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Conte di Cavour Class Battleships

by Robert Hansen

Background on the Conte di Cavour Class Battleships

The commissioning of the Italian Conte di Cavour class of battleships in 1910 entailed the construction of three ships. Those ships were the Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare, and the ill-fated Leonardo Da Vinci.

Ship Builder Laid Down Launched Completed
Conte di Cavour La Spezia Arsenale, La Spezia 10 August 1910 10 August 1911 01 April 1915
Giulio Cesare Gio. Ansaldo & C., Genoa 24 June 1910 15 October 1911 14 May 1914
Leonardo da Vinci Odero Shipbuilding Co., Sestri Ponente, Genoa 18 July 1910 14 October 1911 17 May 1914

In 1916, a magazine explosion crippled Leonardo da Vinci beyond repair. As is, she was sold for scrap metal in 1923. Conte di Cavour and her sister ship would not see a trial by fire during the First World War. The Otranto Barrage rendered the Austrian battlefleet impotent. For this reason, the Conte di Cavour class battleships never risked battle. However, the two Conte di Cavour class battleships would go on to see extensive modernization prior to the Second World War.

The Leonardo da Vinci battleship wreckage being righted on 25 January 1921.

The Leonardo da Vinci battleship wreckage being righted on 25 January 1921.

Nonetheless, their specifications were quite impressive for the day. Their design was such that they would overcome the perceived weaknesses of their lightly armored predecessor, the Dante Alighieri-Class. Additionally, they would enjoy ascendancy over the Courbet class of Italy’s rival, France.

Armor Protection

The belt armor of Conte di Cavour found above the waterline measured 250–130 mm, depending on location. An exceedingly strong armor belt was necessary to cope with line-of-sight, low-arc direct fire. In contrast, a long-range, high-arc fire wasn’t a threat, thanks to inadequate targeting systems. As such, the deck armor remained thin at 24–40 mm throughout. The conning towers possessed an inconsistent range of 280-180 mm armor thickness, which was generally adequate.

The Italian invasion of Egypt in 19...
The Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940

Conte di Cavour boasted above-average protection for her five heavy gun turrets, with armor growing as thick as 280 mm. The armor was 240 mm in its thinnest places, which was still quite formidable. However, barbette protection (the lower part of the turret) was somewhat light, at 230–130 mm.


The Conte di Cavour-Class enjoyed powerful armament, with a total of thirteen 305 mm (12 in.) guns in a five-turret, 3×3 plus 2×2 layout. The thirteen gun broadside of the Conte was the second most powerful in the world, on paper. However, one awkwardly placed a three-gun battery located between the superstructure could not fire forward or backward.

The original design of the Conte di Cavour class had a gun battery between the superstructure.

The original design of the Conte di Cavour class had a gun battery between the superstructure.

The secondary armament was also quite powerful, with 18 120 mm guns and 13 76.2 mm guns. Finally, it possessed three 450 mm torpedo tubes below the waterline. Battleships with torpedo tubes were ineffective, but this wasn’t yet known in 1910.

Greater Speed

Under a full load, Conte di Cavour and her sisters had a displacement of 25,086 long tons. Under the power of their 31,000 shp engine, they could sail at 21.5 knots. When cruising at 10 knots, they enjoyed an effective range of 4800 nautical miles.

Conte di Cavour on maneuvers with paravane chains lowered. Conte di Cavour class

A digitally colorized photo of the Conte di Cavour on maneuvers with paravane chains lowered.

In all, the Conte di Cavour class was clearly superior to the Courbet class, her chief rivals. Their speed and armament were better, and armor was roughly equivalent. Conte di Cavour and her sisters were significantly more armed and armored than the Dante Alighieri which preceded them. However, the added weight resulted in them losing some of the great speed that the class had enjoyed. Despite the loss in speed, they were still among the fastest battleships in the world prior to the construction of the Queen Elizabeth class.

Inactivity And Reconstruction

As the years went by, the Conte di Cavour class became increasingly dated. While they performed perfectly well during the Corfu Incident, this only proves that the machinery still worked. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the two remaining battleships would be subject to total reconstruction.

The ships enjoyed many modifications throughout the interwar years but once reconstructed, they were practically different ships. Reconstruction stripped away the central turret and torpedo tubes, first. Beyond that, the ten, old 305mm heavy guns replaced with the same number of 320 mm cannons; the heavily reinforced deck armor ranged in thickness of 166-135 mm; the engine was replaced with a much more modern, powerful 75,000 shp engine, increasing speed to 27 knots; the displacement grew to 29,100 long tons on a full load.

