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|Battles/wars||Battle of the Atlantic|
BETASOM (an Italian language acronym of Bordeaux Sommergibile) was a submarine base established at Bordeaux by the Italian Regia Marina Italiana during World War II. From this base, Italian submarines participated in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1940 to 1943 as part of the Axis anti-shipping campaign against the Allies.
Axis naval co-operation started after the signing of the Pact of Steel in June 1939 with meetings in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and an agreement to exchange technical information. After the Italian entry into the war and the Fall of France, the Italian Navy established a submarine base at Bordeaux, which was within the German occupation zone. The Italians were allocated a sector of the Atlantic south of Lisbon to patrol. The base was opened in August 1940, and in 1941 the captured French passenger ship De Grasse was used a depot ship before being returned to the Vichy French Government in June 1942. Admiral Angelo Parona commanded the submarines at BETASOM under the control of Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Karl Dönitz. Dönitz was the "Commander of the Submarines" (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote) for the German Navy (Kriegsmarine). About 1,600 men were based at BETASOM.
From June 1940, three Italian submarines patrolled off the Canary Islands and Madeira, followed by three more off the Azores. When these patrols were completed, the six boats returned to their new base at Bordeaux. Their initial patrol area was the Northwestern Approaches and at the start they out-numbered their German allies' submarines. Dönitz was pragmatic about the Italians, seeing them as inexperienced, but useful for reconnaissance and likely to gain expertise.
Dönitz was disappointed. The Italian submarines sighted convoys but lost contact and failed to make effective reports. Even when assigned to weather reporting - critical for the war effort on both sides - they failed to do this competently. Fearing that German operations would be prejudiced, Dönitz reassigned the Italians to the southern area where they could act independently. In this way, about thirty Italian boats achieved some success, without much impact on the critical areas of the campaign.
German assessments were scathing. Dönitz described the Italians as "inadequately disciplined" and "unable to remain calm in the face of the enemy". When the British tanker British Fame was attacked by the Malaspina, "the officer of the watch and lookouts were on the bridge and the captain was dozing in a deckchair below". It took five torpedoes to sink the tanker and, at one point, the tanker's gunfire forced the Malaspina to submerge to safety. The Italians towed the lifeboats to safety, an act worthy of praise, but one against Dönitz's orders and leaving the submarine open to attack for 24 hours.
While the BETASOM submarines did have some value, it is clear why they did not meet the expectations of Dönitz. By 30 November 1940, Italian submarines in the Atlantic each sank an average of 200 gross tons per day. By comparison, German U-boats each averaged 1,115 gross tons per day during the same time period. But the Italian submarines sank 109 allied merchship for 593,864 tons.
Seven BETASOM submarines were adapted to carry critical matériel from the Far East (Bagnolini, Barbarigo, Cappellini, Finzi, Giuliani, Tazzoli, and Torelli) of which two were sunk by the Allies, two were captured in the Far East by the Germans after the September 1943 Italian Surrender and used by them and a fifth was captured in Bordeaux by the Germans, but not used.
Italian naval historian Giorgio Giorgerini has put forward the view that, although Italian submarines didn't perform as well as the U-boats, they did achieve a good success considering the inferior quality of their boats (among which the lack of modern torpedo fire-control systems and their slower speed both surfaced and submerged). Taking into consideration the period in which the BETASOM submarines operated and the numbers of submarines employed, comparing the respective tonnages sunk by U-boote and the Italian submarines, it can be seen that the respective "exchange rates" (gross tonnage sunk divided by the submarines lost) were 40.591 t and 34.512 t, meaning that the Italian submariners were not as bad as surmised. However, he also acknowledges that this fact does not change the fact that Italy's participation in the Battle of the Atlantic was not a success and that its strategical significance was small.
German U-boat activities
Admiral Dönitz decided during the summer of 1941 to build protective U-boat pens in Bordeaux. Construction began in September 1941. Constructed of reinforced concrete, 245 m (804 ft) wide, 162 m (531 ft) deep, and 19 m (62 ft) high, with a roof above the pens 5.6 m (18 ft 4 in) thick, and 3.6 m (11 ft 10 in) thick above the rear servicing area.
On 15 October 1942, the 12th U-boat Flotilla was formed at Bordeaux by the German Kriegsmarine under the command of Korvettenkapitän Klaus Scholtz. The first U-boat to use the bunker was U-178 on 17 January 1943.
