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By Cristiano D'Adamo
The submarine Barbarigo, in the period between the outbreak of hostilities and its loss in June 1943 for unknown reasons, completed 14 missions under the command of five different captains, sinking 7 merchant ships for a total of 39,299 t. This was the 5th best result achieved by an Italian submarine in WW II, but the fame of this boat, both in Italy and overseas, is undoubtedly more associated with the tumultuous and controversial vicissitudes of commander Grossi, a complex character representing the apogee of one of the least explored aspects of the Italian Royal Navy: Fascist propaganda.
The Barbarigo was one of the 11 boats of the “Marcello” class, one of the best produced by the Italian shipyards. Despite the fact that the boat had entered service only in 1938, by 1943 it was already worn out, proof of the intense efforts the Italian oceangoing boats had to endure, and to which corresponded the extreme sacrifices of the crews.
At the beginning of the hostilities (June 10th, 1940 for Italy), the Barbarigo was part of the 22nd formation of the 2nd group based in Naples, and in preparation for the conflict it was on patrol off Cape Bengut, later returning to base on June 13th. In July, between the 1st and the 7th, the boat conducted a patrol between Cape de Gata and Cape Falcon. During this mission, between the 3rd and the 4th, the commanding officer C.C. Giulio Ghiglieri had to avoid intense anti-submarine activity, which produced some damage forcing an early return to base.
Later, the Barbarigo was selected as one of the boats to be reassigned to the newly established Atlantic base in Bordeaux, codenamed Betasom. Taking advantage of the new moon, Maricosom (Italian Submarine Command) ordered the boats Malaspina, Tazzoli, Cappellini and Glauco across the Strait of Gibraltar around the 2nd of August. About 10 days before departure day, due to breakdowns on some of the boats, the Barbarigo and the Dandolo were sent as replacements. After having left base on the 13th of August, the Barbarigo began crossing the strait around the 14th. Following instructions received before his departure, Captain Ghiglieri navigated submerged up to Tarife, noticing a strong current of which he had not been informed, thus causing a considerable delay. Once it reached the area of operations west of the strait, on the 18th the submarine attacked with the deck gun the British merchantman “Aquila”, which despite the damage was able to run away. The Aquila, an older passenger and general ship (1917) would eventually fall victim to U 201 in summer 1941. A few days later, the captain conducted another attack, this time with the torpedo, but the target, an armed ship, was able to detect the boat; the Barbarigo was subsequently attacked with 20 depth charges which exploded far off the –90 meter depth the boat had meantime reached. At this point, with Bordeaux ready to welcome the new boats, the Barbarigo was ordered to reach Betasom instead of returning to Naples, reaching the French port on September 8th, 1940. Two days after its arrival, the boat entered the shipyard for alterations similarly completed on the Malaspina and the Dandolo. Although the base was not fully equipped, the submarines were refurbished, tested, and readied for action in less than 30 days. Eventually, this shipyard, in addition to regular maintenance work, completed various modifications, especially after the Germans and war experiences suggested some improvements.
The Barbarigo, still under the command of C.C. Giulio Ghiglieri, left port on October 14th for a mission in the northwestern Atlantic. On the 17th, a large airplane, surely a British Sunderland, which dropping a few bombs and missing the target by some distance, attacked the boat. On the 23rd, the boat reached the area of operations west of Ireland, and a week later completed the first sighting, but could not reach the target due to the foul weather conditions, which limited surface speed to only 12 knots. Later, the boat was assigned to a new area further north from which it began the return voyage on the 9th of November. On the 10th, it received a signal from the Otaria informing it of the presence of an aircraft carrier and escort. At 6:18 AM on the 11th, in position 53° 37’ N 17° 40’ W, with strong wind and poor visibility, the Barbarigo launched a torpedo against a smaller naval unit, probably a destroyer. After 58 seconds, the crew heard an explosion but could not verify the result of the attack; there is no documentation of such attack in the British records. After 33 days at sea in terrible weather conditions, the submarine returned to Bordeaux on November 13th.
