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Carlo Fecia Di Cossato

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Captain Carlo Fecia Di Cossato's life and legacy:

Fecia di Cossato was born in Rome in 1908 from a family of the Piedmontese nobility. In his youth, he attended the Royal Military College of Moncalieri and then the Italian Naval Academy in Livorno, where he graduated in 1928 as an Ensign. Immediately after graduation, he was assigned on the submarine Bausan.

In 1929, after promotion to Sub-Lieutenant, Fecia di Cossato was assigned to the Italian Naval Detachment in Beijing and sent to China on the scout cruiser Libia. He returned to Italy in 1933, was promoted to Lieutenant and was assigned on the light cruiser Bari, stationed in Massawa during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. He then participated in two special missions on submarines during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 Fecia di Cossato attended the Italian Navy Submarine School in Pola, after which he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and given command of a submarine.

When Italy entered World War II, Fecia di Cossato was the commanding officer of the submarine Ciro Menotti, based in Messina as part of the 33rd Submarine Squadron. In this role he participated in several missions in the Mediterranean Sea. In the autumn of 1940 he was transferred to the BETASOM submarine base, in occupied France, where he started his participation in the Battle of the Atlantic as executive officer of the submarine Enrico Tazzoli, whose commanding officer was Lieutenant Commander Vittore Raccanelli.

On 5 April 1941 Fecia di Cossato was given command of Tazzoli, with Lieutenant Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia as executive officer. Fecia di Cossato and Gazzana Priaroggia (who was later given command of the submarines Archimede and Leonardo da Vinci) were to become Italy's most successful submariners in World War II.

On April 7, 1941 Tazzoli left Bordeaux for its first mission under Fecia di Cossato. After reaching a patrol area off the coast of West Africa, on April 12 the submarine attacked two British cruisers with torpedoes, but no hits were obtained. On April 15, Tazzoli sank the British steamer Aurillac (4,733 GRT) with torpedoes and gunfire. On May 7th, Tazzoli sank the Norwegian steamer Fernlane (4,310 GRT) and two days later the Norwegian tanker Alfred Olsen (8,817 GRT). The latter required two days of pursuit, all remaining torpedoes and a hundred artillery rounds, forcing Tazzoli to return to base after sinking it. On the way back, Tazzoli was attacked by an enemy plane, but the reaction of its machine guns damaged the plane and forced it to fly away.

On May 25, Tazzoli reached Bordeaux, where Fecia di Cossato was awarded a Silver Medal of Military Valor. On July 15, 1941, Fecia di Cossato sailed for a new mission during which, on August 12, he destroyed the grounded wreck of the British steamer Sangara (5,449 GRT, already damaged by a previous attack by the German submarine U 69) and on August 19 he sank the Norwegian tanker Sildra (7,313 GRT) about fifty miles off Freetown. He returned to base on September 11 and was awarded a Bronze Medal of Military Valor and an Iron Cross Second Class.

In December 1941 Tazzoli left Bordeaux to take part in the rescue of 400 survivors from the German commerce raider Atlantis and the German supply ship Python, that had been sunk off the Cape Verde islands. German U-Boats had rescued the survivors from the sea, but did not have enough space to adequately house them, therefore the German command requested the intervention of the larger Italian submarines. Tazzoli and three other Betasom submarines (Torelli, Calvi and Finzi) thus sailed from Bordeaux after disembarking nonessential personnel and loading substantial supplies of food and water. At the rendez-vous with the German U-Boats, Tazzoli took onboard about 70 survivors, including Atlantis' executive officer Ulrich Mohr.

On Christmas Eve Tazzoli, sailing on the surface, was attacked by an enemy plane and forced to crash dive. On the following day, the submarine reached Saint-Nazaire, where the survivors were landed. For his part in the rescue of the survivors from the two German ships, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz awarded Fecia di Cossato the Iron Cross First Class.

