top of page

 The sinking

  By Gino Battaglini

from:"Sailors in War 1940-45 diaries of three twenties"

edited by Guido Alfano

 BLU editions

Born in 1917, he was embarked in early March 1943 on Rome in the signaling group. The attack caught him on one of the fins of the signal bridge and he was seriously injured.

According to some, the batteries of the gulf, now in the hands of the Germans, opened fire on us. Others, on the contrary, say that, at this very moment, the news has arrived that Germany has also asked for an armistice and therefore we are returning to La Spezia. However, this is soon denied: the route we are taking suggests that we are headed to Spain. The RTs assure that they have called Rome by radio without getting a reply. So as a precaution we will have to stay on the open sea awaiting orders. The navigator is very agitated and does not pronounce himself.

By not changing direction we are increasingly persuaded to head towards Spain, and frankly this would be the wish of the majority; however, not a few say that we are headed for North Africa.

Our perplexities are more confused in sighting, far away from us, two allied aircraft on both sides. From the microphone, when they appear, the order is given to watch and carefully follow their every move. Between us, however, there is no disturbance, on the contrary, we almost follow them with sympathy: they give us the impression that peace has truly arrived.

While the guard personnel carry out the order with great tranquility, the one free from duty has spread across the blanket to sunbathe, as if on vacation. Some groups of sailors can also be noticed somewhere cheerfully singing: it seems to be on a pleasure cruise. The tranquility, however, is suddenly interrupted by the distant noise of aircraft and the voice of a lookout who shouts: "German planes on our vertical".

The admiral, the commander, several officers and most of the crew, some with binoculars and some with the naked eye, all look up: five German aircraft (JU 87) are on our vertical. From the microphone there are orders to the lookouts and to the personnel assigned to the machine gunners to be ready. Nobody thinks they will attack us; in fact, they remain at a height of over 5000 meters. The order is to open fire if they attack first. Suddenly you see a white strip under a device: it looks like a smoke. "He made a signal," shouts a lookout. I rush him to look for the code of the signals to decipher their meaning. A few seconds later we see, a short distance from the stern of the ship Italia (ex Littorio), an immense column of water. There are no more uncertainties: we all understand the meaning of the "smoke" and give the answer with our anti-aircraft.

As in a flash that calm, which up to now has been exemplary, turns into fright. All the staff are in turmoil. I had never found myself in the midst of so many people so terrified: you no longer understand anything. Who runs to the left, who to starboard, who rushes down the stairs, who climbs them at great speed. Loudspeaker orders follow one another. The loud noise of the anti-aircraft seems to be even more frightening.

I am on the right wing of the signal bridge and I follow the planes with the binoculars. Suddenly I see that another device has gone off the hook. But not only did I notice it, in fact, the voice of some lookouts shouted: "Attention they have unhooked!" In a moment I put down the binoculars and look around: there is no one left. I go to enter the dashboard: impossible; the armored door is closed. What a fright!

I grab the railing to go down the stairs: like a strong earthquake it shakes the whole ship. I feel grabbed by the chest by something invisible, the earth misses under my feet and hurled against the tower: I find myself on the ground stunned. What ever happened? A large rocket bomb (later calculated to be around 2000

kg, magnetic-radio-controlled) fell to starboard in the center of the ship, not far from the two chimneys.

I ignore the damage caused; probably no one will ever know exactly. The effects are disastrous: the ship suddenly crashes. For over two minutes there was no power.

The bomb, piercing the blanket and the armor of the first and second corridors, went to explode in the boilers.

I can hardly get up. I feel as if I feel if I have something broken in me and if I am losing blood somewhere. I grab the railing again and fly down the stairs: in front of the small door that leads into the tower there are fifty or sixty sailors who, in fear, push themselves to enter. At the entrance there is the adjutant who hardly tries to keep order, inviting those poor people to enter one at a time.

I look for a moment at that terrible sight and think of the large number of people who have already entered: if we should be forced to abandon the emergency ship, what difficulty will they find themselves in?

