"Il Signor Parolini" (ninth part)

(To Gregorio Vella)

The baked chicken, as expected, had lived up to its reputation, consolidating, where needed, the undisputed culinary mastery of Gastone, head cook of our company canteen, whose authority and authority, as consummate chef, were second only to those of the Director. It was not for nothing that he had earned (deservedly) the nickname of "Deputy Moral Director" in the factory.

Gastone had cut his teeth on the transatlantic, the ones with the Italian flag, starting as a kid and learning really a lot, in those floating academies that for refinement and elegant excellence, were second to none in the world. Disembarked after ten years in Genoa-New York, he had been the subject of the dispute over large hotels and very famous restaurants. He was grabbed by a large hotel in Cortina, where he remained a highly regarded and well-paid chef for four years; after which, perhaps by now melancholy by the mountain landscapes, beautiful but that sooner or later they get bored, the opportunity to return to his home, which was ten kilometers from the factory, in Villafranca Lunigiana took place. This thanks to a competition with an art test in the Arsenale in Spezia, which he won hands down as, obviously, he had no rivals and despite the knowledge that his salary would be more than halved.

After the meal, I met Parolini at the cafeteria bar.

  • Gregorio, how did your melting points on the T4 that took you to the lab this morning go?

  • Test passed, we have already done the certificate. They melted at 204,5 ° C split, all three. Textbook value. They didn't tell me but I think it's explosive that they bought top quality stuff in Sweden from that famous factory. Not for nothing the first owner of that industry was Alfred Nobel. Parolini, if you have time and desire, after the coffee we can go back to the grinding room and continue the work of this morning. So he gives me a hand and tells me about Augusta, finally.

  • It's OK for me. We can go when you want. I also thought we would continue and I have already told my foreman. So Gregorio, if you guess by what means I went to Augusta in forty-seven, I'll offer you some coffee.

  • It is not valid, the coffee is already paid for.

  • And then the coffee killer.

  • Okay Parolini, I'll try. So, let's see if I guess right; he was in forty-seven and a journey by car or train to Sicily must have been somewhat problematic. I don't think so by plane, he must have gone there by ship, probably a passage on a military ship.

  • Mistaken. Instead we just went by plane. Lieutenant Captain Branciforti, naval arms, Sicilian from Bagheria, I think he was a marquis or something like that, two bomb-disposal marshals, Corbani and Sotgiu and myself.

  • Yes, but he still hasn't told me that he went to Augusta, by plane, for two months, with a marquis and two bomb squads. The mystery deepens and she seems to enjoy having my neck stretched.

  • Partially yes. I confess it. I also confess that I really like your greed for stories. I think it takes a certain attitude in telling things well, but it is not often that you find someone, like her, who has a good predisposition to listen, and knowing how to listen in my opinion is a rare quality.

  • Actually, let me say that the stories of his life and work are rare and very engaging, it would be a real shame if this heritage were lost. Why don't you write them?

  • No Gregorio, it doesn't seem the case, writing is not my job. If you want to try it yourself, I authorize it.

  • Who knows. I almost almost take notes.

We walked towards the dust grinding room, it had stopped raining and a pale and sickly sun was trying very hard to get the upper hand over the clouds.

  • I remember being summoned by the director of the naval ammunition plant, which was still being rebuilt. At that time we were located in Spezia in Vallegrande; the Lochi Workshops had been bombed. Commander Branciforti was with him, with whom I would go to Augusta and whom I would see again after about ten years, having met him in Lochi as a midshipman. We hugged. The director explained the reason for the mission to me. It was for the return to Italy, initially in Augusta, of two former battleships of ours, the Vittorio Veneto and the Littorio, or rather “Italy” as it had been quickly renamed after the fall of fascism. We had an unspecified assignment to carry out checks on the ammunition on board and we would receive instructions, equipment and details once we were there. The two units returned from the Bitter Lakes in Egypt, which are located near the origin of the Suez Canal, where they had been interned by the British, armed and with crews, for over three years after the armistice and after that, as I had said this morning, they had surrendered to Malta to the victorious powers, on 10 September 43. The fate of the two ships, as well as those of the rest of the fleet, which was still considerable, had been established, perhaps already at the Yalta conference two years earlier. As compensation, the former Littorio took it out on the Americans and Vittorio Veneto the British.

  • But, if they were already "booked", why return them to an Italian port?

  • Right observation, Gregory. But things were very complicated, I too came to the head a long time later. The ships had been moored in Egypt, intact and safe, far from the war theaters still open in Europe, with a view to employment in the Far East, obviously planned before the launch of the atomic bombs. Those ships had the main artillery, nine .381 caliber pieces, which in terms of technology and range (almost 45 kilometers) had no equal in the world, even if in accuracy they were a bit disgusting. This was due to the launch charges, because they were made with self-sufficient raw material (we had very little ballistic cellulose and we managed to get it partly from wood and not from cotton). As a result, the dispersion of the shots was often excessive, sometimes even half a kilometer. At that point, hitting a target up to forty kilometers (which was the extreme limit of the optical range) depended almost completely on luck, despite the great skill of the shooting directors and telemetrists, the quality of the guns and the excellent firing and aiming centers. , authentic jewels of the technology of the time. The British knew this and in fact the first thing they did, and in the perspective of a reuse of the Far East ships, was to prepare to replace all the launch charges with material of their own production, but done as it should, with excellent Indian cotton or Egyptian, so much the caliber was equal to that of their guns, which for them was called 15 inches and for us 381 millimeters. There was only to remeasure the initial speed of the project at the sprint and redo the tables.

