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Italian aircraft carrier Aquila: Wikis

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Career (Italy)
Name: Aquila
Ordered: 1941
Laid down: 1941
Fate: Taken over by Germany
Career (Germany)
Name: Aquila
Operator: Kriegsmarine
Fate: Scuttled by Italian commando frogmen and scrapped in 1952
Status: Scrapped
General characteristics of Aquila
Type: Aircraft carrier
Displacement: 23,500 long tons (23,900 t) standard
27,800 long tons (28,200 t) full load
Length: 235.5 m (772 ft 8 in)
Beam: 30 m (98 ft 5 in)
Draught: 7.3 m (23 ft 11 in)
Propulsion: 8 boilers, 4 turbines, 4 shafts
151,000 hp (112,600 kW)
Speed: 30 knots (35 mph; 56 km/h)
Range: 5,500 nmi (10,200 km) at 18 kn (21 mph; 33 km/h)
Complement: 1,420 (107 officers)
Armament: • 8 × 135 mm (5.3 in)/45 caliber guns
• 12 × 65 mm (2.6 in)/64 caliber guns
• 132 × 20 mm (0.79 in)/65 caliber AA guns
Armour: Deck: 80 mm (3.1 in)
Aircraft carried: 51

Aquila (Italian language: "Eagle") was an Italian aircraft carrier converted from the trans-Atlantic passenger liner Roma during World War II. Work on Aquila began in late 1941 at the Ansaldo shipyard in Genoa and continued for the next two years. With the signing of the Italian armistice on 8 September 1943, however, all work was halted and the vessel remained unfinished. Aquila was eventually scrapped in 1952.

Contents

Genesis

Though she was not built from the keel up and never attained operational status, Aquila is considered Italy’s first aircraft carrier. She was an ambitious conversion that, completed sooner, might well have proven a formidable adversary for her British counterparts in the Mediterranean during the Second World War.

Following WWI, the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) began tentatively exploring the use of ship-borne aircraft by converting the merchant ship Citta de Messina into the twin-catapult equipped seaplane tender Giuseppe Miraglia. Commissioned in 1927, the ship could carry as many as four large and sixteen medium seaplanes and was primarily used as an experimental catapult ship for most of her career. By 1940 she was designated an aircraft transport/training ship and functioned as a seaplane tender for Italian capital ships.[1]

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Italian military and political circles vigorously debated the role and necessity of aircraft carriers in the expanding Italian fleet. Men such as Gino Ducci (Regia Marina chief of staff in the early 1920s), Romeo Bernotti (assistant chief of staff) and naval officer Giuseppe Fioravanzo championed development of a fleet air arm, the building of aircraft carriers and consolidation of the air and naval academies.[2]

Other factions opposed these ideas, especially carrier construction, not so much on the grounds of military usefulness, but rather on cost and practicality. More than anything else, Italy’s limited industrial capacity, inadequate shipyard space and lack of financial capital prevented her from building the kind of well-balanced fleet envisioned by her naval theorists. Priority went to those ships deemed most necessary in a future conflict.

Since France was considered Italy’s most likely foe in another European war, keeping parity with her navy became a paramount concern. When the French Navy laid down the keels for Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Richelieu and Jean Bart between 1932 and 1937, dictator Benito Mussolini and the Italian admiralty were persuaded to scrap any plans for carrier construction and instead modernize two of the navy’s older battleships (Cavour and Cesare in 1933) and begin construction of two new ones (Vittorio Veneto and Littorio in 1934).[3]

Because the Regia Marina was expected to operate primarily in the relatively narrow confines of the Mediterranean and not on the world’s oceans, the navy’s lack of a fleet air arm seemed a tolerable omission (especially given that carriers were an expensive and unproven commodity at the time). The Italian mainland and islands such as Pantelleria and Sicily were viewed as natural aircraft carriers, whose many airbases, operated by the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica), could provide adequate fleet air coverage when requested by the navy.[4]

Nevertheless, in June 1940, shortly after Italy's entry into the war, Mussolini sanctioned conversion of the 30,800-ton 21-knot ocean liner Roma into an auxiliary carrier, featuring a flush deck and a small hangar. On January 7, 1941, less than two months after the successful British carrier raid on Taranto, Mussolini authorized a much more ambitious and extensive conversion of Roma into a full fleet carrier, capable of operating a larger air group and of keeping pace with the Regia Marina’s faster battleships and heavy cruisers.

By January 27, 1941, however, the order was just as quickly rescinded following numerous objections from the Regia Marina. These included excessive cost; technical obstacles involving development of catapults, arrester gear and elevators; an estimated two-year development time for folding-wing aircraft; the time needed for studying the effects of air turbulence over the flight deck from an island superstructure; problems the Germans were encountering in the construction of their own aircraft carrier, Graf Zeppelin; and recent accounts of the heavy damage inflicted by German dive-bombers on the British carrier Illustrious, graphically demonstrating the vulnerability of carriers operating in the Mediterranean.