On February 10th, 1941 the Barbarigo left base for a new mission west of Ireland in coordination with the Bianchi, Otaria and Marcello. The boat arrived in the area on the 16th, but after a few days without sightings, was reassigned to a more northerly sector. The boat was part of a force which included German U-boots and aerial reconnaissance by the Lufwaffe. It was indeed the German Air Force which, on February 19th, signaled the presence of a convoy of over 30 ships, probably OB.288. During the various phases that followed, both German and Italian units attacked the convoy, but the Barbarigo was not able to make contact. The boat remained in the area until March 1st, but most of the time it had put the bow to the wind due to the horrendous weather conditions, which included snow and hail. On March 8th, the boat concluded the operation reaching port; during this mission the Marcello had been lost.
After the necessary maintenance work, the Barbarigo was again in action starting from April 30th and still under the command of C.C. Giulio Ghiglieri. On May 10th, the boat sighted a convoy which was kept under constant watch, until the reaction of the escort forced the captain to submerge, thus losing contact, and without being able to reestablish it. On the 15th, the Barbarigo made contact with the British merchantman “Manchester Port” of 5,469 t. which, the day before, had eluded an attack by the Morosini. Despite having hit the ship with a torpedo, the Barbarigo was not able to complete the sinking due to a breakdown to one of the two main diesel engines. The ship, able to keep good speed, once again ran away, eluding sure sinking. On the 20th, the submarine sighted another ship, but yet again the weather conditions did not allow for an attack. The same situation repeated itself on the 22nd and the 24th when, Captain Ghiglieri was again forced to put the bow to the wind. On the 25th, Betasom informed the Barbarigo of the position of the German battleship Bismark (47° 30’ N 16° 30’ W), immobilized and under attack by enemy ships. Barbarigo, the only boat in the area, moved at full force intercepting two cruisers which, due to the weather conditions, could not be attacked. On the 27th, having received news of the sinking of the Bismark, and having burned most of the fuel reserve, the boat could not participate in the rescue operations and had to return to base. The boat reached Bordeaux on May 30th, and almost immediately entered the shipyard. During this pause, C.C. Ghiglieri was transferred to the submarine Bandiera, and C.C. Francesco Murzi took over command. With the return of the Barbarigo, the Italian submarine activity in the northern Atlantic had ended; all future operations would take place in areas with climates more suited for the Italian boats and crews.
After the mediocre if not limited results in the northern Atlantic, the new areas of operations for the “shark of steel” of Betasom were the more temperate waters of the central Atlantic and the coast of Africa. For the upcoming mission, the Barbarigo was assigned to an area west of the Strait of Gibraltar as part of a force, which included 9 submarines. After having left Bordeaux on the 13th of July, the boat intercepted a convoy the evening of the 22nd in position 34° 55’ N 18° 35’ W, but soon after lost contact in a rainstorm. A few days later, on the 25th, the Barbarigo sank the British merchant ship Macon of 5,135 t. utilizing both torpedoes and the deck gun The Macon, formerly Point Ancha (1940) and Delight (1931), originally belonged to the American shipping company Gulf Pacific Mail Line, and was built in 1919 by Tood Drydock & Construction, of Tacoma, Washington. It is assumed that it had just been sold to Great Britain. The original displacement was given at 4,727 t., but the Italian documentations list 5,135 t. The ship was attacked on the 24th and sank on the 25th in position 32° 48’ N 26° 12’ W; there were 29 casualties and 21 survivors.
The night of the 26th was the time of the 8,272 t. British motor tanker Horn Shell, which was sunk with torpedoes. The Horn Shell belonged to the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co, also known as Shell Oil, and was built in 1931 by Deutsche Werft of Hamburg, Germany. The position of the sinking was 33° 23’ N 22° 18’ W; 17 crewmembers perished and 40 were rescued.
After the fruitful mission, the boat returned to base where once again there was a change of command; C.C. Murzi left the boat and was replaced by C.C. Enzo Grossi. The two officers would have very different futures: Murzi, after the Italian armistice, would command the Naval group of Augusta (Sicily), while Grossi would retain the command of Betasom under the auspices of the Salo’s Republic (Mussolini’s pro-German government in Northern Italy).
The 7th mission was relatively short; it started on the 22 of October and ended on November 12th; it did not produce anything. On October 24th, the boat after the departure from La Pallice, the boat chased a passenger ship of considerable dimensions but could not reach it. On the 31st, following orders from Betasom, the boat moved to an area south-west of Ireland where it patrolled from the 3rd to the 6th of November. During this period, the wear and tear of the material began to cause more frequent breakdowns. 15% of the missions had to be abandoned due to serious breakdowns, and 85% of the missions experienced breakdowns of one sort or another. Meantime, antisubmarine activity by escort units and armed ships had increased considerably, and the Italian forces suffered the painful losses of the Bianchi, Malaspina, Marconi, Glauco, Baracca, and Ferraris.