On 11 February 1942, after the United States’ entry into the war, Tazzoli under Fecia di Cossato left for a new mission, off the coasts of America. On 6 March the submarine sank the Dutch steamer Astrea (1,406 GRT), and on the following day the Norwegian motorship Torsbergfjord (3,156 GRT). On 9 March Tazzoli sank the Uruguayan steamer Montevideo (5,785 GRT), on 11 March the Panama-flagged steamer Cygnet (3,628 GRT), on 13 March the British steamer Daytonian (6,434 GRT) and two days later the British tanker Athelqueen (8,780 GRT). In the fight against the latter, Tazzoli suffered some damage, following which Di Cossato decided to return to base, where he arrived on 31 March. Following this mission Fecia di Cossato was awarded another Silver Medal of Military Valor by the Italian authorities and an Iron Cross Second Class with Sword by the German authorities.

On 18 June 1942 Di Cossato sailed with Tazzoli for a new mission in the Caribbean. On 2 August he attacked and sank the Greek merchant Castor (1,830 GRT), an four days later he sank the Norwegian tanker Havsten (6,161 GRT), allowing her crew to abandon ship and be rescued by a nearby Argentinian ship, before sinking her. On 5 September, Tazzoli returned to base; for this mission Fecia di Cossato received a Bronze Medal of Military Valor.

On 14 November 1942 Fecia Di Cossato sailed for his last mission on Tazzoli. On 12 December the submarine sank the British steamer Empire Hawk (5,032 GRT) and the Dutch merchant Ombilin (5,658 GRT); on 21 December the British steamer Queen City (4,814 GRT) became Tazzoli's next victim, followed on Christmas by the American motorship Dona Aurora (5,011 GRT). During the return voyage, the submarine was attacked by a British four-engined plane, that was shot down by Tazzoli's machine gunners. On 2 February 1943, Tazzoli ended her patrol in Bordeaux. On 19 March 1943, Fecia di Cossato was awarded a Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the German authorities, for his successes in the Atlantic.

n February 1943 Fecia di Cossato left the command of Tazzoli, was promoted to Commander and was then given command of the brand new Ciclone-class torpedo boat Aliseo and of the 3rd Torpedo Boat Squadron. He assumed command of Aliseo on 17 April 1943. In May 1943 Di Cossato learned that Tazzoli, having been converted into a transport submarine, had disappeared with all hands after sailing towards the Far East; the loss of his old crew deeply affected him.

On 22 July 1943 Aliseo left Pozzuoli together with the German torpedo boat TA11 and two submarine chaser, escorting the steamers Adernò and Colleville towards Civitavecchia. In the morning of 23 July, the convoy was attacked by Allied aircraft; one of the attacking planes was shot down, while one of the Axis escorting planes was damaged and forced to ditch. Aliseo was strafed, and suffered minor damage to her deck and rudder. Fecia di Cossato ordered the convoy to go on, then Aliseo took the ditched plane in tow and towed it towards the coast, while the damage to the rudder was repaired; Aliseo rejoined the convoy at 17:30. Around 19:30, the convoy was attacked by the submarine HMS Torbay, that torpedoed Adernò, sinking her. Aliseo launched a motorboat to pick up the survivors, then hunted the attacking submarine for several hours, but without result.

Following other escort missions in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Fecia di Cossato was awarded another Bronze Medal of Military Valor by the Italian authorities, and a War Merit Cross by the German authorities.

When the armistice between Italy and the Allied forces was announced, on the evening of 8 September 1943, Aliseo was moored in the harbour of Bastia, in Italian-occupied Corsica. The harbour was packed with several vessels, both Italian and German; besides Aliseo, these included her sistership Ardito, the Italian merchant ships Sassari and Humanitas, and a small German flotilla which included the submarine chasers UJ 2203 (former French survey vessel Austral) and UJ 2219 (former Belgian yacht Insuma) and five Marinefährprahme (F 366, F 387, F 459, F 612 and F 623).

