Short history of the Italian units in Far East 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... :-)
In the course of the Second World War the Italian Navy
was present, even if with only a few units, in the far waters of the
Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The existence, started from the end
of the War of Boxer (1901) of a small national commercial quarter
in China (Tientsin), forced in fact the Italian government to maintain
in those theaters a pair of cannoneers, the Lepanto and the
Carlotto and some land units for the protection of commercial
interests of Italian residents.
The vicissitudes of those units (others were added to
them starting from 1940) and of those men are, still today, little
known but they deserve a mention, also only in order to honor the
memory of those officials, sailors and soldiers who, isolated from
their home Country, honored with their courage the Flag in one of
the more dramatic periods of the history of Italian Country.
After the entrance in war of Italy (10 June 1940), the
High Command of the Navy ordered to some units, based in Massaua (an
Italian colony in Africa), to deploy themselves in Far East: a maneuver
that was decided in the fear, based on the reality of the facts, that
in the case of the fall of the Empire of East Africa, England could
put the hands on the Italian ships.
In the February of 1941 (about two months before the
conquer of the military base of Massaua by British forces), the colonial
ship Eritrea (armed with four 120 millimeters guns, two 40
mm. guns and two 13.2 millimeters machine-guns) and two armed steamboats
(Ramb1 and Ramb2 : modern and fast banana boats transformed
in auxiliary cruisers with the installation of four 120 millimeters
antiaircraft guns and some 13.2 millimeters machine-guns ) took the
sea with the order to go to Kobe (Japan) or, in alternative, the ports
of Shanghai or Tientsin.
While Eritrea and Ramb2 succeeded in the
attempt, eluding the surveillance of the Royal Navy, the Ramb1
had the misfortune to meet near the Maldives islands (in the Indian
Ocean) the English cruiser Leader who sank it.
||A side picture of colonial ship "Eritrea",
showing the crew lined, taken before the departure from Massaua
for the "historycal" crossing in Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In the period comprised between 1941 and the September
of 1943, the Italian concessions in China (Tientsin) and the consulates
of Shanghai, Hankow and Beijing lived a period of relative calmness,
in spite of the not optimal relationships with the Japanese occupation
military Command. This last one, in fact, did not like the presence
of Europeans, also if Japanese allied like the Italians, to govern
cities or quarters situated in their zone of influence. Although that,
the Italian military attaches and the diplomatic in China and Japan
tried to reduce to minimum the friction reasons, also when Tokyo forbade
to the Italian colonial ships (Eritrea and Ramb 2) to
carry out offensive cruises against English ship in the Pacific (the
Japanese, at least until 7 December of 1941, the day of their unexpected
attack to Pearl Harbor, wanted to avoid whichever embarrassing situation
with Great Britain and the USA). Only after its official entering
in war, Japan allowed to the ship Eritrea to lend support to
the Italian oceanic submarines that reached Penang and Singapore from
the far base of Bordeaux with cargos of rare goods destined to them.
As far as it concerns the numerous Italian transport
ships that were in Chinese and Japanese waters at the moment of the
entrance in war of Italy with Germany against England and France (10
June 1940), part of them (as the great Conte Verde) remained
inactive or had to lend service for the Japanese, while others tried
to reach the French coast (Bordeaux) breaking off the British block.
Some succeeded in this very difficult deed, transporting in Europe
some valuable goods (rubber, pond, quinine).
The Armistice of September, 8th 1943
The 8th September, at 2 a.m. (local) the Eritrea
was in navigation between Singapore and Sabang to give support to
the oceanic transport submarine Cappellini just came from France
after a long and difficult cruise in order to transport strategic
material in Far East for the government of Tokyo. Received an official
notice from Reuter which announced the surrender of Italy,
Eritrea changed at instance its route, heading at full speed
for Columbus (Ceylon), crossing the Strait of Sumatra and escaping
to the immediate hunting set up by naval and aerial Japanese units.
Now, let us see what was the situation of the other
Italian units, either surface units, either submarines, present in
the Indian Ocean and Malaysian and Indonesian waters in that date.
The oceanic transport submarines Giuliani (capitano di corvetta
Mario Tei) and Torelli (tenente di vascello Enrico Gropalli)
were in Singapore, already loaded with valuable goods and ready to
leave again to Bordeaux, while the Cappellini (capitano di
corvetta Walter Auconi) was in Sabang, ready to return to Europe.
The oceanic submarine Cagni (capitano di corvetta Giuseppe
Roselli-Lorenzini) was sailing in the middle of Indian Ocean, coming
from Bordeaux and directed to Singapore.
