Warship Wednesday, May 22, 2019: The Defiant Bicyclist

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time 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 22, 2019: The Defiant Bicyclist

Il sommergibile Enrico Toti 2

Here we see the Balilla-class diesel submarine Enrico Toti of the Italian Regia Marina around 1933, dressed to impressed. Although many of Il Duce’s undersea boats met grim ends at the hands of the Allies in World War II and had little to show for their career, Toti had a much higher degree of success on both accounts.

While British, American and German submarines are given a lot of press for their storied achievements during the conflict, it should be noted that Italy was no slouch in the submersible department, historically speaking. The first Italian “sottomarino,” Delfino, was designed by marine engineer Giacinto Pullino at the La Spezia Navy Yard back in 1889, predating John Philip Holland’s designs for the U.S. and Royal Navy by a decade.

Over the next four decades, the Italians produced more than 100 subs, including some for the King of Sweden, the Kaiser of Germany and the Tsar of Russia, while in turn adopting a modicum of contemporary British designs to learn from. During World War I, the Italian submarine force counted some of the few Allied “kills” in the northern Adriatic when the Regia Marina’s F-12 torpedoed the Austro-Hungarian U-boat SM U-20 in 1918. Importantly, after the war, Italy received the relatively low-mileage German Type UE II long-range submarine SM U-120 as reparations, which the country’s designers apparently learned a good deal from.

In 1927, with an increasingly fascist Italy on track to build the fourth largest navy in the world, Rome ordered a new class of four Balilla-class “cruiser” type submarines, large enough to operate independently in the Indian Ocean and around Italy’s African colonies which at the time included Italian Somaliland and Eritrea on the strategically important (Red Sea/Suez Canal) Horn of Africa.

The country’s first post-WWI submarine design, the big Balillas went 1,900-tons and ran 284-feet long, capable of making 17-knots in a surface attack. Capable of diving to 400 feet– which was deep for subs of the 1920s, they could travel 13,000 nm on their economical diesel engines. Able to carry 16 torpedoes for their six tubes as well as a 120mm deck gun, the design rivaled the U.S. Navy’s later Porpoise-class subs (1900-tons/289-feet/18-knots/16 torpedoes) of the early 1930s, which in turn was the forerunner of the USN’s WWII fleet boats. A fifth Balilla was constructed for Brazil, which in turn triggered Argentina to order three later Cavallini-class subs from Italy in the 1930s

Built by OTO at Muggiano, largely side-by-side, Italian Navy sisters Balilla, Domenico Millelire, Amatore Sciesa, and Enrico Toti were all in service by 1928.

Balilla class member Domenico Millelire, note her conning tower-mounted short-barreled 120mm gun. This was later replaced by a longer gun mounted on the deck.

All the vessels were named after famous Italian heroes:

Balilla was the nickname of one Giovanni Battista Perasso, a Genoese youth who is credited with a revolt against the Austrians in 1746.

-Millelire was an officer in the Sardinian Royal Navy who reportedly gave the first defeat to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1793.

Sciesa was an Italian patriot hung by the Austrians in 1851.

As for Toti, the namesake of our sub, he was a one-legged bicyclist who was allowed to join the elite Bersaglieri in the Great War and was killed by the Austro-German forces at the horrific waste that was the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo in 1916, famously throwing his crutch at the enemy lines and remaining defiant to the last.

The 1 October 1916 cover of La Domenica del Corriere, a popular 20th Century Italian weekly newspaper famous for its cover drawings akin in many ways to the American Saturday Evening Post, on Toti’s deed

The class soon engaged in a series of long-range peacetime cruises, waving the Italian tricolor around the globe. Boston photojournalist Leslie Jones documented Balilla off the Boston lightship on her way to Charlestown Navy Yard in May 1933.

Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library

Note how large the sail is on these boats. Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library

In September 1933, Toti, in conjunction with her sister Sciesa, set sail from La Spezia to circumnavigate the African continent East-to-West, passing through the Suez, and calling at Mogadishu, Chisimaio, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam, Diego Suarez, Lourenço Marques, Durban, Cape Town, Walvis Bay, Lobito, São Tomé, Takoradi, Dakar, Praia, Las Palma, Gibraltar and Barcelona before making it back to Italy in February 1934. In short, visiting every important British, French, Portuguese and Spanish port in Africa and the Med.

Il sommergibile Enrico Toti

In 1934, the class was updated with a more modern 120mm/45 cal gun (from the old 27cal weapon) mounted on the deck rather than the conning tower, while Breda M31 13.2mm twin machine guns on innovative pressured disappearing mounts replaced the older Hotchkiss singles.

Images of Toti in March 1935, showing her new configuration, via Association Venus :

Deck mounted 120mm gun

Images of the internals of WWII Italian submarines are hard to come by

At sea, note the new conning tower profile

One of the few pictures I’ve ever seen of the twin submarine mount Breda M31 AAA machine guns. It could reportedly telescope in and out of the pressure hull like a periscope.

Starting in 1936, Toti and her sisters became heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War, semi-secretly supporting Franco’s forces without any (published) successes.

When Mussolini finally joined WWII proper in June 1940, just in time to deal a death blow to France, the Balilla class were no longer the best subs the Italians had in their fleet, as a staggering 150~ follow-on large submarines were either in commission or on the drawing board. With this, the four Balillas were largely relegated to training use although they did undertake a few war patrols early in the conflict. Toti was the only one that was successful.

Just after midnight on 15 October 1940, off the Italian central Mediterranean town of Calabria, Toti, commanded by LCDR Bandino Bandini, encountered the British Royal Navy T-class submarine HMS Triad (N53) at a distance of about 1,000 meters.

HMS Triad (N53)

Toti, like the British sub, was operating on the surface and moved to close at flank speed, managing to hit Triad with her 120mm deck gun as the vessel was submerging. RN LCDR George S. Salt, the skipper of Triad, went to the bottom with the vessel’s entire 52-man crew. Salt and Triad did not go down without a fight. Her own deck gun hit Toti‘s pressure hull and injured two Italian sailors, while a torpedo from the British boat reportedly came within just a few feet of her opponent.

Once Bandini and the crew of the Toti made it back to port, they were celebrated as heroes. After all, they had sunk a British submarine (and would be the only Italian boat to do so, although HM Submarine Force would scratch 17 Italian subs). However, there would be enduring confusion over just which RN ship they should be credited for. The Italian press was initially told it was HMS Perseus (N36), a British Parthian-class submarine which in fact would only be sunk by an Italian mine in the Ionian Sea on 6 December 1941.

A 22 October 1940 Domenica del Corriere cover depicting Toti’s deck crew splashing a British submarine in a night action, incorrectly identified as Perseus.

For decades, both the Italians and the British mistakenly thought Toti sank the submarine HMS Rainbow (N16), which had actually been lost off Albania at about the same time after she struck a submerged object.

It was only in 1988 that Triad, which had been listed as missing for 48 years, was positively tied to the Italian boat that sunk her. In a twist of fate, Triad‘s lost commander was the father of British RADM James Frederick Thomas George “Sam” Salt, who was captain of the destroyer HMS Sheffield during the Falklands when that ship was lost to an Argentine Exocet– the first sinking of a Royal Navy ship since WWII. The junior Salt was only six months old at the time of his father’s disappearance in the Med.

By 1941, the obsolete Balillas were removed from frontline service. Of the quartet, Millelire and Balilla were soon hulked and used as floating battery charging vessels. Sciesa was disarmed and hit by an air attack in Benghazi in 1942 while running resupply missions to the Afrika Korps then later scuttled in place as the Americans advanced on the city.

Toti, true to her past, remained more active than her sisters.

