December 1942, Operation N.A. 1

The submarine Ambra was supposed to bring a mixed unit near the Algerian port: three SLCs with their crews (6 men) and 10 “Gamma men” (divers saboteurs) of the X MAS (the “Gammas” were composed of elements of both the Navy and the Army, 5 and 5; their commander was the lieutenant of the Naval Arms Corps Agostino Morello); the submarine would release “Gamma” and SLC while resting on the bottom of the sea, while two men from the X MAS would remain on the surface, acting as lookouts.

The submarine Ambra

On December 4th, in the early afternoon, the submarine left La Spezia and three days later arrived off the Algerian coast; however, due to adverse weather and sea conditions, he had to wait until December 11th before he could approach Algiers to begin the final phase of the operation. Navigating submerged to elude the strong vigilance, and with the echo sounder broken, the submarine hit the seabed abruptly at about ninety meters. The boat kept dragging on the sandy bottom until it reached a depth of about 18 meters and then came to a rest.  However, when the two lookouts were sent to the surface, it turned out that the coast was not visible, nor were any ships to be seen.

A ‘SLC’ (slow moving torpedo, also knows as ‘pig’ or ‘chariot’

Moving again and very close to the seabed, stopping from time to time to send lookouts to the surface, the submarine finally found itself inside the bay with 6 merchant ships moored all around. Since they were already behind schedule, the raiders were sent out (first the “Gamma”, between 10.30 and 11 PM, followed by the SLC between 11 PM and 11.20 PM. However, the crews did not act with coordination: only one of the SLCs and five “Gammas” managed to carry out the attack, while the others hurried to try to return to the submarine and one surrendered to the local authorities, thus triggering the alarm. Despite the risk the Ambra remained on the bottom until 2.54 AM, before having to leave without anyone having returned; the raiders had all fallen prisoners.

Commander Mario Arillo

During the departure there was also a collision with a wreck, fortunately without consequences; It was not until 19:45 on December 12th – after being submerged for 36 hours – that the Ambra was able to return to the surface, recharge the batteries and refresh the air supply. At noon on the 15th, the submarine docked at La Spezia. Although less than half of the raiders managed to plant explosive charges, the steamers Ocean Vanquisher (7174 GRT) and Berto (1493 GRT) were sunk, and two other large merchant ships, the Empire Centaur (7041 GRT) and the Armattan (4558 GRT) suffered serious damage. Commander Mario Arillo received the Gold Medal for Military Valor; twelve of the raiders were decorated with the Silver Medal for Military Valor and another with the War Cross for Military Valor.

Alexandretta and Mersin

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.

Luigi Ferraro

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.

Suda Bay

The attack on Suda Bay on the island of Crete was the first of the surface division of the Xa Flottilla MAS and a very successful one. Suda is a naturally protected harbor on the northwest coast of the island. It was chosen by the Xa because of the almost continuous presence of British cruisers and other military ships.

York and Pericles both crippled and beached

The attack was conducted the night of March 25, 1941. The six attack units, some very light and extremely fast boats, were launched from the destroyers Crispi and Sella under the command of Lieutenant Luigi Faggioni (the other men on the mission were: Alessio de Vito, Emilio Barberi, Angelo Cabrini, Tullio Tedeschi and Lino Beccati). After having managed to bypass the harbor water defenses and having avoided searchlights, the units were finally able to reach the inner harbor. Here, the heavy cruiser York, famous for powerful guns and a not-too-graceful silhouette, was the target of the first attack. The British, who wanted to avoid her loss, beached the unit, which was sinking rapidly.

Lieutenant Luigi Faggioni

Nevertheless, the ship was a total loss and also the source of a future controversy between the R.M. and the Luftwaffe over credit for her sinking. The matter was solved by British war records and by the ship’s own war log. The Cruiser Coventry was missed by less than two meters, while the tanker Pericles was sunk and soon followed by a second, smaller tank and a cargo ship. All six daring attackers survived and were caught by the British, but news of the splendid victory soon reached the base at Serchio, thus rejuvenating the Xa fighting spirit.

