In the Spotlight: THE GREAT RE-BUILD

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BY MICHAEL BRADY

The Second World War will forever be remembered as one of the most destructive conflicts, not just in terms of human lives, but in the countless hundreds of thousands of tons of materiel lost. The world's seabeds are today littered with the rusting hulks of thousands of ships sunk in those dark 6 years. Not just warships either; freighters and merchantmen were ruthlessly hunted by submarines of all nations like sheep are stalked by wolves.

Sir Winston Churchill said that the only thing that ever really worried him during the War was the German U-Boat fleet's attempt at starving Britain into submission. While the impact to Allied shipping is well-known, however, the Axis shipping losses during the war are almost unbelievable. For no other nation is this more evident than Italy, a country who for centuries looked to the sea for profitability and an ensured existence. Italy suffered terribly at the hands of Allied aircraft and ships; not only did it lose some fine liners, such as Rex and Conte di Savoia, but a huge portion of its smaller merchant fleet.

Lloyd Triestino, long one of Italy's most powerful passenger and freight lines, lost no fewer than 68 ships and 1,000 crewmen in six years. By 1945, when at last the world's great nations let war transition to an uneasy peace, Triestino's once-mighty fleet had been reduced to 5 ships. The Company was faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle; to re-build, in the face of economic depression and national humiliation, their once-great fleet and once again earn the reputation as one of Italy's safest and most comfortable passenger carriers. The road would be long and hard but by 1965 Triestino boasted among its fleet some of the finest modern passenger ships afloat. This incredible story of re-building is told neatly through the lives of three important ships and their running-mates; Toscana, Australia and Galileo Galilei.


TOSCANA: THE OLD WORLD

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Angular, ungainly, utilitarian - all of these descriptors could be applied to Lloyd Triestino's 'Toscana', but if the vessel herself was unspectacular in appearance then her career, and contribution to Lloyd Triestino, was nothing short of incredible.

Toscana began life as SS Saarbrücken, a plucky little cargo-passenger freighter of around 9,400 gross registered tons launched for Germany's Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) in 1923. After a short decade of faithful service, Saarbrücken and two of her sisters were sold to the Italian government, renamed and put to work as troopships. Finally, in 1937, they were transferred to Lloyd Triestino. Toscana, as she was now known, underwent a refit which could be described as basic at best. Passengers would have to endure cramped and stuffy conditions berthed in huge dormitories - formerly the ship's cargo holds. Originally built to carry 150-odd passengers, she could now take some 2,000 on her run from Italy to South America or Africa. It would have been unthinkable for the Triestino bosses to consider that the Company's fortunes would soon rely entirely on humble vessels like Toscana.

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Above: Saarbrücken tied alongside a busy Asian port early in her career. Image from W. Reich’s collection.


Lloyd Triestino's story is one of unchecked exponential growth and dominance of a specific market. The Company had reached its zenith in the mid-1930s boasting 75 ships and 17 services across the world's oceans. Triestino was never a glamorous line; while competitors like Navigazione Generale Italiana launched Italy's answers to the British, French and German dominance of the prestigious North Atlantic run, Triestino instead operated smaller, more economic vessels on far-flung utilitarian routes; passages to Oceania, Africa and Asia among them. This was an extremely lucrative practice and all seemed well- until the outbreak of war in 1939.

Whole volumes could be written about the material cost to lines like Lloyd Triestino and the reasons for it, but suffice it to say this; the Allies won superiority of the air over Italy and the nation's ships became sitting ducks. SS Rex, once pride of the Italian merchant fleet and renown throughout the world for her speed and elegance, was attacked mercilessly by British fighter-bombers and set alight from stem to stern - she was a total loss. Lacking any ability to defend its navy - both merchant and military - Italy's fleets were more than decimated. For Triestino, a peacetime operator of small, happy workhorse vessels, the result was catastrophic; their fleet of 75 was reduced to just 5.

