Here at LSOZI, we take off every 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, Dec. 16, 2020: Fascist Bananas & Partisan Peace Gulls
Here we see former Marshal of the WWII Yugoslav Red Partisan forces, Josip “Tito” Broz, reviewing his naval honor guard aboard the converted minelayer/training vessel Galeb (M11), likely during the mid-1950s. Note the Mausers with fixed bayonets and AAA mount at the top of the image. You have to wonder if Tito could faintly smell bananas.
The Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane, or Royal Banana Monopoly Company, was formed in 1935. Headquartered in Mogadiscio (Mogadishu), Italian Somaliland, its sole (peacetime) purpose was to ship its namesake elongated yellow berries from Africa to Europe, having secured the sole concession for the practice from the Ministero delle Colonie.
At its peak, the company was running seven vessels. These included three small Swedish-built freighters– Capitano Bottego, Capitano Antonio Cecchi, and Duca degli Abruzzi— as well as four larger Italian-crafted purpose-built refrigerated fruit carriers, the latter all imaginatively named after the company in sequential order.
Built by Ansaldo and CRDA Monfalcone, the four Rambs could carry 2,418 tons of cargo in refrigerated holds and had accommodations for up to 30 or so passengers in 12 air-conditioned cabins.
The fun thing about RAMB was that, in line with Italian naval practice to keep their Royal concession, all of their ships were to be transformed into auxiliary cruisers in case of war, with weight and space reserved from guns and shells. The smaller freighters were each to pick up four 102/45mm pieces and a smattering of 13.2mm Breda AAA guns. The bigger Ramb-class banana haulers would get an equal number of larger 120/40mm guns along with their Bredas. The guns, in peacetime, would be crated in RAMB’s dockside warehouses in Massawa and Naples in equal numbers to allow for a rapid issue.
In 1939, the last year of commercial operations, RAMB shipped nearly 50,000 tons of Somali bananas to Europe, the company’s best season, ever.
Then came war
When Mussolini took the plunge to enter the war against the British and French in June 1940, as the latter was on the ropes and dizzy, Ramb III was the only one of her class that was in the Med, the rest being in the Red Sea. Quickly requisitioned in Genoa by the Regia Marina and renamed the uninspiring D6, she soon found herself protecting convoys to support Italian forces in Libya before the end of the month– in tandem with the smaller company ship Cecchi.
Eventually, she tangled with the British.
On the night of 11/12 November, a few hours after the British raid on Taranto, Ramb III/D6 was escorting four freighters with the old Giuseppe La Masa-class torpedo boat Fabrizi when they stumbled across an RN squadron consisting of the cruisers Orion, Ajax, and Sydney, along with the destroyers Nubian and Mohawk. It was no contest, with the Brits cued to the darkened Italians by Ajax’s Type 279 radar.
While Fabrizi turned toward the three cruisers, and although hit repeatedly, she fired torpedoes, one of which just missed Sydney astern, Ramb III/D6 attempted to draw the darkened warships off into a nearby minefield.
Within 30 minutes all four of the merchantmen were ablaze and Ramb, after firing some 80~ shells against the vastly stronger Brits, withdrew through the mines, and arrived alone at Bari the next morning.
More convoy actions followed and Ramb III/D6‘s luck ran out on the night of 30 May 1941 when a pair of torps from the T-class submarine HMS Triumph (N18) blew her bow off as she swayed at anchor at Benghazi. Quick damage control kept her from sinking and in August she was towed in reverse some 500 miles across the Med and up the Adriatic to Trieste for repairs.
Reconstructed, she returned to service and was almost sunk again by a British sub when HMS Turbulent (N98) — Triumph’s sistership– fired a torpedo at her off Palermo on 1 February 1943 while D6 was saving survivors from the sunken freighter Pozzuoli. That fish missed.
Her service to the Italian fleet ended on 8 September 1943, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
As for the rest of the RAMB fleet, most were blocked in Italian East Africa and were lost following the fall of the colony in 1941.
Of Ramb III’s sisterships, Ramb I operated as an armed merchant in the Red Sea and was ordered to sail to Japan after the fall of Massawa to the Allies but was sunk in the Indian Ocean in a one-sided surface action with the cruiser HMNZS Leander before she could get that far.