New York

To the general public, and also to most historians, the activities of the 10th Light Flotilla were limited to the Mediterranean. In fact, in the first few months of the war, the unit focused solely on British targets within the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the audacious but unwise attack against Malta on July 25th, 1941 wiped out not only a great number of skilled and trained officers and ratings, but also most of the command structure of the unit. The responsibility of continuing the activities of the 10th Light Flotilla fell on the commander of one of its two divisions, Commander Junio Valerio Borghese. This officer had already distinguished himself by skillfully delivering human torpedoes to both Gibraltar and Alexandria, and would become the heart and soul of the 10th Light Flotilla and later recount its history in a well-known book published after the war . Unfortunately, upon Italy’s surrender in September 1943, Commander Borghese opted to continue fighting along with the Germans in Northern Italy, evolving the 10th Light Flotilla into an anti-partisan land-based formation. At the end of the conflict, with imprisonment looming despite his Gold Medal for Valor received during the conflict , Borghese confined himself to Spain in a self-imposed exile, which lasted until his death.

A picture of New York on the Brooklyn side dating back to around 1928. The physiological damage caused by this attack would have been much greater than the actual physical one.

The role of Borghese in the 10th Light Flotilla would be an important one. This man was not just a commanding officer, but also a leader. As he would later write, he perfectly understood the value of “ the psychological effect on the Americans, who had not yet undergone any war offensive on their own soil ”. In his view, it was paramount to conduct an attack outside the Mediterranean. The idea was audacious, but realistic. The Germans had concocted similar plans relying on agent saboteurs to infiltrate the United States and damage critical production or manufacturing sites, but failed. These attacks were prevented by the highly developed American information system and by the insular nature of the American continent. The Japanese, well after the attack on Pearl Harbor, sent a submarine to bomb the California coast , causing minimal damage but much turmoil.

The Caproni CB, also produced by the Firm Caproni

The physiological damage caused by this attack would have been much greater than the actual physical one.
Borghese intended to bring war to the American continent by conducting an action that would be demonstrative in nature and which would have limited military value in damage inflicted, but enormous value in terms of psychological effects. The plan, to which today we have only limited documentation, called for the delivery of an insidious weapon off Fort Hamilton to then have this craft navigate upriver toward the Hudson River and deliver explosive charges to some of the merchant ships docked along West Street. Due to the nature of the harbor and the distance of New York from the nearest Axis-occupied port, the use of human torpedoes was not only unsuited, but also impractical. In the Mediterranean, the 10th Light Flotilla had used delivery submarine equipped with three cylindrical containers mounted on deck. Later, the cylinders would become four and would be installed to the side of the hull. The cylinders were used to protect the human torpedoes from the weather, but made navigation harder and, due to their size, increased the profile of the vessel, thus increasing the risk of being spotted. For the attack against New York, the 10th Light Flotilla would have had to employ a different craft, one designed for longer missions, one protecting its crew from the weather, but still one small in size and stealthy. The solution would be found in a warehouse in the military port of La Spezia.

The craft in question, known as a CA, was the invention of the firm Caproni, originally founded by Giovanni Caproni and well-known around the world for the construction of advanced airplanes, winners of many world records. During the crisis of 1935, when Italy was on the brink of war with Great Britain and during the same period when the Italian Navy instituted what would later become the 10th Light Flotilla, his firm was asked to collaborate with the Regia Marina in the construction of new assault weapons. This collaboration between the aeronautic firm and the Navy was unique, but it also allowed for the introduction of new and unique engineering ideas in the relatively rigid field of naval engineering. Caproni sought the collaboration of a trained naval engineer and he selected Vincenzo Goeta, an independent naval consultant with offices in Genoa. In a few months, the Goeta-Caproni project, as it will be later known, was presented to the Italian Ship Design Committee of the Navy, a reputable bureau led by General Umberto Pugliese, an extremely talented individual highly recognized for the invention of an underwater protection system which bears his name. The project presented to the Navy in early 1936, and eventually approved three months later , was encouraging, especially because the ideas proposed by the Caproni firm were exceptionally innovative. The project was given the name “G”, and called for a craft with a crew of two, powered by a diesel engine and capable of launching torpedoes.

