Italian aircraft carrier Aquila
RN Aquila at La Spezia in 1951, just before being scrapped
|Fate:||Taken over by Germany|
|Fate:||Disabled by Italian commando frogmen and scrapped in 1952|
|Displacement:||23,500 long tons (23,900 t) (standard)
27,800 long tons (28,200 t) (full load)
|Length:||235.5 m (772 ft 8 in)|
|Beam:||30 m (98 ft 5 in)|
|Draft:||7.3 m (23 ft 11 in)|
|Installed power:||151,000 shp (113,000 kW)|
|Propulsion:||4 × geared steam turbines
8 × boilers
4 × shafts
|Speed:||30 kn (56 km/h; 35 mph)|
|Range:||5,500 nmi (10,200 km; 6,300 mi) at 18 kn (33 km/h; 21 mph)|
|Complement:||1,420 (107 officers)|
|Armament:||8 × 135 mm (5.3 in)/45 cal guns
12 × 65 mm (2.56 in)/64 cal guns
132 × 20 mm (0.79 in)/65 cal anti-aircraft cannons
|Armor:||Deck: 8 cm (3.1 in)|
Aquila (Italian language: "Eagle") was an Italian aircraft carrier converted from the trans-Atlantic passenger liner SS Roma during World War II. Work on Aquila began in late 1941 at the Ansaldo shipyard in Genoa and continued for the next two years. With the signing of the Italian armistice on 8 September 1943, however, all work was halted and the vessel remained unfinished. Aquila was eventually scrapped in 1952.
Though she was not built from the keel up and never attained operational status, Aquila is considered Italy’s first aircraft carrier. She was an ambitious conversion that, completed sooner, might well have proven a formidable adversary for her British counterparts in the Mediterranean during World War II.
Following World War I, the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) began exploring the use of ship-borne aircraft by converting the merchant ship Città di Messina into the twin-catapult-equipped seaplane tender Giuseppe Miraglia. Commissioned in 1927, the ship could carry as many as four large and 16 medium seaplanes and was primarily used as an experimental catapult ship for most of her career. By 1940, she was designated an aircraft transport/training ship and functioned as a seaplane tender for Italian capital ships.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Italian military and political circles vigorously debated the role and necessity of aircraft carriers in the expanding Italian fleet. Men such as Gino Ducci (Regia Marina chief of staff in the early 1920s), Romeo Bernotti (assistant chief of staff) and naval officer Giuseppe Fioravanzo championed development of a fleet air arm, the building of aircraft carriers and consolidation of the air and naval academies.
Other factions opposed these ideas, especially carrier construction, not so much on the grounds of military usefulness, but rather on cost and practicality. More than anything else, Italy’s limited industrial capacity, inadequate shipyard space and lack of financial capital prevented her from building the kind of well-balanced fleet envisioned by her naval theorists. Priority went to those ships deemed most necessary in a future conflict.
Since France was considered Italy’s most likely foe in another European war, keeping parity with her navy became a paramount concern. When the French Navy laid down the keels for Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Richelieu and Jean Bart between 1932 and 1937, dictator Benito Mussolini and the Italian admiralty were persuaded to scrap any plans for carrier construction and instead modernize two of the navy’s older battleships (Cavour and Cesare in 1933) and begin construction of two new ones (Vittorio Veneto and Littorio in 1934).
Because the Regia Marina was expected to operate primarily in the relatively narrow confines of the Mediterranean and not on the world’s oceans, the navy’s lack of a fleet air arm seemed a tolerable omission (especially given that carriers were an expensive and unproven commodity at the time). The Italian mainland and islands such as Pantelleria and Sicily were viewed as natural aircraft carriers, whose many airbases, operated by the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica), could provide adequate fleet air coverage when requested by the navy.
Nevertheless, in June 1940, shortly after Italy's entry into the war, Mussolini sanctioned conversion of the 30,800 long tons (31,300 t), 21 kn (39 km/h; 24 mph) ocean liner Roma into an auxiliary carrier, featuring a flush deck and a small hangar. On 7 January 1941, less than two months after the successful British carrier raid on Taranto, Mussolini authorized a much more ambitious and extensive conversion of Roma into a full fleet carrier, capable of operating a larger air group and of keeping pace with the Regia Marina′s faster battleships and heavy cruisers.
