The Italian ship Timavo being salvaged after her captain ran her aground off Zululand in 1940 to avoid capture by Allied forces.
The Italian ship Timavo being salvaged after her captain ran her aground off Zululand in 1940 to avoid capture by Allied forces.

The Timavo’s last mad dash from Durban

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Apr 10, 2021

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Durban - The story of the Italian vessel Timavo, whose captain ran her aground off the Zululand coast rather than face capture by the Allied forces in 1940, featured in Maritime Memories in the World Ship Society's Durban (WSS) newsletter this month.

The dramatic dash up the South African coastline of two fleeing Italian vessels took place on June 10, 1940, when Italian leader Benito Mussolini "Il Duce" declared war on France and Great Britain, entering World War II with Germany and Adolf Hitler.

Italy had withheld any formal allegiance to either side in the war, which had broken out in 1939. Hitler had tried to bring Mussolini on to his side in 1939, but Britain and France had also been wooing him with promises of territorial concessions in Africa.

It has also been said in historical accounts that Mussolini was wary of entering the war because of a lack of raw materials in Italy. When Mussolini declared war, Paris was under German occupation and it has been reported that Hitler wryly commented that Mussolini had joined the fray to get "his share of the spoils".

Italian vessel the Timavo before she was run aground the Zululand coast to escape Allied Forces in 1940.

Early on June 10, getting word that Italy was about to enter the war, the captain of the Timavo hastily left the port of Durban with a second Italian vessel.

She was pursued up the coast by the South African Air Force. One historical report mention was made of a second vessel (unnamed) which made it to Lourenço Marques but was later captured and used as a hospital ship for Allied forces. But the Timavo's captain decided to run the vessel aground off the Zululand coast. According to records, the ship was run aground off Leven Point which is between Cape Vidal and Sodwana.

All men aboard survived and were captured. They had wrecked the vessel, although some of her cargo was salvaged.

According to WSS member David Hughes, the Timavo was originally owned by Italy's Navigazione Libera Triestina after being built in 1920, serving Lloyd Triestino during the 1930s. She carried passengers in one class only on the Mediterranean to Africa service.

Eighty years on and the only remaining part of the ship is a bit of the engine sticking out of shallow waters. It is in a sanctuary area off world heritage site iSimangaliso Wetland Park and a no-go zone, so no diving is allowed in that area.

According to the Regia Marina Italiana website, when Italy declared war on June 10, 1940, sailors of merchant ships, many in the Mediterranean, were the first to suffer the consequences. The site records that of the 212 ships in the Mediterranean at that time, nearly all were consequently captured or sunk by the enemy.

All ships, while remaining the property of their owners, were used by the Italian government to assist in convoys, re-supplying troops in Africa and the Balkans and to protect coastal traffic.

The site states that between June 10, 1940, and September 8, 1943, the Italian merchant fleet gained 204 ships, newly constructed or captured ‒ but 460 ships were lost. As of September 8, 1943, the number of ships of more than 500 tons was 324. After the armistice, many of these ships were sunk or destroyed to avoid capture. By May 1945, there were only 95 merchant ships exceeding 500 tons left.

"The amount of capital lost was immense, not only in terms of quantity, but also quality. Many ships were new and excellent vessels, along with thousands of brave sailors were lost at sea," according to the website.

More than 3 000 seamen died on merchant ships registered as auxiliary vessels, over 3 000 crew on requisitioned and non-requisitioned vessels and 537 died as POWs (prisoners of war).

Independent on Saturday

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