Caproni called this craft a “submergible motorboat”, but in reality it was a submarine. In Caproni’s vision, this little craft was the equivalent of a fighter plane; his previous experience in the aeronautic field was an important factor in shaping both the craft and its possible tactical utilization. Unfortunately, the Navy was not quite ready to embrace these new and somewhat radical ideas, but at the same time they were still interested in pursuing “Project G”. As common during the period, the Goeta-Caproni team was assigned an engineer from the Ship Design Committee, Major Spinelli, to begin constructing two prototypes which eventually came to be known as CA 1 and CA 2 . Construction began in earnest at the Caproni factory located in Taliedo, near Milan. This miniscule submarine had a resistant hull with semispherical caps at each end. Ballast tanks, torpedo launchers, and other components were placed externally to the resistant hull. The project called for a crew of two; the commanding officer would sit on a special seat from which he had access to the periscope and the controls, mostly a joystick, just like an airplane, and also navigational instrumentation resembling more a cockpit rather than a control room. The enlisted man would instead crawl near the engine since there was enough room to stand up.

The first prototypes were delivered to the Navy in 1938 in total secrecy. Loaded on a special railcar, the odd-looking crafts were properly disguised and taken to Lake Iseo near Brescia and Bergamo. This is a relatively small lake with a depth of about 750 feet (251 meters) and a perimeter of about 60 kilometers. The lake is shaped like an S and has a relatively large island in the middle. Initial testing confirmed the good quality of the crafts and allowed for the correction of some defects, and the improvement of many components. Naturally, due to the absence of salt, buoyancy in a fresh body of water was different from the ocean, thus testing continued in Venice. At the arsenal of Venice, a military shipyard with a long and lustrous history, three young officers began the official testing. They were Lieutenants Torri, Gatti and Meneghini . Testing confirmed some already known issues, mostly related to the sensitivity of the controls , but the submarines were able to navigate on the surface at a speed of 7 knots, 5 knots while submerged, and repeatedly launched the two 450 mm torpedoes without many inconveniences.

Having completed the tests in Venice, the two submarines were sent to La Spezia, Italy’s largest naval base. Experience acquired during the testing of CA 1 and CA 2 induced the design team to increase displacement of about 4 tons, reaching the 20 ton mark. Meantime, the two prototypes were abandoned and placed in storage, the same storage where they would be found by the 10th Light Flotilla. Having been laid up for over two years, the two submarines were in poor condition. It was decided to send them back to the factory for a complete refurbishing, but also to make some changes. The refurbished CAs were redesigned to better fit the needs of the 10th Light Flotilla, thus the torpedo launchers were removed and replaced with eight 100 Kg explosive charges. These charges would be manually placed under enemy ships by a frogman. The diesel engine was also removed as the boats were expected to operate like a “human torpedo”, thus within the range of the electric motor. Further alterations included the removal of the conning tower and the periscope. With the combustion engine removed, the second crewmember became the operator of the explosive charges, also known as frogmen. The scuba equipment used was the same already employed by the operators of the human torpedo and consisted of a full-body rubber suit and a breathing apparatus fueled by pure compressed oxygen .

At the end of this work, the CA could have been considered a new craft. Range was limited to about 70 miles, underwater speed was increased to 6 knots and maximum depth was tested up to 47 meters: quite an achievement for such a small unit. Further testing brought forth more issues, some quite relevant. The explosive charges had been placed in the cavities left by the removal of the torpedo launcher at the base of the hull, but their position made the release of the charges themselves very difficult. Thus, the two cavities were eliminated and the charges were moved further up almost in line with the small deck. The hydraulic pump, made by the firm Calzoni, was found to be too noisy; this was a problem common to most Italian submarines. Thus, the pump was removed and replaced by one operated manually by one of the two crewmembers. During testing, CA 1 sank to the bottom of Lake Iseo due to a small failure and even if rescued, it would not be ready for action for quite some time. Thus, the 10th Light Flotilla was left with only one craft ready for action: CA 2.

