The exploits of midget assault craft in World War II provided what is perhaps the brightest chapter in the whole of Italy’s Naval Annals. This magnificent effort was devoted primarily to attack by means of slow speed piloted torpedoes nicknamed “pigs” by the Italians. The success of these human torpedoes was almost entirely at the expense of the British Mediterranean Fleet whose ships were attacked in Gibraltar, Suda Bay, Alexandria, Algiers, and elsewhere. Of special interest is the fact that in all cases the British ships were at anchor inside of booms and nets and in harbors under constant surveillance by patrol craft. Despite all British precautions, their losses to the Italian Tenth Light Flotilla reached the staggering total, sunk or damaged, of:
4 warships, aggregate tonnage............................................. 75,690
26 merchant ships, aggregate tonnage................................. 176,662
TOTAL TONNAGE.................................................................. 252,352
Commander Luigi Durand de la Penne, Italian Navy, participated in a successful assault on Gibraltar before engaging in this, his greatest exploit—the sinking of HMS Valiant in Alexandria on 19 December 1941. The following article provides his personal recollections of the events of the memorable occasion as told to his very good friend, Captain Virgilio Spigai, Italian Navy. The success of this attack was attested by Winston Churchill, who commented (April, 1942) to the House of Commons that as a result of de la Penne’s attack the British had no battle squadron in the Mediterranean for several months.
Commander de la Penne's story starts with his departure from Rome on December 12, 1941, headed for the Italian Submarine Base at Leros in the Dodecanese Islands, where his assault group boarded the specially equipped submarine Scire, already loaded and equipped for the forthcoming assault on Alexandria. Much arduous training had preceded the final departure of the assault team from Rome. Likewise, the submarine Scire had been specially modified and equipped for her task of transporting the assault craft and crews to the prescribed launching point undetected and on schedule. A few words will bring the reader up to the author's take-off point in Rome.
At twilight on December 3, Scire had sailed from the Italian Submarine Base at La Spezia in northern Italy under strictest secrecy. Crews of other submarines at the base were entirely ignorant of her mission. Even her own crew knew nothing of the details of the contemplated operation. So tight were the security measures taken that Scire sailed without human torpedoes or even operator’s clothing or breathing sets. Not until the submarine had cleared the harbor and darkness had fallen did she make rendezvous with a lighter carrying three human torpedoes from the torpedo shop at San Bartolomeo. After loading this equipment in her special deck tanks, Scire set course for Lero, where, on the afternoon of December 12, Commander de la Penne was expected to report on board with his assault crews, who had been flown from Rome as an added security measure.
We left Rome by plane on December 12, 1941. There were three regular two-man crews and two additional reserve crews, making a total of ten men in all assigned to carry out the mission of attacking the British Fleet at Alexandria. Each human torpedo was to be manned by a commanding officer, seated forward at the controls, assisted by one diver, seated aft, whose principal responsibility was to assist in the final and most strenuous part of the enterprise—the attaching of the warhead to the keel of the enemy warship.
Every branch of the officer corps was represented. I (de la Penne), the officer in charge of the assault crews, was a line officer. Antonio Marceglia was a naval engineer; Vincenzo Martellotta was a member of the construction corps. In the reserve crews were Sub-Lieutenant Luigi Feltrinelli, a line officer, and Surgeon Midshipman Giorgio Spaccarelli, a medical officer. The officers, all trained divers, were assisted by the following qualified deep-sea divers—Emilio Bianchi, Mario Marino, Spartaco Schergat, Armando Memoli, and Luciano Savare.
In addition to being volunteers, all of these officers and ratings were men of exceptional physique and endurance. Despite gaps left in our ranks by those who lost their lives, or were taken prisoner during these actions, a great number of volunteers could be found right up to the end of the war. To insure the best caliber of officers and men, volunteers were accepted from all ranks and all branches of the naval service.
