The Indian Ocean
The light of a half-moon shimmered off the restless sea like a streak of flaming mercury. To Lieutenant Alberto Conti, the iridescent waves reminded him of a Monet waterscape viewed in a darkened room. The silvery froth reflected the moonlight back to the sky, illuminating a bank of clouds far to the north, the fringe of a storm that was soaking the fertile coast of South Africa some fifty miles away.
Tucking his chin from the moist breeze that buffeted him, Conti turned to face a young seaman standing watch beside him on the conning tower of the Italian submarine Barbarigo.
'A romantic evening, Catalano, is it not?'
The sailor gave him a quizzical look. 'The weather is quite pleasant, sir, if that's what you mean.' Though fatigued like the rest of the crew, the seaman still held a rigid demeanor in presence of officers. It was a youthful piety, Conti considered, one that would eventually vanish.
'No, the moonlight,' Conti said. 'I bet it shines over Naples tonight as well, glistening off the cobblestone streets. It wouldn't surprise me, in fact, if a handsome officer of the Wehrmacht isn't escorting your fiancée on a stroll about Piazza del Plebiscito at this very moment.'
The young sailor spat over the side, then faced the officer with burning eyes.
'My Lisetta would sooner jump off the Gaiola Bridge than associate with any German pig. I do not worry, for she carries a sap in her pocketbook while I'm away, and she knows how to use it.'
Conti let out a deep laugh. 'Perhaps if we armed all of our women, then neither the Germans nor the Allied Forces would dare set foot in our country.'
Having been at sea for weeks, and away from his homeland for months more, Catalano found little humor in the comment. He scanned the horizon, then nodded toward the dark, exposed bow as their submarine sliced through the waves.
'Sir, why have we been relegated to transport duty for the Germans rather than the merchant raiding, for which the Barbarigo was built?'
'We're all puppets on the Führer's string these days, I'm afraid,' Conti replied, shaking his head. Like most of his countrymen, he had no idea that forces were at work in Rome that would, in a matter of days, oust Mussolini from power and announce an armistice with the Allies. 'To think that we had a larger submarine fleet than the Germans in 1939, yet we now take our operational orders from the Kriegsmarine,' he added. 'The world is not so easily explained at times.'
'It doesn't seem right.'
Conti gazed across the sub's large forward deck. 'I guess the Barbarigo is too big and slow for the latest armed convoys, so we are now little more than a freighter. At least we can say our Barbarigo attained a proud wartime record before her conversion.'
Launched in 1938, the Barbarigo had sunk a half dozen Allied ships in the Atlantic during the early days of the war. Displacing over a thousand tons, she was much larger than the feared Type VII U-boats of the German wolf pack. But as German surface ship losses began to mount, Admiral Dönitz suggested converting several of the large Italian sommergibili into transport vessels. Stripped of her torpedoes, deck gun, and even one of her heads, the Barbarigo had been sent to Singapore as a cargo vessel, filled with mercury, steel, and 20mm guns for the Japanese.
'Our return cargo is deemed highly critical to the war effort, so somebody has to act as the mule, I suppose,' Conti said. But deep down, he was angered by the transport duty. Like every submariner, he had something of the hunter in him, a longing to stalk the enemy. But now an enemy encounter would mean death for the Barbarigo. Stripped of its weaponry and floundering along at twelve knots, the submarine was more a sitting duck than a feared attacker.
As a white-tipped wave splashed against the bow, Conti glanced at his illuminated wristwatch.
'Less than an hour to sunrise.'
Heeding the unspoken command, Catalano hoisted a pair of binoculars and scanned the horizon for other vessels. The followed suit, circling the conning tower with his eyes, taking in the sea and sky. His thoughts drifted to Casoria, a small town north of Naples, where his wife and young son awaited him. A vineyard grew behind their modest farmhouse, and he suddenly longed for the lazy summer afternoons when he would chase his boy through the sprouting vines.
Then he heard it.
Over the drone of the submarine's twin diesel engines, he detected a different sound, something of a high-pitched buzz. Snapping erect, he didn't waste time fixing a position.
'Secure the hatch!' he cried.
He immediately dropped down the interior ladder. The emergency dive alarm rang out an instant later, sending the crew scurrying to their stations. In the engine room, a massive clutch was engaged, killing the diesel engines and transferring drive power to a bank of battery-powered electric motors. Seawater began to slosh across the forward deck as Catalano sealed the conning tower hatch, then descended to the control room.
Normally, a well-trained crew could crash-dive a submarine in under a minute. But since it was loaded to the gills in transport mode, there was little the Italian sub could do quickly. With agonizing leisure, it finally sagged under the surface nearly two minutes after Conti had detected the approaching aircraft.
His boots clanking on the steel ladder as he descended into the control room, Catalano turned and scurried forward to his emergency dive station. The clatter of the diesel engines had fallen quiet as the sub converted to battery propulsion, and the crew mirrored the silence by speaking in hushed tones. The Barbarigo's skipper, a round-faced man named De Julio, stood rubbing sleep from his eyes as he asked Conti if they'd been seen.
