Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice - William H. McRaven (1996)

Chapter 3. The Italian Manned Torpedo Attack at Alexandria, 19 December 1941


On 10 June 1940, Germany invaded France, and Italy subsequently declared war on France and Britain. In the Mediterranean Sea the British had secured vital ports at Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria. From these ports the British fleet controlled key lines of supply between Europe and North Africa. In March 1941, the Italian navy lost three cruisers to the British in the Battle of Cape Matapan. Until they could build more ships, the Italians had to limit their naval activities to convoy escort duty. In the meantime, the British ruled the Mediterranean, and there seemed to be little the Italians could do. Mussolini knew that the key to success in the Mediterranean involved restoring Italian naval power. With control of the Mediterranean “beleaguered Malta would fall like a ripe plum. Erwin Rommel’s flying squadrons in North Africa would be sure of a flow of supplies and the small British Army [in Egypt] would wither for lack of the same.”1 The assault on the British fleet took many forms including aerial bombing from the Italian air force and German U-boat attacks. The greatest success achieved by the Axis, however, came from an unlikely source, Italian frogmen.

In 1938, the fledgling Italian 1st Light Flotilla was tasked with interdicting British shipping at sea and in port. This mission was to become the focus of the Italian frogmen for the next three years. By the end of the war, the Italians had sunk over 265,000 tons of British shipping. The most famous of these operations occurred on 19 December 1941, when six Italian divers riding manned torpedoes entered Alexandria Harbor in Egypt and sank two British battleships, HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the tanker Sagona, and badly damaged the cruiser HMS Jervis. The attack on the ships at Alexandria was one of the most successful special operations of any kind during World War II, and it shows the value of well-executed underwater operations.

Even before World War II, the Italians had a history of naval commando operations, but one mission in particular inspired two young naval engineers to develop the manned torpedo that would be so successful in the Mediterranean. In October 1918, two Italians traveled from Venice to the mouth of Pola Harbor in a sixty-five-foot torpedo patrol boat and attached mines to the vessel Viribus Unitis. The following day the mines exploded, and the vessel sank in place. Years later, Teseo Tesei and Elios Toschi developed the capability of clandestinely placing mines on a ship by using an old torpedo to deliver divers to the target. Toschi described the new weapon system as follows: “The new weapon is in size and shape very similar to a torpedo but it is in reality a miniature submarine with entirely novel features, electrical propulsion and a steering wheel similar to that of an aeroplane. The innovation of greatest interest is the point that the crew, instead of remaining enclosed and more or less helpless in the interior, keep outside the structure.”2

In 1935, plans for the manned torpedo were sent to the Naval Ministry and two prototypes were authorized. Thirty mechanics from the Submarine Weapons Station at La Spezia spent several months constructing the torpedoes, and by January 1936 the prototypes were ready for testing. The tests were conducted under the watchful eye of Admiral Falangola of the Naval Ministry, who, after observing the demonstration, authorized further testing and construction of additional torpedoes. By the year’s end a small cadre of manned torpedo pilots assembled at La Spezia and began training with the new weapon.

This concept of attacking ships in port was well received by the Italian Naval Staff, if not the entire navy, and in addition to the manned torpedoes, high-speed motorboats loaded with explosives were developed for the same purpose. The motorboats, the brainchild of the Italian general of aviation, Duke Amedeo of Aosta, were originally wooden framed with a waterproof canvas cover. The engine was positioned as far in the rear as possible to allow the maximum space in the bow for the placement of explosives. The pilot of the motorboat would guide the craft on a collision course with the target ship and at the last moment jump off and attempt to escape. The pilot had a float that kept him above the water during the explosion. In 1938, these high-speed motorboats, along with the manned torpedoes, were placed under the command of Comdr. Paolo Aloisi and designated the 1st Light Flotilla.

In 1939, as the possibility of war became greater, the Naval Staff ordered the production of twelve manned torpedoes and recruited more volunteers to pilot these secret weapons. The recruitment and subsequent training proceeded slowly at first, for although the Naval Staff supported the initiative, some elements within the Italian navy were suspicious of this new organization and helped only reluctantly. Nevertheless, by January 1940 the first launch of a manned torpedo from a submarine was conducted in the Gulf of La Spezia from the Italian submarine Ametista. In command of the Ametista was Comdr. J. Valerio Borghese. Borghese later became commander of the Scire and was a prominent player in operations with the Italian frogmen.

During the exercise, the Ametista surfaced with the deck just slightly awash. Three manned torpedoes were launched over the side, and the divers proceeded submerged into the entrance of the harbor. Once inside the harbor they “attacked” the Italian vessel Quarto, exited the harbor, and began their return to the submarine. While returning to the submarine, the frogmen tried a new rendezvous and docking system which used shortwave underwater signals to guide the manned torpedoes back to the Ametista. Although the rendezvous with the submarine was completed, the shortwave docking system proved unsuccessful. This, however, made no difference, for a decision was made that precluded the need to use the rendezvous system. There would be no more rendezvous. From that moment onward the Italians planned their operations based on a one-way insertion by the manned torpedoes. This provided the maximum standoff distance for the parent submarine and allowed the divers to use all their energy for the insertion and engagement. Escape came only after completing the mission and required the frogmen to swim to land and link up with agents or partisans. The success of the exercise added momentum to the weapons program, new prototypes were developed, and the older manned torpedoes were upgraded. The 1st Light Flotilla was soon ready for war.


Alexandria Harbor is located on the west side of the Nile Delta in Egypt. During World War II the British occupied the harbor, using it as their primary operating base in the eastern Mediterranean. The harbor was almost fully enclosed by a long quay that extended from the old fort batteries on the northern peninsula across the entrance to the southern flank. The channel leading into the harbor was on the southern end, and access was controlled by use of an antisubmarine net. The net was only opened when authorized vessels were entering. Intelligence reports transmitted to the Italians at La Spezia noted the following fixed and mobile defenses:

(a) minefield 20 miles NW of harbour; (b) line of “lobster-pots” arranged at a depth of 30 fathoms in a circle with a radius of about six miles; (c) line of detector cables closer in; (d) groups of “lobster-pots” in known positions; (e) net barriers relatively easy to force; (f) advanced observation line beyond minefield.3

Lobster pots were small explosive devices that detonated on command. From the northern battery, a line of these devices extended out in a westerly direction for two thousand yards. Inside the harbor the British battleships and cruisers were on a wartime alert status, and watch standers were constantly cautioned about the danger of saboteurs. The possibility of saboteurs, although real, was not considered a serious threat to the heavily armored battleships that lay anchored in the middle of the harbor. The night of the operation there were two battleships in port, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Valiant. Both ships were of the Queen Elizabeth class and crewed by approximately 1184 officers and men. The Queen Elizabeth, commissioned on 16 October 1913, was 643 feet long and 104 feet wide, drew 35 feet, and displaced 35,000 tons fully loaded. It had four shafts driven by Parsons geared turbines that propelled it in excess of twenty-four knots and gave it a combat radius of forty-four hundred miles. Topside the Queen Elizabeth was equipped with eight 15-inch guns mounted two apiece on two turrets forward and two turrets aft, eight 6-inch guns mounted forward of the midsection, eight 4-inch antiaircraft guns, four 3-pounders, five machine guns, ten Lewis antiaircraft machine guns, four aircraft, and twenty 4.5-inch guns as secondary armament.

To protect against air, surface, and subsurface attack, the Queen Elizabeth was one of the most heavily armored ships of its time. On the waterline thirteen inches of armor plating surrounded the ship. Other critical areas (i.e., torpedo rooms, gunhouses, and battery storage rooms) had from four to eleven inches of armor plating. On deck there was between one and three inches of armor to protect from aerial bombardment. Unfortunately for the British, the flat bottom of the battleship was virtually unprotected and offered an exposed target for the Italian frogmen. The Valiant was virtually identical to the Queen Elizabeth, except that it was shorter by four feet. Surrounding all the high-value targets were anti-torpedo nets. Strung in a circle thirty yards from the vessels, these nets were made of steel mesh suspended by large buoys and hung down to a depth of forty feet. Designed to keep air-dropped torpedoes from hitting the ships, these nets could be circumvented by the Italian frogmen either cutting them or going over or under them.

Also in port the evening of 19 December were the French battleship Lorraine and several smaller British cruisers and tankers. The Italian frogmen also had to contend with countless small boats motoring between piers and ships as a part of the normal in-port routine. The security surrounding the port was extensive, but the Italians had learned their lessons from several previous operations and were prepared to make the attack on Alexandria a success.