The local Italian and German commanders soon reached a "gentlemen’s agreement" according to which the German forces would be allowed to safely retreat to mainland Italy. Meanwhile, however, the German forces secretly prepared to launch a surprise attack on the Italian ships moored inside the harbour, planning to capture them. The attack started at 23:45 on 8 September, when two groups of German soldiers, after hearing a whistle (the signal to attack), stormed Ardito; the torpedo boat was heavily damaged (70 of her 180 crew were killed) and captured, and the merchant ships Sassari and Humanitas also fell into German hands.

Aliseo had just left the harbour when the German attack began.

Shortly after dawn on 9 September, a combat group of the Tenth Bersaglieri Group (10° Raggruppamento Celere Bersaglieri) staged a counterattack which led to the recapture of the port, as well as of Ardito, Sassari and Humanitas; the German flotilla was ordered to leave the harbour, but the ships were immediately fired upon by the Italian coastal batteries, which damaged UJ 2203 and some of the MFPs.

Aliseo, under the command of Fecia di Cossato, was then ordered by the port commander to attack and destroy the German units. Shortly after 7:00 the flotilla, proceeding in a column led by UJ 2203, opened fire on Aliseo, which returned fire at 7:06, from a distance of 8,300 metres (9,100 yd); at 7:30 Aliseo was hit by an 88 mm shell in the engine room and temporarily left dead in the water, but the damage was quickly repaired and the torpedo boat closed in and engaged her adversaries in succession, destroying them one after the other. At 8:20 UJ 2203, after suffering several hits, blew up; ten minutes later UJ 2219 was also destroyed when her magazines exploded. Between 8:30 and 8:35 Aliseo also sank F 366, F 459 and F 623; the corvette Cormorano intervened during the final phase of the battle and, together with Aliseo, forced F 387 and F 612 to run aground, after which they were abandoned and destroyed.

Aliseo picked up 25 German survivors, then proceeded towards Portoferraio, as ordered, together with the damaged Ardito. Elba Island had become the collection point for Italian torpedo boats, corvettes and minor ships escaping from harbours on the northern Tyrrhenian coast; Aliseo and Ardito reached Portoferrario at 17:58 on 9 September. In the morning of 11 September, Aliseo left Portoferraio along with six other torpedo boats (including sisterships Animoso, Ardimentoso, Indomito and Fortunale) and some corvettes and smaller vessels, heading for Allied-controlled Palermo, where the group arrived at 10:00 on 12 September.

The ships remained in the roads till 18 September, when they entered the harbor in order to receive water and food supplies; on 20 September they left Palermo and reached Malta, where Aliseo delivered part of the foodstuff she had been given to the Italian warships that had arrived there in the previous days. On 5 October 1943, Aliseo left Malta and returned to Italy.

For both his achievements in the Battle of the Atlantic and his victorious action off Bastia, Fecia di Cossato was awarded a Gold Medal of Military Valor.

Based in Taranto, Aliseo carried out numerous escort missions during the co-belligerence between Italy and the Allies, always under Di Cossato's command. In June 1944, the new government chaired by Ivanoe Bonomi refused to swear loyalty to the king; on 22 June Fecia di Cossato, a staunch monarchist, refused in turn to swear loyalty to the new government, which he considered illegitimate. On the same day, Fecia di Cossato was relieved of command, charged with insubordination and imprisoned. His huge popularity, however, led to immediate unrest among the crews of his and other ships, who refused to put to sea and demanded that he be freed and reinstated in his role. Shortly thereafter, Fecia di Cossato was released from prison, but he was given a mandatory three months' leave.

