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Meet the Roma: The Super World War II Battleship History Has Forgotten

Roma
The Italian battleship Roma.

While not remembered by general naval historians, Italy’s World War II battleship fleet was quite powerful. The Roma was one such battleship that history should never forget. She might not be as powerful as the Iowa or Yamato, but she could pack a serious punch in a fight: Italy’s Regia Marina was one of the busiest navies of the interwar period. Four old battleships were rebuilt so completely that they barely resembled their original configuration. This helped Italy achieve what was really, by the late 1930s, significant ship-to-ship superiority over the French Navy. The reconstruction of these ships helped generate ideas as to what their new battleships should look like.

The new ships were to have enough speed to catch Dunkerque and Strasbourg (a new pair of French fast battleships), and enough firepower to destroy them. The result was the first post–Washington Treaty class of genuine fast battleships, the Littorio class.

The third ship of the Littorio class, Roma displaced forty-two thousand tons, could make thirty-two knots, and carried nine fifteen-inch guns in three triple turrets. Although well protected from shellfire, Roma and its sisters (Littorio and Vittorio Veneto) were built with an experimental underwater protection system designed by Italian naval architect Umberto Pugliese. This system proved disastrous in practice; Roma’s sisters repeatedly suffered heavy damage from torpedo attacks. Like the German Bismarck class, but unlike Allied battleships of the day, Roma did not carry a dual-purpose secondary armament, a measure that would have saved weight and improved its antiaircraft capabilities. The Italian fifteen-inch gun was also something of a disappointment, as it fired a very heavy shell at a high velocity, but was difficult to reload, was inaccurate and incurred serious barrel wear. Finally, Roma had a very short range, although this was of little concern in the Mediterranean. All in all, Roma and its sisters were probably the least capable of the world’s final generation of fast battleships, with the likely exception of Bismarck and Tirpitz. Nevertheless, they were useful ships, and in battle the practical difference between Roma and the most of the modern Allied fast battleships would have been minimal.

Roma entered service in mid-1942, after many of the major actions of the Mediterranean had already been fought. By this point the Regia Marina was beset by fuel problems, precluding the aggressive use of Roma, its two sisters and most of the other heavy units of the fleet. Roma’s main sorties involved transit from one base to another in an effort to avoid Allied air attacks. However, as a fleet-in-being the Regia Marina posed a significant threat to Allied naval activity, forcing Allied planners to account for the existence of several modern, effective battleships.

In September 1943, the Italian government decided to seek an armistice with the western Allies. The surrender of the Italian fleet was a prominent condition of this agreement. Along with its two sisters and numerous heavy cruisers, Roma (flagship of the squadron) was in preparation to attack the Allied landing force at Salerno when the armistice was signed. Instead of heading to Salerno, Roma and its sisters laid a course for Malta.

The Germans sniffed the plan out shortly after the squadron sortied. The Luftwaffe dispatched a group of six Dornier Do 217 bombers armed with the Fritz X glider bomb, one of the earliest precision-guided weapons. Two of the armor-piercing bombs hit Roma; the first badly damaged its engine room, and the second caused an explosion in its forward magazine. Over twelve hundred men went down with Roma. Its sister Italia (renamed from the fascist Littorio) received a hit, but survived. Both Italia and Vittorio Veneto arrived at Malta without further molestation, and were then transferred to reserve status in Egypt.

Some consideration was given to the idea of incorporating the remaining two vessels into the Royal Navy or the U.S. Navy for use in shore bombardment and carrier escort in the Pacific, but concerns over ammunition and spares scotched the idea. In any case, the American, British and French navies had overwhelming superiority in the Pacific by 1944. After the war, the two surviving ships (as well as several older Italian battleships) were assigned by lot as war reparations to the Allied powers; the United States won Italia, and the British Vittorio Veneto. Both ships were physically returned to Italy, and scrapped in the early 1950s.

These were lovely ships aesthetically, with crisp lines and a well-proportioned superstructure. They came into service before most of the rest of the “fast battleship” generation, and had flaws commensurate with their pace setting. Despite their drawbacks, Roma and its sisters were useful ships.

Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Dale Gauding

    April 11, 2022 at 6:15 pm

    Fascinating piece of naval history I never would have known about. Thank you. So much happened outside the world spotlight that was covered up or forgotten. This is why historians matter.

  2. Richard W Jackson

    April 11, 2022 at 7:07 pm

    History should forget more war machines… But not the ones that facilitate class war.

  3. Lindy Rosato

    April 12, 2022 at 8:40 am

    Thank you. I never knew about any if this.

  4. Jim Causey

    April 12, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    Very interesting. Thank you for sharing. I was a casual reader of WW2 books when younger but obviously only skimmed the surface. Would be great to be able to study even a small part in depth.

  5. Jacques Lefave

    April 13, 2022 at 12:20 pm

    The Italian Navy gave France and Britain a serious headache in the Mediterranean. Although both France and Britain outnumbered the Italian Navy, by a lot, both of those powers had worldwide commitments and overseas empires, whereas Italy only had to dominate in the Mediterranean, except maybe for their foolish ambitions in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and that trading post in Somalia. When Hitler got started, he was the junior partner to Mussolini and Hitler looked up to him, was inspired by these warships, and got his ideas about re-armament and military takeover of the government by the fascists. Roosevelt got his blueprint for powering through the depression with spending on public works and the military, a kind of New Deal, and he was admiringly named as Time Magazine’s man of the Year. This was before the fighting started.

  6. Ted

    April 13, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    Laughably inaccurate guns, primitive radar and fire control systems, poor AA. The Roma looks great on paper, but in practice was a poor performer. I’m unaware of a Littorio ever hitting another capital ship with it’s main battery. They were easily kept at bay by swordfish torpedo bombers, I would have liked to see a swordfish try to attack a North Carolina or SoDak.

    There is the allure of the what if with these ships, but in practice they were sows ears. Give me a North Carolina or SoDak any day over a Littorio.

  7. Jonny Blayze

    April 18, 2022 at 9:05 am

    With all the negative references to the Bismarck i would have to say you dont know your history, and all you say cant be taken seriously nor given any credibility.

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