With the advent of war in the Mediterranean, the Italian navy quickly began to increase the number of manned torpedoes and high-speed boats with the idea of attacking the British navy at anchor. To man these new weapons Italy established a recruiting and training program at the Training Center of Sea Pioneers at Leghorn near the Italian Naval Academy. All the men chosen for the 1st Light Flotilla were volunteers. At the training center they were screened to ensure they met the physical and moral standards necessary to join this unique outfit.* Each man’s moral standards were assessed as good only after an extensive search into his background. This search included a financial background check, a review of the applicant’s family history, and a look into recent romantic involvements that might impact his ability to function under stress. After a thorough check the applicant was interviewed by the commanding officer of the training center to gauge “his spirit, ideas, stamina and mental formation.”4 In addition to this screening process, each applicant received physical training and extensive instruction in the use of the underwater breathing apparatus. Spartaco Schergat, one of the Italians who participated in the attack on Alexandria, thought the six-month class was going to teach him to be a frogman. (Schergat was under the impression that frogmen only used fins and swam on the surface.) He was surprised when he got to Leghorn for training. “They tricked me! Instead of swimming with flippers they taught me to use the Belloni aqualung. They made me walk on the bottom for four hours carrying a big heavy drum to simulate a bomb.”5

If the volunteer passed all the physical and academic examinations and met the subjective criteria of the commanding officer, then he was assigned to one of the special branches, either manned torpedoes or high-speed motorboats. The diver’s training continued for a year until he could master his assault weapon.

The Italians were exceptionally strict about secrecy. No member of the 1st Light Flotilla was ever to reveal the nature of his work to anyone other than his immediate supervisors. This rule even extended to the other men within the 1st Light Flotilla who were not intimately involved with a member’s work. Commander Borghese, in his book Sea Devils, makes it clear that this was not an easy undertaking for most Italians. “When one considers the extent to which most Italians feel a communicative urge, to show that they are well informed and to boast, one can realize what exceptional qualities were required in these young men; for it is sometimes easier to get an Italian to lay down his life than to make the sacrifice of holding his tongue.”6

Between 1936 and 1940 the Italian engineers at La Spezia developed several prototypes and production model submersibles, manned torpedoes, motorboats, and ancillary equipment that would be used by the 1st Light Flotilla. These included the following:

• The SCL—a slow-speed human torpedo. This was an improved version of the original manned torpedo. It was 6.7 meters long and manned by two divers. Maximum speed was 2.5 mph with a range of ten nautical miles and a submersion depth of thirty meters. The SCL was propelled by a battery-powered motor, and the pilot maintained buoyancy through forward and aft trim tanks. The tanks were blown dry with air from bottles positioned in the midsection. The pilot steered the torpedo using a magnetic compass and a depth gauge, both luminescent. The warhead, contained in the bow, was a 300-kilogram explosive. It was detachable and could be slung under the ship like a mine. In the midsection, behind the second diver, was a tool chest containing net cutters, air net lifters, clamps for attaching the explosives, and plenty of line.

• The MTM—a modified touring motorboat. This was an explosive motorboat (E-boat) that was 5.2 meters long and 1.9 meters wide. It was powered by an Alfa Romeo engine and had a speed of 32 mph. The bow contained three hundred kilograms of explosives that separated upon impact with the target and then detonated hydrostatically at a prearranged depth.

• The MTB—a light touring motorboat. This motorboat was similar in construction to the MTM but was small enough to fit inside the chambers aboard the transport submarines.

• The MTSM—a torpedo touring motorboat. This craft was designed to attack ships at sea. It was larger than the MTM with a length of 7 meters and a width of 2.3 meters. The MTSM was propelled by two Alfa Romeo engines and contained a torpedo launch tube situated aft. When fired the torpedo turned 180 degrees underneath the MTSM and then began to pursue its target. It had a crew of two.

• The CA—a midget submarine. This was a twelve-ton dry submarine crewed by two men. It held two 450mm torpedoes and was later modified to carry eight one-hundred-kilogram charges. The CA2, a later version, was part of an operation to attack United States ships in New York Harbor. The defeat of Italy in 1943 canceled the mission.

• The CB—a larger version (thirty tons) of the CA with a crew of four and an increased range. The CBs were used extensively in the Black Sea and were responsible for sinking three Soviet submarines.

In addition to the inventory of submersibles and motorboats, the Italians developed diving rigs and explosives to augment the diver’s bag of tricks. These innovations included the following:

• An underwater breathing apparatus that used two highpressure oxygen bottles and was good for six hours underwater. The oxygen traveled from the bottles into a rubber breathing bag and then through a reduction regulator to the diver. The diver expelled air into a canister of soda lime that eliminated the carbon dioxide and allowed the oxygen to be recycled into the breathing bags for further consumption.

• A rubber dry suit which covered the diver from neck to toe leaving only the head and hands exposed. Underneath the dry suit the divers wore thick underwear. The suit was called a Belloni suit after its designer, Commander Belloni.

• The leech or bug, a 2-kilogram, time-fused explosive charge that attached to the hull of a ship by means of air-cushion pressure. A free-swimming assault swimmer could carry five of these charges around his waist.

• The limpet, a 4.5-kilogram explosive charge that was clamped to the hull and detonated by a space fuse. The space fuse had a small propeller that activated the detonator only after the ship got under way and attained a speed of five knots.

By August 1940, while training for some of the frogmen was just beginning, the 1st Light Flotilla received its first mission: sink the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in port at Alexandria. The submarine Iride was chosen to be the delivery platform for the mission. The plan was for the Iride to sail from La Spezia in northern Italy to the vicinity of Tobruk in Libya. Outside Tobruk the submarine was to rendezvous with a support vessel carrying four SCL manned torpedoes. The torpedoes would be lashed to the deck, and the Iride would transit to a point four miles outside Alexandria.* There the manned torpedoes would be launched to conduct their mission.

The Iride arrived outside Tobruk on the morning of 21 August, and that afternoon, British bombers returning from a mission noticed the support vessels in the isolated waters. The next day the support vessels transferred the torpedoes to the Iride. As the submarine was beginning to conduct a test dive to check the lashing of the torpedoes, three British torpedo-carrying aircraft bombed and sank the Iride in fifteen meters of water. After the aircraft departed, twenty hours of salvage operations ensued. Eventually the Italians succeeded in rescuing twenty members of the submarine crew along with some of the embarked frogmen. The first attempt to attack the British had ended in disaster, but it was not to be the last misfortune.

The loss of the Iride was due, in part, to the need for the torpedoes to be transferred and then lashed on deck. The Iride had not been equipped with chambers to house the manned torpedoes. Consequently, the two submarines that succeeded the Iride, the Gondar and the Scire, were fitted with three chambers apiece, one forward and two aft. Once alterations were completed, the Gondar received orders to renew the attack on Alexandria. The Scire received orders to attack the British navy at Gibraltar at the same time.

Gondar arrived outside Alexandria on 29 September 1940. Soon after arriving the submarine received orders to return to La Spezia, since the British navy had departed Alexandria. While returning to Italy, Gondar was spotted by British warships and sunk after twelve hours of hide-and-seek. Although most of the crew survived, several key members of the 1st Light Flotilla were captured, including Elios Toschi, one of the original founders of the organization. The Scire meanwhile had arrived at Gibraltar only to receive similar orders to return to Italy. The British had sailed from Gibraltar as well.

On 15 October 1940, the 10th Light Flotilla, which had been a branch under the 1st Light Flotilla, was formed as a separate organization under the command of Commander Belloni. It retained its cover as a subaquatic research center for the study of problems of human life underwater.

Later in October the Scire returned to Gibraltar and launched three manned torpedoes that successfully penetrated British defenses. Unfortunately, the divers experienced trouble with their torpedoes. Petty Officer Emilio Bianchi, one of the divers, recalled later, “The defenses at Gibraltar were very simple. We got through nets with no problem, but then there was an explosion inside the pig [manned torpedo]. The gases that came out of the batteries caught fire. Operation BG2 [the attack on Gibraltar] was a fiasco, but it was useful because it allowed our technical staff to understand what went wrong in the pig and fix it.”7

One of the three swim pairs was captured, but the other four men escaped to Spain and returned to La Spezia. Bianchi and his officer, Luigi Durand de la Penne, escaped and would later spearhead the attack against Alexandria. Unfortunately for the Italians, the British were now fully aware of the capabilities of the Italian divers.*

On 25 May 1941, the Scire made its third attempt against Gibraltar. Again the manned torpedoes penetrated the harbor but found no warships at anchor. Mechanical difficulties with the manned torpedoes required all three swim pairs to scuttle their torpedoes and escape to Spain. Fortunately no personnel were lost, and the Italians viewed this experience as realistic training for the divers. Over the next three years, however, the Italians conducted seven operations against Gibraltar with a high degree of success. “At the cost of three men killed and three captured,” according to Frank Goldsworthy, “Italian naval assault units sank or damaged fourteen Allied ships of a total tonnage of 73,000. The constant threat of silent attack in the night demanded tens of thousands of hours of vigilance by Naval and Army personnel.”8

Later that summer, in July, the Italians had their greatest setback since forming the 1st Light Flotilla. They were operating against the British fleet at Malta. The plan called for a combined force of two manned torpedoes and nine explosive boats (E-boats). One manned torpedo, piloted by Lt. Teseo Tesei, was to destroy the steel net barriers that hung below the Sant’ Elmo Bridge and protected the entrance to the harbor. Once the barrier was destroyed, the E-boats, which had been transported to the target area aboard the Italian destroyer Diana, would speed into the harbor and attack the fleet. The other manned torpedo was assigned to attack nested British submarines in an adjacent harbor. All of these attacks would be preceded by air raids designed to divert British attention.

