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Duca d’Aosta Class Cruisers

by Giulio Poggiaroni
Duca d’Aosta class cruisers

An evolution of the interwar Italian light cruisers which gave birth to two ships that saw very active service in WW2

Design and appearance

The end of the 1920s and early 1930s saw the Regia Marina heavily involved in renovating its light cruiser force. The 4 units of the Giussano class were laid down in 1928, the two Cadorna in 1930, and the two new Montecuccoli in 1931. In preparation for the next naval program (1931-1932), the Navy Directorate for Naval Constructions commissioned the Ansaldo shipyard to design an improved version of the Montecuccoli class, which maintained the same armament, speed, range, but with improved protection.

Ansaldo quickly came up with a proposal that was deemed acceptable by the Regia Marina and thus two brand-new units were laid down in 1932, the Duca d’Aosta and the Eugenio di Savoia.

The new units were 4 meters longer and 1 meter wider than the previous Monteccuccoli class, the armament remained the same, 8x152mm guns (model 1929) in four twin turrets and 6x100mm guns in three twin mounts. The torpedo armament increased from two twin launchers to two triple launchers, one per side.

Horizontal protection increased from 30 mm to 35mm covering the central section of the citadel, while the cover on the external sides was 30mm thick. The vertical protection increased from 60mm (of the Montecuccoli) to 70mm, inside the hull there was an additional “anti-shrapnel” plate, 35mm thick in the central section, and 40mm thick plate beside the barbettes.  Protection around the main guns reached a maximum of 70mm and the conning tower a maximum of 100mm.

Calculations based on the level of protection suggested that these cruisers could absorb damage from 152mm AP shells if they did not close the distance below 13.000 meters, and below 15.000 meters if facing enemies armed with 203 mm guns.

Installed engine power increased by 4.000 HP but speed decreased by 0,5 knots (36,5), due to the increased protection.

At first sight, the Duca d’Aosta class looked very similar to the Montecuccoli class. A closer look would highlight some distinctive elements, the first one being the enclosed upper bridge on the conning tower and the same size as the two funnels, while the second funnel was smaller on the Montecuccoli class. The shape and number of windows on the upper bridge would also help to distinguish between the Duca d’Aosta and the Eugenio di Savoia.

Figure 1 Duca d'Aosta (left) and Muzio Attendolo (right)

Figure 1 Duca d’Aosta (left) and Muzio Attendolo (right)

Operational life

The two cruisers were launched in 1934-1935 and became operational in 1935-1936. They were actively used in activities of Naval diplomacy across the world. Both the Eugenio di Savoia and the Duca d’Aosta were employed in the activities in support of the nationalist Spanish forces and notably they took part in the bombardment of Valencia and Barcellona in February 1937.

The two cruisers formed the VII cruiser division, together with the Muzio Attendolo and Raimondo Montecuccoli. At the outbreak of WW2, the division was commanded by Admiral Sansonetti, and they sailed with the bulk of the Italian fleet in July 1940 that saw action in the Battle Off Calabria, but the VII did not see an active part in the clash.

The two cruisers later saw active duty in serving as indirect escorts to convoys bound for Libya, guarding against the intervention of enemy surface units. The Duca d’Aosta took part in operation M.42, which gave birth to the first battle of Sirte.

Thanks to their speed, the two cruisers were also employed to lay Sea mines in the central Mediterranean, being able to carry dozens of such devices in the stern area.

In June 1942, a large Allied effort to resupply Malta was launched, this took the shape of two twin operations named Harpoon and Vigorous. At that moment only the Montecuccoli and the Eugenio di Savoia formed the VII cruiser division, then commanded by Admiral Da Zara. Escorted by some destroyers, the division was tasked with intercepting the western enemy convoy in its final approach to Malta.  

In the early hours of the 15th of June, Da Zara’s warships intercepted them near the island of Pantelleria. The Italian destroyers Vivaldi and the slower Malocello attacked the merchant ships while the rest of Da Zara’s forces engaged the escort.

Figure 2 The Eugenio di Savoia at the battle of Pantelleria

Figure 2 The Eugenio di Savoia at the battle of Pantelleria

Outgunned by the enemy, the British started to lay down smoke screens to protect the transport ships. They then headed southwards. However, the Italians managed to hit the cruiser Cairo and two British destroyers. The Vivaldi received a hit in the engine compartment and became immobilized. It was saved by the Malocello, which laid a smokescreen around the sistership and repealed the enemy attacks.

In the confusion of the battle, the merchant ships became distanced from the escort. Italian and German aircraft attacked them. The oil tanker Kentucky caught fire and was later finished off by the Montecuccoli. The merchant ships Burdwan and Chant also sank.

The combined firepower of Montecuccoli and Eugenio di Savoia crippled HMS Bedouin. An S.M.79 Torpedo Bomber finished her off.

After the battle, Hardy decided to continue his run to Malta with the surviving two merchant ships and escorts. Da Zara could not immediately pursue the enemy because of a minefield he had to circumvent. Only two transports arrived in Malta on 17 June 1942. A detailed account of the battle can be found here.

For the rest of the war against the Allies, the cruisers did not see any other relevant major engagement. In December 1942, the Eugenio di Savoia was damaged in the Allied bombardment of Naples, in that same action the cruiser Muzio Attendolo had been sunk. In August 1943, the Duca d’Aosta, together with the cruiser Garibaldi sailed to attempt the bombardment of Palermo (then in allied hands), but the sighting of superior enemy ships nearby, led Admiral Fioravanzo (the commander at sea) to abort the mission.

On the 9th of September 1943, following the armistice with the allies, both the Eugenio and the Duca d’Aosta sailed with the bulk of the Italian fleet from La Spezia and during their voyage were attacked by German bombers, which sank battleship Roma. Admiral Romeo Oliva (on board the Eugenio di Savoia), assumed command of the fleet which later arrived in Malta.

Both ships served along the Allied navies in the so-called co-belligerent period, with the Duca d’Aosta being employed in the Atlantic Ocean.

After the end of the war, the peace treaty forced Italy to hand over the two ships as part of the war reparations. The Eugenio di Savoia was handed over to Greece and renamed Helli, while the Duca d’Aosta was taken by the Soviet Union and renamed Kerc. Both ships served for more than a decade after the end of the war, being finally demolished in 1973 and 1961. 

Sources

Cosentino, M. & De Toro A., (2023) Incrociatori leggeri classi “Montecuccoli” e “Duca d’Aosta”, Edizioni Storia Militare

Giorgerini, G., & Nani, A. (2017). Gli Incrociatori Italiani 1861-1975 (Ristampa IV edizione). Roma: USMM.

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