The Conte di Cavour class Battleship Giulio Cesare after modernization in 1938.

The Conte di Cavour class Battleship Giulio Cesare after modernization in 1938.

There were disadvantages owing to certain, unchangeable aspects of their construction. The added weight would drag the strongest portion of their armor belt beneath the waterline, for instance. Additionally, the hull had an inadequate depth to utilize the newly installed anti-torpedo Pugliese System to maximum efficacy. However, the improvements were still enough to allow them to face the British Queen Elizabeth and Revenge-Class battleships.

Conte di Cavour Class Battleship Service in WWII

Their modernization completed, Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare went on to serve against British battleships. In the early naval battles at Punta Stilo and Cape Teulada, they showed that the Regia Marina could fight the British on equal terms.

Punta Stilo (Battle of Calabria)

At Punta Stilo, the Royal Navy and Regia Marina met while escorting convoys to supply the forces in Africa. The principal units of the Royal Navy detachment were three battleships and an aircraft carrier. In addition to these forces, they commanded a complement of destroyers and light cruisers. The Italians, led by Inigo Campioni, commanded two modernized battleships, six heavy cruisers, and a light cruiser/destroyer contingent.

Battleship Conte di Cavour fires a salvo during the Battle of Punta Stilo (Battle of Calabria). Photo taken from the battleship Giulio Cesare.

Battleship Conte di Cavour fires a salvo during the Battle of Punta Stilo (Battle of Calabria). Photo taken from the battleship Giulio Cesare. Image credit: Reddit user Ryan Smith.

The advantage in battle swayed back and forth, as the Italian cruisers pressed their lighter British counterparts. They inflicted significant damage but withdrew due to the approaching HMS WarspiteWarspite was the only British battleship with the speed and range to contend with the Italian battleships and opted to leave its slower comrades behind. Giulio Cesare accepted the challenge, exchanging volleys until it suffered significant damage to the boilers. The Conte di Cavour and the other Italian ships successfully held the British at bay, buying time for field repairs of Giulio Cesare. The battle ended in a draw as both sides withdrew, having succeeded in their goal of escorting the respective convoys. Italian morale buoyed by successfully facing the British as equals in a pitched engagement, and British self-confidence shaken.

Raid at Taranto and Cape Teulada (Cape Spartivento)

It would be the last battle of the Conte di Cavour. She would be crippled for the duration of the war by the British raid at Taranto. Thirty days after being damaged at Punta Stilo, Giulio Cesare resumed operations. She would join the state-of-the-art Vittorio Veneto in attacking British forces at Cape Teulada (Cape Spartivento), late in 1940.

The Conte di Cavour sinks in shallow water following the Battle of Taranto.

The Conte di Cavour sinks in shallow water following the Battle of Taranto.

Giulio Cesare would see little action there, as the battle was primarily fought between the cruiser forces. The attack of the Vittorio Veneto compelled the British to caution. Both of the British capital units were rather outdated and inadequate to handle it. Both sides would withdraw, and Giulio Cesare would begin to draw the long career of the Conte di Cavour class to an end. She would join a few minor engagements, such as the Battle of Sirte, interdicting the Malta supply convoys through 1941.

Fate of the Giulio Cesare Battleship

Giulio Cesare became a training vessel early in 1942. On 06 February 1949, Giulio Cesare transferred to the Soviet Union as a training vessel and renamed Novorossiysk. She served with the Red Navy of the Soviet Union until the night of 28 October 1955 when an unexplained explosion in the forward ‘A’ turret sank her. A total of 608 men lost their lives.


Class Andrea Doria
Type Battleship
Built 1912-1916
Displacement 29,863 long tons
Length 577 ft 5 in (176 m)
Beam 91 ft 10 in (28 m)
Propulsion 30,000 shp (22,000 kW)
20 × Yarrow boilers
Speed 26 knots
Range 4,800 nm at 10 knots
Crew 1,233
Armament 3×3 + 2×2 305 mm (12") guns
(3) 450 mm torpedo tubes
(16) 152 mm (6") guns
(19) 76 mm (3") guns
Armor Belt: 250 mm
Gun turrets: 280 mm
Casemates: 130 mm
Deck: 98 mm
Conning tower: 280 mm
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