failed. Soon after, De Angelis’ head disappeared, never to be seen again. Somberly, the boat continued on, reaching Le Verdon near Bordeaux, on December 12th.
After the usual period of rest and refitting, the second Atlantic patrol of the ARGO began on February 27th, 1941. The boat was part of the Group “Velella” which included the Velella, Emo, Mocenigo, and the Veniero. The units were positioned in a large area between 59°30’N and 53°N and between 13°W and 25°W. Again, the German U-boats would patrol the area closer to the Irish and Scottish coast while the Italians, with their larger submarines, would patrol further west.
A few days into the patrol, the ARGO was victim of an unusual event. It was March 7th when a British Sunderland sighted the boat and correctly replied to the identification signal transmitted by the Italian crew. When the plane was 800 meters away and its identity could be ascertained, the crew responded to the threat with prompt and intense gunfire, forcing the plane to a loop and gaining enough time to dive.
Two days later, on the 9th, the ARGO was in the assigned area and briefly sighted a ship which then disappeared in the intense fog. On the 21st and 22nd, the ARGO moved in the area previously assigned to the Emo, but was not able to make any contact and returned to base, reaching Bordeaux on March 28th. The lack of contacts was not accidental; the British, having properly estimated the patrol lines set up by the Germans and Italians, had moved the convoys further to the north, assuming that bad weather and ice were better than torpedoes.
Following the decision made by B.d.U. on May 15th, 1941, the collaboration between Italian and German boats in the north Atlantic came to an end. It had taken months to recognize that the Italian vessels were not fitted for the harsh weather conditions and Italian participation in the wolf packs was not very successful. The Germans recognized the submarine Bianchi as one of the few valuable Italian boats.
Thus, in May 1941, the ARGO was assigned to a new patrol area west of the Strait of Gibraltar in coordination with the Mocenigo, Veniero, Marconi, Brin, Velella and Emo. The ARGO was assigned to the quarter closest to the Strait of Gibraltar, and after having left Bordeaux on May 19th, it reached the patrol area between the 25th and the 29th. Later on, Betasom ordered the boat to a new area, this time off Lisbon, well ahead of the convoy that was expected from Gibraltar heading north to England. On the 29th, Captain Crepas sighted a convoy, but then lost it. On the following day, the ARGO was attacked by light units near Cape S. Vincent. The 7th, the boat was ordered back to base and a day later it was attacked near Lisbon, registering some damage, but still able to make it home, arriving in Bordeaux on the 12th.
During this period, the Italian government wanted to return all submarines located in Bordeaux back to Italy. The issue was discussed at the highest levels, especially because Germany had only 30 submarines operational and needed the presence of the Italian boats. The German submarines were smaller and better suited for the Mediterranean, the Italian boats larger and more useful in the Atlantic. Still, Mussolini received permission from Hitler to withdraw the Italian submarines and on June 8th an order was issued in accordance. Soon after, on the 14th, Admiral Doenitz went to Berlin to request the reversal of this order. Admirals Reader, Weicholz, Riccardi and Parona were called to resolve a very difficult diplomatic and military situation. Finally, a compromise was reached; of the 27 Italian submarines still operating in the Atlantic, only 14 would be sent back. Eventually, due to war losses, only 10 submarines made the journey back, among them the ARGO (the other boats were the Dandolo, Veniero, Brin, Mocenigo, Velella, Emo, Otaria, Perla, and the Guglielmotti).
The ARGO left La Pallice on October 11th and two days later was attacked by an airplane type Consolidated 31 that launched four bombs without hitting the target. On the 20th, the ARGO attempted the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar on the surface, but was soon forced to proceed submerged. Four days later, on the 24th, the submarine arrived in Cagliari (Sardinia). Following this mission, Lieutenant Crepas was transferred, later assuming command of the large transport submarine Romolo, while Lieutenant Commander Giulio Contreas assumed command of the ARGO.
