❤ Sharing Folkworthy Stuffs ❤
1 Comment Vintage
Photo source, http://www.navy.gov.au.
Some background about this photo-
In the opening weeks of the Mediterranean war, before a convoy sistem was organized, the first shipments of supplies for the Italian forces in North Africa were sent with fast convoys of warships.
One such mission began on 27 June 1940, when the 2nd Destroyer Squadron (under the command of Captain Enrico Baroni) sailed from Taranto for Tobruk with ten anti-tank guns, 162 Blackshirt gunners and 120 tons of AT ammunition. The squadron consisted of the Turbine-class destroyers *Espero* (Baroni’s flagship), *Ostro* and *Zeffiro*.
Unknown to the Italian commands, in the same days the Royal Navy was also carrying out a convoy operation between Malta and Egypt, covered by part of the Mediterranean Fleet. Shortly after noon on 28 June, a Short Sunderland reconnaissance aircraft spotted the three Italian destroyers sailing towards Tobruk, and alerted the British commands. Vice Admiral John Tovey’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, with light cruisers *Orion*, *Neptune*, *Liverpool*, *Gloucester* and *Sydney* (the latter being Australian), found itself not very far from the reported position, and was thus despatched to intercept the Italian ships.
When the two forces met, around 6:30 PM, Tovey split his squadron into two groups, trying to outflank and encircle the destroyers; *Orion*, *Neptune* and *Sydney* manoeuvred to do so from starboard, *Liverpool* and *Gloucester* from port. The Italian destroyers were theorically faster than the British cruisers, but their older age (twelve years, as opposed to four/six years for the British ships) and their heavy load erased this advantage, and Tovey’s ships slowly started to gain on them. Captain Baroni thus decided to stay behind with his *Espero* in an attempt to delay the cruisers, and buy time for *Ostro* and *Zeffiro* to get away. In the following 90 minutes, *Espero* carried out evasive manoeuvres at high speed, laid smokescreens, fired back with her guns (one of her shells hit *Liverpool*, although it barely did any damage), made feint attacks and launched her torpedoes more with the aim of inducing the opposers to keep themselves at a distance, that in the actual hope of hitting something. Meanwhile, *Ostro* and *Zeffiro* sped away towards Tobruk, where they arrived a few hours later.
*Espero* drew on herself some 5,000 shells before being finally hit and disabled at 8:00 PM. The first hits disabled no. 1 boiler, soon followed by no. 2 boiler; other shells hit the stern, another one caused an explosion below the bridge, and yet another destroyed the chart room, killing two officers and slightly wounding Captain Baroni, who had just left the bridge when the shell had struck. The fire control center was destroyed, leaving the guns to aim individually. More hits in the engine room sealed the fate of the ship.
As darkness was falling and hope of catching the other destroyers had vanished, Admiral Tovey decided to leave, detaching *Sydney* with the task of finishing off *Espero*, which she did.
His ship turned into a floating wreck, Captain Baroni ordered his surviving crew to abandon ship on the rafts, but declined to save himelf, stating that “the captain dies with his ship”. A petty officer later told Sub-Lieutenant Giussani, one of the three surviving officers, that he had seen Baroni standing on the ship’s stern as she went down. Another two seamen recounted that they had seen Baroni climb back on the bridge and had then heard two gunshots.
As the last raft rowed away, *Espero* listed more and more to port, then she momentarily uprighted herself, and then she started to list again, this time to starboard. Flames came out of her funnels; she capsized, raised her stern in the sky, and finally went down. It was 20:40.
*Espero* carried a total of 255 men when she was sunk – 198 crew and 57 personnel on passage (two men from the Regia Marina and 55 Blackshirts). As darkness fell, *Sydney* rescued 47 of them (all those within sight), three of whom would later die on board from their wounds; then she left, as she would have made too easy a target for submarines, but not before casting adrift a cutter loaded with provisions for any further survivors who may be in the sea.
There were, indeed, dozens more survivors aboard other rafts, that *Sydney* had been unable to spot in the darkness. None of these rafts were ever seen again, save for one. Thirty-six men, including *Espero*’s executive officer, had boarded this particular raft. Its occupants could see other rafts, but the sea dispersed them, and in the end they were alone. Many of the men were wounded; those who weren’t, as the raft was overcrowded, took turns staying in the water, hanging off the sides. At every turn, however, some men succumbed to exhaustion and disappeared. Others, in the following days, succumbed to thirst (the raft contained neither food nor water), or drank sea water, hallucinated, lost their mind and jumped overboard. The executive officer, only officer in the raft, angrily called his orderly and demanded that he let him go down to his cabin, he had still mineral water down there; the others calmed him, he exhorted them to make a last effort to row towards the land that – in his hallucinations – was in sight, then he jumped into the sea and disappeared. After this, it was the most senior non-commissioned officer, *secondo capo* [roughly equivalent to petty officer second class] Franco Lo Mastro, who took command of the raft.
In the matter of three days, the number of the survivors had already dwindled to fourteen, and by the fifth day they were seven. On that morning, the survivors saw what at first seemed yet another hallucination: a large lifeboat, intact, empty, drifting in the sea. They rowed towards it, boarded it, and found out it contained some signal rockets, a signal lamp, a compass, three raincoats, matchsticks, helmets (“French type”) and, most importantly, four barrels of water. To them, it was a miracle; they thought this was the leftover of some other shipwreck, but in all likelihood they had finally found *Sydney*’s cutter, although it had come too late for most of them. The survivors hurled themselves on the water barrels and the little leftovers of food they had found, but Lo Mastro took charge again; he rationed the water, so that it would last longer, and raised two oars with a piece of clothing, to act as a signal and enable other vessels to spot the boat.
The water was more than enough for some time, but, save for a banana peel and some remnants of marmalade, there was no food. One of the seven survivors, who was wounded, died twenty-four hours after they had found the boat. Lo Mastro had to discourage some of the others from cannibalistic ideas, and buried the body at sea.
Ten days after the sinking, the survivors spotted a flying boat; they fired a distress rocket and, when the aircraft came closer, they signalled with a Donath lamp (in Italian) “We are Italians, survivors from the *Espero*”. The flying boat replied “Copy that”, then left.
On the following day, another aircraft was spotted, again without benefit for the six survivors. Hunger had replaced thirst as the main problem; one of the survivors fired a rocket through a flock of seagulls, thus managing to kill one of them. The dead bird was plucked from the sea, “cleaned” and “cooked” using one of the helmets as a pot. Others used a flagpole and some wire to make an improvised fishing rod, but they only managed to fish a single small fish.
On 12 July, when death seemed impending, the six men heard what sounded like fan noise. They raised their heads with their last strength, and they saw a submarine. It was *Topazio*, which had spotted a drifting boat in the middle of the sea and had closed to investigate. They were saved. Fourteen days had passed since the sinking of *Espero*.
*Espero* holds two unenviable records; she was the first destroyer lost by the Regia Marina in World War II (coincidentally, the last one would be her sistership *Euro*), and the first of the 300+ ships that would be sunk in the bloody convoy war between Italy and North Africa from June 1940 to May 1943.