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Agostino Incisa della Rocchetta

Rear Admiral Incisa della Rocchetta embarked on Rome in October 1942, with the qualification of.

As the senior staff officer who survived immediately after the explosion, he was the one who gave the order to abandon ship. Seriously burned, he was hospitalized first on Isola del Rey, in Mahon, and later in Madrid.

Author de"A CT and his crew" (relating to the two years of embarkation on the CT PIgafetta) and de"The last mission of the battleship Roma"from which the passage is taken.


And now I would like to tell how I have seen things. Why now, not before and not after? Because I tried to follow a certain logical thread in the succession of the narratives: first all those who were assigned to the shooting direction stations or to the weapons; who were in the open, who saw the enemy in the face and among them I put myself too, because I was DT of the 90 on the left and I too saw who hit us. I put myself next to last, not least, as perhaps modesty would have advised, because I want the last tale of those who were out in the open to be that of a sailor who has experienced the most incredible and extraordinary adventure. Then I will follow the narrations of those who were in charge of the security services, the power plants, which were close to tower n. 3 gc, because they did not see but only felt the effects of the bombs (not for this they suffered less, mind you).

I made one exception: in the first group I placed the marò Piccardo, because he was linked to weapons, in the sense that he was a supplier in the 90 mm ammunition depot, not only that, but because he was in the depot of complexes no. 9 and n. 11, through which the first bomb passed and was saved by some miracle.

From 12 to 16 I was free, that is, I was not on guard: in my place in the direction turret of the shooting ca on the left was the TV Natale Contestabile. I was together with 1st TD, CC Luigi Giugni, in the "artillery technical secretariat", a semicircular room, leaning against the tower, immediately below the command bridge. All the detailed drawings of the weapons were kept there and it was used by those who were in charge of the efficiency of the ship's armament: firstly the officers of the Naval Arms and then the directors of the fire. There were drawing tables, stools and chairs; you could rest well enough, sheltered from the sun, rain and wind, but you were also very close to your fighting post.

Suddenly I heard a voice: "Plane to starboard!". I immediately went to the exit of the club and saw, on a site of at least 80 °, a German twin-engine. Immediately afterwards a red light came off from the cockpit and the previous voice shouted: "He made the acknowledgment signal." Apparently those who said this were right because it seemed to be one of those flares that used German planes to be recognized by ships: generally they were divided into 3 or 4 stars of different colors, according to a sequence agreed between the German air commands and the Italian naval commands. But this time the flare did not split, it came straight down, leaving a bluish trail. A few moments later I saw a column of water about a hundred meters from Rome.

Only after such a manifest hostility on the part of the Germans, the "air alert" signal was given over Rome and so Medanich, the DT of the starboard 90, was able to open fire on the second plane that approached (they attacked one for time). He had been boiling for a long time with impatience, because he had had the planes in their sights for a long time. In the meantime, I had gone up to the bridge and, instead of going behind the tower (the bridge surrounded the tower; in the back it was uncovered, in the front it was protected by a series of windows) I went to the front; I probably wanted to see someone in command to get some direction. On the covered bridge I saw Commander Del Cima scanning the sky with binoculars and I noticed that the armored front door of the tower was open. He said nothing to me and I ran to my turret, from which Contestabile came out and I took my place. Doing this was easy, because the top of the turret was level with the dashboard leg protector; it was enough to climb over this and you were on the turret. The DT's place was, in fact, in an opening of the sky of this one. It leaned out half-length from the upper floor but in front of you was a sort of windshield with two windows protected by crystals; in front of the windshield, a circular sight with a cross inserted, machine gun type and, protected by the windshield, high-magnification binoculars. This was pointed in elevation by means of a handle, while in swing the DT had to point it by controlling the motor that swung the entire turret with a knob. In this way the APG and the rangefinder were brought into the tappet. The DT observation post could be closed, in case of bad weather, with a small canvas bellows. In the turret, there were 2 APG pointers, a telemetry operator, an operator at the control unit who processed the data, to transform them into "lift" and "cursor" and graduation for the blast time of the fuze, an employee with three tasks: to the corrections ordered by the TD to lengthen or shorten the shot, to the picture of the lamps that gave the "ready" of the pieces, as well as to the button that caused the simultaneous fire of the 6 guns.

