Sunday, February 12, 2012

Italian battleship Conte di Cavour sunk at Taranto, later salvaged but never returned to service.

     The Italian battleship Conte di Cavour was one of a class of three Italian dreadnaught-type battleships dating from the First World War.  As originally designed, the ships carried a main battery of thirteen 12-inch guns mounted in five center line triple turrets.  They had a maximum speed of only 21.5 knots.  They were comparable to the latest French and Austro-Hungarian battleships.  The Conte di Cavour and her sister ships saw little action during World War I, and by 1928 the remaining two ships (Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare) had been reduced to reserve status, their deficiencies and overall obsolesence being apparent.  The third ship of the class, the Leonardo da Vinci, had been lost due to an internal explosion on August 2, 1916, though later salvaged for scrap. 

Battleship Conte di Cavour pre-modernization,
still in her World War I configuration and appearance.

     The Italians, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, needed a strong fleet to project prestige and power over areas that Mussolini intended to rule or dominate.  Plans were drawn up to completely renovate and modernize the Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare, and later the battleships Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio as well.  In 1932, the French laid down two new battlecruisers of the Dunkerque class.  In October, 1933, the Conte di Cavour was taken in hand at Taranto for complete reconstruction and modernization.   The main battery was reduced in number, but was upgraded in caliber to 12.6 inch, along with increasing the elevation from 15 degrees to 30 degrees, with a corresponding increase in firing range.  New secondary batteries and heavy anti-aircraft batteries were mounted, and an entirely new propulsion system was installed raising power and maximum speed from 21.5 knots to 28 knots.  The new "pugliese" system designed to offer protection from torpedo hits was installed and built around the existing hull.  The entire superstructure was rebuilt, and aircraft facilities were added.  The ship, and later her sisters, were completely transformed into fast, powerful warships. 

Battleship Conti de Cavour as she
appeared following her reconstruction and modernization.

     The Conte di Cavour rejoined the fleet in late 1937.  She and her sister ship Giulio Cesare were fully operational when Italy joined the war in June, 1940.  Shortly thereafter, both of these ships were involved in action against British warships in what later became known as the Battle of Calabria or Punta Stilo, which was a tactical draw.  The Cavour briefly exchanged gunfire with the British battleships Warspite and Malaya, but neither inflicted damage or received damage herself.

The Conte di Cavour firing her main battery
during the Battle of Calabria or Punta Stilo.

     On the night of November 11 - 12, the British launched operation "Judgement", which was an attack on the main Italian naval base of Taranto by swordfish torpedo bombers launched from the British aircraft carrier Illustrious.  All six of Italy's battleships were moored at Taranto.  The British launched two separate waves of torpedo bombers in the surprise attack.  During the first wave, the Conte di Cavour was hit by one 18-inch aerial torpedo.  This one hit blasted a hole in her hull below the waterline measuring approximately 39 ft x 26 ft.  The Cavour began taking on water and sinking.  Attempts to move her to shallower water were not successful, and she sank at her moorings with only portions of main battery and superstructure still above water.  The battleships Littorio and Caio Dulio were also struck by torpedoes, but damage control efforts kept them from completely sinking.  Initial salvage efforts on those two battleship were thus given priority over that of the Cavour

The Conte di Cavour sunk at Taranto Harbor
after being struck by one 18 inch torpedo dropped
from a British swordfish torpedo bomber.

     Salvage work did eventually commence on the Conte di Cavour, including the removal of her heavy guns to lighten her.  She was eventually raised in 1941 and drydocked at Taranto for five months for temporary repairs.  On December 22, 1941, she was moved under her own power to the naval base at Trieste to receive permanent repairs.  She was docked at the Montfalcone Shipyard at Trieste, sporting the "Claudus" camouflage scheme.  The ship was scheduled to receive further modernization, including the installation of newer and more effective heavy anti-aircraft guns.  Her repair work, however, was given a low priority. 

Battleship Conti de Cavour moored at Trieste,
undergoing repairs and further modernization.
Note the camouflage and part of her main armament missing.

     The Conte di Cavour's repair work was approximately 85% completed at the time of the Italian armistice in September, 1943.  The Cavour was unable to flee, and she was seized at her moorings by the Germans.  The Germans considered continuing her repairs or alternatively removing some of her heavy guns for use as shore batteries, but in the end nothing more was done with her. 

     The Conte di Cavour came under attack by bombers of the United State Army Air Force on February 15, 1945, and sank at her moorings.  She was subsequently raised in 1951-52 and scrapped. 

