Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, May 18, 2022: Spaghetti Battleship Slayer
Via the Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS), the Italian Central State Archives
Above we see a tonnage flag flown by the Marcello-class submarine R. Smg. Barbarigo after she sank a
Colorado-class battleship, specifically the USS Maryland (BB-46), some 80 years ago this month. What’s that? You didn’t know Maryland was Deep Sixed by the Royal Italian Navy during WWII? Well, about that…
The nine submarines of the Marcello class were all constructed in 1937-38 by Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico in Trieste for the Italians, drawing from lessons learned during the Spanish Civil War in which Italian Sottomarini Legionari (Submariners Legion) “pirate” submarines fought a not-so-secret war on behalf of Franco. Small vessels compared to American and Japanese “fleet boats,” the Marcellos were only 1,300-tons submerged and 239 feet overall. However, they were speedy for the time, able to make 17 knots on the surface, had long enough legs (7,500nm range at 9 knots) for operations outside of the Med, and carried eight 21-inch torpedo tubes as well as two 4″/47cal deck guns.
Launch of Regio Sommergibile Cappellini, one of the Marcello class. Note her two forward starboard bow tubes. The class had four tubes forward and four stern, an unusual arrangement compared to American subs. Note that her deck guns have not been fitted.
A trio of brand new Italian Marcello-class submarines in Venice, 1939, complete with deck guns. They carried one 4″/47 forward of the sail, another aft, as well as fittings for two twin 13.2mm Breda (Hotchkiss) Model 1931 AAA machine guns. In the foreground on the right is an H-class submarine and in the background are some cruisers and Folgore-class destroyers.
Overall, the Italians could have done worse, and the class was successful in WWII.
Our subject was named for the 15th-century Doge of Venice, Agostino Barbarigo, the commander of the Venetian fleet in the Battle of Lepanto and a figure made infamous by the Assassin’s Creed video game series.
Agostino Barbarigo by Paolo Veronese, Cleveland Museum of Art.
As such, she was the second submarine Barbarigo in the Italian Navy, with the first being the leader of a four-boat class designed during the Great War that served through the 1920s.
The first R. Smg. Barbarigo was active from 1918 through 1928.
Laid down at C.R.D.A. Monfalcone, (Trieste) on 6 February 1937, R. Smg. Barbarigo (2°) was commissioned 19 September 1938 and was assigned to 2º Gruppo Sommergibili at Naples.
Early War Service
When the war started, with the Italian kick-off coming during the last weeks of the Fall of France in June 1940, under the command of Capitano di Corvetta (CC) Giulio Ghiglieri, Barbarigo’s first war patrol was a sortie off the coast of Algeria that yielded no results. Her second patrol, the next month between Cape de Gata and Cape Falcon, was much the same.
Once France fell and the Germans were setting up shop in the English Channel, Barbarigo was one of the Italian submarines assigned to the BETASOM group which would become operational in the North Atlantic from Bordeaux. Passing Gibraltar on 14 August 1940, four days later the boat was in an unsuccessful surface action with the British steamer Aguilar (3,255 GRT) bound from Lisbon to the Canary Islands.
Italian sumergible Barbarigo going up the Garonne river to reach her BETASOM base in Bordeaux.
Italian submarine Barbarigo in Bordeaux 1942.
Submarine Barbarigo, Bordeaux, note her deck gun
Stern shot in Bordeaux
Barbarigo in Bordeaux.
Ghiglieri would command Barbarigo on her 4th, 5th, and 6th War Patrols, never officially bagging anything although she was highly active, ranging from Ireland to the Bay of Biscay. Ghiglieri would leave the boat in June 1941, having commanded her under combat conditions for a full year. He would go on to command the Pisani-class boat Des Geneys for a year, also unsuccessfully, then rode a desk for the rest of the war.
Barbarigo’s new skipper, CC Francesco Murzi, was immediately successful, sinking the British freighter Macon (5,141 GRT) and tanker Horn Shell (8,272 GRT) back-to-back in July 1941.
