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Boats

by Admiral (ret) Attilio Duilio Ranieri


The VELELLA was one of the two submarines originally designed and built for the Portuguese Navy by the C.R.D.A. shipyard of Monfalcone. In that period, 1920s and 1930s, several foreign navies ordered submarines from Italian shipyards. These boats 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 class ARGO of coastal submarines. They turned out to be a good purchase, since their design, slightly altered, would be utilized to build the famous class TRITONE from 1941 to 1943. The VELELLA, 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 December 18th, 1936 and delivered to the Navy on September 1st, 1937.

Upon entering service, the VELELLA, under the command of Lieutenant Pasquale Terra, was part of the 42nd Squadron of the 4th Submarine Group based in Taranto. In October 1938, it was first sent to Leros (Aegean), then Tobruk (Libya), and finally in December to Massawa (Eritrea) as part of the Submarine Flotilla of Italian East Africa. Here it remained until spring of 1940 and then it was sent back to the motherland, assigned to the 14th squadron of the 1st Submarine Group based in La Spezia.

Upon the commencement of the hostilities, June 10th 1940, the VELELLA was one of the many boats already on patrol in the Mediterranean. It was assigned to an area between Rhodos and the Turkish coast. On the 19th of June, due to engine troubles, it interrupted its patrol, first reaching Leros and later Taranto, where it remained two months for repairs.

Selected for redeployment in the Atlantic, despite the boat classification as a “coastal” submarine, after a brief period of refitting to adapt the vessel to the new operational environment, the VELELLA left La Spezia on November 25th destined for BETASOM, the new Italian submarine base in Bordeaux. On December 1st, the boat faced the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar, always difficult due to the strict British surveillance and the strong underwater marine currents. Hence, the boat was forced to submerge and ended up under the bombs of two British destroyers which caused some damage; then, due to difficulties navigating underwater, it sank to 130 meters, well over the maximum depth of 100 meters. Dragged by the current, the boat often hit the bottom of the African coastline. At night, it attempted to reach the surface to recharge the batteries, but two destroyers, which subjected it to a strenuous hunt, immediately attacked it. Later, navigating along the Spanish coastline, it reached the Atlantic. From the 4th to the 20th of December it remained on patrol off Lisbon, and finally on Christmas day it reached Bordeaux.

In the Atlantic, the VELELLA completed four patrols. The most important would be the one of June 1941, west of Gibraltar, in which it sank a 7,000 t. tanker and a 3,200 t. merchant ship. The VELELLA was sure of the sinking, but there is no confirmation in the British documentation. In August, the VELELLA was part of a group of submarines which had to return to the Mediterranean where the situation demanded more boats. After a few days of patrol west of Gibraltar, on the night of the 24th of August the boat crossed the strait on the surface, reaching Cagliari (Sardinia) on the 29th for a long period of refitting.

Thereafter, it began the wearing activity in the Mediterranean. With command transferred to Lieutenant Giovanni Febbraro, from the 3rd to the 17th of March 1942 the VELELLA was in Pula in support of training activity for the Submarine School. Here, it completed a few patrols: south of Cape Palos (Spain) in April 1942, south of the Balearic Islands in June, along the Tunisian coast in July, and west of the Island of Galite in August. With command transferred to Lieutenant Mario Patanč, the VELELLA continued the patrol activity: south of the Balearic in September 1942, in the Gulf of Philippeville and the Bay of Bona in November, north of Cape de Fer in April 1943.

When, on July 10th 1943, the Allies began landing in Sicily, the VELELLA was one of the boats already on alert and ready to move to the Sicilian waters. Soon after its departure from La Maddalena, the boat was attacked by an airplane which it fought back, and perhaps damaged by the boat’s machine guns. Once in the waters of eastern Sicily, the VELELLA had to abandon the patrol due to breakdowns and on the 12th it sailed on to Taranto. Along the way, near Cape Colonne, it rescued five shipwrecked from an Italian torpedo bomber shot down. On the 23rd, it was again on patrol between Syracuse and Augusta.

In the attempt to oppose the Allied landing, in July 1943 five submarines were lost. The last and fatal mission of the VELELLA began on September 7th when, along with 10 other boats, it made up a screen of submarines in the lower Tyrrenhian Sea to contrast the landing in Salerno. After the war, and from British documentation, it was possible to ascertain that the VELELLA was torpedoed by the British submarine SHAKESPEARE around 20:00 on the 7th off Punta Licosa, south of Salerno, in position 40°15’N, 14°30’E. There were no survivors.

The armistice, declared the following day, had already been signed since the 3rd of September, but the Regia Marina was not aware of it.

Translated by Cristiano D'Adamo

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