January 28th 1941 – Italian submarine sinks British steamer Urla west of Ireland

The discussion of Britain’s battle with Italy during World War Two is often confined to the Mediterranean and North African theaters. However, Mussolini’s forces also attacked Britain directly and even committed aircraft to support the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. An even less-known fact is that Italian submarines supported the German Kriegsmarine in their siege of Britain in an effort to strangle her of vital war supplies from across the Atlantic.

One such Italian submarine was the Marconi-class Luigi Torelli which was launched five months before Italy would declare war on Britain and France in support of Germany. After completing its shakedown cruise and the training of its crew the Luigi Torelli sailed for German-occupied Bordeaux to join up with the small Italian submarine flotilla based there. Italian fortunes in the Atlantic didn’t often mirror their German counterparts but the Luigi Torelli would prove an exception when over the course of January 15th-16th 1941, the submarine attacked and sank three ships from a convoy over 400 miles west of Rockall; a British islet west of Scotland and south of Iceland. A fourth ship was attacked but escaped destruction.

Four days before this incident, the 17-year old 5,198-ton steamer Urla departed Halifax in Canada with convoy HX 102 carrying a load of steel and lumber bound for Manchester. The crossing was not an easy one for the 42 men of the Urla which struggled to keep pace with the rest of the convoy. The North Atlantic weather had battered HX 102 and a number of ships had to turn back to Canada to join HX 103 when the weather improved. The Urla pressed on but soon found itself straggling behind the others by the time the convoy approached the British Isles toward the end of the month.

Urla Luigi Torelli north atlantic submarine sinking italian navyOn January 28th, the Urla had the misfortune to stumble across the Luigi Torelli on patrol to the west of Ireland (Right). The Italian submarine fired on the Urla, scoring a direct hit on the ship which soon began to sink but incredibly not before all 42 crewmembers managed to safely launch their lifeboats.

While the war was over for the Urla, it was far from over for the Luigi Torelli. The Italian submarine would be on the receiving end of an attack when on the night of June 3rd 1942, it was bombed by an RAF Vickers Wellington using its powerful Leigh light searchlight 70 miles off the Spanish coast. It suffered considerable damage but managed to reach the port of Avilés in the north of neutral Spain but was damaged again shortly after in an attack by a Royal Australian Air Force Short Sunderland as it attempted to reach Bordeaux forcing it back to Spain for more repairs.

In 1943, the submarine was one of four Italian boats assigned to join a German mission to the Far East to sneak through Allied naval patrols to acquire vital war material from the Japanese in Asia. During the mission, the Italian government joined with the Allies and the submarine was interned by the Japanese. It was then taken on charge by a mixed German-Italian crew to combat the Allies in the Far East under the German flag as U.IT.25. It served the German Navy in the Far East up until Germany’s surrender in 1945 after which the submarine was then taken on by the Japanese as I-504. The submarine and her Italian sister Comandante Cappellini were the only two ships to fly the flags of all three main Axis powers during the course of World War II.

With the war nearly over, the service life of I-504 was relatively short. Based in Kobe, Japan it was damaged in a major air raid on the city by USAAF B-29 Superfortress bombers on July 15th 1945; less than 24 hours after its new Japanese captain had assumed command. The I-504 is credited as probably the last warship of the Axis powers to score a victory over the Allies when in the waning days of the war its deck guns shot down a B-25 Mitchell bomber that was raiding the harbour.

On August 30th, the I-504 was formally surrendered to the Allies ending the submarine’s war for good. On April 16th 1946, the submarine was taken out in to the Kii Channel east of the city of Tokushima and scuttled. A sad end to the story of an incredible warship.

 

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Italian diver claims to have found lost Royal Navy submarine

HMS P311 T-class submarine.jpg

An Italian diver has claimed to have discovered the wreck of HMS P311, a British T-class submarine lost during World War II, off the coast of Sardinia. The diver, Massimo Bondone, stumbled upon the wreck laying at a depth of 262ft off the island of Tavolara.

HMS P311, under the command of Commander Richard “Deadeye Dick” Cayley, disappeared sometime between December 30th 1942 and January 8th 1943 having been part of an operation to attack two Italian cruisers anchored at La Maddalena in Sardinia. It has long been suspected the sub was lost to an Italian mine. The vessel was due to be given the name HMS Tutankhamun after a directive by Churchill that all British submarines were to have names to distinguish them from German U-boats in the eyes of the British public but was lost before the renaming ceremony could take place.

The Royal Navy told the BBC that they are investigating the claim by Bondone.

November 11th 1940 – The Attack on Taranto

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November 11th is always remembered as Armistice Day; the date in which the First World War ended and the British and Commonwealth peoples take a moment to remember all those who have fallen in the name of our freedom. It is however also the anniversary of an incredible attack that took place in 1940.