As far as the ships of surface (Eritrea excluded),
the gunboat Lepanto (capitano di corvetta Morante) and Carlotto
(tenente di vascello De Leonardis) were in Shanghai, while the auxiliary
cruiser Calitea II, former Ramb II (capitano di corvetta
C. Mazzella) was in Kobe for repairs. Also some steamboats, like the
Conte Verde (capitano di corvetta Chinea) were in Shanghai.
These two last units sank themselves the 9th September in order to
not be captured by Japanese. The same day, also the Lepanto
and the Carlotto sank themselves for the same reason. The fate
of the remained Italian units was sad and adventurous. The submarine
Cappellini decided, with all its crew, to continue to fight
with Germany and Japan (joining, in doing so, the new fascist Italian
Social Republic created by Mussolini), but once arrived in Singapore
under Japanese escort, it was captured with deceit. In spite of the
declaration of fidelity of commander Auconi, Japanese Admiral Hiroaka
ordered to intern the ship and to imprison its crew, reserving to
it a inhuman treatment. Same fate touched to Giuliani and Torelli
although their crews wanted, at the contrary of their officers, to
continue to fight with the old allies. The only unit that succeeded
in save itself was the Cagni that, known of the armistice,
sailed to Durban (South Africa) surrendering itself to the Allies.
In spite of the bad Japanese behavior, many sailors of Italian submarines
based in Indian Ocean continued to fight for many months. The Italian
units passed under the command of German U-boat Command, in Penang,
and they continued the war against Anglo-Americans with mixed Italian-German
Also after the surrender of Germany, in May 8th 1945,
about twenty Italian sailors continued the war allied with Japanese.
Just to know, Torelli submarine was operative until August,
30th, 1945 when in Japan waters, the anti-aircraft guns of this last
Italian unit in Far East succeeded to down an American bomber B25
Mitchell: the last victory of a "Japanese" naval unit.
What happened to Italian garrisons in China After the Armistice
The armistice was a surprise for all the Italian Army
units in China; against them the Japanese soldiers took revenge. Pechin
Radio Station (defended by 100 Italian sailors and troopers commanded
by capitano di corvetta Baldassarre) resisted, armed only with rifles
and hand grenades, for 24 hours. Attacked by almost 1.000 Japanese
soldiers, flanked by 15 light tanks and some guns, the small garrison
surrendered at 9 a.m. of 10th September, after having destroyed the
radio system and having burned all the top secret documents.
Nevertheless, the most of Italians decided to continue
the war in German and Japanese side, while 29, among officers and
soldiers, having refused to do so, were interned in a prison camp
in Korea, where they had a very hard treatment.
Italian Army units in Tientsin (commanded by capitano
di fregata Carlo dell'Acqua), rounded by an entire Japanese regiment
commanded by lieutenant colonel Tanaka (a force of about 6.000 men,
with tens of light armored crafts and a lot of campaign guns), decided
at first to try a desperate resistance. Italians (who wanted to protect
the numerous civilians, among them there was also Consul Stefanelli)
entrench themselves in "Ermanno Carlotto" barrack, in the Forum
and into the townhall, deploying 600 troopers and sailors armed with
300 rifles, 50 pistols, 50 Breda and Fiat machine guns (either light
and heavy), 4 76,17 mm. guns, 4 Lancia armored cars. The Italian group
had 5 motor vehicles, about 50 horses, 2 millions bullets (of varied
caliber) and food and medicines for about a week. Lieutenant Colonel
Tanaka, who had in command also two river cannoneers and an air bomber
squadron deployed in the near Pechin airport, summoned Italian to
surrender. At first, Italian officers refused and so Japanese shot
some gun shell for intimidation. In the same moment, Italians heard
the news of the imminent arriving at Tientsin of an entire Japanese
Division, with tanks and a lot of artillery. So capitano di fregata
dell'Acqua, in spite of the opinions of much of his soldiers, who
wanted to carry on the fight, decided to surrender. What happened
to Italian prisoners was adventurous. Among them, 170 went with fascist
Italian Social Republic (R. S. I.) and they continued to fight in
German and Japanese' side, while the rest of the Italians decided
to not collaborate and was interned in prison camps, in Tientsin,
in Korea and in Japan where Italians were subjected to hard labour.
Many Italian soldiers who had decided to not collaborate
with Japanese, after the Japan' surrender (September 1945), were newly
captured by Americans and interned in other prison camps in Philippines
(near Manila) and in Honolulu (Hawaii). The last Italians (collaborators
or not) of the Far East Expedition Corps returned in their Country
(in Naples' port) in March 1946, aboard of U. S. Navy' ships.
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