Italian Royal Navy Tanker Stige – The ugly duckling in the “Route of Death” and the Greek Seas, by Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi

By Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi

A couple of years ago, knowing my passion for naval history, a dear friend asked me to collect some information related to a small tanker on which his grandfather had sailed in the thirties.

I found some information together with a fantastic article by Enrico Cernuschi, an excellent naval history writer, dedicated to the tanker Stige.

The name of this well made article is “La fortuna del brutto anatroccolo” that sound more or less as “The luck of the ugly duckling”.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with auxiliary and small tonnage units, good quality images could not be found.

The Stige fuel tanker, an ugly duckling (Author Collection)
The Stige fuel tanker, an ugly duckling (Author Collection)

In these days I bought a beautiful image of the RN Stige from an online auction site, so I decided to combine an image and a summary of its events hoping to make someone happy.

In my opinion the story of the crew is a story of human solidarity and faith that can be of inspiration and help in this time when war and lack of compassion seem to have dramatically returned to the fore.

Set up in March 1921 at the Arsenal of La Spezia Nave Stige derived from the Pagano class water tankers. Built in 1920, 52.83 meters long, 9.32 meters wide and with a draft of about 4 meters, the Stige had a tonnage of 1364 tons and was equipped with of a 650 HP Diesel Tosi which allowed her a speed of 8 knots max.

The purpose for which the ship was built was to study the safe transport of aviation gasoline with which to refuel future seaplane carriers.

The aircraft carriers were not built and the Stige was chartered by CUNSA (Consorzio Users Nafta S.A. an ancestor of AGIP – Italian Oil State Agency) in order to transport fuel between Vado Ligure and Venice. In 1926, replaced by more capable ship, the Stige was returned to the Regia Marina.

Stige's crew in the late 1930s
Stige’s crew in the late 1930s

The ship was then used to supply the bases of the MAS (Motor Torpedo Boat), sailing along the Italian coasts. With the entry into the war of Italy little changed in the life of the ship, only increasing the risk of ending badly due to air attacks or from the sea.

The Italian and German armies in North Africa consumed enormous quantities of fuel, both for vehicles and for airplanes and the British, from Malta and Egypt did everything they could to thwart the merchant traffic to Libya, often causing catastrophic losses in ships men and materials. In 1942, the Navy headquarter decided that the Stige also had to make its contribution to the “Rotta della Morte” “Route of Death” towards North Africa.

Traveling at 5 knots, sitting on top of a load of airplane gasoline in one of the most disputed stretches of sea in the world was almost a death sentence and certainly the crew must have felt more or less like someone waiting to be taken to the gallows.

An Italian Convoy on the Route of Death (Author Collection)
An Italian Convoy on the Route of Death (Author Collection)

In July the Stige sailed from Taranto to Navarino (Pylos), to later reach the port of Piraeus where it stopped for a few days to load gasoline. Struck by the conditions of misery they saw and exhorted by the thundering voice of a franciscan friar from Bologna who organized a canteen for the needy, the men of the crew gave up as much as they could of the supplies stored on board.

From Piraeus the ship went to Crete, in the bay of Suda waiting for the right moment to make the last stretch of navigation, the wait lasted for several days as an aircraft carrier escorted by destroyers was reported at sea. The crewmen thought it best to do something more to save the ship and painted it in a roughly mimetic way.

On August 14, 1942, the Stige, escorted by the torpedo boat Lince, set off, fast as a snail, towards Tobruk.

6 hours after departure the ship had already been sighted by the submarine HMS Taku whose commander, Lieutenant Jack G. Hopkins, assessed the ship as a large auxiliary ship with dimensions and speeds greater than the real ones of the Stige.

Perhaps confused by the camouflage pattern of the ship and its alleged speed, the British officer launched 4 torpedoes at the Stige, which went a long way in front of the bow. The very slow speed had favored the error of judgment of the commander of the submarine who, having carried out the launch, had to dive to avoid the reaction of the Lince torpedo boat which launched depth charges. The underwater weapons did not hit the British submarine, but convinced its commander to leave.

