Warship Wednesday, Jan.20, 2021: Bruised Georgie

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Jan.20, 2021: Bruised Georgie

Australian War Memorial Photo 100014

Here we see the ancient and battered Regio incrociatore corazzato (armored cruiser) San Giorgio, some 80 years ago this week, scuttled and burning after air attacks at Tobruk, Libya, 22 January 1941. The anti-torpedo nets around the wreck reportedly held 39 British fish of various types in their mesh.

Named after Saint George, the patron saint of Genoa, San Giorgio was ordered for the Regia Marina in 1904, during the height of the Russo-Japanese War, and at the time was the largest and strongest armored cruiser in the Italian fleet.

Designed by naval engineer Edoardo Masdea, San Giorgio and her near-sister San Marco were beefy 10,000-ton beasts swathed in as much as 10 inches of armor. They carried four 10″/45 Elswick-pattern Modello 1908 in a pair of turrets as the main battery, eight 7.5″/45 Modello 1908s in four twin turrets as a secondary battery that itself was powerful enough for a heavy cruiser, and a tertiary armament of 20 rapid-fire 76mm and 47mm guns meant to defend against torpedo boats– then seen as the most dangerous non-battleship threat. Speaking of torps, they had three small tubes of her own, below the waterline in period fashion, and at least two steam cutters that could carry torpedos as well.

Powered by 14 Blechynden boilers trunked through two sets of paired funnels, San Giorgio could make 23 knots and steam for over 6,000 nm on a full coal load at about half that.

Janes of the era listed the class under the battleships section. Click to big up

Laid down in 1907 at Regio Cantieri di Castellammare di Stabia in Naples, she was completed 1 July 1910.

Cover of the magazine La Tribuna Illustrata 9 August 1908, showing the launch of San Giorgio

She was a good looking ship and appeared numerous times in postcards of the era. 

Embarrassingly, the brand-new ship on 12 August 1911, following exercises in the Gulf of Naples, ran aground on the shoal of Gaiola, a rocky outcrop some 18 feet deep. As she did so while making 16 knots, she had five forward compartments flooded and took on 4,300 tons of water. Recovering the vessel required much effort and it took a full month to refloat.

Lightened and patched up, she was pulled free on 15 September by the battleship Sicily.

The resulting investigation hit the skipper– the well-placed Marquis Gaspare Alberga– and XO with a slap on the wrist while the navigator got three months in the brig.

Quickly patched up, she took part in the latter stages of the Italian-Turkish War, operating along the Libyan coast.

San Giorgio firing her guns during the Italo-Turkish War 1912

In March 1913, she was part of the international squadron that escorted the remains of former Danish prince William, who served as Greek King George I from 1863 onwards, back home to Athens. George had been assassinated while walking in Thessaloniki, shot in the back of the head by a socialist who later fell to his death from a police station window.

Transfer of the body of King George I on the Greek Royal yacht Amphitrite escorted by three Greek destroyers, Russian gunship Uralets, German battlecruiser SMS Goeben, British cruiser HMS Yarmouth, French cruiser Bruix and Italian cruiser San Giorgio. Painting by Vassilios Chatzis.

Remarkably, San Giorgio soon grounded once again off Sant’Agata di Militello in the strait of Messina in November 1913 but, while another black eye, was more easily freed than the 1911 crack up.

Der italienische Panzerkreuzer San Giorgio im November 1913 in der Straße von Messina gestrandet.

The card translates to “O ship, twice locked in the tenacious branch of the treacherous cliff and returned twice to the loving mother who embraces you,” which makes you think it was issued sometime after her second grounding.

Another war

When Italy joined the Great War in 1915 on the side of Britain, France, and Russia, San Giorgio was soon very active against the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the southern Adriatic. This involved defending the Otranto line and Venice but got hot with a surface raid on the Italian port of Durazzo in October 1918 along with her sistership San Marco and the cruiser Pisa.

At the end of the conflict, she sailed triumphantly into Pola to take the surrendered Austrian fleet under her guns.

