At the end of June, the U Boat Navigator has left for the Italian waters to spend time exploring the objects around the beautiful islands Capri and Sicily. Having returned back to Malta the vessel with two subs and an ROV aboard delivered some very unique footage and images. We will be sharing some of them in the nearest future.
Below we’d like to list one of the highlights of the Expedition to Italy 2017.
Valfiorita was built as a cargo ship of an impressive size, with the gross tonnage of 6200 tons, she had 144.5-meter-long hull and was 18.5 meters wide, being capable of developing speed up to 15 knots. She was one of the four sister ships.
The construction started in 1939 but with the outbreak of the Second World War, it lasted much longer than intended due to the shortage of materials, equipment, and working force. On the 25 of August 1942, she was completed for the Naval Industries Ltd. Upon completion, she was commandeered in Taranto as a supplies transport to North Africa.
She was armed with a canon 120/45 mm, 3 x 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine guns, with the supply of 7200 bullets. She was also equipped with a range finder, pistols, and rifles.
Another interesting feature she had – was a passive defense system. To be able to escape from the enemy pursuit, she could use the chlorine-hybrid fog system.
On the 20th September Valfiorita was loading the supplies for the Axis for her maiden voyage to Benghazi. The total weight of cargo was about 4170 tons and consisted of 77 Italian vehicles, 206 Italian motorcycles, 96 German vehicles and motorcycles, guns and more. It took them a week to load this cargo on board.
On the 3d of October, the crew and passengers embarked on Valfiorita: the crew of 97 men, 110 Italian and 100 German military men. John Salata was the civil captain and military commander was Guiseppe Folli. Valfiorita left Taranto at 3:10 pm. The escort consisted of three destroyers.
At about midnight the air-raid alarm went on, shortly after followed by the bright flares around the convoy. The attack was performed by four Vickers Wellington of 69th Squadron of RAF, with two of them carrying bombs and another two – torpedoes. The information about the convoy was provided by the ULTRA and the Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft had discovered them.
Although the Valfiorita was decently armed and followed by the convoy of destroyers the Allied attack took them by surprise. The 1000-pound bomb was dropped about 140 meters astern of Valfiorita. Only one torpedo-carrying Wellington was able to complete his attack – from 640 meters. The ship was pierced by the torpedo in the 5th cargo hold. One of the air crafts was damaged by the air defense gun so the plane had to do an emergency landing in Malta. In the panic, some civilians and military men launched a lifeboat without an order to do so. The lifeboat flipped upside down. Two men were gone, the rest were recovered to the ship. The fog system had been damaged during the air raid and started releasing the chlorine, burning skin and clothes of the crew and men aboard. The propeller shaft tunnel was also flooded but being a very durable modern ship, Valfiorita stayed afloat. 4th of October, early in the morning Valfiorita made it to Corfu.
On the 2nd November merchant ship D’Annunzio arrived at Corfu to retrieve the personnel and the equipment of Lordi’s Cavalry (men, anti-aircraft guns, armored cars, etc). In two days, the transshipment of the equipment, supervised by Lieutenant Vittorio Mangano aboard Valfiorita was over and D’Annunzio left for Tripoli. Until 25th November Valfiorita remained in Corfu. Then she left for Taranto at a very slow pace, arriving the next day. In Taranto, she was placed for repair works that lasted till mid-1943.
Repairs of Valfiorita lasted until late June 1943. The African Campaign was at its end now – Libia and Tunisia were now taken by the Allies. It was obvious that Italy was next. An invasion was expected to take place in Sicily. Valfiorita was to head for Messina and Palermo with the necessary military supplies.
The vessel was lacking the fire safety equipment. For about a week the commanders tried to get the extinguishers and other supplies but had no luck. On the 7 July, 1943 Valfiorita leaves Taranto for Messina, not equipped to stop the fire in case of an attack, but loaded with 4115 tons of cargo, where, apart from munition and equipment, 450 tons of it being diesel-filled barrels. The civilian crew was of 45 men plus there were 193 Italian and German soldiers. On the 8th Valfiorita arrives in Messina and already at 8:48 pm the same day, she leaves for Palermo, escorted by a destroyer.
At 10:29 pm the HMS Ultor under command of Lieutenant George Edward Hunt sighted Valfiorita and the destroyer steaming south. Without hesitation, staying at the surface HMS Ultor fired four torpedoes. At 10:45 pm, 8 miles off Cape Milazzo, Valfiorita receives direct hits in the engine room and hold number 4. The explosions started a raging fire immediately, which the crew was incapable of isolating due to lack of necessary equipment and supplies. At this point the destroyer tried to get the Ultor with depth charges – having dropped over thirty bombs, not a single one reached the submarine.
At 11 pm the order to abandon the ship was given. Valfiorita was already burning like a giant bonfire, fed by the barrels with fuel. The commanders having destroyed the secret archive and making sure that no one was on board, flee the ship.
The Valfiorita all swallowed by the dreadful flames started moving towards the coast, moved by the strong sea currents. That made the rescue operation even more complicated. By 5:35 am the rescue operations were over. The burned skeleton of Valfiorita sank around midday on the 9th July 1943. Of 45 civilians and 22 soldiers of the crew, 13 were killed. According to the logbook of the destroyer “Brave”, 115 survivors had been recovered, the rest made it to the shore in the life boats. Two days later Anglo-American troops landed in Sicily.
Here’s an extract from the Ultor’s log book:
“At 2229 hours a large merchant ship escorted by a destroyer was sighted at a range of 8000 yards. Lt. Hunt altered course to attack.
At 2244 hours four torpedoes were fired at the 5000/6000 ton merchant vessel from 1600 yards. Three torpedoes are thought to have hit the target. After firing the first torpedo Ultor Began to dive.
At 2256 hours the first depth charges were dropped. For over an hour more than 30 depth charges were dropped but none were close. “
Today Valfiorita wreck is resting at the sea bottom at the depth 62 – 72 meters, with the superstructure at about 38 meters deep. The propeller is missing. In the hold 7 ammunition still can be found, in holds 5 and 6 there is still a number of vehicles (trucks FIAT 626, motorcycles Moto Guzzi Triacle, sedans FIAT 1500C). Hold number 4 is completely missing from the ship due to the severe explosion. In hold 1 there’s also some ammunition left.
The ship bell “Valfiorita – 1942 – XX” was lying on the seabed near the hull of the wreck and in 2007 was recovered to be exhibited at the Messina Harbour.
Other highlights of the Italian Expedition were Viminale, Produgol and Ancient Roman wrecks that we’ll talk about in the upcoming posts.