The first attack on the British naval stronghold of Alexandria was planned for August 25-26, 1940 with the support of the submarine IRIDE by five attack teams riding S.L.C.s, Birindelli-Paccagnini, Franzini-Lazzaroni, Tesei-Pedretti, Toschi-Lazzari, with tlieutenant Durand De la Penne in riserve.
The IRIDE left La Spezia on August 12 for the Gulf of Bomba (100 km west of Tobruk) where it rendezvoused with the torpedo boat CALIPSO which was carrying the crews and the S.L.C. and all the needed material. In harbor was also present the support ship MONTE GARGANO.
Unfortunately (for the Italians), in the afternoon of August 21st the ships were flown over by low-flying British aircrafts returning from a raid against targets not to far from the harbor. The unusual presence of vessels in waters usually empty was communicated to the British command which, in the early morning of the 22nd, completed a more accurate aerial surveillance. Later, it ordered an attack by three Swordfish torpedo planes from the aircraft carrier EAGLE.
The Italian ships were taken by full surprise. One of the Swordfish closed up to 200 meters from the IRIDE and dropped a torpedo from no more than 10 meters. The submarine, hit, sank in a few minutes to a depth of 20 meters. The S.L.C. crews, all trained divers, though without their breathing apparatuses which were inside the submarine, gave their best to save the trapped crewmembers trapped in the hull. Thus failed the first attempt against Alexandria.
A second attempt was made the 29th of September in conjunction with a similar attack on Gibraltar. The submarine Gondar was to carry the crews just off the entrance to the harbor of Alexandria. There, after having received instructions to abort mission due to the absence of capital ships in port, the submarine was detected by British surveillance. After many hours of depth charge bombardments, and with damages making her resurfacing very difficult, the Gondar made one last attempt to reach the surface where it was scuttled by her crew. The crew, including Elios Toschi, were taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. The British had been warned; such was the thinking of Commander Valerio Berghese, in charge of the also botched Gibraltar mission. An important question arose: were the British aware of the attacks? Had they received intelligence to that effect? Alberton Santoni’s “Il vero Traditore. A book about ULTRA does not say.
The Gondar in La Spezia
A new attempt, a very successful one indeed, was made the night of 18th December 1941, when three two-man human torpedoes penetrated the defenses of the harbor at Alexandria and deposited their delayed-action charges under the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant and the tanker Sagona. The submarine Scirè, commanded by Lieutenant Borghese, deposited the attack vessels within a few yards of the designated point and safely returned to La Spezia. The three attack units, taking advantage of the temporary opening of the outer defenses to the harbor, entered the highly protected harbor and directed their weapons toward the designated targets. Since the expected aircraft carrier Eagle was no longer in the harbor, the third team placed its charge under a large tanker instead.
HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth
Despite having been captured and jailed in the same ship they had just mined, Lieutenant De La Penne and diver Bianchi refused to provide any information of military value. Only a few minutes before the weapon went off, Lieutenant De La Penne asked the commanding officer of the Valiant to save his crew. This was done, but De La Penne was returned to his jailed were escaped just after the terrifying explosion.
At 06.00 hours of the following morning, the first charge detonated under the tanker Sagona and badly damaged both the tanker and the destroyer Jervis, which was moored alongside for refueling. The charge under Valiant detonated at 06.20, and the one under the Queen Elizabeth at 6:24. The depth of water was fifteen to fifty feet and the charges weighed about 300 kilograms. All crew members were taken prisoners, some a few days after the attack, and were confined to a prisoner of war camp for the rest of the conflict. Their action, undoubtedly, has transcended history and become a legend.
Valiant’s charge exploded under the port bulge, abreast ‘A’ turret, and holed and forced upwards the lower bulge over an area of sixty feet by thirty feet. Internal damage extended from the midline to the lower bulge compartments and the inner bottom, lower bulge, ‘A’ shell room and magazine, and the adjacent compartment up to lower deck level immediately flooded. The main and auxiliary machinery was undamaged, but the revolving trunk of ‘A’ turret was distorted, and some minor shock damage was done to electrical equipment. The ship had a trim by the bow, but could have proceeded to sea in an emergency. Temporary repairs were made at Alexandria, and eventually she sailed for Durban where permanent repairs were carried out between 15th April and 7th July 1942.
The port of Alexandria (inner harbor)
The charge below Queen Elizabeth detonated under ‘B’ boiler room and blew in the double bottom structure in this area, and, to a lesser extent under ‘A’ and ‘X’ boiler rooms, upwards into the ship. Damage to the ship’s bottom covered an area of one hundred and ninety feet by sixty feet and included both the port and starboard bulges. ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘X’ boiler rooms, and the forward 4.5inch magazines flooded immediately, and ‘Y’ boiler room and several other compartments in the vicinity, flooded slowly up to main deck level. The boilers, and the auxiliary machinery, together with its electrical equipment were severely damaged by the explosion and subsequent flooding. The armament was undamaged. But all hydraulic power was lost, and the guns of the main and secondary batteries could have been used only at greatly reduced efficiency. The ship sank to the harbor bottom, but was raised and temporary repairs were carried out in the floating dock at Alexandria. She subsequently proceeded to the USA, where permanent repairs were carried out, between 6th September 1942 and 1st June 1943, at the Norfolk navy yard, Virginia. Queen Elizabeth was out of action for a total of seventeen and a half months.