Saturday, January 10, 2015

Spying or sharing? Russian Navy and the Italian battleship Dante Alighieri

Triple-gun turret of the Dante Alighieri. 
In March of 1913, two Russian ship engineers obtained access to the just-launched Italian battleship Dante Alighieri, the first battleship with triple-gun turrets for the main armament.  They noted a number of original devices and reported them to the naval ministry.
Important military information was passed to an unfriendly nation (Italy was an ally of Germany and Austria, while Russia was allied with France and Great Britain). How did it happen?

The Dante Alighieri was in Madeira when the German steamer Meteor called at port. The Russian Naval Ministry had chartered the Meteor to test the performance of Frahm anti-roll tanks. Was it a coincidence that the ships met?

1907: The triple-gun turrets are included in  the technical conditions for the Russian Navy battleship design contest.  The famous naval architect Vittorio Cuniberti submits the design, which the Naval General Staff declares the best.

1908: On January 1st, Alexey Krylov became Russia's chief inspector of shipbuilding.  He recommended the  Blohm und Voss  design over Cuniberti’s one, essentially on technicality.

1909: The Dante Alighieri is laid down.

1912: December: Russian battle cruisers of the Borodino (aka Izmail) class, designed by the Admiralty Works, are laid down.

1913: January: The Dante Alighieri  is completed.
          February: Alexey Krylov, attached to the Naval Minister for special projects, charters the  Meteor.
          March: The two ships meet in Madeira.

Admiral Krylov delayed the departure from Madeira by several days, hoping to learn more about the Italian battleship. Krylov showed Italians anti-rolling tanks installed on the German liner, and in exchange obtained access to the Italian battleship. A piece of friendly spying ensued.
The commander of the Dante Alighieri, Captain 1st Rank Bellini, told me that the ship had Frahm antiroll tanks installed, and the purpose of the voyage was to test these tanks. Therefore, Captain Bellini, after learning about the purpose of our voyage on the Meteor, became greatly interested and asked for permission to send two of his engineers to the Meteor. 
I instructed ship engineers Grauen and Yakovlev to show the Italians all our installations in detail while I showed them to Captain Bellini and explained the essence of the matter. After treating the Italians to a good meal, I told Grauen and Yakovlev to go ashore with them, not to spare Madeira at my expense, and to establish such an alliance with the Italians, that the next day, inviting Grauen and Yakovlev to the battleship, they would show everything, not only what was on the upper deck. The examination of the Frahm tanks provided sufficient excuse, with the warmed-up benevolence of the Italians (Grauen could drink, without batting an eye, however much of whatever was available), to show the entire ship. Our engineers noted a number of original and practical devices that, upon return, they reported to the Naval Technical Committee and Admiralty Works.

 Why was Captain Silvio Bellini, soon promoted to Rear Admiral, so accommodating to Krylov's engineers?

Before the war, Italy was already negotiating with United Kingdom and France. The Italian government wanted Trieste, Istria, Zara, and Dalmatia, which changed hands several times in the previous centuries and at that time belonged to Austria. Supporting Central Powers would not achieve the goal. Italy eventually entered the World War I on the Entente side in 1915.

In 1913, while the diplomats and statesmen weaved the web that eventually started the World War I, the navies competed in traditional courtesy, so it remained unknown if  Captain Bellini was truly duped by Russians, or followed the orders.

(Illustrations are from the site of Associazione Nazionale Marinai d'Italia)

Translation: “Please attend at 10 am of January 26 the ceremony of delivery of the combat flag that the National Society Dante Alighieri offers this Royal Ship.

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