Among the members of the assault crews there was complete awareness of the difficulties of the impending operation and the risks about to be undertaken. Nevertheless, a very cheerful spirit was evident in the group. We knew that we were going to the submarine base at Leros in the Aegean Islands, on the Island of Rhodes, where we would board the submarine Scire and be transported to a point off the harbor defenses at Alexandria where we would don our diving suits, go out on deck and, while the submarine was submerged, launch our “pigs,” get astride them, and somehow or other enter the harbor of Alexandria. On arrival in the midst of the British Fleet, and while it was still completely dark, we would have to attach the warhead to the bilge keels of the most important targets. What would happen to us upon completion of the assignment interested us only up to a point. If we were lucky, it might mean imprisonment for the duration of the war; if unlucky, it meant death. Being very young, none of us believed the worst would happen. Perhaps this was because we had been so lucky during our dangerous assaults against the British Fleet at Gibraltar.
The same evening we reached Leros and proceeded to the submarine base where we found the Scire ready and waiting to take us to Alexandria. This submarine was specially equipped to carry human torpedoes. Cylindrical caissons had been mounted on deck from which the torpedoes could be launched submerged.
Obviously to command a submarine of this type an officer of remarkable ability was needed. Such a person was found in Lieutenant Commander Principe Iunio Valerio Borghese, who had twice entered the Bay of Gibraltar, dropping off assault craft without the British being aware of it. At an earlier date some of our submarines had tried similar operations, and two of them, the Iride and the Gondar, were sunk before reaching Alexandria. The main operative difficulty in the Eastern Mediterranean was the extreme clearness of the waters and the lack of depth close to Alexandria.
The assignment had been accurately worked out. It had been decided that we should move from Leros with the Scire as soon as weather conditions, the moon, air reconnaissance observations, and the naval situation at Alexandria made it seem possible that the expedition could be undertaken against a target commensurate with our risks.
The high morale of the submarine and air personnel stationed at Leros made a favorable impression on us, as well as the beauty of the island itself. We had complete faith in our “chariots,” and in the submarine Scire. We also had confidence in Commander Borghese and, of course, in ourselves. Although we did not mention it out loud, we felt certain that luck would be with us this time and that everything would go well. We could not have been more confident.
The most trying thing about these operations is the waiting, but we were favored by Commander Borghese’s decision to leave immediately. Hence, after removing the camouflage from the submarine which concealed it from air-reconnaissance, we left Leros on December 14. We had to cross the Eastern Mediterranean submerged and at the same time avoid such obstacles as enemy air-reconnaissance, naval visual reconnaissance, the minefields outside Alexandria, the electric anti-submarine mines and hydrophone signals, and finally radar indicators. It was these radar indicators which had been the reason for our unsuccessful attempt to break through to Malta four months earlier.
But all these difficulties were the submarine commander’s worries, not ours. While the submarine advanced slowly and carefully towards its goal, we passed the time as best we could—reading, writing, and drinking enormous quantities of fruit juices. The Scire was perfectly silent, had good air-conditioning, and other characteristics which helped us to endure the journey fairly well in spite of the rough seas which aided Commander Borghese in avoiding the network of vigilance and in bringing the submarine to rest, earlier than anticipated, on the bottom at the point indicated on the chart—45 feet in depth, 1.3 miles north of the lighthouse on the pier west of the commercial port of Alexandria. (See page 129.)
Before submerging, the Scire received from Athens reports of the afternoon reconnaissance by the Italian Air Force from the Egec air base. They reported many ships in the harbor of Alexandria, including two battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class. Although our enterprise had hardly begun, we felt a quiver of enthusiasm as though the sinkings had already taken place.
Regulations prescribed that the commanding officer of the submarine have full command of the expedition up to the point of launching the assault craft from the submarine. It was his responsibility to select the targets and designate the attackers. His assignments were as follows:
To the chief of the expedition (myself) and chief diver Bianchi, the first battleship; to Lieutenant Marceglia, Naval Engineer, and diver Corporal Schergat, the second battleship. To the third crew, Lieutenant Mar- tellotta, N.S., and chief diver Marino, the following orders were given: “Check if there are any aircraft carriers in port. If no aircraft carrier is present, give up the idea of attacking smaller warships.” This order implied that priority was to be given to tankers before cruisers.
Tankers were given priority over cruisers in order to assist us in our secondary objective of setting fire to the fuel oil which would inevitably cover the surface of the water after the explosions. Intelligence had told us there were about ten tankers in the harbor that night, and it is easy to understand what it would have meant to set fire to thousands of barrels of oil floating on the surface of the harbor.
Two reserve crews, under Sub-Lieutenant Feltrinelli and Midshipman Spaccarelli, were given orders to leave the submarine and assist the regular assault crews in taking the craft out of the caissons where they had been stored during the submarine’s journey.
