When Italy entered the second world war, the Regia Marina could rely on 59 destroyers. These belonged to different classes developed from the early 1920s to the late 1930s. By 1940 they were all considered “destroyers” but until 1938 the Italian Navy continued to distinguish between destroyers and scouts (Esploratori). However, this distinction faded away with the progressive increase in the size of destroyers in all navies.
The oldest ships in service were the 2 units of the Mirabello class, built during the great war as scouts, they displaced 1500 tons and were armed with 8x102mm guns and six torpedo tubes. In WW2, due to their obsolescence, the two ships were relegated to secondary duties and one, the Augusto Riboty, incredibly survived the war.
The first units commissioned after the great war were the 3 scouts of the Leone class, very similar to the Mirabello class, but slightly bigger in size and displacement, they introduced the standard gun armament of all subsequent Italian destroyers, the 120mm guns in dual mountings. In WW2 the three ships formed the bulk of the Italian surface forces in the red sea and they were all scuttled by the time of the fall of Italian East Africa.
The first interwar units classified as destroyers (and not as scouts) were the four units of the Sella class, laid down and launched between 1922 and 1927. They displaced 1.200 tons and possessed 4 guns and 4 torpedo tubes. However, this class was not very successful, due to machinery problems, limited endurance, low freeboard, stability and seaworthiness issues. Two ships were sold to Sweden in early 1940 while the other two operated in the Aegean sea, also taking part in the operation that led to the raid at Souda bay.
In the same years, the Regia Marina launched 4 units of the Sauro class and 8 of the Turbine class. These ships were improved versions of the Sella class but failed in addressing the stability issues and engine reliability. The four Sauro destroyers were in the Red Sea and were all lost by mid-1941. Six of the Turbine class destroyers were lost by 1940 while the remaining two took part in the battle of the convoys but none survived the war.
In 1926 the Regia Marina came back to designing a new class of scouts, which will become the Navigatori class, made of 12 ships. These units displaced 2.600 tons at full load and carried six 120mm guns plus six torpedo tubes. Also, the Navigatori suffered from stability issues and initial modifications proved insufficient. From 1938 ten ships of the class underwent a partial rebuilding program. This included the fitting of a clipper bow and increased beam. These modifications solved the stability and seaworthiness problems at the cost of a top speed reduction to 28 knots. The Navigatori class ships saw intensive action during WW2, being at the forefront in the battle of the convoys. Six ships were lost in that struggle while the rest were lost in September 1943 after the armistice. Only one ship survived the war.
After the construction of the Navigatori, the Regia Marina abandoned the scout concept and concentrated solely on destroyers. Between 1929 and 1931, 8 ships of the Freccia and Folgore classes were laid down. These ships can be considered as the transitional design before the new generation of Italia destroyers. They introduced the single-funnel arrangement and new design of the command tower. However, they still suffered from stability issues that forced subsequent modifications that reduced the top speed to 29-30 knots, making them unsuitable to operate alongside cruisers and fast battleships. These ships mainly fulfilled convoy escort duties and none of them survived the war.
The turning point finally came with the Maestrale class destroyers, laid down in 1931. With increased length and beam combined with a better weight arrangement, these ships finally solved the stability issues and proved to be robust and capable destroyers, giving the footprint for the subsequent classes. After the 4 Maestrale, the Regia Marina laid down 4 ships of the Oriani class in 1936 and 12 ships of the Soldati class in 1937. These ships were practically the same, with the main distinction being the power of the machinery and AA armament.
When Italy entered the war, out of the 59 destroyers available, only the 20 ships of the Maestrale, Oriani and Soldati classes were able to effectively operate alongside the battlefleet, essentially for their superior speed and seaworthiness.
From 1940 and 1942, these units were used to escort cruisers and battleships in all the operations of the main surface forces. However, from mid-1942, given the attrition caused to the older destroyers by the relentless fight, they were progressively moved to convoy escort duties. During the Tunisian campaign, several destroyers were used to transport men and supplies.
To cope with wartime losses, in late 1940, and early 1941, the Regia Marina laid down 7 new Soldati class destroyers but only 5 entered service.
During the war, all Italian destroyers saw their AA armament improved to different degrees, like increasing the number of 20mm guns or introducing or adding new 37mm complexes. The 120mm main armament could be used for AA barrage but suffered from its limited elevation and adequate dual-purpose ammunitions.
By June 1940, Italian destroyers were not equipped nor trained to conduct anti-submarine warfare, (the reason for this would require another video), and as the war progressed, 12 units were fitted with sonar and depth charge launchers. Although we must remember that the Italians mainly relied on torpedo boats and corvettes for hunting down submarines
A few units were also equipped with radar devices from mid 1942, although to late and in few numbers to influence the course of the operations. Last but not least, Italian destroyers were fitted to carry consistent numbers of mines that played an important factor in the Mediterranean campaign.
Italian destroyers experienced several issues and limitations, especially regarding seaworthiness and range, exacerbated by the high naphtha consumption. The seaworthiness problems were solved on a certain number of vessels. However, Italian destroyers carried a smaller gun and torpedo armament compared with British destroyers operating in the Mediterranean. Gunfire suffered from excessive dispersion while the AA armament was also insufficient and limited improvements could be made. As we saw, the ASW capabilities also remained another major issue.
Despite these limitations, the destroyers and their crew fought bravely and paid a heavy toll during the war. Of the 59 pre-war destroyers and the 5 wartime ones, only 12 were still afloat in 1945.
Stille, M. (2021). Italian destroyers of WW2.
Bagnasco, E. (2021). Cacciatorpediniere classe “Soldati”, 1937-1965.
Brescia, M. (2018). Cacciatorpediniere classe “Navigatori”.
Giorgerini, G. (2001). La Guerra Italiana sul mare, La marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940-1943.