San Giorgio class (Italian Armored cruiser), center. RADETZKY Class (Austrian Battleship), built in 1908 (right). The photograph was taken about 1919, Pola Yugoslavia Description: Courtesy of Mr. Donald M. McPherson 169 Birch Avenue, Corte Madera, California, 1969. Catalog #: NH 68218

Peace

An aging ship, San Giorgio by the 1920s was increasingly used for training purposes and extended overseas cruises for midshipmen from Livorno.

On such a run in 1924-25, she carried crown prince Umberto of Savoy abroad on a round-the-world voyage to take a company of the San Marco Battalion to Shanghai to protect the international delegation there.

Crown Prince Umberto boarding the San Giorgio for the voyage to South America, 1924. Illustration by A. Beltrame

After 1931, her sister, San Marco, was disarmed per the various London and Washington Naval Treaties– back when Italy was still in the ill-fated League of Nations. Like the U.S. Navy battleship Utah (BB-31/AG-16), she was repurposed as a floating target ship, an easy conversion for a vessel that had armor coating almost every surface, even the deck.

Italian Target Ship ex-Armored Cruiser SAN MARCO, capable of being radio-controlled. She would go on to be captured by the Germans in 1943 when Italy pulled out of the war, then later scuttled at Spezia. Interestingly, she used a different engineering suite from San Giorgio, being powered by Parsons steam turbines, and Babcock & Wilcox boilers. NH 111446

By 1936, she was assigned to the Italian task force off Spain during the Spanish Civil War and, with the Supermarina seeing the writing on the wall, withdrawn from the line the next year for modernization.

Spending nearly two full years at Ansaldo in Genoa, the cruiser was extensively rebuilt and modernized. Her boilers, replaced by more modern oil-fired examples, were reduced from 14 to eight, which allowed two funnels to be removed. She also picked up new electronic gear, landed most of her 1910-era small guns in favor of new 100/47mm OTO Mod 1928 DP twin mounts, and sealed up her torpedo tubes.

Italian Ship: SAN GIORGIO. Italy – OCA. (San Giorgio Class). 1939. Note her vastly changed appearance from the original Great War era vessel. NH 111445

And it was just in time.

George’s final war

Deployed from Italy to the Eastern Libyan fortress port of Tobruk, arriving on 13 May 1940 while the country was still at peace. Remember, Italy didn’t join WWII until 10 June 1940 when Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg has already fallen and France was on the verge of collapse, leaving Britain alone against Hitler and Mussolini.

Two days after the Italians clocked in, the British light cruisers Gloucester (62) and Liverpool (C11) swung by Tobruk and engaged the port and San Giorgio in an ineffective long-range artillery duel, with neither side connecting. Before the end of the month, HMS Parthian (N75), arriving in the Med from China station in May 1940, made it close enough to fire two torpedoes at the big Italian that did not connect, leaving the British sub to settle with sinking the Italian submarine Diamante near Tobruk on 20 June.

San Giorgio‘s skipper at the time, Capitano di Fregata Rosario Viola, reinforced her exposed decks with sandbags and ordered a triple layer of torpedo nets around the hull, then mounted as many extra guns and lookouts as he could.

This had mixed results as, on late in the afternoon of 28 June, her gunners were involved in a friendly-fire incident in which a pair of SIAI-Marchetti SM79 Sparvieros had the bad luck of coming in low and out of the sun over the port in the wake of a British bomber strike. One Sparviero was blown from the sky– flown by no other than fascist darling and big aviation advocate Italo Balbo, then serving as Libya’s governor-general.

Oof.

Balbo/Sparvieros.

Still, the attacks came. 

5 July, Swordfish torpedo bombers of 813 Squadron from HMS Eagle attacked Tobruk in a combined attack with the RAF at dusk, sinking the destroyer Zeffiro and the freighter SS Manzoni but missing San Giorgio.

Swordfish from Eagle’s 824 Squadron conducted a night raid on 27 October, seeding the harbor with mines.

San Giorgio was still Tobruk in early 1941, which was probably the worst time and place to be an Italian cruiser. After a terribly run invasion of Egypt, the Italian 10th Army had just been thoroughly defeated by the British Western Desert Force at Bardia and the stragglers, largely formed around the 61st (Sirte) Infantry Division by 7 January were encircled in Tobruk and subject to heavy bombardment.

