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Italian surface units in Far East 1940-1943

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.

Cannoniera Lepanto
The "Lepanto"

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.

Colonial ship "Eritrea"   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 crews.

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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