27 May 1941, when the hospital ship “Gradisca” almost sunk in Piraeus, by Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi

Shipwrecks, WW2, WW2 in Greece, WW2 Wrecks

BVincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi

While writing the book “Le Navi Ospedale Italiane dopo l’Armistizio” I bought a certain number of photographs on ebay Germany. One of these portrayed the hospital ship Gradisca, the torpedo boat Lupo and what I believed to be the destroyer Carducci photographed from the stern, showing the two letters CD on the pennant number.

Destroyer Carducci (Author’s Collection)
Destroyer Carducci (Author’s Collection)

Lorenzo Colombo, a friend, a distinguished naval historian and inspirer of the blog “Con la pelle appesa ad un chiodo” pointed out how I misread the picture.

The pennant number CD had been assigned also to the torpedo boat Castelfidardo, which had two funnels (Carducci one only), as well to the hospital ship Gradisca, which was half-sunk. According to Lorenzo, the photograph was shot in Piraeus after 27 May 1941. On that date, Gradisca was seriously damaged from a collision with a submerged wreck while entering the port of Piraeus.

The correct interpretation of the image makes it an interesting witness of the nightmarish events that characterized the 25th mission of Gradisca.

To make up for my mistake, I will briefly narrate that adventurous story.

Torpedo boat Castelfidardo (Giorgio Parodi Collection)

From the log book of the Gradisca Hospital Ship:

On the 25th May the ship had received the mission order to sail to Piraeus and Thessaloniki to collect wounded Italian and German soldiers. Before approaching Piraeus, the ship was reached by a boat with the pilot of the port: navigation was very difficult due to the presence of a large number of submerged wrecks.

At 18:28 hrs. on the 27th May, the ship struck violently on the port side causing a large gash in the hull from which she began to take on water very rapidly.

Captain Valzania commanded full speed ahead and brought the ship to run aground on the shallow waters of the pier, this way avoiding sinking.

The captain ordered a deep sea diver to inspect the stranded hull which showed a large leak. After the deep seadivers plugged the hole as best as possible, the onboard pumps came into operation. Captain Valzania, since the repairs would have taken time, decided to disembark the Red Cross nurses, who were housed in a hotel in Athens, while other non-essential personnel on board were housed in the Regia Marina buildings.

Employment of a local marine salvage firm was also required. By the night of the 29th the situations started to improve, much water had been pumped out and the ship’s trim and buoyancy were improving. On the morning of the 30th, a loud explosion was heard in the port of Piraeus and violently shook the already battered hull of the Gradisca. Some ships at the service of Germany were involved in a frightening chain of explosions and fire.

The story of what happened on the 30th May 1941 was masterfully told by Pierre Kosmidis and the researchers Tony Allen, Dimitris Galon and Ted Kostantinov.

The link to the article is below:


Gradisca was not directly involved in the chain of explosions that followed the loss of the Knyaguinya Maria Louisa (КнягиняМарияЛуиза), former Felix Frassinet (3.807 tons) filled with explosives and jet fuel. The RAF operational logs show no signs of activity on the Piraeus that day.

These explosions have probably been an attempt of sabotage by the Greek resistance, who intended to block supplies to the Germanic forces engaged in the occupation of Crete.

In the explosion of Knyaguinya Maria Louisa, also Romanian steamer Jiul, the Italian auxiliary vessel Albatross, and the German steamer Alicante were involved. The damage suffered by Gradisca was superficial, even so the catastrophic explosion of Piraeus significantly slowed down the repair work. Rescue teams were sent from the Italian hospital ship. Some sailors of the Albatross, an Italian motor sail leased by Germans, were hospitalized. The few who survived the disaster had terrible burns from the jet fuel fire.

Despite the disaster in the port, work continued on the ship. Concrete bulkheads were placed to plug the leaks. The tugboat Ardenza provided support for pumping the water out of Gradisca. The complex salvage work on the ship was completed on the 8th of July and the ship was freed from the bottom mud and refloated. In the afternoon of the 13th July, 161 wounded soldiers embarked and the Gradisca was getting ready to leave the port of Piraeus, with the guidance of a Greek pilot and the help of two tugboats. The operation took place without damage. After stopping in Salamis to disembark the Greek pilot and embark another 129 wounded Germans and supplies, the ship set sail for Thessaloniki.

The rough sea and the fear of damaging the concrete bulkheads used to plug the leaks forced Captain Valzania to reduce the speed to 10 knots. The Gradisca, approaching Thessaloniki, embarked a German pilot with the map of the buoys that indicated the safe channel, free from mines. An error by the pilot in reading the map and a variation in depth linked to a tongue of sand coming from Axios river led the ship to run aground, remaining immobilised half a mile from Cape Kara (Akra Megalo).

Hospital Ship Gradisca in Napoli port in the first war days (Author’s Collection)
Hospital Ship Gradisca in Napoli port in the first war days (Author’s Collection)

A few hours later the Greek tug Taxiarchis arrived to assist. 547 tons of water were pumped from the holds, however the ship remained still due to the contrary action of wind and high waves. Another 224 tons of water were dumped overboard, lifeboats and anchors were also lowered to lighten the ship, unfortunately without any benefit. Part of the ballast was moved to facilitate unblocking. Even if other two tugs arrived from Thessaloniki, the ship remained nailed to the bottom.

The torpedo boat Sirio finally came announcing the arrival of a powerful rescue tug, the Hercules. The steamer Avionia joined to support, all the ships present try to tow, but without success. On the 21st the Hercules finally arrived. The hull was inspected again to look for further damage and fortunately none was found. Pumps were placed to suck up the sand under the hull. The following day, the joint efforts of all the rescue boats lead to the liberation of the ship which, after recovering anchors and lifeboats, sets sail for Thessaloniki escorted by the torpedo boat Sagittarius.

After a brief stop in Rhodes, the ship returns to Bari with 294 wounded on board and the belief that they have been very lucky. The vessel was sent to a shipyard in Trieste where the damage could be repaired.

After all my misinterpretation produced some positive effects. I can share with you an image of absolute historical interest, as far as I know no other photo of the damaged Gradisca in Piraeus was shot.

I had the opportunity to read a really interesting article written by my friend Pierre Kosmidis and to tell, based on official sources of the Regia Marina, the story of the very dangerous cruise of the ship Gradisca and the efforts of his men to keep it afloat.

Torpedo boat Sirio with X Squadriglia Torpediniere (Author’s Collection)
Torpedo boat Sirio with X Squadriglia Torpediniere (Author’s Collection)


Dobrillo Dupuis – La Flotta bianca: Le navi ospedale italiane nel secondo conflitto mondiale – (Biblioteca del mare) Mursia

Mario Peruzzi – Le missioni avventurose d’una squadra di navi bianche Tipografia Dell’Ufficio – Coordinamento del Ministero Difesa – Marina, 1951

Enrico Cernuschi, Maurizio Brescia – Le navi ospedale italiane 1935-1945 – Albertelli, 2010

Notarangelo, G. P. Pagano – Navi Mercantili Perdute – Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare



Thank you so much dear friend Lorenzo (Colombo) your attention to detail and careful reading of my book allowed me to correct myself.

I want to thank my son Gianluca for proofreading my articles, for his valuable advice and his encouragement to publish in English.


Hospital ship Gradisca, torpedo boat Lupo and torpedo boat Castelfidardo in Pireus Harbour in May 1941 (Author’s Collection)
Hospital ship Gradisca, torpedo boat Lupo and torpedo boat Castelfidardo in Piraeus Harbour in May 1941 (Author’s Collection)