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The map above shows all areas in North, Central and South Atlantic assigned to the Italian submarines based at Bordeaux BETASOM. 

BETASOM (an Italian language acronym of Bordeaux Sommergibile was a submarine base established at Bordeaux by the Italian Regia Marina Italiana during World War II. From this base, Italian submarines participated in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1940 to 1943 as part of the Axis anti-shipping campaign against the Allies.

Axis naval co-operation started after the signing of the Pact of Steel in June 1939 with meetings in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and an agreement to exchange technical information. After the Italian entry into the war and the Fall of France, the Italian Navy established a submarine base at Bordeaux, which was within the German occupation zone. The Italians were allocated a sector of the Atlantic south of Lisbon to patrol. The base was opened in August 1940, and in 1941 the captured French passenger ship De Grasse was used a depot ship before being returned to the Vichy French Government in June 1942.

Admiral Angelo Parona commanded the submarines at BETASOM under the control of Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Karl Dönitz. Dönitz was the "Commander of the Submarines" (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote) for the Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine. About 1,600 men were based at BETASOM. The base could house up to thirty submarines and it had dry docks and two basins connected by locks. Shore barracks accommodated a security guard of 250 men of the San Marco Regiment. A second base was established at La Pallice in La Rochelle, France. This second base allowed submerged training which was not possible at Bordeaux.

From June 1940, three Italian submarines patrolled off the Canary Islands and Madeira, followed by three more off the Azores. When these patrols were completed, the six boats returned to their new base at Bordeaux. Their initial patrol area was the Northwestern Approaches and at the start they out-numbered their German allies' submarines. Dönitz was pragmatic about the Italians, seeing them as inexperienced, but useful for reconnaissance and likely to gain expertise.

Dönitz was disappointed. The Italian submarines sighted convoys but lost contact and failed to make effective reports. Even when assigned to weather reporting - critical for the war effort on both sides - they failed to do this competently. Fearing that German operations would be prejudiced, Dönitz reassigned the Italians to the southern area where they could act independently. In this way, about thirty Italian boats achieved some success, without much impact on the critical areas of the campaign.

In the beginning, German assessments were scathing. Dönitz described the Italians as "inadequately disciplined" and "unable to remain calm in the face of the enemy". When the British tanker British Fame was attacked by the Malaspina, "the officer of the watch and lookouts were on the bridge and the captain was dozing in a deckchair below". It took five torpedoes to sink the tanker and, at one point, the tanker's gunfire forced the Malaspina to submerge to safety. The Italians towed the lifeboats to safety, an act worthy of praise, but one against Dönitz's orders and leaving the submarine open to attack for 24 hours. While the BETASOM submarines did have some value, it is clear why they did not meet the expectations of Dönitz. By 30 November 1940, Italian submarines in the Atlantic each sank an average of 200 gross tons per day. By comparison, German U-boats each averaged 1,115 gross tons per day during the same time period.

In an attempt to improve the performance of the Italian submarines, several measures were taken: taking cue from the Kriegsmarine, older Italian submarine commanders (some were 40 years old) were replaced with younger officers, who possessed more aggressiveness and stamina; a "submarine school" was created in Gotenhafen, where commanders, officers and bridge crews of the Betasom submarines were trained according to the German model (the submarine Reginaldo Giuliani was assigned to this task, in cooperation with German naval units). Italian submarines also underwent improvement work, such as the reshaping of their excessively large turrets.

These measures significantly improved the performance of the remaining Italian submarines (about half of the Betasom boats were recalled to the Mediterranean in 1941); the average tonnage sunk by Betasom submarines rose from 3,844 GRT in 1940 to 27,335 GRT in 1942 (and, respectively, from 7,779 GRT to 68,337 GRT per actually operating submarine). The tonnage sunk for every lost submarine was 32,672 GRT in 1940 (opposed to 188,423 GRT for German submarines), 20,432 GRT in 1941 (70,871 GRT for Germans submarines), 136,674 GRT in 1942 (68,801 GRT for German submarines) and 13,498 GRT in 1943 (11,391 GRT for German submarines).

Between February and March 1942, five Betasom submarines (along with six German U-Boats) took part in Operation Neuland, sinking 15 of the 45 Allied merchant ships destroyed during this operation. The top scoring Betasom aces, Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia (90,601 GRT sunk) and Carlo Fecia di Cossato (96,553 GRT sunk), were among the few Italian recipients of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. Gazzana-Priaroggia's boat, Leonardo Da Vinci, held the distinction of being the top-scoring non-German submarine of World War II, with 17 ships sunk totalling 120,243 GRT.

Italian naval historian Giorgio Giorgerini has put forward the view that, although Italian submarines did not perform as well as the U-boats, they did achieve a good success considering the deficiencies of their boats (among which were the lack of modern torpedo fire-control systems and their slower speed both surfaced and submerged). Taking into consideration the period in which the BETASOM submarines operated and the numbers of submarines employed, comparing the respective tonnages sunk by U-boote and the Italian submarines and the respective losses (16 Italian submarines lost against 247 U-Boote), it can be seen that the respective "exchange rates" (gross tonnage sunk divided by the number submarines lost) were respectively 40.591 t for the German units and 34.512 t for the Italian ones, meaning that the Italian submariners were not as bad as often surmised. However, he also acknowledges that this fact does not change the fact that Italy's participation in the Battle of the Atlantic was not a success and that its strategical significance was small. Overall, the Italian submarines sank 109 allied merchant ships totalling 593,864 tons, and suffered the loss of 16 boats.

The base was bombed by the British on several occasions, especially in 1940 and 1941, but no significant damage was suffered, except for the sinking of the barracks ship Usaramo. The base was indirectly attacked by Operation Josephine B in June 1941, a raid to destroy the electricity substation that served the base. The remaining BETASOM boats ended their last offensive patrol in the late spring of 1943, after which seven BETASOM submarines were adapted to carry critical matériel from the Far East (Bagnolini, Barbarigo, Cappellini, Finzi, Giuliani, Tazzoli, and Torelli). Two of these were sunk by the Allies, two were captured in the Far East by the Germans after the September 1943 Italian Surrender and used by them and a fifth was captured in Bordeaux by the Germans, but not used.

After the Italian Armistice in September 1943 the base was seized by the Germans. Some of the Italian personnel joined the Germans independently of the Italian Social Republic. During this period the Italian postage stamps on hand were overprinted to show loyalty to Mussolini's rump state. The last two remaining U-boats left Bordeaux in August 1944, three days before the Allies occupied the base on 25 August. The last remaining German naval personnel attempted to march back to Germany but were captured by U.S. forces on 11 September 1944.

Italian submarine Finzi entering Betasom base.


Cap Enzo Grossi being decorated by Admiral Doenitz.


BETASOM Italian submarine base at Bordeaux.


Italian submariners gathered at BETASOM in a ceremony to celebrate the date of Mussolini's march over Rome.


Italian submarine arriving at BETASOM after a long patrol on the increasingly dangerous Atlantic. Allied surface and Air Units were a constant menace for Axis submarines.


Detail of one Italian submarine being re armed with new torpedoes. Soon the same will be plying the waters of the perilous Bay of Biscay in order to break out into the Atlantic.


Admiral Doenitz seen during a visit to Italian BETASOM. Italian submariners were highly regarded as brave warriors. 




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