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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Capture of the Submarine Bronzo

On the Ponte Santa Lucia, which connects the island of Ortygia with the rest of Syracuse, one can see a monument dedicated to the men of the Italian submarine Bronzo who were killed in action in an engagement with the Royal Navy on 12th July 1943, two days after the Allies had launched Operation Husky - the invasion of Sicily.



Bronzo was one of thirteen Acciaio-class submarines (sometimes also called Platino-class) that were built in the early 1940s for the Italian navy - the Regia Marina. Laid down at the Cantieri Navali Tosi di Taranto on 2nd December 1940, Bronzo was launched on 28th September the following year and commissioned on 2nd January 1942.


Operation Harpoon


After numerous sea trials and training exercises held in the first half of 1942, on 9th June of that year, Bronzo was assigned to the VII Gruppo Sommergibili (VII Submarine Group), based in Cagliari, Sardinia, and three days later, she departed on her first war patrol, under the command of Tenente di Vascello Cesare Buldrini. Her task, together with five other submarines, was to operate against a British eastbound convoy from Gibraltar to Malta, codenamed Operation Harpoon.


Bronzo was commanded for most of her life by Tenente di Vascello Cesare Buldrini.

On 15th June, just before midnight, Bronzo was spotted by the corvette HMS Coltsfoot, which, in company with HMS Geranium, was escorting the fleet tanker Brown Ranger. Coltsfoot opened fire, while Bronzo manoeuvred to attempt a stern shot, but as the British vessel bore down on the submarine, Buldrini was forced into ordering a crash dive. A total of twelve depth charges were heard exploding in the next few minutes, but after that, contact with the enemy vessels was lost.


At around 10.30 pm on 16th June, looking out of his periscope, Buldrini spotted the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Malaya and the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. Seeing that they did not appear to have any escorting destroyers, Buldrini attempted to carry out an attack, but could not get his submarine into a favourable position. The following morning, Bronzo was ordered to intercept a cruiser and four destroyers but failed to locate the targets.


On 21st June, at around 11.30 pm, Bronzo was spotted by the British submarine HMS P 43, which fired four torpedoes at her, at a range of 1,100 metres, but luckily, they all missed their target. On 29th June, Bronzo returned to base, her first mission successfully completed.


Operation Pedestal


Bronzo’s second patrol, near the Galite Islands, off the northern coast of Tunisia, between 16th to 20th July, proved uneventful, but on 11th August, she was sent on her third mission. Together with nine other submarines, Bronzo was to operate against the latest British attempt to deliver badly-needed supplies to Malta: Operation Pedestal.


Buldrini (with binoculars around his neck) and other members of Bronzo's crew in August 1942.

The convoy was sighted just after 7 pm on 12th August, some ten kilometres away. As Bronzo moved to close the distance, several ships could be seen burning. Later that night, as the Italian submarine arrived within striking range, Buldrini picked out the refrigerated cargo liner Empire Hope, which had earlier been targeted by heavy air attacks. These had damaged her engines, turning her into a sitting duck, as well as setting her ablaze and forcing the crew to abandon ship, being taken on board the destroyer HMS Penn.


Buldrini now attempted to finish her off. At around 11.45 pm, two torpedoes were fired from the bow tubes at a range of 1,200 metres, but after they missed, a third torpedo was claimed to have hit the target. Nonetheless, the coup de grâce had to be administered by the British destroyer HMS Bramham.


On 13th August, just after 11 am, Bronzo came across a lifeboat with survivors from Clan Ferguson, which had also been bombed the night before, causing her to explode. Buldrini asked them if they had any wounded and required any help, but they replied negatively and defiantly claimed that they had reported their position and were waiting to be rescued. Bronzo thus continued on her way. On 17th August, she returned to her base in Cagliari.


