The incredible journey of the “Eritrea” – Italian_military_archives
In 1941 a small Italian warship left the port of Massaua, dodged allied surveillance in the Indian ocean and managed to reach Japan. It also came back.
The “Eritrea” was a military vessel, launched in 1937, conceived for long range operations in the Italian colonies (it was classified as “colonial ship”). Displacing 2100 tons, it was armed with two twin 120mm gun mountings and was capable of a maximum speed of 19 knots.
When the war broke out it was stationed in the harbour of Massaua in Italian East Africa together with other light units, notably the “Leone” and “Nazario Sauro” class destroyers. In February 1941 the situation in East Africa was dire for the Italians: isolated from the motherland, the land forces had been progressively depleted and the few ships available were bombed in port by British planes.
With the capitulation of the colony approaching, it was decided that the Eritrea would have tried to avoid capture by attempting a breakout into the Indian Ocean, destination Japanese-controlled bases in the East. The ship embarked several additional fuel barrels to increase its autonomy and left Massaua on the night of the 19th of February 1941, under the command of frigate captain Marino Iannucci.
To increase the chances of avoiding the British blockade, Captain Iannucci (an expert Hydrographer) decided to cross the shallow and dangerous waters near the Island of Perim (at the entrance of the Gulf of Aden), betting on the absence of British surveillance in that area. His plan worked out and under the cover of darkness the “Eritrea” left the Red sea and entered the Indian Ocean.
After the successful crossing, the “Eritrea” spots an enemy vessel, fast approaching its position. It is a British auxiliary cruiser, seemingly ready to engage the Italian ship, the crew is then ordered to battle stations but miraculously the enemy ships, at 15km distance, changes course and breaks contact. The Eritrea is safe for now, but it has been discovered, paving the way to possible future air attacks or naval interception.
On the 22th of February at night there is another contact with an enemy vessel, the Eritrea rapidly manoeuvres and lays a smoke screen which allows to break contact with the British unit. After some calm days of navigation, the Eritrea is now in open Ocean and the risk of being spotted/attacked by aircrafts is practically vanished, the morale is high, and the crew believes that they can finally “make it”. The crossing of the Indian Ocean progressed with no new hostile encounters and on the 11th of March the Eritrea was in sight of the Dutch controlled East Indies, another difficult choice lays ahead.
At the time there was no war status between Italy and the Netherlands (which is occupied by Germany while its colonies have joined the Allies) so there is no risk of clash with the Dutch units, however they could easily report the position of the Eritrea to the British forces in Singapore or to the Australians in Darwin. Iannucci then decides to take another risky gamble, he makes route for the Alor strait and the island of Timor, which is controlled by Portugal in the eastern portion. Iannucci orders to disguise the Eritrea as the Portuguese vessel Pedro Nunez which somehow could resemble the Italian colonial ship. They are soon spotted by a Dutch recognisance plane flying over their heads; they immediately raise the Portuguese flag and identify themselves as the Pedro Nunez.
With a considerable share of luck, the trick worked out and during the night the Eritrea safely crossed the Alor strait. Some days later the lucky ship spotted another warship quickly approaching to its position, the crew was once again ordered to battle stations but this time the Japanese flag raised on the approaching Cruiser allowed for a general scream of jubilee.
The Eritrea finally arrived in the Japanese port of Kobe after 32 days and 17.334 km of navigation, achieving something very close to the impossible.
The Eritrea continued to operate in Asian waters until September 1943 when it was reached by the news of the armistice. Captain Iannucci, loyal to the King, escaped the surveillance of the Japanese fleet and reached British controlled Ceylon. The Eritrea operated until 1945 as a submarine support vessel for the allied navies and returned to Italy at the end of the war.
The small lucky ship was handed over to the French navy in 1948 as part of war reparations and took part to several operation revolving around the war in French Indochina during the 50s. The Eritrea, now renamed Francis Garnier, was placed in reserve in 1966 and was finally used as a floating target for a nuclear test near the atoll of Mururoa. The ship sunk on the 29th of October 1966 and its wreck lays at 1300m in the Pacific waters.