Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Jinxed Passage: Italian Troop Transport

The U-boats made ocean transport most dangerous during the Great War, but no navy had worse luck in moving troops over the waves than Italy.

The Greatest Ocean Disaster of World War I
SS Principe Umberto Goes Under

In January 1916 an Italian merchant ship, the Brindisi, was crossing the Adriatic with war materials and food for Italian and Serbian forces in Albania. She was also carrying several hundred Italian and Montenegrin volunteers from America for service in that theater. The Brindisi hit a mine and sank with the loss of over 200 lives, many of them the luckless volunteers.  An eyewitness reported that scores of the Montenegrins, who had earlier vowed that they would prefer suicide to drowning should the ship be torpedoed, kept their pledge. The mine had been laid by the German UC-14 which was operating against Allied shipping in the Adriatic despite there being no state of war between Italy and Germany until August 1916.

SS Principe Umberto was an Italian passenger and refrigerated cargo ship built in 1908, and during World War I, the ship was employed as an armed merchant cruiser to transport men and materiél. On 8 June 1916, Principe Umberto and another transport, the Ravenna, were carrying the 55th Infantry Regiment  back from Albania to Italy, under the escort of the Italian scout cruiser Libia and four Regia Marina-class destroyers. The Austro-Hungarian U-boat U-5, under the command of Friedrich Schlosser, launched a torpedo attack that successfully hit Principe Umberto, which went down quickly with the loss 1,750-1,926 men (sources differ). This constituted the greatest maritime disaster of the war.

SS Minas

SS Minas – On 15 February 1917 the troop transport was carrying Italian, Serbian, and French troops from Taranto to Salonika, was torpedoed and sunk by U-39 off Cape Matapan. Eight hundred seventy men were lost.

SS Perseo — On 4 May 1917 the troop transport, sailing from Messina to Cephalonia, was torpedoed and sunk by the Austro-Hungarian submarine U-4, killing 227 men.

SS Verona

SS Verona: On 11 May 1918 the troop ship was off Capo Peloro in Sicily and heading for Libya, when UC-52 torpedoed and sank her. She went quickly, killing 880 of about 3,000 troops aboard.

Sources:  Various shipwreck sites


  1. The RMS Luisitania sank with the loss of 1,198 lives, making it the greatest naval tragedy of the war.

    1. 1,750-1,926 men is considerably more than the Lusitania.

  2. I think this demonstrates how Anglo-centred, or at least Western Front-centred, much of the history that we are taught or that comes up on the internet is. I didn't know about the Principe Umberto, and that the loss of life so greatly exceeded that of the Lusitania.
    However, I did know that the death toll of the loss of HMS Queen Mary at Jutland was greater than the Lusitania, about 1260 men.

  3. The key point re the Lusitania is that unlike the four Italian ships mentioned which were primarily in war service, the Lusitania was a passenger liner and those who lost their lives were civilians.

    During WW2 an Italian ship was struck by two torpedoes on 16th August 1942. The torpedoes were fired by a British submarine. Sadly, the 'Nino Bixio' was at the time transporting almost 3,000 Allied POWs captured in North Africa, including Australians, New Zealanders, English, Indians, and South Africans. One of the torpedoes hit the forward hold, killing around 200 men. Some of those who died would have jumped overboard in the chaos following the second strike, however, the ship did not sink and was eventually towed to Greece and the prisoners distributed amongst POW camps in Italy. Not huge numbers in terms of loss of life (including 118 Kiwis) but a tragic affair nonetheless.

  4. "The Lusitania was passenger liner and those who lost their lives were civilians." Is it not true that it was an auxiliary cruiser (magazines for 12 six-inch guns), used to carry priority cargo, manned by Royal Navy reservists, and carrying 4 million rounds of rifle ammunition, 2500 3-inch shells, powdered aluminum, and a lot more mysterious cargo that was probably military stuff? (The Germans claimed 600 tons of pure explosive) Is it crazy conspiracy theory to ask why it had no destroyer escort in waters known to have a German submarine and the captain had been told to proceed at reduced speed "to save coal"? One torpedo, two explosions, the second caused by...? (not boilers, not coal dust) My personal view is that too many historians believe wartime propaganda. All politicians tell lies, and all "official" accounts are suspect. By the way, there was a British cruiser with full steam a few miles away, but it was it was ordered not to rescue survivors. By the time slow fishing boats and life boats arrived at the scene, many of those in the water had died (needlessly?) of hypothermia.

  5. "It was revealed that the Lusitania was carrying about 173 tons of war munitions for Britain, which the Germans cited as further justification for the attack. The United States eventually protested the action, and Germany apologized and pledged to end unrestricted submarine warfare." - I think it has been proven since the sinking, that she was carrying war material making her a legitimate target for Germany.