Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Mark C. Jones lives in Morristown, New Jersey and writes on the armed forces of the smaller European Allied countries of World War II that were operationally integrated into the British armed forces after being driven from the continent(Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Netherland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Greece).

The August 2008 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings contained a brief mention of the Italian submarine ITS SALVATORE TODARO (S526) visiting Naval Station May port in Florida the previous month, the first visit of an Italian submarine to the United States in 63 years. Surprisingly, the news item did not say anything about the last time an Italian submarine was in U.S. waters, beyond mentioning that it was during World War II. Why was a warship from an Axis power visiting the United States during wartime? Prior to the visit of TODARO, the previous occasion was in November 1945, when the GOFFREDO MAMELI departed Key West, Florida after having spent a year and a half serving as an anti-submarine training target for U.S. Navy (USN) escort vessels at Bermuda and other USN bases in the western Atlantic. MAMELI and about a dozen other Italian and French submarines comprised a significant portion of the submarines available to the USN as it trained enormous numbers of escort vessels as they went on to win the Battle of the Atlantic against German submarines. “The French and Italian submarines were excellent for training purposes. Of heavy hull construction, they could out-dive the older American R-and S-boats. And they made good substitutes for the newly commissioned fleet submarines which had formerly participated in the training program and could now be sent non-stop to the Pacific for combat duty.”1Foreign submarines were vital to the U.S. Navy’s anti-submarine training during the latter years of World War II by providing about a dozen vessels at a time when the USN faced a great shortage of modern submarines.

The Strategic Situation

When Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941, the Battle of the Atlantic had been under way for over two years. The Kriegsmarine’s U-boats were attacking British convoys with significant results, imperiling the flow of supplies to the United Kingdom. British anti-submarine tactics gradually improved but the shortage of escort vessels seriously handicapped Royal Navy (RN) escort group commanders. Part of the solution to overcoming the Nazi submarine threat was to build large numbers of destroyers, frigates and corvettesso that convoy escorts were no longer outnumbered by U-boat wolf packs.

The U.S. also rapidly expanded its ship building programs, launching hundreds of destroyers, destroyer escorts and frigates from 1943 onward. However, for the new vessels to be effective anti-submarine escorts, they needed realistic training in finding submerged submarines. There were many dozen older submarines of the O, R and S classes still in commission which could be used as anti-submarine training targets, but the USN’s Submarine Force was also scrambling to maintain enough submarines to satisfy the increasing demands from operational commanders.

Allocating sufficient submarines to be training targets was a challenge, especially since most of the O, R and S class boats were over twenty years old and so less mechanically reliable. In addition to the maintenance problems caused by old age, these submarines had much shallower depth limits than modern war-built submarines. They therefore could not dive as deeply as the German submarines they were intended to portray in exercises, making the training of escorts less realistic.

The solution to the twin problems of insufficient submarines, and diving depth limitations on older boats, was to use submarines from other countries. Once the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, the French armed forces outside France gradually transferred their allegiance from the Vichy government to the French Committee of National Liberation and so were available for assignment by the Allies’ Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS). Italy signed an armistice with the Allies on 3 September 1943 to avoid complete defeat, the terms of which obligated Italy to place its armed forces and merchant marine at the disposal of the Allies.3While most of the very large Italian submarine fleet had been lost during the war or captured by German forces upon the armistice, there were still several dozen submarines available to the Allies. Italy then declared war on Germany on 13 October 1943 making Italy a co-belligerent state though not a member of the Allies.

Since the RN was just as short of submarines as the USN, the problem arose of the division of the French and Italian submarines between the two services. Throughout 1943 and into 1944, extensive high-level negotiations took place between the RN and USN over the allocation of foreign submarines. They haggled over what ratio to use to divide the submarines between them, which nationality submarines to assign to certain theaters, and even down to which navy obtained the use of individual submarines. This protracted bargaining was exacerbated by the poor material condition of these boats, which resulted in serious mechanical breakdowns that invalidated agreements to assign specific submarines to either the RN or USN.

Establishing the Anti-Submarine Training System

With ships being launched every week, the USN established a training system to ensure that newly commissioned warships were fully effective when they arrived at their commands. One of the locations used by the USN was Bermuda, access having been granted by Britain at the same time as the famous September 1940 destroyers for basesdeal. The USN established Naval Operating Base Bermuda on 1 July 1941. One of several USN bases on Bermuda was the submarine repair facility at Ordnance Island, St. Georges Harbor which opened in mid 1941.

In order to systematize the training process, the USN established the Operational Training Command Atlantic (OTCLANT) under Rear Admiral Daniel B. Beary on 10 February 1943. This handled the training of most surface ships, exceptions being major warships including cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, as well as landing craft. Atlantic Fleet destroyer training was handled by a single squadron at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This arrangement was replaced by the Destroyer/Destroyer Escort Shakedown Task Group which was established on 7 April 1943 at Bermuda under the command of Captain James L. Holloway, Jr.

