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M.A.S. and midget submarines in the Black Sea 1942-1943

Short history of the Italian units in Black Sea written by Alberto Rosselli, whom I thanks for this contribution to my site. The translation from the original in Italian is mine; I hope to have not lost something during the process... :-)

At the end of March 1942, contemporary with German offensive in Crimea and the imminent attack to the fortified naval base of Sevastopol, Berlin High command noticed the necessity to have, in defense of its naval traffic along the southern coasts of the peninsula of Crimea and inside Azov Sea, an adequate escort of light and fast units and a consisting number of small tonnage submarines.

Not being able to completely afford this urgent necessity, (starting from spring 1942 the Germans had deployed in the Black sea, along the Danubian fluvial way, a little but efficient number of coastal motor patrol vessels and submarines), Admiral Reader asked to Italian Navy High Command to take part in those far theaters (but also on great Ladoga Lake)(1) with a mixed flotilla composed by Mas, CB midget submarines, and suicide boats (in Italian "barchini" ="punts").

Three Italian Mas Three Italian Mas anchored in the port of Feodosia, beginning of summer 1942

They were crafts fitted to counter the frightening Soviet fleet in the Black Sea, composed by a battleship (Pariskaja Kommuna), four heavy cruisers (among them the Molotov, based on a pre-war Italian project) about ten naval destroyers (some of them heavy ones, of the Kharkov class), the flotilla leader Tasken, approximately 29 small and medium tonnage submarines and numerous patrol and transport units. Favorably impressed by the numerous successes obtained from these assault crafts in the course of the first two years of war in the Mediterranean Sea, Reader had therefore good reasons in order to consider the Italian support in positive way (the first formal request for an Italian participation in Black Sea was made by this German Admiral the 14th January 1942, just in sight of the great Germanic offensive in South Ukraine).

Just to know, it is to be noticed that, in the course of the period of co-belligerence (1940-1943), it was the only time in which the Germany made at Italy a specific request for military support, just in consideration "of the superiority of light torpedo crafts, either submarines or surface ones, of the Regia Marina regarding those which we had" [ Reader, ndr ]. It was therefore in order not to disappoint the ally and in order to try in some way to compensate the profitable activity carried out by German U-boats, sent starting from 1941 in the Mediterranean Sea against the British naval forces, that Italian Admiral Riccardi gave immediate dispositions to send four Mas (of 24 tons of displacement), six CB 35 tons submarines, five torpedo motorboats and five explosive punts. These three squadrons were grouped in 101th Flotilla and prepared for the sending in Black Sea in the Moccagatta Convoy. The Italian assault fleet was put under the command of capitano di fregata Francesco Mimbelli.

The first big problem to afford was that relative to the sending of the units in Black Sea. In fact the only reasonable solution was the land transport, since the Turkish Dardanelli Strait was closed, by international convention, to the military naval traffic. In order to try to resolve the difficult issue the Italian Navy Command gave proof of great ability and imagination preparing in short time a special column composed by 28 motor vehicles, three tractors, nine trucks, tankers and trailers. The long column of vehicles left the base of La Spezia the 25th April and, after having passed with success innumerable obstacles and difficulties (the drivers and the engineers had, in some cases, to demolish buildings along the way in order to let the cumbersome vehicles pass), the column reached Wien, where the boats were put in Danube waters. From here they reached the Rumanian port of Costanza (2th May). Starting from this last port of call, with a fast and easy navigation, all the Italian units reached finally the Russian port of Yalta, that then it would have become their first operative base.

A little days after their arrival in this locality, situated along the southern coast of the Crimea peninsula, the Italian units were already ready to act against the numerous Soviet warships and transport present in the quadrant of sea comprised between the Sevastopol fortress, the Strait of Kerch and the bases of Novorossijsk and Tuapse. From May 1942 to May 1943, Italian units carried out an intense and shining activity, collecting various sinking and earning the respect of German allies and of Russian adversaries.

