The Italian government had kept the armistice it signed on September 3, 1943, a dead secret, even from its own military commands, such as Supermarina, the Admiralty.
Indeed, when on the evening of September 6, extensive shipping movements along the Maghreb coast indicated the possibility of an invasion, Maricosom (the submarine command) launched Operazione Zeta by sending out to sea 20 submarines to oppose the anticipated invasion. The Italian admirals did not know about the armistice until its announcement by Algiers radio at 6.30pm of September 8, 1943.
At that time, the Italian battle fleet was divided in two squadrons, the main one at Spezia under Admiral Carlo Bergamini and a small one at Taranto under Admiral Alberto Da Zara. At 11.45pm on September 8, Bergamini was ordered to take his squadron to rendezvous with a British squadron near Bone (Annaba), a city in northeast Algeria, while Da Zara was ordered to take his warships to Malta.
The Italian submarines in the Tyrrhenian Sea were ordered to go to Algiers while those in the Ionian Sea were to go to Augusta in Sicily. The minor warships that were at sea off the Italian west coast were instructed to go to Porto Ferraio, at Elba, Italy.
After a near mutiny, the Taranto squadron departed at 9am on September 9 and arrived at Malta in the afternoon of September 10, escorted by the battleship King George V. They anchored off the Maltese coast, between Madliena and Qawra. These were the battleships Doria and Duilio, the cruisers Pompeo and Cadorna, and the destroyer Da Recco.
In spite of Italian protests, armed guards were posted on the warships while British sailors began to dismantle the breech-blocks of the guns. Many Italian officers wanted to scuttle the warships but Da Zara decided to await developments. However, he ordered the officers to make preparations to scuttle their ships at his order. Luckily, the Italians were then left in peace.
The voyage of Bergamini’s squadron was more eventful. After initially refusing to obey, Bergamini eventually accepted the order when he was assured that that was the wish of the Italian King. The squadron departed Spezia at 3am on September 9 and comprised the battleships Roma, Vittorio Veneto and Italia, the cruisers Eugenio, Montecuccoli and Aosta, the destroyers Artigliere, Carabiniere, Fuciliere, Grecale, Legionario, Mitragliere, Oriani and Velite, as well as the torpedo boats Orione, Orsa, Pegaso and Impetuoso.
The arrival of the Italian battle fleet in Maltese waters escorted by British warships was a denouement undreamt of by even the most optimistic Maltese during the previous three harrowing years of the war
They were met at sea, six hours later, by a squadron that came from Genova; this consisted of the cruisers Abruzzi, Garibaldi and Regolo, and the torpedo boat Libra.
The combined squadron steamed down the west coast of Corsica during the morning of September 9, but at 12.38pm the warships suddenly changed course eastwards to the Straits of Bonifacio.
Bergamini, who thought the King had escaped to La Maddalena, Sardinia, had decided to disobey orders and was taking his warships to the King at La Maddalena instead of proceeding towards Bone.
Shortly afterwards, Rome informed Bergamini that the Germans had occupied La Maddalena so, at 2.41pm, Bergamini ordered his squadron to turn back westwards. Nobody can say what Bergamini intended to do afterwards but the chosen course led to Barcelona, Spain, 300 miles away.
Shortly afterwards, at 3.50pm, German Do-217K bombers attacked the Italians near Asinara Island, using Fritz X-1400 radio-controlled bombs. Two of these hit Bergamini’s flagship, the Roma, which caught fire, and her forward magazine blew up at 4.05pm. The battleship sank rapidly, with the death of two-thirds of her crew, including Bergamini and all his staff.
With the death of Bergamini, command of the squadron devolved on Rear-Admiral Romeo Oliva, on the Eugenio. He sent seven warships (the Regolo, Carabiniere, Fuciliere, Mitragliere, Impetuoso, Orsa and Pegaso) to rescue the survivors of the Roma while he maintained the westwards course with the rest of the squadron. At 4.22pm German bombers attacked again and hit the Italia in the bows with an FX-1400 bomb, but this battleship continued steaming.
Ordered by Rome to go to Bone, Oliva at first demurred, but after more strident orders from Rome, he changed course southwards at 9.07pm, and maintained that course during the night of September 9-10.
Meanwhile, the seven small warships that had gone to rescue the survivors of the Roma headed back towards Italy to land the many wounded but discovered that all the harbours had fallen under German control. Rome ordered them to go to Bone but now they did not have enough fuel to go there so they went to the Balearics, where they were interned, except the Pegaso and Impetuoso, which were rather impetuously scuttled near Mallorca by their young commanders.
At 8.38am on September 10, Oliva’s squadron was met north of Bone by a British squadron comprising the battleships Warspite and Valiant and the destroyers Echo, Faulknor, Fury, Intrepid, Raider, Le Terrible (French) and Vasilissa Olga (Greek). Oliva was ordered to go to Malta, and the two squadrons steamed together eastwards towards the island during the remainder of the day and the following night (September 10-11).
Oliva’s squadron nearly ended its life at dawn of September 11. The Regia Marina had set up a temporary headquarters and radio station at Brindisi. Da Zara had passed them the information about the armed guards but added that no attempt had been made to seize the warships. The naval authorities at Brindisi wanted to ensure that there would be no misunderstandings with Oliva’s squadron so, later that afternoon (September 10), they sent a message to Oliva ordering him to offer no resistance to the stationing of the armed guards (...consentono però accogliere bordo personale controllo).