Then, on June 21, 1941, three months after losing three heavy cruisers off Cape Matapan, a loss potentially preventable had the Italians possessed their own aircraft carrier, the Regia Marina and Regia Aeronautica finally agreed to proceed with Roma's conversion.

Design and Construction

Work on converting Roma into an aircraft carrier began in earnest at Cantieri Ansaldo, Genoa, in November 1941. Since a battleship named Roma was already under construction, the ship's name was changed to Aquila.

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Hull

The liner's interior was completely gutted to allow for replacement of the original machinery and the addition of a hangar deck and workshops. Deep bulges were added to either side of the hull to improve stability and provide a modest degree of torpedo defense. A layer of concrete, 60-80mm (2.4-3.1in) thick, was applied inboard of the bulges for splinter protection. The hull was also lengthened to take advantage of the increased power of Aquila's new machinery.[5]

The designers worked in 30-80mm of armor over the magazines and aviation fuel tanks. The fuel tanks copied British practice and consisted of cylinders or coffer dams separated from the ship's hull by water-filled compartments. This was a safety measure intended to prevent fracturing of the fuel system and the inadvertent spread of volatile AvGas fumes due to severe vibration or 'whip' from bomb hits, near misses and torpedo hits.[5]

Machinery

Aquila's new propulsion system consisted of four sets of Belluzzo geared turbines taken from two canceled Capitani Romani-class light cruisers (Cornelio Silla and Paolo Emilio). They were capable of generating 150,000hp and Aquila was expected to reach 30 knots on trials and 29.5 knots when fully laden.[5]

Flight Deck

Aquila had a single continuous flight deck 211.6m (694ft 3in) long by 25.2m (83ft 8in) wide. It was partially armored with 76mm plate over the petrol bunkers and magazines.[6] The flight deck ended short of the bows but overhung the stern, where it featured a pronounced round-down to improve air flow. Two 50-foot wide octagonal lifts with a 5 ton capacity enabled transfer of aircraft between the hangar deck and flight deck. One was directly amidships and the second another 90 feet forward, thus placing them far enough from the aft arrester wires that both could be used for striking down aircraft into the hangar immediately after a landing.[5]

Two German-supplied Demag compressed air-driven catapults, each capable of launching one aircraft every thirty seconds, were installed parallel to each other at the forward end of the flight deck. These were originally intended for Germany's own 'Carrier B', Graf Zeppelin's incomplete (and eventually scrapped) sister-ship. The Italians obtained them, along with five sets of arrester gear and other component plans, during a naval technical mission to Germany in October-November 1941.[7]

A set of rails led aft from the catapults to the elevators and into the hangars. For catapult-assisted launches, aircraft would be hoisted in the hangar onto a portable collapsible catapult carriage, raised on the elevators to flight deck level and then trundled forward on the rails to the catapult starting positions, the same system as employed on Graf Zeppelin.

According to Edward L. Barker, Aquila's engines and catapults were successfully tested in August 1943. However the arresting gear installed on the carrier, consisting of four cables, failed to work properly. This prevented aircraft, once launched, from landing back on board. It was therefore proposed that aircraft taking off from Aquila would, after performing their mission, fly back to the nearest land-based airfield or simply ditch in the sea, a serious and embarrassing limitation on her capabilities as a fleet carrier.[8]

Aquila's starboard-side island contained a single large vertical funnel for carrying exhaust gases clear of the flight deck. It also included a tall command tower and the fire control directors for the 135mm guns.

AA Armament

Six 6-barrelled 20mm AA guns were positioned just fore and aft on the island. In addition, Aquila carried eight 135mm (5.4in) guns taken from one of the canceled 'Capitani Romani' light cruisers. Though not designed as dual-purpose weapons, these guns had an elevation of 45 degrees and were therefore capable of providing a useful barrage against attacking enemy aircraft (by comparison, Italy's best heavy AA gun, the 90/50, had an elevation of 85 degrees). It was intended to mount twelve newly-designed 65mm AA guns on sponsons just below flight deck level (six on either side of the hull). However this gun, with an automatic feeder and 20rpm rate of fire, never got beyond prototype stage. An additional sixteen 6-barrelled 20mm AA guns, also mounted below the flight deck, rounded out the ship's AA defense.[5]

Aircraft

Throughout 1942 and 1943, trials were conducted at Perugia and Guidonia (the Regia Aeronautica's equivalent to the German Luftwaffe's test facility at Rechlin) to find aircraft suitable for conversion to carrier use. The Italians selected the SAIMAN 200, Fiat G 50bis and the Reggiane Re.2001 as potential candidates.[6]

