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In the course of World War II, although with a very limited force, the Regia Marina Italiana was present in the remote waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. This presence, dating back to the Boxer Revolution of 1901, consisted of two gun boats located in Tiensin, the Lepanto and the Carlotto (1), along with some detachments of troops assigned to the defense of the small Italian commercial interests.
After Italy’s entry into the war, Supermarina (the Navy High Command) ordered some units based in Massawa, Eritrea transferred to the Far East.
This move was the result of well-founded fear that the A.O.I. (Italian East African Empire) would soon fall, thus allowing the British to capture the Italian vessels. In February 1941, just two months before the fall of Massawa, the colonial sloop Eritrea (armed with four 120mm guns, two 40mm and two 13.2 mm machine guns) and the armed ships Ramb I and Ramb II left for Kobe, Japan or, as an alternate, Shanghai or Tientsin.
The two Rambs, built as banana ships, were modern and fast and had been transformed into auxiliary cruisers with the installation of four 120 mm guns and some 13.2 mm anti-aircraft machine guns. While the Eritrea and the Ramb II reached their destination eluding British patrols, the Ramb I was less fortunate and was sunk by the British cruiser Leander near the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Despite the partial failure of the relocation mission, the Italian diplomats and military attach茅s in Tokyo discussed with the Japanese authorities the possibility of utilizing the Ramb II as a pirate ship (like the German Kormoran).
The utilization of this modern and efficient vessel, which would have received some necessary alterations from the Kobe shipyard, was to be the interdiction of British traffic in the Indian Ocean. The ship, already since Massawa, was scheduled to receive several antiaircraft machine guns and a larger naval gun, such as a 120 mm or a 152 mm. Nevertheless, because of the strong opposition presented by the Japanese Navy, both the Ramb II and the Eritrea were left at their docks.
Japan, at least until December 7th, 1941, the day of the sudden attack against Pearl Harbor, always wanted to avoid any confrontation with the USA and Great Britain.
Only after the official declaration of war did the Japanese government allow the ship Eritrea to provide assistance to the oceanic submarines, which were arriving in Penang and Singapore from the very distant base in Bordeaux carrying rare goods (2).
Some Italian Merchant Marine ships, like the Conte Verde, which were in Japanese or Chinese waters at the time of the declaration of war, were not utilized or were employed by the Japanese, while others attempted to reach Bordeaux. This base (known as Betasom) was used by the 27 Italian submarines which operated in the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans from September 1940 through September 1943 against the Allied blockade. Some of these merchant ships, similar to the Himalaya, succeeded in the very difficult endeavor of transporting to Europe a discrete quantity of rare goods, such as rubber, tin, and quinine, while others were forced to seek refuge in neutral ports. As we will see, the Italian Navy during the war, similarly to the German one, attempted to utilize submarines to exchange goods with Japan despite the high losses and small advantages.
On September 8th, 1943 at 2:00 AM (local time), the ship Eritrea was transferring from Singapore to Sabang in support of the submarine Cappellini , which had just arrived after a long and difficult journey to transport strategically important material to Tokyo. Having received a Reuter communique of the Italian surrender, the ship changed course for Colombo (Ceylon) through the strait of Sumatra avoiding the immediate and tenacious hunt by Japanese naval and aerial forces (3).
The other units deployed in the sector were:
Submarine Giuliani, C.C. Mario Tei and Submarine Torelli, T.V. Enrico Gropalli (4a) were in Singapore already loaded and ready to set sail for Bordeaux. Submarine Cappellini, C.C. Walter Auconi, in Sabang ready to return to Europe. Submarine Cagni, C.C. Giuseppe Roselli-Lorenzini, coming from Bordeaux and in transit in the Indian Ocean bound for Singapore (4b).
Gunboat Lepanto, C.C. Morante, and gunboat Carlotto, T.V. De Leonardis, were both in Shanghai, while the auxiliary cruiser Calitea II and Ramb II, C.C. C. Mazzella, were in Kobe for repair work. These last two units were scuttled on the 9th so not to fall into Japanese hands. The submarine Cappellini decided to fight along the Germans and the Japanese as part of the newly created “Repubblica Sociale Italiana”, but once escorted to Singapore it was captured. Despite the pledge of allegiance of the Captain, Commander Auconi, Admiral Hiroaka interned the ship and captured the crew serving them inhuman treatments. The Giuliani and the Torelli followed the same fate, even if the crew, but not the officers, wanted to keep fighting along with the old allies. The only unit saved was the Cagni, which, made aware of the armistice, reached Durban in South Africa and surrendered.
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