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Mario Bianco and Marco Varrone

From the book by Andrea Amici

A September afternoon

De Ferrari, 2006


Marco Varrone (left) and Mario Bianco, telemetrists, at the time of the attack were in the starboard 90mm range finder turret

In the meantime, Marco has just come out of the oven and climbing the external stairs of the tower, he is next to the side entrance of the 90 mm range finder turret, holding two sandwiches. Today he anticipated the usual appointment with his friend a little, given the very hard day.

Mario, who despite being on guard duty, cannot leave the vicinity of the shooting direction control unit, thus remains a bit undecided whether to postpone until after the interval or move away from everyone's sight for a moment, slipping away with Marco to have a snack. He cannot go too far, the group of planes is still very distant for the moment, but nothing is yet known about them, who they are and where they are going. He decides with Marco to go behind the tower, on the level just below the command bridge. For him, it is enough to descend the two-meter ladder of his 90 mm APG turret to reach the deckhouse.

It is 3:15 pm, he barely manages to pick up the sandwich that his friend hands him, that the General Orders Network rings the air alarm, pieces ready to fire: by now it is almost certain that they are planes approaching the fleet Italian and their intentions are easily imaginable for everyone. Mario's indecision lasts only a few moments: he grabs Marco by the arm and drags him across the bridge, right in front of the entrance to the Technical Secretariat of Weapons, under the dashboard: "Stay here until I tell you I, if something bad happens, go inside and lock yourself inside. Now I'll go for a moment to see what happens, I'll let you know as soon as possible. This time it's serious! ”.

The Technical Secretariat of Arms is a fairly large room, with an irregular shape, with a convex side. It is a kind of technical archive of all the technical documentation of the naval weapons on board, with one entrance to starboard and one to the left. Visibility outside is practically nil, but protection is good enough.

Marco has total faith in Mario, his experience on ships like this is indisputable. And if Mario says that the dangers are anything but slight, it is to be trusted. In fact, he is almost stunned by this concern of his and inside the secretariat there are other officers who are rushing out to go to their respective combat posts. Mario runs off with them and climbs the ladders that take him inside the revolving turret of the rangefinders, together with the TV Agostino Incisa della Rocchetta, the shooting director of the 90mm batteries on the left. For Marco there are no problems in staying there in that area, because Mario enjoys particular trust and friendship with many officers. Being friends with him right now can be invaluable.

Marco is frightened but intrigued as he watches Mario stop for a moment at the small night aiming rangefinder, mounted five or six meters abaft the base of the shooting direction turret and the small revolving sentry boxes. Any information on sightings necessarily passes through this area. Mario checks the good functioning of the rangefinder, because it could also be used for daytime shooting, in case of emergency, while his friend is observing him from above with admiration, for his precision and his professionalism. Then Mario climbs the ladder and enters the heavy hatch of the turret, while Marco remains leaning against the armored entrance door of the secretariat, looking at the horizon. The flock of planes is approaching, he can hear all the comments from the lookouts on the lower level and from the officers who are on the bridge, two meters above him. For a minute, Commander Adone Del Cima also remains outside on the flap of the external bridge. Nobody is understanding anything with precision, you can hear it from the various hypotheses that everyone is saying, even if the anti-aircraft guns of 90, 37 and 20 mm are ready to fire at any moment.

He thinks maybe he should go back down to the oven, but since it's not a vital service, he prefers to stay close to a safe place, like the inside of the armored keep. On the ship he is noticing that among the staff on guard duty, there are those who are taking themselves inside and those who are quietly looking around. Suddenly he clearly hears a voice: “They are Germans, they are German planes!”.

Marco does not know if it is worse that the lookouts have warned that the planes are British or American. Now there is no longer any doubt: the Italian Fleet is about to be attacked by its allies not even twenty-four hours before!

