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From Saint Bon to Regina Elena:
Italian Pre-Dreadnoughts in Great War at Sea
By David Hughes
December 2014

The Italian armed forces used to be always downplayed in Anglo-Saxon books and comments, with the Regia Marina Italiana particularly prone to patronising prose implying that it contained second-rate ships manned by brave but usually incompetent sailors.The truth, as opposed to the myth, is far different.

British and American writers, invariably biased by memories of Trafalgar and consumed by the sea-control theories of Mahan, found it difficult to evaluate the value of what was essentially a coast-defense navy. Its job was to protect the ports of Italy and Sicily and the essential but overlooked trade that followed the coastline against the attacks of two conceivable enemies, France and Austria-Hungary. Note that Italy had, especially south of Florence, limited rail and road capacity in this period, so that trade in food, fuel and merchandise largely moved in coastal steamers. All this led to design features and tactics fo the Italian Navy that differed from those of the "ocean" navies. Of course the Italian Navy did have its problems. Created from the separate fleets of Sardinia, Naples, Tuscany and the Pope, feuds and squabbles contributed to the defeat at Lissa in 1866 (covered in the upcoming Ironclads: Hearts of Iron) and were still perpetuated in cabals and cliques 50 years later.


The battleship Italia is finally launched.

 

If there was a weakness, it lay in the limited industrial infrastructure of Italy. Her naval architects were innovative and widely admired, but shipyards were few and methods often antiquated, leading to extended building times. As an example, the two battleships of the Duilio class, laid down in 1873 needed seven and 11 years to complete. They were spectacularly innovative being the first battleships to dispense with sails and carry very heavy guns and they made the reputation of their designer, Benedetto Brin. He, together with Vittorio Cuniberti, another Italian chief engineer, created the most highly respected and innovative design school of the pre-dreadnought era. Just as present-day German and Swedish designers dominate the design of conventional submarines, so the Italians produced unusual and highly regarded battleship and armored cruiser designs. Good examples were the Italia and Lepanto of 1876. They were as big and well armed as battleships and as fast as armored cruisers. However, anyone thinking that this makes them early battle-cruisers should remember that they had virtually no heavy armor and could carry almost 10,000 infantrymen! Like the succeeding and somewhat more conventional Ruggiero di Lauria class they were no longer active when the war started.

Next to appear were the three battleships of the Re Umberto (named for the king from 1878 to 1900) class. Brin continued to emphasise power and speed over protection, with only the barbettes holding the four 13.5-inch guns having heavy armor. The side armor was only four inches of hardened steel. Note, however, that the protection also involved heavy subdivision together with packaged cellulose, the whole purpose being to keep the ship afloat, even when riddled by enemy gunfire. Brin was also a passionate believer in speed, giving the last two ships built, Sicilia and Sardegna, over 20 knots. This was 3 to 4 knots faster than the European norm for battleships and meant that (in theory) they could keep out of range of all but the largest and slowest-firing guns. A distinctive feature was their funnels, three in all with the first two abreast of each other. All three battleships were reduced to service as depot ships during the war. In 1918 the Italians planned to emulate the British raid on Zeebrugge. Re Umberto was to be used in the same way as Vindictive, given extra protection and turned into a "harbour-buster," blasting a hole through the nets and booms of the port of Pola so that a fleet of fast torpedo boats could enter and wreak havoc. The war ended before this could be attempted.


Regina Margherita the battleship, not the pizza.

 

The Ammiraglio di Saint Bon class are the first to have counters in Mediterranean. These were small ships, at 10,000 tons just two-thirds of the displacement of their predecessors. The other was Emanuele Filiberto (a 16th century Duke of Savoy, admired for replacing Latin with Italian in his capital of Turin), and both were unusually weak ships by Italian standards. Not only was the armor just 10 inches of Harvey steel, but the ships only mounted four 10-inch and eight 6-inch guns. To make matters worse, the ships even lacked the Italian passion for high speed, being only capable of a mediocre 18 knots. Brin in fact had little to do with the original design which was a concept of Vice Admiral Saint Bon, who died before his creation was laid down. Instead he was serving as Navy minister and spending his time expanding the Italian shipyards.

Brin did design the next two ships. Regina Margherita (named after the current queen) and Benedetto Brin (the great designer died in 1898 as the ships were laid down) had many of the characteristic features of his designs, notably the high speed (over 20 knots), heavy armament and limited protection. With four 12-inch, four 8-inch and twelve 6-inch they were more powerful than any other contemporary battleship, but their belt armor of six inches of Harvey steel was considered insufficient to protect their magazines and engines. Both ships were active in the early years of the war and both were lost, Regina Margherita to mines and her sister ship to sabotage in 1916. In a subsequent trial it was claimed that Germans had managed to smuggle a time-fuse into her main magazine.


Vittorio Emanuele, seen in 1917.

 

The four last pre-dreadnoughts belonged to the Regina Elena (wife of the current King Victor Emanuele III) class, the first major project of Vittorio Cuniberti and laid down in pairs in 1901 and 1903. His design was better balanced than those of Brin and many authorities considered them to be the best capital ships of their era. Only one 12-inch gun was placed in each of the two main turrets (half the heavy guns of comparable foreign ships) although twelve 8-inch weapons were installed, all in two-gun turrets. Speed remained high with most members achieving over 21 knots in service, while for the first time an Italian capital ship was given adequate armored protection with a belt of just under 10 inches. Clearly they were designed to meet the special needs of Italy, with the speed and gun-power needed to check any heavy raiders and sufficient heavy guns and protection to fight any enemy ships they could not run away from. Of course within five years the widespread use of turbines created far faster battle-cruisers, but that could not be predicted when the ships were designed. All four, the others being Vittorio Emanuele, Roma and Napoli, were active during the war.

Cuniberti was more ambitious than the Italian Navy accepted. Instead of the second two ships of the Regina Elena class, he wanted to build a larger, more powerful ship, in fact the first all-big gun battleship, complete with twelve 12-inch guns and a speed of 24 knots. If he had his way, I would now be writing about not pre-dreadnought, but pre-roma battleships!

Subsequent Italian battleships would continue to be innovative and well-designed (for example the first capital ship with triple turrets), although the limited industrial base slowed construction rates. In contrast the heavy guns continued to be licensed versions of reliable but conservative Vickers and Armstrong designs. It would take another 20 years before OTO and Ansaldo built what were arguably the best heavy naval guns ever constructed and mounted them in what many consider to be the most balanced and capable battleship designs ever constructed: the four ships of the Vittorio Veneto class.

See these ships in action. Order Great War at Sea: Mediterranean TODAY!