Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia who was the most successful non-German submarine captain of the entire war. The story of the Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most exciting in the history of submarine warfare and it fully deserves its status as the most famous Italian submarine of all time and one of the most famous boats of any country.
On the way to Bordeaux the Leonardo da Vinci made several attacks on enemy vessels but none succeeded. One hunt was spoiled by attacking planes from a nearby British aircraft carrier, other targets were able to outrun the submarine and so on. However, the boat arrived finally at Bordeaux and after less than two months was dispatched again into the north Atlantic in December of 1940. Once again, the results were disappointing. A signal came in from HQ to join in an attack on a British convoy while off the coast of Ireland. Captain Calda quickly raced to join the attack but, due to a navigational error, their position was off and no target was to be found. No other targets were sighted during the patrol and on the way back Captain Calda launched an audacious attack on a British destroyer (vessels submarines generally try to avoid) but neither side got any joy. The destroyer and submarine escaped unscathed and Leonardo da Vinci returned to port. The first patrols of 1941 likewise proved frustrating. The first had to be abandoned because of a mechanical problem with one of the boat’s electric motors and the second, again off the Irish coast, ended with no enemy ships being sighted.
While in port, the Leonardo da Vinci received a new commanding officer when Captain Caldo was replaced by C.C. Luigi Longanesi Cattani. When the boat finally put to sea again to hunt in the waters off the Azores there was, again, no successes and the sub had to return to port due to a rudder malfunction. As 1942 dawned the Leonardo da Vinci was dispatched to a new and distant hunting ground, off the Brazilian coast. It would take time to get there but the shipping route from New York City to Brazil was expected to be ripe with targets and less heavily defended than the north Atlantic shipping lanes. This time, such expectations were met and in February of 1942 the submarine scored two solid successes with the sinking of a Brazilian and a Latvian freighter for a combined total of 7,201 tons. After returning to home base, the Leonardo da Vinci was back in action off the Brazilian coast again in June and met with even greater success, sinking a Panamanian schooner, a Danish freighter, a Dutch freighter and a British collier for a combined total of 19,997 tons. The Italian submarine returned to port covered in glory and to receive some special modifications for a top secret assignment.
In August of 1942, the Leonardo da Vinci received a new commanding officer, one who would be its most famous; T.V. Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia. Born in Milan in 1912 of Genoese ancestry, Gazzana-Priaroggia had been executive officer under one of the greatest submarine commanders; Carlo Fecia di Cossato, and he would pay his old superior the highest complement by surpassing his record. Meanwhile, the Leonardo da Vinci was refitted and put through a number of tests for the attack on New York before her commander finally informed the high command that she was ready to undertake the mission. However, to his dismay, the high command replied that the mission would be postponed for at least a year. No one then knew why but evidence indicates that Mussolini was counting on an even more powerful weapon to be ready by that time: an atomic bomb. Of course, that never came about and so the submarine had its deck gun restored but left the fittings for the attachment of the mini-subs in place so that it would be ready to undertake the attack on New York at a later time. That mission, however, was to remain unfulfilled and is rarely ever remembered today. Still, there was plenty more for Leonardo da Vinci to do in the Battle of the Atlantic with her new captain at the helm.
Still, the war went on and a few days later the Leonardo da Vinci sank another British freighter before moving into the waters of the Indian Ocean. There, in April, the submarine sank a Dutch freighter, a British freighter, another American ‘liberty ship’ and a British tanker for a total of 29,828 tons. It was another resoundingly successful campaign for Italy’s most famous submarine. Sadly, those victories in a far distant sea were to be the last for Captain Gazzana-Priaroggia and the Leonardo da Vinci. On their way back to port the submarine was spotted and attacked by two British warships; the destroyer HMS Active and the frigate HMS Ness west of Cape Finisterre, Spain. The Leonardo da Vinci submerged, going deeper and deeper, trying to evade and elude the enemy but it was ultimately to no avail. Subject to fierce depth charge attack, the boat was finally destroyed and lost with all hands. Captain Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Military Valor by the Kingdom of Italy and the Knight’s Iron Cross by Germany in recognition of his great achievements.