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Boats

by Cristiano D'Adamo


The submarine Baracca was one of the six boats of the Marconi class. It was named after Major Francesco Baracca, the world-famous Italian ace shot down over the Italian Alpine front during World War I and whose logo, a prancing horse, was later adopted by the carmaker Ferrari. Laid down in 1939 by the shipyard OTO of Muggiano, near La Spezia, the vessel was delivered to the Navy on July 10th, 1940, 20 days after the beginning of the war. After a very short period for the usual shake down, the boat was assigned to the newly established submarine base of Bordeaux. The boat transferred to the Atlantic along with eight other vessels, taking advantage of the new moon on September 2nd.

Under the command of C.C. Enrico Bertarelli, the Baracca left La Spezia on August 31st reaching the Strait of Gibraltar a week later. As prescribed by the standing Italian procedures, the boat crossed the turbulent waters of the strait while submerged and without encountering any enemy activity. Completing the crossing, Captain Bertarelli moved west, reaching a previously assigned patrol area just off the Island of Madeira where it remained from the 12th to the 30th of September. During this period, the Baracca did not encounter any shipping, and at the end of the patrol the submarine sailed north to reach Bordeaux. While in transit, on October 1st the Baracca intercepted the Greek merchant ship Aghios Nicolaus of 3,687 t. The sinking took place in the afternoon, around 16:15 in position 40° N 16°55’ W. Captain Bertarelli gave the Greek crew time to abandon ship, and then sent it to the bottom with the deck gun; this was the beginning of the war, and chivalry was still in order. The Anghios Nicolaos was an old ship. Built in 1915 by the shipyard Napier & Miller Ltd, of Glasgow, it was previously known as the Ardargorn (1916), Australport (1924), Iron Age (1925) and Eugenia (1933). The vessel belonged to John C. Adamantios C. Hadjipateras, a shipowner based in Piraeus (Athens). Six days later, on October 6th, the Baracca reached its new base in Bordeaux.

The period of rest in Bordeaux did not last long; the boat was new and required minimal maintenance. On the 24th of October, Betasom sent out the Baracca, along with the Bagnolini and the Finzi, on a mission coordinated with B.d.U, the German submarine command of Admiral Donitz. Once at sea, the Baracca moved north to reach the assigned patrol area situated west of the British Isles. Late on the 31st, the boat intercepted a merchant ship estimated around 1,500 t. Once daylight was gone and the darkness of the night had obscured the ocean, the Baracca launched a single torpedo toward the ship which was baldly attempting to ram the submarine. The ramming failed, and so did the torpedo and the two vessels moved away from each other with the Baracca capable of developing no more than 8 knots due to the dreadful weather conditions.

Soon after, on November 1st, the Baracca intercepted an enemy convoy composed of 4 or 5 ships and lacking escort. After sunset, Captain Bertarelli attempted several attacks, always failing to reach a suitable launching position. A few days later, on November 9th, and still facing terrible weather conditions, the Baracca attacked submerged a fast armed tanker which avoided the attack and ran away while the submarine could not catch up with it. Surface speed of the Italian submarine was relatively slow, and in bad weather its speed had to be reduced even more, making any pursuing almost impossible, unless it was a very old ship. A week later, on the 16th, the Baracca received a signal and, forcing its engines to the limits, attempted to make contact. Two days later, having exhausted its regular fuel reserve, it had to turn back and return to base. The same day, the 18th, the Baracca intercepted one of the isolated units of convoy SL 53 from Sierra Leone to Great Britain and immediately began a hard pursuit. For the record, this convoy left Freetown on October 27th, 1940 and was composed of 24 ships of which only one was lost, while another one was damaged. The remaining ships arrived in Liverpool on November 18th.The merchant ship was the British Lilian Moller of 4,866 t.; two torpedoes launched by the Baracca decreed the end of this ship at around 17.00 on November 18th and none of the crewmembers survived the ordeal. The Lilian Moller went down in position 52° 57’ N, 18°’ 05’ W (note that some sources give the sinking in position 53° N -17° W). The Lilian Moller was also an old ship. Built in 1913 by the shipyard Sir James Laing & Son of Suderland, it was previously known as the Novgorod (1923), Cambrian Duchess (1931) and Valhall (1933). The vessel belonged to the Moller Line, a British shipping company based in Shanghai, China. Six days later, the Baracca reached base in Bordeaux. Considering the poor results of the first group of Italian submarines sent to North Atlantic, the success of the Baracca was considered positive, but the Italian command had to reflect over several serious issues. The design of the Italian boats did not make them very suitable for the rough sea. The deck gun was practically unusable, and torpedoes were easily diverted by the heavy swell. The engine air intake and the design of the Italian cunning towers made things even worse by making life aboard these vessels very difficult.