  • I guess nothing came of it. I have never heard or read of military employment of Italian ships, even if former, in such distant places.

  • In fact, Gregorio, and the reasons were many. Some I know, others I imagine. First of all they were ships designed to protect the nation at sea and therefore to operate mainly in Mediterranean areas, so they had limited fuel autonomy and to get to Japan they would have to refuel at least four times. Then they were a little down on maintenance; it was necessary to carry out the careening in the basin and for such a long journey it was necessary to review an enormous number of mechanical, electrical and hydraulic systems and machinery. The problem of finding spare parts would also arise, and the warehouses of the arsenals in Spezia and Taranto, which had first been bombed and then looted, were being reconstituted and it wasn't that they had a lot of stuff. But the main reason I think was political. In fact, the Americans did not care much about sending ships to support "their" war in Japan, which, although very good, were out of configuration for them. Their industrial (and therefore military) potential was simply frightening and their shipyards had recently churned out the four brand new Iowa-class battleships, with 16-inch guns, or 406 millimeters in caliber and spinning at thirty knots. It was the same yards, about ten, that had built the cargo ships, the "Liberty". They made almost three thousand, to send convoys of war material to Europe and Russia. They even delivered three ships a week and the largest shipyard employed more than thirty thousand people; real cities were built to house workers and families.

  • I read somewhere that they were ships made for one voyage only, like disposable.

  • This is partly true; for the American logistic strategists and in the general economy of the affair, even a single full trip was payable, but many Liberty ships continued to sail for a long time after the end of the war and with every flag. They can be considered deserving because after the war they gave a big boost to the resumption of trade and commerce, replacing the many merchant ships who, with their crews, had sacrificed themselves at sea victims of the U-boats and, I add, quite obscurely. The first normal bread we ate after the war we made with the wheat that came with the Liberty. A curiosity ... If I remember correctly, one of them seems to be renamed “Italterra” in the fifties if Fiat bought it, modifying it, to bring and sell in America, for several years, a thousand cars at a time. True, they were economically built ships, just think that some had some structure made of concrete instead of steel and it is said that every now and then traces of some were lost because the hull opened.

  • How, it "opened"?

  • It opened because they were the first fully welded (and not bolted) hulls made in large series and therefore the price of inexperience and haste was paid. Especially when the "Liberty" sailed in waters with temperatures close to freezing and in stormy seas, the welds were stressed and if they were defective or fragile they could give way and, depending on the damage, the ships sank with crew and cargo. Evidently someone had thought that the strategy had the upper hand.

  • Of course Parolini, today the important welds if they do not pass the radiological examination are redone. If the Americans had had to x-ray the entire hull and redo and x-ray the faulty welds again, for each ship, other than delivering three ships a week, not even one a month. It's very cynical indeed but it sure was the harsh reality. But let's go back to the two battleships returned to Augusta.

  • In fact ... We were saying that it was strategically irrelevant for the Americans to send our battleships to Japan. Those who wanted him strongly were the British and the reason was simply and very likely, for their great desire to take revenge.

  • Take revenge ? And what about?

  • Yes. From what I understand it was just like that. The British still felt the blow they had suffered from the Japanese two years earlier. In forty-one the Japanese empire was expanding militarily and wildly throughout Southeast Asia to seriously threaten British possessions in Malaysia, mainly Singapore. It was then that Churchill, "first Lord of the sea" and despite the contrary opinion of his admirals, decided to send a naval team, the "Force Z", with the main purpose of intimidating the Japanese, who, however, were not intimidated at all and with a textbook and exclusively aerial action, in a couple of hours the battlecruiser "Repulse" and the battleship "Prince of Wales" sank. The latter was the flagship of his majesty's fleet, a powerful and brand new ship, just think it was still on the call when the war broke out in '39. I believe it was one of the highest damage / damage inflicted ratios battles in history and it seems to me that they were also the first ships ever to be sunk in action only by air attack. The Japanese lost three planes in all and had twenty casualties, the British suffered the loss of two battleships and had more than eight hundred fallen sailors. At dawn the next day a Japanese plane flew over the stretch of sea where the battle took place, throwing two identical wreaths of white flowers, one for the fallen Japanese, the other for the British. At the same time the German naval attaché in Tokyo was made aware of the fact, with the annotation on the side: "the Bismark is to be considered avenged". In fact, six months earlier the "Prince" had taken part in the hunt and sinking of the German battleship. To date, almost forty years later, the two wrecks lie upside down in a depth of seventy meters, considered to all intents and purposes as an extraterritorial war cemetery. Their position is marked by two buoys with the flag of the English navy and chained to the axles of the propellers of the two ships.