At the scheduled time, the manned torpedoes and E-boats were launched from their respective platforms. Unfortunately for the Italians the British radar operators spotted the unidentified launch craft and tracked the E-boats from the beginning of their mission. The British alerted their four main batteries guarding the harbor. At 0430 Tesei reached the net barrier and remained with his torpedo while he detonated the warhead. A letter found after the operation revealed that he had committed suicide, in his words, “[to] attain the highest of all honors—that of giving my life for my King and my flag. This is the supreme desire of a soldier, the most sublime joy he can experience.”9 The E-boats began their assault only to be caught in British crossfire from the defensive batteries. All nine E-boats were destroyed. As the launch platforms attempted to escape, they were attacked by British aircraft and destroyed. The remaining manned torpedo had mechanical difficulties, and the crew was later captured. By the end of the Malta operation fifteen Italians were killed, eighteen were captured, and all the manned torpedoes, E-boats, and support platforms had been destroyed.

The Malta operation was destined to fail from the beginning: the plan was too complicated, intelligence was inadequate, the rehearsals were only partially successful, and the execution phase lacked surprise and speed. Borghese, who was not directly involved in the operation, identified these problems early in the preparation phase. He commented that the combined operation had assumed “a new, more extended and complex aspect … The idea of employing … weapons so different in nature [torpedoes and E-boats] … was an extremely hazardous one.”10 Additionally, the intelligence was “very sketchy … It was incredible but true [that the Italians] had no agent at Malta who could furnish … intelligence.”11 The rehearsals for the mission, which were executed near Malta over a seven-day period, resulted in several damaged and sunken E-boats. Following these rehearsals Vittorio Moccagatta, the commander of the 10th Light Flotilla, wrote in his diary, “I was never a believer in bad luck but now I had 99 reasons out of a 100 for believing in it.”12 To make matters worse, during the execution phase, the diversionary air raid had put the British on alert and subsequently led to the detection of the approaching E-boats.

Nevertheless, the Italians continued to aggressively pursue the British and finally achieved their first success in Gibraltar on 21 September 1941. Launching from the submarine Scire, three manned torpedoes entered Gibraltar and, using their detachable warheads, sank three vessels: the naval tanker Denby Dale (15,893 tons), the British motorship Durham (10,900 tons), and the British tanker Fiona Shell (2,444 tons). The crews scuttled their torpedoes and diving rigs and swam to Spain where they met Italian agents and were returned to La Spezia.

This success marked the culmination of intensive modifications to the manned torpedoes, which now constituted “an absolutely efficient and trustworthy weapon, capable of achieving the most brilliant success in war.”13 Three months later the opportunity to achieve that brilliant success presented itself at Alexandria. The men who volunteered for Alexandria did so with the understanding that their success could change the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Alexandria, however, was unlike Gibraltar. There was no place to find refuge, and volunteering meant agreeing to a one-way trip with the best result being imprisonment.


Since the beginning of the war, the Italians had put considerable effort into sinking the British fleet at Alexandria. Italian bombers had made routine runs against the port facility with no success. The heavy British air defense and the long flight time from Italy made this a dangerous and expensive proposition for the Italian air force. With the formation of the 1st Light Flotilla, the navy took the lead in attempting to destroy the British fleet; however, after the disaster with the Iride in August 1940, it was over a year before another mission was attempted. The Italians literally went back to the drawing board and modified the transport submarines and manned torpedoes to minimize their detectability and improve their range and reliability.

In the fall of 1941 the 10th Light Flotilla asked for volunteers for a one-way mission.14 A dozen men volunteered. Those who were eventually chosen were: Durand de la Penne and Bianchi, Gunner Captain Antonio Marceglia and Petty Officer/Diver Spartaco Schergat, and Gunner Captain Vincenzo Martellotta and Petty Officer/ Diver Mario Marino. There were also two spare crews in the event that one of the primary divers became ill or was injured in training. Most of the men had been members of the 10th for some time, but Spartaco Schergat, who was working at the Italian Naval Academy when he volunteered, had had no previous combat experience or training with the torpedoes. (By the time the Alexandria operation began, Schergat had been part of the reserve crew on one previous mission to Gibraltar, but the primary crews launched as scheduled, and Schergat never got the opportunity to participate.)

Over the next several months the mission was planned out in detail, and the training of the crews continued unabated week after week. Commander Borghese was assigned to lead the operation and later remembered how they approached the planning and training:

This kind of operation, if it were to have any decent chance of success, had to be thought out to the last detail; … from the collection of hydrographic and meteorological data to intelligence as to enemy vigilance; from the taking of aerial photographs of the harbour, to the arrangement of safe and extremely rapid channels of radio liaison with the submarine … to the training of operators so as to bring them to the maximum of physical efficiency by the pre-arranged day … nothing was to be left to chance, all impulsiveness was to be held in check; on the contrary, everything was to be coolly calculated and every technical and ingenious resource was to be exploited to the fullest extent possible.15

While agents in Alexandria fed the Italian navy information about the harbor patrols, reaction forces, and net defenses, aerial photos showed the physical layout of the port including the locations of piers, pilings, mooring buoys, and gun emplacements. From this collection of intelligence the 10th Light Flotilla was able to plan the exact route and distances that would be traveled by the manned torpedoes. Exercises were conducted in the La Spezia operating area that duplicated the mission profile. Schergat later recalled, “We did some very specific training for the mission in Alexandria. One day Commander Borghese ordered an exercise. We left the port and traveled many miles in a profile that resembled Alexandria. We sailed to La Spezia. [The manned torpedoes] entered port and attacked the ship at anchor. At the time we didn’t know the reason for that particular training—Borghese told us about that later.”16

As the training continued and the intelligence picture became clear, a plan was finalized and forwarded to the Supermarina in Rome. The Scire, carrying three manned torpedoes, would leave La Spezia and sail to the island of Leros. The five crews and technicians would be flown to Leros and would link up with the submarine. This would allow the crews some additional time to plan and conduct physical training. The Scire would depart Leros and sail directly to Alexandria, arriving at a point approximately one thousand meters from the northern battery. The Italian air force would conduct a diversionary bombing raid both the night before and the night of the mission. Once on station, the Scire would receive final intelligence on the position of the British ships in port. This information would be passed to the torpedo crews just prior to launch. Upon launch the three manned torpedoes would proceed to their assigned targets, place their ordnance, scuttle their torpedoes and diving equipment, and swim to shore. Once ashore the crews would attempt to find a small boat and sail ten miles out to sea to rendezvous with the submarine Zaffro. This escape and evasion plan was quite weak and Bianchi later said, “We knew that even in the best case there was no chance to avoid capture. There was an escape plan, but it was just for psychological comfort.”17

The Supermarina approved the plan, and after two more months of mission-specific training, the manned torpedo crews of the 10th Light Flotilla were prepared to attack Alexandria Harbor. Durand de la Penne and his men were anxious to begin the operation. He later recalled, “We knew it was to be a dangerous mission because this was the third attempt for a submarine to go into Alexandria. But, we felt, the third time never fails.”18


On 3 December 1941, the Scire departed La Spezia on a “routine” patrol; her oblong chambers were empty. Soon after she left port, the sun set and the Scire came to all stop approximately three miles out from the harbor. A small vessel came alongside and transferred three manned torpedoes, hull numbers 221, 222, and 223. The torpedoes had just been refurbished at San Bartolomeo and were in excellent condition. The torpedo crews eased the submersibles into their chambers and gave them one final inspection. That evening, after all the equipment was checked and double-checked, the torpedo crews left the Scire and returned to port aboard the small vessel that had brought them out. They would rendezvous with the submarine in six days on the island of Leros.

The Scire began the initial leg of her transit by hugging the coastline to avoid the Italian minefields and then proceeded around Sicily and into the open sea. As scheduled, six days later, after only a single enemy encounter, Scirereached Leros and entered Port Lago. Although Lago was under Axis control, Borghese took every precaution to maintain secrecy. A cover story was circulated that the Scire was a submarine from another command damaged while on patrol and in need of repair. Huge tarpaulins were placed over the transport chambers ostensibly to protect ship repair personnel from the weather. Additionally, “technicians” arrived from La Spezia to help with repairs. These were, in fact, engineers from La Spezia who conducted the final inspection on the torpedoes.