In four jumps I go up the stairs again and put on the life jacket, which I still don't have, I feel like I'm going crazy. I pause for a moment with my eyes turned upward, perhaps to try to track down those devices. In seeing the sky so much


beautiful it comes naturally to me to implore that God in whom we all seek help in moments of serious difficulty. I express myself in a few words, but with a faith that until now I have never had. I seem to breathe better and to be calmer. I look up towards the admiral bridge: I see Admiral Bergamini and Rear Admiral Caracciotti: they are carefully observing the point hit by the bomb. A few steps away, on the command bridge, there is Commander Del Cima who is following with binoculars the five aircraft that roam on our vertical, remaining beyond the range of our anti-aircraft.

In the meantime, in just a few minutes, the emergency electric current is put into operation: everything seems to have been reactivated.

I hear myself called: a signal sailor who has remained on the signal bridge informs me that the communications officer is calling on the phone. I answer urgently: order the V16 signal to be raised (speed 16 knots). A few seconds and I execute it.

Frankly, this order comforts me a lot: if the ship can deal with such speed it means that the damage suffered has been at least partially repaired.

With a certain tranquility I take the binoculars and try to trace the devices, but a few moments and I am distracted by the ringing of the telephone: I am ordered to raise a signal concerning the route. Cause the noise of the contracts I do not understand well and ask to repeat. I am still talking and the ship is ruinously hit by a second bomb: I feel the microphone fly out of my hand ... I seem to sink. Suddenly I feel like I'm beating strongly against the ground: I find myself lying on the ground between registers, codes, pictures, flags. . . in that little room all hell happened; the telephones, which were attached to the wall with steel bolts, are also partially detached. Although stunned and in different parts of the body aching, at best I get up. I am about to go out through the small door: I feel the skin of my forehead wrinkling and my hair burning, a large flame prevents me from going out. But if I want to save myself I have to try the same.

In front of the signal board there is a very large platform, both from the right and from the left is connected to the dashboard by means of two flaps. Everything was built around the signal tree.

Then I put my foot on a corner of the threshold, put a hand over my eyes and, with a click, I go out, immediately directing myself to the flap on my left. I take a few steps and I seem to turn pale: a terrifying scene presents itself to me. The ship has now received the fatal blow. The deadly bomb is said to have penetrated through the funnel in the bow and went to explode in the santabarbara (ammunition depot of the 381).

The armored tower located in front of the command tower, calculated at 2000 tons,

it flew away, as if it were the cork of a bottle of sparkling wine. The tower, which undoubtedly served as a funnel, swallowing that fiery vapor caused by the explosion, emits a strong heat and it is dangerous to approach it and, what is worse, it hangs fearfully. The forward chimney, bordering the signal bridge, has also disappeared: dark smoke and red-hot air come out of the hollow left. Those of the escort ships who were able to witness the immense show said that the roar was terrifying and the smoke reached about 1500 meters in height. What the catastrophe has caused against people is not easy to describe.

A few steps from me, a short distance from each other, lie two sailors: they are unrecognizable. Their robes are still burning. The face is dark brown: they look charred. From the admiral bridge a sailor has been entangled by one leg and remains dangling with his head down, a small moan comes out of his mouth: however, it is not a cry for help, it is a tragic agony. I look at him, trying to recognize him: he too is unrecognizable from burns.

I walk with difficulty and I have to try not to get too close to the tower so as not to roast myself further.

I look towards the bow and see nothing but smoke and fire.

I turn towards the stern and notice that some scattered men are running in fear and I hear some shots at short intervals.

I approach the ladder to descend and look down on the deck of the ship: my eyes stare at a frightening sight, around the machine gun there are some sailors lying on the ground, they are dead. I then turn around and look at the recess of the ladder I am about to descend. Down there, that is, at the entrance to the tower, an even worse spectacle presents itself to me: a pile of men, one on top of the other, all horribly burned. It is not clear if they are mangled meat or if they are men. The garments of some are still set on fire.

There are also several flames along the stairs.

I delay to continue, but there is no way out; I have to go down, it's the only way to try and save myself. It will be sad to have to pass over those poor people, but what other solution do I have? My habit was to put my hands on the railing, raise my legs and slide down.

Now unable to reflect, I would like to repeat myself as in the good old days: so I place my right hand on the railing and. . . I had never done that.

