The performances of the Italian Royal Navy during World War II were modest overall and were marred by painful defeats, such as the air raid in Taranto and the disaster of Cape Matapan.
The story of the torpedo boat Calatafimi and its commander T.V. (Tenente di Vascello) Giuseppe Brignole is a happy exception.
Both the commander and the ship’s crew covered themselves with great heroism on numerous occasions.
The action again the French Fleet, June 14, 1940
The Calatafimi was delivered to the Regia Marina on May 29, 1924 by the Fratelli Orlando shipyard, Livorno. Destroyer of 1170 tons belonging to the Curtatone class, had an unremarkable operational life until WWII. In 1938 it was downgraded to a torpedo boat. In 1939 its anti-aircraft capabilities were implemented with the replacement of the two obsolete 76/30 Armstrong model 1914 guns with two Scotti-Isotta-Fraschini 20/70 model 1939 and 2 8/80 mm machine gun systems; two antisubmarine bomb launchers were also added.
On April 24, 1940 the command of Calatafimi was taken over by T.V. Giuseppe Brignole, who remained the unit commander for the next three and a half years. Born in 1906 in Noli (a seaside village near Savona) he attended the Nautical School becoming a long-distance captain; enlisted in the Navy he attended the Naval Academy becoming a Midshipman. Recalled in 1935, he served in East Africa and Spain. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was in command of the Calatafimi which was based in La Spezia with the XVI Squadriglia Torpediniere (together with the twins Monzambano, Curtatone and Castelfidardo and the elderly torpedo boats Giacinto Carini and Giuseppe La Masa).
On June 10, 1940, the war for Italy began, which Mussolini intended to be a simple declaration without major fighting: as soon as the Germans had won Mussolini would appear at the negotiating table to collect a rich booty.
Things did not go like this, since the night between 11 and 12 June the Royal Air Force carried out a bombing of Genoa and Turin, modest for practical results, but very impressive for the Italian public opinion.
My parents told me that a large number of people of Genoa went to see the damage caused by the bombs and began to understand that things would not be as simple as the Regime told them.
The French struck by the declaration of war, despite the negative trend of military operations, decided to punish Italy with an air and naval attack against the nearby cities of Savona and Genoa, locations of important industrial plants and transport infrastructures.
On the night of June 13, eight Lioré et Olivier LeO 451 aircraft bombed the Vado Ligure oil deposits with modest results. During the same night, the ships of the French III Squadron sailed from Toulon under the command of Admiral Émile Duplat. The naval force split into two groups to hit Savona, Vado Ligure and Genoa at the same time.
The first group consisted of: Heavy cruiser Algerie, Heavy cruiser Foch and six destroyers and was headed for the fuel depots of Vado Ligure and the industrial areas of Savona.
The second group consisted of: Heavy cruiser Dupleix, Heavy cruiser Colbert and two destroyers and was headed for Genoa
A third group with three destroyers and four submarines had the function of protection against a possible intervention of the Italian Navy.
At 04.10 the Calatafimi was between Genoa and Savona escorting the auxiliary minelayer Elbano Gasperi when the lookouts sighted some lines in the fog.
The Commander correctly appreciated that they were French military ships; he decided to send the Gasperi minelayer back to Genoa and headed with determination towards the enemy ships, hoping to be able to get close at a useful distance to use the torpedoes thanks to the fog and rain.
The ship launched two torpedoes. Destroyer Albatross was hit in the aft boiler room. In truth, it was the Mameli Coastal Battery that hit the ship with a 152 mm shell. On board the Calatafimi there was the perception of having hit the destroyer and the attack continued aggressively by launching two more torpedoes, one of which got stuck in the tube.
The determined action of Calatafimi led the French to believe that the ship was followed by a much larger team and it was decided to return.
Even the Squadron that had begun shelling Savona and Vado had been sighted and quickly became target of artillery shots from the coastal batteries; in front of Bergeggi units of the XIII Squadriglia MAS had attacked the French ships, torpedoes shot from the MAS 534-535 and 538-539 forced the cruiser Foch to an emergency manoeuvre to avoid getting hit.
The attack of the French squad left modest damage behind, but caused fear and bewilderment in the Italian population who had seen one of its main port cities being shelled without the air force being able to spot it first, and inflict damage after the action.
The Fascist Regime tried to emphasize the action of Calatafimi and of the MAS Squad to hide their serious military shortcomings. If in fact the behaviour of Commander Brignole and his crew and the men of the MAS was undoubtedly heroic, the overall evaluation of the French attack operation is bankruptcy for the Italians. In addition to the aerial problems already highlighted, it is necessary to note the absence of efficient naval protection, the poor accuracy and efficiency of coastal batteries and huge gaps in intelligence.