With my left-hand pieces I only fired at departing planes; little satisfaction, because it was a punitive, not preventive shot, which is essential for the safety of the ship.

The impact of the first bomb was only scarcely detected by me, because I did not feel the oscillations of the ship, taken as I was by the firing of my guns. But there was no power for a few moments and I saw with great concern the gabion of the radio telemeter which, having detached from its support as a result of the concussion of the bomb, had slipped onto the barrel of my complex no. 1, immobilizing it; as I was about to order the armament of the complex to exit the turret and throw the gabion overboard, I was warned of another plane coming from starboard. I saw it exactly at the zenith, over our heads. I swung the turret but I could not put the plane in the binocular field solid with it, because its maximum elevation did not reach the zenith.

So I followed the plane with my hand-held binoculars: the binoculars integral to the turret never came into the field because while flying from starboard to left, the ship, which was under strong turn to the left, had a rotation motion that made it equal to zero the relative ship-aircraft motion, that is, this always remained on our vertical and out of range of the APG and guns. It was a nightmare, like in certain dreams in which someone attacks us to kill us and we feel like we are paralyzed, unable to move. A few seconds passed; I don't know if I saw the red fire detach from the plane, but I remember, as it was now, a huge black barrel that swooped down passing no more than a meter from the turret. There was a dull thud and the turret current went away. I gave the order to pass into the aft SDT, that is the night one which was immediately aft of the turret, but a little lower and I jumped from the turret onto the bridge level. Here I found Contestabile who asked me: "What's going on?", I replied: "It's simple, a bomb has fallen and now steam and black smoke are coming out from here." A dense cloud of steam mixed with smoke came out from a point located between the keep and the foredeck to the port of 152. I had just finished speaking, when a breath of frightening power was released from the bowels of the ship, the atmosphere became all of an intense yellow and a blaze of irresistible heat enveloped me.


I think the ship suddenly lifted up and then crashed back, because I found myself lying flat on the bridge with my arms outstretched. I saw the skin of the hands contract, wrinkle and take that brown color of roasted meat; I felt the whole skin of my face contract from the cheekbones, from the forehead, from the cheeks, from the chin, as if a great hand of fire wanted to gather it in the fist, in correspondence of the mouth.

There is an ethnological museum in Rome, the Pigorini museum, derived from the Kircherian museum, founded by the Jesuit father Kircher, in which strange trophies of the indios Mundrukos (Brazil), Jivaros and Ochuali (Ecuador) are kept. They are heads of enemies of these tribes, boned and reduced to the size of a fist; their mouths are sewn with a long fringe of colored threads, so that they cannot proffer curses to the one who has reduced them in this way. It seemed to me that my head had become like those in the museum: a terrible feeling.

It should be noted that I was not directly hit by the flames but cooked by the reverberation: I was 3 or 4 meters from the blaze. It was a matter of 4 or 5 seconds but it made such a profound impression on me that it has never been erased from my memory. More than thirty years have passed since that blaze, I left the Navy, civil life with its needs has completely absorbed me and I have thrown the past behind my back, I am interested in the present and, above all, in the future. I rarely thought about the tragedy of Rome; for years we saw each other again, met again with Megna, Scotto, Vannicelli Casoni, Vacca Torelli and other friends who had lived through the same vicissitudes, but we never commented on those tragic moments together: it was water under the bridge, we wanted to look forward to us, not behind us. Yet I happened to relive the terrible fire as in a dream. It was in the cinema: they were showing a film that was on the whole quite irritating and silly called The Stairway to Heaven. In the immense cavea of a fantastic Greek theater (paradise), men and women in uniform were continually arriving, going in order to occupy the place assigned to them. It was an exclusivist paradise because only the British and Americans were admitted (or maybe the Russians were there too? I don't remember). Italians, Germans or Japanese weren't there, maybe they were all in hell ... But in addition to this rather oleographic representation of heaven, there was the vision of a British bomber in flames and this was a scene of such profound realism , with the men writhing in the cockpit, which has become a burning oven, which I seemed to fully relive that distant 9th September 1943. Just to relive it myself: something shocking.

