Italy's Battleships Were Such A Threat That Hitler Sent Bombers To Destroy Them

Robert Farley

Key point: Despite their drawbacks, Roma and its sisters were useful ships.

Italy’s Regia Marina was one of the busiest navies of the interwar period. Four old battleships were rebuilt so completely that they barely resembled their original configuration. This helped Italy achieve what was really, by the late 1930s, significant ship-to-ship superiority over the French Navy. The reconstruction of these ships helped generate ideas as to what their new battleships should look like. The new ships were to have enough speed to catch Dunkerque and Strasbourg (a new pair of French fast battleships), and enough firepower to destroy them. The result was the first post–Washington Treaty class of genuine fast battleships, the Littorio class.

The third ship of the Littorio class, Roma displaced forty-two thousand tons, could make thirty-two knots, and carried nine fifteen-inch guns in three triple turrets. Although well protected from shellfire, Roma and its sisters (Littorio and Vittorio Veneto) were built with an experimental underwater protection system designed by Italian naval architect Umberto Pugliese. This system proved disastrous in practice; Roma’s sisters repeatedly suffered heavy damage from torpedo attacks. Like the German Bismarck class, but unlike Allied battleships of the day, Roma did not carry a dual-purpose secondary armament, a measure that would have saved weight and improved its antiaircraft capabilities. The Italian fifteen-inch gun was also something of a disappointment, as it fired a very heavy shell at a high velocity, but was difficult to reload, was inaccurate and incurred serious barrel wear. Finally, Roma had a very short range, although this was of little concern in the Mediterranean. All in all, Roma and its sisters were probably the least capable of the world’s final generation of fast battleships, with the likely exception of Bismarck and Tirpitz. Nevertheless, they were useful ships, and in battle the practical difference between Roma and the most of the modern Allied fast battleships would have been minimal.

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