The Italian hospital ships in the Aegean Sea, by Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi

Shipwrecks, WW2, WW2 Wrecks

By Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi, author of the book “Storia di una Nave Bianca” (“Story of a White Ship”).

All photos are owned by their respective owners, as credited and were kindly submitted by Mr. Toccafondi to for publication in this feature article. 

Cover of Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi's book
Cover of Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi’s book

A relatively unknown chapter of WW2 is unveiled, thanks to respected researcher and author Mr. Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi, from Italy.

Mr. Toccafondi thoroughly researched the “White Ships”, the vessels used by Italy to transport injured soldiers back to Italy, from North Africa and Albania.

At the end of 1940, the Italian Hospital Ship fleet was facing a critical period.

Toscana a Pola A picture that reppresent an icon of italian exodus from Dalmatia territory (Immagine Credit Autor Giovanni Poso from Navi e Armatori)
Toscana a Pola. A picture that represents  the Italian exodus from Dalmatia (Image Credit: Giovanni Poso from Navi e Armatori)

The commitment on two fronts, the Libyan one and the Greek-Albanian one, required a considerable number of missions. In particular, the Greek-Albanian front, which Mussolini had considered as the scene for a military walk, revealed to be particularly bloody due to the fierce resistance of the Greek troops.

Most of the ships were aged and unsuitable for an intense operational cycle. Furthermore, RNO Aquileia (RNO mean Regia Nave Ospedale that stands for Royal Hospital Ship) had collided with the steamship Sardegna and the German motor ship Ruhr. The reported damage required a long stop in the dry dock with the consequent exclusion from operational activity.

As a result, Supermarina (the Italian Navy High Command) devised a plan that reaped two considerable advantages in a single move. Two troop transport ships, Nave Toscana (former Saarbrücken) and Nave Sicilia (former Coblenz), were in the Dodecanese in the port of Lakki (Portolago) in Leros, stranded after carrying a contingent of reinforcements. Both ships had a long history behind them.

Sicilia with italian troop on bord sailing to Spain (Immagine Credit Ing.Francone)
Sicilia with Italian troops on board sailing to Spain (ImageCredit: Ing.Francone)

Both built in Bremen by the Aktien-Gesellschaft Weser shipyard on behalf of the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping company, they were purchased by the Italian government in 1935 to support the logistical effort imposed by the invasion of Ethiopia.

Nave Toscana and Nave Sicilia could be considered sister ships, equal in appearance, size and tonnage, they differed only in the technical specifics of the engine, even if the developed speed was the same.

They belonged to the heterogeneous class “Regions” (each ship bore the name of an Italian region) which in reality brought together ships of different characteristics and purchased on the international market only to build a fleet aimed at transporting the invading troops and the necessary supplies.

After the invasion of Ethiopia, both ships were used to transport war materials and later troops to Spain (Corpo Truppe Volontarie), where the fascist regime was supporting Franco and the Falangist forces engaged in the Civil War.

RNO Toscana in service in 1942 (Immage Credit Ing.Maurizio Eliseo)
RNO Toscana in service in 1942 (Image Credit: Ing.Maurizio Eliseo)

The plan devised by Supermarina consisted in transforming Toscana and Sicilia into hospital ships, in this way it would be possible to recover the two ships by evading the naval blockade and to strengthen the fleet of hospital ships that were subjected to intense service on two war fronts.

First, it was necessary to credibly convert troop ships into floating hospitals in a way that could withstand rigorous inspection. In Portolago (Lakki) there was an Arsenal of the Navy, San Giorgio Arsenal, which was able to carry out the roughest part of the transformation.

Medical Directors Colonel La Gamba (Sicilia) and Colonel Marcone (Toscana) were sent to Leros by plane, as well as a fair number of navy nurses and medical supplies. The work, under the direction of the medical officers, proceeded rapidly also because the situation of the hospital ships had become truly worrying.

