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Italian Heavy Cruisers: From Trento to Bolzano

23 Jun 23

The two experienced authors of this book have also collaborated on earlier technical histories of Italian warships: Italian Battleships (Naval Review, Volume 110. Number 2); and The Littorio Class. Sadly, this is the last such collaboration, as Maurizio Brescia passed away in July 2022.    As with the earlier books, this publication draws on a wide range of sources to compile an authoritative account of, in this instance the seven Italian heavy cruisers constructed as a result of the wider limitations imposed by the 1922 Washington Treaty.

The seven ships under consideration were laid down between 1925 and 1931. Whilst all the ships differed in detail, the three ships of the Trento-class (Trento, Trieste and Bolzano­ – albeit the last of the three is technically in a class of her own) were essentially lightly armoured but were capable of 35 knots, whilst the four ships of the Zara-class (Zara, Fiume, Gorizia and Pola) had thicker armour but were slower and heavier. The two designs thus represented differing approaches to the compromise between armament, protection and speed, with the Zara-class generally considered the more survivable design. All the ships had a main armament of eight 203mm (8in) guns in four twin turrets, and a secondary armament of eight twin 100mm (3.9in) mountings. The principal consideration of the Italians was to construct a fleet capable of confronting the French, but as a result of the second London Conference of 1936 Treaty, both the French and the Italians switched their attention to other, more useful, categories of warship.

The book opens with a technical description of the ships, highlighting the differences in detail between the seven hulls. The chapter includes a wealth of information (ideal for modellers) and a comprehensive set of line drawings of the hulls and the internal layouts.  This is followed by chapters on weapons and fire control, aviation and camouflage.

The second part of the book covers the ‘in service’ lives of each ship, culminating with their destruction during World War Two. In the run-up to the war, the ships were kept busy, showing the flag, intervening in the Spanish Civil War, and participating in exercises. The Italians joined the War in June 1940, and the book goes on to describe those actions in which the heavy cruisers were the main protagonists, in action against the British. The role of intelligence and the confusion of battle are well illustrated, as are the acknowledged failures of the Italians in their readiness for night actions and in their gunnery.

As a result of their Washington Treaty genesis, the ships were known as ‘10,000-ton’ cruisers – albeit their standard displacements exceeded this figure. In the final chapter, the authors compare the Italian designs with those of their competitor navies, concluding that, in terms of design, materials and construction, they were the equal of contemporary foreign ships; however, in the more advanced technologies (electronics, radar communications, fire control, and AA) they lagged their opponents, throughout the course of the war. Finally, the appendices provide further information on the design capabilities of the ships, on their operation and on the circumstances of each of their losses.

This handsome and readable book, expertly translated from the original Italian, is extensively illustrated throughout with black and white images of the ships, in addition to tables of information and line drawings. The quality of the research, exemplified by the impressive bibliography, means that this surely must be the definitive work on these classes of heavy cruiser. It is a fascinating insight into the derivation, design and operation of what, ultimately, proved to be a flawed concept.