The skin of my hand peels off and slides down at great speed: that passama10 is hot. So I start walking downhill. A few steps and I feel enveloped by an invisible fire: I seem to suffocate. With my left hand I squeeze my throat, as if I wanted to choke. . . I turn my eyes to heaven and turn again to God; but not with a prayer, only to commend my spirit: I am now exhausted and I have lost all hope.

At this point I lose consciousness.

I find myself a child in the open countryside, a woman dressed in light blue holds my right hand. At first she looks like my mother, but she is not ei: she is a very tall lady, she walks quickly. . . runs. . . he runs faster and faster, drags me and squeezes my hand, causing me a lot of pain. I look at her and cry: (Let me go », and so screaming I return to myself.

I find myself walking down the last step of the last staircase. I look around to ascertain where I am and if anyone is near me: I see only smoke and fire. Miraculously or by a natural impulse, I don't know, I descended three stairs invaded by fire. Now I'm already on the deck of the ship. It is not easy for me to describe the state I am in and the drama that surrounds me. In my interior it seems to be on fire. I can't breathe through my nose. The forehead, the ears, the hair, the arms, the hands, the legs. . . the whole body is badly burned.

The skin of the arms and hands is completely detached, remaining dangling hanging from the fingertips: it can measure about half a meter. The pants are still set on fire, which continues to burn my already roasted legs and knees. I see only from one eye and a little but, what is worse, the skin that has detached from the forehead obstructs my vision the most.

I no longer have the strength to stand up, although I continue to take a few steps near the lifelines, staggering, as if to find the most appropriate point to throw myself into the water.

A few steps and I reach the point where the first bomb fell. Sitting there by mistake, on the edge of the gash, there is an officer, also completely burned, his face looks reddish, he holds the captain's cap on his head. I recognize him: he is Mr. Licio Gentini, from Livorno. Seeing him so badly dressed, I do not have the courage to speak to him. Stand there with your eyes fixed on the sea. It doesn't move at all. It looks like a statue. Certainly he waits for the ship, now heavily heeled, to turn, to disappear with it.

Not only him, however, several other people, more or less injured, are secluded in some corner, waiting for the tragic end. I too am seized by a tremendous discouragement. since no rescue craft is seen nearby, tired and disheartened as I am, I sit there on the ground with my back to the stern: I would like to end up the same, for what reason should I throw myself overboard? In the state that I am in, how will I be able to save myself? How will my injuries react to salt water contact? What terrible end will I have to face, dying little by little, beaten by the waves?

So I sit down. . . I take this decision in complete tranquility of mind, in fact I know that I have done everything possible to save myself: I feel serene even in the face of my faith in God.

What I see certainly does not encourage me: on the ship there is still a coming and going of men, some more or less burned, who run scattered here and there, looking for the most appropriate point to throw themselves into the sea. In the meantime, I find an opportunity to distract myself; with the skin hanging from my fingers I try to eliminate those little flames that are still around my pants.

A few minutes pass and, turning towards the sea, I see not so far a ship approaching. . . I see two more. Those familiar familiar thoughts immediately come to mind. But above all, the desire to "live" returns.

I take a look again at those poor people who are trying to save themselves and I think of the pain that I would have given to my loved ones with the announcement that is used to give to families: "Your son is lost at sea".

I look at those ships again: I feel upset. However, I do not delay in making the wisest decision.

I try to get up: it is not possible for me, I sit back down. My head is spinning strongly and my legs cannot hold me. I insist, however, and at best I find myself on my feet, although my legs seem to break in two. I don't give up. With an almost superhuman willpower I can move and walk.

Not far away I see a sailor without a life jacket: I invite him to untie a raft that still remained on board, with the hope that I too can take advantage of it.

What a disappointment! It is not yet at sea that it is full of castaways. I can't linger: I have to go towards the stern.

since the last part of the ship, called the officer passage, in relation to the deck, is located in the lowland, I think it is easier there for me to throw myself into the sea. But how to achieve it? The admiral's motorboat, due to the displacement of air, has strongly moved and prevents us from continuing.

A sailor is willing to help me. . . I don't know how he did it. I therefore find myself on the first steps of the ladder that leads to the officers passage.

I look around: a short distance away I see a group of sailors, with or without life jackets, all afraid to jump into the sea.

It is not possible for me to go down: everything is flooded. I go up the step and, in the throes of an increasingly serious bewilderment, stare at that spectacle for a moment, then, not being able to intrude between the lifelines, I lie down on the ground: I let myself roll into the sea.

