Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Italian Convoy Effort I

The Italian submarines Atropo and Zoea took fuel from Taranto to Derna in two operations. A single torpedo would have turned those boats into a flaming hell.

On 1 May 1941, the steamers Larissa, Arcturus, and Leverkusen were lost. The first ship mentioned ran into a mine, while the remaining two were sunk by British submarines.

Vessels carrying Italian forces were also lost. During a troop transport to Tripoli lasting from 22 to 25 May, which was conducted by four large freighters, which were escorted by two destroyers and three motor-torpedo boats, it was intended to bring 8,500 Italian soldiers to Africa.

Two cruisers and three destroyers were responsible for the long-range screening of the convoy. Despite that, the submarines form Malta were able to infiltrate. The Upholder of Lieutenant Commander Wanklyn sank the 17,879 registered ton Conte Rosso. Of the 2,500 soldiers on board, 820 went down with the ship.

A few days previously, the Italian freighter Birminia had reached Tripoli safely. In the bowels of the10,000-ton ship was ammunition for the DAK, including a number of 10-kilogram bombs, which were crated in bundles of 10. During the offloading, one of the crates was dropped and it went off. As a result of sympathetic explosions, all of the remaining ammunition went up, ripping off the deck of the ship.

Korvettenkapitän1 Meixner, the German harbor commander, and Hauptmann Otto, who would later become the senior logistics officer for Africa, raced to the pier. The Italian auxiliary cruiser Citti di Bari, which had been loaded with fuel, had also gone up. There were some 70 killed and 88 wounded in all.

Meixner then discovered that another two ships at sea that were inbound and due to arrive in the next 24 hours were carrying the same deadly cargo. He had them anchor in the roads. The anchors were not allowed to be dropped. Instead, they had to be lowered by hand into the water to avoid any shaking of the cargo. The Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe was asked what should be done. Göring replied that the ships should be taken out to sea and sunk. Of course, that was easy for him to say when the bombs were desperately needed at the front.

Meixner did not have the ships blown up. Instead, he put out a call for volunteers, who carefully opened the ammo crates on board the ships and checked to make sure the safety switches were properly mounted. Those that were properly mounted could be offloaded into the lighters and taken ashore. The first three crates had no problems. The fourth crate, however, had dislodged its safety devices. Captain Reinen, a captain who had been stranded in Tripoli when his ship had been sunk, volunteered to go aboard the ship with an explosives expert to attempt to disarm the bombs. On the first day, they succeeded in defusing six of them, one of which would have been enough to blow up the entire ship because of all the other munitions on board.

In five days, 22 bombs were defused. Reinen and his assistant remained in the bowels of the ship by themselves. Eventually, both of the ships were saved.

Kapitän Reinen became the first merchant marine captain to receive the Iron Cross, First Class. Oberleutnant Krüger, who replaced the explosives expert when he was called away, also received the same decoration.

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