M/T Rapana attacked by R.Smg. Enrico Tazzoli under di Cossato SE of Bermuda 3 March 1942 & escaped

M/T RAPANA, Attack Narrative

By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, September, 2014

Shell tanker Rapana in pre-war color scheme, before she narrowly escaped attack by an Italian submarine in the Spring of 1942 whilst sailing in ballast from Liverpool to Curacao Dutch West Indies on March 3rd.  

Photo Source: http://www.helderline.nl/tanker/539/rapana+(1)/

At 10:10 pm local time on Tuesday March 20th 1942 the British Motor tanker Rapana sent an emergency message that “submarine sighted on surface” in positioni 28.44N, 59.15W. This was On the same evening the Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoliunder the command of Carlo Fecia di Cossato reported firing two torpedoes on the British tanker Rapana at Latitude 28.45N, Longitude 59.10W. This is virtually the identical position, wich is 365 nautical miles southeasat of Bermuda and 650 nautical miles north-northeast of Antigua.

Though the torpedoes deviated and the ship was not struck and managed to escape, it is worth including this incident as it shows the intersection of a submarine which was just beginning a highly successful patrol off the Bahamas and Bermuda and a ship which survived merchant service to become a Merchant Aircraft Carrier.

The Rapana was a motor tanker launched in March 1935 by Dok & Werf Wilton-Fijenoordshipbuilders, in Schiedam, Netherlands and completed the following month. She was 7,986 gross registered tons, 481 feet long, 59.4 feet wide, and 27.5 feet deep, and capable of 12 knots. From 1935 to 1939 the ship was owned and operated by La Corona, NV Petroleum Maatschappij of the Hague, Netherlands. This was a subsidiary of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company Limited of London, and indeed in 1939 the ship was transferred to their ownership. So by the Spring of 1942 Rapana was owned and operated by the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company Limited (Shell Oil), which was headquartered on Leadenhall Street, London.

During 1941 the Rapana had sailed from New York on the 22nd of July and 18th of September. Overall during the war the ship was involved with 91 convoys. On the voyage in question she left Liverpool on February 14th, 1942 in Convoy ON 67 and then sailed from the Halifax-bound convoy independently for Curacao, Dutch West Indies.

According to Convoyweb.org.uk she arrived in Curacao on the 10th of March 1942, however Admiralty records on the 21st of March show her “not yet arrived in Aruba.” This must have stemmed from an administrative miscommunication, as the ship was not destined for Aruba. She sailed from Curacao laden on the 14thof March 1942 and arrived Halifax on the 25th, joining HX 182 from Halifax to Liverpool, where she safely arrived on April 9th, 1942.

Rapana was unsuccessfully attacked by the Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli southeast of Bermuda on the 3rd of March, 1942. “In the afternoon of March 3rd, it located and attacked the British tanker PARANA of 8,017 t., but all torpedoes were deviated by the heavy sea,” according to an article by Christiano D’Adamo at regiamarina.net on the Tazzoli. According to research there was no ship and that tonnage in the British flag at that time. The only vessel of that name then was owned by the Compania Argentina de Navaegacion Mihanovich Limitada of Buenos Aires. For that firm the ship was engaged in “general cargo, oil and petroleum trades” suggesting that it could it have been the ship attacked by the Tazzoli. It was described as a general cargo ship not a tanker (Jordan p.2, p.435).

In reality the ship attacked by Tazzoli must have been Rapana, an assertion supported by Italian submarine historian Platon Alexiedes, who had access to the submarine’s original war logs, wrote: “Tazzoli, from a distance of 2,000 meters, fired two torpedoes which had an irregular course  then two more from 1,500 meters which also had an irregular course and porpoised. Cossato tried to turn around to fire a stern shot but the tanker had apparently sighted the submarine and turned away.”

“Because of good visibility and moonlight, Cossato decided that his chance of closing in on the surface were poor and desisted from further attacks. Italian torpedoes were fast (48 knots) but testing had shown that this speed could be achieved at the cost of 5% of the shots being irregular and this was accepted. It does seem that Cossato blamed the torpedoes for wasting his four shots and perhaps he had just misjudged the target’s speed and course”
Carlo Fecia di Cossato, Commander of the Enrico Tazzoli in France immediately following a patrol.

Photo source: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_Fecia_di_Cossato

Enrico Tazzoli began her patrol on the 2nd of February sailing for the Betasom Flotilla/joint venture based in Bordeaux. Her assigned area was to the east of Florida and the Bahamas – because she was so busy sinking ships she would never have the need to approach Florida directly.

