Adventures of SS Conte Rosso

Ella York

I was fortunate enough to exchange a handful of pleasant and informative emails with David Asprey of the Caledonian Maritime Research Trust early in February as a result of looking for images of the SS Conte Rosso. At the time we began communicating, my interest in the Conte Rosso was tethered to its role in transporting the women of the Continental Study Tour which left Bombay(Mumbai) for Europe 23 May 1935. However, since that time, the Conte Rosso has appeared again in our research as the ship SK Datta had previously travelled the same route.

W.Breadmore & Co, Ltd advertisement early 1920s

Conte Rosso was built in 1921 in Glasgow by W.Beardmore & Co, Ltd for Lloyd Sabaudo of Italy. Named in honour of Amadeus VII, Count of Savoy, the ‘Red Count’, Conte Rosso was noted for extravagant Italian interior decoration. The designers included an al fresco dining area, unusual for the era due to much of its sailing being in warmer climates. There’s some discrepancy as to the exact size although conservative reports have Conte Rosso at 18,017 gross tons, overall length of 588.2ft x beam 74.2ft, two funnels, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 18 knots the Conte Rosso was an impressive ship indeed. There was accommodation for a total of 2,356 passengers on board, split across 342 first, 214 second and 1,800 third class and an unknown number of crew. Launched on 10 February 1921, this image is a touched-up version of a photo (only seen in a poor newspaper version), taken for the shipbuilder during the ship’s speed trials in the Firth of Clyde on 13 – 14 February 1922.

SS Conte Rosso speed trials, Firth on Clyde 13 – 14 February 1922

Conte Rosso would have then sailed to Genoa to embark on her maiden voyage to Naples and South America on 29 March 1922. After this voyage, she commenced sailings from Genoa to Naples and New York on 15 May 1922. In 1925 accommodation for 188-economic second class passengers was added and on 27 February 1928 she commenced her last Genoa – New York crossing.

One of the photos particularly caught David’s eye as he knew immediately where it was taken – the port of Rio de Janeiro with the liner moored by the entrance to the Passenger Terminal. David shared his recollections of cooling off quite a few times with a cold beer there in the 1980s and 90s.

SS Conte Rosso moored at the Passenger Terminal, Rio de Janerio 1928-1932

It was from David that I learned the building was completed in 1926 by French architect Joseph Gire in art-deco style; the liner is in Lloyd Sabaudo colours but, apart from one voyage in 1922, she did not serve the South America route until 1928. This detail narrows down the photo to 1928-1932.

In 1932 Conte Rosso was taken over by Lloyd Triestino of the Italian Line. That year, due to the depression and widespread unemployment, the major Italian shipping companies were combined into one state controlled syndicate under the name name Società Italia Flotte Reuniti. Lloyd Triestino was a part of this syndicate.

That same year Conte Rosso commenced the Trieste – Bombay – Shanghai route. As it were, this was a major escape route for the Jewish population of Germany and Austria as Shanghai was one of the few places that did not require paid emigration visas. Quite unexpectedly, on her recent research trip to the India Office archives at The British Library, Jane Haggis came across a familiar name showing that within the first few months following the transfer SK Datta was a passenger on Conte Rosso. I’m looking forward to finding out more from her about this journey! UPDATE: SK Datta took 8 pages of notes on Lloyd Triestino Conte Rosso blue notepaper and wrote in blue ink en route to Shanghai. These are dated 22 February 1932 and are pinned together.

SS Conte Rosso early 1930s following transfer to Lloyd Triestino, location unknown

Around the same time as I began talking with David, I also started another series of conversations with Mary Filsell at Flinders University Library about the Conte Rosso. I was wanting some assistance in gaining access to passenger lists. That search continues, however, now have located some shipping schedules. Although the brochures are missing for May-June 1935 for Conte Rosso, they’re still lovely aesthetically!

Access to May – June 1935 brochures would provide a useful chronological supplement to what we have already learned about the 1935 Continental study Tour lead by Mrs Rena Datta and their time on board.

October 1935 Conte Rosso became a troopship during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Conte Rosso returned to service into the Second World War. On 24 May 1941 she was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine HMS Upholder while 16 kilometres from Sicily with the loss of 1,212 lives.

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