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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September 23rd 1938 – British Anti-Aircraft Units Mobilise During Munich Crisis

On September 22nd 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler to discuss the issue of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After the political map of Europe was redrawn following World War I, many ethnic German speakers found themselves living in Czechoslovakia and Hitler had vowed to return them to the Fatherland. Chamberlain had agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland but Hitler made demands that he wanted to seize Czechoslovakia completely.

Naturally, Czechoslovakia was opposed to this as were most European powers and began to mobilise for war. As the situation deteriorated, Britain began making preparations for war and on September 23rd 1938 the anti-aircraft units of the Territorial Army were activated.

Among the units mobilised were;

  • 26th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting London with just 41 AA guns
  • 35th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting the important naval base at Portsmouth
  • 42nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Glasgow
  • 43rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Teeside
  • 54th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting towns and cities in the West Midlands

Many of these units found themselves armed with little more than World War I Lewis machine guns until heavier weapons could be distributed to them.

The crisis was eventually resolved as far as Britain was concerned with the Munich Agreement  and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to Hitler’s will. The Czechoslovak government could not hope to fight the Nazis alone and reluctantly agreed although they felt betrayed by Britain and France.

On September 30th 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain and gave one of history’s most notorious speeches proclaiming “peace in our time” however the Territorial Army anti-aircraft units would remain mobilised right up until the following September when peace was finally shattered in dramatic fashion.