The Re Umberto Class - 1883/1893

Side view of RE DI SARDEGNA at anchor
The Re Umberto, launched in 1884, introduced another set of variations by Benedetto Brin.

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Following some years out of power, the Italian militarist caste returned to office in 1883. Admiral Benedetto Brin, architect of Italy's big battleship fleet, replaced Lord Acton as the Navy Minister and promptly put in motion programs to project his ideas about naval power.

King Umberto I of Italy with huge mustacheHis first priority was to construct a pair of battleships to take his ideas, as expressed in the Italia class, to the next level. These were to be the Re Umberto class barbette ships: once again larger than other contemporary navies' capital ships, once again incorporating recent advances in design and technology. These were to be barbette ships on the layout of the British Admiral class, with one twin-gun barbette forward and one aft -- a tall barbette built on a low-freeboard hull -- and a slope-sided redoubt amidships. Like the Admirals, the ships were armed with 17-ton 13.5"/30 Mk IV BLRs (343mm/30): guns which, according to one contemporary source, "could pierce 27 inches of iron at 300 yards," and were fabricated in England for the Italians. It is thought that these guns were identical in design to those used in the British Admiral and Nile classes, but it is possible they were specially modified by Armstrongs for their Italian customer.

The barbette mounts were hydraulically operated, but had electric hoists. Guns had to be trained to 0° (straight ahead/astern) for loading. The rate of fire expected from a trained gun crew was approximately one round every two minutes. Typically for Italian ships, the Re Umbertos relied on one large central mast. They also pioneered the three-funnel arrangement which was revisited in later Italian battleships of the period: two side-by-side funnels before the mast and one one the centerline aft.

The lead ship was named after the new monarch of Italy, Umberto I (ruled 1878-1900), possessor of arguably the baroquest mustachios in existence (right). A great supporter of the Regia Marina, Umberto was known for his extremely reactionary sentiments. He was trebly flattered when the other ships of the class were named Re di Sicilia and Re di Sardegna -- since the Piedmontese monarch also ruled Sicily and Sardinia as part of his Savoiard inheritance, all three ships were in effect named for him. He did not live to bask long in this glory, however. The ships took ten years to complete (the last one commissioning in 1895); five years later, an anarchist's bullet cut short the king's right-wing reign. Umberto thus bears the distinction of being the only modern Italian monarch to be assassinated.

6in guns on HMS KENT after Falklands Battle, 1914The Re Umberto class were Italy's first all-steel battleships. The history of their armored protection is interesting. They came off the drawing boards with slightly modified protection on the Italia class model: only the internal armored deck was moved up so its middle was well above the waterline. During the ships' long construction, however, midsize rapid-firing guns gained wide acceptance (at left, 6" QF weapons on HMS Kent.) Bowing to the inevitable, Brin retrofitted his ships' sides with 4" armor protection. The additional weight affected the ships' trim and displacement, bringing the bows even closer to the waves. This was less of a liability for vessels intended only for Mediterranean service, as these were; and the tall barbettes still gave adequate freeboard for the gunners. Another afterthought was shields for the main guns, shields with 4" armoring. These were also made necessary by the prevalence of quick-firing secondary weapons.

Brin also ordered a third ship once he had resumed power. This one, the Re di Sardegna, was the first Italian battleship purpose-built with triple-expansion engines, and the only one of her class to have overhead shields installed on the the barbette guns when she mustered into the navy. The ship did not complete until 1895, and did not compare favorably with the British Majestics which were coming into service by that time. However, at 18 knots they earlier Umbertos were a knot faster than their British competitors, while Sardegna trumped them all at 20 kts, making her the fastest battleship in the world for a few years. With her more efficient engines, the Sardegna was also the most economical capital ship on the Italian roster.

All three of the Re Umbertos were still in service during the First World War and survived the conflict in humble rôles. They were all scrapped in the 1920s.

Plans and Specifications

Schematic of RE UMBERTO

Specifications for the Re Umberto class:
Dimensions: 425'7" x 75'6" x 29' Displacement: 13,673 tons. Armament: (4) 13.5"/30 Mk IV BLR en barbette, (12) 5.6", (8) 4". Armor: 14" barbettes; 12" conn and ammo hoists; 4½" belt and gun shields; 3" deck. Engines: 2-cyl vertical compound steam engines developing 15,200 hp, shafted to twin screw; 18 kts. Except: Re di Sardegna, disp. 13,860 tons; (2) 3-cyl vertical triple expansion engines developing 22,800 hp, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 20 kts.

Ships in class: Re Umberto Re di Sicilia Re di Sardegna.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 129.6m x 23.4m x 9.3m. Displacement: 13,673 tons. Armament: (4) 343 mm/30 BLR en barbette, (12) 142 mm, and (8) 102 mm guns. Armor: 355 mm barbettes; 205 mm conning tower and ammo hoists; 114 mm belt and gun shields; 76 mm deck. Engines: (2) 2-cyl vertical compound steam engines developing 11,335 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 33.3 km/hr. Except: Re di Sardegna, disp. 13,860 tons; (2) 3-cyl vertical triple expansion engines developing 17,000 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 37 km/hr.

Diagram of 13.5-in barbette mount, RN RE UMBERTO
Diagram of one of the Re Umberto's 13.5"/30 Mk IV barbette mounts, by Armstrong Whitworth.

Re Umberto Class Photos

Battleship SICILIA underway at low speed, 3/4 bow view
The Re di Sicilia underway in the Mediterranean. Note eagle figurehead, partially submerged.

Battleship SARDEGNA, with regatta
The Re Umberto enters the Mare Piccolo at Taranto via the famous revolving bridge -- the Ponte Girevole.

Side view of RE DI SARDEGNA at anchor
A fine bow 3/4 shot of the Re Umberto.

Battleship RE UMBERTO, stern quarter view
Quarter view of the name ship.

Side view of RE DI SARDEGNA at anchor

Last of the class was the Re di Sardegna, commissioned in 1895. She was the first Italian battleship purposely designed with triple-expansion engines. Capable of a sustained 20 knots (37 km/hr), she was the fastest battleship afloat in her day.

Battleship SARDEGNA, bow 3/4 view
The Sardegna, showing the yard-fitted gun shields and original arrangement of funnels.

Savoiard eagle figurehead, battleship RE DI SARDEGNA

Figurehead of Re di Sardegna was an eagle with long, snakelike neck and Savoiard shield on prow. Though far from universal, such decorative flourishes were considered the height of style in the 1890s. Visit our Figureheads page for more!

Battleship RE UMBERTO at anchor; pen-and-ink drawing, copyright by Aldo Cherini
Aldo Cherini's detailed drawing shows the Umberto's overstated bow eagle.

Battleship SARDEGNA, with regatta
Little changed from her original configuration, the Sicilia viewed from overhead, 1918.   Enlarge

Battleship SICILIA knifing thru the waves, black smoke
Now that's power! The Sicilia exercising all her horses on trials, 1894.

Battleship RE UMBERTO
Bow three-quarter view of the Umberto in 1913. These vessels underwent little change of appearance during their careers.   Enlarge

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