Expecting the refurbishing of CA 1 to happen promptly, Commander Borghese envisioned two attacks to be carried out in the Atlantic; one against the British base of Freetown and one against New York. To deliver the midget submarines to their targets, Borghese needed submarines, but those already assigned to his unit were too small for oceanic navigation. Thus, according to his memoirs, Borghese attempted to obtain German submarines on loan from the Kriesgmarine, but it appears that Admiral Donitz, the commander of the German submarine forces, could not spare any. If a German submarine had been made available, the possibility of completing the attack would have been much greater because the U-Boats were newer, and more reliable and maneuverable than the rapidly aging Italian submarines.

During this period, the Italian Navy was still operating its Atlantic submarine base in Bordeaux and the Italian submarines were well suited for the task due to their large displacement, but were very limited in numbers. The commanding officer of the base was Rear-Admiral Romolo Polacchini, later replaced by Commander Enzo Grossi, famous for having claimed the sinking, later discovered false, of two American battleships. Polacchini, we are told, immediately made one of his boats available to Borghese, while later on, Grossi wholeheartedly provided support and encouragement to the operation. The submarine selected was the Leonardo Da Vinci, an oceanic vessel of the Marconi class commanded by Lieutenant Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia , one of the most talented Italian submarines, whose qualities were certainly appreciated by Commander Borghese, a submariner himself.

The Leonardo da Vinci with the CA seated in the special cradle.

The Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the most active submarines of the Italian fleet. On July 1st, 1942 it returned to base after a successful patrol in which it sank around 20,000 t. of enemy shipping. Upon its arrival in Bordeaux, the boat was sent to the local shipyard to be transformed into a transport submarine for the CA submarines. Under the direction of the chief construction engineer, Major Giulio Feno, the forward deck gun and its base were removed and a cradle created between the resistant hull and the deck superstructure. The midget submarine would rest in this cradle about one fourth below deck and the remaining portion sticking out, but without obstructing the view from the conning tower. Two large claws operated from inside the transport submarine secured the small craft. Although it is not known, it should be assumed that the mother ship was also able to provide the midget submarine with power to recharge or tip off the batteries.

Trials began in September 1942. On the 9th, the Leonardo Da Vinci with its load on deck went out to sea to experiment with the release and recovery of the midget submarine. The same difficult and tedious maneuvers were repeated until the 15th of the same month when the whole process was proven not only doable, but also successful. The Leonardo Da Vinci could have left for New York in a few days, but it was too early. The plan called for action in December, when the daylight is minimal and the darkness of the night gives the operators more time to penetrate the enemy port and place the explosive charges. Also, the Italians had minimal knowledge of the situation in New York and were looking for more intelligence. For reasons unknown to us, the mission against New York was postponed until December 1943 ; it would never take place. Some secondary sources claim that Borghese had decided to wait for the completion of CA 3 and CA 4, two newer and more advanced midget submarines. Meantime, on May 6th, T.V. Gazzana Priaroggia was promoted “for service in war” to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and a few days later, on May 22nd, the Da Vinci launched the last radio signal informing the base that the following day it would begin “hidden” navigation. The boat was expected to arrive in Bordeaux within a week, but it would never arrive. In 1945, the English Admiralty confirmed that on May 23rd 1943 at 11.35 (T.M.G.) the destroyer “Active” and the frigate “Ness ” conducted an attack just off Cape Finestrelle. There were no survivors and the 10th Light Flotilla had lost its transport submarine and the only captain trained to release and retrieve the CA.

The CA2 the way it was found in Bordeaux after the war.
(Photo Rastelli)

A few months later, on September 8th, Italy would sign the armistice with the Allies. Most of the Navy followed the clauses of the armistice, and even if officially open, the base in Bordeaux ceased to exist. The CA remained in Bordeaux under German control and, when the city was evacuated in 1944, it was left behind. In 1945, CA 2 was found in Bordeaux on a flatbed railcar resting on wooden blocks and secured by two chains. The hull of the craft was almost intact, including the propeller, but all the control surfaces had been removed. It is not known when, but the small submarine was scraped. The remaining vessels of the CA class were also lost, some in circumstances still unknown, thus all we have left of their history is a few fading pictures. After the armistice, both the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy became very interested in the 10th Light Flotilla and studied their tactics scrupulously. The legacy of this small group of men lives on in the special forces of most navies.