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Above: Italy’s fleet - both naval and merchant - was decimated during World War 2. Here, the once-magnificent liner Rex lies capsized and gutted by fire after an RAF raid. Image from the IWM; http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//9/media-9642/large.jpg


Toscana was one of those five to survive; in fact, she was the last remaining of her three sisters. During the war, her and Sicilia had been painted white and served as hospital ships. The third sister, Calabria, had been interned at the very start of the conflict and was lost after being attacked by a U-Boat. Triestino was confronted with imminent collapse unless some miracle were to transpire that would save the Company from bankruptcy.

That miracle came in the form of a human tidal wave - hundreds of thousands fleeing Europe's economic ruin and depression for distant lands that offered opportunity, wealth and safety. Chief among these was Australia and South Africa, and desperate Italian families committed to the 3-week voyage aboard just about anything that would take them. Triestino, with its meager fleet of 5 ships, immediately stepped up to the plate and offered an express service to Africa and it was the humble Toscana that would spearhead the effort. She was extensively refitted in 1947 and conditions aboard improved exponentially. Gone were the cavernous dormitories of her pre-war service. Instead passengers could sleep in 2, 4 and 6-berth cabins and had an assortment of lounges and bars to enjoy. Toscana had been transformed once again and the effect was immediate; soon she was ferrying passengers from all over Europe to start new lives abroad.

Soon she switched from the Italy-Africa route and onto a new, far more lucrative one - that carrying migrants to Australia. She would serve in this capacity for ten more arduous years and she made quite a name for herself in the process. Today Toscana is remembered as something of an icon, and rightly so; Toscana and her ilk carried Lloyd Triestino, by the skin of their teeth, through some of the darkest days of the post-war era. By 1950, with the company's survival a surety, Triestino's directors could look towards a bright new horizon of opportunity.

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Above: Tearful goodbyes as Toscana pulls away from the wharf bound for Australia. Image from R. Goossens’ site; https://ssmaritime.com/lloyd-triestino-toscana.htm


AUSTRALIA: A NEW HOPE

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With just a handful of ships, Lloyd Triestino had accomplished a miracle and re-established itself as a viable contender on the immigrant market. Now, with the turn of a new decade, it was time for the Company to build on its success and create a whole new fleet of modern ships. Toscana, and those like her, were ancient by 1950. Their machinery had operated nearly continuously for thirty years; breakdowns were frequent. Not only that but they looked ancient too, their decks cluttered with machinery and ventilators - all from a bygone era. Triestino's shipbuilders were tasked with designing a trio of vessels that would be the very last word in migrant travel. Sleek, modern and comfortable, these would be the ships that would carry Lloyd Triestino into a new era and leave the horrors of the 1940s far behind.

By contemporary standards, MS Australia and her two sisters Neptunia and Oceania were run-of-the-mill and not particularly impressive in terms of size, power or luxury. For Triestino, however, they represented an incredible leap forward and might as well have been as luxurious as the Queen Mary. For starters it was incredible that a shipping line which had lost some 70 ships just five years prior was able to commission a trio of sisters built in a shipyard that the was once a vital military target for the Allies. Italian-built ships for an Italian line; the ramifications were huge. In these three ships, displacing no more than 13,000 GRT, was a return to Italian seafaring pride, a pride which had been taken from the nation with its collapse during the War. In contrast to Toscana and her running-mates, Australia, Neptunia and Oceania looked positively futuristic. Sleek and with more than a hint of Italian style about them; balanced and beautiful but also sturdy and reliable. Instead of ponderous steam engines the sisters boasted cutting-edge diesel motors and cruising speed of 18 knots.

