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Florindo Cerri - Regolo

My first embarkation was the battleship Giulio Cesare, in Pola, but the memories of that embarkation, in August 1943, are not the best. The negative trend of the war had made the atmosphere dark and charged with electricity, ready to explode at any slightest incentive .... I was Aspiring Second Lieutenant AN subjected for three months, with my classmates Brucoli and Burlando, to a heavy apprenticeship, with three-man shifts, and daily inspections of the cable tunnels, which ran like keels the entire length of the ship, down at the bottom, above the keel. So I was really happy when I received the transfer to the Attilio Regolo.

I found the ship in La Spezia, at the Lagora dock, with a completely new bow and in full test activity due to the completion of the works. He belonged to the "Capitani Romani" class which was a cross between destroyers and light cruisers. A ship with a displacement of 5,000 tons, with an enormous engine power (90,000 HP) capable of reaching a maximum speed of 43 knots in just a few minutes, almost double the average speed of the ships at the time. It had light aluminum superstructures as, in general, most modern ships have, and therefore poorly protected against aerial strafing. The British called these new ships "five minutes of fire" to mean that they would not survive a naval confrontation; but they were definitely wrong because these ships, always in line and employed in the hard task of escorting the convoys, did not have losses and definitely proved to have good maneuverability and excellent buoyancy; in fact the Attilio Regolo, who had lost 35 m of bow due to a torpedo, was able with his means to return to Naples. It was then towed to La Spezia, where a new bow was waiting for it cut by a sister ship under construction in Ancona, and from there taken to La Spezia, I don't know with what means and how many difficulties with the viability of the time.

On the Attilio Regolo I found another classmate, Vittorio Gallenga Stuart, formerly a Midshipman and destined for the 3/4 ward. On the new unit I noted with regret that while the preparation of the ship had progressed slowly, the morale and qualities of the crew had rapidly deteriorated both for the tragic moment that Italy passed, both for the inactivity of the ship and because the better elements had been replaced by others not recommended ....... The impact with this worse reality of tired, disheartened and sometimes frightened men was unexpected and disappointing for an Aspirant educated to the cult of the homeland, of professional ethics, of glory.

On 8 September the news of the armistice caught some of these men on their way home, but if the war was over what was the point of deserting? So they thought better of it and went back on board. It was I, an officer of the watch, who welcomed them and locked them in the penalty cell, but then I had to take them as a labor force for an urgent torpedo boarding operation. We had received the order to take on the weapons, the ammunition and to prepare to leave the moorings, work completed or not.

Below board was a boat with about twenty torpedoes well placed on special wooden saddles and a civilian, Marimuni's trustee, who required a signature of receipt for each torpedo embarked. But the boarding operations took too long and the Commander (CF Marco Notarbartolo di Sciara) gave the order to suspend them and to use the boat to tow under board the ammunition barges for the artillery. These were moored in the middle of the bay, far from each other for obvious safety reasons. I towed one under the side and then went back to get another one.

When I reached Lagora pier again, I 'Attilio Regolo ..... was gone! They had abandoned me with my load of torpedoes, men and the barge in tow; this was proof of how important an Aspirant was.

It was now the dead of night; a particularly dark night due to the absence of the moon and the total darkening of the port, broken only by the green and red lights of the navigation lights of the many moving ships. Looking towards the city you could see many lights, shots and tracers, like fireworks: it was not clear whether they were fires of joy for the armistice or shots of repression. In front of me, towards the south, there were the retal obstructions, then the bay and the open sea and beyond, but only about twenty miles away, my city, Viareggio!

I asked my makeshift crew what they wanted to do. My intention was to reach Viareggio with the boat and, once it was stranded on the beach, to transport the torpedoes safely, with everyone's help, hiding them under the cabins of my bathing establishment. Everyone accepted, including the bourgeois with his receipts, and so, moored the ammunition barge at the dock, we set sail with the "Florindo Cerri" towards Viareggio.

