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Decima Flottiglia MAS: Strike on Alexandria

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Artist rendition of SLC attack. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

The last team, comprised of Martellotta and Marino, arrived in the area of the harbor that the British aircraft carrier was to be anchored.  Unfortunately for the commandos, the ship had departed for action in the Pacific just the day before.  The Frogmen had been forced to change their target, and made their way over to the 7750 ton tanker Sagona.  The team moved fast; the hours of training paying off, and they secured the explosive to the stern of the ship.  As the commandos made their way to land to attempt their escape, they were spotted and then apprehended by harbor security.  Although two of the three teams had been captured, all of the explosives had been set and armed.  As the fuses moved closer to detonation, the reach and striking ability of Decima MAS was about to be show-cased for the entire world.

Aboard the Valiant, De la Penne and Biachi were interrogated several times during the night.  Neither one divulged any information on the specifics of their assignment to the British officers who interrogated them.  Before he had departed on the mission, De la Penne had written three letters to his mother, the appropriate one to be sent by the Regia Marina to her depending on the outcome of the assault.  One he had prepared in case of a fully successful mission, including an escape and return trip back to Italy;  another had been crafted if captured; and the last was to be sent in the event of his death.  De la Penne began to believe at the time that the latter would describe his ultimate fate.  After the War he reflected back on those anxious hours waiting for the explosives to detonate; “It was not easy to control myself in those circumstances, and decide whether or not to let myself be destroyed by my own charge.  But I held out, especially because I wanted to show the English sailors that Italian sailors were as good as they were”.

It was approaching six am, about 20 minutes until the charge was to detonate.  De la Penne called out to his guard and demanded to see the British Commander.  He was escorted to meet with him, and De la Penne thus informed him that the ship would explode shortly, and that he should evacuate his crew for their safety.  De la Penne still refused to reveal that exact location of the explosive for fear that the Valiant could be moved away from it.  De la Penne was taken back to his cell and locked in.  His British guards were no longer standing watch below deck with him.

The seconds were counted down by De la Penne in his head, and almost precisely on time the Valiant shook and rocked as the charge below her detonated with an awesome display of force.  Sea water poured into the lower compartments as a portion of the superstructure had been cracked open.    De la Penne was tossed about and temporally blacked out from the concussion.  He regained consciousness as the water poured into his cell.  The door to his room had been blown open, and exiting he made his way up through the ship.  British sailors rushed by him in the passageways as confusion ran through the ship.  Finally re-collected by security, De la Penne was once again escorted up to see the Commander.  At almost the precise moment that he was brought up to the bridge, the Queen Elizabeth, which was anchored within sight of the Valiant, was struck by a powerful explosion;  the charges attached to her underside had also worked perfectly.

The explosion beneath the Queen Elizabeth sent debris and oil flying high into the early morning sky.  The lights aboard the ship flickered on and off, and sailors in the lower compartments scrambled topside to avoid the incoming water.  A few moments after the explosion on the Queen Elizabeth, the oil tanker Sagona jerked violently up and then back down in the water as it also has now fallen victim to the Frogmen and their charges.  The British destroyer Jervis Bay had been positioned next to the Sagona taking on fuel, and she also sustained heavy damage in the blast.

The mighty warships, each with holes blown into their hulls, slowly started their decent down into the water.  There was nothing that the British fire control teams could do to stop them from sinking; the damage was just too extensive.  The ships, however, were spared a watery grave.  Both would sink to the bottom of the harbor, but due to the shallowness of the port neither was completely submerged.  The ships settled on an even keel, and their decks remained above the waterline.  British naval command would try and fool the Italians in the days and weeks that followed by attempting to give the appearance that their commando raid was a failure.  The ships would conduct business as usual above deck, receiving visitors and even hosting a band for a holiday concert.  The entire time these charades were being perpetrated, repair crews worked below the waterline both inside and outside the crippled ships trying to repair the massive damage.   Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham would say of the attack, We are having shock aftershock out here. The damage to the battleships at this time is a disaster … One cannot but admire the cold-blooded bravery and enterprise of these Italians.”

The Queen Elizabeth, the ship that the German Navy was forced to surrender on at the conclusion of World War One, was knocked out of the war for eighteen months as it went under extensive repairs.  The Valiant would be forced to miss significant time as well, as she was removed from operations for a year while being patched up.  The Sagona would be disabled for months, and the Jervis Bay would spend weeks in the docks for her repairs.  As for the Frogmen themselves, all six would spend the duration of the war in British custody; Marceglia and Schergat were captured in Egypt by security forces and never made the rendezvous with the escape sub.  The courage and heart these men had shown has lived on forever as an example of what can be done by a small group of determined warriors.

This Decima Flottiglia MAS strike on Alexandria, along with the success of the two German U-boat attacks, would open a window of opportunity for the Axis in their efforts to support the war in North Africa.  The increase in supplies received by Erwin Rommel and his forces would help them gain control in the back and forth battle for the desert.  There were some, including Borghese, that felt this opportunity could have been exploited to a greater extent had the Germans increased the oil allotment they were rationing to the Italian Navy and Air Force.  Either way, Decima MAS solidified its reputation as the premier naval Special Forces unit in the world at that time.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would say in admiration of the strike that it showed ”an unusual example of courage and ability”.

Through careful planning, training, courage, and a touch of luck, Decima Flottiglia MAS helped turn the tide, even if only temporarily, for an entire theater of war.  The increase in fear and nervousness they brought to Allied sailors after the attack was palpable.  Admiral Cunningham would say in exasperation “Everyone has the jitters, seeing objects swimming about at night, and hearing movements on ships’ bottoms. It must stop!”  In Allied harbors across the Mediterranean many a sailor suffered through many a restless night.  You never knew when and where Decima MAS would strike again.

References:
Frogmen’s First Battles:   William Schofield
Secret Agents, Spies, and Saboteurs:   Janusz Piekalkiewicz
Underwater Warriors:   Paul Kemp
Wikipedia Articles

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