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Above: The three sisters received top-billing as Lloyd Triestino’s proud representatives on the Europe-Australia run. This is the cover of a booklet owned by maritime historian R. Goossens; https://ssmaritime.com/MS-Australia-and-Sisters.htm


Their impact was sudden and huge; Lloyd Triestino had gambled somewhat by investing in their construction but the risk was paying off. With three ships built to sail the Europe-Oceania route, the service was regular and extremely reliable. At any one time a Triestino sister could be embarking passengers in Genoa and disembarking passengers at Sydney - with a third somewhere in between. Not only that but passenger accommodation was superb. For children there was a nursery to play in while the adults could enjoy the smoking lounge or even an outdoor pool. A voyage on Australia or her sisters wasn't just one of necessity; now the three sisters attracted a holiday crowd thanks also to the ships' sumptuous food. Triestino was so proud of their culinary offerings that contemporary advertisementsboasted about the 'world-renown' menu first and foremost!

The profitability statistics of Triestino's three sisters are lost to history but they can be judged on the fact that the Line quickly followed up their launch with a pair of ships - Europa and Africa - designed to operate between Italy and South Africa. Finally, in 1953, Triestino introduced Victoria and Asia for service in the far east. With this flotilla of modern, single-funnel diesel ships offering safe and reliable passage across the globe, Triestino had cemented its legacy as one of the world's foremost shipping lines.

Above: A shipload of hopeful immigrants disembarks ‘Neptunia’ to start afresh in Australia. Image from R.Goossens’ site; https://ssmaritime.com/MS-Australia-and-Sisters.htm


GALILEO GALILEI: THE FUTURE

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Few ships are held in such high regard by those that sailed aboard them as the two sisters Galileo Galilei and Guglielmo Marconi. Magnificent as they were - they were an undeniable triumph of maritime engineering - their introduction came at an awkward time when the airplane began to supplant the Liner as the only means to travel long-distance. Though their careers would be all-too-brief, their impact would be huge.

This pair of famous sisters were designed to usher in an entirely new age for Lloyd Triestino. The 700 foot-long, 30,000-ton ships were built at Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico in Monfalcone and set the high-water mark for immigrant travel in the latter half of the 20th century. In comparison to Toscana, in operation just 20 years prior, ‘Galileo’ and ‘Marconi’ were like something out of science fiction. Their sleek hull profile and powerful engines gave a service speed of 24 knots - reducing the voyage from 31 days to 23 - while a huge beam of 94 feet reduced rolling to a significant degree. On top of this, interiors and fittings were sublime and the most modern, comfortable and chic that money could buy at the time. Passengers could expect to enjoy lounges, smoking rooms, card rooms and even a cinema; clearly Triestino spared no expense in their construction.

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Above: Guglielmo Marconi seen tied alongside Station Pier at Melbourne in 1971. Image from; https://www.australiaforeveryone.com.au/ships-lloyd.html


The winds of change were blowing, however. While the 1973 oil crises put pressure on shipping lines across the globe, the single-most dangerous threat to ocean travel emerged in the form of the jet airliner. At last, passengers could cross vast distances in a fraction of the time it had taken by ship. So it was that, not two decades after their introduction, Galileo and Marconi were sold for service as dedicated cruise ships; Lloyd Triestino’s run of good fortune had come to an end at last.


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Above: The Italian merchant ensign flutters gently at Marconi’s stern. Image from an unknown source.


Lloyd Triestino achieved the impossible, surviving horrifying losses to become a household name once more in the post-war world. Workhorse liners of the 1920s like Toscana helped establish the foundations for the Line to build upon and build they did; Australia and her sisters, introduced just five years after the War's end, saw Triestino rise to prominence once more. The introduction of the jet liner, however, ended the reign of the ocean liner and just as surely as Cunard retired its Queens so too Triestino sold its fleet of faithful vessels. There were many more years of life left in those ships but under different names and flags; Loyd Triestino had had its day and now faded into obscurity, eking out an existence carrying freight and shipping containers. Although the Line's beautiful ships have disappeared from the world's oceans for good, its legacy is undeniable; in re-building and reforming its humble fleet, Lloyd Triestino carried untold thousands to Australia and played a huge role in building the country as we know it today.

Michael Brady2 Comments