By 27 January, however, the order was just as quickly rescinded following numerous objections from the Regia Marina. These included excessive cost; technical obstacles involving development of catapults, arrester gear and elevators; an estimated two-year development time for folding-wing aircraft; the time needed for studying the effects of air turbulence over the flight deck from an island superstructure; problems the Germans were encountering in the construction of their own aircraft carrier, Graf Zeppelin; and recent accounts of the heavy damage inflicted by German dive bombers on the British carrier Illustrious, graphically demonstrating the vulnerability of carriers operating in the Mediterranean.
Then, on 21 June, three months after losing three heavy cruisers off Cape Matapan, a loss potentially preventable had the Italians possessed their own aircraft carrier, the Regia Marina and Regia Aeronautica finally agreed to proceed with Roma′s conversion.
Design and construction
Work on converting Roma into an aircraft carrier began in earnest at Cantieri Ansaldo, Genoa, in November 1941. Since a battleship named Roma was already under construction, the ship's name was changed to Aquila.
The liner's interior was completely gutted to allow for replacement of the original machinery and the addition of a hangar deck and workshops. Deep bulges were added to either side of the hull to improve stability and provide a modest degree of torpedo defense. A layer of reinforced concrete—6–8 cm (2.4–3.1 in) thick—was applied inboard of the bulges for splinter protection. The hull was also lengthened to take advantage of the increased power of Aquila′s new machinery.
The designers worked in 3–8 cm (1.2–3.1 in) of armor over the magazines and aviation fuel tanks. The fuel tanks copied British practice and consisted of cylinders or coffer dams separated from the ship's hull by water-filled compartments. This was a safety measure intended to prevent fracturing of the fuel system and the inadvertent spread of volatile AvGas fumes due to severe vibration or "whip" from bomb hits, near misses and torpedo hits.
Aquila′s new propulsion system consisted of four sets of Belluzzo geared turbines taken from two canceled Capitani Romani-class light cruisers (Cornelio Silla and Paolo Emilio). They were capable of generating 151,000 shp (113,000 kW), and Aquila was expected to reach 30 kn (56 km/h; 35 mph) on trials and 29.5 kn (54.6 km/h; 33.9 mph) when fully laden.
Aquila had a single continuous 211.6 m × 25.2 m (694 ft 3 in × 82 ft 8 in) flight deck. It was partially armored with 7.6 cm (3.0 in) plate over the gasoline bunkers and magazines. The flight deck ended short of the bows but overhung the stern, where it featured a pronounced round-down to improve air flow. Two 50 feet (15 m) octagonal lifts with a 5 short tons (4.5 t) capacity enabled transfer of aircraft between the hangar deck and flight deck. One was directly amidships and the second another 90 ft (27 m) forward, thus placing them far enough from the aft arrester wires that both could be used for striking down aircraft into the hangar immediately after a landing.
Two German-supplied Demag compressed air-driven catapults, each capable of launching one aircraft every 30 seconds, were installed parallel to each other at the forward end of the flight deck. These were originally intended for Germany's own "Carrier B", Graf Zeppelin′s incomplete—and eventually scrapped—sister ship. The Italians obtained them—along with five sets of arrester gear and other component plans—during a naval technical mission to Germany in October–November 1941.
A set of rails led aft from the catapults to the elevators and into the hangars. For catapult-assisted launches, aircraft would be hoisted in the hangar onto a portable collapsible catapult carriage, raised on the elevators to flight deck level and then trundled forward on the rails to the catapult starting positions, the same system as employed on Graf Zeppelin.
Aquila′s engines and catapults were successfully tested in August 1943 but the arresting gear installed on the carrier, consisting of four cables, initially failed to work properly. This would have prevented aircraft, once launched, from landing back on board. It was therefore proposed that aircraft taking off from Aquila would, after performing their mission, fly back to the nearest land-based airfield or simply ditch in the sea, a serious and embarrassing limitation on her capabilities as a fleet carrier. Italian and German technicians labored for months at the Perugia Sant'Egidio airfield on a mock-up of Aquila's flight deck and by March 1943 the heavily modified arresting gear was deemed usable. A postwar US Navy evaluation concluded, however, that the arrangement would have made landings exceedingly hazardous, especially given the absence of a crash barrier.
Aquila′s starboard-side island contained a single large vertical funnel for carrying exhaust gases clear of the flight deck. It also included a tall command tower and the fire control directors for the 135 mm (5.3 in) guns.
