The Raid on Alexandria by Italian Navy divers using manned torpedoes to disabled two Royal Navy battleships

The Raid on Alexandria by Italian Navy divers using manned torpedoes to disabled two Royal Navy battleships

On 19 December in 1941, limpet mines placed by Italian divers sink the HMS Valiant (1914) and HMS Queen Elizabeth (1913) in Alexandria harbour.

The Raid on Alexandria was carried out on 19 December 1941 by Italian Navy divers, members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, who attacked and disabled two Royal Navy battleships in the harbour of Alexandria, Egypt, using manned torpedoes.

On 3 December, the submarine Scirè of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) left the naval base of La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes, called maiali (pigs) by the Italians. At the island of Leros in the Aegean Sea, the submarine secretly picked up six crewmen for them: Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi (maiale nº 221), Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino (maiale nº 222), and Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat (maiale nº 223).

On 19 December, Scirè—at a depth of 15 m (49 ft)—released the manned torpedoes 1.3 mi (1.1 nmi; 2.1 km) from Alexandria commercial harbour and they entered the naval base when the British opened their defenses to let three of their destroyers pass. There were many difficulties for de la Penne and his crewmate Emilio Bianchi. First, the engine of the torpedo stopped and the two frogmen had to manually push it; then Bianchi had to surface due to problems with the oxygen provider, so that de la Penne had to push the Maiale alone to where HMS Valiant lay. There he successfully placed the limpet mine, just under the hull of the battleship. However, as they both had to surface, and as Bianchi was hurt, they were discovered and captured.

The Raid on Alexandria by Italian Navy divers using manned torpedoes to disabled two Royal Navy battleships

Questioned, both of them kept silent, and they were confined in a compartment aboard Valiant, under the sea level, and coincidentally just over the place where the mine had been placed. Fifteen minutes before the explosion, de la Penne asked to meet with Valiant’s captain Charles Morgan and then told him of the imminent explosion but refused to give further information, so that he was returned to the compartment. Fortunately for the Italians, when the mine exploded just before them, neither he nor Bianchi was severely injured by the blast, while de la Penne only received a minor injury to the head by a ship chain.

Meanwhile, Marceglia and Schergat had attached their device five feet beneath the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth ‘s keel as scheduled. They successfully left the harbour area at 4:30 am and slipped through Alexandria posing as French sailors. They were captured two days later at Rosetta by the Egyptian police while awaiting rescue by the Scirè and handed over to the British. Martellota and Marino searched in vain for an aircraft carrier purportedly moored at Alexandria, but after sometime, they decided to attack a large tanker, the 7554 gross register ton Norwegian Sagona. Marino fixed the mine under the tanker’s stern at 2:55 am. Both drivers managed to land unmolested but were eventually arrested at an Egyptian checkpoint.

In the end all the divers were made prisoners, but not before their mines exploded, severely damaging both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant, disabling them for nine months and six months respectively. The Sagona lost her stern section and the destroyer HMS Jervis, one of four alongside her refuelling, was badly damaged. Although the two capital ships sank only in a few feet of water and were eventually raised, they were out of action for over one year.

The Raid on Alexandria by Italian Navy divers using manned torpedoes to disabled two Royal Navy battleships

This represented a dramatic change of fortunes against the Allies from the strategic point of view during the next six months. The Italian fleet had temporarily wrested naval supremacy in the east-central Mediterranean from the Royal Navy.

Valiant was towed to Admiralty Floating Dock 5 on the 21st for temporary repairs and was under repair at Alexandria until April 1942 when she sailed to Durban. By August she was operating with Force B off Africa in exercises for the defence of East Africa and operations against Madagascar. Queen Elizabeth was in drydock at Alexandria for temporary repairs until late June when she sailed for the United States for refit and repairs, which ended the following June. The refit was completed in Britain. Jervis was repaired and operational again by the end of January.

 

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