Zara-class cruiser

For the Austrian class of this name, see Zara-class torpedo cruiser.
Gorizia painted in camouflage patterns (1942)
Class overview
Name: Zara class
Operators:  Regia Marina
Preceded by: Trento class
Succeeded by: Bolzano
In commission: 1931-1944
Completed: 4
Lost: 4
General characteristics
Type: Heavy cruiser
  • 11,870 t standard, 14,530 t full load Zara
  • 11,508 t standard, 14,168 t full load Fiume
  • 11,900 t standard, 14,560 t full load Gorizia
  • 11,730 t standard, 14,360 t full load Pola
Length: 182.8 m (599 ft 9 in)
Beam: 20.6 m (67 ft 7 in)
Draft: 7.2 m (23 ft 7 in) full load
  • 33.5 knots (62.0 km/h; 38.6 mph) (Gorizia, Zara)
  • 33 knots (61 km/h; 38 mph) (Fiume, Pola)
  • full load sea speed: 32 knots (59 km/h; 37 mph)
Range: 4,500 nmi (8,300 km; 5,200 mi) at 16 kn (30 km/h; 18 mph)
Complement: 830
  • Belt 100–150 mm (4–6 in)
  • Deck 70 mm (3 in)
  • Turrets 120–150 mm (5–6 in)
  • Barbettes 140–150 mm (5.5–5.9 in)
Aircraft carried: (originally) 2 Piaggio P.6bis[8] (catapult forward of "A" turret)[3]

The Zara class was an Italian heavy cruiser design of the Regia Marina from the early 1930s. Four ships of the class were completed, Zara, Fiume, Pola and Gorizia, all of which saw extensive service during the war.


The Zaras were essentially an improved Trento class tasked with dealing with the latest French designs.

The Trentos had been designed to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty, which stated that cruisers had to be 10,000 tons or less, and armed with 8-inch (203 mm) guns or smaller. The weight limitation made it impossible to design a ship with those guns and armor able to stop shells of the same caliber. A typical Washington design had 76 mm (3 in) in its armor belt, and less on other areas of the ship. These thicknesses were reasonably good against destroyer and light cruiser weapons (typically armed with 5–6-inch (127–152 mm) guns), but insufficient against the 120 kg (265 lb) shells that 203 mm (8 in) guns fired, capable of piercing even 150 mm (6 in) of armor at medium range. In general, in order to be effective, armor should be roughly the same thickness as the diameter of the shells fired against it.

Trentos had sacrificed armor for speed, allowing them to make high-speed dashes up and down the long Italian coastline, which would otherwise be difficult to defend from Italy's widely separated naval bases. Although equipped with powerful armament, hits against them would likely penetrate the armor and knock the ships out of combat. Even a won battle might seriously deplete Italian naval strength, something they were not prepared to address through sheer numbers.

The solution was a new design, one combining the armament of the Trentos with the armor needed to protect them from similar French designs. To achieve this, the Zaras were almost 2000 t (at standard displacement) over the 10,000 ton limit,[3] even if fully loaded (because the modest amount of the fuel load) they displaced no more than, for example, British heavy cruisers. Extras such as a high superstructure and torpedo tubes were removed in an effort to save weight, but in the end the ships ended up considerably "overweight" anyway.


The Zaras more than doubled belt armor compared to the Trentos, with 150 mm in the main belt. The main deck was also very thick, 70 mm (3 in). Turrets and barbettes were as well protected by 150 mm (6 in) armor. In addition to the primary armor scheme, there was secondary armor: the upper deck was 20 mm (0.79 in), and the flank hull above main belt was 30 mm (1.2 in). Almost no other cruisers were equipped with two armored decks and two armored belts. This scheme followed, in fact, not quite a cruiser layout, but that of a small battleship. This made the Zaras the best armored cruisers until the introduction of the Des Moines class by the United States.[3] This additional armor would have made the ships decidedly nose-heavy, so to offset this the rear of the ship was raised by one deck behind the front funnel.[5] The result was excellent watertight integrity and protection.[9]


The Zaras shared their main armament with the last of the three Trentos, Bolzano. They were equipped with the 203 mm/L53 (8 in) guns of 25 tonnes each[5] and were fitted in pairs in Ansaldo turrets.[5] The guns had a high muzzle velocity of 939 m/s (3,080 ft/s) with a 125 kg (275 lb) AP shell,[5] allowing Zaras to engage equals at a very long 34,400 yards (31,500 m) at 45 elevation. Trento and Trieste had a less advanced model, firing a 110 kg to  29,000 m. The downside to the new gun was a greater than normal dispersion of shots and faster barrel wear.