To provide the shakedown task group with training targets, otherwise known to the USN as tame submarines or clockwork mice in British parlance, the USN moved Submarine Squadron (SubRon) 7 under Captain Ralston B. Vanzant (later relieved by Commander Waldeman N. Christensen) to Bermuda. The older R class submarines were then augmented by foreign boats, and organized into Submarine Divisions (SubDivs) 71 and 72. Commander Christensen originally was in charge of SubDiv 72 (which contained all of the Italian submarines) before taking over the entire squadron and later promotion to captain. Division command passed to Commander Michael P. Russillo who was a former assistant naval attaché to Italy.

French Submarines as a Partial Solution

The French Navy underwent a transformation beginning in November 1942. After initially resisting the British and American landings in Morocco and Algeria, the Marine Nationale gradually shifted its allegiance from the Vichy government to the Allied cause. By late 1942 the large pre-war French Submarine Force had been greatly reduced in number and effectiveness due to resisting British attacks on French colonial possessions in Africa and Madagascar, as well as two and a half years of stagnation and insufficient maintenance caused by German armistice requirements and isolation of the major French naval squadrons. The submarines that remained in service were in generally poor condition and lacked modern electronics including radar and sonar.

The RN determined that some of the French submarines would be capable of conducting combat patrols in the Mediterranean after a several month refit, either in French African ports or in the United States. The remaining submarines were assigned by the CCS to anti-submarine training in North Africa, West Africa, and in the western Atlantic.

French submarines generally first received are fit at a RN dockyard in Bermuda and/or Philadelphia Navy Yard. The first two French submarines to come to a USN base, ARCHIMÈDE and AMAZONE, arrived in February and March 1943 respectively at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for a long refit. The first French submarines stationed at Bermuda were LE GLORIEUX and ARGO which arrived in August and September 1943 respectively.

Most of the largest French submarines of the 1500 ton class were selected to receive an overhaul sufficient for operational patrols, and so spent relatively little time in the western Atlantic after refitting. French submarines assigned to training duty with the USN spent most of their time with SubDiv 12 in Key West, Florida, the first of which having moved there in February 1944 upon the arrival of Italian submarines at Bermuda. The three French submarines which spent most of the rest of the war as training targets in the western Atlantic were the 600 ton boats AMAZONE and ANTIOPE and the 1500 ton ARGO. The boats which returned to the Mediterranean for combat patrols were the 1500 ton ARCHIMÈDE, LE CENTAURE and LE GLORIEUX.

Italian Submarines as Reinforcements

While the armistice that Italy signed in September 1943 obliged that country to place its armed forces at the disposal of the Allies,at first there was no attempt by the Allies to make use of those forces. Much of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) was not needed for active operations, but eventually the CCS realized that some types of ships could be used for training, transport and escort duties. Italy had a very large submarine fleet before the war, and though wartime losses had been heavy, there were still a few dozen submarines in commission. Italian submarines were assigned to anti-submarine training duties in January 1944 with the first boats assembling for this purpose at the major naval base at Taran to in February 1944.

Initially five submarines (ENRICO DANDALO, TITO SPERI, GOFFREDO MAMELI, MAREA and VORTICE) were sent to Bermuda and after their arrival on 13 February 1944 operated from there as COMISBER (Comando Italiano Sommergibili Bermude) with the USN designation Italian Submarine Squadron One. Due to the continued need for submarines, additional Italian submarines were sent west as they emerged from refits with the ONICEarriving at Bermuda on 16 July 1944, GIOVANNI DA PROCIDA on 24 September and ATROPO on 20 October.

A ninth Italian submarine was intended to join COMISBER. The LUIGI SETTEMBRINI was sailing from Gibraltar for Horta, Fayal Island, in the Azores Islands for onward routing to Bermuda escorted by the destroyer escort USS FRAMENT(DE-677) when it was accidentally rammed and sunk by its escort.10The collision happened at approximately 0221 hours GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) on 15 November 1944 at 36.11N/19.45W, about 685 miles west of Gibraltar. The FRAMENT hit the submarine just forward of the conning tower on the starboard side due to an incorrect course change by the escort’s helmsman during a zigzag maneuver. Eight survivors from SETTEMBRINI, including the commanding officer, executive officer and six enlisted men, were picked up. All three USN personnel from the communications liaison unit were lost (LTJG Samuel P. Bifarella, USNR, radioman 3/c Caspar G. DiMaggio, signalman 2/c Daniel D. Esposito).