By November 1940 nearly all of Western Europe was under Nazi German occupation. The RAF had narrowly defeated the Luftwaffe and although Hitler had postponed Operation: Sea Lion, his invasion of  Britain, the war was now beginning to heat up in the Mediterranean. Fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had aspirations for building a new Roman Empire in Africa and now he was poised to capture British Empire territory in North Africa. In order to do that he had to defeat the powerful but desperately overstretched Royal Navy with his own fleet of big-gun capital ships who had the advantage of operating from their home port of Taranto.

The British Admiralty knew they had to take these ships out quickly and prevent them from leaving the harbour. Many plans were devised and rejected until finally the decision was taken for the Fleet Air Arm to launch a daring attack using Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo-bombers. It was a bold but dangerous plan and even the pilots involved expected a 50% casualty rate but the Italian ships had to be destroyed to help secure the Mediterranean and keep the supply lines to North Africa open.

The attack force was launched from HMS Illustrious at 2100hrs on November 11th 1940 and was an incredible success. During the course of the night the Italian Navy lost half of its capital ships while many other ships and port facilities were damaged. Despite such pessimistic casualty projections only two Swordfish were downed in the attack. It was a dramatic display of the potency of naval aircraft, even antiquated ones such as the Fairey Swordfish, and this was not lost on the Japanese who would be inspired by Taranto in their planning for their attack on Pearl Harbour a year later. The Taranto attack itself was actually inspired by an earlier plan to attack the Imperial German Navy in Wilhelmshaven during the First World War (see World War I’s Abandoned “Pearl Harbour” Attack).

This year marks the 75th anniversary of this incredible story.

NEWS: Royal Navy rescue another 134 migrants in the Mediterranean

The Type 23 frigate, HMS Richmond, has been involved in the recovery of 134 migrants from a dinghy that was attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. The ship’s company provided food and medical assistance to the migrants before they were taken ashore to Sicily. The frigate was operating as part of a multi-national fleet conducting operations in the Mediterranean.

The European fleet rescued more than 500 people from a flotilla of overcrowded and barely seaworthy vessels. A spokesman for the operation said that as well as the 134 men and women rescued by the Royal Navy, the Belgians recovered 258 people and the Slovenian Navy retrieved up 76 people. This was the third group of migrants HMS Richmond has rescued in less than two weeks and brings the number of migrants rescued by the Royal Navy up to nearly 8,000 since May.

NEWS: HMS Bulwark rescues another 400 migrants

Migrants aboard a landing craft (Royal Navy)

The Ministry of Defence has released footage taken by the Royal Navy of the latest rescue of African migrants conducted by the British warship HMS Bulwark operating in the Mediterranean. The footage shows how over 400 migrants including pregnant women and children crammed themselves aboard just four inflatable dinghies and set out across the Mediterranean hoping to reach Italy and the safety of the European Union.

HMS Bulwark deployed her landing craft, vessels more accustomed to taking troops ashore than rescuing migrants, in order to get the people off the dangerously overcrowded dinghies as quickly as possible. Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel were so concerned about the possibility that people may actually be nudged off the dinghies that their first priority was to issue them life jackets before they began transferring to the landing craft.

Once the transfer from the dinghies was complete the landing craft turned back to Bulwark where they docked at the rear of the vessel. Upon being taken onboard the migrants were given medical and humanitarian aid before plans to transfer them to the shore could be acted upon. This has been the biggest rescue operation carried out by HMS Bulwark since arriving in the Mediterranean at the end of April.

NEWS; HMS Bulwark in dramatic rescue in the Mediterranean

HMS Bulwark (Royal Navy)

HMS Bulwark (Royal Navy)

The Royal Navy Albion-class assault ship, HMS Bulwark, rescued 110 migrants from a dinghy on Thursday which was slowly sinking off the coast of Libya. The rescue was the first by a British ship since the dramatic increase in the number of cases of people smuggling across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe beginning in March. Once the migrants were taken onboard their dinghy was deliberately sunk so as to not pose a threat to shipping in the region.

The operation was carried out with the support of the Italian Coast Guard who have been at the forefront of rescue operations for the thousands of desperate people risking their lives and their family’s lives in their attempt to make the crossing often in virtually unseaworthy vessels. Due to the sheer number of people crammed aboard the dinghy and the urgency to get them off, Bulwark used her landing craft to remove the people en masse.

The migrants were transferred to the Italian coastguard vessel Fiorillo and were subsequently taken to the Italian mainland for medical assessment. In the past week alone Italian and French vessels have rescued nearly 6000 migrants from the Mediterranean while at least 10 bodies have been recovered.

