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Decima Flottiglia MAS: Strike on Alexandria

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Frogmen training on an SLC. Picture courtesy

Decima Flottiglia MAS.  Perhaps no other Italian military outfit during the Second World War was as respected and feared as this elite group of naval commandos.  During their reign of terror directed at Allied Naval and merchant vessels, Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Light Flotilla), destroyed over 200,000 tons of Allied shipping.  The pinnacle of their success came in December of 1941, with their attack on the heavily defended British port in Alexandria, Egypt.   This mission, carried out by six well trained commandos, would send two British battleships to the harbor bottom and helped temporarily swing the balance of Mediterranean naval power to the side of the Axis.

By late 1941, the Battle for the Mediterranean was for the most part a battle of the convoys.  Axis forces were desperately trying to supply their armies fighting in North Africa; the British in turn were attempting to stop them from doing so.  The only chance the Axis would have for victory in North Africa would be if the ammunition, material, fuel, and men sent from Italy across the Mediterranean reached their ports in Libya and Tunisia in significant numbers.   Standing in the way from accomplishing this task was the formidable power of the British Mediterranean Fleet.    The British maintained two main naval bases in the Mediterranean from which they looked to wield their power and control the shipping lanes.  In the west they were stationed in Gibraltar, and from the eastern end, their harbor in Alexandria.  From Malta in the ‘center’, the RAF unleashed attacks of their own against Axis shipping.

The Axis were faced with both the immense challenge of providing protection for their own supply convoys, and to also mount attacks against British convoys making their own runs to supply their basses.  The navies of Mussolini and Hitler were in a death struggle with the larger British force, and by the last months of ‘41 they needed to inflict serious damage to the Royal Navy in order to secure any chance at ultimate victory.  Over a five week period starting in Mid November they would do just that.

On November 13th, 1941 in the waters east of Gibraltar, the German U-boat U-81 launched a successful torpedo attack on the British Aircraft carrier Ark Royal.  British rescue crews and support ships raced to the aid of the stricken carrier and did their best to keep the Ark Royal afloat, but these efforts of the sailors would be in vain.  The day following the attack, the largest aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean would sink to the bottom of the sea.   Just twelve days later the British would suffer another major blow, further reducing the power of their fleet.  On November 24th, the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Barham, and HMS Valiant along with 8 destroyers, set sail from their base in Alexandria on a mission to block Axis supply routes to Africa.  The following day the convoy was detected and then stalked by German U-boat U-331.  U-331 would score 3 devastating torpedo hits on the Barham from less than 1000 yards moments after she commenced her surprise attack.  The Barham listed badly, and following a huge explosion would sink to the sea bottom taking nearly 900 British sailors to their death with her.  The British Fleet was now reduced to 2 battleships in the theater after these calamitous attacks.   Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander in chief of the British Mediterranean fleet, would order the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant back to the protective harbor in Alexandria until they could rebuild their forces around them.  The Italian navy ( Regia Marina) and in particular Decima Flottiglia MAS, had other ideas however.

The Regia Marina had their eyes on an attack against Alexandria since the war had begun for Italy.  Two previous attempts to send naval commandos to assault the harbor had ended in failure when the submarines transporting the teams had been detected by the British on their journey to Alexandria.  Regia Marina high command would not be deterred from attempting the operation again, the mission was just to important.  In the fall of 1941, RM Cmdr. Ernesto Forza held a high level strategy meeting with several of his top Decima MAS troopers.  He informed the men that he was looking for volunteers for a high profile but dangerous mission and that “return from it is extremely problematical.”  In true Decima MAS tradition everyman present offered their service for the operation.  Placed in charge of the new assault on Alexandria, called Operazione EA3, was Junio Valerio Borghese, the Black Prince himself.     Borghese had recently led the successful commando attacks on the British naval port in Gibraltar, and many felt he was destined for greater things.  After the success of the Gibraltar raids, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander.   Borghese was also appointed to command the sub-surface unit of Decima MAS.  One of the best Italian tacticians of the war, no man was better suited for the mission then Borghese.

The planned attack on the harbor was to be carried out by three two-man assault teams who would utilize one of the most inventive weapons of the Second World War; the siluri a lenta corsa, SLC, or as called by its operators “maiales” (pigs), was a torpedo like craft that was manned by a crew of two.  The SLC was battery-powered and approximately 22 feet long, with a 660 pound warhead located in the bow.  The warhead was detachable by releasing an airscrew that held it in place, and then could be secured to the bottom of the targeted ship by a magnetic clamp, or in the case of a battleship by using a rope run through each of the two bilge-keels located on the underside of the vessel.  The SLC had a top speed of 4.5 knots and a range close to 25 kilometers.   The SLC, often called the Human Torpedo, could submerge to a depth of about 100 feet.  The commandos, who were known as “Frogmen”, donned rubberized suits as well as oxygen tanks to carry out their missions below the surface.

The Frogmen would conduct their specialized training for the attack at their base in La Spezia.  The Decima MAS commandos were in top physical shape, and also highly trained in explosives and small arms.  The target mission date of December 17th was not far off, so the training and study the men put in was intense.  Comprising the three teams were; Lieutenant-Captain  Luigi Durand de la Penne and Leading Seaman Emilio Bianchi operating one SLC.  Capt. Antonio Marceglia and Leading Seaman Spartaco Schergat would make up the second team.  The third team of the assault was made up of Capt. Vincenzo Martellotta and Petty Officer Mario Marino. 

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