After the success at Suda Bay, Italy’s 10th Light Flotilla directed its attention on Malta. Failure to capture these islands was undoubtedly the greatest downfall of Italian pre-war planning. Although Malta maintained a strategically unique position in the central Mediterranean, there was no initial Italian plan to occupy the islands. On the other hand, the British were considering surrendering the bastion to avoid undue miseries to its population. By spring 1941, almost one year into the war, the situation had changed. Italian air power had already demonstrated its shortcomings. The British had decided, under Winston Churchill’s pressure, to defend the islands. On the Italian side, Vittorio Mottgatta and Teseo Tesei prepared an enterprising plan of attack designed to cause great destruction to the Grand Harbor of La Valetta, Malta’s principal port.

La Valletta

Commanders Borghese and Giobbe, the heads of the two divisions within the 10th Light Flotilla, opposed any action against the island, deeming it too dangerous. Borghese’s opposition was strong since he understood the true potential of the 10th Light Flotilla and also its weaknesses.

Mario Giobbe

Malta did not have in harbor any of the capital ships the 10th Light Flotilla was after, nor did it have any target of great military importance. Furthermore, the island was highly defended and, unknown to the Italians, protected by a radar installation since the beginning of the war. This radar set was capable of detecting incoming crafts several miles from the coast.

Vittorio Mottagatta

Mottagatta’s and Tesei’s plan was audacious: Tesei with the human torpedo would destroy the outer defenses of the harbor, thus allowing for Mottagatta’s motor boats to enter the inner harbor. The attack would be proceeded by heavy bombardment from the Regia Aeronautica.

Teseo Tesei

The much promised massive aerial bombardment turned out to be a solitary attack made by an Italian light bomber. The British detected the incoming vessels early on and held their fire until they were able to effectively annihilate all fast motor boats. Tesei, despite having sensed defeat, continued the attack, thus perishing in a suicide attempt to destroy the outer defenses. The blast from the human torpedoes’ warhead was so powerful that one of the spans of the bridge of S. Anselmo collapsed, thus completely preventing the entrance to the harbor of the few remaining motor boats.


Tesei would die in what many described as a heroic waste of life. The 10th Light Flotilla had received a terrible blow; Giobbe, Mottagatta, Falcomata, and Tesei had died. As a result of the crushing defeat and with the intention of quickly re-establishing the 10th Light Flotilla as a fighting force, Supermarina named Borghese as the interim commander. A new and much more successful period of the history of the unit had begun.


Although Alexandria was to produce the most famous success for the 10th Light Flotilla, the several attacks against the British bastion of Gibraltar, known as “The Rock”, were the most successful ones conducted by the unit. On September 24th, 1940, in the same period when the British destroyer Stuart sank the Submarine Gondar (on its way to Alexandria) in the Gulf of Bomba, the Submarine Scirè left La Spezia for a parallel mission against Gibraltar.


This mission planned to violate the British base of Gibraltar utilizing a few human torpedoes, the so-called “maiali” (Italian for pigs). The four crews chosen were: Lt. Teseo Tesei and P.O. diver Alcide Pedretti, Lt. Gino Birindelli and P.O. diver Damos Paccagnini, Sub-Lt. Duran de la Penne and P.O. diver Emilio Bianchi, with Sub-lt. Giangastone Bertozzi and P.O. diver Azio Lazzari in reserve. The mission was under the overall command of the Scirè’s commander, Captain Junio Valerio Borghese.

View of Gibraltar from Algeciras

This was the first war mission of the Scirè under Borghese and, as he narrates in his book “Sea Devils”, he acquainted himself quite well with the crew. Lt. Antonio Usano, from Naples, was the second in command, while Lt. Remigio Benini was the navigation officer. Also aboard were midshipman Armand Alcere, the torpedo officer from Liguria, and Lt. Bonzi, later replaced by Naval Engineer Lt. Antonio Tajer, the chief engineer.

Villa Carmela

Borghese also credits Ravera, the chief mechanic, Rogetti the chief electrician and Farina, the chief gunner. Most of this crew would be lost, several months later, with the sinking of the Scirè off the Israeli cost when Borghese was no longer in command. On September 29th, at about 50 miles from the target, Supermarina recalled the Scirè due to lack of suitable targets. The submarine arrived at La Maddalena, in Sardinia, on the 3rd of October.

