Dec 3

From the Archive: Leonardo and the Airship

Thursday, December 3, 2015 12:01 AM


Paging through Naval Institute’s photo archive, one can come across some unexpected and surprising images — ones where you know there has to be some sort of story behind them.


The dirigible M.6 observes the salvage operations on the Italian battleship Leonardo da Vinci, Taranto Harbor, Italy, 24 January 1921. USNI Archives.

Such is the case of the image featured here. The unusual scene shows the Italian airship M.6 floating over the upturned hull of the sunken battleship Leonardo da Vinci with an angle indicator attached to her rudder. How did such a bizarre scene come about?

The story is recounted in a 1921 Proceedings article by Lieut. Colonel A. Guidoni of the Italian Navy, in which is excerpted here below:

“The night of August 2, 1916. the Italian dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci was moored in the Mar Piccolo of Taranto in a depth of about 6 fathoms when, following an explosion in the aft magazine, she was sunk, almost completely overturning with her turrets fast in the muddy bottom. Only a small part of the forward portion of the vessel was left above water. The explosion had opened two large leaks in the hull abreast the magazines and a large leak on the top decks.

“Following the opinion of a committee, it was decided to salvage the ship, adopting a system proposed by Lieut. General of Naval Constructors Edgardo Ferrati. The method consisted in making the ship float by filling her with compressed air, after repairing the leaks in the hull and closing all the airports and other side openings. . . . .

“The work was at first hindered by the war, which did not permit the detail of many people and made it hard to get the supply of materials. This last difficulty was the main reason for a more important modification of the first plan which provided for the construction of a floating dock in order to keep dry and repair the overturned ship, when she had been freed from the bottom with the use of compressed air.

“It was decided to place the overturned ship in the big dock of the navy yard of Taranto. This made it necessary to free the ship from gun turrets, conning-tower, smokestacks, cranes and other deck elements whose projection would not permit the ship to enter the dry-dock. After overcoming many difficulties, the ship was finally lifted from the place of disaster and put in dock, September 17, 1919, after a little over three years since she was overturned. The recovery of the ship and the transfer to the dry dock, where she was placed bottom up to dry and for bottom repairs, the undocking and up-righting on the following October 5, was a triumph in the use of compressed air, which had been adopted throughout the whole work, and which permitted the ship to be entered under the water level and also under the mud level for the unloading of the ammunition and the detachment of the armored turrets which were left temporarily at the bottom of the sea. The compressed air also furnished the means to raise the ship from the bottom, and to keep her afloat during the transfer to the dry dock, and for the period necessary to place her on the transverse bearers provided.

“The first phase of the salvage was successfully finished when the ship was taken to the dry dock; after that it was necessary to provide for the repair work prior to floating, then for the overturning of the ship. It also was necessary to provide for the recovering of the 12-inch guns which were at the bottom of the sea, together with their heavy armored turrets. These were recovered with the aid of special ring-floats invented by Lieut. Colonel Giannelli of the naval constructors who headed the work. These ring-floats must be submerged on the turrets and then emptied by compressed air when attached to the turrets. This process is very simple and can be employed also for the recovery of any heavy body.

“In order to keep the ship afloat in any position it was necessary to close and tighten all the openings, then to repair the large holes in the deck caused by the explosions of the ammunition. The overturning of the ship required also that many of the compartments must be flooded; so it was necessary to tighten the bulkheads and decks. The decks of the ship in the overturned position of the vessel would be subjected to a high hydrostatic pressure while those structures when the craft is upright have to support very little pressure. This added to the difficulty and volume of work required. When all the work of tightening bulkheads had been finished, the overturned ship was floated from dock on December 16, 1920.

“. . . . The task remaining was to roll the ship over into its normal position, by rotation on the left side counter-clockwise. This was done by loading 400 tons of chain and cast iron ingot ballast in the double bottom; by flooding 2900 tons of water in the double and triple bottoms and other compartments, such as magazines, boiler room bilges and trimming compartments; by flooding the side ballast tanks with 3500 tons of water on the left side of the vessel. By loading these weights the inclination of the ship increased to 30 degrees with a total displacement of 25,000 tons. At that time automatic flooding of some side ballast tanks was provided for by opening special sluice valves which permitted the water to enter slowly enough to permit the crew to leave the vessel. These compartments had a total capacity of 1700 tons but only 850 tons were needed to bring the ship to an inclination of about 45 degrees, in which position a righting movement became effective which pulled the vessel entirely over. Naturally with a loading of about 1000 tons of water on one side, the ship when turned over would have her position of equilibrium at an inclination which had been calculated to be 22 degrees to the right. The results actually obtained completely confirmed the calculations as the ship stopped at that exact degree of inclination.”

Closeup of the Leonardo an the angle gauge on her rudder.USNI Archives.

Closeup of the Leonardo and the list angle gauge on her rudder. USNI Archives.

Though the Regia Marina had hoped to eventually build a new, modernized battleship around the righted hull, but ultimately elected to scrap the Leonardo in 1923.

The airship seen observing the righting action is the M.6., an M-type semirigid airship used by Italy extensively during World War I for bombing and observation operations at the front.


Closeup of the M.6. USNI Archives.

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