Monday, December 10, 2012

The Strange Case of the Luigi Torelli

In the Italian submarine fleet, or most any naval force in the world, few ships had such an odd and colorful career as the Torelli, a Marconi class submarine (pennant number TI) launched on January 6, 1940. It was an extremely successful submarine, sinking seven enemy vessels for a total of 43,000 tons during her short career as a raider. The Torelli made one patrol in the Mediterranean and then slipped past the British at Gibraltar on September 8, 1940 to join the Italian submarine forces in the Atlantic operating out of Bordeaux, France. On her first patrol in the Atlantic, the Torelli sent four enemy ships to the bottom. The sub had no such luck on her second patrol but did add another ship to her score card on her third patrol. In December of 1941 the Torelli along with three Calvi class submarines aided in the rescue of 254 sailors from the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis. During "Operation Neuland" the intrepid Italian sub sent two more enemy ships to the bottom but her closest call was to come from the air rather than the sea.

Because of their large size, most Italian submarines tended to be slower to submerge compared to some others and this made them particularly vulnerable to air attack. However, as a result, Italian submariners became very skilled anti-aircraft gunners. While most other subs would crash dive on spotting an enemy plane, since they most likely could not get underwater fast enough, Italian subs would stay on top and shoot it out with enemy aircraft. In the eastern Atlantic, while returning from hunting around the Bahamas the Torelli was attacked by a British flying-boat on June 5, 1942 and suffered heavy damage. Because of this, the submarine was unable to dive and had to try to make it back to Bordeaux only on the surface. Only two days later the Torelli was spotted by the British and quickly attacked by two Sunderlands. However, the Italian anti-aircraft fire was so fierce that their bombing runs were ruined, though they did manage to spray the sub with gunfire that killed Sergeant Flavio Pallucchini and wounding Captain Antonio de Giacomo and another officer. Still, one of the planes was hit and both were finally forced to retreat and the Torelli returned to port for repairs.

Once at sea again, the Torelli was on patrol off the coast of Brazil when she was attacked by three Catalina American torpedo planes and, because of a valve malfunction, was unable to submerge and again had to shoot it out on the surface. The Italian gunners shot down one of the Catalinas and forced the other two to retreat but took several casualties and suffered a lot of damage. The radio-man was killed, the chief engineer, an assistant engineer and the captain were all wounded and the captain was forced to turn command over to his first lieutenant. Still, they made it back in one piece but because of the extensive damage suffered, the days of the Torelli as a commerce raider were over. Her offensive weapons were removed and she was converted to a long-range transport with her torpedo tubes being converted into extra fuel tanks. On June 14, 1943 she left Bordeaux loaded with supplies as well as a German engineer, two civilian mechanics and Japanese Colonel Kinze Sateke, a telecommunications specialist who has just undergone training in Germany. These passengers were to be delivered to Singapore to help in modernizing the Japanese war effort.

The Allied code-breakers found out about this special voyage and had aircraft searching from Gibraltar to the Cape but they failed to locate the Torelli which made the passage through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans without incident to Japanese-held Singapore. However, by the time they arrived the King had dismissed Mussolini and taken Italy out of the war. After that time the Germans grabbed all Italian personnel and equipment they could get their hands on and that included the Torelli which was drafted into the German navy, as part of their Far East submarine flotilla (the 12th and later 33rd U-Boat Flotilla) and the crew were thrown into a POW camp. However, once Mussolini established his puppet regime in Salo the Italian crew were given the choice of joining the Italo-German navy of the Italian Social Republic. They decided to join Mussolini's navy, unfortunate, but not surprising given that their only other option was prison camp. So, the Torelli was joined by more Germans and renamed the UIT-25. However, the strange career of the Torelli did not end there. When the Salo Republic collapsed and Germany surrendered the sub was taken over by the Japanese and continued on as I-504 of the Imperial Japanese Navy, serving in the Pacific until the Japanese surrender with a German-Italian-Japanese crew. Communications onboard must have been rather complicated! They ended up scoring the last Axis victory of World War II when they were attacked by American bombers when the Italians on the 13.2mm Breda shot down one of the American planes in Kobe, Japan. After the Japanese surrender the submarine was scuttled by the U.S. Navy, ending a long and colorful career.

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