While these orders were being given out, we struggled into our assault kits, which consisted of black, special rubber suits which were perfectly air-tight and perspiration proof, and oppressive as the stranglehold of a wrestler. Struggling into these suits in the humidity and heat of the submarine was a very tiring and unpleasant undertaking.
After dressing and putting on our respirators and luminous, waterproof wrist watches, Commander Borghese ordered the Scire to surface. Having given us his customary kick in the pants for luck, one by one we climbed up the vertical ladder in the escape hatch and climbed out into the open air.
The night was beautiful and still, and in the mild weather under the stars, it seemed as though the war were a myth. Unfortunately, this illusion did not last long.
The hatch of the submarine closed and its conning tower soon disappeared under water, leaving us alone as we began our work of taking the craft out of the caissons preparatory to leaving in formation for the entrance to the port.
Our SLC (slow speed torpedo) assault craft units (which we called “pigs” or “chariots”) were barely twenty feet long and had an overall height of about 3j feet. They were powered by electric storage batteries. Fore and aft, and amidships, small buoyancy tanks similar to those on submarines were placed for submerging and surfacing, with electric pumps for trimming. The speed of an SLC was just over two knots, and its cruising radius was ten miles. To maneuver this sea-going automobile, we had to sit astride and work controls very much like those of an aircraft. The instrument panel with its luminous dials was similar to that of a plane. It contained a magnetic compass, a depth gauge, a manometer for registering pressure in the tanks, a voltmeter for the control of the batteries, an ammeter, and a spirit level for reading the angle to the horizontal.
The torpedo was equipped with a warhead which could be detached without interfering with the operation of the craft. This had been done purposely so as to allow the operators to approach a ship, fix the charge in position, and get away. The charge was fitted with a time fuse. In addition, the assault craft itself was fitted with a self-destructive device which could be used when necessary to avoid its falling into the hands of the enemy. Ordinarily in such cases the operator set the self-destructor, locked the controls on full dive, sent the torpedo to the bottom where it destroyed itself, and then swam ashore following the attack.
The craft were tested for a depth of 100 feet and had been adjusted with infinite patience according to the results of exhaustive trials carried out at the La Spezia Naval Base and on the beach of the Royal estate at San Rossore near Pisai. As a result of the trials in combat during the expeditions on Gibraltar and Malta (which cost the life of the assault craft’s inventor, Captain Tesseo Tesi, Naval Engineer, and the imprisonment of his collaborator, Lieutenant Elios Toschi) we had confidence in the readiness of our craft.
Each craft was equipped with a full set of tools and instruments and was fitted with compressed air net lifters and net cutters, heavy shears, clamps for the ship’s bilge keel (we call them “sergeants”), and a crude sort of a safety line called a “lift” which consisted of a rope tied to the operator and of sufficient length so as to permit him to leave his saddle, rise vertically from the craft, and return.
To attack a ship, one had to execute the following maneuvers:
- Approach on the surface with only the operator’s head out of water until about 150 feet abeam of the target.
- Submerge and approach until the operator could touch the ship’s hull with his hands.
- Proceed gently, feeling the ship’s bottom by hand, until locating the bilge keel on the near side.
- Fix a clamp on the bilge keel and secure it to the warhead with a line.
- Continue all the way under the ship and secure the second clamp on the opposite bilge keel.
- Secure the rope to the second clamp and stretch tightly.
- Cast the warhead loose and move it along the line until it was suspended directly below the center line of the ship.
- Set the time fuse.
- Cast off and proceed to a point well clear of the ship.
The operator then sets the self-destructor and tries to make good his escape. When the charge explodes directly under the ship’s keel, it hits the ship in its most vulnerable and least-protected spot.
It should be mentioned that before arriving at a ship, the operator usually had to pass through the boom defenses of the harbor. This he did by approaching along the bottom and lifting the net, or by approaching the net at a point where it could be cut with the compressed-air shears carried for that specific purpose. During both of these operations, he hoped not to set off any explosives which were frequently to be found on the nets. After entering the harbor, the operator still had to proceed undetected to a point within the torpedo nets which were always placed around ships at anchor.
