"’Twixt Scilla and Charybdis – The Messina Crossing" Villa San Giovanni Travelogue by AsturArcadia

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Completion of the Ferrovia Tirrena from Battipaglia via Sapri, Paola and Lamezia to Villa san Giovanni and Reggio in 1890 resulted in a great reduction in journey time by rail between northern and southern Italy. Hitherto the only route south of Napoli had been a roundabout one via Potenza, Bari, Taranto and the ‘toe’ at Melito. There was revival of interest in a train ferry. A scheme involving covered pontoons propelled by tugs was mooted, and dismissed. The Minister for Public Works paid a visit to Denmark to observe train ferry operations across the Store Bælt, between Nyborg and Korsøl. Satisfied, he announced that Calabretta’s project should be revived. Two ferries were ordered from the Odero shipyard at Sestri Ponente.

Meanwhile, on 1 January 1893 the Società Strade Ferrate della Sicilia had taken over the straits contract from NGI, and it was this rail operator which, in summer 1896 took delivery of ‘Scilla’, 396 gross tonnes, and ‘Cariddi’, 440 gross tonnes. They were paddlers, with rudders fore and aft for maximum manoeuvrability, and were each capable of transporting five freight wagons on a single central track, either side of which were narrow passenger saloons. Below the train deck were two more saloons, a combined first and second class one forward, and a third class one aft. It was not until 1 November 1899 that the linkspans at Messina and Reggio were completed and rolling stock could be transported.

From the start the new ships were popular. Two slightly larger and faster vessels, ‘Calabria’ and ‘Sicilia’, of 441 and 431 gross tonnes, entered service in 1905, the year that a linkspan was completed at Villa San Giovanni (thus shortening the crossing considerably). This was the year that the major Italian railway companies were nationalised. A shorter, faster crossing meant that the ferries could be utilised more intensively, and traffic increased correspondingly. Within a year receipts on the Villa route trebled, while traffic on the longer Reggio run diminished. In 1905 16,790 items of rolling stock crossed the straits, a daily average of 46.

Shake-up and Expansion

At 05.20 on 28 December 1908 folk living on either shore of the straits were roused by a strange sensation. The violent earthquake which followed, accompanied by a tidal wave, left thousands homeless and created havoc with the region’s communications. Help was immediately offered by vessels of the French, German, Russian, British and Italian navies which were in the vicinity, while NGI diverted 16 of their larger passenger vessels to the straits to assist in the evacuation of survivors to towns further north along the Calabrian coast.

Reconstruction proceeded rapidly and in the operating year 1909/10 the train ferries carried 40,993 vehicles – an average of 112 per day. The growth in traffic prompted the acquisition of two more ferries, this time screw steamers, in 1910. ‘Reggio’ of 995 gross tonnes, and ‘Villa’, of 932 gross tonnes, could each carry either eight wagons or three carriages on a single track located along the centre line of their train decks.

On 1 July 1910 responsibility for the services was transferred to the Servizio Navigazione dello Stato (SNS), an FS subsidiary which also relieved NGI of a couple of their principal routes between the mainland and Sardegna and Sicilia. SNS invested heavily in some magnificent new passenger ships for the Napoli to Palermo and Civitavecchia to Golfo Aranci routes – but then chartered them to the navy during Italy’s various overseas campaigns before and during the First World War. As a result, the company was forced into chartering other craft to maintain its services, and ended up in a dire financial mess.

Between 1919 and 1921 SNS passed first into the hands of the Ministry for Transport, and then to the Ministry for Commerce and Trade, before reverting to FS control. From 1 July 1927 FS once again was directly responsible for operating the Messina crossing.

The composition of the ferry fleet continued to change and evolve. During the First World War ‘Calabria’ and ‘Scilla’ were occasionally requisitioned by the navy. On the morning of 29 August 1917, while on the Messina to Reggio crossing, ‘Scilla’ struck a mine and sank, with the loss of 12 passengers and eight crew including her captain. Many others on board were injured. Subsequently, all the train ferries were concentrated onto the Villa crossing, while the Compagnia Napoletana’s passenger steamer ‘Mergellina’ of 1913 was chartered to serve Reggio.

‘Scilla’’s loss created a capacity problem. The crossing was now served by five single-tracked ferries with a combined capacity of just 33 freight wagons – quite insufficient for the heavy freight traffic generated by the war. During the operating year 1916/7 109,983 rail vehicles were carried, an average of 301 per day. Antonio Calabretta was therefore commissioned to design a substantially larger pair of ferries, each with three rail tracks and each capable of carrying up to 24 wagons.

