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.
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.
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.
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.
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.