GHOSTS OF GIANTS PAST…..

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Propeller from the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto, on display in the garden of the Italian Naval Museum at La Spezia

While on my recent cruise aboard the MSC Fantasia, the ship stopped into the port of La Spezia on our last day.

Las Spezia is- and always was- the main base for the Italian battle fleet. And, to my great surprise, I stumbled on a large, extensive naval museum on the outskirts of the harbour itself. Relics of the turbulent past littered the outdoor gardens like so many silent screams. But one in particular caught my eye.

Sat on a plinth was a giant propeller, salvaged from the battleship Vittorio Veneto. For much of Italy’s involvement in World War Two, this vast, sleek giant was the flagship of the fleet. She saw more action than any other Italian capital ship.

The Vittorio Veneto nearly came to grief at the battle of Cape Matapan, fought in the eastern Mediterranean in late March of 1941. She was the linchpin of a fleet that had sortied out to attack a British convoy, only to find it covered by a larger Royal Navy force. As she retired from the scene, the giant battleship was attacked by a swarm of Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable.

Towards the end of the battle, a single torpedo slammed into the port side of the Vittorio Veneto right aft, wrecking one of her port side propeller shafts, and damaging her port side rudder. Four thousand tons of flood water surged into the hull, and the huge battleship slewed to a halt. From far astern, three British battleships strained at the leash to overhaul the crippled flagship.

The situation on board was desperate, but frantic damage control measures by the Italian battleship’s crew gradually began to stop her list at about 4.5 degrees. Considering that they only had emergency hand pumps to work with, this ranks as a quite incredible achievement by itself. Counter flooding helped as well, going quite a way to offsetting the worrying list.

Eventually, the ship’s engineers were able to restart the starboard propellers. They also managed to line up and connect the hand steering gear and, gradually, the battleship was able to work her speed back up to something like twenty knots.

A last, desperate aerial attack crippled an escorting cruiser, but failed to further hinder the battleship herself. By the skin of her teeth, the Vittorio Veneto escaped the doom looming up on her from astern.

All the same, it had been an incredibly close escape. Full repairs to the Vittorio Veneto were not completed until that same August, some five months later.

Other battleships would not be so lucky.

Just two months later, the Bismarck would be crippled beyond repair off the west coast of France by a similar hit. And, in December 1941, an aerial torpedo hit on her propellers and rudder would doom the British battleship HMS Prince Of Wales. The era of the battleship was truly over.

That simple, slightly rusty propeller sits as a memorial to all of those lost men in its own way. As such, it is a stark, simple link to a time and place in history that most of us, thankfully, did not have to fight our way through.

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