As a result of our experience during many training tests and expeditions, we had learned that the worst obstacle to success was not the enemy’s lookout but the extreme cold, which, as time went by, took hold of us in a vice-like grip. Damage to equipment was also a constant and serious hazard. Rips inevitably occurred to the rubber diving suits during work, and permitted the entry of cold water. The respirators, too, might fail for any of a number of reasons. Any one of a number of small hitches of this kind might interrupt an operation which represented many months of preparation. We had spent many months of training in cold water at night to get accustomed to the cold and to the dark. This we found useful only up to a point—beyond which, in cold water operations, the operator had no alternative but to accept the hardship imposed by the cold. Experience had taught us that best results could only be had by using bare hands. Finally, since our oxygen-filled respirators were good only for five or six hours, the whole operation had to be carried out within that limitation.
Here is what happened that memorable night outside the harbor of Alexandria. We were delayed in leaving the submarine because one of the SLC storage cylinder hatches wouldn’t open. During this perilous operation, Surgeon Spaccarelli nearly lost his life. As it turned out later, he fainted from oxygen poisoning induced by exertion and fell to the deck of the submarine—fortunately without sliding off into the mud on which the submarine was resting. He remained thus for nearly half an hour, and only by very good fortune was he discovered by his friend, Feltrinelli, who found him and brought him back inside the submarine where he was finally revived.
Our attack group departed about 2100, and the submarine, having finished her role, departed and returned uneventfully to Leros.
Upon launching our “chariots” from the submarine, the three of us proceeded in formation on the surface toward the harbor. I was in the center, Marceglia on my left, Martellotta on the right. During the run in we proceeded without respirators, with our heads out of water. Two hours later we were abreast of Ras El Tin lighthouse, and, to our surprise, arrived there considerably ahead of schedule. We therefore lay to, broke out our emergency rations, and had something to eat. The cold and the fresh air had given us a terrific appetite, and we felt it necessary to eat in order to be in top shape when we neared the targets. Although the light in the lighthouse was out, the weather was so fine that we could see the structure. Everything thus far had progressed as smooth as oil. Then, while we were eating, the lighthouse of Ras El Tin suddenly lighted up. At this time we were only 500 yards from it. So, very cautiously and very slowly, we moved farther away so as not to be seen. I decided to move at once toward the mouth of the harbor, which was some distance away, but of whose location I was now sure. At about midnight we heard—and felt—sharp underwater explosions which painfully constricted our legs, the only part of us under water. We rounded the south jetty by dead reckoning at minimum speed, keeping station on one another and with only the head of the forward pilot of each “chariot” above water.
We now found ourselves before the outer boom defense, which was patrolled by a large motorboat cruising back and forth and dropping occasional depth charges. Between the explosions it was very quiet, and we could hear a few men talking on the pier; in fact, we were so close that we noticed one of them carried a lantern in his hand. The periodic explosion of the depth charges was very annoying to the pilot, whose legs continued to receive the shock of each explosion. But far worse was the effect of these explosions on the number two pilot who, during this period, had put on his respirator and ducked down so as to be completely submerged. He, of course, received the full jolt from each explosion.
Suddenly we saw signal lights showing at the gate of the boom. This meant that ships were about to enter the harbor. I thereupon decided to attempt to run in with the entering ships through the open gate rather than attempt to go under or through the net. We therefore proceeded to a position near an obstruction buoy hard by the gate.
Soon the lights on this buoy were lighted, and I had a glimpse of dark shapes rapidly approaching. This meant the gate was open. As it turned out, the shapes were three large British destroyers. Cautiously, I submerged and moved forward, and as I passed in the gate, the destroyer passed at what seemed like just a few inches over my head. Fortunately the surge from her bow forced me down, where I touched bottom—happy, indeed, to have missed the screws. As soon as I hit the bottom, I put on full speed, entered the harbor with the second destroyer, and then came up to the surface. By this time the third destroyer, which had followed closely behind, had entered, and it created a bow-wave which hurled me against the inner obstruction buoy—fortunately, without serious effects. Since I had now entered the harbor, this small mishap did not worry me.
During this time, I had lost contact with my friends. This had been anticipated in the instructions, and so I made no effort to contact them, but proceeded on toward my target with only my head showing above water. The third destroyer had stopped near me, her crew on deck preparing to anchor. I changed course, passed her astern, and steered over toward the northern inner breakwater and away from the quay so as to avoid the lights from land. En route to my objective, I passed two enemy cruisers moored stern to shore. I passed across their bows and under the stern of the French battleship Lorraine, which was moored near enough to the British battleship I was seeking so that as I passed beyond her I at last caught sight of my target.
