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Alberto da Giussano Class Cruisers

by Giulio Poggiaroni

The first Condottieri Ships

The origin of the Alberto da Giussano class begins in the mid-1920s. The Regia Marina was striving to modernize its fleet, which comprised of 5 dreadnoughts built immediately before the great war and the cruiser component dating back to the beginning of the century. The negotiation of the Washington Naval Treaty and the dire Italian economic situation delayed the start of the fleet renovation program. In fact, only in 1923-1924 did funding arrive for the Trento class cruisers.

Alberto da Giussano cruiser.

Alberto da Giussano cruiser. Colorized by Irootoko Jr.

Countering the French ‘La Fantasque’ class

Funding for the construction of 4 new 5000 t cruisers arrived in 1927-1928. The Regia Marina requested a fast unit capable of countering the new large French destroyers (La Fantasque class) which outclassed any Italian counterparts. The new designs placed emphasis on speed and armament at the expense of protection, which was practically ignored. This was due to the popular belief,  among the ranks of the Regis Marina, that speed was a form of protection itself and so the armor plates could be reduced to the minimum.

Ship Builder Laid Down Launched Completed
Alberico da Barbiano Gio. Ansaldo & C. Genoa 16 April 1928 23 August 1930 9 June 1930
Alberto di Giussano Gio. Ansaldo & C. Genoa 29 March 1928 27 April 1930 5 February 1931
Bartolomeo Colleoni Gio. Ansaldo & C. Genoa 21 June 1928 21 December 1930 10 February 1931
Giovanni dalle Bande Nere Regio Cantiere di Castellammare di Stabia 31 October 1928 27 April 1930 27 April 1931

The resulting design was the Alberto da Giussano class, comprising the vessels Bartolomeo Colleoni, Alberico da Barbiano, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and, obviously, the Alberto da Giussano. The 4 cruisers inaugurated the new era of Italian light cruisers, called the “Condottieri” series, with each ship named after famous military commanders of the past.

Design

The new ships, although decently armed and capable of 35-37 knots in operational conditions, proved immediately to have many flaws. The ships revealed to have stability problems, especially in rough seas, due to the bad balance between length and beam. In addition, the light construction of the hull caused strong vibrations that hindered the navigation. A partial resolution was incorporated later by adding extra weight to the lower decks.

  • Armament

The primary armament consisted of eight 152/53 guns, model 1926 manufactured by Ansaldo and OTO. Placed in four twin turrets. Each pair of guns had a unique cell. This meant they could not be elevated independently and that they were charged and fired contemporarily. This feature, together with the initial high velocity of the projectile, caused the well-known high dispersion of shells which affected all Italian naval artillery.

  • Armor

The extremely weak protection of the Giussano class was immediately recognized as a critical issue affecting the operational value of the ships. As a result, all subsequent “Condottieri” cruisers (except for the Cadorna class) progressively improved the armor protection scheme and proved to be more combat-worthy than the Giussano class cruisers.

  • Reconnaissance Floatplanes

Another design flaw in the Alberto da Giussano class was the impractical placement of the catapult for the reconnaissance floatplanes. The Catapult was located on the bow, in front of the 152mm gun turrets. This exposed the plane to waves during rough seas and the shock waves from the forward turrets firing. Similar design errors were replicated on all Italian heavy cruisers, except the Bolzano.

This photo of the Alberico da Barbiano shows the forward positioning of a reconnaissance floatplane IMAM Ro.43. Image:From the collection of: Maurizio Brescia.

This photo of the Alberico da Barbiano shows the forward positioning of a reconnaissance floatplane IMAM Ro.43. Image: Collection of Maurizio Brescia.

Operational History of the Alberto da Giussano Class Cruisers

The Alberto da Giussano and Alberico da Barbiano participated in the battle of Calabria/Punta Stilo as part of the IV Cruiser division. Meanwhile, the Bande Nere and Colleoni (the II Division) remained at anchor in Benghazi.

  • Battle of Cape Spada

A week later, the II Division was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to harass British shipping and establish a larger naval presence in the area. The attempt failed when a larger British force intercepted the two cruisers near Crete (Cape Spada).

Fire and explosions are seen here on the Bartolomeo Colleoni following a direct hit by HMAS Sydney.

Fire and explosions are seen here on the Bartolomeo Colleoni following a direct hit by HMAS Sydney.

During the brief clash, the Colleoni received a hit in the engine room by shells from the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, The ship stalled following the hit and became prey for the British. The Bande Nere managed to escape thanks to its superior speed.

  • Battle of Cape Bon

The clash of Cape Spada exposed the fragility of the cruisers. From here on out, the Regia Marina relegated them to escort and transport duties, and were heavily employed in the “Convoy war”. During one of such transport operations in December 1941, the Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto da Giussano met their fate. With the axis forces in North Africa in urgent need of fuel supplies, the two cruisers were loaded with fuel barrels and dispatched to Tripoli. They proceeded at full speed and sought cover in the darkness of the night. Unfortunately, the British were fully aware of this mission thanks to ULTRA and sent Force K, based in Malta, to ambush them off the coast of Tunisia (near Cape Bon).

Caught by surprise by Force K, the Italian ships were invested by British gunfire and torpedo salvo, leaving them no chance to react. Immediately after the first few hits, fires erupted onboard the two cruisers given their large fuel cargo. Shortly afterward, torpedo strikes from HMS Maori and HMS Legion sent the two cruisers to the bottom of the sea.

  • Second Battle of Sirte

Giovanni dale Bande Nere, the only surviving Alberto da Giussano class cruiser, saw its final action during the Second Battle of the Sirte. The Italian operation aimed at blocking British convoys directed to Malta. During the brief battle, the ship managed to land a hit on the Cruiser HMS Cleopatra, causing 15 deaths on board.

Alberto da Giussano class cruiser Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere is a member of the Condottieri class cruiser line.

Alberto da Giussano class cruiser Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere is a member of the Condottieri class cruiser line.

The Giovanni dale Bande Nere sank in April 1942 by the submarine HMS Urge, off the coast of Sicily, while transferring to La Spezia.

The operational history of the Alberto da Giussano class cruisers dramatically exposed the flaws of the original design. The weak armor and limited underwater protection proved to be fatal for the four vessels of the class. The lessons learned from these design flaws led to a new generation of much more effective cruisers but during WW2. The cost in human lives because of these flaws was heavy, nonetheless.

Specifications

Class Alberto di Guissano Class
Type Cruiser
Built 1928-1930
Displacement 6,954 tons
Length 555 ft (169.3 m)
Beam 50 ft 11 in (15.5 m)
Propulsion 2 shaft Belluzzo geared turbines
6 Yarrow boilers
95,000 hp (71,000 kW)
Speed 37 knots
Range 3800 nm (at 18 knots)
Crew 507
Armament 8 × 152 mm guns
6 × 100 mm guns
4 × 533 mm torpedo tubes
8 × 37 mm guns
8 × 13.2 mm machine-guns
Armor Decks: 20 mm (0.79 in)
Belt: 24 mm (0.94 in)
Turrets: 23 mm (0.91 in)
Tower: 40 mm (1.6 in)

Sources
Mark E. Stille, Italian cruisers of World Warr II, Osprey publishing (2018). (Amazon Link)
Pier Paolo Ramoino, Una storia “strategica” della Marina Militare Italiana, Rivista Marittima (2018).
Giorgio Giorgerini, La Guerra Italiana sul mare: la marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940–1943, Edizione Mondadori (2001).

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