Supermarine Spitfire Vb vs. Macchi C.202 Folgore

Spit5 c.202

The early days of the air campaign in North Africa seemed to be from another era. Biplanes were still quite widespread with the British Gloster Gladiator and Italian Fiat CR.42 among the very best. The reason for this from the British position was largely that the most premier warplanes should be reserved for the defence of mainland Britain; after all what good is protecting North Africa if Blighty falls. After the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force was in a more stable position and began to dispatch its more capable aircraft to North Africa to face the Italians. This took on an even greater urgency when Germany came to the Italian’s aid.

Spitfire VbAs the air war over North Africa intensified it began to take on an image equal and possibly even more savage than in Europe. It was here that the legacy of the earlier biplane dogfights between the British and Italians was continued with the introduction of the more modern monoplane fighters. In early 1941 the British sent the latest Spitfire, the Mark V, which was designed to address some of the shortcomings of the earlier Spitfires. Unfortunately the Mark V will always be remembered as being too little too late for its arrival coincided with the arrival of the “Butcher Bird” – the mighty Focke-Wulf 190. While it was a poor match for the Fw190 it was still a good aircraft comparable to nearly all other fighters in the European and North African theatres.

Throughout the 1930s Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, dreamed of building a new Roman Empire and he knew that this would mean military conquest in Africa and the Balkans. To that extent he instigated one of the most ambitious and aggressive military build-ups in the world at that time including a vast air force. By the outbreak of war in 1939 Italy’s air force, the Regia Aeronautica, was immensely strong possessing more aircraft than either Britain or France however this advantage on paper was seriously degraded by the speed at which the re-equipment program was carried out which meant that the vast majority of Italy’s fighters were rendered obsolete by the modern types in RAF service. One aircraft that appeared during this build-up that was still credible however was the Macchi MC.200 Saetta.

MC200The Saetta was a low wing monoplane with an obvious biplane heritage having a large Fiat A74 14 cylinder air cooled radial engine and short stubby fuselage. It was far superior to any other indigenous fighter in the Regia Aeronautica and could actually hold its own with the RAF’s Hawker Hurricane although both the Supermarine Spitfire Mark I/II and German Messerschmitt Bf109D held an edge. The designer of the Saetta, Mario Castoldi, firmly believed that he had a world beating aircraft but one that was being let down by the large radial engine that incurred heavy drag and had insufficient power to compensate. Impressed by Germany’s Bf109 he requested to build a version of the MC.200 powered by the German fighter’s DB.601A 12 cylinder in-line engine built under license by Alfa Romeo as RA.1000 R.C.41-I Monsone. Installing the new engine required only the slightest modification to the airframe thus easing production by Macchi as the tooling was already available. Thus the MC.202 Folgore was born.

This comparison will look at the Spitfire Vb and the MC.202 basic fighter. The results can also be transferred to the Royal Navy’s Supermarine Seafire IB naval fighter as this was simply a Spitfire Vb with arrestor gear for landing on a carrier.


Performance

Spitfire VB Trop

The Spitfire V was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45, a variant of the Merlin XX and came fitted with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. The engine still lacked the direct fuel injection system of the German engines but improvements to the carburettor did allowed the Spitfire V to undertake negative-G manoeuvres without major disruption to the flow of fuel as had been the case in earlier variants. First production Merlin 45s were delivered in January 1941 and churned out around 1,450hp at 9,000ft, an advance over the Spitfire II/Merlin XII combination of some 275hp, which it translated it in to forward motion via a three bladed propeller.

The Merlin 45 pulled the Spitfire V along at a comfortable top speed of 375mph at 20,000ft. The dust encountered at lower levels such as during take off or straffing enemy formations in North Africa required the fitting of a large Volge air filter that not only ruined the Spitfire’s elegant lines but also incurred a 7-9mph speed penalty. The aircraft had an initial climb rate of 2,600ft/min which increased to over 3,100ft/min above 14,000ft once clear of the thick air lower down leading on to a service ceiling of 36,500ft. The Spitfire Vb had a respectable wing loading of 27.35 lb/ft2  and had a maximum of 639hp to share for every ton in weight depending on fuel and weapon loadout.

Macchi MC.202

Daimler in Germany were relieved that Italy chose to manufacture its superb DB.601A engine itself. It was already inundated with orders for German aircraft and an Italian production line would mean that there was the possibility that they might be able to ease the pressure a little as well as provide the powerplant for the Folgore. However the opposite happened with Alfa Romeo struggling to get the production line open which meant that the first batch of MC.202s had to be fitted with imported German DB.601As.

The Italian version of the engine, the RA.1000 R.C.41-I Monsone, developed 1,159hp which took the aircraft to a speed of around 370mph at 19,000ft; 1mph faster than the Spitfire Vb. Initial climb rate was 3,563 ft/min and a service ceiling of 37,730ft was achievable. This meant that the Folgore was significantly faster in a climb than the Spitfire and could operate at over a thousand feet higher. It’s heavier wing loading of 35.68 lb/ft² coupled with a power-to-mass(empty) ratio of 429hp per ton meant however that the Spitfire was a nimbler machine in the air.

