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…and a little-known story from World War II.
***WARNING: WALL OF TEXT BELOW***
**Part 1: some background**
At the outbreak of World War II, the Italian Navy had a total of seven destroyers stationed in the Red Sea, in the Eritrean base of Massawa, then part of Italian East Africa. These ships, all of them rather aged (they had been commissioned between 1924 and 1927), were grouped into two squadrons: the three larger destroyers of the Leone class, also known as the “Wild Beasts” class (as its ships were named after “big cats”: *Leone*, Lion; *Tigre*, Tiger; *Pantera*, Panther), formed the 5th Destroyer Squadron; the four smaller Sauro-class destroyers, also known as the “Patriots” class (since they were all named after heroes of the Italian independence wars – *Daniele Manin* and *Francesco Nullo* – and irredentist ‘martyrs’ of World War I – *Nazario Sauro* and *Cesare Battisti*), formed the 3rd Destroyer Squadron.
During the autumn and winter of 1940-1941, these destroyers had carried out multiple raids against Allied convoys in the Red Sea, clashing with their escorts; most of these engagements had been inconclusive, and one had costed the loss of *Francesco Nullo*, sunk in a gunnery duel by the destroyer HMS *Kimberley* off Harmil Island (whose coastal batteries, manned by naval personnel, had in turn damaged *Kimberley*). Then, as the fuel reserves gradually dwindled, so did the destroyer’s activity.
The war in East Africa had meanwhile taken an unfavorable turn for the Italian forces; on 5 February 1941 the Commonwealth forces, having invaded Eritrea, begain their assault on the Italian mountain positions at Keren, thus beginning a battle that would last nearly two months and become the bloodiest engagement of the entire campaign. All the available forces were thrown into this decisive battle; when Keren would fall, the road to Massawa would be open: Admiral Mario Bonetti, the commander of Italian naval forces in East Africa, knew it, and understood that the end was a matter of months, perhaps weeks. Therefore, he started to make plans for the evacuation of the few ships that had enough range for them to reach Europe or the Far East, and the destruction of all the others. In [my post about the submarine *Perla*](https://www.reddit.com/r/WarshipPorn/comments/91g6lr/the_italian_submarine_perla_sporting_her_camo/?utm_content=comments&utm_medium=hot&utm_source=reddit&utm_name=WarshipPorn), on /r/warshipporn, I mentioned that the submarines were evacuated to German-occupied France. A few surface ships, at the same time, set sail for Japan. But for most of the ships in Massawa, whose range and/or seaworthiness were judged as inadequate for such a long and perilous voyage, there would be no such escape. The “Patriots” and the “Wild Beasts”, elderly and worn-out by their long stay in the peripheral base of Massawa (where the scarcity of maintenance facilities had gradually diminished their general efficiency and reliability), were among the doomed ships.
Bonetti, however, would not content himself with merely scuttling the destroyers. He was determined to have them try to do some damage to the enemy before their final destruction; with this intent in mind, he planned two separate attacks against British naval bases in the Red Sea. The 5th Destroyer Squadron, whose ships possessed a greater range, would sail north for 500 miles and attack Suez, while the smaller ships of the 3rd Destroyer Squadron would do the same against Port Sudan. The orders were to shell the port facilities and attack any enemy ships they would find, causing as much damage as possible. Arrangements were made with the Luftwaffe for an air raid to be carried out against Suez, by Heinkel He 111 bombers, at the same time of the destroyer’s attack. Whatever its results, the raid against Suez and Port Sudan would be a no-return mission for the Italian destroyers: the last fuel reserves – that the naval oiler *Niobe* had loaded in the smaller base of Assab and carried to Massawa before joining the growing number of merchants and auxiliaries that were being scuttled there so as to blockade the harbour – would be enough only for the outward voyage. Return was not an option, and even if there had been enough fuel to come back, the only fate that would await the destroyers in Massawa would be scuttling to prevent the ships from falling into British hands. If they managed to fulfill their mission and survive, the ships were supposed to sail into Arabian waters and scuttle themselves there, so that the crews would land in neutral territory and thus avoid captivity.