San Giorgio, after the Balbo shootdown, was placed under the command of Capitano di Fregata Stefano Pugliese, a 40-year-old who had spent 25 of those in the Navy, including as skipper of the “pirate” submarine Balilla during the Spanish-American war and as XO of the light cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Battle of Calabria. The port commander, RADM Massimiliano Vietina, ordered Pugliese to remain in the besieged port as a floating artillery battery and lend his cruiser’s heavy guns to the wobbly perimeter.

Over the next two weeks, as the Italian lines crumbled and air attacks by Blenheims escorted by Gladiators and Hurricanes owned the skies, San Giorgio did her best. Sealed into the harbor by the destroyer-screened Great War Erebus-class monitor HMS Terror, who occasionally lobbed 15-inch shells into Tobruk, the Italian cruiser was heavily damaged but continued to both contribute to the flak clouds and ground defense.

When it came to AAA, her biggest contribution was from five twin 100/47 high-angle guns, augmented by three 20mm Bredas and four 13.2mm mounts. Over the course of 291 air raid warnings during her time at Tobruk and 115 engagements, she fired a whopping 13,000 100 mm rounds and 120,000 from the smaller pieces. Her crew claimed 47 aircraft hit or shot down (not sure if Balbo’s plane is included in that tally).

Note the sandbagged AAA positions and covering on deck as well as the torpedo net boom

Twin OTO 100mm DP mount

Her big guns fired over 100 shells from the big 10-inch guns and 360 from her 7.45s.

Finally, when the end was near on the night of 21/22 January, Pugliese signaled the ship abandoned, after ordering the crew to wreck everything they could find for two hours, then led a small party, primarily of volunteer junior officers and NCOs, back to blow the vessel’s magazines. Two men, Torpedoman 1st Class Alessandro Montagna and 2nd Lt. Giuseppe Buciuni, were lost in the explosion due to a delayed fuse.

Epilogue

The ship, through a combination of magazine explosions and bunker fires, burned for days.

Members of C Company (mostly from 14 Platoon), Australian 2/11th Infantry Battalion, part of the 6th Division having penetrated the outer defenses of Tobruk, assemble again on the escarpment on the south side of the harbor after attacking anti-aircraft gun positions, 22 January 1941. San Giorgio is one of the plumes in the background. Burning fuel oil tanks at the port are the second. AWM

These photos were taken on 25 January, four days after the ship was scuttled. AWM

One of the better shots soon circled the globe, tagged in four languages. Big news for the struggling Brits in 1941. 

Once the wreck cooled, there were extensive surveys and relic hunting done by Allied troops.

The wreck of the Italian Armored Cruiser San Giorgio in Tobruk Harbor, sunk by RAF and RN aircraft. Photographed by Robert Milne taken from HMAS Vendetta. AWM

AWM photos.

To honor the crew and the vessel, San Giorgio was awarded the Medaglia d’oro al Valor Militare, Italy’s highest recognition for military valor, by the Royal Decree of King Umberto on 10 June 1943. Only seven other units– the five daring torpedo boats of the Dardanelles Squadron: Spica, Centaur, Perseo, Astore, Climene; MAS Flotilla Alto Adriatico, and the submarine Scirè— received the MOVM in gold during the war.

The two men lost in San Giorgio’s scuttling were similarly decorated, posthumously.

Her surviving ~700 crew, meanwhile, spent the rest of the war in a British POW camp in India. Many would receive decorations for their actions for Tobruk. The crew was decorated with five Silver MVMs as well as 16 Bronze and 237 War Crosses.

“Four Italian ratings captured from San Giorgio, 31 January 1941.” AWM

Pugliese, who returned home to a hero’s welcome in 1945 and a MOVM of his own, later went on to rise to the rank of vice admiral in the postwar Italian fleet and in the 1960s would become commander of the NATO naval forces in the central Mediterranean– which ironically included British vessels.