With the armistice and the following events, Fecia di Cossato had seen the ideals that had guided him throughout his life – the Fatherland, the Monarchy, the Regia Marina – crumble around him. He perceived the events of 8 September 1943 as a "shameful surrender" for the Royal Italian Navy, which, he felt, had produced no positive effects for Italy; the country was now divided and occupied by opposing foreign armies, and the armistice and the change of sides would become a stain on Italy's honour and reputation for a long time "We have been unworthily betrayed and we discovered to have committed an ignominius act without any result". Di Cossato felt that his personal honor was stained by the surrender; furthermore, he was worried by the rumors that, despite their participation in the co-belligerence against the Germans, the surviving ships of the Italian Navy would still be handed over to the Allies at the end of the war. He was also haunted by the loss of his old crew on Tazzoli; on the letter he wrote before committing suicide, he also wrote "For months, all I've done is thinking about my crew, who rest honorably at the bottom of the sea. I think that my place is with them". Since his family lived in German-occupied Northern Italy, out of his reach, he had to live in a friend's house in Naples. On 21 August 1944, as his mandatory leave was nearing its end, Fecia di Cossato wrote a last letter to his mother, where he explained the reasons for his extreme gesture; on 27 August 1944 he committed suicide by shooting himself in his friend's house in Naples.

He is buried in Bologna.

 

This is a man, who in my eyes atleast, more than any other Italian Commander deserves to be put into World Of Warships as a Unique Commander, regardless of the fact he was a Submariner, due to the legacy and life he lived, only to see his very reasons for fighting disappear with the single stroke of a pen. 

May he rest in peace.

None of the military forces of the major participant powers in World War II have been as unjustly maligned as those of the Kingdom of Italy. Italian defeats have been exaggerated and Italian successes often downplayed or ignored entirely. Because of this, the details of the Italian submarine campaign will no doubt come as a surprise to a great many people. However, the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) entered the war with the largest submarine fleet in the world by tonnage and while most tend to think of the “Battle of the Atlantic” as solely a fight between German U-boat “wolf packs” and Allied convoys, the Italians participated as well, in fact, at one point there were more Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic than German ones. Italian boats also saw extensive service in the Mediterranean (naturally) and the Indian Ocean as well as undertaking operations to East Asian waters and the South Atlantic; areas beyond the range of the smaller, typical Type-VIIC German U-boats. Finally, Italian submarines did a great deal of damage, despite facing many difficulties, against the Allies.

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When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II with the declarations of war against Britain and France in June of 1940 the Regia Marina possessed 84 operational submarines under the overall command of Admiral Mario Falangola, succeeded at the end of the following year by Admiral Antonio Legnani. At the outset, their failures outnumbered their successes, which is not too surprising as, aside from some secretive operations in support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, they had never been tested and both men and boats had bugs that needed working out. However, they had a spirit and determination that would prove formidable. The Smeraldo, for example, a Sirena-class boat of the short to medium range 600 series made the first torpedo attack on British shipping by an Italian submarine but the heavy seas caused the torpedo to miss. However, this same boat later endured the most intense anti-submarine warfare attack of any boat in history with British ships dropping 200 depth charges on her, and she still survived (ultimately this boat was sunk by running into a British mine some time later).

After the conquest of France and the establishment of German naval bases on the French west coast, Italian submarines were invited to participate in the campaign to strangle the British Isles. This, of course, meant a dangerous passage through the Straits of Gibraltar under the very noses of the British Royal Navy. Many German U-boats were lost in the straits but, though few are aware of it, no Italian submarine was ever sunk slipping through these dangerous waters. The Italians established themselves at Bordeaux under the name BETASOM (Beta [Bordeaux] Som [Sommergibili]) with 27 submarines in early 1941. Originally, the idea was the German and Italian submarines would work together in coordinated attacks against Allied shipping, however, this soon proved to be more troublesome than effective and few seem to understand why. Ultimately the cause was a difference in training and how German and Italian boats operated as well as the Germans not being what we would call “team players”.