The 11th and 13th June 1942, the Mas torpedoed a 5,000 tons steamboat (sunk) and a 10,000 tons transport (crippled, sunk by Germans Junker 87). Subdivided, for tactical and emergency reasons, among the bases of Yalta and Feodosia, the Italian units had to face the rabid aerial offense of the enemy who, in those zones had beyond 700 aircraft, either fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Not being able to count on an adequate aerial protection (the Germans, hardly engaged in the conquest of the fortified system of Sevastopol and Balaclava and then on the front of Mariupol, Rostov, Krasnodar, did almost never give an air escort to Italian crafts), Mas and midget submarines had to endure the first losses. Just at dawn of of the 13th June, a group Soviet fighter and fighter-bombers Yak and Ilijushin, supported by about a dozen of torpedo boats, attacked the port of Yalta causing the sinking of the submarine commanded by sottotenente di vascello Farolfi. But the loss was nearly compensated by two shining tricolor victories. In fact, the 15th and the 18th June, in the course of a nocturnal operation, CB submarines number 2 and 3 succeeded to torpedo and to sink Soviet submarines S32 and SHCH 306 (with a respective displacement of 1,070 and 705 tons) which were sailing in surface.

The 18th June the Mas knew a day of glory and blood, too. Two Italian units, in fact, attacked a column of large enemy motor barges loaded with soldiers, escorted by six gunboats, directed toward Sevastopol. In the action, which caused the confirmed sinking of a Soviet transport, was mortally wounded lieutenant Bisagno, who was aboard Mas 571.

Between the end of June and the first days of July, Italian units participated, along with Germans and Rumanians, to the conquest of the fortresses of Sevastopol and Balaclava, and in these operations had way to distinguish himself capitano di corvetta Todaro, who, with his unit, attacked repeatedly the numerous enemy Naval craft (either surface one and submarines) used to evacuate specialists, political commissaries and high officers of Soviet Army. In the course of this huge battle, which took place in the Crimea waters from May to July 1942, the four Mas made 65 war missions, while torpedo motorboats and CB submarines made, respectively, 56 and 24 war missions.

German Admiral Schuster (Chief Commander of Kriegsmarine South Group), in demonstration of the courage and the excellent work of Italian crews and crafts, the 29th June sent to Admiral Riccardi his personal congratulations, pointing out in an official radio communicate "the fighting spirit of Italian crews commanded by capitano di fregata Mimbelli". With the movement toward east of the German Army Group South, also the Italian Flotilla in Black Sea moved its support bases more to east, consolidating its logistic positions of Feodosia and Iwan Baba. During August, at the same time of Kriegsmarine motor barges flotilla's operations in order to move, from the Crimea east coast to Azov Sea west coast, men, weapons and supplies destined to support the new offensive towards Caucaso mountains, at Italian Mas was entrusted the duty to counter enemy gunboats and torpedo motorboats attacks.

The night between 2nd and 3rd August, Mas 573 (capitano di corvetta Castagnacci), 568 (sottotenente Legnani) and 569 (sottotenente Ferrari) attacked, southwest from Kerch, heavy cruiser Molotov ("Kirov" class) (2) and naval destroyer Kharkov ("Leningrad" class ), which were on intercept German transports mission. the two large Soviet units, commanded by Commodore N.E. Basisty went near the coast, opening fire, with their 181, 122 and 100 mm. guns, against objectives situated between Iwan Baba and Feodosia. Realizing the great danger (the attack of a powerful 11.500 tons cruiser, armed with nine 181 mm. guns, against a flotilla of German small barges, which were in that part of sea, certainly should have been ended in total disaster), Mas 573 and 568 commanders decided to immediately attack the large enemy unit. Torpedoes from Mas 573 missed, but Legnani's Mas 568 went at very short distance from the cruiser and launched its two torpedoes: the first missed, while the second succeeded in hitting the aft hull of Molotov cruiser, which, meanwhile, was hammering Italian units with its 100 and 45 mm. guns. After the strike, Mas 568 tried to losing touch with the adversary with a quick evasive maneuver, but was chased at full speed by destroyer Kharkov, which meanwhile was arrived to help the Molotov. With a remarkable cold blood, commander Legnani ordered his men to drop from rear all the ten little depth charges the unit had aboard, triggering them on the minimal explosion depth. Depth charges exploded in a fast succession, quite ahead of Kharkov prow, damaging it so badly to force the Russian destroyer to stop the chase. Either Molotov and Kharkov retired from the combat toward east to reach as soon as possible their base. Mas 568, which within only 15 minutes succeeded in damaging the two enemy units, could return to Yalta, also if damaged and attacked by some Soviet aircraft, drawn by explosion's lights.

3rd August morning Mas 573 and 569 returned to Feodosia too. After this brilliant action, which ended in the crippling of Molotov (the unit, towed in Bathumi port, was put in a shipyard where it needed two years of repairs which saw the complete substitution of about twenty meters of the aft hull: part that was taken from the twin unit Frunze, in that time in construction) and in damaging of Kharkov (the destroyer was repaired in shipyards for some weeks), Italian Mas made about an half dozen war missions, sinking only a 3000 tons steamboat.