It's not what I thought. The water, instead of hurting me, completely refreshes me, I have a moment of relief.

A strong flow pulls me away from the ship. A true miracle.

It is only a few meters from the stern that that carcass turns upside down: a large splash of water from the impact covers me. Had I lingered for a few more seconds, I would certainly have disappeared with the ship.

I don't have the desire or the strength to swim.

I remain there at the mercy of the waves, with my gaze turned towards the ship, remaining afloat only thanks to the life buoy: I want to accompany it to the last stand.

My heart is beating hard. I fix that keel that a few days earlier I had seen in dock in Genoa and three years ago I had admired in the yard in Trieste, where I had participated, amidst celebrations and joy, in its launch. How sad to see her now perish so tragically, taking so many of her mother's children to the immense grave of the sea. Hundreds of sailors, scattered around the sea, look with me at what was the no: between dear home, as if they wanted to give it another hope of life.

Suddenly I hear a strong prolonged roar: the Roma breaks into two sections, the bow and stern rise vertically. The latter slowly turns around on itself, so much so that the two pieces show the top of the ship (the deck): I feel my blood freeze.

They are moments of chills: few though. . . the two sections in fact in a few seconds are swallowed by the sea.

How much mourning brings to Italy, which built it with so many sacrifices.

How many mothers, fathers, wives, children, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, relatives. . . how many will have to mourn their loved ones.

I ignore the number of dead; but, thinking that I too could put my loved ones in mourning, I shudder.

I try to swim a little: I don't have the strength. I am more dead than alive.

The sea is also quite rough.

Between one mountain of water and another I see some lifeboats.

But how to reach them?

From all sides we hear cries of despair and cries of cry for help. We are about 250 lightly and seriously injured, some even dying and just as many completely healthy, different even without life jackets, some swimming desperately, others have found, who knows how, some plank and are getting by a little as best they can. There are also those who try to cling to someone else, who a

hardly manages to keep afloat, thanks to the life jacket. Among this tingling of men there are others a little more fortunate, gathered on rafts, packed full, floating at the mercy of the waves, waiting for some ship to spot them.

The lifeboats pass between these poor people, trying to give priority to the most serious.

It is certainly not easy to describe this heartbreaking scene.

After about fifty minutes a motor launch approached me: I am completely exhausted, I don't even have the strength to speak.

Two sailors throw themselves into the sea and at best manage to rescue me, lifting me up. My teeth are chattering from the cold. Because of burns, I can't sit up. With such delicacy at best they arrange me.

A sailor, imagining that I cannot hear, says to another, looking at me: "Let's go aboard, look, he will soon die." I rise a little. I would like to say something. That act for me is a serious effort: I fall back down dazed. I don't remember anything else.

We arrive alongside the Rifleman, a destroyer on which my soldiers depend. I am carried by weight on the ship amidst an infinity of sufferings. The sergeant nurse on board, in order not to undergo further suffering, cuts with scissors my clothes and the skin that I kept dangling from my hands and other parts of the body, then undergoes a small dressing and wraps me almost completely. I am wrapped in a woolen blanket and placed on a sofa in the officers' area, suddenly the "medical room".

I am tormented by a terrible thirst and a great cold. Many bottles of cognac are made available to the castaways: I drink maybe a liter.

The cold passes, but the thirst increases.

"Water," I cry. "Water," shout other voices. "Cognac," ask others. How many laments in that small room.

We will be about forty: hearing those voices is painful.

What a sad evening this is.

Thanks to the cognac I drank, I finally fall asleep, but I certainly can't say what rest.

During the night we suffer some air attacks, but I am "absent"; I do nothing but cry and beg. Every now and then I wake up attacked by ghosts and screams. One bad dream is followed by another worse one.

Given the great heat that torments me, I do nothing but ask for a drink. Even asleep I ask.

I have a dream, appropriate to the circumstance: it seems to me to be in a desert. I can't stand up from the heat and the heat. I know there is a gush of water nearby. I stagger on the spot: there is no water. I start digging on the ground: finally I find some. I start to drink: a man in big boots with spikes approaches and stamps my hands, preventing me from touching her. Taken from the fright I start to run: his dog reaches me and bites my hands and calves, making me fall. I can hardly get up: I find myself alone in a small village in front of a fountain that pours water in drops. I have a glass with me: after a long time I can fill it halfway. My hand hurts so much that I can't hold it, it falls and breaks. I collapse on the ground exhausted. . . I wake up screaming.