On 10 December, the four crews left Italy. They had been on premission leave, and Bianchi recalled later, “When we left Italy my thoughts at first went to my family, but then those thoughts vanished, because we had many things to do.”19 They arrived at Port Lago and were placed aboard the transport vessel Asmara. Durand de la Penne and his men spent the next three days making final preparations and reviewing the intelligence that came in daily from agents in Alexandria and from Italian aerial reconnaissance. The commander of the 10th Light Flotilla, Comdr. Ernesto Forza (who had relieved Moccagatta), had been sent to Athens to coordinate intelligence and overhead photography, provide weather reports, and maintain radio contact with the Scire throughout the operation. On the thirteenth, Admiral Biancheri, commander in chief of the Aegean Naval Sector, arrived in Leros and wanted Borghese to conduct one final rehearsal prior to getting under way for Alexandria. Borghese refused, citing his orders, which gave him full authority to conduct the operation as he saw fit. The admiral was disappointed, and chastised Borghese for not wanting to train until the last possible minute.

On 14 December, the Scire departed Leros and proceeded on course towards Alexandria. Borghese, remembering the plight of the Iride and Gondar, remained submerged almost the entire transit, surfacing only at night to recharge batteries. The final aerial reconnaissance flight was conducted on the eighteenth, and the intelligence was forwarded via coded message to Borghese. The Scire had stayed in constant contact with Forza, who was in Rome and then Athens, coordinating aerial overflights and providing updated intelligence. Schergat remembered that “Commander Forza radioed us before entering port [at Alexandria]. He told us how many ships were in port and which ones we were supposed to attack.”20 The message also congratulated Petty Officer Bianchi, who was a new father. Everyone agreed that this was a good sign.

Later that evening, as the Scire approached the designated manned torpedo launch point, Borghese ordered all quiet and brought the submarine to sixty feet. At this depth he hoped to avoid the moored minefields. At 1840 the Scire arrived at its launch point, approximately 1.3 miles at 356 degrees from the Ras el Tin Lighthouse on the northern end of the harbor. Borghese surfaced to outcrop level (transport chambers submerged), came out of the conning tower, and surveyed his surroundings.* He reported, “The weather was perfect: it was pitch-dark; the sea very smooth and the sky unclouded. Alexandria was right ahead of me, very close. I identified some of its characteristic buildings and determined my position; to my great satisfaction I found that we were within a meter of the pre-arranged point.”21

Navigating from Leros was no easy feat. The Scire had traveled more than seventeen hundred miles through enemy-patrolled waters; she had encountered a severe storm on the sixteenth that forced her to stay submerged well beyond the normal limits of the crew; and with constant enemy air and sea patrols, the navigator had had few opportunities to get a daytime fix. But despite all this, and even though they spent the final sixteen hours completely submerged, Borghese brought the submarine to within one meter of the launch point.

At approximately 2100, the reserve crews of the manned torpedoes went on deck (which was fully submerged). Equipped in full dive gear, they had the task of opening the chamber doors. This was a physically exhausting job, and it would have reduced the efficiency of the operational crewmembers had they been required to undertake this endeavor. Once the chamber doors were open the operational crews, which were fully suited up, arrived to take command of their torpedoes. One by one the manned torpedoes eased away from the Scire and headed slowly toward the entrance of the harbor. The launch was very smooth. Bianchi recalled, “I felt a sense of satisfaction, because everything was going so well. It seemed like an exercise.”22 Borghese monitored their departure on the submarine’s hydrophones, and when he concluded they were safely on their way, he submerged.

An interesting side note: During the launch process, one of the reserve crewmen (who was also the diving medical officer) drowned when he overexerted himself opening the chamber doors. This was not noticed for several minutes and when the doctor was brought aboard, he showed no sign of life. Borghese injected a vial of stimulant into the doctor’s chest and then began artificial respiration. At the same time he issued orders for the Scire to depart the immediate vicinity on a reciprocal course. Unfortunately, the doctor had left the chamber door ajar, and the submarine was taking on water, making it difficult to maintain trim. As soon as the submarine was out of range of the lighthouse, Borghese surfaced and closed the chamber door. Miraculously, after three and a half hours the doctor began to breathe again. By the time the Scire arrived back in Leros, the doctor was out of medical danger. Several days later the Scire returned to La Spezia after covering thirty-five hundred miles in twenty-seven days.

The three manned torpedoes departed the submarine and proceeded together on the surface toward the antisubmarine gate at the south end of the harbor. They had traveled approximately two miles when Durand de la Penne ordered the torpedoes to stop. Floating on the surface barely five hundred yards from the Ras el Tin Lighthouse, the frogmen decided to take a break. They broke out their rations and Durand de la Penne passed out small bottles of cognac. “Things [had] been going too easy,” he later reported, so he decided to “relax a bit before going in.”23 After finishing the meal, they continued on to the harbor’s entrance. An antisubmarine net was strung across the gap and could only be opened by operators on the quay. The divers trimmed the torpedoes so that only their heads were exposed above the surface. As they approached the entrance Durand de la Penne reported, “We saw some people at the end of the pier and heard them talking; one of them was walking about with a lighted oil-lamp. We also saw a large motorboat cruising in silence off the pier and dropping depth charges. These charges were a nuisance to us.”24

Fig. 3–1. Routes of the Three Manned Torpedoes (Petroliera is the tanker Sagona.) From de Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 123

Although the divers were prepared to cut the nets or climb over them if necessary, this was a risky proposition in light of the guards patrolling the quay. As good fortune would have it, the gate opened up to allow three British destroyers through. Schergat remembered the incident well. “We noticed the entrance lights were on, but we couldn’t see the destroyers because we were just at surface level. As we approached the entrance, the water became rough and we knew ships were entering. They created a wave which pushed us apart … we got separated and each man [manned torpedo crew] went toward his destination.”25

Durand de la Penne and Bianchi cruised into the harbor, their heads barely visible. As they maneuvered toward their target, the Valiant, they passed two anchored destroyers and the French battleship Lorraine. Realizing that a larger target lay ahead, they continued, ignoring the temptation of a certain success. At approximately 0219 they reached the antitorpedo net surrounding the Valiant. Bianchi stated later: “It was not difficult to distinguish the huge shape of the Valiant. As we arrived at 50 meters from the ship we found as expected an obstruction net. I saw that we could physically pass between the two buoys supporting the net. But because we were so close to the ship I suggested to de la Penne that we pass under the net. He decided to check it out and left the pig and dove down. He came back and said we would pass over the buoys. I didn’t agree, but he said he was tired and his dry suit was leaking.”26

Durand de la Penne’s dry suit had been leaking since he had departed the Scire, and the cold water was beginning to sap his strength, so instead of taking time to submerge and cut the net he elected to go over the top.* Once inside the net, he was fifty meters from the Valiant. He drove the torpedo slowly into the side of the ship, bumping his way down to the keel. For some unexplained reason the torpedo took on water and began to sink quickly. Durand de la Penne and Bianchi rode the torpedo to the bottom of the harbor, seventeen meters below the surface. The two divers, realizing that they were not directly under the Valiant, struggled to move the torpedo toward the British battleship. The effort was exhausting, and Bianchi began to feel faint. “I was going to go up to the surface, get some fresh air and return and continue my work. At that moment I don’t remember what happened. When I regained consciousness I was floating near the ship and illuminated. I thought my surfacing had caused a lot of noise, so I took off my aqualung [which didn’t work] and sunk it. Then I headed for a nearby buoy.”27

Moments later, Durand de la Penne realized that Bianchi was not with the torpedo. Leaving the submersible, he surfaced to find his partner. After a brief look around with no success, Durand de la Penne returned to the torpedo.

Grabbing the bow of the torpedo, he began dragging it underneath the battleship.

Speed was essential, because I was so weak and not able to last much longer … The pig is moving a few centimeters; I cannot distinguish the compass due to the mud clouds that I raised while working. My mask is dim and I cannot see anything anymore … During the operation I flood the mask. I try to eliminate the water from inside but it is impossible. I must drink it … At that moment it seems that I cannot continue working because of the extreme fatigue and for the breathlessness. I go to the surface. The target nearness gave me strength; I am not worried about the bomb, but only for the thought of not being able to reach the hull.28

For the next forty minutes Durand de la Penne pulled the torpedo inch by inch until he had positioned it directly under the keel, in the middle of the ship. He was now completely exhausted. He set the timers on the charge and swam to the surface. Almost immediately he was spotted by pier security and fired upon with an automatic weapon. The sentry directed him back to the Valiant where he climbed out of the water onto the mooring buoy only to find Bianchi hiding in the shadows. At 0330 a motorboat picked up the two Italians from the buoy, and a guard escorted them to the Valiant. They were briefly interrogated aboard the ship and then taken to the base security hut near the Ras el Tin Lighthouse. The officer in charge of the interrogation reported the following actions:

Early that same morning [18 December] I was sleeping peacefully in a pension in Alexandria when the telephone rang and I was summoned immediately to Ras el Tin; a car was on its way to fetch me. Two Italian frogmen had been caught sitting on the bow buoy of the Valiant and had been sent across from the other side of the harbour for interrogation by RAF’s interpreter. What questions were to be asked? An attack by saboteurs had been expected for some time, and the harbour entrance was protected by heavy nets and explosive charges. We wanted to know

(1) Had they completed their missions?