Armament

Spitfire Vb 2

It’s name may have been “Spitfire” but in the early marks, Supermarine’s legendary fighter was barely an adequate gun platform. It’s eight .303 machine guns were spaced out across the wing making it difficult to train them to a point ahead of the aircraft where their collective firepower could inflict heavy enough damage on an enemy aircraft equipped with self sealing fuel tanks. This was why the Hawker Hurricane, with its eight .303 machine guns coupled closely together, was the superior gun platform in the Battle of Britain.

Efforts were therefore made to up-gun the Spitfire by fitting a 20mm cannon but early trials were abismal with the Hispano 20mm cannon proving extremely unreliable and prone to jamming after just a few shots. Nevertheless the RAF persisted and after the bugs had been ironed out cannon armament became the standard on all later Spitfires. The Spitfire Vb was therefore armed with a pair of 20mm cannon each with 60 rounds and these had a muzzle velocity of 2800ft/sec. The .303s were still there however and the Spitfire Vb carried four of them. Some variants of the Mark V were armed with four 20mm cannon but this didn’t become standard until the last two years of the war.

Macchi MC.202 2

The Folgore was armed with a pair of 12.7mm machine guns around the upper engine cowling that fired through the propeller. These had a muzzle velocity of 2,510ft/sec and although were capable of firing up to 700 rounds a minute, 575 was the maximum they could attain in the Folgore because of the gun having to be synchronized to the propeller. Their position did mean that they were relatively easy to train on to an enemy aircraft compared to all-wing mounted weapons such as in the Spitfire. It was a heavy weapon compared to equivalent American and German weapons of the same calibre making them difficult  for ground crews to manage. The Folgore had a second pair of these guns in the wings but were bored out for the smaller 7.7mm round (the same calibre as the British .303). This left the Folgore quite under-armed compared to the Spitfire.

Misc

Spitfire VB Trop 2

The Spitfire pilot sat sandwiched between two fuel tanks; one ahead of the cockpit behind the engine and an auxiliary tank behind the cockpit. This meant that should his aircraft be hit in either of these areas he was likely to suffer horrendous burns if he didn’t get out quick enough. To that end Martin-Baker, the company that would eventually become synonymous with ejection seat technology developed a quick release system that allowed the Spitfire pilot get the canopy off in one quick movement and allow him to exit.

He was not entirely without protection however as he had armour plates behind his seat and head as well as a bullet-resistant windscreen. While the Spitfire was often cited as a delight to fly it was a notoriously bad aircraft to handle on the ground thanks to its narrow undercarriage that raised from the centre fuselage towards the wings as opposed to the opposite which was much more common.

Macchi MC.202 3

The Folgore pilot was also sandwiched between his two fuel tanks but had the additional problem of having a large number of ammunition stored around the forward tank for the 12.7mm guns in the nose. Escaping the Folgore was a much more difficult affair than in the Spitfire thanks to its narrow sideways hinging canopy and high set fuselage immediately behind the cockpit.

The wider set landing gear on the Folgore made it a much easier aircraft to handle on the ground and fewer Italian pilots crashed their aircraft in hard landings than Spitfire pilots did. While the Folgore did have armour plating protecting the back of the pilot’s head it lacked an armoured windscreen and left the pilot extremely vulnerable from defensive fire during attacks on bombers or a head on attack by another fighter such as the Spitfire.

Conclusion

No one will ever deny that Mario Castoldi designed an excellent aircraft but the MC.202 Folgore was lacking as a warplane. Against the Spitfire Vb the Italian fighter held an edge in the vertical plane thanks to its higher climb and dive rates. By contrast the Spitfire was more nimble in the horizontal plane allowing it to turn inside the turning circle of the Folgore. Although the Folgore enjoyed a 1,000ft advantage in service ceiling the fact of the matter was that dogfights rarely took place at the top of the aircraft’s respective service ceilings thus negating this advantage. In terms of speed at altitude the aircraft were both very evenly matched. Finally, the Spitfire pilot had vastly heavier armament and any Folgore caught in the Spitfire’s sights would get cut to pieces while in the opposite scenario the Folgore pilot would have to keep spraying bullets on the Spitfire for a lot longer to do any significant damage; a difficult prospect when the Spitfire pilot will be manoeuvring wildly.

Overall therefore the Spitfire Vb has to be declared the superior aircraft. Nevertheless Allied pilots respected it knowing that in the right hands it was a deadly weapon and the vast majority of Italy’s aces flew the MC.202. It’s low armament was always its downfall however especially when trying to tackle the four engined bombers of the USAAF and this lead to an improved version – the MC.205 Veltro.