Fairly quickly in the war, German submarines developed a preferred tactic of attacking on the surface at night, submerging to escape counterattack. Italian submarines, however, usually made underwater attacks during the daytime. This was one of the differences that made cooperation difficult. Probably the most significant, however, was the unwillingness of the Germans to place a German communications officer on Italian submarines, though they held overall command of joint-operations. The result of this was that an Italian submarine making contact with the enemy would have to signal Bordeaux which would then have to send the message to Paris to the German naval command which would then relay the message out to the German submarines in the area. Needless to say, this meant that by the time the Germans were told of an enemy convoy, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

There was also an unwillingness on the part of the Germans to train the Italians to fit in with their preferred way of doing things and what training they did provide was inadequate, expecting the Italians to learn in only two months what it had taken the Germans years to develop and become proficient at. There is evidence that when Italian submarine captains were allowed to train with the Germans, the results were obvious. One such officer was Commander Primo Longobardo, one of the few to train with the Germans, and he proved one of the most successful Italian submarine commanders of the war. As captain of the submarine Torelli he once sank four Allied ships on a single patrol and ultimately accounted for 42,000 tons of Allied shipping sunk. In any event, when coordinated training was finally agreed to, joint operations had already been canceled and each submarine force operated on their own with the Italians mostly hunting in waters around the Azores and some boats dispatched for the South Atlantic, such as in the Brazilian shipping lanes, which they were able to reach more easily because of their greater range.

A lack of cooperation was also evident in the reluctance of the Germans to share their torpedo technology with the Italians. The Germans tried many innovations with their torpedoes, causing some problems as certain designs didn’t work but ultimately resulting in a more effective weapon. The Italians, on the other hand, simply stuck to their older but more reliable model which was not as effective and the Germans would not share their magnetic trigger technology with Italy until it was too late to be of best use. It is for this reason that Italian submarines frequently engaged in surface action as quite often they would make a successful underwater attack using their torpedoes but the target would be badly damaged but not sunk at which point the Italian submarine would surface and finish off the enemy with their deck gun. Italian sub crews also became, out of necessity, quite adept anti-aircraft gunners and this came about due to the nature of their boats.

A submarine on the surface is vulnerable and aircraft are a particularly dangerous enemy. They can be upon you very quickly and do immense damage, making it a life or death matter for a submarine to be able to submerge as fast as possible. As Italian submarines tended to be larger than their average German counterpart, this meant that they were slower to dive. A typical German submarine could submerge in about 20 seconds, whereas the average Italian submarine took between 60 and 120 seconds to get below the waves. One result of this was that, by the time an enemy aircraft was spotted, it was often better to take your chances shooting it out on the surface than be shot full of holes while trying to dive. It was not an enviable situation but it did make Italian AA fire more effective than in other navies. In fact, it was an Italian submarine, which had been shifted to the Germans after 1943 and then to the Japanese after the German surrender, which fired the last shots of World War II, using her AA battery against American bombers while in port in Japan.

In spite of their boats having their limitations, torpedoes that were not the best and a less than fully cooperative ally, Italian submarines still did a great deal of damage thanks to having some extremely skilled commanders. None was more famous than Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, captain of the Leonardo DaVinci, the most successful Italian submarine of the war. Nicknamed “Ursus atlanticus”, Gazzana-Priaroggia would ultimately sink over 90,000 tons of Allied shipping, his biggest score being the massive British troopship the Empress of Canada. He was even set to lead a special forces submarine attack on New York harbor but this was postponed and ultimately never carried out due to the 1943 armistice. Earlier that year, Gazzana-Priaroggia was sadly killed in action but was posthumously awarded both the Gold Medal for Military Valor by the King of Italy and the Knights Iron Cross by the Germans for his achievements. By most accounts (there is some dispute as the U.S. ‘updated’ their stats several times after the war) Gazzana-Priaroggia was the most successful non-German submarine commander of all time.