(2) Were they alone?

(3) How did they get into the harbour?

They strenuously denied the first two questions and said they had got into difficulties outside the harbour and had to abandon their equipment and swim ashore. Of course we did not believe them and I rang the battleships and suggested they should drag chain bottom lines to try and dislodge any limpets. They were already doing this and C in C [commander in chief, Alexandria] ordered them [Durand de la Penne and Bianchi] to be returned to Valiant where they were put below on the lowest deck in the fore part of the ship.29

Aboard the Valiant their British escorts behaved very nicely and gave them rum and cigarettes. It was only then, when Durand de la Penne spotted the ship’s name embroidered on the escort’s shirts, that he knew he was aboard the Valiant. At 0550, with ten minutes remaining until the charge was scheduled to explode, he asked to see the captain. “I told him that in a few minutes his ship would blow up, that there was nothing he could do about it and that, if he wished, he could still get his crew into a place of safety.”30 The captain demanded to know where the bomb was located. When Durand de la Penne refused to answer, he was placed, once again, in the forward hold, this time without Bianchi and without escorts.

At approximately 0600 the charge beneath the Valiant detonated, lifting the battleship out of the water and severely damaging the port side. The ship immediately settled on the bottom and began to list to port. All the electricity went out, and the room Durand de la Penne was in began to fill with smoke. After several attempts, he finally forced his way out a hatch and climbed up to the main deck. After a few minutes, he found the captain and demanded to know the whereabouts of Bianchi. Moments later the charge beneath the Queen Elizabeth exploded, sending oil and debris skyward and soaking all those on the deck of the Valiant. Durand de la Penne was sent back to the hold, but after thirty minutes he was escorted up to the officers’ mess where he found Bianchi. The two were held in the mess for a short while, then transferred by motorboat back to the security hut at Ras el Tin Lighthouse. By that evening they were both in a POW camp in Alexandria.

The second crew consisted of Engineer Captain Antonio Marceglia and Petty Officer Diver/Spartaco Schergat. Their target was initially the HMS Eagle. After losing sight of Durand de la Penne at the harbor’s entrance, the second crew came under attack from precautionary depth charges that were being dropped two hundred to five hundred yards away. The explosive force caused strong contractions in the divers’ legs, and it felt “as though [the manned torpedoes] had crashed against some metallic obstacle.”31 It bothered the two divers, “but not too much.”32

The second crew followed the British ships on through the entrance only to have three other destroyers almost run them over half an hour later. After evading the ships, Marceglia returned to his preplanned course and proceeded onward. During the planning phase Marceglia had decided to plot a course parallel to shore, allowing the background lights to silhouette the vessels at anchor.

The Eagle was a large target and within minutes the second crew spotted what they thought was their objective. They did not know until later that the ship was in fact the Queen Elizabeth. They closed rapidly and had no problem negotiating the antitorpedo net. At approximately 0230 they were within striking distance of the largest battleship in the British fleet. Schergat recalled later, “We entered the antitorpedo net which was approximately fifty or sixty meters from the Queen Elizabeth. Marceglia took the pig in at 90 degrees perpendicular to the ship. We dropped to five or six meters going forward, and we hit the hull. This was quite a difficult phase. We tried to hit the ammunition deposits, but we ended up under the engines.”33

Once securely underneath the vessel, Marceglia pumped out a small amount of ballast water and buoyed up underneath the ship. Schergat got off the torpedo and secured a loop-line from the port to the starboard bilge keel. Marceglia disconnected the warhead from the bow of the torpedo and attached it to the line that was hanging four feet below the hull. He set the fuse and the two divers remounted the torpedo, ballasted to neutral, and returned to the surface. The time was 0315.

As the torpedo surfaced, a roving patrol spotted the exhaust bubbles and shined a light on their position. The two Italians remained motionless and averted their faces to prevent any reflection from the glass in their masks. The patrol moved on, and the second crew continued its extraction. The escape and evasion plan called for the divers to make for shore, destroy their torpedo and equipment, and attempt to find a boat from which to rendezvous with the Italian submarine Zaffro. Marceglia and Schergat executed their extraction according to the plan, reaching shore by 0430. Unfortunately, while posing as French sailors they were picked up by the Egyptian police for suspicious behavior and eventually turned over to the British. While being held in the British Port Authority building, the two Italians discovered the ship they had sunk was the Queen Elizabeth and not the aircraft carrier Eagle, as they had originally thought. In his after-action report submitted upon release from prison, Marceglia reported: “As you can see, Sir, our performance had nothing heroic about it; its success was due solely to the preparations made, the specially favorable conditions under which it took place and above all the determination to succeed at all costs.”34

The third crew consisted of Gunner Captain Vincenzo Martellotta and Petty Officer/Diver Mario Marino. They had been ordered to attack the sixteen-thousand-ton tanker Sagona. After attaching their demolitions, the crew was to release floating incendiary mines that would explode after the Sagona blew up to light the oil on fire. It was hoped the fire would spread throughout the harbor and destroy several other ships. In port at the time were twelve loaded tankers with a total weight of 120,000 tons. Although Martellotta understood the need to destroy the oilers before leaving the Scire, he complained to Borghese about not getting a chance to sink a combatant. Borghese subsequently modified the orders to allow Martellotta to attack the HMS Eagle if it was in port.

Like the other two crews, Martellotta and Marino approached the harbor entrance while being subjected to constant depth charging. In an effort to lessen the pain the two divers “ducked in such a way as to lie low in the water, but with heart, lungs and head above the surface.”35 As the British destroyers entered the harbor, their wake threw the tiny submersible against a mooring buoy used to secure the antisubmarine net. After pushing off from the buoy Martellotta followed the second destroyer through the entrance, passing within twenty yards of the small guardship that was dropping the depth charges. The time was 0030.

Martellotta and Marino were now inside the harbor and began to search for the aircraft carrier. In the course of their search the two divers spotted a large vessel they believed to be the Eagle. After taking a bearing on the center stack, Martellotta dove the torpedo and came up underneath the vessel. It was only then that he realized that it was not the Eagle or even a battleship but a much smaller cruiser. Adhering to his prescribed orders, Martellotta backed off and reluctantly returned to the surface. As he broached the surface, a sentry on the cruiser flashed his light on the divers’ position. The two Italians remained motionless for several moments, and eventually the sentry returned to his patrol.

By this time the cold water and the pure oxygen from their diving rigs were beginning to have an adverse effect on Martellotta. He began to vomit and was unable to keep his mouthpiece securely between his lips. Fortunately upon surfacing, the two divers spotted their assigned target, the Sagona. Unable to submerge because of his illness, Martellotta drove the torpedo on the surface, positioning it aft of the tanker underneath the stern.* He reported later, “I went toward the stern of the oil tanker and ordered Marino to go under the hull and establish a connection nearest to the bilge keel. He tried at first, but [the torpedo] was too light. I put on more ballast and Marino tried again. This time he succeeded … I told him to take off the head, start the fuse, and bring the charge to the other end of the connection. Marino carried out my orders exactly … I made sure the fuses were started.”36

At 0255 Marino set the timer for three hours and pulled the fuse. After Marino surfaced the two divers remounted the torpedo and proceeded to set the incendiary mines around the tanker. When this was done they headed toward the shore.

Once the two divers reached the shore, they destroyed their diving rigs, set the destruction device on the torpedo, and entered the city. Unfortunately for the Italians they were stopped at a control point and arrested by Egyptian police. Eventually they were turned over to the British and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Cairo.