Ramb II did make it to Japan and was scuttled by her crew in Kobe after Italy threw in the towel on the war. Later refloated by the Japanese and returned to service as the transport Ikutagawa Maru, she was sent to the bottom off Indochina by carrier strikes from Task Force 38 in January 1945.
Ramb IV had been captured by the British in Massawa, where she was serving as a hospital ship, but was sent to the bottom of the Med 13 months later to the day by German bombers.
As for RAMB the monopoly, the war ended its operations and the concern was formally dissolved in 1945, although Italy continued to grant then-independent Somali exporters licenses to ship their produce to Europe into the 1960s. Somali bananas vanished from the market with the harvest collapsing during the 1980s famine and cycles of ensuing civil war but are starting to make a comeback.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
At anchor in Trieste when the Italians backed out of the war, Ramb III/D6 was swiftly taken into service by the Germans, who were in occupation of the port, after a sharp skirmish that left her crew prisoner. Renamed Kiebitz in November, she was up-armed with some extra 37mm Bredas, and turned into a minelayer, sowing some 5,000 of the infernal devices along the Dalmatian coasts and the northern Adriatic over the next year.
On 13 July, while doing such minenwerk, she lost power and drifted into two of her own eggs, damaging her. After limping back to port– running astern with her bow blown off– she was patched up and was back at it a couple months later.
Her third career wrapped up on 5 November when RAF Baltimores plastered Fiume, sending the minelayer Kuckuck, subchaser G104, and our banana boat to the bottom of the harbor, where she would rest in 66 feet of muddy water.
With Fiume firmly changed to the Croatian Rijeka, Yugoslavia inherited our smashed boat and, finding her salvable, raised the vessel in 1947.
She was reconstructed in Pula over a four year period as a schoolship and minelayer with Burmeister & Wain diesels and a mix of recycled German surplus and American armament (4 x 1 – 88/45 SK C/32, 4 x 1 – 40/60 Mk 3, 6 x 4 – 20/65 as per Navypedia). Her new name: Galeb (Seagull).
As Galeb, she became a favorite of Tito’s, being pressed into service as a de facto presidential yacht. She carried the fearless leader to London, Egypt, India, and elsewhere, appearing often in newsreels of the day.
Eventually, she would be disarmed and assume a full-time emissary duty, a ship of state as Yugoslavia navigated the murky waters between East and West, entertaining everyone from Gaddafi to Elizabeth Taylor. In all, she hosted more than 102 kings, presidents, and prime ministers.
In 1976, a documentary, Peace Ship Galeb (Brod Mira Galeb), was filmed aboard her.
After Tito died in 1980, Galeb was used less and less, with Montenegro getting the old girl in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
She then fell into serious disrepair.
Passing hands several times since then, the Croatian city of Rijeka purchased the derelict vessel in 2009 and has been trying to refit it as a museum ship for the past decade.
Now, after a $9.6 million effort, she is ready to be a showboat once again.
“I expect the ship to be completed for its new purpose in the first half of 2021,” Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel told Reuters. “Its command deck, the premises used by Tito, and the engine room will become a museum. The other parts of the ship will serve as a hotel with bars and a restaurant,” he said.
Displacement: 3,667 GRT, 2,179 NRT
Length: 383 ft 2 in
Beam: 49 ft 7 in
Depth: 24 ft 8 in
2 × 9-cylinder FIAT marine diesel engines, 7200 hp, twin screws, 1250 tons fuel oil
19.5 knots (maximum) 17.0 knots (cruising)
Capacity: 2418 GRT (refrigerated, four holds), 12 air-conditioned cabins (two luxury, 10 twin steerage, 32~ passengers)
4 x 120 mm (4.7 in) guns
2 x 13.2 mm anti-aircraft guns
3 x Breda 37mm guns (added 1944)
Displacement: 5,182 standard, 5,700 full
Length: 384.8 ft
Beam: 51.2 ft
Depth: 148.f ft
2 × Burmeister & Wain diesel engines, 7200 hp, twin screws,
Speed: 17 kts
4 x 1 – 88/45 SK C/32
4 x 1 – 40/60 Mk 3 Bofors
6 x 4 – 20/65 Oerlikon
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