Six 6-barrelled 20 mm (0.79 in)/65 caliber (cal) anti-aircraft (AA) cannons were positioned just fore and aft on the island. In addition, Aquila carried eight 135 mm (5.3 in)/45 cal guns taken from one of the canceled Capitani Romani-class cruisers. Though not designed as dual purpose weapons, these guns had an elevation of 45° and were therefore capable of providing a useful barrage against attacking enemy aircraft (by comparison, Italy's best heavy AA gun—the 90 mm (3.5 in)/50 cal—had an elevation of 85°). It was intended to mount 12 newly designed 65 mm (2.56 in) AA guns on sponsons just below flight deck level (six on either side of the hull). However, this gun—with an automatic feeder and 20 rpm rate of fire—never got beyond prototype stage. An additional 16 six-barrelled 20 mm cannons—also mounted below the flight deck—rounded out the ship's AA defense.
Throughout 1942 and 1943, trials were conducted at Perugia and Guidonia—the Regia Aeronautica′s equivalent to the German Luftwaffe′s test facility at Rechlin—to find aircraft suitable for conversion to carrier use. The Italians selected the SAIMAN 200, Fiat G.50/B and Reggiane Re.2001 OR Serie II as potential candidates.
In March 1943, German engineers and instructors with experience on Graf Zeppelin arrived to advise on aircraft testing and to help train future carrier pilots culled from 160 Gruppo C.T. of the Regia Aeronautica. They brought with them examples of a Junkers Ju 87C Stuka dive bomber (a navalized version with folding wings, arrester hook and catapult attachment points) and an Arado Ar 96B single-engine trainer. After conducting comparative flight trials, the Italians eventually settled on the Re.2001 as their standard carrier fighter/fighter-bomber and even the Germans concluded it had better potential than their own counterpart, the Messerschmitt Bf 109T. All flight testing—including simulated braked deck landings—was land-based.
Aquila′s planned air complement was 51 non-folding Reggiane Re.2001 OR fighter-bombers: 41 stowed in the hangar deck (including 15 suspended from the deck head) and 10 on the flight deck in a permanent deck park. A folding-wing version of the Re.2001 was planned, which would have increased the size of Aquila′s air group to 66 aircraft, but this never materialized. Only 10 Re.2001s were fully converted for carrier use. They were given tail hooks, RTG naval radio equipment and bomb racks for carrying 650 kg (1,430 lb) of bombs. They were also armed with two 12.7 mm (0.5 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns mounted above the engine cowling. At least one Re.2001G was under test at Perugia as a naval torpedo bomber and was given a lengthened tail wheel strut to accommodate the added height of a torpedo suspended below the fuselage.
Following the 8 September 1943 armistice, when Aquila was nearing completion and had passed her first static test, Germany seized the ship and placed it under guard. Aquila was later damaged on 16 June 1944, during an Allied air attack on Genoa. Fearing the Germans might use the ship to block the entrance to Genoa harbor, Aquila was partially scuttled on 19 April 1945 by divers from the former Decima Flottiglia MAS. Raised in 1946, Aquila was later towed to La Spezia in 1949 where consideration was given to completing her or converting her to some other use. She was eventually scrapped in 1952.
Had Aquila′s conversion begun in 1938 instead of 1941, she might have been completed and worked up in time to accompany Italy’s main fleet units during the critical period of 1941–1942. Her presence then could have potentially altered the outcomes of some battles, with her fighters intercepting British reconnaissance planes and parrying their carrier-borne air strikes, while her bombers carried out more timely and effective reconnaissance patrols than the Regia Aeronautica could provide and conducted their own attacks on British warships and convoys. Thus, Aquila might have prevented some historical Italian losses (such as at Cape Matapan) and inflicted a few of her own against Great Britain's Royal Navy.
As it was, however, Aquila came far too late to affect the war in the Mediterranean. Even at her advanced stage of construction in September 1943, she would have required another six months to a year to conduct service trials, convert sufficient carrier aircraft, train her pilots and flight deck crews, manufacture and install her newly designed AA guns and solve the vexing arrester wire problem. By February 1943, however, the combined Anglo-American armies had expelled Axis forces from North Africa, and by August 1943 they had conquered Sicily. Time had run out for Italy’s fledgling carrier aviation effort.
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