I have never experienced anything like this again and only now, consulting the documents on the tragedy of Rome, have I gone back to a thousand forgotten details.

The blaze lasted a few seconds and in that very short time sentenced our most modern battleship to death, but in the drama there was a fortune: it was a deflagration and not an explosion and this was due to the quality of our ammunition " of launch ": progressiveness.

Launch charges are those ammunition that is introduced into the cannon to launch the projectile out. They must have a rather slow and gradual combustion. The explosive used was cordite, a derivative of nitroglycerin, packaged in hollow, brown-colored macaroni-like rods. In the open air they burned a little faster than a stick of sealing wax. Once I saw a certain quantity of it burned in a meadow in Buffoluto, near Taranto, where the Navy's powder magazines were located. Cordite is stable and safe for a number of years, after which it becomes unstable and dangerous. For this reason, periodically, the on-board ammunition was renewed and the landed one was destroyed by fire. I remember that in that meadow they had made a long strip of cordite rods, about a palm high and then they had set fire to one end of the strip: the cordite burned with an intensely yellow flame but to destroy the whole strip, about fifteen long. of meters, it took a couple of minutes.


So our launch ammunition was stable, contrary to the British one. The launch charges of 2 152-foot towers and 1, possibly 2 381-foot towers, all caught fire; several tons of cordite, mind you, which produced a very powerful breath, an immense flame, but did not detonate. The explosives contained in the shells were not involved, because then the ship would have been pulverized. TNT was used in the projectiles (trinitrotoluene: toluene, aromatic hydrocarbon to which 3 hydrogen atoms are replaced with nitric groups), which can be melted and when it solidifies it can be hammered, sawed, milled, mistreated in all ways with impunity . But if a compressed TNT cylinder is introduced into its mass and this is triggered, let's say, with a silver tetrazide tablet which, hit by any pin striker, immediately catches fire, the TNT cylinder detonates and detonates the whole mass of molten TNT: that is, there is instantaneous combustion with an enormous increase in volume and development of heat.

In short, the TNT detonates, the cordite explodes, at least ours. For the British one it was another business and not from yesterday. Already at the Battle of Jutland in the First World War, 2 British battlecruisers were literally pulverized by enemy salvos; one of them disappeared so quickly that the one who followed him in formation passed into its waters without hitting wrecks and of the whole crew only one ensign was saved. In the Second World War, the British battlecruiser Hood disintegrated at the third salvo of the German battleship Bismarck, while in the Mediterranean the British battleship Barham exploded by a pair of torpedoes from a German submarine and disappeared in a large black cloud.

The deposits of Rome therefore exploded and allowed 1/3 of the crew to be saved.

But the trauma, for me, had been so strong and I was so sure that the burns contracted did not in any way allow my survival (I was, in other words, so sure I would have to die) that, being then as now a convinced Catholic, I did an excellent preparation for death and I began to wait calmly and with extraordinary serenity for the moment of passing away. Indeed I was very curious to see what was beyond, but without fear, with confidence.


Since then I have always regretted that excellent preparation for death, in the fear that it may not repeat itself, that I do not have the time or the spiritual disposition. I honestly consider it a lost golden opportunity.

The minutes passed and nothing happened. Then I looked around: there was not a living soul. Contestable was gone, no one came out of the tower. The armored door was closed with an electric motor. There was, it is true, the possibility of opening by hand with a ratchet lever but I certainly did not have the strength to maneuver it and then I believe that it was only inside the tower.

I got to my feet and I was curious to look to the left, where the bomb had fallen, and put my hands on the leg protector: it was hot; the varnish of the superstructures rose in bubbles and burned crackling with acrid smoke. So I also burned my hands underneath and the skin peeled off from the palms and remained hanging like a pair of gloves (similarly it happened to Vacca Torelli). The great smoke prevented me from seeing anything and I did not notice that the revolving part of tower no. 2 gc was gone.

