THE SINKING OF ROMA
Amongst the niches and gravestones of the simple and serene Cemetery of Mahón, there stands a Mausoleum. The few words engraved upon it remember the sailors of the Italian ship Roma, who met their death too young, too soon in 1943.
The story goes back to WWII when in September of 1943, the war was going badly for Italy. Their unconditional surrender to Eisenhower and the allied forces was kept a closely guarded secret for a few days until on 8th September at 18.30 in the evening Eisenhower made the announcement on Radio Algeria. The Italian Navy had to leave the ports of Italy as fast as possible and hand their ships over to the Americans in open sea near Algeria, then the plan was to join with the British forces in Malta. Roma was the flagship of the fleet that left La Spetzia at 02.30 in the morning on 9th September, heading first for the island of La Magdalena, near Bonifaccío (where King Victor Emmanuel was favourable to the allies), they were under the command of Admiral Carlo Bergamini. However, fate stepped in at a critical moment as this island had just been taken by the Germans, so as the fleet approached and was seen by the German troops, the order was sent out to their airbase near Marseille to attack and sink the Italian ships. The prime target was Roma, Italy’s newest and largest ship, it was trim and graceful, the pride and joy of the Italian navy and with only 130 hours underway. It carried over 2000 sailors onboard.
On that same day of 9th September, a series of dramatic events took place:
At 12.00 the fleet approached Bonifaccio between Corsica and Sardinia and turned in 90º.
At 13.40 the news arrived that the Germans had seized control of La Magdalena. Admiral Bergamini ordered 180º turn to reverse course out of the straits.
Aircraft were seen high in the skies, too high to identify. When they returned a little later they were recognized as German Dornier bombers, each carried one large, single bomb.
At 15.30 the bombers climbed to over 5000 meters (15,000 feet). The ships opened fire but the planes were too high for the anti-aircraft guns. The bombs were seen dropping from the skies and heading for the ships, while the planes continued to circle overhead. A bomb hit the sea very close to the ship Italia, and jammed her rudder.
At 15.45 Roma was hit starboard; the bomb passed through 7 decks and exploded just below, disabling the propeller and electrical systems.
At 15.52 a second bomb hit Roma and detonated inside the engine room. The Turret exploded; killing the Admiral amongst many others and causing the ammunitions supply to detonate; instantly the ship was consumed in flames.
At 16.12 the mighty ship broke in two, and took barely three minutes to disappear below the waves, some 1,395 sailors, most of them around 20 years old, were burned to death or drowned.
These planes were carrying for the first time ever the 11 foot long Fritz X bombs, a new class of weapon which was precision guided from the plane and deadly accurate.
The closest ship managed to save some 500 men and another ship gathered up over 100 more, but most of the survivors needed medical help, many suffering from severe burns apart from other injuries. There was much confusion and with poor communications the Italian ships were uncertain where was safe to go to. The decision was made to sail overnight to the Baleares, they had just enough fuel for the distance and a neutral country with a naval hospital would surely help them. Four ships sailed into Mahon harbour, and 252 injured survivors were admitted into the hospital on Isla del Rey. Others who were suffering from shock were helped at the Spanish Navy base and provided with some clothes, although food was scarce.
In total, some 1700 Italian sailors and 4 ships arrived in Mahón. They were given 24 hours to leave but since it was impossible to obtain fuel for the ships, they were then officially “captured” in a neutral country and it took until 25th January of 1945, 16 months of negotiations, before the ships could depart, just 3 months before the end of the WWII and in time for the liberation of Italy. During this time the sailors took part in cultural and social activities with the local people, friendship were established, marriages took place and as there was never enough food, they also helped with food picking and planting to help subsidize their diet.
Besides the 4 ships that arrived in Mahon, there were 3 more that sailed on to Pollensa in Mallorca, 2 of these ships were deliberately sunk between the two islands to avoid them being used by either one side or another in the war.
As for the injured on the Isla del Rey: We still have a very elderly nun living in Mahón, Sor Demitria who was only 21 years old at the time and visiting the hospital when the Italians arrived, so she stayed to help. She will never forget the sight of the traumatized sailors arriving, so badly burned, especially on their hands and faces, some could only bear to lie on the slats of the beds to reduce the contact with their bodies, many desperately needed morphine to cope with the pain. During the overnight voyage to Minorca 13 more had died, and another 13 died after being admitted. The mausoleum of Mahón marks the last resting place of these 26 young men. The rest of the rescued sailors survived.
During the next 4 months they were given medical care and many operations both in Madrid and Barcelona. The survivors started to leave about 10 months later, going to neutral Gibraltar before they could be repatriated at the end of the war.
On the Hospital of the Isla del Rey, where once there were hospital wards that cared for these sailors, we now have two rooms dedicated to the story of Roma. There are personal belongings, many photos, and a beautiful model of the ship, together with a huge amount of information that has been gathered up from survivors and historical records. This has been prepared over many years by one of our volunteers, Mario Cappa, an Italian who is the son in law of one of the many who died on the Roma. Last September there was a special service in Mahón commemorating 75 years since this event occurred, and families of survivors came from Italy back to Menorca to see the hospital where their grandfathers were cared for. It was a moving occasion, and it is evident that this story will never be forgotten while the British Naval Hospital still stands on the Isla del Rey.