Despite the speed of the ship, the whistling of the turbines and the whistle of the grecale in the rigging[the], the roar of twenty-two powerful fourteen-cylinder BMW engines mounted on Dornier bombers[ii]approaching begins to shiver. It is not necessary to be a military man, even a child has already experienced the terror that a formation of approaching bombers instills. We all know a harmless scout from an attack plane when it's three miles away.

The bomber squadron arrives and from afar makes a quick reconnaissance of the Fleet. They can stay far apart, given the excellent visibility. If it were at night or it was cloudy, it would be much more difficult to attack us.

It is almost 3:30 pm. A couple of more minutes pass in which, to dispose of the nervousness, Marco devours Mario's brownish, which has remained in his hand, in two mouthfuls. Now the planes are returning, their commander will have precisely ordered each pilot what to do, it took them ten minutes to choose their favorite target. As the aircraft are coming in from the stern, he sees a 37mm head piece on the gun bridge talking on a telephone. It is certainly the imminence of an action, because he notices the 90 mm turrets which are all tilted at maximum height, oriented in the same point of aim, towards the planes. Each movement of the hull, pitch and roll, is followed by a simultaneous one of all 90mm turrets and rangefinder turrets. It is part of a sophisticated and precise balancing system of the gun platforms, which serves to make perfect the telemetry measurements that automatically guide the shots, as if you were on land. The armored platforms of the 90 mm turrets are inserted into their little more than four and a half meters deep beards, but unlike the large and medium calibers, their diameter is smaller than that of the beard. The impermeability to water in the shells in these points is guaranteed by oilcloth headphones that resemble dancers' skirts, while the cannons look like the bows of violins in an orchestra, ready to play at a nod from the conductor's baton. The men are all at the fighting posts, he hears the armored doors above the tower being slammed shut.

When Marco looks at the planes, he notices that the flock has split from the classic arrow formation. Each aircraft is flying far from the others, in a circle like eagles, when suddenly he clearly hears the voice of a lookout, utter the phrase he most feared: "They dropped something, it seems a signal!".

The dramatic bullfight has begun. The little daredevil flying bullfighters, in their cockpits, have begun their dance, defying death, while the anti-aircraft shots are about to mark the rhythm of the castanets in the arena. The bullfight, a deadly spectacle for one of the two opponents. Or maybe both. Who will win? The little bullfighter, armed with his courage and glory, or the gigantic bull who is alone against all, driven only by his despair? However it will end up in the arena there will be blood, the audience doesn't care whose!

In a few moments the voices follow each other, they all seem convinced that the plane has made a light signal or something similar. On Rome we are not yet fully aware of who and what we are dealing with. bow of Rome. Immediately after a thirty meter high water column rises a few meters aft of the twin Italia. It is panic, because only in that instant do all the crews realize that they are under an air attack and that the aircraft seem not to fear at all the anti-aircraft reaction of the entire Fleet.

In fact, the anti-aircraft weapons of the entire naval formation open fire and from the confusion many do not realize that the Fleet has begun to zigzag at great speed. During one of these juxtapositions, Rome points for a few minutes dangerously towards Italy, which is doing the same juxtaposition maneuver. No one has yet managed to understand that the ex-Littorio has the rudders in failure blocked at maximum angle due to the explosion of the bomb in the water. The signalmen are doing a superb job raising and lowering the signals ashore, while the lookouts continue to report their work flawlessly.

Marco takes refuge in the answering machine, closing the heavy door behind him, gasping for tension. At the moment in which the latch that blocks the door is turned, a very strong explosion shakes the ship like a twig. Marco suffers such a strong shake that it makes him take a violent headbutt against the edge of the chart table. He remains stunned for a few moments and when he recovers, lying on the steel floor, he feels a sensation of humid heat only behind his neck. He gets up but has the impression of not having a sense of balance, at least for the way the scene presents itself to him: there is no light, some of it filters through the door, which has just been left ajar. The objects begin to roll straight and into the shelves, all the books and documents tilt without returning to their place. For a moment he thinks the ship is making a fast approach, but he approaches the door and as soon as he puts his head out he notices a strange coming and going of people and the hull slowly tilting towards starboard. The bullfighter has planted the first banderilla in the bull's back and his blood is already staining the arena.

