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D - 12: What is a Giant 15inch Shell Doing in the Cathedral of Genoa?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

When researching the making of Focaccia yesterday, I came across three more interesting stories which will be the subjects of my next three blogs. Noticed that some recipes for baking Focaccia include Pecorino from Sardinia. Also, that Tunisia is a big wine producer. Surprise! And that there is a big 15inch shell inside the Cathedral of Genoa. How comes? Let’s start with the Cathedral first.

Genoa's Cathedral in the centre of the old town

Consecrated in 1118 AD by Pope Gelasius II, the Cathedral was built from the 12th to the 14th century in Romanesque style with a Gothic façade in polychrome marbles. The quarries of Carrara are not far away and provide wonderful white and blue-grey stones. The church was from the very beginning the seat of Genoa’s archbishop and the religious centre of the town. Bell towers and dome were added later in the 16th century. It is beautiful and elegant.

The magnificent Romanesque pew of the Cathedral

But how did an armor-piercing shell find its way into the Cathedral? During the second World War of course. Luckily, it did not detonate. The Cathedral’s soft roof did not prime the detonator which was designed for hard targets such as battleships. The shell stands in one of the church’s corners and is exhibited in plain sight – minus the explosives which were removed of course.

The famous 15inch shell from HMS Malaya on 9th February 1941

After the failure of the German Blitz over England in December 1940, January 1941 was a relatively quiet month. The German Luftwaffe nurtured its losses and decided to attack next English docks and shipping. For unknown reasons, Marshal Goring never executed the plan. Australian and British Land Forces coming from Egypt captured Tobruk in Libya. General Rommel was on his way to establish the German North African Corps. The Italian Army was on the run. On the 6th of February, they lost Benghazi, the capital of eastern Libya.

In this context the Royal Navy launched Operation “Grog” with the purpose of destroying as many Italian cargo ships as possible. The plan was to cut off the Italian supply line and to prevent the shipping of the German North Africa Corps to Libya. On the 6th of February, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal left Gibraltar with the battleships HMS Malaya, HMS Renown, HMS Sheffield and ten fleet destroyers.

Photo of the Ark Royal during Operation “Grog”

The Task Force arrived on 9th of February between Corsica and Liguria. Aircraft from the Ark Royal attacked the harbors of La Spezia and Livorno. The battleships shelled the port of Genoa, sank 4 cargo ships and damaged another 18. One of HMS Malaya’s salvos went too far and one shell hit the Cathedral. The failed salvo killed 144 innocent civilians.

The Regia Marina, Italy's Navy, tried to intercept the British Task Force but failed. The two fleets never made contact. The Royal Navy benefitted from the modern radar equipment which was installed in 1940. It could detect incoming aircraft and vessels much earlier than the Italians. Even though Italy's industry was able to produce radar equipment, the Italian Admiralty decided it was not a priority. A mistake they paid for heavily in the battles in 1942.

The only plan I could find of Operation “Grog” is from a Russian text book

Operation “Grog” was a bad omen for Italy and German. Throughout the African campaign (1941 – 43), they could never rely on their logistics. The Royal Navy was always able to sink important tankers and cargo ships. Rommel, the commander of the German North Africa Corps, never had enough supplies and run out of fuel before El Alamein. Why Italy never upgraded its fleet with modern radar is something I do not understand. After the attack on Genoa in January 1941, they knew they were vulnerable. But I am glad they did not. The war would have lasted longer had the Italian Navy been more effective.

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