Still thinking I was going to die, I tried to find a place to die by breathing better and climbed the ladder behind the tower to the admiral bridge; instructed by the burning of the palms against the leg protector, I supported myself at the handrails of the ladder with my arms bent, so that the handrails ran in contact with the inside of the arms, protected by the sleeves of the cloth jacket. On the admiral bridge the atmosphere was breathable, but the minutes passed and I did not die: I had to admit that the passing away was postponed to another time. I didn't see anyone there either; the keep was closed and there was a great silence. I knew that in addition to several officers whom I respected and knew well, admiral Bergamini, a man full of humanity and loved by all, must be inside, and with him rear admiral Stanislao Caraciotti, a moral figure who had not found a match, a friend for many years. of my family. Unfortunately I lacked the strength to try something to help them.

I went down all the stairs and under the signal station I saw, entangled in the steps, upside down, the charred body of a signalman.

Arrived at the castle on the starboard side, a group of people, who seem to me to be a non-commissioned officer and 2 graduates, pointed me to the hole of the first bomb; I continued towards the stern, crawling under the motorboat which had fallen across the castle, thrown from its saddles placed on the deckhouse; I went down the stairs that gave access to the stern and found myself in the midst of a group of people, all equipped with life jackets and unharmed, wandering without a precise destination. I told those who could hear me, and in particular the officers, not to jump overboard, to wait because the ship, although heavily heeled, still seemed capable of floating. Then I went up the stairs on the left that led up to the castle, looking for a life preserver. At the rear door of the nearby tower, a sailor came out and gave me a life jacket. In Mahón I did research to find out who it was, but I could not ascertain anything. I really think it was an angel ... I really think so, because without that life jacket I wouldn't have been in a position to keep myself afloat. Perhaps it was that one component of the tower that was never found again.

I saw GM Scotto, unconscious, lying a few meters from the tower. I told GM Meneghini, who was passing by, to pick it up and take care of it, which he did.

Returning to the stern, I saw that the ship was now heeling more and more and that the water was lapping against the gunwale. I gave the order to abandon ship on realizing that I was the oldest surviving naval officer. But many did not recognize me because I had a black face and a burnt mustache; I was recognized by Lt. of CREM Negrozzi who tied the life jacket to me, after I had taken off my jacket, binoculars and pistol, I had placed everything carefully on a ventilation mushroom and had placed my shoes well aligned at the base of the mushroom itself. Similar cases of strange fussiness in tragic circumstances can be found in the behavior of STV Vannicelli Casoni and Lt. GN Staccoli Castracane. I was sorry to leave the pistol, because it was not the order: it was a Smith & Wesson drum, chrome, that I wore in a holster hanging on the left shoulder, under the jacket, at the elbow, like the American gangsters and cops. I was left wearing, in addition to the trousers, the Naval Academy sweater, the blue one with the red crossed anchors, surmounted by the royal crown, on the left arm.

Meanwhile some officers, several non-commissioned officers and sailors were throwing the Carley life jackets that were on the sky of the stern towers overboard; I think that those of tower n. 3 gc were damaged because they were thrown down carelessly and bounced on deck.


At this point I climbed over the rail and threw myself into the sea "like a duck"; a dip in style would have been useless, indeed impossible, since we were already with our feet at water level. I swam away from the ship as best I could and joined a group of 3 people clinging to a cot. They were the lieutenants of CREM Orefice and Fidone with a sailor, whom I believe was the quartermaster Del Vecchio, who had the upper part of his bicep resected. The officers begged me not to cling to the cot too, otherwise we would all go to the bottom. So I kept a few meters away.

Meanwhile the ship was heeling more and more and the staff who were still in the stern, uncertain whether to throw themselves overboard from the starboard, fearing that the ship would overturn and submerge it, or whether to throw themselves from the left where a dive from considerable height would have been necessary, began to roll off the bridge, now almost vertical. There were at least twenty people clearly visible due to the red life jackets they were wearing. Then the ship capsized and some men managed to climb onto the hull. But as soon as it was turned upside down it broke in two: the stern section plunged with an inclination of about 45 ° and a couple of men who disappeared underwater clinging to one of the large bronze propellers that shone in the sun, it was the last vision that I had.