By 0600 the charges beneath the targets began to detonate, and within a few minutes the six Italian divers had sunk two battleships and a tanker and seriously damaged the destroyer Jervis, which was alongside the Sagona. The Valiant suffered severe internal damage and had an eighty-foot gash in her side. Three boiler compartments aboard the Queen Elizabeth were destroyed, and her hull was torn open. It was several months before either ship was repaired, and the extent of damages was such that neither vessel ever contributed to the war effort again. On 23 April 1942 Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke before a secret session of the House of Commons and reported the following:

On the early morning of December 19 half a dozen Italians in unusual diving suits were captured floundering about in the harbour of Alexandria. Extreme precautions have been taken for some time past against the varieties of human torpedo or one-man submarine entering our harbours. Not only are nets and other obstructions used but underwater charges are exploded at frequent irregular intervals in the fairway. None the less these men had penetrated the harbour. Four hours later explosion occurred in the bottoms of the Valiant and the Queen Elizabeth produced by limpet bombs fixed with extra ordinary courage and ingenuity, the effect of which was to blow large holes in the bottoms of both ships and to flood several compartments, thus putting them both out of action for many months. One ship will soon be ready again, the other is still in the floating dock at Alexandria, a constant target for enemy air attack. Thus we no longer have any battle squadron in the Mediterranean. Barham [is] gone and now Valiant and Queen Elizabeth are completely out of action. Both these ships floated on an even keel, they looked all right from the air. The enemy were for some time unaware of the success of their attack, and it is only now that I feel it possible to make this disclosure to the House even in the strictness of a Secret Session.37

As it turns out the Italians were aware of the damage they had done to the British fleet; nevertheless, they did not pursue their advantage in the Mediterranean. With overwhelming naval power the supply lines to Rommel would have been assured and the “occupation of Egypt would only have been a question of time, bringing with it incalculable consequences for the outcome of the war.”38 Borghese was bitter throughout the war, placing the blame for “losing this opportunity” squarely at the feet of the German High Command, which refused to provide fuel to the Italian navy and “again displayed its underestimation of sea power in the general conduct of the war and in particular of the importance of the Mediterranean in the general picture of the entire conflict.”39 The lost opportunity notwithstanding, the attack on the British fleet at Alexandria was strategically the most important and successful operation of the war for the Italian navy. Luigi Durand de la Penne and his five teammates received the Italian Gold Medal for gallantry, which is equivalent to the Medal of Honor. It was the only time in Italian history that all participants in an operation were so decorated.



Were the objectives worth the risks? The Italian navy, although beaten badly in the months prior to the attack on Alexandria, was in the process of commissioning three new battleships, Doria, Vittorio Veneto, and Littorio. The British had also suffered several naval defeats with the loss of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Barham in November 1941. If the Italians could destroy the remaining two battleships, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, they, along with the Germans, could dominate the Mediterranean. As it stood, however, even with its numerical superiority, the Italian fleet was insufficient to challenge the British in the eastern Mediterranean. With the British still controlling the vital sea-lanes, the Italians had to struggle to resupply Rommel’s forces in North Africa. By using the manned torpedoes to conduct underwater guerrilla warfare, the Italians were able to make maximum use of their maritime resources. With the destruction of two battleships and a destroyer, the Italians had an opportunity to control the maritime playing field and propagandize about the “weakness” of the British. Unfortunately, they did neither. Nevertheless, when one considers that only six men and three manned torpedoes were used to destroy the targets, the objectives were undeniably worth the risk.

Was the plan developed to maximize superiority over the enemy and minimize the risk to the assault force? The development of the manned torpedoes was a technological revolution in underwater warfare. It allowed the Italians to circumvent the conventional submarine marine defenses protecting the capital ships and to bypass the picketboats that were specifically designed to stop frogmen and divers. Superb operational intelligence allowed the planners to tailor the rehearsals to the mission and thereby ensured that the manned torpedo crews were properly prepared to overcome most obstacles. Although the plan maximized the possibility that the battleships would be destroyed, it did not minimize the risk to the divers. Unlike the attacks on Gibraltar, in which the divers could hit the target and swim to neutral Spain, there was little chance the Alexandria divers would return from a trip deep in enemy territory. The Scire, which would have provided the best extraction platform, departed immediately after launching the torpedoes. This reduced the submarine’s vulnerability, but certainly did not help the manned torpedo crews. There was an escape and evasion plan, but it was not well thought out and the divers did not truly expect to return.* Although this one-way trip may seem unacceptable by today’s standards, the Italians were able to maximize their combat effectiveness by eliminating the extraction phase. The torpedo’s battery power, the air in their Belloni rigs, and their physical endurance were all dedicated to mission accomplishment and not saved for escape.

Was the mission executed according to the plan, and if not, what unforeseen circumstances dictated the outcome? With some minor exceptions, the plan was executed exactly as rehearsed. Schergat said later, “From my point of view, the mission looked just like further training.”40 However, several problems arose that typify the frictions of war. Durand de la Penne lost his second diver, Bianchi, when the petty officer fainted and floated to the surface. One of the three manned torpedoes took on too much ballast and sank to the bottom of the harbor. One of the officers, Martellotta, got violently ill and had to direct the actions of his torpedo from the surface. All of these incidents were happenstance, but that is the nature of war. Regardless of how well the planning and preparation phases go, the environment of war is different from the environment of preparing for war. But, by being specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific mission, special forces personnel can reduce those frictions to the bare minimum and then overcome them with courage, boldness, perseverance, and intellect—the moral factors.

What modifications could have improved the outcome of the mission? The success of the mission speaks for itself. However, it is conceivable that had a more thorough escape and evasion plan been arranged, two of the crews might have escaped. By prepositioning an agent and a small boat outside the harbor, the evading crews could have quickly linked up and sailed away from the scene before the demolitions exploded. Apparently, this was never addressed. The Italians did have an agent in Cairo who was supposed to assist the divers in their escape, but the Italians, being unfamiliar with the city and unable to speak the language, had little chance of reaching this individual. This part of the plan notwithstanding, the operation was extremely well planned and coordinated, and there are very few modifications that could have improved the outcome.

Relative Superiority

Operations that rely entirely on stealth for the successful accomplishment of their mission have inherent weaknesses; however, they have one overwhelming advantage. As long as the attacking force remains concealed, they are not subject to the will of the enemy. Therefore their chances of success are immediately better than 50 percent because the inherent superiority of the defense is lost.41 The attacking force has the initiative, choosing when and where it wants to attack, and if the mission is planned correctly, the force will attack at the weakest point in the defense. Consequently, if the will of the enemy is not a factor, only the frictions of war (i.e., chance and uncertainty) will affect the outcome of the mission. Clearly the frictions of war can be detrimental to success, but through good preparation and strong moral factors, the frictions can be managed. The inherent problem with special operations that rely entirely on stealth is obvious. If that concealment is compromised, the mission has little or no chance of success.

Fig. 3–2. Relative Superiority Graph for the Italian Frogman Attack on Alexandria

Figure 3–2 represents a composite graph of all three manned torpedo operations. Although there were some differences in the individual profiles, basically all three torpedoes reached the critical points at approximately the same time. At midnight on 19 December 1941, all three torpedoes entered the harbor and passed by the antisubmarine net. This was the point of vulnerability, but because the British did not know the torpedoes were in the harbor, the Italians began with relative superiority, albeit not very decisively. As the manned torpedoes continued into the harbor, circumventing the picketboats and pier security, their probability of mission completion improved marginally. Their decisive advantage came when they penetrated the antitorpedo nets. After this point, there were no other defenses that could prevent them from successfully fulfilling their mission. However, as the graph depicts, there was still an area of vulnerability even after overcoming the antitorpedo net. Had the Italians been detected (for instance, when Bianchi floated to the surface), the British crews could have dropped concussion grenades and possibly stopped the attack. Fortunately for the Italians, they were able to set their charges before the British detected them. Three hours later the charges exploded, and the mission was complete.

The Principles of Special Operations

Simplicity. This mission had several advantages not normally associated with a special operation. Although the target was clearly strategic, with the balance of the naval forces in the Mediterranean hinging on the mission success, the execution was almost an extension of routine training and wartime operations. Under Borghese’s command the Scire had previously conducted three missions that paralleled the attack on Alexandria. Durand de la Penne and Bianchi were also veterans of a previous attempt to attack the British. This experience helped mold the approach the Italians took in planning and preparing for Alexandria.

The lessons of the disaster at Malta convinced Borghese, who was the overall mission commander, not to create a complex plan of operation. Borghese limited the objectives by reducing the forces assigned to attack Alexandria. He could just as easily have incorporated another three manned torpedoes and several E-boats to overload British defenses and ensure the Italians of some success. Additionally, although each manned torpedo had only one warhead, it was possible, and often rehearsed, for each crew to hit multiple targets by placing the smaller limpet mines on as many ships as feasible. Borghese chose to avoid both these pitfalls and limit each manned torpedo to only one target with “all other targets consisting of active war units to be ignored.”42 Although not involved in the planning, Bianchi recognized the need to limit the number of targets. He said later, “In limiting the attack to one objective [per crew] the commander considered having the offensive power increased.”43 Even attacking one target became difficult. In each of the three cases the frogmen were able to execute their assigned tasks, but only after overcoming significant physical problems (vomiting, unconsciousness, headaches) and equipment failures (dry suit leaks, flooded torpedoes). Had the mission called for more than one target per dive pair, it is unlikely the divers would have had the physical or technical resources to complete it. Also, with multiple targets, the fuses on the charges would have to have been set for more time to allow the divers time to attack their other targets and escape. Arguably this might have allowed the British to find the charges or move the vessels from their anchorage (in Durand de la Penne’s case, moving the vessel would have prevented any damage to the Valiant). In either case, limiting the objectives clearly simplified the plan and allowed maximum effort to be applied against the primary targets.