The 90mm anti-aircraft guns have already stopped firing, as he turns towards Mario's turret, he notices that it has stood still, slightly tilted too. The stabilization system has probably been damaged. Meanwhile, he massages himself behind his head and looking at his hand, he realizes that it is all covered in blood. The sturdy door of the turret opens, a couple of people go out, Mario is the second to go out. They consult a little with the Marquis Incisa della Rocchetta, looking at the damage that the bomb has caused, towards the stern, from where only a little smoke comes out. But, while Lieutenant Incisa della Rocchetta orders them to go and take telemetry measurements on the emergency system placed on the stern mast[iii], at the same moment the electric current returns and the group remains confused for a moment, while the speed of the ship has decreased considerably.

Meanwhile, many people are gathering on the side of the tower, hoping to steal some information on the situation, which no one has yet understood if it is really serious or if it is something that can be solved. In fact, the inclination seems to have stopped and in any case the speed, even if reduced, seems to be guaranteed. We are still able to fight and in fact the still efficient anti-aircraft positions are about to open fire. A few more minutes pass when Mario again orders Marco to lock himself up in the secretariat.

The planes are again on the vertical of the ship even if now they can no longer count on the surprise effect, in fact it is now quite certain what their intentions are. Mario is about to go to the stern range finder, when the Dornier 217 KII  piloted by Sergeant Kurt Steinborn slows down to a minimum, reaching over 5500 meters in height, practically on the vertical of Rome. His colleague, Sergeant Eugene Degan, framed the ship in his aiming reticle of the tappet equipment. Their concentration is maximum, the timed salvos of the 90 mm explode in the sky several hundred meters below their cockpit, but they have been training for months also not to fear these dangers. The 37mm burst tracers, while super accurate, simply make them smile. The ship appears to them with the naked eye just over a centimeter large, it seems very small. But their experienced, over-trained eye has no difficulty in understanding that she is hurt, even if not to death. Recognizing her is not difficult for him: she is the last of the three, she has been left alone, she proceeds slowly with respect to the whole fleet and from above her figure is easily distinguishable from her two twins that precede her. From that altitude, the differences easily appear: the bow area covered by white and red streaks is much larger on Rome than on Italy, while the Vittorio Veneto bridge is colored in dark gray.[iv], which  doesn't even have a scratch and is already a few miles ahead. Italy has repaired the small damage to the rudders and has also moved away by turning to the left. Roma, after a turn to the left, veers to starboard heading north, until it is left alone. There is no doubt therefore that Roma is the easiest target.

The other planes have moved away and the three Germanic aviators are left alone to think about the right moment. The ship is about to start a turn to the left, with the naive belief that it can escape another danger that is overwhelming it. And in fact, Steimborn identifies the moment that anticipates the approach as the most propitious and presses the release button of the FX 1400 weighing almost one thousand five hundred kilograms. The bullfighter has just sunk the saber that will reach his opponent's heart, looking into his eyes.

As the bomb begins its fall, a system of smoke-bombs ignites in its tail and it begins to fall towards the steel bull that is sailing at sixteen knots below it. Degan received notification of the release and a few seconds later, the bomb appears in his field of view, as his plane is slowly traversing the ship's vertical heading forward slightly to the left. While the Roma is making a turn of more than 90 ° to the left, the pointer begins to correct the fall of the bomb with the control lever that it has installed next to the aiming eyepiece in its cockpit. Meanwhile, the camera that they have mounted on the belly of the Dornier has already begun to take the images that will testify to the outcome of the mission upon their return.

They are very long moments, the bomb is a black dot with a reddish glow, behind it it leaves a small trail like a meteor. Many are following it with binoculars and the lookouts do not break down, they all continue to do their job in an excellent way. But by now they know that it is practically impossible to escape, although they all hope that it can miss the center. After all, it has already happened a few minutes before. 