After passing the two rows of obstructions and reaching the traverse of Torre Scuola, we almost hit a dark mass that appeared in front of us. At the last moment, the stationary ship turned on the white crowning light and I read the name: Attilio Regolo! ! Of course she wasn't stopping there for us, but to wait for orders or perhaps to take her place in formation. At this point, all that remained was to get on board, but it was not easy to convince those sailors who, for the second time, had tasted the hope of an imminent return home. It was the first time that I had to resort to the threat of the service pistol: in the end they got on board, while it was not possible to accept the bourgeois with his bill of receipts, who was left on board the boat frightened and weeping. I never knew what happened to him and his torpedoes.

At dawn on 9 September, I was from Diana, a lookout on the bridge on the left side: when it was clear I saw a sea full of ships, as many as I had never seen together in my life. Our Naval Force, coming from La Spezia, formed in triple row, while another Naval Force, coming from Genoa, loomed on the horizon on the straight side. Then the junction took place and on the clear September morning a single massive formation was formed with the battleships in the center and the cruisers and fighters on the side rows.

Attilio Regolo was in the right row and from my bridge wing I could see, aft to the left, the Roma, flagship of the fleet, and in the bow, the cruiser Garibaldi coming from Genoa. On board those ships, even if I could not identify them, I felt the presence of my classmates: Mario Sculco, my fellow citizen, must have been in front of me, perhaps he too on a lookout on some Garibaldi bridge, while on Rome there is they were Scotto, Catalano and many others.

In the clear sky, five German planes followed us, flying overhead at 5000m or even more. On the left you could see the highest mountains of Corsica. For the whole morning we sailed southwards and then left to enter the Gulf of Asinara, headed for La Maddalena. At 14.45 all the ships were ordered to reverse course at the same time.

I don't remember how long it took from the turnaround to the moment when I had the impression of seeing a plane crash, like a kamikaze, on Rome. Immediately afterwards, sporadic shots of 90 mm cannon echoed here and there and then I realized that those German planes had passed to the attack, always remaining at an altitude that our anti-aircraft artillery could not reach with effective shots. However, I remember that I was able to distinguish some bombs with ailerons, visible only in the first accelerated part of the trajectory, then a smoke, the beginning of a trail and then nothing more until impact. It was the first use of self-propelled and guided bombs, which I had mistaken for dive planes.

As is known, the air attack resulted in the sinking of the battleship Roma, hit by two bombs and the loading of a large quantity of water on Italy, hit by another bomb, without other serious damage or human losses.

..... The sea was red for the colored debris of the rafts and personal life jackets unmade by the explosion and in that red sea the remains of burned human bodies.

Attilio Regolo put his spears into the sea, as did the Machine Gunner, Rifleman and Carabiniere fighters; I took the rudder of one of these boats and one of the two stern oars together. The launch moved pushed by four oars alone, two in the bow and two in the stern, the central ones I had to get them back on board because, lacking a preventive training, it was difficult to row ten rowers at the same time without hindering each other, and we hadn't really had time for training.

So the first castaways able to row I had put them to the oars, but they were just a few. Most were burned in most of their bodies and when we took them on board their skin often remained on our overalls. (From the report of Commander Notarbartolo "I have a total of 22 shipwrecked on board, of which 2 are very serious: the doctor is not sure if they will break it down ...... From what I learned later we have collected a total (all detached units) less than 700 castaways, of which about thirty will not survive.) A long and agonizing night follows. Every now and then, in complete darkness, a flare thrown from some plane lights up the scene and a bomb is expected to explode, but fortunately it is only a scout who follows the ships to find out their destination. the decision to take refuge in the Balearics, which is the closest neutral land ".

Perhaps the memories are even more beautiful than reality, but that morning, at the dawn of  10 September 1943, I opened my eyes to a dream scenario. A slight pink light, diffused on a still body of water, drew the low contours of the Port Mahon bay to the east, while, to the west, the town, still in the shadow of a high fortress on the hill, s' he could see dotted here and there with lights. It had been three and a half years since I no longer saw lighted cities. Then in a moment it was immediately day.

One of the books that I remember most from my childhood and that had helped me to grow and dream was "Behind the course of the sun" by Alain Gerbaut, where the author and first "solo" circumnavigator describes his journey around the world on of a small sailboat and focuses, in a particular way, on the landscapes and people of the Polynesian islands. Port Mahon bay took me back to that enchantment. The ships were in the center of the bay, motionless, while from the quays of the port and the nearby beaches, small boats with young people and girls on board, approached us with caution, torn between fear and curiosity. But the spell did not last long and we awoke the sad reality of the wounded of Rome distributed on board the ships, some in very serious conditions.