The submarine Scire


On October 21st, the Scirè left La Spezia for a second attempt against Gibraltar. On the 27th, the submarine reached the strait of Gibraltar, where Borghese twice attempted an approach while surfaced, and twice British escorts chased him off. Finally, on the 29th, the Scirè broke through, and taking advantage of the strong current, entered the Bay of Algeciras. On the 30th, the Scirè came to rest at a depth of about 45 feet near the estuary of the river Guadarranque. Six members of the 10th Light Flotilla manned the three “pigs” and left the submarine, which safely returned to base on the 3rd of November.

The first team, De la Penne – Bianchi, was detected by defense vessels and bombed. The human torpedo failed, sinking quickly to the bottom, while the two crewmembers were able to swim back to Algeciras where Italian agents picked them up. Soon after, they were flown back to Italy. The second team, Tesei – Pedretti, despite some minor problems with the “pig”, made it to the North Mole. Here, problems with the breathing apparatuses forced the abandonment of the mission. Like the first team, they made it safely to Spain and then back to La Spezia. The third team, Birindelli – Paccagnini, experienced the same technical problems with both the torpedo and the breathing equipment. The crew had almost reached the battleship Barham when the “pig” lost power. Birindelli attempted to drag the heavy explosive near the target, but exhausted, he had to abandon the mission. After an adventurous escape attempt, the officer was finally captured, joining his diver who had been captured in the harbor. What followed for the two men was three years of hard imprisonment.

The mission had been a failure, but it had planted the seed for future successes. Much had been learned, especially regarding the behavior of the equipment and its technical shortcomings. Borghese and Birindelli were awarded the Gold Medal (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross), while the other frogmen received the Silver Medal.


The third attempt to penetrate Gibraltar witnessed an important change in strategy. Prior missions called for the operators to travel with the submarine from La Spezia to the target. These few days at sea, in very cramped conditions and under continuous threat of attacks, caused severe physical repercussions. Thanks to an elaborate intelligence network, the Regia Marina was able to organize a pickup point in the port of Cadiz. The assault teams were sent ahead to Cadiz under false pretenses where they would board the 6,000-ton Fulgor, an Italian tanker interned at the beginning of the war.

On the 23rd of May, the Scirè moored alongside the tanker and boarded the four teams; Lt. Decio Catalono and P.O. diver Giannoni, Lt. Amedeo Vesco and P.O. diver Toschi, Sub. Lt. Licio Visentini and diver P.O. Magr and the reserves, Lt. Antonio Marceglia and diver P.O. Schergat. This time, the company surgeon, Bruno Falcomatà, joined the mission to attend to the crew.

On the 25th, after several crash dives to avoid detection, the Scirè reached Algeciras, but it did not enter the bay until the following day. Franchi was sick and he was replaced. The crews were sent off as usual and the Scirè returned to base in La Spezia on the 31st. Once again, the mission was hampered by technical mishaps. Ultimately, none of the targets was reached, but the crew reached the safety of Spanish territory. All crew members received the Silver Medal and more invaluable experience was acquired.


After the devastating disaster at Malta, Borghese was appointed as the interim commander of the 10th Light Flotilla. Once more, the Scirè was called upon to deliver men and materiel for an attack against Gibraltar; this time it would be a successful one. The operational plan was similar to the one used during the previous mission. The submarine was to pick up the operators from the Fulgor in Cadiz. The teams were almost the same as GB3; Lt. Catalano with diver Giuseppe Giannoni, Lt. Amedeo Vasco with diver Antonio Zozzoli, Lt. Visentini with diver Giovanni Magro and Eng. Captain Antonio Merceglia with diver Spartaco Schergat in reserve. This time, the surgeon was sub. Lt. Giorgio Spaccarelli.

