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The Leonardo da Vinci Submarine: Italian Terror of the Atlantic

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The Leonardo da Vinci heads out to sea.  Picture courtesy

The Leonardo da Vinci heads out to sea. Picture courtesy

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous running battle of the Second World War.  Between 1939 and 1945, the Axis powers dispatched hundreds of submarines to the cold dark waters of the Atlantic in an attempt to strangle the flow of supplies and materials being sent to those countries still opposing the massive Axis onslaught that initiated the war.  The main recipient of these desperately needed supplies was Britain; at first as a means to keep them in the war, latter to build up military strength for a cross channel invasion.  If this attempted blockade by the Axis was successful, and England was forced to capitulate in the early stages of the war, chances for an ultimate Allied victory would have been greatly hampered if not outright eliminated.   The German Navy (Kriegsmarine), was by far the dominate participant in this critical fight for the Axis.  They would send into battle some of the most advanced submarines of the time, guided by many of the greatest commanders in the history of underwater warfare.  And while the Mediterranean was the main area of battle for the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina), it too would send her submariner warriors to the Atlantic to assist in the Axis cause.  During the three years of Italian participation in this epic struggle, Italy’s submarine crews fought with heart and valor during their war patrols on and below the waves of this immense battlefield.  At the forefront of the Regia Marina’s submarine effort was the Leonardo da Vinci, the most lethal Italian hunter of Allied shipping throughout the entire Second World War.

The Leonardo da Vinci submarine was a Marconi-class submarine, and was first launched September 16th, 1939.  She was 76.5m long, and displaced 1465 tons fully loaded.  She could reach a top speed of 17.8 knots on the surface, and 8.2 while submerged.  The da Vinci was armed with 1 x 100 mm deck gun, 4 x 13.2 mm anti-aircraft guns, and 8 x 21″ torpedo tubes.  On September 22nd of 1940, she departed from Naples for Bordeaux in occupied France, home of Italy’s main Atlantic submarine base known as BETASOM.  Given Command of the da Vinci to usher her into this phase of the war was Ferdinando Calda. Navigating safely across her “home waters” of the Mediterranean, the da Vinci passed undetected by the British at the critical juncture at the Straight of Gibraltar on the 27th, and headed off into the wide expanse of the Atlantic, where she immediately began operations.  Harassed by two British destroyers during an early engagement she undertook on September 30th, a quick crash dive led to her escape from potential destruction. The Leonardo da Vinci reached the safety of Bordeaux on October 31st, her first appearance at her new home port.  During her maiden patrol, she had come up empty on a few attempted intercepts with Allied vessels; much more success for the da Vinci lay ahead however.

As stated, success would come for the da Vinci and her crew, but it would not come quickly.  She embarked on two more unsuccessful war patrols in succession to begin her time in the Atlantic; one lasted December through January, and the other spanned March through April of 1941.  Both were carried out in the waters off of the coast of Ireland.  She returned to Bordeaux from the cold north after each voyage without a kill, although valuable lessons and experience had been gained by her crew.

The technical and performance limitations of Italian submarines operating in the northern Atlantic waters were becoming quite obvious by the spring of 41.  Italian submarines were for the most part larger than their German counterparts, making them easier to detect and or fall under attack by the Allies. Italian doctrine on submarine warfare had generally called for their subs to operate beneath the surface while engaging a vessel. The initial torpedo attack would come while submerged, and then the sub could rise to the surface to finish off the target if applicable.  Longer periscopes were essential to fit this type of submerged warfare, thus a larger conning tower was required on Italian submarines in comparison to the German U-Boats.  In contrast, German submarines would mostly engage their targets while on the surface, hence their subs were designed to give as little of a silhouette as possible.  This accounted for some of the greater profile and larger size Italian subs had when viewed against their Axis partner, but finer overall engineering and design by the Germans must be recognized when directly comparing the two fleets.  Italian subs also took longer to complete an emergency dive, which of course being able to conduct a quick escape is a very valuable asset when attempting to avoid a surface attack or engagement.  Again, the submarines of the Regia Marina were built to match Italian doctrine of attacking below the waves, not necessarily designed to make a quick retreat after an initial engagement.  This led to less emphasis or focuses on that ability in the design and production of Italian submarines by their engineers, and in turn was a key component in the construction of German subs.  Also, an additional shortcoming for the Regia Marina was the fact that their submarines could not match the speed, submerged or while on the surface, of the German U Boats.

The preferred method of attack for the Germans was to deploy their subs into “Wolf Packs”; several submarines working in unison to track and attack a ship or convoy.  The submarines of the Italian navy had difficulty working with the Germans in this type of joint operation, mainly due to communication and coordination problems with their German counterparts.  The Kriegsmarine leadership also felt that Italian submarine officers were lacking in quality when compared to their own.  The much colder waters of the North Atlantic also began to take its toll on the Italian submarine fleet, which had been envisioned and designed to operate mainly in the warmer Mediterranean waters.

Thus starting in the spring of 1941, taking all of these factors into account, Italian submarines would be mainly deployed in the central and southern waters of the Atlantic.  Regia Marina doctrine would also once more generally call for their submarines to operate independently, instead of using the German “Wolf Pack” tactics that were proving inefficient for the Italians.  So as the Leonardo da Vinci prepared for her next patrol, she would do so not as a member of a pack, but as a lone predator stalking her prey.