Commander Brignole was deservedly decorated with the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare (highest Italian military decoration) : the courage to attack a mighty fleet with a weak old ship was a remarkable feat.
Service in the Adriatic and the Aegean Sea
The ship, despite its advanced age, was intensively used in the Adriatic and Aegean Seas carrying out convoys escort, anti-submarine and mine-laying operations. Until the Armistice she carried out 227 war missions covering 55,000 nautical miles.
Commander Brignole continued to show his worth and was decorated with two Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare for the bravery shown and for the rescues carried out; let’s see some of these missions.
On 4 October, the Gautier was hit by a torpedo launched by the British submarine HMS Talisman, sinking eight miles north of the island of Euboea. The Monzambano launched depth charges while the other units rescued the crew of the Gautier. The surviving ships reached Piraeus without further problems.
18 Oct 1941 Italian torpedo boats Calatafimi and Castelfidardo escorted the Bulgarian merchant Balkan (3823 GRT, built 1914) and the Romanian merchant (in German service) Balcic (3600 GRT, built 1940) en-route from the Dardanelles to Piraeus. HMS Thunderbolt (Lt. Cdr. C.B. Crouch, DSO, RN) attacked this convoy with three torpedoes. No hits were observed. Many depth charges were dropped by the escorting destroyers. The determined action of the escort units prevented further attacks by the submarine.
Commander Brignole was decorated with a Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare for the relief given to the shipwrecked of the Proserpina, who could all be rescued in a short time despite the danger posed by the burning petrol spilled into the sea around the stricken ship. During this escort mission, the Calatafimi developed an effective anti-aircraft fire also thanks to the addition of a twin complex of 20 mm Breda machine guns.
On January 5, 1943, the Calatafimi, together with the Solferino and the German destroyer Hermes, escorted the Città di Alessandria, the Città di Savona and the steamship Santa Fè from Piraeus to Suda. A week later the ship escorted the steamship Santa Fe from Iraklion to Suda. On January 29, the Calatafimi and the Euro escorted the steamship Re Alessandro from Iraklion to Piraeus: during navigation, southwest of Folegandros, the convoy was attacked and bombed by enemy aircraft, but no bombs hit, also thanks to the intense fire of escort ships.
The captured Calatafimi, put in service with Kriegsmarine became TA 19
The intense operational cycle in the Aegean Sea between Suda, Piraeus, Iraklion, Rhodes and other ports ended on 8 September 1943 with the Armistice. Calatafimi was in Piraeus and was captured by Germans. Commander Brignole and one half of the crew refused collaboration with Germany and were sent to internment camps, not without first taking over the ship’s combat flag.
The torpedo boat was incorporated into the Kriegsmarine after being renamed TA 19 and entered service already on 13 September 1943.
Under the command of lieutenant Jobst Hahndorff, the torpedo boat was assigned to the 9th Torpedoboot-Flotille. TA 19 took part in the unfortunate convoy during which the steamship Oria (which had more than 4000 Italian prisoners on board) was lost due to extreme weather conditions on the coasts of Patroklos island. The violence of the storm prevented any attempt by the escorting torpedo boats to help Oria and her unfortunate occupants.
On 3 March 1944 the TA 19, together with the TA 15 (ex Crispi) and the TA 16 (ex Castelfidardo), had a firefight, in the waters of Rhodes, with the British torpedo boats MTB 307 and MTB 315, without reporting any significant damage and without inflicting any on the opponents. The ship also escaped the attack of the submarine HMS Vampire off Milos, which launched four torpedoes.
At 17:08 on August 19, 1944, the TA 19, sailing four miles east of Karlovasi, was attacked and hit by the Greek submarine Pipinos. A torpedo hit the vessel amidships, on the left side, immediately setting fire to the engine room. At 5:32 pm the ship broke in two and sank off Samos, in position 37 ° 45 ‘N and 26 ° 59’ E. The entire crew of TA 19, with the exception of five men, were able to escape.
The Commander Brignole in German Captivity in German Camp
After a brief initial period in Bad Sulza, Brignole ended up in the Lviv prison camp where he was appointed trustee of the Italian officers. Brignole denied any adherence to requests to join the army of the Social Republic or to work for the benefit of the German economy.
Finally, Brignole was offered the possibility of returning to his homeland without any formal or substantial adhesion to Mussolini’s regime. His proud refusal, determined by a sense of duty and by the awareness that his fellow prisoners needed his example, is still today an act of valor that makes this officer not only the hero of the sea, but also of the detainment camp.
When the Falling Bostel camp was liberated, the old battle flag of Calatafimi was raised, saved with a thousand sacrifices during the harsh imprisonment.
I want to thank my son Gianluca for proofreading my articles, for his valuable advice and his encouragement to publish in English
Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare – Cacciatorpediniere Italiani 1900 – 1966 Roma