Mario is already level with the stern funnel, to run towards the emergency command station on the stern mast. He pauses for a moment, because he clearly hears the lookouts shouting that a high bomb has been dropped, while all the Frankish sailors are already shouting and running in search of armored cover. The 37mm machine gunners continue to fire relentlessly. He reflects and realizes that he has very few moments to reach Marco, retracing his steps towards the tower.

Meanwhile Marco is at the railing aft of the Artillery Technical Secretariat. He is dabbing his head wound with a handkerchief and is almost tempted to go down for treatment in the forward combat hospital, near the ferrule of the large-caliber one tower. But he would first like to warn Mario of his intent. With his eyes he is looking for his friend in the midst of the confusion, he sees him while he is under the height of the oven that is  running towards him. At the same instant a deafening meow ends with a bump on the hull[v]. Fortunately for him, at that moment he was covered by the imposing structure of the tower. He moves towards the bow and leans out for a moment from the railing of the bridge, to see where the second bomb has fallen. He doesn't realize that something apocalyptic is about to happen a few meters below. He turns and goes aft to see if he sees Mario. Approximately fifteen seconds pass from when the bomb fell to when he has already retraced his steps. It is already straight behind the tower, when a terrifying blaze rises between the tower itself and the tower of large caliber two: the gigantic explosion of the ammunition deposits of the large and medium calibers has begun! An unprecedented wave of incandescent energy hits him from behind and throws him off the rail, making him fall on the deckhouse next to the ax master's workshop entrance, while everything around him begins to burn with an impressive speed. A devastating and prolonged rumble makes the sheets vibrate as if they were cardboard.

He remains paralyzed by the event for a few moments and fears that the end of his life has come. Just the sense of sudden heat, which he perceives on his almost unconscious body, forces him to jump to his feet and try to flee towards the stern. As he tries to get up, he rests his hands on the metal that is glowing visibly. Fortunately, he still wears his clogs, which he hasn't lost because an elastic buckle closed them behind his ankle and while he can make out the sound of the hands cooking on the hot steel, the cork sole of the clogs starts to ignite. For a moment he thinks he is about to roast alive as on a grill, but the strength to live makes him leap aft, in the direction of the starboard ladder that takes him to the lower decks, towards the oven.

At the same moment Mario, who has just recovered from the gigantic blast, sees him descend the ladder in pitiful conditions. He throws himself towards him and almost catches him on the fly: "Come Marcuccio, come away from there!". He literally takes him by the weight, taking off his shirt and the life jacket that are catching fire.

"I burn Mario, I burn everything, take me away from here!". These are the only words that come out of his mouth almost fainting from pain, while Mario has already taken off his life jacket and is wearing it with all his care. All around them is hell.

"Why do you take off the life jacket, how do you save yourself?". Marco asks almost gasping.

Mario's gruff explodes: “Don't worry about me, do you understand? Shut up and do what I tell you! ”.

He loads it on his back and carries it towards the stern, because his friend no longer has the strength to walk, having already completely burned his feet. Behind them the tower is now engulfed in flames and black smoke like a torch. Stuff is raining all over the place, like a giant fountain that throws scrap metal into the air instead of water. The forward funnel is grotesquely sagging inside the deckhouse. You get the feeling that the steel has become wax. There are already deaths everywhere as we watch in horror as people are coming out of the hatches and hatches of the deckhouse in indescribable conditions. Men with burning bodies walking! Some of them still have a few moments of life and seek help by hugging the companion who is next to them, who is also on fire. They are now sightless human torches that walk groping, flapping and stumbling everywhere, like a blind fly with a dramatic ending. They are already dead, but they are still alive!

The horror that it causes helplessly witnessing these scenes and hearing their desperate screams paralyzes even those who, like Mario, are fortunately unharmed. As he descends the stairs with Marco on his back he climbs over the bodies of sailors lying on the steps. Of these poor boys, their brown human form remained, with no face, ears and hair left. The skin is shiny and still smokes while there are only a few shreds left of the clothes. The smell emanating from these charred remains is sickening.

