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Zara was sunk on 29 March 1941 during the battle of Cape Matapan.
Below are the accounts of two survivors from the heavy cruiser Zara, both from the book Le battaglie navali del Mediterraneo nella seconda guerra mondiale, by Arrigo Petacco. I decided to include the first one as well because, although short and told in third person, unlike the other, it comes from someone who was on the bridge, next to Zara’s commanding officer, and thus gives some insight about what was happening there in those moments. The two accounts somewhat complement each other, as the first one ends as the Mediterranean Fleet opens fire on Zara, and the second begins just after the shooting is over; the first survivor was up on the bridge, the second deep in the bowels of the ship.
The first account is from Sub-Lieutenant Giorgio Parodi, on the bridge. At 22:25 a red signal was spotted to port. “That is Pola”, Captain Luigi Corsi (Zara’s commanding officer) told Parodi. Then, as if having second thoughts, he added: “But do you think that is indeed our recognition signal?”. Parodi answered that, in fact, the signal looked different to him. In that same istant, a searchlight lighted up the formation, and more precisely the heavy cruiser Fiume, that was following Zara. Corsi cursed: “Why are they using the searchlights? Has everyone gone insane onboard Pola?” Everyone was still completely calm. They were all certain that the other ship was Pola, although her behaviour seemed a bit strange. Thus, when Warspite fired her first salvo against Fiume, Corsi furiously shouted: “Now they are even firing on us! Make the recognition signal at once!” But in that moment a second salvo struck Fiume, and Corsi realized the truth. “These are 381 mm guns!” He shouted. “We have fallen into a trap!” Immediately thereafter, Zara was hit as well. The ship was soon on fire.
The second account is narrated by Lieutenant (E) Salvo Giuseppe Parodi, in the engine room. (Not related to Giorgio Parodi: Parodi just happens to be the most widespread surname in Genoa, one of Italy’s most important seafaring cities. There were five different Parodis on the five ships sunk at Mapatan: two on Zara, two on Pola, one on Alfieri). The narration starts just after Zara had been effectively wrecked by the Mediterranean Fleet’s gunfire.
“Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant (E) Quercetti came down to my compartment; he appeared very calm and told me what follows. We had gotten near Pola and we had fallen into an ambush by British ships that had fired on us at point blank range (2,000 meters) after lighting us up with their searchlights. From what could be understood, we had been hit amidships. For the moment, the buoyancy of the ship was satisfactory, but many men had been killed and there were many wounded, especially scalded by the steam. Quercetti did not have particular orders for me. Later, the commanding officer phoned me and ordered to start the engines in reverse, explaining: “We are going to take a look at Fiume’s wreck, which is burning”. This was the first time I learned that Fiume had been hit. Meanwhile, Lt. (E) Quercetti had gone away, leaving to me his lifebelt, as I did not have it. In that moment I only had a few men with me. After a few minutes – I do not know how many – Captain Corsi phoned, saying: “Enough, Parodi. You can stop. We have made a circle: I think that the engines aren’t of use anymore”. I replied: “Ok, Captain. Anyway, I will stay here just in case. What must I do with the personnel on watch?” There was a pause, then the captain answered: “Send them up on deck”. “Should I have the boilers put off?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied. “And, if you cand find him, put me through to the Chief Engineer. I am alone on the bridge and this is the only working phone”. I thus sent Mechanic Petty Officer Filippi to boilers nos. 1 and 2 to tell the firemen to put them out and go up on deck. Then I sent two firemen looking for Lieutenant Commander (E) Chiapperini [Zara’s Chief Engineer]. Filippi did not come back, but shortly thereafter one of the firemen returned with the Chief Engineer. I put Lt. Cdr. (E) Chiapperini through to the bridge by phone, but almost immediately he gave me the receiver, saying “You speak, I can’t understand anything”. I did as he said. Captain Corsi told me: “Your chief is not phonogenic. He does not understand what I say and I do not understand what he says. This order is for him, relay it to him and give confirmation: prepare the destruction of the ship and inform me of the measures taken”. Without putting the receiver down, I repeated the order to Lieutenant Commander (E) Chiapperini and gave confirmation to the commanding officer. Lieutenat Commander (E) Chiapperini, who looked very depressed, left without saying a word. Immediately thereafter, a gunner came in the engine room with a mine-crate and a box of matches. “Executive officer Giannattasio sends these to you” he said. Helped by the fireman, I placed the explosive below the pipes of the circulation pumps, then I took a sledgehammer that was fixed to the bulkhead and I went down to unscrew the bolts of the condenser’s hatch. Having returned to the manoeuvre floor [? some sort of engine control room perhaps?] I met Sub-Lieutenant (E) Marchese, who had gone down to check that the explosives had been brought to me. He left us as soon as he ascertained that. I then reported to the commanding officer that in the forward engine room everything was ready for the destruction of the ship. The commanding officer, who had spoken very calmly and clearly for the entire time, repeated that he was alone on the bridge. As for the order to blow up the ship, he waited to give it in due time. I repeated that I would remain where I was, waiting for his orders. He simply replied: “Thanks”. The two or three firemen who had remained with me had left and I believed that I had remained entirely alone. All the machinery were stopped: there was a deep silence. At 23:45, perhaps because I was feeling a bit nervours, I phoned the bridge. There was no answer; I tried again a few minutes later, but in vain. At 23:57 I tried again with the same result. I remember the times with this precision because I anxiously observed the clock, counting every minute. Exactly at 23:59 I decided to go up on deck, but before, perhaps in order to buy some more time, I went down to check on the esplosives. At the oil pump I found fireman Panzini, on watch, and near the auxiliary condenser I found leading fireman Sabatini, also on watch, together with a fireman whose name I do not remember. They told me their had remained at their stations, waiting for my orders. I ordered them to go up on deck. Fireman Panzini did not have his lifebelt; I reprimanded him for this, but had it not been for Lieutenant (E) Quercetti, I would have been in the same situation. I gave Panzini the lifebelt that I had and that he tried to refuse. Finally they saluted me and left. I remained there for a few more minutes, then I returned to the manoeuvre floor, where I found the lifebelt, which Panzini had evidently left there before going up. I went up on deck and I noticed that the ship had a list of about six degrees to starboard. For the entire time I had been below decks, I had not heard a single cannon shot, neither by the enemy nor by us. The gun deck, starboard side, was pitch dark. By using my flashlight, I saw that the room was cluttered with cots: some bodies lay near the port cabinets and others were near the bulkhead, perhaps dead. I then crossed into the firemen’s sink room and then to the port side of the gun deck. There, Commander Giannattasio illuminated me with his flashlight. I told him that I had just come up from the engine room, as I had been unable to obtain any reply from the bridge. “You did well”, he replied. “Go down to the no. 1 and 2 boiler rooms and check whether anyone has remained there. You’ll save me the trouble”. I went to the boiler rooms. There was no one. Everything was in order, but there was a terrible heat. I went back up through the port side gun deck, and at the foot of the ladder that led to the open deck I met Major Mazziotti of the Naval Medical Corps and Major Misitano of the naval administrative services, who were carrying a wounded man.
Young happy fellows, before facing the horrors of war.