However, the Mediterranean Sea was, of course, always supposed to be the primary area of operations for all units of the Regia Marina and it was an enclosed sea of hazards with major British naval installations at Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria and Cyprus. Italian submarine commanders pulled off some extremely daring victories against the British in these waters and aside from merchant shipping also took a heavy toll on Royal Navy warships. Notable successes include the cruisers HMS Bonaventure, HMS Calypso and HMS Coventry which were all sunk by Italian submarines in 1940-41. However, Italian industry could not produce new boats fast enough and the Allied breaking of Axis codes was also a huge blow to the submarine campaign. Nonetheless, Italian submarines in the Mediterranean would open up a new type of undersea warfare which had dramatic results, producing a new type of warrior who could be seen as the precursor of America’s feared SEAL teams.

A special unit, composed of both fast-attack surface craft and undersea weapons known as “human torpedoes” was formed known as the Decima Flottiglia MAS (for Mezzi d’Assalto) or X-MAS (in English, ‘Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla’). One man very much associated with this new unit was Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, captain of the submarine Sciré. The “human torpedoes”, as they are often called, were actually nothing of the sort as no torpedoes were involved and, while highly dangerous, were not suicide weapons. The Italians referred to them as ‘maiale’ or ‘pigs’ because these were basically miniature submarines that Italian sailors would ride ‘piggy-back’ into an enemy harbor after being brought into the vicinity by a submarine making a submerged approach. They would cut through any anti-submarine nets, approach the underside of major ships in the harbor and attach mines to the hull. Once they were safely away the mines would detonate and the ships would be crippled or sunk. The sailors would have no hope of returning to their submarine and so could either try to make it to neutral territory or simply surrender after accomplishing their mission.

In December of 1941 such an attack was launched on the British naval base at Alexandria, Egypt with the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant being crippled, a Norwegian tanker sunk and a destroyer, HMS Jervis, being badly damaged. Men of the X-MAS, brought in by the submarine Sciré, launched a similar attack on Gibraltar in September, sinking three enemy ships. Later, operating out of an old tanker in the Spanish port of Algeciras more attacks on Gibraltar were made in December of 1942, sinking two ships and damaging two more. Two more British freighters and an American Liberty Ship were sunk in 1943 prior to the armistice. These attacks, which were almost impossible to guard against, caused considerable panic in the Allied naval forces operating in the Mediterranean.

Ultimately, the armistice, division of Italy and finally the end of the war all caused confusion among the Italian submariners. Most remained loyal to the King and followed orders, turning their boats over to their former enemies, some were seized and forced into the German and later Japanese navies and some, like Prince Borghese, cast their lots with Mussolini and the Germans, to carry on to the bitter end. A most tragic case was that of Captain Carlo Fecia Di Cossato, (whom I'll be going into more depth about shortly, as this is all precursor background knowledge) the man who sank more ships than any other Italian submarine commander at the helm of the Tazzoli. Loyal to his King above all, when the armistice came, he followed orders and even sunk seven more ships, German this time, in his new command. However, the abrupt change troubled him, becoming worse as it became clear that the Allies still considered Italy a defeated enemy and would strip Italy of her empire, even territory gained well before the Fascist Era. He was torn apart by conflicting feelings of loyalty and dishonor until he committed suicide in Naples in 1944.
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When the war was finally over, with all of the confusion, bitterness and divisions which that caused, the feats of the Italian submarine campaign stand out as further proof of how wrong the popular misconception is of the Royal Italian military in World War II. Italian submarines sank about a million tons of Allied shipping from mid-1940 to 1943. This was almost as much, indeed somewhat more according to some statistics as the ultimately far larger submarine force the Imperial Japanese Navy sunk from the end of 1941 to 1945, the disparity in numbers all the more significant given that over-worked Italian industrial capacity meant that Italy could only commission 30 new boats during the war years whereas Japan commissioned 126 additional subs (not counting midget boats) during the conflict. Italy was also not very far behind the tonnage sunk by the British Royal Navy during the entire course of the war from 1939 to 1945. They played a significant part, did considerable damage to the Allied fleets and did so with skill, heroism and gallantry in the face of immense odds.

Edited by TheDgamesD
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