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The story of Salvatore Todaro, the "Don Quixote of the Sea"

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Another story that I think could be of interest...


Salvatore Todaro was born in Messina, Sicily in 1908, and entered the Livorno Naval Academy in 1923, at age fifteen. He graduated as an Ensign in 1927 and was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant in the following year. During the 1930s he served on surface warships and submarines, as well as an observer on maritime reconnaissance aircraft. On 27 April 1933, while serving in this role on a Savoia Marchetti S. 55 flying boat, he suffered a serious accident when the plane crashed into the sea and left him with a spinal cord injury, forcing him to wear a orthopedic corset for the rest of his life. He nonetheless continued his career in the Navy, and in 1940 he received his first command, the aged submarine Luciano Manara. After a few months on this boat, and just a few weeks after Italy’s entry in World War II, he was given command of a much newer submarine, Comandante Cappellini (one of the most modern ocean-going submarines in the Regia Marina), and was despatched to BETASOM, the newly established Italian submarine base in occupied France (Bordeaux), to take part in the battle of the Atlantic.


Comandante Cappellini (from Associazione Venus)

In many respects, Todaro was a most peculiar man, even an odd one. He was rather introverted and led in an austere, almost ascetic life; he did gymnastics on a daily basis (and exacted that all his men did the same), practiced yoga, was a vegetarian, collected rare and ancient books of literature, maths, astronomy and phylosophy, and had a burning passion for psychology and psychoanalisis, studying and experimenting Freud’s and Jung’s theories. He experimented hypnosis and even read books about parapsychology and magic; it was rumored that he possessed clairvoyance, and history and legend blend in some tales about him. Some men swore that they had heard from him predictions that had later come true; one tale circulated that once, before sailing for a mission in the Atlantic, he had ordered one of his men to take leave for no apparent reason, saying that he had foreseen danger for him, and that a few days later that man had come down with appendicitis, which was easily cured in hospital, but would have been fatal if he had been on the submarine in the ocean, weeks away from medical help. For this reputation, he came to be nickamed “Mago Bakù” (“Bakù the Wizard”). Despite his many oddities, or perhaps because of them, Todaro was well liked by his men; he was very charismatic and demanded that on his boat the food was the same for everyone, in a Navy where officers still received a much better treatment, under this aspect, than the enlisted men.


Salvatore Todaro during an Atlantic mission (from Difesa Online)

Todaro had a very chivalrous view of war at sea; he believed that his was a war against ships, rather than men, and that when the fight was over he had a duty to help the survivors of the ships he had sunk. He put his view into practice when he sank his first ship, on 16 October 1940. On that day, Cappellini met a Belgian steamer, Kabalo (en route from Glasgow to Freetown with a cargo of aircraft and spare parts), about 700 miles northwest of Madeira. Cappellini pursued her and engaged her with her deck guns – another of Todaro’s peculiarities was his mistrust for torpedoes, which he considered too unreliable, preferring to use the deck gun whenever possible –, and Kabaloreturned fire, but the merchant’s gunfire was ineffectual, and ceased after some time. Cappellini instead scored multiple hits, brought the ship to a halt and set her afire, then fired three torpedoes in succession to finish her off, but all the torpedoes, confirming Todaro’s ideas, passed beneath the target’s hull without exploding, perhaps due to the rough seas. The submarine then resumed fire with her deck guns, until the target sank. One crewman from Kabalowas killed in the action, the others abandoned ship. After the action was over, Cappellini began searching the area with a small searchlight; after a short time five survivors were found in the water, near a capsized dinghy, and were taken aboard. They were drenched wet and freezing, and Todaro gave his jacket to one of them, Kabalo’s third mate, who was shivering with cold. Then, Cappellini located a lifeboat with 21 survivors, including Kabalo’s master Georges Vogels; two badly wounded men were transferred to the submarine, while the five survivors rescued earlier were sent to the lifeboat with the others. The submarine then departed to look for the second lifeboat, but after several hours learned that it had already been found by a neutral steamer, so she went back to the other boat and took it in tow. The weather became increasingly rough, and the towing cable snapped multiple times; every time a new line was fitted, but in the afternoon of 17 October the lifeboat began to give in and to take on water, and Todaro resolved to take all its 24 occupants aboard the submarine and land them in neutral territory in the Azores. He did so (lacking space elsewhere, they were housed in the conning tower except for capitan Vogels, who was hosted in the wardroom), and on 19 October, after sailing 750 miles from the steamer’s sinking position, Cappellini landed Kabalo’s survivors in Santa Maria Island, after which she resumed her patrol. This incident had some resonance in the neutral press, especially in Portugal, and in November 1940 an anonymous sender sent a letter from Lisbon, written in French, to the Italian Navy Ministry, addressed to Todaro. The author said: “…there is a barbarous kind of heroism and another kind in front of which the soul kneels: this is yours”. This episode also added to his nicknames: “the gentleman of the sea” or, less praisingly, “the Don Quixote of the sea” by those who thought that his humanitarian efforts were a waste of time in a war like that, potentially endangering the submarine.