The Machine Gunner enters the port and at 08.00 he moors with the stern to the quay in the bosom of the Plana. The other units, in the order Attilio Regolo, Rifleman, Carabiniere, moor on the starboard of the Mitragliere. With the Spanish officers who come aboard it is immediately the landing of the dead, the wounded and the shipwrecked. As the base delays the dispatch of the ambulance boat, the wounded are starting to disembark with our motor boats. A total of 133 wounded disembarked from the four ships and were hospitalized in the small military hospital on the Plana island, while 13 bodies and 374 shipwrecked remained on board.

Despite having the walkways on the quay we were not allowed to set foot on land and so we spent the first two days fantasizing about the Spanish citadel up there on the hill while in high places, there must have been frenzied discussions about our immediate future and those of our ships. . News came from Palma de Mallorca that Commander Cigala Fulgosi had decided to sink his ship (the Impetuoso). The rumors that circulated among us of the crew, without knowing the source, were mostly these: now that we have, in some way, settled the survivors, we will return to the sea, we will follow the example of Cigala Fulgosi or they will declare us interned, having exceeded 48 hours of stay in a neutral port '? Feelings of loneliness took almost all of us, especially at sunset, and in particular the sweethearts, who daydreamed about a way back to the family. Spain could perhaps have given them the opportunity. They were immediately noticed, on board, always isolated and intent on secretly re-reading a few letters. Brucoli was one of them. I remember that, on the night of 8 September before leaving La Spezia, I managed to get back on board luckily, he told me "Crazy, I'm trying to throw myself into the sea !!". We only knew of the armistice and that perhaps the Badoglio government's order was to reach the English bases in Malta or Gibraltar. We had sworn loyalty to the King and therefore we would have done our duty to the end, but this did not exempt us from feeling a little guilty for having abandoned the ally and accepted as lost a war after having seen and admired at sea, at the dawn of 9 September, all that imposing capital of ships and men, still in full working order. Perhaps this sentiment was less shared by the elders, for the most part enlisted from 1935 and 1936 and then held until then.

These were the thoughts and the atmosphere on board when - if I remember correctly on the evening of 13 September - the order of ignition of the boilers appeared on the order of the day at 04.00 the following day. We had to move from the port to the naval base, at the bottom of a fjord.

 At the appointed time the three destroyers were ready to move, vibrating on the moorings, while we were still and unable to give steam to the turbines because a bolt had fallen into them. At that point I, who was already beginning to feel the ship as a part of me, was seized by a sense of humiliation, shame and the desire to cry. The contrast between the ideals cradled in the Academy and the reality of that moment had been too abrupt and sudden.

Attilio Regolo carried out the brief transfer in tow of two of the Italian fighters.

An initial investigation led the Commander to put the officers held directly, or indirectly, responsible for the fact under penalty. They were locked up in their cabins and guarded by armed sailors. A sense of unease and discontent coursed through the crew throughout the day. They claimed freedom for their officers because they were innocent and this discontent grew throughout the day. At night, during a second round of inspection on deck, I realized that the two light machine gunners for close defense had been removed and taken away from their positions on the deckhouse of the forecastle; I also sensed the presence of many people still standing, even though it was almost midnight. I informed the Commander and the general assembly was called in the center.

CV Marini, Commander of the Machine Gunner and Group Leader, accompanied our Commander to the assembly and spoke at length, calmly, like a good family man, informing us all about our future.

The spirits calmed down, the weapons returned to their place, but the investigation continued. After a few days we had to deliver the small arms and the shutters of the cannons. We were interned for all purposes. To guard us, the Spanish Navy deployed a small and very old torpedo boat "with two pipes" moored in such a way as to prevent us from going out into the harbor. The small ship was visibly flat and, for the sake of humor, its Commander, a "Sancho Panza" weighing more than a ton, used to sit on a huge armchair in the extreme stern. !  