On account of the wartime construction materials shortage, it was originally proposed that the two craft should have wooden hulls. At his shipyard in Castallammare di Stabia, between Napoli and Salerno, Calabretta ordered several sets of Tosi diesel engines specifically designed for use in wooden hulls. But with the war now over, imported steel was once again available, and the Ministry for Public Works stipulated that it should be used. ‘Scilla’, which entered service in September 1922, was a steel-hulled vessel of 949 gross tonnes, with steam triple expansion engines. The Tosi diesels were not wasted. Two years later they were installed in ‘Messina’, a 1,343 gross tonne vessel built at the naval shipyard in Taranto, with a capacity of 20 wagons. She was in fact one of the first motorships to be built in an Italian shipyard.

In 1932 a new ‘Scilla’ and a new ‘Cariddi’ arrived. Both were of 2,808 gross tonnes and had three tracks with a capacity of 28 wagons or 18 carriages. They were the first Italian merchant ships to be powered by diesel-electric engines controlled directly from the bridge, an arrangement which soon became very popular on Italian passenger ferries. ‘Scilla’ of 1922 was rebuilt in 1931 as a motorship capable of 17 knots, and returned to service bearing the name ‘Aspromonte’. At about this time the three remaining paddle ferries were withdrawn and scrapped.

On shore there were complementary developments to improve the efficiency of the service. Additional linkspans were built, so that by 1939 there were seven in all – four at Messina, two at Villa, and one at Reggio. The newest featured electric motors and hydraulic fenders, and at Messina an extensive complex of buildings arose serving as a ferry terminal and a station.

By the late 1930s there were eight return crossings to Villa and five to Reggio daily. The freight traffic was seasonal, with the peaks during the citrus fruit and tomato harvests (December to February and mid-June to mid-July respectively). During the 1938/9 operating year 218,358 rail vehicles crossed the straits, an average of 598 a day. Road vehicles were also carried. In those days they shared the same deck with the trains, but they were still few in number.

War and Reconstruction

The Second World War produced the virtual annihilation of the train ferry services. Right at the start of hostilities the Reggio service was suspended. ‘Scilla’ was chartered by the navy to lay mines between Sicilia, Malta and Africa. ‘Aspromonte’ was chartered for similar duties in 1942. On the night of 2 December that year she came under attack off Cap Bon, just east of Tunis, and was sunk with the loss of six of her crew.

By the end of 1942 it was evident that Sicilia would play a key role in the Allies’ invasion plans for Italy, and in the run-up to this, starting on 30 January 1943, there was a series of air raids on the port and railway infrastructure on either side of the straits, designed to prevent the Italians and Germans from sending reinforcements south to help their troops stationed on the island. These raids continued until mid-August, by which time the invasion was well under way. The train ferries were victims of this. ‘Scilla’ was struck by several bombs while she was loading at Messina on 9 May; she was towed into deep water clear of the port entrance and sank the following day. ‘Reggio’ was also bombed at Messina on 25 May and sank at her berth. ‘Cariddi’ and ‘Villa’ continued to ply the straits, in spite of the air raids, until the Anglo-American forces were on the very outskirts of Messina. Then, on the orders of the local military authorities, they were scuttled; ‘Cariddi’ on 16 August off Paradiso, where she capsized, and ‘Villa’ at one of the Villa San Giovanni linkspans. That left only ‘Messina’ in serviceable condition, and she was away at Taranto at that time. She was requisitioned by the Allies in October and returned to service on the straits, playing a vital role in the movement of vehicles, equipment and troops onto the Italian mainland.

During the winter of 1943/4 the train ferry service was suspended altogether, and the only way local passengers could travel between Sicilia and the mainland was by persuading fishermen to ferry them across. Later, FS managed to charter three small motorships, ‘Baiamonte’, ‘San Rocco’ and ‘Ammiraglio Giovanni Viotti’, which had all been requisitioned by the Italian Government. By spring 1944 the railway networks on both sides of the straits had been repaired and were operational again. ‘Messina’ was returned to service, and in the operating year 1944/5 she made 806 trips to Reggio and 190 to Villa, loaded to capacity and beyond.

Recovery of the sunken ferries was a lengthy process, undertaken by the Allied forces working together with local industries. First to be raised was ‘Villa’, on 14 July 1944, followed on 27 February 1945 by ‘Reggio’, ‘Scilla’ on 20 July that year, and finally ‘Cariddi’ on 21 December 1949. The first three were hastily returned to service. ‘Cariddi’, however, presented a problem. She was lying upside-down in 20 m of water, partially buried by mud, and with her superstructure crushed. Raising her was a five-month struggle involving the use of buoyant cylinders attached to her hull. She was then towed to Messina and remained berthed there while FS debated whether she was worth repairing.