     Although the Conte di Cavour was salvaged and under repair after the British attack, she never again returned to service.  Thus, the British were entirely successful in eliminating this Italian battleship from the war in the Mediterranean for its duration. 


Friday, February 3, 2012

Light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni is first major Italian warship to be sunk

     On July 14, 1940, just over a month after Italy entered the war, two Italian light cruisers became engaged in combat with one Australian light cruiser and five British destroyers off Northwest Crete in what later became known as the Battle of Cape Spada. 

Italian light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni
steaming at high speed during the battle.

     The Italian light cruisers Bartolomeo Colleoni and Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Rear Admiral Ferdinando Casardi commanding, were steaming from Tripoli in North Africa to the port of Leros in the Dodecanese Islands, which was Italian territory.  The Allied squadron, under command of Captain John Collins aboard the Australian light cruiser Sydney, accompanied by British destroyers, HavocHero, HastyHyperion, and Ilex, were patrolling in the Aegean sea. 

Italian light cruiser Giovanni dalle Bande Nere at sea.

Bartolomeo Colleoni in port.

The Bartolomeo Colleoni is hit during
the Battle of Cape Spada.

Bartolomeo Colleoni after losing her
bow to a torpedo hit.

The Bartolomeo Colleoni shortly before
exploding and sinking.

     At approximately 7:30 AM, the Italian vessels spotted four of the British destroyers and altered course to engage them in a running fight.  Unknown to the Italians, since they had no airborn reconnaisance, the Australian cruiser Sydney and a fifth destroyer, the Havoc, were only forty miles distant, and the British destroyers were luring the Italians within range of the Sydney.  Contact between the opposing cruisers was established at 8:26 AM, and the Sydney commenced firing on the Italians three minutes later.  The Italian admiral immediately turned away from the Sydney and her consorts and steamed to the Southwest. 

     Each of the Italian cruisers matched the Sydney in firepower.  All three cruisers mounted a main battery of eight, 6-inch guns and each carried torpedo tubes.  The Italian cruisers were also reportedly at least 6 to 8 knots faster than the Sydney, but of much lighter construction than the Australian ship.  Theoretically, the Italians, utilizing their advantage in speed, should have been able to make good their escape, but it was not to be.  Being launched in 1930, the Italian cruisers were somewhat older than the Sydney, which was launched in 1934, and their initial trials during which their high speeds had been achieved were done with only light load displacement, without stores, ammunition, or all equipment on board.  Under fully loaded operational wartime conditions, the Italian ships were only slightly, if at all, faster than their Australian counterpart. 

Australian light cruiser Sydney at sea.

Australian light cruiser Sydney showing
forward main battery turrets.

British destroyer Ilex.

British destroyer Hero.

     The Sydney's gunfire proved to be more accurate than that of the Italians.  During the running fight, the Sydney concentrated her fire on the Bartolomeo Colleoni, scoring several hits.  By 9:23 AM, the Bartolomeo Colleoni was dead in the water, having been hit by a shell in the boiler room and lost power.  The Giovanni dalle Bande Nere initially turned back to offer aid and assistance to her sister ship, but quickly realized that, now facing the Sydney and the five destroyers alone, she was completely outgunned and outnumbered.  She then turned and fled, under fire from the Sydney.  The Sydney achieved two hits on the Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, but did not stop her.  In return, the Sydney was only hit once in her funnel, which did nothing to impair her fighting efficiency.  The Giovanni dalle Bande Nere made good her escape.

     The British destroyers now had their turn with the helpless Bartolomeo Colleoni.  By 9:59 AM, the Bartolomeo Colleoni had lost her forward bow as far back at the number one turret as the result of a torpedo hit.  Destroyers Ilex and Hyperion finished off the Italian cruiser with three torpedoes.  There were 121 casualties aboard the Bartolomeo Colleoni, while 555 of her crew were rescued from the water by the British destroyers.

     The British battleship Warspite was in the general area and utilized her float plane to attempt to locate the fleeing Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, but did not find her.  Later in the day, the British destroyers were attacked by Italian aircraft, and the Havoc sustained damage to her boiler room.

The cruiser Giovanni dalle Bande Nere as
she appeared later in the war prior to her sinking in March, 1942. 

     The Giovanni dalle Bande Nere continued the fight against the Allies in the Mediterranean until March 22, 1942 when she was sunk after being hit by two torpedoes fired by the British submarine Urge.  The Sydney was lost on November 19, 1941 in the Indian Ocean near Australia when approaching the disguised German commerce raider Kormoran, which was posing as a merchant ship.  During an exchange of gunfire at point blank range, both ships sustained fatal damage and sank some distance apart.