Early on the morning of the 20th, the crews left the Scirè, which returned to La Spezia on the 25th. The first team, Vesco – Zozzoli, was able to attach their warhead to the 2,444-ton Fiona Shell which, after the explosion, split in half and sank. The second team, Catalano – Giovannoni, reached a cargo and attached the warhead to then realize that the vessel was actually an interned Italian ship, the Pollenzo. The charge was removed and used to sink the 10,900-ton armored motorship Durham, which promptly sank. The third team, Visintini – Magro, failed to enter the harbor due to continuous surveillance. This was a problem already experienced by the two other teams. Nevertheless, in the outer harbor they were able to mine and sink the naval tanker Denby Dale, which weighed 15,893 tons. A small tanker moored alongside went down as well.

Licio Visintini

Finally, after so many disappointments, 30,000 tons of enemy shipping had been sunk. The human torpedoes had proven their worth, despite the fact that a newer model, also produced by the “Officine San Bartolomeo” had already replaced the one used during this mission. Borghese, recently promoted, was elevated to the rank of Captain, while the assault teams, all of whom reached the safety of Spain, were awarded the Silver Medal. The entire crew of the Scirè was also decorated and received special treatment, similar to that received by the crew members of the German U-Boot, which was soon to be extended to the entire submarine fleet. Emotions ran high. The King himself wanted to meet the now famous prince Borghese. After an audience in Rome, Victor Emanuel, whose countryside estate bordered the 10th Light Flotilla base near the estuary of the river Serchio, paid a private visit to the unit at the Tuscan base. Borghese later wrote: “This was the last time I saw the King”.


While the 10th Light Flotilla was investigating new tactics, an Italian technician, Antonio Ramognino, was sent to Spain to survey the Bay of Algeciras. Taking advantage of the fact that his wife, Signora Conchita, was a Spaniard, the Ramognino rented a small house near the Maiorga Point overlooking the bay and Gibraltar. Under the false pretense of Conchita’s poor health, the couple settled in the house and started what appeared to be a very quite life. The house, which came to be known as Villa Carmela, quickly became the secret operational base of many attacks against the Rock.

In July 1942 several swimmers, lead by the former champion yachtsman Agostino Straulino, were smuggled into Spain. The group of 12 men included: Sub-Lieutenant Giorgio Baucer, petty officers Carlo Da Valle, Giovanni Luccheti, Giuseppe Feroldi, Vago Giari, Bruno di Lorenzo, Alfredo Schiavoni, Alessandro Bianchini, Evideo Boscolo, Rodolfo Lugano and Carlo Bucovaz.

By several means, the group reached Cadiz and boarded the Fulgor. From here, on the 11th and 12th the group was transferred to the Olterra in Algeciras. On the night of the 13th-14th the action began: the group left Villa Carmela protected by darkness, reached the nearby beach and began the long swim toward Gibraltar. They were carrying limpet mines, which would be attached to the hull of ships moored in the outer harbor.

The Olterra

On the way back, seven of the swimmers were arrested by carabineros once they reached the shore, but later released to the Italian consul in Algeciras, Signor Bordigioni. The remaining swimmer, one way or another, made it all the way back to Villa Carmela and from there to the Fulgor to then be repatriated. The result was good; the 1,578-ton Meta, the 1,494-ton Shuma, the 2,497-ton Snipe, and the 3,899-ton Baron Douglas were sunk for a total of 9,468 tons. All the swimmers were awarded the Silver Medal for gallantry.

The secret machine shop on the Olterra


The success of the previous mission brought about a new attempt. The dismay caused by the sinking of so many ships had generated much speculation amongst the British authorities. This time, the number of swimmers was much smaller. On the night of September 15th, Straulino, Di Lorenzo and Giari defied the increased British watch and sunk the 1,787-ton Raven’s Point. The operation was not a full success and demonstrated that surveillance in the harbor had been dramatically improved.


While swimmer operations were being conducted, Visintini continued working on the Olterra on a plan to convert the interned ship into a secret base. An underwater chamber was carved out of the hull of the ship, thus allowing for the unnoticed release and recovery of human torpedoes. The weapons, weighing more than two tons, were disassembled in smaller parts and shipped from La Spezia to Algeciras as repair components for the Olterra. The first assault would be led by Visentini himself who had Giovanni Magro as his second, and by Sub-Lieutenant Vittorio Sella, Sargent Salvatore Leone, Midshipman Girolamo Manisco and P.O. Dino Varini.