In March 1943, German engineers and instructors with experience on Graf Zeppelin arrived to advise on aircraft testing and to help train future carrier pilots culled from 160 Gruppo C.T. of the Regia Aeronautica. They brought with them examples of a Junkers Ju 87C Stuka dive-bomber (a navalized version with folding wings, arrester hook and catapult attachment points) and an Arado 96B single-engine trainer. After conducting comparative flight trials, the Italians eventually settled on the Re.2001 as their standard carrier fighter/fighter-bomber and even the Germans concluded it had better potential than their own counterpart, the Messerschmitt Bf 109T. All flight testing, including simulated braked deck landings, was land-based.[6]

Aquila's planned air complement was 51 non-folding Reggiane Re.2001 OR fighter-bombers: 41 stowed in the hangar deck (including 15 suspended from the deck head) and 10 on the flight deck in a permanent deck park.[5] A folding-wing version of the Re.2001 was planned, which would have increased the size of Aquila's air group to 66 aircraft, but this never materialized. Only ten Re.2001s were fully converted for carrier use. They were given tail hooks, RTG naval radio equipment and bomb racks for carrying 650 kg (1,400 lb) of bombs. They were also armed with two 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns mounted above the engine cowling. At least one Re.2001G was under test at Perugia as a naval torpedo bomber and was given a lengthened tail wheel strut to accommodate the added height of a torpedo suspended below the fuselage.[6]

Fate

Aquila moored at La Spezia in 1951, just before being scrapped.

Following the 8 September 1943 armistice, when Aquila was nearing completion and had passed her first static test, Germany seized the ship and placed it under guard. Aquila was later damaged on June 16, 1944 during an Allied air attack on Genoa. Fearing the Germans might use the ship to block the entrance to Genoa harbor, Aquila was partially scuttled on April 19, 1945 by Italian commando frogmen. Raised in 1946, Aquila was later towed to La Spezia in 1949 where consideration was given to completing her or converting her to some other use. She was eventually scrapped in 1952.[9]

Assessment

Had Aquila’s conversion begun in 1938 instead of 1941, she might have been completed and worked up in time to accompany Italy’s main fleet units during the critical period 1941-1942. Her presence then could have potentially altered the outcomes of some battles, with her fighters intercepting British recon planes and parrying their carrier-borne air strikes, while her bombers carried out more timely and effective recon patrols than the Regia Aeronautica could provide and conducted their own attacks on British warships and convoys. Thus Aquila might have prevented some historical Italian losses (such as at Cape Matapan) and inflicted a few of her own against Great Britain's Royal Navy.

As it was, however, Aquila came far too late to affect the war in the Mediterranean. Even at her advanced stage of construction in September 1943, she would have required another six months to a year to conduct service trials, convert sufficient carrier aircraft, train her pilots and flight deck crews, manufacture and install her newly-designed AA guns and solve the vexing arrester wire problem. By February 1943, however, the combined Anglo-American armies had expelled Axis forces from North Africa and by August 1943 they had conquered Sicily. Time had run out for Italy’s fledgling carrier aviation effort.

It's important to remember that, despite its lack of aircraft carriers, the Regia Marina still succeeded in fulfilling its primary wartime missions: namely, preventing the British Navy from severing Italy's maritime supply routes to Axis forces fighting in North Africa and maintaining itself as a viable “fleet in being”. It’s also worth noting that, although Britain's Royal Navy operated at least eight aircraft carriers of its own in the Mediterranean (Argus, Ark Royal, Eagle, Formidable, Furious, Illustrious, Indomitable, Victorious)[10] at varying times during the period in question, they failed to achieve decisive and lasting results against the Regia Marina. Nor was their presence able to halt the flow of supplies to Italo-German forces operating in North Africa.

This historical outcome suggests that, regardless of Aquila's considerable potential, the time, material and manpower expended on her construction might have been better spent on vessels meeting the Regia Marina's more immediate needs, rather than her longer-termed ambitions.

References

  1. ^ Chesneau, p. 152
  2. ^ Sadkovich, p. 3
  3. ^ Sadkovich, p. 4
  4. ^ Pantelleria: the Black Pearl of the Med
  5. ^ a b c d e f Brown, p. 11
  6. ^ a b c d Dunning, p. 198
  7. ^ Greene/Massignani, p. 114
  8. ^ Barker, p. 288
  9. ^ Brown, p. 12
  10. ^ Greene/Massignani

Bibliography

  • Barker, Lt. Cmdr Edward L. (March 1954). War Without Aircraft Carriers. United States Naval Institute Proceedings.  
  • Brown, David (1977). WWII Fact Files: Aircraft Carriers. Arco Publishing.  
  • Burke, Stephen (2008). Without Wings: The Story of Hitler's Aircraft Carrier. Trafford Publishing.  
  • Chesneau, Roger (1998). Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present. Brockhampton Press.  
  • Dunning, Chris (1998). Courage Alone: The Italian Air Force 1940-1943. Hikoki Publications.  
  • Greene, Jack; Alessandro Massignani (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943. Chatham Publishing.  
  • Knox, MacGregor (2000). Hitler's Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime and the War of 1940-1943. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Sadkovich, James J. (1994). The Italian Navy in World War II. Greenwood Press.  

See also

External links


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