The two friends still manage to get away from the fire. Mario seats Marco for a moment not far from the point where the first bomb fell, to starboard, where the steel bridge, about 20 cm thick, is all undulating due to the deformation of the explosion. "Wait for me here, I go back a moment towards the bow to understand what is happening!".

Mario says. Marco doesn't have time to reply that his friend has already started running towards the bow.

As he advances, Mario realizes that the temperature is constantly rising. The smell of burnt powders and burnt paint is suffocating, an acrid odor that paralyzes the breath. So he tries to get a filter by putting the collar of his tunic in front of his mouth. From the parts of the funnel jets of steam come out and the ammunition of 37 and 20 mm is starting to burst, tearing without escape all those who are in the trajectories of the bullets and splinters. He stops as he sees a man literally on fire coming in front of him. “Mario, Mario! Help me Mario, I'm dying! ”. The man falls at his feet without saying a word again. Mario remains petrified for a moment by horror. Then he tries to turn it over, but it is unrecognizable, completely disfigured. It will remain a mystery who it was that man who called him by name. Meanwhile, another human being advances towards the stern with his gaze lost in space. He is almost completely naked, his clothes have been pulverized on him. The skin of his back is reduced to a macabre cloak of burnt flesh that bobbles up to his buttocks. He says nothing, perhaps he has understood himself that he is about to end up in the hands of Eternity.

He remains frozen by emotion for almost a minute, while other stokers, who are coming out of the castle, are burning alive. Some hug each other to try to help and comfort each other, but after a few moments they fall on the bridge, dying writhing in pain. He is also impressed by a very strange scene: he sees someone disfigured by burns to the face and hands, placing their hands and feet on the red incandescent metal sheets and side rails, without feeling any pain. It is the last stage of the burn, the one in which the pain is no longer felt, because the burns have destroyed the nerve endings. Soon after, death will come to them!

Meanwhile, the ship is tilting more and more to starboard, the objects scattered everywhere begin to slip and tip over. In all this chaos, Mario still notices someone who manages to walk around the keep, trying to open the heavy hatches of the command bridge.[you]. But his sailor instinct does not deceive him: there is nothing more to be done for Roma! The only thing possible is to try to save one's skin and help those who can be saved.

He goes straight back, not even a scratch, when he sees a sailor hit in the head by a splinter. Try to rescue him, but he bleeds in an instant. A few meters later he finds Marco in the same spot where he left him, in the middle of the six-meter motorboat and the twelve-meter lifeboat, which have become detached from the cradles. As soon as he reaches him, he immediately notices the joy in the eyes of his wounded friend: “Marco, you have to get ready to jump into the water, the ship is about to go to the bottom, there isn't much time!”.

"Okay Mario, but first look what I found!". Marco is leaning against the deckhouse of the kitchens, close to the 90 mm turrets. Fortunately, a lower piece of a life jacket is in his hands, a little dirty with everything, perhaps even with blood, but still useful: “Here, my friend! And for you!". But that piece wouldn't keep a child afloat, let alone a six-foot-tall man like Varro. Mario wastes no time, takes Marco and drags him towards the stern where it seems that the situation is a little more manageable.

Meanwhile the water is rising fast on the starboard side, in a few minutes it will submerge the gunwale and there will be nothing more to do. Mario understands this immediately and takes Marco by weight and together they dive into the sea, taking a dip in the water already covered by the naphtha and the oil that is coming out of the crates in the hull torn by the first bomb. "Let's go far Marcuccio, stay attached to me because everything is about to go down here!".

Marco says nothing, he gasps as he can, constipated in the swollen life jacket. Although injured, he swims on his back helping Mario who is dragging him by the life preserver. He is swimming without, he has no qualms about jumping right in to save his friend.