'I can't say. I didn't actually see the aircraft. But the moon is bright and the seas are relatively calm. I am sure we are visible.'
'We will know soon enough.'
The captain stepped to the helm station, scanning the depth gauge. 'Take us to twenty meters, then full right rudder.'
The submarine's chief steersman nodded as he repeated the command, eyeing the gauges before him as his grip tightened on a large metal steering wheel. The control room fell silent as the men awaited their fate.
A thousand feet above them, a lumbering British PBY Catalina flying boat released two depth charges that whirled to-ward the sea like a pair of spinning tops. The aircraft was not yet equipped with radar; it was the RAF plane's rear gunner who had spotted the milky wake of the Barbarigo, angling across the rippled surface. Thrilled with his find, he pressed his nose against the acrylic window, wide-eyed, as the twin explosives splashed into the sea. Seconds later, two small geysers of spray shot into the air.
'A bit late, I believe,' the copilot said.
'I suspected as much.' The pilot, a tall Londoner who wore a clipped mustache, banked the Catalina in a tight turn with all the emotion of pouring a cup of tea.
Dropping the charges was something of a guessing game, as the submarine had already disappeared from view, though its wake was still visible, and the plane had to strike quickly. The airborne depth charges activated at a preset depth of only twenty-five feet. Given enough time, the sub would easily dive beyond their range.
The pilot lined up for another run, tracking a marker buoy they had released ahead of the initial attack. Eyeing the remnants of the sub's fading wake, he gauged the vessel's unseen path, then gunned the pig-bellied Catalina just past the buoy.
'Coming up on her,' he told the bombardier. 'Release if you've got a target.'
The bombardier for the eight-man crew sighted the sub and flipped a toggle switch, releasing a second pair of depth charges stowed under the Catalina's wings.
'Depth charges away. Spot-on this time, I'd say, Flight Lieutenant.'
'Let's try one more for good measure, then see if we can raise a surface ship in the vicinity,' the pilot replied, already banking the plane hard over.
Inside the Barbarigo, the twin blasts shook the bulk-heads with a deep shudder. The overhead lights flickered and the hull groaned, but no rush of water penetrated the interior. For a moment, the explosion's deafening roar seemed to be the worst consequence, ringing in each crewman's ears like the bells of St. Peter's Basilica. But then the ringing was overpowered by a metallic clang that reverberated from the stern, followed by a high-pitched squeal.
The captain felt a slight change in the vessel's trim. 'Fore and aft damage reports,' he yelled. 'What's our depth?'
'Twelve meters, sir,' the pilot said.
No one in the control room spoke. A cacophony of hisses and creaks permeated the compartment as the sub dove deeper. But it was the sound they didn't hear that prickled their ears—the splash and click of a pair of depth charges detonating alongside the submerged vessel.
The Catalina had dropped wide on its last pass, its pilot guessing north while theBarbarigo veered south. The last muffled explosions barely buffeted the submarine as it plunged beneath the reach of the depth charges. A collective sigh was expelled as, to a man, the crew realized they were safe for the time being. Their only fear now would be if an Allied surface ship could be summoned to renew the attack.
Their relief was cut short by a cry from the steersman.
'Captain, we seem to be losing speed.'
De Julio stepped close and examined a bank of gauges near the pilot's seat.
'The electrical motors are operational and engaged,' the young sailor said, wrinkling his brow. 'But I show no revolutions on the driveshaft.'
'Have Sala report to me at once.'
'Yes, sir.' A sailor near the periscope turned to retrieve the Barbarigo's chief engineer. He'd taken only two steps when the engineer appeared in the aft passageway.
Chief Engineer Eduardo Sala moved like a bulldozer, his squat frame churning forward in a blunt gait. He approached the captain and stared at him with harsh black eyes.
'Sala, there you are,' the captain said. 'What is our operational status?'
'The hull is secure, sir. We do have heavy leakage at the main shaft seal, which we are attempting to stem. I can report one injury, Engineer Parma, who fell and broke his wrist during the attack.'
'Very well, but what about the propulsion? Are the electric motors disabled?'
'No, sir. I disengaged the main drive motors.'
'Are you crazy, Sala? We were under attack and you disengaged the motors?'
Sala looked at the captain with contempt.
'They are irrelevant now,' he said quietly.
'What are you saying?' De Julio asked, wondering why the engineer was evasive.
'It's the screw,' Sala said. 'A blade was bent or warped by the depth charge. It made contact with the hull and sheared off.'
'One of the blades?' De Julio asked.
'No . . . the entire screw.'
The words hung in the air like a death knell. Absent its single screw propeller, theBarbarigo would be tossed about the sea like a cork. Its home port of Bordeaux suddenly seemed as far away as the moon.
'What can we do?' the captain said.
The gruff engineer shook his head.
'Nothing but pray,' he said softly. 'Pray for the mercy of the sea.'