The Grossi Era
With Murzi transferred to command the new, and larger, Cagni-class submarine Ammiraglio Millo in August, Barbarigo’s third wartime skipper would be CC Enzo Grossi. Born in Brazil in 1908, Grossi was a seasoned commander, having joined the Italian Navy in 1929 and risen to command the submarines Tito Speri and Medusa earlier in the war, earning both the Silver and Bronze military medals for valor in operations in the Med.
Barbarigo’s 8th War Patrol (22 Oct- 11 Nov) saw her operate against convoy H.G.75 off the Portuguese coast in conjunction with German U-boats and have a stalking duel with the British submarine HMS/m Una, ultimately returning to port without sinking anything.
The boat’s 9th patrol (18 Jan – 16 Feb 1942), west of the Azores, saw more success with the unarmed Spanish cargo ship Navemar (5,301 GRT) sent to the bottom, although Grossi claimed to have sunk a large armed merchant cruiser.
Her 10th patrol, run some 300 miles off the Brazilian coast from 25 April to 16 June, would become famous, at least in her time.
On 18 May, she seriously damaged the Brazilian tanker Comandante Lyra (5,753 GRT) bound for Pernambuco, and two days later came across a battleship and escorting destroyer(s).
At 0245 hours, Barbarigo was steering 020°, when an officer of the watch, First Officer T.V. Angelo Amendolia, observed a dark shadow. He immediately put the helm hard to starboard and summoned C.C. Grossi to the bridge. It was a large destroyer. The submarine was ready to make a stern attack when a much larger shadow appeared, which was identified as an American battleship of the MARYLAND-CALIFORNIA class because of her lattice masts. A second destroyer followed her.
At 0250 hours, two stern torpedoes were fired at 650 meters, aimed at the “battleship” (one of 533mm and one 450mm of type A 115) which was steering 200° at 15 knots. After 35 seconds, two explosions were observed. G.M. Tendi who was observing with binoculars reported that the battleship was sunk, and this confirmed Grossi’s impressions. From a distance of 800 meters, Grossi saw the battleship sinking bow first.
Grossi did not waste time in forwarding his claim and, at 1500 hours on 22nd May, he received a signal from Rome informing him of his promotion and the congratulations from the Duce and a grateful Nation.
The patrol also included an attack on the British freighter Charlbury (4,836 GRT) that was sent to the bottom after a five-hour, six-torpedo engagement on 29 May.
Returning to Bordeaux with his kill flags flying, Grossi and crew were feted by the German and Italian media.
Grossi, in the sweater, regaling the crowd with the stories from the patrol
The conning tower slogan reads, “Who fears death is unworthy of living.”
Although Grossi had not even been on the bridge at the time, he was dutifully photographed, shirtless and engrossed, recreating the attack at the boat’s periscope.
Of course, as you likely know, the USS Maryland (Battleship No. 46) in May 1942 was in training exercises in Hawaiian waters alongside her sister USS Colorado, having just been patched up at Puget Sound Navy Yard after Pearl Harbor. Her third sister, USS West Virginia, was still at Puget Sound for a longer, two-year, reconstruction and modernization. Of the visually similar California class, both USS California and USS Tennessee were likewise at PSNY under repair from Pearl Harbor. In short, there were no such battleships as Grossi claimed off Brazil in May 1942.
The postwar analysis points to the target Grossi engaged were the elderly Omaha-class light cruiser USS Milwaukee (CL-5) — a ship of 7,000 tons rather than 32,000– escorted by the lone Porter-class destroyer USS Moffett (DD-362), neither of which knew they were attacked.
On Grossi’s next patrol, Barbarigo’s 11th during the war, the boat sortied from Bordeaux on 29 August and returned a full month later, having dealt deadly blows to the Americans once again while steaming off the Brazilian coast and West Africa.
In the pre-dawn hours of 6 October, with Grossi again not in the control room, he bagged another battleship. What luck!
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 a 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.
Two days later, when the news hit an embattled Central Europe, Hitler conferred the Iron Cross to Grossi. El Duce likewise promoted him to C.V. and awarded him the Medaglia d’Oro, the highest Italian award.
Grossi became one of the most decorated naval officers in the Axis fleets, personally receiving two EAKs from Donitz and Italy’s highest award from El Duce
The slayer of two battleships, a feat greater than Günther Prien, Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, Eli Thomas Reich, Johannes Spiess, and Rudolf Schneider, submarine skippers who only had one battleship to their name across two world wars.