The 9th mission, like the previous one, was of little importance. The Barbarigo left Bordeaux on January 14th, 1942 and returned on February 15th.
On the 23rd of January something quite unusual took place; the Barbarigo sank the neutral ship Navemar of 5,473 t. The Navemar, previously Frogner (1927) and Cabo Mayor (1932) was built in 1921 by W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co, of Newcastle upon Tyne and belonged to the Compañia Española de Navegacion Maritima of Barcellona. Supposedly, it had been remodeled in 1939. The position of the sinking was 36° 48’ N 15° 26’ W; two crewmembers perished and 34 survived. The ship was returning from Cuba where it had delivered a large group of Jewish refugees.
On April 25th, 1942 the Barbarigo left La Pallice (Bordeaux) for a mission in the far away waters of Brazil. The operational orders, issued by Betasom in coordination with B.d.U., called for patrol off Cape San Rocco (Brazil) where it was assumed there would be intense traffic and minimal antisubmarine activity. The boat reached the area of operations on May 17th, and the following day it attacked with torpedoes and the deck gun the Brazilian merchant ship Comandante Lyra of 5,052 t. Commander Grossi, sure that the ship was near sinking, left it in position 02° 30’ S 34° 20’ W without realizing that the crew had sent an emergency signal which had been picked up by Task Force 23. This was a group of American military ships which included the cruisers Milwaukee and Omaha and the destroyers Moffet and Mc Dougal. The Lyra, erroneously estimated at 11,000 t. by the Italian submarine commander, did not sink and was later towed to port by a Brazilian tugboat. On the 19th the submarine’s lookouts spotted an aircraft which failed to detect the boat; this was one of the airplanes launched by Task Force 23, more precisely the one from the Omaha. At 00.45 on the 20th (Rome Daylight Saving Time), the Barbarigo, then in position 04° 19’ S 34° 32’ W, 52 miles 239 degrees from the Island of Rocas and proceeding on a northerly course, sighted warships moving south. The boat moved into attack position launching two torpedoes from the aft tubes. This is a copy of part of the official war diary:
Day: May 20th, 1942
In position 04 19S 34 32W, course 20, I am called on deck by the second officer who at the same time steers to starboard, fires up the left diesel engine, and I order two tubes aft and two forward loaded. Since I was in the control room, I go on deck and I sight a large destroyer passing by the bow at about 600 meters. While I alter course to use the forward tube, the lookout to the left (Sergeant Cammarata) informs me of the outline of a large ship to the left. After a quick glance, I made myself cognizant of the situation; I’m facing an American battleship (easily recognizable by the lattice masts) escorted by a destroyer.
I decide to attack by the stern because, in addition to the already mentioned destroyer, another one is getting closer to the bow of the battleship. I place midshipmen Tendi and Del Santo to keep an eye on the first destroyer, while the second officer keeps an eye on the other one; the lookouts guarantee surveillance on all other quadrants. After the second destroyer turns left, I found myself inside the escort. I stop the right engine, and with the left one I slowly turn right. The second officer demands the launch of the torpedoes because the second destroyer turned once again right and it is at about 1,000 meters at 0 degree inclination. They haven’t sighted us thanks to the sea Force 3 and the low profile of the boat. Near launching position, which cannot fail due to the short distance (about 650 meters), I decide to carry on with the attack even though we could be rammed. The target warrants any kind of risk.
I order “Fire” torpedo 5 and 6; 5 is regulated for 4 meters and a run of 8,000 meters and it is equipped with a “cappuccio” (small hood, a device intended to guarantee detonation upon impact); 6 is set to 2 meters with a run of 2,000 meters and it is of type A 115 (only 115 Kg of explosive versus 200, both torpedoes of only 450mm). After having expelled the torpedoes, I increase speed and turn in direction 10, the only one where I have a possibility of running away while on the surface. I decide not to submerge because the aft accumulators are completely insufficient and the forward one can only give me 4,000 amps. All firearms are ready for action to the bitter end. After 35 seconds two concurrent explosions confirm to me that I have hit the target with both torpedoes. While of torpedo number 5 we only hear the explosion, of number 6 the second officer, who had moved to cover the rear quadrant, sees the flare underwater. I’m informed by midshipman Tendi that he has the battleship in sight in his binoculars and it is sinking; I also had sure sense of the sinking. I see the destroyers moving fast toward the stricken ship. From about 800 meters I see the bow of the colossus almost completely submerged up to the wheelhouse; she is down by the bow and with a strong list.
