ITALIAN BATTLESHIPS: CONTE DI CAVOUR AND DUILIO CLASSES 1911-1956

February 11, 2022
Posted by: REAR ADMIRAL R. G. MELLY

This book tells the stories of the five battleships built by the Italians in the run-up to the First World War – the three ships of the Cavour class (Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare and Leonardo da Vinci), quickly followed by the two ships of the Duilio class (Duilio and Andrea Doria).

These ships were seen as a development of Italy’s first dreadnought (Dante Alighieri) and were intended to counter the naval forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; however, plagued by long build times and industrial inadequacies, they were completed too late to see action in the First World War.  As the political situation developed, the controversial decision was taken in the 1930s to modernise the four surviving hulls (the Leonardo da Vinci was lost in 1916, following a magazine explosion).  Even as the work progressed, it was recognised that the reconstructed vessels were never going to compete with the modern battleships then being introduced by other Western navies, but they were seen as a counter to France’s modernised battleships of that era.  Italy was thus poorly prepared to confront its actual protagonist in the Second World War – the Royal Navy.

The book’s two experienced authors had previously collaborated on writing a book on the last of the Italian battleships, The Littorio Class. In writing this current book, they drew heavily on the previous work of earlier authors in the 1970s, supplemented with information from documentation which has subsequently come to light. The result is a comprehensive history of the concept, technical development, and operational deployment of the four remaining vessels.

The ships were originally built with a main armament of thirteen 305mm guns mounted in five turrets.  It quickly became clear that this armament was inadequate and that the turret layout had serious constraints. The reconstruction of the ships was, however, a significant undertaking: the midships turret was removed; the remaining main armament was upgraded to ten 320mm guns in four turrets; 60% of the hull was rebuilt, including updating the horizontal protection system; and the main machinery was replaced, with a reduction from four shafts down to two and an increase in maximum speed from 22 knots to 28 knots.  Nevertheless, the ships were still not a match for their British adversaries, albeit the Italian Fleet was latterly reinforced by the three battleships of the modern Littorio Class.

The operations of the Italian Fleet throughout the Second World War are then set out in considerable detail.  The disaster at Taranto, in which Conte di Cavour and Duilio were both torpedoed (along with the more modern Littorio), swiftly followed by the bombardment of Genoa, had damaged the Italians materially and psychologically.  Even following the subsequent British losses – Ark Royal (sunk), Barham (sunk), Force K (mined), Valiant and Queen Elizabeth (damaged) – the Italians concentrated on preserving a Fleet in Being, hampered by a lack of fuel, poor industrial capability and an unwillingness to engage with their enemy on anything other than the most favourable of terms.

Finally, the authors go on to describe the disposal of the four remaining vessels; ultimately, three of them were scrapped, but the Giulio Cesare was transferred to the Soviet Union, where she was subsequently sunk at her moorings, in 1955, as a result of triggering a long dormant German mine.

The book, ably translated from its original Italian, benefits greatly from being written from an Italian perspective. This gives considerable authenticity to many of the insights and observations made by the authors, one of whom is a former senior officer in the Italian Navy.  This well-researched book, supported by a large number of black and white photographs, is a definitive ‘warts and all’ history of an important chapter in the history of Italian battleships.