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80 years on: A major Mediterranean tragedy, and the birth of the guided bomb

One of the biggest maritime tragedies of the Mediterranean occurred 80 years ago today when an Italian battleship on its way to Malta to surrender was bombed by a German aircraft using a terrifying new weapon, a precision-guided bomb. The attack killed 1,393 men.

The powerful Roma was the flagship of the Italian Navy, but it was hardly ever used. Commissioned in 1942, it never got far from the Italian coast during its brief service, as the Italian fleet was plagued by fuel shortages and a reluctance to engage the British Royal Navy. It ended up being used as a floating anti-aircraft battery in various Italian harbours.

The allies and Italy reached a secret armistice agreement during the war in early September 1943, with one of the conditions being that the Italian fleet was to sail to Malta.

The Germans, who had been Italy’s allies, were told that the fleet would be sailing out of La Spezia to counter allied landings at Salerno but the armistice was announced as the fleet was about to cast off on September 8, 1943.

Leading the flotilla was the Roma, Italy’s newest and biggest warship. At 45,000 tons (full load) it was the third of the Littorio-class of battleships, carrying a main armament of nine 381mm (15 inch) calibre guns in three turrets that could fire armour-piercing shells 25 miles away. The ship was heavily armoured yet had graceful lines and modern compartmentation to counter flooding.

Heading the flotilla, which consisted of two other battleships, six cruisers and several destroyers, was Admiral Carlo Bergamini. 

His orders were to sail directly to Malta, but he was reluctant to hand over his fleet to the British and therefore sailed for La Maddelena, Sardinia, where, he was told, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III was setting up a free government, allied to the British and the Americans.

On September 9, 1943, the fleet was near the Strait of Bonifacio, the channel between Corsica and Sardinia when the admiral was informed early in the afternoon, that La Maddelena had been occupied by the Germans.

The fleet immediately altered course for Malta.

But the ships had been spotted by the Germans. 

Within a few hours, German bombers were seen dropping a single bomb each from an unusually high altitude, too high for normal bombing runs. Also unusually, the aircraft continued to fly straight, level and slowly after releasing their bombs. 

As the bombs came down, it also became sickenly obvious that the bombs were being steered towards their targets.

One narrowly missed the stern of the battleship Italia, jamming its rudder. The Roma was then struck twice. The first crashed through seven decks amid ships before exiting the hull and exploding underneath, disabling an engine room, electrical systems and boiler rooms.

The graceful, but powerful Roma had a short life with a tragic ending. Photo: Italian NavyThe graceful, but powerful Roma had a short life with a tragic ending. Photo: Italian Navy

But the fatal blow was struck by a second bomb a few minutes later, shortly before 4pm. It hit the forward engine room and then caused a massive explosion of the magazine of No2 gun turret, just forward of the bridge.

The heavy turret was blown away and the bridge was destroyed, killing Bergamini, the ship’s captain, Adone Del Cima, and practically everyone else in that part of the ship.

The huge ship started sinking, bow first, then capsized and broke in two, sinking within 15 minutes. A total of 1,393 of the 1,849 officers and men on board, including crew, along with the admiral’s staff, were dead, making this one of the deadliest sinkings of the Mediterranean.

The rest of the fleet managed to make it to Malta safely on September 11 and anchored at St Paul’s Bay and off Malta’s east coast. 

Italian warships anchored in St Paul's Bay.Italian warships anchored in St Paul's Bay.

The advent of the guided bomb

The Roma was sunk by 3,450-pound, armour-piercing, radio-controlled glide bombs, which the Luftwaffe called Fritz-X. Dropped from 6,000 metres, they had four centrally mounted fins and a complex, boxlike tail structure, inside which was a set of radio-controlled, electrically operated, oscillating spoilers that provided pitch and yaw control.

- A German Fritz-X Guided Bomb in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the US Air Force. Photo: US Air Force.- A German Fritz-X Guided Bomb in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the US Air Force. Photo: US Air Force.

The bombs were controlled from the bombing aircraft, which necessarily had to maintain a steady course until the bomb reached its target.

Bombs of this nature initially caused havoc among allied warships, severely damaging the famous British battleship Warspite among their other casualties, but the allies soon came up with effective countermeasures, including shooting down the bombing aircraft as they maintained their slow, steady course, or interrupting the bombs’ radio-link glide through electronic countermeasures.  

But the age of the guided missile had been born.   

Other major Mediterranean tragedies

Just a few years previously, in 1939, the Mediterranean had also seen huge loss of life during the Spanish civil war. The transport ship Castillo de Olite was sunk by Republican coastal gunfire off Cartagena on March 7. Some 1,500 people, mostly nationalist troops, who were on board, were killed.

Further in the depths of time, the biggest ever tragedy of the Mediterranean was perhaps in the bay of La Herradura, near Granada in 1562.

A squadron of galleys had arrived to supply the Spanish prison of Orán-Mazalquivir and sought shelter in the bay because of bad weather. But the shelter was inadequate and 25 out of the 28 galleys collided or grounded and sank in the morning of October 19, 1562. Between 3,000 and 5,000 men reportedly drowned.