I prepare tubes 7 and 8 to be used against destroyers possibly in our pursuit. The escort, with my astonishment, does not react. Gradually, I increase speed up to 380 revolutions. The battleship, which I easily recognized as of the “Maryland-California” class, was proceeding on a 200° degree course at a speed of 15 knots.
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translation of the original text
After the attack, Commander Grossi informed Betasom of the sinking of an American battleship, possibly a Maryland or a California. Betasom immediately requested further details and the Barbarigo assured that the “sunk” ship was a battleship of the California class. The California class was similar to the Maryland, but with smaller guns, 356 mm versus 406 mm. Following the absolute and categorical confirmation by the Barbarigo, Betasom’s commanding officer (Polacchini) informed Maricosom. Assuming a mistake, common at sea where optical illusions, uncertainty, and kinematical elements induce misinterpretation, Maricosom requested additional details. Meantime, Comando Supremo published the news in an official war bulletin; the Americans promptly rebutted it. It is said that Mussolini himself, a journalist by profession, edited the announcement himself.
After the attack, the Barbarigo did not receive the attentions of any of the escort units and only at 18:30 on May 22nd was victim of an aerial attack with the launch of 8 bombs, which, despite having fallen near the boat, did not cause any damage. Assuming that this sector was under strict surveillance, Betasom transferred the Barbarigo to a new area 300 miles NE of Cape S. Rocco.
Once again reassigned, the Barbarigo intercepted the British merchant ship Chalbury of 4,835 t., immediately requesting clearance for the attack since it was in a zone previously interdicted by orders from B.d.U. After receiving proper authorization, Commander Grossi sank this ship in position 6° 35’ N 29° 25’ W during the night of the 28th of May. The Chalbury belonged to Alexander Shipping, and was listed under construction as of 1939, therefore one should assume that it was completed in 1940 or 1941. It was built by Burtisland Shipbuilding, of Burntisland (Scotland). The sinking took place, according to British records, in position 06° 22’ S 29° 44’ W; 2 crewmembers perished and 40 were rescued.
On the 30th, having burned most of the diesel fuel, the Barbarigo began the long return voyage reaching Bordeaux, in triumph, on June 16th. Only after the war, it would be discovered that the mysterious battleship was instead the cruiser Milwaukee, which didn’t even detect the presence of the Italian submarine. Probably, the torpedoes missed the target due to the miscalculated speed (15 knots), which was much less than the actual speed (25 knots). Unfortunately, the first inquiry hurriedly conducted after the war accused Grossi of being a charlatan, and only a later inquiry reconciled the war diaries of the American war units (in local time) with the one of the Barbarigo (in Rome Daylight Saving Time). Certainly, the attack took place, but the subsequent sinking “witnessed” by the crew must have been one of those rare cases of collective illusion.
On August 29th 1942, the Barbarigo left for a new mission still under the command of Grossi, who had been promoted to C.F. and awarded the M.O.V.M., Gold Medal for Bravery; eventually, both would be revoked. At noon on October 1st, the boat was attacked by an airplane which had appeared from behind a cloud, dropping a cluster of bombs at a very low altitude, but failing to hit the target. At 17:30, a second aerial attack, but this time the crew shot down the aircraft, which was seen plunging into the ocean. Despite the danger avoided, during the action the aft gunner Carlo Marcheselli was mortally wounded and dragged overboard, disappearing into the wake. On October 2nd, still on route to Brazil, the Barbarigo was rerouted to Freetown where there were reports of intense traffic. The boat reached the area on October 4th, and on the 6th between 2:20 and 2:43 (Rome Standard Time), in position 02° 05’ N 14° 23’ W and proceeding on the surface, the lookouts sighted at about 4,000 meters an enemy warship. Similar to the controversial action against the Milwaukee, Commander Grossi was not on the bridge. As it had happened before, the Barbarigo informed Betasom of the sinking of an American battleship. The radio message read:
" Times 05.40 of the day 6 - Stq. 23 of the q.d.p. n. 6718 (lat.