RNO Sicilia in service 1941, sailing from Durazzo to Brindisi with a full load of wounded soldiers (Immage Credit Ing.Maurizio Eliseo)
RNO Sicilia in service 1941, sailing from Durazzo to Brindisi with a full load of wounded soldiers, during the Greco-Italian War (Image Credit: Ing.Maurizio Eliseo)

On January 8, 1941, hospital ship RNO Arno was hit by a bomb, which caused serious damage on board, and it was necessary to send it to Genoa for repairs in the shipyard.

On February 17, 1941, RNO Tevere was sunk by a magnetic mine in the port of Tripoli.

On March 14, 1941, RNO Po was torpedoed and sank in front of Valona (Avlona, in Albania).

Such heavy losses made the entry into service of Toscana and Sicilia even more urgent.

The Italian government had regularly registered them with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

At the end of January the Vettor Pisani motor ship arrived in Lakki, carrying medical equipment needed to complete the ships that were being refurbished.

The work on board of the ships proceeded quickly with the demolition of the wooden troop quarters to transform the rooms below deck into medical warehouses, pharmacy, operating room and medical, surgery and isolation wards.

RNO Sicilia scuttled in Naples Harbour (Immage Credit Ing.Maurizio Eliseo)
RNO Sicilia scuttled in Naples Harbour (Image Credit: Ing.Maurizio Eliseo)

The ships were painted white with the typical green line 1.5 meters high and the red crosses on the hull and funnel as expected for hospital ships. The lifeboats were also painted in a similar way. The total number of lifeboats was reduced due to the reduced capacity of the ships (as a troop transport carried up to 2200 soldier, hospital ship had 750 berths).

A group of Italian women, after an approximate preparation, was appointed Red Cross nurse and they searched everywhere to find real or presumed sick to be embarked on. 73 of them were embarked on Nave Toscana which on the 5th March 1941 left Lakki for Taranto.

While RNO Toscana was crossing Cerigotto Canal (Antikythera), it was flown over by a British plane which, by means of signals, asked the ship for the name and port of destination.

Commander Virgilio Pielli responded them with concerns, but the plane went away without any problem.

While ship was at sea, a radio message from Supermarina reached Colonel Marcone, ordering to sail to Trieste. In the Lloyd Triestino shipyards the works were expanded and a complete sanitary equipment was loaded.

RNO Toscana was now in effect a hospital ship of the Italian Royal Navy. RNO Sicilia also returned home without problems.

As soon as the RNO Sicilia was ready it was used for missions on the Greek-Albanian front and took part together with the RNO Arno in the search and rescue of the survivors of the Conte Rosso troop transport, torpedoed by the submarine H.M.S. Upholder.

In that tragic shipwreck about 1500 Italian soldiers and sailors lost their lives.

After an intense operational activity with 44 medical evacuation missions and 3 shipwrecked research missions, RNO Sicilia was sunk during a massive bombing raid on Naples conducted by bombers of the 9th and 12th USAAF, on April 4, 1943.

RNO Toscana also entered service as soon as possible, operating mainly on the Libyan coasts. On the night of 1st October 1942 while sailing ahead of Tobruk she was attacked, albeit properly lit, by British bombers. Fortunately, it did not report any damage and indeed saved the crew of one of the bombers that splashed down after the attack.

Many other medical evacuations and shipwreck search operations were carried out by RNO Toscana.

After the Armistice of 8 September 1943 the ship escaped from Gaeta, in Nazis hands, and joined the allies. Together with RNO Principessa Giovanna they served as hospital ships, first with an Italian crew and Italian flag, then under complete English control.

Surviving the war, Toscana became the icon of the exodus of Italian refugees from Istria and Dalmatia.

The ship was returned to Lloyd Triestino after extensive refurbishment and was destined for transport to Australia. Many emigrants left Italy after the war and many were transported from Toscana to a new future in distant lands. In 1962 the ship was scrapped after a long service in peace and war.

The ships eventfully recovered from the Dodecanese served honourably and effectively the homeland that had recalled them from afar.




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