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  1. Hello All,
    Here is a list of the top 50 Submarines, in terms of tonnage sunk, of WW2.
    German U Boats, 41. US Submarines, 6. Italian Submarines, 2. British Submarines, 1.
    You will notice that the Leonardo Da Vinci is in 28th position, ahead of all the US and British Subs!

    – Name – Nationality – Number of ships sunk- Tonnage

    1) U48 ger 53 317.391
    2) U99 ger 39 246.794
    3) U103 ger 46 241.293
    4) U124 ger 48 224.953
    5) U123 ger 43 220.119

    6) U107 ger 39 217.786
    7) U37 ger 55 202.529
    8) U66 ger 33 200.021
    9) U68 ger 33 197.998
    10) U47 ger 31 191.919

    11) U96 ger 28 190.094
    12) U38 ger 35 185.967
    13) U552 ger 32 165.466
    14) U130 ger 24 162.015
    15) U515 ger 25 157.064

    16) U160 ger 26 156.082
    17) U172 ger 26 152.778
    18) U129 ger 29 143.748
    19) U155 ger 26 140.449
    20) U181 ger 27 138.779

    21) U106 ger 22 138.581
    22) U100 ger 26 137.819
    23) U94 ger 25 137.395
    24) U108 ger 26 135.366
    25) U46 ger 24 127.469

    26) U126 ger 27 126.187
    27) U43 ger 22 126.167
    28) DA VINCI ita 19 120.265
    29) U159 ger 23 119.684
    30) U105 ger 22 117.377

    31) U32 ger 20 116.836
    32) U101 ger 23 113.808
    33) U558 ger 21 109.705
    34) U201 ger 24 109.055
    35) FLASHER usa 21 106.667

    36) RASHER usa 17 101.331
    37) U158 ger 17 101.321
    38) U34 ger 24 99.311
    39) U156 ger 20 97.504
    40) SPADEFISH usa 24 96.826

    41) TAZZOLI ita 18 96.650
    42) U564 ger 19 96.444
    43) TRIGGER usa 17 95.744
    44) U203 ger 22 94.660
    45) BARB usa 18 94.614

    46) TANG usa 27 94.046
    47) UPHOLDER uk 14 93.031
    48) U516 ger 16 89.385
    49) U177 ger 14 87.388
    50) U178 ger 13 87.030

    Note: Now that I see true figures, I am suspicious of the sources for victories and tonnage sunk by British Subs. According to British Historians, the number of tons sunk was 1,500,000. So, does that amount include damaged ships as well and are the figures accurate?

  2. Hello,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article on the Leonardo Da Vinci Submarine and also decided to do a little research myself.
    Guess what, did you know that:
    The Leonardo da Vinci was Italy’s most successful submarine in World War II, and her captain, Lt. Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, Italy’s leading submarine ace. With a higher score than Britain’s Malcolm David Wanklyn, in HMS Upholder, or America’s Richard O’Kane in USS Tang (both later sunk), Prioroggia (108,656 tons sunk) and Leonardo da Vinci were the most SUCCESSFUL NON-GERMAN submariner and submarine in the conflict. Source: Blair, Clay “Hitler’s U Boat War”
    I did some research on these two Allied Captains and their boats.
    1. Malcolm David Wanklyn, I always thought, according to British books and sites, was the top scorer of the Allies, but after further review his score includes sunk plus damaged ships and the Upholder, which was the most successful British Sub’s score, is less than the Da Vinci!
    Wanklyn’s score in the Upholder Sub is: 13 ships sunk , 87847 tons and 5 damaged, 31, 427 for a total of 119,274 tons. Source U-Boat net.
    So, it looks like the British stats include damaged ships as well. Italian stats ONLY include ships sunk.
    2. Richard O’Kane, the most successful US Submarine captain, 93,824 tons sunk: Source: JANAC:Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee.
    History books always told us that Wanklyn had sunk over 128,000 tons, but in reality, his totals were less than 120,000 tons, which included damaged ships.
    O’Kanes totals for his patrols was 227,824 tons sunk, but this total was revised in 1980 to 93,824 tons, from a review of Japanese war records and the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) a United States inter-service agency set up to analyze and assess Japanese naval and merchant marine shipping losses caused by U.S. and Allied forces during World War II.
    So, the list now shows:
    Leonardo Da Vinci: 120,00 tons sunk (does not include damaged ships)
    Lt. Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia: 108,656 tons sunk (does not include damaged ships)
    HMS Upholder: 119,247 tons (includes sunk and damaged)
    Malcolm David Wanklyn: 87847 tons sunk, 31,427 tons damaged
    USS Tang: 93,824
    Richard O’Kane: 93,824 tons sunk.
    This is definitely something the readers should know!!
    Vincent Biondi

  3. motozattera777 says:

    I wish to send you my great congratulations for a very fine detailed article. If I may suggest other sources for historical info I want to indicate the “BOLLETTINO D’ARCHIVIO DELLA MARINA MILITARE” edit by Ufficio Storico della Marina Militare Italiana a trimonthly publication .
    Well done! bye-bye

  4. Very well written article !

    I think you guys do a wonderful job of reporting the truth about the Italian armed forces in the war. Which is very refreshing change as hollywood always down plays or out right lies about our forefathers.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

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