End of operations
The base was bombed by the British on several occasions. The base was indirectly attacked by Operation Josephine B in June 1941, a raid to destroy the electricity substation that served the base.
After the Italian Armistice in September 1943 the base was seized by the Germans. Some of the Italian personnel joined the Germans independently of the Italian Social Republic. During this period the Italian postage stamps on hand were overprinted to show loyalty to Mussolini's rump state.
The last two remaining U-boats left Bordeaux in August 1944, three days before the Allies occupied the base on 25 August. The last remaining German naval personnel attempted to march back to Germany but were captured by U.S. forces on 11 September 1944.
List of submarines operating from BETASOM
In 1940, all twenty-eight Italian submarines which were to be based at BETASOM initially had to sail from bases on the Mediterranean Sea and transit the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the Atlantic Ocean. All twenty-eight did this successfully without incident.
In 1941, another four Italian submarines based in Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI) reached the base after the fall of that colony during the East African Campaign. All four had to travel around the Cape of Good Hope to get to BETASOM.
Date of arrival at Bordeaux from the Mediterranean in 1940:
- 4 September Malaspina
- 8 September Barbarigo
- 10 September Dandolo
- 29 September Marconi
- 29 September Finzi
- 30 September Bagnolini
- 30 September Giuliani (this boat was transferred for a time to Gdynia to train Italian submariners in German Navy techniques)
- 3 October Emo
- 5 October Faà di Bruno
- 5 October Tarantini
- 5 October Torelli
- 6 October Baracca
- 6 October Otaria
- 23 October Calvi
- 24 October Argo
- 24 October Tazzoli
- 31 October Leonardo Da Vinci (the best performing non-German submarine in World War II)
- 2 November Veniero
- 4 November Nani
- 5 November Cappellini
- 18 November Brin
- 28 November Morosini
- 2 December Marcello
- 18 December Bianchi
- 25 December Velella
Transferred from the Red Sea Flotilla during the summer of 1941:
- 7 May Archimede
- 19 May Perla
In 1941, it was decided to return some of the boats to the Mediterranean. The Perla, the Guglielmotti, the Brin, the Argo, the Velella, the Dandolo, the Emo, the Otaria, the Mocenigo, and the Veniero Glauco made the passage but the Glauco was sunk by the British Royal Navy. The Cagni was transferred in 1942.
Post-World War II
The submarine pens have proved to be impossible to demolish due to the massive reinforced construction designed to withstand aerial bombardment. In 2010, after conversion several years previously, approximately 12,000 m2 (130,000 sq ft) of the 42,000 m2 (450,000 sq ft) building are open to the public as a cultural centre for the performing arts, exhibitions and evening events.
- Phonetically B (for Bordeaux) is Beta and SOM is an abbreviation for 'Sommergibile' which is the Italian for submarine)
- D'Adamo, Cristiano (1996-2008). "BETASOM". REGIAMARINA. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Ireland, Bernard (2003). Battle of the Atlantic. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books. pp. 51–52. ISBN 1-84415-001-1.
- Thirty two submarines operated in the Atlantic for the Italian Navy and sank 109 Allied ships for a total of 593,864 tons.
- Piekałkiewicz, Janusz. Sea War: 1939-1945. Blandford Press, London - New York, 1987, pg. 106, ISBN 0-7137-1665-7
- Rosselli, Alberto. "Italian Submarines and Surface Vessels in the Far East: 1940-1945". Comando Supremo. Archived from the original on 3 February 2009. Retrieved 7 Jan 2009.
- Giorgio Giorgerini, "Uomini sul Fondo", pag. 423-5
- Giorgio Giorgerini, "Uomini sul fondo", pag. 424
- D'Adamo, Cristiano (1996-2007). "The Bombardments of Bordeaux and the Italian submarine base "BETASOM"". REGIAMARINA. Archived from the original on 7 February 2009. Retrieved 7 Jan 2009. [dead link]
- Foot, M.R.D. (1966). SOE in France. HMSO. pp. 157–159.
- Stamps of the Italian Socialist Republic - The Atlantic Base
- "Regia Marina Italiana". Cristiano D'Adamo. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- History of the Bordeaux submarine base plus construction details
- U-boat history of boats, operations etc.
- Regia Marina
- Base de submarinos, BETASOM (Spanish)
• Giorgio Giorgerini, Uomini sul fondo, Storia del sommergibilismo italiano dalle origini a oggi. Oscar Mondadori, Milano, 2002. ISBN : 9788804505372