In late August 1943, very few Italian government figures and military commanders knew of the ongoing negotiations for an armistice between the Allied powers and Italy. When the armistice was signed in secrecy on the 3rd September, Supermarina (the Navy high command) was still considering the option of attacking the allied invasion forces in the expected landings on mainland Italy. The Minister of the Navy, Admiral Raffaele De Courten was informed of the armistice on that same day. In the following days, he protested with the General Chief of Staff, General Ambrosio, for not having informed the Regia Marina on this important matter.
De Courten proposed to dispatch the Battle fleet, at anchor in La Spezia, to the Sardinian base of La Maddalena and even suggested the possibility to use the three Littorio class battleships in the Pacific against the Japanese. This proposition soon fell and the prospect of unconditional surrender of the navy soon became the only possible outcome accepted by the Allies. However, it was not sure how commanders and officers would have reacted to such orders, not even the commander of the Battlefleet, Admiral Carlo Bergamini. On the 8th September 1943, sailors, officers, commanders and Bergamini himself knew of the armistice by the radio broadcasts, in an atmosphere of general disorientation. From La Spezia, Bergamini contacted Supermarina to get confirmation of the news and to ask for orders, he was told by De Courten to leave anchor and steam towards a North African port controlled by the Allies.
Bergamini disregarded this option, preferring to scuttle the fleet instead of surrendering it to the Allies. In the following hours, Bergamini and De Courten talked several times on the phone, with the Minister trying to convince the Admiral of the importance of preserving the fleet for future negotiations. De Courten then asked Bergamini to reach La Maddalena, where he would have met the King, escaping from Rome and the inevitable German retaliation. Bergamini accepted this proposition after a meeting with his officers and staff.
The departure of the fleet
In the dark early hours of the 9th September, the bulk of the surface fleet of the Regia Marina left La Spezia. The formation consisted of the battleships Roma, Vittorio Veneto and Italia (ex Littorio), the cruisers Montecuccoli, Eugenio di Savoia, Attilio Regolo, eight destroyers and four torpedo boats. Few hours later, the formation was joined by the 8th cruiser division (Duca d’Aosta, Duca degli Abruzzi and Garibaldi) coming from Genova. The fleet steamed south, passing westwards of Corsica, and entered the Gulf of l’Asinara (North-West of Sardinia) around 12:15, setting course for La Maddalena. At 14:24, Bergamini received news from Supermarina that Germans forces based in Corsica had attacked and overrun the base of La Maddalena. Thus the base was no more a safe port for the battlefleet. At 14:41, the Admiral ordered the fleet to reverse course to exit the Gulf. Some hours before, at 10:50, the Italian fleet had been sighted by a German recognisance aeroplane, the former allies were closely following the movements of Bergamini’s formation.
Around 15:10, a formation of 28 Dornier 217 K bombers of the Luftwaffe appeared over the Italian ships, flying approximately at 5000 meters. Bergamini had the order of not initiating any hostility against the Germans, he could only respond to offenses from the latter. The bombers were flying very high and, in a position, not favourable for any attack with conventional bombs. However, on that day the German aeroplanes were equipped with a new kind of weapon, the radio-guided glide bomb Ruhrstahl SD 1400 X. This new weapon had to be launched from above 5000 meters, thus benefitting from a high penetration power. Most importantly the crew of the bomber could adjust its course via radio impulses. The first bomb was launched against the cruiser Eugenio di Savoia, at first, the bomb looked like an identification flare, given the smoke trail left behind. The smoke trail was instrumental to trace the bomb’s approach to the target, helping the bomber crew to adjust its course.
This first bomb landed and exploded in the water, causing no damage. After the explosion, the entire fleet opened an AA barrage fire. However, the Luftwaffe bombers were flying out of range and were reached by no hits. A second bomb landed near the Italia, causing some light damage. A third bomb was directed at the Roma and hit the battleship on the starboard side near the 90mm AA guns; the bomb penetrated the hull and exploded in the water. A fourth bomb was dropped against the Roma, this one being the fatal one. The bomb penetrated the deck on the port side, near the forward triple turret of the secondary battery. The explosion ignited the magazine of the 152 mm shells which in turn ignited the 381 mm shells magazine. This erupted in a huge explosion and blast of fire which skyrocketed at 1500 meters up in the air the forward super firing turret of the main armament.
The explosion and the extreme heat compromised the structural integrity of the battleship, which soon started to list on the port side. Hundreds of sailors died in the initial explosion, together with Admiral Bergamini and Commander Adone del Cima. Many others died due to the hot steam flowing out of the hull. In 20 minutes, the Roma capsized and then sunk, splitting into two pieces. Around 1200-1300 crew members died that day, sinking with their ship or dying in the water.
The fate of the survivors
After the Roma was sunk, the light cruiser Attilio Regolo reversed course to pick up the sailors still alive in the water. The Attilio Regolo was assisted also by the destroyers Fuciliere, Mitragliere, Carabiniere and the torpedo boats Pegaso, Orsa and Impetuoso. While the rest of the fleet proceeded towards Malta under Admiral Oliva, the group completed the rescue of 622 sailors of the Roma. Soon news came that the destroyers Vivaldi and Da Noli (coming from Civitavecchia) had struck mines in the strait between Sardinia and Corsica. Commander Giuseppe Marini of the Mitragliere, the higher-ranking officer, ordered the group to rescue the crew of the two destroyers. Later, he decided to seek anchorage in the Baleares since Italian ports nearby were not safe, and the fuel was running low. Given Spanish neutrality, the Italian flotilla was interned in the ports of Minorca and Mallorca up until January 1945, when all ships and surviving men returned to Taranto.
Bagnasco, E., & De Toro, A. (2020). Le navi da battaglia classe “Littorio” 1937-1948. Roma: Ufficio storico della Marina Militare.
Giorgernini, G. (2001). La Guerra Italiana sul mare, La marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940-1943.