While eight Italian submarines of different types and classes operated with the USN in the western Atlantic, considerable repair problems limited the number actually available for duty. This sometimes necessitated the submarines being sent for major overhaul. Italian submarines were always sent to Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire, which specialized in the building and repair of submarines. Assigning Italian submarines to Portsmouth was also done to keep French and Italian submarines refitting at different bases, given the animosity of French naval personnel toward Italy. There were usually one or two Italian submarines at Portsmouth between July 1944 and September 1945.

The Italian submarines were initially concentrated at Bermuda but as their numbers grew, individual submarines were detached for service at other USN bases including Casco Bay, Maine. Those submarines overhauled at Portsmouth then typically sailed to New London, Connecticut for several weeks of refresher training. The two most modern boats, the MAREA and VORTICE of the FLUTTO class (a medium size patrol submarine) were at different times part of the Atlantic Fleet’s Anti-Submarine Development Detachment (ASDEVLANT) at Port Everglades, Florida. This may be because these two submarines were broadly similar to German Type VIID and IXA U-boats in appearance, characteristics and performance. The boats assigned to ASDEVLANT assisted in testing of new types of sonar and tactics designed to defeat German torpedoes.

The Last Year of the War

Eventually the USN had built enough escort vessels that more were not needed, so the training operation at Bermuda could be scaled back. In March 1945 the Destroyer/Destroyer Escort Shakedown Group moved from Bermuda to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to take advantage of better weather conditions. The next month it changed its name to simply Training Group Guantanamo Bay.

In addition to the sinking of LUIGI SETTEMBRINI, there were several other accidents involving the foreign submarines, though none involved the loss of a ship. The French AMAZONE grounded on the north coast of Long Island, New York on 14 October 1944, possibly due to a snapped anchor chain, but was towed to port. The French ARGO was hit while submerged by the frigate USS HURON(PF-19) on 28 April 1945 off Key West but was not seriously damaged. Lastly, the Italian MAMELI collided with the minesweeper USS JUBILANT(AM-255) in Casco Bay with minor damage and no casualties on 12 May 1945.

The German surrender in early May 1945 sharply reduced the need for anti-submarine training in the Atlantic. French submarines were soon returned to French operational control, sailing from several ports for North Africa in July 1945. Several Italian submarines then moved to Key West for minor repair work though most remained at Guantanamo Bay. Once Japan surrendered, there was no longer a need to use foreign submarines as training targets. Seven Italian submarines assembled again at Bermuda and departed 4 October 1945 for Taranto via Ponta Delgada and Gibraltar. The eighth and final Italian submarine, MAMELI, followed six weeks later having been delayed by major mechanical problems.

Given the limited documentation available at the U.S. Nation-al Archives & Records Administration about the role of the foreign submarines,it is difficult to evaluate their performance and their collective contribution to the USN’s anti-submarine training. One of the officers in command of the shakedown training group, Captain Dashiell L. Madeira (November 1943-September 1944), estimated that about 300 ships received training from the group during his time in command. Another estimate for the ships trained by the group from inception through 1 June 1945 totaled 571. While many of those ships would have trained with a USN submarine, the number of escort ships that trained with a foreign submarine at Bermuda was still significant since for most of 1944 there were more Italian than U.S. subs with SubDiv 72.

In addition to newly commissioned ships receiving shakedown training, specialized anti-submarine hunting groups composed of an escort carrier and several destroyers routinely called at Bermuda to practice finding Italian submarines. Several Italian submarines including SPERI and PROCIDA received dummy schnorkels in late 1944 at Bermuda so that they could imitate German schnorkel-equipped boats for the hunting groups.

Madeira’s successor as commander of the shakedown training group, Captain Samuel W. DuBois, referred to “the fine job which has been done by the Italians” when considering theprospect that Italian submarines might be transferred to Italy during the last days of the war in Europe.15In addition, the USN’s Chief of Naval Operations sent a pair of letters after the war to the Italian minister of marine praising the service of theItalian submarines assigned to the USN.


The German attempt to sever the trans-Atlantic supply lines to Britain obliged the RN and USN to build enormous numbers of escort vessels. Properly training these new ships in anti-submarine tactics inturn required both services to dedicate submarines to serve as training targets. Demands for submarines for combat patrols resulted in a temporary shortage of training targets by 1943. The CCS solved the shortage by assigning what eventually totaled abouta dozen French and Italian submarines which operated from USN bases at Bermuda, Casco Bay, New London, Port Everglades, Guantanamo Bay and Key West between September 1943 and September 1945. Although using U.S. submarines would have been simpler, the foreign boats satisfacto-rily completed the assignments and thus made a valuable contribution to winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

The presence of foreign warships working alongside ships of the USN is important to recognize, not just for what they accomplished during the war, but for what it meant post-war. The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 formalized multi-national naval cooperation among Western countries. French and Italian warships have continued to work with U.S. ships because the demands of maintaining the freedom of the seas is greater than any one navy can accomplish on its own.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League