  • Sure Parolini that must have been a real setback for the greatest naval power in the world, but how did they get fooled like that?

  • In my opinion for two reasons. One, for completely underestimating the opponent. Irony of fate and of repeating history; in 1905 the exact same mistake was made by the tsarist fleet of the Baltic, which after a wearying journey lasted a year was completely and surprisingly annihilated in Tsushima, by the Japanese naval force of Admiral Togo, which was waiting for them at the gate and which did not miss a ship. The second reason I think is to be charged directly to Churchill, who as a political figure was quite mythicized but who as a military strategist, again in my opinion, was an emeritus schmuck. In addition to this disaster he had also been responsible for another and much more serious one, the English defeat in the Dardanelles, on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. More than thirty thousand British dead and almost as many among Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and French, not counting the wounded and prisoners, sent to the fray and under the pigeon shooting of the Turks, before retreating; and the retreat, which was very successful, throughout the Dardanelles campaign was the British's most successful tactical event. Who knows, maybe Churchill was convinced of the unbeatenability, regardless, of His Majesty's Navy or perhaps he did not consider the real value of the Japanese, to the point of sending the "Z Force" around the Strait of Malacca without even air coverage and not caring about the opinion of the general staff. Unfortunately for the British, the Japanese had good planes, excellent torpedoes, good commanders, very well trained crews and, above all, very well motivated and emboldened by what they had done two days earlier in Pearl Harbor.

  • Parolini knows that I did not know this one of the Dardanelles. But if you think about it in those days, even if it was not their home, the British controlled the conspicuous points of the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, Malta and Suez were already a good three of a kind. If they had also placed on the Bosphorus they would have played poker. I remembered the story of the sunken "Force Z" only vaguely. In war we know that we can leave our skin, but dying for uncounted choices is really sad.

  • Sure it is! But history is full of these "unforeseen events", that if the war is won, it is normal for the failures to be forgotten or reduced, but if it is lost they are amplified, sometimes beyond measure and those who lose are ignored or demeaned, even if he showed courage and valor. It really depends on who writes the story… later!

  • But Parolini, if the British had all this desire to wash the shame in Japan, why didn't they go to do it with their ships?

  • This is the point. In 43, even if the war for the allies had already been won, or almost, the British did not have so many ships left. Several had sunk them; the operational ones were quite shabby and they couldn't afford to send a ship to the big jobs, because it meant being deprived of it for several months. To build new ones, as the Americans did, there was no talk at all. On the other hand, the positions could not yet be discarded. The home fleet, the "home fleet", guarded the North Sea and controlled the accesses to the Atlantic and therefore could not be touched, they also had to ensure even a minimum of presence, even if only to show the flag, in the territories of 'overseas. There remained the ships of the Mediterranean, which were not even a few. In truth, the British had two accounts at the time, in fact they planned to share the operational presence in the Mediterranean with the fleet, still unused, of the French ally, which would have allowed them to be able to go away to settle accounts with Japan. But the Vichy collaborators had arrived earlier and sank most of their ships, both in Toulon and Bona, Algeria.

  • That's why the Italian battleships fell like a bean. Now I understand. But, Parolini, what happened to the two battleships?

  • Demolished, in Genoa. They ended up in the Cornigliano blast furnaces and all in all they were more useful from death than from alive. Almost one hundred thousand tons of steel were obtained, of the good one, which served very well to begin the reconstruction, steel that was transformed into bridges, tracks, merchant ships, irons for reinforced concrete with which houses, schools, hospitals and many others were rebuilt. more useful things, given the country's situation, than battleships. Neither of the two victorious powers exercised the "right of pre-emption". The Americans did not take the former Littorio because they were too rich, they had to deal with ships and having yet another and out of configuration was just headaches for them. On the contrary, the British gave up the Vittorio Veneto because they were too poor and had no resources to put it online. The war had drained them economically and the colonies were no longer performing as before; do you think that when we were already buying the mice and the first refrigerators, the British still ate the bread bought with the card, until '55 I think. An episode that has nothing to do with it, but emblematic and linked to that period of national poverty, was that of the "great smog". To make money, the British sold all good coal abroad, reserving only unsaleable, poor and full of sulfur for their needs. At the beginning of December 52 there was very cold and particular climatic conditions occurred, for which London for a week was completely enveloped by a frightening layer of anomalous smog, dense and mephitic for sulfur dioxide, to the point that the day seemed at night, the visibility was less than a meter, so you can't even see your own feet while walking. In a few days, more than four thousand people died, mainly old people and children and twice as many subsequently, due to the after-effects and consequences.

  • Damn Parolini, allow me to tell you that at least you would be worthy of an honorary degree in contemporary history and I would also find it right to assign you a good university chair. I assure you that I would run to register and I would not miss a lesson. However, I understood well that the story of his Sicilian events jumps even today. Now this we are grinding is the last sample to prepare and it is almost time to go and change.

  • It was a pleasure. Gregorio, look, I tell you first, if they give me the chair and you become one of my students, don't count on any help with the exams. I'll be very strict and if you don't study the bud.

  • No, I study… I study. So see you next time Parolini, thanks again and good evening.

  • See you next time and good evening to you too.

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