In actuality, USS Mississippi (Battleship No. 41) was at the time participating in exercises off Hawaii and escorting convoys back and forth to Fiji. Her sisterships USS New Mexico (BB-40) and Idaho (BB-42) were at the time both at PSNY undergoing modernization.
As noted by Uboat.net:
Unfortunately, the “battleship” was the Flower-class corvette HMS Petunia (K 17) who had sighted five torpedo tracks (not four!). One torpedo passed under her (the torpedoes had been set for a depth of 6 meters) and another missed close astern, but her ASDIC and R.D.F. were inoperative and her counterattack, at 2255 hours, with only one depth charge was ineffective.
With such a high-value personality on their hands, Grossi was promoted to the safety of shore duty and made the commander of BETASOM at Bordeaux in December 1942. After the Italians dropped out of the war in September 1943, the last four Italian boats pierside in France (Bagnolini, Giuliani, Cappellini, and Torelli) were handed over to the Germans.
Grossi then cast his lot with Mussolini’s remnant fascist Italian Social Republic, assuming command of the 1ª Divisione Atlantica Fucilieri in the Marina Nazionale Repubblicana, a paper force of some 5,000 shipless Italian sailors and Marines employed piecemeal by the Kriegsmarine to build and equip coastal batteries on the Atlantic Wall and in the Channel Islands. The unit took part in the Battle of Normandy, with some isolated garrisons– Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, and La Rochelle– only surrendering at the end of the war.
Grossi also apparently was key in a plan to smuggle Mussolini to Japan in 1945 that, obviously, fell through.
As for Barbarigo, her days were numbered as well. Under LT Roberto Rigoli, the submarine would sink the freighters Monte Igueldo (Spain, 3,453 GRT), Affonso Penna (Brazil, 3,540 GRT), and Stag Hound (U.S. 8,591 GRT) across a week in February-March 1943 on Barbarigo’s 12th War Patrol.
Her 13th Patrol would turn out to be her unluckiest. Sailing with her 5th wartime skipper in four years– LT Umberto De Julio– Barbarigo was converted to a blockade-running transport submarine, code name Aquila V, and sailed from Bordeaux on 16 June 1943 to Singapore with 130 tons of materials and 5 billion Lire. She was never seen again and was believed sunk sometime around 24 June, the cause is unknown. De Julio, five officers, 47 ratings, and two passengers– Imperial Japanese Army Colonels Gondo and Miura– disappeared with her.
During their missions in the Atlantic, the 27 Italian submarines assigned to BETASOM sank a total of 109 ships for 593,864 gross tons, with Barbarigo accounting for 7 of those ships for 39,300 GRT. These are the hard numbers, not the unverified figures. This puts Barbarigo in fifth place among the BETASOM boats, behind Da Vinci (17 ships, 120,243 GRT, the most successful non-German Axis sub of WWII), Tazzoli (18/96,650 GRT), Torelli (7/42,871), and Morosini (6/40,927).
Barbarigo was one of 88 Italian submarines lost during the war, some two-thirds of their force. Keep in mind the U.S. Navy “only” lost 52 boats during the conflict, giving you a window on how dangerous it was to be an Italian submariner.
Of Barbarigo’s sisters, only Dandolo was in operational condition at the end of the war, having sailed to the United States after the Italian armistice in Sept. 1943. She was scrapped in 1948, the Italians soon moving on to surplus American boats.
Barbarigo’s best-known skipper, Enzo Grossi was cashiered and stripped of all ranks in 1945 by the post-war Italian government. A subsequent investigative commission by the Italian Navy, working in conjunction with Allied archivists, revoked his WWII awards and discredited his battleship sinking claims. Grossi, who emigrated to Argentina after the war, died from a tumor in 1960, aged just 52. The findings of the 1948 commission were later confirmed by a second board in 1962.
Of note, USS Maryland and Mississippi became two of the longest-living American battlewagons, with “Fighting Mary” only sold to the breakers in 1959, some 43 years after she was ordered, and the “Mighty Miss” still on active duty as a missile trials ship as late as 1956.
U.S. Navy ONI-202 circa 1942 listing for the Marcello class
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