Above, Kabalo's survivors are taken aboard Cappellini (from "Storia Militare" magazine); below, group photo of Kabalo's survivors after their rrival in the Azores


On 5 January 1941 Cappellini met her second victim: a British steamer, Shakespear, a straggler from convoy OB. 262. As he had done with Kabalo, Todaro gave pursuit and engaged the steamer with the deck guns, scoring an immediate hit that brought down the steamer’s mast and radio antenna; and as Kabalo had done, Shakespear turned away and returned fire with her own 100 mm gun (located in the stern), but this merchant’s gunfire proved more accurate and deadly than her predecessor’s: a shell from Shakespear hit Cappellini’s stern gun, causing some damage and killing seaman Giuseppe Bastioni, one of the gunners. The two vessels traded shots for nearly three hours, until Cappellini knocked out Shakespear’s stern gun, started several fires in her holds, and holed her badly enough that the steamer hoisted a white flag and then sank shortly thereafter, 142 miles northeast of the Cape Verde Islands. Nineteen of her forty-two crew perished. After the fight was over, Cappellini vainly searched the sea for Bastioni’s body, which had been blow overboard, then she spotted Shakespear’s survivors. The badly wounded master, Charles Albert Bailey, was taken aboard, whereas the lifeboat containing the other 22 survivors, including many wounded, was taken in tow. (According to a British newspaper article published some days later, a further crew member who was in the lifeboat, an old seaman, stated that he refused to be helped by Italians, tried to chop off the towing cable until the other survivors stopped him, and then jumped overboard and drowned). Once again, after some time the towing cable snapped and the lifeboat became swamped in the rough seas, and once again, Todaro took all the survivors aboard and made for the nearest neutral land, the Cape Verde Islands, where the 23 men were landed two days later, in Sal Island.


Shakespear (from Clydeships)

Things went differently on 14 January, when Cappellini met her third ship, the British steamer Eumaeus, sailing from Liverpool to Singapore, via Capetown, with troops (she had between 337 and 490 men aboard overall, troops and crew) and general cargo, under the command of captain John Edwin Watson. This time, deviatine from his habit, Todaro attacked with torpedoes first, firing two – but Eumaeus dodged them, and then opened fire first, with her armament (she was armed with a 102 mm gun and two 76 mm guns). Cappellini fired back, and a clash began, that would last over two hours; the submarine pursued the steamer, that tried to escape and straddled Cappellini several times with her gunfire, showering the submarine’s gun crews with splinters and wounding several of them. The Italian boat, in turn, scored multiple hits on Eumaueus’ bridge and stern, near the guns; once the distance had decreased to just 600-700 meters, Cappellini’s machine guns also came into action. Halfway into the action, the submarine’s stern gun suffered a breakdown, which put it out of action for the remainder of the fight. Eumaeus slowed down, losing a lot of steam, apparently hit in the engines; she fought on, however, and two of her shells hit Cappellini’s conning tower, mortally wounding Lieutenant Danilo Stiepovich, who had just replaced a wounded machine gunner. After two hours, Emaeus was dead in the water, on fire and listing to starboard; the crew began jumping into the water, and Cappellinifired a torpedo as a coup de grace. The steamer went down 126 miles east-north-east of Freetown. During the action, Cappellini had fired 105 shells, lost one man killed and nine wounded. Among Eumaus’ crew the victims were between 27 and 32, depending on the source. This time there was no rescue attempt: Cappellini had intercepted the steamer’s request for help at the beginning of the attack, and Todaro knew that warships and aircraft would soon rush to the place, so he thought it wise to leave as soon as possible. Confirming his fears, shortly after the sinking the submarine was attacked and bombed by a Supermarine Walrus while unable to submerge because of a malfunctioning valve, suffering heavy damage. Cappellini took shelter in the Canary Islands, where the Spanish authorities gave her a week to carry out the repairs, and then made for Bordeaux, where she arrived on 30 January. Eumaeus' survivors were rescued by the ASW trawlers Spaniard and Bengali. When he returned to Betasom at the end of this patrol, Todaro met Karl Dönitz, who at the time was visiting the Italian base; the Grand Amiral praised his aggressiveness but also quipped, given his penchant for surface gunfire actions, that maybe he should be given the command of a gunboat rather than a submarine.


Eumaeus (from Wrecksite)

Todaro carried out another three fruitless patrols with Cappellini, then in September 1941 he was replaced and repatriated, as his health had deteriorated – the strain from the Atlantic missions having worsened the pain caused by his old spinal injury. After some months he was transferred, at his request, to the Tenth MAS Flotilla (Decima MAS), the Regia Marina’s special assault unit; he was given command of the 101st Special Craft Squadron (equipped with explosive motorboats and high-speed torpedo motorboats), part of the 4th MAS Flotilla that was sent to the Black Sea with the task of harassing the Soviet supply lines during the siege of Sevastopol. There, besides organizing the activity of his unit, he personally participated in several skirmishes between his MAS and similar Soviet craft in the Black Sea. After the fall of Sevastopol, Todaro returned to the Mediterranean, where he still operated with the Decima MAS in the waters of North Africa. In December 1942, he was aboard the trawler Cefalo, based in La Galite, Tunisia and used as a motership for MTM explosive motorboats, planning an attack against Bone. There he was killed on 13 December 1942, when Cefalo was strafed and badly damaged by Allied aircraft. He died in his sleep, instantly killed in his bunk by the first burst of machine gun. One of the many stories about him has him saying to a friend, some time before his death: “I will die in my sleep, when my spirit will be away from me”…


Above, Cefalo; below, Todaro's grave


He was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Military Valor; the postwar Italian Navy has named after him a De Cristofaro-class corvette, in service from 1966 to 1994, and a Type 212 submarine (whose Italian variant is known as Todaro-class), commissioned in 2006.


  • Cool 9

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3 hours ago, DaRecco42 said:

Small world!

I always look forward to your history posts, glad to see you here.

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Alpha Tester
6,129 posts
2,986 battles

Very interesting, though the Don Quixote comparison may not be entirely accurate. Don Quixote is an obsessive and deluded character, tilting at windmills in the fruitless pursuit of an impossible dream and seen as a laughing stock and a madman by the rest of the public. This guy, it seems, rather wanted to maintain an inkling of humanity in his part of the war, and as a result was well-liked by the people he served with.

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