Horn of Africa:
Rebuilding Regina Elena

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2020

Italy emerged a clear winner from the Washington Naval Conference, gaining parity with France in battleships and enormous international prestige. But the Italians did not possess as many dreadnoughts as the French, and so the Italian total of allowable vessels included one sunken dreadnought only recently re-floated from the bottom of Taranto harbor and four pre-dreadnoughts.

The treaty placed no special restrictions on the four pre-dreadnoughts Italy was allowed to retain; they could be modernized within the same parameters as a dreadnought and retained indefinitely. If the Royal Italian Navy wanted to update these relatively small ships and keep them in service, they certainly could do so, they just could not replace them with new warships.

The four ships concerned made up the Regina Elena class. They saw action during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912, but spent most of the First World War in port with the rest of the Italian battleships. Only one, Napoli, sailed into hostile waters with aggressive intent, but failed to make contact with the Austrian cruiser squadron assaulting the tenders of the Otranto Barrage anti-submarine barrier. Despite the treaty provisions, the newly-installed Fascist regime sent two to the breakers in 1923. After service as training ships, the second pair followed in 1926.

Regina Elena on trials, 1907.

Designed by famed naval engineer Vittorio Cuniberti, they were intended to be faster than any battleship and more powerful than any armored cruiser. For a brief moment they met this requirement, at least among ships under construction. Laid down between 1901 and 1903, they were completed in 1907 and 1908, by which time new turbine-powered dreadnoughts and battle cruisers had rendered them utterly obsolete.

Regina Elena made her 22 knots on old-style triple-expansion reciprocating engines that generated between 19,000 and 21,000 horsepower. Removal of her old engines, plus two of her 8-inch turrets and the supporting barbettes and magazines, would yield enough space for a set of the Belluzzo geared turbines and Yarrow boilers of the new Condotierri type light cruisers under construction in the late 1920’s. The cruisers had to carry their six boilers in single file down the centerline because of their narrow beam. The shorter but broader Regina Elena could mount them in the more typical side-by-side fashion. The set of machinery yielded 95,000 horsepower, giving the cruisers a speed of 36 knots in service; on trials the engines were pushed to over 120,000 horsepower and the ships made 42 knots.

Regina Elena displaced about twice as much as the early Condotierri type cruisers, and while Cuniberti had designed her for speed she did not have the heedless greyhound lines of the cruisers. A new bow, a feature added to the Italian dreadnoughts during their rebuilding, would improve her form. A similar set of machinery, but with eight rather than six boilers, was placed in the rebuilt Conte di Cavour class battleships during their 1930’s reconstruction, yielding 93,000 horsepower and 28 knots. At half the size of Conte di Cavour, Regina Elena should have been good for 30 knots.

The four ships mounted a pair of 12-inch guns, in single turrets fore and aft – half the main armament of the typical pre-dreadnought battleship. But these heavy guns would be the only real reason to keep the four ships in service, since they were far heavier than the 8-inch guns to which new cruisers were limited.

Regina Elena carried an older model of 12-inch gun than the Italian dreadnoughts, one of 40 calibers rather than 46. Giving these two guns the same treatment as the 10 guns of Conte di Cavour would provide a serious increase in range, but these were not the same model – Regina Elena’s guns were about five feet shorter than those of the Italian dreadnoughts. The re-building of the four Conte di Cavour and Andrea Doria class dreadnoughts provided an extra dozen gun barrels from the amidships triple turret removed from each ship – plenty to re-arm the four pre-dreadnoughts.

The 12-inch 46-caliber guns on the four re-built dreadnoughts were re-bored to a new diameter of 320mm (12.6 inches). The rebuilt guns gave greatly improved performance over their 12-inch versions, and even moreso when compared to Regina Elena’s previous armament: the guns now boasted a range half again as great, lobbing a shell almost 20 percent heavier.

Unlike the three larger naval powers that signed the Washington Treaty – Japan, Britain and the United States – France and Italy had the option to place new, larger main guns on their warships within the overall limits of the treaty. So while the Italians could not install 18-inch guns on their battleships, they could upgrade to 12.6-inch guns with a longer barrel, something only the French could do (and remain compliant with the treaty).

The wing turrets housing 8-inch guns were outmoded within a few years of the ships’ commissioning, but the treaty did not allow armament to be re-positioned (it’s not clear in the treaty language if the French and Italians had this option, but the expense would have been enormous). Regina Elena carried six turrets for 8-inch guns, three on each side. Removing the two center turrets would allow the fitting of more anti-aircraft weapons. The other four turrets would be replaced by the Ansaldo Model 1927 dual turrets built for the Zara class heavy cruisers, each carrying a pair of 8-inch Model 1927 guns. These excellent weapons had a range of 34,000 yards (against 19,000 for the old Elswick Pattern W 8-inch guns with which the pre-dreadnoughts were built), even better than the re-made 12.6-inch guns or almost any other 8-inch gun.

The ships that emerged from this re-construction would be useful convoy escorts, but too slow to run down and sink enemy cruisers with their incongruous main armament. They would also have been enormously expensive to re-build, doubtlessly costing considerably more than simply building a second set of four Zara class heavy cruisers.

Logic, however, can find little purchase when questions of prestige are at stake. Since Italy could not replace the old pre-dreadnoughts, sending them to the cutting torches would reduce her total of battleships. Keeping all four of the Regina Elena class (plus the two dreadnoughts that accompanied them to the scrapyard) would give Italy the formidable total of 10 “battleships” in service.

That’s why Italy might have kept the old ships; the reason why they were discarded is pretty simple. Italy was by far the least developed nation playing the Great Power game. Fascist policies enriched the industrialists with party ties, but did little to boost the nation’s overall industrial or military strength. Benito Mussolini’s regime simply could not afford a prestige fleet by the late 1920’s, and discarded the four pre-dreadnoughts plus the damaged Leonardo da Vinci and hopelessly obsolete Dante Alighieri. The Navy also seriously considered getting rid of all of its battleships at the same time and relying on massed squadrons of big destroyers instead, but ultimately yielded to the prestige argument.

The Regia Marina did have a suitable mission for the re-built pre-dreadnoughts: based at Massawa in Italian East Africa, they would easily out-class the assortment of elderly cruisers the Royal Navy normally stationed in the Indian Ocean. In the event of war the re-built pre-dreadnoughts could either close the Red Sea to British traffic or force Britain to station modern warships far from the main theaters of war to counter them.

And so we included one in Second World War at Sea: Horn of Africa. She’s no match for an actual battleship, even a theoretically rebuilt Iron Duke. But she’s more than capable of fighting her way past the collection of County-class heavy cruisers and Great War-era light cruisers that might be found guarding a convoy in the region.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.