Admiral Erich Raeder Admiral Erich Raeder, with Captain Francesco Mimbelli, passes in review the Italian crews, 9th September 1942

9th September 1942, just after the official visit by Admiral Reader at "Italian" base of Yalta, this base was violently attacked by a squadron of Soviet fighter-bombers, which hit and sank Mas 571 and 573 and a barge, succeeding also in seriously damaging Mas 567, 569 and 572.

In the period comprised between October 1942 and January 1943 (in the same time of the Russian winter's offensive, which forced Axis forces to surrender at Stalingrad and to withdraw from Caucaso and Don river line) Italian crafts activity (either surface and submarine units) was heavily conditioned by the bad going of the conflict and by the shorting in oil supply, at the point that the Command of Italian Navy decided to allow the crews to return home, leaving to German sailors (a part of them was trained in Italian base of Pola, in Istria, and in the motor factory Isotta Fraschini, in Milan) the crafts still operative.

In spite of this, from January to March 1943 Italian units continued to fight. The 17th April, during German operation to re-conquest a large bridgehead in Novorossjisk area, seven Mas (losses had during 1942 were meantime replaced with the arrival of new crafts from Italy) along with some German torpedo motorboats were deployed at Anapa to attack the Russian coastal traffic. But after some fruitless combats, the 25th April all operations in that sector were suspended.

After having abandoned Feodosia and Iwan Baba bases, too exposed to the raising Russian air offensive, in May, 13th, Italian Mas made their last mission off Yalta, and then, the 20th, in the course of an official ceremony, Italians left their crafts to Kriegsmarine. The last units with Italian crews that continued to operate in the Black sea were CB coastal submarines, which, from the new Sevastopol base made, from June to August 1943, other 21 missions; among these only one (that from 25th to 26th August) had a positive result: CB commanded by tenente di vascello Armando Sibille succeeded to torpedo and to sink a Russian submarine of unidentified class. After this, also the last submarines were withdrawn and stored in Rumanian Costanza port, where, in August 1944, they were captured (in very bad shape) by Russians.

Italian torpedo men at work Italian torpedo men at work, Feodosia 1942

NOTES:(1) On Ladoga Lake was operative the 12th Mas Squadron (units N.527 e 528) commanded by capitano di corvetta Bianchini. The crafts were transported from La Spezia to the coast of this great lake, situated north of St. Petersburg, by a truck column that made more than 3.100 kilometers in 26 days. In August, the 15th, 1942, the two Italian torpedo motorboats began their brilliant also if limited activity with the sinking, made by Mas 527 commanded by tenente di vascello Renato Bechi, of a Soviet gunboat of the "Bira" class. The 28th August also Mas 528 sank an enemy unit: a large "maona" with a displacement of more than 1.000 tons, loaded with soldiers. The 29th September the two Italian Mas tried to torpedo a Russian armed motorbarge and in October, the 22th, a few days before the lake's glaciation, they had their last battle, attacking with torpedoes and machine guns three enemy gunboats near. In November, the two Mas were given to Finland Navy and the crews returned in Italy.

A MAS of12^ squadron   An Italian MAS, used in 1942 on Ladoga Lake, transported in Sweden after the end of the War. The unit was given by Italy to Finland Navy. Then it finished in Sweden, near Skovdes base, about 80 kilometers from Stockholm.

(2) Molotov cruiser. This unit was classified by Russian Registry as "light" but, if it is compared with similar units in other Navies of the same period, it result, for tonnage and armament, more similar to an "heavy" type.

CRUISER MOLOTOV STATISTICS

Construction: Marti shipyards, Nikolaiev: construction started Nov.1936, launched 03/22/1939, commissioned from 06/16/1941

Displacement: Normal load 8.800 ton, Full load 11.500 ton

Dimensions: length 191,5 m., width 18 m., draught 6,1 m.

Engines: 6 boilers and 2 turbines for 110.000 hp

Speed (knots): 30-35

Autonomy: 3.500 miles at 19 knots

Armor (mm): vertical 76, horizontal 51

Armament: 9 - 181/57 mm; 6 - 100/47 mm; from 6 to14 - 45/46 mm a.a.; 6 - 533 mm. torpedo launchers ; one aircraft launcher and two reckon aircraft.

Crew: 730


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