By now I am already fifty meters from the ship, which is slowly tilting more and more. "Two minutes and it will come down!" Mario says swimming. Marco says nothing, but the sores on his hands and feet burn him madly, also because around the ship there are at least two centimeters of naphtha and oil on the surface, which cause further pain on the wounds. They manage to move away a few more meters and notice four or five life jackets floating in front of them. Mario makes a shot and with a few strokes he manages to find one that is still healthy. He wears it, abandoning that shred he held between his legs, inflates it and returns to Marco who is practically unable to swim.

In the meantime, practically everyone is throwing themselves away from the ship. They got a reason: Rome is sinking! _Cc781905-5cde-3194-bb3b-136bad5cf58d_

While the Ship is splitting in two, the Destroyer Machine Gunner is heading straight for them.

The maneuver he performs is perfect. Commander Marini, who commands the Unit, steps upwind of them and causes the ship to expire on the group of castaways. Mario signals that there is a wounded man; they pull a top with a bag on it[vii], which he can easily grab. He puts a couple of turns in his hands and gets himself pulled up with weight. The only problem is that they are forward, on the mascone, at the highest point of the bulwarks. Once on board Mario wastes no time: “My friend is wounded in the hands and feet below, you have to pull him up by the armpits, making a buttonhole with a rope!”.

He himself makes a big bowls of lover at the same top with which they pulled him up. They throw it towards Marco who fortunately manages to put it on without much difficulty and with some effort they manage to hoist it up.

They are the first two Roma shipwrecked to be recovered by the destroyer machine gunner. This detail is providential for Marco, because the infirmary on board is still well stocked with bandages, disinfectant, ointments and a special wax paper for burns. If he had arrived just an hour later he would have settled for makeshift medications, which would probably have aggravated his situation as well.

While they are pulling up Marco, Commander Marini is watching from the bridge with the binoculars towards the bow. With great joy he recognizes the first castaway recovered: it is his friend Mario Varrone.


[the]On these ships it was formed by the lines to raise the signals and by the cables of the receiving antennas of the radiocommunication systems.

[ii]Ultra-modern twin-engine bombers, powered by two BMW  801D 1580 HP engines. They were able to easily reach the altitude of 6,000 meters at a speed of 515 km / h. Three crewmen: a pilot, a pointer and a mechanic. They were armed with three 12.7mm machine guns. The model used in the attack on the Italian fleet was the 217 KII, with the larger wing area, to withstand the weight of two of the heavy bombs. However, on 9 September 1943 it seems ascertained that each of them carried only one bomb called FX 1400, the perforating bomb remotely controlled with variable trajectory by means of radio pulses.

[iii]In the same plant there was also an emergency station for the government of the ship.

[iv]See note n ° 56.

[v]The second bomb also penetrated the armored bridges of the Rome with an angled trajectory, because the Rome was making an approach at a speed of more than 90 ° to the left, varying, due to the centrifugal force, its navigation attitude, moving it to starboard. In theory, it is not excluded that the damage could have been different if the bomb had penetrated perpendicularly to the castle bridge, a situation that would have occurred if it had not approached to the left, keeping the course unchanged. The Battleship Italia, on the other hand, was saved for this reason: a few minutes after having sank the Rome, at 4.15 pm, the German planes also hit Italy, which was making an approach to the left to escape the bomb dropped from the plane. The bomb crossed the castle bridge near the gunwale on the straight side, between tower one and tower two, exited the bulwark under the pony and exploded into the sea below the surface, causing non-lethal damage to the hull. If it had penetrated vertically or with a trajectory inclined in the opposite direction, it would probably have exploded in the ammunition depots of the large bow calibers, causing the same tragic end of its twin.

[you]It was probably the TV Incisa della Rocchetta, but Mario did not recognize it because it was already disfigured by burns and blackened by the soot of the fire. The other member of the crew who escaped from the areas of the burning tower was the Chief Signal Officer Gino Battaglini, who was also seriously burned and injured.

[vii]There are different types of bags, sometimes called balloons. Some are simply formed by the special knot that creates the weight to facilitate the launch. At other times, especially for moorings on the quay, bags are used that have a core of pitch and lead inside the knot, to be able to launch them further away.

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