Italy declared war on 10 June 1940 after aligning themselves with Germany, an alliance that was ill-fated from the very beginning. Things did not go well for the Italian forces and on 10 July 1943 the writing was on the wall as the Allied forces invaded Sicily. Shortly thereafter Fascism collapsed and Italy surrendered on 25 July 1943. Italian naval headquarters sent out a signal for all Italian shipping to surrender to the Allies. All but one did just that.
Some time later as a storm thrashed in from the north-east, lashing down with all the force and fury of nature, a lone Italian submarine struggled in vain against the gale-force headwind. Only the worried captain and the watchman stood on the conning tower bracing against the onslaught and neither of the men could see far for the driving rain and spume blowing up from the breaking waves. Bad weather was a good time to avoid enemy sub hunters and even potentially friendly vessels, but this pestilence seemed the worst enemy of the mission. The navigator estimated that the submarine was in fact moving backwards and totally unable to make headway against both the current and the raging wind.
Captain Mario Cortelli gave the order to dive – his hopes being that they could submerge to a depth sufficient to escape the hurricane and outwait the storm. Cortelli had never agreed with the war or Mussolini’s ambitions and this mission had from the outset had the smell of treachery and deceit.
The electric motors could easily hold against the ocean currents but duration was limited by both battery power and oxygen reserves. A rebellious crew, an old, damaged, rusting and creaky ship, coupled with a shortage of fuel and breathable air made for a dangerous combination of circumstances.
‘Sir,’ said the first officer. ‘I feel we should head back and surrender.’
‘Idiot,’ growled the angry captain. ‘Whom would you surrender to?’
‘The first port we find or the first ship we meet, sir.’
‘Idiot, a warship would blow us out of the water and there are no ports along this coast.’
‘We can’t go much farther, sir; neither the men nor the ship can take it.’
‘When this storm has passed we will sail to Newfoundland and surrender to the British.’
‘Aye-aye, sir, as you wish.’
It was six miserable, cold and boring hours before the captain gave the order to rise to periscope depth. A white flag would be hoisted up the conning tower, which might protect them from naval artillery. At periscope depth the captain took his first look at the new and fresh morning. The storm had abated and now only a damp day with a heavy swell offered any resistance to their progress.
Tired from having little sleep, breathing bad air and worrying about his crew, the captain again took up watch on the conning tower. Not to be taken by surprise, the large white flag had been raised up the periscope. A heatwave followed the cyclone and began raising mist off the angry sea. The very thing they did not need was a wet and impenetrable sea fog. By noon the mist had thickened giving less than 100 metres visibility.
‘Iceberg on the port bow!’ yelled the watchman.
‘Hard to starboard!’ roared the captain. ‘Slow all engines.’
With a terrifying thump the submarine struck the hidden underwater forerunner of a near submerged ice flow. Suddenly there were several brilliant green ice monsters all around, creaking and groaning against the vessel’s hull.
‘All engines stop!’
‘Sir,’ came the first officer. ‘We’re holed and taking on water.’
Rapidly the situation progressed from bad to worse. The unlucky vessel had stumbled into a group of what the fishermen call growlers – broken pieces of an ice flow drifting down from the north – a common phenomena in those waters even in midsummer.
‘Damage report!’ yelled the captain.
‘Forward torpedo room and battery chamber taking on water, sir.’
‘Seal it off,’ yelled Cortelli.
The ship was indeed very old; the crew over tired and with systems breaking down the situation suddenly became fatal. The hatch to the battery chamber jammed making a waterproof seal impossible and electrics started failing. The starboard vents seized and the ice pack relentlessly hammered the side of the ship. After an hour battling with the elements it became clear Italy was about to lose one more submarine.
Even in summer the water would be terribly cold and friendly land lay many kilometres away. Captain Mario Cortelli sounded out the words all sailors dread to hear, ‘Abandon ship.’
In a perfect world men would not need to lay down their lives for the avaricious dreams of a madman, but here fifty-four souls abandoned their sinking vessel to face an unknown peril in a virtually unknown sea. Coincidentally, Henry Hudson with his son and seven of his crew had been cast adrift in these same waters on the 23 June 1611 and none of them were ever seen again.
The flimsy, overloaded inflatable boats soon became separated and lost in the interminable fog. Who, in the middle of a global conflict, would bother to search for a few lost sailors? Who even knew where or why they were where they had at last ended their voyage of subterfuge, mutiny and misadventure? Some sixty-five years later, I had never heard of Captain Cortelli or his dangerous and ill-fated foray into the Hudson Bay of northern Canada but all that was about to change.