Tazzoli was the first Italian sub sent to the region, but not the first to arrive, as we have seen the Finzipreceded her. Three days after encountering the Rapana, on March 6th, the Tazzolicame upon the 1,406-ton Dutch steamer Astreaand sank her. Later on that same day (a claim which is not supported by geography – the distances between the two reported sinkings being too far apart for even a fast boat to have covered in the same day), Tazzoli destroyed the Norwegian tanker Tonsbergfjord at 31 22N by 68 05W. There is evidence of the sinking in a photo of the Tazzoli crew displaying the Tonsbergfjord’s life ring on the conning tower, as well as extensive documentation at Warsailors.com.

Because the thirty-two surviving crew met survivors of the Montevideo, sunk by the same sub, and were rescued by the same ship (the Telamon) there is also ample evidence of how the Tonsbergfjordreached Haiti and then Curacao. The Montevideowas sunk on the 8th of March – she was a 5,785 steam ship from Uruguay which had been built in Italy (ironically) as the Adamelloin 1920. The position of her sinking is given as 29.13 north by 69.35 west.

Claims that the neutral ship was sunk by Germans inflamed anti-German nationalism in Uruguay and led to protests and that country’s eventual abandonment of its neutrality. Uruguay’s neutrality had crucially allowed the Germans to seek refuge there after the Battle of the River Plate earlier in the war on the cruiser Graf Spee.

            Tazzoli’s next three attacks are carefully documented and verified elsewhere in this book – the Cygnetoff San Salvador on the 10th of March, the British Daytonian off Abaco on the 13th, and the Athelqueen, a large British tanker in ballast, also off Abaco on the 15th. The survivors of all three ships – over 100 in number – were landed in the Bahamas, eventually making Nassau. The Cygnet survivors were first led ashore at Dixon’s Point San Salvador by a boat skippered by the “one-legged American A.B. Narne”. They then voyaged on the Monarch of Nassau to the capital.

The Daytonian crew were rescued at sea by – and travelled to the capital aboard – the Dutch ship Rotterdam, with one dead who was presumably buried at sea but possibly interred in Nassau. The Athelqueen’s crew rowed ashore at Hope Town Abaco, only to lose three members to drowning in the surf. The balance were brought to the capital in the government-chartered launch Constance S, the same ship which a week before had rescued the survivors of the O. A. Knudsen from southern Abaco (Knudsen was sunk by a German not an Italian submarine, on 5 March 1942).

Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli – note the large size relative to many German attack U-boats.

Photo source www.regiamarina.net and http://sixtant.net/2011/artigos.php?cat=italian-submarines-&sub=sommergibili-in-action&tag=9)enrico-tazzoli

Because the Tazzoli had its starboard torpedo tubes damaged in the attack on the Athelqueen,it was forced to break off the patrol and make back for Bordeaux. Its arrival and passage up the Gironde estuary, with crew lining the rails, its impressive girth on display, and the damage visible, are well documented in photographs from a biography of di Cossato. She arrived on the 31st of March, culminating one of the most successful single missions to the region and of the war as a whole, with a ship attacked on average every day of the week for a period.

Rapana went on to experience a colorful history of its own, straddling both merchant and naval capabilities. According to Wikipedia,MVRapana was one of nine Anglo Saxon Royal Dutch/Shell oil tankers converted to become a Merchant Aircraft Carrier (MAC ship). The group is collectively known as the Rapana class. She was converted to a MAC ship by Smiths Dock, North Shields, completing in July 1943. As a MAC ship, she had no aircraft hangar, and continued to carry normal cargoes, although operating under Royal Navy control. Only her air crew and the necessary maintenance staff were naval personnel.”
The Rapana as a Merchant Aircraft Carrier 1942-1945.

Photo source: http://www.helderline.nl/tanker/539/rapana+(1)/

The article continues: “Amongst the aircraft that served on Rapana was Fairey Swordfish Mk II LS326. The aircraft was later transferred to Empire MacCallum. As of November 2010, it is airworthy with the Royal Navy Historic Flight. After the war, MV Rapana was reconverted and returned to merchant service as an oil tanker and served in that role until scrapped in Osakain 1958. She was renamed Rotula in 1950.”

On Fecia di Cossato: http://www.uboatsbahamas.blogspot.com/search?q=tazzoliand http://www.regiamarina.net/detail_text_with_list.asp?nid=153&lid=1&cid=3

On Enrico Tazzoli’s successful patrol: http://www.regiamarina.net/detail_text_with_list.asp?nid=84&lid=1&cid=42


Alexiedes, Platon, for the war diary of the Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli

Convoyweb.co.uk – for Rapana convoys — http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/hague/index.html

Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs

Helderline site for images of the Rapana – http://www.helderline.nl/tanker/539/rapana+(1)/

Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999

Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net, for the war diaries (KTBs) of U-123 and U-105
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Port, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/

Regiamarina.net, by Cristiano D’Adamo for an excellent detailed account of Italian submarine activity

Wikipedia for information on Merchant Aircraft Carrier Rapana, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Rapana
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history of Rapana

Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997

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