In 1951, the then-independent Libyan government of King Idris came to an agreement with Rome to salvage the cruiser’s hulk. During the recovery, it was reported that 39 torpedoes and a huge amount of other UXO were found in the nets and on the seabed around the ship.

Refloated by a scrapper who intended to haul it back to Italy, while under tow by the tug Ursus the wreck started taking on water and broke her lines, taking a deep plunge some 140 miles north of Tobruk in some of the deepest water in the Med.

Relics of the cruiser are few.

San Giorgio‘s ceremonial ensign, presented to the ship in 1911 by Duchess of Genoa, Isabella Maria Elisabetta di Baviera, was spirited past the blockade out of Tobruk by a volunteer crew of six officers, three sailors and the ship’s dog, “Stoppaccio,” and made it back to Italy aboard a requisitioned trawler, Risveglio II. If anyone can find an image of the banner, please let me know.

When the Axis retook Tobruk in 1942 once Rommel was on the scene, the Italians inspected the wreck of the cruiser and, finding three 100/47mm guns still sound, recovered them and put them back in circulation.  

A 12-minute wartime film, Vita e fine della San Giorgio, The Life and end of the San Giorgio, can be seen online at the Italian national archives and includes much footage of the vessel.

The Australian War Memorial has a brass pistol grip and trigger from one of San Giorgio‘s direction finders that were salvaged by the crew of the destroyer HMAS Vendetta (I96), as well as an Italian naval officer’s dress sword engraved to the ship.

AWM

The U.S. National Archives has numerous naval attaché reports on San Giorgio in their collection.

As for the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina faded away in 1945 and was replaced by the Marina Militare Italiana, which still honors the famous armored cruiser’s memory. Since then, the Italians have very much kept the name alive on their naval list, commissioning a 5,000-ton light cruiser/destroyer leader/training ship (D 563) in 1955.

SAN GIORGIO (D 562), Italian DL, in New York Harbor for the International Naval Review, 4 July 1976. Originally laid down as a Roman Captain-class light cruiser in WWII, by 1965 she was a training ship that took summer midshipmen cruises around the globe– replicating her namesake’s 1920s and 1930s mission. She was retired in 1979 and sold to the breakers in 1987. K-114252

In 1987, the Italian Navy christened the class leader of a new series of 8,000-ton amphibious transport docks (L9892) which are all still in service and going strong.

Specs:

(1910)
Displacement: 10,167 tons (standard), 11,300 (full)
Length: 462 ft 3 in (o/a)
Beam: 69 ft 0 in
Draught: 24 ft 1 in
Machinery: 14 Blechynden boilers, 2 shafts, 2 vertical triple-expansion steam engines, 19,500 ihp
Speed: 23 knots
Range: 6,270 nmi at 10 knots on 1500 tons of coal, (Carried 50 tons naphtha for boats)
Complement: 32 officers, 673 enlisted men
Armor:
Belt: 7.9 in
Gun turrets: 6.3–7.9 in
Deck: 2.0 in
Conning tower: 10.0 in
Armament:
4 Elswick 10.0 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (2×2)
8 Armstrong 7.5 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (4×2)
18 single Armstrong 76 mm guns
2 single Vickers 47 mm guns
2 Colt 6.5mm machine guns
3 x 17.7 in torpedo tubes
Embarked torpedo boats

(1940)

Displacement: 9,232 tons
Length: 459 ft.
Beam: 69 ft 0 in
Draught: 22.5 ft.
Machinery: 8 boilers, 2 shafts, 2 VTE, 18,000 ihp
Speed: 18 knots
Complement: 700
Armor: (Augmented by sandbags and extensive anti-torpedo nets)
Belt: 7.9 in
Gun turrets: 6.3–7.9 in
Deck: 2.0 in
Conning tower: 10.0 in
Armament:
4 Elswick 10.0 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (2×2)
8 Armstrong 7.5 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (4×2)
10 100mm/47 OTO Mod. 1928 DP (5×2)
12 Breda 20mm/65 Mod. 1935 AAA guns (6×2)
10 Breda Mod. 31 13.2mm machine guns (5×2)

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