Borghese knew the value of accurate intelligence, and he consistently used it throughout the operation to reduce the unknown variables and improve the divers’ chances of success. Knowing the physical limitations of divers exposed to cold water, Borghese insisted on getting his submarine as close to the harbor entrance as possible. Italian agents in Alexandria provided the 10th Light Flotilla with a clear picture of the British defenses and in particular the minefields off the coast. Borghese wrote later, “I had therefore decided that as soon as we reached a depth of 400 meters [which was probably where the minefield started], we would proceed at a depth of not less than 60 meters, since I assumed that the mines, even if they were anti-submarine, would be located at a higher level.”44

This information eventually allowed the Scire to maneuver to a point only 1.3 miles from the entrance of the harbor. So close, in fact, that after launching the torpedoes, Durand de la Penne stopped his assault crews for a sip of cognac and a tin of food.

The torpedo crews were also provided the latest human intelligence and aerial reconnaissance photos to allow them to plot courses and find the simplest approach to the target. Borghese noted during the preparation phase that the divers’ desks “were covered with aerial photographs and maps … daily examined under a magnifying glass and annotated from the latest intelligence and air reconnaissance reports; those harbours, with their moles, obstacles, wharfs, docks, mooring places and defences, were no mysteries to the pilots, who perfectly knew their configuration, orientation and depths, so that they, astride the ‘pig’, could make their way about them at night just as easily as a man in his own room.”45

The accurate intelligence had simplified the problem of negotiating minefields and navigating in an enemy harbor. Alexandria Harbor was thirty-five hundred miles from Italy. It was ringed with antiaircraft guns and supported by Spitfires from the Royal Air Force. It seemed impenetrable from the air. On the other hand, the Italian navy, which had almost no presence in the eastern Mediterranean, posed no significant threat to the more than two hundred vessels (merchant and warships) tied up in Alexandria. The only major fears the British had were from submarines and saboteurs, and extensive precautions had been taken to overcome both these possibilities. Until the establishment of the 10th Light Flotilla and the innovations that followed (i.e., the manned torpedoes, diving rigs, limpet mines, Belloni dry suits, and submarine transport chambers), the difficulty of penetrating the static defenses of Alexandria was not worth the risk in human lives or equipment.* These innovations allowed the Italians to reconsider the possibility of a direct assault.

The most significant tactical innovation was the use of disposable torpedoes. Having to plan for only a one-way trip meant enhanced time on target for the divers and reduced the threat envelope for the submarine Scire. Obviously one-way trips have their drawbacks for the individual operators, but from a mission accomplishment standpoint they improve the possibility of success by reducing the extraction variables. The technological innovations allowed the divers to completely bypass the British defenses. The small visual signature of the manned torpedo provided the Italians a host of tactical advantages. It allowed them to surface unobserved and ride out the depth charges. They were able to navigate around the harbor undetected by ballasting the submersible just under the surface. These actions would not have been possible with either a midget submarine or a conventional submarine. The ease of handling the torpedo also allowed the crews to climb over antitorpedo nets and allowed Durand de la Penne to physically move his flooded machine to a position under the Valiant’s keel. Innovation simplified the assault plan by eliminating the defensive threats posed by the nets and depth charges, and it was without question the dominant factor in the success of the mission.

Security. The raid on Alexandria again demonstrates how the importance of security was not a function of hiding the intent of the mission but of the timing and the insertion means. By December 1941 British intelligence was fully aware that the Italians had manned submersibles capable of penetrating their harbors. The second Italian attack on Gibraltar had provided the British with one torpedo and its crew. The attack on Malta had also resulted in the capture of Italian frogmen. And the sinking of the Gondar resulted in the capture of Elios Toschi, the designer of the original manned torpedo. With all this information, the British unquestionably knew the kind of operations they could expect from the 10th Light Flotilla. As Winston Churchill later said in his speech to the House of Commons, “Extreme precautions had been taken for some time past against the varieties of human torpedo or one-man submarines entering our harbours.”46 Even with all these precautions, however, the Italians still managed to sneak in and destroy the fleet.

The security employed by the Italians was tight but not overbearing. It did not prevent Borghese from asking for volunteers from among all the members of the 10th Light Flotilla, nor did it prevent the crews from conducting several full-mission profiles in and around La Spezia Harbor, although in both cases it is believed that the actual target was not made known to the general participants.

Borghese was, however, cognizant of the need to conceal the timing of the operation. Upon departing La Spezia for the final voyage, he ensured that the Scire’s transport chambers were visibly empty, and he did not load the manned torpedoes until he was out of sight of the harbor. He took these actions to convince possible onlookers that the Scire was out for just another routine operation. Borghese kept up pretenses when he arrived in Leros. While in port he had the transport chambers covered to reduce speculation about the submarine’s mission, and he refused an admiral’s order to conduct another exercise for fear of compromising the impending mission.

Borghese also understood that all things being equal, operational needs were more important than security. Throughout the mission he maintained radio contact with Athens and Rome. Although interception of the message traffic could have compromised the mission, Borghese obviously felt the need for updated intelligence outweighed that concern. In the end, Italian security was instrumental in preventing the enemy from gaining an advantage by knowing the timing of the mission. A good special operation will succeed in spite of the enemy’s attempt to fortify his position, provided security prevents the enemy from knowing when and how the attack is coming. In the case of the Italians’ attack on Alexandria, security achieved its aims.

Repetition. The principle of repetition as it applies to the attack on Alexandria can be viewed in both the macro and the micro senses of the word. The manned torpedoes of the 10th Light Flotilla had a very limited role: to conduct attacks on ships in port. Every mission profile was similar: launch from the submarine, transit to the objective, cut through the nets, place the charge, and withdraw. Because of this narrowly defined role every training exercise added to the base of knowledge of the operator regardless of what specific mission he would eventually undertake. If one considers that each of the six divers had been on board the 10th Light Flotilla an average of eighteen months (Durand de la Penne and Bianchi almost two years), during which time they had dived at least two times a week, then each man had over 150 dives. In addition, three of the divers (Durand de la Penne, Bianchi, and Marceglia) had previously conducted wartime missions, and all of the divers had at one time or another been designated as reserve crewmembers and undergone a complete mission workup. So, in the macro sense, the only aspect of the Alexandria mission that had not been rehearsed well over one hundred times was the exact course the divers would take.

The operational and reserve crews for the Alexandria mission were assembled in September 1941 to begin mission-specific training. It was during this preparation that the crews conducted exact profiles of the Alexandria mission. Borghese reported that this training “became highly intensified, this being the key to secure the greatest possible efficiency in the men and materials composing the unit. The pilots of the human torpedoes … travelled to La Spezia twice a week and were there dropped off from a boat or, in all-around tests, from one of the transport submarines, and then performed a complete assault exercise, naturally at night; this consisted of getting near the harbour, negotiating the net-defences, advancing stealthily within the harbour, approaching the target, attacking the hull, applying the warhead and, finally, withdrawing.”47

Although exact numbers are not available, Spartaco Schergat indicates that a total of ten full-mission profiles were conducted by all three crews and the reserves. Other limited dives concentrated on specific aspects of the mission, such as net cutting or charge emplacement. In the end, however, it was repetition that provided the divers familiarity with their machines and their environment. The training became so routine that Schergat later remarked, “Being in Alexandria or La Spezia was the same. For me it didn’t make any difference.”48

The raid on Alexandria presents a broader view of the principle of repetition. It shows that repetition must be measured in terms of both experience and mission-specific training. Special operations forces that are multidimensional will require more rehearsals and more time during the preparation phase than a unit whose sole mission encompasses this training on a daily basis.* However, no amount of experience can obviate the need to conduct a minimum of two full-dress rehearsals prior to the mission.

Surprise. In an underwater attack, unlike other special operations, surprise is not only necessary, it is essential. As illustrated in the relative superiority graph, special operations forces that attack underwater have the advantage of being relatively superior to the enemy throughout the engagement as long as they remain concealed. Owing to their inherent lack of speed and firepower, however, once surprise is compromised, underwater attackers have little opportunity to escape. Although many commanders may find this risk unacceptable, experience shows that this type of operation is mostly successful. During World War II the Italians sank over 260,000 tons of shipping and lost only a dozen men, while the British had similar successes in both the European and the Japanese theaters.* The reason for this paradox is that it is relatively easy for divers or submersibles to remain concealed, up to a certain point. Alexandria was a huge harbor with approximately two hundred vessels anchored out, and wartime conditions called for all vessels to be at darken ship. Consequently, a small black submersible, even on the surface of the water, would have been detected only by chance. However, once the manned torpedoes got within close proximity of the target, the chance of detection was greatly increased. This is true of all underwater attacks. The fatigue of the divers, the vigilance of the crew, and the uncertainty of the situation combine to make the actions at the objective exceedingly difficult. This is why relative superiority remained only marginal in this operation until the Italians actually overcame the final obstacle, the antitorpedo net. Beyond the antitorpedo net the British were least prepared to defend themselves, and now the Italians had all the advantages.