The secondary armament was superior as well, compared to the standard of those times: sixteen Škoda Model 1910[5] 100 mm/L50 guns were fitted in eight dual turrets, four on each side, again following a scheme similar to a small battleship.[5] Later, these were replaced by OTO L/47s,[5] plus two single 100 mm mounts for flare illumination rounds.[3] In 1937, the aft 100 mm mounts were replaced by 37 mm/54 caliber Bredas[10] more useful for close defense, and in 1940, the 40 mm Vickers were replaced by 37 mm Bredas, also.[6] All these guns were reasonably modern, especially at their time.

One odd feature was the aircraft catapult on the bow, which made it impossible to prepare for launch while firing, perhaps a minor consideration. The Piaggio P.6bis originally carried was later replaced by M.41s, CANT 25ARs, MF6s, and in 1938, by Ro.43s.[8]

Service history

Zara-class cruisers

Zara was laid down at OTO's Muggiano shipyard 4 July 1929, launched 27 April 1930, and commissioned 21 October 1931.[3] She was joined by Fiume, laid down at Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino on 29 April 1929, launched 27 April 1930, and completed 23 November 1931; Pola at OTO's Livorno shipyard, laid 17 March 1931, launched 5 December 1931, and completed 21 December 1931;[3] and Gorizia, launched 28 December 1930 at OTO Livorno.[8]

When the Second World War broke out, Gorizia, Zara, and Fiume[8] were organized into 1st Cruiser division, Pola serving as flagship for 2nd Cruiser Division.[8] In the course of the battle of Cape Spartivento, on 27 November 1940, the Zaras were the first Italian units to open up, and the British heavy cruiser HMS Berwick was hit twice by 8-inch shells on her aft turrets. The first hit was scored either by Pola or Fiume.[11] Still pending repairs, additional damage in the course of a battle with the German cruiser Admiral Hipper in the Atlantic on Christmas Day put Berwick out of action for six months.[12]

However, the Zaras were eventually taken to task during the Battle of Cape Matapan. After Pola (in company with Fiume and Zara, serving as escort to the battleship Vittorio Veneto) was hit by a torpedo from a TSR Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, which stopped her, the rest of the 1st Division (at this time Gorizia was in reserve) ran in to protect her. Three Royal Navy battleships (Barham, Valiant, and Warspite), plus many supporting units, were able to approach them closely at night the lack of radar on the Zaras making them unaware of their approach. Valiant[13] scored with her first salvo. The British battleships quickly sank all three Italian cruisers and two of their escorting destroyers in a one-sided gunfight, the only reaction from the cruisers being the aimless fire of a 40 mm anti-aircraft cannon from the already wrecked Zara.

Gorizia survived until she was taken over by the Germans after Italy left the war in 1943. In that year, her armor had the only opportunity to display its effectiveness, when this ship was hit by three bombs, launched by American bombers, but the main deck resisted them all and the ship continued to fire against the high-flying bombers. Later she was able to reach La Spezia, but the damage to the mid-ship was heavy, with almost all the structures over the armor belt devastated and a 100 mm (3.9 in) turret thrown into the sea. Ironically, at the beginning of 1941, a modest British attack, at night, over Naples hit Zara. There were only two 113 kilograms (249 lb) bombs, launched at low altitude, but they pierced the hull and almost sank the ship. Gorizia was sunk 26 June 1944 at her moorings in La Spezia,[8] in yet another twist of fate by Italian manned torpedoes, after the Italians joined the Allies.


  1. Stephen, Martin. Sea Battles in Close-up: World War 2 (Shepperton, Surrey: Ian Allan, 1988), Volume 1, p.69.
  2. Fitzsimons, Bernard, ed. Illustrated Encyclopedia of 20th Century Weapons & Warfare (London: Phoebus, 1977), Volume 24, p.2614, "Zara".
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Stephen, p.69.
  4. Fitzsimons, p.2614, "Zara"; Stephen, p.69.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Fitzsimons, p.2614, "Zara".
  6. 1 2 3 Fitzsimons, pp.2614-5, "Zara".
  7. Stephen, p.69; Fitzsimons, p.2614, "Zara".
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Fitzsimons, p.2615, "Zara".
  9. Stephen, pp.69 & 65-7.
  10. Fitzsimons, pp.2614, "Zara".
  11. Stern, Robert C. (2015). Big Gun Battles: Warship Duels of the Second World War. Seaforth Publishing. p. 60. ISBN 1473849691.
  12. Navy, corporateName=Royal Australian. "H.M. Ships Damaged or Sunk by Enemy Action in WWII". Retrieved 2015-12-21.
  13. Stephen, p.65.


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