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Conte Rosso (18,500 GRT, 1,950 passengers), Conte Verde (18,761 GRT, 2,430 passengers), and Conte Grande (25,661 GRT, 1,718 passengers) were three of the so-called “Four Counts” (the fourth was Conte Biancamano, 23,562 GRT and 1,750 passengers), a quartet of ocean liners built by Lloyd Sabaudo, Italy’s second largest shipping company (based in Genoa and operating both on the Italy-Americas and Italy-Asia lines), during the 1920s. All four ships were named after historical members of the House of Savoy: Amadeus VII (1360-1391), called il Conte Rosso (“the Red Count”); Amadeus VI (1334-1383), called il Conte Verde (“the Green Count”); Amadeus V (1249-1323), called il Conte Grande (“the Great Count”); and Humbert I (980-1047/1048), known as Umberto Biancamano (“Humbert the White-Handed”), the founder of the House. (By the way; Lloyd Sabaudo means “Savoyard Lloyd”, and the Savoy-Aosta branch of the House of Savoy had shares in the company).
Trying to outdo its main rivals, Navigazione Generale Italiana and Transatlantica Italiana (also based in Genoa), Lloyd Sabaudo had originally ordered Conte Rosso in 1914, from a shipyard in Dalmuir (Scotland): she was to be the largest and most luxurious liner ever built for an Italian company (although at the same time NGI had also ordered another liner, Duilio, which was to be even bigger). The outbreak of World War I, however, halted the construction of the new ship, and in 1916 the incomplete Conte Rosso was sold to the Royal Navy, which completed her as the first British aircraft carrier – HMS Argus. Lloyd Sabaudo had to postpone its grandiose plans until after the war, when a new Conte Rosso (slightly different from the original) and a near-sister ship, Conte Verde, where ordered from the same Scottish shipyard. They entered service in 1922 and 1923, respectively, sailing alternatively on the Italy-North America (Genoa-Naples-New York) or South America (Genoa-Naples-Buenos Aires-Montevideo) line. Shortly thereafter, Lloyd Sabaudo decided to build another pair of liners, larger and more luxurious than the previous ones: Conte Biancamano and Conte Grande. The former was ordered once again from the William Beardmore shipyard in Dalmuir, whereas the latter was built by Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino in Trieste, Italy. They entered service in 1925 and 1928, respectively.
In 1932, following the financial losses caused by the Great Depression and pressure from the Fascist regime, Lloyd Sabaudo, Navigazione Generale Italiana and another of Italy’s main shipping companies, the Trieste-based Cosulich Line, were merged into a single large company, Italia Flotte Riunite, or as it was internationally known, the Italian Line. The Four Counts thus became part of the fleet of this new company, which after the state-controlled reorganization of Italy’s passenger shipping companies, was tasked specifically and exclusively with service on the routes between Italy and the Americas. The completion of newer and larger liners for the Italy-America service, however, had meanwhile made Conte Rosso and Conte Verde redundant; therefore, in 1933 the two liners were transferred to Lloyd Triestino, another of Italy’s main shipping companies (which after the 1932 reorganization was now entrusted with service between Italy, its East African colonies, the Middle East and the Far East), which placed them in service on the Italy-Egypt-India-Ceylon-Singapore-Hong Kong-China line. In 1937 Conte Biancamano was also transferred to Lloyd Triestino and placed in service on the Genoa-Naples-Suez-Bombay-Hong Kong-Singapore-Shanghai line, but from early 1940 she was chartered by the Italian Line and transferred to the Genoa-Valparaiso line (which passed through the Panama Canal).
All went well until Italy’s entry into World War II, on 10 June 1940. At that time, only one of the Four Counts was in the Mediterranean: Conte Rosso. And of the four ships, this was the one that suffered the worst fate. In late 1940 she was requisitioned for use as a troopship, and between December 1940 and May 1941 she completed eight round trips between Italy and Libya, carrying thousands of troops. On 24 May 1941, during her ninth trip, she was torpedoed by the submarine HMS Upholder and quickly sank, with the loss of 1,297 of the 2,729 troops and crew onboard; one of Italy’s greatest sea tragedies during World War II.
Of the other three ships, Conte Verde was in China, in Shanghai (then under Japanese control). She was interned there and remained idle for the following three years, except for a single voyage in June 1942, when she was used in an exchange of American and Japanese civilian internees (mostly diplomatic personnel) held in Mozambique. In late August 1943 she was charteded by the Japanese authorities, but on 8 September, while still in Shanghai, she was scuttled by her crew after the proclamation of the Armistice of Cassibile (the crew ended up in Japanese internment camps, where nearly thirty of them died; the survivors only returned to Italy between 1946 and 1947). In July 1944 the liner was salvaged by the Japanese, who renamed her Kotobuki Maru (and, according to some sources, planned to take her to Japan and turn her into an aircraft carrier), but a month later she was sunk again by an USAAF raid. The Japanese persevered, and refloated the ship once again; they made her provisionally seawhorty and transferred her to Japan in April-May 1945, but during the voyage she struck a mine and suffered heavy damage. She was nevertheless towed to Maizuru, but in July 1945, right after completing the repairs to the hull, she was hit again by an American air raid and was run aground to prevent her sinking. In May 1946 the devastated carcass of what had been a beautiful liner sank in shallow water in the bay of Maizuru. Refloated in 1949, after an inspection had shown that repairing her would be too costly and long bickering between Italy and Japan, the former Conte Verde was scrapped in Japan in 1951.
The younger pair were luckier.