The attacks against Alexandretta (Iskenderun) and Mersin (Icel) are, in several aspects, unique and typify all the characteristics of the “poor man’s” war conducted so brilliantly by the Xa Flotilla MAS. It required a little dose of ingenuity, small weapons and courage.
Based on information received from Turkey, it was revealed that this neutral country was involved in intense trafficking of the militarily valuable chromium with England. It was therefore decided to interfere with this traffic utilizing, as a weapon, a swimmer, also known as a “uomo gamma”. Considering the geography of Alexandretta, where larger steamers are anchored two or three thousand meters from the shore, it was thought that a swimmer could easily transport “explosive limpets” to the waiting ships.
The swimmer selected for this operation was sub lieutenant Luigi Ferraro, an officer of the coastal militia (Milmart)(1) from Tripoli and formerly a student of the Physical Culture Academy. Without much fanfare, Ferraro was sent across Europe to Turkey, furnished with false diplomatic credentials and a few suitcases full of mines, as an employee of the Italian consulate in Alexandretta.
The Italian consul, Marques Ignazio di Sanfelice, was not aware of the operation but Ferraro obtained all the necessary logistical support from a consulate employee, Giovanni Roccardi, who was in reality a lieutenant of the naval secret service. After his arrival in June, Ferraro settled into a quiet life, even convincing most of the local foreign consulate personnel of being unable to swim.
The night of June 30th, the quiet life of this mostly Arab town of 12,000 suddenly changed. After having walked down to the beach accompanied by Roccardi, Ferraro put on his rubber suit, fins, mask and the breathing apparatus. He swam about 2,300 meters to the Greek steam ship Orion (2) (weighing 4,798 tons), which was in the process of being loaded with chromium, and mined her. The limpet mines (bauletto esplosivo) (3) were designed to be activated by the movement of the ship. A week later, when the ship was fully loaded and she was leaving the Gulf of Alexandretta, an explosion thought to be from a torpedo sank it.
After having received information that the 4,907-ton ship Kaituna was in Mersin, Roccardi and Ferraro, unnoticed, left on the 9th of July for the not too distant port. That night, after a swim in the Mersin waters, they returned to Alexandretta. The Kaituna (4) left port on the 19th and the explosion of one of the two mines placed by the “gamma” seriously damaged her. The British took the ship to the nearby island of Cyprus and beached her. Here they found one of the two mines unexploded, but it was too late.
Back in Alexandretta, the 5,000-ton Sicilian Prince was saved by an underwater inspection, as it was the 5,274-ton Norwegian motor vessel Fernplant (5). Having expended all the mines, Ferraro conveniently contracted malaria and was returned to Italy. He was credited with the sinking of several thousand tons of enemy shipping.
The tonnage of the ships reported by Junio Valerio Borghese in his book “Sea Devils” does not match the one provided by the Lloyds of London and listed in Roger Jordan’s “The World’s Merchant Fleet – 1939”. It must also be noted that none of the ships mentioned by Borghese are listed as lost and therefore it is difficult to assess if they were simply damaged or their loss was not reported.
1) Milizia Marittima
2) Built in 1909 by C. Connel & Co. Ltd, this ship was previously named Glenshiel (1922) and Highland Prince (1936). It belonged to the Greek shipping company Polychronis Lyras. The dead weight was 7,727 tons.
3) This spherical mine contained 12 Kg. of the explosive “nepulit” and it was ignited by the motion of the ship which, at a speed over 5 knots, would cause a small propeller to turn, release the safety pin and trigger the mine.
4) The Kaituna, built in 1938 by Eriksberg Mekaniske in Ghothenburg Sweden, had a dead weight of 9,165 tons. It belonged to the New Zealand Shipping Company.
5) Built in 1939 by B&W, had a dead weight of 8,000 tons. In his book “Sea Devils” Commander Borghese wrongly claims the sinking of this vessel.