Salvatore Leone

On December 7th, Visintini led a three-team assault into Gibraltar. The human torpedoes left the hull of the Olterra at a one-hour interval from each other. The British defenses had been stiffened and underwater bombs were dropped all over the bay at regular intervals. Visintini and Magro could not reach their target and perished, probably hit by the explosion of a depth charge. Manisco and Varini were the object of a long pursuit which ended with the sinking of their craft. The two found refuge aboard an American cargo ship where they were warmly welcomed by a crew of mostly Italian-Americans. Cella and Leone, despite the general alarm and a continued pursue by British patrol boats, headed back to the Olterra where Cella discovered that his companion Leone had disappeared; he had perished.

Vittorio Cella

The mission was a debacle; three had died, two were prisoners and only one had made it back. The only redeeming news was the fact that the British, in a communiqué dated December 8th, thought that the men had arrived aboard the submarine Ambra: the secret of the Olterra had not been revealed. The bodies of Visintini and Magro were later found by the British and buried at sea with military honors. Visintini was awarded the Gold Medal, an honor which he shares with his brother, an aviator, who also died in combat.

Giovanni Magro


On May 1st 1943, Commander Borghese replaced Commander Forza at the helm of the 10th Light Flotilla. Italy’s war fortunes were definitely on the decline: East Africa was lost and so was North Africa. The Regia Marina was on the defensive and the only unit truly on the attack was the 10th Light Flotilla.

In Algeciras, after the loss of Visintini’s group, the so-called “Great Bear” unit was being rebuilt. Lieutenant-Commander Ernesto Notari took over command and was joined by P.O Diver Ario Lazzari, Lieutenant Vittorio Cella and P.O. Diver Eusebio Montalenti. Soon after the arrival of the new crews, equipment was shipped from Italy using the same expedient of camouflaging the dissembled pigs as spare parts for the Olterra. The tragic experience of December 8th had taught the 10th not to attempt another break into the inner harbor, but to focus on the less protected outer one.

The secret machine shop on the Olterra

The night of May 7th 1943, in the midst of a severe storm and taking advantage of the lunar phase, the three teams (Notari, Todini, Cella) took to the sea, at one-hour intervals from each other, and mastered their human torpedoes across the bay. They mined several ships using extra warheads for the first time carried by the pigs. They all managed to return to the ship from which they could easily watch the fruits of their labor. The 7,000-ton Pat Harrison, the 7,500-ton Marhsud and the 4,875-ton Camerata blew up and sank. Once again Gibraltar was at the mercy of the 10th Light Flotilla.


On the night of August 3rd 1943, the “Great Bear” Flotilla, still under the able command of Notari and mostly comprised of the same crews, left the Olterra for a new mission. Notari, whose second was a lesser trained diver by the name of Giannoli, experienced technical difficulties with his torpedo. The pig suddenly dived and, when he thought that all was lost, reemerged in an uncontrollable upright burst. In the process, the two crew members separated with Notari able to make it back to the Olterra and Giannoli, after a two-hour wait, forced to surrender.

One of the limpet mines used the swimmers

A British search squad was immediately dispatched to the U.S. ship near which Giannoli had been captured, but they were too late and could only witness a devastating explosion which sank the 7,176-ton Harrison Gray Otis. Cella was able to mine and sink the 10,000-ton Norvegian tanker Thorshoud, while the third team sank the 6,000-ton British ship Stanbridge.


The Olterra, still undetected by the British, was going to be part of a combined operation which contemplated a simultaneous attack by MTRs and human torpedoes when, on September 8th 1943, Italy surrendered. The 4,995-ton ship had been a real success story. Surprised by the declaration of war on June 10th 1940, it had been sunk by its crew in shallow waters.

It was later identified by the 10th as a possible secret base. In 1942, with the excuse of refitting the ship for sale to a Spanish shipowner, the vessel was re-floated and brought back to Algeciras for refitting. Here, under the tightest secrecy, personnel from Italy built an internal flooded pool, which was connected to the sea. They also built a complete shop capable of assembling and maintaining the human torpedoes.


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.

R.Smg Iride

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.