Life on board continued steadily on that island that a Spanish novel called "pedras y viento" and, with the beginning of winter, the first illusory sensations of an exoticism with a tourist flavor, like a Pacific island, gave way to a more crude and monotonous reality. After all, we were prisoners aboard a ship in a narrow stretch of water with many logistical problems. The water was that of the island's cisterns, imported or rainwater, without calcium or other mineral salts; there was no clothing, as the trunks with the personal trousseau had remained in the guesthouse of the Arsenale of La Spezia; on the other hand, the Aspirants on board, whose accommodation was not yet ready, had only a Saharan uniform and overalls; on 8 September the ship still had to carry out the rodent control, so mice and bedbugs were a real plague on board: often a bloody battle had to be waged, also using the white weapon, (the ordinance saber) to fight the cheeky rodents which came to attack the earlobes and the nasal septum of those who slept soundly in the cot.

Then official contacts with the Badoglio government were re-established and our position was better defined. The Italian Navy passed the sum for the maintenance of the ships and crews to the Spanish one; we were interned, albeit temporarily, as someone claimed that our stay there was due only to the fact that the Spanish Armada had not given the four ships what they needed to return to the sea after the 48 hours of rest allowed. We resumed work as we would have done in Italy; on the ship, fortunately, there was much to be done to maintain the ship and to complete, where possible, the uncompleted work in La Spezia. The crew carried out daily and weekly exercises also together with that of the other units: thus it began to form, albeit slowly.

We knew little or nothing about the Italian situation, because the news from our home did not even reach the radio: we did, however, know of the republican government of Salò, headed by Mussolini freed and of an admiral, father of one of our TVs Carlo appointed Minister of the Navy of Mussolini .

Other problems were the food, which, once the supplies on board were finished, was rather poor because the Spanish Navy could only pass us poor provisions, and the prohibition to go ashore, except for work reasons. Only national cigarettes remained at the on-board shop which, compared to the local ones, made us feel like gentlemen.

Then we got the franchise and we got to know the small town of Port Mahon, high up on the hill, its inhabitants, its bars and the smelly little cinema of "pota" (a hellish mixture of tobacco).

But the dominant thought was that of the homecoming that grew like the wind on the island, while the winter advanced: I too was thinking about how to go back home one day, if things got worse, but I I immediately reassured because I always had the solution in front of me, on the boat deck: the solution was a lifeboat that could be fitted with quarter sails. I had a fair amount of experience with those spears. Already during my internship at the Academy, I taught my companions to sail, trying to get out of the small port of S. Jacopo with the sailboat, tacking against the wind in the narrow access channel.

Meanwhile, some were repatriated or disembarked from the ship and transferred to another part of Spain.

At midnight on a certain day in October (or November) 1944, I was awakened by a picket from the ship, accompanied by Spanish soldiers. They had entered my cabin to pick up my companion Brucoli who, together with other people on board, with the approval of the ship's Command, was to be transferred to a reception camp near Barcelona, where the Roma shipwrecked were staying. There was also the TV Carlo who, once in Barcelona, went on to Italy to hug his young wife and a few months old son again. But Carlo never arrived in Viareggio because as soon as he crossed the border and was reunited with his younger brother, they were taken by the partisans and both shot as sons of a minister of the Social Republic.

The mood on board grew more and more with the wind, the stones, the scarcity of food and good water, when in December something happened that changed the quality of our life somewhat. In Port Mahon there was a quarrel between Italian sailors on duty and Spanish sailors from the base: punches flew and a revolver shot was also fired by someone from the Italian group, who should have been disarmed. The consequence was the immediate suspension of the allowances, inspections on board but also high-level meetings that led to new agreements on the life regime.

The ships were able to receive the money directly from the Badoglio government and to administer themselves in full autonomy. Life changed completely: the food became good and plentiful as it was possible to buy everything you need at the shops of Port Mahon. The economy of the town took advantage of this and we became very welcome guests of all social strata. Many got engaged and someone later returned to the island to get married. Life on board resumed more active and our personal appearance became more refined even if our uniforms were not made of cloth, but only of blue canvas. On board the nervousness was gone; only concern for our families in Italy remained, increased by the lack of news ...

But many more months had to be waited because all four interned ships returned to Taranto only on January 17, 1945.

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