She was enormous—a 31,000-ton battleship. I was thrilled by the thought that the strength and daring of only two men were to cripple her.
A thousand yards of fairly well lighted water separated us at this time, and across this stretch I slowly made my way with only my head showing at observation level. In this attitude I came up against the torpedo nets which surrounded the ship. I realized that I could not get through this obstruction without breaking surface with my whole assault craft. Dismounting into the water, and joined by my other operator, we pushed the “chariot” between two spherical floats. We simply could not avoid making some noise, but happily no one noticed us. During this operation my diving suit was punctured, and it immediately flooded. The intense cold bit into me with icy fingers.
I was now within 100 feet of the side of the battleship, with no obstruction in front. It was 0200 on December 19, 1941. My present position was the result of six years of study and strenuous training. For a moment it seemed almost insignificant and hardly worth the effort. This fleeting thought departed as I put on my respirator, which I had not used during the approach to the battleship. I submerged to twenty feet and steered by compass on the bearing of the ship’s funnel. This, I expected, would put me amidships.
In a few moments I struck against the hull but could not operate the controls to stop my motor because by now my hands were numb with cold. Out of control, my chariot suddenly became heavy and went to the bottom at fifty feet. I left the assault craft and swam up to the surface to check my position. I could see that I was about 45 feet forward of the number one stack. I then submerged, followed my “lift” rope back to the chariot, where I found to my unpleasant surprise that my number two man, Bianchi, was missing and my motor refused to turn over.
Again I returned to the surface, but could find no sign of Bianchi. On board the enemy battleship everything was quiet. On my next trip down I found that a steel cable had wrapped itself tightly around the propeller of my chariot. I realized the motor would never move again, and I thereupon decided the only thing to do was to drag the torpedo along in the mud by main strength until directly beneath the ship. The mud was extremely gooey and cut out all visibility, but I guided my “pig” by the noise of one of the pumps on board the enemy ship.
The frightful effort made me sweat as if I were in a Turkish bath. Sea water seeped into my mask, and I had to drink it to avoid drowning. Although I was submerged in water and was drinking all the time, I had a continuous sensation of terrible thirst. After what must have been about a twenty- minute struggle, I noticed the noise of the pump becoming louder. I rested a moment and managed at last to check my heading by my compass and insure that I was going in the right direction. At the same time, the depth was gradually decreasing, showing that I was slowly approaching the ship’s hull.
After about twenty more minutes, with increasingly longer periods of rest, for my strength was fast giving out, I hit the hull of the ship with my head. At last I had arrived! I was nearly exhausted. I checked my bearings, dragged the torpedo under the center line of the ship, attached the warhead and set the fuses. I did not bother to set the clamps tight because by now I had no doubts as to our success. At the appointed time, everything would be blown up as planned— the ship, and the assault craft as well. Since its location on the bottom was so near the hull of the ship, the explosion would destroy both.
I floated up to the surface and took off my respirator. As I was swimming away, someone on the battleship’s deck almost over me saw me and ordered me to stop. I paid no attention and kept on swimming until a hail of machine gun bullets induced me to change my mind. I headed for the ship’s mooring buoy, where to my great joy I discovered Bianchi. He had been overcome underwater but had revived when afloat, and with great intelligence, so as not to interrupt the operations or give the alarm, had swum slowly over and hid himself behind the mooring buoy. I reported that everything had been accomplished, but at that very moment I nearly lost my own life through stupidity. As the British were shouting at us from the bow of the ship, I thought to go on board by climbing up the anchor chain. But another deadly hail of machine gun fire made me realize that I had better stay where I was. It was now 3:30 in the morning as Bianchi and I perched prudently on the buoy, awaiting developments.
After a while a boat came by to pick me up, and we were taken on board the British battleship. I handed in my identification papers, and at first was treated rather roughly, although not violently. I declined to give any information and smiled inwardly as the officer who made the cross-examination sympathized with me for the failure of our mission. Then we were taken by motor boat to Ras El Tin and questioned in Italian by other officers. Bianchi and I maintained our stubborn silence, although we were told ' they would find a way to make us talk.