Still wandering it seems to me to be on Rome. We are in La Spezia. We are talking about a great battle, sustained and won. Our ship, however, is only half left: I am amazed at how we were able to enter the port so badly tanned and how we did not notice it before.

We are expected by a doctor: I immediately take the opportunity to tell him about my hand injuries; while remembering well that I was trampled and attacked by dogs: I would like to be declared war wounded.

Every morning I go for the visit, but I can't convince the doctor that I really feel bad and I can't work: he always replies that it is a small thing and that I can very well be on guard. I insist that you send me to the hospital for a check-up: I always get a refusal.

Finally I wake up, indeed it seems to me that I am: we are the following morning and I am convinced that those dreamed adventures actually took place and that seven days have passed.

I find myself completely blind.

I do not know why; I start talking, shouting as if I were arguing, and I pretend to know why they haven't sent me to the hospital yet: "It's been seven days", I say, "that I come here every morning to be examined and you always tell me that I have nothing and don't even visit me ». I hear a voice that assures me that I will be heard, but it is not at all true that so many days have passed: only one night has passed.

I continue to talk who knows what: I find myself feeling that my claim to be declared war wounded is false and I tell the story of the dog and the spiked boots: not seeing, I cannot know the reaction of those who listen to me. However, I am insistent: I want the papers to enter the hospital, arguing that without them they cannot accept me.

I am told that everything is ready and that I just have to keep quiet.

I think I am in the non-commissioned square, aboard the Roma ship, and I smell a great smell of wine. Being still in the throes of a great thirst, I scream for wine.

The answer is always the same: "Shut up, don't scream."

Finally the officer on guard approaches me. I have a long conversation with him: the wine, however, is not brought to me. Calmly the officer tells me everything that has happened, and how I am here on the Rifleman: however, I insist on knowing how we managed to enter the port halfway.

I am on the floor lying on a blanket, I cannot describe what terrible state I am in. The various burns on the back make every movement impossible: I do not find a suitable position to rest and I constantly ask to be turned over.

My head also hurts very badly. The hands, the arms, the legs. . . the whole person is a single sore. I can't breathe through my nose and my mouth is so swollen that it makes it difficult for me to speak.

(Being in the unconscious I am not able to tell what is about to occur in these days; however, I continued to describe it thanks to what I was


reported both by the survivors, my companions in misfortune, and by those who assisted me; doctor, nurses, nuns).

The ships that have helped to collect the castaways are seven, of which three are heading to the island of Mallorca (I don't know the names). The commanders of the other four (incr. Attilio Regolo, CT Rifleman, Machine gunner and Carabiniere), fearing that many of us, with the prolongation of our stay at sea, could not resist, decide to enter the nearest port: so they head towards the Balearics , on the island of Menorca and stop in the port of Mahon.

We are welcomed in a small military hospital located on a very small island within the port itself; a single director, a few nurses and two nuns are the staff. They had been notified by radio of our arrival, asking for shelter for 250 people. Unfortunately, it seems that the radio operator only intended the request for 25 injured. It is therefore understandable that the hospital managers, faced with the arrival of a large mass of personnel in need of urgent care, found themselves in very serious discomfort.

Thus it happens that the sick, already hospitalized here, who are in a condition to be able to walk, are sent to their homes. The town's doctors are militarized and recalled. The sisters available in the local convent are invited to present themselves, similarly to the nurses.

The disembarkation of the survivors of the RN Roma takes place in order. The particularly seriously injured are placed in the wards on existing beds. For many, of the less serious, it is necessary to obtain cots or cots and place them in the corridors. Some even out in the open air, under the roof.

Fortunately the building is ground-to-roof.

Those who need only medication, are hastily treated and at the same time moved in the company of the healthy castaways staying in premises located in the small town, and invited to return after two days for a possible check.

I was taken to the hospital by an ambulance car and placed on a soft bed. I almost realize it; I only remember feeling a little relief.

bottom of page