In anticipation of post-war requirements FS had ordered two new vessels in 1943 from Cantieri del Tirreno of Génova. Original plans were for them to be built as steamships, their engines and boilers supplied from Germany, and they were to be used purely for freight traffic. However the armistice of 8 September 1943 paralysed their construction – until early 1946! They eventually emerged as motorships fitted with diesels originally intended for ‘Cariddi’, and had passenger saloons and three rail tracks, with a capacity of 20 wagons. ‘Aspromonte’, 1,581 gross tonnes, entered service in May 1948, and ‘Mongibello’, 1,564 gross tonnes, in January 1949. Their arrival on the straits was most welcome. In 1946/7 122,215 rail vehicles crossed between Sicilia and the mainland, and the following year, 210,541.

With two new ships in service, it was at last possible to send the older members of the fleet for refurbishing, though ‘Reggio’ was sold for scrap in 1950. Last to re-enter service was ‘Cariddi’, in November 1953. Lengthened by 11 m, she now had four rail tracks with a capacity of 36 wagons or 18 carriages, an upper deck which could accommodate around 50 road vehicles, and a completely new superstructure. Her profile was radically altered by the provision of two funnels (one was a dummy for the sake of appearance). During the fruit harvests of the 1950s she was in service round the clock, on account of her huge cargo capacity.

During the post-war years traffic on the straits crossing mushroomed. Doubling of the Battipaglia to Reggio line was accompanied by the introduction of new express services between northern and southern Italy and Sicilia – the ‘Freccia del Sud’ in December 1953. the ‘Treno del Sole’ in December 1954, and the ‘Conca d’Oro’ in August 1955. Tourism in parts of Sicilia began to take off, and emigration to the States was replaced to a certain extent by employment-related moves to the industrial cities of northern Italy.

In 1950/1 402,771 rail vehicles crossed the straits. Before long another large ferry would be required, and in 1954 FS started planning a new design. ‘Reggio’, of 3,713 gross tonnes, was ordered from Riva Trigoso shipyard in February 1958, her construction financed by a 50 % grant from the Cassa del Mezzogiorno. She entered service in June 1960. In addition to 34 freight wagons, she could carry 15 road vehicles, and her passenger facilities were extensive, with two lounges, two restaurants and 12 double cabins. She featured a proper bow visor extending to upper deck level. Such lavish provision on a 25-minute crossing in relatively sheltered waters might appear extravagant. However, it was envisaged that ‘Reggio’ would also serve on FS’s Civitavecchia to Golfo Aranci route. The first straits ferry to venture as far afield as Sardegna had been ‘Messina’ in 1928, when she had made six trips to the island in connection with the renewal of FS rolling stock and locomotives based there. 'Scilla’ had performed a similar function in June 1934, and had paid several visits to Sardegna during the late 1940s and early 1950s. ‘Reggio’’s first spell at Civitavecchia was in August 1960, while ‘San Francesco di Paola’ (4030 gross tonnes), which entered service in July 1964, was transferred to the Sardegna run more permanently during the mid-1970s.

Catering for Cars

The growth in the number of road vehicles crossing the straits during the 1950s was phenomenal, from just 15,155 in 1949/50 to 122,943 nine years later. However, neither the ferries nor the linkspans were ideally suited to the rapid embarkation and disembarkation of cars and lorries. And during the 1960s and early 1970s both the Sicilian motorway network and the southern section of the Autostrada del Sole, from Napoli to Reggio, were built.

The first car ferry to operate to and from Sicilia was ‘Il Ponte’, a rebuilt landing craft (LST 212) of 2455 gross tonnes, capable of carrying around 15 cars and 100 passengers. Owned by Siciliana Trasporti Marittimi of Palermo, she ran thrice weekly between Napoli and Messina from 8 June 1958 until 1964, but was not a great success.

Then in December 1963 four doctors and lawyers in Messina and Napoli formed a new company, Caronte, with a view to using a pair of adapted LCTs between Villa and Messina. The service started up on 21 March 1965 using ‘Marina di Scilla’, of 466 gross tonnes, built in Glasgow in 1943 as a triple-screw LCT IV. She was followed in March 1966 by the identical ‘Mazzarò’. Both vessels had a capacity of 50 vehicles and 300 passengers, and handled road traffic far more efficiently than FS’s train ferries could. With traffic exceeding all expectations, Caronte scoured the secondhand market for more craft and, finding none suitable, ordered two new vessels from the local Cassano shipyard in Messina. The twins ‘Filomena Matacena’ and ‘Antonio Amabile’, both of 956 gross tonnes and capable of carrying 96 cars or up to 14 HGVs with trailers, were delivered in 1967 and 1968.

  • Page Updated Jan 25, 2009
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