Upon its return to the Mediterranean, the ARGO was sent to the shipyard for a long period of refitting. It did not see service until spring 1942 when it began a long string of patrols, which lasted until the Italian armistice of September 8th, 1943. The missions were many, some short and some longer, some fruitless, but one in particular very successful. But let’s follow the chronology. From the 6th to the 21st of April, 1942 the ARGO was on patrol off Cape Ferrat. On the 10th, it sighted a cruiser but it was not able to reach a good position for the attack. Upon returning to base, Lieutenant Commander Contreas disembarked, replaced by Lieutenant Pasquale Gigli. The musical chairs, typical of the Italian submarine corps, continued.
From May 22nd to the 29th the ARGO was assigned to a patrol area northwest of Cap Caxime (Algeria), where it was the object of three aerial attacks which caused considerable damage, forcing the boat back to base for an extensive period of refitting. In September, the ARGO was again at sea, this time for a patrol off the Balearic Island from the 15th to the 26th, followed by a patrol off the island of Galite (Tunisia) from the 29th to the 30th of October.
In November, a the submarine participated in a new patrol from the 7th to the 12th off the Gulf of Philippeville (Algeria). This time, a daring attack interrupted the monotonous routine of the patrol. On the 11th, the ARGO entered the Bay of Bougie where, undetected, it attacked and sank the British auxiliary cruiser Tynwald of 2,376 tons and the motorboat Awatea of 13,482 tons previously damaged by aerial attacks. H.M.S. Tynwald was an anti-aircraft ship, while Awatea was a troopship previously bombed by the Luftwaffe during operation Torch and abandoned 1 mile north of Bougie’s breakwater. Although belonging to the Union Steamship of New Zealand, the Awatea had been militarized. It was a modern steamship built in 1936 by the Vickers Armstrong shipyard at Barrow in Furness.
After the successful attack, the ARGO returned to Cagliari on the 12th. A few days later, from the 17th to the 28th, it was again off the African coast, this time near Bona. After a brief period of refitting, the submarine was again in action on December 29th for the mission that lasted until January 8th, 1943. During this patrol, the crew of the ARGO sighted and attacked a group of ships against which it launched four torpedoes. A violent antisubmarine chase followed and there is no record of any damage to British ships on that date; it was the 7th of January.
Other patrols followed, on February 20th off the Algerian coast, and on April 4th off Cap de Per. In April, Lieutenant Gigli disembarked, leaving the command of the ARGO to Lieutenant Arcangelo Ghiliberti. With the new command the routine did not change and from the 15th to the 20th of June the ARGO was again off Cap Carbon. Here, on the 19th, in position 36°54’N, 05°25E it launched a spread of four torpedoes against an enemy convoy. After the prescribed running time of about 4 minutes, the crew distinctively heard two explosions, but there is no record of this attack in the post-war British documentation. Immediately after the attack, the submarine was the object of an intense hunt.
From the 10th to the 12th of July, Captain Ghiliberti was ordered off the Sicilian coast. In the afternoon of the 11th, in position 37°02N, 15°28E the ARGO attacked a Southampton class cruiser and, after eight minutes from the launch of four torpedoes, it heard a clear explosion. Once again, it was immediately the object of an intense anti-submarine chase. On the 23rd of the same month, after having left Taranto for another mission off Sicily, the ARGO experienced serious mechanical trouble, forcing the boat back to port and then back to the shipyard of Monfalcone (northern Adriatic) for a long period of refitting.
The armistice of September 8th, 1943 surprised the vessel, still at the shipyard where the refitting was almost completed. The shipyard, located near Trieste, was under the military command of Captain Lorenzo Stallo. The shipyard was of great value since it was completing work on two new cruisers, the Etna and Vesuvio, plus the battleships Cavour and Impero were also there. Confusion was great and German troops soon occupied Trieste and later moved on Monfalcone. By September 10th, the whole area was under German control. In Monfalcone, the Regia Marina had a total of 16 submarines under construction and repair. Following the orders issued by the local commander, Rear-Admiral (E) Oreste Bambini, the ARGO was scuttled. It was an inglorious end to a boat that had faithfully served for many long years of war. The hull was later raised by the Germans and scrapped for metal. In all, the ARGO completed 31 patrols in the Mediterranean and 6 in the Atlantic, covering 31,524 miles on the surface and 2,550 underwater for a total of 245 days at sea. The ARGO was credited with a total of 20,924 tons of enemy ships sank.
Edited by Laura K. Yost
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