After this we were taken back aboard the battleship and down into the forward hold between the two gun-turrets. The men on guard were kind and generously offered us rum and cigarettes. Still aching with cold after my long immersion, I reflected on my future at this point. What would happen in this deep hold during the explosion? Would we die by drowning, or be blown to bits? Bianchi didn’t seem to be worried by this dubious choice and fell asleep. With deep satisfaction I noted that the ribbon on the sailor’s cap said HMS Valiant. Whatever happened to me, I could feel proud that I had fulfilled my mission to the letter. I had not failed my country.
Meanwhile, time was hurrying on. Day was breaking. This meant only ten minutes were left before the explosion. I asked to be taken to the ship’s captain and warned him to give orders to abandon ship and save the personnel, for the ship would be blown up within a few minutes. He still tried to get me to talk, but receiving no reply, he had me sent back to the hold even as the loud speakers gave the orders which I had suggested.
So it was that I was deep down in the hold when the explosion occurred. But destiny, or what you will, did not intend that I should die at that moment.
The blast shook the vessel with extreme violence, the lights went off, and the hold was filled with smoke. But except for a pain in my knee, I was unhurt. The ship rapidly heeled over to port about five degrees and started to rest on the bottom. Groping my way up the ladder and through the open hatch to the upper bridge, I went toward the stern where a number of officers were standing. They were watching the Queen Elizabeth, sister ship of the Valiant, which was anchored a hundred yards away from us. At that moment she, too, gave a terrific heave and blew up, belching scrap from her funnel and flooding the stern of the Valiant with gasoline. Then I knew that the brave efforts of Marceglia and Schergat had also met with entire success!
Once more Bianchi and I were taken down to the hold to see if we could be forced into giving information about possible further explosions, but seeing that it was useless to try to make us talk, they took us back to Ras El Tin, where we became official prisoners of war. That completes the story of my adventures on that memorable evening. But since my story is only part of the mission so spectacularly accomplished, I must outline briefly what happened to the other two crews, my companions in this adventure.
Lieutenant Marceglia had lost contact with the chief of the expedition before reaching the entrance to the harbor defenses. He followed along the fixed part of the harbor net, and then, seeing the red signals lighted and thinking the gates must be open, he slipped in. As he passed, he heard a slight swoosh behind him made by the first enemy destroyer; he was overtaken by the second destroyer and then the third. He headed for the breakwater and passed between it and the wooden pier which was brightly illuminated, as unloading operations were in progress there. Having crossed this expanse of light without being discovered, he was able to discern his target surrounded by its torpedo nets. At exactly three o’clock he was in position for attack, 100 feet away from the target—that is, from the funnel of the battleship. Everything was silent on board.
Marceglia had arrived this far with his head out of water and without using his respirator. He then slipped it on and submerged. He and his number two man proceeded by creeping along on the mud, guided by the noise of the machinery on board, and after a few unsuccessful trials they finally found the bilge keel of the enemy ship. Marceglia pumped in air to surface the assault craft which caused it to hit against the battleship’s hull noisily, but no alarm was sounded aboard. Having fixed the first “sergeant,” Marceglia sent Schergat to search for the second bilge keel. After two attempts, the second “sergeant” was attached. They then detached the warhead of the craft, but at this moment Schergat was paralyzed as a result of the diving. Marceglia continued the work alone and managed to fix the charge exactly under the hull as prescribed, at five feet below the hull. At 0325, having fixed and set the fuse, everything was done and the craft left by creeping on the bottom.
But Schergat was not able to sustain underwater navigation, and Marceglia had to blow the buoyancy tank. The maneuver was somewhat too successful, and the craft broke surface with a rush, amid violent foam. Although from on board the British ship the rays of a searchlight gave a half-hearted scrutiny, our two men were able to get away safely, planting a few incendiary bombs in the harbor on their way. Passing near HMS Valiant, they noticed activity on board a boat underway, and they thought that our mission had failed.
It was not quite four-thirty in the morning, but still very dark. The enterprise had been carried out to perfection and without notable incidents. Marceglia and Schergat sank their craft with its self-destructive device set and got ashore safely on the beach.