From March to June 1942 she carried out a reported 93 training missions at the Italian submarine school of Pula, which saw her very active.

Enrico Toti submarine at the submarine school in Pula

She was then was used for four short-run supply missions across the Med to Italian forces in North Africa, landing her torpedoes and instead carrying some 200 tons of medicine and high-value materials as well as transferring most of the diesel fuel in her bunkers ashore for use by panzers and trucks.

Enrico Toti returns to Pola June 42, note her newly supplied camo scheme applied to run supplies to Italy Via Lavrentio/WarshipP reddit

Submarine blockade runners in North Africa: Enrico Toti (left) with the smaller Bandiera-class submarine Santorre Santarosa (in the center) and the Foca-class minelaying submarine Atropo (right) in Ras Hilal, Libya on 10-7-42. Of these, Santarosa would be grounded and scuttled in place 20th January 1943 while Atropo would be used to supply isolated British forces in the Dodecanese after the 1943 armistice and scrapped after the war. Via Lavrentio/WarshipP reddit

By April 1943, Toti was hulked and used to charge batteries, a role she continued through the end of the war.

The Italians lost over 90 subs during the war, almost one per week, with little bought with their loss. This figure is made even more considerable once you figure the Italians were only an active Axis ally from June 1940 to Sept 1943. By 1945, the country could only count about a dozen semi-submersible vessels and most of those had been laid up/disarmed for months.

On 18 October 1946, Toti was retired for good, along with the last of the Italian submarines. You see, the Regia Marina was dissolved with the end of the monarchy and the Treaty of Paris in 1947 banned Italy from operating submarines. With that, Toti and the last few Italian boats were scrapped or given away to victorious Allies as war reparations.

Jane’s 1946-47 edition does not list Italy with a single submarine of any kind.

Italy, with her navy rebranded as the Marina Militare, was only allowed out of the Treaty restrictions after the country joined NATO in 1949, effectively refraining from submarine operations until 1954 when the Gato-class submarines USS Barb (SS-220) and USS Dace (SS-247) were transferred to Italian service, where they became Enrico Tazzoli and Leonardo da Vinci, respectively. Through the 1970s, the Italians went on to acquire nine former WWII U.S. fleet boats.

The first of a new class of domestically made Italian submarine since WWII was laid down in 1965 by Fincantieri and commissioned in 1968 with the name of one of Italy’s most succesful boats, Enrico Toti (S 506). She went on on to provide nearly 25 years of service to the Italian Navy, much of it during the Cold War spent keeping tabs of the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet

This newer Toti has been preserved at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan since 2005.

The latter Toti, via the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan

Today, the Italian Navy fields eight very modern SSKs of the Todaro and Sauro-classes, with two more of the former on order.

Italian submarine Salvatore Todaro (S 526) passing the Castello Aragonese di Taranto by Alberto Angela

Displacement: 1464 tons (1927 submerged)
Length: 284 ft.
Beam: 26 ft.
Draft: 15 feet.
Operating depth 100 m
2 4,000 hp Fiat diesel engines, twin shafts
2 Savigliano electric motors, 240 cell battery
Submerged speed, max: 9 knots
Surfaced speed, max: 17 knots
Range: 3,000 miles at 17 knots or 13,000 nm at 7 knots; 8 miles at 9 knots underwater
Crew: 5 officers, 47 enlisted. Given as 77 in wartime.
1 120mm/27cal Mod. 1924 gun (150 shells)
2 single Hotchkiss 13.2 mm machine guns
6 torpedo tubes (4 front, 2 rear) of 533 mm, 16 torpedoes
4 mines in dedicated tube
1 120mm/45cal Mod. 1931 gun (150 shells)
2 twin Breda M1931 13.2mm machine guns on disappearing mounts (3000 rounds per machine gunner)
6 torpedo tubes (4 front, 2 rear) of 533 mm, 16 torpedoes
4 mines in dedicated tube

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