This message nearly had a catastrophic effect. In order to make sure that Italian warships would not obey false orders sent by the Germans or the Allies, Rome was including the code-word ‘Milano’ in all their messages. But, no doubt as a side-effect of the chaotic situation at Brindisi, the word ‘Milano’ was not included in this message. As a result, the three Italian admirals of the squadron suspected that this could possibility be a false British signal intended to simplify a British invasion to seize the warships at Malta. At 5.20am on September 11, a discussion even began on whether to scuttle the warships near the Maltese coast, but eventually (at 6.45am) Oliva came to the same decision as Da Zara – wait to see developments, but make preparations for scuttling.
Eugenio and the two battleships anchored off Fort St Leonardo during the morning of September 11, while the cruisers went to St Paul’s Bay and the destroyers to Marsaxlokk. That afternoon, the Eugenio went to anchor near Qawra while the two battleships went to Marsaxlokk.
That day, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham sent a message to the Secretary of the Admiralty, stating: “Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian Battlefleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta.”
In the evening, Da Zara and Cunningham met at the Lascaris War Rooms. It was agreed to take most of the Italian warships to Alexandria, Egypt, for safety.
Da Zara agreed to send two destroyers (Oriani and Legionario) to Algiers to transport American soldiers to Sardinia in order to assist Italian and French soldiers who were fighting the Germans on that island. (The two destroyers returned to Malta on September 29). It was also agreed to withdraw the armed guards from the Italian warships while the Italians were allowed to install again the breech-blocks of their guns.
A stream of Italian warships arrived during the following days. The submarine Menotti arrived on September 12 (under arrest of the submarine Unshaken) while the battleship Cesare, tender Miraglia, destroyer Riboty and submarines Atropo, Bandiera and Jalea came on September 13. The bulk of the Italian warships departed for Alexandria on September 14, leaving in Malta only the Cesare, Doria, Duilio, Garibaldi, Abruzzi, Pompeo, Miraglia and the submarines.
Also on September 14, the gunboat Luana and seven freighters arrived, all seized by the submarines Unrivalled and Unruly. That evening came the hospital ship Toscana, which embarked wounded sailors from the Italia and took them to Taranto; these had been temporarily accommodated on the hospital ship Laurana (at that time arrested at Malta, having been accused of operating as a troop ship).
Then more submarines came. The Alagi, Brin, Galatea, Giada, Marea and Platino arrived from Augusta on September 16, while the Bragadino, Onice, Settembrini, Squalo, Vortice and Zoea arrived on September 17 from Algiers.
Meanwhile, the small warships that had gone to Elba escaped when the Germans invaded the island late on September 11, and went to Palermo, Sicily. These were ordered to go to Malta, where they arrived between September 19 and 23. These were the torpedo boats Aliseo, Animoso, Ardimentoso, Ariete, Calliope, Carini, Fabrizi, Fortunale, Indomito and Mosto, the submarines Axum, Corridoni, H1, H2, H4 and Nichelio, the corvettes Ape, Cormorano, Danaide, Gabbiano, Minerva and Pellicano, the gunboat Regina Elena, the tugboat Liscanera, six motor torpedo boats and nine motor-launches. Last to arrive was the submarine Turchese, which arrived from Algiers on October 5 under tow of a British tugboat – she had been damaged by German aircraft on September 11.
Following the signing of the second armistice document on HMS Nelson in Grand Harbour on September 29, 1943, most of the Italian warships were allowed to return to Italy
Following the signing of the second armistice document on HMS Nelson in Grand Harbour on September 29, 1943, most of the Italian warships were allowed to return to Italy. They departed between October 4 and 13, leaving at Marsaxlokk the Cesare, Doria, Duilio, Miraglia and Liscanera, the latter to act as a passenger ferry for Italian sailors. The repair ship Quarnerolo arrived on October 18 to act as a repair ship, allowing the Miraglia to depart to Taranto. Liscanera was replaced by a British harbour tender (motor fishing vessel) on February 15, 1944.
The remaining Italian warships returned to Italy in summer 1944. The Doria went on June 8, the Cesare and Quarnerolo on June 17, while the Duilio departed on June 26. Thus, a unique chapter of Malta’s maritime history came to an end.
The arrival of the Italian battle fleet in Maltese waters escorted by British warships was a denouement undreamt of by even the most optimistic Maltese during the previous three harrowing years of the war.
Although the general perception in Malta was, and is, that these warships had surrendered, this is not quite correct. According to the front page of Times of Malta of September 24, 1943, during a debate in the House of Lords on September 23, 1943, Viscount Cranborne, spokesman on behalf of the British government, proclaimed that the Italian warships had not surrendered but had moved to designated points under the terms of the armistice.
He added that the future of the Italian fleet was under consideration. By this, Cranborne was referring to a meeting that Admiral Cunningham and the Italian Admiral Raffaele De Courten, the Italian minister of the Marine, were conducting at Taranto. An agreement was reached on September 24. Known as the Cunningham/De Courten Accord, this became one of those happy accords where both sides adhered faithfully to the agreement, both to the spirit and to its wording.
Basically it was agreed that the Italian military and mercantile shipping would collaborate with the Allies as co-belligerents against the Germans and were to operate on the same conditions as applied to the vessels of other German-occupied countries, that is, while the vessels would continue to fly the Italian flag and be responsible to Super Marina, but the Royal Navy would assign their duties.
In this case, the main activity of the Italian warships was to escort Allied convoys across the Mediterranean while merchant ships were to sail as units of Allied convoys. The Allied Mediterranean convoys did not end until November 27, 1944, with the arrival at Port Said of convoy UGS-59.
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