The part of the bow stayed longer out of the water in a vertical position, so much so that from where we were we could perfectly see the red and gold coat of arms of Rome with the inscription + SPQR; then vertically dived: the CREM officers shouted "Long live the King!" and me with them.

I did not abandon myself to despair, I did not fear even for a moment that I would not be saved, I found the sight of the machine gunner's motorboat coming in my direction natural. The men of the motorboat shouted: "First the wounded!"; I showed my hands and they immediately pulled me up. Evidently all my actions since the explosion of the deposits had been done as if in a trance, yet I had acted according to logic, I had taken initiatives and made rational arrangements. In other words I was, I think, as if in a dream, yet my mind was clear.

As soon as I was aboard the Machine Gunner, they cut my sweater so I wouldn't have to take it off my burned hands and head. Someone made me drink a liqueur; the ship's nurse brushed my hands with tannin and put some ointment on my face and legs, which were also partially burned. The sweater, lovingly sewn up by the women of the house, I must still have it in a trunk ... The commander Laj, squadron assistant, that is, direct collaborator of CV Marini, commander of the XII squadron, gave me his accommodation and made me lie down on his bunk. STV Mattoli, unharmed, had the patience to spend the whole night with me.

It was a busy night. Of course, we wounded could not even suspect the uncertainties that tormented Commander Marini to decide which port was safe enough to welcome us, to rescue us, not to shoot us with cannon fire. His torment is masterfully expressed in the report he wrote to Mahón on 30 September 1943 and which is reported in full in this book. We, however, became aware of the agitation that reigned on board: throughout the night there was a succession of horns that gave the airborne alarm, the sound of footsteps on the plates of the deck; people running to the fighting post. In the torment of the burns and in the flushing of the fever that had taken over my body, I thought: once I managed to get away with it, but this will be the death of the mouse, because who moves me from here? I later learned that the commotion depended on a British scout who followed us all night, lighting us from time to time with flares.

Nothing more, but after what we had been through, even a simple scout was enough to make us lose our nerves.

As God wanted, at dawn we found ourselves in front of the port of Mahón and at 8.30 we disembarked from the ships and set us off for the military hospital.

From the very first days I only remember the morning dressings. The Spanish nurses had bandaged my hands and to take off the bandages, in order to make me suffer less, they gave a tear to detach them from the living flesh.

Swear words came out of my mouth which were then considered unrepeatable, but which now constitute the interlayer that flourishes the speeches of minors. The infirmary was on the ground floor and in front of the window, which was open, Spanish soldiers and our lightest wounded were passing by, looking at them: I was furious to set up a spectacle for them.

Subsequently my condition worsened, I had a beginning of traumatic bronchopneumonia and I was told, later, that I had also taken the measurements for the coffin, instead I recovered with a single slightly warm poultice.

Then, luckily for us, Commander Marini sent the aspiring doctor Franco Sala as a reinforcement to the hospital. He was only an aspirant, he was not yet an official, but he was a capable and efficient doctor and so nice that all the nuns (Hijas de la Caridad of the congregation founded by the American Seaton) adored him. He treated everyone with love and self-denial, and he certainly saved my hands which, otherwise, would have been amputated. He placed them, free of any bandage, in two bowls containing "Dakin's liquid" (neutralized hypochlorite solution, bactericide). I had the extensor tendons in my fingers exposed but the infection passed. He tore off my fingernails under which the infection was lurking and new ones grew, not too beautiful, but which more or less do their job. To avoid the burning of the extensors causing the inconvenience of the claw-like hands (the fingers shrunk because they are recalled only by the flexors that are located under the fingers and in the palm), he applied to the wrists some iron wire bows to which he attached rubber bands that they held their fingers in traction. In order to heal the scars as soon as possible, he gave me two skin transplants, working as a team with the new Spanish director of the hospital, who, to tell the truth, was also efficient and capable.

