The (mis)Adventures of Submarine Luigi Torelli
A biography of the Italian submarine that fought under the flag of three nations and the forgotten Italian conflict in Asia.
When the first crew of Luigi Torelli launched into the depths of the Atlantic from the occupied port of Bordeaux in early 1940, none would have imagined that their vessel would be destined for more than the irregular anti-shipping sortie in the Atlantic- Mediterranean sea lanes; and for the first three years of Italy’s war against the Allied powers, that is just what Luigi Torelli did. Patrolling the shores off the rocky lagoons which make up the Azores Islands, Torelli and her crew spent their days launching attacks on British, Norwegian, and Greek cargo ships and tankers, and attempting to slink out of the sight of RAF bombers’ searchlights.
If these peaceful years were quite uneventful for Torelli, the ensuing ones were to turn these into nostalgic memories for the Italian crew. By mid-1943, with the Germans bogged down in the Eastern front and chased out of North Africa (killing their hopes of reaching the Azerbaijan oil fields) and an imminent American invasion of Sicily looming, an inconvenient war situation for the Axis powers was quickly turning to desperation. With most of the shipping lanes in the Atlantic and Mediterranean securely dominated by the British Royal Navy, their invincibility granted by the overwhelming air cover of torpedo bombers and fighter escorts, the noose was tightening around Germany and Italy’s supply lines.
In June 1943, selected Italian submarines, including Torelli, were quickly refitted to transport quinine, mercury, rubber, and tin from Japan’s Southeast Asian colonies. In order to make space for more cargo, all offensive weapons were scrapped; the only defense left for the submarine were the 13.2mm anti-aircraft guns on her deck, which were in any case quite ineffective against the new American four-engine bombers. Crew amenities were also stripped; without showers and personal storage space, and only one toilet, crew and officers alike suffered miserable conditions. Among the motley crew was a certain Japanese Colonel Kinze Sateke (sic), a telecommunications engineer who had been training in Germany and was now returning to aid his native country’s war effort. Several unnamed German engineers were also recorded as passengers of Torelli. From this point onwards, the unusual mixed look of the submarine would become the norm for Torelli.
After a precarious journey of two months and two weeks, the multinational party disembarked at the German-controlled port of Sabang in Malaysia with the help of German U-Boat patrols at the last stretch. On 8 September 1943, having loaded itself with cargo, Torelli was preparing to set sail for Bordeaux when her commanding officer, Lt. Enrico Gropalli, received the shocking news of Mussolini’s imprisonment and the subsequent armistice signed by the Italian King and the Western Allies. For Fascist Italy, the war was all but over. The same could not be said of the crew of Torelli as the Italians were not the only ones who had heard of the news. Elsewhere in Asia, the Japanese forces, tied down by the rolling tide of overwhelming American material superiority, could not afford any thorns in their Chinese flank from a potentially hostile Italian force with sympathy for the Allies. After a brief skirmish, Japanese forces promptly took over Italian concessions in China, namely at the port city of Tientsin (they were allowed to stay there with much reluctance and suspicion once the are came under Japanese control in the 1930s). Of the Italians who were taken as POWs, hundreds volunteered to fight for their old allies, but distrustful of Europeans, the Japanese army sent them to share the lot of other Western POWs in the labor camps in Korea. A similar fate would await the Italian submarines still remaining in the Pacific- despite the crews of submarines Giuliani, Capellini, and Torelli submitting declarations of loyalty to Mussolini’s newfound exiled government and to the Japanese cause, the submarines were seized and handed over to the German Navy, their crews joining their compatriots in the labor camps.
Here, Torelli underwent her first name change, becoming U.IT.25 under command of Captain Werner Striegler and manned by a mixed German-Italian crew where she served in Kriegsmarine operations in the South Pacific against the Anglo-Saxon powers. Upon the German surrender on 8 May 1945, the submarine once again came under Japanese possession and was renamed again to I-504. I-504 retained her European crew, which included 20 Italians. Under the command of newly boarded Japanese officers, she fought until 30 August 1945, two weeks after the Japanese surrender. The very last Axis ‘kill’ of the war is attributed to I-504 — the shooting down of an American B-25 bomber.
Torelli certainly earned her namesake — from the storied patriot of the days of Italy’s struggle for independence from the Austrian Empire. Of the seven Italian submarines destined for the Pacific, only Torelli reached her destination, the others being sunk and several not even making it out of the port in Bordeaux. After an exhausting voyage across the world, the Italian crew were greeted with the news of their government’s capitulation and their nation’s newfound support of the Allied powers. Uncertain of the situation in Italy, having to choose between facing Allied cannon fire or Japanese labor camps, the sailors of Luigi Torelli performed the soldier’s duty with honor and tenacity, many choosing to fight with their old German and Japanese allies. Whereas the various nationalities representing the Allied armies often shared fronts, sectors, and campaigns, in the only instance during the war where soldiers from the three Axis powers fought alongside each other, the cultural and political difficulties experienced by the crews painted an apt picture of the reluctant and tense state of the Tripartite Alliance.