HMS Taku come back home after a long service (Imperial War Museums public domain)
HMS Taku come back home after a long service (Imperial War Museums public domain)

The following day the Stige tanker reached Tobruk and unloaded the dangerous cargo, during the 6 days of stay in the Libyan port the crew had to undergo numerous air attacks and a completely unwelcome diet based on tough dromedary meat. The ship set off again with the cold room packed with what our sailors had managed to obtain from the military administration, even if they were quarters of dromedaries that were certainly not tasty.

Escorted by the destroyer Turbine, the ship reached Piraeus on 23 August, delivered meat to the friar for the table of the needy and received thanks and blessings in return. And the poor crew really needed a powerful blessing: a few days later, on September 1, the ship, again loaded with gasoline, set off for Libya escorted by the German destroyer Hermes (ex Vasilefs Georgios, Greek war prey).

The R.N. Turbine escort destroyer (Author Collection)
The R.N. Turbine escort destroyer (Author Collection)

As they trudged at a speed of 4 knots, the men of the crew trusted more in the votive candle delivered by the friar of Piraeus than in the on-board armament. The Stige had in fact been equipped with heterogeneous and rather dated weapons: an old 120/45 cannon in the stern, a 76/40 gun in the bow and two 13.2 mm machine guns on the bridge wings.

The armament had added an even more ridiculous aspect to the ungainly vessel as well as weighing the ship down further reducing speed.

On 3 September the ship reached Tobruk; as for the agreements made with the franciscan friar, the crew went to the small church of the friars to light the votive candle.

In the Libyan city the men of the Stige loaded more meat and loaves to take to Piraeus.

Ship and crew returned to the Greek port on September 10, greeted joyfully by the friar and by the people who had been fed with camel stew.

The ship returned to Taranto for repairs on 16 September and, on this occasion, the crew placed a silver frame in the Cathedral of San Cataldo with the photograph of the ship and the signatures of the sailors on board as a sign of devotion and thanks.

Among other things, the ship had taken a truly significant risk on the second voyage. Informed, perhaps by the Greek resistance, of ship Stige’s gasoline transports, the British had unleashed their Bletchley Park experts who, in fact, thanks to their ability to violate ENIGMA, had managed to decrypt the travel orders of the Hermes and the escorted ship, the Stige.

For some time, the Italian services believed that the German cipher machine had been violated and resorted to a stratagem: they embarked on the tanker a group of radio operators in charge of communicating with SUPERMARINA (Italian Naval Comand) by means of a single-use encrypted code. Faking a breakdown, the Stige distanced itself from the German escort and resumed navigation with different times and routes. The Wellington torpedoes did not find the ship where it should have been and only with this trick did they manage to escape the ambush of British aircrafts.

The ship returned in service in the spring of 1943 and sailed between the Adriatic and Greece. In the days following the Armistice, the Stige was captured by the Germans and sailed between the Fiume refinery and the Porto Marghera deposits. Sunk during Operation Bowler, a precision bombardment led by RAF ace George Westlake, was brought back to the surface in 1949. After an initial interest from the Russians to seize it for war reparations, the ship was scrapped in 1950.

We do not know, but we certainly suspect, that the sailors of the Stige acted more out of superstition than out of deep-rooted faith, however bringing food to people in need, people of another country, once enemy, constitutes, today more than ever, a lesson in how solidarity is an absolute value.



I want to thank my son Gianluca for proofreading my articles and for his valuable advice

A big thank you to my dear friend Maurizio who has stimulated my research with his family memories … and because he honors me with his precious friendship



La fortuna del brutto anatroccolo – Enrico Cernuschi

Giorgio Giorgerini – La battaglia dei convogli in Mediterraneo. Mursia