Subsequent Patrols


One day later, Bronzo was back out on patrol. While returning to base later that night, she was attacked by a British submarine near Cape Spartivento. At around 8.30 pm, HMS P 211 fired six torpedoes towards her at a range of 3,200 metres, but none of them hit their target.


Bronzo (on the right) next to Volframio in early 1942. Both were Acciaio-class submarines.

From 7th to 19th November, Bronzo was operating off the coast of Algeria and Tunisia, tasked with targeting shipping involved in Operation Torch - the Allied landings in French North Africa - but failed to score any successes.


Whilst on yet another patrol, at around 7.15 pm on 10th December 1942, Bronzo sighted two Southampton-class cruisers, together with two destroyers. Four torpedoes were fired at six-second intervals, at a range of 1,500 metres, at which point the submarine was forced to crash dive having been spotted. Seconds later, two explosions were heard, and when Bronzo finally surfaced three hours later, smoke was observed in the area where the British ships had last been sighted. Buldrini concluded that one of the vessels must have been damaged, but this claim could not be confirmed.


Bronzo at her base in Cagliari, Sardinia, in early 1943.

From 6th to 13th January 1943, Bronzo carried out yet another patrol in the western Mediterranean and along the North African coast. Although a convoy was sighted on 10th January, Buldrini could not get his submarine in a position to attack.


On 31st January, Bronzo was attacked with depth charges, forcing her to take evasive action, although she did suffer minor damage. Buldrini then went out on his last patrol in command of Bronzo between 18th June and 3rd July, but this proved uneventful.


Capture


On 10th July 1943, at 10.30 pm, Bronzo left Pozzuoli, now under the command of Tenente di Vascello Antonio Gherardi. She was tasked with patrolling off the eastern coast of Sicily in the vicinity of Syracuse and Augusta, to disrupt the Allied landings that had begun earlier that day.


Just after 4 pm on the following day, Bronzo was spotted and fired upon by the British submarine HMS Unruly, but all four torpedoes, fired from a range of 2,700 metres, missed their target.


On the morning of 12th July, Bronzo was spotted by the minesweeper HMS Seaham, which was patrolling the area together with HMS Boston, HMS Cromarty, and HMS Poole. Although Bronzo went into a dive, she surfaced again minutes later, finding herself in the middle of the group of minesweepers, who immediately opened fire with their 3-inch guns, scoring hits on her conning tower.


On 12th July 1943, Bronzo surfaced among a group of British minesweepers, who immediately opened fire on her with their 3-inch guns.

HMS Seaham led the attack, as her captain, Lieutenant Commander Robert Ernest Brett, ordered his ship to pass close on the submarine’s port side, sweeping her deck with fire from all her guns. Eight men were killed, including Gherardi and his second-in-command, Sottotenente di Vascello Giuseppe Pellegrini. The rest of the crew emerged from the submarine waving a white flag, before jumping into the sea, from where they were picked up. Nineteen men were taken prisoner.


Bronzo being towed towards Syracuse by HMS Seaham.

Apart from Gherardi and Pellegrini, the others who died were Sergente Mario Borgoforti, Sergente Renato Poletti, Sottocapo Vincenzo Di Candia, and three sailors: Cosimo Albano, Luciano Frezi, and Ciro Tuccillo.


The captured Bronzo at Syracuse, with damage to the conning tower clearly visible.

A boarding party from Seaham secured a tow line, and Bronzo was towed into Syracuse, which had by then been captured by the British Eight Army. Lieutenant Commander Brett was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his role in the incident.


Now requisitioned by the Royal Navy, Bronzo was renamed HMS P 714, and on 18th July, she was sent to Malta. In August, it was proposed to transfer her to the Hellenic Navy, but instead, on 29th January 1944, she was officially transferred to the Free French Naval Forces, being renamed Narval. On 17th February, the French destroyer Forbin sailed from Algiers to Malta, bringing with her the new crew. Decommissioned after the end of the war, Narval was eventually scrapped in France in 1948.

 

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