History of the Littorio Class Battleship
By October of 1934, Italy had not constructed any new battleships in decades. However, with rising tensions in Europe, the Regia Marina ordered the Littorio Class of battleships. First among the Littorio battleships were Littorio and Vittorio Veneto laid simultaneously in 1934 and commissioned in 1940. In addition, the Roma began its construction in 1938 and entered service in 1942. The Impero never saw service.
|Littorio||Ansaldo, Genoa-Sestri Ponente||28 October 1934||22 August 1937||6 May 1940|
|Vittorio Veneto||Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico, Trieste||28 October 1934||25 July 1937||15 May 1940|
|Roma||Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico, Trieste||18 September 1938||9 June 1940||14 June 1942|
|Impero||Ansaldo, Genoa-Sestri Ponente||14 May 1938||15 November 1939||N/A|
About the Littorio Class
The Littorio Class had a displacement of 44,522 long tons. Under the power of their 128,200shp engine, they had a sustainable top speed of 30 knots. In contrast, the King George V Class of battleships was nearly two knots slower. A crew of 1,830 men kept the Littorio class afloat, numbering 80 officers and 1,750 enlisted men.
Nine 381 mm guns, arranged in a 3×3 turret layout made up the primary layout of the Littorio Class. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The 381 mm guns of the Littorio Class were the most powerful cannon of that deceptively common size. Their high muzzle velocity granted unparalleled range and penetration, in exchange for poorer shot dispersion and shorter barrel life.
The secondary weaponry for antiship defense consisted of (12) 152 mm guns. For air defenses, the Littorio Class possessed four different types of cannon. Additionally, twelve 90 mm guns provided long-range antiaircraft defense, while 36 light caliber guns formed its close defense. Four 120 mm cannons carried illumination rounds.
The Littorio Class possessed a layered, cemented armor belt. It combined an initial layer of 70 mm homogenous steel and a secondary, 280 mm layer of cemented armor. The deck ranged from 90-150 mm thickness, which was somewhat thin in places. The guns were very heavily protected, by turrets of 380 mm thickness and 350 mm thick barbettes. Finally, the conning towers enjoyed 260 mm of armor protection. For torpedo protection, they possessed a fully realized version of the Pugliese system.
The Pugliese System
The Pugliese system utilized hollow drums and fuel oil to absorb the shock of a torpedo impact, and to contain flooding. It was highly innovative, and generally had a similar performance to other torpedo defense systems. A major advantage was that it was lightweight and added little drag. As a result, it enabled the impressive speed of the Littorio class. Consequently, it was poor at handling repeated hits in one area and occupied a large volume.
Foreign Interest In the Littorio Class
The Soviet Union expressed interest in obtaining their own version of the Littorio Class. Ansaldo proposed the UP41; it would look quite similar, with larger guns and stripped of the Pugliese system. The Soviet Union declined the design but managed to secure the details of the Pugliese system through espionage.
Owing to the excellent relations between Spain and Italy, Spain sought a license to build battleships based on the Littorio. However, the program collapsed; the Spanish industry was too weak to support it. Additionally, Italy’s attention grew consumed by the Second World War.
Service History of Each Littorio Class Battleship
While the Littorio Class were imposing battleships, they would rarely duel enemy capital units. British and Italian strategy revolved around escorting and interdicting convoys: not destroying enemy forces. Additionally, the Italian Navy had fuel stocks for less than two years of full operations. Littorio suffered three torpedo hits during the Battle of Taranto, losing five precious months for repairs. With half of the Italian battleships rendered inoperational, British Admiral Cunningham predicted they would remain in port. He was wrong. Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare would sortie out only six days later. Their goal was to disrupt a convoy headed for Malta.
Battle of Cape Teulada (Spartivento)
It was on 27 November 1940. The cruisers lead the engagement, putting severe pressure on the light cruisers of the British force. However, when HMS Renown arrived in support of the British cruisers, Vittorio Veneto was the trump card. The British possessed an obsolete battleship and a battlecruiser, neither of which could stand up to Vittorio Veneto. The British used smoke to cover a withdrawal and the Italian units declined to stop them. Satisfied with the minor victory won, Admiral Campioni broke off the engagement. He was under orders to act conservatively, given the losses at Taranto. However, his obedience to the letter of his orders lost an opportunity to defeat the British at sea.
Battle of Gaudo (Cape Matapan)
Unfortunately, the Zara Class cruisers would see their end at the night action following the Battle of Cape Matapan (Battle of Gaudo) that waged from 27-29 March 1941. Faulty German intelligence had informed the operation, which was an unduly risky attack towards Allied Crete. However, the Germans estimated British strength at less than a third of what it truly was. Vittorio Veneto and the heavy cruisers were moving into a trap, and their lack of radar set them up for disaster. While the Vittorio Veneto escaped, three battleships and a complement of light ships set upon the heavy cruisers at night. Subsequently, the cruisers could not detect the British detachment and fell victim to an ambush. As a result, Zara and Fiume sank in moments.
The Siege of Malta
While the loss of a cruiser division was critical, the Italian fleet still possessed the strength to contest the Mediterranean. As a result, the Littorio class battleships would launch many operations against the Malta convoys until the latter part of 1942. At the Second Battle of Sirte and others, the Regia Marina would frustrate the critical Malta convoys. Axis successes reached their high watermark prior to the pyrrhic British victory that was Operation Pedestal.
Fate of the Littorio Class Battleships
In short, the Littorio Class did not meet its end at the hands of the British. Increasingly severe fuel constraints and the losses in escort ships left them increasingly hamstrung throughout 1942. Upon the armistice in 1943, the Littorio was renamed Italia. The three Littorio battleships sailed to Malta to surrender themselves to the Allies. However, the recently-commissioned Roma was sunk by a Fritz X German radio-guided bomb on the way. Finally, Vittorio Veneto and the rechristened Italia surrendered themselves to the Allies. Vittorio was slated to the UK and Italia to the US as war prizes. However, they physically remained in Italy until being scrapped a few years after the war.
|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|
|Range||4,800 nm at 10 knots|
|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|