Interview with Emilio Bianchi

Walking into Emilio Bianchi’s home I was excited by the thought of this man, one of the greatest heroes of Italian naval history. I was impressed by his modesty; several times during the interview he spoke of drills and dives as if anyone could do it. I was also touched by his dedication to country and navy.

Mr. Bianchi, how was your training structures?

Training was quite hard, actually very hard. One needs only to consider that in the middle of winter we would dive at 9:00 PM and spend the whole night drilling and diving with our “pigs”. Training was very challenging and exhausting, and only our enthusiasm allowed us to carry on.

Initial training was conducted at Bocca del Serchio (the secret base of the Xa MAS) where we would learn how to govern the assault vehicle, get familiar with it and learn attack techniques. After Italy’s entry into the war, when the date for an attack was becoming closer, we would attack the Italian naval base in La Spezia. We could not alert the sentries of our operation, so the attack was carried out in complete secret and with the risk of getting shot by our own soldiers.

We would leave from the Island of Tino. We had to overcome the double defense lines near Punta Santa Maria, near the entrance to the military port, and then pass two more defense lines near the ship we were attacking. The most difficult aspect was the fact that we had to operate at a depth of 45 feet in a very dark night, and therefore we were practically blind and had to be in perfect sync with our teammate.

To bypass the defenses, we had special tools which would allow us to break the net without too much effort (this was required by the gas combination used by the divers, which did not allow for strenuous activities). We used something like Jaws of Life and pneumatic jacks. Once the charge was attached to the keel of the “friendly” ship, the drill was not quite over. Due to the secrecy of our activities, we had to go back simulating and escape from the base.

So, during your drill you endured the same risks you had in Alexandria?
I would say that the risks during training were greater, mostly because during these drills we simulated circumstances which did not happen once in Alexandria. In Alexandria, thanks to our secret service and scouts, we knew perfectly where the battleships were and how to operate. We just had to repeat what we had done during our drills.
What is the greatest danger you have been in?

The greatest danger took place during the second mission against Gibraltar. After some delays, we were able to reach the military port where some British boats were dropping depth charges all around, but without giving us too much trouble. Suddenly, an internal explosion (probably due to gases formed inside the battery compartment) in the “Maiale” just under my bottom (while saying this, Mr Bianchi started laughing…) caused the motor to seize up and immediately drop down.

I should remind you that our breathing apparatuses did not allow us to descend more than 45 feet, while reaching 90 feet was absolutely forbidden. My vehicle kept going down and, in checking the depth gauge, I noticed that it was stuck at about 90 feet. At this point, the vehicle touched the bottom and stopped. (Durand De La Penne, not being able to govern the “pig”, had abandoned it right away).

At this point, if the depth of the sea had been any greater I would have surely kicked the bucket. After having realized that Durand was not there, I attempted to repair the maiale operating the fast blow valve, but to no avail. I then felt the initial symptoms of dizziness and gave up. Once back to the surface, I found my commander, De la Penne. At that point, a British patrol boat was fast approaching, but fortunately we were not seen and we swam back to the Spanish coast (2 and ½ hours at night, in the cold waters infested by enemy ships is, in Mr. Bianchi’s words, the easiest thing on earth…). Once in Spain, our agents took us back to Italy. Oh yes; that time I was really in a hole…

During your dives wasn’t it cold?
We wore heavy wool clothing, somewhat similar to long johns, from feet to torso, and sweaters on top. We then wore a waterproof diver suit. Well, actually it was waterproof only in theory since often water came pouring in because the suit was very delicate and anything sharp would tear it up. It was made out of rubberized canvas and it had the unpleasant feature of wrinkling up at a depth of 30 feet or more. This action created a pliers-like motion, which would grab your skin and whip it. Once out of the water at the end of a drill, it looked like we had been flagellated. On the head we wore a hood lined in wool, but water seeped in, causing terrible cramps, but then the water inside the hood would warm up and the pain would go away.

After the attack (Alexandria) you were captured. How did the British treat you?

The first British sailors who saw us made fun of us, thinking that we had failed, but as soon as the senior officer realized the situation, they made us remove our clothes and we were brought to shore. Here two officers who spoke Italian (even better than us!) interrogated us one by one. The British offices threatened us and pointed at a pistol lying on the table, but we knew that it was only a trick to scare us and make us talk, but we did not. At this point, we were brought back aboard the Valiant and locked up in a storage room below the water line, in the hope that we would reveal where the bomb was. We knew that very soon the charge would explode and we were awaiting the explosion with some anxiety. When it came, it shook the whole ship and left us in the dark. They came to pick us up and took us ashore; here I noticed, with great pleasure, that the ship was starting to lean over.

I would like to point out that the battleships were not sunk, but just placed out of commission due to the shallow waters. (He is saying it as if he wanted to diminish the accomplishment…) After the attack we were taken to Palestine in an area called Latrum for about 8 months. Then, after Al-Alamein with the fear that the Germans would reach the Suez Canal, the three officers were taken to India, while we were sent to South Africa in the Transvaal. (I would like to note that Bianchi attempted to escape twice. I only found out after having read his memoirs, but during the interview he did not mentioned it, probably for modesty). The three officers and Marino returned to Italy immediately after the armistice; while using some health-related excuses, I decided to stay at the prisoner of war camp until the end of the war. I did not want to go back to Italy because I did not know what to do; we would have had to fight one against the other (he is referring to the civil war).

If you had gone back to Italy, what would you have done?

I think that knowing Borghese and those people, I would have ended up joining the “Repubblica di Salò”, also because one cannot start a war and then at a given point tell the former ally (Germany) that now they are the enemy. It is a matter of ethics, conscience. If I had gone back, I could not have seen the British as my friends and the Germans as my enemy. I would like to mention something Tesei said: “It is not important if a war is won or lost, what matters is fighting well.” The high command did all it could to fight it poorly. After our action in Alexandria, the Navy did not take advantage of her overwhelming supremacy; evidently we did not have good strategists!

What do you think of the occupation of Malta; was it Italy’s greatest mistake?
Let me just say that on June 10th, 1940, just after having listened to the announcement over the radio, Tesei said, “Now the Italian Navy must immediately eliminate Malta at any cost!” I say, is it possible that an officer of naval constructions could have understood the importance of Malta when the great admirals could not care less? Malta had undoubtedly had a very high price; one must only think of our poor solders in Africa who did not even have ammunitions. At a certain point, the island was exhausted, we could have taken it with little risk, but we never got there… What could we have done? It wasn’t our duty (he says it with clear bitterness in his words).

50th anniversary – Cerimony of June 9th, 1991in La Spezia (Birindelli, Barberi, Beccati, de La Penne, Marceglia, Bianchi, Manisco, Arillo, Ferraro, Marcolini, all Gold Medal for Valor)
One last question, Mr. Bianchi. Why do you think that of the six men in Alexandria, your team is the most famous?
Mr. Bianchi does not answer. I don’t understand if it is a matter of modesty, or it is because he does not want to reiterate the accusations of excessive protagonist which have always followed De la Penne)

My infinite thanks to Mr. Emilio Bianchi for his availability and the honor extended to me. I would also like to thank Mr. Enzo Casciani and Mr. Lorenzo Salvestrini who have made this meeting possible.

Translated from Italian by Cristiano D’Adamo