The antisubmarine and antitorpedo defenses at Alexandria also show that, contrary to the accepted definition of surprise, the enemy is usually prepared for an attack.49 To be effective, special operations forces must either attack the enemy when he is off guard or, as in the Italians’ case, elude the enemy entirely. But to assume that the enemy is unprepared to counterattack is foolhardy and might lead to overconfidence on the part of the attacker. It is the nature of defensive warfare to be prepared for an attack. Consequently, if the attacker is compromised, the enemy will be able to react rapidly and the attacker’s only hope for success lies in quickly achieving his objective.

Speed. Underwater attacks are rarely characterized by speed. A quick review of the relative superiority graph shows that it took the manned torpedoes over two hours from the point of vulnerability until they reached the antitorpedo net. Throughout this time they were subject to the frictions of war, and by moving slowly and methodically they only increased their area of vulnerability. However, as long as the will of the enemy is not infringing on the relative superiority of the attacker, speed is not essential, although it is still desirable. Speed becomes essential when the attacker begins to lose relative superiority. Two of the torpedo crews reached their objectives and calmly proceeded to attach the explosives and depart. Durand de la Penne, however, reached his target and immediately began to have difficulties: his torpedo sank to the bottom, he lost his second diver, his dry suit filled with cold water, and he was fatigued to the point of exhaustion. As he said in his after-action report, at that point speed was essential. Durand de la Penne was rapidly losing his advantage and knew that if he didn’t act quickly “the operation … would be doomed to failure.”50 The closer an attacker gets to the objective, the greater the risk. Consequently, speed is still important to minimize the attacker’s vulnerability and improve the probability of mission completion.

Purpose. Commander Borghese, who was in overall charge of the attack on Alexandria, ensured that the purpose of the mission was well defined and that the divers were personally committed to achieving their objectives. This was a straightforward mission without any complicated command and control issues; therefore, defining the goals and objectives—the purpose—was relatively easy. Each manned torpedo had only one warhead and one target. Therefore it was essential not to waste the warhead and the effort on an undesirable objective. Borghese ordered Martellotta and Marino to attack the aircraft carrierEagle if she were in port, and if not, the tanker Sagona. Once inside the harbor, however, the pair accidently attacked a cruiser. Fortunately, before they could detach the warhead, they realized it was not their target, and as Borghese notes, “with great reluctance, in obedience to orders received, abandoned the attack.”51 Their orders were clear; they understood the purpose of the mission. They were not to waste their effort on a small cruiser, but instead were to seek out a larger target, which they eventually found and destroyed.

Men who volunteered for the 10th Light Flotilla were typical of special forces personnel everywhere. Each was a combination of adventurer and patriot. They understood the risks involved in penetrating the enemy’s harbor and fully accepted the consequences. They did so out of a love for excitement and the understanding that their missions were important to the country. Teseo Tesei, who, at Malta, detonated his torpedo underneath himself in order to achieve his objective, said, “Whether we sink any ships or not doesn’t matter much; what does matter is that we should be able to blow up with our craft under the very noses of the enemy: we should thus have shown our sons and Italy’s future generations at the price of what sacrifice we live up to our ideals and how success is to be achieved.”52

Although Tesei, who had died three months earlier, did not participate in the Alexandria attack, his inspiration was apparent in the attitudes of the Alexandria crews. All six divers knew they would be either captured or killed, and yet Borghese says the difficulties and dangers merely “increased their determination.”53 This personal commitment to see the mission completed at any cost is, as Tesei said, how success is achieved.


1. Bruce Williamson, by Sea and by Stealth (New York: Coward-McCann, 1956), 39.

2. J. Valerio Borghese, Sea Devils, trans. James Cleugh (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954), 14.

3. Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 117.

4. Borghese, Sea Devils, 32.

5. Spartaco Schergat, interview by author, trans. Lt. Comdr. Paolo Gianetti, tape recording, Monterey, Calif., 4 November 1992.

6. Borghese, Sea Devils, 33.

7. Emilio Bianchi, letter to author, trans. Lt. Comdr. Paolo Gianetti, 22 May 1993.

8. As quoted in Borghese, Sea Devils, 57.

9. William G. Scofield and P. J. Carisella, Frogmen: First Battles (Boston: Branden Publishing, 1987), 97.

10. Ibid., 101-2.

11. Borghese, Sea Devils, 98.

12. Ibid., 100.

13. Ibid., 129.

14. Schergat, interview.

15. Borghese, Sea Devils, 135.

16. Schergat, interview.

17. Bianchi, letter to author.

18. Carisella, Frogmen, 179.

19. Bianchi, letter to author.

20. Schergat, interview.

21. Borghese, Sea Devils, 144.

22. Bianchi, letter to author.

23. Carisella, Frogmen, 127.

24. Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 118.

25. Schergat, interview.

26. Bianchi, letter to author. Passing under the antitorpedo net would have required cutting the net and this is what Durand de la Penne felt would take too much time.

27. Bianchi, letter to author.

28. Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 120.

29. Report on the events of 18 December 1941 by the HMS Jervis antisubmarine officer, 14th Destroyer Flotilla, Imperial War Museum.

30. Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 120.

31. Borghese, Sea Devils, 152.

32. Schergat, interview.

33. Ibid.

34. Borghese, Sea Devils, 153.

35. Ibid., 154.

36. Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 127.

37. Winston Churchill in a secret session of the House of Commons on 23 April 1942.

38. Borghese, Sea Devils, 158.

39. Ibid.

40. Schergat, interview.

41. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 357.

42. Borghese, Sea Devils, 154.

43. Bianchi, letter to author.

44. Risio, I Mezzi d’Assalto, 117. After-action report of Commander J. Borghese.

45. Borghese, Sea Devils, 53.

46. Churchill’s Report to the House of Commons.

47. Borghese, Sea Devils, xx.

48. Schergat, interview.

49. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-05 (Test): Doctrine for Joint Special Operations (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1990), E-5.

50. Borghese, Sea Devils.

51. Borghese, Sea Devils, 155.

52. Ibid., 97.

53. Ibid., 142.

*When the war started the Italian navy recognized the need for more assault swimmers and attempted to recruit nationally ranked athletes from the Italian Swimmers’ League. Unfortunately most of the world-class swimmers had already been conscripted by the army. Consequently, the 1st Light Flotilla bypassed normal procedures and became a joint venture with swimmers from the navy, army, and Alpine Corps.

*Because the manned torpedoes were only pressure tested to thirty meters, the submarine Iride was required to transit at that depth, making the submarine easier to detect from the air.

*Spartaco Schergat was apparently unaware that the British had gathered extensive information on the capabilities of the manned torpedoes. During his interview with the author, Schergat stated that one of the reasons the attack on Alexandria was so easy was that the British had no idea the Italians had such a weapon. The British in fact knew quite a bit about the Italian pigs.

*Most reports indicate that the Scire had planned to come to outcrop level. In his interview with the author, Schergat stated that Borghese had to bring the conning tower above the surface because the hatch normally used by the divers to reach the manned torpedoes was broken.

*The Belloni suit was made of light rubber and according to Schergat frequently broke at the wrists and neck. Schergat confirmed that this is what happened to Durand de la Penne’s dry suit.

*According to Schergat, Martellotta was supposed to hit the tanker amidships where the oil was held. The resulting explosion would rupture the tanker and then the oil could be ignited by incendiary bombs.

*The divers had been given British pounds to use as currency while in Alexandria. Unfortunately for the Italians, the Egyptians were still using the local currency, and as soon as the divers attempted to buy something they were arrested by the police.

*The possibility of using a conventional submarine to penetrate the harbor was remote, particularly in light of the shallow depth of the water inside Alexandria Harbor. Additionally, once inside the harbor the submarine would have had to fire torpedoes to attack its target, thereby immediately condemning itself to death.

*This statement is not intended to deny the need for special operations forces that are flexible enough to respond to a variety of threats. It is obvious, however, that units will perform better when they can focus their attention on one mission area. The need for repetition in the preparation phase will also be reduced if the event is one for which the unit consistently trains.

*The British used both manned torpedoes (chariots) and midget submarines (X-craft). The X-craft had great success against the German battleship Tirpitz in Norway and the Japanese cruiser Takao while she was anchored in the Johore Strait near the Malay peninsula.