Military Aviation

The night RAF Wellington bombers strafed Italian ocean liners (used as troop ships to North Africa) Rex and Conte di Savoia

Two aircraft got down very low – to about 300ft and 390ft respectively – to attack the Italian liners Rex and Conte di Savoia, which were being used as troop ships to North Africa.

Eyewitness accounts that describe Bomber Command’s operations to Italy often speak of the long duration (some 9 hours) of the trip, and a boredom that was only punctuated by the joy in seeing the snow-covered Alpine peaks and the short-lived drama of bombing the target.

Yet the earlier attacks on Italy, in 1940 and 1941, often proved to be much more wild adventures. As explained by Richard Worrall in his book The Italian Blitz 1940–43, individual aircraft selected their own way of getting to the target and, once there, they would not just drop their bombload but often engaged in ‘further activities’, such as the low-level shooting-up of flak positions, airfields, road convoys, moving trains or ocean liners.

In early December 1940, 4 Group had been taken off Italian operations owing to the need to conserve its Whitley Mk Vs for large fire-raising operations against German cities, and the ‘Italy assignment’ was transferred to 3 Group, which operated the Vickers Wellington Mk Ic.

The operational instructions issued by HQ Bomber Command stated they were to attack Italian targets, but only with a maximum number of 15 aircraft; they were given a fixed list of German targets from which to choose alternatives if weather precluded attack upon Italian objectives, but clearly the latter was the priority.

On Dec. 4, 3 Group undertook its first Italian operation, when 15 aircraft were detailed to bomb the Royal Arsenal in Turin, and Wellingtons were also sent to Italy on Dec. 18 and 21, and on Jan. 11/12 1941.

The following night, seven Wellingtons were ordered to attack the oil refineries at Porto Marghera, near Venice. The bombers scored direct hits on the target area: one 1,000lb bomb dropped from 700ft scored a direct hit on large buildings at the oil refinery, causing a massive explosion with reddish/white smoke and flames to 400ft, whilst further bombs caused oil storage tanks to explode and a large building to collapse and disintegrate.

A British Beaufighter aircraft pulls up after attacking the Italian ocean liner Rex with cannon fire and rockets, locaton: coast between Izola and Koper/Capodistria, present day Slovenia.

Fifteen minutes into the attack, the target area was described by aircrews as being a mass of flames. Yet 3 Group’s aircraft had not travelled that far (a round trip of 1,500 miles) just to drop their modest bombloads (at that range about 1,500lb).

With little chance of being intercepted – in early 1941 the Regia Aeronautica had yet to train for the night-fighter role – the Wellingtons used their machine guns to strafe the oil refinery and flak positions.

Two aircraft got down very low – to about 300ft and 390ft respectively – to attack the Italian liners Rex and Conte di Savoia, which were being used as troop ships to North Africa. The raid report stated that another Wellington on its return journey attacked Padua aerodrome from an incredible 20ft.

Such activity encapsulates the brave – if at times reckless – endeavour of the early bomber attacks on Italy. Operations did become a lot more organised, more controlled and, ultimately, more devastating from autumn 1942 onwards, though a final ‘wild ride’ would be the daylight operation to Milan by 5 Group’s Lancasters on 24 October 1942, which culminated in some low-level flying and strafing by machine guns.

As for the two Italian liners, the next time the Rex was attacked by the RAF, in conjunction with Beaufighters of the South African Air Force, was on Sep. 8, 1944 and the ship would be sunk near Trieste. The Conte di Savoia was scuttled in Venice by German forces on Sep.11, 1943, but was raised and then scrapped in 1945.

The Italian Blitz 1940–43 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

The Italian liner REX, lying on her side and on fire in Capodistria Bay, south of Trieste, two days after the attack by Bristol Beaufighters of the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force which capsized her.

Photo credit: Crown Copyright

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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