1941
After the necessary refitting, the Baracca was again at sea and still under the command of C.C Bertani. In the new mission, the boat would lead a group which included the Morosini, Dandolo and the Otaria. The assignment was similar to the previous missions; the Italian boats, larger and with better endurance than the ones employed by the Germans, would patrol an area further west from the British Isles, while the U-boats and surface vessels would cover the area closer to the continent. The Baracca left port on January 19th, 1941 and on the 26th it reached its patrol area where, soon after, it sighted two enemy destroyers, another submarine, and a merchant ship it could not pursue. On the 4th of February, the Baracca was clearly sighted by a submarine hunter, but taking advantage of the sea fog it dived, eluding the dropping of about 10 depth charges which did not cause any damage. Bad weather continued and so did the lack of sighting. On February 12th, the boat began the return journey, reaching base empty-handed on February 18th.

Back to base, the Baracca underwent the usual refitting, but this time it was longer; the rough weather of the north Atlantic was taking a heavy tall on the machine. On April 10th, one day after the Dandolo, the boat left base for a mission in the more temperate waters off the Strait of Gibraltar. Even before having reached the assigned patrol area, the Baracca was the object of an aerial attack, followed by bombing from surface units. Between the 16th and the 19th the Baracca joined the Dandolo in an intense search for an enemy convoy, but on the 22nd the Dandolo, victim of serious breakdowns, had to return to base. The Baracca continued on, but having failed to intercept any convoy, it also returned to base reaching the banks of the River Gironde on May 4th.

Back to base, the boat was refitted while the crew experienced the usual period of rest. This time it would be short; the boat was back to sea on the 18th of June, leaving Bordeaux along with the Da Vinci. The operation, again to take place off Gibraltar, involved seven Italian boats. Of the seven boats, the Cappellini had to abandon mission due to mechanical failures, while the Bianchi was lost soon after departure, victim of HMS Tigris, a British submarine. The group chased four convoys failing to make contact. Three more convoys followed, but by then the Baracca had exhausted its fuel reserve and was already making it back to base. At the end of this mission, C.C. Bertarelli was transferred to the submarine school of Pola. Captains of his experience were needed to train a new generation of Italian submariners. Unfortunately, C.C. Bertarelli lost his life on January 30th, 1942 when the submarine Medusa was hit by one of the four torpedoes launched by the British submarine H.M.S. Thorn just off the Dalmatian coast in the Adriatic Sea.

For the new mission in September the Baracca had a new skipper: T.V Giorgio Viani. Base was left on September 6th for another mission off the Strait of Gibraltar. The Baracca reached the assigned patrol area situated about 200 miles northeast of the Azores; it was September 7th. The same day the boat began the usual patrol, cruising up and down the assigned area. On the 8th, the British destroyer H.M.S. Croome sighted the Italian submarine, soon surrounding it with clusters of depth charges. Mortally wounded by the depth charges, the captain ordered the boat to the surface to fight to the end. The fight was one-sited; the Italian crew began scuttling the submarine. Thirty-two crewmembers were rescued in position 40°15’ N, 20°55’ W. Amongst the survivors, H.M.S. Croome captured the captain himself, T.V. Viani, the Staff Captain T.V. Piero Gherardelli, S.T.V. Pier Donato Poli and G.M. Ettore Gabetta. This was not the only painful loss of this period; the Malaspina was also lost, but in unknown circumstances. H.M.S. Croome was one of the latest destroyer escorts of the Hunt class, type 2. Built by the shipyard Stephen, the ship was commissioned on June 29th, 1941 with pennant L62. These were excellent boats displacing only 1,050 t. and armed with six 4’ guns and various antisubmarine armaments. The Croome survived the war to be sent for breaking up on August 13th, 1957.

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