I told all this to give an example of the care he gave to the wounded, not to talk about me. He made the same commitment to each and every one. And then he was cheerful, he joked, he was everyone's friend ... He took me aboard the Rifleman for New Year's Eve and the celebration ended in a general hangover, of which I remember, as the last episode, an orange that I received in the face, after that I fell into a deep sleep.

By now that I was feeling a little better, I was aware of the environment in which I was. After the first few days they took me on a stretcher to the wards to visit the other wounded. They made me stop briefly at Medanich's bed, he spoke with difficulty; in a strangled voice he asked me: "Who caught you?" I replied: "The same plane that caught you." I never saw him again, he died after a few days.

As long as I was immobilized in bed, I saw from the window a bit of sky and a grassy slope and I heard the horn signals of a Spanish unit that I did not know where it was blaring in the clear September air. I had imagined a world in my own way. Then I began to go outdoors with my own means, always accompanied by the inseparable Giannoccaro. So I saw that we were on a small island in the center of the beautiful bay of Mahén. The hospital consisted of 2 separate buildings, one of which was built at the end of the 18th century by the British.

It had a certain architectural dignity: a central body with 2 side projections, 2 floors, with a portico in the lower one. It had very wide but somewhat dilapidated aisles and was only partially used when the other building could not accommodate more patients. This second body of the building, facing the other, a little lower, was of recent construction, made by the Spaniards. It was an agglomeration of shacks, without any architectural pretense and with a single floor.

On January 29, 1944, after almost 5 months of hospitalization, I left the Mahòn hospital to undergo plastic surgery in Madrid along with 3 others who also suffered from severe burns and with Giannoccaro suffering from pleurisy.

Scotto, who had had the most severe burns on his face, had to undergo the removal of one eye, now irremediably lost, in Mahón to avoid irreparable damage to the other, which was also partially injured. He stayed for some time in Barcelona under the care of a world-famous doctor who saved his eye. He joined us at the Carabanchél Bajo hospital in Madrid and shared a room with me for many months.

I was discharged from the Carabanchél hospital on December 23, 1944, after having undergone 9 plastic operations.

Now enough talking about me: I want to add only 2 more things: a piece of news that I had left out and a consideration.

The news is as follows: in the late morning of 9 September 1943, while we were sailing towards La Maddalena, TV Uncini, assigned to the FF.NN.B. and walked around to inquire if there was anyone who knew English well. This inquiry gave me some thought and the conclusion I drew was that the admiral expected verbal contact with the British in the short term and I felt a profound malaise.

The consideration is the following: according to the conclusive data of the investigation, 1,227 people perished in the sinking of Rome and 622 were saved. Did the 1,227 deserve to die and did the 622 deserve to live? Were there not among those dead men of great moral influence, of profound culture, of high spirituality, of undisputed value in the scientific and technical fields? Were there not mediocre men among the survivors, if not really nullities? If man's mission is to produce something spiritual or material that is for the benefit of society, why and by whom has this incomprehensible discrimination been made? Those who believe in God affirm that every event from the most insignificant to the greatest is part of the inscrutable divine plan and since God is infinitely good and infinitely just, every decision of His responds to purposes of goodness and justice. Those who are atheists say that any event not caused by man or by natural laws is due to Chance. Let's leave out the infinite theses of non-Christian religions.

I confess that I continually ask myself: why did I escape the catastrophe in Rome? In these thirty and more years that have passed since September 9, 1943, what have I done for the benefit of society? Did I not obey only my narrow selfishness, did I not commit actions to the detriment of my neighbor? Yes, I worked with good will, I got married and, my wife and I, we tried to educate our two children according to principles we believed to be the best and now each of them is gaining independence and creating a life that responds to their own. principles and its needs. But, did I make the money that was entrusted to me by my Lord to bear fruit? (I refer to the well-known parable of the Gospel). How and to what extent? I don't know how to give myself an answer and I struggle with it, but perhaps I pretend to value things greater than myself.

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