When it was daylight, they managed to avoid the port patrol and made their way to a bar in Alexandria by posing as French sailors. But here an unpleasant surprise awaited them—the money they had was British and did not circulate in Egypt. To change a small amount, they lost precious time and attracted the attention of the police. However, they did get as far as Rosetta, where, ten miles off the coast, the Italian submarine Saffi.ro was waiting for them. But the next day, just as they were about to reach the sea and freedom, they were arrested by the Egyptian police, recognized as Italians, and handed over to the British authorities.
Actually they had been lost by a stupid oversight concerning the question of money, and by their own lack of experience. Perhaps their first step should not have been taken toward the sea, but toward a religious institution where they might have found sanctuary until the search had subsided.
The third assault craft, commanded by Lieutenant Martellotta, also lost contact with the chief of the expedition, and its pilot carried out the mission by himself. He, too, at about thirty minutes after midnight, was nearly rammed by the first British destroyer. He quickly took the same route as Marce- glia, but passed down the passage between the two battleships without seeing him.
He soon noticed that there was no enemy aircraft carrier in port, and was disappointed, but went in search of a tanker as per orders received. At last he located a large ship and decided to attack, but when only a few yards away he noticed that it was a cruiser. So, following strict orders, he reluctantly gave up the idea of attack. As he was very near the enemy ship, he decided to navigate alongside, holding himself off with his hands, so as to reach the stern without being seen, and thus get away quietly. During this operation he was nearly discovered while he was under the ship, and he had a hard job keeping his assistant quiet, for Marino could not bear to give up such a wonderful opportunity to attack. At last they neared a large tanker of 16,000 tons, moored in front of the fuel pier. Martellotta was overtaken by violent attacks of vomiting during the last part of the route, and so it was impossible for him to use the respirator. Having reached the rudder of the tanker, he gave the diver orders to attach the charge under the keel anywhere, because it was impossible for one man alone to put the charge in the exact middle of the ship. This was done; however, the results were none the less effective, for at the given time a terrific explosion blew off the entire stern of the tanker. In addition Martellotta had set incendiary charges, but contrary to our expectations they did not ignite the oil spreading over the surface, and the harbor of Alexandria was saved.
Having conscientiously planted all the incendiary bombs, they sank their craft with its self-destructive device set, and were able to land at the harbor coal pier and even get rid of their kit. Unfortunately, they were later caught and arrested while leaving the port, and were taken prisoners.
* * *
In 1946, Sir Charles Morgan, Admiral of the Royal Navy, in command of the Valiant in 1941, wished to do Commander de la Penne the honor of pinning on his chest the gold medal “Valor Militare,” which had been awarded him by the Italian Government for the mission at Alexandria. The Admiral expressed his and the Royal Navy’s admiration for all Italian assault craft crews, who with great personal integrity and heroism had tried to serve their country in the way they felt was best.
We Italians were satisfied to have struck a hard blow at our opponent at Alexandria. Above all we were glad that this result had been obtained without bloodshed to our own people or to the enemy, thus keeping up a code of chivalry that is traditional with Italian assault craft crews.
The Alexandria venture was neither the first nor the last attack made by the Italian assault craft of the Tenth Light Flotilla during World War II, but it was the most successful. At the cost to us of only six men captured, Great Britain was deprived of her last two battleships in the Mediterranean, as well as a large tanker, and her strategic position there was then completely reversed. For the first—and last—time in the course of the war, the Italian Navy achieved superiority and was able to dominate the Mediterranean until other operations again reversed the situation.
A graduate of the Italian Naval Academy, Leghorn, Captain Spigai was a submarine skipper during the early years of World War II, served in the operations office of the Italian Navy Department, Rome, from 1950 to 1955, and is now the commanding officer of the Italian School of Naval Command. He is the author of numerous articles and several books on naval subjects.
Captain Spigai explains the genesis of this article as follows:
“Several times I have endeavored to persuade Commander Luigi Durand de la Penne to write his own personal account of the great venture by which Italian sea-commandos immobilized the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth inside the port of Alexandria. Although the exploits of the sea-commandos have been described in the book A Hundred Men Against Two Fleets, as well as in official reports, nevertheless there remains enough unpublished material concerning this historical event to warrant publication of such an article.
“Unfortunately, Commander de la Penne, like most men of action, is a man of few words and not overly fond of writing, hence only by much questioning have I obtained a first-hand account of the extraordinary events which took place that night.”