02'10/20'N, long. 14°10/20'W) time 02.34 I have sunk an unit
type Nb (battleship) Cl. (class) " Mississippi " (U.S.A.) course 150° speeds 13knots four forward torpedoes hit 6 meters seen the ship sink avoided reaction I direct zone - 043106"
In reality, the unit under attack was the British corvette Petunia, and since the draught of this unit had been mistakenly computed, the torpedoes probably passed well under the hull of the enemy vessel. On October 8th, the Barbarigo reached a new area, and later was relocated off Capo Verde. On the 17th, it began the return voyage, reaching Bordeaux during the night of the 29th after having sighted enemy airplanes and smaller naval units. The welcoming, of course, was triumphal. At the end of the mission, Commander Grossi left the Barbarigo to assume the command of Betasom, and was replaced by T.V. Alberto Rigoli.
The 12th mission began on January 24th, 1943 with departure from La Pallice. During the refitting in preparation for the new mission, the Barbarigo had been fitted with a German “Matrox” which allowed the boat to elude repeated aerial sightings. On the 24th, while en route to the assigned area off Brazil, the crew sighted a lone merchant ship which was damaged with a torpedo, and while the submarine was surfacing to finish off the job with the deck gun, it was attacked by an American Consolidated (PBY or Catalina) which dropped three bombs, missing the target.
The Spanish merchant ship, Monte Igueldo of 3,453 t. eventually sank. The Monte Igueldo, previously known as the Arinda-Mendi (1939) was built in 1921 by Ropner and Son, of Stockton-on-Tees and it belonged to the Aznat SA, Naviera of Bilbao. The position of the sinking is given in position 04° 46’ S 31° 55’ W; 1 crewmember perished and the remaining 34 were rescued. It is not known if this was a neutral ship, or if it was in service to the Allied.
On March 2nd, the Barbarigo intercepted and sank with torpedoes the Brazilian passenger ship Alfonso Penna of 3,540 t. There is no information regarding this vessel, but Jurgen Rohwer lists it as the “Alonso Pena”. It is credible to assume that this was the Alfonso Penna of the Lloyd Brasileiro.
The following day, March 4th, the victim was the American motor ship Stag Hound of 8,591 t., which, despite its high speed, was reached in the middle of the night and sank with torpedoes. The Stag Hound is a bit of a mystery; the S/S “Stag Hound” built by the Newport shipyard in 1939 had a displacement of 6,085 t. The “Stag Hound” supposedly sunk by the Barbarigo is given at 8,591 t. Also, this ship is described by the Italian documentation as being a motor vessel. Furthermore, the S/S Stag Hound, originally built for the U.S. Maritime Commission, was later renamed Aldebaran (AF 10) and become an auxiliary Navy store ship. It is possible that the ship in question was of new construction and named after the previous vessel. (It appears that the US built three ships named Stag Hound, and some are listed as staghound)
On March 4th, the submarine received orders to leave the area of operations and on March 11th transferred 25 t. of diesel fuel to the submarine Torelli. Despite the partial breakdown of the rudder, the boat happily reached Le Verdon on April 3rd. At the end of the mission, Captain Rigoli disembarked, turning over the command to T.V. Umberto De Julio, who would eventually perish aboard the boat.
In preparation for the 13th mission, the Barbarigo was transformed into a transport submarine for commercial exchange of goods between Germany and the Japanese ally. The changes made to the various submarines varied; in the case of the Barbarigo, the deck guns were removed, the ammunition magazines turned into additional fuel depots, the attack periscope removed, and a great part of the on board comforts, including one of the toilets, removed to give space to cargo.
The Barbarigo was part of a second group of submarines destined to reach Japan, along with the Torelli and the Cagni. The boat left port on June 16th, 1943 with three Italian military personnel aboard assigned to a base in the Fareast, and 130 t. of war materiel. On the return voyage, the cargo would have included 110 t. of rubber and 35 t. of tin, thus forcing the boat to refuel at sea. After departure, and at the end of navigation along the security route off Bordeaux, the Barbarigo and the Torelli parted. The Barbarigo failed to make any further contact and it is assumed that it was lost due to a breakdown, collision with a mine, or perhaps enemy activity, even though this last hypothesis could not be confirmed by Allied records. This was the end of the operational life of one of the most famous, though controversial, submarines of the Italian Atlantic fleet.
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