Italian submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic

Italian submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic

The Italian submarine fleet of the Second World War was the largest in the world at the time, with 116 submarines.  It mainly saw action in the Mediterranean Sea.  During the conflict 88 submarines, some two-thirds of its total strength, were lost.  Half of the Italian submarines later returned to the Mediterranean, or were converted to transports, for operations in the Far East.

From 10 June 1940, submarines of the Regia Marina took part in the Battle of the Atlantic alongside the U-Boats of Germany's Kriegsmarine.  Code-named BETASOM, the Italian submarines were based in Bordeaux, France.  While more suited for the Mediterranean Sea than the Atlantic Ocean, 32 Italian submarines operated in the Atlantic, equaling the German numbers at the time, and sank 109 Allied ships for a total of 593,864 tons.

Three Italian submarines were sunk the RCN during the Second World War:

(Betasom Photo)

6 Nov 1940, Comandante Faà di Bruno, sunk by HMCS Ottawa and HMS Harvester on a patrol protecting Convoy HX 84 in the North Atlantic, 51-05N 17-32W.

Comandante Faà di Bruno, also referred to by its shortened name Faà di Bruno, was a Marcello-class submarine  built for the Regia Marina in the 1930s.

In an article by James Brun, the sinking of the Comandante Faà di Bruno, is detailed as follows:

On 6 Nov 1940, the freighter Melrose Abbey was attacked by a surfaced submarine and issued a distress call.  The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) warship HMCS Ottawa and the Royal Navy’s HMS Harvester were detached from escort duties to provide assistance.  HMCS Ottawa, a C-class destroyer under the command of Commander Rollo Mainguy, and HMS Harvester, an H-class destroyer, arrived in time to engage the submarine on the surface.  This was the first time a Canadian warship gained contact with the enemy at sea during the Second World War.[1]  

HMCS Ottawa fired five salvoes with her gun before the submarine dived.[2]  For five hours the two ships hunted and attacked the submarine.  During this time, HMS Harvester and HMCS Ottawa together committed nine attacks on the enemy boat, dropping 83 depth charges in the vicinity of the submerged enemy.[3] Underwater explosions were heard, contact with the submarine was lost, and a subsequent oil slick formed on the surface.[4] HMS Harvester and HMCS Ottawa claimed victory, and returned to their escort duties unable to remain at the scene of the battle for more decisive evidence of the destroyed submarine, due to the risk of further attacks by enemy patrols.  Without the sighting of wreckage, body parts, or survivors, the Admiralty assessed that the submarine was “probably damaged” by the joint Canadian-British action.[5]

The attack occurred west of Ireland, between Bordeaux and Faa Di Bruno‘s patrol area.[6]  In the 1980s – over 50 years after the encounter – the Admiralty reassessed the action based on its own records, and those of the Italian Navy, and awarded a decisive kill to HMCS Ottawa and HMS Harvester.  With this reassessment, Faa di Bruno officially became the first enemy warship destroyed in action by the RCN.[7]  The official Italian position is that the nature of Faa di Bruno’s demise is unknown, “lost on an undefined date between 31 Oct 1940, and 5 Jan 1941.”[8]

HMCS Ottawa and HMS Harvester were both torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats before the war was over.

[1] Marc Milner, Canada’s Navy: The First Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 88.

[2] Fraser M. McKee, “Some Revisionist History in the Battle of the Atlantic” The Northern Mariner, No. 4 (October 1991), 29.

[3] McKee, “Revisionist History”, 30.

[4] Milner, Canada’s Navy, 88.

[5] Milner, Canada’s Navy, 88.

[6] McKee, “Revisionist History”, 30.

[7] Milner, Canada’s Navy, 88.

[8] Ranieri, “Faa di Bruno”.

19 Jan 1943, Tritone, sunk by HMCS Port Arthur and Escort MKS 6 in the Mediterranean Sea, off Bougie, Algeria, 37-06N 05-22E.  

Distinguished Service Medals went to Able Seaman Gerry Boyer, HMCS Port Arthur's HSD, and Ordinary Seaman Donald McLean, the submarine detector who was on watch and picked up the Italian submarine contact.  Lieutant E. T. Simmons, DSC, RCNVR, who commanded HMCS Port Arthur when she sank the Tritone, was awarded the DSO for his "outstanding skill and judgment".  Sub-Lieutenant Peter Cowan, RCNVR, anti-submarine control officer of HMCS Port Arthur, was awarded the DSC for his part in the submarine sinking.

8 Feb 1943, Avorio, sunk by HMCS Regina and Escort KMS in the western Mediterranean Sea, north of Phillipville, Algeria, 37-10N 06-42E.